Posts in the ‘Children’s Books’ Category

Elephant & Piggie

Friday, January 13th, 2012

elephant-and-piggie-books

Mo Willems’ Elephant & Piggie Reviewed by Susan Fry

One of the toughest things about learning to read – other than those pesky, reversible “ds” and “bs” – is that most books for early readers are boring.  There’s an incredibly frustrating gap between the simple words kids can recognize and the exciting books they can understand when grownups read to them.  True, there’s only so much an author can do with rats, mats, and cats.  But a dull book can make reading a chore for adults and kids alike.

Thank goodness for Mo Willems!  His Elephant & Piggie books are deceptively simple.  But in just a few words, Willems can sketch out caring relationships, wacky pranks, and, in some cases, a postmodernist worldview that will have parents laughing out loud.

Willems’ illustrations are spare to the point of stark.  The backgrounds are an unadorned white.  The two main characters, Elephant and Piggie, are often the only creatures on the page, along with an occasional friend or a prop such as a ball or silly hat.

Because the pages are otherwise empty, the words are the main focus.

Kids might find a few longer words, but the most are short, in simple sentences with few contractions.  And Willems’ clever use of fonts teaches kids how to read with expression.  Multiple exclamation points and question marks clue kids into reading sentences with hysterical glee.  They’ll whisper words in tiny type and emphasize the italicized ones.  Instead of reading with the monotone so common in beginning readers, kids wind up performing these books, which is more fun for everyone involved.

Try them all.  But here are a few of my favorites.

Can I Play Too?  Elephant and Piggie want to play catch.  But when their friend Snake wants to join in, they all face a dilemma:  Snake doesn’t have any arms!  When throwing the ball at Snake means he gets bonked on the head, they make Snake himself into the ball.

I Broke My Trunk!  How did Elephant break his trunk?  His story involves lifting rhinos, hippos, and pianos.  The final answer, and Piggie’s reaction, is truly giggle-worthy.

We Are in a Book!  Elephant and Piggie realize they’re being watched:  by the reader.

“This is so cool!” they exclaim, and then make the reader say “banana” again and again.  But when Elephant gets nervous about the end of the book, Piggie has a solution:  ask the reader to read it again.  The final, brilliant touch?  Readers will only understand the first page after finishing the whole book.

Susan Fry is a writer and mother in the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s written for Stanford Magazine, salon, the San Jose Mercury News, and many other publications.

You can check out the Sweet Peas & Stilettos’ children’s books page for quick access to all of Susan’s wonderful children’s book reviews.



Weight Watchers

Thank You Miss Doover

Sunday, January 8th, 2012

Thank-You-Miss-Doover

Thank You, Miss Doover
by Robin Pulver, illustrated by Stephanie Roth Sisson & reviewed by Susan Fry

The wreckage following a birthday party always stuns me. Boxes torn open. Wrapping paper scattered around the room. My sons galumphing around, gleefully playing with every new toy at once.

If only they were as enthusiastic about thank you notes for the presents. I’m lucky if I can get my kids to scrawl anything – their names, a lopsided pirate, a jam-covered fingerprint – on an envelope.

I’m hoping that Thank You, Miss Doover can help. The book follows Miss Doover’s attempts to teach her class about the proper etiquette of thank you notes. The students’ repeated efforts to get them just right will have your own kids rolling on the floor with laughter.

Jack, for example, is convinced that he can whip off a thank you to his Great-Aunt Gertie on the very first try. “Dear Great-Aunt Gertie, Thank you for the present! Love, Jack.”

I have to admit that my own notes often follow this pattern. But, like Jack, I’m obviously not trying hard enough. There’s a reason Jack’s teacher is named Miss Doover, or Miss Do-over.

Miss Doover suggests ways for the students to improve, such as describing how they feel about a gift or explaining why a present is useful. She also gives the children new vocabulary words, including “implore,” “place of honor,” and “unbelievable.”

With each suggestion, the kids express more and more honestly what they think about their gifts, and sometimes what they think about the givers, as well.

Jack’s second, “improved” attempt? “It’s not my favorite gift, but I have used it a lot.” By his final draft, he’s revealing that his Great-Aunt’s present has been used to housetrain his dog: “Most of the stationery is white, but some turned yellow in its place of honor in our home.”

