Category Archives: picture books for the older set

the blue whale by jenni desmond



BlueWhaleThe Blue Whale by Jenni Desmond (out May 27, 2015!)


This is one of those nonfiction books whose facts somehow make me cry. It’s partly the set up in the author’s note that blue whales are few in number due to human activity, from hunting to pollution. But it’s not just that. It’s the way this material is handled—from how the text is constructed to the dreamy illustrations.



(click image(s) to enlarge)


Part of Jenni Desmond‘s originality is how the story appears in the story of the picture book. The boy in the book is reading the very book we’re reading.

But there’s more! He enters the book. There he is, in a dinghy next to a mighty blue whale, staring down in wonder. Because this book is immersive. Immersive in the azure world of the blue whale.



The boy with the red crown is excited about this book he’s reading, excited about blue whales, excited about animals and habitats.


“Every blue whale has unique markings, similar to our fingerprints. Scientists use these, along with the shape of the dorsal fin, to identify individual whales.” 



Together with the boy, we learn that baby calves are born 20 feet long and drink nearly 50 gallons of their mother’s milk every day. That whales have a lot of wax in their ear canals. That a single one of their breaths could inflate 2,000 balloons.

Along with the boy, we feel the world open up. It gets bigger and the blue whale gets smaller. Closer. More precious to us.




“A blue whale’s tongue weighs three tons, and its mouth is so big that 50 people can stand inside it.  Fortunately, blue whales don’t eat people.”





And that’s how this book works. It brings the boy character inside it, it brings us inside it and conversely it brings the blue whale into our world, right outside our window and in our kitchen.

It’s the perfect kind of nonfiction book that educates while it enchants. It makes us care.


Thanks to Enchanted Lion Books for images!



Jenni Desmond was kind enough to answer a couple of questions about her process of making the book!


This Picture Book Life:What prompted you to write a book about this particular animal?

Jenni  Desmond: I didn’t choose a blue whale on purpose, it chose me, by just falling out of my head onto the page one day.  Then, the more I drew this beautiful mammal the more I fell in love with it.  There is still so much we don’t know about blue whales. I just found them endlessly fascinating and beautiful, and kept wanting to know more.  When I showed the rough sketches to my wonderful editor, Claudia, at Enchanted Lion Books, she understood my vision for the book and tirelessly helped me to sculpt it into something much more complex and interesting.

TPBL: You include the book itself in the text and illustrations. How did the idea to do that come about?

JDI wanted the reader to be aware of the fictional element of the story versus the factual.  By having the young boy holding and reading the book, I felt that it would mean that there was a clear divide between the two. The facts could stay as facts, and the reader knew that the inclusion of the boy in the images, when he was interacting with the whale, was purely a result of the boy’s vivid imagination.

TPBL: Boy with red graph paper crown. Go!

JD: I think sometimes non-fiction can feel quite dense and difficult, so I hope that by including the boy, the reader can have a little bit of respite to digest the information while they watch the boy having fun, hopefully even seeing themselves in the boy.  I‘m not sure why he’s wearing a crown.  Why not.  Maybe he’s the king of the book.  Maybe he likes dressing up.  Maybe it’s just a nice shape and gives a splash of colour to the page. Maybe it’s all of these things.


Thank you, Jenni, both for the interview and for this outstanding book!



ellington was not a street

ellington-was-not-a-streetEllington Was Not a Street by Ntozake Shange, illustrated by Kadir Nelson (2004).


The words of this book are taken from Ntozake Shange‘s 1983 poem, “Mood Indigo.” And that title is taken from Duke Ellington’s famous song. In the same way, this picture book circles back to the past and brings it forward again.


Which leads us to its title: Ellington Was Not a Street. Ellington was Duke Ellington of course. And Duke Ellington was one of the many influential men who gathered at Shange’s house when she was a child.




The art in this book is by Kadir Nelson, who is a painter’s painter, a master of beautiful realism that draws you in. No matter what’s pictured, it’s the little girl in the blue dress we look for. Her stance. The look on her face. The way she is an observer as well as a part of something bigger.

(By the way, did you guys know Kadir Nelson created Michael Jackson’s posthumously released album cover??)



