Tag Archives: picture books for older readers

lucy by randy cecil + juggling

9780763668082Lucy by Randy Cecil (2016).

This book reads like an old-timey movie, in a very good way. Spotlighted moments. Text that accompanies the illustrations, but feels like captions, almost like the title cards of silent films. Just look at that lamppost on the cover and the illustrations—grainy black and white.

And then there are threes. A girl. A stray dog who was not always a stray. A juggling father. Three mornings. Three flashbacks to life before. Three times on stage. Three characters who come together in the end in the most wonderful way.




 “About six years ago I adopted a little dog I named Lucy. I soon found that she was funnier, more energetic, and more mischievous than just about any dog I had ever known.”

Randy Cecil



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First, we follow Lucy the dog through town, all the way to the girl, Eleanor Wische’s house. Eleanor attaches sausage to a piece of string and lowers it through the window to where Lucy waits. This feels like a magic trick and relates to the father, Sam, who is a juggler, its own kind of magic. The dog is the girl’s secret. Juggling is the father’s—every time he unveils it, his hands don’t work. Lucy the dog has secrets too: her sneaks into the butcher shop to steal a snack, her untold memories of her former life.


As for how juggling made its way into the book, it definitely has nothing to do with my ability to juggle, because I can’t juggle at all.

I probably had the idea of a vaudeville environment first, because I thought it would be visually interesting, and because of all the fun acts I could potentially come up with. So I wanted a character that aspired to be a part of that world.

And I naturally have a lot of empathy for anyone trying to make a career in the arts, and felt very comfortable writing about that. Juggling is just a lot more fun to look at than images of someone writing or drawing!

Randy Cecil


There is also a great deal of searching in this book. A dog searches for a girl. A girl searches for a dog. Sam searches for a way to perform in front of people without fright. And in the end, they find what they are looking for at The Palace Theater in a show that brings all the story strands together. And then they all go home. They find home.



Big thanks to Candlewick for images and Randy Cecil for quotes!

LUCY. Copyright © 2016 by Randy Cecil. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.



I thought it would be fun to watch some juggling in the spirit of Cecil’s Lucy and then, perhaps to try some ourselves. Sounds like a pretty good summer activity for kids.

Francis Brunn was a regular on the Ed Sullivan show and his performance incorporates dazzling gymnastics and dance and other feats of marvel and precision. (This clip has a whole lot of humor as well.) Adequately describing his juggling has been compared to “trying to describe the flight of a swallow.”



Francis Brunn’s sister Lottie was also a wonderful juggler (as showcased in this dreamy video)! I find this one mesmerizing.

Lottie Brunn – 1952


Anthony Gatto, retired, is one of the world’s best jugglers and performed in Cirque du Soleil. The skill and excitement of this performance is extraordinary.


Now your turn.


voice of freedom: fannie lou hamer, spirit of the civil rights movement

22747807Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer,  Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Ekua Holmes (2015).


A remarkable book for a remarkable woman. Just look at that cover! It so beautifully captures her spirit with vivid yet textured collage. Fannie Lou— sunlight, voice, and beacon for the other voting rights activists silhouetted behind her. She wears yellow almost every time she’s pictured throughout this gorgeously-illustrated book.




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VOICE OF FREEDOM. Text copyright © 2015 by Carole Boston Weatherford. Illustrations copyright © 2015 by Ekua Holmes. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.


Each spread is an illustration accompanied by a first person poem telling Fannie’s story from her own (imagined combined with quoted) point of view. Every one will move you.


“My mother taught me years ago that black is beautiful.”


Beginning. 1917. Mississippi. The youngest of twenty children. Her parents, sharecroppers. Soon, her dragging cotton in the fields too. “Sharecropping was just slavery by a gentler name. The same folks still had us, had in chains.” But she had a strong, loving mother who gave her a black doll to help her feel proud of who she was.



“When you read…you know—

and you can help yourself and others.”

Middle. Marriage. Hard work. Motherhood. Fannie Lou adopted two children and then was tricked into an operation to prevent her from having any biologically.

She was introduced to her right to vote, a right not honored by any stretch. Fired. Fired at. Beat up. Still, she sang for freedom and civil rights. Fannie Lou ran for congress. She spoke to student volunteers and to lawmakers. She made a televised speech to the Democratic convention about her experience.

“The only thing they could do was kill me

and it seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit

at a time ever since I could remember.”


End. 1977. Fannie Lou left a legacy of fighting for justice, helping others, and making a difference by being committed and courageous.

This is a book for the older set of picture book readers (and for everyone) to learn about this important story of civil rights, in the details not just the big moments. To get a glimpse into that struggle and to see how any progress ever made is made by people like Fannie Lou. In fits and starts and setbacks and fierce determination, despite powerful opposition, to see small steps accomplished so all benefit.










You can read Hamer’s testimony about being arrested and beaten when trying to register to vote in Mississippi here.

And Candlewick has a brief video about the book, including an appearance from its author here.



