Summer ushers in a time of unstructured play, when children can explore their surroundings and connect to the outside world through their imaginations. This selection of books provide launch points for children to re-examine the familiar and make new discoveries. Jorey Hurley’s Nest and Weeds Find a Way by Cindy Jenson-Elliott, illustrated by Carolyn Fisher, coax children to take a deeper look at the trees and fields they pass daily. Wordless books such as Alison Jay’s Out of the Blue set at the beach, and David Wiesner’s adventure of a cat in an ordinary house invaded by toy-size aliens, Mr. Wuffles, invite children to tell their own stories. Don’t Say a Word, Mamá/ No Digas Nada, Mamá by Joe Hayes, illustrated by Esau Andrade Valencia, and Can’t Scare Me! by author and artist Ashley Bryan make ideal read-alouds that encourage children to jump in and chant the refrain. Battle Bunny (aka Birthday Bunny) by Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett, illustrated by Matt Myers, encourages children to look at books for their hidden possibilities.
Branford, Anna. Violet Mackerel’s Possible Friend. (S&S, 2014). illus. by Elanna Allen.
Gr 1-3-Just right for newly independent readers, this fifth adventure about Violet Mackerel finds her exploring a new home and wishing for a friend. The author gets Violet’s perspective pitch-perfect, exposing her anxieties about fitting in while also showing children they are not alone in their worries about adjusting to unfamiliar surroundings and people. Plentiful grayscale illustrations zero in on the child’s emotions, and the fluid prose makes this an ideal read-aloud for the whole family.
Bryan, Ashley. Can’t Scare Me. (S&S, 2013). illus. by the author.
Gr K-3-Children will chant along with the “willful, thrillful child” at the center of this charming folktale, musically retold by Bryan (Beautiful Blackbird) from a collection of folklore from the Antilles. Grandma warns the boy about a two-headed giant and his three-headed brother. He sings, “Grandma’s stories can’t scare me./ I’m bold! I’m brave!/ And though I may be small,/ No many-headed giant/ Scares me at all.” Fiesta-bright watercolors keep the mood light–until his escape from the three-headed creature.
Dempsey, Kristy. A Dance Like Starlight: One Ballerina’s Dream. (Philomel/Penguin, 2014). illus. by Floyd Cooper.
Gr 1-3-An African American girl’s dream of dancing in a segregated society draws closer after she sees Janet Collins dance at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House in 1951. While her mother stitches costumes at a New York ballet school, the girl emulates what she observes at rehearsals, and the Ballet Master arranges for her to join the lessons. Floyd Cooper (Brown Honey in Broomwheat Tea) beautifully melds fantasy with reality, as the heroine envisions leaping alongside Janet Collins.
Ehlert, Lois. The Scraps Book: Notes from a Colorful Life. (S&S, 2014). illus. by the author.
Gr K-3-Children will find inspiration everywhere in the Caldecott Honor artist’s succinct memoir, as she reveals the sources of her ideas. A collage of a banded bunch of asparagus (from Eating the Alphabet) acts as a picket fence between a photo of Ehlert’s parents (“after hunting for wild asparagus”) and their home. Lois’s father set up a folding table for her in his basement workshop, and her workspace then and now demonstrates the connection between childhood play and adulthood creativity.
Hayes, Joe. Don’t Say a Word, Mamá / No Digas Nada, Mamá. (Cinco Puntos, 2013). illus. by Esau Andrade Valencia.
Gr K-3-Joe Hayes’s (Ghost Fever) bilingual tale of sisterly generosity brims with humor and love. Children will chime in each time one of the siblings secretly takes half her harvest to the other and makes their mother promise, “Don’t Say a Word, Mamá.” (They each share with Mamá, too.) Valencia’s Mexican folk art heightens the comedy when Rosa and Blanca see their bounty in the morning (“Did my tomatoes have babies during the night?” Rosa asks).
Henkes, Kevin. The Year of Billy Miller. (Greenwillow/HarperCollins, 2013). Gr 2-3-As Billy Miller starts second grade, his imagination at first works against him. A concussion he sustained over the summer has him “worried that he [won’t] be smart enough for school this year.” But, as with so many of Henkes’s characters, Billy figures out how to solve his own problems–mostly by using his imagination–and building confidence through each solution. This early chapter book, which received a 2014 Newbery Honor, gets to the heart of a second-grader’s thoughts, hopes, worries and dreams.
Hurley, Jorey. Nest. (S&S, 2014). illus. by the author.
K-Gr 2-Fourteen words and an equal number of glorious illustrations introduce children to a robin family, the four seasons, and the cycle of life. The robin’s red breast, the blue oval of an egg, the yellow triangle of a beak draw point to the main event of each composition. One word per page sums up the action. In spring, a bird carries a twig to create their home (“nest”); their tree bears fruit in summer (“feast”). Readers will see these featured creatures in a whole new way.
