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<<October 2016>>
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1. Review of the Day: Juana & Lucas by Juana Medina

juanalucas1Juana and Lucas
By Juana Medina
Candlewick Press
ISBN: 978-1-7636-7208-9
Ages 6-9
On shelves now

Windows. Mirrors. Mirrors. Windows. Windowy mirrors. Mirrory windows. Windows. Mirrors. Sliding doors! Mirrors. Windows.

In the world of 21st century children’s literature, diversity should be the name of the game. We want books for our children that reflect the worlds they know and the worlds they have yet to greet. We want them to see themselves in their books (mirrors), see others unlike themselves (windows), and have a way to get from one place to another (sliding doors). To accomplish this, all you have to do is publish a whole bunch of books about kids of different races, religions, abilities, persuasions, you name it. Great strides have been made over the last few years in the general consciousness of the publishing industry (the publishers, the librarians, the teachers, and even the parents) even as teeny tiny, itty bitty, itsy bitsy tiptoes have been made in terms of what actually is getting published. Much of the credit for spearheading efforts to bring to light more and more books for all children can be given to the We Need Diverse Books movement. That said, our children’s rooms are still filled with monumental gaps. Contemporary Jewish characters are rare. Muslim characters rarer still. And don’t even TALK to me about the state of kids in wheelchairs these days. Interestingly enough, the area where diversity has increased the most is in early chapter books. Whether it’s Anna Hibiscus, Lola Levine, Alvin Ho, or any of the other new and interesting characters out there, there is comfort to be found in those books that transition children from easy readers to full-blown novels. Into this world comes Juana Medina and her semi-autobiographical series Juana & Lucas. Short chapters meet universal headaches (with details only available in Bogota, Colombia) ultimately combining to bring us a gal who will strike you as both remarkably familiar and bracingly original.

juanalucas4You might think that Juana has it pretty good, and for the most part you’d be right. She lives in Bogota, Colombia “the city that’s closest to my heart” with her Mami. She has a good furry best friend (her dog, Lucas) and a good not-so-furry best friend (Juli). And hey, it’s the first day of school! Cool, right? Only nothing goes the way Juana planned. The whole unfortunate day is capped off when one of her teachers informs the class that they will be learning “the English” this year. Could anything be more unfair? Yet as Juana searches for sympathy amongst her friends and relatives, she realizes that everyone seems to think that learning English is a good thing. Are they crazy? It isn’t until an opportunity comes up to visit somewhere fantastic, far away, and English speaking that she finally takes what everyone has told her to heart. In a big way.

I love, first and foremost, the fact that the emotional crux of this book is fixated on Juana’s detestation of learning “the English”. Now already I’ve heard some commenters online complain that Juana’s problem isn’t something that English-speaking children will identify with. Bull. Any child that has ever learned to read will know where Juana is coming from. What English speaker would fail to sympathize when she asks, “Why are read and read written the same way but sound different? How can I know when people are talking about eyes or ice when they sound about the same? And what about left hand and left the room? So many words, so little sense”? Some kids reading this book may have experience learning another language too. For them, Juana’s complaints will ring true and clear. That’s a key aspect of her personality. She’s sympathetic, even when she’s whining.

For all that we’ve seen books like Juana’s, Lola Levine, Zapato Power, Pedro, First Grade Hero, Sophia Martinez, and a handful of others, interestingly this increase in Latino early chapter book is relatively recent. For a long time it was Zapato Power or nothing. The change is great, but it’s significant to note that all the books I’ve mentioned here are set in the United States. American books set in South American countries where the kids just live their daily lives and don’t have to deal with civil wars or invasions or coyotes or drug runners are difficult to find. What makes Juana and Lucas so unique is that it’s about a child living her life, having the kinds of problems that Ramona or Ruby Lu or Dyamonde Daniel could relate to. And like Anna Hibiscus or The Great Cake Mystery I love books for younger children that go through daily life in other present day countries. Windows indeed.

juanalucas2Early chapter books are interesting because publishers see them as far more series-driven than their writers might. An author can crank out title after title after title to feed the needs of their young readers, always assuming the demand is there, and they can do it easier with books under 100 pages than above. Juana could fit the bill in this regard. Her personality is likable, for starters. She’s not rude like Junie B. Jones or willfully headstrong in the same way as Ramona, but she does screw up. She does complain wildly. There are aspects of her personality you can identify with right from the start. I’d be pleased to see more of her in the future, and young readers will undoubtedly feel the same way. Plus, she has one particular feature that puts her heads and tails above a lot of the competition: She’s in color.

Created in ink and watercolor, Medina illustrates as well as writes her books. This art actually puts the book in a coveted place few titles can brag. You might ask if there’s a middle point between easy books and, say, Magic Tree House titles. I’d say this book was it. Containing a multitude of full-color pictures and spreads, it offers kids the comfort of picture books with the sensibility and sophistication of chapter book literature. And since she’s already got the art in place, why not work in some snazzy typography as well? Medina will often integrate individual words into the art. They swoop and soar around the characters, increasing and decreasing in size, according to their wont. Periodically a character will be pulled out and surrounded by fun little descriptor tidbits about their personage in a tiny font. Other times sentences move to imitate what their words say, like when Juana discusses how Escanilberto can kick the ball, “hard enough to send it across the field.” That sentence moves from his foot to a point just above his opponent’s head, the ball just out of reach. I like to think this radical wordplay plays into the early reader’s enjoyment of the book. It’s a lot more fun to read a chapter book when you have no idea what the words are going to pull on you next.

juanalucas3The writing is good, though the conclusion struck me as a bit rushed. Admittedly the solution to Juana’s problems is tied up pretty quickly. She won’t learn, she won’t learn, she won’t learn. She gets to have a prize? She studies and studies and studies. So rather than have her come to an understanding of English’s use on her own, an outside force (in this case, the promise of seeing Astroman) is the true impetus to her change. Sure, at the very end of the book she suddenly hits on the importance of learning other languages and visiting other places around the globe but it’s a bit after the fact. Not a big problem in the book, of course, but it would have been cool to have Juana come to this realization without outside influences.

As nutty as it sounds, Juana and Lucas is a bit short on the “Lucas” side of that equation. Juana’s the true star of the show here, relegating man’s best friend to the sidelines. Fortunately, I have faith in this series. I have faith that it will return for future sequels and that when those sequels arrive they’ll have a storyline for Lucas to carry on his own. With Juana nearby, of course. After all, she belongs to the pantheon of strong female early chapter characters out there, ready to teach kids about life in contemporary Colombia even as she navigates her own trials and successes. And it’s funny. Did I mention it’s funny? You probably got that from context, but it bears saying. “Juana and Lucas” is the kind of book I’d like to see a lot more of. Let’s hope Ms. Medina is ready to spearhead a small revolution of early chapter book international diversity of her very own.

On shelves now.

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0 Comments on Review of the Day: Juana & Lucas by Juana Medina as of 10/19/2016 1:43:00 AM
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2. Review of the Day: What Color Is the Wind? by Anne Herbauts

whatcoloristhewindcoverWhat Color Is the Wind?
By Anne Herbauts
Translated by Claudia Zoe Bedrick
Enchanted Lion Books
ISBN: 978-1-59270-221-3
Ages 5 and up
On shelves now

I’m going to have a hard time of it when my kids grow up. When I had them I swore up, down and sideways that I wouldn’t turn into the kind of blogger that declares that a book is good or bad, based solely on the whims of my impertinent offspring. For the most part, I’ve kept that promise. I review picture books outside of their influence, though I’m always interested in their opinions. Indeed, these opinions, and the sharp eyes that inform them, are sometimes not what I’d expect at all. So while I’ve never changed my opinion from liking a book to not liking it just because it didn’t suit my own particular kids’ tastes, I have admittedly found a new appreciation for other books when the children were able to spot things that I did not. What Color Is the Wind? is a pretty good example of this. I read the book at work, liked it fine, and brought it home for a possible review. My daughter then picked it up and proceeded to pretty much school me on what it contained, front to finish. Had I noticed the Braille on the cover? No. Did I see that the main character’s eyes are closed the whole time? No. How about the tactile pages? Did you notice that you can feel almost all of them? No. For a book that may look to some readers as too elegant and sophisticated to count as a favored bedtime story, think again. In this book Anne Herbauts proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that a distinct European style is engaging to American children when their parents give it half a chance. Particularly when tactile elements are involved.

what-color-3“We can’t see the wind, / we hear what it brings. / We can’t hear the wind, / we see what it brings.” The book begins with a question. A boy, his eyes closed, walks behind the cutout of a house. “What color is the wind? asks the little giant.” As he walks along, various plants, birds, animals, and inanimate objects offer answers. A wolf says the wind’s color is “the dark smell of the forest” while a window disagrees and says it’s “the color of time.” Everything that answers the little giant has a different feel on the page. The stream feels like consecutive ripples emanating from a dropped pebble, the roots of an apple tree like long, thin rivulets. At last the little giant encounters something that he senses is enormous. He asks his question and an enormous giant replies, “It is everything at once. This whole book.” He flips the book’s pages with his thumb so that they fly, and you the reader do the same, feeling the wind the book is capable of producing with its thick, lustrous pages. The color of the wind. The wind of this book.

The Kirkus review journal said that this book was, “ ‘The blind men and the elephant’ reworked into a Zen koan” and then proceeded to recommend it for 9-11 year-olds and adults. I’m fairly certain I disagree with almost every part of that. Now here’s the funny part. I didn’t read this review before I read the book. I also didn’t read the press release that was sent to me with it. When I read a book I like to be surprised by it in some way. This is usually a good thing, but once in a while I can be a bit dense and miss the bigger picture. As I mentioned before, I completely missed the fact that this book was an answer to a blind child who had asked Anne Herbauts the titular question. I just thought it was cool that the book was so much fun to touch. Embossing, debossing, die-cuts, lamination, and all kinds of surfaces give the book the elements that make it really pop. As I read it in the lunchroom at work, my co-workers would peer over my shoulders to coo at what they saw. All well and good, but would a kid be interested too? Kirkus says they’d have to be at least nine to grasp its subtleties.

Obviously my 5-year-old daughter likes the book but she’s just one kid. She is not a representative for her species (so to speak). That said, this book just drills home the advantage that physical books have over their electronic counterparts: the sensation of touch. Play with a screen all day if you like, but you will never be able to move your fingers over these raised dots of rain or the rough bark of a tree’s trunk. As children become more immersed in the electronic, they become more enamored of tactile books. The sensation of paper on skin has yet to be replicated by our smooth as silk screens. And this will prove true with kids on the younger end of the scale. I’ll agree with Kirkus about the adult designation, though. When I worked for New York Public Library there was a group of special needs adults that would come in that were in need of tactile picture books. We would be asked if we had any on hand that we could hand over to them in some way. There were a few, but our holdings were pretty limited (though I do remember a particularly keen tactile version of The Very Hungry Caterpillar that proved to be a big hit). Those kids would have loved this book, but children of all ages, and all abilities, would feel the same way about it. Kids are never too old for tactile picture books. As such, you could use this book with Kindergartners as well as fifth graders. Little kids will like the fun pictures. Older kids may be inspired by the words as well.

“Mom,” said my daughter as we went down the stairs for her post-reading, pre-brushing, nighttime snack. “Mom, you know the wind doesn’t have a color, right?” My child is a bit of a literalist. She’s the kid who knew early on that magic wasn’t real and once told me at the age of three that, “If ‘please’ is a magic word, it doesn’t exist.” So to read an entire book, based on the premise of seeing a color that couldn’t possibly be real, was a stretch for her. Remember, we read this entire book without really catching on that the little giant was blind. I countered that it was poetry, really. Colors were just as much about what they looked like as what they felt like. I asked her what blue made her feel, and red. Then I applied that to the emotions we feel about with the wind, which wasn’t really an analogy that held much water, but she was game to hear me out. “It’s poetry”, I said again. “Words that make you feel something when you read them.” So, as she had her snack, she had me read her some poetry. We’ve been reading poetry with her snack every night since. So for all that the book could be seen to be a straightforward picture book, to me it’s as much an introduction to poetry as anything else.

As for the art, I’ll admit that the combination of the style of art, the image on the cover, and the fact that the book is softcover and not hardcover (a cost-saving measure for what must be a very expensive title for Enchanted Lion Books to publish) did not immediately appeal to me. There’s no note to explain what the medium is and if I were to guess I’d say we were looking at crayons, mixed media, thick paints, colored pencils, ink blots, pen-and-inks, and more. Ironically, I really began to gravitate to the art when the little giant wasn’t stealing my focus. Nothing is intricately detailed, except perhaps the anatomy of honeybees or the raised and bumpy parts of the book. At the same time, for a book that celebrates touch, poetry, and physical sensation, the colors are often bright and lush. Whether it’s the blue watercolors of rain over trees or the hot orange that emanates from the page like a sun, Herbauts is simultaneously rendering illustrations obsolete with the unique format of What Color is the Wind? and celebrating their visual extremes.

I tend to give positive reviews to books that exceed my expectations. That’s just the nature of my occupation. And while I do believe that there are elements to this book that could be clearer or that there must have been a book jacket choice they could have chosen that was more appealing than the one you see here, otherwise I think this little book is a bit of a wonder. Deeply appealing to children of all ages, to say nothing of the adults out there, with so many uses, and so many applications. It reminds me of the old picture books by Bruno Munari that weren’t afraid to try new things with the picture book format. To get a little crazy. I don’t think we’ll suddenly see a big tactile picture book craze sweep the nation or anything, but maybe this book will inspire just one other publisher to try something a little different and to take a risk. Could be worth it. There’s nothing else like this book out there today. More’s the pity.

On shelves now.

Source: Final edition sent from publisher for review.

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Professional Reviews:

Misc: A deeper look at some of the art over at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast


2 Comments on Review of the Day: What Color Is the Wind? by Anne Herbauts, last added: 10/12/2016
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3. Review of the Day: Are You an Echo? by David Jacobson

areyouechoAre You an Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko
Narrative and Translation by David Jacobson, Sally Ito, and Michiko Tsuboi
Illustrated by Toshikado Hajiri
Chin Music Press
ISBN: 9781634059626
Ages 5 and up
On shelves now

Recently I was at a conference celebrating the creators of different kinds of children’s books. During one of the panel discussions an author of a picture book biography of Fannie Lou Hamer said that part of the mission of children’s book authors is to break down “the canonical boundaries of biography”. I knew what she meant. A cursory glance at any school library or public library’s children’s room will show that most biographies go to pretty familiar names. It’s easy to forget how much we need biographies of interesting, obscure people who have done great things. Fortunately, at this conference, I had an ace up my sleeve. I knew perfectly well that one such book has just been published here in the States and it’s a game changer. Are You an Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko isn’t your typical dry as dust retelling of a life. It crackles with energy, mystery, tragedy, and, ultimately, redemption. This book doesn’t just break down the boundaries of biography. It breaks down the boundaries placed on children’s poetry, art, and translation too. Smarter and more beautiful than it has any right to be, this book challenges a variety of different biography/poetry conventions. The fact that it’s fun to read as well is just gravy.

Part biography, part poetry collection, and part history, Are You an Echo? introduces readers to the life and work of celebrated Japanese poet Misuzu Kaneko. One day a man by the name of Setsuo Yazaki stumbled upon a poem called “Big Catch”. The poet’s seemingly effortless ability to empathize with the plight of fish inspired him to look into her other works. The problem? The only known book of her poems out there was caught in the conflagration following the firebombing of Tokyo during World War II. Still, Setsuo was determined and after sixteen years he located the poet’s younger brother who had her diaries, containing 512 of Misuzu’s poems. From this, Setsuo was able to piece together her life. Born in 1902, Misuzu Kaneko grew up in Senzaki in western Japan. She stayed in school at her mother’s insistence and worked in her mother’s bookstore. For fun she submitted some of her poems to a monthly magazine and shockingly every magazine she submitted them to accepted them. Yet all was not well for Misuzu. She had married poorly, contracted a disease from her unfaithful husband that caused her pain, and he had forced her to stop writing as well. Worst of all, when she threatened to leave he told her that their daughter’s custody would fall to him. Unable to see a way out of her problem, she ended her life at twenty-six, leaving her child in the care of her mother. Years passed, and the tsunami of 2011 took place. Misuzu’s poem “Are You an Echo?” was aired alongside public service announcements and it touched millions of people. Suddenly, Misuzu was the most famous children’s poet of Japan, giving people hope when they needed it. She will never be forgotten again. The book is spotted with ten poems throughout Misuzu’s story, and fifteen additional poems at the end.

areyouecho2There’s been a lot of talk in the children’s literature sphere about the role of picture book biographies. More specifically, what’s their purpose? Are they there simply to inform and delight or do they need to actually attempt to encapsulate the great moments in a person’s life, warts and all? If a picture book bio only selects a single moment out of someone’s life as a kind of example, can you still call it a biography? If you make up dialogue and imagine what might have happened in one scene or another, do those fictional elements keep it from the “Biography” section of your library or bookstore, or is there a place out there for fictionalized bios? These questions are new ones, just as the very existence of picture book biographies, in as great a quantity as we’re seeing them, is also new. One of the takeaways I’ve gotten from these conversations is that it is possible to tackle difficult subjects in a picture book bio, but it must be done naturally and for a good reason. So a story like Gary Golio’s Spirit Seeker can discuss John Coltrane’s drug abuse, as long as it serves the story and the character’s growth. On the flip side, Javaka Steptoe’s Radiant Child, a biography of Basquiat, makes the choice of discussing the artist’s mother’s fight with depression and mental illness, but eschews any mention of his own suicide.

Are You An Echo? is an interesting book to mention alongside these two other biographies because the story is partly about Misuzu Kaneko’s life, partly about how she was discovered as a poet, and partly a highlight of her poetry. But what author David Jacobson has opted to do here is tell the full story of her life. As such, this is one of the rare picture book bios I’ve seen to talk about suicide, and probably the only book of its kind I’ve ever seen to make even a passing reference to STDs. Both issues informed Kaneko’s life, depression, feelings of helplessness, and they contribute to her story. The STD is presented obliquely so that parents can choose or not choose to explain it to kids if they like. The suicide is less avoidable, so it’s told in a matter-of-fact manner that I really appreciated. Euphemisms, for the most part, are avoided. The text reads, “She was weak from illness and determined not to let her husband take their child. So she decided to end her life. She was only twenty-six years old.” That’s bleak but it tells you what you need to know and is honest to its subject.

areyouecho3But let’s just back up a second and acknowledge that this isn’t actually a picture book biography in the strictest sense of the term. Truthfully, this book is rife, RIFE, with poetry. As it turns out, it was the editorial decision to couple moments in Misuzu’s life with pertinent poems that gave the book its original feel. I’ve been wracking my brain, trying to come up with a picture book biography of a poet that has done anything similar. I know one must exist out there, but I was hard pressed to think of it. Maybe it’s done so rarely because the publishers are afraid of where the book might end up. Do you catalog this book as poetry or as biography? Heck, you could catalog it in the Japanese history section and still be right on in your assessment. It’s possible that a book that melds so many genres together could only have been published in the 21st century, when the influx of graphic inspired children’s literature has promulgated. Whatever the case, reading this book you’re struck with the strong conviction that the book is as good as it is precisely because of this melding of genres. To give up this aspect of the book would be to weaken it.

Right off the bat I was impressed by the choice of poems. The first one you encounter is called “Big Catch” and it tells about a village that has caught a great number of fish. The poem ends by saying, “On the beach, it’s like a festival / but in the sea they will hold funerals / for the tens of thousands dead.” The researcher Setsuo Yazaki was impressed by the poet’s empathy for the fish, and that empathy is repeated again and again in her poems. “Big Catch” is actually one of her bleaker works. Generally speaking, the poems look at the world through childlike eyes. “Wonder” contemplates small mysteries, in “Beautiful Town” the subject realizes that a memory isn’t from life but from a picture in a borrowed book, and “Snow Pile” contemplates how the snow on the bottom, the snow on the top, and the snow in the middle of a pile must feel when they’re all pressed together. The temptation would be to call Kaneko the Japanese Emily Dickenson, owing to the nature of the discovery of her poems posthumously, but that’s unfair to both Kaneko and Dickenson. Kenko’s poems are remarkable not just because of their original empathy, but also because they are singularly childlike. A kid would get a kick out of reading these poems. That’s no mean feat.

areyouecho4Mind you, we’re dealing with a translation here. And considering how beautifully these poems read, you might want a note from the translators talking about their process. You can imagine, then, how thrilled I was to find a half-page’s worth of a “Translators’ Note” explaining aspects of the work here that never would have occurred to me in a million years. The most interesting problem came down to culture. As Sally Ito and Michiko Tsuboi write, “In Japanese, girls have a particular way of speaking that is affectionate and endearing . . . However, English is limited in its capacity to convey Misuzu’s subtle feminine sensibility and the elegant nuances of her classical allusions. We therefore had to skillfully work our way through both languages, often producing several versions of a poem by discussing them on Skype and through extensive emails – Michiko from Japan, Sally from China – to arrive at the best possible translations in English.” It makes a reader really sit back and admire the sheer levels of dedication and hard work that go into a book of this sort. If you read this book and find that the poems strike you as singularly interesting and unique, you may now have to credit these dedicated translators as greatly as you do the original subject herself. We owe them a lot.

In the back of the book there is a note from the translators and a note from David Jacobson who wrote the text of the book that didn’t include the poetry. What’s conspicuously missing here is a note from the illustrator. That’s a real pity too since biographical information about artist Toshikado Hajiri is missing. Turns out, Toshikado is originally from Kyoto and now lives in Anan, Tokushima. Just a cursory glance at his art shows a mild manga influence. You can see it in the eyes of the characters and the ways in which Toshikado chooses to draw emotions. That said, this artist is capable of also conveying great and powerful moments of beauty in nature. The sunrise behind a beloved island, the crush of chaos following the tsunami, and a peach/coral/red sunset, with a grandmother and granddaughter silhouetted against its beauty. What Toshikado does here is match Misuzu’s poetry, note for note. The joyous moments she found in the world are conveyed visually, matching, if never exceeding or distracting from, her prowess. The end result is more moving than you might expect, particularly when he includes little human moments like Misuzu reading to her daughter on her lap or bathing her one last time.

Here is what I hope happens. I hope that someday soon, the name “Misuzu Kaneko” will become better known in the United States. I hope that we’ll start seeing collections of her poems here, illustrated by some of our top picture book artists. I hope that the fame that came to Kaneko after the 2011 tsunami will take place in America, without the aid of a national disaster. And I hope that every child that reads, or is read, one of her poems feels that little sense of empathy she conveyed so effortlessly in her life. I hope all of this, and I hope that people find this book. In many ways, this book is an example of what children’s poetry should strive to be. It tells the truth, but not the truth of adults attempting to impart wisdom upon their offspring. This is the truth that the children find on their own, but often do not bother to convey to the adults in their lives. Considering how much of this book concerns itself with being truthful about Misuzu’s own life and struggles, this conceit matches its subject matter to a tee. Beautiful, mesmerizing, necessary reading for one and all.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

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Misc: An article in PW about the translation.


