MSGL Book Reviews

Looking for a good book? Read what MSGL staff, parents, and students have to say about their favorites.rss

 Steam Train, Dream Train by Sherri Duskey Rinker and Tom Lichtenheld

Do you know someone who loves trains? Then by all means, go buy or check out Steam Train, Dream Train. It was created by Sherri Duskey Rinker and Tom Lichtenheld, the same team that brought us Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site. Lichtenheld's wax pastel illustrations are drawn with - I don't know how else to say it - the lights out? This is a tale told with the lights off. It's a bedtime story in the most literal sense.  

The story starts with the steam train pulling into the Night Falls Station where a great bunch of animals load it with cargo. Unlike their previous book, the vehicles in this story play it straight. Only the animals have faces. There are comforting similarities to my childhood copy of The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper in how the train is being loaded with stuff that a child finds important like toys and ice cream and sand. But this train does not have engine difficulties and as soon as it is loaded up the animals find a place to sleep as they go "chuffing" off into the night. 

Next to the dreamy illustrations, the best part is that Rinker introduces the names of the different kinds of rail cars with each turn of the page. I didn't know the difference between a well car and a gondola before reading this book, but now I do. And I was inspired to look up the rest of the cars, as well. Wikipedia has an exhaustive list, of course, of the different types of railroad cars with links to photos and descriptions. Chateau Meddybemps' What's in Those Train Cars? is just part of an awesome site with some very Montessori-type activities about trains. Even if you don't check out this book, be sure to check out that web site.


Your child might take in Lichtenheld's illustrations and anticipate the ending but I - always willing to believe - did not. It is a pleasant surprise that takes the reader seriously. And if you are comforted by a book that has 'educational' value for your child, Rinker offers new words like "chromy", "stow", and "convoy" to build your preschooler's vocabulary. 

This book was published in April, 2013 by Chronicle Books and is 40 pages. It is currently available in hardcover at Barnes & Noble in Lafayette and online at 

Happy Reading!


 Written by Annaka Harris, Illustrated by John Rowe

"We live with some big mysteries. When we come upon one, we're given a little gift. Every mystery is something for all of us to wonder about together. What do you wonder about?"

Author Annaka Harris noticed that her 2-year-old daughter was starting to ignore questions she could not answer. Eventually, she started giving false answers. Harris realized that she had failed to teach her daughter that it's okay to not know an answer. Unable to find a picture book that dealt with the experience of not knowing, Harris wrote I Wonder with illustrator John Rowe.

I Wonder follows Eva and her mother on a walk through the woods. The little girl is looking up at the moon and notices that it seems to follow them on their walk. The mother asks Eva if she knows why that happens? When Eva doesn't have an answer, her mother explains that it's okay to say, "I don't know." Eva's mother then shares what she understands about the moon and gravity, but admits there is a lot she does not know about it. 

Other questions are raised about life cycles and the number of grains of sand in the world. The pair talk about what they know about these things but also why it's important to wonder about things they don't know.

This unusual book is a pleasure to read. It offers a refreshing change from "fast books" that cram facts onto pages in order to offer young readers an educational experience. I Wonder speaks to a child's emotional intelligence and her ability to learn about herself while pondering the mysteries of the universe. This story is a good jumping off point for discussions between children and caregivers because it asks, "What do you wonder about?"

John Rowe's illustrations also inspire a sense of wonder as he creates the planets, sand, and butterflies about which Eva is so curious.

Harris is an editor of science books and also writes with her husband, Sam Harris. Dr. Harris is an author, philosopher, and neuroscientist. Both are co-founders of the non-profit group Project Reason.

I Wonder was published in October, 2013, by Four Elephants Press after being funded by Harris's Kickstarter campaign. It is 40 pages and is currently available in hardcover and kindle edition only at

Happy Reading!


If you like to look at picture books even when your child is fast asleep, this book is for you! It has captivating detail and, because it has no words, it truly lets the reader tell the story.

Journey is the wordless picture story of a lonely city girl whose parents and sister are much too busy - two-thirds of them with electronic devices - to spend time with her one afternoon. She uses a mysterious red marker to draw herself into an adventure. If that sounds like the concept behind Harold and the Purple Crayon - it is. But that's where the similarities between the two stories end. Whereas Harold drew his way out of his house and then drew everything else around him, this story's heroine uses her red marker only to get from place to imaginary place. Those places are brought to luminous life by author/illustrator Aaron Becker's watercolor and pen and ink illustrations. 

The girl's simply-drawn red rowboat carries her through a forest and into a series of Escheresque canals in an ancient city. She narrowly averts disaster by drawing then hitching a ride in a hot air balloon that lifts her to another series of adventures. The girl's kindness and bravery literally open new imaginary doors for her that ultimately lead her to a new friendship - and what do you know? Her new friend lives just down the street from her house in the city. The two of them combine their imaginative powers to create a new adventure for themselves.

A child can look at this book for a long, long time. Children who like to figure out how things work will like it, especially. It's a book for thinkers. It's the kind of book that I would like to open up with a 4-year-old and say, "Oh my! What's happening here?" I love those kinds of stories.

Journey was published by Candlewick Press in August, 2013. It is 40 pages and available in hardcover. You can purchase it locally at Barnes & Noble and Von's Books. You can also buy it online at

For a real treat, check out Aaron Becker's sketchbook with illustrations from this story at Design Sponge.

Children's Book Review - My Name is Not Isabella: Just How Big Can a Little Girl Dream?

This book is another gift selection this year, this time for my 3-year-old niece. It was a New York Times Best Seller in 2011 and it fits nicely in this week's duo of books about girls growing up to be strong women.

My Name Is Not Isabella: Just How Big Can a Little Girl Dream? follows little Isabella through her day at home and school. Each time her mother calls to her to come down for breakfast or to get ready for bed Isabella announces that she has become someone else.

"Good morning, Isabella," the mother said. "It's time to get up and out of bed."

"My name is not Isabella!" said the little girl.

"Then who has been sleeping in my daughter's bed?" asked the mother.

"I am Sally, the greatest, toughest astronaut who ever was!"

"Well, Sally, blast out of your bed, put on your space suit and come downstairs for breakfast."

From astronaut Sally Ride to sharpshooter Annie Oakley, Isabella imagines she is many different influential women throughout history. And each time she changes her mind her mom responds with patience and a great sense of humor. Mike Litwin's illustration style varies throughout the book to include drawings and photo collages. Looking for these subtle differences in the images adds to the fun. When it's time to get on the school bus, Isabella becomes civil rights activist Rosa Parks. I was moved by Litwin's illustration of this page in Isabella's history.

Author Jennifer Fosberry keeps the text simple using just the first names of each historical figure but she provides biographies at the end of the book as well as a list of works consulted that will guide you to more information about each woman. This story is not "teachy" but it provides a nice jumping-off point for a discussion between a caregiver and child about how these women - and many others - have changed the world.

This book is also available with a boy at the center of the story in My Name is Not Alexander: Just How Big Can a Little Kid Dream? Another exciting option is to have this story customized with your special child's name at 

My Name Is Not Isabella was published in 2008 by Sourcebooks/Jabberwocky. It is 32 pages and is available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book versions.

Happy reading,




Children's Book Review: Someday

I am blessed with six nieces who are, in turn, blessed by having everything they need. I give them books for Christmas gifts. Every child needs a new book.

This year, the 7-year-olds will be receiving Someday written by Eileen Spinelli, author of When Mama Comes Home Tonight and Something to Tell the Grandcows. It is illustrated by Rosie Winstead who is also an author with a new book, Sprout Helps Out, due in Spring 2014.

The girl in Someday looks like a 7-year-old and that’s what made it stand out among the picture books, to me. She’s a big kid and even though the story will really appeal to those strong young women on your list, it’s a great story for even younger children, too.

In Someday, the girl is dreaming about the great things she will accomplish someday when she is older. Someday she will have lunch with the President at the White House. She will give him a box of golf balls and she will not drop any of her salad on the rug. 

The story alternates from this someday of the future to today when she is preparing for those adventures. Today she is eating lunch with her little brother Roger who talks with his mouth full and spills his milk. Someday she will spend the night in Egypt and sleep next to a pyramid. Tonight she is sleeping next to Roger because he is afraid of monsters. 

The future is described in grown-up detail while the present is written more simply. She is not really wishing for the future but she is aware that she will be more confident and have it together - someday. I imagine that the girl's current and future selves are able to communicate and they take turns writing this story. 

Rosie Winstead's inviting illustrations show an imperfect and changing girl who is beautiful, uncertain, sometimes bossy and sometimes very kind. She’s a real girl and this book takes her and its young readers seriously. There are also a few secrets in the illustrations that children will enjoy discovering for themselves. I highly recommend this book for any young ladies on your holiday or birthday gift list.

Someday was published by Dial in 2007. It is 32 pages and available in hardcover and paperback editions.

Happy reading!