reading log: non-fiction

Non-fiction picture books

The Stuff of Stars, written by Marion Dane Bauer and illustrated by Ekua Holmes

Bauer, Marion Dane and Ekua Holmes, illustr. The Stuff of Stars. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2018.

The Stuff of Stars is a lyrical look at the Big Bang, paired with abstract marbled illustrations. Written as one long poem, the text explains in plain language the scientific beginnings of the universe, paralleled with the story of the arrival of a new born child. From the Big Bang, to the formation of stars, to the creation of Earth, the text accessibly balances complex vocabulary (“Perfect for turning that starry stuff into mitochondria”) ideas, with simpler imagery that children will love, (“into daisies and galloping horses”). That imagery meanwhile, is subtly reflected in the illustrations, where horses, butterflies, songbirds, and the birth of planets can be found collaged against the marble. From nothing to everything, this text is exploding with meaning and the idea that kids are made of matter and that they matter. It sis a wholly beautiful picture book that plays with color and lyricism to convey a universe of wonder and might.

This rich text can be used to explore STEM topics with students, such as the origins of life and the universe. Students could write their own origin stories, or create artwork in the vein of Holmes, who won a Coretta Scott King Award for these very illustrations. In the past, I have had students just listen to the words and draw what comes to their imagination before reading again with the illustrations to accompany it. The text can also be used as a basis to ask “wonder questions” and then, using imaginion or research, answer the question in the form of a poem, echoing the style of the text.

We Are Water Protectors, written by Carole Lindstrom and illustrated by Michaela Goade

Lindstrom, Carole and Michaela Goade, illustr. We Are Water Protectors. New York: Roaring Book Press, 2020.

We are Water Protectors is a history, an ode, and a call to action from two indigenous creators. Inspired by the Standing Rock protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline, Lindstrom’s words pays tribute to mother Earth and the water that gives all on Earth life. Goade’s illustrations, which won the Caledcott Medal in 2020, are the perfect backdrop to a lyrical, repetitive text that takes readers through the story of how the Earth takes all life from water, and how the dreaded Black Snake (a metaphor across time for oil pipelines) threatens to corrupt all that is pure and alive in the environment. Young readers will love how the metaphor is clearly revealed thorugh the illustrations. Through a little girl chronicling how her people and village have worked to steward the land and how they are fighting to protect the Earth’s sacred resources, especially water, this story portrays a strong and important message, especially for kids today growing up at the crossroads of environmental justice.

The text is a great starting point to talk about activism and environmentalism. Students can learn about current social justice movements that intersect with protecting and conserving the environment. Students might think of natural wonders and places in nature nearby that are dear to them that they would like to protect (as detailed in the publisher’s activity kit). They can learn about

reading log: fantasy

The Casket of Time by Andri Snær Magnason. Translated by Björg Árnadóttir and Andrew Cauthery

Magnason, Andri Snær and Björg Árnadóttir, trans., and Andrew Cauthery, trans. The Casket of Time. New York: Yonder, Restless Books for Young Readers, 2019.


The Casket of Time, translated for young audiences from the Icelandic, is a sweeping, ethereal fantasy. The world around them is falling apart and humans are taking refuge in the latest technological escape, TimeBox, a weird and cringeworthy device that let’s humans hibernate until the world has sorted out its own problems. A young kid, whose family has partaken, finds that her TimeBox has opened too early, and she wakes up to a city where nature has run it’s course and reclaimed most spaces. The girl, Sigrun, finds a group of kids who have similarly awoken (escaped) and a wise storyteller/research, Grace. Grace weaves a tale within a tale and readers, along with the listening kids, are transported to an ancient kingdom of Pangea, where an eager and greedy king devices a similar system to protect his daughter Obsidiana from pain, sadness, and even age by trapping her in a magical silk casket that keeps out even time itself. Within the book, the line between Sigrun’s world and Pangea, and thus reality and fantasy becomes blurred. Much of the story takes place in Obsidiana’s world, where she has become the Eternal Princess, experiencing only one day a year out – sometimes not even that – with the King orchestrating an elaborate presentation at each opening so that she barely realizes what is happening. Pangea evokes a medieval, feudal system that has started to crumble as the people go hungry and the power of the King’s empire wanes for forgetting to respect the natural world. Obsidiana, with the help of a newfound beloved, and Sigrun – presumably centuries later – realize that meddling with time forsakes dire consequences and race to reverse the effects.

With magic, intrigue, and adventure, The Casket of Time reads like a cute new fairy tale, a sort of high fantasy (Pangea) within a low fantasy world (Sigrun’s). Left without the dominance of machinery and steampunk, the few basic elements of science fiction (time travel) are more ephemeral and so the novel feels much more fantascial than sci-fi. Sigrun’s world is presumably the same as ours, bordering on a post-apocalyptic, dystopia, yet different enough that readers can feel a sense of escape from this. Set without explicitly stating in a society like the author’s native Iceland we are to assume that none of the characters are coded as POC. The trope of purity associated with the femme protagonist’s “skin as white as snow” is growing old. There are elements of tragedy following adventure, just enough romance to further remind of classic fairy tales (Snow White / Sleeping Beauty), and most of all a deep warning to kids growing up in the Anthropocene. As in the fokltales, we are reminded to respect the unknown forces of nature that shape the world more than any human-invented economy.

Check out the book’s page from the publisher here.

Reading Log no. 1: picture books

Swashby & The Sea by Beth Ferry & Juana Martinez-Neal (picture book)

Ferry, Beth. and Juana Martinez-Neal, illustrator. Swashby & The Sea. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 2020.

