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As a lover of children's literature, mother and bookseller of 13 years, I want to put good books into kid's hands. I share my philosophy on what makes a book good as well as book reviews and lists of great books for every reading taste and ability with a focus on new readers. I also highlight some wonderful books that are not always on the shelf at bookstores, but might be at your library and can definitely be ordered. All books mentioned are available in paperback unless noted.
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Since I started working as an elementary school librarian I have not bee reading as much YA as I used to. As a bookseller, I shelved in the teen section and set the displays and was always reading the blurbs for the books - even the ridiculous fantasy titles I knew I'd never read. I have a few favorite authors like Publisher's Weekly invites publishers and editors working in the kid's book industry to share their favorites, which is where I learned about Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, winner of the William C. Morris Debut Author award this year! What draws me to the works of David Levithan and Rainbow Rowell over and over are the unforgettable characters and narrative voices they create along with the engaging, sometimes breathlessly so, sometimes achingly so, romances that unfold over the course of their novels. In Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, Albertalli hits all these marks and more. Using first person narrative, emails, texts and tumblr posts, Albertalli creates Simon Sphere, an articulate, witty, occasionally carless, sometimes impulsive, and frequently self-absorbed high school junior who evolves over the course of the story, taking the occasional step outside the out of the inevitable bubble of narcissism that envelops most teenagers. The audio book, which I thoroughly enjoyed, is narrated perfectly by Michael Crouch.
Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda begins, "It's a weirdly subtle conversation. I almost don't notice I'm being blackmailed." But the story really begins at the start of school in August when Simon sees a post on the creeksecrets tumblr, a gossip (and bible quotes and bad poetry) feed where students from Creekwood High post anonymously, and he responds to it. The post is only about five lines long, but it was grammatically correct (something that most posts on creeksecrets aren't) and "strangely poetic." Blue, the poster, wrote about feeling both hidden and exposed about the fact that he is gay, and the "ocean between people," and how it seems like the "whole point of everything is to find a shore worth swimming to." The two begin a fast, intense correspondence, fueled by the fact that they don't know each other's identities. The beginning stages of their crush are exhilarating and Albertalli captures the flirtations and intimacies perfectly in their emails and Simon's eagerness and anticipation around them.
Martin Addison, fellow drama student and subtle blackmailer, has let Simon know that he forgot to log out of his gmail account while using the library computer. Martin has taken a screenshot and, in return for deleting this image, he would like Simon to "help him talk to Abby," the new girl in school who has bonded with Simon. This sets the story in motion, Simon struggling to protect Blue, who has not come out yet, and juggling his friends and their individual turmoils and his own evolving sense of self. Alebrtalli does an amazing job making the supporting characters fully formed, believable and integral to the story while also having their own story lines. From Simon's closest friends, the classic rock loving soccer jock Nick and the moody, anime obsessed, self-conscious Leah, to Simon's older sister Alice and younger sister Nora, and his almost-too-cool and possibly over-involved parents, these characters feel real and their struggles have meaning. And there is no extra baggage in Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. As much as I love Simon's voice and Albertalli's writing and probably could have happily read/listened to an additional 50 to 100 pages of this book, I have the greatest respect to Albertalli and her editor for keeping it tight.
While the plot of Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda hinges on Simon not wanting to be outed, the story is more about Simon and Blue's burgeoning relationship and the mistakes and missteps Simon makes along the way, than it is about coming out and being openly gay. That said, Simon's story subtly makes some points and asks some important questions. At one point Simon asks, "Why is straight the default? Everyone should have to declare one way or another and it shouldn't be this big, awkward thing whether you're straight, gay, bi or whatever." As a straight person, Albertalli's novel allowed me a deeper understanding of how it feels to be in the minority, to have people assume something personal and intimate about you. Like all brilliant books, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda allowed me to feel what it's like to be someone else.
I can't wait to read Becky Albertalli's next book, which features Molly, a chubby Jewish girl who lives in the suburbs of Washington DC. Molly is the cousin of Abby, the new student at Creekwood High School and her story takes place the summer after Simon's. With this connection, Albertalli has promised appearances by some familiar faces! For more details, read this fantastic interview
Source: Purchased Audio Book
I have a serious problem. I love to buy books like I Like to Write / I Like to Draw by The Small Object and then, overwhelmed by the creativity and charm of the book itself, along with the frightening permanence of what I am supposed to put on the page, I never, ever make use of the amazing, gorgeous, fantastic book in my hands. But, I have a two-fold strategy for I Like to Write / I Like to Draw: I am going to coax myself into actually using this brilliant book by telling myself that I can use these prompts with my students during the 90 minutes a day each grade spends with me AND I can also nudge myself into using it as a way to fulfill my goal of drawing every Saturday and sharing it on my new Instagram account where I am posting every day about a different book that I read or am reading. So, why do I love I Like to Write / I Like to Draw? Writing and drawing in one book, for starters. For elementary school kids, and myself as well, I find that these two things go together like peanut butter and chocolate. Sarah Neuberger, the multifaceted creative mind behind this book, is an illustrator, designer, wedding cake topper maker (see below) and stamp maker. In 2009 she started working with Chronicle Books on en ever-gorwing collection of gift and paper products that are worth checking out. For I Like to Write / I Like to Draw, Neuberger, devised categories for each half. In I Like to Draw, these include, Picture This, Imagine That, Create Here, Nature Observations, Personal Perspective, Dream Big and Pattern Play. Sometimes a sentence or two will appear at the bottom of the page, giving artists further ideas. A Complete the Scene page with golden swirls on it invites readers to "Draw more golden clouds and imagine how it would feel to walk through them." Enjoying this book is definitely an immersive experience!
The writing portion is happily, wonderfully visual, with a sketch or two on every page. The nice thing about I Like to Write is the nice combination of story writing and other writing exercises. One page with two word bubbles invites writers to create a conversation. Another invites writers to pretend that they work at a paint company and are charged with coming up with the names of twelve different swatches on the page, with the instructions to use two words per name. "A Taste Bud's Story" includes a reproduction of a "guest check" that a waitperson uses in to take orders and invites writers to write down items from a favorite mean and what made it so memorable on the check. There are the backs of postcards with writing prompts, a page of mostly blank fortunes from fortune cookies, rebus puzzles as story prompts, free associations with words like, "whistle, tree, magnetic, chair," and map the connection prompts with words like "notebook" and "library." There are so many more super cool prompts I want to share here, but really, just go out and buy this book. Buy two - one for yourself and one to give to a creatively minded kid in your life!
Sarah Neuberger has also been creating personalized Wedding Toppers since 2008!
Babies love to look at babies. And even though there are no more babies in my family, every few years or so, there is a book that comes along that reminds me of how much babies love to look at babies and how wonderful the perfect book filled with babies can be. Little Bitty Friends, written by Elizabeth McPike and illustrated by Patrice Barton is one of those books. McPike and Barton also created Little Sleepyhead, which is due out in board book this spring. Both books pair repetitive, mellifluous rhymes with equally charming illustrations of toddlers that pop thanks to crisp white backgrounds. In Little Bitty Friends the setting moves from bedtime to the natural world, which, after babies, is the second greatest thing babies love to look at.
A trail of ants, a fuzzy caterpillar, a field of flowers and a snail leaving a trail fill the pages of Little Bitty Friend along with a diverse array of adorable, bright eyed, big headed babies. The sneeze of a cat, the chitter of chipmunks and the nibble of a mouse are the sounds of Little Bitty Friend. As the cadence of the book winds down, a basket full of baby rabbits, "nuzzle while they nap," and a toddler and a puppy snuggle on a blanket under a tree. The final spread, above, has to be one of the sweetest I have seen in a long while and one that will always make me smile and remember when my own babies were small enough to tuck their heads under daddy's chin.
Little Bitty Friends, and Little Sleepyhead, are the perfect gifts for anyone welcoming a baby into the world, from moms and dads to grandpas and grandmas, and anyone lucky enough to have a baby in their lap!
Source: Review Copy
If English is your native language, there is a very strong possibility that can sing the first few lines of the nursery rhyme lullaby Rock-a-Bye Baby without even thinking about it. If you can do this, then you know how strange the words to this 250+ year old song are. With Rock-a-Bye Romp, Linda Ashman not only reclaims this song, she manages to give this updated version a classic nursery rhyme feel - without the original Mother Goose strangeness. Add to this the patterned, playful, painterly mixed media illustrations of Italian artist Simona Mulazzani.
Rock-a-Bye Romp begins with these adorable endpapers that really need to become a textile - be it bedding or jammies for babies. Ashman begins with the question, "Rock-a-Bye, Baby, in the treetop. How did you ever get so high up?" as if she's addressing the weirdness of the original and moving onward and down, into a crow's nest. As baby bounces down from the nest to the barnyard, then from pig to sheep to duck Mulazzani's illustrations almost evoke a Tuscan farm with rolling golden hills and a lapis colored night sky.
