The Children's Bookshelf

The Children’s Bookshelf from WCMU Public Radio showcases new children’s book titles meant to engage young readers in the joy of story found in both the written word and illustrations. The target audience includes teachers, librarians, parents and grandparents as part of their role to foster the love of reading.  Each of the two minute reviews have accompanying study questions and activities and are available as podcasts.  

Children's Bookshelf host Dr. Sue Ann Martin.

The series host and reviewer is Dr. Sue Ann Martin, Professor Emerita of Communication and Dramatic Arts in the College of Communication and Fine Arts, at Central Michigan University.

Our theme music for The Children’s Bookshelf is the polka from Denes Agay’s “Five Easy Dances”, performed by the Powers Woodwind Quintet, in residence at Central Michigan University’s School of Music. It is taken from the album GEMS, on the White Pine label.

The Children's Bookshelf only accepts for possible review titles that are sent from the children's book divisions of national publishers. 

WHALE IN A FISHBOWL written in gentle words and rhythms by Troy Howell and illustrated in soft lines and colors by Richard Jones is a thoughtful story about Wednesday the whale who lives in a giant fishbowl in the middle of the city. She is all alone and very much separated from the city life that whirls around her including cars, truck, office workers, families and pets.

One day she leaps up from the bottom to the top of her fishbowl and sees a patch of beautiful blue out passed the city. Wednesday doesn’t know what it could be, but oh how she longs to see it again! When she starts leaping and leaping crowds gather and clap at what they think are her tricks. But it takes one little girl to innocently tell the whale that she is not only beautiful but that she shouldn’t be living in a fishbowl. “You belong in the sea!”

Not understanding the word sea but with this thought in her heart the whale decides to try again to see the blue. She gathers her strength and makes one last attempt. This time she not only performs her highest leap but leaps right over the top of the fishbowl turning it over as she goes. The water carries her down through the city and glides her into the beautiful blue where she belongs and can live happily with other whales.

The special design elements of this book include deep blue-green end papers and a perpendicular gatefold that pulls out to show Wednesday’s spectacular leap!

WHALE IN A FISHBOWL written by Troy Howell and illustrated by Richard Jones is a story told in a soft whisper about freedom for children ages 4-8. (Schwartz and Wade/Random House, 2018).


The Journey of Little Charlie written by Newbery Medal winner Christopher Paul Curtis, is a powerful story set in 1858 and told through the eyes of Little Charlie Bobo, the twelve-year-old son of poor white sharecroppers in Possum Moan, South Carolina.

Little Charlie’s Pap has just died in a freak accident and the landlord’s vicious overseer, Cap’n Buck, comes calling to collect $ 50.00 he says  Pap owes. With no way to pay that debt Little Charlie decides to work it off by taking Cap’n Buck’s forceful suggestion that he accompany him on a trip to bring back some thieves who stole $4,000 and escaped into Michigan some ten years earlier with their young son Sylvanus. During the journey Little Charlie comes to grips with the evil intentions of this mission when he finds out there were no thieves at all but rather two slaves worth $4,000 who stole themselves.

The story is skillfully told in dialect and will keep middle- grade readers engaged with Little Charlie’s growing need to do the right thing as he travels North to Detroit and over into Canada to trick Sylvanus into coming back with him. The authenticity of the dialect is especially effective in establishing the book’s setting. This is a natural book for reading aloud.

In the Author’s Note Christopher Paul Curtis talks about the one tenth of one percent of people who do the right thing: “And getting to know Little Charlie, I was convinced that even though he was raised awash in racism, ignorance, and all-encompassing poverty, he was a part of that  brave minority.”

The Journey of Little Charlie written by Christopher Paul Curtis and partially inspired by a true event is perfect for readers ages 9-12  (Scholastic Press, 2018).


BOAT OF DREAMS told visually in the captivating style of Rogério Coelho is a book full of wonder. Without words the beautifully-detailed pages offer a number of possible stories about an old man, a drawing, a flying boat and a young boy.

