Narwhal and Jelly books

Narwhal and Jelly is a new series that focuses on two unusual friends and the fun they have together. Fans of Elephant & Piggie or Bob Shea’s Ballet Cat will enjoy these beginning-level graphic novels.

Graphic novel, fiction
Interest Level: K-3; Reading Level: 2.4
5 out of 5 stars


Narwhal and Jelly are two of the cutest characters in children’s literature. Each time I read Narwhal: unicorn of the sea! I find myself grinning from ear to ear.

Untitled Narwhal certainly doesn’t lack self-confidence. He considers himself to be “really awesome,” and quite frankly, who doesn’t think narwhals are awesome! Narwhal is rather clueless about things other than himself though, so when he meets Jelly, the jellyfish, they have a funny conversation about whether or not each other are real. Jelly has never seen a narwhal before, and Narwhal thinks that Jelly certainly looks like jelly, but not so much like a fish, so he’s not sure jellyfish are real either. In the end, Narwhal suggest they become imaginary friends and they both discover a love for waffles. Ben Clanton’s illustrations are relatively simple, but they still manage to portray emotion and action. The book is formatted almost like a cross between a graphic novel, with some pages containing sequential panel illustrations, and a picture book, with full page scenes. Narwhal and Jelly will be a series of books. Each book contains five different short story chapters. Overall, these are great books for readers who are graduating from Elephant & Piggie picture books and have the stamina for a longer graphic novel story. Untitled
The different stories in each book focus on friendship and fun. Narwhal seems mostly concerned with himself, but we learn that he is also a little clueless about relationships, so it is good that Jelly is around to balance out his harmless airhead personality.

Certain threads run throughout the books in the series. The two characters share a love for waffles and invent stories that feature a kung fu waffle and his strawberry sidekick. Each book also contains a chapter that presents interesting facts about sea creatures. The themes of friendship and inclusion make the Narwhal and Jelly stories truly special.

I highly recommend Narwhal and Jelly — they make readers smile and leave you feeling warm and happy.


Narwhal: unicorn of the sea!
by Ben Clanton
Tundra Books, 2016
ISBN 978-1-101-91871-5

Super Narwhal and Jelly Jolt
by Ben Clanton
Tundra Books, 2017
978-1-101-91829-6

Animal Ark: Celebrating our wild world in poetry and pictures

Animal Ark is a visual treat that combines animal photographs with haiku poetry.

Picture book, nonfiction, poetry
Interest Level: K-3; Reading Level: 4.3
4 out of 5 stars


This is a very interesting picture book collaboration between Joel Sartore, founder of the National Geographic Photo Ark, and Kwame Alexander, the Newbery medal winning poet. While I was first interested in reading this book because of my love for all things Kwame Alexander writes, I must admit that I think the photographs steal the spotlight.
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All of the animals are shown with either a white or black background. This lets the reader really focus on some of the details that can be noticed in the close-up photographs. The other thing the lack of background does is renders each animal at roughly the same size. Frogs, birds, tigers, millipedes all appear the same size. This was intentional on the photographer’s part as he didn’t want any animal to appear larger or more important than the others. It reflects the idea that all creatures are equally important to the world.

In the Note from the Photographer at the back of the book, Sartore states:

By introducing the entire world to thousands of photographs of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and even insects, I hope we can get everyone following, liking, texting, tweeting, and even talking about this wondrous world of ours…I want people around the world to look these animals in the eye, and then fall in love with creatures as dazzling as a pheasant or as odd as an octopus. And once we love something, won’t we do anything to save it?

Alexander has provided the poetry to narrate the story of the different animals. This is not a picture book that is meant to educate about the animals that we see, but is instead meant to make us feel and connect us to them. For most of the book, each animal has a three-line, haiku-style poem that captures the essence of the animal. In the Note from the Writer, Alexander makes a connection between poetry and photographs:

Both have the ability to bypass the skin and enter through the heart, transforming what is often difficult to convey into something universal.

Located roughly in the middle of the book is a longer narrative style poem, surrounded by small photos of more animals. This poem is meant to connect the reader, a human, with the world of the animals and implores us to “take care of our home.”

