Tag Archives: isabelle arsenault

my 10 favorite contemporary classic picture books

picturebooklifeHeather from Tiny Readers asked me for my 10 favorite picture books (and created that cool image), so here goes! She’s going to feature this on her super inspiring instagram feed, which I hope you’ll check out and follow!

It was a (fun!) doozy choosing! I agonized for days over my choices. I had to narrow it down, so these are all published in the last 15 years. (Stay tuned for a classics edition!)

They are books I have a strong emotional reaction to. They are extraordinary in one way or another (or several all at once). They reflect my own personal tastes and obsessions, but they also feel to me like contemporary classics. They are books that have beauty as well as meaning and heart. They are books that will last and are rich when returned to.

Here goes in no particular order (with apologies to all the wonderful and dear-to-me books I’ve left out):

the-red-treeThe Red Tree by Shaun Tan is one of my biggest influences as a writer and Tan is my very favorite creator of the form. This picture book moves me deeply each time I read it. It’s for anyone who feels like they’ve lost their way. It is sad and strange and inventive and full of hope.










Virginia Wolf by Kyo Maclear and Isabelle Arsenault combines the real sisters Virginia and Vanessa with an imagined case of the doldrums and the wolfish mood it can (don’t we know it!) create. It’s through art, through a whimsical place Vanessa envisions called Bloomsbury that turns Virginia from wolf to girl, from gloom to glad again. Plus, Isabelle Arsenault.









Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers is most certainly a contemporary classic. And for good reason! Jeffers has been incredibly influential to current picture book fare. And this, one of his first, has so much charm and playfulness and an irresistible duo on that umbrella-boat.






Josephine by Patricia Hruby Powell, pictures by Christian Robinson. This is a picture book for the older set about the tough, inspiring, dazzling life of Josephine Baker. It lengthens traditional picture book form in order to tell a fuller story from start to finish and has colorful, vibrant, practically move-on-the-page illustrations to make you really stop and look.








Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen is by two creators/collaborators at the top of their game. I love the illustrations, the sweaters, the whimsy, the knitter at the center of this fairy tale. But what I love most is the surprise twist and the ending. Oh yes.








Jemmy Button by Jennifer Uman & Valerio Vidali is exquisitely illustrated. It’s based on the true and troubling account of Europeans in the 1800s trying to “civilize” someone who had his own civilization he preferred to return to.









The Tree House by Marije Tolman and Ronald Tolman (a father and daughter) is breathtaking and original. It shows off what a wordless picture book can do. It’s about companionship: the wild huzzahs of a party with flamingoes and the calm, content days spent reading in one another’s company.







Happy Birthday, Madame Chapeau by Andrea Beaty, pictures by David Roberts is another incredible collaboration. Wonderful, fun-loving, masterful rhyme. Rich visual details. So much stuff to notice. And at its heart, a talented, solitary woman with a lot of hats and heart to share.













The Lion and the Bird is by Marianne Dubuc, extraordinary author/illustrator. And the pair of characters she’s created is endearing and enduring, the friendship they’ve found as rare as the beauty of this spare and perfectly crafted book. Just look at their matching pink cheeks!







Finally, Swan by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Julie Morstad, a very recent pick. Julie Morstad has illustrated many very special picture books (This is Sadie, How To) and this one is so gorgeous as to make me weep. Same goes for Snyder’s poetic text that so beautifully conveys the yearning, the passion, the calling of dance and doesn’t shy away from that final scene.








Thanks for the opportunity to highlight some of my very favorite books, Heather! Here’s some more about Heather and Tiny Readers:

Heather Hawkins is a Dallas-based photographer, mother of two and a children’s book enthusiast. Recently she started a project called Tiny Readers which aims to share children’s book reviews as well as feature contributing opinions from other parents, in order to bring awareness to childhood literacy and the benefits of reading. You can check out Tiny Readers on instagram here!



jane, the fox, & me


9781554983605I want to give Jane, the Fox, and Me by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault to all the preteen and teen girls. Especially the bookish ones.

