29 Myths on the Swinster Pharmacy

29 Myths on the Swinster Pharmacy by Lemony Snicket and Lisa Brown by Lemony Snicket, illustrated by Lisa Brown

published 2014 by McSweeney’s/McMullens

29 Myths on the Swinster Pharmacy by Lemony Snicket and Lisa Brown Do you know Because of Winn-Dixie? (Have I told you about the time I told Kate DiCamillo I wrote because of Winn-Dixie and obviously meant because of Because of Winn-Dixie but she cackled and my heart soared?)

Anyway. There’s a thing called a Littmus Lozenge. It’s a candy that makes you taste your sorrow and your sad and your sweet, all at once. Maybe it’s the thought of a lozenge sounding like something medicinal, or maybe it’s cause this pharmacy gave me both comfort and the heebie-jeebies, but reading this book felt a little like tasting a Littmus Lozenge. 29 Myths on the Swinster Pharmacy by Lemony Snicket and Lisa Brown Something unsettling hovers around this place, but it beckons me, too. And I’m not alone in that: those two myth-collectors/busters are at once intrigued and terrified.

It’s weird and charming and confusing and a head-scratcher all at once.

I think that’s exactly what makes it a successful story for kids. Everything doesn’t have to make sense. Offbeat is okay.

Because let’s face it: kid are weird and charming and confusing. They teeter in that fuzzy place between wonder and reality. This is a book that honors this and celebrates that.  29 Myths on the Swinster Pharmacy by Lemony Snicket and Lisa Brown 29 Myths on the Swinster Pharmacy by Lemony Snicket and Lisa Brown Is it suspicious, a lady going in and coming out in the same outfit? No. Not necessarily. But see: you are an adult. You are past your prime of delighting in the bizarre and making sense or screwballs out of it. When you read this, rest in it. Let it catapult you from being a grownup. It’s good for you. And then share it with a kid. They’ll get it. 29 Myths on the Swinster Pharmacy by Lemony Snicket and Lisa Brown 29 Myths on the Swinster Pharmacy by Lemony Snicket and Lisa Brown Physically, I love the compact trim size because it feels like a manual, like a notebook, like some peculiar pamphlet to some oddball prescription in the pharmacy. It’s like a secret. A hush. 29 Myths on the Swinster Pharmacy by Lemony Snicket and Lisa Brown 29 Myths on the Swinster Pharmacy by Lemony Snicket and Lisa BrownThen! The cover unfolds to show the depths of the Swinster Pharmacy. When you flip it over, there’s a map of the town. Don’t ask me why I didn’t show you that. Just trust me. (If you dare.)29 Myths on the Swinster Pharmacy by Lemony Snicket and Lisa Brownch

P.S. – Another numbered book I loved recently is How to Bicycle to the Moon to Plant Sunflowers, by Mordecai Gerstein. A total must read if you love quirk and lists like me.

The publisher provided a review copy of 29 Myths on the Swinster Pharmacy, but thoughts and love are my own.

Leonardo the Terrible Monster

Leonardo the Terrible Monster by Mo Willems Here’s something.

By Mo Willems. Published 2005, by Hyperion Books for Children. (Which I believe is now Disney-Hyperion.)

An old favorite, a forgotten gem. I was plotting a read-aloud for fourth graders, hunting for a picture book about meanness and bragging and being friends with someone different than you. In true Mo Willems style, this thing jumped right off the shelf when I ran my fingers across the spines. True story.

So I ignored my achy-creaky knees, and hovered over this on the floor of the library. It was one of the last purchases I made for the library before I left Virginia for California, but I haven’t given it two shakes of a nod since.

Not surprisingly, it’s brilliant.

