Picture Books, Read Alouds, & the Power of Shared Stories with Sarah Mackenzie

Homeschool Conversations podcast Picture Books, Read Alouds, & the Power of Shared Stories sarah mackenzie

When it comes to choosing the best family read-alouds, few names are as beloved and trusted in the homeschool world as Sarah Mackenzie. It was a delight to chat with Sarah again in this Homeschool Conversations episode! We discuss all things picture books and family reading time, plus we talk about Sarah’s newest picture book published by Waxwing Books. This is definitely one to share with a friend!

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Homeschool Conversations podcast Picture Books, Read Alouds, & the Power of Shared Stories sarah mackenzie

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Meet Sarah Mackenzie

Sarah Mackenzie is an enthusiastic reader of picture books and host of the Read-Aloud Revival podcast. Sarah lives in Eastern Washington with her husband and six kids, where they homeschool, read aloud, and dance in moonlit gardens whenever possible.

Sarah Mackenzie WaxWing Books A Little More Beautiful

Watch my Homeschool Conversation with Sarah Mackenzie

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Amy Sloan: Hello, friends. Today, I am joined by Sarah Mackenzie, who has been a guest before, and I am so delighted to get to chat with her again today. She probably needs no introduction for you, but in case you’re new to Sarah, she is an enthusiastic reader of picture books and host of the Read-Aloud Revival podcast. Sarah lives in Eastern Washington with her husband and six kids, where they homeschool, read aloud, and dance in moonlit gardens whenever possible.

Picture books that have captured our imagination

Sarah, I am so delighted to chat with you today, and since I have talked with you about some of the homeschooly questions before, I want to jump right into our topical discussion today and ask if you remember any particular picture book from your childhood that particularly captured your imagination.

Sarah Mackenzie: Yes, I do. This is such an interesting question too because I have a t-shirt, a green t-shirt that has the Goodnight Moon cover on it, and whenever I wear it, without fail, a complete stranger will come up to me and be like, “Oh my gosh, I loved that book when I was a kid.”

It just strikes me like picture books, the books that we met as children, they have a different level of impact on us. Because I also have a Little Women t-shirt, and a Pride and Prejudice t-shirt, and I’ll get comments on those two, but not nearly as many as Goodnight Moon.

I just think that’s interesting. I’m like, “I wonder why the books that we meet when we’re children have such a resounding impact?” I actually told my friend Pam Barnhill once, “This is the perfect conversation starter because complete strangers will come up and talk to you.” She was like, “Remind me never to wear that shirt,” because she’s such an introvert. The idea of strangers striking up a conversation, she was like, “That sounds terrible.”

Instantly, when you ask this question, the first book that comes to mind for me is King Bidgood’s in the Bathtub. Do you know this book?

picture books for homeschool families Sarah Mackenzie

Amy: The title sounds familiar, but it is not one of my childhood favorites, so tell us about it.

Sarah: This one’s by Don and Audrey Wood. The illustrations are really lush, dark. It’s medieval. It’s a story of a king who gets in the bathtub and won’t get out. There’s a refrain in the book that’s like, “Help, said the Page when the sun came up. King Bidgood’s in the bathtub, and he won’t get out.” I can’t believe I remember that. Every couple of pages, it’s the same thing, except now the page is trying, and then the duke is trying, and the queen is trying, and the cook is trying, and there’s all these different people in the castle that are all trying to get the king out of the tub.

The general will say like, “There’s a war,” and he’ll say, “Blah, blah, said the king,” and he’s like, “We’ll have our war in the tub.” Then the next page, when you flip it is this elaborate war figurine thing, like playscape, I guess that he’s playing. Then there’s going to be a feast, but he just has, “We’ll have our feast in the tub, and there’s going to be a ball, and everybody has to come into the tub.”

I don’t know why I loved this book so much. I remember the first time I heard it was at a library story time. I remember everything about the illustrations. I love this book so much, I introduced my own kids to it, and they did not love it the same way I did. In fact, my oldest daughter tells me now, she’s 22 now, but she says that it gave her nightmares as a child, which I was like, “Really?” [laughs] I loved it so much. That’s the one that comes to mind for me first.

Amy: Oh, that is hysterical. Oh, for me, I was thinking, so the author, the Woods, I remember their book, Quick As a Cricket. That was the one that we had. By that people. I think the one that I remember the most is Time of Wonder by Robert McCloskey. Really all of the Robert McCloskey books. I remember that picture book so specifically and so vividly because the ending lines have come back to me so often as a teenager, as an adult, where they’re leaving the island to return to their fall, winter home. School is beginning, and so they’re leaving one home and returning to another.

picture books for homeschool families Sarah Mackenzie

It says, “A little bit sad about the place we are leaving, a little bit glad about the place we are going. It’s a time of quiet wonder, of wondering, for instance, where do seagulls go in a hurricane?” I think that that idea is very appropriate in many situations. I think about that one a lot, but really all of Robert McCloskey. He is just one of my favorites.

