Midweek Middle Grade Review: ZINNIA AND THE BEES (on Goodreads)

Zinnia and the BeesZinnia and the Bees by Danielle Davis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After spending the last day of 7th grade in detention for yarn bombing her school mascot, Zinnia walks home to discover that her brother and partner in crime is gone. And he hasn’t left any word on his whereabouts. Zinnia doesn’t think her day can get any worse until a colony of bees turn her unruly head of hair into their new hive.

Davis has perfectly captured Zinnia’s quirky voice and the fraught emotions around friendship that are so common at this age. Zinnia stumbles upon a new friend, and together they search for her brother and try to figure out what to do about the bees. In the process, Zinnia learns to trust herself and step toward instead of away from her friends.

And I LOVE that the “B story” is truly a “bee story” — told with poignancy and humor in the pitch-perfect voice of the hive.

For any middle-schooler who’s ever felt quirky, lonely, misunderstood (who hasn’t?), this is the book for you.


Perfect Picture Book Friday: WHY AM I ME?


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why am i me

After a summer hiatus, I’m happy to be back with this gorgeous gem for Perfect Picture Book Friday (PPBF). Back in the day, I worked with WHY AM I ME? author Paige Britt and I was struck then by her infectious joy, her compassion, and her curiosity. Those elements shine through in WHY AM I ME? The questions she poses in the book are deep and compassionate. And the artwork by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko exquisitely depict the journey – physical, mental, spiritual – our two main characters take in the story.

Title: WHY AM I ME?

Words by: Paige Britt

Pictures by: Sean Qualls & Selina Alko

Scholastic Press, 2017, fiction

For Ages: 3 and UP

Themes/Topics: identity, self/others, curiosity, questions, wonder, empathy, compassion, connection, love, diversity, tolerance

First spread:

Why am I me…

…and not you?

Summary (from publisher):

“Presented as a thoughtful, poetic exchange between two characters — who don’t realize they are thinking and asking the very same questions — this beautiful celebration of our humanity and diversity invites readers of all ages to imagine a world where there is no you or me, only we.

If the first step toward healing the world is to build bridges of empathy and celebrate rather than discriminate, Why Am I Me? helps foster a much-needed sense of connection, compassion, and love.”

Why I Love This Book: For some reason, my son seems to come up with his “big questions” just after I tuck him in, shut off his light, and start to close his door. “What does infinity look like?” he’ll ask. Or “Where was I before I was born?” I love these questions and I’ll come back in, sit on his bed, and we’ll talk for awhile. I admire books that invite kids (and adults) to ask “big questions” and this one asks the reader to consider the very essence of identity. Why Am I Me? encourages us to ponder why we are who we are, and further, “Why are you, you…and not me?” The illustrations are a vivid visual feast and suggest, I think, the beauty of not just “you” and “me” but of where we connect and intersect – where “you” and “me” become “we.”


(For a LONG list of links to picture book reviews, along with resources, please visit Susanna Leonard Hill’s site: http://susannahill.com/for-teachers-and-parents/perfect-picture-books/.)


Perfect Picture Book Fridays: BLUEBERRY GIRL


blueberry girl


Written by: Neil Gaiman

Illustrated by: Charles Vess

Harper, 2009, fiction

For Ages: 2 and UP

Themes/Topics: lullabies, prayers, invocations, girls, creativity, freedom, beauty, joy, nature, parenthood, childhood, aging

First spread:

Ladies of light and ladies of darkness and ladies of never-you mind,

this is a prayer for a blueberry girl.


Summary (from publisher):

“This is a prayer for a blueberry girl . . .


A much-loved baby grows into a young woman: brave, adventurous, and lucky. Exploring, traveling, bathed in sunshine, surrounded by the wonders of the world. What every new parent or parent-to-be dreams of for her child, what every girl dreams of for herself.


Let me go places that we’ve never been, trust and delight in her youth.


Nationally bestselling author Neil Gaiman wrote Blueberry Girl for a friend who was about to become the mother of a little girl. Here, he and beloved illustrator Charles Vess turn this deeply personal wish for a new daughter into a book that celebrates the glory of growing up: a perfect gift for girls embarking on all the journeys of life, for their parents, and for everyone who loves them.