Ashman brings Baby and her book home on the wings of a hawk and into the nursery where Mommy is rocking Baby to sleep in her arms beneath a mobile made up of the animals Baby encountered. As Mommy tucks Baby into the cradle the illustrations shows a tree painted on the nursery wall that mirrors the original tree the cradle was stuck in at the start of the book. And the blanket Mommy tucks Baby in with? It's the same pattern as the endpapers!
Rock-a-Bye Romp is a wonderful new book - a much needed update of a curious classic paired with gorgeous illustrations that make it a beautiful, perfect gift for a new baby.
Source: Review Copy
Originally published in 1972, Princeton Architectural Press has brought The Brownstone, a fantastic classic, back to the shelves in a beautiful new edition. Written by Paula Scher, graphic designer and partner at the international design consultancy Pentagram, The Brownstone is her only book for children. Illustrations are by cartoonist Stan Mack, who's work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine and Adweek. The Brownstone definitely looks like it's from the 70s, but the story and illustrations are timeless. I read this book over and over to classes of all ages and they were enthralled!
The story in The Brownstone is simple, but the solution to the problem the residents of the brownstone face is not... As he is walking home from work one day, Mr. Bear "noticed a familiar chill in the air." It is time for the Bear family to take their long winter nap. But, the theatrical Miss Cat is howling away at her baby grand, making any kind of sleep impossible, let alone hibernation.
A climb to the third floor apartment of the landlord, Mr. Owl, seems to bring about a resolution - and a move for more than a few residents. But, as you might expect, a move for one tenant means an upset for another. One thing that I learned right away from the teachers that I work with is to encourage students to make predictions when reading a story, and The Brownstone is the perfect book for this kind of endeavor.
Every other page turn presents a new situation, a new combination of tenants with different hobbies and needs and it is so much fun to pause and ask listeners what they think will happen next - will this be a good move with everyone happy or will someone have another complaint? The kids love guessing and The Brownstone is a treat to read out loud and a great lesson on the complexities and rewards of living in harmony!
Source: Review Copy
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The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley came out in January of 2015. In January of 2016 it won the Newbery Honor, the Schneider Family Book Award for the "artistic expression of the disability experience for child and adolescent audiences," and the Odyssey Award for best audio book, with narration by Jayne Entwistle. A couple of months back, Bradley's book came to my attention when I saw it on several end of the year "best of" lists and Newbery prediction lists. After fantasy, historical fiction a very close second favorite genre of mine and without a doubt, The War the Saved My Life is one of the best works of historical fiction I have ever read. In narrator Ada, Bradley has created powerful narrative voice, an unforgettable character and a deeply moving story of survival, both physical and emotional, during WWII England.
Ada is not sure how old she is. She has never been to school, in fact, she has not left the tiny apartment she shares with her mother and younger brother, Jamie, in ages. She is crippled by a club foot and a widowed mother who never wanted to be one. Deeply suspicious, ignorant and filled with anger and hatred, Ada's mother abuses her physically and emotionally, filling her with shame and fear. Ada's only pleasure comes from tending to her little brother Jamie. As he grows older and starts school, his independence leaves her feeling like she should get some of her own. Used to crawling on her hands and knees, Ada slowly, painfully teaches herself to walk. When she learns from Jamie that the children are being evacuated from the city - and that her mother has no intention of letting her go - she sneaks out of the house and joins the evacuees. Upon arriving in Kent, Ada and Jamie, filthy, louse ridden, sick with rickets and impetigo, find themselves unwanted once more. The iron faced Lady Thornton, head of the Women's Voluntary Service, packs the children into her car and takes them to the home of Susan Smith, who refuses to take them, saying she didn't even know there was a war on.
Susan is mourning the loss of her dear friend, Becky, and in her near catatonic state of grief she unthinkingly says that she never wanted children in front of Ada and Jamie. However, Ada catches sight of a pony in the field behind Susan's house and determines to stay. With Susan, Ada faces a new set of challenges, the biggest being trust. Even if she hadn't heard Susan say that she never wanted children, the task of being able to trust Susan would be overwhelming. And this is where Bradley's superior narrative skills shine. With Ada's voice, Bradley conveys the isolation, fear and ignorance that have been her life. So many of the words that Susan says to her mean nothing, from "soup," to "sheets," to "operate," the reader quickly gets a strong sense of disconnect with which Ada moves through the world. This disconnect is expressed most powerfully when Ada is in distress, when her foot hurts or when people are talking about her or touching her. When she was home with her Mam, Ada would retreat, mentally, when the agony of her physical situation - like being locked in a dank cabinet under the sink - was too much to bear. She relies on this relief with Susan, too, imagining herself with Butter, the pony she saw in the field that she teaches herself to ride.
While Ada is an incredible character, Susan Smith is also remarkable. Oxford educated, she herself is familiar with parental disapproval and rejection. Bradley never states it openly, but she weaves enough threads into the story to lead me to believe that Susan and Becky were in love and were ostracized for it. But, Susan exemplifies the motto from the morale boosting poster created during the war, "Keep calm and carry on." In fact, Bradley quotes another poster made by the Ministry of Information to boost morale in The War that Saved My Life. Seeing the poster in town, Susan reads to to Ada, "Your courage, your cheerfulness, your resolution will bring us victory." "That's stupid, it sounds like we're doing all the work," Ada replies, saying it should be, "Our courage, our cheerfulness, our resolution, will bring us victory." This is one of the first moments where Susan sees through Ada's defenses. Susan clothes, feeds and educates Jamie and Ada, persistently, but never forcefully. While she expresses frustration, and both children cringe or hide at times when they think they have truly angered her, she never hits them or raises her voice to them. Instead, she explains herself when called for and hugs them when words will not do. She somehow understands the depths of Ada's emotional wounds and is patient with her when she breaks down, wrapping her tightly in a blanket and hugging - or even sitting on her during their first air raid.
While Ada and Jamie's mother only appears in the first and last few pages of The War that Saved My Life, her presence is a constant throughout. Her abuse of Ada is sometimes horrific, but also sparsely and effectively employed by Bradley. Witnessing this abuse allows the reader to be patient with the often unlikable Ada and also helps the reader understand her decisions, like the choice not to learn how to read or write, and her reactions, like the catastrophic break down she has when, on Christmas Eve, Susan gives her a handmade, green velvet dress, telling her that she is beautiful when she tries it on. Her mother's words, "You ugly piece of rubbish! Filth and trash! No one wants you with that ugly foot!" run through Ada's head and her roaring screams and panic are more understandable. It is even almost understandable that, throughout most of the novel, Ada believes that all the new things she is learning, from walking to horseback riding to reading and writing, will prove her worth to her mother and make her love her. With this possibility always out there, letting herself get attached to Susan is almost impossible. Then, there is always the knowledge of what her mother has thought of her and how she has treated her. Halfway through the novel, Ada says, "I wanted Mam to be like Susan. I didn't really trust Susan not to be like Mam."
But, Ada does get attached and she does grow stronger, physically and emotionally, over the course of this very rich and detailed story. And, while at first it seems like the war is a far off thing, it does come to Kent in a shattering way. After the Battle of Dunkirk, Kent finds itself overwhelmed by injured and dying soldiers, Ada heading into the village to help where she can. There is even a triumphant moment where, following the government dictate to say something if you see something, Ada not only must assert herself, but also let a prejudiced, condescending adult know that her foot is very far away from her brain, something she has heard Susan say, in order to be taken seriously. As life grows more dangerous in Kent and Susan refuses to send Ada and Jamie away, Ada thinks to herself, "It was hard enough to cope with Susan. How would I ever cope without her?"
I was in tears and sobbing for the last half of The War that Saved My Life, especially the final pages. Bradley delivers a very satisfying ending to a deeply satisfying book, one that makes me want to turn around and read it all over again. I am so grateful that this book won a Newbery honor, among other well deserved awards, because it means that it's likely to fall into the hands of children over and over for decades to come. I can't wait to get a copy for my library - I usually donate books I buy for myself to read to my library, but I am keeping this one! - and see what my students think of it!
I had never heard of the British author and poet A. F. Harrold before I encountered The Imaginary at a bookstore just before Christmas but I was definitely familiar with illustrator Emily Gravett, a longtime favorite of mine (read my reviews of her picture books here.) Gravett's playful, detailed style is perfectly paired with Harrold's engrossing, creative, slightly creepy story of a girl, her imaginary friend and the fiend who is trying to eat him, making The Imaginary a truly stand out book.
