Review: Peg + Cat: Peg’s Messy Room

by Jennifer Oxley (Author), Billy Aronson (Author)


The PBS math specialists Peg + Cat do it again! Who knew sorting and cleaning could be so much fun? With emphasis on sorting by color, shape and size, Peg’s Messy Room takes “Totally freaking out!” to “Problem solved!” in this fast–and fun–math lesson.




Review: A Horse Named Jack

A Horse Named Jack

By Linda Vander Heyden (Author), Petra Brown (Illustrator)


Oh, what trouble a bored little horse can get into in a single afternoon! What will the kids find when they get to his stall after school?  Have an adventure with A Horse Named Jack, at least until he gets chased home by the neighbor!



Whoooo? Whooooo? Who is Rebecca Elliott? 

The creative mind behind the wildly famous Owl Diaries! That’s who! If you have a kiddo between the ages of five and ten, you are most likely already aware of these gorgeous and highly addictive chapter books.  I had to know how it all started, and even more pressing – why owls?

Rebecca, I’m so excited to catch up with you! The best-selling Owl Diaries in Scholastic’s Branches series is a favorite in our house! It has so many aspects that make it stand out–the characters are easy to relate to; the town and situations are comfortable and easy to imagine; and the colors and patterns make the pages really pop!


I love the amazing (and talented) Eva Wingdale! Can you tell us a bit about how she came to be? Why an owl?


With Owl Diaries I really set out to write the kind of books I would have wanted to read when I was a pre-10 year old. I always loved animal stories but equally wanted characters I could relate to so this is what prompted Eva and her world. It’s escapism (Owls that wear berets and attend Treetop ‘Owlementary’ etc.) whilst at the same time, I hope, it’s relatable to a, say, 8 year old as it’s about friendships, family and being a creative kid. And why owls? Well obviously with their big eyes and fluffy feathers they’re pretty adorable, but also their nocturnal living and the fact that we rarely see them in our day to day lives yet we know they live around us gives them this verging on mythical quality, we could almost believe they might just live a secret life in the woods where they speak to each other on their Pinecone phones and have bats as pets!


You mention the similarities between you and Eva in your book bios, but do you have a Lucy and Baxter (and Sue Clawson) in your life as well to draw inspiration?


Yes, Eva is definitely based on me in that I was always drawing and making things and started the odd club in my time too (and had a cool, if occasionally annoying older brother who was in a band!). Lucy is kind of a bit quieter and a bit more sensible than Eva so is probably a mixture of a few fun but slightly more sensible people than me I’ve known over the years and Eva’s pet bat Baxter is probably a mixture of my pet cat Bernard and my two sons–cheeky and lovable but always flying off somewhere they shouldn’t! As for Sue, Eva’s “Meany McMeanersson” classmate, well I think we’ve all known a few Sue Clawson’s in our time, haven’t we? Though actually she’s one of my favourite characters, yes she’s blunt but I don’t really think she means to be, she’s just a bit misunderstood!


I love the mixed media textures, layers of shapes, and lined paper backgrounds. It’s kind of part graphic novel, part collage, and part sketchbook. It is very different from your illustrations in Just Because, Zoo Girl, and the Cub books. How did the Diary style evolve and how does the workflow differ from your more traditional illustrations?


I’ve illustrated books for many years now and to keep things interesting I’m always changing my style to suit the next project (I’m easily bored!). I’d been using the layered patterns digital style in a few picture books and it seemed to really fit the Owl Diaries, almost as if Eva has scrapbooked the illustrations herself. There is also the fact that there are 80 fully illustrated pages in each Owl Diary (and I’m currently working on book 11!) so I knew I needed a quicker style than my painterly one if I was to keep my sanity and keep up with the workload! I’m proud of how the books look though and think the style suits the format well.


How about your character creation process? Each character has its own patterns, colors and attributes, but without a ton of unnecessary detail. How do you decide who gets what and how do you know when a character design is finished?


I think it’s quite an instinctive process, as I both write and illustrate my books the character design and story writing process go hand in hand. I’ll start with sketches of the characters, then start writing the story with those characters in mind, then as the story progresses on paper that often changes the way I see the character so I go back and change the design, and so on. I think you feel rather than know when the design is finish ed. Or occasionally you hit the deadline and that decides for you!


When you decide on a theme for a book, what is your next step? Are you an outliner or a jump-right-in writer?


I’m definitely an outliner, though I like to give the story space to breathe and shoot off in an unexpected direction if it wants to. I let the story grow, starting with a title or concept, then a paragraph or two, then a full chapter by chapter breakdown of the plot and finally the finished manuscript which then goes through many (many!) rounds of edits with my extraordinary editor at Scholastic Katie, and together we pound and prod the book in to shape.


There is an interesting quote from Chuck Close: “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.” How do you handle self-discipline in your creative life?