Give her all these and a little bit more, gifts for a blueberry girl.”


Why I Like This Book: My sister gave me this book when my daughter was a baby, and I’ve read this beautiful prayer to Violet – and to myself –  many times. I love the refrain, “This is a prayer for a blueberry girl,” and the emotional appeal to the “ladies” to both keep her from things like “dull days at forty, false friends at fifteen,” but also to “let her tell stories and dance in the rain, somersault, tumble, and run.” The story doesn’t pretend that everything will be rosy throughout this girl’s life, but implores the ladies to help her to find truth, seek adventure, and dream big. It’s a gorgeous exploration of our hopes for our daughters.

I love that Charles Vess changes the skin and hair color of the “blueberry girl” with each new page so that any parent can see their child and any girl can see herself in this book.

Best-selling author Neil Gaiman wrote this book for his friend singer-songwriter Tori Amos, when she was pregnant with her daughter, Tash. For me, that detail makes the story even more beautiful because I love Tori Amos’s music and her songs resonated with me and helped me through a tough time in my twenties.


Resources: Check out A Mighty Girl (http://www.amightygirl.com/), described as “the world’s largest collection of books, toys and movies for smart, confident, and courageous girls,” it’s a great resource for supporting and celebrating girls and women. Their Facebook page is also fantastic: https://www.facebook.com/amightygirl/.


(For a LARGE list of links to picture book reviews, along with resources, please visit Susanna Leonard Hill’s site: http://susannahill.com/for-teachers-and-parents/perfect-picture-books/.)


Perfect Picture Book Friday—LEO: A GHOST STORY



Title: LEO: A Ghost Story

Written by: Mac Barnett

Illustrated by: Christian Robinson

Chronicle Books, 2015, fiction

For Ages: 3 and UP

Themes/Topics: friendship, ghosts, imagination, loneliness, fears

First two spreads:

This is Leo.

Most people cannot see him.


But you can.

Leo is a ghost.


Summary (from publisher): “Leo is a friendly house ghost—but when a family moves into his house, and tries to get rid of him, he leaves and roams the city looking for a friend.”

Why I Like This Book: As a kid, I adored the cartoon Casper the Friendly Ghost. So I was immediately drawn to Leo who, like Casper, is quite personable. But unlike Casper, who has a very cartoon ghost look (marshmallow-y body with no clothes), Christian Robinson has brilliantly drawn Leo with a more human look—a transparent boy in old-timey bow-tie and short pants. Older elementary PB readers might feel a twinge of sadness wondering how and when sweet Leo died, but I suspect most younger PB readers won’t give it a lot of thought.

It seems that Leo has been a ghost for a long time and is used to it. The sadness comes when a family moves into his house. Leo tries to be hospitable, but he only manages to terrify the family. When they try to exorcise him, Leo says goodbye to his home.

Luckily, Leo finds Jane, a girl with a vivid imagination. Jane can see Leo and she quickly befriends and then knights him. Together, they slay a dragon and steal his loot. However, Leo soon learns that Jane believes he is one of her many imaginary friends. He fears what will happen if he tells her the truth. As a reader, I felt extremely protective of Leo. I didn’t want to see him get hurt again! I’ll leave the surprisingly perfect ending for you to discover for yourself.

Ideas for Teachers: Any unit on friendship, imagination/imaginative play, or facing fears would be enlivened by a discussion of this book. Students might be asked to consider the most important qualities of a friend – real or imagined – and create a “friend wanted” poster describing the ideal friend.


(For a tremendous list of links to picture book reviews, along with resources, please visit Susanna Leonard Hill’s site: http://susannahill.com/for-teachers-and-parents/perfect-picture-books/.)


Perfect Picture Book Friday: MY COUSIN MOMO




Written and illustrated by: Zachariah OHora

Dial Books for Young Readers, 2015, fiction

For Ages: 3 and UP

Themes/Topics: individuality, trying new things, doing things differently, acceptance, friendship, cousins, squirrels, flying squirrels

First page:

This is my cousin Momo!

He’s a flying squirrel!

Summary (from publisher): “When Momo the flying squirrel arrives for a much-anticipated visit with his cousins, they think Momo is no fun until they try doing things his way.”