3 Comments on Review of the Day: Are You an Echo? by David Jacobson, last added: 10/6/2016
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4. Review of the Day: Cloud and Wallfish by Anne Nesbet

cloud-and-wallfishCloud and Wallfish
By Anne Nesbet
Candlewick Press
ISBN: 978-0-7636-8803-5
Ages 9-12
On shelves now

Historical fiction is boring. Right? That’s the common wisdom on the matter, certainly. Take two characters (interesting), give them a problem (interesting), and set them in the past (BOOOOOORING!). And to be fair, there are a LOT of dull-as-dishwater works of historical fiction out there. Books where a kid has to wade through knee-deep descriptions, dates, facts, and superfluous details. But there is pushback against this kind of thinking. Laurie Halse Anderson, for example, likes to call her books (Chains, Forge, Ashes, etc.) “historical thrillers”. People are setting their books in unique historical time periods. And finally (and perhaps most importantly) we’re seeing a lot more works of historical fiction that are truly fun to read. Books like The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, or One Crazy Summer by Rita Williams-Garcia, or My Near-Death Adventures by Alison DeCamp, or ALL of Louise Erdrich’s titles for kids. Better add Cloud and Wallfish by Anne Nesbet to that list as well. Doing what I can only characterize as the impossible, Nesbet somehow manages to bring East Germany in 1989 to full-blown, fascinating life. Maybe you wouldn’t want to live there, but it’s certainly worth a trip.

His name is Noah. Was Noah. It’s like this, one minute you’re just living your life, normal as you please, and the next your parents have informed you that your name is a lie, your birth date is wrong, and you’re moving to East Berlin. The year is 1989 and as Noah (now Jonah)’s father would say, there’s a definite smell of history in the air. His mother has moved the family to this new city as part of her research into education and stuttering (an impediment that Noah shares) for six months. But finding himself unable to attend school in a world so unlike the one he just left, the boy is lonely. That’s why he’s so grateful when the girl below his apartment, Claudia, befriends him. But there are secrets surrounding these new friends. How did Claudia’s parents recently die? Why are Noah’s parents being so mysterious? And what is going on in Germany? With an Iron Curtain shuddering on its foundations, Noah’s not just going to smell that history in the air. He’s going to live it, and he’s going to get a friend out of the bargain as well.

It was a bit of a risk on Nesbet’s part to begin the book by introducing us to Noah’s parents right off the bat as weirdly suspicious people. It may take Noah half a book to create a mental file on his mom, but those of us not related to the woman are starting our own much sooner. Say, from the minute we meet her. It was very interesting to watch his parents upend their son’s world and then win back his trust by dint of their location as well as their charm and evident love. It almost reads like a dare from one author to another. “I bet you can’t make a reader deeply distrust a character’s parents right from the start, then make you trust them again, then leave them sort of lost in a moral sea of gray, but still likable!” Challenge accepted!

Spoiler Alert on This Paragraph (feel free to skip it if you like surprises): Noah’s mom is probably the most interesting parent you’ll encounter in a children’s book in a long time. By the time the book is over you know several things. 1. She definitely loves Noah. 2. She’s also using his disability to further her undercover activities, just as he fears. 3. She incredibly frightening. The kind of person you wouldn’t want to cross. She and her husband are utterly charming but you get the distinct feeling that Noah’s preternatural ability to put the puzzle pieces of his life together is as much nature as it is nurture. Coming to the end of the book you see that Noah has sent Claudia postcards over the years from places all over the world. Never Virginia. One could read that a lot of different ways but I read it as his mother dragging him along with her from country to country. There may never be a “home” for Noah now. But she loves him, right? I foresee a lot of really interesting bookclub discussions about the ending of this book, to say nothing about how we should view his parents.

As I mentioned before, historical fiction that’s actually interesting can be difficult to create. And since 1989 is clear-cut historical fiction (this is the second time a character from the past shared my birth year in a children’s book . . . *shudder*) Nesbet utilizes several expository techniques to keep young readers (and, let’s face it, a lot of adult readers) updated on what precisely is going on. From page ten onward a series of “Secret Files” boxes will pop up within the text to give readers the low-down. These are written in a catchy, engaging style directly to the reader, suggesting that they are from the point of view of an omniscient narrator who knows the past, the future, and the innermost thoughts of the characters. So in addition to the story, which wraps you in lies and half-truths right from the start to get you interested, you have these little boxes of explanation, giving you information the characters often do not have. Some of these Secret Files are more interesting than others, but as with the Moby Dick portions in Louis Sachar’s The Cardturner, readers can choose to skip them if they so desire. They should be wary, though. A lot of pertinent information is sequestered in these little boxes. I wouldn’t cut out one of them for all the wide wide world.

Another way Nesbet keeps everything interesting is with her attention to detail. The author that knows the minutia of their fictional world is an author who can convince readers that it exists. Nesbet does this by including lots of tiny details few Americans have ever known. The pirated version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz that was disseminated for years throughout the German Democratic Republic? I had no idea. The listing of television programs available there? Very funny (did I mention the book is funny too?). Even the food you could get in the grocery store and the smell of the coal-choked air feels authentic.

Of course, you can load your book down with cute boxes and details all day and still lose a reader if they don’t relate to the characters. Noah could easily be reduced to one of those blank slate narrators who go through a book without a clear cut personality. I’m happy to report that this isn’t the case here. And I appreciated the Claudia was never a straight victim or one of those characters that appears impervious to the pain in her life. Similarly, Noah is a stutterer but the book never throws the two-dimensional bully in his path. His challenges are all very strange and unique to his location. I was also impressed by how Nesbet dealt with Claudia’s German (she makes up words or comes up with some Noah has never heard of and so Nesbet has the unenviable job of making that clear on the page). By the same token, Noah has a severe stutter, but having read the whole book I’m pretty sure Nesbet only spells the stutter out on the page once. For every other time we’re told about it after the fact or as it is happening.

I’ve said all this without, somehow, mentioning how lovely Nesbet’s writing is. The degree to which she’s willing to go deep into her material, plucking out the elements that will resonate the most with her young readers, is masterful. Consider a section that explains what it feels like to play the role of yourself in your own life. “This is true even for people who aren’t crossing borders or dealing with police. Many people in middle school, for instance, are pretending to be who they actually are. A lot of bad acting is involved.” Descriptions are delicious as well. When Claudia comes over for dinner after hearing about the death of her parents Nesbet writes, “Underneath the bristles, Noah could tell, lurked a squishy heap of misery.”

There’s little room for nuance in Nesbet’s Berlin, that’s for sure. The East Berliners we meet are either frightened, in charge, or actively rebelling. In her Author’s Note, Nesbet writes about her time in the German Democratic Republic in early 1989, noting where a lot of the details of the book came from. She also mentions the wonderful friends she had there at that time. Noah, by the very plot in which he finds himself, would not be able to meet these wonderful people. As such, he has a black-and-white view of life in East Berlin. And it’s interesting to note that when his classmates talk up the wonders of their society, he never wonders if anything they tell him is true. Is everyone employed? At what price? There is good and bad and if there is nuance it is mostly found in the characters like Noah’s mother. Nesbet herself leaves readers with some very wise words in her Author’s Note when she says to child readers, “Truth and fiction are tangled together in everything human beings do and in every story they tell. Whenever a book claims to be telling the truth, it is wise (as Noah’s mother says at one point) to keep asking questions.” I would have liked a little more gray in the story, but I can hardly think of a better lesson to impart to children in our current day and age.

In many way, the book this reminded me of the most was Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia. Think about it. A boy desperate for a friend meets an out-of-the-box kind of girl. They invent a fantasyland together that’s across a distinct border (in this book Claudia imagines it’s just beyond the Wall). Paterson’s book was a meditation on friendship, just like Nesbet’s. Yet there is so much more going on here. There are serious thoughts about surveillance (something kids have to think about a lot more today), fear, revolution, loyalty, and more than all this, what you have to do to keep yourself sane in a world where things are going mad. Alice Through the Looking Glass is referenced repeatedly, and not by accident. Noah has found himself in a world where the rules he grew up with have changed. As a result he must cling to what he knows to be true. Fortunately, he has a smart author to help him along the way. Anne Nesbet always calls Noah by his own name, even when her characters don’t. He is always Noah to us and to himself. That he finds himself in one of the most interesting and readable historical novels written for kids is no small thing. Nesbet outdoes herself. Kids are the beneficiaries.

On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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5. Review of the Day: The Mighty Odds by Amy Ignatow

MightyOddsThe Mighty Odds
By Amy Ignatow
Amulet Books (an imprint of Abrams)
ISBN: 978-1-4197-1271-5
Ages 10 and up
On shelves September 13th

If you could have one weird superpower, what would it be? Not a normal one, mind you. We’re not doing a flight vs. invisibility discussion here. The power would have to be extraordinary and odd. If it’s completely useless, all the better. Me? I think I’d like my voice to be same as the voice you hear in your head when you’re reading something. You know that voice? That would be my superpower. A good author can crank this concept up to eleven if they want to. Enter, Amy Ignatow. She is one of the rare authors capable of making me laugh out loud at the back covers of her books. For years she’s penned The Popularity Papers to great success and acclaim. Now that very realistic school focus is getting a bit of a sci-fi/fantasy kick in the pants. In The Mighty Odds, Ignatow takes the old misfits-join-together-to-save-the-world concept and throws in a lot of complex discussions of race, middle school politics, bullying, and good old-fashioned invisible men. The end result is a 21st century superhero story for kids that’s keeps you guessing every step of the way.

A school bus crashes in a field. No! Don’t worry! No one is killed (that we can tell). And the bus was just full of a bunch of disparate kids without any particular connection to one another. There was the substitute teacher and the bus driver (who has disappeared). And there was mean girl Cookie (the only black girl in school and one of the most popular), Farshad (nicknamed “Terror Boy” long ago by Cookie), Nick (nerdy and sweet), and Martina (the girl no one notices, though she’s always drawing in her sketchbook). After the accident everything should have just gotten back to normal. Trouble is, it didn’t. Each person who was on or near the bus when the accident occurred is a little bit different. It might be a small thing, like the fact that Martina’s eyes keep changing color. It might be a weird thing, like how Cookie can read people’s minds when they’re thinking of directions. It might be a powerful thing, like Farad’s super strength in his thumbs. Or it might be a potentially powerful, currently weird thing like Nick’s sudden ability to teleport four inches to his left. And that’s before they discover that someone is after them. Someone who means them harm.

Superhero misfits are necessarily new. Remember Mystery Men? This book reminded me a lot of that old comic book series / feature film. In both cases superpowers are less a metaphor and more a vehicle for hilarity. I read a lot of books for kids but only once in a while do I find one enjoyable enough to sneak additional reads of on the sly. This book hooked me fairly early on, and I credit its sense of humor for that. Here’s a good example of it. Early in the book Cookie and a friend are caught leaving the field trip for their own little side adventure. The kids in their class speculate what they got up to and one says that clearly they got drunk. Farshad’s dry wit then says, “… because two twelve-year-olds finding a bar in Philadelphia that would serve them at eleven A.M. was completely plausible.” Add in the fact that they go to “Deborah Read Middle School” (you’ll have to look it up) and I’m good to go.

Like I’ve said, the book could have just been another fun, bloodless superhero misfit storyline. But Ignatow likes challenges. When she wrote the Popularity Papers books she gave one of her two heroines two dads and then filled the pages with cursive handwriting. Here, her heroes are a variety of different races and backgrounds, but this isn’t a Benetton ad. People don’t get along. Cookie’s the only black kid in her school and she’s been very careful to cement herself as popular from the start. When her mom moved them to Muellersville, Cookie had to be careful to find a way to become “the most popular and powerful person in school.” Martina suggests at one point that she likes being angry, and indeed when the world starts to go crazy on her the thing that grounds her, if only for a moment, is anger. And why shouldn’t she be angry? Her mom moved her away from her extended family to a town where she knew no one, and then her mother married a guy with two kids fairly fast. Cookie herself speculates about the fact that she probably has more in common with Farshad than she’d admit. “He was the Arab Kid, just like Cookie was the Black Girl and Harshita Singh was the Indian Girl and Danny Valdez was the Hispanic Guy and Emma Lee was the Asian Chick. They should have all formed a posse long ago and walked around Muellersville together, just to freak people out.” Cookie realizes that she and Farshad need to have one another’s backs. “It was one thing to be a brown person in Muellersville and another to be a brown person in Muellersville with superpowers.” At this point in time Ignatow doesn’t dig any deeper into this, but Cookie’s history, intentions, and growth give her a depth you won’t find in the usual popular girl narrative.

For the record, I have a real appreciation for contemporary books that feature characters that get almost zero representation in books. For example, one of the many things I love about Tom Angleberger’s The Qwikpick Papers series is that one of the three heroes is Jehovah’s Witness. In this book, one of the kids that comes to join our heroes is Amish. Amish kids are out there. They exist. And they almost never EVER get heroic roles in stories about a group of friends. And Abe doesn’t have a large role in this book, it’s true, but it’s coming.

Having just one African-American in the school means that you’re going to have ignorant other characters. Cookie has done a good job at getting the popular kids in line, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is suddenly enlightened. Anyone can be tone deaf. Even one of our heroes, which in this case means Nick’s best friend, the somewhat ADD, always chipper Jay. Now I’ve an odd bit of affection for Jay, and not just because in his endless optimism he honestly thinks he’ll get permission to show his class Evil Dead Two on the field trip bus (this may also mark the first time an Evil Dead film has been name dropped in a middle grade novel, by the way). The trouble comes when he talks about Cookie. He has a tendency to not just be tone deaf but veering into really racially questionable territory when he praises her. Imagine a somewhat racist Pepe Le Pew. That’s Jay. He’s a small town kid who’s only known a single solitary black person his entire life and he’s enamored with her. Still, that’s no excuse for calling her “my gorgeous Nubian queen” or saying someday they’ll “make coffee-colored babies.” I expected a little more a comeuppance for Jay and his comments, but I suppose that’ll have to wait for a future book in the series. At the very least, his words are sure to raise more than few eyebrows from readers.

Funny is good. Great even. But funny doesn’t lift a middle grade book out of the morass of other middle grade books that are clogging up the bookstores and libraries of the world. To hit home you need to work just a smidgen of heart in there. A dose of reality. Farad’s plight as the victim of anti-Muslim sentiment is very real, but it’s also Nick’s experiences with his dying/dead father that do some heavy lifting. As you get to know Nick, Ignatow sprinkles hints about his life throughout the text in a seamless manner. Like when Nick is thinking about weird days in his life and flashes back to the day after his dad’s funeral. He and his mom had “spent the entire day flopped on the couch, watching an impromptu movie marathon of random films (The Lord of the Rings, They Live, Some Like It Hot, Ghostbusters, and Babe) and eating fancy stuff from the gift baskets that people had sent, before finally getting up to order pizza.” There’s a strong smack of reality in that bit, and there are more like it in the book. A funny book that sucker punches your heart from time to time makes for good reading.

MightyOdds2Lest we forget, this is an illustrated novel. Ignatow makes the somewhat gutsy choice of not explaining the art for a long time. Long before we even get to know Martina, we see her in various panels and spreads as an alien. In time, we learn that the art in this book is all her art, and that she draws herself as a Martian because that’s what her sister calls her. Not that you’ll know any of this for about 125 pages. The author makes you work to get at that little nugget of knowledge. By the way, as a character, Martina the artist is fascinating. She’s sort of the Luna Lovegood of the story. Or, as Nick puts it, “She had a sort of almost absentminded way of saying things that shouldn’t have been true but probably were.” There is one tiny flub in the art when Martina draws all the kids as superheroes and highlights Farshad’s thumbs, though at that point in the storyline Martina wouldn’t know that those are his secret weapons. Other than that, it’s pretty perfect.

It’s also pretty clearly middle school fare, if based on language alone. You’ve got kids leaving messages on cinderblocks that read “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum” or “Don’t let the bastards get you down.” That may be the most realistic middle school detail I’ve read in a book in a long time. The bullying is systematic, realistic, and destructive (though that’s never clear to the people doing the bullying). A little more hard core than what an elementary school book might discuss. And Cookie is a superb bully. She’s honestly baffled when Farad confronts her about what she’s done to him with her rumors.

A word of warning to the wise: This is clearly the first book in a longer series. When you end this tale you will know the characters and know their powers but you still won’t know who the bad guys are exactly, why the kids got their powers (though the bus driver does drop one clue), or where the series is going next. For a story where not a lot of time passes, it really works the plotting and strong characterizations in there. I like middle grade books that dream big and shoot for the moon. “The Mighty Odds” does precisely that and also works in some other issues along the way. Just to show that it can. Great, fun, silly, fantastical fantasy work. A little smarter and a little weirder than most of the books out there today.

On shelves September 13th.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.


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6. Review of the Day: Radiant Child by Javaka Steptoe

Radiant ChildRadiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat
By Javaka Steptoe
Little, Brown & Co.
ISBN: 978-0-316-21388-2
Ages 5 and up
On shelves October 25th

True Story: I’m working the children’s reference desk of the Children’s Room at 42nd Street of New York Public Library a couple years ago and a family walks in. They go off to read some books and eventually the younger son, I’d say around four years of age, approaches my desk. He walks right up to me, looks me dead in the eye, and says, “I want all your Javaka Steptoe books.” Essentially this child was a living embodiment of my greatest dream for mankind. I wish every single kid in America followed that little boy’s lead. Walk up to your nearest children’s librarian and insist on a full fledged heaping helping of Javaka. Why? Well aside from the fact that he’s essentially children’s book royalty (his father was the groundbreaking African-American picture book author/illustrator John Steptoe) he’s one of the most impressive / too-little-known artists working today. But that little boy knew him and if his latest picture book biography “Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat” is even half as good as I think it is, a whole host of children will follow suit. But don’t take my word for it. Take that four-year-old boy’s. That kid knew something good when he saw it.

“Somewhere in Brooklyn, a little boy dreams of being a famous artist, not knowing that one day he will make himself a KING.” That boy is an artist already, though not famous yet. In his house he colors on anything and everything within reach. And the art he makes isn’t pretty. It’s, “sloppy, ugly, and sometimes weird, but somehow still BEAUTIFUL.” His mother encourages him, teaches him, and gives him an appreciation for all the art in the world. When he’s in a car accident, she’s the one who hands him Gray’s Anatomy to help him cope with what he doesn’t understand. Still, nothing can help him readily understand his own mother’s mental illness, particularly when she’s taken away to live where she can get help. All the same, that boy, Jean-Michel Basquiat, shows her his art, and with determination he grows up, moves to Manhattan, and starts his meteoric rise in the art scene. All this so that when, at long last, he’s at the top of his game, it’s his mother who sits on the throne at his art shows. Additional information about Basquiat appears at the back of the book alongside a key to the motifs in his work, an additional note from Steptoe himself on what Basquiat’s life and work can mean to young readers, and a Bibliography.

radiantchild2Javaka Steptoe apparently doesn’t like to make things easy for himself. If he wanted to, he could illustrate all the usual African-American subjects we see in books every year. Your Martin Luther Kings and Rosa Parks and George Washington Carvers. So what projects does he choose instead? Complicated heroes who led complicated lives. Artists. Jimi Hendrix and guys like that. Because for all that kids should, no, MUST know who Basquiat was, he was an adult with problems. When Steptoe illustrated Gary Golio’s bio of Hendrix (Jimi: Sounds Like a Rainbow) critics were universal in their praise. And like that book, Steptoe ends his story at the height of Basquiat’s fame. I’ve seen some folks comment that the ending here is “abrupt” and that’s not wrong. But it’s also a natural high, and a real time in the man’s life when he was really and truly happy. When presenting a subject like Basquiat to a young audience you zero in on the good, acknowledge the bad in some way (even if it’s afterwards in an Author’s Note), and do what you can to establish precisely why this person should be mentioned alongside those Martin Luther Kings, Rosa Parks, and George Washington Carvers.

There’s this moment in the film Basquiat when David Bowie (playing Andy Warhol) looks at some of his own art and says off-handedly, “I just don’t know what’s good anymore.” I have days, looking at the art of picture books when I feel the same way. Happily, there wasn’t a minute, not a second, when I felt that way about Radiant Child. Now I’m going to let you in on a little secret: Do you know what one of the most difficult occupations to illustrate a picture book biography about is? Artist. Because right from the start the illustrator of the book is in a pickle. Are you going to try to replicate the art of this long dead artist? Are you going to grossly insert it into your own images, even if the book isn’t mixed media to begin with? Are you going to try to illustrate the story in that artist’s style alone, relegating images of their actual art to the backmatter? Steptoe addresses all this in his Note at the back of the book. As he says, “Instead of reproducing or including copies of real Basquiat paintings in this book, I chose to create my own interpretations of certain pieces and motifs.” To do this he raided Basquiat’s old haunts around NYC for discarded pieces of wood to paint on. The last time I saw this degree of attention paid to painting on wood in a children’s book was Paul O. Zelinsky’s work on Swamp Angel. In Steptoe’s case, his illustration choice works shockingly well. Look how he manages to give the reader a sense of perspective when he presents Picasso’s “Guernica” at an angle, rather than straight on. Look how the different pieces of wood, brought together, fit, sometimes including characters on the same piece to show their closeness, and sometimes painting them on separate pieces as a family is broken apart. And the remarkable thing is that for all that it’s technically “mixed-media”, after the initial jolt of the art found on the title page (a full wordless image of Basquiat as an adult surrounded by some of his own imagery) you’re all in. You might not even notice that even the borders surrounding these pictures are found wood as well.

radiantchild1The precise age when a child starts to feel that their art is “not good” anymore because it doesn’t look realistic or professional enough is relative. Generally it happens around nine or ten. A book like Radiant Child, however, is aimed at younger kids in the 6-9 year old range. This is good news. For one thing, looking at young Basquiat vs. older Basquiat, it’s possible to see how his art is both childlike and sophisticated all at once. A kid could look at what he’s doing in this book and think, “I could do that!” And in his text, Steptoe drills into the reader the fact that even a kid can be a serious artist. As he says, “In his house you can tell a serious ARTIST dwells.” No bones about it.

How much can a single picture book bio do? Pick a good one apart and you’ll see all the different levels at work. Steptoe isn’t just interested in celebrating Basquiat the artist or encouraging kids to keep working on their art. He also notes at the back of the book that the story of Basquiat’s relationship with his mother, who suffered from mental illness, was very personal to him. And so, Basquiat’s mother remains an influence and an important part of his life throughout the text. You might worry, and with good reason, that the topic of mental illness is too large for a biography about someone else, particularly when that problem is not the focus of the book. How do you properly address such an adult problem (one that kids everywhere have to deal with all the time) while taking care to not draw too much attention away from the book’s real subject? Can that even be done? Sacrifices, one way or another, have to be made. In Radiant Child Steptoe’s solution is to show Jean-Michel within the lens of his art’s relationship to his mother. She talks to him about art, takes him to museums, and encourages him to keep creating. When he sees “Guernica”, it’s while he’s holding her hand. And because Steptoe has taken care to link art + mom, her absence is keenly felt when she’s gone. The book’s borders go a dull brown. Just that single line “His mother’s mind is not well” says it succinctly. Jean-Michel is confused. The kids reading the book might be confused. But the feeling of having a parent you are close to leave you . . . we can all relate to that, regardless of the reason. It’s just going to have a little more poignancy for those kids that have a familiarity with family members that suffer mental illnesses. Says Steptoe, maybe with this book those kids can, “use Basquiat’s story as a catalyst for conversation and healing.”

That’s a lot for a single picture book biography to take on. Yet I truly believe that Radiant Child is up to the task. It’s telling that in the years since I became a children’s librarian I’ve seen a number of Andy Warhol biographies and picture books for kids but the closest thing I ever saw to a Basquiat bio for children was Life Doesn’t Frighten Me as penned by Maya Angelou, illustrated by Jean-Michel. And that wasn’t even really a biography! For a household name, that’s a pretty shabby showing. But maybe it makes sense that only Steptoe could have brought him to proper life and to the attention of a young readership. In such a case as this, it takes an artist to display another artist. Had Basquiat chosen to create his own picture book autobiography, I don’t think he could have done a better job that what Radiant Child has accomplished here. Timely. Telling. Overdue.

