Lane Smith

How good is Lane Smith’s Grandpa Green ? I brought this up when I wrote about Mo Willems a while back, but there are a few children’s book creators who are so consistently good that their continuing excellence almost starts to seem commonplace. You find yourself expecting it – “What? Another Kate DiCamillo triumph? About time. I expect nothing less…” (Cut to entitled parent rolling their eyes and tagging their latest Tweets with #firstworldproblems.)

Grandpa Green by Lane Smith

Grandpa Green by Lane Smith

Lane Smith is one of those creators that my family completely takes for granted. We are huge fans of his work as an author and illustrator across a whole slew of titles like The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, Seen Art?, Madam President, Cowboy and Octopus, Princess Hyacinth, It’s a Book… the list goes on and on. My daughter swears up and down that Smith’s The Big Elephant in the Room and The Happy Hocky Family – two books that he both wrote and illustrated – are two of the funniest books she’s ever read. And we very purposely don’t own either title, because, when we take them out from the library, she sees it as an enormous treat.

All that being said, with the regard that we have for Smith’s body of work, it’s really spectacular to know that he can still surprise us as a creator. Specifically, I’m talking about his latest picture book, Grandpa Green, a book that I think, stands as a big shift in tone for the author, but it’s a shift that pays off beautifully.

First, don’t get me wrong. It’s NO surprise that Smith, as an illustrator, has delivered another gorgeous picture book. He’s proven himself as one of the most playful and innovative artistic talents in kids lit for years, so the fact that you want to frame every page of Grandpa Green and hang them around your house isn’t an earth-shattering revelation. I will say that Grandpa Green probably most closely resembles Smith’s Princess Hyacinth, but it adds this wonderful muted palette of greens and grays to an organic storytelling world that Smith creates out of an intricate and beautiful topiary garden. The ways that Smith is able to express emotion, memory, and the passage of time through the composition of this living, breathing garden is really something to behold.

Grandpa Green by Lane Smith

Smith’s topiary wonderland is amazing

For me, the big surprise of Grandpa Green is the emotional punch that Smith delivers as an author. Smith has always been funny and painfully clever – see It’s a Book as a prime example – but Grandpa Green has a much, much deeper emotional core than any of his previous books. The premise is heartfelt and elegant – a young boy recounts the life of his great-grandfather as he wanders through a topiary garden that collects some of his great-grandfather’s treasured memories. We see a shrub sculpted to remind us of “Grandpa Green” as a baby, another sculpted as a tribute to his first kiss, another representing his service in World War II, and another series of meticulously-designed garden creations curated into a loving tribute to his wife. We follow Grandpa Green’s great-grandson as he lovingly walks through the garden, touring through his grandpa’s memories and collecting his misplaced gardening tools. [read the rest of the post…]

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This looks like a cool one...

This looks like a cool one…

It started simply – I asked myself, “I wonder what new kids’ books are coming out in October.” Two hours later, I was still browsing through publisher catalogs, muttering to myself, “That looks so cool, that looks so cool, that looks so cool…” There just SO many epic kids’ book releasing this month (the number of titles coming out on October 7th alone is ridiculous) and I couldn’t be happier about it.

In an effort to share the amazing, I decided to put together this quick guide to 21 books that are coming out this month that I’m personally EXCITED about and that I think you should be excited about too. Sometimes, it’s because I like the creators’ early work, sometimes, I just like the concept, sometimes, I am literally judging the book by its cover. This is a TOTALLY subjective list. But, at the very least, this should give some of you a heads-up about some very cool books that are on the horizon and, if I missed any fantastic-sounding upcoming titles, PLEASE let me know in the comments section below. Enjoy!


bean_stalkA Bean, a Stalk and a Boy Named Jack by William Joyce, illustrated by Kenny Callicutt

Format: Picture book
Release Date: October 7th

Why You Should Be Excited: It’s the newest picture book from William Joyce, the creator of A Day With Wilbur Robinson, Dinosaur Bob, and the beautiful, beautiful The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, which Joyce adapted from his Oscar-winning short animated film. So… yeah, there’s some pedigree here.


creaturefeaturesCreature Features: Twenty-Five Animals Explain Why They Look the Way They Do by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page