I totally agree with that statement–there’s another quote, (attributed to a few different writers!) that I live by which is: “I write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired at nine o’clock every morning.” The point being that to every writer there is nothing more daunting than an empty page, and often one would rather do ANYTHING else rather than have that thing stare at you, yet this is what I’ve chosen to do for a living so I force myself in to it every morning, and sure enough, eventually, stuff pours out of me and I start enjoying myself! I don’t think inspiration does ever “strike,” I think you have to chase it down and wrestle it to the ground.


Tell us a bit about your awesome pod studio and how that came to be your work space.


Ah, my lovely pod. My “sheshed.” I absolutely love working from home but with two noisy sons and a husband who plays electric guitar. Loudly. A lot. Well, it was mildly difficult to concentrate on that empty page in the house so I had a hobbit-esque pod built for me at the bottom of my garden next to my chickens and it’s now pretty much my favourite place in the world. I also think it’s important to be able to close the door at 5 pm and leave work behind for the evening. It’s a nice short commute to work too!


It looks like you get to do tons of school and library visits! Any surprising comments or questions from Owl Diary fans that have stuck with you or shaped the evolution of the stories?


One of my favourite exchanges was with a five year old boy when I did a school visit, introduced myself and, whilst holding up some of my illustrations asked the class, “so does anyone know what an ‘illustrator’ is?” The boy shot his hand up and asked, “Does it mean you live in a tree?”


I live in the UK where Owl Diaries is not so big but this summer I did a book tour in the USA and the fans I met were INCREDIBLE! Meeting really enthusiastic kids clinging to their copies of my books was just an absolute joy. It was a fairly big shock, however, to discover that the noise us Brits give to owls is unheard of in the States, when I mentioned that owls go ‘Too-wit, too-woo’ I’ve never seen so many bewildered and open-mouthed faces staring back at me!  


Your Instagram page says you’ll have a YA book coming out soon! Can you tell us a bit about that?


Writing an actual novel has been my dream for many years but I finally got around to it and after a long search for a new agent, and then two years of re-writes I am now, amazingly, having my first YA novel published by Penguin Random House in early 2020! It’s a TOTAL dream come true. But I’m not sure I’m allowed to say too much about it at the mo so come back to me in a year or so on that one! I also have a new Unicorn Diaries series coming out at a similar time with Scholastic so 2020 should be a fun year.


And of course, any words of advice for our young Story Monsters working on getting their own ideas down on paper?

Yes–just keep writing, and reading, and drawing if illustration is your thing, not because of any long-term career aim but purely for the joy of it. The creative life is it’s own reward and if you keep at it you can only get better.

For more on Rebecca Elliott, check out her website!

Julianne Black DiBlasi •



Review: Fairy House Crafts: Wonderful, Whimsical Projects for You and Your Fairy House

Fairy House Crafts: Wonderful, Whimsical Projects for You and Your Fairy House

By Liza Gardner Walsh (Author)


This book reads like lesson plans for the art camp of dreams. Every page is comprised of a fun new craft that can be used to build fairy houses or adapted into other projects! Homemade paints, glues, and projects for natural and found objects pack this book with great ideas. It even walks you through making your own tutu and fairy wings! A staple for creative households (or households that wish to become more creative) to enjoy some seriously pro-level arts and crafts time.

Interview: Bethanie Murguia

Do You believe in Unicorns?

Do you believe in magic, like when you see something fantastic out of the corner of your eye, or when a song you needed to hear comes on the radio, or when you see someone you know…?

Or, there might be a flash in the window when a passing train flies by. Was it a horse in a hat…? Or was it a unicorn…?

I was fortunate to have caught up with Bethanie Murguia, author of Do You Believe in Unicorns? She had some words of wisdom on imagination superpowers, the creative process, and yes, finding unicorns!

I received a copy of Do You Believe in Unicorns? to review and was immediately excited to share it with my six year old! Tell me about how the idea for the elusive unicorn came about, but also about the concept of finding what you expect to see making its way from idea to print.

It began with the image of a character in a hat. It could be either a horse or a unicorn—but there’s no way to be sure. I love that the hat creates possibility. Because it’s ambiguous, our own beliefs, experiences, and knowledge become a big part of the story. I wanted readers to be able to make up their own minds about unicorns and magic. Children so often hear the word “no”. This book asks, “What do you think?”

It was a vague idea in the beginning, though, and it took many, many revisions to get to the final book. I have 52 versions of this story on my computer. It’s daunting to work on a project when you don’t know where it’s headed, but seeing it work out well is also a good reminder to have faith in the creative process.

Many of your books like The Too-Scary Story, I Feel Five! and Princess! Fairy! Ballerina! are centered around creativity and imagination like little reminders about the power of wonder and enchantment. Can you tell us your earliest recollection of when you realized your imagination was your superpower?

I love this idea of imagination as a superpower. As an adult, I recognize the power of imagination and what a gift it is to be immersed in creating or reading a book.

As a child, I don’t know that I paid much attention to it, but I realize now that I definitely had an active imagination as a child. When I was 7, we moved into a house that was over 150 years old. It was so magical to me, with stairs that went nowhere, secret spaces behind tiny doors, and hatches in the wood floors that I was sure led to treasure. I spent years trying to talk my parents into ruining the floors to pull up those nailed down hatches, but they never agreed. It was probably a favor in the long run because it kept the possibility of treasure alive in my mind…in the same way the hat allows for the possibility of unicorns. I think possibility is really powerful.