Big thanks to Candlewick for images of the book!


swan: the life and dance of anna pavlova + laurel snyder author interview

Swan_jkt_Bologna.inddSwan: the Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Julie Morstad (2015).


This is one special book. It might make you smile and dance and cry.
Swan_Interior_Spread 1
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Swan_Interior_Spread 6
The language and text are both so beautiful and skillful in this book. We can feel the cold of Russia, the thrill of watching one’s first ballet performance, the discipline of practicing turns and bends over and over. The longing to be a ballerina. The joy of finding one’s passion. The satisfaction of sharing it with others, as Anna Pavlova did.


Swan_Interior_Spread 11
I love the way Julie Morstad uses white and white space throughout the book (all that snow!), as though foreshadowing this moment when Anna becomes that magical white swan.
Swan_Interior_Spread 14
Born to a poor washerwoman and with the wrong feet for ballet, Anna Pavlova became a star against the odds. She was best known for “The Dying Swan,” a short ballet choreographed for her and that she performed thousands of times.
And oh that ending, when Anna is transformed into the dying swan of her famous performance. On her deathbed she asked for her costume and her last words were: “Play that last measure softly.”


“Every day must end in night.
Every bird must fold its wings.
Every feather falls at last, and settles.”




Big thanks to Chronicle Books for images! 


This Picture Book Life: Tell us about your history as a dancer, specifically with ballet. What was the first time you saw a dance performance?

Laurel Snyder: Well, I studied dance as a kid, almost entirely ballet.   I think the initial draw for me was social–because I started taking classes with my best friend, Susan, to whom the book is dedicated.  But from the beginning, I loved ballet, and over the years I went to three different dance schools in and around Baltimore. The problem was that  as I got older, it began to feel clear  that I’d never be a Pavlova.  That was the hardest thing about ballet for me. Once I was in high school, it felt like dance had to be all or nothing, and neither my body or skill were enough to make me a star.  So I quit when I was in high school. I didn’t see a lot of professional performances when I was a kid, honestly.  I think that maybe part of the allure of Pavlova for me, as a kid, was in the grandeur I saw in her old photographs.  I’d just sit and stare at her…






TPBL: What influence did Anna Pavlova have on you? What drew you to her and her story? 

LS: She was definitely an influence, though I’m not entirely certain how it began.  I remember my best friend and I had these paper dolls, and we’d fight over them!  The Swan was always my favorite, but if memory serves, Susan preferred Les Sylphides.  Then, at some point I got my hands on an old book of photos, that included a portion of Anna’s diaries, and I became obsessed.  I loved the rags-to-riches quality of her story.  She was this impoverished washerwoman’s kid, who became a kind of princess. I was also a little obsessed with the idea of boarding school, and I loved history,  so for me, Anna’s saga was utterly dreamy.

Now, as an adult, I’m drawn to the idea that Pavlova really was a missionary for dance. That she wanted to spread the word, share it with the world!  It had changed her life, and she wanted to spread that passion.  But I don’t think I grasped that as a kid.  When I was ten, it was just the transformation of Anna herself that I loved.  And the idea of having a grand passion. I wanted to be devoted to something myself!





TPBL: How was your manuscript paired with Julie Morstad (*swoon*)?

LS: That was sheer genius on the part of the folks at Chronicle.  My editor Melissa was the person who introduced me to her work, and I fell in love at first sight.  I was over the moon when Julie agreed to do the project, and when the first sketches came in, I burst into tears. She really did capture the pictures in my head. I’m not sure how that happened. It’s a kind of magic.

TPBL: Tell us about the spread in which Anna is told she cannot attend ballet school. The thing is, you don’t tell us explicitly that’s what she was told. How did you go about writing those lines and how did you decide on the strategy you used to communicate that information so subtly?

LS: That’s a really good question!  My first genre is poetry– and this book began that way, as a sort of poem.  I didn’t begin with a story so much as a tone, an emotional thread.  I wanted to share my sense of Anna as a girl.  Loneliness, coldness, and then the dazzle of that first ballet, and the hard work of her training.  For that kind of emotional/image narrative, a poem just made sense.





TPBL: I appreciate how you deal with death in SWAN. Tell us about spending time with Anna’s death in the closing spreads. What relationship does death have to Anna’s life and dance and/or to your own philosophy of writing picture books or this one in particular?

LS: Actually, the publication of this book probably hinged on the fact that I couldn’t imagine the story without the death/end. Long before I had a contract, I wrote the manuscript, but I knew I couldn’t deal with the idea of her death being left off, and  I also knew most editors wouldn’t want to include it.  I kept imagining people saying, “Why don’t we just end it HERE, when she’s blossomed into a swan! Isn’t that NICE?”

So I reached out to an editor I’d been following online, who seemed to feel like I did about such matters. I asked her whether a picture book biography could include a deathbed scene.  And that was the beginning of my poem becoming a book.





