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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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1. My Crazy Inventions Sketchbook: 50 Awesome Drawing Activities for Young Inventors by Andrew Rae & Lisa Regan, 128 pp, RL: 4

My Crazy Inventions Sketchbook: 50 Awesome Drawing Activities for Young Inventors by Andrew Rae and Lisa Regan is GENIUS! Rae has worked for many clients worldwide in advertising, print, publishing and animation and Regan is an accomplished author of children's non-fiction with over 300 titles to her name. The beauty of My Crazy Inventions Sketchbook is that it is more than a doodle book that will appeal to kids who may have never even considered inventing or designing something. This book is so engaging and inviting that readers will step outside the box or be inspired to step even further out, if they are already creatively inclined. Regan and Rae detail and bring to life a wide array of inventions from hundreds of years ago, like Leonardo daVinci's 1485 design for wings for humans to 21st century craziness like the man in Brazil who built a machine that changes from a van to a robot and back again in about two minutes. 

My Crazy Inventions Sketchbook is a great gift for a kid who is a tinkerer, doodler or both, but it is also a gentle guide for kids who might really feel a passion for invention. The "Getting Started" page takes this seriously and tells junior inventors to keep a notebook, always make sure you are not inventing something that already exists and to "learn to let go" when you are the only one who thinks your inventions is a winner.

My Crazy Invention Sketchbook introduces kids to actual inventions, from the useful to the life changing to the ridiculous then invites them to think up their own inventions along the same lines or principals or adapt and improve something that already exists. Inventors can invent something to help them practice their favorite sport, a faster method of long distance travel or ways to make a boat fly. They are invited to invent a toilet, a toy, a brand new candy and a better bed. They are also asked to customize a bike and accessorize a car. Leaning into the less than possible (but hey, who am I to say?) kids are also asked to design a shrinking machine and a device that would help you do your homework.

The final pages of My Crazy Invention Sketchbook introduces readers to the concept of patents and has a two page "Application for Patent of My Crazy Invention" that, while far from the real thing, is a great place for young inventors to organize their thoughts and get them on the page. Finally, a very cool certificate of patent makes up the last page of the book. My Crazy Invention Sketchbook is guaranteed to spark ideas and inspire creativity in any one, of any age, who opens the covers and starts turning pages!

Source: Review Copy

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2. Where Did My Clothes Come From? by Chris Butterworth, illustrated by Lucia Gaggiotti

Where Did My Clothes Come From? by Chris Butterworth with illustrations by Lucia Gaggiotti is the fantastic companion to equally fantastic How Did That Get in My Lunchbox?, published in 2011. What I love about both books is the intended audience, which I would say is roughly 3 - 6 years old. The text in Butterworth's books is short and playful, drawing readers in. Gagiotti's illustrations are superb. She captures the absolute cuteness and fun of little kid clothes (and little kids) while also doing a fine job of illustrating industrial machinery and factory work.

Where Did My Clothes Come From? is definitely a global book with Butterworth focusing on textiles that have interesting creation processes, from blue jeans and sweaters to silk, soccer uniforms, boots and fleece. Besides cotton, rubber and wool, Butterworth also notes other plants that clothes are made from, like linen and hemp, and other animals that wool is collected from, like yaks, camels, bison, rabbits and goats.

Where Did My Clothes Come From? gently touches on what has become a national issue, clothing waste. Butterworth makes some friendly suggestions for reusing clothes that you have "grown out of or just don't love anymore" without specifically stating that the influx of cheap and cheaply made clothing encourages Americans to buy more and toss more clothes every year. Apparently not everyone sends cloths to Amvets or Goodwill, nor, according to the infographic below, does everyone know that out of the 13 million tons of textiles trashed every year, only 2 million of that is recovered for reuse or recycling.

This is heady information for the intended audience, but a message that the adults reading the book could probably stand to hear. For readers and listeners who are fascinated by Where Did My Clothes Come From?, check out this book:

For slightly older readers, don't miss:

Source: Review Copy

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3. The Smallest Gift of Christmas by Peter H. Reynolds

After 22 years of reading Christmas books to my kids, it is rare that I find a holiday book that is worthy of sharing here. But, when Peter H. Reynolds, author of the Creatrilogy of picture books that explore creativity and inspiration, creates a Christmas book, you know it will be worth buying and reading year after year. It is a good thing to have at least one or two picture books that help kids recognize the rampant consumerism of this season, and The Smallest Gift of Christmas is a reminder in the gentlest, most subtle of ways, which is exactly what I look for in a book with a message. The message of The Gift of Christmas is one that is easy to forget this time of year - being with people you love is the best gift, no matter what time of year. Reynolds wraps this message (which has been clobbered in so many other Christmas books) in a story that is sure to entertain young listeners and readers and presents it in a tiny trim size along with a photo-frame ornament.

The Gift of Christmas begins, "Roland was eager for Christmas Day." The accompanying illustration shows stockings hung over the fireplace, Roland's reaching all the way down to the floor. When Roland races downstairs on Christmas morning only to see the "smallest gift he had ever seen," he wonders, "had he waited all year for this tiny gift?" Roland closes his eyes and wishes his hardest for a bigger gift - and he gets it. Over the course of a few pages, his greed grows, as does the size of his gift. Finally, he heads off to search the universe for the biggest gift. When he looks into his telescope and sees earth shrinking to a tiny dot that will soon disappear, he realizes that what he really wants is to be back on earth and home with his family. As is rocket lands gently in his snowy front yard, Roland realizes that the "smallest speck was his biggest gift."

Short, simple and sweet. The Smallest Gift of Christmas is one that kids need to (and will want to) hear more than once.

Source: Review Copy

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4. The Sock Monkey Trilogy by Cece Bell

If you know anything about kid's books, kid's book awards and graphic novels, then the name Cece Bell should not be new to you. I had the pleasure of getting to know her work before she wowed the world with the 2015 Newbery Honor book, El Deafo, and am so happy to get to spend more time with her books now, especially her creation, Sock Monkey and all his friends. Bell has a sensibility that is a bit left of everyday and a wonderful way of somehow making every story, very subtly and sweetly, about acceptance, friendship, bravery and love. Originally published almost 10 years ago, Candlewick wisely, happily, has reissued Sock Money Takes a Bath, Sock Monkey Boogie-Woogie and Sock Monkey Rides Again.

