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Notable Books

Books | Picture books with substance

Issue: "Fighting fatalism," July 12, 2014

A Funny Little Bird

By Jennifer Yerkes

The title character is so unremarkable in appearance he may as well be invisible, until “one day he’d had enough.” He found a single bright feather and used it to give himself some pizzazz. He added a flower, a spear of grass, and other found objects to his person, dazzling and delighting his friends. Their attention made the little bird very proud—until he caught the unwelcome attention of a fox. Simple colors and shapes and clever use of white space make the story both intriguing and understandable to very young children, while the moral reinforces a basic life principle: True happiness is found in giving yourself away.

Once Upon a Memory

By Nina Laden

Children at the target age for this book are just beginning to remember things. Like the little boy on the left side of each page spread, they may wonder: “Does a feather remember it once was … a bird?” Subsequent pages develop visual themes, as favorite toys create gentle but lively scenes of what a book, cake, and ocean might recall about their origins. It gets profound at the end: “Does the world remember it once was … wild? Will you remember you once were … a child?” Details like the owl clock at the beginning and end remind this grandma that time flies altogether too fast.

Brother Hugo and the Bear

By Katy Beebe

“Books are food for the souls of men, not for the stomachs of bears.” That’s a lesson Brother Hugo learns in this retelling of a medieval story involving a monk, a manuscript, and an ursine appetite. Hugo regrets to inform his abbot that a bear ate the monastery’s copy of the Letters of St. Augustine. For penance, the abbot has him recopying the volume during Lent. Is this a one-time mishap, or has the bear developed a taste for Augustine? Older children and medievalists will appreciate the book’s stylistic illustrations and illuminated letters that show details of manuscript production, monastery life, and the French countryside.


By Rudyard Kipling

Kipling’s famous poem has been a favorite of fathers and sons for generations. This illustrated version gives the poem an updated look and fresh fodder for thought and discussion. It portrays a preadolescent boy—roughly the age of Kipling’s son when Kipling wrote the poem—in situations both realistic and symbolic. The book invites readers to consider how the pictures relate to well-known lines, such as: “If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken / Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools …” with the “knaves” as a collection of stylized marionettes. This could make a thoughtful graduation or birthday gift.


Maya Van Wagenen
Bethany Clarke/The Times/NI Syndication/Redux
Maya Van Wagenen

When Maya Van Wagenen’s dad showed her a quaint self-help book from 1951, she never expected it would change her life. Betty Cornell’s Teen Age Popularity Guide seemed as far from an eighth-grader’s experience in Brownsville, Texas, as a school lockdown from a ladies’ luncheon. Maya’s mother suggested she try the advice—all of it—for one year, and record her experience (see Quick Takes, Nov. 30, 2013). Maya’s journal became Popular: Vintage Wisdom for a Modern Geek (Dutton, 2014). 

Humor abounds in Betty Cornell’s instruction about hats, pearls, and the effect of a girdle on one’s derrière. Comic relief comes from best friend Kenzie, who is frank and mildly profane. Maya’s surroundings, including over-the-border drug battles, are not conducive to Leave It to Beaver land, and real tragedy sometimes intrudes. But by carefully following Betty Cornell’s advice, Maya learns to reach out to others with consideration and kindness, and that’s what popularity is really all about. –J.B.C.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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