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Staff Picks: Books

The Big Blue Thing on the Hill

Sometimes picture books are just meant for adults. Often I will add one of these gems to my lineup for a Family Storytime program, after all shouldn’t the caregivers have fun too!

In The Big Blue Thing on the Hill, it happens one night – a big blue thing roars to a stop right on top of Howling Hill. There in the middle of the Great Forest the day is peaceful and the animals sleep. But at night the forest comes alive. All the animals are out – they growl, they howl and the big blue thing disrupts the forest. The bears think it’s a meteorite, the wolves think a space ship but the foxes say trouble and they are right, and all the animals hide.

The next morning the animals creep back but the trouble is still there and now noise is coming from it. It’s a big blue elephant say the weasels, no it’s a big blue dinosaur say the badgers (equally birdbrained) but the foxes still say the big blue thing is trouble. The animals decide to leave it alone until night when the wolves howl and howl, but nothing happens. The bears growl and growl but the big blue thing doesn’t move one inch. The boars want to nudge it back down the hill. They huff, puff, push and shove but the big blue thing doesn’t move. Next the foxes think burying it will work and they dig and dig and dig, it might work when the big blue thing grumbles and rumbles but it doesn’t move. Now the animals know they need to ask the wise owls what to do. The old owl has a plan. They summon the help of the smallest forest friends – the bees and wasps, midges and skeeters and a snake or 2. They form a big bug flying squad. The plan – wait until dawn then send the squad into the mouth of the beast. They predict it won’t be long before big blue is gone for good. The squad whizzed and buzzed as they flew and crawled through every crack. It didn’t take long, with a roar and a rumble the big blue thing turned tail and fled. And with that the animals all make a hullabaloo. The forest and Howling Hill become peaceful once more.

It doesn’t take long for the reader to recognize the big blue thing as an old VW van complete with curtains. The people can be seen in the van having fun and playing music but with the bug invasion it doesn’t take long for them to leave the campsite. Everything is good or is it…that evening a space ship lands on the hill!

The illustrations are full of comical animal characters and the old VW van is perfect. Such a fun story to share for readers and listeners.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof...Well, Not Exactly

C. Roger Mader has done it again! He’s the author of Lost Cat, a children’s picture book I had previously blogged about. Supposedly, this newest work Tiptop Cat is based on reality as it mimics the adventures of his niece’s cat living in Paris ...“who roamed the rooftops of her neighborhood and survived a six story fall”. Yikes! 


As the story and pictures describe, a young girl gets a black and white cat for her birthday, who becomes her most favorite gift. Although the cat enjoys his indoor life, he also especially likes the outside balcony. This cat is no slouch – so he roams and jumps from one rooftop to another and then another, and then one more until he finally reaches “Le Grand Prix”; a prime sitting spot on a chimney that happens to have the best view of the Eiffel Tower in all of Paris.


However, one day he submits to his baser animal instincts and pounces upon a pigeon intruding on his balcony domain. Unfortunately, it’s a misjudged jump. As a consequence, he falls many floors down, right through a café canopy and into the arms of a man who just happens to be in the right spot, at the right time!  Luckily, the cat doesn’t break anything except maybe his spirit for hunting. For a while, he shies away from the balcony and rooftops until one day he once more spots someone landing on his domain; this time an irritating crow. And then he can’t help but give chase.  


The author states that he himself lives in the Normandy countryside of France with his wife and a petite cat named Pete, who is not allowed to hop on rooftops in search of excitement. That’s very good to know. Because you should never, ever let your cat wander over balconies, rooftops or anything else located high off the ground! The depth perception of domestic cats is not as keen as their agility, so accidents happen much more often than is commonly known. And in the end, the danger of losing your feline friend for a lifetime is just not worth their temporary happiness.


A wonderfully spirited book with many bright, evocative illustrations. Just remember one thing: Unless you’re a stunt cat, don’t try this at home!



The Farmer and the Clown

Had I seen this book earlier in the year, it would have had a top spot on my Best of 2014 list.  Marla Frazee’s The Farmer and the Clown is a sweet treasure of a picture book.  The story is told solely through the artwork, which shows a solitary farmer and a baby clown’s unexpected meeting and bittersweet parting.  It’s a lovely and quiet reminder that love happens in unexpected ways. 

I Pledge Allegiance

This story touches my heart. I picked it up to read because I met Pat Mora one Fall when she made an author visit to Kalamazoo. I always enjoy her work, so it was natural for me to read this book.

The story is about Libby’s great aunt (Lobo) who is eighty years old. She has been studying very hard, learning all about America so that she can take her citizenship test. Libby and her Mom will go with Lobo to the ceremony when she becomes a citizen of the United States.

Libby’s class practices the Pledge of Allegiance just as her great aunt does. Libby’s teacher explains the meaning of it as they recite it. Libby and Lobo practice saying the Pledge of Allegiance every night so that on Friday, the big day, they will both be ready. While they wait for Friday to come, Libby’s great aunt tells her about her country and coming to the United States. They came here to protect the family.

At the ceremony, the Judge tells everyone what a happy day it is. She has all the new citizens stand to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

When my mother-in-law was eighty years old, she too became a citizen of the United States. We were lucky enough to be able to have the Judge come to her home and perform the ceremony. My daughter was in kindergarten at the time and we talked about how Grandma had to learn the history of our country and how important it was to her. It was a touching ceremony and we all recited the Pledge of Allegiance with her, there was not a dry eye among us. We were every bit as proud of her as Libby was of Lobo. It is something our family will never forget.