Sock Monkey is a famous toy actor. He is also kind of a stand in for toddlers. In Sock Money Takes a Bath, Sock Monkey gets some good news and some bad news. He has been nominated* for "Best Supporting Toy in a Motion Picture" and has been invited to attend the Oswald Awards Ceremony at the Big Theater. The asterisk notes that "Nominees MUST be clean." Just thinking about taking a bath makes Sock Monkey, "dizzy with fear." Happily, his best friends, Miss Bunn, Froggie and Blue Pig are free to help him out. Miss Bunn takes him to bathe with mild soap and a few other monkeys in a hot springs atop a snowy mountain. Froggie helps him rinse in the clear, cool water of a pond and Blue Pig gets Sock Monkey to the desert where he can bask "all day in the sizzling sunshine." Clean and calm, Sock Monkey heads to the awards where he faces disappointments and surprises and a lot of great word play from Bell.
While I love all three books, I think that Sock Monkey Boogie-Woogie just might be my favorite. Sock Monkey is going to the Big Celebrity Dance and is super excited - until he discovers he doesn't have a partner! His three best friends are traveling, but they send home gifts that come together to make - another monkey! Sock Buddy can make cupcakes AND turns out to be the perfect dance partner! They impress everyone at the dance and, best of all, when Sock Monkey's friends meet Sock Buddy, they feel like they've known him forever. What I especially love about Sock Monkey Boogie-Woogie is the fact that Sock Monkey and Sock Buddy both seem to be guys. Bell  makes the less conventional choice and it makes the book all the more completely lovable.

Sock Monkey Rides Again finds our famous toy actor in another difficult situation. This time, it's not the prospect of having to bathe that is throwing him off, it's the fact that he will have to kiss the leading lady! In order to star as Red Reardon in "Hubbub at the Happy Canyon Hoedown," Sock Monkey will also have to learn to yodel, ride a horse, lasso a cow and get some cool duds. As always, Sock Monkey's friends are there to help out. But, when it comes time to kiss Lulu Nevada, he just can't do it and Lulu is left in tears. No matter how he tries to console her, he realizes there is really only one thing he can do, and he does it. And the director gets his shot!

I have been reading Sock Money Takes a Bath, Sock Monkey Boogie-Woogie and Sock Monkey Rides Again over and over to my students, from kindergarten to fifth grade, and they all love Sock Monkey. Also, all three books always seem to spark some kind of discussion, whether it's about how to make a sock monkey, or looking at pictures of the monkeys in the hot springs. 

The original inspirations for the cast of the Sock Monkey books!

More books by Cece Bell


Source: Review Copy

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5. Mini Grey presents SPACE DOG

The mind of Mini Grey is a wondrous, playful thing and I am thankful that she is both a gifted author and illustrator who can convey that on the pages of a picture book again and again. Here newest picture book, Space Dog, is chock full of story - visual and text - from endpaper to endpaper, which begins with a map of the Cake Space Quadrant.

Space Dog begins, "It's the year 3043 and, for as long as anyone on Home Planet can remember, Space Dogs, Astro Cats, and Moustronauts have been sworn enemies." Space Dog has long been "sorting out planetary problems" in the Dairy Quadrant. As Space Dog tackles things in the Breakfast Cluster like a milk-drought on Cornflake 5 and a milk surplus on Bottleopolis, he finds that he is just a little bit lonely when he returns to his ship, the SS Kennel

Space Dog isn't alone for long, though. After Astrocat needs rescuing and comes aboard the SS Kennel, Space Dog begins to see some good in his cake-baking-Dogopoly-playing shipmate. The two even tackle a "critical situation on Fry Up 42! Then, the head off to rescue Moustronaut from the dribbling mandibles of a cheese-collecting Queen ant. Grey ends Space Dog beautifully, with the three newly sworn friends "playing Dogopoly before dinner. Nobody is completely sure of the exact rules . . . but that doesn't seem to matter."

More Mini Grey!

Source: Review Copy

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6. Treasury of Norse Mythology: Stories of Intrigue, Trickery, Love and Revenge by Donna Jo Napoli, illustrations by Christina Balit, 192 pp, RL 4

With the recent movies from the Marvel Universe featuring Thor, along with Rick Riordan's new series Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard in which the titular character discovers he is the son of a Norse god (and why couldn't it have been Astrid Chase discovering she's the daughter of a Norse goddess, Rick?) Norse mythology is hot enough to melt a fjord right now. And, while the I love the D'Aulaires and their own collection of Norse mythology, it doesn't always grab the attention of readers. With Treasury of Norse Mythology: Stories of Intrigue, Trickery, Love and Revenge, children's book author Donna Jo Napoli brings the same wonderful storytelling skills to  that she brought to the Treasury of Egyptian Mythology and the Treasury of Greek Mythology, all three of which are marvelously illustrated, with beautiful borders on every page, by Christina Balit.

Napoli's introduction is superb, providing insight into the nature of Norse mythology that will help young readers understand how and why it is different from Greek and Egyptian mythologies. She tells readers that the was rich tradition of storytelling by traveling poets in Scandanavia, especially during the long winter nights, along with a devotion to the Old Norse language despite the widespread use of Latin during the Middle Ages.  Add to this the fierce weather and powerful forces of nature that exist in Scandinavia, along with the communal nature of the Norse gods who assembled for votes, reflecting the democratic society of Norway in which all men (not women or slaves) had a vote,  and you being to understand why Thor is a comic book hero today

Treasury of Norse Mythology: Stories of Intrigue, Trickery, Love and Revenge has back matter that includes a map of the ancient Norse world and a timeline of Norse history. There is also a cast of characters with the names and attributes of the deities, although no phonetic pronunciations, which I would have liked. I struggled with the consonant-filled names as I read. However, Napoli's introduction is followed by a note on Norse names that explains the Old Norse alphabet, the use of nominative case markers and her choice to anglicize the names. She also includes sites where readers can find more information about Old Norse as well as a video link that lets readers hear the language.

Another aspect of Treasury of Norse Mythology: Stories of Intrigue, Trickery, Love and Revenge that I especially like are the side notes that explain and add understanding to the stories in the book. The importance of the number nine in Norse mythology, the woes of beauty (women really don't fare well in Norse mythology...) and winter travel and more all get a paragraph or two and are fascinating. Napoli's afterword is fascinating and helped me make sense of the sometimes strange path of the stories. She notes the three main inconsistencies she encountered in the stories as she draws from various sources. Logical inconsistencies (like Loki's shape-shifting abilities not always coming into play) factual inconsistencies (like Odin starving for meat when he is supposed to live in wine alone) and inconsistencies of time. Interestingly, Napoli shares that she has found time inconsistencies in Greek and Egyptian myths as well, noting that this could be due to the many authors writing down the tales at different times. She ends on this interesting thought that reflects her knowledge and understanding of her subject matter, "Why can't time simply fold back on itself, especially in a  world riddled with magic?"

Source: Review Copy

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7. Fable Comics Edited by Chris Duffy

Fable Comics, edited by Chris Duffy, is the third and possibly my favorite comic anthology from the fine people at First SecondNursery Rhyme Comics came first, followed by Fairy Tale Comics. As always, I need to begin by mentioning favorites contributors (reviewed on this blog) to Fable Comics like James Kochalka, George O'Connor, Charise Harper, Eleanor Davis, Maris Wicks, and Vera Brosgol.

