Larissa is a monthly columnist for the literature and resource packed magazine, StoryMonsters Ink! She contributes book reviews and a column titled “Teaching Toolbox”
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Below are a sample of Book Reviews from Larissa Juliano that have been featured in Story Monsters Ink
A Song about Myself by John Keats and illustrated by Chris Raschka
Oh, how I love poetry. And whimsical illustrations. So this stunning and creative book featuring the poems of the John Keats (originally published in 1901 from The Complete Words of John Keats) and pictures by Caldecott Winner Chris Raschka tugged at my heartstrings and reaffirmed the fact that I do indeed love poetry. Per the illustrators note in the back of the book (and in my opinion just as important to read and discuss as the book itself) we find out that this poem is a letter John Keats wrote to his beloved sister after a twenty mile adventure and trek through the mountains of Scotland. It is about a ‘naughty boy’ who goes on a quest of wonders and ‘follow[s] one’s nose To the North, To the North” and writes poetry as he wonders. Childhood memories (Granny, washing tubs, ink stands, and running away) are referenced in short, fragmented and rhyming prose. (Note: I love how poetry is the asterisk, the EXCEPTION, the rule breaker! to grammar and mechanics). Accompanied by Mr. Raschka’s distinctive (and stunning) watery and soft edged designs, this book is definitely a must for poetry lovers of all ages.
I Am (Not) Scared by Anna Wang, illustrated by Christopher Weyant
Childhood is such a precious, fleeting, beautiful and vulnerable time for little ones (parents included!). Having stories that address our anxieties, name them, encapsulate them, and hopefully calm them is incredibly important, not to mention awesomely comforting! I Am (Not) Scared by Anna Kang and illustrated by Chrisopher Weyant (winning author/illustrator team of the Theodore Geisel Award I am (Not) Small prequel) shares a day in the life of two animal creatures having a conversation about being brave…and scared. Told completely in large, easy to read dialogue (speech bubbles without the bubbles) the furry friends debate what is scary and what is not scary (a tub of hairy spiders or a pit of hot lava is DEFNITELY scary!) The reader then discovers the setting of the story and root of their cute exchange…a rollercoaster park! This story is fantastic for making inferences based on the animal’s expressions and conversation (illustrations are vibrant, colorful, and pop against a white backdrop) Best part? They decide to be scared together! The ending is a sweet reminder that having friends makes us feel A LOT better in scary situations…and talking about our feelings is absolutely OK!
Today I feel- An Alphabet of Feelings by Madalena Moniz
This alphabet story is one of the most delightful, charming and innovate representations of the alphabet I’ve ever read! The thoughtfulness Ms. Moniz clearly puts into each illustration is truly remarkable- mostly because every single picture represents the feeling in such a “Yes, I feel that way too!” or “I can’t believe she captured that feeling so explicitly!” Each stunning page is a single word describing an emotion…Brilliant, Daring, Original and Uncertain are just a few of my favorites. A little boy is on each page in a variety of circumstances – and these circumstances, surroundings, and scenarios are SO CLEVER! On the ‘M’ page, the little boy feels “Mini” and is tucked inside someone’s pocket. Patient? Putting together a huge puzzle. Warm? Snuggled in mommy’s embrace. One that tugged at my heartstrings is “Adored”- a huge wall of framed photos with the little boy’s sweet face grinning in the middle (I have one of these walls for my little ones!) I believe when these feelings are written down, in this case by the masterful Ms. Moniz, it affirms to readers that it IS normal to have huge ranges in emotions and being honest and authentic about them is the best (and most healthy) response of all.
Some Moms and Some Dads by Nick Bland
These beautifully illustrated books by author and illustrator Nick Bland were just a dynamite duo to share at bedtime and offered a great opening of conversation about fun and sentimental moments we share with OUR parents. Beautiful short and poignant sentences describe different moments, activities, and characteristics that represent childhood moments we share with our parents. The colorful and (extra) creative pictures of the animals doing all sorts of kooky (but totally relatable) things were so engaging, but also laugh out loud funny. One particular illustration in Some Dads that I loved was a tortoise happily pushing his baby in a stroller listening to his I-Pod accompanied with the text, “Some dads like strolling.” So cute! Some Dads and Some Moms are a perfect pairing to read together, and also sweet reminders to families that we are all on this parenthood (and childhood) journey together.
