Dear Komodo Dragon, by Nancy Kelly Allen

Lots of children have pen pals but one little girl has a real-life dragon—a Komodo dragon—for a pen pal! Leslie plans to be a dragon hunter when she grows up. When she and Komodo become pen pals, the wise-cracking dragon adds a generous helping of humor to letters that are chock full of accurate, interesting facts. Leslie learns not only about the world’s largest lizard, but also about the dangers they face. As their friendship builds, will Leslie change the way she thinks about dragons?

Do you remember that teacher we had in elementary school who was always trying to make learning fun? Yes, you remember. I thought you would. Sometimes, the fun was actually fun. Sometimes, not so much. Personally, I’d rather just plow through the math without also wishing I felt as entertained as that hopeful teacher hoped I would.

That’s why Dear Komodo Dragon surprised me! It’s definitely an educational book. You’ll find zoology, conservation, and math in its pages, and you could spin a lesson about letter-writing out of it, too. Arbordale provides substantial curricular support for their books. There’s a 30-page Teaching Activity Guide for Dear Komodo Dragon, perfect for classroom or homeschool use, and the book itself includes a 4-page For Creative Minds section as well.

But it’s still a story! Leslie and Komo, her dragon pen pal, both have relatable personalities, and their exchange is light-hearted and interesting (despite being informative!). You’ll realize how much you’ve been drawn into the story when you come to the plot twist just before the end! (No spoilers here!)

Laurie Allen Klein’s illustrations, like the text, are realistic but still imaginative, and provide depth to the characterizations and supporting detail for the information in the text. I especially appreciated the added dimension she provided in, for example, the labeled drawings of  various kinds of dragons displayed on pages 6-7. It’s evidence that every opportunity, every space and moment in the book, was used to add value for the reader.

I think my grade-school self would have welcomed this book with relief and interest. Dear Komodo Dragon is both fiction and nonfiction, a science story that deserves to be called both “science” and “story.” Bright pictures, clean text, engaging characters, and that plot twist I mentioned above all come together to make a good day in the classroom, or in your favorite reading nook at home.

Dear Komodo Dragon and its teaching resources are available directly from Arbordale Publishing, and also on Amazon in paperback, hard cover, and Kindle editions.

I was granted access by the publisher to a digital edition of this book in exchange for this review.

Our Tree Named Steve, by Alan Zweibel

Dear Kids, A long time ago, when you were little, Mom and I took you to where we wanted to build a house. . . . I remember there was one tree, however, that the three of you couldn’t stop staring at. . . .

After the family spares him from the builders, Steve the tree quickly works his way into their lives. He holds their underwear when the dryer breaks down, he’s there when Adam and Lindsay get their first crushes, and he’s the centerpiece at their outdoor family parties. With a surprising lack of anthropomorphizing, this is a uniquely poignant celebration of fatherhood, families, love, and change.

Our Tree Named Steve has to be a true story. It feels like one. I read the whole thing, standing up, in the public library where I saw it (it was standing up, too) on top of a book case in the children’s section. It almost made me cry. In the library.

The Art of Memory

David Catrow’s wonderful illustrations are as good as the text and embrace the sound and sense of it completely. I especially loved the children’s faces. Something about them reminds me of the way we looked, my siblings and I, in childhood. The illustrations are as fanciful as they are realistic, but it’s a familiar, friendly-dog-chicken-casserole kind of fanciful, not surreal or exotic. It’s the reality of memory – loving, a little goofy, depicting the feeling associated with an event more than its historical fact. This is what makes the characters and places recognizable, although we’ve never met them.

For the Parent

Our Tree Named Steve is written as a letter from a father to his children, and as it progresses, you realize the children are grown up, or nearly so. It’s what makes the story tug on your heart-strings as an adult reader. You recognize both perspectives in yourself – the father helping his children confront a loss and the children saying goodbye to a part of their childhood. I’d question whether the book is more for adults than children, except that children will easily relate to the humorous, comfortable voice of it and the everyday events it recounts. Some of the best children’s books reach the parent over the child’s head. It’s a children’s book with an adult book hidden inside it.


Our Tree Named Steve is a perspective on grieving and on finding resurrection in the midst of loss. Without spoiling the book, which builds to a surprising climax and resolution, I can say it’s unusual for the grief book genre. It’s one degree removed from the usual plot and character roles, and this could be helpful. One part of me never wants a children’s story to be sad. We all want childhood to be happy, and we instinctively resist confronting our children with sorrow. But life happens, tears happen, and I think this book would be effective for some children simply because it is not about a pet or grandparent. If your dog has just crossed the rainbow bridge, you may not want to read a story explicitly about a dog crossing the rainbow bridge. Some children need a story that matches their own. Some children need creative indirection to process serious grief.

Piggy Parallels

This book reminded me obliquely of my own upcoming board book, Piggy in Heaven. Both books center as much on the experience of the “person” we’ve lost as they do on the mourners. And both explore the comforting fact that although it changes form or place, life goes on.

Our Tree Named Steve is available on Amazon in paperback and library binding editions.

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.

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.

10 Minutes till Bedtime, by Peggy Rathmann

“Bedtime routines have never been so hilarious!

At One Hoppin’ Place, the countdown to bedtime is about to begin when a family of hamsters arrives at the front door.”All aboard!” the child’s pet hamster, dressed as a tour guide, shouts, directing them to his bus. It’s off to the kitchen for a snack, to the bathroom for toothbrushing, to the bedroom for a story. And just as the child begins to read, the tour guide looks out the window and shouts, “More coming!” Busloads and carloads of vacationing hamsters stream through the front door, ready to enjoy the escapades as the countdown continues.

A sure-fire toddler pleaser from the creator of Good Night, Gorilla.”

This is a book for readers who enjoy finding the story, and its humor, in every detail of the illustrations. 10 Minutes till Bedtime does not have text in the traditional sense. Each page is like a full-spread comic-strip box. What the characters say is written in beside them in the picture, or in a speech bubble, just like you’d see in a comic strip. But there is SO MUCH lively, story-telling detail packed into every picture that you can almost hear them happening out loud!

One fun aspect of the book is the way the plot unfolds at child-level, right behind the backs of adults who sometimes appear in the pictures but are always oblivious to the stream of hamster antics going on all over the house. It captures the thrilling, curious, giggling fascination of a small child’s inner world. It is real and riveting to the child, but almost invisible to the adults.

I love the way Peggy Rathmann plays with levels and layers of reality in this book. Not only do we see the dichotomy between the adult narrative and the child/hamster adventure, but we also see a character from another book (the gorilla from Goodnight, Gorilla) and we see the child in this book reading 10 Minutes till Bedtime to the hamsters! It invites a cascade of imagined pictures-within-pictures – the book being read in the picture has a page like this one that shows the book being read, and the book in that book has a book in it, and so does that one…to infinity! It’s a wonderful opportunity to play with the early outlines of abstract thinking which are still in the developmental future of toddler readers.

I also love the amount of detail. The illustrations take every chance, every inch, to add action, humor, and hamster subplots galore! A book that can be so innocently hilarious to a child and still entertain an adult reading along is a good gift.

This book is available in hardback, boardbook, paperback editions on Amazon.