It’s impossible not to laugh at the other students’ last versions, including “I regret that [the magic kit] did not make my brother disappear,” or “It’s unbelievable that you sent me another dreidel,” or “[the baseball bat] will always remind me of you. That’s because on my favorite TV show, everybody calls the grandma the Old Bat.”

In the end, Jack writes Miss Doover the best thank you note of all: for not giving up on him.

Great-Aunt Gertie may not be so grateful.

Susan Fry is a writer and mother in the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s written for Stanford Magazine, salon, the San Jose Mercury News, and many other publications.

You can check out the Sweet Peas & Stilettos’ children’s books page for quick access to all of Susan’s wonderful children’s book reviews.

Strega Nona’s Gift

Wednesday, December 28th, 2011

Strega Nona’s Gift, by Tomie de Paola
Reviewed by Susan Fry

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Teaching children about family traditions – especially around the holidays – isn’t as easy as it seems. My boys could care less about my great-grandmother’s stollen recipe, for example. They don’t want to spend hours unwrapping each ornament for the Christmas tree. And as for watching Handel’s Messiah? Ha.

That’s why Tomie dePaola’s Strega Nona’s Gift is so wonderful: it manages to make the holiday traditions of a small Italian village interesting to children, by scattering the feasts and foods throughout a slyly clever story.

At first, the book seems simply like a description of holiday events for Strega Nona, the grandmotherly witch familiar to readers of dePaola’s earlier books, and Big Anthony, her not-so-bright servant.

But their relationship is a caring one from the first. Strega Nona diplomatically dodges Big Anthony’s potentially catastrophic offer to help in the kitchen. Instead, she produces a Christmas feast on her own, accompanied by singing shepherds and children dancing under the stars. For New Year’s Eve, she persuades Big Anthony to eat lentils and rice pudding to ensure his prosperity. When he wants to watch the annual bonfire, she warns him to duck out of the way when people throw the things they don’t want out the windows. Oh, and she reminds him that he has to wear red underwear for good luck.

But then Big Anthony breaks a tradition. On January 5th, the Feast of the Three Kings, the villagers cook scrumptious feasts for their animals: according to legend, the animals can talk that night, and no one wants to be called cheap! But Big Anthony eats the goat’s turnips and replaces them with hay. In revenge, the goat eats Anthony’s blanket. After a sleepless night, Anthony has learned his lesson. When he finds the fava bean in the epiphany cake (see how those traditions are slipped in?) and becomes king for a day, he asks Strega Nona for more turnips.

“Let’s have a truce,” he says, handing the dish to the goat.

“And presto. The holiday season was over for another year.”

dePaola’s illustrations are straightforward and folksy, cartoons outlined in black ink and filled in with warm colors that evoke a long-ago Italy. Kids and grownups will leave the book hungry for the food dePaola so lovingly describes. I’m even tempted to add some of Strega Nona’s traditions to my own family’s holiday. Especially the red underwear.

Susan Fry is a writer and mother in the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s written for Stanford Magazine, salon, the San Jose Mercury News, and many other publications.

You can check out the Sweet Peas & Stilettos’ children’s books page for quick access to all of Susan’s wonderful children’s book reviews.

 

Great Holiday Books for Kids

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011

Holiday Light by Susan Fry

For me, the holidays are all about dessert.  Gingerbread houses, peppermint bark, sprinkle cookies . . . there’s no better way to celebrate, especially with children.

But far too many books about the holidays are much too sweet.  The stories about the joys of giving have my boys rolling their eyes by the third page.

Here are a couple of books that can help keep your holidays sugar free, even if your desserts aren’t.

