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1. Review of the Day: Emu by Claire Saxby

By Claire Saxby
Illustrated by Graham Byrne
Candlewick Press
ISBN: 978-0-7636-7479-3
Ages 4-7
On shelves now.

Alas for poor emu. Forever relegated to be consider a second rate ostrich, it encompasses all of the awkwardness and none of the stereotypes. Does anyone ever talk about burying your head in the sand like an emu? They do not. Are schoolchildren routinely called upon to ooh and aah at the size of an emu’s egg? They aren’t. And when you watch Swiss Family Robinson, do you ever find yourself wishing that the kids would try to saddle an emu for the big race? Not even once. Emus are the second largest living bird in terms of height, coming right after the ostrich, and you might be fooled into believing that they are the less interesting of the two. There, you are wrong. Wrongdy wrongdy wrong wrong wrong. I do not wish to start a war of words with the prominent ostrich societies of the world, but after reading Emu by Claire Saxby (illustrated by Graham Byrne) I’m a bit of what you might consider an emu convert. Chock full of interesting information and facts about what a typical emu might experience in its day-to-day life, the book is full of thrills, chills, and a species that gives stay-at-home dads everywhere a true animal mascot.

Meet the emu. Do not be offended if he fails to rise when you approach. At the moment he is safeguarding a precious clutch of eggs from elements and predators. While many of us consider the job of hatching eggs to be something that falls to the female of the species, emus are different. Once they’ve laid their eggs, female emus just take off, and it is the male emu that hatches and rears them. In this particular example, the male emu has a brood of seven or so chicks but though they’re pretty big (ten times bigger than a domestic chicken hatchling) they need their dad for food, shelter, and protection. The chicks find their own food right from the start and within three to four months they’ve already lost their first feathers. They zigzag to escape predators, live with their fathers for about a year, and have a kick like you would not believe. Backmatter of the book provides more information about emus, as well as an index.

Emu2This is not what you might call Saxby and Byrne’s first rodeo show. The Aussie duo previously had paired together on the book Big Red Kangaroo, a book that did just fine for itself. Following a kangaroo called “Red”, the ostensibly nonfiction title was best described by PW as, “An understated but visually arresting portrait of a species.” For my part I had no real objections to the book, but neither did I have anything for it. Kangaroo books are not rare in my children’s rooms, though the book was different in that it was written for a younger reading level. That same reading level is the focus of Emu and here I feel that Saxby and Byrne have started to refine their technique. One of the problems I had with Red was this naming of the titular kangaroo. It felt false in a way. Like the author didn’t trust the readers enough to show them a typical day in the life of an animal without having to personalize it with faux monikers. Byrne’s art too felt flatter to me in that book than it does here. This may have more to do with the subject matter than anything else, though. Emu faces, after all, are inherently more amusing and interesting than kangaroos

In terms of the text, Saxby utilizes a technique that’s proven very popular with teachers as of late. When kids in classrooms are given open reading time there can sometimes be a real range in reading levels. With this in mind, sometimes nonfiction picture books about the natural world will contain two types of text. There will be the more enticing narrative, ideal for reading aloud to a group or one-on-one. Then, for those budding naturalists, there will be a complementary second section that contains the facts. On the first two pages of Emu, for example, one side introduces the open forest with its “honey-pale sunshine” and the emu’s job while the second block of text, written in a small font that brings to mind an expert’s crisp clean handwriting, gives the statistics about emu (whether or not they can fly, their weight, height, etc.). In the back of the book under the Index there’s actually a little note about these sections. It says, “Don’t forget to look at both kinds of words”, and then writes the words “this kind and this kind” in the two different fonts.

Emu3Artist Graham Byrne’s bio says that he’s an electrical engineer, builder, and artist. This is his second picture book and the art is rendered digitally. What it looks like is scratchboard art, with maybe an ink overlay as well. I enjoyed the sense of place and the landscapes but what really made me happy was how Byrne draws an emu. There’s something about that bright yellow eye in the otherwise impassive face that gets me. I say impassive, but there are times when one wonders if Byrne is fighting an instinct to give his emu some expression. There’s a scene of the emu nosing his eggs, his beak appears to be curling up in just the slightest of smiles. Later an eagle threatens his brood and there’s almost a hint of a frown as he runs over to the rescue. It’s not enough to take you out of the story, but such images bear watching.

In comparing the emu to the ostrich I may have omitted certain pertinent details. After all, the emu doesn’t have it quite so bad. It appears on the Australian coat of arms, as well as on their money. There was an Emu War of 1932 where the emus actually won the day. Heck, it’s even not too difficult to find emus on farms in the United States. Still, culturally they’ve a far ways to go if ever they are to catch up with their ostrichy brethren fame-wise. Books like this one will help. I think there must be plenty of teachers out there a little tired of using Eric Carle’s Mister Seahorse as their de facto responsible-dads-in-the-wild motif. Now kids outside of Australia will get a glimpse of this wild, wacky, wonderful and weird creature. Consider it worth meeting.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

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2. Review of the Day: Gone Crazy in Alabama by Rita Williams-Garcia

GoneCrazyGone Crazy in Alabama
By Rita Williams-Garcia
Amistad (an imprint of Harper Collins)
ISBN: 978-0062215871
Ages 9-12
On shelves now.