It’s sheer size is in direct opposition to how terrible of a monster Leonardo is. I mean, he’s so big that he can’t even be contained to the cover. All we see is a peek of meek eyes and teensy-tiny horns. But we already know he’s pretty bad at being a monster. That juxtaposition is beyond hilarious, right? Leonardo the Terrible Monster by Mo Willems So, he’s terrible. And terribly alone. Look at all of the white space on this spread, highlighting just how terrible and terribly alone Leonardo is. It makes his sad face even more pathetic. Awful. Awesome.Leonardo the Terrible Monster by Mo Willems Leonardo the Terrible Monster by Mo Willems Leonardo the Terrible Monster by Mo Willems Leonardo the Terrible Monster by Mo Willems Adults laugh at him. He doesn’t have Tony’s outrageous stack of teeth. And then there’s Eleanor, whose purple pedicure and anklet only hint at what kind of monstrous mug she may have. Leonardo the Terrible Monster by Mo Willems But Leonardo has an idea  – a fantastic, scare-the-tuna-salad-out-of-a-scaredy-cat-kid idea. His plot gives him some bounces of confidence. And there’s less white space. More text, more oomph, more pizzazz from his plan. He’s not so alone.

Enter: Sam. Leonardo the Terrible Monster by Mo Willems The reader knows right away that Sam and Leonardo are cut from the same cloth of lonely. Sam has even more nothing around him. Sam isn’t even facing forward. Sam has the saddest pit of despair behind those wire rims. Leonardo the Terrible Monster by Mo Willems Leonardo the Terrible Monster by Mo Willems Leonardo the Terrible Monster by Mo WillemsSo when Leonardo blaggle-blaggles, grrrrs, and roooaarrrs, Sam cries.

But. It’s not because he’s scared. Leonardo the Terrible Monster by Mo Willems Now. Here’s where I did a combo of a laugh/snort/cackle/snot/wimper thing. Sam’s white space is filled to the brim with all of the awful things that were bouncing around under his bowl cut. A mean big brother! A stubbed toe! On the same foot that he hurt last month! Bird poo! A hurt tummy!

All of Sam’s insides just tumble out and stun that gruff old Leonardo. Look at how he’s clutching his chest! Swoon.

That’s why. Leonardo the Terrible Monster by Mo Willems And then – an epic page turn. Leonardo’s smart, caring, friend-brain fills up all of that white space. It’s like the part where the Grinch’s heart grows three sizes. By seeing his whole face, his thought process, and those very un-monster eyes, we watch his heart change. Just like that. Leonardo the Terrible Monster by Mo Willems Leonardo the Terrible Monster by Mo Willems The way Mo Willems uses space and size in this book shows us so much about Leonardo, Sam, and ourselves.

Friends. Flipping you forward since about forever.


P.S. – For those fourth graders? Ended up going with Each Kindness, which is lovely beyond measure, and the moment was just shy of heart stopping. It was a perfect picture book morning. 

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Open This Little Book

OpenThisLittleBook_coverwritten by Jesse Klausmeier, illustrated by Suzy Lee

{published 2013, by Chronicle Books}Did you see that teensy update on my bio over there? I took out the former, cause I’m back to the library, y’all. It’s such a dream. My natural habitat. I see students for the first time next week, and have been anxious to share this with the littlest. I want it to be our signature story, the one that represents what we do together – opening book after book after book.

I’m also trying to figure out how to recreate this thing as a bulletin board. The engineering and the math and the genius and whoa. Stay tuned.

Check it out in action:

breaker Jesse Klausmeier dedicated this to Levar Burton, which is especially sweet given that this little book is a real love letter to books everywhere. Color distinguishes each character’s little book. Distinct and vibrant, belonging to each reader.Shape and scale do, too, and not in the most obvious way. The first character we meet is Ladybug. She’s in a red book, reading a green book. And inside the green book is Frog, who opens an orange book.

So, the bigger the character, the smaller the book!And that’s what causes a bit of sticky situation when it’s time for a Giant to join the fun.Oh, and the texture! There’s a vintage and well-loved appearance to the pages. It feels like a book that’s already been well-loved and flipped through so many times. Such a small choice, such big heart behind it.

This book’s design is a frame that allows the connectedness of story and readers to shine. I bet you won’t be able to stop opening and closing this little book. It’s addicting.ch

Boy + Bot

words by Ame Dyckman + pictures by Dan Yaccarino

{Why yes, they ARE a match made in heaven!}

Boy + Bot is an endearing tale of friendship between a charming and unlikely duo. Their generosities to one another when the other is broken will turn you into a puddle awwwww mush on the floor.