Jay, Alison. Out of the Blue. (Barefoot Books, 2014). illus. by the author. K-Gr 2-Jay (1 2 3: A Child’s First Counting Book) wordlessly invites children to closely inspect a beachfront and supply the stories hidden in a lighthouse and on the shore, including a giant octopus in need of rescue. Her signature oil paintings with a crackling varnish move from full double-page aerial views of the ocean to a quartet of time-lapse panels in which a girl and boy make friends. Smaller windowpane images chronicle their efforts to free a beached octopus.
Jenson-Elliott, Cindy. Weeds Find a Way. (S&S, 2014). illus. by Carolyn Fisher.
K-Gr 3-This fact-filled field guide reads like poetry and celebrates the humble weed. “Weed seeds find a way to wait, sitting still in icy earth all winter,” and others bake on the “white-hot sidewalk” in the summer heat. Accompanying the text is Fisher’s inventive visual story line that follows girl and dog through the pages, and tucks in magenta nodding thistle and orange hawkweed aplenty. Young readers may well rethink the idea of weeds as unwanted guests in the garden.
Khan, Rukhsana. King for a Day. (Lee & Low, 2014). illus. by Christiane Krömer.
Gr 1-3-The possibilities of kite-flying will make children’s imaginations soar thanks to Khan’s (Big Red Lollipop) tribute to Basant, which started as a Hindu festival marking the beginning of warm weather. Malik (pictured in a wheelchair, though no mention is made of it in the text) explains how he navigates his kite, as he competes with a bully who launches many kites and even more insults. Krömer’s (Anh’s Anger) sturdy cityscapes juxtaposed with light and airy kites in cobalt skies support the theme of spirits soaring.
Kirby, Stan. Captain Awesome vs. the Spooky, Scary House. (Little Simon, 2013). illus. by George O’Connor.
K-Gr 2-This hybrid graphic novel–early chapter book series stars Eugene McGillicudy (aka Captain Awesome) and his best friend, Charlie Thomas Jones (who doubles as Nacho Cheese Man). In this title, the dynamic duo decides to explore the famously haunted house in their town of Sunnyview—not realizing that someone has overheard their plans. With comics-style illustrations and an accessible text, this goosepimply entry in a consistently strong series makes a surefire hit as a read-aloud or choice for first-time chapter book readers.
Robinson, Fiona. Whale Shines: An Artistic Tale. (Abrams, 2013). K-Gr 3-For beach-going youngsters, Fiona Robinson’s (What Animals Really Like) funny and touching tale will launch a flight of fancy about the creatures of the deep blue sea. Whale spreads the word about an “art show in the deep and briny,” inspiring Hammerhead to compose sculptures from shipwreck debris and Eel to make patterns by wriggling in the sand. Art, it turns out, brings predator and prey together, as Whale and plankton collaborate on the most spectacular work of all.
Santat, Dan. The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend. (Little, Brown, 2014). illus. by the author.
K-Gr 1-Most children invent an imaginary friend, and this tale offers a clever twist to that premise. An unnamed fellow that resembles a snowman (with a gold crown), eagerly waits “to be imagined by a real child.” Santat (Sidekicks) pictures him on an island with other “imaginary” companions, all of whom get chosen. So the hero goes in search of his child. A dozen comics-style panel images depict awkward overtures and an eventual heartwarming connection in this story of first friendship.
Scieszka, Jon, and Mac Barnett. Battle Bunny. (S&S, 2013). illus. by Matthew Myers.
K-Gr 3-Scieszka (Knucklehead) and Barnett (Extra Yarn) take a bland birthday story starring a benign bunny and turn it into a tale of a rabbit on a rampage ready to wage war. Artist Myers similarly wreaks havoc as he transforms plain, vanilla pictures into images of dastardly doings. This creative trio gives kids license to unleash their imaginations, rewriting plots that put them to sleep, and re-illustrating pictures that are as exciting as watching paint dry.
Wiesner, David. Mr. Wuffles! (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013).
K-Gr 3-Wiesner’s (Tuesday) nearly wordless masterpiece entices children into a world populated by aliens small enough to fit into a toy-size spaceship and other tiny creatures taking refuge from Mr. Wuffles, the cat that rules the roost. From inside a ball-shaped gray capsule on three legs, miniature green beings peer out of a horizontal opening and spy the green eyes of Mr. Wuffles. Looking back at them is a somewhat perplexed feline. Wiesner’s ability to toggle between these two viewpoints allows readers to see both sides—and a wider perspective.
Jennifer M. Brown is the children’s editor of Shelf Awareness and the director of the Center for Children’s Literature at Bank Street College in New York City.
This article was featured in our free Curriculum Connections enewsletter.
Subscribe today to have more articles like this delivered to you every month.