Sarah: I loved Blueberries for Sal. That’s still my favorite, and it was my favorite when– I’m a huge Robert McCloskey fan. You can’t see it with my camera right now, but right above me on that little shelf above me, I have the Make Way for Ducklings, a little statue, sculpture of Make Way for Ducklings. I love Robert McCloskey so much. It’s interesting because my older kids, so my three oldest are 22, 20, and 18, and my 20-year-old was just saying she’s just spotted Mirette on the High Wire by, is that one by Emily something? I can’t remember her last name. Maybe Jenkins. No, not Jenkins. That’s a different one. Anyway, it doesn’t really matter.

picture books for homeschool families Sarah Mackenzie

The title is Mirette on the High Wire. It’s about a little girl who, in France, I believe as a child meets a tightrope walker who stays at her mother’s hotel or boarding house or something. I don’t remember reading it a lot. I remember reading it for Five in a Row because I used Five in a Row with Allison when she was little. It stuck with her. She sees it now and she’s like, “That book is just amazing. It’s just amazing.” There is something about a book that captivates you as a child. It’ll be interesting to see what our kids, what their favorite picture books are. What are the ones that stay with them?

Amy: Oh, yes. Now, after we’re done here, I’m going to have to go ask my older teens and ask them because it may surprise me. It may not be the book that I think would have stood out to them the most that’s become that heart story for them.

Sarah: I don’t know what my other two oldest would say, so now I’m going to do that too because I’m curious, yes, yes.

I know it doesn’t always makes sense. I can’t really tell you why King Bidgoods in the Bathtub stuck with me, but I loved it so much. Then there’s a book called Chloe and Maude by Sandra Boynton before she became Sandra Boynton. It was one of her earliest books. I think they were cats, if I remember correctly. The book is out of long out of print now. I just remember I can picture them with the paintbrush in their hand. I remember reading that book over and over and over again in my school library, loving it so much. I don’t know why. Maybe if I read it again now, maybe I’ll see something in it. That’s interesting. I’ll have to think about that.

Amy: Sandra Boynton, her book that stuck with me the most all growing up and still is one of my favorites is But Not the Hippopotamus. I remember actually giving that to a friend on her 16th birthday, when we were teens.

picture books for homeschool families Sarah Mackenzie

Sarah: Oh my goodness.

Amy: I was like, “Here, this is the book you have to have.” She had never heard of Sandra Boynton before.

Sarah: That’s amazing. As a 16 year old, that’s fabulous. I love that so much.

Why are picture books valuable for any age?

Amy: Well, because a lot of times people think picture books are just for little kids. There’s this idea that picture books are for small children, then you graduate to chapter books in middle grade. We have these very distinct categories now in our mind, but I like to say that you’re never too old for picture books, and I bet you would probably agree with me.

Sarah: I would.

Amy: Why do you think picture books are really valuable for any age? here you and I are adults, moms, and we still love picture books. We can remember fondly the ones from childhood, but even we’d still choose to read them on our own. What’s so uniquely beneficial about picture books and what makes them just strike our hearts in this unique way?

Sarah: Couple of things come to mind. One is that oftentimes as parents, we do think once our kids don’t need the pictures, we should move them up to text only and there’s something superior about those stories. The really interesting thing to note is that picture books oftentimes contain more complex, beautiful language than children’s novels do. If you were to go from, let’s say even a really good classic children’s novel like Charlotte’s Web, I’m not sure what the Lexile measure or the reading level is on that book, but it will be leveled there.

We could look it up and it would be, there’d be some age level or reading level that’s associated with it. The reason is because publishers expect that children are reading books like chapter books and novels to themselves. They want to make sure they’re successful. They’ll make sure that a sixth grader could read a book like Charlotte’s Web. They’re not going to, they’re going to make sure that the complexity of the language and the syntax and vocabulary is all appropriate for that age. I would bet Charlotte’s Web is something like fourth grade level or something like that.