Why I Like This Book: I was immediately drawn to this story because of its quirky cover. With his enormous eyes and seventies-style headband, Momo’s definitely NOT your typical flying squirrel. I had to see more!

His squirrel cousins are cute in a typical cute-squirrel way and they have been eagerly awaiting his visit. It’s immediately clear that they have one very clear expectation of Momo – that he fly.  But Momo is shy and won’t fly on command.

The cousins try to make Momo feel welcome. But they find Momo’s superhero (“MUFFIN MAN”) odd, his Acorn-Pong technique (“CRUNCH CRUNCH”) strange, and his way of playing hide-and-seek (Momo finds an interesting mushroom) “messed up.”

A cousin laments, “We should have invited stinky George instead,” and soon poor Momo is in tears. He packs his bag and sits on the curb.

Luckily, the cousins see the errors of their ways and try things “Momo’s way.” As you can imagine, it turns out that Momo is pretty fun after all.

I love how this story, with both humor and heart-tugs, authentically conveys the value of individuality and trying new things. OHora’s retro illustrations manage to be cool and heartwarming at the same time – a winning combo!

Ideas for Teachers: Teachers might invite students to write about a time they felt like an outsider and/or write about a time when someone else encouraged them to try doing things a different way.

(For a tremendous list of links to picture book reviews, along with resources, please visit Susanna Leonard Hill’s site: http://susannahill.com/for-teachers-and-parents/perfect-picture-books/.)




I’m not the first to write a PPBF post crooning the praises of THE ROOSTER WHO WOULD NOT BE QUIET! But though it’s already been covered quite beautifully by Patricia Nozell (please check out her post from last week here), I LOVE the story so much I had to choose it for my PPBF post this week. This one is destined to be a picture book classic. It’s already one of my all-time favorites.


Written by: Carmen Agra Deedy

Illustrated by: Eugene Yelchin

Scholastic Press, 2017, fiction

For Ages: 4 and UP

Themes/Topics: resistance, protest, dissent, freedom, noise, singing, roosters, villages, laws

First page:

Once there was a village

where the streets

rang with song

from morning

till night.

Summary (from publisher): “The mayor of the noisy village of La Paz institutes new laws forbidding all singing, but a brave little rooster decides he must sing, despite the progressively severe punishments he receives for continuing to crow. The silenced populace, invigorated by the rooster’s bravery, ousts the tyrannical mayor and returns their city to its free and clamorous state.”

Why I Love This Book: What’s not to love? This rooster story is a word-perfect read-aloud. Its message of resistance is oh-so-timely. Its hero is perfectly plucky. It’s a folktale and yet it’s fresh and modern.

From my viewpoint as a writer, I am in awe of this story’s use of repetition and predictability. When our gallito arrives in the mango tree beneath the mayor’s window and sings “kee-kee-ree-KEE,” the mayor notifies him of the no-singing law. When the rooster says “Smell this sweet mango tree! How can I keep from singing?”, the mayor asks the rooster if he will sing if he chops down the tree. The gallito replies, “I may sing a less cheerful song. But I will sing.” The rooster keeps singing even as his freedom, food, and sunlight are taken away. As readers, we know the rooster will keep singing and we can sing right along with him. But as we come to the ending, with the mayor threatening to make the rooster “into a soup,” we are both surprised and not surprised by the rooster’s effect on the townspeople.

With its message of resistance, this story runs the risk of being didactic. But because of its expert telling, it never feels preachy. There’s humor in the text and humor in Yelchin’s pitch-perfect visuals. A spoonful of humor makes the medicine go down!

Ideas for Teachers: Many upper elementary school students (and even some in the lower levels) are currently interested in and engaged in social activism. This book is a fantastic addition to any discussion of social activism and/or freedom of expression.

(For a super list of links to picture book reviews, along with resources, please visit Susanna Leonard Hill’s site: http://susannahill.com/for-teachers-and-parents/perfect-picture-books/.)


Perfect Picture Book Friday: THE LIBRARY

The Library

While THE LIBRARY is over twenty years old, it feels timeless.

Written by: Sarah Stewart

Illustrated by: David Small

Farrar Straus Giroux, 1995, fiction

For Ages: 4 and UP

Themes/Topics: reading, readers, libraries, librarians, bibliophiles, eccentrics, generosity, friendship, rhyming

First spread:

“Elizabeth Brown

Entered the world

Dropping straight down from the sky.


