Category Archives: Best Books

A couple biographies by Bryant and Sweet

Confession: the real reason, the primary one, that I want to mention these books here at Hope Is the Word is because I am completely taken with Melissa Sweet‘s illustrations.   Her illustrations alone would make these books worth a second glance in my opinion.  However, when you combine Sweet’s detailed and beautiful collage-style illustrations to Jen Bryant‘s storytelling, what you have then is a very winning combo of story and pictures and the perfect way to introduce elementary aged children (well, anyone, really) to an artist and poet they might otherwise not learn about until much later.

A Splash of Red is the life story of Horace Pippin, an American folk artist whose life and art were hidden in obscurity until the artist N.C. Wyeth brought it to light.   (Visit the book’s website to learn more about Horace Pippin.)  What I really appreciate about Pippin’s life as communicated by this fabulous book is how he persevered in his art even after a war injury could’ve sidelined him permanently.  This is such an interesting, inspirational, and beautifully rendered story, certainly worthy of the  2014 Schneider Family Book Award and the Sibert honor it received.  Highly Recommended.  (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013)

Art and poetry are two of my favorite things, so I was completely tickled to bring home another Bryant/ Sweet book from the library, this one a 2009 Caldecott honor-winning picture book biography of the poet William Carlos Williams.  A River of Words relates the life of Willie Williams, the young dreamer who spent hours outdoors just listening to the rhythm and cadences of the Passaic River tumbling over rocks and ultimately cascading in a waterfall.  Although he loved poetry, Williams ultimately became a doctor because “no one paid much money for poetry.”  Of course, the urge to write was so strong in  Williams that he often jotted down his thoughts on his prescription pad and wrote poetry late into the night.  My girls were familiar with Williams’ poetry, specifically his poem “This Is Just To Say” thanks to Gail Carson Levine’s inspired-by collection, Forgive Me, I MeanTo Do It which we had read before during a poetry tea time.  Both of these Bryant/Sweet books made a great addition to last week’s tea time, and I give them both a Highly Recommended.  (Eerdmans, 2008)

I shall certainly have my eyes peeled for more books by this dynamic duo!

Journey by Aaron Becker

Journey by Aaron Becker is a wordless picture book that was recently awarded a Caldecott honor and has been nominated for a Cybils Award in the picture fiction category.  All of these accolades (and then some!) are deserved.  Although I usually say I am not a fan of wordless picture books, I’ve about decided I need to quit saying that because I’ve read several that I’ve enjoyed.  This one communicates the story so well that I “read” it aloud to my children with no problem at all.

Journey is the story of a little girl who is lonely–everyone in her family is too busy to play with her, so she picks up a magic red crayon from her bedroom floor and draws a door in the wall that leads her into a magical world. She uses the crayon to draw various conveyances that take her into different worlds or settings:  a red boat, a red hot air balloon, a red flying carpet.  Several settings look a teeny bit like real places in the real world:  a huge castle with canals for roadways; a Middle Eastern city.  Others are fantastical.  The common thread from setting to setting is the little girl and her red crayon.  The story ends very pleasingly with the little girl being led through a purple doorway back into her world. There she finds a friend with a purple crayon.

Obviously, what makes the story in this wordless picture book so wonderful is the pictures.  The girl’s world is boring–sepia colored–until she finds the magical crayon.  The worlds she enters thereafter are lush and colorful.  The watercolor, pen, and ink illustrations are highly detailed and invite closer study.  I can definitely see why this one won a Caldecott honor, bested only by Brian Floca’s Locomotive.  I couldn’t help but be reminded a little bit of Harold and the Purple Crayon, and the DLM serendipitously picked it out of our huge picture book anthology to read the very same day we read Journey.  Journey gets a Highly Recommended from the House of Hope.  It’s one I’d love to add to our collection.  (Candlewick Press, 2013)

I had friends tell me, “You’re crazy to do this in watercolor.” But all my favorite books for kids are in watercolor.  –Aaron Becker

(I couldn’t agree with Becker more.)

Here’s a wonderful little video about Becker’s journey making Journey.