Textbook Free Preschool Humility and Doxology

Now, with picture books, they don’t level picture books because publishers expect that adults are reading picture books with children, adult parents or teachers are. What happens is there are no reading levels associated with them. When an author is writing a middle grade novel or a chapter book, they are mindful of the fact that they have to keep the book within a certain reading level. That’s not true for picture books. Quite often we’ll see more elevated language, more sophisticated vocabulary. When we go from a picture book to a novel, we’re actually taking a step down in the language, which is interesting. Not something most of us are thinking of.

Aside from that, I just think it’s so interesting that at the same time that we tend to prioritize text over text with pictures, we read these novels with our kids, or have our kids read novels, and then we take them to art museums, when a lot of times the art that’s in these books is art museum level quality, especially if you’re talking about like Robert McCloskey or the Don and Audrey Woods picture books, like The Napping House and Quick as a Cricket, those paintings are just as beautiful as you would see in an art museum. It’s just like an art museum in your child’s lap, so cool. They can get right up close to it.

It’s just interesting how we do tend to think of picture books as just being for younger kids. My kids, I’ve read picture books with them all the way through. I think if we can do it, if we do it and don’t make it weird, I don’t think my older kids even thought it was weird. In high school, when we were homeschooling high school history, I would read picture book biographies to my older kids almost every day. It was never like, “Oh, weird. Mom’s reading, a Harriet Tubman picture book biography to us.” It was just a picture book to us. The language was so rich. We all learned so much. The illustrations were gorgeous. It’s like art, appreciation, poetry, and history all in one. It’s a really rich learning experience.

Amy: That makes me think of Thanksgiving at my house. I had teens down to small children. I had grandparents here. My husband read aloud a few historic Thanksgiving declarations from previous presidents. I read out loud a picture book to everyone.

Sarah: I love it. What did you read?

Amy: It was really on the same level.

Sarah: I love it. I love it. Which book did you read?

Amy: It was, oh, is it Sarah Gives Thanks or Give Thanks to Sarah? It’s one of the ones about Sarah Hale and the story of how she really kept Thanksgiving safe and made it a national holiday through perseverance and the power of the pen.

Sarah: You know what I love so much? Caroline Starr Rose, who’s one of my favorite authors, she writes middle grade YA picture books. When she’s doing nonfiction, she’ll say the first thing she does is she goes and checks out a bunch of picture books. As an author of picture books now, I realize, especially a picture book biographies, I realize how much research and a picture book author will do for a nonfiction book or a picture book biography, and then distilling it to tell one specific story that I think there’s almost never been a case where I’ve read like a picture book biography like that one you just read for Thanksgiving, for example, and didn’t learn something. I had no idea. Is that true?

Amy: That okay. Really quick tangent, but that makes me think about poetry and how poetry has to take these big ideas that maybe someone would write an essay about, and it has to distill it down to its most essential, most beautiful words and ideas. You have this really powerful and yet abbreviated form. That’s one of the things that makes a poem so beautiful and so meaningful. A picture book maybe is the same idea, even if it’s written in prose format, but it’s taking these big ideas and it’s having to put away all the dross, all the extra, and really get down to the essential ideas.

Homeschool Conversations podcast Picture Books, Read Alouds, & the Power of Shared Stories sarah mackenzie

Sarah: I think of it as an economy of language really, which is we can get this story out. All of the picture books that I’ve written, we’ll get the story out, then it’s a matter of cutting and fine tuning, and can you find one word that will take the place of those three words better, more beautifully? I think because a picture book is meant to be read aloud, and because poetry is meant to be read aloud, it’s the same idea behind Shakespeare, why when you read Shakespeare on the page to yourself, it just doesn’t do the same thing as it does when it’s spoken aloud because he wrote it to be performed. He wrote it to be read aloud.

Oral storytelling was always meant to be heard aloud. Poetry is meant to be heard aloud, it sings. A picture book in the same way, whether it’s prose, or rhyme, or something in between, it’s meant to be read aloud, and because of that, the music, not always, we’ve all read those picture books where we’re like, “Oh my goodness, I feel like my brain is melting as I’m reading this book.” There’s nothing musical about it, but the really good ones, like Time of Wonder, like what you were talking about before, like Robert McCloskey, the books that stay with us, there’s something different going on there.

Amy: Yes, there is because I think you mentioned Blueberries for Sal, that’s one I’ve probably read hundreds of times, and yet I don’t get tired of it. It’s just as fresh and evocative, and alive to me now as the first time. Same with chapter books, I’ve probably read Across Five Aprils aloud to my kids half a dozen times at least and hope to do so many more times before they leave home and never get tired of it. It’s fresh and new every time, but there have been other books that conveniently get lost or returned to the library-

Sarah: Lost.

Amy: -without letting anyone know. Exactly.