Time to Dream by Timothy Khan, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury
Time to Dream by Timothy Khan and illustrator Helen Oxenbury is an enchanting and special story about a brother and sister exploring the woods in hopes of discovering the source of rhythmic, unusual (and fun to read) ‘nighttime noises.’ (Helen Oxenbury is also the illustrator of the beloved and classic We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, which lends itself beautifully to a compare and contrast literature discussion/lesson).
Jack is very nervous and keeps asking his sister Alice if what they’re hearing is “…the Wicked Wolf…with his big bad claws and his snap-trap jaws?” Alice is adorably reassuring while they meet exquisitely illustrated woodland creatures along the way. The ending reveals a surprise (with Jack not being entirely wrong about his worries!) that will delight readers and hopefully lull them into their own sweet slumber, or as author Timothy Khan so beautifully writes; And they sailed off to sleep on that sweet lullaby.
Little Captain Jack by Alicia Acosta, illustrated by Monica Carretero
Pirates? Animal heroes? A little captain named Jack? Adventure stories out to sea are always a surefire hit and this delightful story has a cute twist in the form of a little captain named Jack. Jack is as tiny as a mouse and constantly trying to make his presence known with his ship crew – who often misunderstand him (because he’s so tiny) or don’t see him (because he’s so tiny). Jack makes up little strategies and cute songs to keep his crew in line, until disaster strikes , and a bad pirate takes Jack hostage! Through a series of humorous events, Jack realizes that bravery and smarts come from within, and being small definitely has its’ perks. The illustrations in Little Captain Jack are so rich and bold in color, with expressive characters (I love the animals!) and really neat visual perspectives on how the world looks through Jack’s eyes…large shoes, gigantic animals, and a vast ship deck to name a few! Eye catching treasure maps on the front and back pages of the book will definitely inspire readers to make their own. I also loved how the author punctuated certain words in bold – which always makes a read-aloud that much more entertaining!
Bee and Me by Alison Jay
A bee flying through a city landscape pollinating the town with future flowers and colors galore captures the title of this wordless picture book perfectly. I love wordless picture books. For so many reasons, but mostly because the reader can interpret the message in ways that make sense to them, depending on their background knowledge, family life and experiences. This of course enriches literature discussions (or bedtime snuggle talks) and allows us to just immerse ourselves in gorgeous illustrations – like the ones in Bee and Me. This story is a journey between a girl and a bee that shows up on her windowsill. Naturally, the bee is greeted with fear and apprehension but soon welcomed and nurtured to a plentiful, happy and purposeful life – all depicted through stunning and precious illustrations that can only be summed up with one word- friendship. The author’s note at the end reminds us of the importance in respecting our ecosystem and nature’s gifts.
Reading A Northern Alphabet by artist and author Ted Harrison felt like I was peeking into an art gallery in the Arctic with my little ones. With the timeless ABC picture book sequence, Mr. Harrison took it to a new level (despite publication being 1976) with each page depicting a special place, person, adventure or experience way up North. The bold strokes of the skylines were especially eye catching and provided the backdrop to community gatherings, friendships, Arctic sports, hobbies and animals. So fun! Along with rich vocabulary describing this lesser known land, the experience of reading A Northern Alphabet can be a science, social and art study (all intertwined in a beautiful board book rendition). I loved the bold colors and inclusion of so many beautiful people sharing their love of nature… and each other. After reading this book, I looked up more of Mr. Harrison’s artwork, because every page truly felt ‘frame-worthy’. An ABC book above the rest.
Baby Animals and Things that Go! Stephen Lomp (Indestructibles baby book series)
Reading a book with our babies on our laps are memories that stay with us forever. Baby Animals and Things that Go! By Stephen Lomp are beautiful and innovative literacy vehicles to engage our earliest readers. Indestructibles are “chew proof, rip proof, non-toxic and 100% washable” all packed into a beautiful non-fiction soft cover about animals and cars- favorite topics amongst all ages. Add in gorgeous pictures that fill the page top to bottom (and catch any ages eye)! The fact that they are meant for babies to gnaw, chew, and basically experience, is simply icing on the cake. What an absolute brilliant and innovative design. These books are perfect for precious, sticky finger babies and their families.
