Allison's Book Bag

Archive for the ‘Grades K-2’ Category

The year after I resigned from teaching, I skipped the annual Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival. The call was too strong this year to resist.

Plum Creek Children’s Literacy Festival, now in its 23rd year, is for anyone who loves to read or write children’s books. Saturdays are for adults. Authors sign books at 7:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Sectionals follow the morning signings and precede the afternoon signings. An author luncheon is at noon.

This year I attended sectionals by five authors. I’m featuring picture book authors in this post and will feature authors who write for older readers in a separate post. Notes are transcribed as I heard them, but at times edited or rearranged for a more cohesive read.


Kelly DiPucchio is a New York best-sellers’ list author. She received 600 rejections before she got her first acceptance. I bought two of her books at the festival: Gaston is about a puppy mix-up and its sequel Antoinette is about a puppy in peril. My husband reviewed Zombie in Love here in 2013.

DiPucchio shared a presentation entitled My Life in Dog Years. Dogs have always been part of her life.

If my publishers allow me, I’ll keep writing books about just dogs.

Pokey Years

Even DiPucchio’s first memory of a book is a dog title. The Pokey Little Puppy, a children’s book by Janette Sebring Lowrey, was first published in 1942 as one of the first twelve books in the Simon & Schuster series Little Golden Books.  As of 2001, The Poky Little Puppy is the single all-time best-selling hardcover children’s book in the U.S., having sold nearly 15 million copies.

Fluffy Years

DiPucchio grew up on a small farm in Michigan. She used to jump off the barn roof into covered manure piles and had a pet goat. For fun, she and her friends played in the cemetery. She grew up outdoors with her imagination.

Her mom belonged to a book club where one receives books through the mail. DiPucchio has found most of the titles she remembers from childhood on Ebay and has enjoyed reliving them.

Her first dog was a cock-a-poo named Fluffy. He inspired the writing of Goldfish wants a Pet.

Chip Years

Her next dog was Chip. “He wasn’t the smartest dog,” DiPucchio said. “He used to sleep on the pavement.”

DiPucchio began to read on her own. When her parents stopped reading to her, DiPucchio’s favorite part of the day became when teachers read to the class. She was excited to buy a hardcover of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory from Scholastic and still owns it.

During her childhood, the family’s basement was flooded. Most of her writings lost. A series DiPucchio wrote called Vegetable Hospital (inspired by General Hospital) was salvaged.

In high school, DiPucchio took art classes and began to compare herself to others. DiPucchio said, “I drew realistic drawings but thought I wasn’t good and so I stopped. I’ve always wonder what might have happened if I had continued. Maybe today I’d be an illustrator too.”

Cujo Years

DiPucchio entered a dark time in her life. “I joke that I’m Barb from Stranger Things,” she said. Her dog Fluffy died. Her parent divorced. Her mom moved off the farm into a townhouse. DiPucchio cut herself off from others and began reading adult novels.

Ming Years

At a new high school, DiPucchio took advantage of the opportunity to change her life. She got contact lens, made new friends, and took an English composition class. At graduation time, whenever everyone was throwing out stuff, she held onto a notebook that she didn’t want to discard. “I wasn’t dreaming of being an author,” DiPucchio said, “but the seeds were planted.”

Spot Years

DiPucchio graduated from college with a degree in social worker. Working with foster care families was tough work but she loved it.

As a mom, she read what she considers cheap commercial books to her children. Everything changed when she started checking out books from the library. DiPucchio said, “I discovered True Story of 3 Little Pigs and wanted to become Jon Scieszka.”

Her grandmother sent her dream notes and asked her to turn them into a story. The result was an unpublished story called The Turtle Who Could Dance. DiPucchio began working seriously on her craft. Her books were too long and so she joined a critique group. “One is told to write what you know,” DiPucchio joked, “I knew sleep deprivation best because of my kids and so my first book was Bed Hogs.”

Whimsey Years

DiPucchio’s next dog was Whimsey. Her son had terrible school anxiety and wanted to trade places with Whimsey. Her son grew up to become a professor!

During the years that the family owned Whimsey, DiPucchio wrote several books. McBloom Clean Up Your Classroom, published in 2008, won the Golden Sower. It resulted in her first trip to Nebraska.  Grace for President was inspired by a student who when looking at a wall of presidents asked, “Where are the girls?” DiPucchio researched the field and found no picture book had covered electoral votes. Crafty Choe also won the Golden Sower. It was Inspired by her daughter who loved to do crafts. DiPucchio wrote Zombies in Love! for fun after she realized no one had written about bacon. She pitched the book this way to her agent: This is the best and worst story I’ve never written. I’ve no idea what you’ll think.”