Release Date: October 7th
Format: Picture book

Why You Should Be Excited: Jenkins makes some of the most consistently beautiful and informative picture books I’ve ever read – my daughter adores his Never Smile at a Monkey: And 17 Other Important Things to Remember – so I can’t imagine this one will be anything less than fascinating.


eyezoltarThe Eye of Zoltar: The Chronicles of Kazam by Jasper Fforde

Format: Young adult novel
Release Date: October 7th

Why You Should Be Excited: I haven’t read the previous Chronicles of Kazam books, so I’m not speaking from experience, but I love, love, LOVE Fforde’s Thursday Next and Nursery Crime series, which makes it hard for me to deny the potential on this one.


graveyardbookThe Graveyard Book Graphic Novel: Volume 2 by Neil Gaiman, adapted by P. Craig Russell

Release Date: October 7th                     
Format: Graphic novel

Why You Should Be Excited: Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book is one of my favorite young adult novels of the past ten years and the first volume of Russell’s graphic novel adaptation was impressive. (I really love Russell’s prior comic adaptation of Gaiman’s Murder Mysteries story.) Plus this volume features the conclusion of The Graveyard Book, which I’ve written about before and absolutely adore.


greatescapeThe Great Escape: Magic Shop Series by Kate Egan and Mike Lane, illustrated by Eric Wight

Release Date: October 7th
Format: Chapter book

Why You Should Be Excited: I haven’t read the early volumes of the Magic Shop series, but the description sounds very cool – I love magic stuff – and the real reason I’m excited is the artwork by Eric Wight, who’s absolutely amazing and who created the totally fantastic Frankie Pickle series of early readers.


ivangorillaIvan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla by Katherine Applegate, illustrated by G. Brian Karas

Release Date: October 7th
Format: Picture book

Why You Should Be Excited: C’mon, this is Applegate adapting the remarkable story behind her 2013 Newbery Medal-winning YA novel into a gorgeous-looking picture book. A new take on The One and Only Ivan that I can share with even younger readers? No-brainer. I’m in.


kidsherriffKid Sheriff and the Terrible Toads by Bob Shea, illustrated by Lane Smith

Release Date: October 7th
Format: Picture book

Why You Should Be Excited: Because… Lane Smith. He’s a picture book god and is responsible for SO many of my daughter’s favorite books. And his previous collaboration with Bob Shea, the picture book Big Plans, is super, super funny. I’m looking forward to this one. [read the rest of the post…]


Art & Max by David Wiesner

If I rub my chin and look thoughtfully at the painting, maybe people will think I know what I’m talking about…

I don’t know much about art. I couldn’t tell an impressionist from an expressionist if my life depended on it. That being said, I love art and art museums, and I think viewing and talking about art is an incredibly valuable experience for a young child.

I grew up near a wonderful art museum – The Detroit Institute of Arts – and I spent a lot of time there as a kid, mostly because they had fantastic children’s programs and admission was free. And, while I never did pick up on the myriad differences between impressionism and expressionism, I did spend hours upon hours browsing the collections and forming opinions about the paintings and statues. Some I adored, some I hated. Some stirred emotions, some left me cold. Even if I never picked up on the historical context of the collections or the art-world lingo, I definitely “experienced” the art, for lack of a better term, and I deeply enjoyed that experience.

The great thing about spending time with art is that it helps teach you how to process abstract concepts. If you look at a painting and really ask yourself, “Why does this painting make me feel this way?” or “Why do I interpret the color red as anger?”, it can give you some amazing insights into how your brain works. And, when you talk about something as abstract as art, it helps you develop this vocabulary that, believe me, really comes in handy later in life when you’re struggling to talk about abstract concepts like pain, loss, joy, and love. So, yes, art is pretty and it’s nice to look at, but experiencing art isn’t just about aesthetics alone. That’s why I think exposing kids to art at a young age is a terrifically enriching activity and I just couldn’t encourage it more.

But, I realize that talking about art isn’t easy, particularly when (like me) you don’t know much about it, and many families don’t have world-class, free-admission art institutes right down the street. So, if you need help introducing your kid to the joys of art, here are six books that I think do an amazing job of helping kids grasp the illusive, abstract wonders of really appreciating both art and the creative process.

1. Art & Max by David Wiesner

I once wrote that “David Wiesner is one of reigning Grand Poobahs the modern picture book and ANYTHING he publishes is totally worth your time.” I still stand by that statement and Wiesner‘s most recent picture book, Art & Max, is no exception. Across Wiesner’s gorgeous desert landscapes, we meet Arthur (or “Art”), a stately lizard who’s painting a very traditional portrait of a small red companion. Suddenly, the hyperactive lizard Max knocks into Art and declares “I can paint too, Arthur!” But Max doesn’t know what to paint. When Arthur suggests “you could paint me”, Max interprets this literally and starts splashing colors onto his exasperated friend. After Arthur screams in fury, the paint explodes off of him, leaving behind a vague color outline. This leads into a series of transformations where Arthur’s body evolves through several distinctly different art styles – pastels, watercolors, penciled outlines, Jackson Pollack-esque splatters, pointillism – his body is like a living history of art.

Art & Max by David Wiesner

The best buddy movie about art EVER

Max’s playful antagonism exposes Arthur to a whole new perspective on what art can be and, as the book ends, both lizards are attacking their new canvases with renewed vigor. But don’t let my references to Jackson Pollack and pointillism scare you off. First and foremost, Art & Max is a very, very fun picture book. My daughter always cackles as Max paints all over his best friend with wild abandon, and Art & Max is filled with some of the funniest physical humor I’ve seen in a picture book in ages. Who knew art could be this fun?

Art & Max by David Wiesner

Insert your own “painted lizard” joke here…

2. Seen Art?, by Jon Scieszka, illustrated by Lane Smith

This is an odd little picture book that my daughter adores. (Seen Art? might be one of our most frequently checked out books from the library.) To commemorate the opening of the new location of New York City’s Museum of Modern Art in late 2004, Scieszka and Smith created this long, thin tribute to the museum, in which a young boy, looking for his friend Arthur, gets directed into the new MoMA building after asking around, “Seen Art?” (Characters named “Art” or “Arthur” are a common recurring motif in kids’ picture books about art.) The boy eventually wanders through the museum – the book features a large series of wonderful reproductions of many of the museum’s most notable pieces – learning while he goes how other people define what exactly “art” is. The offbeat characters throughout the museum present to the young boy a fantastic series of questions regarding art – questions like “Is it trying to capture dreams? Or is it making images everyone can recognize?” And those questions have sparked some really fun conversations with my daughter.

Seen Art?

My kid loves this picture book/museum guide book hybrid…

Seen Art? is a great overall primer for teaching kids how to appreciate and talk about art. And it’s the reason why my six year old can recognize an Andy Warhol or Roy Lichtenstein print on sight, which is pretty cool. Plus, when I was finally able to take her to MoMA this past summer, my daughter was over-the-moon excited and recognized her favorite pieces from the book on almost every floor of the museum, which was also pretty cool. [read the rest of the post…]


Building a Library

Some of my daughter’s favorite books do not appear on these shelves…

I realize that this is going to sound like complete BS coming from a guy who keeps a running tally of how many books his kid has at the top of his website (a tally that the guy is terrible at updating, if you haven’t already noticed), BUT this is something I really do believe in. PARENTSYou definitely, absolutely should NOT own all of your child’s favorite books.

I get that this sounds counter-intuitive. “Why would I deny my kid something he or she loves? My child loves BOOK A. Shouldn’t I encourage my child to read in any way that I can? And wouldn’t owning BOOK A encourage them to read it at home again and again?”

Vanellope von Schweetz

Sage advice from the voice of Vanellope von Schweetz

Those are valid points and I’m not saying that your kid shouldn’t own ANY books that they love. But they definitely shouldn’t own all of them. To better explain what I mean, I’m going to lift a passage from comedian Sarah Silverman‘s totally charming (and hysterical) autobiography, The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee. In one section, Silverman introduces a maxim that she lives her life by. That maxim is “to encourage everyone, in all things, to ‘Make It a Treat.'” As she describes it:

“Make It a Treat” is similar in spirit to “everything in moderation,” but still very distinct. “Moderation” suggests a regular, low-level intake of something. MIAT asks for more austerity; it encourages you to keep the special things in life special.