If I had a little dream by Nina Laden
I had to read this book several times before I was able to digest and then explain how divinely written it was. So unique and so clever – which reminds me why authors have such an ingenious ‘je ne said quoi’ that makes certain books stand out among others. Besides the fact that this story had exquisite pencil colored illustrations by illustrator Melissa Castrillon, the words are so unique and cleverly written that when I started to play with the sentences – I realized the true depth of this poetic masterpiece. On each page, a child names their favorite objects, creatures, and peoples – basically all her favorite things (cat, sister, bed, chair, pond) and gives them different names…Not ordinary names though, names that mean something powerful, embody an attribute that comforts us. This book is about finding joy in our everyday world, the all important concept of ‘mindfulness’, and being present. If I had a little dream is the epitome of a mentor text for children and teachers…Not simply to dissect and pull apart, but truly appreciate the simplicity of words, adjectives, nouns and nature…and create our own writing masterpieces describing our world- and what we think is most important in it.
Maisy’s Moon Landing by Lucy Cousins
Cute little mouse? Pull tabs? Space? Yes please.Maisy’s Moon Landing by author and illustrator Lucy Cousins was from start to finish a favorite for my family. A journey through space and creative pull out tabs allow the readers to experience adventures with Maisy and her sweet and curious spirit. On the left hand side of each page are space vocabulary words with adorable accompanying pictures. The interactive component has the extra ‘oomph’ because the pop out illustrations don’t just move from side to side, but create a 3-D effect with a rocket shop unfolding through the sky (or a reader’s reading nook) and Maisy floating through space- with her beloved teddy bear of course. What my children and I love about Maisy’s stories is the simplicity and authenticity in the illustrations- thick lines, primary colors and shapes and minimal backgrounds. We feel like we can create our own drawings to go along with Maisy! This is not to downplay Lucy Cousins masterful illustration talent, but commend how charming her pictures are. We are looking forward to the next science adventure with Maisy…Dinosaurs? Under the ocean? Volcanoes? It will be a blast as long as we have Maisy and her teddy bear along for the pop up ride!
Say Hello, Sophie! By Rosemary Wells
Oh…how I could relate to this adorable story. And I think many, many parents of toddlers and preschoolers (and probably older children as well) understand the well-intentioned tendency to remind our children of their manners…specifically saying hello, please, and thank you. However, what we may forget is how frustrating and annoying it can be to our little ones. Rosemary Wells is the best of the best in emulating childhood experiences, anxieties, and desires into the most appealing, funny, and charming stories ever. In Ms. Wells newest story, Sophie the mouse goes on a fun daytime adventure with her family…bakery, park, and library. But she just can’t seem to get the words out when reminded to say hello, thank you and please to the people she meets! As Rosemary Wells so masterfully writes, “Thank you shrank to the size of a pea on Sophie’s tongue.” Luckily for Sophie, Granny has a plan to help Sophie feel more comfortable and the ending is a sweet reminder for all of us to let our children…just be. This book will be a new treasured favorite for children and parents as they turn the pages and feel like Ms. Wells gave us (yes all of us) a voice in the long, precious days – but short years- of childhood. Illustrations are bright and colorful with the classic Rosemary Wells fingerprint (ink, watercolor and gouache media) of patterned clothing, bright backgrounds, and charming characters. I simply loved this book, and I think my children will be grateful that Ms. Wells continues to reminds the mommies and daddies out there that giving our children room to be themselves is one of the best gifts we can give.
Nancy Knows by Cybele Young
Paper sculptures? An elephant? A mind bursting with thoughts and memories of wondrous things? Author and artist Cybele Young creates an ingenious story of a little elephant who tries to remember something important… As she does, her mind (body) fills with pictures of other ideas and objects…Things that go forwards, backwards, have wheels, fly, line up in a row and other artistic combinations. But what Ms. Young creates are Nancy’s thoughts and memories masterfully presented in the form of paper sculptures Paper sculptures that are of abstract things, or things that are fun and playful, things that reveal Nancy’s heart’s desires. My absolute favorite pages are those of Nancy’s “ears do[ing] the remembering” (paper sculptures of instruments and noise makers) and her tummy and trunk (food items Nancy loves to eat). This book is also an absolute must for an art study with children and a mentor text for writers…the possiblities are endless for how this delightful and heart-warming story can be used to inspire us in our own creations, all through a sweet little elephant named Nancy.
