The best picture books about writers and the strange and magical things that inspired them

Who am I?

I am an English teacher who is the child of an English teacher. I majored in comparative literature at college and went on to earn a PhD in English Literature. But the experience of reading picture books to my own children was more important to me than any fancy degree. I fell in love with books all over again, with the shape and feel of them, with the fonts, with the way the words sounded out loud, with the way the images extended and commented on the story. “Ah!” I thought, “I should write my own picture book.” So began a long and not so simple journey. I hope my own books foster a love of words, art, and creativity in both adult and child readers.


I wrote...

John Ronald's Dragons: The Story of J. R. R. Tolkien

By Caroline McAlister, Eliza Wheeler (illustrator),

Book cover of John Ronald's Dragons: The Story of J. R. R. Tolkien

What is my book about?

Tolkien wrote that when he was a child, he “desired dragons with a profound desire.” In John Ronald’s Dragons, I follow the development of this desire for the fantastic throughout Tolkien’s life. Tolkien created imaginary “other-worlds” to cope with loss and the trauma of war, but also to entertain his own children.  With a bright green palette, illustrator Eliza Wheeler expresses the brilliance of the worlds he created.  The book prepares the young reader for engaging with The Hobbit and the informative endnotes satisfy the curiosity of adult Tolkien fans. But ultimately, I hope the book is subversive rather than didactic with its insistence on the importance of imaginary creatures and places.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Important Thing about Margaret Wise Brown

Caroline McAlister Why did I love this book?

This book is deceptively simple with its lovely child-friendly language and illustrations featuring rabbits. Yet, the sophisticated questions it poses come right out of graduate programs in literary theory. Is it important to know about an author’s life? How does our knowledge of that life influence how we read an author’s books? Margaret Wise Brown’s life was unconventional, even scandalous, and not necessarily picture book appropriate. But Barnett captures the weirdness, the whimsey, and the beauty.  He invites the child auditor to participate with a plethora of rhetorical questions that will give both children and adults lots to think and talk about. I love this book.

By Mac Barnett, Sarah Jacoby (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Important Thing about Margaret Wise Brown as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 4, 5, 6, and 7.

What is this book about?

An exceptional picture book biography of Margaret Wise Brown, the legendary author of Goodnight Moon, The Runaway Bunny, and other beloved children's classics, that's as groundbreaking as the icon herself was-from award-winning, bestselling author Mac Barnett and acclaimed illustrator Sarah Jacoby.

What is important about Margaret Wise Brown?

In forty-two inspired pages, this biography artfully plays with form and language to vivdly bring to life one of greatest children's book creators who ever lived: Margaret Wise Brown.

Illustrated with sumptuous art by rising star Sarah Jacoby, this is essential reading for book lovers of every age.


Book cover of Emily and Carlo

Caroline McAlister Why did I love this book?

There are lots of books out there about Emily Dickinson, but this is my favorite one. Why? Because it challenges the myth of Emily as a lonely recluse. (After all, what child wants to read about a depressed lady who never leaves the house?) Marty Rhodes Figley humanizes Dickinson by focusing on her love for her dog. Children will identify with Emily as someone who needs a companion to help her navigate the big world. They will also love the rambunctious Carlo as much as she did. I did not know about Carlo before I read this book and as an adult reader, I came away with a more nuanced picture of this most mysterious and mercurial of poets. 

By Marty Rhodes Figley, Catherine Stock (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Emily and Carlo as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 5, 6, 7, and 8.

What is this book about?

When Emily Dickinson was given a puppy by her father, the two were instant best friends. She named him Carlo, after a dog in one of her favorite books, and she delighted in the growing dog’s antics. Carlo, a Newfoundland (and possibly part Saint Bernard), grew to a rather large size and was full of energy. He loved his adventures with Emily. They were an odd pair—a tiny woman and a large, galumphing dog. But they were devoted to one another. Carlo gave Emily confidence to wander and explore the woods and hills near her home, and he listened to…


Book cover of Ode to an Onion: Pablo Neruda & His Muse

Caroline McAlister Why did I love this book?

This biography focuses on one moment, one lunch, and one poem in Neruda’s long and prolific career. And yet it captures so much! Giardino manages to suggest all of the paradoxes in Neruda’s life and work—the sadness and the joy, the grand themes of labor and oppression, and the ordinary sensuous details of daily life. The story arc begins with gloom and the solitary work of writing, but ends with a celebration and a shared meal. The end pages are papery onion skin that the child reader will want to touch. Neruda’s poem, “Ode to an Onion,” is printed in the back in Spanish and English. I can see children being inspired to write their own odes to ordinary objects.