LS: I feel very very strongly that most kids can handle big ideas and sad moments. Some kids– and I was this way myself– crave sadness.  Often, kids ARE sad, and when you ARE sad, it can be terrible to be constantly surrounded by balloons and smiles.  Sometimes, the most comforting thing is to know that sadness enters everyone’s life, and that you aren’t alone. Books are such a good way to encounter the sadness of others.  They help us build empathy, and also keep us company.

But also, this isn’t just about sadness.  It’s important for kids to hear stories of good deaths. Anna’s life was a good life, and her death was a good death, in a way. She changed the world, lived on her own terms, and died surrounded by the art she loved. She was mourned deeply, and this book is a part of that. Mourning isn’t just sadness. It’s missing, a celebration of a life well-lived.

If we teach kids only about death as atrocity, we make it a terrifying thing.  Which is awful, because of course we’re all going to die. Anna lived well, and was mourned deeply by millions of people.  Her gift continues now, far beyond her life.  I can’t think of a happier ending for anyone, really.




Big thanks to Laurel Snyder for writing the book and sharing her answers! I leave you with this footage of Anna Pavlova dancing “The Dying Swan.” I’m so glad this exists.





the enemy & the tomato patch: picture books on peace




Not only do these two share some similarities in look—subdued colors, line drawings, strangely-shaped figures—but they also share two young men as main characters. They also share theme. In different ways, they’re both about peace. Individuals not entities. Food not weapons. Come see…


The Enemy by Davide Cali and Serge Bloch (2007).


Not an easy book. After all, the setting is a hole, well two holes, in the middle of a desert in the middle of a war. We follow one of the soldiers in one of the holes.


The two soldiers are hiding from each other. Sometimes shooting at each other. They both light fires to cook. They both get hungry. They both are alone. They both have families back home. They both suffer.


They’ve both been told the other is the enemy. But if the the other guy thinks he’s the enemy, how can the other guy be the enemy too?  It’s a conundrum of war seen up close in this story. (That, if it’s not already clear, is not for very young children.)


As our soldier begins to think about the other soldier and even ventures over to his hole, he realizes they are the same. They read the same manuals about the enemy, the only difference is which side the manual targets.



“Maybe he has a family?

I wasn’t expecting this.

They didn’t tell us anything about this.”

At the end, we know the two soldiers have been on the same journey. And we know they’ll stop fighting one another because now, even though they don’t actually know each other, they really do.



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The Tomato Patch by William Wondriska (that’s Wondriska of A Long Piece of String design fame) (1964).


This one is less overtly about war, but about fighting tools and what they create. It tells of two kingdoms separated only by a forest. Both kingdoms are full of weapons. They eat food out of cans and they make weapons. That’s it.


Spears and arrows until there isn’t any room for any more. But still, more weapons anyway. Bows, daggers, slingshots.


Then the prince from each kingdom wanders into the forbidden forest. They meet and, together, find a tomato patch. It’s a strange, wondrous, unbelievable thing, especially since their food comes from cans. They laugh, for the first time.

(Aren’t you grateful for that pop of orange-red after all the bleakness?! I am.)



And of course, the girl who tends the tomatoes sends each prince home with a tomato plant. And everything changes. The kingdoms go from weapons to tomatoes. From tomatoes to corn. And instead of wearing armor, they wear the clothes of farmers and weavers. There are no more weapons. They grow food and play games. Sounds great, right?




Two books about war and weapons, but ultimately about empathy and change and hope. About peace. 


bird: picture book for the older set

4417990Bird by Zetta Elliott and Shadra Strickland.


This is a book where the illustrations and text go so perfectly together I assumed it was by an author/illustrator. But no, it’s a beautiful collaboration.



Bird is the title of the book, but not just because it’s the nickname of the main character who narrates it.




bird spread 1

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Bird draws a pigeon outside his window. He and his Uncle Son go the park and feed pigeons. His Uncle Son and Grandfather flew planes in the war, flew like birds. Uncle Son plays Charlie Parker, “the other bird,” in his apartment. The boy watches birds flying from his rooftop and, one important time, his older brother gives him a book of birds.



bird spread 2

“You just remember,

everybody got their somethin’.

And that includes you.”

But there’s also the idea of a bird. Of freedom, of flying.

And even flying away, as in death.

bird spread 3

They boy’s older brother, Marcus, is in trouble. With drugs. He only flies away like a bird after struggle and death.

Bird is a book about drug addiction and losing someone you love and who loved you. But it’s also a book about growing up and, thankfully, hope.

Strickland’s illustrations are apropos. Dark, then light. Layered. Imaginative, then realistic.  Line drawings like the one Bird makes. Watercolors of city scenes.


bird spread 4




“You can fix a broken wing with a splint,

and a bird can fly again,” he said.

“But you can’t fix a broken soul.”

And when you’re lucky enough to get your hands on this book, do take a long look at the spread on which Uncle Son and the narrator discuss their favorite birds. Look for the red specks in the trees, each a cardinal that “looks like a fiery spark blowing through the trees.” Just like a fiery spark of hope in the gloom.


Thanks to Lee and Low Books for images!