One thing I love about all three of the books Duffy has edited are the international tales, fables and rhymes that he includes in each book. While many of the fables in Fable Comics are Aesop's, Angola, India and the work of American author Ambrose Bierce and Russian satirist Ivan Krilof are included. As Duffy's editor's note tells us, "A fable is a story with a lesson, usually - not always - starring animals. The lesson can be stated or it can be something to figure out. But they are, in essence, bossy stories with a message for you." This has to be one of the best characterizations ever. He also notes that the cartoonists were allowed to "embellish the stories (as they like to do)" but he made sure that the integral lesson of the fable remained. These embellishments, along with a glorious variety of illustration style, is what make all three of the books in this series so much fun to read over and over. If you don't own any of these collections, Fable Comics is a great place to start. If you already own Nursery Rhyme Comics and or Fairy Tale Comics, then this new book is a must!

The other two excellent books in this series:

Nursery Rhyme Comics

 Fairy Tale Comics

Source: Review Copy

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8. Jane, the Fox and Me by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault, 104 pp, RL: 4

Jane, the Fox and Me is a graphic novel by Fanny Britt, illustrated by the marvelous Isabelle Arsenault, but it feels like something different. The trim size of Jane, the Fox and Me is big, like a picture book. The handwritten text shifts from block letters to cursive to a delicate font just as the story shifts between worlds when Hélène, the young hero of the story, moves between the worlds of school, home and her inner life, fueled by her literary explorations that shape how she sees the world. Like the grey and sepia tones of most of Aresnault's illustrations, Hélène's worlds are bleak. School is a lonely landscape where she is taunted by mean girls. Flashbacks reveal that it wasn't always this way, once she had friends and was part of a group of girls who loved shopping vintage stores for crinoline dresses. Home is not much better, with her younger twin brothers and her overworked mother. Escape comes in the pages of Jane Eyre and the world of Thornfield Hall.

Everyone knows that kids are mean and will find (or create) a weakness in another child to prey on. Hélène's former friends ostracize her because of how she looks, writing graffiti on the walls of the bathroom about her weight and body odor. Britt handles this delicate subject with simplicity and honesty that speaks to the core of any girl who was (is) not slender and hopefully opens the eyes to those who are. Britt crystalizes the experience of being overweight when Hélène learns that her class will be going to nature camp, necessitating the purchase of a new swimsuit and her only options are a ruffled, skirted suit and one that is "all black and sad." Hélène sees herself as a sausage in a swimsuit. 

Hélène departs, "on a bus to Lake Kanawana with forty kids in shorts, not one of them a friend." The mean girl, fat shaming escalates at camp, where Hélène ends up in the outcasts' tent, believing that the moral of Jane Eyre and her own story is, "never forget that you're nothing but a sad sausage." When things seem at their lowest for Hélène, Géraldine appears and a friend is made. And, while Hélène finally finding a friend again is a wonderful plot thread, I especially appreciated how Britt ends Jane, the Fox and Me, with a visit to the doctor for an annual exam. Stepping on the scale, Hélène sees that she weighs less than the graffiti, but more than last year and claps her hands to her head and shrieks, the way she sees her mother (and the lady in the cereal ad) do when she steps on the scale. She tells the doctor that she is fat and the doctor tells her she is no such thing. Her mother asks where she ever got the idea that she was fat and, in her head Hélène ticks off the many places, including her own mother, but does not say them out loud. She realizes that the less she thinks about what other people say about her, the less it is true. I wish that every lonely, book loving, less that slim young girl could read Jane, the Fox and Me and think less about what is not true.

Source: Purchased at Porter Square Books 
in Somerville, MA

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9. Alpha by Isabelle Arsenault

ALPHA by Isabelle Arsenault is a joy to read. A themed alphabet book that is also an art book, it is obvious that Arsenault, who dedicates this book to her Papa, is was a joy to create. Adults, and possibly children who have heard it used in movies and on television, will recognize the NATO phonetic alphabet, also known as the International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet.

For me, already a fan of Arsenault's work, I appreciated the chance to have the whole IRSA in front of me in a book. And I loved every page turn that revealed Arsenault's creative, playful, thoughtful choices for images to illustrate the letter and accompanying word. And yes, some of these illustrations are adult. Young readers may not associate the black derby hat with Charlie Chaplin or the elegant ball gown with Oscar de la Renta, but for me those are conversation starters. ALPHA is a meditative read that will make readers think - and smile.

 Source: Review Copy

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10. A Great Big Cuddle: Poems for the Very Young by Michael Rosen, illustrated by Chris Riddell

A Great Big Cuddle: Poems for the Very Young is such a perfectly splendid collection of poetry that you will forget all about Mother Goose, if you even have a copy in your house, which I suspect fewer and fewer parents do these days. Michael Rosen, former British Children's Laureate and author of the modern classic, We're Going on a Bear Hunt, and  Chris Riddell, illustrator and author extraordinaire who has a way with cuteness that is never saccharine, are the ideal pair to create a book like A Great Big Cuddle: Poems for the Very Young.

The thirty-five poems in A Great Big Cuddle: Poems for the Very Young are sure to engage listeners, with their sing-song-y simple rhymes and silly words and imagery. Rosen also hones in on subjects little listeners will instantly relate to, with titles like, "I Am Angry," "Are You Listening?," "I Don't Want," and "Let Me Do It."

Then, there are Chris Riddell's amazing illustrations. Every page is a visual treat, and Riddell masters his characters, whether he is drawing children, animals or monsters. To round out the perfection of A Great Big Cuddle: Poems for the Very Young, the font suited to each and every poem. The color and size change of the font with the tone of each poem, drawing little eyes to the words on the page in preparation for learning to read!

A Great Big Cuddle: Poems for the Very Young is a perfect gift for a newborn, but don't hesitate to give it to a toddler or even a slightly older child. The poems are so fun and the illustrations are so engaging that I can imagine emerging readers being drawn to this amazing collection as well!

Source: Review Copy

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11. Too Many Toys by Heidi Deedman

I love a picture book about toys, especially when there are toys I recognize in the illustrations. In her debut book, Too Many Toys,  Heidi Deedman pairs charming, retro style illustrations with an equally sweet story that is jam packed with pages of toys that readers will pore over. 

The plot ofToo Many Toys is simple but timeless. When Lulu was a baby, she was given a "very special one -and-only-toy - a lovely fluffy teddy bear" that she named Jupiter. However,  as  any parent will recognize, between birthdays, other kid's birthday parties, holidays and Happy Meals,  toys just seems to exponentially  multiply as kids get older.

Soon, Lulu is overwhelmed and Jupiter is frustrated. Together, the two come up with a plan that readers will enjoy seeing put into action.  By the end of Too Many Toys it's just Lulu and Jupiter again, but, don't worry. Another gift giving occasion is just around the corner...

Too Many Toys is a solid debut. Deedman's illustration style is unique and she is a fine storyteller. I can't wait to see what she does next!

