Picture Books can be Sad (without meaning to be)

Not all picture books are bright and happy. Kids have a wide range of emotions and experiences, and there are books for all of them. Or pretty much all of them, in any case. There are picture books about being sad, and there are picture books about things that will make you sad.

This post isn’t about those books. This post is about picture books that I am pretty sure are not meant to make anyone sad. I might be an outlier in finding these books sad. You’ll have to read them yourself and be the judge of the subjective sad level contained in these volumes.


My Dad Used to Be Cool by Keith Negley

Here is a book about a dad who used to have punk hair and play in a band before he became a dad. Not that he’s a dad, his hair is short and he doesn’t have time for the music. The reviews of this book all seem to find this sweet –praising the depiction of the sacrifices parents make—but when I read it, I am reminded of the way our culture seems to require parents (especially moms, but also dads as in this book) to give up their identities and hobbies when they have kids.  Love music? Try Raffi. Counterculture style? Not gonna work. It makes me sad, honestly. I know not everyone conforms. There are some punk parents out there doing their own thing, and there are parents who play music or indulge in other passion projects. But those are the minority. Most people are like the dad in this book. We used to be someone; Now we’re someone’s parent. So I guess it’s relatable content, but it’s sad relatable content, in my opinion.


Days with Dad by Nari Hong

This is a book I really wanted to love. There are so few picture books that show disabilities at all, much less a disabled parent, that I wanted to be able to recommend this one widely since it features a dad who is a wheelchair user with his daughter. Unfortunately, the book is one long string of apologies from the dad for all the things he cannot do. The semi-autobiographical text is meant to be feel-good though, because the little girl replies with a positive bit after every apology. Can’t ice skate? No problem, you can lace up my skates for me.  Over and over again. I see the attempt at optimism, and I raise you with this: Why did we need a picture book version of internalized ableism? Yeah, I get that probably a lot of disabled folks feel like they are a burden or a disappointment to their loved ones on occasion, but that is a sad thing about our culture. That’s not a “cheer up, pal” kind of thing. That’s an actually really sucky thing that many of us, myself included, fight within ourselves because our culture tells us we’re less than we should be. That’s not uplifting to me, folks. It’s sad.


I feel bad that both of these books are dad books. Stay tuned for a future post sharing dad books that don’t make me sad.

What makes a good book for new readers?

I am currently serving on the Cybils Easy Reader/Early Chapter book panel, so I am knee deep in books for emerging readers. Now that I’ve read a few (or twenty) of these types of books in a pretty short time, I’ve found myself looking for hits and misses when it comes to this category. Here are some thoughts:

Pictures tell the story. When you are trying to tell a story with very basic language, let the illustrations do most of the work. This works for David Milgrim. His Adventures of Otto series has lots of action and humor, but the text is easily accessible for new readers. Milgrim’s newest series, Adventures of Zip, is more of the same, and I mean that in a good way.

Silliness is king. When in doubt, go for something funny. Elephant and Piggie are hilarious. Kids love them. They seek them out on their own, without their parents pushing them to “practice reading.” Now that’s a successful easy reader. Now introduce kids to Harold and Hog to capture some of that same energy.

Speech bubbles work. Stories with a lot of dialog (or only dialog) have an immediacy to them that can really draw readers in. Not to mention, the graphic-novel-like format probably helps it feel more like a big kid book. Personally, I liked to turn these kinds of books into reader’s theater style read-alouds with my daughter when she was young. She loved to read the dialog with great drama. I suppose it’s no surprise that she eventually became a theater kid. ;)

Unlikely friends never go out of style. I suppose this is right up there with silliness, since that’s the way these stories seem to go. But who doesn’t love putting opposites together and seeing what happens from there? Case in Point: Bruce and Nibbs in Bruce’s Big Fun Day.

Relatable characters are always nice. I’m thinking of Yasmin and Katie Woo here. They are cute stories that feel like they could really happen to kids. Animal characters abound on the easy reader shelves, but sometimes it’s nice to read something familiar.

If you need me, I’ll be reading and discussing books for new readers with my fellow Cybils panelists. Watch for our shortlists at Cybils.com on New Years Day!

If You Like… Anne of Green Gables (Part 2)

“I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.”

Anne of Green Gables fans may lament that another October is almost behind us, but, if I may say so, it is a really good time to be a fan of Anne’s story–especially if you are interested in passing your love of the series to a younger audience, but anyone who wants to experience the story in a different format will want to know about these options.

Board Books!

A Picture Book!

Early Chapter Books!

A Graphic Novel!

A Cookbook!

I previously wrote about this reimagining of the story, but I am very interested in this new book that imagines Marilla’s story. Speaking of reimagining, there is a Netflix series Anne with An E that doesn’t quite follow the same story, but may appeal to fans who don’t mind some embellishment. I will confess that my 11 year old and I have quite enjoyed it.

Perhaps these will keep us all cozy until next October.

Bake Like a (magical) Pro

Bake Like a Pro by Falynn KochI am far from a pro as far as baking is concerned, but I do believe it is a little bit magical so a graphic novel that follows a magical intern in a kitchen couldn’t go wrong with me.

It turns out baking is both science and magic, at least according to the wizard in this enchanted kitchen. I admit, I made a lot of the mistakes Sage makes in the book myself. The big mistake that I seemed to make again and again over the years is skipping over (or not quite following certain directions) because you don’t think they’re important. When you are faced with a final product that is flat when it is supposed to be fluffy or dry when it’s supposed to be moist, you start to realize that every bit of the directions are important. Fortunately, there are books like this one that tell you why they are important—from why butter should be at different temperatures for different recipes to how the amount or type of flour you use will affect your cookies. Readers don’t have to ruin a whole batch of cookies to learn like I did! Plus, there’s a bit of fun and silliness in the mix. Win-win.

