We’re back!

You may have noticed that it’s been quite a while since my last post. A little over five months ago, our baby boy came into the world and turned our lives upside down in the best of ways.

Baby boy already loves being read to, especially at bedtime. When he was about a month old, I started reading a few of the best stories on our shelf. It didn’t take long for him to show that he had favorite pages, smiling in anticipation of some of them. Books with great rhythm and rhyme are the ones that really capture his attention.

Baby boy’s favorites:

Pirasaurs! by Josh Funk, Illustrated by Michael Slack

Read my review of Pirasaurs! here.

Steam Train, Dream Train by Sherri Duskey Rinker, Illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld

Read my review of Steam Train, Dream Train here.

I’m looking forward to writing reviews of great new books again and getting back to the conversation about children’s literature and learning.

FTC Required Disclosure: This blog features Amazon Associate links, including linked images. Purchases made through these affiliate links will result in a my receiving a small commission. This applies to all products purchased at Amazon through the link, regardless of whether or not I’ve mentioned the product on this blog.

Untold Stories

Untold Stories
by Laura Koennecke
10924747_10203407812172599_3398855842908337277_nWhen I was eleven, we lost my brother Kurt and almost every material thing in a house fire. It was a terrible time for my family that was softened by the kindness and generosity of the people who came together to help us. It was an overwhelming and foggy time, to say the least, but there are a few memories that stick out.

There was all the food being delivered daily. That was the year we had lasagna for Thanksgiving. There was Christmas at my aunt and uncle’s and the special gifts they picked out for us – including the stuffed bear for Sheryl that needed an x-ray at my uncle’s vet office for some reason.

And there were the socks. A boy from my bus route, a year or two older than me, showed up at my Grandpa’s doorway with a huge department store bag filled with socks. Brand new, never-been-worn socks in all sizes and colors. To this day, the thoughtfulness of this gift stays with me.

A few years later, this same boy’s father ended his own life. I cried for him, and I wanted to somehow return the kindness that he had shown my family. So I baked him some chocolate chip cookies. I put them on a plate, wrapped them in aluminum foil and set them on the table in the front hall. All that was left was for me to knock on his door and hand them to him.

They sat on that table for at least a week. I’m not sure what even happened to them. But I know I didn’t bring them to him. I didn’t know how to face that much pain, and I didn’t know if he wanted anyone to know what had happened.

I don’t know what led up to his father’s decision, but I do know that people didn’t talk about mental health much thirty years ago, at least not in front of kids. Thankfully that is changing, but there is still a dearth of information about it.

So why talk about this on a children’s literature site? Because books are powerful. Because they have the power to help heal, to start a dialogue, to let a child know that he or she is not alone, to provide an escape.

Because teachers and librarians can include books that deal with mental health on their shelves.

If you look for books addressing issues such as depression, suicide and addiction, there are plenty for teens. The School Library Journal has an excellent article by Erin E. Moulton about bibliotherapy and an extensive list of books by subject area. 

But according to the Educational Research Newsletter, “School personnel need to be aware that many learning disabled children appear to experience depression during the elementary years.” 

Obviously, this is important for parents to know too.

So where are the books for younger kids? That’s not a rhetorical question. I’m curious. And I’m not talking about “how to” books; I’m talking about books with nuanced characters that young readers and listeners can relate to.

And, are we as parents, teachers and counselors misreading the signs of mental health issues? According to the Journal of Learning Disabilities, “The presence of depression in school-age children may not be adequately recognized by teachers. Teachers may be misdiagnosing depressed children as having a specific learning problem.” 

Saying that teachers are misdiagnosing is a bit misleading as they aren’t doctors, but they are often the first people to see signs that a child is struggling.

The Educational Research Newsletter also notes that “Researchers do not agree on which is the primary condition; does being learning disabled lead to depression or are learning problems a symptom of depression?”  

There is so much to learn and so much more research that will be done, but ultimately we need to be aware that mental illness can affect anyone, even young children – either as someone suffering from it personally or someone trying to understand what a parent or sibling is experiencing.

So where do we go from here? I guess we keep talking about it, sharing our stories and reading about it. We talk to our children’s doctors. And we stop being afraid to knock on the door and deliver the cookies.

Do you know of a children’s book that addresses mental illness? Let us know in the comments.

About Laura Koennecke
Laura Koennecke has been writing and editing for about 15 years. She first started contributing to Aunt Sheryl’s Book Nook in November of 2015 with her essay titled, Another Christmas Story. One of her biggest joys is reading to her kids.