Firefly July

“What is it the wind has lost that she keeps looking for/ under each leaf?” The answer to Ted Kooser and Jim Harrison’s question may be found in Melissa Sweet’s collage illustrations. Although this looks like a book for very young children, it’s really a beautifully-illustrated collection of short American poems for all ages.

Firefly July is organized by season with poems written for children and adults. It’s definitely worth venturing into the Children’s Room to see this lovely book.


Hot Dog! Eleanor Roosevelt Throws a Picnic

Hot Dog! Eleanor Roosevelt Throws a Picnic By Leslie Kimmelman, illustrated by Victor Juhasz.

When is it not hot dog season – they really aren’t just for summer picnics anymore, but that was a different case in 1939.

In June of 1939, the United States had 2 very special guests visit - King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England. It was the first visit of reigning British Royalty. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt wanted to take the opportunity to extend a warm welcome. She had the idea to celebrate the visit with an all American picnic complete with hot dogs. Mrs. Roosevelt loved hot dogs. She loved to eat them and to cook them on the grill. She was famous in her family for her hot dog roasts.

Usually entertaining in the White House meant fancy dinners – hot dogs were never served. Eleanor discovered that Queen Elizabeth was a distant cousin of George Washington. With this news, she decided an all American picnic was in order and really – what is a picnic without roasted hot dogs! Mrs. Roosevelt planned the picnic to take place at Top Cottage in Hyde Park, New York. President Roosevelt was just happy she wasn’t serving spinach. But not everyone agreed with Mrs. Roosevelt’s menu – lots of people didn’t think hot dogs were appropriate- however she stuck up for herself.

On June 11, 1939 the Roosevelt’s hosted the picnic. The hot dogs were served on fancy silver trays. The King ate seconds. The picnic was a success. On June 11, 1989, the 50th anniversary picnic was held. The Queen sent a special message. And what do you think was on the picnic menu…


What a fun book to share with just enough history mixed with the humor of serving hot dogs. Don’t wait until summer to read it.


The Right Word, Roget and His Thesaurus

This lively illustrated biography of Peter Mark Roget is written for children, yet it is smooth, easy reading for adults. I like the list of Principal Events at the back of the book beginning with Peter’s birth on January 18, 1779, in London, England. Roget is pronounced “Roh-Zhay”. Roget is known for writing a Thesaurus, a book containing lists of synonyms (same) and antonyms (opposite) words for finding just the right word. Roget’s Thesaurus provides many ideas. When he told his mother that he was FINE he wanted a better word to describe how he really was, for example: glad, cheerful, dandy, so-so, and splendid.
When Peter was five years old, his father died. He and his younger sister and his mother moved around often and that made it difficult to make new friends. Peter found a friend in books. When Peter was eight years old he started to write his own book, but he didn’t write stories, he wrote lists. He made a list of the Latin words he’d learned from his tutor and next to the Latin word he wrote the English meaning. For example, Ursus is a bear, Volpes is a fox, can you guess what Leo is?
Peter learned that Words were powerful things and when he put them in long neat rows, the world clicked into order! Peter continued working on his book of word lists, then, in 1852 Roget published his Thesaurus, (a word that means “treasure house” in Greek). Peter was suddenly a popular author! However, Peter remained humble and he continued making new lists so that today you can still find the right word!



A young girl pleads with her mother for a pet. Her mother finally agrees, saying any pet is fine, as long as it doesn’t need to be walked or bathed or fed. A pretty tall order….

Sparky is the wonderful new picture book by Jenny Offill and Chris Appelhaus that details how the young girl selects a sloth as her chosen pet. Sparky can’t fetch, chase a ball, or roll over. But he is great at playing dead, and he has other unexpected attributes, as his young owner soon discovers.

Expressive pictures pair perfectly with the story, making for a satisfying picture book for the younger set.

Once Upon an Alphabet

Once Upon an Alphabet, by Oliver Jeffers, is one of my favorite alphabet books for kids (but also really fun for adults) since The Alphabet from A to Y with bonus letter, Z! by Steve Martin and Roz Chast. Some alphabet books, like Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, are perfect for introducing the alphabet to little ones in an engaging way. But alphabet books aren’t only for teaching the ABCs. Leonard Marcus wrote, in an article in The Horn Book, that “the 26 character Roman alphabet could hardly be handier as a framework for organizing information within a thirty-two-page book, the standard picture book format”.
This organizational format has long worked for adults, too. Ambrose Bierce’s classic work of American satire The Devil’s Dictionary works well because you can open anywhere and read within the familiar framework of A to Z order. Alphabet picture books can be about anything or, like Seinfeld, about nothing at all. Alphabet books are so familiar that, in a way, they have earned the privilege of being able to poke fun at themselves. Once Upon an Alphabet is a series of short stories with really wonderful accompanying drawings. The connections between the words and the text, and among the different entries, is great fun. Plus there are even a few puzzles to solve along the way. And even though this alphabet book isn’t really about anything at all it’s really fun!

A Christmas truce during World War I?!

Did you know that during the first world war the troops on both sides (British, French, and German) along many miles of the Belgium-France border put down their weapons and exchanged gifts, sang carols together, and lit Christmas trees on December 25th? I had never heard of such a thing, which is why books are so great! Shooting at the stars by John Hendrix tells a fictionalized version of a very real event, known as the Christmas Truce of 1914. Unfortunately, this was the first and last time such Christmas fellowship would unfold during four long years of the war. This book, although in our JE collection, would also be enjoyed by older children and adults…be warned that a few pages describe how the soldiers came together to bury their fallen comrades before they celebrated.