Gaston Years

Whimsey lived for 14 years. After this death, DiPucchio didn’t plan to get another dog. “I couldn’t handle the emotional loss,” she said. Then she got two dogs!

She also wrote the book Gaston, earning her a third Golden Sower. Gaston was inspired by a You Tube video of a French Bull dog. The narrator’s voice for the book came to DiPucchio in a French accent. The Gaston “phenomena” has caught DiPucchio off guard. “People send me their French Bull Dog photos,” said DiPucchio. “A special needs student is obsessed with Gaston and writes his own.”


Zachary Ohora is an award-winning illustrator and author. I bought one of his books at the festival: Niblet and Ralph is about two pet cats that switch places in a story of mistaken identity. He debuted a presentation called Keeping It Weird.

In the back of my mind when I’m creating books I think “keep it weird.” The children’s book industry is a conservative field. It’s fuzzy and cute. I push limits to be weird.

Ohora is the oldest of five siblings. All had Z names.

He attended a school without library; the school did have a bookmobile. Ohara wanted to grow up to operate a bookmobile.

As a child, he wasn’t allowed to have candy. He drew cartoon cartoons for his peers in exchange for candy bars. Ohara decided to illustrate books as an adult.


  • Hunter Thompson: Gonzo Journalism
  • Frank Zappa: Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.
  • Nick Cave (artist who makes sound costumes)
  • Richard Scary


My Cousin Momo is about a flying squirrel that doesn’t want to fly for his cousins. Ohora wanted to write a book about theme: “If you set aside expectations, nice things might happen.” Real flying squirrels inspired the book.

Niblet and Ralph was inspired by an actual incident from his childhood where his family adopted a cat named Ralph that got lost but, in the meantime, an identically marked black, white and gray feline showed up at their house. Ohora realized it was not Ralph, but his parents believed it was the real Ralph until they saw signs posted for the missing cat. The cat lived with them for two years. Their own family cat died, but Niblet and Ralph has a happier end.

No Fits Nilson! is about a friendship between a preschooler and a gorilla. About this picture book, Ohara said, “Kids accept weird stuff make it their own.”

Not So Quiet Library is about two brothers whose Dad would take them out for doughnuts and then to the library, but then one day their outing was interrupted by a monster. According to Ohora, librarians criticize the book for promoting library as “daycare center” and believe that the monster symbolizes a predator or a bad person. All the backgrounds in Not So Quiet Library are from a childhood library. Ohora hired photographers to shoot photos of the library and intended to use the photos as background but marketers wanted more color and so used paintings instead. When Ohora revisited the library after the book’s publication, he realized that his monsters were inspired by painting at library.

Wolfie the Bunny is about an abandoned wolf that gets adopted by bunnies. Ohora wanted the wolf to be scary, the publishers disagreed, and so he put the wolf in a bunny suit. To his surprise, “The wolf looked cute and the book worked.”


Scott Magoon has illustrated several acclaimed picture books including Rescue & Jessica by Boston Marathon bombing survivors Jessica Kensky & Patrick Downes. Rescue & Jessica is based on their real-life experience with Jessica’s service dog Rescue. Magoon shared a presentation entitled You Rescued Me.

I spent the last year wondering how I could impart what this experience means to me.

Magoon has run the Boston Marathon. There are three legal ways to run:

  • Qualify: tough to do
  • Fundraise: partner with the cancer institute
  • Invite: happens to celebrities

The illegal way to run is to “Bandit: jump in and do it.”

In 2013, Magoon ran the Boston Marathon as a bandit. He couldn’t run it as fast as normal due to the heat and the problem gnawed at him. A friend offered to bring him by car to a spot close to the event. As he neared the finish line, he heard an explosion, but didn’t know where it came from and so he continued to run. When screams filled the air, Magoon realized something was horribly wrong.

In the months that followed, Magoon suffered no physical ill effects but emotionally he wasn’t fine. His sleep was disturbed, and he developed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He needed something good to come out of the Boston Marathon tragedy.

Out of the blue, Candlewick Publishing called him. The editor had a manuscript about a couple who had run in the marathon and been injured. A service dog had helped in their recovery, and they wanted to share their story. The editor asked Magoon to illustrate the book.

The book gave me something else to focus on. It took the attention off me and it gave extra confidence as I returned to work. I could educate kids about service dogs.