Baking just may be the closest we can get to magic here in the real world, so wanna-be wizards should consider the kitchen and fire up their stand mixers. I know I will.  As the baking wizard says: “Not magical? Baking is a tangible form of magic! It is alchemy! Transforming basic into fantastic! Inedible to delicious!”

Now I’m off to try one of the 8 recipes included in the book. :)

A Different Kind of Fairy Tale

A few years ago an acquaintance shared a childhood favorite book on social media, and it was new to me. That doesn’t happen often, so I was curious about it. The Ordinary Princess by M.M. Kaye was published in 1980. It was around during my childhood, but I somehow didn’t come across it. Perhaps it’s all for the best. I didn’t develop a real appreciation for fairy tales until I was an adult anyway.

In an effort to share my appreciation for fairy tales with my daughter, I chose The Ordinary Princess as a read-aloud a few years ago, and we followed Princess Amy’s adventure eagerly from the moment she was cursed with ordinariness to her friendship with Peregrine and to the happily ever after that we knew was coming. The story was fun and different and all about just being yourself, which I love, of course. Not to mention, I have a thing for the run away princess trope, as I’ve mentioned.

So when I heard that there was a new graphic novel inspired by The Ordinary Princess, I knew I had to get my hands on a copy. My daughter, who must have been 7 or 8 when we read The Ordinary Princess together, is now an eleven-year-old graphic novel enthusiast. Or perhaps “super fan” might be a better word? Either way, turning a story we loved when she was younger into a graphic novel aimed at middle graders is just about perfect for us. The story isn’t the same in this version, but the feeling is. In Extraordinary, Cassie Anderson turned M.M. Kaye’s sweet story about finding your own version of happily ever after into a something kids in 2019 can relate to even more than a story that ends with a couple of kids getting married. Here we have a princess who finally feels like she belongs. I love it.

It’s fun to compare/contrast the two stories, but you definitely don’t need to have read the novel before reading the graphic novel. Happy reading, fairy tale fans!

Just Ask

If there is one thing I want to tell people, it’s this: it’s okay to ask.

I was so happy when Gillette Children’s Hospital published a book with that title a few years ago, and I’ve since shared it at storytime a couple of times with good results. Most recently, I read it in the context of friendship stories. “Sometimes our friends are different from us,” I said before I opened the book, “and it’s okay to talk about what makes us different and the same.”  A simple message for the storytime crowd.

justaskBut for those of you who are looking for something with a bit more content with the same message, I might recommend Just Ask!: Be Different, Be Brave, Be You by Sonia Sotomayor. Yes, that Sonia Sotomayor. It turns out she agrees with me. The things that make us different don’t have to be hushed up or hidden. We can celebrate our differences even as we come together as friends. The book features children with various disabilities and differences talking about themselves while the illustrations by Rafael López (one of my absolute favorite illustrators, I might note) show children planting a community garden together. It’s bright, beautiful, and positive. There is so much to love here.

I want everyone to read books like these with their kids. Let’s talk about who we are—all the parts of out identities. Let’s ask questions of the people in our world to get to know their experiences.

Let’s also ask questions of this book itself. Why doesn’t Just Ask! use the word “disability”? To me, it feels like by using a euphemism like “differently abled” the book is talking around the identities of the people it features, which is seemingly the opposite of the book’s intent. I don’t believe that disabled is a bad word, and I would argue that there’s no reason to avoid using it. It’s complicated, I know. Identity can be complicated, but it’s worth asking the question here.

See this post from The Conscious Kid for their thoughts.

Ultimately, recommended with caution.

Lighthouse Life

“While the idea behind the lighthouse was a practical one there’s just something elusive about them which fascinates many people. Perhaps it’s their link with the past; perhaps, that they served a heroic purpose.”  — The Door County Pulse

When I toured the Split Rock Lighthouse on Minnesota’s north shore a couple of years ago, I found myself pulled by the window into the past—into a very specific sort of life. I tried to imagine myself living in such a remote place with only very few people to call your community, and I’m not sure I could place myself there. As a suburban-raised urban dweller, the lighthouse life might well be another plane of existence. It’s smaller than I can envision while also promising some sort of perspective that we can only seem to get from a very particular, very tall, vantage point.

Since then, I’ve fallen for lighthouse stories again and again. It feels almost cliché, frankly. My romanticized view of the past surely wasn’t what it was actually like. Nonetheless, I cheered when Hello Lighthouse won the Caldecott. There was something about the quiet, nostalgic story that spoke to me. I read Hazel Gaynor’s novelized version of Grace Darling’s life in The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter and found myself comparing fact and fiction as I read. (Yes, I actually read a book written for grown ups. It happens occasionally.) From there, I discovered “The Lighthouse Family” series by Cynthia Rylant. These early chapter books begin in The Storm with a cat named Pandora living a lonely life in a lighthouse until she rescues a dog named Seabold. The two of them along with some orphaned mice they rescue become a family. If it all sounds overly sweet to you consider that the story explores the sort of loneliness that adults, whose lives often leave them disconnected and devoted to their work, feel in a way that will keep young readers’ attention. This is a series that parents will delight in reading aloud to young listeners. Or at least I hope they will.

Perhaps between the picture books and other books that tell the stories of lighthouse life, real and imagined, the magical draw to them will sustain the imaginations of another generation of readers.