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12. How to Swallow a Pig: Step-By-Step Advice from the Animal Kingdom by Steve Jenkins & Robin Page

I don't know how Steve Jenkins & Robin Page make book after book visually stunning book that is educational and completely engaging. How to Swallow a Pig: Step-By-Step Advice from the Animal Kingdom shows readers how animals do everything from sew, dance, farm and decorate to trap fish, crack a nut and woo an ewe. And, of course, saving the most sensational for last, how to swallow a pig.

One thing that Jenkins and Page excel at, beyond Jenkins's fantastic cut-and-tear collage illustrations, is keeping things simple. Most instructions have five or fewer  steps, although learning how to spin a web takes seven. Jenkins and Page are also great at finding lesser known animals to feature. The satin bowerbird who likes to decorate his nest with blue objects and the mimic octopus are among the many intriguing animals with curious behaviors. And, as always, the backmatter in every Jenkins & Page book is almost as interesting as the book itself.

Reviews of more books by Jenkins & Page HERE!

Source: Review Copy

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13. Willy's Stories by Anthony Browne

Anthony Browne and Willy feel like family to me since I have been reading Browne's books to my children for over two decades. If you are not familiar with the work of Browne, and if you love beautifully illustrated, thoughtful picture books, PLEASE read my past reviews of his works. We first met Willy the Chimp in 1984 when Willy the Wimp was published. Three more books about Willy and his friends followed then, in 1997, Willy the Dreamer was published. Browne, who almost always has simians standing in for humans, is a very painterly illustrator, if that's not too much of a conundrum. Willy the Dreamer is a magical walk through scenes inspired by the dreamscapes of painters like Magritte (a banana replacing Magritte's iconic green apple), Rousseau and Dalí as well as books (Alice in Wonderland, which Browne illustrated in 1988) and movies based on books (The Wizard of Oz, Mary Poppins, Tarzan). In 2000, Willy's Pictures paid full tribute to the painters who influenced and inspired Browne with a glimpse into Willy's sketchbook. While recreating great works of art like Jan van Eyck's The Arnolfini Marriage, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Seurat and the Mona Lisa, Browne works in his trademark gorillas and chimpanzees along with a lot of playfulness, including funny captions for Willy's pictures. And, if you are truly a fan of Browne's work, you will spot the recurring patterns (like Willy's sweater vest) and images that are woven into all of his books.

With Willy's Stories, Browne shifts from the world of art and paintings to the world of words and books. Willy's Stories is dedicated to "all the great writers and illustrators who have inspired me to make picture books" and begins with Willy telling us that, "Every week I walk through these doors and something incredible happens. I go on amazing adventures." With his ten favorite stories from childhood, Browne (and Willy) take readers on a journey through each book, or at least the first page of the book. Willy's Stories reminds me a bit of that fantastic Chris Van Allsburg book, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick a book with is only a title, a caption and an illustration from each story, left behind by a mysterious author. 

The illustration for each of the ten books in Willy's Stories shows Willy as the main character, with books hidden, or not so hidden in the illustration as well. The text for each page begins with a variation of, "One day I went through the doors and found . . ." Willy goes on, imagining himself as the protagonist, sharing suspenseful scene from the book that is sure to pique reader's interest, especially because he always ends with a cliffhanger moment and a question for the reader. With Treasure Island, Willy recounts the moment that stowaway Jim Hawkins is about to be discovered in the apple barrel on board the Hispaniola. In Robin Hood, Willy retells the moment when, after agreeing to carry Robin across the stream to keep his fine clothes clean, he seems to be on the verge of giving him a good dunking.

Brown ends Willy's Pictures with images of the original works of art referred to in his illustrations.Rather than ending Willy's Stories in this way, Browne instead shows Willy walking out of the library, a stack of books in his arms. These books include, among those already mentioned, The Adventures of Pinocchio, Robinson Crusoe, Peter Pan, The Tinderbox, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Rapunzel and my childhood favorite seen below, The Wind in the Willows. I can't think of a better way to engage a child's imagination and spark a love of reading than by reading this marvelous picture book to her or him over and over and over.

Willy's Books:

Source: Review Copy

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14. The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz, 400 pp, RL: Middle Grade

When I worked for a literary agent I attended a few conventions where authors, illustrators, agents and editors gave talks and offered advice. I also heard a lot about what makes a great manuscript in the office and there was one element, one outstanding quality that I heard referred to over and over: VOICE. Voice refers to the character of the narrator, and, if the voice is well written, it will be a strong voice that will resonate with the reader long after the book has ended. For me, an example of a book where the protagonist has a powerful, memorable narrative voice is Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maude Montgomery. Anne is unforgettable and singular in her character and, understandably, Montgomery's book has become a classic and her creation beloved in many cultures. The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz, winner of the Newbery medal for Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village (yet another amazing example of Schlitz's gift for voice) is as fine an example of voice you can find. And, if you enjoy audio books, be sure to listen to The Hired Girl, which is perfectly, powerfully narrated by Rachel Botchan.

Written in one of her most valuable possessions, a beautiful diary given to her by her teacher on her last day of school, The Hired Girl is the diary of fourteen-year-old Joan Skraggs that begins on Sunday, June the Fourth, 1911. The book is divided into seven sections, each of which is named after a famous work of art featuring women, with art acknowledgements at the end of the novel. Joan is younger sister to Matthew, Mark and Luke (she was supposed to have been born a boy) Joan misses her dead mother desperately. While her teacher, who both loans and gives Joan books, is impressed by her potential and tries to convey this to Mr. Skraggs, he pulls Joan out of school so that she has more time to keep house and work the farm with her brothers. When she reads about striking workers in the newspaper - and sees that she could be making $6.00 a week working as a hired girl - she tries to negotiate with her father. Furious with her, he burns the three books that she has been given and reads over and over - Ivanhoe, Dombey and Sons and Jane Eyre, and she knows she must find a "new servitude."

Joan devises a plan and makes her way to Baltimore, barely. Rescued by the son of a wealthy department store owner, Joan is given the conditional chance to work as the hired girl in the elegant home. After Joan's exceptional narrative voice, Schlitz's decision to land Joan, who wants to carry on her mother's Catholic faith, in the home of Reform Jews, the Rosenbachs, is a second master stroke. Already forward thinking for her time and place, the home of this worldly family that values education, independent thinking and nurturing creativity is both perfect and challenging for Joan - who, in a quick decision changes her name to Janet Lovelace and claims to be eighteen. Joan is tall - and big - for her age and, while questioned over and over, manages to make most of the household believe she is eighteen. Joan's three books have given her ideas about what life off the farm can and should be like and she is a devoted romantic, first thinking she is fond of Solomon, the oldest Rosenbach son who rescued her, then David, the younger Prodigal son, a gad-about who is scared to tell his father he would rather be an artist than take over the family business.  Then there is twelve-year-old Mimi Rosenbach, a slightly spoiled master manipulator who also allows Joan the opportunity to play and be the young girl she really is. And, while Joan must ultimately please Mrs. Rosenbach, she must also suit Malka, the aging, former nurse maid to Mr. Rosenbach who balks at the new modern ways the family is living. 