Animal Ark is a young reader companion book to the larger work, Photo Ark. Children will love to look at the stunning photographs, where they will notice new details about even the most familiar of animals. The short poems that accompany each photograph enhance the mood of the animal image and sound wonderful when read aloud. The longer poem on the full-page gatefold might be over the heads of very young children, but could be used with older children to open conversations about extinct and endangered animals.

A funny, blooper-style outtakes video showing the photographer at work can be found here: https://shop.nationalgeographic.com/product/books/books/animals-and-nature/the-photo-ark. This would be a hit at a read aloud of the story!

More information about the Photo Ark project can be found on the National Geographic website: http://www.nationalgeographic.org/projects/photo-ark/


Animal Ark: Celebrating our wild world in poetry and pictures
Photographs by Joel Sartore; Words by Kwame Alexander
National Geographic, 2017
ISBN 978-1-4263-2767-4

The Hate U Give

The Hate U Give is a book about racial inequality and injustices, but it is also a complex story about love, family, and survival. This is a must-read book for anyone over the age of 14. Bring Kleenex.

Chapter book, realistic fiction
Interest level: Young adult, ages 14 and up
5 out of 5 stars


Angie Thomas is a debut author who has crafted a well-written novel that takes a look at racial issues in America. Thomas has given a voice and a story to the Black Lives Matter movement that has the ability to reach people of different races, no matter the cultural space you occupy.

Starr is the 16-year-old main character of the story. She exists in two different cultures. The location of her home is in the ghetto where she is known as “Big Mav’s daughter who works in the store.” The other part of her life exists in her mostly-white private school, where she tries to fit in by making sure she doesn’t sound “ghetto.” Rarely do her two different worlds intersect.

One night a childhood friend is giving her a ride home from a party. The scene in the car is warm and sweet as these two people who have drifted away reconnect over childhood memories. Khalil is concerned about getting her home and away from the trouble of the party. As the lights of a police car flash through the back window, the entire tone of the scene changes. Starr begins reciting the protocol that her parents drilled into her from the age of 12…what to do if you encounter the police. “Keep your hands visible. Don’t make any sudden moves. Only speak when they speak to you.”

As a parent with two white children, I have never had that talk with my children. Never even occurred to me that anyone had to have that talk with their children until about six years ago when I read about it. That would be the blessing of white privilege: not assuming that if my child is pulled over for a traffic violation that there is even the remote possibility he or she will end up dead.

Khalil and Starr are treated like criminals from the minute the officer stops the car. As a reader, you watch the scene escalate, unable to halt the horror you know is coming, until Khalil is shot dead as he tries to make sure that Starr is doing okay.

This part of Starr’s story we see constantly in the news. In fact, just yesterday, a story emerged from Georgia that shows video of a man with his hands up being punched and, when handcuffed, stomped on by police officers: http://www.cnn.com/2017/04/14/us/georgia-gwinnett-county-officers-fired-video-trnd/index.html. Or you can watch this video of an unarmed black man who was shot while lying down with his hands in the air http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/florida-cop-charged-manslaughter-shooting-autistic-man-s-unarmed-therapist-n745716.

What Thomas has done is take the reader into the lives of Starr and Khalil. To the reader, they are not two unknown people that the police and media can portray as problems that were going to die one way or another. We, the reader, are in the car with them. We know how Khalil is being protective and helping Starr. We know how terrified she is. We watch Khalil as he is shot and realize that Starr can’t save him. And then we sit with her as the blood leaves his body and the officer points the gun at her.

I truly believe that you cannot read this book and come out unchanged. I believe that Black Lives Matter; I did before I read The Hate U Give. My understanding of the world was even further enlightened by reading Angie Thomas’ book.

I never noticed before how the media will dig into the past of the black victims of white violence, even if it is irrelevant to the incident, and broadcast any negative they can find. Take Timothy Caughman, killed on the street in Manhattan by a sword-wielding white supremacist. The killer admitted to killing Caughman for no other reason than he was black. Yet the media, reporting on Caughman’s death, included the information that 15 years ago he had been arrested. You can read more thoughts on this case here: http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/king-no-place-attacks-character-timothy-caughman-article-1.3007995. Caughman’s arrest 15 years ago played no part in his death. So why report it? Would it have been reported if Caughman was white?