The #spotbot crew on Twitter is probably still mopping themselves up. We ADORE this book. And darn if Ame Dyckman isn’t the most likable gal at the party!

In design, size can be used to give extra weight or value to one element versus another. If shapes on a page are too uniform in size, they compete for your attention. Think of a checkerboard. Which square do you look at? But think of the American flag. The long stripes and the smaller stars differ in size and scale, and your eye can move around that icon a bit more freely and with less confusion.

So small Boy and his much larger Bot create a dynamic duo. Boy’s bitty-ness and Bot’s bigger-ness gives an interesting visual edge to their friendship. Sure, this is slightly different than a true graphic design principle at work, but the same idea feels really satisfying in their characterization. Even on the cover, the word Boy and the word Bot nod to their sizes by using different weights of the same typeface.

Their kooky friendship fits perfectly into this comic or storyboarded style of layout. Note even here, the different sizes of illustrations on one spread.

This might be one of my favorite back covers ever. I do love the reflection, {found on this cover as well,} but come on….the barcode on Bot’s behind? Impossible not to love. Enjoy this one with your BFF.

Will you love it? “AFFIRMATIVE!”

There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly

It’s no secret how this story ends. You’ve heard it a million times. But have you ever seen look this remarkable?

Jeremy Holmes is the graphic designer behind this book, and it’s so much fun to hold.

It’s tall and thin, so even before you get to the story, you are already experiencing this book in such a fresh way. This book showcases many elements of design beautifully, but I would consider size one of the highlights because it is so immediately striking.

The middle third of the book contains the pages of the story, so the entire story is framed by the little old lady’s spindly stocking feet and all knowing eyes. And again, you know how her story ends, right? At the close of the last page, her eyes shut as well. Kinda ingenious.

Jeremy Holmes’ collages are both warm and kooky thanks to his textures and color palette. His imagination tells a familiar story in a fresh way. And it’s just plain fun to hold this book, turn the pages, and even laugh at her untimely end.

Love the shout out on the back cover to book design as well as illustration!

{This trailer is a tad slow and perhaps even creepy, but it’s a really lovely look at some of Holmes’ illustrations in There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.}

Bee & Bird

Bee & Bird by the delightful Craig Frazier is a surprising and grin-inducing read. Every time. And each time may be a different read for you depending on the perspective you take and the story you see.


You should be.

Bee & Bird is a bright and bold wordless picture book. Each illustration is a tightly framed snippet of a larger action. Page by page, your job is to fill in the blanks, to predict, to wonder, and to enjoy.


Unity refers to the whole of a design being more important and cohesive than any of its individual parts. Each separate element (or illustration) stands alone satisfactorily and beautifully, but the experience as a whole is extra special. The similarly toned colors, the lines and shapes in backgrounds and textures, and the different perspectives {note the boundary-pushing use of scale and size} on each page all contribute to the unity of Bee & Bird’s design.

Graphically, these pictures are loud and striking  -a perfect accompaniment to the unexpected journey of this bee and bird. So, so crisp and inviting and full of oomph. {A very technical graphic design term; do not argue with this teacher!}

And they holler out to the reader {YOU!} to come on over, pull up a chair, and get involved on this trip.


Iggy Peck, Architect

Iggy Peck, Architect is my new favorite-must-be-on-top-of-the-book-pile picture book. I’m four years late to the Iggy Peck party, but better late than never, right? Maybe they saved me some leftovers. Written in lilting and whimsical rhyme by Andrea Beaty and illustrated by the quirky and grin-inducing David Roberts, Iggy Peck is now up there on my favorite character list. Ramona Quimby is at the top of that list, and I think she and Iggy would be mischievous rascally pals.

I discovered that the book designer is Chad Beckerman, the Art Director at Abrams Books for Young Readers and Amulet Books. He has an fascinating blog, Mishaps and Adventures, where he blogs about his book design process. There is a section devoted to the evolution of a book cover, where he takes you through the process from beginning to end, and it is so very interesting. I would like to have coffee with Chad Beckerman. I would ask him a million billion questions and be hopped up on the high test fuel. Or tea, and I would daintily hold out my pinky finger and try to be quieter. Maybe I would even listen to him instead of spewing out my own book design obsessions.