FTC Required Disclosure: This blog features Amazon Associate links, including linked images. Purchases made through these affiliate links will result in a my receiving a small commission. This applies to all products purchased at Amazon through the link, regardless of whether or not I’ve mentioned the product on this blog.

Review: Twenty Yawns

Twenty Yawns
by Jane Smiley
Illustrated by Lauren Castillo
Published by Two Lions, an imprint of Amazon Publishing (April 1, 2016)
Ages 3-7

My Rating: 4 Stars

Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Jane Smiley will have her first children’s book, Twenty Yawns, released at the beginning of next month. The bedtime tale is illustrated by Lauren Castillo, author and illustrator of Nana in the City, a 2015 Caldecott Honor Book. With its engaging story and warm, inviting illustrations, Twenty Yawns is a worthy addition to the nighttime arsenal of soothing bedtime stories.

We meet Lucy as she’s digging a big hole at the beach. We then travel with her as she spends a fun-filled, sunny day playing with her mom and dad and other kids by the ocean. When the day is done and it’s time for bed, Lucy’s mom starts to read a bedtime story, but after such an exhausting day she falls asleep before the story is finished – leaving Lucy wide awake. The dark, quiet house makes it even harder for Lucy to fall asleep, so she gets up to find her bear, Molasses. As she’s carrying Molasses back to bed, she looks back to see her other stuffed animals looking lonely. She drags them all to bed, and with big yawns from the stuffed animals, the moon and Lucy herself, she finally falls fast asleep.

Castillo employs soft, boldly outlined illustrations to set the tone throughout the story. With an impeccable use of color, she transitions the mood from the bright beach to the sleepy bedroom and from sleepy bedroom to spooky bedroom and back again.

Smiley’s text holds its own – painting a picture of a little girl enjoying an exciting day, then struggling to fall asleep because of the quiet, “mysterious” atmosphere that descends upon a house at night. From the opening line to the very end, you could read the story without the illustrations and still see the scene in your mind’s eye.

The combined strength of the illustrations and storytelling, plus its gentle tone, makes Twenty Yawns an excellent choice for exploring the theme of nighttime fright with a child. And it’s enjoyable to read.

Diversity in children’s books is a hot topic right now, and rightfully so. The We Need Diverse Books™ organization makes the case that all children should be able to find books that allow them to see themselves in the story. The fundamental story in Twenty Yawns could be any child, but the illustrator, writer and publisher have done a great service for our culture at-large by simply making the family in the story bi-racial. Kudos!


Interested in Lauren Castillo’s work? Here are links to some of her other books:

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Take Your Child to the Library Day


Saturday, February 6th is Take Your Child to the Library Day, which encourages families to take their children to the library with a day of celebration and fun activities. Check with your local library to see if they are participating.

What if my library isn’t participating?
You can still make a fun day out of going to the library. Many libraries have regular storytelling times for kids. And once you’re home with your pickings for the day, you can encourage your kids to write or draw their own stories or act out the scenes in their favorite book.

What is the point when all my kid wants to do is play online?
Finding alternatives to screen time is more important than ever these days. Why not share some of your favorite stories and let a librarian help your kids find books that will be of interest to them? Make it a special trip by topping it off with a stop at the ice cream shop or another point of interest that’s near and dear to your little one.

I’m interested, but I just don’t have time to get to the library this month.
Take a look at this Take Your Child to the Library Day program guide for librarians. See if you can modify some of these activities for fun at home. Even setting things up for your kids for play where they act out going to the pretend library reinforces the value of reading and familiarity with this special resource.

Do you have a regular habit of taking your kids to the library? If so, what drives you to make it a part of your lives? If not, what’s holding you back? Let me know in the comments section.

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Review: Louise Loves Art

Louise Loves Art
by Kelly Light
Published by Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers (September 9, 2014)
Ages 4-8

My Rating: 4 Stars

I happened upon this great interview with Kelly Light on KidLit TV the other day. She discusses her love of cartoons and talks about her debut picture book, Louise Loves Art.

Louise is a serious artist working on creating her masterpiece for her big show. Art is not only Louise’s passion, Art is also the name of her little brother. As Louise says, “To be a great artist, you have to notice everything.” But, is she paying attention Art? Let’s just say her focus on finding a place for her masterpiece blinds her to what’s about to happen. One might expect the world to explode when she realizes what he’s done, but this little artist has a heart of gold. She loves Art.