Joan learns all about kashrut, the Jewish food laws, as she works in a kitchen with two of everything, and she learns other aspects of Judaism as Mr. Rosenbach, who notices her intelligence immediately and opens his library to her, spends time mentoring her. Joan is also given the freedom to pursue Catholicism, receiving religious instruction from a priest that she ends up arguing with. She also educated in the religion of the Jews by Mr. Rosenbach. Schlitz has Joan and Mr. Rosenbach engage in a compelling discussion about Jesus. With Joan's narrative, Schlitz shows readers on the page how her mind works, how she receives and understands the world around her and how her sharp mind then turns this understanding into knowledge. Even so, she is still a child and no amount of intellect can keep her from making social and emotional mistakes. Like Anne, Joan is so boisterous, curious and driven to live her life that she oversteps, meddles, and makes painful bad decision after bad decision as she tries to live her life the way she thinks it should be lived. Schiltz's writing is so true and powerful and I related to Joan in so many ways. I was an avid reader when I was a teen, before the genre of young adult books existed, and I read adult literature like The Razor's Edge by Somerset Maugham, Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh and anything by J.D. Salinger. These books warped my perspective and made me less willing to listen to my mother, who didn't know what to do with me. I said the wrong things - things I thought were right - to my peers and adults and found myself alone in my room crying just like Joan. And, like Anne Shirley, Joan has a way of doing a thing that she knows she should not do because she believes she is right. One of my favorite things that Joan writes, and something that distills her character so well, are the words, "I think I might be a little bit intransigent, but not in a bad way," Sometimes it is this intransigency that gets Joan in trouble, but it is also what drives her and keeps moving forward toward the woman she will become, the woman her mother wanted her to be. The ending of The Hired Girl is so perfect and powerfully moving and hopeful, exactly how you hope a book - and a life - will be.

Source: Review Copy and Purchased Audio Book

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15. Sam's Sandwich 25th Anniversay Edition by David Pelham

I can't believe that Sam's Sandwich is 25 years old! This book was a huge hit in our house when my daughter was little some 20 years ago, and even more so after her first little brother arrived. Sam's Sandwich is a perfectly paper engineered story of sibling pranks and creepy crawly revenge that is wonderfully rhyming and superbly illustrated.

Sam's Sandwich begins with the sneaky Sam inviting his sister, Samantha, to join him in raiding the pantry to make a super sandwich. What Samantha doesn't know is that her brother is adding some extra ingredients in the form of garden pests. Pelham's rhyming story cleverly leaves the name of the bug off the page, letting the reader guess, based on the rhyme, or lift the flap to see what is hiding. Sam's Sandwich ends with Sam telling Samantha that he is stuffed and she can eat the sandwich all by herself...

Don't worry, though, Samantha has her revenge in Sam's Snack!

Other Sam Books that followed:

Source: Review Copy

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16. Picture This: SHAPES and Picture This: HOMES by Judith Nouvion

Picture This: Shapes and Picture This: Homes are board books with a real kick. Both are filled with visually stunning photographs of the natural world and the creatures who live in it and are sure to attract readers of all ages. The quality of the photos, which I could not find to share with you here, are often National Geographic quality and, combined with the clever concept, are perfectly paired.

Picture This: Shapes takes a clever look at animals while working double duty as a concept book. Dot,  curve, line triangle and diamond are represented along with more curious shapes like coil, spiral, crisscross and trapezoid. Of course the dot is represented by a ladybug, but the close-up photo of a ladybug on a sunflower is riveting. Line is represented by birds on a wire against a blue sky and triangle is demonstrated by a stunning green moth on a bright green leaf. Flamingoes on a lake, a devil ray and a flying squirrel also represent shapes in this wonderful book!

Picture This: Homes is equally engaging and perfect for older readers. Birds definitely make the most interesting homes and they are well represented here. From the Village Weaver to the Sociable Weaver to the Osprey and the remarkable Bowerbird that likes to decorate their homes with blue objects, there is much to see and learn. Beavers, badgers, bag worms, paper wasps and the Fennec fox add to this completely engaging board book.

Also in the series:

Source: Review Copy

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17. The Plan words by Alison Paul, pictures by Barbara Lehman

The blurb for The Plan, written by Alison Paul and illustrated by Barbara Lehman, reads, "Letter by letter, twenty words shift and change to reveal one family's adventure. After all, the difference between a dream and reality is . . . a plan." Lehman has written and illustrated five picture books of her own, all of which are magical, wordless, circular journeys. Although Lehman didn't write The Plan, Paul's text meshes seamlessly with her storytelling and illustration style. A young girl, her go in tow, has a plan to build a plane and  fly it to saturn. Over the course of the story and the twenty words, we learn about May's life on the farm with her father, his past with her mother and why there is a bi-plane in the back forty.

Like Lehman's stories, Paul brings The Plan back to the beginning of the story, ending with the word "plan." Lehman's gorgeous watercolor illustrations are outlined in black, making them pop off the page. As one review noted so well, The Plan "blends a sense of rootedness with the spirit of exploration - a rare combination." The Plan, seemingly simple as it may be, is rich with wonder and detail, imagination, adventure and ingenuity.

Source: Review Copy

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18. Guinea Pig Party by Holly Surplice

I am always a fan of a great birthday book, and Holly Surplice's Guinea Pig Party is definitely great. It is also clever in its concept, wonderfully rhyming and charmingly illustrated. 

Guinea Pig Party  starts with ten little guinea pigs partying in a line. As the party games begin, little things here and there cause the numbers to dwindle. There is a pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey incident and pogo stick problem. There is a temper tantrum and a little pig who eats too much cake and makes an exit. When the birthday pig is all alone, a wish brings back all the party goers and happiness ensues. The final pages show the numbers from 1 - 10 with the happy little party pigs prancing around them!

Source: Review Copy

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19. The Princess in Black and the Perfect Princess Party by Shannon Hale & Dean Hale, illustrated by LeUyen Pham, 89 pp, RL 2

Last year I reviewed and loved Princess in Black by Shannon and Dean Hale and superbly illustrated by LeUeyn Pham and I am so excited to be reviewing the second book in the series a year later, The Princess in Black and the Perfect Princess PartyThe way I see it, with Princess Magnolia, the Hales and Pham have created a character and series that hits all my literary sweet spots: a high interest chapter book that is a perfect bridge between leveled readers and chapter books, a character who is all things - a princess with her own unicorn and a secret double life fighting monsters. Magnolia can go from wearing a pouffy pink gown and tiara while having tea with the Duchess Wigtower to a black booted, masked and caped crusader with a scepter that turns into a staff for battle and Pham brings her to life with vivid, action filled panache. Best of all, the Princess in Black books are sweet and playful and not the least bit saccharine. 