On shelves October 25th.

Source: F&G sent from publisher for review.

Professional Reviews:  A star from Kirkus


0 Comments on Review of the Day: Radiant Child by Javaka Steptoe as of 7/28/2016 2:27:00 AM
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7. Some of the Best Picture Books of 2016 Thus Far (Mid-Year Summary)

Thusly is the deal.  Since taking a job in Evanston, I’m not the big time reader I used to be.  I just don’t devour the books as quickly as I once did, nor do I have access to a committee that would discuss a wide range of children’s literature.  As such, I’ve decided that the only area where I can reasonably concentrate my efforts is on picture books.  So every day at lunchtime I dutifully grab 5-7 picture books and read through them.  Even at this rate, this is my To Be Read shelf:

Yet I’ve been lucky enough to see books that are so good that I just want to share them with you today.  After all, not sharing their titles feels like hoarding to me.  Here then are ALL the 2016 picture books that I think are truly extraordinary.  Don’t see something you love?  Just assume it’s in that To Be Read pile somewhere.

This list does not include reprints, board books, folktales, nonfiction, or easy books at this time.

Oh. And remember when I said I don’t envy this year’s Caldecott committee because we have WAY too many strong books?  Here’s a taste of what I mean (though obviously these aren’t all eligible):

Some of the Best Picture Books of 2016 (Thus Far)


ABC: The Alphabet From the Sky by Benedikt Grob & Joey Lee

Yep.  It’s an alphabet book based entirely on aerial photography.  Crazy thing is, it works.  And it’s exceedingly clever.  Best of all, if you nitpick any of the chosen letters, they have alternatives in the back of the book.  Oddly mesmerizing too.


The Airport Book by Lisa Brown

I already reviewed this one so no surprises here.  Just nice to see the rest of the country catching up with my wuv.


Animals by Ingela P. Arrhenius

It’s French, can’t you tell?  It’s also gigantic.  Coming in at a whopping 13.4 x 18.1 inches it’ll be a nightmare for libraries and a boon to preschools and daycares everywhere.  It’s also privy to exceedingly clever typography.  When you get it, check out how the animals and their descriptive words match one another.


Armstrong by Torben Kuhlmann

For those of us enamored of Lindbergh, Kuhlmann’s follow-up couldn’t come fast enough.  If you run any Calde-not contests this year, better include this one.


The Artist and Me by Shane Peacock, ill. Sophie Casson

It’s a Van Gogh book!  It’s a bullying book!  Well now you can have both.  I don’t usually go for this kind of thing, but Peacock handles the subject of casual childhood cruelty with aplomb.


An Artist’s Alphabet by Norman Messenger

Again with the alphabet books.  Still, you’ll almost never find one like this.  Not only does it have animals, fruits, insects, and other natural phenomena in the shapes of the capital letters, but the lower-case as well.  Plus it’s purdy.


The Bear and the Piano by David Litchfield

This one has a slow burn.  You read it once and it’s good.  Then you think about it for a long time and come back to it again and again and again.  It’s about leaving home, seeing the world, and taking what you’ve learned back to the people who supported you in the beginning.



Before Morning by Joyce Sidman, ill. Beth Krommes

There’s a whiff of Caldecott around this one.  It’s a very simple story of a girl who wishes her pilot mom could just stay home this once.  Better not look at the cover.  It’s a spoiler alert of what happens next.


Best Frints in the Whole Universe by Antoinette Portis

Because everybody could use more frints.  That and the fact that it’s Portis and she really lets go and has fun with this one.


Best in Snow by April Pulley Sayre

Nope. We still don’t know what to do with Sayre’s photo picture books.  Nonfiction or fiction?  Poetry or picture books?  The choices are infinite.  The books are exquisite.


Big Bob, Little Bob by James Howe, ill. Laura Ellen Anderson

Further proof that you can write a book about rejecting gender stereotypes in a smart, new way. This is William’s Doll for a new generation.  Little wonder it came from James Howe.  Plus I love that it’s the girl in the book that does the reinforcing of stereotypes. In my experience that is often the case.


A Bike Like Sergio’s by Maribeth Boelts, ill. Noah Z. Jones

It used to be that picture books would confront the notion of economic disparity regularly.  Not so these days though there are always exceptions to the rule.  Boelts already won my love with her Happy Like Soccer.  This continues the thread.


Billions of Bricks: A Counting Book About Building by Kurt Cyrus

Every. Single. Brick.  Cyrus can account for every single one.  It rhymes.  It builds.  It’s alluring to the construction obsessed and the not-so-construction obsessed.  Two thumbs way way up over here.


Can I Eat That? by Joshua David Stein, ill. Julia Rothman

I probably shouldn’t confess this but I always look at Phaidon books with a bit of skepticism.  When I get one I have to ask myself, “Is is artsy for grown-ups or fun for kids?” The answer to this book was, “Yes.”  Everyone can find something to love here.  It upsets expectations wildly.  However, a friend rightly pointed out that it is DEFINITELY a book for a certain economic strata.  FYI.


Can One Balloon Make an Elephant Fly? by Dan Richards, ill. Jeff Newman

I gave this book to my child’s preschool teacher and the woman went crazy for it.  She just thinks it’s the cleverest thing this side of the sun.  She isn’t wrong. Plus you get the extra added bonus of seeing more Jeff Newman art.  I love that guy.


Christmas for Greta and Gracie by Yasmeen Ismail

If you know me then you know I’m not going to put a holiday book on this list unless it is truly extraordinary.  Ismail, who has consistently done amazing work, really goes above and beyond with this one.  Younger siblings everywhere will adore it.


City Shapes by Diana Murray, ill. Bryan Collier

I come to Collier with an open mind most of the time.  I like his art but I don’t like it every time.  Fortunately he’s in top notch form here.  Nothing like a good old-fashioned concept book.


Come Home, Angus by Patrick Downes, ill. Boris Kulikov

Another one where I read it the first time and merely liked it.  Came back to it later and was struck by the intelligence of the writing and, of course, Kulikov’s fabulous art.


Coyote Moon by Maria Gianferrari, ill. Bagram Ibatoulline

Yep. Reviewed it already.  So glad that I did.  Talk about a timely subject.  Them coyotes is everywhere!


Creation by Cynthia Rylant

Not usually my kind of thing.  I might normally eschew this kind of book as too artsy for my tastes.  Yet reading it just now I was struck by the beauty of the thick thick paints.  Pair it with Miracle Man for kicks.


Cricket Song by Anne Hunter

Despite the fact that it has a cute fox on the cover this is more of a look at time passing and distance than anything else.  A truly lovely bedtime book.


Cry, Heart, But Never Break by Glenn Ringtved, ill. By Charlotte Pardi

 Alternate Title: Every single country in the world talks about death in picture books better than America.  Well, it’s true.  And this may be the most sensitive of them this year.  An import worth importing.


Don’t Call Me Grandma by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, ill. Elizabeth Zunon

Shoot.  I still adore this.  I reviewed it here and I’d re-review it all over again if it meant getting you to notice it.  Raise a questionable glass to spiky relatives everywhere!


Du Iz Tak? by Carson Ellis

Sometimes I wonder if I just like some books because I didn’t like others.  I feel really quite guilty that I haven’t reviewed this one yet.  Its made up language is so simple and so fun to read.  The plot, such as it is, is easy to follow.  I just adore it (though I do wonder if that stickbug died midway through the tale).


Dylan the Villain by K.G. Campbell

A great book, sure enough, but I’m giving it extra points for suggesting that super-villainy is genetic.  Plus the antagonist is a girl with a purple eye-patch.  Extra points for that one.


Elliot by Julie Pearson, ill. Manon Gauthier

Not everyone is going to agree with me on this one, and I accept that.  Still, I feel that used in the right context, this book does something that no other book does.  Confused?  Read my review and all will be clear.  Just don’t pick it up expected a cute fuzzy bunny story.


Every Color by Erin Eitter Kono

A polar bear searching for color?  Haven’t we seen that plot before?  Sorta.  The difference is simply that this book does it better.


Excellent Ed by Stacy McAnulty, ill. Julia Sarcone‐Roach

They’ll sell this book to you based entirely on its casual diversity.  That is a factor, but the storyline and writing and art are the additional standouts that give it a leg up.


Faraway Fox by Jolene Thompson, ill. Justin K. Thompson

As Travis pointed out earlier, 2016 is the year of the fox.  Much of what I like about this title, aside from the art which is stellar, is the fact that it’s a book with a purpose above and beyond telling a good story.  Fox family reunification makes for a good story too, though.


From Wolf to Woof!: The Story of Dogs by Hudson Talbott

Sometimes these books straddle the picture book and nonfiction line.  But with its story of a boy bonding with a wolf (that shot of his hand on its head is worth the price of admission alone) I’d say it counts.  Man does a good dog, too.


Have You Seen Elephant? by David Barrow

I love that kid’s expression.  Like he really and truly has no clue where the pachyderm is looming.


Hill & Hole Are Best Friends by Kyle Mewburn, ill. Vasanti Unka

There’s an odd little melancholy to this book about being satisfied with your lot.  The ending hints at what the future may hold without insisting upon it.  It’s a book and a metaphor all at once.


How to Track a Truck by Jason Carter Eaton, ill. John Rocco

The book I didn’t even know I was waiting for until it arrived.  Lots to love here.  If you enjoyed How to Train a Train, then you won’t be disappointed.  Rocco is in his element.


A Hungry Lion by Lucy Ruth Cummins

A show of hands.  How many of you just assumed that this was a British import?  Yep.  Well, it isn’t.  It does, however, have a lovely twist ending.


Ideas Are All Around by Philip Stead

Another one of those books that may or may not be for kids.  In the end, the title of this book is about “Picture Books” and there is always the odd child that will become enamored of the title.  It is pretty gorgeous.


It’s Not Easy Being Number Three by Drew Dernavich

Someone earlier this year asked me to list all the extraordinary math or number picture books out in 2016.  The count was pitifully small.  Fortunately, Dernavich is here to save the day.  Trucker hat and all (seriously, that 3 is wearing a GREAT hat.


King Baby by Kate Beaton

Just for fun, do a Google image search of this title and author.  Now read all the comics she’s put up there.  More than just a larf for new parents.


Leave Me Alone! by Vera Brosgol

This may be my favorite picture book of the year.  Dunno.  I need to think about it for a while.  A review of it should be posted on this site this week, at the very least.


Let Me Finish by Minh Le, ill. Isabel Roxas

Isn’t it nice when a friend of yours writes a book and it’s not only good, it’s one of the best of the year.  Not too shabby there, Minh.


Lion Lessons by Jon Agee

One of these days Agee’s gonna lose his ability to write such good books.  Any minute now . . . any minute . . .


Little Red and the Very Hungry Lion by Alex T. Smith

Excellent storytelling, great art, and if you’ve ever wondered to yourself what a lion’s mane would look like in cornrows, I think I know where you can go to find an answer.  I hesitate to use the word “spunky” on this girl, so I’ll just call her “intrepid” and “intelligent” instead.


Lost and Found: Adele & Simon in China by Barbara McClintock

A book for VERY young eyes.  I’m beginning to wonder if Ms. McClintock paints with the aid of electronic microscopes.  Someday she’s going to paint a book on the head of a single grain of rice.  I would read that rice.


Maya by Mahak Jain, ill. Elly MacKay

Empowering. Beautiful. Dreamlike.  And I got to have a long conversation with my daughter about banyan trees, thanks to the storyline.


Maybe Something Beautiful: How Art Transformed a Neighborhood by F. Isabel Campoy & Theresa Howell, ill. Rafael Lopez

His art just makes me happy every time I see it.  I’ll never get a tattoo, but if I absolutely had to have one, it might have to be of one of his images.  A premiere of the book trailer here, if you’re interested.


Monday Is Wash Day by MaryAnn Sundby, ill. Tessa Blackham

Artistry, when done well and for the right reasons, yields classics.  And look at th0se cut paper clothes.  A steady hand needed there.


My Favorite Pets by Gus W. for Ms. Smolinski’s Class by Jeanne Birdsall, ill. Harry Bliss

Birdsall!  Bliss!  Hungry sheep!  The story doesn’t exactly write itself, but when the final form is made clear it makes perfect sense.


My Friend Maggie by Hannah E. Harrison

I was tepid on Harrison’s first picture book, enticed by her second, and enthralled by this, her third.  The cruel cuts of elementary school are keenly felt here.  And the expressions on the animals’ faces?  Classic.


Next to You: A Book of Adorableness by Lori Haskins Houran, ill. Sydney Hanson

Aw, yeah.  I am so keeping this one the list.  Read the review here to know why.


Nobody Like a Goblin by Ben Hatke

And with this book I interviewed Ben and he showed off the alternate cover.  I think, after looking at it, you’ll understand why they went with this one.


Old MacDonald Had a Truck by Steve Goetz, ill. Eda Kaban

I have read this book roughly 500 million times to my 2-year-old son.  I still like this book even after all of that.  That tells me it must be pretty good.  There’s always something new to see.


One Day in the Eucalyptus Eucalyptus Tree by Daniel Bernstrom, ill. by Brendan Wenzel

Such a brilliant readaloud!  I know there’s another Wenzel book out there that I’m supposed to like more, but you never forget your first.  And for me, this was the first Wenzel story I ever really loved.  There will be others.


Pond by Jim LaMarche

There are at least two picture books out this year about damming up streams to make ponds.  I like this one a lot.  Kids really do like to hear about process sometimes.  It would actually pair well with Ellen Obed’s Twelve Kinds of Ice.


Poor Little Guy by Elanna Allen

I’m an adult and the surprise ending on this book caught me unawares.  Plus I love a good animator-turned-illustrator.  This hits all the right picture book beats. Warning: May make you hungry for sushi.


A Promise Is a Promise by Knister, ill. Eve Tharlet

Another import about death.  This one has a rather hopeful bent to it, though.  It’s not the kind of art I usually like, but the storytelling overcame that personal prejudice.


Rabbit Magic by Meg McLaren

How long McLaren took to get those background bunnies right, I do not know.  Once I get the hardcover I’ll be able to sit down and determine if every single bunny in this book has a different personality.  I have a theory that this is the case . . .


Real Cowboys by Kate Hoefler, ill. Jonathan Bean

I just got this in yesterday.  Shoot. I think it’s also a Caldecott contender.  Bean’s usually a sure shot in that area, but it’s Hoefler’s text that raises the book out of the morass of other picture books.  I never thought I could like a contemporary cowboy book so much.


Samson in the Snow by Philip C. Stead

I know, I know.  If I include both of the Philip C. Stead books out this year, one of the two should have to go.  But not this one!  It’s so cute and friendly, with that hint of melancholy Mr. Stead always takes care to include, no matter how happy the tale.


School’s First Day of School by Adam Rex, ill. Christian Robinson

How many starred reviews has it gotten?  Six?  Seven?  Then I think we can all agree that it’s probably the best going-to-school book on the market today.  Pair it with Mom, It’s My First Day of Kindergarten for a truly inspired pairing.


The Shady Tree by Demi

Aw. This is Demi at her best.  An original folktale with a cute and clever bent.  Great tone as well.


Shy by Deborah Freedman

In my experience even the not-so-shy kids get a kick out of this one.  Plus they’ll love going back through the book to spot Shy on the previous pages.


Skypig by Jan L. Coates, ill. Suzanne Del Rizzo

Crazycool art going on here.  I think it’s all clay, but it’s hard to tell.  Whatever the medium is, it fits the storyline perfectly.  I always have so much fun reading the book that I forget to look up how it’s made.


Sleep Tight Farm: A Farm Prepares for Winter by Eugenie Doyle, ill. Becca Stadtlander

An Ox-Cart Man for the 21st century!


The Storm by Akiko Miyakoshi

You can practically taste the disappointment when that storm rolls in.  It didn’t quite reach the heights of its predecessor The Tea Party in the Woods, but it’s still a studied, smart take on a common childhood experience.


The Storyteller by Evan Turk

What else could I even possibly tell you about this?  Maybe it’ll finally be Turk’s year.  He’s talented enough.  My review of the book can be found here.


Super Happy Magic Forest by Matty Long

You may notice that this isn’t too dissimilar to Nobody Likes a Goblin.  So I clearly have a penchant for picture books that upset fantasy expectations.  Both books also look at the nature of quests.


A Toucan Can, Can You? by Danny Adlerman, ill. Various

Love it!  Reviewed it recently here.  The sheer array of artists makes this one a keeper.  Plus it’s catchy.  There is much to be said for catchy.


That’s Not a Hippopotamus! by Juliette Maclver, ill. Sarah Davis

Also a big hit in my child’s daycare.  It has all the frantic energy of something like Catch That Cookie, but it also speaks to those quiet kids in a class.  Good-natured, funny, and a fabulous readaloud to groups of kids.


They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel

Yeah.  I stand by everything I’ve said about this book already.  One of the best of the year.  Bar none.


This Is My Dollhouse by Giselle Potter

At some point here I’ll show you my daughter’s dollhouse.  One that was inspired by this book.  She’s been working on it every night after daycare.  Giselle Potter, you are a genius and I thank you.


The Three Lucys by Hayan Charara, ill. Sara Kahn

Tougher subject matter than your average picture book (and it could comfortably slot in the war and bereavement categories) there’s depth and carefully weighted words at work here.


Thunder Boy Jr. by Sherman Alexie, ill. Yuyi Morales

I had to have folks explain to me the brilliance of the art.  Once I saw it, I could never unsee it.  I have heard and understand the concerns, and even agree with them.  Nevertheless, this is one of the strongest books of the year.  No question.


The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles by Michelle Cuevas, ill. Erin E. Stead

Not that Philip E. Stead ever cornered the market on sweet melancholy.  His wife has her own brand at hand.


The Water Princess by Susan Verde, ill. Peter H. Reynolds

Exceedingly beautiful and useful.  Give it to any girl looking for princess fare.  It’s not what they think they want, but few will turn it away.  Plus it was hugely useful in telling my kid about how lucky we are to have water.


We Found a Hat by Jon Klassen

The sweetness of this book caught me off-guard.  I’m adding the image of a turtle wearing an oversized hat to my list of Possible Tattoos I’ll Never Get, But Would At Least Consider.


A Well‐Mannered Young Wolf by Jean Leroy, ill. Matthieu Maudet

The ending caught me by surprise.  In the best way possible.  Definitely NOT American (thank goodness).


Where’s the Elephant? by Barroux

I love how this book sets up the expectation that it’s just another seek and find story and then slowly reveals that it has a bigger point to convey.


Who Broke the Teapot? by Bill Slavin

I was recently in Stratford, Ontario and this book was in a bookstore window.  Little wonder.  The art is clever and the solution to the mystery (because this really is a mystery in a picture book) is great.  And funny, come to think of it.


Who Wants a Tortoise? by Dave Keane, ill. K.G. Campbell

Hmm.  Two Campbell books as well.  The man is a master of illustrated a distressed tortoise.  Plus it’s kept me from calling turtles tortoises in the recent past.


Wild Eggs: A Tale of Arctic Egg Collecting by Suzie Napayok‐Short, ill. Jonathan Wright

It’s not a good list unless I can get a book from Inhabit Media on here somewhere.  And Napayok-Short’s text is just lovely.  Some kids may get disappointed that they can’t collect arctic eggs of their own, of course.


Worm Loves Worm by J.J. Austrian, ill. Mike Curato

Yet another case of a picture book subtly reinforcing a belief or understanding.  Would actually pair with the aforementioned James Howe book exceedingly well.


Yellow Time by Lauren Stringer

Baby, there is always time for yellow time.  Always.


18 Comments on Some of the Best Picture Books of 2016 Thus Far (Mid-Year Summary), last added: 8/22/2016
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8. Review of the Day: Leave Me Alone! by Vera Brosgol

LeaveMeAloneLeave Me Alone!
By Vera Brosgol
Roaring Brook Press (an imprint of Macmillan)
ISBN: 9781626724419
Ages 4-7
On shelves September 13th

Knitting. It shouldn’t be so hard. I say this as the grown daughter of a chronic knitterer (not a word). I grew up neck deep in roving. I know the difference between a gossip wheel and a walking wheel (these are different spinning wheels). I know that if you want a permanent non-toxic dye for wool you use Kool-aid, that wool straight from the sheep is incredibly oily, and that out there are people who have turned the fur of their dogs and cats into sweaters. Yet the simplest act of knitting is lost on a good 50% of the children’s book illustrators out there that year after year can’t even be bothered to figure out which way the knitting needles are supposed to go. Down, people. The ends go down. In 2016 alone we’ve seen books like Maggie McGillicuddy’s Eye for Trouble get it wrong. Fortunately 2016 has also seen correctly positioned needles in Cat Knit, Ned the Knitting Pirate, and the greatest knitting related picture book I’ve seen to date Leave Me Alone! A superb readaloud of unparalleled visual humor, this is a knitting picture book par excellence and a pretty darn good original folktale too, come to think of it. Allowing for the occasional alien, of course.

“Once there was an old woman. She lived in a small village in a small house . . . with a very big family.” And by big family we mean big extended family. One gets the feeling that all her grown kids just sort of dump their own children on her, because there are thirty small grandchildren running amok in her home. Winter is coming soon and the old woman is keen on getting some knitting done for her extended brood. Trouble is, knitting and small children do NOT mix. So she picks up her stuff and goes into the deep, dark forest. That’s where the bear family finds her. So she goes to the mountains. Where the goats find her. Next it’s the moon. Where curious aliens find her. That leaves a wormhole where the void turns out to be her saving. Only problem is, it’s lonely in the void. Once her work is done, she heads back and when she sees her grandkids again, she doesn’t have to say a single word.

Here is the crazy thing about this book: It’s Vera Brosgol’s first picture book. I say that this is crazy because this does not read like a debut. This reads like Brosgol has been churning out picture books for decades, honing her skill, until finally at long last she’s produced a true diamond. But no. Some people get all the talent apparently. This is not, I should not, Ms. Brosgol’s first book in general. Her graphic novel Anya’s Ghost got a fair amount of attention a couple of years ago, and it was good. But nothing about that title prepared me for Leave Me Alone! Here we have a pitch perfect combination of text and image. If you were to read this book to someone without mentioning the creator, I don’t think there’s a soul alive who wouldn’t assume that the author and illustrator are one and the same. This is due largely to the timing. Just open the book to the first page. Examine the old woman on that page. Turn the page. Now look how that same woman has been transposed to a new setting and her expression has changed accordingly. Basically this sold the book to me right from the start.

LeaveAlone2 copyFunny picture books. For an author, creating a picture book that is funny means doing two things at once. You must appeal to both children and parents with your humor at the same time. Do you know how hard that is? Making something that a five-year-old thinks is funny that is also humorous to their parental unit is such a crazy balancing act that most picture book creators just fall on one side of the equation or the other. Make it funny only to adults and then you may as well just forget about the kids altogether (see: A Child’s First Book of Trump). Opt instead to only make it funny to kids and you doom the grown-ups to reading something they’d rather eat hot nails than read again (see: Walter the Farting Dog). But I honestly believe Brosgol has found the golden mean. Both adults and kids will find moments like the older sister stuffing a yarn ball in her brother’s mouth or the presence of the samovar (even in a wormhole) or the bear tentatively touching its nose after the old woman’s vigorous poke very funny indeed.

