Deborah Underwood

“Walter had a best friend named Xavier. They hiked up the hill together. They painted pictures together. They were quiet together. Walter and Xavier were best friends.” Then gently and slowly, they were not.

[Underwood’s photo by Lisa V. Leach]

Walter and Xavier do everything together together. This cheerful mouse and green-footed fowl are best buds…happy in their close friendship. Then as it often happens, they drift apart until Xavier strikes up a friendship with Penelope, a hedgehog. Right away, Walter is angry. Loneliness settles in. There’s a “big hole in his heart where Xavier used to be. It felt like the hole would be there forever.”

One morning Walter awakes with a hint of hope. He decides to try a new path, a trail he hadn’t hiked with Xavier. In a welcome twist, Walter meets a badger named Ollie, who joins Walter on his journey toward a new friendship.

Bestselling author Deborah Underwood crafts a caring, candid picture book telling children that it’s okay if their best friend doesn’t always last forever. Walter Had a Best Friend centers on the ups and downs of friendship with a dash of hope. Its takeaway for children is a life-lesson for us all: a new “best friend” may be a breath away. Deborah’s thoughtful story addresses the sting and sadness of losing a close friend yet shows children a way forward.

Walter had a best friend

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Born in Walla Walla, Washington, Deborah dreamed of being an astronomer from a young age. Then a singer. Then a writer. After college, she made her way as a street musician until she decided to write for children. She tells us that “at first [her] stories were pretty awful, but [she] kept trying.”

Sergio Ruzzier

The award-winning illustrator Sergio Ruzzier (photo by Francesco Fantoni) of Walter Had a Best Friend adds his soft pastel landscapes and pen-and-ink lined characters to match the reflective tone of the simple, intuitive text. Born in Milan, Italy, Sergio has authored and illustrated several celebrated picture books, including Fox and Chick: The Party, a 2019 Geisel Honor Book; Two Mice.

Landscape of Walter Had a Best Friend

After living in Brooklyn, New York, he now works out of his antiquated home in the Apennine Mountains in northern Italy. Each of his books stands on its own merit, but the storybook characters interact within a similar panorama—warm-hued hills and waters, and strange rocks and plant life sketched beneath a yellow-pinked sky.

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Kirkus gives Walter Had a Best Friend a starred review: “Walter’s best friend is Xavier. They share a companionable friendship—until one day, they don’t…. This tender, sensitive story speaks to the pain of losing a friendship, validating sadness but emphasizing that there is a way ahead. Perceptively, Underwood recognizes, too, that not all friendships end with fights or drama and that drifting apart slowly can feel just as raw.”

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Not surprisingly, we all struggle navigating the ups and downs of friendship from our preschool years up through retirement. That deep sense of loss and loneliness of losing our best friend stings. When those hard times hit, the simple message of Walter Had a Best Friend is one to remember: with a whisper of hope, set on a new path—one-day-at-a-time—and we might find a new friend waving “Hello.”

Walter Had...cover art


Children's author

“This is a rock. He lives on the Nature Finds shelf in room 214, with an acorn, some moss, and a piece of bark…. He has been sitting on this shelf for as long as he can remember.”

Award-winning author Julie Falatko’s Rick the Rock of Room 214 delivers a marvelously quirky story about a misunderstood character trying to find his place in the world while longing for what many children seek—excitement and adventure. Children don’t like to just sit around! Who does? Well…if there’s a good book in our hands, we do.

Book Cover RICK

Living with her family in Maine, Julie writes for children almost every day while managing the Little Free Library situated in the front of their house. Her daily writing routine keeps the words gushing and the ideas popping from unexpected places. Her advice for authors—both pre-published and published—is “just keep at it.”

In Julie’s Rick the Rock of Room 214, Rick is soooo tired of being sedentary. After listening to the teacher of talk about the power and importance of rocks in nature, this gray clump with glued-on eyes and inked-on smile decides it’s time to fulfill his dream. With a bit of happenstance, he escapes the shelf and ventures into the great outdoors.