The play on words in the title is a terrific hook. The cat is comical throughout, especially when posing for the masterpiece and when calling our attention to what Art is up to. And, the limited color palette helps focus the story on the characters and action, especially Art’s idolization of his big sister.

Louise Loves Art is a sweet story about forgiveness, siblings and creativity.

If you watch the interview at KidLit TV, Kelly introduces us to a new character in the next book, Louise and Andie: The Art of Friendship (scheduled for release June 14, 2016). Andie is a new neighbor. She’s another artist, but so very different from Louise. I can’t wait to read about their friendship!

FTC Required Disclosure: This blog features Amazon Associate links, including linked images. Purchases made through these affiliate links will result in a my receiving a small commission. This applies to all products purchased at Amazon through the link, regardless of whether or not I’ve mentioned the product on this blog.

Another Christmas Story

Another Christmas Story
by Laura Koennecke
snow globesBright red mittens and peppermint candy. The bracket Pa made Ma for her china, with its hand-carved curlicues and crescent moons. This is Christmas, I like to think.

As we approach the holiday season, the picture of the Christmas I feel I need to create is shaped in large part by books: Little House in the Big Woods, Little Women, and the lesser known Five Little Peppers and How They Grew.

My heart broke a little when I realized my daughter, Anna, didn’t share my love of these kinds of books. She loves a good hero quest, the more broken and conflicted the protagonist, the better. A map at the front of a book is always a good sign, and dragons are a bonus.

It made me wonder why I loved my poor little families. It became clear that their appeal wasn’t in their poverty, but in what they did for each other. In a nutshell, it was their Christmas stories. They fought the scarcity and darkness of winter with warmth and light and community.

The authors, through the families they shared with us, created what I imagine to be hygge, the comradery and coziness cherished in Danish homes and amongst friends. As readers, we can wrap ourselves in the warm embrace of a quilt that was carefully sewn by Laura and Mary at a quilting bee.

When the March girls of Little Women brought their Christmas breakfast to the hungry German immigrant family, they lit a fire and brought warmth and friendship to the home.

Polly and Ben Pepper created a Christmas for their younger siblings by bringing in a tree from outside and decorating it with popcorn and nuts wrapped in bits of bright paper. And they convinced their mother to give them leftover nubs of candles to brighten it. They have memories of better times and want to share those with the little ones.

Sometimes, in adult life, I find moments of soul warmth – the smell of wood burning in fireplaces that evokes images of warm hearths drawing families together, or the way headlights and holiday lights reflect on wet streets in winter. In these moments, decades wash away.

When I was a child, malls were being built everywhere. The closest one to us – in Fayetteville, New York – had a store that’s marquee was a wall of golden-hued lights. At night, Sibley’s glowed like a harvest moon but in a season of snow and short days.

Just before Christmas in those years, Dad would finish up chores in the barn a little early; we’d have a quick dinner, then head out to shop for Mom’s gift. We would climb into the station wagon – as many of us kids who were home and could fit – to go to the mall for Dad’s one and only shopping trip each year. The space between the back seat and the rear-facing third seat was my prime real estate. We’d drive to Fayetteville Mall with its beckoning wall of light.

There was something magical about going out at night in the winter, against the inclination to stay inside, to approach the light and energy of bustling shoppers. There was something magical about going on this adventure with my Dad.

I’m less inclined to go to the mall now. I more look forward to places like Jay Street – a fellowship of independent businesses, coffee shops, antiques and arts, with its brick pedestrian walkway and cobbled paths for skipping. It’s Schenectady’s Diagon Alley – the magical street in Harry Potter’s world – with its quirky store fronts and buildings of a certain age.

Now Harry Potter, this was a series that Anna and I read and loved together. Underneath all the epic battles and mythical creatures, J. K. Rowling created warmth and community and gave Harry a family. The big, loud, crazy Weasley family, with its misshapen hand-knit Christmas sweaters and no money, meant more to Harry than his piles of gold at Gringotts.

And Christmas always comes back to family – the ones we started with or the ones we pulled near to us – and the memories we create together.

I wonder what my 5-year-old will remember – maybe the cobbled street or the brightly lit window displays that reveal themselves as dusk settles or the warmth of hot chocolate chasing away the chill. Alas, it probably won’t be last year’s homemade snow globe that leaked all over the mantel and was quietly thrown away. (Thanks, Pinterest.)