Elizabeth Brown

Entered the world

Skinny, nearsighted, and shy.


Summary (from publisher):

Meet an unforgettable bibliophile.

Elizabeth Brown doesn’t like to play with dolls and she doesn’t like to skate. What she does like to do is read books. Lots of books. The only problem is that her library has gotten so big she can’t even use her front door anymore. What should Elizabeth Brown do? Start her own public library, of course! With charming verse and watercolors Sarah Stewart and David Small celebrate one of America’s oldest and finest institutions.

The Library is a 1995 New York Times Book Review Notable Children’s Book of the Year and Outstanding Book of the Year.


Why I Like This Book: As someone who has stumbled down the street with her nose buried in a book, the cover of The Library spoke to me. Immediately I knew that Elizabeth Brown ate, drank, and breathed books. Book-crazy kids and adults alike will feel an affinity to eccentric bibliophile Elizabeth Brown. And while the book is a work of fiction, it is inspired by and dedicated “to the memory of the real Mary Elizabeth Brown—librarian, reader, friend, 1920-1971.” The warmth of this real connection and friendship shines through in Sarah Stewart’s humorous and sympathetic portrait of Elizabeth Brown.

Following Elizabeth through childhood, school, and adulthood, we see Elizabeth reading her way through life, collecting books along the way. Soon, books begin to pile up everywhere. But when “volumes climbed the parlor walls and blocked the big front door, she had to face the awful fact she could not have one more.” What she does next may’ve been inevitable but it surprised and delighted me all the same!


Ideas for Teachers: This quirky story is now available in audio and video formats as well. Teachers might point out that although this is a work of fiction, it was inspired by a real person. While some details are clearly whimsical, others seem realistic. As a writing exercise, students could think of someone they know who is “larger than life” and/or who inspires them in some way and write a fictional portrait story in which they embellish or exaggerate certain of that person’s “larger than life” traits.


(For a super list of links to picture book reviews, along with resources, please visit Susanna Leonard Hill’s site: http://susannahill.com/for-teachers-and-parents/perfect-picture-books/.)

Perfect Picture Book Friday: A RIVER OF WORDS

A river of words

My Perfect Picture Book pick this week is not a new book; it came out in 2008. But it is new to me and I hope this post will introduce some of you to this beauty, which was named a New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book.

After reading the brilliantly written and illustrated ROGET AND HIS THESAURUS, I thought of Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet as a kidlit “dream team.” I didn’t realize they’d collaborated earlier on A RIVER OF WORDS: The Story of William Carlos Williams. (A Google search tells me they also collaborated on A Splash of Red: The Life and Art of Horace Pippin. If you haven’t checked out their other collaborations, do!)

Title: A RIVER OF WORDS: The Story of William Carlos Williams

Written by: Jen Bryant

Illustrated by: Melissa Sweet

Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2008, Nonfiction

For Ages: 5 and UP

Themes/Topics: William Carlos Williams, poetry, nature, writing process, poetry in the everyday

First spread:

“Like the other boys in Rutherford, New Jersey,

Willie Williams loved to play baseball

and to race his friends up and down the street.

But when the other boys went inside,


Willie stayed outside. Climbing over the fence

in his backyard, he wandered alone

through the woods and fields.”


Summary (from publisher):

This picture book biography of William Carlos Williams traces childhood events that lead him to become a doctor and a poet.


Why I Like This Book: Poetry can seem inaccessible and irrelevant to kids – and to adults. Several of my friends have told me that they don’t “get” poetry and they don’t feel that it has anything to offer them. But as Jen Bryant points out, William Carlos Williams wanted “to write about ordinary things—plums, wheelbarrows, and weeds, fire engines, children, and trees—things I see when I walk down my street or look out my window.” Poetry doesn’t have to be inscrutable. It can be about everyday things and, as Williams discovered, each poem can “find its own special shape on the page.”

The book also points out that “no one paid much money for poetry.” William Carlos Williams needed to earn a living so he became a doctor. He worked full time caring for people in his community but continued to write poems. He jotted down notes on prescription pads, and in the evenings, he collected his notes and “shaped them into poems.” I think it’s important that books model the many ways there are of creating art and being an artist. Being an artist is, in part, a way of viewing the world. William Carlos Williams went through his days seeing the world through poet’s eyes—he saw the beautiful and the transcendent in the everyday and, when he was inspired, he jotted down notes.