In The Princess in Black and the Perfect Princess Party, Magnolia is preparing for her birthday party and the eleven princesses (and their steeds) who will be attending the party. Just as they begin to arrive, Magnolia's "glitter-stone ring rang." Monsters are leaving Monster Land, Duff the goat boy's flock is in danger and the Princess in Black needs to perform her signature moves, like the Tiara Trip and the Tentacle Tangle, on them to make everything right with the world again.
Just when Magnolia thinks she can get back to her guests, the party games, the cake and the presents, her glitter-stone ring goes off again. And again. Magnolia juggles her responsibilities admirably. Until she doesn't. My favorite part of The Princess in Black and the Perfect Princess Party are the princesses themselves. Pham's illustrations of Princess Sneezewort, Princess Zinnia, Princess Honeysuckle, Princess Hyacinth, Princess Apple Blossom, Princess Bluebell, Princess Euphoria, Princess Tulip, Princess Crocus, Princess Snapdragon, and Princess Jasmine bring to mind an updated rendering of the singing dolls from the It's a Small World ride at Disneyland, in the best way possible, without the singing. I couldn't stop poring over the pages, taking in all the details. Now, I need to get this books onto the shelves of my library because students have been asking for it for weeks!
Coming February 2016!!!

Source: Review Copy

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20. I Am Henry Finch by Alexis Deacon, illustrated by Viviane Schwarz

I AM HENRY FINCH is the latest picture book from Alexis Deacon Viviane Schwarz, a duo known for creating thoughtful, slightly off-kilter, deep but silly picture books. And thinking about all three of these books in conjunction, A Place to Call HomeCheese Belongs to You and now I AM HENRY FINCH are all, in some ways, about communal living, or participating in a community, which is an uncommon for picture books.

 Henry Finch lived in a great flock of finches that "made such a racket all day long, they really could not hear themselves think." Unfortunately for the finches, sometimes, like when the Beast comes, they need to be able to think, to focus and to act. But this is the way it always was.

Until one night when Henry Finch wakes up in teh quiet of the night. He has a though AND he actually hears it! This is the thought that he has: I AM HENRY FINCH. I THINK. AM I THE FIRST FINCH EVER TO HAVE A THOUGHT?In the silence, Henry hears his thoughts and thinks more thoughts, one of which is, I COULD BE GREAT.

Henry's thoughts lead him to a dark place, literally. When the Beast arrives Henry zooms in for the attack and ends up inside the belly of the Beast where he has more thoughts, many of them dark, which lead to some truly amazing illustrations. Inside the Beast, Henry realizes he can hear the thoughts of the Beast that lead him to empathy and a new thought. Henry Finch returns to the flock and, a transformed finch, he transforms the other finches. I AM HENRY FINCH got me thinking a lot as I read it and, writing about it here, I realize how much more there is to it and how much can be taken away from it. I AM HENRY FINCH is a truly amazing book, even more so because it is a really fun book to read and have read to you.

I have read I AM HENRY FINCH out loud several times now to varying grade levels. I am the librarian at a school where more than 75% of the population is socioeconomically disadvantaged and also English language learners. In many ways, the lives of my students are loud, noisy, and chaotic like the lives of the finches in the flock. At any time the Beast can strike their flock, in the form of job loss, illness, legal issues, mental illness and more. At school, my students are loud and chaotic when in a group and difficult to quiet down - especially on Mondays and after vacations when they have been outside of the disciplined school environment. All of them listened to I AM HENRY FINCH attentively. I hope that they all took away from it what Henry takes from his adventure.

Also by Deacon & Schwarz:

Source: Review Copy

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21. Animal Planet Animals: A Visual Encyclopedia, 304 pp, RL 3

My older son, now eighteen, grew up with DK books and videos about everything from trees and volcanoes to planets, the human body and death. As a bookseller who got to see the whole range of encyclopedic books being published for kids, nothing every came close to the crisp visual style of DK and the engaging way text is presented on the page. The best part of DK books for children is that they are the perfect segue to the DK books for adults, which provide a more in depth examination of subjects. With this prejudice, it takes a lot for me to look at, let alone recommend, an encyclopedia by any other publisher. However, Animal Planet, in partnership with Time Inc. Books, has put together Animal Planet Animals: A Visual Encyclopedia, a visually attractive, fact filled book that is worth the price and sure to make kids smile - and read.

At 304 pages, Animal Planet Animals: A Visual Encyclopedia is packed with information on over 2,500 animals and over 1,000 color photographs. Animal Planet Animals: A Visual Encyclopedia is divided into eight chapters with detailed profiles of the seven animal classes, which are also color coded. One feature that I find especially interesting is the green "Surprisingly Human" content box that appears from time to time, sharing facts about animals that our species shares, like the fact that female vampire bats are nice to each other, sharing food with friends who did not feed sufficiently. Another feature, the R.O.A.R. (Reach Out And Act) box, highlights Animal Planet's partnerships with "leading animal and wildlife organizations to help make the world a better place for animals" and ways that people are helping animals in our communities and in the wild.

Great photos aside, there are definitely enough features in Animal Planet Animals: A Visual Encyclopedia to make it a worthwhile investment. And, as a parent, former bookseller and school librarian, I can tell you that almost all kids are happy to sit down with a book like this and pore over the pages.

Source: Review Copy

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22. Felix Stands Tall by Rosemary Wells

Rosemary Wells is one of a handful of picture book author/illustrators, along with the magnificent Kevin Henkes, that I discovered more than twenty years ago when my first child was born. Wells and Henkes, both of whom are also gifted  writers of chapter books for older readers, have this remarkable insight into children and the emotional ups and downs of being a little kid. Their picture books combine empathy, compassion and intelligent humor (as well as great vocabulary) with meaningful stories that never get old. Happily, two decades later, both Wells and Henkes continue to create wonderful picture books that I am always excited to read, even if my daughter can't sit in my lap to listen anymore...

With Felix Stands Tall, Wells revisits Felix the guinea pig. When Fiona asks if she can be Felix's best friend and he agrees,  she tells him it's settled - the will be in the talent show at the Guinea Pig Jubilee and they will win first prize! She goes on to tell Felix that they will sing, "There's a Pixie in My Garden." When Felix asks if they have to, she assures him that best friends do everything together. Feeling reassured, Felix has his mother make him a boy pixie costume to go with Fiona's girl pixie costume (hand drawn patterns for the costumes make charming front pieces) and he learns the song and dance. And they do win!

Sadly, this is where things start to get bad for Felix. Minkie, Bucky and Dimples begin to tease Felix , at first just with words, but eventually with pranks like putting a Slime Creeper down his shirt and a chirping plastic cricket in his egg-salad sandwich. At lunch, Fiona notices something is up and tells Felix he is a "hot mess." While this may seem out of place for the tone Wells creates in Felix Stands Tall, it is delivered with such matter-of-factness from Fiona that it is downright hilarious. Wells has a distinct gift for comedic delivery in her characters - Ruby, the long suffering big sister to Max, comes to mind - and it comes through in the bold Fiona. Fiona shares the secret to her bravery with Felix (in a very sweet way that I could see kids trying out themselves) and it works for him! He even has the courage to  counter Fiona's suggestion that they wear twin cupcake costumes for Halloween with an idea of his own - fire breathing dragons, the pattern for which appears on the endpapers!