Your illustration style has been described as “Self-assured pen, ink, and watercolor illustrations….” by Kirkus Reviews. I have to say the description self-assuredmust be music to your ears. As an artist myself I know how intimidating it can be to put your work out there! Tell me about this style of hard and defined line paired with soft shadow and minimal detail. What kind of background can you give us to how your technique evolved?

I’ve been playing with pen and ink since I was in elementary school. I was obsessed with calligraphy and I attribute any perceived “self-assuredness” to years of repeating letterforms over and over and over. But I also adore watercolor because it’s so unpredictable. Combining the two gives control of important details while also allowing for looseness.

With that said, I’m always trying out new ways of working. My first books were done with nib pens, but I’ve been experimenting with bamboo pens and brushes because they have very different line qualities. I used both a nib pen and bamboo pen for Do You Believe in Unicorns.

Your website is absolutely adorable. I love that your “About” section is told in snapshots and text and reminds me I need to journal more in my sketchbook! Do you think on paper in doodles and half-created scribble ideas or do you create the ideas in your mind prior to them ever seeing paper? What is your preferred method of harnessing all those loose possibilities?

I always doodle! I wish I had a clear picture in my mind, but that’s not the case. I just keep drawing until characters or ideas begin to gel. (And sometimes, it takes months or years. I keep files of ideas that haven’t come together…yet.) I draw and write and do thumbnails in sketchbooks until I have words and images for a few spreads at least. Then, I start trying to make a book. I also have a giant corkboard in my studio where I hang bits and pieces to see how they might fit together.

One of your blog posts states, “Whenever I have the opportunity to speak about the creative process—whether to children or adults—I usually offer up two pieces of advice: 1. Be a collector 2. Be an experimenter.” Can you elaborate a bit for our Story Monsters about how this relates to daily life and give an example of a major win in your life to which you can attribute those two points?

I think all creative wins require some form of this—collecting raw materials from the world around us and then experimenting with how to put them together to convey what we want to say.

I’m always looking for ideas, keeping sketchbooks of moments that are interesting to me—sketches, snippets of conversations, etc.—anything that makes me feel something. These become building blocks for stories. In my case, it’s rarely a lightning bolt that strikes, but rather, continuing to gather little pieces of inspiration.

And if I could ask just one more question. Any projects in the works for which we should be on the lookout? Do You Believe in Unicorns? was just released in September, but what’s next?

Yes! I just finished the final art for The Favorite Book, another collaboration with Candlewick Press. It’s a picture book that explores how we make choices, allowing readers to pick all sorts of favorites along the way. I’m very excited to see this one in print (Fall 2019).

And, I recently launched a site,, that’s an extension of Do You Believe in Unicorns? I wanted to create an experience that would expand on the themes of the book. The site has fun DIY activities, a unicorn mystery, and a UnicornCam app for spotting unicorns (iOS).

Bethanie Murguia is represented by Rubin Pfeffer at Rubin Pfeffer Content and you can learn more about her at


Review: Finding Granny: We never really lose the people we love…

Finding Granny: We never really lose the people we love…

By Kate Simpson (Author), Gwynneth Jones (Illustrator)


Such a great read for kids in extended family situations. As our lives get busier, grandparents are re-entering the nuclear family as alternate caregivers, and while it is an awesome addition to a child’s perspective and world view, age can go hand in hand with illness, disability, and major life changes.

Finding Granny does a wonderful job addressing such changes and providing a door to discussion on the topic of aging and limitations of the mind in a gentle and caring way. Beautiful writing, friendly typography, and almost whimsical illustrations create a safe and nurturing space for a story of growth through a difficult transition.…


Review: The Best Mother

The Best Mother

by C. M. Surrisi (Author), Diane Goode (Illustrator)


Maxine is convinced that the problem is with her mother. The answer is, of course, to find a new mom–one that doesn’t bother her with hair brushing and would let her wear her slippers in the snow. But as she interviews other moms for the position, a funny thing starts to happen…is her old mother maybe ok after all? Loveable read for all ages.

Review: The Secret Life of Squirrels: Back to School!

The Secret Life of Squirrels: Back to School!

By Nancy Rose (Author)


In this latest book by Nancy Rose, super cute photos of squirrels interact with story line props to create a hybrid photography-journal-picture book. Kids will adore the closeup animal photography combined with dollhouse-like miniatures as Mr. Peanuts and Rosie get the squirrel school all ready for the first day of class!

Review: Pluto Is Peeved: An ex-planet searches for answers

Pluto Is Peeved: An ex-planet searches for answers

by Jacqueline Jules (Author), Dave Roman (Illustrator)


Poor Pluto! This is a comic-book-style story on a galactic scale of what happened to Pluto and how (and why) he lost his planet status. Walk through the science museum with our favorite ex-planet and get the behind the scenes scoop on what makes a planet a planet. Excellent for space fans and as additional science curriculum for grades 1-4.