Something of an aside: For many years, I believed that “real writers” had to have a consecrated time and space set aside to write. But I’ve belatedly realized through experience that some of my best observations and ideas occur when it’s not “writing time.” When I’m in the shower, watching swim lessons, walking the dog, baking bread, falling asleep at night, ideas and solutions sometimes seem to just “pop” into my head. I’ve become vigilant about keeping a tiny notebook on hand to capture those fleeting inspirations. And, I’m happy to report, my 7-year-old daughter has taken to carrying her own tiny notebook as well. While her notebook has more drawings and fewer notes, I see her using it as an artist’s notebook and I’m proud to have modeled that habit for her!


I also LOVE Melissa Sweet’s multi-layered pencil and watercolor collages which depict some of Williams’ inspirations, especially scenes from nature, along with samples of some of his scribbled his notes. The end papers include some of the Williams poems.

Ideas for Teachers: After reading this book and several of Williams’ poems aloud, teachers might ask students to write poems “in the style of” Williams. Teachers might also read Sharon Creech’s fabulous Love That Dog with students. Love That Dog is written in free verse and follows the diary entries of a boy who initially resists his teacher’s poetry assignments.


(For a giant list of links to picture book reviews, along with resources, please visit Susanna Leonard Hill’s site: http://susannahill.com/for-teachers-and-parents/perfect-picture-books/.)


#50PreciousWords Writing Challenge

It’s time for the 2nd annual #50PreciousWords Writing Challenge! Concocted by the talented and generous Vivian Kirkfield, this writing challenge is…challenging! As the name suggests, the contest involves writing  a story for children using no more than 50 words. After you check out my entry below, you can read all the rules and find all the fab entries here: https://viviankirkfield.com/2017/03/02/50preciouswords-writing-challenge-is-open/



by Gabi Snyder

Plodding past the swimming pool.




“Who’s there?!?”


Alligators? Basking and BELLOWING.

Capering, vaulting, CANNONBALLING.

Lifeguard gator beckons, flings fins my way.

I yank off shoes, pull on fins.

Gators bare pointy teeth.

Will they crunch my bones?


Gators grin.

Deep breath.


Valentiny Writing Contest: MYSTERY VALENTINE


crowIt’s time for the Second Annual Valentiny Writing Contest, hosted by the talented and generous Susanna Leonard Hill. This year’s challenge is to write a Valentine’s story for kids, featuring someone who is confused, in 214 words or less. You can peruse all the contest rules and enter your own story (and read all the other fabulous entries!) here:


My entry for 2017 comes in at exactly 214 words:


Sonia stared out the window. Three days until Valentine’s Day.

She missed Texas.

She missed sunshine and mockingbird songs.

In Portland, the sky poured rain and crows cawed.

Sonia dreaded Valentine’s Day in this wet and lonely place.

“Why don’t you play outside, Noodlebug?” asked Mom.

On the porch, a silvery button shone.

A Valentine’s gift? Who is it from?

“Is this from you, Mom?”

“No, Doodlebug.”

“From you, Dad?”



Sonia stared up at a crow staring back at her.

The next day, rain sprinkled.

On the porch, a copper coin sparkled.

Another Valentine’s gift? Who is it from?

“Is this from you, Mom?”

“No, Poodlebug.”

“From you, Dad?”



The same crow in the same tree stared at Sonia.

“What do you want?” asked Sonia.


“Sunflower seeds?” Sonia tossed a handful.

“Caw.” The crow flew down, pecked up the seeds, and blinked at Sonia.

“More tomorrow.”

The next day, rain showered.

Sonia fed the crow.

On Valentine’s Day, a line of sunlight fell across Sonia’s pillow.

Outside, green grass shimmered.

On the porch, something glimmered – a tiny golden heart.

“A Valentine! Mom, is this from you?”

“No, Froodlebug.”

“Dad, is it from you?”



“Are the gifts…from you?” asked Sonia.

“Caw,” said the crow.

“Happy Valentine’s Day, crow!”