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The Gingerbread Pirates, by Kristin Kladstrup, illustrated by Matt Tavares.  Children need to navigate a world much bigger than they are.  So they’ll appreciate the exploits of tiny Captain Cookie, a gingerbread pirate with a gingerbread cutlass and a peg leg made from a toothpick.  Jim and his mother have made the Captain and his crew for Santa’s snack.  But when Jim falls asleep, the resolute Captain Cookie sets out to save his men from being eaten.  He tap-steps down enormous stair “cliffs” and fights off giant nibbling mice.  When he finally finds his crew, they are imprisoned in a huge glass cookie jar, and a gigantic Santa looms over them.  Undaunted, Captain Cookie bravely raises his fists and orders Santa not to eat his crew.  Instead of munching, Santa rewards Captain Cookie by transforming all the gingerbread pirates into real toys, complete with a full pirate ship.  “The captain had a cutlass and a peg leg, and Jim loved him best of all.”  The expressions on the little pirate captain are adorably realistic, and the upraised frosting decorations look good enough to, well, eat.

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Aliens Love Panta Claus, by Claire Freedman and Ben Cort.  For kids, few things are funnier than underwear, and this latest installment of the Aliens Love Underpants series is by far the best.  Because it’s Christmas, the aliens who usually steal underpants are instead giving them away.  They even go to “Lapland” to help Santa — one of the several sly jokes parents may get while kids don’t.  The aliens add underpants to all the children’s toys, dress the elves in “fancy, frilly knickers,” and replace Santa’s sack with a big, spotted pair of undies.  Funniest of all, “The reindeer wear their underpants lit up all bright and glowing.  With neon pants to light the way, it helps show where they are going.”  But beware:  kids, like the aliens, may want to replace their Christmas stockings with underwear.  The underpants are cute, blocky shapes with bright colors and patterns:  like the book, they’re good for either girls or boys.

Susan Fry is a writer and mother in the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s written for Stanford Magazine, salon, the San Jose Mercury News, and many other publications.

You can check out the Sweet Peas & Stilettos’ children’s books page for quick access to all of Susan’s wonderful children’s book reviews.


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Gingerbread Man Book Reviews

Saturday, December 10th, 2011

The-Gingerbread-Girl

The Gingerbread Man – Book Reviews by Susan Fry

I’ve never understood the popularity of the Gingerbread Man.  In the original fairy tale, an old man and woman make a Gingerbread Man who suddenly pops up and runs away.  The cooks and a variety of animals pursue him. “You can’t catch me,” he taunts them.  “I’m the Gingerbread man!”  In the end, a wily fox eats him.

The story has been retold and retold since 1875.  It’s even been “translated” to other cultures, with runaway tortillas, matzos, and rice cakes.

Why?  The story is yawningly repetitive:  with each additional pursuer, the Gingerbread Man lists all the other animals he’s escaped.  All of them.  And he dies in the end!  Is he being punished for being uppity, or is the story just a harsh lesson about life?

That’s why I was so relieved to find the following books.  They create original and entertaining spinoffs, perhaps because they take the Gingerbread Man and . . . run with him.

Gingerbread Baby, by Jan Brett.  You can recognize Jan Brett’s illustrations at a glance.  The warmly colored scenes have a strong Scandinavian flair, with characters dressed in Nordic clothes from an earlier century, snowy landscapes, and carved wooden furniture.  Brett also uses a unique story-telling technique:  her decorated margins often reveal glimpses of other characters’ adventures.

When Little Matti and his mother make a gingerbread boy, Matti peeks in the oven too early.  Out jumps a gingerbread baby, instead!  This Gingerbread Baby kicks the chase up a notch:  he rides a cat’s back, ties two girls’ braids together, and sails down a river on a chunk of ice.  Meanwhile, Matti stays home and bakes a gingerbread house.  The fleeing baby hides inside, and while everyone else assumes he’s been eaten, Matti knows the truth.

Brett manages to create a gratifying and believable friendship between the thoughtful, caring Matti and the daring Gingerbread Baby.

The Gingerbread Girl, by Lisa Campbell Ernst.  The old man and woman bake the Gingerbread Boy’s “younger, wiser sister.”  This Gingerbread Girl refuses to wind up like her brother.  In the end, she rides the fox like a bucking bronco, leading all her pursuers back home for snacks.  The verses are interesting rather than repetitive, as the girl says something different to everyone chasing her.  The homey gingham-patterned backgrounds help create a portrait of a close farming community.