Click here for Illustrator’s site.

Swashby is a seemingly grumpy recluse who has retired to the sea for peace and serenity, and especially to keep to his salty self. The sea, who features heavily as a character, gives him everything he needs, when he needs and life is as calm as can be on the shore. Until … one day, granny and the girl show up next door… The pacing and predictability of the text, which follows a clear arc, is impeccable, with page turns coming at exactly the right moments, to find what has been written in the sand and how the sea has, repeatedly, “fiddled” with it, “just a little bit.

Children could imagine and draw what messages they would like to write in the sand, or could imagine their perfect day at the beach. With the theme of unintentional and intergenerational friendship, kids could also discuss the qualities of a good friend. The text, for added humor, includes some pirate-speak. The illustrations evoke the calm of a sea shore, with muted tan beaches and blue hues, with just a splash of yellow here and there. In addition to the sea who is personified as a character, children might delight in finding the seagull on almost every page watching carefully over Swashby and his new friends.

How to Find a Fox by Nilah Magruder (picture book)

Magruder, Nilah. How to Find a Fox. New York: Feiwel and Friends, 2016.

Click here to go to the author’s website.

A determined little girl, with camera in hand, is off to find a fox! Adventure ensues! Almost! The book takes us step by step through how to find a fox but readers and the girl will find that foxes are sneaky, and always just out of sight. Kids will delight in finding the fox on every page, hiding in plain sight from the girl. What to do when the fox can’t be found? Kick rocks? Take a nap? Go home? The illustrations are rendered digitally and feature a large part of the narrative arc. At one point, when the girl climbs the tree for a new perspective (vocab!), the book must be turned vertically to see the illustration from her vantage point. At some points, the text is a bit sparse yet the plot remains predictable and engaging. Perhaps it would have benefited from even more repetitious language. While the pacing on each page doesn’t always flow naturally, the page turns usually allow for that dramatic effect and will have kids eager to find out if she finds the fox. It’s wonderful that How to Find a Fox provides representation of a girl of color exploring the wild.

Children can guess the ending, practice making predictions, and talk about the theme of the story (not to give up! be patient! Sometimes what you’re looking for finds you instead!?). Students can imagine they are looking for their own creature (be it a real live or mythological animal) and illustrate a short book of their own about how to find them.

Interior Image
How to Find a Fox, Nilah Magruder

Saturday by Oge Mora (Picture Book)

Mora, Oge. Saturday. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2019.

Click here for the author’s website.

Saturday is the second book from Providence resident Oge Mora. Previously recognized as a Caldecott Honor for Thank You, Omu. This delightful picture book won the 2020 Boston Globe—Horn Book Picture Book Award. Saturday is supposed to be special and splendid for characters Ava and her mom. While the book surely is splendid, this particular Saturday, mom’s only day off work, keeps getting ruined. With visual emphasis on the word Saturday, offering a golden opportunity for children to time in, the book is a collaged sequence of mishaps at every regular Saturday outing. At every turn, of events and the page, after every ZOOM! we are reminded to pause, breathe deeply, and keep going because “today will be special. Today will be splendid. Today is Saturday!” The refrain has been stuck in my head since I read it with classes a few weeks ago, owing to the fact that this lovely little story will most certainly become a classic.

The illustrations are vibrant with contrasting compositions made from collage shapes. At each step in the sequence, there is a new vista, a zoom out of one of the places they’ll go on Saturdays, and then, as they encounter misfortunes, an up close highlight of the two characters focusing on how to get through. Children delight in finding text in the images from the collaged pieces. The plot becomes predictable and the repetition allows for deep engagement and enjoyment. In the end, we find a clear wrap up of the theme conveyed throughout, the best part of Saturdays is spending them together. The text can be used with children to model coping strategies when things don’t go as planned, as well as to make connections to self by writing or drawing about a favorite day spent with loved ones. When reading to a group I would try to be sure that there are no iffy mother-child situations that could cause the book to be a trigger.

Use Your Imagination by Nicola O’Byrne (picture book)

O’Byrne, Nicola. Use Your Imagination. Somerville, MA: Nosy Crow, 2014.

Click here to visit the author’s bio via Candlewick.

Rabbit and wolf take readers through a silly retelling of a classic fairy tale or two. Rabbit is bored, alone on a blank white page but for a wolf’s giant shadow (foreshadowing!) overcasting him and looking like it’s going to gobble him up. Wolf shows up claiming to be a librarian ready to take Rabbit on an adventure through a story. Together they plot out the elements of the story in order to imagine a delicious fairy tale. Unfortunately for the wolf, the rabbit realizes he can use his imagination to escape becoming dinner.

The text is bold on the page, playing with fonts in order to call attention to different elements as well as be large enough for listeners in a group to be able to read when reading in chorus. Textual patterns evoke Little Red Riding while listeners can chime in to answer the wolf’s questions and use their own imaginations to create story possibilities and predict the ending – which changes with a simple twist. The illustrations, which feature the characters on a stark white background for the majority of the story, allow young children to pinpoint the story elements – characters, setting, etc. – while also keeping them engaged through the animal’s facial expressions and the occasional parrot appearance. When the plot twist occurs, the abrupt change is illustrated by leaving behind the white background for a bright red rocket ship taking off against a blue gradated background that opens up to a full four block page.

The story can be used to help teach young learners the basic elements of the story (character, setting, problem, resolution) as well as to work as a springboard for them to use their own imaginations and create a new story, perhaps also featuring Rabbit and Wolf… and parrot!