The illustrations done in a rich sepia tone first show an old man asleep inside his cabin as the sun starts to peek through the window slats. Awaken by a seagull he puts on his glasses, gets dressed and goes outside. From his cabin, which is situated on a sandy beach, the man spies a bottle that has washed up on shore with a piece of paper inside and retrieves it.

Returning to his cabin, which is full of maps, old radios, paint brushes and books, the old man takes the paper out of the bottle but it’s blank. He decides to fill the paper with a drawing of a gorgeous flying boat equipped with sails, flags and wheels. He places it in the bottle and returns it to the sea.   

The next pages, drenched in blue and white, depict a young boy finding an envelope on his front porch. He opens it and sees that very drawing of the exquisite flying ship! He takes a blue pen and draws in a picture of himself and his cat at the helm of the boat, tapes the picture on the wall over his pillow before bed and falls asleep. The next day, with the picture on board, he navigates the flying boat to the beach where the old man is waiting. They joyously wave, talk and hug. Then the boy leaves the picture with the old man and flies away in the wondrous boat. At night the old man with the picture over his pillow falls asleep as the candle goes out. In the morning the young boy wakes up to a beautiful sky-blue day-----leaving the reader to figure out who was the old man and who is the young boy.

BOAT OF DREAMS by Rogério Coelho is rich in visual literacy opportunities and perfect for imaginative readers ages 8-10 and up (Tilbury House Publishers, 2017).   


ALMA and How She Got Her Name written and illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal is a charming picture book about a little girl with a very long name and how she finds out about family members she is named after and why.

The opening illustration shows Alma as she tries to print her name Alma Sofia Esperanza José Pura Candela on a sheet of paper. But it won’t fit! Her father wisely decides to get the family album down and tell her the story of her long name by showing her pictures of those for whom she was named in honor.

For the first time she sees pictures of her grandmother Sofia, her great grandmother Esperanza, her grandfather José, her great aunt Pura, and her other grandmother Candela. But most importantly, Alma finds out  the story behind each of these names from her father starting with his mother Sofia. “She loved books, poetry, jasmine flowers, and of course, me. She was the one who taught me to read.”

Alma is pleased with each gift that each family member’s name and story bestowed upon her. Her grandmother loved flowers and poetry, her great grandmother was a loving homemaker, her grandfather was an artist, her great aunt believed in the watchful guidance of ancestors and another grandmother stood up for others. Alma has all of these passions, abilities and interests.

The illustrations, rendered in graphite and colored pencils, match the

soft beauty of the story. Some of the many pleasant details such as books, animals, toys, arts and crafts have Spanish labels increasing the visual interest and educational versatility of this book.

Alma and How She Got Her Name written and illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal is a visual and cultural treat for children ages 4-8 (Candlewick Press, 2018). 


ISLANDBORN written by Pulitzer Prize winning author Junot Díaz and illustrated by Leo Espinosa is a heart-warming picture book about borrowed memories and diversity. All the children attending Lola’s school were born elsewhere. When the teacher asks her students to go home and draw a picture based on their memories of their birth country they are all excited. But not Lola. She came to her new country when she was just a baby and has no memories of her birthplace.

The teacher suggests that Lola ask family members and neighbors what they remember. These borrowed memories bring her birth country vividly alive to her in many beautiful and challenging ways. Her cousin tells her about the bats as big as blankets! Her brother remembers drinking agua de coco right from the coconut! Miss Barnard hears music playing everywhere as people dance in the streets. Sunny beaches, fish, dolphins and whales come from her Abuela’s memory and her mother tells Lola about a wild hurricane as fierce as a wolf!

Then Lola takes charge and begins to fill her sketch pad with drawings of the borrowed memories of her home island. The book’s illustrations are full of color, movement, sounds, joy and determination. Especially vivid are the two double-page illustrations that deal with Mr. Mir’s memory of a thirty- year struggle against a terrible political monster that took hold of the beautiful island. He tells Lola about the brave young women and men who “got tired of being afraid” and rose up and freed the island of the menace.

ISLANDBORN written by Junot Díaz and illustrated by Leo Espinosa is an especially genuine story about memories, culture and belonging for children ages 5-8 (Dial Books/ Penguin Young Readers Group, 2018).


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