The Gingerbread Man Loose in the School, by Laura Murray, illustrated by Mike Lowery.  The schoolchildren who bake the Gingerbread Man leave him behind during recess.  When the lonely Gingerbread Man chases them, the gym coach has to unstick him from a volleyball, the nurse needs to repair his broken-off toe, and the art teacher must extricate him from a lunch bag.  Just when the Gingerbread Man has nearly given up hope, he discovers the children have been missing him, too.  The cartoons are comic-book style, with multiple panels per page and word balloons.

Susan Fry is a writer and mother in the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s written for Stanford Magazine, salon, the San Jose Mercury News, and many other publications.

You can check out the Sweet Peas & Stilettos’ children’s books page for quick access to all of Susan’s wonderful children’s book reviews.


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Great Jake Books

Friday, December 2nd, 2011

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‘Jake’ Books by Michael Wright

Reviewed by Susan Fry

Authors of books for young children are faced with a problem:  they need to write both for kids and for the adults who read to the kids.  These are two very different audiences.  My sons, for example, like poop jokes.  Me?  Not so much.  But I do really enjoy politics.  You see the problem.

Luckily, there’s Michael Wright and his series about a little boy named Jake.  Jake and his parents wrestle with some of the most frustrating aspects of childhood in a way that’s sympathetic – and funny – to both sides of the age divide.

Much of the humor comes through the illustrations.  Jake hides under a tablecloth to escape a spoonful of peas.  A dog slides off the roof as the family tries a new place to sleep.  And did I mention the mom’s dandelion-poof of blonde hair, a hairstyle to rival Marge Simpson’s?

Passing references to poop and gas will have kids in stitches.

The members of the oblong cartoon family also have amazingly human expressions.  Jake’s wide-eyed looks convey fears and insecurities; his parents’ half-lidded eyes indicate an exasperation that will be all-too familiar to adult readers.  The parents’ willingness to do anything to make their son happy will be familiar, too.

Jake Stays Awake, by Michael Wright.  To co-sleep or not to co-sleep?  Jake parents would rather not.  But Jake knocks on their door every night and won’t go away.  “We love you, dear Jake, but we can’t even doze.  How can we sleep with your toes up our nose?”  After Jake’s endearingly floppy body stretches over both parents’ faces, they come up with a solution:  “We’ll sleep with you, son, just not in our bed.”  But the hilarious locations they choose for snoozing – the roof, the stairs, the bathtub – are so uncomfortable they drive Jake right back to his own bed.

Jake Starts School, by Michael Wright.  Who cries harder the first day of preschool,  parents or children?  In this book, it’s Jake.  The door to his new classroom looms over him, and when his teacher speaks, Jake screams and flees.  When he wraps himself around his parents’ knees and won’t let go, the parents have to join Jake in class:  the three of them sit uncomfortably in the same seat and precariously ride the same tricycle.  Finally, the teacher makes a breakthrough, and Jake lets go and begins to enjoy school.

Jake Goes Peanuts, by Michael Wright.  How do you get your kids to eat new foods?  Jake manages to evade his parents’ best efforts, hiding in a tree, gagging, and even spitting the food right out (as his parents use plates and pots as shields).  The one thing Jake will eat is peanut butter, so his parents begin adding it to everything.  After a week of “peanut butter pot roast served with peanut butter rice . . . . peanut butter soda chilled with peanut butter ice,” Jake is finally ready to try something different.

Susan Fry is a writer and mother in the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s written for Stanford Magazine, salon, the San Jose Mercury News, and many other publications.

You can check out the Sweet Peas & Stilettos’ children’s books page for quick access to all of Susan’s wonderful children’s book reviews.


Thanksgiving Books for Kids

Sunday, November 20th, 2011

A Turkey-Free Thanksgiving by Susan Fry

My husband and I are vegetarian.  So while we’re planning on a nice lasagna for Thanksgiving Day, everyone else we know is obsessed by turkeys.  Organic or free-range?  Brined or soaked?  And the discussions about whether to flip or not to flip, to tinfoil or not to tinfoil, well, they could go on until New Years.