By Alexandria Giardino, Felicita Sala (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Ode to an Onion as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A poetic, beautifully illustrated picture book inspired by Ode to the Onion by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (1904-1973). Pablo has a lunch date with his friend Matilde, who shows the moody poet her garden. Where Pablo sees conflict and sadness, Matilde sees love and hope. The story is less a biography of Neruda and his muse, Matilde Urrutia (1912-1985), and more a simple ode to a vegetable that is humble and luminous, dark and light, gloomy and glad, full of grief and full of joy-just like life.A Junior Library Guild Selection


Book cover of Jump at the Sun: The True Life Tale of Unstoppable Storycatcher Zora Neale Hurston

Caroline McAlister Why did I love this book?

This picture book biography has energy and voice that will captivate the child reader. Speech balloons contain little tidbits of the stories that Zora Neale Hurston collected, inspiring curiosity and a hunger for more. Yellow, sundrenched pages alternate with blue, and Zora’s stylish hats decorate the end pages. The creativity of the Harlem Renaissance jumps from the pages. This picture book makes me want to jump for joy.

By Alicia Williams, Jacqueline Alcántara (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Jump at the Sun as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 5, 6, 7, and 8.

What is this book about?

From the Newbery Honor-winning author of Genesis Begins Again comes a shimmering picture book that shines the light on Zora Neale Hurston, the extraordinary writer and storycatcher extraordinaire who changed the face of American literature.

Zora was a girl who hankered for tales like bees for honey. Now, her mama always told her that if she wanted something, "to jump at de sun", because even though you might not land quite that high, at least you'd get off the ground. So Zora jumped from place to place, from the porch of the general store where she listened to folktales, to…


Book cover of How to Read a Book

Caroline McAlister Why did I love this book?

This is not literally a biography of a writer, but an illustrated poem that immerses the reader in the experience of reading. All writers are readers first, and all writers need readers, so that is why I am including it in my list. When I looked at reviews online, many of them complained that the artwork and the script made the book hard to read. I could not disagree more. The writing and the art literally become one in this brilliant mesmerizing book.  I love that Alexander references Langston Hughes reading on a stoop at the beginning. Then he proceeds to the central simile: 

Once you’re comfy,

Peel its gentle skin,

Like you would

A clementine

The color of

Sunrise.

Melissa Sweet’s orange, yellow, and pink collage literally rises from the page. This is a book to savor slowly, to read again, and again, and again.

By Kwame Alexander, Melissa Sweet (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked How to Read a Book as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 4, 5, 6, and 7.

What is this book about?

A stunning new picture book from Newbery Medalist Kwame Alexander and Caldecott Honoree Melissa Sweet! This New York Times bestselling duo has teamed up for the first time to bring you How to Read a Book, a poetic and beautiful journey about the experience of reading.

Find a tree-a

black tupelo or

dawn redwood will do-and

plant yourself.

(It's okay if you prefer a stoop, like Langston Hughes.)

With these words, an adventure begins. Kwame Alexander's evocative poetry and Melissa Sweet's lush artwork come together to take readers on a sensory journey between the pages of a book.

How to…


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Dinner with Churchill

By Robin Hawdon,

Book cover of Dinner with Churchill

Robin Hawdon Author Of Number Ten

New book alert!

Who am I?

My writing is eclectic and covers many topics. However, all my books tend to have a thriller element to them. Perhaps it's my career as an actor and playwright which has instilled the need to create suspense in all my writings. I sometimes feel that distinguished authors can get so carried away with their literary descriptions and philosophical insights that they forget to keep the story going! It is the need to know what happens next that keeps the reader turning the pages. Perhaps in achieving that some subtlety has to be sacrificed, but, hey, you don't read a political thriller to study the philosophical problems of governing nations!

Robin's book list on lone heroes and threats to national security

What is my book about?

This is a new novel by one of the UK's most prolific writers. It is based around an extraordinary true incident at the start of World War II when fierce political opponents Winston Churchill and Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain encountered each other at a famous dinner party. Seen from the perspective of Lucy Armitage, a young girl suddenly conscripted by a strange stroke of fate into Churchill's overworked but adoring team of secretaries.

As Churchill prepares to take over the leadership of the nation, Lucy finds herself increasingly involved in her famous employer's phenomenal work output and eccentric habits. When romance and the world of espionage impinge on her life, she becomes a vital part of the eternal struggle between good and evil regimes that still exists today.

Dinner with Churchill

By Robin Hawdon,

What is this book about?

It is on historical record that, on the evening of October 13th 1939, six weeks after war had been declared on Hitler's Germany, Winston Churchill and Neville Chamberlain, fierce and implacable opponents for years over the appeasement issue, met together with their two wives, Clementine and Anne, for a private dinner at Admiralty House, and event which caused ripples throughout Westminster.

Chamberlain was still Prime Minister, but had seen all his efforts to negotiate peace with Hitler shattered. Churchill had been recalled to the cabinet after ten years 'in the wilderness', his dire warnings of the Nazi threat vindicated.

Lucy…


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