Maybe. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Young Iggy Peck is an architect and has been since he was two,

When he built a great tower – in only an hour-

With nothing but diapers and glue.

On the illustration to accompany this first page? Iggy’s round and rosy booty cheeks. Always good for a chuckle, even at 33 years old. Iggy’s poor parents have no idea how to contain his artistic expressions, and allow him to play and dream and construct all of the dreamlike things he can. When Iggy hits second grade and meets his nemesis teacher, Miss Lila Greer, she stifles his love for architecture. Why? Poor Miss Greer had a slightly unfortunate experience at a tall, tall building when she was younger. {Being stuck in an elevator with a French circus troupe did nothing to comfort her from this.} But on a class field trip to Blue River Pass, a footbridge collapses, and Iggy Peck and his architecture skills are needed (and wanted) to save the day.


Element of design: CONCEPT

Concept is a big and amorphous design notion to describe. It is the look and feel, the overall direction, and the abstract point hanging out behind the main point. Concept is related to unity. In visual arts, concept is conveyed to the viewer through mood and meaning. Every graphic element throughout a piece conveys SOMETHING. That something is the concept. In Iggy Peck, Architect, every small detail of the illustration and design presents just a little more of Iggy’s love for architecture and order.

The crane lifting the word Iggy right up over the word Peck.

Architecture tools as skyscrapers on the title page. Grid lines, reminiscent of blueprints.

Typography as structure on the title page.

Even Iggy’s parents are structural and statuesque.

And though shorter, so are his classmates. Note Iggy in the background, standing on his chair. (See…BFFs with Ramona. Easily.)

A dejected Iggy, surrounded by imposing white space, after he was told to squash his architecture dreams by Miss Greer.

The texture of the creek makes it feel rigid and strong, just how Iggy likes, while retaining its watery look.

The typography collapses on the page to reflect the action of the footbridge collapsing. Smart. Clever. Fun.

Spoiler Alert. Miss Greer walking to safety on Iggy’s bridge, reimagined as one of the greatest engineered bridges rather than the sticks and stones and underpants that they really used. Perhaps this is what Iggy sees in his architecture, perhaps it is what Miss Greer sees as her valiant rescue. I like to think they both see the same.

Dear Iggy Peck, surrounded by his heroes. And quite happy about it.

The Red Book

The Red Book is a 2004 Caldecott Honor book by Barbara Lehman. Despite being an incredible honor, I picked this image of the cover unmarred by the regal silver medal. It is so bare and yet so rich, which is exactly what you can expect to find inside.

Plus, how adorable is she all bundled up and ready to run? Don’t you want to know why she has such a hop in her skip in her jump?

The Red Book is entirely told in pictures. Wordless books are such a unique platform from which to tell a story. I find that my impatient and anxious self slows down immensely in order to breathe in the life of each and every page. Each page alone is a work of art, and when connected together, they take you, the picture-reader, on a journey. A little girl finds a red book buried in the snow while journeying to school, and upon close inspection, realizes she is seeing a boy far far away…reading a red book…about HER. Prepare to get your Inception on in a sweet and childlike way when you read this book. {Spoiler Alert: Leo DiCaprio does NOT appear in The Red Book. You can leave your totem in your pocket.}

Element of design: Color

This is an obvious choice, right? I mean the book is called THE RED BOOK after all. So…duh. But let me back up for a minute because one of the things I love most about the design of this book is the window motif. The geometric skyline on the title page shows a cluster of buildings with an endless pattern of windows. Each illustration is also contained in a pane, leaving white space surrounding it. It’s really designed brilliantly to enhance the wordless-book-in-a-wordless-book concept.

But, color. The Red Book. It’s visible on nearly every page, and clearly the unifying subject throughout. Let’s go back to Psychology 101. {Or not really. That means sophomore year at William and Mary, when I had enormous eyebrows and way too many Dunkin’ Donuts.} The infamous psychologist Carl Jung said, “colors are the mother tongue of the subconscious.” While that may be a tad too heavy for your morning-coffee-blog-reading-routine, let’s just consider color psychology for a moment. Understanding even a little of this branch of color theory is helpful as a designer. The question to consider is whether colors affect our emotions as a result of their cultural or societal meaning, or whether there is a direct and more intrinsic link. Say what? This: traditionally, red is associated with danger, anger, passion, power…STRONG feelings. Similarly, color diagnostic tests have been used since the 1940s to determine how personal color preferences affect an individual’s personality traits. Crazy, right? People who choose red as their favorite color are most likely defiant and aggressive, but warm and exciting.