So I can’t help but be surprised by how many kids’ books let the turkeys get away.  There’s a whole subgenre in which the diners have second thoughts, the turkeys outwit their pursuers, or having a turkey for dinner takes on a whole new, and much happier, meaning.  Perhaps these books are trying to convert meat-loving grandparents and reassure fans of Charlottes’s Web.  Or perhaps they’re just wishful thinking.  But whatever the reason, the books celebrate the fact that the holiday is about something more important than what’s for dinner.

Sometimes It’s Turkey, Sometimes It’s Feathers, by Lorna Balian.  This gentle book follows an old woman and her cat as they discover a turkey egg.  “We’ll hatch it and feed it and let it grow plump.  What a fine Thanksgiving dinner we will have.  Imagine!” Mrs. Gumm exclaims.  Children will be amazed at how much food it takes to help a baby bird grow into a full turkey — Mrs. Gumm will have to forgo strawberries, raspberry jam, and grape jelly.  When the day comes, she sharpens her hatchet and prepares a dinner full of goodies, then seats the turkey at the table next to the cat.  “I have so much to be thankful for,” said Mrs.Gumm.  “A Thanksgiving feast, and two good friends to share it with.  Imagine!”

Turkey Surprise, by Peggy Archer, illustrated by Thor Wickstrom.  Two pilgrim boys set off in the woods to bring back a turkey for Thanksgiving.  But the youngest brother is a little nervous about the plucking, stuffing, and cooking part of the dinner.  “Are you sure we want a turkey?” he asks his brother, as he sees a turkey trying to hide from them in a tree, a lake, and down a gopher hole.  “Is that all anyone has for Thanksgiving dinner?”  When his brother eventually admits that, no, there will also be corn, applesauce, and dessert, they cart a pumpkin home instead of the bird.

Run, Turkey, Run! by Diane Mayr, illustrated by Laura Rader.  It’s the day before Thanksgiving, “but Turkey won’t be giving thanks – not unless he manages to escape.”  Turkey tries to act like a pig, a duck, and a horse, but the farmer isn’t fooled.  Young children will enjoy the repetition and the sounds the farmer makes as he chases the turkey, which finally evades capture by masquerading as a tree.

Susan Fry is a writer and mother in the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s written for Stanford Magazine, salon, the San Jose Mercury News, and many other publications.

You can check out the Sweet Peas & Stilettos’ children’s books page for quick access to all of Susan’s wonderful children’s book reviews.


Pumpkins

Saturday, November 12th, 2011

pumpkins

Pumpkin is The New Turkey by Susan Fry

Thanksgiving used to revolve around the big turkey dinner, a symbol of family, community, and warmth during a cold autumn.  But these days, more adults are vegetarian, or squeamish.  It’s not surprising that the dead bird may have lost its appeal.

Pumpkins are the perfect substitute.  What could be warmer, jollier, or more huggable than the round orange pumpkin?  At least until Santa arrives in December.

So, if you’re looking for a warm fuzzy feeling this fall, gather around these books about pumpkins.

Duck & Goose Find a Pumpkin, by Tad Hills.  This board book for very young children gives a warm example of friendship with beautiful fall colors.  Duck and Goose search everywhere for a pumpkin – in a log, a lake, and even up a tree.  Finally, when they realize they can look in a pumpkin patch, they find the perfect prize together.

Pumpkin Soup, by Helen Cooper.  The friendship of a cat, a squirrel, and a duck is shown through the pumpkin soup they make together.  When they fight, the soup tastes terrible; when they make up, the soup is once again yummy.  The illustrations, including a fantastical, acorn-shaped house, give the story a fairy-tale quality.

The Biggest Pumpkin Ever, by Steven Kroll, illustrated by Jeni Bassett.  Two little mice, unbeknownst to each other, take care of the same pumpkin. When they realize what’s been happening, they burst out laughing instead of fighting and share the now-enormous pumpkin.  The drawings cleverly show the pumpkin bringing together the whole community as well as two new friends.

Too Many Pumpkins, by Linda White, illustrated by Megan Lloyd.  Rebecca Estelle hates pumpkins.  So when she accidentally has a bumper crop, she knows she has to get rid of them.  She makes “pumpkin tarts, pumpkin muffins, pumpkin cakes.  Pumpkin bread, pumpkin pudding, pumpkin cookies . . .” and gives them away to everyone in town.  Once again, pumpkins bring a community together, and Rebecca Estelle even decides to plant more pumpkins for the next year.