And let’s not downplay the writing here. There is serious readaloud potential with this book. I’ll level with you. In a given year you’ll see hundreds and hundreds of picture books published. Of these, a handful make for ideal readalouds. I’m not talking about books a parent can read to a child. I’m talking about books you can read to large groups, whether you’re a teacher, a librarian, or some poor parental schmuck who got roped into reading aloud to a group of fidgeting small fry. Few books are so good that anyone and everyone can enrapture an audience with them when read out loud. But Leave Me Alone! may be one of those rare few. Those beautiful butterflies. Those little jewels. The language mimics that of classic folktales, bandying about phrases like, “deep, dark forest”. And there are so many interactive possibilities. You could teach the kids how to yell out the phrase “Leave me alone!” all together at the same time, for example.

LeaveAlone3 copyAs for the art, it’s perfect. There’s a kind of Kate Beaton feel to it (particularly when babies or goats have full balls of yarn stuffed into their mouths). As I mentioned before, Brosgol knows which way knitting needles are supposed to lie, and better still she knows how to illustrate thirty different, and very realistically rendered sweaters, at the story’s end. There are also some clever moments that you’ll notice on a third or fourth read. For example, the very first time the woman yells, “Leave me alone!” she’s exiting the gates to her home and her children’s homes. The only people who hear her are her grown children, which means we don’t have to worry about small ears hearing such a caustic phrase from their grandma. Smart. And did you see that the twins get identical sweaters at the end of the book? Finally, there are the visual gags. The goats that surreptitiously followed the old woman to the moon, nibbling on a moon man’s scanner, for example.

I’ve seen a fair amount of hand wringing over the years over whether or not a children’s book can contain a protagonist that is not, in fact, a child, an animal, or an inanimate object rendered animate. Which is to say, are children capable of identifying with adults? More precisely, an adult who just wants to be alone for two seconds? The answer is swift and sure. Certainly they can. Particularly if the kid reading this book is an older sibling. The concept of being alone, of craving some time for one’s own self, is both familiar and foreign to a lot of kids. I’m reminded of the Frog & Toad story “Alone” from Days With Frog and Toad where Toad has a dark morning of the soul when he learns that Frog would like to have some alone time. Because of all of this, we see a lot of picture books where a character wants to be alone, has difficulty getting that “me time”, and eventually decides that companionship is the way to go (Octopus Alone, A Visitor for Bear, etc.). A few celebrate the idea (All Alone] by Kevin Henkes) but generally speaking parents use these books to convince their perhaps less than socially adept children that there are benefits to the concept of friendship. And there is a place in the world for such books. Fortunately there is also a place in the world for this book.

Folks sometimes talk to me about current trends in picture books. Sometimes they’re trying to figure out what the “next big thing” might be. But of course, the best picture books are the ones that at their core don’t really resemble anything but themselves. Leave Me Alone! isn’t typical. It reads aloud to big crowds of kids with great ease, lends itself to wonderful expressions, pops off the page, and will make anyone of any age laugh at some point. It’s a great book, and if I have to write another 500 words to convince you of it, I can do so. But why delay you from seeing it any longer? Go. Seek. Find. Read. Savor.

On shelves September 13th.

Like This? Then Try:

Source: Galley sent by publisher for review.

Misc: Cute promotion or THE CUTEST PROMOTION?  As you can see from this Bustle interview, Ms. Brosgol knit twenty-five teeny tiny sweaters to promote this book.  I steal the image for my own nefarious purposes and show it to you here:



1 Comments on Review of the Day: Leave Me Alone! by Vera Brosgol, last added: 8/23/2016
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9. Review of the Day: Ghost by Jason Reynolds

By Jason Reynolds
Atheneum (an imprint of Simon & Schuster)
ISBN: 978-1-4814-5015-7
Ages 9-12
On shelves August 30th

This is a generalization, but in my experience librarians really enjoy reading within their comfort zones. They’ll travel outside of them from time to time but always they return to the books that they like the most. Children’s librarians are just the same. The fantasy readers stick to fantasy. The realism fans go with realism. Graphic novel readers with comics. When I served on a yearly committee of librarians in New York I’d notice that some books were difficult to get anyone to read. Horse books, for example, just sat on our shelves untouched. Nonfiction could take some prodding. And as for sports books . . . forget about it. Nobody ever got near them. Still, you can’t give up on them. Mike Lupica and Tim Green may rule the field but that doesn’t mean other people don’t make a lot out of athletics. If our Newbery winning The Crossover by Kwame Alexander taught us anything, it was that. Now Jason Reynolds, a young adult author until this year, has produced a middle grade novel centered on that must unlikely of sports: track. It skirts the clichés. It dodges the usual pitfalls. It makes you care about a kid who keeps messing up over and over and over again. It’ll make you like sports books, even if you can’t generally stand them. And now we’ve got to find a way to get a lot of it into the hands of kids. Stat.

Call him Ghost. You can call him Castle Crenshaw if you want to (that’s technically his name) but he’s been calling himself Ghost ever since the night his dad got drunk and threatened Castle and his mom with a gun. Ghost learned to run that night and you might say he’s been running ever since. He’s got a load of anger inside that he doesn’t know how to deal with so he tends to take it out on others at school. Then one day he spots a track warm-up and takes an instant dislike to the albino kid in the expensive tracksuit. Without thinking about it twice Ghost beats the guy on the track, running on the outside, which gets the attention of the coach. Coach begs Ghost to join and Ghost reluctantly agrees but it isn’t what he expected. The other kids there all have their own lives, few of them easy. The running is much harder than anything Ghost has ever experienced before. And then there’s the fact that no matter how fast he is, Ghost can’t run away from trouble. It follows him and if he’s not careful it’s going to follow him right onto the track.

Baseball. Basketball. Even football. These are the sports of fiction. I doubt anyone has ever run any statistics on it, but if you were to gather together all the children’s sports books and group them by type, the baseball books would undoubtedly outweigh all the others 2:1. That’s because baseball is a game with a natural rise and fall to its action. Basketball has speed and football has brute force, all good things when writing a story. Track? In track you run and then you stop. At least that’s how I always looked at it. For Jason Reynolds, though, it’s different. He didn’t write this book with track as a single focus. He looks at what the sport boils down to. Basically, this is a book about running. Running from mistakes (forgive the cliché), from very real threats, for your life, and for your team. Why you run and where you run and how you run. And if that’s where you’re coming from, then track is a very good choice of a sport indeed.

On paper, this book looks like it’s the sort of story that’s all been done before. That’s where Reynolds’ writing comes in to play. First off, it’s worth noticing that Mr. Reynolds is blessed with a keen sense of humor. This comes to play not just in the text but also in little in-jokes here and there. Like the fact that one of the runners (that, I should mention, gets cut later in the book because his grades are slipping) is named Chris Myers. Christopher Myers is the son of Walter Dean Myers, and a friend to Jason Reynolds. I love Jason’s descriptions too. Mr. Charles at the corner store, “looks just like James Brown if James Brown were white. . .” Or Ghost saying later, “… for something to make you feel tough, you gotta be a little bit scared of it at first.” There are some pretty fantastic callbacks hidden in the story as well. Right at the start, almost like it’s some kind of superhero origin story, we hear how Ghost heard the gun go off that night he ran away from his home with his mom and “I felt like the loud shot made my legs move even faster.” That ties in beautifully with the starter pistol that goes off at the very very end of the book.

But maybe what I like the most about Jason Reynolds’ books is that he applies this keen sense of the complexity to his characters. I don’t think the man could write a straight one-dimensional villain to save his soul. Even his worst characters have these brief moments of humanity to them. In this case, Ghost’s dad is the worst character. You don’t get much worse than shooting at your wife and kid after all. Yet for all that, Ghost still can’t help but love the guy and eats sunflower seeds in his memory. Each character in the book has layers that you can peel away as the story progresses. Even Ghost, ESPECIALLY Ghost, who makes you want to yell and him and cheer for him, sometimes at the same time.

There’s been a monumental push for increased diversity in children’s literature in the last few years. Diversity can mean any number of things and it often focuses on race. In a weird way, increasing the number of racially diverse books on a given publisher’s release calendar isn’t hard if the publisher is dedicated to the notion. Far more difficult is figuring out how you increase the economic diversity. Middle grade characters are almost always middle class. If they’re working class then they tend to be historical. Contemporary lower income kids in realistic novels are almost unheard of. For example, how many books for children have you ever read with kids living in shelters? I’ve read just one, and I’m a children’s librarian. So I watched what Reynolds did here with great interest. Ghost isn’t destitute or anything but his single mom makes ends meet by working long hours at a hospital. Middle class kids are remarkably good at ignoring their own privilege while kids like Ghost become almost invisible. In the book, Ghost’s decision to initially race Lu isn’t solely based on how Lu struts around the track, thinking he’s the bee’s knees. It’s also on his clothes. “…Lu, was decked out in the flyest gear. Fresh Nike running shoes, and a full-body skintight suit . . . He wore a headband and a gold chain around his neck, and a diamond glinted in each ear.” Later Ghost makes a decision regarding a particularly fancy pair of running shoes. That’s an economic decision as well. Those are the most obvious examples, but the book is full of little mentions, peppered throughout, of where Ghost’s class comes in to things. It’s nice to see an author who gets that. We are often affected by forces outside our control, forces we don’t even necessarily notice, particularly when we’re children. If young readers see it, they’ll be reading between the lines, just like Reynolds wants them to.

Right at the beginning of the book, when Coach is trying to convince Ghost’s mom that he should be running, Ghost realizes that he’s in a situation that’s played out in loads of sports films. He thinks, “If this went like the movies, I was either going to score the game-winning touchdown (which is impossible in track) or . . . die.” Sometimes you can gauge how good a book is by how self-aware its characters are. But sometimes you just read a book, put it down, and think, “Man. That was good. That was really good.” This is a book that actually made me tear up, and there aren’t a lot of middle grade books that do that. I was rooting for Ghost hard, right until the end. I was caring about a sport that I’d never otherwise think about in a million years. And I was admiring it from start to finish for all that it accomplishes in its scant 180 pages. This is the book you hand to the kids who want something real and good and honest. There are a lot of Ghosts out there in the world. Hopefully some of them will discover themselves here. Run, don’t walk, to pick this book up.

On shelves August 30th.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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10. Review of the Day: Makoons by Louise Edrich

By Louise Erdrich
Harper Collins
ISBN: 9780060577933
Ages 7-12
On shelves now

They say these days you can’t sell a novel for kids anymore without the book having some kind of “sequel potential”. That’s not really true, but there are a heck of a lot of series titles out there for the 7 to 12-year-old set, that’s for sure. New series books for children are by their very definition sort of odd for kids, though. If you’re an adult and you discover a new series, waiting a year or two for the next book to come out is a drop in the bucket. Years fly by for grown-ups. The wait may be mildly painful but it’s not going to crush you. But series for kids? That’s another matter entirely. Two years go by and the child has suddenly become an entirely different person. They may have switched their loyalties from realistic historical fiction to fantasy or science fiction or (heaven help us) romance even! It almost makes more sense just to hand them series that have already completed their runs, so that they can speed through them without breaking the spell. Almost makes more sense . . . but not quite. Not so long as there are series like “The Birchbark House Series” by Louise Erdrich. It is quite possibly the only historical fiction series currently underway for kids that has lasted as long as seventeen years and showing no sign of slowing down until it reaches its conclusion four books from now, Erdrich proves time and time again that she’s capable of ensnaring new readers and engaging older ones without relying on magic, mysteries, or post-apocalyptic mayhem. And if she manages to grind under her heel a couple stereotypes about what a book about American Indians in the past is “supposed” to be (boring/serious/depressing) so much the better.

Chickadee is back, and not a second too soon. Had he been returned to his twin brother from his kidnapping any later, it’s possible that Makoons would have died of the fever that has taken hold of his body. As it is, Chickadee nurses his brother back to health, but not before Makoons acquires terrifying visions of what is to come. Still, there’s no time to dwell on that. The buffalo are on the move and his family and tribe are dedicated to sustaining themselves for the winter ahead. There are surprises along the way as well. A boasting braggart by the name of Gichi Noodin has joined the hunt, and his posturing and preening are as amusing to watch as his mistakes are vast. The tough as nails Two Strike has acquired a baby lamb and for reasons of her own is intent on raising it. And the twin brothers adopt a baby buffalo of their own, though they must protect it against continual harm. All the while the world is changing for Makoons and his family. Soon the buffalo will leave, more settlers will displace them, and three members of the family will leave, never to return. Fortunately, family sustains, and while the future may be bleak, the present has a lot of laughter and satisfaction waiting at the end of the day.

While I have read every single book in this series since it began (and I don’t tend to follow any other series out there, except possibly Lockwood & Co.) I don’t reread previous books when a new one comes out. I don’t have to. Neither, I would argue, would your kids. Each entry in this series stands on its own two feet. Erdrich doesn’t spend inordinate amounts of time catching the reader up, but you still understand what’s going on. And you just love these characters. The books are about family, but with Makoons I really felt the storyline was more about making your own family than the family you’re born into. At the beginning of this book Makoons offers the dire prediction that he and his brother will be able to save their family members, but not all of them. Yet by the story’s end, no matter what’s happened, the family has technically only decreased by two people, because of the addition of another.

Erdrich has never been afraid of filling her books with a goodly smattering of death, dismemberment, and blood. I say that, but these do not feel like bloody books in the least. They have a gentleness about them that is remarkable. Because we are dealing with a tribe of American Indians (Ojibwe, specifically) in 1866, you expect this book to be like all the other ones out there. Is there a way to tell this story without lingering on the harm caused by the American government to Makoons, his brother, and his people? Makoons and his family always seem to be outrunning the worst of the American government’s forces, but they can’t run forever. Still, I think it’s important that the books concentrate far more on their daily lives and loves and sorrows, only mentioning the bloodthirsty white settlers on occasion and when appropriate. It’s almost as if the reader is being treated in the same way as Makoons and his brother. We’re getting some of the picture but we’re being spared its full bloody horror. That is not to say that this is a whitewashed narrative. It isn’t at all. But it’s nice that every book about American Indians of the past isn’t exactly the same. They’re allowed to be silly and to have jokes and fun moments too.

That humor begs a question of course. Question: When is it okay to laugh at a character in a middle grade novel these days? It’s not a simple question. With a high concentration on books that promote kindness rather than bullying, laughing at any character, even a bad guy, is a tricky proposition. And that goes double if the person you’re laughing at is technically on your side. Thank goodness for self-delusion. As long as a character refuses to be honest with him or herself, the reader is invited to ridicule them alongside the other characters. It may not be nice, but in the world of children’s literature it’s allowed. So meet Gichi Noodin, a pompous jackass of a man. This is the kind of guy who could give Narcissus lessons in self-esteem. He’s utterly in love with his own good looks, skills, you name it. For this reason he’s the Falstaff of the book (without the melancholy). He serves a very specific purpose in the book as the reader watches his rise, his fall, and his redemption. It’s not very often that the butt of a book’s jokes is given a chance to redeem himself, but Gichi Noodin does precisely that. That storyline is a small part of the book, smaller even than the tale of Two Strike’s lamb, but I loved the larger repercussions. Even the butt of the joke can save the day, given the chance.

Makoons2As with all her other books Erdrich does a E.L. Konigsburg and illustrates her own books (and she can even do horses – HORSES!). Her style is, as ever, reminiscent of Garth Williams’ with soft graphite pencil renderings of characters and scenes. These are spotted throughout the chapters regularly, and combined with the simplicity of the writing they make the book completely appropriate bedtime reading for younger ages. The map at the beginning is particularly keen since it not only highlights the locations in each part of the story but also hints at future storylines to come. Of these pictures the sole flaw is the book jacket. You see the cover of this book is a touch on the misleading side since at no point in this story does Makoons ever attempt to feed any baby bears (a terrible idea, namesake or no). Best to warn literal minded kids from the start that that scene is not happening.  Then again, this appears to be a scene from the first book in the series, The Birchbark House, where Makoons’ mother Omakayas feeds baby bears as a girl.  Not sure why they chose to put it on the cover this book but it at least explains where it came from.

It is interesting that the name of this book is Makoons since Chickadee shares as much of the spotlight, if not a little more so, than his sickly brother. That said, it is Makoons who has the vision of the future, Makoons who offers the haunting prediction at the story’s start, and Makoons who stares darkly into an unknown void at the end, alone in the misery he knows is certain to come. Makoons is the Cassandra of this story, his predictions never believed until they are too late. And yet, this isn’t a sad or depressing book. The hope that emanates off the pages survives the buffalos’ sad departure, the sickness that takes two beloved characters, and the knowledge that the only thing this family can count on in the future is change. But they have each other and they are bound together tightly. Even Pinch, that trickster of previous books, is acquiring an odd wisdom and knowledge of his own that may serve the family well into the future. Folks often recommend these books as progressive alternatives to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, but that’s doing them a disservice. Each one of these titles stands entirely on its own, in a world of its own making. This isn’t some sad copy of Wilder’s style but a wholly original series of its own making. The kid who starts down the road with this family is going to want to go with them until the end. Even if it takes another seventeen years. Even if they end up reading the last few books to their own children. Whatever it takes, we’re all in this together, readers, characters, and author. Godspeed, Louise Erdrich.

For ages 7-12

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

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11. Review of the Day: Presenting Buffalo Bill by Candace Fleming

presentingbuffaloPresenting Buffalo Bill: The Man Who Invented the Wild West
By Candace Fleming
A Neal Porter Book, Roaring Book Press (a division of Macmillan)
ISBN: 9781596437630
Ages 9-12
On shelves September 20th

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we present history to our kids. Specifically I was thinking about picture book biographies and whether or not they’re capable of offering a nuanced perspective on a person’s complicated life. Will we ever see an honest picture book biography of Nixon, for example? In talking with a nonfiction author for children the other day, she asked me about middle grade books (books written for 9-12 year olds) and whether or not they are ever capable of featuring complicated subjects. I responded that often they’re capable of showing all kinds of sides to a person. Consider Laura Amy Schlitz’s delightful The Hero Schliemann or Candace Fleming’s The Great and Only Barnum. Great books about so-so people. And Candace Fleming… now there’s an author clearly drawn to historical characters with slippery slidey morals. Her latest book, Presenting Buffalo Bill is a splendid example of precisely that. Not quite a shyster, but by no means possessing a soul as pure as unblemished snow, had you asked me, prior to my reading this book, whether or not it was even possible to write a biography for children about him my answer would have been an unqualified nope. Somehow, Ms. Fleming has managed it. As tangled and thorny a life as ever you read, Fleming deftly shows how perceptions of the American West that persist to this day can all be traced to Buffalo Bill Cody. For good or for ill.

What do you think of when you think of the iconic American West? Cowboys and sage? American Indians and buffalo? Whatever is popping up in your head right now, if it’s a stereotypical scene, you’ve Buffalo Bill Cody to thank for it. An ornery son of a reluctant abolitionist, Bill grew up in a large family in pre-Civil War Kansas. Thanks to his father’s early death, Bill was expected to make money at a pretty young age. Before he knew it, he was trying his luck panning gold, learning the finer points of cowboy basics, and accompanying wagon trains. He served in the Civil War, met the love of his life, and gave tours to rich Easterners looking for adventure. It was in this way that Bill unwittingly found himself the subject of a popular paperback series, and from that he was able to parlay his fame into a stage show. That was just a hop, skip, and a jump to creating his Wild West Show. But was Bill a hero or a shyster? Did he exploit his Indian workers or offer them economic opportunities otherwise unavailable to them? Was he a caring man or a philanderer? The answer: Yes. And along the way he may have influenced how the world saw the United States of America itself.

buffalobill2So let’s get back to that earlier question of whether or not you can feature a person with questionable ethics in a biography written for children. It really all just boils down to a question of what the point of children’s biographies is in the first place. Are they meant to inspire, or simply inform, or some kind of combination of both? In the case of unreliable Bill, the self-made man (I’m suddenly hearing Jerry Seinfeld’s voice saying to George Costanza, “You’re really made something of yourself”) Candace Fleming had to wade through loads of inaccurate data produced, in many cases, by Bill himself. To combat this problem, Ms. Fleming employs a regular interstitial segment in the book called “Panning for the Truth” in which she tries to pry some grain of truth out of the bombast. If a person loves making up the story of their own life, how do you ever know what the truth is? Yet in many ways, this is the crux of Bill’s story. He was a storyteller, and to prop himself up he had to, in a sense, prop up the country’s belief in its own mythology. As he was an embodiment of that mythology, he had a vested interest in hyping what he believed made the United States unique. Taking that same message to other countries in the world, he propagated a myth that many still believe in today. Therefore the story of Bill isn’t merely the story of one man, but of a way people think about our country. Bill was merely the vessel. The message has outlived him.

I’ve heard folks online say of the book that they can’t imagine the child who’d come in seeking a bio of Buffalo Bill. Since kids don’t like cowboys like they used to, the very existence of this book in the universe puzzles them. Well, putting aside the fact that enjoying a biography often has very little to do with the fact that you already were interested in the subject (or any nonfiction book, for that matter), let’s just pick apart precisely why a kid might get a lot out of reading about Bill. He was, as I have mentioned, a humbug. But he was also for more than that. He was a fascinating mix of good and evil. He took credit for terrible deeds but also participated in charitable acts (whether out of a sense of obligation or mere money is a question in and of itself). He no longer fits the mold of what we consider a hero to be. He also doesn’t fit the mold of a villain. So what does that leave us with? A very interesting human being and those, truth be told, make for the best biographies for kids.

buffalo_bill_wild_west_show_c1899The fact that Bill is a subject of less than sterling personal qualities is not what makes this book as difficult as it is to write (though it doesn’t help). The real problem with Bill comes right down to his relationships with American Indians. How do we in the 21st century come to terms with Bill’s very white, very 19th century attitudes towards Native Americans? Fleming tackles this head on. First and foremost, she begins the book with “A Note From the Author” where she explains why she would use one term or another to describe the Native Americans in this book, ending with the sentence, “Always my intention when referring to people outside my own cultural heritage is to be respectful and accurate.” Next, she does her research. Primary sources are key, but so is work at the McCracken Research Library at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming. Her work was then vetted by Dr. Jeffrey Means (Enrolled Member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe), Associate Professor of History at the University of Wyoming in the field of Native American History, amongst others. I was also very taken with the parts of the book that quote Oglala scholar Vine Deloria Jr., explaining at length why Native performers worked for Buffalo Bill and what it meant for their communities.

What surprised me the most about the book was that I walked into it with the pretty clear perception that Bill was a “bad man”. A guy who hires American Indians to continually lose or be exploited as part of some traveling show meant to make white Americans feel superior? Yeah. Not on board with that. But as ever, the truth is far more complicated than that. Fleming delves deep not just into the inherently racist underpinnings of Bill’s life, but also its contradictions. Bill hated Custer when he knew the guy and said publicly that the defeat of Custer was no massacre, yet would reenact it as part of his show, buffalobillwith Custer as the glorified dead hero. He would hire Native performers, pay them a living wage, and speak highly of them, yet at the same time he murdered a young Cheyenne named Yellow Hair and scalped him for his own glory. Fleming is at her best when she recounts the relationship of Bill and Sitting Bull. A photo of the two shows them standing together “as equals . . . but it is obvious that Bill is leading the way while Sitting Bull appears to be giving in. What was the subtext of the photo? That the ‘friendship’ offered in the photograph – and in Wild West performances – honored American Indian dignity only at the expense of surrender to white dominance and control.”