If you Happen to have a Dinosaur by Linda Bailey and Colin Jack
Dinosaur stories never go out of style. And this board book edition of If you Happen to have a Dinosaur by Linda Bailey and Colin Jack fits right on the bookshelf with other dinosaur classics like “How do Dinosaurs…?” by Jane Yolen and Mark Teague and the beloved Dino-Sports series by Lisa Wheeler and Barry Gott.
What I especially loved about THIS rhythmic story are the clever and unique jobs that a dinosaur could assist us with…If you happen to have a dinosaur, you might have a nutcracker? Or a coffee grinder? How about a diving board or a snow plow? The illustrations that accompany the silly, engaging text are colorful, larger than life and add to the hysterics of the ‘what if’s’ of dinosaurs participating in our everyday lives. There is such a joyful spirit radiating from the pictures with the fine pencil lines, bold colors, and expressive faces. I also loved the vintage-y (but adorably fresh and colorful) presentation of that character’s haircuts and clothing… Kids will be in stitches seeing all the shenanigans the dinosaurs find themselves in, especially when our author illustrator team shows us everything dinosaurs CAN’T do – definitely not a grocery cart pusher or popcorn bowl holder. Hilarious!
Pax and Blue, written and illustrated by Lori Richmond, is the ultimate portrayal of friendship, compassion, and empathy. Having a pigeon and a city setting just seals the deal for making this a relatable favorite amongst children and adults. Pax is a little boy who has a “pet” pigeon named Blue. Pax always greets Blue with a piece of toast and a bit of company on the park bench. Unfortunately, one morning Blue gets left behind in the morning hustle and bustle rush to the subway stop…One of my favorite lines, “ Pax knew little ones can get rushed along- especially when Mom can’t be late.”
A darling and captivating plot unfolds as Pax and Blue figure out how to get Blue safely home. The pictures just POP in this story…with ink, watercolor and charcoal media swept from corner to corner, simplistic but eye-catching action scenes, close-ups of the characters, speech bubbles, and expert use of large black and white space. The more times I read this story, the more details I noticed and appreciated from Lori Richmond. A story that illuminates friendship in a time where kindness matters more than anything is a must read for all ages.
George by Roxy Morgan
I admit, I am not a huge fan of the snow. Sort of ironic since I live in upstate New York along the snow belt…however I AM a fan of thoughtful, whimsical, and heartfelt stories about the winter. George by Roxy Morgan fits all those traits and more. George is a sensitive snowman who is teased by other children. They do not realize he is real and has feelings. Thanks to a snow maiden, George is able to help a little girl recovering from an accident. In spreading cheer for this child, George is able to feel better about himself and feel accepted and cared for. The illustrations in this story were beautiful…light, airy snowflakes and winter scenes spread out across each page. George and the other characters have expressive and engaging faces, and the little winter animals are just too cute for words. Any story that reminds us to open our hearts to others, and that all of us are special and unique in our own way- is a must…and George is especially perfect for a cozy winter day.
The Want Monsters (And How They Stopped Ruling My World) by Chelo Manchego
Stories about monsters always give me a little pre-reading anxiety because I wonder how my children will react to them before bedtime…Not this story! The Want Monsters (And How They Stopped Ruling My World) by Chelo Manchego is an adorable and relatable story about how our inner desires and compulsions can take hold and bring out the ‘ugly’ in us (yes, adults included J). Children will appreciate the wants the little boy has- sweet treats, video games, popularity, and other valid childhood frustrations. Unfortunately, these frustrations take hold of him in consequential ways through a want monster named Oskar.
Every page is an orange earthy backdrop to the bold and angular illustrations of Oskar, the little boy, and his situations. As the story progresses, the little boy learns the consequences of giving into Oskar’s compulsions/selfishness and it piques his motivation to try self control. Initially, the symbolism of the want monster may need a bit of explanation to young children- but as the story progresses, it is clear that differentiating between our needs and wants (and recognizing our impulses and managing them) will result in a much happier YOU. Great story to read and discuss with children and the adorable illustrations will keep them engaged from beginning to end!