What makes a good book worth rereading?

Amy: What separates those books that we just could read and reread over and over again from ones that sometimes we don’t even really want to read one time?

Sarah: There’s a great C.S. Lewis quote that I’m going to totally botch about how a children’s story that is only enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest. That really the good ones last. The good stories are the ones that we enjoy as much as adults as we do as children. What is that? What is that? What’s happening there? I think there’s a lot of different answers to that.

books for homeschool families Sarah Mackenzie

One of the books series that we’ve read aloud the most in our family over and over again are the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. We love the audio versions read by Cherry Jones. I actually don’t really love reading those books out loud myself because they have really long descriptive passages. I don’t know, I have a hard time with it, but with the audio books, I could listen to them. We’ve listened to them on road trips over and over again. I can hear her voice in my head. That’s the voice of Laura to my children probably.

What is it about those? I don’t know. I feel like there is an elevation of language, how we were talking about that the picture books often have more elevated language than a chapter book or novel, but I think even in the chapter books and novels that stick with us, like Across Five Aprils, they’re not written down to children. It’s like the story is the language itself causes the reader to sort of rise up to it rather than the other way around.

Then, I think there’s also something to the stories where my kids when they were reading The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder, my kids are probably thinking different thoughts than I am. I’m probably thinking when Ma goes down to the cellar and realizes there’s nothing more to eat or when the snow is falling and the trains can’t get through, I have a whole different appreciation for what’s happening in that moment for Ma. My kids are probably thinking of it completely from there. When I was a child, I didn’t read them as a child actually, I wish I had, but I’m sure I would have experienced it differently.

I think it’s this ability for a book to meet people where they’re at, then you come back to it three years later or your kids do, and they’re– One of the books that this makes me think of is there’s this series of books for Advent and Christmas by Arnold Ytreeide. They start with Jotham’s Journey. There’s Bartholomew’s passage, Tabitha’s travels, and Ishtar’s Odyssey, I think. They’re all about, like Jotham lives at the birth of Christ, and it’s a fictionalized account of these people who live at the birth of Christ. He’s a fabulous storyteller. He wrote them for his step-sons.

I talked with him once for the Read Aloud Revival podcast. He’s such a sweet, wonderful man. He basically wrote the stories for his step-sons, telling them the stories each night. Every day they’d be like, “What happens next? We’d have to write the next part.” Then he wrote the same story from different perspectives. We read them over and over. Even though I read Jotham’s Journey to these same kids four years ago, and then we read the other ones each year, when we come back to it, my kids are different. An eight-year-old is very different than a 12-year-old, that same child at 12, that same child at 16. They’re like a different person, so they bring a different experience to the page too.

The book itself, I think that’s what we mean by living books when we talk about living books, is that not only is the book alive with ideas, but it speaks to us depending on where we are in our lives and what’s happening, and that we’re a different person today than we were yesterday, than we were two weeks ago.

Amy: It’s bigger on the inside than the outside.

Sarah: Yes, yes, that’s a beautiful description.

Is reading aloud more significant that “one more thing” to do?

Amy: Well, I think about this and it makes me excited. It makes me want to go down, and grab a stack of picture books, and corral the children from their various corners of the house. I will say that sometimes, especially as older kids have gotten older, and life gets more and more busy, reading aloud with my kids can feel like one more thing I’m not doing well. It’s like, “One more thing I really want to do, and it’s valuable, and it’s a priority, and yet I never feel like I’m doing it enough.”

I hear that from other homeschool moms. I think I can’t be the only one who feels that way sometimes. Do you have any tips to fit in read aloud time during the day or maybe a way to rethink or redefine the way we think about the time we do spend reading aloud?

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Sarah: Yes. I was just talking with a group of moms locally about this because I think for me, I just don’t need anything else that I need to do every single day. We already have enough on our plates. One of the things that I think is unique about reading aloud is it does so much heavy lifting for us that instead of thinking of it as like, oh, I also need to read.

I need to make sure my kids floss every day and brush every day and pray every day, and they get to their schoolwork and their chores, and three meals and all the things that we do every single day, instead of adding it to that list, I think even reframing it to ask yourself, what heavy lifting does reading aloud do that makes it so I don’t have to do as much somewhere else?

For example, when we read aloud a book with our kids, we’re doing a few things that are– They’ll happen whether they’re happening or not, but it helps if they’re happening. One of those things is that your child is reading about a character who has to overcome obstacles because every story has a hero who has to overcome obstacles to get what they want or need to become who they need to be. Every single time we read a story, we’re giving our kids the chance to bear witness to somebody overcoming obstacles of seemingly insurmountable odds because most stories have a moment where it seems impossible that the hero is going to succeed.