“it hasnt always been this way/

ellington was not a street”


This book takes us back in time. Back to when the great men of Shange’s childhood weren’t mere remembrances, but were living, breathing, creating, pioneering people. Right in her home as a little girl. I can only imagine the impact such a childhood must’ve had on her. Listening around a corner to conversations about race and struggle. Meeting Dizzy Gillespie at the door.




“du bois walked up my father’s stairs”

“hummed some tune over me sleeping in the company of men

who changed the world”




“politics as necessary as collards/

music even in our dreams”


There is a tinge of sadness to this book because the writer is looking back to a more vital time. She’s asking us to remember, to travel back with her. And Nelson’s illustrations transport us.



I put this book in my “older set” section because there is, of course, a history lesson here. And the glossary at the back with details of the men depicted would be a wonderful starting point to a study of African American history, music, jazz, or civil rights.




There he is at the end of the book, Duke Ellington himself, echoed by the girl on the cover holding his record, her gaze saying, “Come, listen.”












All images from Kadir Nelson’s website

the red piano, picture book

8768986The Red Piano by Andrê Leblanc and Barroux (2010).

There aren’t a ton of picture books about The Cultural Revolution in  China, but as China’s history fascinates me, I was very happy to find The Red Piano.


It’s an incredible book about a young girl, a re-education camp, and the piano that connects her to memories of her old life, to freedom.



the-red-piano(click image(s) to enlarge) 


“For several years now, pages from Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier have been passed round the camp, from hand to hand. The father of a friend sends parcels. Several sheets are hidden in each package. If there is an inspection, they are confiscated and she has to hope for another package.”

There is a piano, miraculously, hidden in the camp. Music is what helps the girl survive. Remember. Feel human, feel hope.




One day, she’s discovered, and punished. “The music in her heart subsides.” Until, another day, it is all over.


The illustrations are bleakly beautiful. Stark. Cream paper, ink gray, bleeding bursts of red.

the red piano picture book

The story is inspired by concert pianist Zhu Xiao-Mei‘s true story.


You may also want to check out the middle grade memoir, Red Scarf Girl, which covers the same historical period.




hans christian andersen treasury of fairy tales + giveaway

treasury-andersen-fairy-talesAn Illustrated Treasury of Hans Christian Andersen’s  Fairy Tales illustrated by Anastasiya Archipova.

Ever since this book arrived, I’ve been waiting for the perfect time for a special giveaway. This is it as it will arrive in time for the holidays.

“The Snow Queen” is one of the fairy tales in this illustrated compilation, from which I adapted my advent calendar version. Did you see it?

It’s a perfect holiday gift for a young reader and one the whole family can share, a treasure indeed. It contains eight of Andersen’s famous tales including “The Brave Tin Soldier” and “The Little Match Girl” which are very well suited for this time of year.




Thanks to Myrick Marketing and Floris Books  for images of “The Snow Queen!”

I received a review copy; opinions are my own. 

Leave a comment on this post for a chance to win this Illustrated Treasury!

(Giveaway ends Thursday, December 4th at midnight; it’s a quick one! Open to N. America only. I’ll contact the randomly chosen winner by email for their mailing address.)

wolves in the walls

22341The Wolves in the Walls by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Dave McKean (2003).

Creepy title, creepy cover, right?!



This reads like a book for older kids and even adults. In part, because it’s kind of scary, this idea of wolves in the walls. And those mixed-media illustrations! Super scary. Also wonderful for their use of real photographs and line drawings that together, give me the creeps. In a good way.





Lucy is the wise one in her family, we come to know that. She’s the one who knows there are wolves in the walls. Her family doesn’t believe her. They also say that if wolves are in the walls and wolves come out of the walls, “It’s all over.” Lucy’s wiser than that too. (She also knows her pig puppet is someone real you can talk to unlike her parents, so there’s one more reason she’s wise!)




Screen Shot 2014-10-04 at 4.47.50 PM

If we relate this book to fears, other fears, the message is solid. Sometimes fears are real, but they may not pose the threat we think. We may be able to tolerate them. Even overcome them. Even if they are wolves in the walls.



The details make this great too. Lucy’s father is a tuba player. The mother makes jam. Lucy’s animal friend is a pig puppet (as in, the three little pigs and the wolf!). And when the wolves get hold of that berry jam, red like blood, the result is ferociously unsettling.




The ending, which I won’t give away, is one more detail to consider. It has to do with Lucy knowing a new thing and what she’ll choose to do with knowing it. It’s as original as the rest.