Both smart and chucklesome, the story reveals Rick’s discovery: sometimes the best adventures come from having friends.

Items on a shelf
Illustrator Ruth Chan

Living in Brooklyn, New York, the talented Ruth Chan spends most of her time crafting children’s picture books, drawing comics and doing freelance artwork. Before Ruth began her successful career, she spent her childhood tobogganing in Canada, her teen years living in China, and a decade working with youth and families in underserved communities.

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Picture Book Spread artwork

Kirkus gives Rick the Rock of Room 214 a starred review: “Mixing laugh-out loud narration with comics-style framing, previous collaborators Falatko and Chan … earn a gold star for comedy cooperation.”

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As with most of life, many of the adventures we dream of aren’t quite what we imagined. Some are better…some worse. May we learn from Rick the Rock’s epiphany: adventure is clearly what we make it and who we make it with. For Rick and for most of us, being a good friend makes for a grand adventure.

Rick the Rock picture book


John Bray author

“Maybe you just finished eating lunch. That’s THE END of lunch. But don’t worry. There’s still dinner. And sometimes dessert.”

Sometimes? Always! Author John Bray offers readers a new way of looking at life. His new book THE END joyfully explores the possibilities that await us at endings, in-between times and beginnings. Bray’s playful, humorous text creates an endearing re-aloud. Illustrator Josh Cleland magnifies the text with vibrant, playful artwork. When children come to the end of THE END, they’ll want to begin again.

We know that endings can be tough–the end of summer. Transitions can be even harder–packing boxes before moving. And beginnings can be scary–the start of school. With humor and heart, Bray reminds us that all these times in life can be enjoyed.

The End picture book

“THE END of one thing is the beginning of something else. And the beginning of one thing is THE END of something else. And that’s okay.”  

Living in St. Charles, Illinois, Bray spends much of his time writing picture books for children. Recently, he’s begun his own new beginning in middle grade fiction.

The End picture book
The End by John Bray and illustrated by Josh Cleland
Josh Cleland, illustrator

Since 2009, the talented illustrator Josh Cleland has been creating whimsical illustrations for projects all over the world. His fun, lively artwork brings to life Bray’s unique story THE END. A perfect pairing!

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The End picture book

Both clever and comical, THE END inspires children to march through their beginnings, middles, and ends by using their never-ending imaginations. Kirkus gave THE END a starred review: “An engaging book about accepting endings and celebrating beginnings.”

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Waiting for something to end or begin can be unnerving. Being in times of transition can be even more so. No matter what we’re facing, may today mark the day when we’re finally able to find a bit of fun in life’s moments–welcomed or not.

Kindness at the Border

Kindness at the Border

Stephen Briseño

Before, the sun drenched the yard. Our neighbor’s laughter danced in the streets. Now, the streets are quiet. Papa is gone, and we are no longer safe here. We are leaving, too.
Based on actual events at the Tijuana/San Ysidro border, author Stephen Briseño’s moving story—The Notebook Keeper—follows Mama and her young daughter, Noemi, as they seek asylum in the United States. Illustrator Magdalena Mora uses heartfull illustrations to depict this emotional journey, fleeing from a home in Mexico to the U.S. border.

Once at the checkpoint into the United States, Mama and Noemi are denied entry. They must find the refugee in charge of “the notebook,” an unofficial ledger of those waiting to cross into the States, and add their name and number to the book.

Notebook Keeper cover art

The “Notebook Keeper’s” kindness instills a sense of hope and comfort as the two wait in a tent city for their number to be called.

After the days of waiting turn into weeks, the little girl’s hope fades until she draws upon the kindness of others and the compassion within herself to rebuild that hope. On the day when the Notebook Keeper’s number is called to cross, Mama and Noemi are chosen to take her place because of their own capacity for kindness.

Stephen’s lightbulb moment for writing this heartwarming story came in 2019 while driving home from the funeral. Buried in grief from the passing of his close relative, he began flipping through his podcast app and picked one at random, hoping to distract himself from his thoughts.