I’m writing this review in the year of 2016 – a year when Donald Trump is running for President of the United States of America. It’s given me a lot of food for thought about American humbuggery. Here in the States, we’ve created a kind of homegrown demagoguery that lauds the successful humbug. P.T. Barnum was a part of that. Huey Long had it down. And Buffalo Bill may have been a different version of these men, but I’d say he belongs to their club. There’s a thin line between “self-made man” and “making stuff up”. Thinner still when the man in question does as much good and as much evil as Buffalo Bill Cody. Fleming walks a tightrope here and I’d say it’s fair to say she doesn’t fall. The sheer difficulty of the subject matter and her aplomb at handling the topic puts her on a higher plane than your average middle grade biography. Will kids seek out Buffalo Bill’s story? I have no idea, but I can guarantee that for those they do they’ll encounter a life and a man that they will never forget.

On shelves September 20th.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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12. Review of the Day: They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel

TheyAllSawCatThey All Saw a Cat
By Brendan Wenzel
Chronicle Books
ISBN: 978-1-4521-5013-0
Ages 4-7
On shelves now

It’s funny. Unless you’re a teacher or librarian, a grown adult that does not work or live with children will come into very little contact with picture books. Then, one day, they produce a few kids and BLAMMO! They are shot into a world they haven’t visited since they were young themselves. They grab frantically at the classics, discover that a lot of them don’t work with very very young children (since when did Horton Hatches the Egg have so many words?!?), and then occasionally turn to the experts for help. And why? Parents’ reasons are not united on this front. Some read to their kids to instill a love of reading. Others to build little brains. Others to simply fill the long hours of the day. Occasionally a parent will also use a book to teach some kind of a lesson. If the parent is unlucky they will get stuck with a book sticky with didacticism (an unpleasant book that sucks all the joy out of the reading experience). But if they are lucky (or they are in the hands of a capable professional) they might find just the right book, teaching just the right lesson. Here’s an example: Let’s say you wanted to teach a kid empathy or how our perceptions change depending on our own experiences and who we are. How do you show that in 32 pages? Well, you could pick up some cloying, toxic dribble that overuses words like “hugs” and “friendship”. Nine times out of ten, that’s what’s going to happen. Or, if you are a clever parent, you pick up a book like They All Saw a Cat. It looks at first glance like it’s just about a cat. Delve a little deeper and you’ll find it about science and art and perception and empathy. And it does it all with very simple sentences, repetition, and a lot of white backgrounds. Not too shabby. Not too shabby at all.

theyallsaw1“The cat walked through the world, with its whiskers, ears, and paws . . .” In that walking it is seen. It is seen by a child, a dog, and a fox. It is seen by a fish, a mouse, and a bee. It is seen by a bird, a flea, a snake, a skunk, a worm, and a bat. And what’s important is that this “seeing” changes with every creature. For mice and dogs, the cat is perceived through the lens of their own interactions with it. For worms and bats the cat is only visible through the ways in which it moves through space (vibrations through the ground and the ways in which echolocation shape it). By the end we see a hodgepodge cat, a mix of how each animal sees it. Then the cat comes to the water, viewing its own reflection, “and imagine what it saw?”

The book this actually reminded me of the most was that old Rudyard Kipling story “The Cat Who Walked By Himself”. Unlike that tale we never really get this book from the cat’s perspective. Indeed, the cat is often only visible when others see him. The similarity to Kipling comes with the language. That very first sentence, for example: “The cat walked through the world, with its whiskers, ears, and paws . . .” And as in the original art for that story, the cat here is often pictured from the back. There’s a lot of debate about whether or not a book written by one person and illustrated by another can ever be as strong as a book that is written and illustrated by the same artist. They All Saw a Cat makes a fairly strong argument that artist who are also authors are the better way to go. Wenzel’s sentences are so perfectly layered here. If anything, they match the personality of a cat. There aren’t many words, true. But the measured tone is at once soothing and scintillating. I liked how the book broke up the animals. The first three are potential predators. The second three are potential theyallsaw2prey. The final six are strict observers. It also ends perfectly with the best possible sentence. Not all picture books, no matter how beautiful they look, are capable of sticking their landings. This one does.

In this book the publication page (where they tend to describe the artist’s process) gets a little slaphappy. It reads (and I am quoting this precisely), “The illustrations in this book were rendered in almost everything imaginable, including colored pencil, oil pastels, acrylic paint, watercolor, charcoal, Magic Marker, good old number 2 pencils, and even an iBook.” The other day I was listening to a podcast where one of the speakers speculated that including this kind of information in a book changes the adult reader’s perspective. Would I think less of this book if I found out it was done in digital ink? Possibly, though I should note that I was blown away by the art long before I ever turned to see how it was made. And while digital art is great and has its place, I’d like to see the program that replicates what Wenzel’s done here.

theyallsaw3The sheer beauty of the book is what strikes you first when you read it. Consider the two-page spread where on the left-hand side you see the cat through snake vision, and on the right-hand side you see the cat through skunk vision. The snake’s view is a vibrant shock of color, all yellows and reds and blues. The skunk’s in contrast, looks like the soft grainy sepia-tones of an old film. Maybe Casablanca. Put together, side-by-side, the same cat is its own opposite. But if Wenzel were constantly wowing you with eye-popping images that wouldn’t really support the narrative flow. That’s why the pacing of the book is key. Wenzel starts the book out very slowly, with lots of white backgrounds and views akin to what we see as people. The child, dog, and fox all see the cat similarly (though I loved the oversized bell around its neck, indicating the fox and dog’s superior sense of hearing through a visual medium). The fish is the first moment you start to separate from human visuals. The cat’s large, yellow eyes are 80% of the two pages. But it is the mouse’s Basquiat-esque view of the cat that steals the show. The red background, and the cat all teeth and claws, and terrifying eyes is a far cry from the cuddly creature at the start of the story. It’s also the moment when the child readers come to realize that perception is personal.

An interesting criticism of this book is linked precisely to the more science-y aspects of the text. One of the commenters on a blog post I wrote, that included this book, said that, “I desperately wanted some nice science-y back matter to tell us how and why different animals see the cat the way they do. Sure, we can go OH, this animal must be colorblind! This animal ‘sees’ by sonar! But c’mon, throw us an edu-bone here. It felt like such a missed opportunity.” This is an interesting note. We’ve grown used to useful backmatter in this post-Core Curriculum world of ours. Would this book have been stronger if it had contained a science element to it? Yes and no. It would have been a real boon to teachers, you betcha, and probably to perceptive parents who could have turned it into a lesson for young readers. If I had to guess I’d say the reason it wasn’t done may have had something to do with the fact that Wenzel is mixing his fact and fiction here pretty closely. Each animal is “seeing” as it would in the wild, but that is not to say that the art is by any means scientific. The cartoonish quality to the animals (no better exemplified than in the mouse’s bulbous eyes) doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny. I would have very much liked notes on the accuracy of the art, but I can understand the fear of asking the reader to take the work too seriously. I don’t necessarily agree, but I understand it.

theyallsaw4How do you discuss this book with kids? Well, you might read it to them, start to finish, and then ask them which picture shows what the cat really looks like. When they select (some will go with the human view but I’ve no doubt a couple will prefer the dog or bird p.o.v.s) you then tell them that actually all the pictures in this book are true. And if you really want to blow their little minds, you tell them that there’s a good chance that the way you see the world isn’t the same way the person next to you does. Everyone, everywhere sees the world different from his or her neighbor. Is it any wonder we have problems? The solution is to try and see things from another person’s view. Now, if the kids think you’re speaking literally or figuratively, it doesn’t really matter. You’ve planted the seed. Or, rather, the book has.

Let us do away with the notion of “cat people” vs. “dog people”. This book is for “people”. End of sentence. And if I got a little crazy in my first paragraph here, filling you in on my view of world peace via picture books, you’ll understand when you read this book. That tired old phrase to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes” makes no sense to a kid. But travel a page through another animal’s eyes? There’s never been a better fictional picture book that allows you to do this. If we all see something as simple as a cat this differently, what else might we not see the same? It’s a treat to eye, ear, and mind, but don’t forget. We’re all going to see this book through our own lenses. What will your kids see when they look at it? Only one way to find out.

On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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13. Review of the Day: Dwarf Nose by Wilhelm Hauff

DwarfNose1Dwarf Nose
By Wilhelm Hauff
Illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger
Translated by Anthea Bell
ISBN: 97898888341139
Ages 8-12
On shelves April 1st

It seems so funny to me that for all that our culture loves and adores fairytales, scant attention is paid to the ones that can rightfully be called both awesome and obscure. There is a perception out there that there are only so many fairytales out there that people really need to know. But for every Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty you run into, there’s a Tatterhood or Riquet with the Tuft lurking on the sidelines. Thirty or forty years ago you’d sometimes see these books given a life of their own front and center with imaginative picture book retellings. No longer. Folktales and fairytales are widely viewed by book publishers as a dying breed. A great gaping hole exists, and into it the smaller publishers of the world have sought to fulfill this need. Generally speaking they do a very good job of bringing world folktales to the American marketplace. Obscure European fairytales, however, are rare beasts. How thrilled I was then to discover the republication of Wilhelm Hauff and Lisbeth Zwerger’s Dwarf Nose. Originally released in America in 1995 by North-South books, the book has long been out-of-print. Now the publisher minedition has brought it back and what a beauty it is. Strange and sad and oddly uplifting, this tale has all the trappings of the fairytales you know and love, but somehow remains entirely unexpected just the same.

For there once was a boy who lived with his two adoring parents. His father was a cobbler and his mother sold vegetables and herbs in the market. One day the boy was assisting his mother when a very strange old woman came to them and starting digging her dirty old hands through their wares. Incensed, the boy insulted the old woman, which as you may imagine didn’t go down very well. When the boy is made to help carry the woman’s purchases back to her home he is turned almost immediately into a squirrel and made to work for seven years in her kitchen. After that time he awakes, as if in a dream, only to find seven years have passed and his body has been transformed. Now he has no neck to speak of, a short frame, a hunched back, and a extraordinarily long nose. Sad that his parents refuse to acknowledge him as their son, he sets forth to become the king’s cook. And all would have gone without incident had he not picked up that enchanted goose in the market one day. Written in 1827 this tale is famous in Germany but remains relatively obscure in the United States today.

DwarfNose4I go back and forth when I consider why this fairytale isn’t all that famous to Americans. There are a variety of reasons. There are some depressing elements to it (kid is unrecognizable to parents, loses seven years of his life, etc.) sure. There aren’t any beautiful princesses (except possibly the goose). The bad guy doesn’t even appear in the second act. Still, it’s the peculiarities that give it its flavor. We’ve heard of plenty of stories where the heroes are transformed by the villains, but how many villains give those same heroes a useful occupation in the process? It’s Dwarf Nose’s practicalities that are so interesting, as are the nitty gritty elements of the tale. I love the use of herbs particularly. Whether the story is talking about Sneezewell or Bellyheal, you get the distinct feeling that you’re listening to someone who knows what they’re talking about. Plus there are tiny rodent servants. That’s a plus.

We like it when our fairytales give us nice clear-cut morals. Be clever, be kind, be good. This may be another reason why Dwarf Nose never really took off in the States. At first glance one would assume that the moral would be about not judging by appearances. Dwarf Nose’s parents cannot comprehend that their beautiful boy is now ugly, and so they throw him out. He gets a job as a chef but does not search out a remedy until the goose he rescues gives him some hope. I was fully prepared for him to remain under his spell for the rest of his life without regrets, but of course that doesn’t happen. He’s restored to his previous beauty, he returns to his parents who welcome him with open arms, and he doesn’t even marry the goose girl. Hauff ends with a brief mention of a silly war that occurred thanks to Dwarf Nose’s disappearance ending with the sentence, “Small causes, as we see, often have great consequences, and this is the story of Dwarf Nose.” That right there would be your moral then. Not an admonishment to avoid judging the outward appearance of a thing (though Dwarf Nose’s talents drill that one home pretty clearly) but instead that a little thing can lead to a great big thing.

DwarfNose2When this version of Dwarf Nose was originally released in the States in 1994 the reviews were puzzled by its length. Booklist said it was “somewhat verbose to modern listeners” and School Library Journal noted the “grotesque tenor of the book”. Fascinatingly this is not the only incarnation of this tale you might find in America. In 1960 Doris Orgel translated a version of “Dwarf Long-Nose” which was subsequently illustrated by Maurice Sendak. The School Library Journal review of Zwerger’s version in 1994 suggested that the Sendak book was infinitely more kid-friendly than hers. I think that’s true to a certain extent. You get a lot more pictures with the Sendak and the book itself is a much smaller format. While Zwerger excels in infinitely beautiful watercolors, Sendak’s pen and inks with just the slightest hint of orange for color are almost cartoonish in comparison. What I would argue then is that the intended age of the audience is different. Sure the text is remarkably similar, but in Zwerger’s hands this becomes a fairytale for kids comfortable with Narnia and Hogwarts. I remember as a tween sitting down with my family’s copy of World Tales by Idries Shah as well as other collected fairytales. Whether a readaloud for a fourth grade class, an individual tale for the kid obsessed with the fantastical, or bedtime reading for older ages, Dwarf Nose doesn’t go for the easy audience, but it does go for an existing one.

Lisbeth Zwerger is a fascinating illustrator with worldwide acclaim everywhere except, perhaps, America. It’s not that her art feels too “foreign” for U.S. palates, necessarily. I suspect that as with the concerns with the length of Dwarf Nose, Zwerger’s art is usually seen as too interstitial for this amount of text. We want more art! More Zwerger! I’ve read a fair number of her books over the years, so I was unprepared for some of the more surreal elements of this one. In one example the witch Herbwise is described as tottering in a peculiar fashion. “…it was as if she had wheels on her legs, and might tumble over any moment and fall flat on her face on the paving stones.” For this, Zwerger takes Hauff literally. Her witch is more puppet than woman, with legs like bicycle wheels and a face like a Venetian plague doctor. We have the slightly unnerving sensation that the book we are reading is, in fact, a performance put on for our enjoyment. That’s not a bad thing, but it is unexpected.

DwarfNose3When Zwerger’s Dwarf Nose came out in 1994 it was entering a market where folktales were on the outs. Still, libraries bought it widely. A search on WorldCat reveals that more than 500 libraries currently house in on their shelves after all these years. And while folktale sections of children’s rooms do have a tendency to fall into disuse, it is possible that the book has been reaching its audience consistently over the years. It may even be time for an upgrade. Though it won’t slot neatly into our general understanding of what a fairytale consists of, Dwarf Nose will find its home with like-minded fellows. Oddly touching.

On shelves April 1st.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

Misc: Check out this fantastic review of the same book by 32 pages.


1 Comments on Review of the Day: Dwarf Nose by Wilhelm Hauff, last added: 3/11/2016
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14. Review of the Day: When Green Becomes Tomatoes by Julie Fogliano

WhenGreen1When Green Becomes Tomatoes: Poems for All Seasons
By Julie Fogliano
Illustrated by Julie Morstad
A Neal Porter Book / Roaring Brook Press (Macmillan)
ISBN: 9781596438521
Ages 6 and up
On shelves now.

I don’t think I can adequately stress to you the degree to which I did not want to review this book. Not because it isn’t a magnificent title. And not because it isn’t pleasing to both eye and ear alike. No, it probably had more to do with the fact that it’s a work of poetry. I make a point of reviewing poetry regularly, though I’d be the first to say that it wasn’t my first language (if you know what I mean). I respect it but can occasionally find it tough going. I was determined to give this book its due, though. And the only way I could make myself physically sit down and review it was to read it cover to cover again. As I did so I was struck over and over, time and again, by just how melodious the language is here. Look, I’ll level with you. Seasonal poetry books are a dime a dozen. But what Fogliano and Morstad have created together is a lot more than just a book of poems for the changes of the year. This book manages to operate on a level that presents the very act of the seasonal cycle as positively philosophical, yet without distancing itself from its readership. It’s tricky territory, but together Fogliano and Morstad get the job done.

“from a snow-covered tree / one bird singing / each tweet poking / a tiny hole / through the edge of winter”. In the very first poem in When Green Becomes Tomatoes (a poem called “march 20”) the child reader is alerted to a change in the air. The snow is still present and the weather still gloomy, but there is hope on the horizon. Yet rather than turn the book into a paean to warmer weather, poet Julie Fogliano takes time to both celebrate and criticize the passing seasons. By the end of spring you look forward to summer and the end of summer leads to the relief of autumn, and so on and such. Accompanying these thoughts are small poems in lowercase and illustrations carrying the weight and expectations these seasons evoke in us. The end result can only be described in a single word: beautiful.

WhenGreen2Like I said, I’ve read a lot of poetry books for kids about the seasons in my day. The good ones have some kind of a hook. Like Joyce Sidman tackling it with colors in Red Sings from Treetops or Jon J. Muth writing the poems entirely as haikus as in Hi, Koo! A Year in Seasons. But Fogliano doesn’t really have a hook, and so I approached the title with trepidation. No hook? You mean it was just going to be . . . poems?! It takes the courage of your convictions to do a poetry book for kids straight these days. And it’s not true that Fogliano didn’t have one ace up her sleeve. A lot of works of poetry start in January (when the year itself technically begins). Using a technique of highlighting random dates, this poet begins the book on March 20th, the first day of spring. A small hook, sure, but at least it’s something.

As for the poems themselves, I was impressed not just with the writing, but with Ms. Fogliano’s grasp of what each season actually entails. There are a LOT of cloudy days, rainy days, and generally blah days in this book. They don’t weigh down the narrative or really make it all that gloomy. You just end up experiencing precisely the same feeling you have when you’re living those days. This is the rare book that acknowledges that spring doesn’t immediately mean sunshine and 55-degree temperatures. There’s a lot of snow and some mud and a whole ton of rain. Listen to how she puts it, though: “today / the sky was too busy sulking to rain / and the sun was exhausted from trying / and everyone / it seemed / had decided / to wear their sadness / on the outside / and even the birds / and all their singing / sounded brokenhearted / inside of all that gray.” It really isn’t until June that things even out, and I respect that. All the seasons are like that. It’s great to watch.

As you might have noted, the poetry found in this book straddles a line between being child-friendly and introspective (the two aren’t mutually exclusive, but neither are they always natural pairs). I found myself noting line after line after line that I wanted to quote. Here’s a small taste for each season.

On Spring: “shivering and huddled close / the forever rushing daffodils / wished they had waited.”

On Summer: “if you ever stopped / to taste a blueberry / you would know / that it’s not really about the blue, at all.”

On Fall: “october please / get back in bed / your hands are cold / your nose is red / october please / go back to bed / your sneezing woke december.”

On Winter: “a gust of wind / blew by my nose / i think i will be frozen soon / this living room / (all cozy chairs and fireplace) / has some real explaining to do.”

Some books of children’s poetry lean heavily on the works of other poets. I won’t presume to name her influences but if the July 12th poem is any indication then William Carlos Williams might have had some influence here. And maybe e.e. cummings too (with all that mudlicious mud).

WhenGreen3When she was much younger it’s clear that author Julie Fogliano made some kind of a blood sacrifice to the God of Perfect Illustrator Pairings. How else to explain how she has managed to work alongside such artists as Erin E. Stead and now Julie Morstad? Morstad is no newbie to the field, of course. I’ve been a big fan of her for years, starting with her art for The Swing by Robert Louis Stevenson. Morstad’s great talent lies not necessarily in her waiflike black-eyed children, but rather in how she creates tone. Though there are plenty of sequences in this book of kids playing together or sharing food and soup, for the most part her characters go it alone. These poems are the contemplations of a young person with time and space and nature in spades. I don’t know that if I read Ms. Fogliano’s poetry without the art I would have picked up on that myself. Note too how cyclical the book is. The first poem is the last, sure as shooting, but so too is the person seen at both the beginning and the end. It’s the same kid wearing the same clothes, which makes a subtle implication that though a whole year has gone by, time is simply doubling back on itself. Not sure what to make of that one, frankly.

With poetry, we have to play the game of answering what ages we think the poems are appropriate for. This book poses a bit of a challenge on that front. Some are younger, some definitely older. This mix will allow kids of all ages to take part in the fun, even as the book asks questions like whether or not there is a space between where things begin and things end “or just a slow and gentle fading”. Enticing to the eye but, more importantly almost, alluring to the brain as kids parse what Fogliano is trying to say, this is a book that has the potential (with the right teacher or parent) to convert the formerly unconvertible to the wonders of poetry itself. The truth of the matter is this: Fogliano and Morstad will make poets of us all.

On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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5 Comments on Review of the Day: When Green Becomes Tomatoes by Julie Fogliano, last added: 3/27/2016
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15. Review of the Day: Don’t Call Me Grandma by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson

Don'tCallDon’t Call Me Grandma
By Vaunda Micheaux Nelson
Illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon
Carolrhoda Books (a division of Lerner)
ISBN: 978-1-4677-4208-5
Ages 4-7
On shelves now.

In 2016 a picture book won a Newbery Award. Which is to say, a picture book was declared the best-written work for children between the ages of 0-14. After its win there was a fair amount of speculation about what precisely the Newbery committee was trying to say with their award. For that matter, there was a fair amount of speculation about what it meant for children’s literature in general. Are we, as a people, less tolerant of loquacious books? Considering the fact that a book with 592 pages was a runner-up, I think we’re doing just fine in terms of wordy titles. Just the same, I hope that if anything comes out of this surprise award it’s a newfound appreciation for the picture book’s art of restraint. A good picture book shows but doesn’t tell. Don’t believe me? Read the original manuscript of Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are where he spells everything out for the reader. All these thoughts were in my head recently when I read the remarkable Don’t Call Me Grandma by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson. Tackling the almost nonexistent subcategory of grouchy great-grandparents, Ms. Nelson deftly encapsulates a woman’s personality and lifetime of experiences in a scant 32 pages.

“Great-grandmother Nell is scary.” You got that right, kid. She also does not hug, or kiss, or chase her great-grandchild for fun. Instead she sips an intoxicating beverage from a glass bedecked with a spider. She serves up fish for breakfast, buggy eyes and all. But she also has a vanity full of mysterious perfumes, lipstick as red as rubies, and memories as sharp and painful as the day they were made. And when her great-granddaughter sneaks a kiss, Nell is still scary. But that’s okay. “…I like her that way.”

Don'tCall2First and foremost, this is not a fuzzy grandparent (or great-grandparent) book. There are plenty of fuzzy books out there, filled to brimming with warm snuggly feelings. If that is the kind of book you require then grab yourself the nearest Nancy Tillman and content yourself accordingly. What we have here instead is a kind of character study. Whatever expectations you carry into this book, they will be upended by the text. Nell is an amazing character, one that I’ve never seen in book of this sort. Her prickly nature may well hide that “broken heart” she mentions obliquely, but it could just as easily hide more prickles. We get three distinct memories of her past, but it’s a single wordless two-page spread that probably says more about her than anything else. As an adult, I found myself speculating about her life. How perhaps she had dreams of dancing professionally but that she put those dreams aside when she had her children at a very young age. No kid is going to read into Nell what I have. That’s what makes reading this book so dynamic. Come for the prickly relative. Stay for the enticing, unknowable back story.

What I would really like to praise in this review, if nothing else, is just how deftly author Vaunda Micheaux Nelson parses words into sentences that swell with meaning. Take, for example, the moment when our heroine enters Great-Grandmother Nell’s bedroom. She considers playing with the cloth ballerina on the best but abstains, saying, “her expression makes me think she might tell.” Later she kisses her great-grandmother in her sleep. “Even asleep, Great-Grandmother Nell is scary. But I like her that way.” The very last line? “She won’t know”. It would be fascinating to see Nelson’s original manuscript. Was it just this sparse and spare? Or was it much longer and cut down to the bone in the editing process? Whichever it was, it works.

