In my reading recently, I've found two picture books that stand out as excellent.
"The Kite That Bridged Two Nations" (2013, Calkins Creek, written by Alexis O'Neill, illustrated by Terry Widener, ages 4-10) tells the story of Homan Walsh, the boy who flew his kite over Niagara Falls in order to create a bridge between Canada and America.
Based closely on actual events, this picture book uses a lyrical first-person narration. "Whenever wind lifted off the river and sent the trees to dancing, I'd itch to fly a kite," Walsh said. "I'd race to the great Niagara, plumes of mist rising from plunging waters"
When Walsh learned of a contest sponsored by bridge-building engineer Charles Ellet Jr., with a $10 prize going to the first boy whose kite string spanned the two nations, he went to work. Nevermind that his father disapproved of his preference for flying kites to studying. "My string could start a bridge!" Walsh thought.
On the day of the contest, Walsh took his homemade kite, named Union, across the falls to Canada. "Some boys stood on the American bank. But a boy like me knew the wind's true course," he said. Though Walsh's kite string broke after many hours, on a later day when the wind was right, he tried again and succeeded. "A boy like me had joined two countries!"
This expertly crafted book, with extensive endnotes, brings to life Walsh's quiet dignity and the building drama of the events that led to a key moment in history. The lovely acrylic paintings capture the historic setting and the harsh, powerful beauty of Niagara Falls.
On a very different note is "Being Frank" (2012, Flashlight Press, written by Donna W. Earnhardt, illustrated by Andrea Castellani, ages 3-7), a lighthearted, colorful look at honesty. "Frank was always frank," the text begins. "Honesty is the best policy." However, Frank's honesty does not make him many friends. "Your breath smells funny," Frank tells his teacher. "Your toupee looks like my pet weasel," he tells the principal when he's sent to the office.
Finally, Frank asks his Grandpa Ernest for advice. (does Grandpa's name give you a chuckle?) "That used to happen to me, too," Grandpa replies. Frank then observes his grandpa's interactions with his friends. When a neighbor asks him if he likes her gaudy new hat, he says, "Well, there are an awful lot of flowers up there. But my favorite is the purple one in the middle."
"Grandpa, you lied!" Frank exclaims later.
"No, Frank, I told the truth. I really do like the purple flower best," Grandpa says. "I talked about the good things on her hat instead of the not-so-good things." He also sees his Grandpa give another friend an honest opinion of a new recipe. "He asked me for the truth — and I gave it to him," Grandpa said.
Frank learns the right recipe for honesty and soon manages to win back his friends.
While this book definitely serves up a strong message, the story is so well-crafted and full of playful humor that kids will enjoy it on its own merit. The cartoon-style Photoshop illustrations add to the humor and quirkiness of the story, making this a fun, playful read.
Alice B. McGinty (alicebmcginty.com), is the co-regional adviser of the Illinois Chapter of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators and the award-winning author of more than 40 books for children. She directs a summer writing camp, Words on Fire, for teens, and she tutors school-age children in writing.