The podcast turned out to be “The American Life,” hosted by Ira Glass. The episode broadcast an interview with a migrant who was volunteering as a “notebook keeper” at the San Ysidro/Tijuana border and helping to keep track of refugees attempting to cross or seek asylum in the United States. Stephen was so moved by what he had heard that he thought it would make an inspiring story for children. In fact, Stephen includes an Author Note in his book explaining the actual circumstances of the notebook keepers and how the system had stopped once the border was closed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Art work

Now, a little over two years later, Stephen’s idea is realized in this informative, fictional picture book about loss, grief, compassion and hope.

The Notebook Keeper is Stephen’s debut picture book, which is also released in Spanish. As a surprise to his mother, he named the Notebook Keeper in the story after his mother Belinda. She had no idea that he had done that until the book was published.His reward for honoring his mother this way was her tears of joy while reading the story. While crafting other picture books, Stephen works as a middle school English teacher. From early on, he wanted to be a children’s book author but struggled to, as he puts it, “find my way and find my story.” He’s certainly “found his way” with this inspiring story of heart and hope.

Children's Book illustrator

Illustrator Magdalena Mora, who has a number of published picture books, is based in Minnesota. To capture the atmosphere and essence of Stephen’s story, Magdalena visited the San Ysidro/Tijuana border to find inspiration. Her experience had taught her that although “border checkpoints are different,” there are similarities in the feel of them—“the sense of waiting and urgency.” She spent much time sketching and photographing the area. Using gouache, colored pencils and vibrant pastel paints, she sought to capture the border’s “bustling energy and statelessness” as well as put a real human face on the struggle so many refugees face today.

During the publication process, each time Magdalena had sent Stephen a finished sketch, he found that she had “surpassed” anything he had already envisioned. Through their brilliant collaboration, these two talented storytellers paint a more nuanced, human picture of the struggles of migrants, one that will connect with everyone.

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Waiting to cross a barrier, even a creative one, is not easy. While in the middle of our struggling, we would all welcome kindness—both in the giving and receiving of it. May today mark the start of more kindness, more hope, and more humanity in our lives.

Notebook Keeper art
“Backus Cupcakus!”

“Backus Cupcakus!”

Salagadoola mechicka boola bibbidi-bobbidi-boo!
Put ’em together and what have you got?
Bibbidi-bobbidi. Bibbidi-bobbidi. Bibbidi-bobbidi-boo….

Jess Townes, children's author

Who doesn’t love a smidge of magic and pixie dust mixed into their day? Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother has nothing over Jess Townes, the clever author of a new picture book Spellbound. This enchanting story crafts a fun, fresh twist on new-sibling relationships and the magic of love that binds them.

Willow’s world blossoms with magic until baby brother Rowan is born. When her adorable, new sibling seems to charm everyone he meets, Willow decides that he is the real deal–a genuine wizard. Can she put a stop to Rowan’s abracadabra, or is his magic too mighty to resist?

First page spread of SPELLBOUND

Jess Townes’ crisp and lively writing is sure to connect with both young and old while gifted illustrator Jenn Harney’s vibrant art style brings this pleasing, playful story to life.

Jess Townes and her lap dog

Jess Townes is a lifelong storyteller. She’s worked in education, non-profit, birth and lactation services, freelance writing, and acting. Presently, she works as a bookseller at Main Street Books in St. Charles, Missouri, where she loves connecting with people through stories. More than anything, Jess enjoys her family: her ukulele/partner husband, two stimulating teenagers, two crafty cats, and a 50-pound lap dog.

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Treat yourself and share with others this magical adventure:

Wouldn’t life be nice if by waving a stick and whispering hocus-pocus, we could create something delightful? Somehow, I think not. Hard work of heart and mind is where the story magic happens. But go ahead and try. Gather a theme and ideas—a pumpkin, some mice, and a big dog named Bruno. Whip your wand in the air, singing: Bibbidi-bobbidi, Bibbidi-bobbidi, Bibbidi-bobbidi-boo. And if that doesn’t work, well…sit. Then write…and write…and write.

Life is a series of moments, strung together by memories. May each of your days spark with a spritz of magic. Salagadoola!