Don'tCall3The child in this book is much like the child who will be reading it with an adult. Both she and they sense that there is more at work here than meets the eye. And it is the art by Elizabeth Zunon that backs that feeling up. Elizabeth Zunon has been a force to reckon with for years. I first noticed her when she illustrated William Kamkwamba’s The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, though I unknowingly had already been a fan of hers when she illustrated Jeanne Harvey’s My Hands Sing the Blues. In Don’t Call Me Grandma she begins with a straightforward contemporary story. Even then, her endpapers start telling the tale long before the words do (not counting the title). She fills these early pages with strings of pearls. Fat pearls, small pearls, pink and gray and white pearls. Note that in the text there is just one mention of those pearls, and it’s in the context of a lot of other things on Nell’s dressing table. But Zunon is getting a grip on her personality in her own way. Because of her we get a distinct sense of Great-Grandmother’s style, poise, and dignity. There are fun little details too, like the family peering out through the window as Nell gives a singing bird what for and how to. Zunon also lends Nell a humanity on the sidelines. When her great-granddaughter looks around her room we see Nell observing affectionately from the sides (though she’d be the first to deny it if you accosted her with the evidence). Then there are the memories. Depicted as splotchy watercolors, Zunon subtly changes her style to indicate how some memories are crystal clear even as they blur and go soft around the edges. The two-page spread of objects representing other memories (everything from photographs of Civil Rights marchers to tickets to an Alvin Ailey ballet) will require giving child readers some context. Nothing wrong with that. Sit them down and explain each thing you see. Don’t recognize something? Look it up!

A woman of my acquaintance used to make a big show of objecting to any and all picture books that depicted grandmothers as white-haired, doddering old women, tottering on the very edge of the grave. To her mind, there should be at least as many books that show those women as resourceful, spry, and full of energy. Great-Grandmothers probably have few books where they’re wrecking havoc with the universe. Generally speaking they just dodder and die. There will be no doddering and certainly no dying in Don’t Call Me Grandma, though. Nell isn’t just a character. She comes off the page like a full-blown human being, warts and all (just an expression – Nell would take me to the cleaners if she heard me indicating she has any warts). Sharp and smart, this is one of those picture books I’d like to see more of. Which is to say, stories I’ve never seen before.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

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16. Review of the Day: Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo

RaymieNightingaleRaymie Nightingale
By Kate DiCamillo
Candlewick Press
ISBN: 978-0-7636-8117-3
Ages 9-12
On shelves now

My relationship to Kate DiCamillo’s books is one built entirely on meaning. Which is to say, the less emotional and meaningful they are, the better I like ‘em. Spaghetti loving horses and girls that live in tree houses? Right up my alley! China rabbits and mice with excessive earlobes? Not my cup of tea. It’s good as a reviewer to know your own shortcomings and I just sort of figured that I’d avoid DiCamillo books when they looked deep and insightful. And when the cover for Raymie Nightingale was released it was easily summarized in one word: Meaningful. A girl, seen from behind, stands ankle-deep in water holding a single baton. Still, I’ve had a good run of luck with DiCamillo as of late and I was willing to push it. I polled my friends who had read the book. The poor souls had to answer the impossible question, “Will I like it?” but they shouldered the burden bravely. Yes, they said. I would like it. I read it. And you know what? I do like it! It is, without a doubt, one of the saddest books I’ve ever read, but I like it a lot. I like the wordplay, the characters, and the setting. I like what the book has to say about friendship and being honest with yourself and others. I like the ending very very much indeed (it has a killer climax that I feel like I should have seen coming, but didn’t). I do think it’s a different kind of DiCamillo book than folks are used to. It’s her style, no bones about it, but coming from a deeper place than her books have in the past. In any case, it’s a keeper. Meaning plus pep.

Maybe it isn’t much of a plan, but don’t tell Raymie that. So far she thinks she has it all figured out. Since her father skipped town with that dental hygienist, things haven’t been right in Raymie’s world. The best thing to do would be to get her father back, so she comes up with what surely must be a sure-fire plan. She’ll just learn how to throw a baton, enter the Little Miss Central Florida Tire competition, win, and when her father sees her picture in the paper he’ll come on home and all will be well. Trouble (or deliverance) comes in the form of Louisiana and Beverly, the two other girls who are taking this class with Ida Nee (the baton-twirling instructor). Unexpectedly, the three girls become friends and set about to solve one another’s problems. Whether it’s retrieving library books from scary nursing home rooms, saving cats, or even lives, these three rancheros have each other’s backs just when they need them most.

DiCamillo has grown as an author over the years. So much so that when she begins Raymie Nightingale she dives right into the story. She’s trusting her child readers to not only stick with what she’s putting down, but to decipher it as well. As a result, some of them are going to experience some confusion right at the tale’s beginning. A strange girl seemingly faints, moaning about betrayal in front of a high-strung baton instructor. Our heroine stands impressed and almost envious. Then we learn about Raymie’s father and the whole enterprise takes a little while to coalesce. It’s a gutsy choice. I suspect that debut authors in general would eschew beginning their books in this way. A pity, since it grabs your attention by an act of simple befuddlement.

Initial befuddlement isn’t enough to keep you going, though. You need a hook to sustain you. And in a book like this, you find that the characters are what stay with you the longest. Raymie in particular. It isn’t just about identification. The kid reading this book is going to impress on Raymie like baby birds impress on sock puppet mamas. She’s like Fone Bone in Jeff Smith’s series. She’s simultaneously a mere outline of a character and a fully fleshed out human being. Still, she’s an avatar for readers. We see things through her rather than with her. And sure, her name is also the title, but names are almost always titles for Kate DiCamillo (exceptions being The Magician’s Elephant, The Tiger Rising, and that Christmas picture book, of course). If you’re anything like me, you’re willing to follow the characters into absurdity and back. When Beverly says of her mother that, “Now she’s just someone who works in the Belknap Tower gift shop selling canned sunshine and rubber alligators” you go with it. You don’t even blink. The setting is almost a character as well. I suspect DiCamillo’s been away from Florida too long. Not in her travels, but in her books. Children’s authors that willingly choose to set their books in the Sunshine State do so for very personal reasons. DiCamillo’s Florida is vastly different from that of Carl Hiaasen’s, for example. It’s a Florida where class exists and is something that permeates everything. Few authors dare to consider lower or lower middle classes, but it’s one of the things I’ve always respected about DiCamillo in general.

Whenever I write a review for a book I play around with the different paragraphs. Should I mention that the book is sad at the beginning of the review or at the end? Where do I put my theory about historical fiction? Should character development be after the plot description paragraph or further in? But when it comes to those written lines I really liked in a book, that kind of stuff shouldn’t have to wait. For example, I adore the lines, “There was something scary about watching an adult sleep. It was as if no one at all were in charge of the world.” DiCamillo excels in the most peculiar of details. One particular favorite was the small paper cups with red riddles on their sides. The Elephantes got them for free because they were misprinted without answers. It’s my secret hope that when DiCamillo does school visits for this book she’ll ask the kids in the audience what the answer to the riddle, “What has three legs, no arms, and reads the paper all day long?” might be. It’s her version of “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”

Now let us discuss a genre: Historical fiction. One question. Why? Not “Why does it exist?” but rather “Why should any novel for kids be historical?” The easy answer is that when you write historical fiction you have built in, legitimate drama. The waters rise during Hurricane Katrina or San Francisco’s on fire. But this idea doesn’t apply to small, quiet novels like Raymie Nightingale. Set in the summer of 1975, there are only the barest of nods to the time period. Sometimes authors do this when the book is semi-autobiographical, as with Jenni Holm’s Sunny Side Up. Since this novel is set in Central Florida and DiCamillo grew up there, there’s a chance that she’s using the setting to draw inspiration for the tale. The third reason authors sometimes set books in the past is that it frees them up from the restrictions of the internet and cell phone (a.k.a. guaranteed plot killers). Yet nothing that happens in Raymie Nightingale requires that cell phones remain a thing of the past. The internet is different. Would that all novels could do away with it. Still, in the end I’m not sure that this book necessarily had to be historical. It’s perfectly fine. A decent time period to exist in. Just not particularly required one way or another.

Obviously the book this feels like at first is Because of Winn-Dixie. Girl from a single parent home finds friendship and (later rather than sooner, in the case of Raymie Nightingale) an incredibly ugly dog. But what surprised me about Raymie was that this really felt more like Winn-Dixie drenched in sadness. Sadness is important to DiCamillo. As an author, she’s best able to draw out her characters and their wants if there’s something lost inside of them that needs to be found. In this case, it’s Raymie’s father, the schmuck who took off with his dental hygienist. Of course all the characters are sad in different ways here. About the time you run across the sinkhole (the saddest of all watery bodies) on page 235 you’re used to it.

Sure, there are parts of the book I could live without. The parts about Raymie’s soul are superfluous. The storyline of Isabelle and the nursing home isn’t really resolved. On the flip side, there are lots of other elements within these pages that strike me as fascinating, like for example why the only men in the book are Raymie’s absent father, an absent swimming coach, a librarian, and a janitor. Now when I was a child I avoided sad children’s books like the plague. You know what won the Newbery in the year that I was born? Bridge to Terabithia. And to this day I eschew them at all costs. But though this book is awash in personal tragedies, it’s not a downer. It’s tightly written and full of droll lines and, yes I admit it. It’s meaningful. But the meaning you cull from this book is going to be different for every single reader. Whip smart and infinitely readable, this is DiCamillo at her best. Time to give it a go, folks.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

Song to Listen to With This Book: King of the Road
Alternative Song: I Wanna Hold Your Hand

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17. Review of the Day: Samurai Rising by Pamela S. Turner

SamuraiRisingSamurai Rising: The Epic Life of Minamoto Yoshitsune
By Pamela S. Turner
Illustrated by Gareth Hinds
ISBN: 9781580895842
Ages 10 and up
On shelves now

When you read enough children’s books published in a single year, folks tend to believe that you’ve an ability to spot trends in the general literature. Trend-spotting is easy enough when you’re dealing with picture books (hot in 2016: Bears rampaging through picnics and blobfish!) but books written for older readers are trickier. I think I’ve hit on at least one incredibly popular trend for the current year, however: Overwhelming depression and sadness. Whether it’s baby foxes are getting their legs blown off in landmines, dads being deadbeat, or girls falling down wells, 2016 is officially The Year of the Hankie. So you can imagine the glee with which I devoured Samurai Rising. “A samurai fights for honor and survival in a real-life Game of Thrones,” reads the blurb for the book (minus the torture and nudity, of course). In producing a fantastic look at the true story behind Japan’s most famous samurai, Turner doesn’t just cheer up an otherwise depressed literary year. She highlights a figure too long ignored in America. Say goodbye to boredom. Say hello to crazy-eyed heroics and an anti-hero for the young masses.

On the book’s title page is written a small alert. “WARNING: Very few people in this story die of natural causes.” No lie, just fact. This is the story of Minamoto Yoshitsune. A boy who “could not yet walk when his father left him a lost war, a shattered family, and a bitter enemy.” Yoshitsune’s father (not the brightest samurai of all time) throws away his family’s comfortable existence protecting Japan’s Retired Emperor when he decides to kidnap the guy instead. Swiftly defeated by his rival Taira Kiyomori, the man’s son, little Yoshitsune, is spared but eventually sent to train as a monk. Determined to win back his family’s honor, the boy runs away and with the help of a friendly lord becomes a full fledged samurai. Not a moment too soon either. Forces are brewing and Yoshitsune’s older brother Yoritomo needs his brother’s help to revolt against Kiyomori’s reign. Through it all, Yoshitsune doesn’t just show the heart of a warrior. He shows he has the guts and brains to carry out even the craziest campaign. But with trouble brewing at home, it may be his own family that proves the deadliest enemy of all. Author’s Notes, Time Lines, a Glossary, Chapter Notes, and a Bibliography appear as well.

I was at a conference recently where the terms “creative nonfiction” and “narrative nonfiction” got tossed about like so many ping-pong balls. These terms are generally produced when someone writes a work of nonfiction that reads like a novel. In order to do this and yet still retain even a modicum of historical accuracy, the author in question must bend over backwards to get everything right. Fifty-whopping-two pages, or so, at the back of the book are dedicated to Turner’s chapter notes alone. Here you’ll find every quotation and historical detail cited (Turner also writes an intro to these notes, marking this as the first time I’ve ever seen an author sell the reader on reading them, since who could resist trying to figure out, “why Yoritomo didn’t use ninjas”?). As for Turner’s writing, you forget almost instantly that this is a work of nonfiction. This is both a good and bad thing. Good, because it proves to young readers that there’s more to nonfiction than what you’ll find in a textbook. Bad because life, unlike fiction, doesn’t always adhere to our understanding of narrative rise and fall. When Minamoto’s enemy Kiyomori died without ever having confronted Yoshitsune, I was momentarily baffled. Of course Turner, skillful as she is, is able to naturally call upon Yoshitsune’s older brother as the new enemy, and it’s done with slow, exquisite care.

When you’re watching a musical, the songs have to serve the story. You can’t just have characters burst into a melody without a reason. Likewise, a nonfiction book can be laden with facts, but only if they serve the narrative to its best advantage. Turner has all kinds of tricks up her sleeves, and integrating facts into the story is one of her greater strengths. She can move from the story of Yoshitsune learning how to be a samurai to a description of the brilliant work of engineering that is a samurai’s armor or sword with aplomb.

Even with all this, Turner’s working at a natural disadvantage. Her story is set in the 12th century. Source material from that time? Not exactly copious. So she relies upon informed speculation, i.e. what a character may have seen or may have considered in one scene or another. A number of years ago I read a book called Wild Boy: The Real Life of the Savage of Aveyron which was a true history of a child who lived in the wild and was brought back to “civilization” near the end of the French Revolution. The author leaned heavily on a plethora of “probablys” which is no crime. Honestly, it informs the reader as to what they do or do not know. Still, it can prove distracting if too many are clustered in one spot. The only time I found myself irked in a similar way here was around the beginning of the book when Minamoto and a gold merchant were avoiding the samurai. From “the homey smell of wood smoke probably drew the weary travelers to wayside inns” to “The teenage runaway probably watched, mouth agape, as entertainers performed the popular tales of his time”, I found my willingness to go along with Turner’s speculations stretched, if never quite broken. Fortunately it’s the only time in the book I found Turner’s reliance on probability too overt. For the most part, she does a fine job of keeping everything copacetic.

I was also taken with the humor of the book. Judicious use of it in any nonfiction title is a delicate art. Here, the author has the advantage of time (no one’s going to read about the beheadings of the 1100s and think “Too soon!”). So when she pulls out lines like “News of severed heads travels fast,” you can’t but help but admire the wordplay’s moxie. Ditto, “If things went badly, Kiso had the usual samurai backup plan: kidnap the Retired Emperor” (this line works better after you see how many times the poor guy gets kidnapped in the course of his life – a calming retirement it is not).

The inclusion of Gareth Hinds’ art in the book was good planning on someone’s part (mostly likely Art Director Susan Sherman, according to Turner’s Acknowledgements). Though he’s illustrated the occasional title for other authors (Gifts from the Gods) generally Gareth sticks to his own graphic novel adaptations of classics like The Odyssey or Beowulf or King Lear. A meticulous hand, Hinds’ interstitial art keeps the narrative moving without distracting from it. And while it did have the odd personal problem of making me really want a Minamoto Yoshitsune graphic novel (ahem ahem!), for the most part I think it’ll be of greatest use to those students that need a little visual stimulation with their descriptive texts.

Here’s a pretty basic question for the book: Is Minamoto a hero? The comparison to Game of Thrones on the book’s blurb isn’t all that wrong. Things get pretty ethically dicey in the midst of power plays and wars. Honestly, coming out of this book I had particular sympathy for two people in particular and neither one of them was Minamoto. Minamoto’s heroism in terms of bravery cannot be called into question, but if we’re trying to figure out why he comes across as sympathetic, a lot of that can be attributed to our innate sense of fairness, or lack thereof. He starts off clawing his way up, already at a disadvantage thanks to dear old dad, and then just when everything seems to be working out for him his own brother stabs him in the back (figuratively and nearly literally). He deals decently at times, establishing law and order at critical moments. Then again, he’s not against lighting the occasional peasant village on fire like some insane 12th century version of streetlights. And so I say to teachers and the leaders of bookgroups, if you are doing this book with a group of kids and you need a topic of discussion, just ask this: What is a hero? You’re bound to get some pretty interesting answers after the kids read this book.

As I write this review, the hottest musical on Broadway right now is Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda. It seems to me that we’re seeing a lot of narratives right now that discuss scrappy youngsters, eager to make their mark on the world, no matter the cost to themselves or others. So hey, if you need an idea for a new musical, have I got a book for you! Bringing to the attention of American kids new historical heroes from cultures they may not have any familiarity with is a difficult proposition. Turner and Hinds tackle the challenge with a kind of manic glee. The end result is infinitely readable and downright fun. So pile on the other tear-drenched novels for the kiddos. As long as I have a plucky samurai kid not throwing away his shot I’ll be satisfied. More fun than it deserves to be and a great read.

On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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18. Review of the Day: One Day in the Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus Tree by Daniel Bernstrom

OneDayOne Day in the Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus Tree
By Daniel Bernstrom
Illustrated by Brendan Wenzel
Katherine Tegen Books (an imprint of Harper Collins)
ISBN: 978-0-06-235485-3
Ages 3-6
On shelves May 3rd

Like any children’s librarian, I like to assess each picture book that crosses by my eyeballs for readaloud potential. While every picture book (even the wordless ones) can be read aloud to a large group of children, only a select few thrive in that environment. It takes a certain magical combination of art and text to render a story readaloud-perfect. Books you can sing have a leg up. Ditto books with flaps or pull-tabs. But the nice thing about Bernstrom’s book One Day in the Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus Tree is that it doesn’t need to rely on those extra features to enrapture an audience. The book’s lilting rhymes, when practiced beforehand, have the potential to render an audience entranced. Add in the art of Brendan Wenzel, and how well it reads across a room, and you’ve got yourself the makings of what might possibly be the best readaloud picture book of the year.

A boy and his whirly-twirly toy are just the first things to disappear down the gullet of a hungry yellow snake. But rather than bemoan his fate, the boy gets to work in his new role as the snake’s inner id. Commenting on the sheer amount of room and space in the belly, the boy cajoles the snake into eating more and more and more. From birds and worms, to mossy sloths, to a single apple bearing a tiny fly, the creatures slide down the snake’s rapidly expanding throat. A final meal proves too much for the voracious viper and next thing you know boy, toy, and a host of other animals are upchucked back into the world from whence they came. A sly illustration at the end suggests that history may repeat itself soon.

OneDay1It’s not as if Mr. Bernstrom is the first person to find the word “eucalyptus” so exceedingly delicious to both tongue and ear, but he certainly seems to have been the most prominent in recent memory. As I read the book the language of the reading triggered something in my brain. Something long forgot. And though his name evokes strong feelings in every possible direction, it was Rudyard Kipling I thought of as I read this tale. Specifically the tale of “How the Elephant Got His Trunk”. Though that story does not realize how superb the word “eucalyptus” is when repeated, Kipling got a great deal of mileage out of illustrating thoughts with words. Terms like “great grey greasy Limpopo river”, “Kolokolo Bird”, and “the Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake” make those of us reading the stories aloud sound good. Bernstrom is writing for a younger audience so he doesn’t flex his muscles quite as far as Kipling did, but at the same time you recognize that he has the potential to do so. One hopes his future publishing plans may include longer stories just meant for sharing aloud. Lord knows we need more authors like that these days.

The story itself sounds familiar when you read it, but that may have to do more with familiar tropes than a tale we’ve actually seen done. The book also taps into a very popular method of extracting eaten creatures from predators’ bellies: burping. Vomiting works too, though the word sounds more disgusting, so usually in cases like this book the critters are released in a big old burp. In this case, we’re basically seeing a nature-based version of that Monty Python skit where the diner is persuaded to eat one final item (“It’s wafer-thin”). It’s odd to enjoy so much a book where a kid tricks the animal it is within to throw up, but there you go. The storytelling itself is top notch too, though I had a moment of confusion when the snake ate the beehive. Seems to me that that moment is where the boy’s plan potentially takes a turn south. Being stuck in a snake’s belly is one thing. Being stuck in a snake’s belly with flying, stinging insects? Thanks but no.

OneDay2Illustrator Brendan Wenzel burst onto the children’s picture book illustration scene in 2014 but his rise in prominence since that time has been slow. The artist first caught everyone’s eye when he illustrated Angela DiTerlizzi’s Some Bugs but it was the cover art of Ellen Jackson’s Beastly Babies the following year that was the most eye-catching. That cover sold that book. An ardent conservationist, it makes a lot of sense to turn to Wenzel when you’ve a story chock full of sloths, snakes, and bees. With Bernstrom’s tale, Wenzel must render this tale in the style of There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly. Which is to say, he needs to balance horror with humor. Books where the protagonist gets eaten are common. Books where the protagonist gets eaten and then continues to comment on the action are rare. Wenzel’s snake falls into that category of villains that must be vicious enough to serve as a legitimate threat, but tame enough that a four-year-old won’t fear them on sight. To do this, Wenzel’s art takes on a distinctly jovial tone that treads towards the cartoonish without ever falling in completely. The colors are bright but not overwhelming, just as the action is consistent without horrifying the audience. Most of the creatures handle being eaten with gentle good grace (though the sloth looks more than a little put out about the whole thing).

The idea of being eaten whole is as old as “Little Red Riding Hood”. Heck, it’s even older than that. Look at the Greek myths of Cronus devouring his children whole. Look at any myth or legend that talks of children springing unharmed or fully formed from within nasty beasties. Together, Bernstrom and Wenzel take this ancient idea and turn it into a trickster tale. Usually it’s the eater doing the tricking, and not the eaten, but One Day in the Eucalyptus Eucalyptus Tree isn’t afraid to shake things up (or, for that matter, swallow them down). An oddly peppy little tale of surviving through another’s hubris, this is bound to become one of those readaloud picture books that teachers and librarians lean heavily on for decades to come. Look out, Bernstrom and Wenzel. You guys just went and created for yourselves a masterpiece.

On shelves May 3rd.

Source: F&G sent from publisher for review.

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19. Review of the Day: Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk

WolfHollowWolf Hollow
By Lauren Wolk
Dutton Children’s Books (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
ISBN: 978-1101994825
Ages 10 and up
On shelves now.

I am not what you might call a very brave reader. This is probably why I primarily consume children’s literature. I might puff myself up with a defense that lists the many fine aspects of this particular type of writing and believe it too, but sometimes when you catch me in a weak moment I might confess that another reason I like reading books for kids is that the content is so very “safe” in comparison to books for adults. Disturbing elements are kept at a minimum. There’s always a undercurrent of hope running through the book, promising that maybe we don’t live in a cold, cruel, calculating universe that cares for us not one jot. Even so, that doesn’t mean that I don’t sometimes have difficulty with books written for, oh say, 10-year-olds. I do. I’m not proud of it, but I do. So when I flipped to the back of Wolf Hollow mid-way through reading it, I want to tell you that I did so not because I wanted to spoil the ending for myself but because I honestly couldn’t turn another page until I knew precisely how everything was going to fall out. In her debut children’s book, Lauren Wolk dives head first into difficult material. A compelling author, the book is making the assumption that child readers will want to see what happens to its characters, even when the foreshadowing is so thick you’d need a knife to cut through it. Even when the ending may not be the happy one everyone expects. And you know what? The book might be right.