They get this chance to bear witness again and again and again to hardships they will never face in their life. I know as a mom, I will feel like, “Man, I don’t know what my kids are going to need when they get older. I don’t know what they’re going to face. I don’t know how to prepare them, but if I can give them a chance to bear witness to another human or animal character overcoming odds again and again, and facing obstacles, and having to draw deep into themselves to become who God wants them to be in order to achieve their goals, that’s amazing.” That’s an amazing thing to give them the opportunity to bear witness to.

Then also gives them a chance, of course, to walk a mile in the shoes of someone else, which gives them this chance to exercise empathy and compassion and to see people the way Christ sees them, which is another thing that it’s really hard to fabricate or create an opportunity to teach this to your kids. Reading aloud just does it. You have those two things. These are really big things I want to do as a mother. I want to foster empathy and compassion and love in my children. I want them to learn to love God and love others. I want them to be able to face hard things and to build up fortitude.

I also want them to have good, rich language and good vocabulary and be able to take ideas and connect them and think about them. All of these things are things maybe on my subconscious to-do list of like these are big things that I’m carrying as a mother, but sitting down and reading for 10 minutes with my kids or 15 minutes with my kids does all this. If we reframe it and think like, “Holy cow, for 15 minutes, I can get–” That’s a lot of bang for your buck, that’s like a lot of good that you’re getting out of something that doesn’t take a lot of time or money.

I think if we can think of it that way, it feels less like, “Here’s another thing I can do,” that rather we can think of it more like, “Here’s something I can do that’s really simple that does so much heavy lifting for me over here.”

Amy: That reframes what we’re doing instead of it being one more thing on the to-do list. It’s actually this big thing that’s encompassing all these other goals we already had as parents.

Sarah: It gives you a chance to connect then too. Usually, even if I’m butting heads with any one of my kids, not that this ever happens, of course, by the end of read aloud time, we feel connected on a deeper way. We feel aligned or we’re reminded that we’re because we’re cheering for the same heroes, and we’re fearing the same villains, or crying at the same moment when, man, what is Laura Ingalls’ dog’s name?

Amy: Oh, Jack.

Sarah: Thank you. When Jack gets lost down the stream and we’re all holding our breath, we’re aligned again. We remind ourselves that we’re on the same team. We’re for each other without having to, I don’t know. It it feels like a very simple, easy way to do that. On the days where I feel like, oh, yes, and I also need to read aloud to my kids, I need to feed them and make sure they brush their teeth and all those other things that they need to do, it definitely feels like a weight until I remember what it actually is doing in my home, then I’m, actually, this is making my life easier, not harder.

reading relationships and restfully homeschooling sarah mackenzie

Amy: Sometimes I also just remember how those little moments add up because it’s harder and harder to find times to read aloud to everyone together. Over the course of time, I really can get through a whole book with a few of my children or one child one-on-one, just a little bit here and there really adds up. It makes me happy when I can look back, at my list, I’m a list person. I’ll look back at that or keep the record and be like, “Oh, wow, we actually did read more,” I think sometimes than I think we did. I think we can be really hard on ourselves and think, “Oh, I didn’t read 20 books this week to my children.” That’s silly. Instead, if you look back and look at what we actually did, it’s like, “No, what you actually did was pretty significant.”

Sarah: At the end of a school year, oftentimes I’ll think, “What did we even do?” Then, yes, you look at your list and think because I know that I didn’t read aloud every day. That’s what I’m thinking. We didn’t get to this every day and I wanted to. Then instead, if I look at the list of what we actually read, that makes, yes, you’re right, totally reframes it. The other thing I found as my kids get older because I don’t know if you found this, Amy, I bet you have, but you don’t always have everybody in the same room together. It ends up being like, “Ah, when are we going to finally have everybody here so I can keep reading?” It feels like it takes a long time.

One, to get through a book because you’re waiting that person, that teenager’s working tonight, and this one has an activity, and that one has a choir practice. What I found is during seasons when it was hard to get everybody in the same room at the same time, I would just read maybe every other evening or whatever aloud to whoever was there. Then if you missed it, we’d always start with like, “Okay, let’s catch everybody up on what they missed.” A lot of times the kids will be like, “Yes, catch me up on what I missed.” Then I’d find them reading it later because they didn’t want to miss it themselves.

That can also be a way to keep the momentum going because I know that’s a thing that I can lose steam really quickly it’s if it’s hard to get everybody in the same room, then if it takes me a long time to get through a book with my kids, I find that I lose a little bit of steam. You can keep that momentum going by being like, “Well, you don’t have to hear every word actually.” That’s not how it works.