Magoon talked with his editor about the approach for the book. Together they decided on a balance between cartoonish and serious. When he submitted his art to his editor, Magoon was nervous about how the couple would react. After all, it was their story not his.

His editor called and told him that they loved the sketches, and she invited him to send the sketches directly to the couple. Everyone got together. They picked out 10 favorite songs each and shared them over meals together. They bonded. Magoon was asked to illustrate their Christmas card.

As Magoon worked on Rescue & Jessica, his own experiences filtered into the backgrounds. Memories of the couple were also included such as the scene shows where the couple were engaged. Finally, there are hidden themes such as the inclusion of Canis Major (Sirius), guide dog.

Since completion of Rescue & Jessica, Magoon has ran the Boston Marathon again. He’s also worked with an organization that trains service dogs and raised thousands to support them. Promotion of his book has been huge. A news van showed in his driveway. The story was on the Today show. He appeared on ESPN. His whole life is now this book.

The book is doing its mission. It’s helping my new friends healed. Rescue has helped me heal too.”


Freddy the Frogcaster is back, this time to tell readers about flash floods. In Janice Dean’s newest title, Freddy makes a mistake in his forecast but then later makes up for it by warning residents of an impending flash flood. Freddy the Frogcaster and the Flash Flood is another informative and entertaining picture book in Dean’s weather series.

Freddy has finally officially become a weekend weather reporter. This pleases him to no end, because he loves thinking, talking, and learning about all kinds of weather. He takes great pride in knowing that the town of Lilypad listens to and trusts his broadcast. Imagine then his dismay when Freddy realizes that the rain had moved north of his town, making his forecast incorrect. Even worse, the townspeople are upset, because they canceled evening events in lieu of the storm. Some of them go so far as to nickname Freddy “False Alarm Freddy”. Readers will relate to how terrible Freddy feels, while also learning through him that it’s okay to make mistakes, and that one should still pursue their dreams.

Despite being upset, Freddy returns to his job where he sees that another storm is on the horizon. Freddy once again issues flood watch warnings, and this time his prediction comes to pass. Floodwaters gush over streams and river banks, causing trees to fall and cars to be swept away. Some families have to be rescued.

Unfortunately, perhaps due to word constraints, Dean rushes through this part of the story. Readers will learn little else about flash floods in the main narrative, but instead will need to turn to the back pages for this information. While I found this section fascinating, especially the trivia about flash floods being the number one weather-related killer in the United States and the summaries of noteworthy historical floods, I would have preferred more of this data to be integrated into Freddy’s story.

Nonetheless, Dean has written yet another engaging story, one that makes weather attractive. The illustrations by Russ Cox remain colorful and reflective of the events in the narrative. Freddy the Frogcaster and the Flash Flood is a good first introduction to the series or a welcome addition for avid fans.

Happiness is the theme of Isoscles’ Day by Kevin Meehan and The Caterpillar That Became Enlightened by Darryl Diptee. In the first, a dog named Isoscles finds happiness when rescued from neglect and abuse. In the second, a caterpillar named Sumi finds happiness not in the world around her but within herself.

My favorite part of Isoscles’ Day is the inspiration behind the picture book. Isoscles and his sister lived the first few years of their life not being allowed inside and being isolated from people. When his owners abandoned the dogs, Isoscles was separated from his sister but adopted by the author. For the first time in his life, Isoscles was introduced to a warm house and loving people. My second favorite part are the illustrations. Many are so realistic that they look photographs, while others are so whimsical that they made me laugh. I enjoyed seeing Isoscles happy. My final favorite part is the theme. Isoscles’ Day is about one special day in his new life. We see the food, toys, and friends that Isoscles likes. Adults could easily use this picture book as a model to show young readers how to create a book about a day in the life of their pet.

Unfortunately, Isoscles’ Day disappointed me in a couple of significant ways. The first way is that the plot tells me nothing about the background of Isoscles except in the end pages. Rip out those end pages and all that’s left is a somewhat bizarre story of a dog told by a random parade of animals. Did the author think that the real story was too serious for children to understand? The other way Isoscles’ Day frustrated me is that the author tries so hard to be funny that at times the story is cartoonish. For example, at one point a frog says, “You are too big to walk on this thread. Would you like to wear my thimble instead?” Again, I have to wonder why the author chose to tell a sweet story in such a fantastical way.