Amanda Primrose Shuffleup has an incredible imagination. And, when she opens up her wardrobe door one rainy evening to hang up her wet coat and finds a boy named Rudger, her imaginary world gets even bigger. From landing a spaceship of alien planets (the thorn bushes in the backyard) to a hot air balloon that lands them in the "sticky, steamy South American jungle" to a "complex of caves, deep and dark, that stretched out for unknown miles underneath the stairs," Amanda and Rudger go everywhere and do everything together. And Amanda's mother, while she can't see Rudger, is perfectly accommodating, serving him bowls of cereal and making room for him in the backseat of the car. And, while Amanda can be careless with Rudger's feelings from time to time and very self-absorbed, Rudger wouldn't want to be anywhere else.
Rudger - and Amanda's - worlds are turned upside down when Mr. Bunting arrives at the front door, claiming to be conducting a survey about, "Britain today. And children." His strange behavior is disconcerting enough, but what's more disturbing is the fact that he has a miserable looking girl with him who can see Rudger. Mr. Bunting and his gloomy imaginary friend are after something, and they seem to turn up everywhere Amanda and Rudger go until their relentless pursuit puts Amanda in the hospital and Rudger Fading from existence and in a strange kind of imaginary friend limbo. This limbo, which the imaginaries call the Agency, is housed in a library - the one place with enough imaginings housed inside of it to keep the imaginaries alive until they can find a new human. Rudger makes a few missteps before he figures out how to get to Amanda and save her and himself, but not before a very harrowing, sinister battle in Amanda's hospital room. It turns out that Mr. Bunting can only be fed by the, "slick, slippery slither of fresh imaginary." For Mr. Bunting, just as "imaginaries needed t be believed in to go on, so he needed to eat that belief to keep himself going." Not since I read Neil Gaiman's Coraline and the Other Mother, have I been so creeped out by a character in a book.
The Imaginary is an absolutely fantastic, unforgettable book. Harrold's writing is superb and the rules by which the imaginary friends exist and cease to exist make sense. He creates a world immediately and efficiently - there is no part of The Imaginary that I felt could have been edited down, which is not the case with most books I read. Harrold is also gifted at capturing the way children think and talk. There is an especially fascinating and funny turn in the book where Rudger, in his efforts to get to Amanda, takes on the job of being the imaginary friend to her classmate, Julia Radiche. However, since Julia is doing the imagining, Rudger is now Veronica, who needs to get used to wearing a dress and having long hair. Emily Gravett's illustrations, which are black and white, mostly, with perfect pops of color here and there, bring to life Harrold's writing in a way that makes this book all the more memorable.
And did I mention what a beautiful book The Imaginary is? From the slightly smaller trim size to the fantastic endpapers to the thick pages, this book calls out to be picked up and enjoyed!
Originally published in the UK in 2014, The Imaginary is newly out in paperback there with this intriguing new cover!
Prolific British picture book author Vivian French teams up with the reigning Queen of the art of the fairy tale, Angela Barrett to create The Most Wonderful Thing in the World, a contemporary story that feels like a classic fairy tale. The story begins, "Once, in the time of your grandmother's grandmother, there was a kingdom." Looking very much like Venice, Italy, the kingdom sits on a lagoon dotted with islands. The king and the queen are very proud of their kingdom and of their daughter, Lucia. Realizing that she will someday rule the kingdom, they determine that they must start the search for a husband who will reign with her. They send a letter to Wise Old Angelo who lives on the smallest island in the kingdom to ask exactly what they should do. Angelo thinks long and hard and tells the king and queen that they must find the young man who can show them, "the most wonderful thing in the world," and has his grandson, Salvatore, hand deliver this missive.
Lucia has also realized that she will be queen one day and asks permission to explore the city and get to know her future subjects and realm. As Lucia is leaving the castle, the first person she meets is Salvatore! Upon being asked, Salvatore says that nobody knows the city better than he does and he will spend "Today, tomorrow and the next day, until you have seen all that you want," guiding Lucia. Meanwhile, suitors from all over the world are arriving with marvels that include airships, pyramids and mermaids in tanks. The king and queen "grew grey with exhaustion," but nothing seemed to be the most wonderful thing. Meanwhile, Salvatore has fallen in love with Lucia, although, he tells his grandfather, his face "wet with tears," that he can never marry her. Wise Old Angelo tells Salvatore to show the king and the queen the most wonderful thing in the world and then he can.
It may seem wrong to tell the ending of The Most Wonderful Thing in the World, but I think that it's very difficult to pull off a believable, successful ending to a contemporary fairy tale - which this book does. Together for their final day touring the city, Lucia and Salvatore are on Angelo's island - the only place she has not yet been. Looking for their daughter, the king and queen head to Angelo's island also. Exhausted by their trip, on top of days and days of looking for the most wonderful thing, the royals stop to rest on a bench. Salvatore approaches and asks if he may show them the most wonderful thing in the world. They agree, even though he is so unlike the others. Salvatore presents to them . . . Lucia!
And, as wonderful as this twist is, I really, really love the ending of The Most Wonderful Thing in the World. Lucia and Salvatore marry with the pomp and ceremony to be expected, "your grandmother's grandmother would remember." As the new king and queen, Lucia and Salvatore walk through their city every day, talking with the people. They are so beloved, that the people of the city build a statue in their honor. In the middle of a fountain, carved out of stone, stand Lucia, Salvatore and their first born child, carved underneath are the words, "The Most Wonderful Thing." The only thing more charming than the ending of this fairy tale are Angela Barrett's Edwardian influenced illustrations that fill every page. A sumptuous story, gorgeously illustrated - The Most Wonderful Thing in the World is a very special book.
Source: Review Copy
Anna Banana and her band of stuffed animals are back! And this time, they are hungry. Anna Banana and the Chocolate Explosion starts off with Pingpong, the penguin, who is as hungry as a bear. And he wants chocolate cake. Of course things get out of control, and quickly. My favorite spread, below, finds Fuzzball energetically, if not efficiently (or cleanly) stirring the batter with verve.
Meanwhile, Pingpong is still hungry. Fortunately, Grizzler has headed into a different room to bake, alone. Intrigued by his process, they sneak after him when he retreats to bake another cake . . .
Only to discover that Grizzler has been visiting the bakery! They all head back to Anna Banana's idyllic house on a tree lined street where they manage to scrape some batter into a pan and bake another cake.
The comic book format of Anna Banana and the Chocolate Explosion makes the action all the more expressive and the expressions of the characters even more hilarious. Anna and her gang are completely endearing and reminiscent of the Muppets. I love this format and hope that there are more picture books like it on the way, and more from Anna Banana and the gang!
Source: Review Copy
A Tiny Piece of Sky by Shawn K. Stout is set in Hagerstown, Maryland in 1939 at the start of summer. I love a great historical fiction novel and Stout delivers a story that is filled with interesting people, places and events with an omniscient narrator and direct addresses to the reader sprinkled judiciously throughout. While the climax of A Tiny Piece of Sky wasn't quite as dramatic as I had anticipated, it didn't make it any less memorable or enjoyable.
Frankie Baum is the youngest of three sisters with an impressive scab collection that she is hoping to expand over the long, hot summer months. Joan, the second sister, is headed out to Aunt Dottie's farm for the summer and Elizabeth, the oldest, always has her nose in a book. It's up to Frankie to tend to their pony and former rodeo star, Dixie, and hook her up to the cart and take her out for a spin. But, before Frankie can even settle into missing her sister, Mr. Baum has a surprise for the family that will keep them all very busy. He has bought a long vacant, alpine-style (just like Bavaria, where Hermann's parents were from) restaurant on the "edge of Jonathan Street -the three blocks in Hagerstown that are an historically African American neighborhood and the site of the first African American churches, city homes, and businesses in Washington County," as Stout writes in her Author's Note.
Mr. Baum is a hardworking optimist with big ideas for Baum's Restaurant and Tavern, which is heralded as an "Eating Place of Wide Renown" on the fancy color menus he has printed up. Despite this, there are bumps along the way. The manager Mr. Baum has hired, Mr. Stannum, is harsh with the mostly African American kitchen staff and angered by Mr. Baum's refusal to put a second, segregated bathroom in the kitchen. He is even more upset when he learns that Mr. Baum plans a practice-run-pre-opening party for the whole staff and their families on July Fourth. Add to this the fact that Mr. Sullen Waterford Price, Esquire, is about to end his term as the President of the Hagerstown Chamber of Commerce and has plans to segue into the role of Mayor of Hagerstown. Price has run the Chamber of Commerce with a menacing, prejudicial hand that includes after hours visits to new businesses in town to dig up personal information about owners.