Amy: That’s a good tip. Then you’ve worked in some sneaky narration there too.

Sarah: Exactly, yes. Who remembers what happened last time? I love it.

While Everyone is Sleeping by Sarah Mackenzie

Amy: Sarah, last time we chatted, you had recently come out with your picture book, A Little More Beautiful, but now there’s a new one, While Everyone Is Sleeping. I would love to hear you tell a little bit about your newest book, the inspiration for this story. Then I’m just super curious, your personal experience of the process of getting this book prepared, compared with your first experience publishing a picture book.

While Everyone is Sleeping picture books for homeschool families Sarah Mackenzie

Sarah: While Everyone Is Sleeping is a rhyming bedtime story. I’s about a little shrew who wakes up by the moonlight and is tantalized by a mysterious scent and sound to go outside and find out what’s happening outside. She overcomes her obstacles. Her obstacles, of course, are the dark, and the fear, and the unknown, and a thumping tail from a puppy nearby. Then she finds a moonlit ball, I guess in the garden.

Here’s where this story started, so interesting. My now 11 year old daughter, when she was three, maybe even younger, you know how little kids get up super early in the morning and it’s still dark, she would be talking about that time of day. She would say, “In the morning of the night.” She would say that almost every day, “In the morning of the night,” then she would tell you what happened that morning. She’d be telling my husband what she was doing that morning in the morning of the night. We loved that phrase so much.

This book actually started with just that phrase because I thought that’s a pretty musical phrase actually. What does happen in the morning of the night? That phrase never made it into the final book because it didn’t quite make sense. It didn’t quite work, especially once I made the decision to make it a rhyming book. We just decided that one didn’t do quite what we needed it to do, but that’s where it started.

Then I wrote the whole book, and for many, many drafts, it was actually a story about, a human. It was not about shrews at all, it was about humans. It was about a little, a girl who climbed out of bed in the morning of the night, in the very early morning when it was still dark, and she went out to the garden and found a flower that blooms only at night, which my husband was the one that said, “What would be so interesting is I wonder if there’s any night blooming flowers?” I thought that is interesting. I found out the moon flower actually does bloom only at night.

Then as soon as the sun starts to rise, it closes back up, and so you won’t ever see it open in bloom, if you just look at it in the sunlight, you can only see it at nighttime. I thought, “Oh, that’s so interesting.” Then the story was like this little girl who dances around in this garden that she finds these blooming moon flowers. Then she’s climbing back into her bed. Her baby sister, who shares a room with her in a crib is actually been watching her the whole time, which the reader would know, but because you’d see it, you’d see the baby looking, but she didn’t know.

That’s how it was for the first while. Then I don’t totally remember when it transferred over to becoming shrews, [chuckles] but I have such a love for storybook rodents that I feel like I’m always like, every time I think of a story, I think I wonder if this would be better told from the perspective of a mouse. [laughs] I think somewhere along the lines, the moon just felt like bigger and the nighttime garden felt more mysterious and magical from the perspective of a shrew. It ended up becoming a shrew. it was such a fun book to write. It was much harder to write than A Little More Beautiful because it’s written in rhyme.

I love a good rhyming book, but I’m also one of those really picky books and rhyme people, where I want it to sound just right. It took many, many drafts and a lot of help from editors and critique partners to get it right, but because it was our second book coming out from Waxwing, we had a few– The learning curve wasn’t quite as deep as it was the first time with working with an art director and hiring an illustrator. The illustrator, Gabrielle Grimard, I think she took the book and made it feel as magical as it felt in my mind.

Amy: It was.

Sarah: Absolutely beautiful. Thank you. I would say it was harder to write, but easier to make as a book, from the publishing side of it at Waxwing. It was easier to make because we had learned a lot from the first book. We were learning everything for the very first time, which every book so far because we’ve got several in the pipeline, has had its own unique challenges, its own learning opportunities, I guess if I was trying to reframe that in a positive way. I’m learning new things from every book.

This one did feel like once we had the illustrator lined up and it just sort of– Here’s a fun thing though, it was actually supposed to be a landscape book, a horizontal book, fatter than it is because it was a garden book. our art director really thinks that most garden books do better in a long, wide spread, but our illustrator, there was just a miscommunication. Actually, French is her first language. English is her second language. We just had a little miscommunication about the sizing of it. When she turned in her sketches, they were all tall illustrations. We were like, “Oh, no.”