The Big Elephant in the Room

My daughter loves this book…

I absolutely LOVE that philosophy and I think it’s a particularly important philosophy to re-enforce in kids. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about – Two years ago, we checked a copy of Lane Smith‘s The Big Elephant in the Room out from the library. We read it at home that night and my daughter went berserk. She went crazy for it. I have NEVER seen her laugh like that. We’re talking howls of laughter. The book KILLED her. She couldn’t have loved it more. We read it multiple times every day during the check-out period and, after we returned it, my daughter begged me to buy her a copy to keep at home.

And I said no. [read the rest of the post…]


Kids Library Card

"I'm going to go check out Fifty Shades of Grey now!"

What a great way to kick off Children’s Book Week. My daughter came home from the library yesterday literally vibrating with excitement. My wife had taken her there to do research for a school project (on “Giant Japanese Spider Crabs” of all things) and she couldn’t wait to show me something. “Dad, DAD! Look what I got!” And she then proudly – very proudly – held up her very first library card. Not her parents’ library card. HER library card. Her own PERSONAL library card with her very own name on it.

It’d never occurred to me that, as a kindergartener, my daughter was now old enough to get her own library card. She’s always checked out books under my card. But my wife, suddenly realizing that our daughter was old enough, asked her if she wanted to go up to the front desk and get her own card and she INSTANTLY lit up and nodded her head. She even asked my wife to take her picture with her new card before they’d left the library.

Now, in reality, this won’t really change our trips to the library very much. Even though she might check out books under her card, as her parents, we’re still going to be the people ultimately responsible for the books, for driving her to the library, for exercising some veto power in what she can check out and what she can’t. The big change, however, is in the sense of pride and empowerment my daughter now has about having HER OWN library card. To her, the library card is a symbol of independence and maturity. She picked out a special place on her dresser for it and asked if we could get her a wallet for “all my cards now because now I’m going to have a lot of them.” She even asked at dinner last night, “the next time we go to the library…. Can I just go in and you guys wait in the car? I have my own card now.” Granted, that’s not going to happen, but I love that, in her mind, that one little library card has now transported her to such a level of maturity that she thinks she could spend an afternoon browsing the library all by herself while my wife and I twiddle our thumbs in the parking lot. (Hopefully, she’ll remember to crack a window.)

After my daughter received her library card from the front desk, my wife told her that she could check out any two books she wanted. My wife then waited for our child, left to her own devices, to return with a series of cheaply-produced Scooby Doo, Star Wars, or Disney books. A few minutes later, she got a very pleasant surprise. Our daughter chose – on her own – two completely fantastic books to be the inaugural titles for her first library card.

Kids Library Card

Every now and then, my kid has EXCELLENT taste.

The first was The Big Elephant in the Room by Lane Smith, one of our favorite author-illustrators. My daughter has, more than once, called Big Elephant “one of the funniest books I’ve ever read.” (I met Lane Smith last year and told him that my daughter said that. His playful response? “She’s right!”) The second book she picked was the Caldecott-winning picture book The Three Pigs by David Wiesner. (I wrote about Wiesner’s Tuesday back in February and suggested Three Pigs as a readalike here.) [read the rest of the post…]


Baby Reading a Book

Question: What's cuter than a baby reading a book? Answer: Almost nothing.

The upside to having your own kid lit blog is that now, when friends’ kids have birthdays or when a new baby is born, the expectation is that I should be the one who gets to go out and buy new books for the kids. This fact delights me, since I really enjoy buying books, and vaguely annoys my wife (which also kind of delights me). Granted, the existence of the blog also adds some added pressure to my book picks as people now expect that I’m only going to select profoundly great titles for their children, which is a hard expectation to live up to. So, it was with this mixture of joy and anxiety that I headed out to the bookstore last night to buy some new books for friends who just had a new baby. (A girl named Scout – how cool is that?)

I decided to stick to board books because there are years and years to make sure that your kid has a great library of paperback and hardcover classics at their fingertips, and I love actually giving babies books that they can start abusing right away. Board books are solid, sturdy, and, if your baby HAS to chew on something, I’d rather have them chomping on some high quality kid lit as opposed to just some old binky or blanket. Plus I think one of the best things you can do to encourage your children to read is to just have lots of books around and available for them to experience. Books need to be a part of their daily environment, and board books are very safe, very accessible reading material for developing kids.