When Mr. Baum, who drives a 1937 Studebaker Dictator, doesn't bend to Price's strong arming, Price begins spreading rumors that Baum is a Nazi sympathizer and possibly even a German spy. This is fueled even further by a flyer, written in German, that Mr. Stannum steals from Mr. Baum's office and hands over to Price. Frankie, working in the kitchen, overhears just enough of these dark rumblings to begin to worry and doubt. She starts poking around at home and tailing Mr. Stannum, all the while being bullied by Leroy Price, who parrots his father's words. The night of the pre-opening family party, things come to a head - and fall apart - as waitresses call in sick, the band backs out, family friends don't show up - and Frankie runs away, sort of. She ends up in the town square where the Fourth of July festivities are underway and there she sees the "sick" waitresses, the band that bailed on Baum's playing and fliers telling the townspeople to boycott "German Businesses!" And it's there that Mr. Baum, looking for Frankie, collapses.
A Tiny Piece of Sky feels like it loses a bit of momentum at this point, but ends on a positive note, especially when you read the Author's Note and learn that Stout's grandparents and their restaurant in Hagerstown were the models for the Baum family. In fact, the press kit includes letter of support written to Stout's grandfather, copied almost verbatim in this book. I think I was hoping to see all the pieces of this story fit together with more assertion and deeper meaning than what Stout delivered. In spite of Frankie's mother's nervousness (and despite the fact that she worked in a restaurant since she dropped out of school in sixth grade to help support her family) Baum's reopens. Mr. Stannum, thanks to a secret nudge from Frankie, tries to right his wrong. And a family secret (a secret family) is revealed. All these add up and, as I said, make for a sweet ending. But my heartstrings weren't tugged and there wasn't quite the catharsis - or the downfall of Price - that I craved. Frankie Baum is a wonderful character, but I would have liked to see her develop more over the course of the story, especially after she takes a misguided outing with Dixie and ends up in the African American part of town. The episodes in A Tiny Piece of Sky remind me of the material in the press kit - more like snapshots, or vignettes, loosely tied together. As such, they are lovely and make for a very enjoyable read.
Source: Review Copy
A year ago saw the debut of The Terrible Two by Mac Barnett, Jory John and illustrator Kevin Cornell. A standout for being laugh out loud funny (not as common a trait in kid's books as you might expect), The Terrible Two began the story of Miles, new kid in Yawnee Valley and master prankster, and his nemesis, Niles, the rule-following, goody-two-shoes, sash-wearing School Helper. The Terrible Two took a terrific turn when (SPOILER ALERT) it turned out that the angelic Niles was actually the secret prankster challenging Miles's status. The two teamed up, repeated the prankster's oath and shared a secret handshake before going on to pull off the greatest prank at Yawnee Valley Science and Letters Academy ever against their favorite target, Principal Barkin. Niles, Miles, Principal Barry Barkin, and his entitled son Josh are back in The Terrible Two Get Worse, along with Principal Barkin's father, retired Principal Bertrand Barkin.
The new school year seems to be off to a great start for the Terrible Two, who begin by smearing Limburger cheese all over the undercarriage of Principal Barkin's yellow hatchback as he enjoys Sunday brunch with Josh at Danny's Diner. The pranks continue into the school year until Bertrand Barkin decides to put an end to it by forcing his son out of his job and returning to his old job. Even worse, Bertrand Barkin, who sets up a giant sign to show how many prank-free school days have passed, has the personal motto, "It is only a prank if we react." As Principal Barkin the elder continues to refuse to react to Niles and Miles's pranks, the Terrible Two begin to get desperate. Niles even has an existential crisis that causes him to vomit and retreat to his room for several days. But, the Terrible Two are not down for long, and they come up with a crazy plan to take down Bertrand Barkin that includes expanding the Terrible Two to Three...
As before, The Terrible Two Get Worse is hilarious and hard to put down. What I love about Barnett and John's series is that the humor is smart. What other kid's book can throw out concepts like Chekov's Gun and Occam's Razor? And, happily, the presence of two items that seem to be Chekov's guns (a spool of thread and the suspenders-belt combo worn by Bertrand Barkin) are explained by the end of the book. And, in a wry and kind of eerie scene, Ms. Shandy, the social studies teacher, unveils a lesson during which the class will be living in a totalitarian state for two days, divided into groups that will create propaganda and samizdat in the style of Alexei Khvostenko. Of course Miles, Niles and their pal Holly Rash, school body president and a character I hope we see A LOT more of in the next book, decide to create samizdat, that is, until Principal Bertrand Barkin shuts the project down. Also, Cornell's illustrations that show Barry Barkin as he ticks off items on his list of projects to complete while he is unemployed, which begins with, 1. Start a list of projects, 2. Discover who you truly are, through projects.
I can't wait to see what the next book in this fantastic series brings! Until then, I will thoroughly enjoy discussing the pranks of the Terrible Two with my students, who love these books!
Be sure not to miss the equally hilarious website , which you could spend a serious amount of time pouring - and laughing over. The shop, where you can buy the books, of course, also offers up the Brooklyn Bridge for purchase! There is also a "plog," a blog of pranks, a video of a commercial for the book in Greece and covers of the books in translation in many languages!
Source: Review Copy
How the Sun Got to Coco's House is the fifth book by Bob Graham that I have reviewed now, and each one is as magically universal as the next. A picture book by Graham can go all the way around the world and never leave a single room. And, perhaps because of the nature of the stories he tells, Graham can tell the same story over and over, making it new and enchanting every single time.
With How the Sun Got to Coco's House, the sun is the main character. Graham begins, "It had to start somewhere. While Coco slept far away, the sun crept up slowly behind a hill, paused for a moment, and seemed to think twice . . ." The sun skids giddily, touching a fisherman's cap and, "with the help of the wind . . . blew it off!" The sun tumbles, makes shadows, balances on the wing of a plane, "just for young Lovejoy, off to visit his grandma."
The sun shines on Jung Su and her mother, trekking through the woods before it catches Kosha and his father on the way to the market. High over the desert, the sun meets rain and Graham's accompanying illustration is a wonderful, two page spread showing a family of four leading their camels in a line. The sun breaks over a mountain as Alika's toe breaks the ice on her puddle and the illustration shows a family of women and girls in head coverings walking down a narrow alley.
When the sun does make it to Coco's, it comes straight through the window, follows her down the hall and makes itself "quite at home on her mom and dad's bed," just like Coco! Graham ends How the Sun Got to Coco's with the sun, who has some time on its hands, spends the whole day with Coco. The final illustration is a bird's eye view of Coco and her friends playing in the backyard, showing rows of row houses and factories and busy streets.
This review ends with the perfect final line I have to repeat here, "It's great to be able to count on something, readers can count on both the sun and Graham." So true!
More books by Bob Graham
The Publishers Weekly review of Worm Loves Worm by J. J. Austrian, illustrated by Mike Curato, begins, "How do you explain a revolution to a young audience?" This is how - with a sweetly simple story (with sweetly simple illustrations) about two worms in love. What amazes and surprises me most about Worm Loves Worm is how subtle message that love is love and how powerful the excitement and joy (along with preconceived ideas) of a wedding is. Austrian and Curato achieve the nearly impossible accomplishment of creating a picture book that teaches, or, more precisely (hopefully) opens minds and shifts perspective, while also being a wonderfully illustrated, engaging story.
Two worms fall in love and decide to get married. The officious Cricket steps in saying, "You need someone to marry you. That's how it's always been done." This is a refrain he will repeat often over the course of Worm Loves Worm as other bugs get involved in the wedding planning. Beetle insists on being the best man and the Bees insist on being the "bride's bees." When Cricket says they must have rings for their fingers and the Worms point out their lack of digits, they decide to wear their rings as belts. With every traditional demand placed on them and every hoop that they jump through, the Worms ask repeatedly, "Now can we be married?"
Finally, one of the Bees asks, "But which one of you is the bride?" The Worms respond, "I can be the bride," and "I can, too," and they both don the traditional attire for brides - and grooms. The wedding party looks a little shocked and surprised by this, and of course Cricket chirps, "That isn't how it's always been done." To this, finally, the Worms reply, "Then we'll just change how it's done." Austrian ends his book, "And so they were married . . . because Worm loves Worm."
There has been a vocal push in the world of kid's books in the last few years for diversity on the page. With Matt de la Peña's picture book Last Stop on Market Street winning the Newbery Medal last week, this slow change seems to be picking up pace. Add to this Alex Gino's book from last year about a transgender fourth grader, George, and now Worm Loves Worm, which probably began its official path to publication almost two years before the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, and it feels like change is really happening.
Source: Review Copy
I thought I try something different (and hopefully easier) this year for my post of the ALA Award winners: a Pinterest Board. Not sure if it was the timesaver I wanted it to be, but I hope you enjoy it as much if not more!