Then the art director and I were looking at it, and we’re like, “That’s something actually really unique and interesting,” is she could make the moon look a lot bigger because it was tall. It added something unusual. We decided to keep it. It’s one of those serendipitous mistakes where we went, “Actually, I think it should be portrait instead of landscape.” It’s kind of fun. I love that.

Amy: I think it actually, because a lot of the theme is not just the garden as the garden, but the experience of the night as a whole, and so to be able to bring the sky in a different way, I think it turned out very well, in my opinion.

Sarah: Yes, yes, that’s so fun.

New books from Waxwing Books

Amy: You mentioned there are some other books coming down the pipe. What are some of the other projects we can look forward to in the future? Can you tell us?

Sarah: I can. In March of 2024, our third book comes out. This one is a picture book biography about Barbara Cooney. Now, Barbara Cooney was the illustrator of Oxcart Man, Miss Rumphius, Hattie and the Wild Waves, Chanticleer and the Fox. She’s one of my absolute favorite illustrators. Then when I got to learn more about her as a woman, I got very excited because I found out that she did a lot of her illustrations just in the midst of being a mother of four. Right in the middle of her crazy living room, she would be bringing chickens into the house so that she could paint them for Chanticleer and the Fox.

Because Barbara picture books for homeschool families Sarah Mackenzie

She was such an interesting person. She traveled all over the world for her illustrations. I got to talk to one of her sons, her oldest son, in fact, and his memories of how his mom was always there and always present, even while she was in the middle of these huge projects, she was winning Caldecott Awards for illustrations, but he said if he walked in the room and had a question, she would just put her paintbrush down like mid stroke, to pay attention to him, that kind of thing. I was just really inspired by that creative motherhood. I wrote a picture book biography that was illustrated by Eileen Ryan Ewan. That one comes out March of ’24. I’m very excited about that one.

We have a middle grade fantasy called Beyond Mulberry Glen written by Millie Florence and illustrated by Astrid Scheckels coming out in May of 2024. That one is going to be a great read aloud for all ages. It’s a fantasy story set in a place called the Valleylands about a girl who has to face a lot of darkness in order to protect her family. That’s all I’m going to say about that one so far. Astrid Scheckels’ illustrations are so beautiful. I was just reviewing the cover design this morning and it’s just going to be fabulous. I’m very excited. That’s our first book authored by someone else, although there are plenty more in the pike.

We actually have three books, I think coming out every year through 2027. We have them all. They’re all in process. It takes so long to make a really good book to make not just the text and the illustrations, but to make sure the end papers work and the whole experience of the book itself is beautiful and wonderful, that we are already starting on books that will come out years and years from now.

Amy: That is amazing. I think that really just points to how a book really is such a piece of art. It’s not just the words, just getting them out on a word processor, Google Docs. There’s so much that goes into making it the fully orbed experience and piece of art that it is when it comes out. That’s so exciting. I can’t wait to see all of those in the years ahead. Thank you.

What Sarah Mackenzie is reading lately

Sarah, here at the end, I’m going to ask you the questions I ask all my guests, although I am going to tweak the second one since I’ve already asked you one of them before. The first question is just what are you personally reading lately?

Sarah: Oh, okay. This is so fun. I was just rereading a collection of essays by C.S. Lewis. The collection of essays is called On Reading. Is it The Reading Life? It’s one of those two titles. It’s a collection of C.S. Lewis’s essays all about his own reading, like what reading is and what it’s for. I’ve read it before, but I love it so much. I like to reread it regularly. That’s something I was just reading. There was another book that I– Oh, I recently read Parnassus on Wheels. Have you read that before?

Amy: Oh, I adore that. I had never even heard of it until a couple years ago. My sister-in-law gave it to my teen daughter for Christmas. She read it first and she brought it to me. She was like, “Mom, you have to read this right away.” It is such a lovely one. I actually just sent that suggestion to Pam via Voxer like a week ago.

Sarah: Oh, funny. I’ve heard of it before, but it doesn’t have a great cover or a great title honestly. I think I was like, “Oh.” It’s a short story. It’s a short book. It’s not really a short story. I don’t know. Anyway, it’s fabulous. It’s such a book for bookish people. Then with my kids, we are just finishing the first book in a new series to me. The series is called The Dreamkeeper Saga. It’s put out by Crossway Books. The first book is The Dragon and the Stone, which is a fantasy novel. It is so good. it’s one of those books where the kids ask me every single day like, “You can’t stop there. You can’t stop there.”

books for homeschool families Sarah Mackenzie

My husband he’ll be in the kitchen working on stuff and he’ll stop. I can tell he’s like listening. It’s got a dragon with a British accent and fairies. It’s really fun to read aloud. It’s fabulous. The Dragon and the Stone.