So do the blah-blah-blah-important-words-about-color-psychology even matter? Maybe. Probably, even. What if this was The Blue Book? Or The Black Book? You might have very different feelings towards it. But, red! Bright, warm, inviting red!

I want to crawl inside that book.

Black and White

Two Caldecotts in a row? Why not?! I am no one to argue with the people who pick the best of the best. There’s just one thing I dislike about David Macauley’s book: It’s too tall. In my library days {Go Lions}, my shelves were too short for it to fit correctly. With the spine facing up towards the top of the shelf, it always got lost in the stacks. Kids passed right by the magic. Solution: permanent residence on top of the shelf. You know, where all the brand-new-shiny books are staged and beg you to grab them and take them home? I replaced the mylar protection {nerdy librarian speak} many, many times. I guess my kids just had good taste.


Who doesn’t love a deal? Four stories for the price of one? Wait a minute, are those people waiting for this train? Wait a minute, is that a cow or that guy? Wait a minute, how do they know how to make newspaper hats, too?

Wait a minute, why are these pictures colliding?

Element of design: Negative Space

David Macauley’s nonlinear storytelling must rely on design to communicate, because his visuals are as necessary as his words. So many principles of graphic design are at play in the layout of this book. I particularly love the complex lines that both constrain and connect the four quadrants. {The gutter serves as one of the lines. So cool.}

Black and White jostles your reading experience and forces you to examine both what is there and what is not there. Just like negative space.

Negative space refers to the area around an explicit form in an image. Often, the space left behind is just as important to the image and becomes the main compositional element. The play between positive and negative space allows the eye to both rest and travel in a picture.

Surely you have seen images like these:

What are we ‘supposed’ to see? Are multiple interpretations of an image ok in art? If we are confused and intrigued and surprised, kudos to the designer.

The vase or the face? The robber or the holstein?

Good question.

Princess Hyacinth (The Surprising Tale of a Girl Who Floated)

Welcome!  Since my intention here is to celebrate the design of the picture book, I thought I would start with a favorite.  Molly Leach, who is married to illustrator Lane Smith, is the designer of my all time favorite, The Stinky Cheese Man.  She designed this quirky and sweet story written by Florence Parry Heide, and illustrated by Lane Smith.

Princess Hyacinth floated.  Unless she was attached to something, or weighted down, she just floated — up, up, up.

The King and Queen sew weights into her gowns and pebbles into her socks so that she stays put on the ground.  But when she isn’t royally dressed in her heavy, heavy crown, up she floats.  And she’s slightly bored because of all the time she spends tethered to the ground.  She outwits a ballon man and flies high in the sky, but she floats up a bit too far.  Can she be rescued?  And if so, will she be tethered to the ground forever?

Element of design: LINE SPACING

Unequal spacing between lines creates a dynamic layout.   What would otherwise be evenly spaced out lines can be static and oftentimes boring.  Consciously spacing lines in interesting ways can add action and further support the story.

This story is perfect for utilizing line spacing.  Princess Hyacinth floats up, and up, and up.  The way the lines are laid out on the page add to the feeling of floating up.

This spread is so beautiful and successful because the layout of the text perfectly matches the illustration of Princess Hyacinth floating high above the King and Queen.

Even though Princess Hyacinth is floating up, the text is at the very bottom of the page.  She is just as tiny as a balloon, and the sky is so expansive.  We are able to feel the scale and how high she is because of the layout of the text on the page.  The details of line spacing in this book add to the visuals of this story.  Princess Hyacinth doesn’t float in an orderly or structured manner, so the words to describe her shouldn’t either.  The spatial relationships of the words to the pictures adds so much beauty and interest.

I’ll leave you with this interview with Lane Smith and Molly Leach.  Such top notch creatives, and so inspiring!