Reviews of these ALA Winners coming soon:
The War the Saved My Life
The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B
Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda
Gone Crazy in Alabama
The Ghosts of Heaven
More than a review, what follows are my thoughts on a picture book winning the Newbery, my experience reading Last Stop on Market Street to my students, and how this changed and shaped my understanding of and experience with this book.
A week ago, Last Stop on Market Street, a picture book by YA author Matt de la Peña, illustrated by Christian Robinson won the Newbery award. Traditionally, this award is given to novels, although this is not specified in the criteria, which is that the award be given to the "most distinguished contribution to American literature for children." Last Stop on Market Street also, very deservedly, won a Caldecott honor, an award given to the "most distinguished picture book for children." I received a review copy of this book when it came out and, as sadly sometimes happens with great books, I read it but didn't get around to reviewing it. When I heard that Last Stop on Market Street won the Newbery, I did a double take, rereading the announcement on the American Library Association's website. I was surprised and a little angry, thinking about the amazing novels that had come out in 2015, and began writing, in my head, a heated response to the librarians on the committee that made this out-of-the-box choice. Then, I decided to take the book to school and read it to as many kids as possible over the course of the week. Last Stop on Market Street tells the story of CJ and Nana as they leave church and head, by bus, to a soup kitchen where they volunteer every Sunday. Over the course of the trip, CJ asks Nana all kinds of questions, the way kids do. He wants to know why they don't have a car, why he can't have an iPod, why can't the man with the cane and dog see, why it's so dirty in the neighborhood near the soup kitchen. Nana answers CJ's questions, not always directly, but with wisdom, creativity and sensitivity. And, although he didn't want to go there at first, CJ finds he is happy to be at the soup kitchen with Nana. As de la Peña says in an essay titled, "How We Talk (Or Don't Talk) About Diversity When We Read with Our Kids," his book is, among other things, about, "seeing the beautiful in the world and the power of service." The student body at the school where I am the librarian is almost 90% Hispanic, with African Americans, Asians and whites making up the other 10%. Almost 90% of the student body at my school qualifies for free lunch and many of them live in a home with multiple families, are foster children or do not live with both parents. The majority of my students speak English as a second language and struggle to read at grade level. Last Stop on Market Street is a book that, unlike most, shows them people of all colors (and their colors) as well as people who share their socioeconomic status. In his essay, de la Peña says that he strives to "write books about diverse characters, but now I try to place them in stories that have nothing to do with diversity, not overtly anyway." And, as I read this book over and over to my first through fifth graders, I came to share the belief of the ALA that Last Stop on Market Street is indeed worthy of the Newbery Medal, in large part because it is accessible for my students, many of whom cannot read Newbery winners because the reading level is too high for them, but also because it is intimately, immediately relatable. Also, it is very cool to be able to tell my students that, not only is Matt de la Peña, who is half Mexican and half white, grew up in National City, which is in San Diego county, where our school is, Matt is also the first Latino author to win the Newbery Medal. And then I get to give a shout-out to another San Diego county writer and winner of the Newbery Honor medal this year for her book Echo, Pam Muñoz Ryan, who is also half Mexican. Besides being accessible because of the reading level, I love Last Stop on Market Street because reading it has opened doors to so many amazing conversations with my students. With the younger students, I didn't talk about the diversity of the characters, but we did talk about volunteering time and what a soup kitchen is. We talked about who has ridden the bus and who has seen a street performer. With my older students, we were able to have a discussion about diversity in the books they read, why there isn't a Latina Junie B. Jones and how maybe some of them will grow up to write kid's books with diverse characters. We even touched on socioeconomic diversity, which I also am grateful to be able to talk about when I read Eve Bunting and Lauren Castillo's amazing book Yard Sale to students. Yard Sale is about a family who, after losing their house, is having a yard sale before moving into a small apartment. Having an opening to talk about diversity in kid's books with the fifth graders also allowed me gently, hesitantly bring up gender diversity. Last summer I read and reviewed George, by Alex Gino, which just won the Stonewall Award, which is given to "works of exceptional merit for children and teens relating to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender experience." I decided not to put Gino's book on the shelf in the library, not because of the content, but because I was not sure if my students would understand it. However, once I mentioned gender diversity, right away, one of my students asked, "Like transgender?" and a brief conversation followed where I was able to talk about the book George. More than a few students expressed interest in reading it and it was on the shelf and checked out the very next day.
While I wish I had reviewed and taken Last Stop on Market Street to school to read to students right when I received it, and also that I had not had an initially negative reaction to hearing that it won the Newbery (and not the Caldecott) I am deeply grateful that this series of events brought me to the experience I had with my students last week after it won the Newbery and deeply grateful that Matt de la Peña and Christian Robinson created this uncommon book, one that I hope opens the doors to many, many more like it.
Source: Review Copy
Yard Sale, written by Even Bunting and illustrated by Lauren Castillo begins, "Almost everything we own is spread out in our front yard. We are moving to a small apartment." Yard Sale is a rare picture book that addresses socioeconomic status, and, working in a school where almost 90% of my students qualify for free lunch, I am grateful for it.
Over the course of the day Callie experiences a range of emotions as she sees the things she has grown up with leave her life. Chagrined, she watches as a woman talks down the price of her headboard because "someone has put crayon marks on it." Callie made those marks to show how many time she read Goodnight Moon.
She is angry as she sees a man loading her bike into his truck. Her father rushes over, explaining to her that they have to sell her bike - there is no place to store it and no place to ride it at their new apartment. Callie tells her friend Sara that they have to move because it's "something to do with money." A shiver runs through Callie, from her toes to her head, when a woman playfully asks if she is for sale.
Walking back inside their now empty house, Callie feels OK. It's "OK because we don't really need anything we've sold. And those things won't fit in our new place anyway. But we will fit in our new place. And we are taking us."
With Yard Sale, Bunting and Castillo tell this story of a difficult transition with simplicity, sensitivity, honesty and dignity. Castillo's illustrations are washed with warm colors, outlined in black. The yard strewn with the family's belongings is hodge-podge but also somewhat comfortable. Yard Sale broke my heart and it took me several months before I could think about reviewing it or reading it out loud to my students. But, this is the reality that many children live with these days, especially the students at the school where I am a librarian. My students are constantly moving from apartment to apartment, house to house, as their parents lose jobs, change jobs, return to Mexico or go to jail. There are always yard sales going on in my community and I know that Bunting and Castillo's book is one that I will read again and again to my students.
Source: Review Copy
With Mouse Scouts, Sarah Dillard has created a series that my 8-year-old self would have gone bonkers for. Besides fantastic stories about best (but opposite) friends Violet and Tigerlily and their adventures with their Mouse Scout troop, Dillard's books are filled with fantastic illustrations, maps, songs, and passages from the very important Mouse Scout Handbook, including a very doable chapter on how to make a duty chart. There is just so much going on in these tiny, mousey little books!
In the first book we meet Violet, a quiet mouse who is prone to nervousness, and her best friend since their first day as Buttercups, Tigerlily. Tigerlily is the opposite of Violet, boisterous and talkative. Violet and Tigerlily are on the verge of becoming Mouse Scouts, but Violet is nervous that they won't make the cut. Happily, they become Mouse Scouts and, under the guidance of Miss Poppy, they, and their fellow scouts, embark upon their first project: earning their "Sow It and Grow It" badge.
Mouse Scout Handbook at the ready, the girls raid the garden shed for seeds and just escape the cat. They consult the Handbook for tips on what to plant and how to prepare the soil, including the use of chopsticks, a comb, and a grapefruit spoon. When Violet needs help watering the newly planted garden Tigerlily is too busy sliding down the drain spout to help out. But best friends come through in the end! Tigerlily invents the best sprinkler system ever - a water bottle with holes punched in it that she jumps up and down on to activate. The Scouts face their biggest challenge when they discover that they have to defend the garden against thieves, but Violet devises a scarecrow that gets the job done.
Dillard's books are filled with action and adventure, friendship and frustration and fantastic illustrations that are sure to enchant, engage and inspire readers!
Out now! Mouse Scouts Make a Difference!
More books by Sarah Dillard!
My Two Blankets is a stunningly powerful debut picture book about the experiences of immigrating to a new country by Irena Kobald. Kobald is a multilingual Austrian immigrant to Australia who teaches aboriginal children in Australian outback communities. The children she teaches use English as a fifth language. My Two Blankets was inspired by a friendship that developed between Kobald's daughter and a Sudanese child. Working in a school near the Mexican border, the majority of my students are immigrants or the children of immigrants. I have read My Two Blankets over and over to students from all grades and the way that Kobald and Blackwood bring this experience to the page resonates with them, whether it is their personal experience or not - it could be their parents' experience, their cousin's or their grandparents'. And, as someone who has never experienced this kind of challenge, Kobald and Blackwood made this experience immediately tangible for me as I read this amazing book. My Two Blankets is a book that needs to be in every school and every classroom in America, a country built on, but not always at peace with, cultural diversity and the immigrant experience.