Yet another hit out of the park for Rosemary Wells! You can read my reviews of other books by Wells - picture and chapter - here.

More Felix books!

And just a few of my favorite 
Rosemary Wells picture books:

Source: Review Copy

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23. The Glass Sentence AND The Golden Specific by S. E. Grove, 528 pp, RL 5

The Glass Sentence by S. E. Grove is an ambitious, original novel that draws comparisons to the standard bearer of high fantasy for children's literature, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy which begins with The Golden Compass. In fact, Megan Whalen Turner, author of the superb quartet that begins with The Thief says that not since  The Golden Compass has she seen such "an original and compelling world built inside a book." And, while the compliments and comparisons are warranted, I share the "quivery receptivity" and tentative enthusiasm that Gregory Maguire expressed for this book in his review of The Glass Sentence in the New York Times on June 13, 2014. Grove brings some truly amazing concepts and creations to the table, but sometimes what she does and where she goes with them don't quite do justice to the world she builds and the plot she sets in motion. In spite of this, I am anxious to see where she goes with her story eagerly await the third and final book in this trilogy.

Grove, who says she is an "historian and dedicated traveler," was raised in the United States and Central America, her parents being from both places. One of the most exciting things about The Glass Sentence is that it is set in America and South America, where most high fantasy is set in England and Europe. The Glass Sentence begins with a prologue, a first person account of the "Great Disruption" that occurred some 90 years earlier on July 16, 1799. Writing to her grandson, Shadrack, Bostonian Elizabeth Elli describes  the moment of the break in time that left her suspended over the river her young self was about to jump into. In that moment of suspension, she saw the natural world around her pass through a full year of seasons. Only later did she, and the rest of Boston and eventually the world, discover what happened. The Great Disruption, as Maguire aptly and precisely says, "shattered the normal progress of time and arrangement of nations and eras." The North Atlantic region, now called "New Occident," seems to be on the proper timeline, although Florida is called "Seminole" and the states west of Georgia are "New Akan." The rest of the country, now reverted to unsettled territory, is known as the Badlands or Indian Territory. And New Occident runs on a twenty hour day. 

When the novel begins, we get a rich glimpse of the new political system that has evolved since the world has been tipped into chaos. Young Sophia Tims sits in the sweltering heat of the Boston State House where "the eighty-eight men and two women rich enough to procure their positions" make up the parliament, which is voting to decide on the closing of the borders of New Occident. In 1832, seeking a less corrupt and violent government, it was decided that both seats in the parliament and the opportunity to speak before the parliament would become occasions that must be bought. Thanks to a benefactor, Sophia's uncle, Shadrack Elli, has paid for four minutes and thirteen seconds during which he speaks for keeping the borders open. Elli is the country's greatest cartologer and cartology, (mapmaking is no longer two dimensional) after the Great Disruption, is now a bit like Lyra's reading of the Golden Compass. It involves memories and emotions that are woven into the map itself, and maps can be made of any kind of materials. Truly reading a map is now a bit like having an out-of-body experience and seeing the world through another's eyes. Sophia is learning these skills from her uncle, who understandably does not want communications cut off from this strange new world. Also, both Shadrack and Sophia want the borders open when her parents, who disappeared eight years earlier while on an expedition to help a fellow explorer, might return.

Shortly after the vote to close the borders, Shadrack is kidnapped, his study and map collection ransacked. Sophia finds a hidden map meant for her and, joining forces with Theo, a Badlands boy who ran away from a traveling circus, the two try to make their way to the one person who can help them find Shadrack. By train, boat and wagon, the two travel to the Port of Veracruz then on to Nochtland. A lively band of pirates, captained by Calixta, who I really wanted to see more of, aid the children. A kindly trader named Mazapán who once made his living making marzipan creations for the royals, where everything on the table, from the cloth to the plates to the floral decorations, was made of sugar, also helps Sophia when Theo disappears. There is also the Lachrima, which is a creature sort of like a Dementor, that leaves you unbearably sad and weepy, a creation I am not doing justice to. There are also the Nihilismians, a group that believes that, post the Great Disruption, the world around is a false one. A scholarly group, also prone to evil (the Sandman faction of the group  wear grappling hooks on their belts and submerge people in giant hourglasses), they have archives where they collect accounts from all over the world of time slips. Employed by a veiled woman named Blanca, the Nihilismians are the bad guys in this book, but it was never really clear to me why or for what reason they were so. 

Grove clearly loves spending time in the world that she created, and her characters love to tell stories about their lives and the lives of their loved ones in this world. At a certain point, I felt like almost half of The Glass Sentence was made of characters retelling events in the past. I suppose that this makes sense in a world where time has been fractured and humanity has been altered (some humans bear the "Mark of the Vine," which means they are, in some way, part plant, where others have the "Mark of Iron," and so on) but it also makes for minimal movement among the characters. While I definitely appreciate a work of fantasy that does not rely on constant action to move a story forward, the slow pace of The Glass Sentence does not always deliver the gifts of pacing that I would hope, such as character development. This also makes the world that Grove created feel a bit limitless and without parameters which, in a Dr, Who kind of way, means she can continually introduce new characters, creatures and events to the world. Grove brings The Glass Sentence to an exciting and (knowing this is a trilogy) satisfying end, but it also left me wanting to know more.

Which is why I downloaded the audiobook for The Golden Specific the minute it was released!

The Golden Specific feels like a much stronger, coherent, specific book by Grove, and the continuing story of Sophia and Theo is richer for it. Book 2 finds Sophia and Theo on different continents, both seeking answers. Sophia is still trying to find the whereabouts of her parents. A ghostly presence leads her to a Nihilismian Archive where she is helped by a strangely (for Nihilismians) kind girl. Sophia decides to head to a foreign Age in the Papal States where her parents were last seen and where her mother's diary is being held in a Nihilismian Archive, taking mysterious cargo across the seas with her. She lands in a city devastated by the Plague, a disease with its own strange traits specific to this Age, along with a woman who bears the Mark of the Plant named Goldenrod. She can see the future and produce flowers from her palms. They team up with a Robin Hood-type hunter named Errol who lost his brother to the Plague and is still haunted by his ghost. With the help of a strange map, Sophia tries to find her way to the elusive Ausentinia, a land where you can find anything you have lost. In Sophia's story, readers learn more about the quest that her parents were on and the events that hindered them.