It is fair to say that if Betty Glengarry hadn’t moved to western Pennsylvania in the autumn of 1943 then Annabelle would not have needed to become a liar later. Betty looks the part of the blond, blue-eyed innocent, but that exterior hides a nasty spirit. Within days of her arrival she’s threatened Annabelle and said in no uncertain terms that unless she’s brought something special she’ll take it out on the girl’s little brothers. Annabelle is saved from Betty’s threats by Toby, a war veteran with issues of his own. That’s when Betty begins a more concentrated campaign of pain. Rocks are thrown. Accusations made. There’s an incident that comes close to beheading someone. And then, when things look particularly bad, Annabelle disappears. And so does Toby. Now Annabelle finds herself trying to figure out what is right, what is wrong, and whether lies can ever lead people to the truth.

Right off the bat I’m going to tell you that this is a spoiler-rific review. I’ve puzzled it over but I can’t for the life of me figure out how I’d be able to discuss what Wolk’s doing here without giving away large chunks o’ plot. So if you’re the kind of reader who prefers to be surprised, walk on.

All gone? Okay. Let’s get to it.

First and foremost, let’s talk about why this book was rough going for me. I understand that “Wolf Hollow” is going to be categorized and tagged as a “bully book” for years to come, and I get that. But Betty, the villain of the piece, isn’t your average mean girl. I hesitate to use the word “sadistic” but there’s this cold undercurrent to her that makes for a particularly chilling read. Now the interesting thing is that Annabelle has a stronger spine than, say, I would in her situation. Like any good baddie, Betty identifies the girl’s weak spot pretty quickly (Annabelle’s younger brothers) and exploits it as soon as she is able. Even so, Annabelle does a good job of holding her own. It’s when Betty escalates the threat (and I do mean escalates) that you begin to wonder why the younger girl is so adamant to keep her parents in the dark about everything. If there is any weak spot in the novel, it’s a weak spot that a lot of books for middle grade titles share. Like any good author, Wolk can’t have Annabelle tattle to her parents because otherwise the book’s momentum would take a nose dive. Fortunately this situation doesn’t last very long and when Annabelle does at last confide in her very loving parents Betty adds manipulation to her bag of tricks. It got to the point where I honestly had to flip to the back of the book to see what would happen to everyone and that is a move I NEVER do. But there’s something about Betty, man. I think it might have something to do with how good she is at playing to folks’ preexisting prejudices.

Originally author Lauren Wolk wrote this as a novel for adults. When it was adapted into a book for kids she didn’t dumb it down or change the language in a significant manner. This accounts for some of the lines you’ll encounter in the story that bear a stronger import than some books for kids. Upon finding the footsteps of Betty in the turf, Annabelle remarks that they “were deep and sharp and suggested that she was more freighted than she could possibly be.” Of Toby, “He smelled a lot like the woods in thaw or a dog that’s been out in the rain. Strong, but not really dirty.” Maybe best of all, when Annabelle must help her mother create a salve for Betty’s poison ivy, “Together, we began a brew to soothe the hurt I’d prayed for.”

I shall restrain myself from describing to you fully how elated I was when I realized the correlation between Betty down in the well and the wolves that were trapped in the hollow so very long ago. Betty is a wolf. A duplicitous, scheming, nasty girl with a sadistic streak a mile wide. The kind of girl who would be more than willing to slit the throat of an innocent boy for sport. She’s a lone wolf, though she does find a mate/co-conspirator of sorts. Early in the book, Wolk foreshadows all of this. In a conversation with her grandfather, Annabelle asks if, when you raised it right, a wolf could become a dog. “A wolf is not a dog and never will be . . . no matter how you raise it.” Of course you might call Toby a lone wolf as well. He doesn’t seek out the company of other people and, like a wolf, he’s shot down for looking like a threat.

What Wolk manages to do is play with the reader’s desire for righteous justice. Sure Annabelle feels conflicted about Betty’s fate in the will but will young readers? There is no doubt in my mind that young readers in bookclubs everywhere will have a hard time feeling as bad for the antagonist’s fate as Annabelle does. Even at death’s door, the girl manages the twist the knife into Toby one last time. I can easily see kids in bookclub’s saying, “Sure, it must be awful to be impaled in a well for days on end . . . . buuuut . . . .” Wolk may have done too good a job delving deep into Betty’s dark side. It almost becomes a question of grace. We’re not even talking about forgiveness here. Can you just feel bad about what’s happened to the girl, even if it hasn’t changed her personality and even if she’s still awful? Wolk might have discussed after Betty’s death the details of her family situation, but she chooses not to. She isn’t making it easy for us. Betty lives and dies a terrible human being, yet oddly we’re the ones left with the consequences of that.

In talking with other people about the book, some have commented about what it a relief it was that Betty didn’t turn into a sweet little angel after her accident. This is true, but there is also no time. There will never be any redemption for Betty Glengarry. We don’t learn any specific details about her unhappy home life or what it was that turned her into the pint-sized monster she is. And her death comes in that quiet, unexpected way that so many deaths do come to us. Out of the blue and with a whisper. For all that she spent time in the well, she lies until her very last breath about how she got there. It’s like the novel Atonement with its young liar, but without the actual atoning.

Wolk says she wrote this book and based much of it on her own family’s stories. Her memories provided a great deal of the information because, as she says, even the simplest life on a Pennsylvanian farm can yield stories, all thanks to a child’s perspective. There will be people who compare it to To Kill a Mockingbird but to my mind it bears more in common with The Crucible. So much of the book examines how we judge as a society and how that judgment can grow out of hand (the fact that both this book and Miller’s play pivot on the false testimony of young girls is not insignificant). Now I’ll tell you the real reason I flipped to the back of the book early. With Wolf Hollow Wolk threatens child readers with injustice. As you read, there is a very great chance that Betty’s lies will carry the day and that she’ll never be held accountable for her actions. It doesn’t work out that way, though the ending isn’t what you’d call triumphant for Annabelle either. It’s all complicated, but it was that unknowing midway through the book that made me need to see where everything was going. In this book there are pieces to pick apart about lying, truth, the greater good, minority vs. majority opinions, the price of honesty and more. For that reason, I think it very likely it’ll find itself in good standing for a long time to come. A book unafraid to be uneasy.

On shelves now.

Source: Thanks to Penguin Random House for passing on the galley.


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20. Review of the Day: The King of Kazoo by Norm Feuti

KingKazooKing of Kazoo
By Norm Feuti
Graphix (an imprint of Scholastic)
ISBN: 978-0545770880
Ages 9-12
On shelves July 26th

When I used to run a children’s book club for 9-12 year-olds, I’d regularly let them choose the next book we’d discuss. In time, after some trial and error, I learned that the best way to do this was to offer them three choices and then to have them vote after a stirring booktalk of each title. The alternative was to let them choose the next book we’d read for themselves. Why would this be a problem? Because given a choice, these kids would do the same kinds of books week after week after week: graphic novels. In fact, it was my job to give them the bad news each week (after they plowed through our small comic section) that we didn’t have any new comics for them. To their minds, new graphic novels for kids should come out weekly, and secretly I agreed with them. But five years ago there really weren’t a lot to choose from. These days . . . it’s not all that different. In spite of the fact that comics have been sweeping the Newbery and Caldecott Awards and our current National Ambassador of Children’s Literature is a cartoonist by trade, the number of graphic novels produced in a given year by trade publishers isn’t much different from the number produced in the past. Why? Because a good comic takes a long time to create. You can’t just slap something together and expect it to hold a kid’s interest. There was a time when this fact would make me mad. These days, when I see a book as great as King of Kazoo, I just give thanks that we’re living in an era where we get any comics at all. A debut GN from a syndicated cartoonist, Kazoo is a straight-up, kid-friendly, rollicking adventure complete with magic, big-headed kings, robots, volcanoes, and trident wielding frog people. Everything, in short, you want in a book.

The King of Kazoo is not a wise man. The King of Kazoo is not a smart man. The King of Kazoo is not a particularly good man. But the King of Kazoo, somehow or other, has a wise, smart, good daughter by the name of Bing, and that is fortunate. Bing dabbles in magic and has been getting pretty good at it too. That’s lucky for everyone since recently the nearby mountain Mount Kazoo kinda, sorta exploded a little. When the King decides the only way to secure his legacy is to solve the mystery of the exploding mountain, he ropes in Bing and silent inventor/mechanic Torq. Trouble is, Bing’s dad has a tendency to walk over everyone who tries to help him. So just imagine what happens when he runs into someone who doesn’t want him to fare well. It’ll take more than magic to stop the evil machinations of a crazed alchemist. It’ll take teamwork and a king who understands why sometimes it might be a good idea to let others take some credit for their own work.

KingKazoo2As a general rule, it is unwise to offer up comparisons of any cartoonist to the late, great Carl Barks. The man who lifted Uncle Scrooge out of the money pit to something bigger and better, set the bar high when it came to animal-like semi-humans with long ears and big shiny black noses (not that Barks invented the noses, but you know what I mean). All that said, it was Barks I kept thinking of as I read The King of Kazoo. There’s something about the light hand Feuti uses to tell his tale. The storytelling feels almost effortless. Scenes glide from place to place with an internal logic that seemingly runs like clockwork. I know it sounds strange but a lot of graphic novels for kids these days are pretty darn dark. Credit or blame the Bone books if you like, but for all that most of them contain humor the stakes can run shockingly high. The Amulet series threatens characters’ souls with tempting magic stones, the Hilo books are filled with questions about the absolutes of “good” and “bad”, and the aforementioned Bone books delve deep into madness, apocalypse, and dark attractions. Little wonder a goofy tale about a hare-brained king in a wayward jalopy appeals to much to me. Feuti is harkening back to an earlier golden age of comics with this title, and the end result is as fresh as it is nostalgic (for adults like me).

KingKazoo3Which is not to say that Feuti sacrifices story for silly. The biggest problem the characters have to overcome isn’t what’s lurking in that mountain but rather the King’s love of bombast and attention. Each character in this story is seeking recognition. The King wants any kind of recognition, whether he deserves it or not. Torq and Bing just want the King to recognize their achievements. Instead, he takes credit for them. And Quaf the Alchemist has gone mildly mad thanks to years of not receiving sufficient credit for his own inventions. To a certain extent the book is questioning one’s desire for applause and attention on a grand scale, focusing more on how necessary it is to give the people closest to you the respect and praise they deserve.

KingKazoo1The style of the art, as mentioned, owes more than a passing nod to Carl Barks. But the seeming simplicity of the style hides some pretty sophisticated storytelling. From little details (like Torq’s missing ear) and sight gags to excellent facial expressions (Feuti is the lord and master of the skeptical eyebrow) and uses of body language (Torq never says a word aside from the occasional sigh, but you are never in any doubt of what he’s feeling). I’m no expert on the subject, but I even think the lettering in the speech balloons may have been done entirely by hand. The coloring is all done on a computer, which is a pity but is also pretty par for the course these days. There’s also something sort of classic to the story’s look. With its strong female character (Bing) you wouldn’t mistake it for a tale published in the 1950s, but on all the other fronts the book harkens back to a simpler comic book time.

I read The King of Kazoo to my four-year-old the other day at bedtime. She’s not the book’s intended audience but her inescapable hunger for comics can drive a mother to grab whatsoever is handiest on the shelf. Lucky is the mom that finds this book sitting there when you need it. Perfect for younger readers, ideal for older ones, and with a snappy plot accompanied by even snappier dialogue, Feuti has produced a comic that will actually appeal to kids of all ages. That King is a kook. Let’s hope we see more of him in the future.

On shelves July 26th

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.


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21. Review of the Day: The Wild Robot by Peter Brown

WildRobot1The Wild Robot
By Peter Brown
Little, Brown & Company
ISBN: 978-0-316-38199-4
Ages 9-12
On shelves now

There are far fewer robot middle grade books out there than you might expect. This is probably because, as a general rule, robots fall into the Data from Star Trek trap. Their sole purpose in any narrative is to explain what it is to be human. You see this all the time in pop culture, so it stands to reason you’d see it a bit in children’s books too. Never you mind that a cool robot is basically a kid’s dream companion. Take away the kid, put the robot on its own, and you have yourself some philosophy lite. Maybe that’s why I liked Peter Brown’s The Wild Robot as much as I did. The heroine of this book is mechanical but she’s not wrestling with the question of what it means to feel emotions or any of that. She’s a bit more interested in survival and then, after a bit of time, connection. Folks say this book is like Hatchet or My Side of the Mountain. Maybe so, but it’s also a pretty good book about shedding civilization and going wild. In short, living many a city kid’s dream.

The first thing she is aware of is that she is bound in a crate by cords. Once those are severed she looks about. Roz is a robot. She appears to be on an island in the sea. Around her are the shattered remains of a good many other robots. How she has gotten here, she doesn’t know, but it doesn’t take long for her to realize that she is in dire need of shelter and allies. Roz is not a robot built for the outdoors, but part of her programming enables her to adapt. Learning the languages of the denizens of the forest, Roz is initially rebuffed (to put it mildly) by the animals living there. After a while, though, she adopts a gosling she accidentally orphaned and together they learn, grow, and come to be invaluable members of the community. And when Roz faces a threat from the outside, it’s her new friends and extended family that will come to her aid.

WildRobot2They say that all good stories can be easily categorized into seven slots. One of the best known is “a stranger comes to town”. Roz is precisely that and her story is familiar in a lot of ways. The stranger arrives and is shunned or actively opposed. Then they win over the local populace and must subsequently defend it against an incoming enemy or be protected by it. But there is another kind of book this conjures up as well. The notion of going from “civilized” to “wild” carries the weight of all kinds of historical appropriations. Smart of Brown then to stick with robots and animals. Roz is a kind of anti-Pinocchio. Instead of trying to figure out how to fit in better with civilization, she spends the bulk of her time trying to figure out how to shed it like a skin. In his career, Brown has wrestled continually with the notion of civilization vs. nature, particularly as it relates to being “wild”. The most obvious example of this, prior to The Wild Robot, was his picture book Mr. Tiger Goes Wild. Yet somehow it manages to find its way into many of the books he does. Consider the following:

My Teacher Is a Monster! (No, I Am Not) – A child sees his teacher as a creature best befitting a page in “Where the Wild Things Are” until, by getting to know her, she is humanized in his sight.

Children Make Terrible Pets – A bear attempts to tame a wild human child with disastrous results.

The Curious Garden – Nature reclaims abandoned civilization, and is tamed in the process.

Creepy Carrots – Brown didn’t write this one but it’s not hard to see how the image of nature (in the form of carrots) terrorizing a bunny in his suburban home could hold some appeal.

• Even the Chowder books and his first picture book The Flight of the Dodo had elements of animals wrestling with their own natures.

In this book, Brown presents us with a robot created with the sole purpose of serving in a domestic capacity. Are we seeing only the good side of nature and eschewing the terrible? Brown does clearly have a bias at work here, but this is not a peaceable kingdom where the lamb lays down next to the lion unless necessity dictates that it do so. Though the animals do have a dawn truce, Brown notes at one moment how occasionally one animal or another might go missing, relocating involuntarily to the belly of one of its neighbors. Nasty weather plays a significant role in the plot, beaching Roz at the start, and providing a winter storm of unprecedented cruelty later on. Even so, those comparisons of this book to Hatchet and My Side of the Mountain aren’t far off the mark. Nature is cold and cruel but it’s still better than dull samey samey civilization.

WildRobot4Of course, you read every book through your own personal lens. If you’re an adult reading a children’s book then you’re not only reading a book through your own lens but through the lens you had when you were the intended audience’s age as well. It’s sort of a dual method of book consumption. My inner ten-year-old certainly enjoyed this book, that’s for sure. Thirty-eight-year-old me had a very different reaction. I liked it, sure I did. But I also spent much of this book agog that it was such a good parenting title. Are we absolutely certain Peter Brown doesn’t have some secret children squirreled away somewhere? I mean, if you were to ask me what the theme of this book truly is, I’d have to answer you in all honesty that it’s about how we see the world anew through the eyes of our children. A kid would probably say it’s about how awesome it is to be a robot in the wild. Both are true.

If you’re familiar with a Peter Brown picture book then you might have a sense of his artistic style. His depiction of Roz is very interesting. It was exceedingly nice to see that though the book refers to her in the feminine, it’s not like the pictures depict her as anything but a functional robot, glowing eyes and all. Even covered in flowers she looks more like an extra from Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky than anything else. Her mouth is an expressionless slit but in her movements you can catch a bit of verve and drive. Alas, the illustrations are in black and white and not the lovely color of which we know Brown to be capable. Colored art in middle grade novels is a pricey affair. A publisher needs to really and truly believe in a book to give it color. That said, with this book appearing regularly on the New York Times bestseller list, you’d think they’d have known what they had at the time. Maybe we can get a full-color anniversary edition in a decade or so.

WildRobot3Like most robot books, Brown does cheat a little. It’s hard not to. We are told from the start that Roz is without emotions, but fairly early on this statement is called into question. One might argue quite reasonably that early statements like. “As you might know, robots don’t really feel emotions. Not the way animals do.” Those italics at the beginning of the sentence are important. They suggest that this is standard information passed down by those in the know and that they believe you shouldn’t question it. But, of course, the very next sentence does precisely that. “And yet . . .” Then again, those italics aren’t special to that chapter. In fact, all the chapters in this book begin with the first few words italicized. So it could well be that Brown is serious when he says that Roz can’t feel emotions. Can she learn them then? The book’s foggy on that point, possibly purposely so, but in that uncertainty plenty will find Brown’s loving robot a bit more difficult to swallow than others. Books of this sort work on their own internal logic anyway. I know one reader who seriously wondered why the RECO robots had no on/off switches. Others, why she could understand animal speech. You go with as much as you can believe and the writer pulls you in the rest of the way.

I’ve read books for kids where robots are in charge of the future and threaten heroes in tandem with nature. I’ve read books for kids where robots don’t understand why they’re denied the same rights as the humans around them. I even read a book once about a robot who tended a human child, loving her as her parents would have, adapting her to her alien planet’s environment over the years (that one’s Keeper of the Isis Light by Monica Hughes and you MUST check it out, if you get a chance). But I have never read a robot book quite as simple and to the point as Peter Brown’s. Nor have I read such comforting bedtime reading in a while. Lucky is the kid that gets tucked in and read this at night. An excellent science fiction / parenting / adventure / survival novel, jam packed with robotic bits and pieces. If this is the beginning of the robot domination, I say bring it on.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

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2 Comments on Review of the Day: The Wild Robot by Peter Brown, last added: 6/4/2016
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22. Review of the Day: Gabe by Shelley Gill

Gabe1Gabe: A Story of Me, My Dog, and the 1970s
By Shelley Gill
Illustrated by Marc Scheff
ISBN: 978-1-57091-354-9
Ages 10 and up
On shelves now

The older I get the more I like children’s books that don’t slot easily into neat little categories. Gone are the days when every book you read was easily cataloged, neat as a pin. It may be a nightmarish wasteland out there for catalogers, but the fluidity of books these days speaks to their abilities to serve different kinds of readers in different kinds of areas. Even biography sections of libraries and bookstores are morphing. I remember when Siena Siegel’s To Dance was published and we, the children’s librarians, had to come to terms with the fact that we had an honest-to-goodness children’s graphic novel autobiography on our hands (a rare beastie indeed). I’ve not really seen a book to shake up the biography sections in a similar way since. That is, until now. Gabe: A Story of Me, My Dog, and the 1970s is a textbook case of not being a textbook case. Autobiographical and deeply visual, it offers a slice of 1970s life never approached in this manner in a children’s book before. Different kinds of readers require different kinds of books to feed their little brains. This is a book for dog and pet readers, throwing them into the past headfirst and keeping them there thanks to some truly beautiful art. An original.

Growing up in Florida, Shelley Gill had enough of the vapid, polluted culture she’d grown up with. At seventeen she was out. The year was 1972 and Shelley was volunteering in the medical tent of the first Rainbow Gathering at Table Mountain. When she wasn’t patching up people she was patching up pets. And there was one pet in particular, a blue merle husky mix she named Gabe. When the party was over, Gabe was left and so Shelley kept him by her side. Together they hitchhiked, lived in New Orleans for a time, tried Colorado, suffered through NYC, were parted, reunited, and ultimately found their final home in Alaska. Gill chronicles her life through the dog that helped make that life possible. Backmatter consists of five great historical moments alluded to in the book.

Gabe2When I was growing up, the 1970s was just that decade we never quite got to in history class because we ran out of time by the end of the school year (thanks, WWII). A child of the 1980s myself, it would take me years and years and a significant chunk of my adult life to get a grasp on that time period. Children’s books that talk about the 70s or are set in the 70s aren’t exactly plentiful. Either they’re entirely about the Vietnam War or the Civil Rights movement or. . . . yeah. No. That’s about it. So Shelley Gill’s decision to place her own story inextricably within the times in which she lived is fascinating. She starts off not with Woodstock (as you might expect) but the far lesser known Rainbow Gathering of 1972. Backmatter relays information about The Vietnam War, the protests, the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, and The Age of Aquarius. None of it is enough to serve as a focus for the story, but they do at least offer context and groundwork for kids willing to seek out additional information on their own on any of the mentioned topics.

It’s a surprisingly slight book for the chunk of Gill’s life that it contains. That may have more to do with the author’s square focus on the dog more than anything else. Gabe is first and foremost the center of the book. Gill’s marriage, and even her eventual commitment to dog sledding, pale in the face of this owner/pet love story. In 2011 Adam Gopnik wrote a piece for The New Yorker called “Dog Story” in which he talked about pet owners’ blind adoration of their own dogs. It’s a fun piece because, amongst other things, it really clarified for me the fact that I am just not a dog person. If you have a friendly dog I’ll pet it like crazy and enjoy its company, but other people’s dogs are like other people’s children. You appreciate their existence on this globe (hopefully) but wouldn’t necessarily want one of your own. The interesting thing about Gabe is that Gill makes no bones about his bad qualities. She loves him, psychopathic tendencies and all. He is her constant companion through thick and thin and (craziest of all) the 1970s. I don’t feel particularly gushy towards dogs, but a good writer allows you to feel emotions that aren’t your own. And in that last page, where Shelley cuddles her dying dog? That, I felt.

Gabe3The text is great, no question, but would be merely okay with a lesser illustrator. So a lot of the heavy lifting going on in this title is due the talents of Marc Scheff. I would love to hear the story of how Marc came to this particular book. A quick look at his various websites and you can see that he describes himself as the kind of artist who creates, “portraits that blend the fantastic and the surreal.” In Gabe Scheff scales back his more sumptuous tendencies, but not by much. He’s sticking to reality for the most part, but there’s one moment, when people are exchanging rumors of an escaped devil dog terrorizing the citizens of New Orleans, where he allows the paper he paints to gorge itself in a blood red beast awash in snarls and drool. Shelley herself is the kind of woman Scheff typically likes to paint. A 20th century Rossetti model, all flowing hair and latent hippie tendencies. Farrah Fawcet would have been envious. And Gabe is consistently fascinating to watch throughout. Scheff’s challenge was to make him tame enough that a girl would do anything to keep him by her side, but also wild enough to attack at a moment’s notice. For the book to work you have to like Gabe on some level. That may be the most difficult challenge of the book, but Scheff is up to the task and the end result is a dog that, at the very least, you respect on some level.