Related links:

The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander

Our first chapter book read-aloud of 2014 is one Sherry recommended for us in her annual reader advisory post, and it’s one I’ve had on my radar and on my Classics Club list for a while.  The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander, which is based partially on Welsh mythology, is the story of Taran the Assistant Pig-Keeper who goes on a quest to find the oracular pig, Hen-Wen.  On his journey he is joined by several unlikely companions, including a mouthy enchantress-in-training who rescues him when he is captured by the evil Achren; a hyperbolic king-turned-bard named Fflewddur Fflam; and a wolfhoundish creature named Gurgi who’s most interested in “crunchings and munchings.”  Together they search for Hen Wen and seek to warn the Sons of Don of impending evil.

Although I added this book to my list several years ago, it’s not a book I’d normally gravitate towards (especially were I to judge it by its cover).  I’m not really a fantasy person, despite the fact that I love all things Narnia and I finally did manage to read and enjoy The Hobbit a few years ago.  The Book of Three is an easy book to enjoy, though, even for those of us not well-versed in the tropes and symbols of fantasy.   First, there are a limited number of characters, so even though they have names which are at first unpronounceable (hint:  check the back of the book for a pronunciation guide), there aren’t so many that they’re easily confused.  Second, it’s a work of juvenile fiction, so it’s not so long that the plot meanders or we forget where we’ve been and where we’re going.  What we have, then, is a book in which good and evil are very carefully delineated, and Taran’s whole quest is easy to take in.  I love that one of the predominant themes–courage in the face of overwhelming odds–is so easy to discern.  This is from the author’s note at the beginning of the story:

The geography of Prydain is peculiar to itself.  Any resemblance between it and Wales is perhaps not coincidental–but not to be used as a guide for tourists.  It is a small land, yet it has room enough for gallantry and humor; and even an Assistant Pig-Keeper there may cherish many dreams.

The chronicle of Prydain is a fantasy.  Such things never hapen in real life.  Or do they?  Most of us are called on to perform tasks far beyond what we can do.  Our capabilities seldom match our aspirations, and we are often woefully unprepared.  To this extent, we are all Assistant Pig-Keepers.

To me, that’s an irresistible introduction.

We all loved this book.  It’s suspenseful and humorous and just an all around great story.  The characterization is wonderful.  My girls never wanted me to stop with just one chapter.  We give this one a Highly, Highly Recommended and can’t wait to read the next book in The Chronicles of Prydain.  (Henry Holt, 1964)

Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson

Sherry recommended Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson to me in her yearly reader advisory post, and I decided to read it before I forgot about it.   I’m so glad I did!  I can’t remember when I’ve enjoyed a story as much as I did this one.  Set in the small English village of Silverstream in the 1930s, this is the story of one Miss Barbara Buncle who writes a book for no other reason than she needs the money.  She has no real aspirations as a writer, but somehow she captures Silverstream (which she renames Copperfield) so well that the story is an immediate best seller.  When the good folks of Copperfield (er, Silverstream) read Miss Buncle’s book, they recognize themselves and are either flattered and amused or embarrassed and outraged.  In fact, some of Silverstream’s leading citizens take it upon themselves to find this John Smith (Miss Buncle’s nom de plume) and have his head.  Of course, figuring out John Smith’s identity is another thing entirely, and meanwhile life imitates art (or vice versa), and a very entertaining tale unfolds.   I absolutely love how Stevenson ends the story–I can’t think of a better way to end it.  In fact, there isn’t a single part of this story I don’t like.  I read this one directly on the heels of Emily Climbs, and I can’t help but think that any fan of L.M. Montgomery will love this humorous, lightly romantic, character-driven story.  I give it a Highly, Highly Recommended and look forward to reading its sequel, Miss Buncle Married, and possibly others of Stevenson’s many novels. (Sourcebooks, 2012; originally published 1936)

As always, I am having a hard time adequately expressing what I love so much about this story, so I’ll just end this post by sharing a few more excerpts that showcase what makes this one so good:

John Smith had held up the mirror to poor Stephen and had said, “Here you are, old chap!  I hope you like yourself.  Those nasty marks from your nose to the corners of your mouth, and those others between your brows are marks you put there yourself, you know.  You can’t blame God for those.”  And poor Stephen replied, “Good Heavens, is that me?”  (or he would probably have said, “Is that I?” for he was a pedantic and serious soul) and he would gaze at Margaret–just as she had described “in a queer way”–wondering if it could possibly be true that she was thinking of leaving him, and he would make an effort to be less like David Gaymer.  And lastly he would fly up to town to tackle the publisher and find out who this man was–this John Smith who seemed to know more about himself and his wife than he himself knew.  (85)

Barbara Buncle looked around the room and saw all her puppets (with a few exceptions) assembled together for the purpose of reviling their creator.  She wondered if any other author had ever beheld such a curious sight.  It would be exciting to write a play, Barbara thought, to see your creations put on the garment of mortality, to hear your words issuing from their mouths.  But a play must always be a little disappointing; no actor can completely satisfy an author, and there must be some discrepancy between the author’s conception of a character and the actor’s expression.  This was far better than any play, for the actors were themselves.  They couldn’t act out of character if they tried, for they were the characters–as large as life and twice as natural.  (163)

“Lor’, Miss Barbara, you’re never going out now?”

“Yes,” said Barbara breathlessly.  “I’m going up to The Riggs.  If I’m not back in two hours you can ring up your friend Sergeant Capper and tell him to search for my dead body in the cellars–where’s my umbrella, Dorcas?  Where on earth’s my umbrella?”  (250)


Locomotive by Brian Floca

Wow.  That’s the first word that comes to mind when I think about Locomotive by Brian Floca.  This is a nonfiction picture book that manages to pack an epic story–the building of the transcontinental railroad–into the interesting narrative of a family making their own transcontinental journey on that very railroad.  In other words, the information about the railroad is interwoven throughout the family’s journey much as if they have their own personal historical  guide they’re sharing with the reader.   The story itself is written in a very poetic prose that verges on pure poetry both in sound, rhythm, and format:

Up in the cab–small as a closet, hot as a kitchen–

it smells of smoke, hot metal, and oil.


The fireman keeps the engine fed.

He scoops and lifts and throws the coal,

from the tender to the firebox.


It’s hard work, hot work,

smoke and cinders,

ash and sweat,

hard work, hot work–

but that’s a fireman’s life!

He tends the fire

that boils the water,

that turns the water into steam.


Beautiful typography–stylized capitals, script, boldface–all help communicate this very rich narrative.  Floca‘s illustrations, which are rendered in watercolor, ink, acrylic, and gouache, are every bit as much the star of the story as is the text.  He uses a variety of perspectives to communicate the immensity, power, and detail of the steam engine itself and what it was like to travel cross country by it.  One of my favorite illustrations is a huge, two-page close-up of the train’s wheels on the track, which are accompanied by the very onomatopoetic text that includes the words huffs, hisses, bangs, and clanks in large, colored, boldface typography.  The very next two-page spread includes small vignettes:  an aerial view of the train; the ticketmaster collecting tickets; our passengers looking out their window; the engineer leaning out of his window with “the wind on his face, the fire by his feet.”  If you’re expecting a gorgeous picture book, you won’t be disappointed.  However, don’t expect a simple, pre-school story; this book is appropriate for all ages, from school-aged to adult.  I read it to my three year old, and while I think he probably missed most of the details (and honestly, so did I–this is no lightweight informational book!), he appreciated the rhythmic text and the beautiful illustrations.  From the detailed endpapers (maps, the history of the Transcontinental Railroad, and a beautifully detailed diagram of a steam locomotive) to the author note and lengthy list of sources, this is a not-to-be-missed informational picture book for history lovers and train lovers alike.  I won’t be surprised by any accolades this book receives–a Cybil, a Caldecott–whatever.  Don’t miss this one.  Highly, highly (highly) Recommended.   (Atheneum, 2013)

Related links:

This is a long-ish video of Floca discussing his creation of Locomotive (which is essentially about “a big teakettle on wheels”) at the 2013 National Book Festival: