Maddi’s Fridge, by Lois Brandt

Best friends Sofia and Maddi live in the same neighborhood, go to the same school, and play in the same park, but while Sofia’s fridge at home is full of nutritious food, the fridge at Maddi’s house is empty. Sofia learns that Maddi’s family doesn’t have enough money to fill their fridge and promises Maddi she’ll keep this discovery a secret. But because Sofia wants to help her friend, she’s faced with a difficult decision: to keep her promise or tell her parents about Maddi’s empty fridge. Filled with colorful artwork, this storybook addresses issues of poverty with honesty and sensitivity while instilling important lessons in friendship, empathy, trust, and helping others. A call to action section, with six effective ways for children to help fight hunger and information on anti-hunger groups, is also included.

There is so much to love about Maddi’s Fridge, but perhaps the best of its strengths is that the reader learns from the book by falling seamlessly into the main character’s perspective – facing her problem, feeling her feelings, considering her alternatives, and pondering the outcomes of her choices. A human being of any age will learn something about how we confront hunger in actual life – not as an issue we can click and post about, not as a disturbing statistic, not as a box of cans for the food bank we can drop some beans into as we push our loaded cart out of the grocery store. This is the story of two girls who care about each other – girls with names and faces. We can see clearly how both friends can be helped or hurt by the ways they choose to confront their situation.

Respecting the Child’s Eye View

I like the many subtle ways Maddi’s Fridge shows us that hunger is both a simple and complex problem to solve. Sofia tries to feed her friend several times. She can’t ask for food because she can’t tell Maddi’s secret, and sneaking food to school turns out to be more complicated than she thought (some food doesn’t survive an overnight visit to a grade-school backpack). Her failures introduce humor into the story, but also engage the reader’s sympathy (Sofia is trying so hard!) and subtly remind us that there’s no quick-fix to this problem.

I like the author’s respect for her characters. We never lose the child’s-eye view on the situation, but even when we giggle over fish in the backpack, we aren’t invited to scorn Sofia. Maddi’s patience with her friend’s attempts to help is also beautiful. By the third attempt, she’s expecting something “gross”, but she’s still willing to engage with her friend. Maddi, Sofia, and the reader can all tell how much love their is between these good friends.

The parallel chain of effort, in which Sofia is trying to climb the rock wall at the park and Maddi is encouraging her, adds depth to the characterization and the story. Each girl has something to offer, some advantage. Maddi is without resources in one sense, but she can climb the wall and coach Sofia to climb it. I liked this as a frame for the attempted feeding, but also as a reminder that a hungry person is still a whole person, with skills and interests. The rock wall scenes remind readers to see Maddi and Sofia as equals.

Trust and Betrayal

Maddi’s Fridge raises an important question that applies across many aspects of child safety. Secrets can be part of the innocent fun at a birthday party, or dangerous weapons against children being drawn into the power of those planning to harm them. A secret between children can be a matter of trust, but it can also be a tool for bullying, or simply the result of a childish attempt to solve a problem that requires more mature judgment.

In one sense, Sofia has to betray Maddi’s trust to get her family the help they need. The fact that their conversation AFTER the betrayal is included in the story is important. Sofia broke her promise. She broke it for the best of good reasons, but she still needed to talk it over with Maddi. Their friendship and their understanding of each other’s needs and motives shines through in this conversation. I was glad it was included in the story.

Why Vin Vogel’s Illustrations Are Just Right!

The story begins the minute you open Maddi’s Fridge because there are pictures on the end sheets – I love that! It’s morning in the front of the book, evening in the back of the book, and the illustrations here and throughout the story are chock full of details. The friendly, quirky drawings look like something a child could draw – almost – which shows an exceptional level of care and sophistication in the artist, in my view. Like the text of the story, the illustrations encompass both the depth of the subject and the child’s-eye-view of the characters and readers. There’s plenty to point at and talk over if you’re sharing this book with your littlest littles, and plenty to support an older child’s reading of the story and attract the eye even for grade schoolers who can appreciate the point and make use of the helpful resources at the end of the book.

Interview with A Seventh Grader

I happen to have a seventh-grader handy around the house, and I was interested in her perspective on the story. She recognized the book when I opened the box from the publisher, and I decided to include her views in my review.

Where did you first read this book?

I read it in second grade, and I didn’t remember even about the cheesy pizza bombs. I just remember Maddi’s Fridge and the picture on the cover.

Tell me the story again in your own words.

There are these 2 best friends named Maddi and Sofia. Sofia is slightly better off than Maddi, and Sofia always has food in her refrigerator, while Maddi only has a jug of milk. Maddi made Sofia promise not to tell anyone about her empty refrigerator. Because she wanted to help, Sofia told her mom anyway. They packed food into grocery bags and gave them to Maddi’s mom. Maddi did call her on breaking her promise, but they made up and ate cheesy pizza bombs with their families.

What do you think about Maddi and Sofia’s relationship?

I think that they are thick-and-thin best friends.

Why did Maddi make Sofia promise not to tell about her empty fridge?

Either she was embarrassed about it, or she didn’t want to accept help.

Do you think Sofia should have told her mom about Maddi’s problem? Why or why not?

Yes, because Maddi might have starved otherwise.

What do you think the mothers are talking about in their conversation when they finally meet near the end of the book?

Why Sofia’s family had no money, health food (obviously), and momish things.

How do you think this book could help someone who was hungry?

It would encourage them to stop by their local soup kitchen, or food bank instead of slowly starving themselves.

How do you think this book could help people who want to take care of their neighbors?

It will let them know what they can do to help, which saves thinking about what they could successfully (keyword: successfully) do.

Maddi’s Fridge is available on Amazon in hardcover and Kindle editions. I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.

The Day I Ran Away, by Holly L. Niner

“While Dad tucks her in, a little girl named Grace calmly recounts her day—which was anything but calm. She had a tantrum (because of some injustices involving a purple shirt and breakfast cereal) and was banished to her bedroom before deciding to run away. Understanding that kids have ups and downs, Grace’s mom wisely gave her daughter the space and time she needed to reach her own decision to return home—to open arms.

The Day I Ran Away amusingly captures Grace’s mutable moods and childlike logic. Warm, humorous digital paintings offer fun details to keep little listeners busy. Kids can compare the bedtime and daytime scenes and try to figure out how Grace got that purple paw-print on her cheek—and when it got washed away. They can mimic Grace’s facial expressions or copy her poses for some soothing bedtime yoga. And of course, they can create a safe place to run away to when the injustices of Pre-K existence become too much to bear. A pop-up tent in the yard and the haven beneath the dining room table are excellent run-away destinations, as long as you come home for dinner.”

The Day I Ran Away from Flashlight Press is like a well-choreographed dance. Three characters, two voices, three points of view, two timelines, two picture sequences, and a dog spin around each other with no missed beats. The threads fall together easily, and despite action and humor in Isabella Ongaro’s illustrations, the tone of the book is peaceful. The little girl’s growing drowsiness in the bedtime pictures makes sense. She’s been on a big adventure that never took her beyond the reach of love and safety. You’ll want to read The Day I Ran Away over again, even if you aren’t a preschooler, because there’s more to ponder each time you page through the story.


Children at the picture-book stage have a tenuous grasp of time. Their abstract thought wires aren’t fully installed, so they understand time in terms of events. How many times will I go to bed and wake up before that happens? Will it be at breakfast time? Dinner time? Will it take as long as driving to Aunt Sally’s house? 

The Day I Ran Away plays with a preschooler’s time sense by running two chronologies simultaneously. The present bedtime conversation unfolds with words and pictures on the left page of each spread, and the past action from earlier in the day appears in pictures on the right. Without confusion, it puts the reader squarely into a multi-dimensional experience of time. But it’s done so naturally that little ones won’t notice that it’s happening.

Beginning at the End

The trustful connection between the little girl and her father is apparent from the first words of their conversation, but notice the illustration on the title page. It shows the little girl eating dinner with her mother, a meal that must have happened just before bedtime.  The title and cover tell us the little girl ran away, but we begin the story knowing she’s home safe now, and at peace with both parents. Like the cozy bedtime ritual, this early scene-setting creates a safe place from which to reflect on the emotions and reactions that created the chain of events. [As a parent, it’s interesting to see how the father’s calm acceptance of the story includes helping the little girl realize that her mother’s reactions were responses to her daughter’s choices.]

Beginning with the end is also an impressively subtle way of centering a little reader in the action but keeping the parents as the story’s frame. Preschoolers are the center of their own world, but parents are the first orbital ring. The book is structured the way a child’s world is structured – her all-absorbing consciousness of herself is lived inside parental creativity and guidance. This is her adventure, but it won’t have its full meaning for her until she’s told her father all about it before she falls asleep.

The Parents

The parents’ relationship is a strong message in the book, although they don’t appear together in a picture until the last page. Inside the father’s comments and questions to the little girl, you can hear his respect for the mother and his support of how she’s parenting their child. This is at least as powerful as his low-key, almost Socratic method of processing the day with his daughter.

For her part, the mother is letting this bedtime meeting happen without her input. She’s trusting the father and daughter to each other at the end of a long day, but the tone of the book tells you it’s not just because she’s tired. These two are parenting as a team, and their interactions with their daughter are thoughtfully chosen.

The Dog

In addition to his helpful contributions to the bedtime yoga routine, the dog is a wonderful buddy for his little friend. He mirrors or responds to her emotions in every picture. It’s adorable, but it’s also another talking point in the book. The dog’s facial expressions, posture, and actions are clues to the human emotions in each scene, while offering a friendly, four-legged suggestion of how to be there for someone you love, no matter what.

And Finally….

The Day I Ran Away is a proper picture book. It’s well-made, with a hard cover and thick, glossy pages. The colors are bright and attractive, the illustrations are full of life, and there are plenty of interesting details to point out and chat about as you practice paying attention and reading for meaning. The book is standard size, large enough to hold up and read to a circle of children, and just right for reading in the best sofa corner with at least two children on your lap.

The Day I Ran Away is available on Amazon in hardcover and Kindle editions. You can find Activity Guides to use along with the book here.

I received a copy of this book from Flashlight Press in exchange for this review.

The Happy Man and His Dump Truck, by Miryam

“A happy man thrills a group of farm animals when he takes them for a joy ride in his dump truck. This book is a true classic illustrated by the inimitable Tibor Gergely.”

The Happy Man and His Dump Truck is one of my favorite picture books. The first time you read it, you think it’s a simple, funny little story. The second time, the third time, you realize how much depth is shining inside that apparent simplicity.

Here’s the story. A happy man is driving down the road in his dump truck. He meets some farm animals who want to go for a ride in his dump truck. So he takes them for a ride. They like it so much they ask him to take their friends for a ride. He comes back and takes even more farm animals for a ride. Then they say goodbye, and he drives away, just a happy man with a dump truck.

But there’s so much more to the story!

Happiness and Kindness

The best lessons in picture books are the ones you don’t realize you are learning. When you read this story, it seems completely natural that the happy man, and the happy animals, would want to share the fun. Real happiness is generous. Little ones hearing this story are still at the age where they won’t share toys and treats without prompting (sometimes lots of prompting!). But they are also capable of deep love and sudden generosity. The story is a funny, age-appropriate example of sharing that went well for both parties, the giver and the receiver. We are all growing into the kind of people whose first impulse is to share the best of what we have, always.

Simple Life

I love this book for its innocent, agrarian setting. I love it for its total absence of modernity. The only technology in the book is an old-fashioned dump truck driven by a man who isn’t being tracked by GPS and therefore can stop along the road to play with farm animals. The more screens, wires, waves, beeps, and clicks surround our children, the more they need stories that reconnect them with the simple outside world. Our children need farm animals and dirt, green grass and free time. They need to remember what sound a chicken makes. They need to develop an imagination that immediately grasps what a great slide you could make in the bed of a friendly dump-truck.

Spontaneous, Not Random

The happy man is not the only example of generosity in this book, or kindness. The animals are generous, too. Not all of the farm animals are present when the happy man first drives by. He gives several rides because each group of animals asks him to come back to the farm and pick up the next group. So all the characters in the book are responding to a gift by passing it on.

We hear a lot about “random acts of kindness,” and I am thankful for their influence in the world. But I prefer to describe kindness as “spontaneous.” Kindness is not random. Kindness is the natural expression of goodness that comes from the heart. It can inspire us at any moment, in any situation, and because we often don’t foresee that inspiration, it is spontaneous. The cycle of generosity in this book is a wonderful model for children, and adults. When something good happens, what is our first response? When we receive gifts, or are blessed with good circumstances, we need to think like the happy man and his animal friends. “I love this. How can I share it?”

This Classic Little Golden Book is available on Amazon in a hardcover edition.

Meh: A Story about Depression, by Deborah Malcolm

Meh: A Story about Depression is a wordless picture book with remarkably evocative, content-rich illustrations leading the reader on an emotional and spiritual journey through an episode of depression and recovery.

The concept of using a picture book to launch a conversation about depression with a child is fascinating and brilliant, in my view. You’ll want to see the book for yourself, through your own lens, and no doubt it will bring to mind memories of experiences and observations. It’s also a testament to the miraculous quality of art – I read all of the following from a book that has no words!

The Title

The title is a word made popular by the “meh” emoji (star of the recent Emoji Movie), and it’s a fascinating choice for two reasons. Emojis are a regular part of life for children and teens, and it’s telling that this emoticon was chosen as the main character in the film. Like the film, this picture book’s choice of “meh” is an important nod at research linking technology use with anxiety, and depression, especially in younger users. It’s one of many aspects of the book that lead easily into a conversation that’s essential for a child encountering depression, or anxiety.

But the title is also an immediate, powerful statement of understanding. “Meh” means “I’m not strongly negative or positive.” It suggests an absence of feeling where feeling would be desirable, so there’s an overtone of wishfulness. This is a simple, one-word verbalization of the complex numbness that’s often a hallmark of depression. And the choice to describe this feeling with a word anyone under 30 will immediately associate with an emoji is a message to a child reader that whoever wrote this book “gets it” and is familiar with the world the child is confronting. Loneliness is depression’s weapon, and to be understood is the first, best antidote.

No Text

One difficult but important task in caring for a child suffering from depression or anxiety is to leave space for them to vocalize what’s happening. It’s so tempting, in our effort to show understanding and support, to rush in with our own words, covering over their experience with our perception of it. The wordless pictures in Meh remind us to ask and then be quiet, letting the words come from the child. The book includes a list of questions to encourage discussion, along with a kindly reminder to be clear that there are no wrong answers.

In addition to the questions provided, Meh lends itself to the kind of simple, non-threatening questions you would ask about any picture book you’d read with a child. But in this case, those natural questions lead straight into important conversation because the illustrations are creative and intelligent. These questions could include the following, and more:

  • Why is there so much blackness in the picture now?
  • When did you first notice the cat?
  • Why do you think the cat is light-colored?
  • How do you think the boy feels about the cat?
  • How do you think the cat feels about the boy?
  • Does the cat remind you of any people you know? Why?
  • What decision do you think the boy is making on this page where he’s looking up at the cat?

Two Roles

That last question highlights another vital strong point of the book. In the depths of those black pages (and moments), our first reading of the picture is that the loving little cat is leading this boy out of the darkness (sorry for the spoiler!). The cat is rescuing the boy. This is true, but it is not the whole truth, either in the picture or in life. The boy is choosing to follow the cat.

One illustration is especially poignant. On the left page, we see the boy standing at the bottom of a formidable rocky hill, looking up at the cat, who is looking down at him from the top. On the facing page, the boy is struggling hard to climb over the ledge onto the top of the hill, where the cat is waiting for him. Just below that image, we see the boy and the cat resting together. The message is clear – the cat is not rescuing the boy single-handedly. The boy is rescuing himself, with merciful and responsible guidance from the cat.

This is an enormous truth. All of us in the darkness need that leading light, AND we need the gritty, hang-on-by-your-fingernails effort to work our way back to healthy life.


Meh is an excellent tool for reaching children struggling with depression or anxiety. But it can also inspire informed sympathy in children who may see a classmate or cousin who needs help. You can read the book through the eyes of either character (or both!). Children will notice that the cat enters gently – at first, we see only the tiny paw prints on the dark earth – but becomes powerful as a lion when strength is needed. The cat is encouraging, but not enabling. And the cat stays with the boy through the entire journey, even the end of the journey, in peace and celebration. I would love to see the #bethecat hashtag taken over by children and caregivers who are choosing to walk into the darkness, and out again, for the people they love.

A paperback edition of Meh: A Story about Depression is available on Amazon. 

I received an electronic copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Amazing Grace, by Mary Hoffman

“Grace loves stories, whether they’re from books, movies, or the kind her grandmother tells. So when she gets a chance to play a part in Peter Pan, she knows exactly who she wants to be. Remarkable watercolor illustrations give full expression to Grace’s high-flying imagination.”

Word person that I am, I’m still going to talk about the pictures first for Amazing Grace. Caroline Binch has created an extraordinary work of art here, precisely because the pictures aren’t “extraordinary” in the usual sense. They are life-like. It’s not photo-realism, but it’s clear on every page that she must have taken the people in the book from life – she had models. You look at Grace and Mama and Nana, and you are POSITIVE that they are real people who agreed to pose for the illustrations. And Caroline’s genius is that she achieves this powerful sense without photo-realism. There are soft edges. You know it’s a painting. But the personhood it depicts leaps out of the page at you.

That’s especially important for this story, in which Grace is struggling to overcome the limitations other people want to set for her. Her own peers try to use her gender and her race against her, and just as the illustrations are life-like, the text is life-like too – undramatic, simple, and resoundingly true. Grace’s classmates aren’t deliberately cruel. They’re unconsciously giving voice to the prejudices that are accepted by the world around them. The same children are just as susceptible to Grace’s confidence and talent when she finds the courage to display them.

This is what makes Amazing Grace so powerful – the just-plainness of it, the way you immediately recognize it as truth despite the fact that story is fiction. The best art, in my view, reveals and reflects on truth. Mary Hoffman pulls it off, with both simplicity and depth. Where some stories can be funny for both children and adults, this story can be true and encouraging for readers of all ages.

This book is available on Amazon in hard cover, paperback, ebook, and audiobook editions, and a special 25th anniversary edition.

Froggy Learns to Swim, by Jonathan London

“Zzzziiiinnngggg splash!
Everyone’s favorite frog learns to swim!

Frogs are supposed to be great swimmers. “Not me!” says Froggy, who’s afraid of the water. But with a little encouragement, some practice, and the help of a silly song or two, Froggy becomes an expert frog-kicker!”

You have to read this book out loud. You can’t help reading it “in voices.” Froggy’s voice is very life-like (which is to say child-like), and if you are a parent, the voice of Froggy’s mother will come naturally to you. It’s the voice you hear coming out of your own mouth a dozen times a day.

“Say, ‘Bubble bubble,’ under water. Then raise your face for air and say, ‘Toot toot.'”

“I don’t want to,” Froggy whined.

“Oh come on, Froggy, just try it. Repeat after me: ‘Bubble bubble, toot toot.'”

Frank Remkiewicz’s illustrations are the best – the froggy facial expressions and body postures exactly match the querulous, bowdacious, very human moods and reactions of this amphibian family. The story is funnier because the characters are frogs, but also because those frogs are so much like people!

I must admit that part of me would adore a watermelon swimsuit and ruffly pink bathing cap, just like what Froggy’s mother is sporting. And of COURSE her name in the book is “Froggy’s mother.” Speaking as one who has also given birth (though not to a frog), this is how we are known. If Froggy’s mother ever had a name, you can be sure no one uses it now. She’s Froggy’s mother. You can’t blame her for the watermelon swimsuit. Not at all.

But with all this froggy fun at the pond, the book makes a good point. If you are hesitating on the brink, sure you can’t do it (whether “it” is swimming or another challenge), if you just keep breathing and working the routines you’ve been taught by someone who loves you, you’ll be surprised what you can overcome – even your own nervousness.

Bubble bubble, toot toot!

This book is available on Amazon in paperback, ebook, and school/library binding editions.