Amy: I have not even heard of that one. I am unfamiliar with that one, but I will definitely put that one on my list. I definitely have some fantasy lovers in my house.

Sarah: Oh, yes. Excellent.

Sarah’s best tip for fixing a bad homeschool day

Amy: Final question, Sarah. What is your best tip for helping turn around a homeschool day that’s going all wrong?

Sarah: I’ve never had one of those. I have no idea what you’re talking about. It depends on the ages. I’m going to give two tips, I think. One is that if I have kids that are 10 and under, especially if the reason that your homeschool day is going off the rails is because you have a toddler throwing a major fit and you just can’t even hear yourself think, this has happened to me, I had three little ones at the same time, and it was very loud in my house for a while, and my favorite trick was to grab a book, any picture book off the shelf and sit down on the floor in the middle of their fit and start reading aloud.

Now, the key to this is not saying to the toddler or the preschooler, “Do you want me to read to you?” Because we all know that every toddler will say no. No, you could say like, “Do you want ice cream?” They’d say no. If they’re really in their moment, they’re just like, “No, no, no.” You don’t ask them. You just go to the shelf, you pick up a book, even if I have to walk to another room, I’ll pick up a picture book, sit on the floor, and I start reading it to myself. You won’t be able to hear yourself over their crying fit throwing. I would pretty much say I can guarantee that within 60 seconds, your child will stop crying and sit next to you.

This became such a game at our house that my twins would be having these epic fits. I would look at my husband and be like, “Watch.” He’s like, “This isn’t going to work. It’s never going to work.” It would work every time. It was unbelievable. The key is not asking ahead of time. Then also just being okay opening the book and just reading it aloud, even though nobody’s can hear you. By the time you get to that third or fourth page, they sit next to you. Sometimes it also helps for yourself. If you feel like you are the one who’s going to throw a fit [laughs] just start reading.

With older kids, I often found two things to really turn our days around. One is food. A lot of times, especially with my son, it was just the kid just needed more food. Even if it was just popping a big bowl of popcorn or making an extra plate of sandwiches and being like, “Everybody, come to the table,” and maybe I’d turn on an audio book or maybe I would just deliver food to people wherever they were, that can make a big difference.

Homeschool Conversations podcast Picture Books, Read Alouds, & the Power of Shared Stories sarah mackenzie

The other thing that really helped reset our days was going outside because something about leaving the house and whether it was just on a walk around the block or if we decided to go run an errand and come back, although that was less effective, I think than just getting outside and going for a walk, even if it’s really cold, bundling up. There’s something about perspective and this worked for me too because a lot of times on those overwhelming days I found it was partly my kids and it was partly me looking around the house and being like, “Oh my gosh, there’s so much to do around here.”

Something about leaving this space and coming back made me like, “Those crumbs on the floor don’t really matter.” I don’t know, it reframes the brain or something.

Amy: Oh, such good tips. I think all of us probably listening will be applying those I’m sure this week because yes, everyone has a few of those rough homeschool days, not just you, dear listener.

Sarah: Every week.

Find Sarah Mackenzie Online

Amy: Sarah, where can people find you and your books all around the internet?

Sarah: Oh, excellent. Readaloudrevival.com is the best place to go. You can actually get a custom book recommendation there. We ask you three super quick questions, like how old are your kids? What book are you in the mood for? We give you four choices like fantasy or history or something like that. Then if you want a quick win or a longer read, and then we’ll give you a couple of custom book recommendations based on those really quick answers, that’s fun. That’s at readaloudrevival.com.

If you’re a podcast listener, which I bet you are because you listen to Amy’s awesome podcast, you can find the Read Aloud Revival podcast in your podcast app. All of the books we’re publishing at Waxwing, which is the publishing arm of Read Aloud Revival, can be found at waxwingbooks.com or on Amazon.

Amy: Fabulous. I will have all those links over in the show notes for this episode, humilityanddoxology.com. Thank you so much for listening today. Take a moment to leave a rating and review for this podcast wherever you’re listening and share this episode with a friend who also loves a good picture book. Thank you so much, Sarah. I look forward to chatting with you again.

Sarah: Thanks, Amy.

Homeschool Conversations podcast Picture Books, Read Alouds, & the Power of Shared Stories sarah mackenzie

Check out all the other interviews in my Homeschool Conversations series!

Homeschool Conversations Video Interviews Podcast HumilityandDoxology.com Amy Sloan
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