Susan Fry is a writer and mother in the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s written for Stanford Magazine, salon, the San Jose Mercury News, and many other publications.

You can check out the Sweet Peas & Stilettos’ children’s books page for quick access to all of Susan’s wonderful children’s book reviews.

This very cool photograph of all of the fabulous pumpkins is from Shiny Cooking. Check out the site for lots of vegetarian recipes and more.

$20 off and free shipping on all holiday card orders with code SNOW20SHIP

Presenting Tallulah

Tuesday, November 8th, 2011

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Presenting . . . Tallulah by Tori Spelling

I had no idea how many celebrity moms had written children’s books until I started to do a little research. From Tori Spelling to Madonna, from Maria Shriver to Geri Halliwell (Ginger Spice) these moms have lent their famous names and creativity to create fun books for kids. Take a peek and see if your favorite celebrity mom is an author too.

Monsters Under the Bed

Saturday, November 5th, 2011

Monsters Under the Bed by Susan Fry

My children have a love-hate relationship with monsters.  At night, they refuse to sleep until I check inside their closet and under their beds – and recheck, and check again – for the slightest shadow of a sharp claw or a scaly tail.  But during the day?  They make a beeline for the most gruesome, most disgusting, most monsterly Halloween decorations on the street.

The following books capture this push-pull relationship perfectly.   Like horror films for grownups, the books allow kids to enjoy their monsters in a safe place, between pages they can close and reopen when they want to.

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Go Away, Big Green Monster! by Ed Emberley.  Emberley’s “Big Green Monster” cleverly appears page by page:  cut-outs reveal two big yellow eyes, then a long, bluish, greenish nose, and so on, until the entire “Big Scary Green Face!” stares out from the middle of the book.  But while the monster might be scary, the book’s words empower kids to banish their fears:  “YOU DON’T SCARE ME!  SO GO AWAY, scraggly purple hair!”  Then, page by page, the monster disappears again, one feature at a time.  The generous use of adjectives can help younger children learn their colors.  The final page acknowledges the joy that even the most timid child can find in being frightened.  After a resounding “AND DON’T COME BACK,” tiny words whisper, “Until I say so!” Usually, this happens seconds later, when kids demand to read the book again.

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I Want My Light On!: A Little Princess Story by Tony Ross.  Ok, ok, this book is actually about a ghost.  But it’s my favorite of the subgenre of monster-under-the-bed books in which the monster proves to be more of a scaredy cat than the child.  Also, the child in I Want my Light on! is a girl, which, for some reason, is unusual in monster stories.  Little Princess is terrified of ghosts.  So everyone in the castle, from the king on down to the maid, assures her that they don’t exist. Little Princess, of course, doesn’t believe them.  And when she hides under the bed, she discovers that a ghost is hiding there, too.  The terrified ghost flees to his own mother, who tells him, “Don’t be silly . . . . there are no such things as little girls!”

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I Need My Monster, by Amanda Noll, illustrated by Howard McWilliam.  When Gabe, the monster under Ethan’s bed, goes fishing for a week, Ethan is forced to audition a series of replacement monsters.  “I needed a monster.  How was I supposed to get to sleep if my monster was gone?” Ethan demands.  But none of them are quite as good as Gabe.  Herbert doesn’t have Gabe’s claws, Ralph actually uses nail polish, and as for the third monster?  Well, she’s a GIRL!  But just when Ethan despairs, slime oozes out from under his bed.  Gabe is back early.  “Those fish scare too easily.  No challenge at all,” Gabe tells Ethan.  Ethan is thrilled.  “Everything was back to normal . . . . I’d be asleep in no time.”  The fully rendered pictures, often spread across two pages, have a cinematic scope that may delight older children but frighten younger ones.

Susan Fry is a writer and mother in the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s written for Stanford Magazine, salon, the San Jose Mercury News, and many other publications.

You can check out the Sweet Peas & Stilettos’ children’s books page for quick access to all of Susan’s wonderful children’s book reviews.