Kobald's text for My Two Blankets is poetic and sparse as she tells the story of a girl nicknamed Cartwheel by her Auntie. But after the war came, Auntie didn't call her Cartwheel anymore. Cartwheel says, "We came to this country to be safe. Everything was strange. The people were strange. The food was strange. The animals and the plants were strange. Even the wind felt strange." Freya Blackwood's magnificent illustrations also tell Cartwheel's story, from the opposing warm and cool color palettes she uses to represent Cartwheel's world and her new home, as well as her blankets, to the way she visually represents intangibles language barriers and the emotions that accompany them. As she walks through the streets with her Auntie, the strange languages and sounds Cartwheel hears appear as symbols and shapes flying about in a confusing muddle. Cartwheel says that when she goes out it is like "standing under a waterfall of strange sounds. The waterfall was cold. And it made me feel alone. I felt like I wasn't me anymore."
When Cartwheel is home, she says that she covers herself in a blanket of "my own words and sounds." This blanket, like Cartwheel's clothes, are warm oranges, reds and yellows. The images on the blanket were from her homeland and made her feel safe. When she was wrapped in its warmth, she felt safe and "didn't want to go out. I wanted to stay under my old blanket forever."
But she does go out and one day, at the park, a girl waves and smiles at her. The girl is illustrated with pale blues, yellows and greens in opposition to Cartwheel's warm oranges and reds. Cartwheel is shy and she must return to the park three more times before she sees the girl again and works up the courage to smile back. However, even this new joyful friendship brings sadness for Cartwheel when she does not know the words to tell the girl that she is happy they are friends.
But, as they spend more time together, the girl "brings some words for me. She made me say them over and over." Blackwood illustrates this beautifully, showing Cartwheel holding what looks like a paper bird, then a tree, then leaves, the girls trading them back and forth. Soon, inside Cartwheel's warm, comfortable old blanket we see a new blanket emerging, made from the cool colors of the girl and her world and the symbols that she shares with Cartwheel. After time, this new blanket becomes "just as warm and soft and comfortable as my old blanket. And now, no matter which blanket I use, I will always be me." The final illustration shows Cartwheel and her friend in the park, turning cartwheels.
With My Two Blankets Kobald and Blackwood have created a book that makes cultural displacement, loneliness and sadness immediately palpable and graspable for children. At the same time, they have given us a book about patience, perseverance, friendship, sharing and kindness that will leave you feeling that same burst of joy that completing a cartwheel can give you.
Source: Review Copy
Books I Read Over & Over in My Library
& Am Still Not Tired Of:
by Ryan T. Higgins
by Adam Stower
written by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Meg Hunt
by Zachariah Ohara
Most Beautifully Magical
Picture Books of the 2015
by JiHyeon Lee
by Faye Hanson
by Pamela Zagarinski
by Anthony Browne
Top 11 Picture Books of 2015 Worth Buying
Written and Drawn by Henrietta
written by Marcus Ewert, illustrated by Lisa Brown
by Travis Nichols
by Thyra Heder
written by Allison Paul, illustrated by Barbara Lehman
by Heidi Deedman
written by Muon Van, illustrated by April Chu
by Katie May Green
by Kevin Henkes
Inside this Book (are three books)
by Barney Saltzberg
by Kadir Nelson
Best Narrative Non-Fiction of 2015
Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova
by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Julie Morstad
Tricky Vic: The Impossible Story of the Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower
by Greg Pizzoli
Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine
by Laurie Wallmark, illustrated by April Chu
Notable Board Books:
by Mark Gonyea
by Janik Coat
To see them all in one place, visit this board:
MY FAVORITE CHAPTER BOOKS
Piper Green and the Fairy Tree by Ellen Potter Princess Black and the Perfect Princess Party
by Shannon & Dean Hale, illustrated by LeUyen Pham
MY FAVORITE MIDDLE GRADE NOVELS
Ms. Rapscott's Girls by Elise Primavera The Marvels by Brian Selznick Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead
MY FAVORITE YA NOVELS
The Hired Girl
by Laura Amy Schlitz
Carry On by Rainbow Rowell
MY FAVORITE GRAPHIC NOVELS
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson Space Dumplins by Craig Thompson
MY FAVORITE NON-FICTION
Why'd They Wear That?: Fashions as the Mirror of History
by Sarah Albee
Untamed: The Wild Life of Jane Goodall
by Anita Silvey
by Jonathan Sawyer
Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova
by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Julie Morstad
Tricky Vic: The Impossible Story of the Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower
by Greg Pizzoli
Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine
by Laurie Wallmark, illustrated by April Chu
I was perusing my posts from the last year, trying to decide if I really feel like making a "best of" list this year and being hard on myself for all the books I didn't read and review, when I discovered this post: Children's Publishers Choose Their Favorite Reads of 2014 at Publishers Weekly. I remember being deeply impressed last year when I read it because, having worked for a literary agent, I know how much time everyone involved in the industry - from editors to publicists to agents to booksellers - spends reading just as a work requirement. To think that these people had the time to read a non-work related/required book for pleasure meant that it really must be worth checking out. As I read more of my post from last year, I realized, with sadness, that I did not read and review the one book of the group that I said I would, Andrew Smith's Grasshopper Jungle. And another one of his books makes the list this year!
One thing I have to admit to myself, just as I have been craving a really juicy one, is that I don't read YA books as much as I used to. I think it's in part due to being an elementary school librarian and also trying to increase the number of middle grade novels I read and review in a year. Not working in a bookstore, I have definitely lost touch with the world of YA. That said, one of the books on this list DID catch my eye and it, along with a few others (see covers below) are currently in a shopping cart awaiting checkout. Before you read why everyone else loved these books, here are the reasons why I am spending a portion of my diminutive librarian's salary to add these books to my own shelves.
Despite not reading them as much as I used to, I still love a good YA novel and this book made the list TWICE!! Recommended by editors at two houses I respect (Candlewick and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), read in almost one sitting by one of them and compared to two of my favorite YA authors (who also coauthored one of my favorite YA books, Will Grayson, Will Grayson, which I really should review here), John Green and David Levithan (who is also an editor for Scholastic and recommended the book that I intended to read from last year's list) this has got to me just what I am in the mood for! This book was recommended by Elise Howard, an editor I admire and have heard speak. After decades at bigger houses, Howard left to head up and start up Algonquin Young Readers and she has impeccable taste. Also, the description of it and the subject matter of OCD and mental illness sound compelling and well handled. Even after this book became a National Book Award Finalist, the fact that it began with the accidental drowning of the main character's best friend turned me off. I know that tragedy and hardship make for phenomenal stories that often win Newbery Awards and Honors, but these books still bum me out. However, when they are good, they also lift me up. Stephanie Lurie is an editor I admire and she starts her review off talking about one of my favorite all-time books read as a kid (and one I really need to reread and review here) and then listing (aspiring middle grade authors TAKE NOTE) the 5 elements that she loves in a middle grade novel!!! This is the only picture book from the list I plan to buy, and probably the ONLY picture book I will purchase for myself this year. My shelves are bursting with picture books and I have to think very, very hard before buying one. These are the three reasons why I am buying this book: 1) the reviewer discovered this book while at a book festival in France. 2) European picture books are really amazing and interestingly different from those published here. 3) The American publisher of this book is Enchanted Lion Books THE foremost publisher of picture books in translation. As with last year, please find links to my reviews, when available.
Elise Howard, Algonquin Young Readers
The book that has stayed with me most in 2015 is a YA novel that got away some months earlier. I read The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B by Teresa Toten as it was winning Canada’s Governor General’s Award and was just being submitted in the U.S. It ultimately found its home at Delacorte, but I read it again on publication and loved it all over again for its completely believable, intelligent, troubled, complex, charming characters; for its authentic depiction of the complicated and hard to untangle effects of mental illness on individuals, families, and relationships; for making me believe in its dilemmas (what is the right thing to do when all the love you feel for someone may not be enough to keep you from holding that person back?); and for walking the edge of emotional disaster without jumping the shark. I have been so glad to see it get many accolades, and I’d love for even more readers to discover it.
Alex Yeadon, Sourcebooks
100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith was a completely random purchase for me. I saw it at my local bookstore and thought “What the heck is that horse doing?” and immediately decided to buy it. And boy, am I glad I did. The quirky characters and hilariously inappropriate dialogue are right up my alley, and I fell in love with the idea of seeing the world through miles instead of minutes. Something about it struck a chord with me, and it’s made me a huge Andrew Smith fan ever since.