There is much I appreciated about The Caterpillar That Became Enlightened. For starters, there is a traditional plot with problems and solutions. Sumi starts out her life by eating leaves like all the other baby caterpillars, but soon finds herself wondering if there’s more to life than just food. She finds a tree and decides to explore it, despite her peers who warn her that the last caterpillar to climb the tree was never seen again. Another aspect of The Caterpillar That Became Enlightened that impressed is how the author simplifies a complex idea and simplifies it for younger readers. Most everyone has at some point in their life found themself dissatisfied with life, despite how rich their life might be with people and possessions. In this picture book, Sumi climbs to the top of the tree and for a while is happy, but then once again finds herself dissatisfied because she’s looking for externals to make her happy.

The Caterpillar That Became Enlightened is about the deeper forms of happiness. For Sumi, peace is found by taking deep breaths and clearing her mind, which allows her to feel interconnected to everyone and everything in the world. I’m also not sure what the point of having Sumi turn into a butterfly is, unless to show that people who are content are transformed. Even if I don’t completely agree with the way Sumi found happiness, the author does share an important message in an entertaining format.

Nature and animals are themes that run through the following three books. The latter two also contain a message about finding oneself in the world.

Sunny Day Point and Match by Rosie Wingert is a colorful and sturdy board book that gives parents a fun activity to do with their toddlers. Together families can talk about objects, sounds, seasons, and more. Items to find on the page are illustrated at the top. Inside the cover are a list of other ideas for how parents can use the book, including matching shapes, finding favorite colors, counting related objects, and making sounds from nature. One parent told me that Sunny Day helped their son learn memory and matching skills by age one!

Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae is a fun story with an inspiring message. Gerald was a tall giraffe whose knees were crooked and whose legs were thin. Unfortunately, while he was good at standing tall and munching shoots off trees, he wasn’t so good at dancing. This was a big problem for the giraffe at the annual dance. The solution is contrived, but readers will find hope in Andreae’s message about self-esteem. In addition, the bold artwork exudes a party vibe and the rhyming text has a lively style that will young readers will enjoy.

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate should be on every animal lover’s list of must-read books. The plot drew me into another world, that of a gorilla who lives in a glass-enclosed display in a mall. Ivan fills his days drawing bananas, watching television, and talking with friends. I loved how Applegate integrated the theme of friendship and of hope. Ivan seems content until a kidnapped baby elephant joins the mall menagerie and his friend Stella becomes sick. Slowly he’s forced to remember his past, and to fight for a better life for himself and his friends. Finally, the short paragraph’s written from Ivan’s perspective are mesmerizing. I quickly found myself loving this easygoing gorilla, who has unique ways of expressing himself.

Reprinted with permission from Lincoln Kids. This article is original in content and not to be reproduced without permission. Copyright 2018.

When looking for books to read, a perfect place to start is with the award-winners. They’re available for all ages and in all genres. Here are three recent ones.

We Are Growing by Laurie Keller bursts with the exuberance one would expect of a winner of the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award. Such exuberance is also perhaps the only way an author could comically write about such a mundane topic as grass. Each blade of grass is growing and proud of being the tallest, the curliest, or the silliest. But one long piece of grass doesn’t know what’s special about him until a lawn mower reduces them to the same size. Through googly-eyed grasses and slapstick moments, Keller gently teaches that we’re all the best at something.

Jean-Michel Basquiat grew up drawing with the support of his mom, who would lie with him to draw on old work papers. From her, Basquiat learned that art is found not just in museums and theaters but also in the games he played and the people he met. Basquiat overcame serious injuries suffered when he was struck by a car at age seven, and the institutionalization of his mom at age 13 to become a famous artist. Steptoe captures Basquiat’s life in his rich writing style and creative illustrations. To give meaning to the book’s artwork, Steptoe collected bits of scrap wood from around Basquiat’s home in New York City, and used them as canvases onto which he painted scenes from his book. He also adeptly integrates Basquiat’s favorite motifs into his illustrations. Radiant Child by Javaka Steptoe is a brilliant Caldecott-winner biography!

Entrenched in fantasy, complex characters, and poignant themes, The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill is impossible to put down. Every year, the people of the Protectorate leave a baby as an offering to the witch that lives in the forest. But nothing is at is seems in this Newbery-winning novel. For example, the witch is kind. She rescues the children and delivers them to welcoming families on the other side of the forest. One year, the witch discovers one of the children possesses magic and decides to raise Luna as her own. But the baby’s mother is searching for her. And the mother meets a man who is determined to free his people from the witch. Eventually, all paths intersect with a message of love.

Reprinted with permission from Lincoln Kids. This article is original in content and not to be reproduced without permission. Copyright 2018.

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