Angie Thomas sheds light on so many issues of racial inequality and systemic racism: police brutality, victim blaming, poverty, gangs, code-switching, bias, stereotypes — and she does it all within a story that has characters that are deep and complicated and so very human. Readers will relate to the characters in the story.

The Hate U Give is a story that celebrates family and the strength of communities. It shows that human beings are more than their past mistakes. And The Hate U Give is a celebration that an author of color was able to speak out in her #ownvoice. An authentic voice of someone who is opening up her community to the world with the hope of making this a better place.

In an interview in New York magazine, Thomas was asked why she thinks there has been an increase in the publication of books that deal with racial issues, and this is her response:

These are the issues that teenagers are vocal about. They’re finding their voices. We’d be doing them an injustice if we weren’t giving them the mirror to see themselves in. These kids will be the ones to run this country. In one year, two years, four years, they’re going to be voters. If we start building empathy in them, maybe some of the things we have to fight for now, we won’t have to in the future.

I am hoping that Thomas’ successful novel will inspire more people to write diverse books that share their #ownvoice. I hope that enough young adults read books like The Hate U Give so that we can change the future of the country with empathy.

The Hate U Give is a book about racial inequality and injustices, but it is also a deep story about love, family, and survival. I am so thankful that Angie Thomas wrote this book. May she get all the love at awards time!


The Hate U Give
by Angie Thomas
Balzer + Bray, a imprint of HarperCollins Publishers
ISBN 978-0-06-249853-3

The Princess and the Warrior

Duncan Tonatiuh crafts his own version of the origin story of the two volcanoes that are located just outside of Mexico City.

Picture book, folktale
Interest level: K-5; Reading level: 2.9
Pura Belpre Illustrator Honor, 2017
5 out of 5 stars


Outside of Mexico City there are two majestic volcanoes, Iztaccihautl and Popcatepetl. Duncan Tonatiuh tells the legend of their origin in a well-crafted picture book that pays tribute to the images found in the ancient Mixtec codices. In the Author’s Note in the back of the book, Tonatiuh outlines the research behind the creation of the book, and a bibliography is included.

The story focuses on the love between a beautiful and kind princess named Izta and a brave soldier named Popoca. Many suitors traveled from far away trying to woo Izta with expensive and rare gifts, but she was not interested in them. Even though she was a princess, she preferred to spend her time with people in the field, teaching them poetry.

Popoca comes to see her and promises to love her for who she is and to always stay by her side no matter what. They fall in love, but the king wants Popoca to prove himself worthy to marry his daughter. So Popoca goes off to battle an enemy tribe. As the enemy is about to be defeated, they hatch a plan to defeat Popoca’s spirit and send word to Izta that he has died in battle. Believing this lie, she drinks a potion and falls into a sleep that she cannot be awoken from.

When Popoca returns victorious, he is distraught to find his love could not wake up, so he carries her to the top of a mountain believing that the cool air will revive her. As he laid her on the mountaintop, he knelt beside her and refused to move, even when the snows came and covered them both.
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In time, where once there was a princess with her true love by her side, two volcanoes emerged. One is known as Iztaccihuatl, or sleeping woman. The other one is known as Popocatepetl, or smoky mountain. Iztaccihuatl continues to sleep. But Popocateptl spews ashes and smoke from time to time, as if attempting to wake his sleeping princess.

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Throughout the story, Tonatiuh has included some foreign words in the Nahuatl language, since that is the language that Popoca and Izta would have spoken. A glossary is in the back to provide translations.

This is a well-done origin story that should be included with any lesson on stories in the oral tradition. Tonatiuh’s attention to detail with regard to the illustrations and language make this book stand above others.


The Princess and the Warrior
by Duncan Tonatiuh
Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2016
ISBN 978-1-4197-2130-4

When Penny Met POTUS

A young girl accompanies her mom to work and hopes to meet her mysterious boss, the POTUS. She tries to imagine what POTUS must be like.