Wolfie and Fly by Cary Fagan
is an early chapter book that portrays the complexities of friendship, anxiety, and imagination in an adorable page turning read. Renata (Wolfie, as she is nicknamed later in the story) is an only child who is smart and sassy…But elements of her reclusive personality keep her isolated and wary of fostering friendships- much to her parent’s dismay. Renata prefers to create, engineer and build things all by herself- until one day, a next door neighbor needs some help. Renata is reluctant to assist Livingston (Fly) until he pleads that his older brother will seek revenge on him for losing his baseball. Renata and Livingston embark on an adventure that embodies what it means to use our imagination in the most funny and humorous way. The creativity that author Cary Fagan comes up with for the unlikely pair is so fun to read and brings us back to those beautiful never-ending afternoons of our childhood. Humor, tenderness and the sweet reminisce of new friendship makes this a must read for all ages.
The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters by Kara LeReau and illustrated by Jen Hill is a hysterical yet touching middle grade chapter book perfect for Roald Dahl, Lemony Snicket, and Shel Silverstein lovers. This story follows the journey of the Bland Sisters, Kale and Jaundice, as they embark on an unexpected ‘girl-power’, life changing journey- in sharp contrast to their isolated and desolate existence after their parents ‘disappeared’ several years prior (and hilariously described in the first few chapters). In a succession of droll circumstances, the cautious and awkward sisters find themselves on a pirate ship adventure that leads them into an investigation of their parents disappearance. This story had me giggling (yes giggling), anxious, and excited all at the same time. The style of writing is reminiscent of the legendary Mr. Dahl (in particular, Matilda’s sweet innocence, and then the protagonist’s vulgarity), including the simplistic pencil illustrations. Loved this story and felt such a kinship to these adorable sisters as they discovered their inner strength.
Otherwise Known as Possum, is an exquisite middle grade story by author Maria D. Laso (who has sadly passed since the release of her story) about a young girl nicknamed “Possum” who lives in the deep South during the President Hoover era. She is dealing with the aftermath of her beloved mother and “Baby” on the cusp of her 12th birthday. Told in Possum’s southern twang, the narration almost has a warmth and familiarity reminiscent of “The Help” – tween version of course. With every page I turned, I loved this book more and more. I couldn’t believe how quickly I was emotionally invested in Possum and her father’s journey to discovering their life without their Momma. Despite the heart-wrenching loss of losing a parent, the story also had so many sweet and funny moments with Possum starting school for the first time, being protective of her daddy and navigating through school friendships (always a complicated experience). I savored every description, dialogue, and interaction that exemplified Possum’s vulnerability, adorability, and bravery.
Used to be I was never lonely.
Even when I wasn’t with my best dog friend or my best person friend,
my days were filled with music of creek splashing and
idea hatching and life living.
But it got quiet when we lost Momma- she was the music Daddy and I danced to.
~Otherwise Known as Possum by Maria D. Laso
A story with so many layers. Character evolution, American Southern history, philosophy of education (nature versus nurture; street versus book). I can’t wait to read this book again. Inspirational to a reader and most definitely a writer. An absolute gem.
Family Game Night and other Catastrophes by Mary E. Lambert was one of my favorite middle grade books I’ve read in a long, long time. It was emotional, funny, sad, and heartwarming…. and dealt with the addiction to hoarding. Yes, hoarding. Mary Lambert reveals the complexities of this disorder through the voice of Annabelle, middle daughter of a dysfunctional family (aren’t we all?) Annabelle and her family are dealing with their mom’s accumulation of everything from milk cartons, old toys, sheets, dog food cans (but no dog), newspapers sorted by the weather, and more – and the repulsive effects it has on their emotional and physical well being. She has implemented a ‘Five Mile Radius’ to keep her friends (and new crush) away from her home. The embarrassment, shame and pity that the family feels for their matriarch is so realistically conveyed, but manifests itself into Annabelle becoming HIGHLY sensitive to anything cluttered or messy. Things come to a breaking point when Annabelle’s sister calls Grandma after Dad finally puts his foot down and leaves. Family “game nights” turn into revelations of family history and dysfunction (and a mother who genuinely wants to please her family). Despite the seriousness of topic, there is still such an earnesty and sweetness to Annabelle’s voice (and humor too!) It made me feel like I was hearing my best friend share her innermost painful, funny and sordid family details during a Friday night sleepover.