Meanwhile, Theo is stuck in Boston, trying to save Shadrack and his best friend Miles from charges that they murdered the Prime Minister, Cyrill Bligh, who is found stabbed in Elli's study. Theo finds two unlikely friends as he attempts to unravel this political crime. First, Theo hires Winnie, an urchin who hangs out at the State House, to deliver him information. A curious, charismatic MP named Broadgirdle has stepped in to fill the vacancy left after the murder and steer the nation towards exploration, by way of war, of the west. Theo disguises himself and gets a job working for Broadgirdle while at the same time befriending the (seemingly) simpering, spoiled Nettie Grey, daughter of the great detective, Roscoe Grey. Nettie, it turns out, uses her spoiled girl persona as a front, allowing her to sneak around town and dig up clues to for her father's cases. Then, having Grey wrapped around her little finger, she feeds him the clues, making him look like Sherlock Holmes. Together, Nettie and Theo dig up clues, which lead to a deeper mystery involving the Eerie, a spiritual, magical people from the west who number among them Weatherers, people who can reverse the effects of the Great Disruption that cause people to turn into Lachrima, or the Wailing. The two plot paths of Sophia and Theo cross in an amazing way by the end of The Golden Specific in a very fantastic way that, while still wishing that aspects of The Glass Sentence could be more unified and streamlined, makes me all the more anxious for the conclusion of this trilogy.

Source: Review Copy - The Glass Sentence 
Source: Purchased Audio books, The Glass Sentence 
and  The Golden Specific  

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24. Carry On by Rainbow Rowell, 527 pp, RL: Teen

A couple of years ago, Rainbow Rowell gutted me with her YA novel, Eleanor & Park, a powerful story of a relationship between outsiders growing up in Nebraska in the 1980s. Her next YA novel (Rowell also writes for adults, Attachments and Landline, both of which I've read but have not reviewed. Adults can be kind of boring) Fangirl was equally amazing and opened a window on (for adults, anyway) the world of fan fiction and "shipping." With Carry On, Rowell 's main character is Simon Snow, a "fictional fictional character," as she refers to him in her Author's Note, hero of his own series of Harry Potter-esque novels and subject of the fan fiction created by Cath, the main character in Fangirl. It probably sounds a little confusing if you haven't read Fangirl and/or know nothing about fan fiction. It's probably best if you dive into Carry On with dim-ish memories of Fangirl and almost no memories of Harry Potter. If, like me, you have pretty vivid memories of both, things could get tangled in your head and you just might start asking yourself questions like the one Rowell addresses on her website: did she write Carry On as Gemma T. Leslie, fictional author of the fictional eight-book-children's adventure series, did she write as Cath, the fanfic writing star of Fangirl, or did she write as Rainbow Rowell? Her answer is this, "I'm writing as me. . . I wanted to explore what I could do with this world and these characters. So, even though I'm writing a book that was inspired by fictional fanfiction of a fictional series . . . I think what I'm writing now is canon." If you are still confused, my best advice to you is this: keep calm and read on. 

For me, Carry On was most enjoyable when I was reading it for what it was - Rowell taking these two compelling characters, Simon and Baz, and letting them work things out over the course of their final year at Watford, a school for humans and other magical creatures. In Heather Schwedel's review, "Rainbow Rowell's New Book Is a Harry Potter Rip-Off That Proves How Great Fan Fiction Can Be," she writes, the "achievement of Carry On is that, even with a template more or less designed by someone else, Rowell has written a book that conjures Rowling-esque magic just as effectively as J.K. Rowling herself - and yet still feels like something new." While I admit to struggling, Rowell definitely does create something new in Carry On.  A couple of years ago I reviewed the first book in Lev Grossman's trilogy, The Magicians because I was deeply interested in seeing what an author could do with the concept of a school for magicians when the students were on the verge of adulthood. Grossman is a phenomenal writer and the characters and world he created have stayed with me, but my overall take-away was that the one defining factor that makes a book about magicians for adults is the presence of overwhelming depression and hopelessness felt by the characters. Grossman's book had a level of sadness that reminded me of why I stopped reading adult novels almost entirely. Rowell's books for adults, while presenting genuinely complex struggles, just don't get as deeply sad and this is true in Carry On as well. 

This isn't to imply in any way that the issues Simon and Baz grapple with in Carry On are superficial. In fact, I found Simon's storyline, his origin story and the climactic resolution, the most compelling, creative and philosophical aspect of Carry On. Rowell uses magical elements and circumstances to create tension between Simon and Baz, their relationship seamlessly flipping from antagonistic to amorous more than half way into the novel. Perhaps because I couldn't entirely quiet the Harry Potter voices in my head, waiting for this moment to arrive felt nearly interminable. But, once it did arrive (we all knew it would happen, right? And not just because Cath wrote it in her fanfic?) the pace and plot of Carry On poured out like a flood and I couldn't put the book down. While Rowell does a fine job establishing the wizarding world, the most rewarding moments in Carry On are the moments of personal interaction between the four main characters. Adults are off the page most of the time, even though, as in Harry Potter, it is the children dealing with the messes made by the adults. Rowell's take on the classicism of the wizarding world and the desire for revolution amongst the underrepresented and discriminated against magicians feels a little more American than Rowling's, despite the fact that Rowell has set Carry On squarely in England. And, knowing that Rowell is an American writing in a British voice, I sometimes found myself feeling that occasional Briticisms rang false. That said, Rowell did a superb job with her wizarding swears, my favorite being, "Nicks and Slick," uttered by Phoebe. "Crowley" and "Chomsky" were other swears that got me grinning. "Chomsky," especially, as Rowell's very cool rules for spells - words gain meaning through repeated use, therefore idioms and other phrases frequently uttered by a certain culture, are powerful spells when uttered (along with use of a wand) by magicians. Be Our Guest, Up, Up and Away, As You Were, and Scooby-Scooby Do, Where Are You? are just a few that are used to varying degrees of success over the course of Carry On

Everyone who loves Rainbow Rowell should and will read Carry On. For those who aren't familiar with her works, Carry On could be a pretty cool introduction to her work. It almost makes me wish that I could start with Carry On and read backwards, looking to see if the magic - the powerful relationships and moving characters -  that made me fall in love with her work the first time I read Eleanor & Park works both ways.

Source: Purchased

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25. Hi! A Rhyming Animal Sounds Book by Ethan Long

Hi! A Rhyming Animals Sounds Book by prolific illustrator and author Ethan Long is brilliant! A companion to Good Night! A Bedtime Animal Sounds BookHi! A Rhyming Animals Sounds Book is completely, simply engaging. After all, after getting a few words under the belt like "mama" and "dada," most kids learn a few animal sounds like "woof" and "moo." Hi! A Rhyming Animals Sounds Book capitalizes on this with very fun two page spreads where animals greet each other with their trademark sounds, which just happen to rhyme.

Long includes classic animals and their sounds, like a cat, a dog and a cow in Hi! A Rhyming Animals Sounds Book but he also throws in the less conventional yak, polar bear and pigeon. His brightly colored illustrations are filled with fun and movement and I have no doubt little listeners will enjoy repeating the sounds the animals make.

Just a few more books by Ethan Long:

Source: Review Copy

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