Picture book, fiction
Interest Level: K-3; Reading Level: 3.6
3 out of 5 stars


In this story we meet Penny, who is going to work with her mom at a “big white house. Her boss’s name is POTUS. Isn’t that a funny name?” Penny doesn’t know who POTUS is, so she begins to imagine who might have this weird name.
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Her mom gets busy, so Penny sets off on her own and asks each staff person she finds if they know where POTUS is. Through these interactions, readers learn a little about the different jobs around the White House.

Finally Penny meets up with POTUS, and is a little disappointed to realize that POTUS is …. human. The twist to the story that older readers will get, is that POTUS is a woman. For the older reader, it seems that the big unveiling of what makes this POTUS unique should be the person’s gender, but Penny acts like POTUS being female is to be expected.

For young readers, they will learn a common acronym for the President of the United States, as well as a little information about the different people who maintain the physical White House. Some day the fact that POTUS is female will be irrelevant, but until then, the ending is a surprising twist.


by Rachel Ruiz; illustrated by Melissa Manwill
Capstone Young Readers, 2016
ISBN 978-1-62370-758-3

The Bear Who Wasn’t There

This is a laugh out loud story that is missing its main character! Will bear every show up?

Picture book, fiction, humorous
Interest Level: K-3; Reading Level: 1.5
5 out of 5 stars


Spoiler alert! The duck on the cover tips off readers to the whole problem in this story — the bear, who is the main character, never shows up. So how can this book be successful? LeUyen Pham has crafted an adorable menagerie of characters that help the reader look for the elusive bear.

The story begins on the cover with the title, The Bear Who Wasn’t There, and a duck announcing that the bear never shows up. Then the story is carried through on every page that follows, including the endpapers inside the covers, and the title page.

The reader and characters in the story break through the fourth wall and work together (most of the time) to try to find the bear. A jealous duck has recently written his own book, The Duck Who Showed Up and works very hard to convince the reader that his story is the one to read…who needs a bear anyway?!

The story abounds in word play and humorous situations. As the reader turns the page and enters a room with a sign guaranteeing the bear is inside, we discover instead that a prankster mouse is playing a trick on a giraffe on the toilet, who happens to be reading the duck’s book.
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The author/illustrator herself even makes an appearance and tries to find bear. The story follows the bear’s footprints all the way to the back endpapers.

This book is delightful and would make an excellent and fun read-aloud.


The Bear Who Wasn’t There
by LeUyen Pham
Roaring Brook Press, 2016
ISBN 978-1-59643-970-2

Dear Dragon

This clever story features two pen-pals getting to know each other through the exchange of rhyming letters. When they meet face-to-face, will their expectations match reality?

Picture book, fiction
Interest level: K-3; Reading level: 2.6
4 out of 5 stars


As an assignment for class, students in two different schools are assigned pen pals. They are to write letters that rhyme to their assigned pal. Readers get to instantly see that the two schools are VERY different…one school is for humans and the other school is for dragons!

The illustrations, by Rodolfo Montalvo, are key to the humor and purpose of the story. Each letter from one of the pen pals is featured in a two-page spread. Readers get to share the letters between Blaise Dragomir and George Slair. From the names alone, you can guess which one is the human, and which is the dragon.

Each letter is accompanied by two different illustrations. The first illustration shows the recipient reading the letter and envisioning his own version of events, while the author of the letter is seen on the accompanying page depicting the event happening in their own life. The difference between what the letter writer and reader sees is very humorous!

In one exchange, Blaise Dragomir writes, “My favorite sport is skydiving. I just near Falcor Peak.” You can see from the illustration that Blaise and George have very different ideas of what it means to skydive!
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It is fun to watch a friendship develop through the progression of letters. The letters become more personal and less formal.

The writing project ends with a pen pal picnic where the friends will get to meet each other. What makes this moment special is when they finally realize that their pen pal is not the same species that they are, and then when you turn the page, they are high-fiveing their friendship and differences.

This story has a good message about the similarities and differences between people of different cultures (or species) and celebrates the ability to bridge those differences and form friendships. In a global 21st-century world, this is a good message to spread to young readers.

Montalvo’s illustrations are such fun and are vital to the telling of the story. Teachers could use this book as a way to engage students at the beginning of a pen pal writing project.


Dear Dragon
written by Josh Funk; illustrated by Rodolfo Montalvo
Viking, 2016
ISBN 9780451472304