Ice Boy by David Ezra Stein surprised me in so many ways. Upon first glance of the cover, you anticipate the story being about an adventure that Ice Boy experiences…a silly, comical adventure. But as you start reading, you realize that Ice Boy has a lot more depth, intricacies, and “heartstring” tugging than a typical ‘tangible object’ picture book. The story begins with Ice Boy describing his daily occurrences, from being part of someone’s icy drink to hanging out with his other ‘ice cube’ family. However the tale quickly turns to Ice Boy’s longing of wanting to have something more in life…going outside, in the sun and essentially being part of the world. Ice Boy’s wanderlust quickly turns into an epic voyage through different phases of the water cycle. There is a sense of anxiety that occurs as you flip each page, wondering if Ice Boy is going to meet his demise. The pictures are brilliant, sprinkled with cute, poignant speech bubbles from the characters. The layout of Ice Boy’s different manifestations is very visually appealing…and silly. This story will provoke a lot of different emotions…amusement, sentimentality, anxiety, confusion, but ultimately, relief.
An Excessive Alphabet by Judi Barrett and illustrated by Ron Barrett was one of the most amusing and belly laughter filled stories I’ve read in awhile. My kids loved it. The illustrations were spot on, the creativity with different ABC objects was ingenious, and there’s nothing we love more than being able to spot sneaky hidden gem details in the pictures. This story surely delivered. An Excessive Alphabet was so much more than an ABC book, but a book that embellishes everything that is extravagant, quirky, and special. Parachutes, unicorns, keyholes, donuts, islands, quarts and piles (not in ABC order, obviously J). As the alphabet progresses into the last ten letters- the objects and ideas become more diverse. Illustrations are beautifully done, and the details do not go unnoticed (i.e.: text on bottom incorporates pictures of the letter) A sure-fire hit that is perfect for all ages. Loved it.
I’ll Hug You More by Lauren Duksta and illustrated by Melissa Wai is a beautiful story about those profound emotions families feel in the midst of the ultra affectionate, ‘young family’ stage of life. The sense of wanting to share how much we need our family and their comfort- physical and emotional is gorgeously illustrated in this story.. Each colorful page depicts different animals sharing everyday events together (soccer, playground, bedtime tucking, bath time splashing and more) and expressing their love for one another in a sweet, simplistic repetitive style. The adorable twist is the “two in one” feature that has the parent sharing how much the love the child, and then FLIP! (The book literally flips over). The child shares how much they want to hug/love the parent. So fun to read with your babies at home.
The Marvelous Thing that came from a Spring by Gilbert Ford
Love love love. True Stories. Probably my favorite ‘genre’ of stories to share all year long. True stories combined with the beauty of illustrations. Children just LOVE to know that the story ‘really happened’ and extra bonus is the inclusion of real photos and the ‘author’s note’ at the end. This story absolutely satisfies the curiosity of “did that really happen?” along with the inevitable appeal of the SLINKY! The illustrations are so unique. Colorful, detailed and reminicent of the brilliant Simms Taback. The added bonus of real photographs placed throughout the story is icing on the cake. So obviously personalized and thoughtfully prepared for the readers. As with many true stories, there is a strong message of never giving up on our dreams and overcoming obstacles. The husband and wife duo that created the slinky will surely be inspiring (and a bit amusing!) …beginning with the unexpected discovery of slinky’s unique abilities to the multi-purpose function and ultimate hall of fame worthy placement in our toy boxes. A fabulous read-aloud for children of all ages. Toy lovers of all ages. So basically all of us.
The beloved girl power team of Karma Wilson and Jane Chapman deliver another beautiful, heartwarming and adorable story of Bear and his woodland friends, Big Bear, Small Mouse. This story has the familiar sing-song rhyming narration Ms. Wilson is so good at, but simplified (just a bit) to include opposite words. Readers will love the vibrant pictures (especially the double spread ones!) and chiming in to read the opposites. A storm quickly pushes the nocturnal neighbors into Bear’s warm lair…Friendship is always at the heart of Bear’s stories and this story surely delivers the beautiful message that we are all special in our way.