Maybe he’ll remember going with his Dad to pick out my gift, and the way they conspired to sneak it back in the house without me knowing. Or maybe it will be the time that he and Anna, separated in age by 14 years, sat together painting green icing on sugar cookie trees way past his bedtime.

A few years ago, when my parents were downsizing, they had a garage sale. Drawers, closets and shelves were emptied onto tables, jarring memories loose from the deep storage of our minds. My sister Kris and I saw the Ziploc bag full of cookie cutters. Neither of us was going to let those get sold. So many of our memories are caught up in the preparation and in the anticipation that what we are doing will bring happiness to someone we love and in the moments that allow us to step outside the mundane.

It’s as likely as not that presents will end up on a garage sale table someday, but memories of shopping with my Dad and rolling out hundreds of leaping reindeer and lopsided angel cookies with my sisters and Mom, who didn’t even flinch when I tripled the already tripled recipe, will remain. The warm glow of the time we spent together will remain, and the glow is what matters.

Although that doesn’t mean I’m above dropping some heavy hints about the handmade bag in the bookstore on Jay Street.

About Laura Koennecke
Laura Koennecke has been writing and editing for about 15 years, though never under her own name. Her writing has been recognized through a recent Yelp “Review of the Day” and several well liked Facebook status updates. Another Christmas Story is her first attempt at “someday I’m going to write about this.” One of her biggest joys is reading to her kids.

Links to books mentioned in this post:

Little House in the Big Woods

Little Women

Five Little Peppers and How They Grew

Harry Potter Paperback Box Set (Books 1-7)

FTC Required Disclosure: This blog features Amazon Associate links, including linked images. Purchases made through these affiliate links will result in a my receiving a small commission. This applies to all products purchased at Amazon through the link, regardless of whether or not I’ve mentioned the product on this blog.

Review: Waiting

by Kevin Henkes
Published by Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers (September 1, 2015)
Ages 4-8

My Rating: 5 stars

In our “hurry up” culture, waiting is so often associated with negative feelings, like impatience and worry. In the world of Waiting by Kevin Henkes, waiting feels more like reverence for the simpler things in life.

Five toy friends – the owl, the pig, the bear, the puppy and the rabbit – sit upon a child’s windowsill. They wait and watch for the things they love – the moon, the rain, the wind and the snow. And the rabbit simply loves watching out the window. While they wait, they see wondrous things, like rainbows and images in the clouds. The friends are sometimes separated, but they always return to their home where they are happy together. They lose a new friend to tragedy, but are in the end graced with another friend who is waiting for something special. When that something special arrives they are blessed with new friends to enjoy their windowsill home with.

The calming effect of Waiting is palpable. The waiting in the book doesn’t feel anxious. It feels more like waiting for those things in life that are always there for you, like a warm fire in the middle of winter or the warm sunshine on the first day of spring. Everything the toy friends wait for is either cyclical in nature or bound to happen at some point in the future, so the friends appear to have patience and faith that their favorite things will come around again. This is very different from the experience of waiting that most children and many adults have. It’s exactly this difference that makes the story worth reading again and again. It’s an introduction for children and a reminder for grown-ups that waiting doesn’t always have to be fraught with worry, fear and longing. The rabbit exudes the attitude best – watching and letting the world reveal its wonders can be enjoyable itself. You don’t even have to be waiting for something in particular. Simply being in the world in the here and now is its own reward.

It always amazes me how much emotion can be shown with the simple change in expression on the face of a character. Henkes, of course, masters this with the subtle changes of the toy characters whose home is always the same, but with a backdrop that is always changing. This is most poignant in the four pages with the toys observing the rainbow, the lightning, the snow storm and the fireworks. The wonder, fear, awe and enjoyment are portrayed with great skill. The feelings are familiar, and they jump off the page into your heart.

Waiting is thought of as a book about friends, but I see this as a book about family. The ending especially drives this home. These friends are a family enjoying each other’s company as they each experience the world in their own unique way.

Kevin Henkes has offered the world many great works of children’s fiction. What’s your favorite? Let me know in the comments section.

FTC Required Disclosure: This blog features Amazon Associate links, including linked images. Purchases made through these affiliate links will result in a my receiving a small commission. This applies to all products purchased at Amazon through the link, regardless of whether or not I’ve mentioned the product on this blog. All reviews are my own opinion. I am not paid in any other form to write reviews.