To break down the characters in the title:

We have Jane, as in Jane Eyre.

We have the fox, the animal the main character encounters at her school’s nature camp.

And we have Me, Helene, our protagonist.








The art!  (Remember Isabelle Arsenault‘s illustrations from Virginia Wolf?)

The story!

The interweaving of the two! This book is original, sensitive, and a deeply relevant stunner.

Helene feels all alone, and bullied. Her world is black and white and cold. The other girls invent insults that make her heart hammer and open up holes in her rib cage.

Pages from JaneTheFoxAndMe_FP


But Helene has a “creeping vine of an imagination.”  In the book she reads, Jane Eyre, in her mind when she thinks of it, there’s color. Sweeping, lush color so unlike her world.




The way Helene holds her head—down, ashamed—is heartbreaking. As are the little hints of how she sees herself in the mirror. How she relates to sweets and candy.  How she feels when trying on a bathing suit for nature camp. But I love the way her tired, but loving mother is a bright spot. As well as the true to life specific details Britt includes in every spread.





Helene is in despair. But she’s able to compare herself to plain Jane Eyre and, I think, see hope.

Pages from JaneTheFoxAndMe_FP-2


Then, the fox.

“With the fox out front,

the outcasts’ tent is transformed

into a tent of miracles.” 



Then, the friend. Geraldine.


“We spend an hour together looking for strawberries,

finding strawberries,

eating strawberries.

I tell the story of the fox.

I tell jokes.

I haven’t had a conversation this long in months.”

Then, the facts. That Helene is not as she’s feared: unlovable, disgusting, or a sausage. She’s a growing girl. The kind of girl a fox in the woods might approach. The kind of girl who can have a friend. The kind of girl who, like Jane Eyre, might be capable of giving and receiving love.


Please read this book and pass it along.


Thanks to Groundwood Books for the images!


And see my first installment in PICTURE BOOKS FOR THE OLDER SET HERE.

books to overcome the doldrums part three/virginia wolf

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Virginia Wolf written by Kyo Maclear, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault

You can view this one through the lens of the real life Virginia Woolf (two o’s) and her sister, painter Vanessa Bell. Or you can view it completely on its own.




Sometimes the doldrums can leave you feeling downright wolfish. You might hide. And growl. And be generally precarious to be around. That’s what happened to Virginia. Her sister, Vanessa, tried to help. But nothing could get Virginia to come out of bed.




Virginia’s silhouette is simply genius. Her shadow looks just like a wolf. Until the spell of her wolfish mood breaks and she’s a little girl again. You’ll see what I mean when you read it.



images from Isabelle Arsenault’s website, with permission


Vanessa paints a mural on the wall of Virginia’s bedroom containing all the perfect things Virginia wishes were real. A destination she’d fly to, if she could fly. It’s luscious and colorful, full of whimsy and bloom.


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images courtesy of Kids Can Press

That’s how things go from gray-blue to yellow, sunk to lifted, upside down to rightside up again. Vanessa transports her sister through her mural and the whole house goes from gloom to glad. Whew.

Here’s a roundup of ways to  transform your walls to transport yourself should you find yourself in a wolfish mood or any mood at all.

TRAVEL INTO A RETRO VIDEO GAME (The Wall Decal Shop UK) or UNDER THE SEA  (by Vinyl Lettering) with WALL STICKERS.

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GO TO OUTER SPACE (by Colorful Childhood).

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Or, my personal favorite, HELLO KITTY LAND (by Fathead).


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There’s lovely WASHI TAPE  to transform your living room to a Parisian cafe or your laundry room into a love shack.  (image)


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And for those of us looking at a keyboard all the time, minifanfan’s idea transforms a keyboard into something full of life with WASHI TAPE:




Finally, take a wall from ho hum to a lovely lush LIVING one with Woolly Pockets. You might just think you’re in a garden, a forest, or a jungle when actually inside.




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