I did a feature a while back on “Five Great Board Books That Aren’t Goodnight Moon or The Runaway Bunny and, while those are all great board book titles that I recommend HIGHLY – don’t get me wrong, Goodnight Moon or The Runaway Bunny are still must-own canon classics – I decided to pursue a few different options this time, picking out a mixture of classic and newer titles. If you’re in the market for some new board books or if you’re about to buy a gift for a friend with a young baby or toddler at home, here are the five board books I bought last night, all of which I’d definitely recommend.

Board Books

Note the gift receipt as I hedge my bets....

1. The Monster at the End of This Book by Jon Stone, illustrated by Mike Smollin

OK, after yesterday’s post, I kinda had to buy this one, didn’t I? But it’s still one of the best board books ever.

2. Dinosaur vs. Bedtime by Bob Shea

Dinosaur vs. Bedtime

Always bet on bedtime...

We actually don’t own any Bob Shea books ourselves, but he’s been on our radar for a long while – my daughter read I’m a Shark at a friend’s house and loved it – so I decided to pick up Dinosaur vs. Bedtime and give it a read at the store. I’m glad I did. Shea’s illustrations are fun and bombastic, and the whole book just has this wonderful anarchic energy that I think kids will really respond to. (Also, Dinosaur reminded me of the six-year-old older brother of the new baby I was buying for, so that was an added bonus.)  In the book, Dinosaur throws him up against obstacle after obstacle – a pile of leaves, spaghetti, his parents, etc. – and, after tackling his opponents, he throws his hands up and declares “Dinosaur WINS!” However, at the end of the book, Dinosaur discovers the one opponent he can’t defeat – bedtime. [read the rest of the post…]


Princess Hyacinth

Princess Hyacinth quietly waits for me to shut up about princesses...

To briefly clarify a point that probably doesn’t need to be clarified, just FYI, this isn’t just a blog about princess books. I’m kidding… kind of, but I know I’ve had a lot of princess-related content this week, so I just wanted to let people know that I’m still going to be covering a wide range of topics related to collecting the right kinds of books for your kids. Some weeks we’re going to be talking about princess titles, other weeks we’ll be talking about ABC books or road-trip books (no question – Richard Scarry makes the BEST road-trip books). But the princess thing has definitely struck a nerve and I’m glad we’re addressing it.

As I’ve done in the past, I’ve found some very interesting video online to accompany our recent discussion of princess books. This week’s clips… how do I put this… are both FANTASTIC, but for very different reasons. The first clip is just a ridiculously interesting and engaging look at how author-illustrator Lane Smith, a Building a Library favorite, actually creates his breathtaking picture books. The two books he focuses on are Princess Hyacinth: The Surprising Tale of a Girl Who Floated (one of our featured princess books) and The Big Elephant in the Room, a book that my five-year-old has called “the funniest book I ever, EVER read.” This is a bit long and in-depth, but I find it totally fascinating.

The second clip is “fantastic”… in the most ironic sense of the word. What I mean is that – I find it “fantastic” that something this cheesy could ever be associated with a book as sly and un-ironic as Robert Munsch’s The Paper Bag Princess (another one of our “princess books for people who hate princess books”). This is a cartoon adaptation of The Paper Bag Princess that was created for a Canadian TV show in the 1990s called “Bunch of Munsch.” (How much do I love Canada for not only giving a children’s author his own animated show, but also NAMING it after him too?) And, while I applaud the idea of giving Munsch his own show… MAN, this is a horribly dated cartoon.

I am sure that there are people out there with a boatload of nostalgia for “Bunch of Munsch” and maybe I’m being overdramatic, but, seriously, the dragon RAPS. He RAPS. He has a song – that he raps – and the first line is “Dragon is my name and fire is my game.” WOW. Watch for historical reference only.


I’m hot and cold on book trailers – I generally like the idea, but sometimes take issue with the execution – but I have to say I really, really dig this simple, short promotional spot that Macmillan put together for Lane Smith’s Grandpa Green.

It sells the visual appeal of the book and, I think, gives you a nice sample of its tone and voice as well. Check it out.