For all that I love the art of the book, there is one element of the design I’d change in a heartbeat, if I had that power. That would be (and this is going to sound crazy to you if you haven’t seen the book yet) the size of the font on each new chapter’s first page. Somebody somewhere made the executive decision to shrink that font down to teeny, tiny, itty-bitty, oh-so-miniscule words. In some chapters this is clearly done to fit a large amount of text into a particular part of the accompanying illustrations. The trouble is that it just looks awful. Right from the bat it sets the wrong tone for everything. It was with great relief that I turned the first page to discover a far larger, lovelier font for most of the rest of the book. Yet with every new chapter there it would be again. That small, horrid little font. A weird complaint, you bet, but for a book that relies so heavily on attractive visuals, this seems an unfortunate misstep.

The more graphic and visual a children’s book, the more opportunities to really put the reader in a historical time and place. For the 9-year-old that picks up and reads this book, the 1970s might as well be the 1670s. Yet together Gill and Scheff transport their young readers. From the sweltering heat of New Orleans to the dry chill under an Aurora Borealis, you are there. Gill writes what she knows and what she knows is the story of her best dog. A moving, eye-popping, ambitious, genre-busting little number. I guarantee you this – you’ll find nothing else like it on your bookshelves today.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

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Professional Reviews:


  • For Shelley Gill’s website go here.
  • For Marc Scheff’s website go here.

Alternate Cover Art:

Apparently this was the original cover.  Had I seen it first, I probably wouldn’t have minded those eyes, but now?  So glad they changed ’em.  It looks like she’s mere moments away from taking a big ole bite of doggie.



5 Comments on Review of the Day: Gabe by Shelley Gill, last added: 6/11/2016
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23. Review of the Day: Coyote Moon by Maria Gianferrari

CoyoteMoon1Coyote Moon
By Maria Gianferrari
Illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline
Roaring Brook Press (an imprint of Macmillan)
ISBN: 978-1-62672-041-1
Ages 4-7
On shelves July 19th

I feel as if there was less nature out there when I was a kid. Crazy, right? But seriously, as I grew to be an adult I was appalled at the discovery that other people in the United States had to deal with stuff like ticks and chiggers and painful jellyfish and worse. Me? The worst encounter I ever had with something stinging or biting were a couple of sweat bees on my knuckles. But the critter that seemed the most impossible in terms of everyday encounters has been, and continues to be to this day (until the moment we come face-to-face) the coyote. Coyotes were always the heroes of Wild West tales of Native American folklore. They didn’t just wander into your Michigan backyard or anything . . . did they? Now, thanks to books like the beautiful Coyote Moon I learn that coyotes live in every American state except Hawaii. Best that I get as much information as possible about them then. Thankfully, I’ve lots of help. Maria Gianferrari and Bagram Ibatoulline ratchet up the realism to eleven, making it hard to walk away from this book without considering the modern coyote’s plight.

The sun has set and the moon is on the rise. What better time for a coyote momma to leave her den and search for tasty morsels for her kin? Slipping in and out of the shadows of a suburban neighborhood, the coyote attempts to secure a mouse, a rabbit, and even the eggs of Canadian geese, all to no avail. As the sun begins to rise in the east, however, the coyote smells, seas, and hears a flock of turkeys. There is no hemming or hawing now. Without another thought she secures a big one for her family. Of course, before she returns home, she howls. A potentially dangerous act to perform so close to humans, but fortunately the one person who hears her is the one person who understands why she would howl in the first place. Backmatter consists of Coyote Facts, Further Reading, and Websites.

CoyoteMoon2 copyThe book is not written in verse or rhyme, but there’s something inherently rhythmic to Ms. Gianferrari’s text. Listen to how she begins the book: “Moon rises, as Coyote wakes in her den, a hollow-out pine in a cemetery. Coyote crawls between roots. She sniffs the air, arches her back, shakes her fur.” That’s beautiful, that is. Gianferrari’s text is like that from start to finish and it all gets particularly interesting near the end. What an interesting choice it was to switch into the second person near the story’s end. “You open your window… You watch as Coyote slips under the fence painted pink by the sun.” Interesting too that the coyote gets her name capitalized throughout the story. She’s the heroine, no bones about it, and refusing to give her a name keeps her appropriately wild. Capitalizing the word “coyote”, however, gives just the slightest personal bent to an otherwise impersonal descriptive name.

Which brings us to the art. I’ve been a big time fan of artist Bagram Ibatoulline for years. He’s one of those artists that are so good he’ll never ever win any American illustration awards. Such people exist all the time and this is particularly true of artists who truck with realism. Ibatoulline’s challenge here is twofold. On the one hand, he has to render the coyote and her environment in a nighttime setting without sacrificing detail. On the other hand, without giving his character any anthropomorphized tendencies, he also needs to make her sympathetic in her quest to provide food for her babies. The end result is fascinating to watch. With the aid of a full moon, Ibatoulline believably provides just enough light to justify seeing every single solitary hair on the coyote mama’s pelt. Often her eyes are the most colorful things on the page, aided in part by the streetlights as well. He even manages to give the sky that odd pink/grey color it sometimes takes on thanks to light pollution. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen it so perfectly rendered in a picture book before. Then there’s his ability to accurately render the light of an early dawn. We see the light striking the trees, the day beginning on the houses, and silhouetted against the lake the mama coyote. And even then, every single hair on her head is present and accounted for. How does he do that?

CoyoteMoon3 copyI read almost every picture book I review to my kids at some point or another, and I’m glad that I do. Even after all these years, they have the ability to surprise me. For example, if you’d asked me if this were a tense or scary book in any way I’d have initially said no. Yet clearly the book is capable of touching a nerve. My staid stoic five-year-old daughter, who recently informed me that The Walking Dead couldn’t possibly be all that scary a show, was positively petrified by the image of the coyote making her first pounce. No wolf attacking Little Red Riding Hood has ever made such an impression on her as that shot. Fortunately, it’s almost as if Mr. Ibatoulline and Ms. Gianferrari anticipated this. As a parent I was able to smoothly flip back three pages and show the baby coyote cubs near the den and explain that this was their mama. The explanation went a far ways towards alleviating her anxiety. Later, when the coyote gets a big mouth of turkey, Ibatoulline frames the shot in such a way as to display minimal carnage. All you get is, on one page coyote’s face ending just under her nose and on the other the tail, drifting feathers indicating the turkey’s dire fate.

Some folks might make the argument that this book is clearly nonfiction, and you could see their point. If we take the heroine of this story to be an average coyote and not a single one, thereby making this an average situation and not a specific one, then combined with the backmatter (the copious “Coyote Facts” as well as the bibliography for both further reading and websites) you almost find yourself in nonfiction territory. So out of curiosity I decided to see how my library’s distributor, Baker & Taylor, characterized the book. Lo and behold, they call it straight up nonfiction, no bones about it. Personally, I don’t agree. For whatever reason, for all that the book is informative and interesting, I still found the storyline just a tad too fictionalized to count as a purely informational text. Why is this? Compare the book to Hungry Coyote by Cheryl Blackford. In both cases you have average coyote storylines, and both very realistic indeed. Gianferrari has the leg up in this case since her book has nonfiction backmatter, but in both cases I felt like I was hearing a story more than I was learning factual information. Certainly authors can do both, but at the end of the day it’s the librarians who’ll decide where to shelve the puppy. And for me, any picture book collection should be honored to receive this book.

After finishing Coyote Moon I truly believe I have a better sense of coyotes now, and not a moment too soon. Just the other day I was told that the house I’m currently renting is on a little street, dubbed by the neighbors “Coyote Way”. I was told not to be surprised if I see those cheerful souls walking down the road to their destination. And while I have no desire to get up close and personal with the clan, it would be cool to watch from my windows. So thank you, Ms. Gianferrari and Mr. Ibatoulline for giving me the confidence, courage, and curiosity to see this through. I have little doubt that those qualities, to a certain extent the very benchmarks of childhood itself, will resonate with curious young readers everywhere. Lots of younger kids love wolves. These coyotes are about to give those wolves a real run for their money. Beautiful work. Beautiful stuff.

On shelves July 19th.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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24. Review of the Day: The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz

InquisitorsTaleThe Inquisitor’s Tale or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog
By Adam Gidwitz
Illuminated by Hatem Aly
Dutton Children’s Books (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
ISBN: 978-0-525-42616-5
Ages 9 and up
On shelves September 27th

God’s hot this year.

To be fair, God has had some fairly strong supporters for quite some time. So if I’m going to clarify that statement a tad, God’s hot in children’s literature this year. Even then, that sentence is pretty vague. Here in America there are loads of Christian book publishers out there, systematically putting out title after title after title each and every year about God, to say nothing of publishers of other religions as well. Their production hasn’t increased hugely in 2016, so why the blanket statement? A final clarification, then: God is hot in children’s books from major non-Christian publishers this year. Ahhhh. That’s better. Indeed, in a year when serious literary consideration is being heaped upon books like John Hendrix’s Miracle Man, in walks Adam Gidwitz and his game changing The Inquisitor’s Tale. Now I have read my fair share of middle grade novels for kids, and I tell you straight out that I have never read a book like this. It’s weird, and unfamiliar, and religious, and irreligious, and more fun than it has any right to be. Quite simply, Gidwitz found himself a holy dog, added in a couple proto-saints, and voila! A book that’s part superhero story, part quixotic holy quest, and part Canterbury Tales with just a whiff of intrusive narration for spice. In short, nothing you’ve encountered in all your livelong days. Bon appétit.

The dog was dead to begin with. A greyhound with a golden muzzle that was martyred in defense of a helpless baby. As various pub goers gather in the year 1242 to catch a glimpse of the king, they start telling stories about this dog that came back from the dead, its vision-prone mistress (a peasant girl named Jeanne), a young monk blessed with inhuman strength (William, son of a lord and a North African woman), and a young Jewish boy with healing capabilities (Jacob). These three very different kids have joined together in the midst of a country in upheaval. Some see them as saints, some as the devil incarnate, and before this tale is told, the King of France himself will seek their very heads. An extensive Author’s Note and Annotated Bibliography appear at the end.

If you are familiar with Mr. Gidwitz’s previous foray into middle grade literature (the Grimm series) then you know he has a penchant for giving the child reader what it wants. Which is to say, blood. Lots of it. In his previous books he took his cue from the Grimm brothers and their blood-soaked tales. Here his focus is squarely on the Middle Ages (he would thank you not to call them “The Dark Ages”), a time period that did not lack for gore. The carnage doesn’t really begin in earnest until William starts (literally) busting heads, and even then the book feels far less sanguine than Gidwitz’s other efforts. I mean, sure, dogs die and folks are burned alive, but that’s pretty tame by Adam’s previous standards. Of course, what he lacks in disembowelments he makes up for with old stand-bys like vomit and farts. Few can match the man’s acuity for disgusting descriptions. He is a master of the explicit and kids just eat that up. Not literally of course. That would be gross. As a side note, he has probably included the word “ass” more times in this book than all the works of J.M. Barrie and Roald Dahl combined. I suspect that if this book is ever challenged in schools or libraries it won’t be for the copious entrails or discussions about God, but rather because at one point the word “ass” (as it refers to a donkey) appears three times in quick, unapologetic succession. And yes, it’s hilarious when it does.

So let’s talk religious persecution, religious fundamentalism, and religious tolerance. As I write this review in 2016 and politicians bandy hate speech about without so much as a blink, I can’t think of a book written for kids more timely than this. Last year I asked a question of my readers: Can a historical children’s book contain protagonists with prejudices consistent with their time period? Mr. Gidwitz seeks to answer that question himself. His three heroes are not shining examples of religious tolerance born of no outside influence. When they escape together they find that they are VERY uncomfortable in one another’s presence. Mind you, I found William far more tolerant of Jacob than I expected (though he does admittedly condemn Judaism once in the text). His dislike of women is an interesting example of someone rejecting some but not all of the childhood lessons he learned as a monk. Yet all three kids fear one another as unknown elements and it takes time and a mutually agreed upon goal to get them from companionship to real friendship.

As I mentioned at the start of this review, religion doesn’t usually get much notice in middle grade books for kids from major publishers these days. And you certainly won’t find discussions about the differences between Christianity and Judaism, as when the knight Marmeluc tries to determine precisely what it is to be Jewish. What I appreciated about this book was how Gidwitz distinguished between the kind of Christianity practiced by the peasants versus the kind practiced by the educated and rich. The peasants have no problem worshipping dogs as saints and even the local priest has a wife that everyone knows he technically isn’t supposed to have. The educated and rich then move to stamp out these localized beliefs which, let’s face it, harken back to the people’s ancestors’ paganism.

Race also comes up a bit, with William’s heritage playing a part now and then, but the real focus is reserved for the history of Christian/Jewish interactions. Indeed, in his wildly extensive Author’s Note at the end, Gidwitz makes note of the fact that race relations in Medieval Europe were very different then than today. Since it preceded the transatlantic slave trade, skin color was rare and contemporary racism remains, “the modern world’s special invention.” There will probably still be objections to the black character having the strength superpower rather than the visions or healing, but he’s also the best educated and intelligent of the three. I don’t think you can ignore that fact.

As for the writing itself, that’s what you’re paying your money for at the end of the day. Gidwitz is on fire here, making medieval history feel fresh and current. For example, when the Jongleur says that some knights are, “rich boys who’ve been to the wars . . . Not proper at all. But still rich,” that’s a character note slid slyly into the storytelling. Other lines pop out at you too. Here are some of my other favorites:

• About that Jongleur, “… he looks like the kind of child who has seen too much of life, who’s seen more than most adults. His eyes are both sharp and dead at the same time. As if he won’t miss anything, because he’s seen it all already.”
• “Jeanne’s mother’s gaze lingered on her daughter another moment, like an innkeeper waiting for the last drop of ale from the barrel tap.”
• “The lord and lady welcomed the knights warmly. Well, the lady did. Lord Bertulf just sat in his chair behind the table, like a stick of butter slowly melting.”
• “Inside her, grand castles of comprehension, models of the world as she had understood it, shivered.”
• And Gidwitz may also be the only author for children who can write a sentence that begins, “But these marginalia contradicted the text…” and get away with it.

Mind you, Gidwitz paints himself into a pretty little corner fairly early on. To rest this story almost entirely on the telling of tales in a pub, you need someone who doesn’t just know the facts of one moment or the next but who could claim to know our heroes’ interior life. So each teller comes to mention each child’s thoughts and feelings in the course of their tale. The nun in the book bears the brunt of this sin, and rather than just let that go Gidwitz continually has characters saying things like, “I want to know if I’m sitting at a table filled with wizards and mind readers.” I’m not sure if I like the degree to which Gidwitz keeps bringing this objection up, or if it detracts from the reading. What I do know is that he sort of cheats with the nun. She’s the book’s deux ex machina (or, possibly the diaboli ex machina) acting partly as an impossibility and partly as an ode to the author’s love of silver haired librarians and teachers out there with “sparkling eyes, and a knowing smile.”

Since a large portion of the story is taken up with saving books as objects, it fits that this book itself should be outfitted with all the beauties of its kind. If we drill down to the very mechanics of the book, we find ourselves admiring the subtleties of fonts. Every time a tale switches between the present day and the story being told, the font changes as well. But to do it justice, the story has been illuminated (after a fashion) by artist Hatem Aly. I have not had the opportunity to see the bulk of his work on this story. I do feel that the cover illustration of William is insufficiently gargantuan, but that’s the kind of thing they can correct in the paperback edition anyway.

Fairy tales and tales of saints. The two have far more in common than either would like to admit. Seen in that light, Gidwitz’s transition from pure unadulterated Grimm to, say, Lives of the Improbable Saints and Legends of the Improbable Saints is relatively logical. Yet here we have a man who has found a way to tie-in stories about religious figures to the anti-Semitism that is still with us to this day. At the end of his Author’s Note, Gidwitz mentions that as he finished this book, more than one hundred and forty people were killed in Paris by terrorists. He writes of Medieval Europe, “It was a time when people were redefining how they lived with the ‘other,’ with people who were different from them.” The echoes reverberate today. Says Gidwitz, “I can think of nothing sane to say about this except this book.” Sermonizers, take note.

On shelves September 27th.

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25. Review of the Day: Freedom Over Me by Ashley Bryan

FreedomOverMeFreedom Over Me: Eleven slaves, their lives and dreams brought to life
By Ashley Bryan
Atheneum (an imprint of Simon & Schuster)
ISBN: 978-1481456906
Ages 9 and up
On shelves September 13th

Who gives voice to the voiceless? What are your credentials when you do so? When I was a teen I used to go into antique stores and buy old family photographs from the turn of the century. It still seems odd to me that this is allowed. I’d find the people who looked the most interesting, like they had a story to tell, and I’d take them home with me. Then I’d write something about their story, though mostly I just liked to look at them. There is a strange comfort in looking at the faces of the fashionable dead. A little twinge of momento mori mixed with the knowledge that you yourself are young (possibly) and alive (probably). It’s easy to hypothesize about a life when you can see that person’s face and watch them in their middle class Sunday best. It is far more difficult when you have no face, a hint of a name, and/or maybe just an age. Add to this the idea that the people in question lived through a man made hell-on-earth. When author/illustrator/artist Ashley Bryan acquired a collection of slave-related documents from the 1820s to the 1860s he had in his hands a wealth of untold stories. And when he chose to give these people, swallowed by history, lives and dignity and peace, he did so as only he could. With the light and laughter and beauty that only he could find in the depths of uncommon pain. Freedom Over Me is a work of bravery and sense. A way of dealing with the unimaginable, allowing kids an understanding that there is a brain, heart, and soul behind every body, alive or dead, in human history.

The date on the Fairchilds Appraisement is July 5, 1828. On it you will find a list of goods to be sold. Cows, hogs, cotton . . . and people. Eleven people, if we’re going to be precise (and we are). Most have names. One does not. Just names on a piece of paper almost 200-years-old. So Ashley Bryan, he takes those names and those people, and for the first time in centuries we get to meet them. Here is Athelia, a laundress who once carried the name Adero. On one page we hear about her life. On the next, her dreams. She remembers the village she grew up in, the stories, and the songs. And she is not alone in this. As we meet each person and learn what they do, we get a glimpse into their dreams. We hear their hopes. We wonder about their lives. We see them draw strength from one another. And in the end? The sale page sits there. The final words: “Administered to the best of our Judgment.”

FreedomOverMe1I have often said, and I say it to this day, that if there were ever a Church of Ashley Bryan, every last person who has ever met him or heard him speak would be a member. There are only a few people on this great green Earth that radiant actual uncut goodness right through their very pores. Mr. Bryan is one of those few, so when I asked at the beginning of this review what the credentials are for giving voice to the voiceless, check off that box. There are other reasons to trust him, though. A project of this sort requires a certain level of respect for the deceased. To attain that, and this may seem obvious, the author has to care. Read enough books written for kids and you get a very clear sense of those books written by folks who do not care vs. folks that do. Even then, caring’s not really enough. The writing needs to be up to speed and the art needs to be on board. And for this particular project, Ashley Bryan had a stiffer task at hand. Okay. You’ve given them full names and backgrounds and histories. What else do they need? Bryan gives these people something intangible. He gives them dreams. It’s right there in the subtitle, actually: “Eleven slaves, their lives and dreams brought to life.”

And so the book is a work of fiction. There is no amount of research that could discover Bacus or Peggy or Dora’s true tales. So when we say that Bryan is giving these people their lives back, we acknowledge that the lives he’s giving them aren’t the exact lives they led. And so we know that each person is a representative above and beyond the names on that page. Hence the occupations. Betty is every gardener. Stephen every architect. Dora every child that was born to a state of slavery and labored under it, perhaps their whole lives. And there is very little backmatter included in this book. Bryan shows the primary documents alongside a transcription of the sales. There is also an Author’s Note. Beyond that, you bring to the book what you already know about slavery, making this a title for a slightly older child readership. Bryan isn’t going to spend these pages telling you every daily injustice of slavery. Kids walk in with that knowledge already in place. What they need now is some humanity.

FreedomOverMe3Has Mr. Bryan ever done anything with slavery before? I was curious. I’ve watched Mr. Bryan’s books over the years and they are always interesting. He’s done spirituals as cut paper masterpieces. He’s originated folktales as lively and quick as their inspirational forbears. He makes puppets out of found objects that carry with them a feeling not just of dignity, but pride. But has he ever directly done a book that references slavery? So I examined his entire repertoire, from the moment he illustrated Black Boy by Richard Wright to Susan Cooper’s Jethro and the Jumbie to Ashley Bryan’s African Folktales, Uh-Huh and beyond. His interest in Africa and song and poetry knows no bounds, but never has he engaged so directly with slavery itself.

Could this have been done as anything but poetry? Or would you even call each written section poetry? I would, but I’ll be interested to see where libraries decide to shelve the book. Do you classify it as poetry or in the history section under slavery? Maybe, for all that it seems to be the size and shape of a picture book, you’d put it in your fiction collection. Wherever you put it, I am reminded, as I read this book, of Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! where every lord and peasant gets a monologue from their point of view. Freedom Over Me bears more than a passing similarity to Good Masters. In both cases we have short monologues any kid could read aloud in class or on their own. They are informed by research, and their scant number of words speak to a time we’ll never really know or understand fully. And how easy it would be to turn this book into a stage play. I can see it so easily. Imagine if you turned the Author’s Note into the first monologue and Ashley Bryan his own character (behold the 10-year-old dressed up as him, mustache and all). Since the title of the book comes from the spiritual “Oh, Freedom!” you could either have the kids sing it or play it in the background. And for the ending? A kid playing the lawyer or possibly Mrs. Fairchilds or even Ashley comes out and reads the statement at the end with each person and their price and the kids step forward holding some object that defines them (clothing sewn, books read, paintings, etc.). It’s almost too easy.

FreedomOverMe2The style of the art was also interesting to me. Pen, ink, and watercolors are all Mr. Bryan (who is ninety-two years of age, as of this review) needs to render his people alive. I’ve see him indulge in a range of artistic mediums over the years. In this book, he begins with an image of the estate, an image of the slaves on that estate, and then portraits and renderings of each person, at rest or active in some way. “Peggy” is one of the first women featured, and for her portrait Ashley gives her face whorls and lines, not dissimilar to those you’d find in wood. This technique is repeated, to varying degrees, with the rest of the people in the book. First the portrait. Then an image of what they do in their daily lives or dreams. The degree of detail in each of these portraits changes a bit. Peggy, for example, is one of the most striking. The colors of her skin, and the care and attention with which each line in her face is painted, make it clear why she was selected to be first. I would have loved the other portraits to contain this level of detail, but the artist is not as consistent in this regard. Charlotte and Dora, for example, are practically line-less, a conscious choice, but a kind of pity since Peggy’s portrait sets you up to think that they’ll all look as richly detailed and textured as she.

Those old photographs I once collected may well be the only record those people left of themselves on this earth, aside from a name in a family tree and perhaps on a headstone somewhere. So much time has passed since July 5, 1828 that it is impossible to say whether or not the names on Ashley’s acquired Appraisement are remembered by their descendants. Do families still talk about Jane or Qush? Is this piece of paper the only part of them that remains in the world? It may not have been the lives they led, but Ashley Bryan does everything within his own personal capacity to keep these names and these people alive, if just for a little longer. Along the way he makes it clear to kids that slaves weren’t simply an unfortunate mass of bodies. They were architects and artists and musicians. They were good and bad and human just like the rest of us. Terry Pratchett once wrote that sin is when people treat other people as objects. Ashley treats people as people. And times being what they are, here in the 21st century I’d say that’s a pretty valuable lesson to be teaching our kids today.

On shelves September 13th.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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Professional Reviews: A star from Kirkus

Misc: Interested in the other books Mr. Bryan has written or illustrated over the course of his illustrious career?  See the full list on his website here.


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