Three Children’s Books That I Loved: Featuring a Plucky Peacock, A Wild Acorn, and Animals in Pants!

I recently opened a new folder and titled it, “Beginnings.” I’ll keep starter files in there. Ideas. Words. Phrases. Seeds for possible stories.

It’s interesting how a line or phrase can open the door to a story. When I have ideas without words, it’s like I’m standing outside a giant egg and I can’t find my way inside.

Words are the voice, the tone, the key.

These past few years, I’ve been teaching a recurring class for Gotham Writers: “Writing Children’s Books: Levels 1 and 2.” We sometimes have special guests, which we all enjoy immensely. Recently we hosted Jen Arena, who has quietly put together an admirable career in children’s publishing. We talked, among a great many other things, about her most recent book:


Jen mentioned that the idea came in the form of a simple sentence that popped into her head one day: Acorn was a nut.

Those words — it always comes down to words, doesn’t it? — provided a way into the story, a door opening for the writer to walk through.

But better yet, that line didn’t survive the editorial process and didn’t make it into the final book. It became: Acorn was a little wild.

Definitely better.

Here’s to the wild ones.

Gorgeously illustrated by Jessica Gibson, who manages to give the whole thing vibrancy and energy.


Jen’s experience reminded me of the great Frank O’Hara poem, “Why I Am Not a Painter.”

Why I Am Not a Painter

Frank O’Hara

I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,

for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
“Sit down and have a drink” he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. “You have SARDINES in it.”
“Yes, it needed something there.”
“Oh.” I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. “Where’s SARDINES?”
All that’s left is just
letters, “It was too much,” Mike says.

But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven’t mentioned
orange yet. It’s twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike’s painting, called SARDINES.

The place where inspiration begins isn’t always where the work ends. Perhaps there’s a lesson in that.

The more I think about Jen Arena’s book, btw, the more I consider it a wholly successful picture book on every level. That is, I think: this is truly a great book. A quiet triumph.

Another book that I absolutely loved was Leave It to Plum by Matt Phelan.



This is a bright new series — planned as five richly illustrated chapter books — featuring an adorably upbeat peacock named Plum.

Plum resides at the Athensville Zoo, where the peacocks serve as proud ambassadors, enjoying freedom to come and go as they please. Their prime directive: “Mingle! Guide! Delight!”

Phelan’s cheerful illustrations grace very nearly every spread, imbuing the story with warmth and humor. 



Many of us know Phelan as an award-winning illustrator, author of groundbreaking graphic novels such as Storm in the Barn, Snow White, Bluffton, and more. But it’s his rich, robust writing that commands center stage here: 

Every morning the ambassadors met for the Mandatory Morning Meeting of Athensville Zoo Peacocks. As today’s meeting came to order, Hampstead, the head peacock, stood as usual under the Great Tree. All peacocks were in attendance.

All but one.

“PLUM!” bellowed Hampstead.

Plum skidded around the path and joined the congregation.

“Here, O Great Leader!” shouted Plum. “Bright-eyed and feathery tailed!”

“Kind of you to join us for the Mandatory Morning Meeting, Plum,” grumbled Hampstead.

“Wouldn’t miss it!” piped Plum. 

Last but surely not least, I fell in love with Suzy Levinson’s Animals in Pants.


This is such a fresh, clever, original twist on a children’s publishing standard: poems about animals. But these poems are different, for these animals are wearing all kinds of pants!

You’ll have to read it to believe it.

As someone who looks at a lot of picture books, I confess that after a while many of them blend together: too slight, too predictable, too familiar, as if we’ve already seen it all before. Not so here, for Levinson’s Animals in Pants strikes like a thunderbolt. It’s just nutty enough — silly, playful, joyous enough — to feel utterly fresh and completely new. 

Levinson’s short, sharp poetry is highly skilled, rhythmic and impeccable. And the art by Kristen and Kevin Howdeshell make this animal world come alive in bright colors with almost old-fashioned illustrations (read: a classic vibe), brimming with compositional inventiveness and color. But don’t take my word for it, take a gander for yourself:


This book is a winner and, for debut author Levinson, it marks what should be the beginning of a brilliant career.

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