Kate Sullivan, Random House
I was shopping at Oblong Books in Millerton, N.Y., and noticed Shh! We Have a Plan by Chris Haughton, because the art reminded me of a favorite illustrator from my childhood, Tomi Ungerer. Shh! We Have a Plan is a delightful look at how the best-laid plans often don’t work out, and how the smallest and least experienced member of the group is sometimes the wisest. And even when things don’t go to plan and they end up briefly running for their lives, hope springs eternal and soon they are all ready for another challenge. It’s a great reminder for anyone who needs a boost, and I love to give picture books to my fellow grownups.
Jill Davis, Katherine Tegen Books, HarperCollins
My favorite book of 2015 was The Wonderful Fluffy Little Squishy by Beatrice Alemagna. I was introduced to it last year in Paris while attending the Salon du Livre et de la Presse Jeunesse with illustrator Elise Gravel, when she handed it to me, saying, “It uses the most wonderful shocking pink!” The pink was the little girl’s jacket as well as the little animal featured in the book – in which a funny little girl walks around town looking for the perfect gift for her mother, entering many an old shop (bringing to mind images of Tomi Ungerer’s work). Finally she spots the perfect gift – a fluffy squishy bright pink creature resembling a poodle. Now she has the perfect and very useful gift, but first she must lose him and recover him in a fountain before she can bring him home! I love the book because Beatrice fills the pages with the most wonderful, odd, funny-looking people in a way I believe children really do see things. It’s a book that feels alive, funny, and poignant at the same time – and above all, unique.
Paige Hazzan, Scholastic
A few months ago I began noticing starred reviews popping up for a book called The Hired Girl by Newbery Medalist Laura Amy Schlitz. When PWcompared the main character to Anne Shirley, a childhood favorite of mine, I knew I had to get my hands on it. The comparison could not have been more fitting. From the opening pages, readers are transported back in time through the first-person narration of Joan’s diary to early 20th-century America, where life was a little simpler but no less full of emotion, tragedy, and triumph for its romantically inclined heroine. Amid some of the darker topics explored in today’s YA, The Hired Girl was a breath of fresh air that felt so wholly new while somehow fitting right in with classics like Little Women and yes, Anne of Green Gables. It’s a wonderful gem of a novel that made me laugh, cry, and remember the books that first inspired my love of children’s literature. I have not stopped recommending it to friends and colleagues since.
READ MY REVIEW HERE
Jamie Tan, Candlewick Press
A bookseller friend recommended Pool by JiHyeon Lee at the height of summer, when I was using my summer Fridays to swim as much as I could. She put it in my hands and I bought it for the cover alone. I love the idea of the pool as a completely different world and an imaginative space. The gentle illustrations were just right and perfectly evocative of summer afternoons spent underwater. READ MY REVIEW HERE
Olivia Ngai, Zest Books
My favorite children’s book this year is The 13 Clocks by James Thurber, sent to me by a good friend. Filled with the classic tropes of a hero, a princess, and the forces of good and evil magic, the imaginative fantasy story reads in such a wonderfully consuming way that it pulls you straight into its stunning colorfully illustrated pages, making you feel childlike and young again, despite whatever age you may be.
Seale Ballenger, Disney Publishing Worldwide
I loved Carry On by Rainbow Rowell. It’s the follow-up to Fangirl and features the same characters that the protagonist of that story writes about in fan fiction. It’s all very meta and great fun. The Potter-esque story follows Simon, Baz, Penelope, and Agatha as they spend their last year at Watford (the school of magic that Rowell slyly names for the town where the Potter movies were filmed), battling the “insidious Humdrum” and chasing after clues to a murder. It’s adventurous, funny, charming, and heartfelt – all the ingredients that make Rowell’s novels so wonderful. For fans of J.K. Rowling and Lev Grossman, this is the perfect escapist holiday read. READ MY REVIEW HERE
Morgan Dubin, Macmillan
I adored every moment of The Bear Report by Thyra Heder. It’s a truly gorgeous book, full of elegant watercolors: fantastic blues and inviting shades of grays and whites. Thyra’s stories have such imagination, wit, and bountiful creativity. The Bear Report is no different, and brings Thyra’s bright and imaginative art from Fraidyzoo to a whole new level. More picture books from Thyra Heder to inspire enthusiastic children, please! READ MY REVIEW HERE
Lara Starr, Chronicle Books
The best book I read in 2015 was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, my favorite book as a tween and one long, long overdue for a re-read. Every paragraph was like a visit from an old friend. Betty Smith’s beautiful and beautifully observed writing is so heartbreaking, so true. Young Frances Katherine Nolan’s early 20th-century Brooklyn home and neighborhood comes alive on the page. It is a time and place both innocent and vulgar, full of fierce love and crushing cruelty. The intricate customs and traditions of the tenement culture are presented with affection and honesty, as are the Nolan family’s struggles with poverty and alcoholism. The reader grows up with Francie through the course of the book, and comes to see her world through grown-up eyes. I recommended A Tree Grows in Brooklyn to Chronicle’s Classic YA Book Club after we read Harriet the Spy. I loved re-reading Harriet, and it reminded me that I wanted to spend time with Francie again, a girl growing up in a very different New York. Some of the club members had read it, some had not. All loved it.
Alix Reid, Carolrhoda
I fell in love with The Hueys in the New Sweater by Oliver Jeffers this year. I came across it in the “specially recommended” section of my local independent bookstore, The Book Table in Oak Park, Illinois. It was facing out and the funny title, the two-color simplicity of the cover, and the adorable but not overly sweet jelly bean-like Hueys immediately grabbed me. Every time I read the book I marvel at how the perfect match between small words and small drawings magically combine to broadcast the huge and important message that being different is okay.
Aruna Rangarajan, Capstone
Queen of Shadows is the fourth and newest book in the Throne of Glass series by Sarah J. Maas, and thank goodness there are six books in this series – something to keep us going till 2017 at least! The writing is simply amazing. The characters don’t stray from their personalities, which makes them very, very real. The heroine is strong and not mopey or weepy. And the plot line is unpredictable and gripping. Also, the new characters introduced in every book are wonderful and do not fall flat. In fact, one of my favorite characters was introduced in book three. The world that Sarah J. Maas creates for us is old-world magic mixed with political drama and dangerous assassins. Seriously, the best fantasy I’ve read this year.
Angela Corpus, Quarto Publishing Group
While browsing in a bookstore for a gift for a dear friend’s new baby (whose nickname is “Ellie”), the title and adorable cover of Ellie – written and illustrated by Mike Wu – popped out at me. I fell in love with Wu’s watercolors that become more and more vibrant as the sweet storyline progresses. As a read-along the illustrations offer plenty of talking points to explore with little readers, and at a time when art education is losing funding, it’s lovely to show the value of artistic talents.
Jill Saginario, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
My favorite book this year hands-down is Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda. It was irrepressibly adorable and so much fun to read. I’m so glad I picked this book up after reading the hugely positive reviews! Remember when David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy came out and everyone was talking about how this was a fantasy version of how some kids might fall in love in the distant future where being gay is accepted in high school? I think this book is the realistic version of that, now that it’s within the realm of possibility that a kid – in the South even – could come out to an overwhelmingly supportive circle of family and friends and teachers (minus some outliers). The dialogue: so how kids talk. The cute? Off the charts. And beyond all that, this book has a lot to say. I absolutely related to the way Simon was reluctant to tell his family much of anything because they were so involved in his life, they never let anything slide. Everything he did was noted and discussed if it fell outside the box his parents put him in, even though it came from a place of love. The good-natured self-absorption. The quickly blossoming intensity of a crush. I was gripping the book, racing to the end to find out who Simon’s Blue was. I loved every minute of this squee-fest and when I closed the covers, I had a huge smile on my face.
Michael Joosten, Random House
I bow down to Victoria Turnbull’s The Sea Tiger. It arrived in our Round Robin order from Candlewick, and what an impression it has made on me. It’s an incredibly evocative picture book that conjures warm thoughts of Peter Pan and The Snowman while feeling wholly original. Ms. Turnbull’s illustrations manage to achieve a rare and remarkable duality of feeling, as though they could have existed in the 1920s, while simultaneously exhibiting a sense of belonging right here in the 21st century. Also, her effortless ability to highlight the selflessness that can emerge from true friendship gets me every time. In short, I have to go hug someone right now.
Domenica Di Piazza, Twenty-First Century Books
As the director of a YA imprint, I spend a lot of time reading adult material to see what topics and themes and concerns will cross over naturally to the YA market. The most satisfying read of this year for me from that point of view is The Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a fabulous biography by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik. It’s technically an adult book but has such broad appeal and is so satisfying visually that it works for teen readers too.
I especially love the way the authors deal with RBG as a whole person, as interested in her fashion sense (how about those lace collars?) as in her brilliant dissents (take a look at the chapter that unpacks her opinions, with colorful marginalia and smart commentary). And it’s a great read-aloud too. We are reading it at my home, taking turns.
Cheryl Eissing, HarperCollins
My favorite children’s book of 2015 was Leo: A Ghost Story by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Christian Robinson. I saw it at BEA this year and absolutely loved it – so much so that I hung the free poster up in my apartment. I loved how it told a story of love and loss through a whimsical and childlike lens. It also broke the fourth wall and referenced the reader, which is becoming more popular recently, though I think Leo does it best. The illustrations were amazing and the story really stuck with me. Definitely my favorite!
Todd Stocke, Sourcebooks
Is it cheating to name one of the most acclaimed books of the past year or so? I’m going with “no” because I’ve read other buzzed-about superstars and either shrugged or outright hated them. But I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson earns the acclaim with a daring story both well-told and well-written. Non-linear narratives from multiple perspectives is often tried, but just one in a million stories do it exceptionally well. Nelson nails it. Add in a wonderful exploration of creative arts, epically sad family events, and honest struggles with puberty and sexuality and, well… you win the Printz. Oh, and I adore the gutsy call they made for cover of the paperback! READ MY REVIEW HERE
Following in the illustrious footsteps of Kate DiCamillo, Walter Dean Myers, Katharine Paterson and Jon Sciescka, Printz winner Gene Luen Yang has been appointed National Ambassador for Young People's Literature by the Children's Book Council. This is exciting for a lot of reasons, but especially, for me, as a huge fan, because Yang is a graphic novelist, the first to hold this appointment!
Of Yang's appointment, previous ambassador Kate DiCamillo said, "Gene Yang is a talented writer. He is a brilliant artist. His stories are thought-provoking, genre-bending, utterly original examinations of the human heart. In short, Gene Yang is a Renaissance man. I am so honored to pass the torch of this sacred task to Gene. No one is better suited for bringing us all together." So well said. I can't wait to see what Yang brings to his term!
For more about Yang, read my reviews of his books (links below) and check out this brief interview with the CBC.
Gene Luen Yang's books that I've reviewed:
Secret Coders: Get with the Program!
Books by Yang I have yet to review...
I was introduced to Beatrice Alemagna's The Wonderful Fluffy Little Squishy while avidly perusing a favorites of 2015 list selected by folks working in the kid's book business. While at a kid's book conference in France, Jill Davis of Katherine Tegen books, an imprint of HarperCollins, had Alemagna's book pointed out to her by Elise Gravel, author and illustrator of the forthcoming book, I Want a Monster! (review to come this March.) This makes sense because The Wonderful Fluffy Little Squishy was originally published in France and and has a title you can't ignore, in English and French (Le merveilleux dodu velu petit). The indispensable purveyor of foreign kid's books in translation, Enchanted Lion Books, is responsible for bringing this book to our shores, translated by publisher Claudia Zoe Bedrick. Now that my kids are older and I can't really justify it, I have whittled my annual picture book purchases down to single digits. Based on Davis's review, the fact that Elise Gravel pointed it out to her, and the brilliant title, along with the fact that Enchanted Lion is the American publisher, I made The Wonderful Little Squishy my first and possibly only picture book purchase of 2016 and it was definitely worth it!
First of all, The Wonderful Fluffy Little Squishy is a gorgeous book - from the trim size to the thick cover and pages to the beautiful color palette Alemagna used for the book, including that popping pink that attracted Elise Gravel to the book. Alemagna begins her book by introducing readers to the narrator, Edith (but you can call me Eddie.) Eddie is five-and-a-half and, compared to her mom, dad and big sister, she thinks that she doesn't know how to do anything, even though the illustration above shows otherwise. Eddie is an effortless, effervescent hero, with her puffy, pink jacket, her ingenuity and unstoppability. When Eddie overhears snippets of her sister saying something that seems important ("birthday-Mommy-fuzzy-little-squishy.") she decides she needs to do something - but what?
Because she lives in a charming little village, Eddie is able to run out the door, from shop to shop, looking for the perfect present for Mommy. First stop? Mr. John the baker, who, "with all his wonderful squishy things," surely will be able to help Eddie. Sadly, all he has is a warm brioche, fresh out of the oven. Eddie pops it in her pocket and head out to the next shop.
And to the next shop. All the shop keepers try to help Eddie find that wonderful, fluffy, little squishy thing but only have trinkets to offer. Her pockets full of not exactly what she was looking for, Eddie even visits the "big grump," Theo the butcher.
About to give up, Eddie hears these "amazing little giggles" and sees it! Perched on the roof above her is an, "adorable little creature! My present with a thousand uses!" This leads to one of my favorite illustrations in The Wonderful Fluffy Little Squishy, among many, as seen below.
But, before Eddie can take that wonderful, fluffy little squishy home to her Mommy, she has to do some negotiating with Quentin, the garbage man. Fortunately, her friends in the village have given her just the things she needs to get that little fluffy squishy cleaned up and home to Mom - with the help of her WONDERFUL FRIENDS! The endpapers for The Wonderful Fluffy Little Squishy are fantastic - and slightly different. Below is the endpaper from the back of the book, where you see Eddie and all her wonderful friends along with the Fluffy on her head. At the start of the book, we see the friends and Eddie, minus the Fluffy. From cover to cover, The Wonderful Fluffy Little Squishy is . . . wonderful!
I'm trying something new this year - Instagram. I've only had a smartphone for a year now and it has taken me that long to get a feel for Instagram and decide why it is a platform of social media that I should even bother with. When the app that I had been using to record things that I am grateful for everyday crashed, I decided that this was a good time to start expressing my gratitude to the people and world around me actively, rather than tallying it on my phone.
But, I found I missed the daily diary routine of the gratitude app and decided to try using Instagram as a daily diary featuring a book I was reading. Here is where you will find glimpses of - and often brief thoughts on - one of the many books that I have my hands on every day. These will not always be books that I review on my blog, or these might be books that I will be reviewing down the road, so I hope that you will visit for something a little bit new and different! Also, I am trying to flex my artistic muscle and I hope to post a drawing every Saturday. . .
You can find me by clicking the link above, clicking the Instagram badge on my blog (scroll to the bottom of the page) or by looking for me @books4yourkids.
And, as always, thanks for reading
on any platform!
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Friendship, connection, danger, adventure, robots or creatures. These are things you can count on in a Ben Hatke book, and these are the elements that I look forward to experiencing through his particular perspective (and paintbrush) with each and every book. In his newest graphic novel, Little Robot, Hatke tells the almost wordless story of a little girl who finds and fights to keep her new friend.
A box falls out of a truck and off a bridge, making its way to a junkyard downstream. A little girl slips out of the window of her trailer home and heads off into the wilds/junkyard, shoeless, where she unearths her tool satchel. There she discovers the box and the robot within.
After getting the bot going, she helps it to master the art of walking. Together the two explore as she gently teaches the robot about the world around them. In a factory far away we see an alarm going off - a robot is missing. A massive, one eyed, multi-legged, yellow behemoth is seen trundling out of a hangar and into the distance. A capture, a rescue and a dramatic ending leave the little heroine with more bots and friends than before along with a very satisfying ending.
Being mostly wordless, Little Robot is so much about feelings and the sometimes wordless connection of friendship. Little Robot is a "meditation on friendship more than a lesson," as Hatke said of his book in an interview with EW. Hatke goes on to say that his heroine is, "a hero for the introverts and the makers." And, while this is a graphic novel about robots, junkyards and machines, the natural world is very much a vivid part of Little Robot. Hatke says that this scenery is "partially inspired by and informed by the landscape around my home in Virginia. The rural area in the Shenandoah valley." Amidst the green fields are forests are cats, birds, frogs, ducks, turtles and newly blooming flowers. There is a six-panel page where the girl and the bot come across a dead squirrel. "XoNX," the bot exclaims (the bot has a fantastic phonetic language, "Jonk," being its most frequent verbalization) and the little girl, completely at home in the natural world, reassures him, "It's just dead is all."
For a book with so few words, there is so much going on in Little Robot. But this is always the case with Hatke's books. His illustration style, color palette, characters and plots are good. That seems like a tired, less than celebratory adjective but I mean it in the best, truest sense of the word possible. If you have ever read Hatke's blog or had the immense pleasure of viewing his wife's Instagram feed, you will experience the well of goodness, from good living to good parenting and educating to good stewardship of and connection to the natural world, that Hatke's creations arise from and/or are fueled by. This is a good world that I want to live in and one that I want the young readers I teach to live in, even if we can only get to it from the pages of his books.
A new picture book coming from Hatke this year!
And a new graphic novel coming next year, maybe...