I’m a conceited enough children’s librarian that I like it when a book wins me over. I don’t want them to make it easy for me. When I sit down to read something I want to know that the author on the other side of the manuscript is scrabbling to get the reader’s attention. Granted that reader is supposed to be a 10-year-old kid and not a 37-year-old woman, but to a certain extent audience is audience. Now I’ll say right off the bat that under normal circumstances I don’t tend to read sequels and I CERTAINLY don’t review them. There are too many books published in a current year to keep circling back to the same authors over and over again. There are, however, always exceptions to the rule. And who amongst us can say that Rita Williams-Garcia is anything but exceptional? The Gaither Sisters chronicles (you could also call them the One Crazy Summer Books and I think you’d be in the clear) have fast become modern day literary classics for kids. Funny, painful, chock full of a veritable cornucopia of historical incidents, and best of all they stick in your brain like honey to biscuits. Read one of these books and you can recall them for years at a time. Now the bitter sweetness of “Gone Crazy in Alabama” gives us more of what we want (Vonetta! Uncle Darnell! Big Ma!) in a final, epic, bow.

Going to visit relatives can be a chore. Going to visit warring relatives? Now THAT is fun! Sisters Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern have been to Oakland and Brooklyn but now they’ve turned South to Alabama to visit their grandmother Big Ma, their great-grandmother Ma Charles, and Ma Charles’s half sister Miss Trotter. Delphine, as usual, places herself in charge of her younger, rebellious, sisters, not that they ever appreciate it. As she learns more about her family’s history (and the reason the two half sisters loathe one another) she ignores her own immediate family’s needs until the moment when it almost becomes too late.

I’m an oldest sister. I have two younger siblings. Unlike Delphine I didn’t have the responsibility of watching over my siblings for any extended amount of time. As a result, I didn’t pay all that much attention to them growing up. But like Delphine, I would occasionally find myself trying, to my mind anyway, to keep them in line. Where Rita Williams-Garcia excels above all her peers, and I do mean all of them, is in the exchanges between these three girls. If I had an infinite revenue stream I would solicit someone to adapt their conversations into a very short play for kids to perform somewhere (actually, I’d just like to see ALL these books as plays for children, but that’s neither here nor there). The dialogue sucks you in and you find yourself getting emotionally involved. Because Delphine is our narrator you’re getting everything from her perspective and in this the author really makes you feel like she’s on the right side of every argument. It would be an excellent writing exercise to charge a class of sixth graders with the task of rewriting one of these sections from Vonetta or Fern’s point of view instead.

As I might have mentioned before, I wasn’t actually sold initially on this book. Truth be told, I liked the sequel to One Crazy Summer (called P.S. Be Eleven) but found the ending rushed and a tad unsatisfying. That’s just me, and my hopes with Gone Crazy were not initially helped by this book’s beginning. I liked the set-up of going South and all that, but once they arrived in Alabama I was almost immediately confused. We met Ma Charles and then very soon thereafter we met another woman very much like her who lived on the other side of a creek. No explanation was forthcoming about these two, save some cryptic descriptions of wedding photos, and I felt very much out to sea. My instinct is to say that a child reader would feel the same way, but kids have a way of taking confusing material at face value, so I suspect the confusion was of the adult variety more than anything else. Clearly Ms. Williams-Garcia was setting all this up for the big reveal of the half-sister’s relationship, and I appreciated that, but at the same time I thought it could have been introduced in a different way. Things were tepid for me for a while, but then the story really started picking up. By the time we got to the storm, I was sold.

And it was at this point in the book that I realized that I’d been coming at the book all wrong. Williams-Garcia was feeding me red herrings and I’m gulping them down like there’s no tomorrow. This book isn’t laser focusing its attention on great big epic themes of historical consequence. All this book is, all it ever has been, all the entire SERIES is about in its heart of hearts, is family. And that’s it. The central tension can be boiled down to something as simple and effective as whether or not Delphine and Vonetta can be friends. Folks are always talking about bullying and bully books. They tend to involve schoolmates, not siblings, but as Gone Crazy in Alabama shows, sometimes bullying is a lot closer to home than anyone (including the bully) is willing to acknowledge.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about needing more diverse books for kids, and it’s absolutely a valid concern. I have always been of the opinion, however, that we also need a lot more funny diverse books. When most reading lists’ sole hat tip to the African-American experience is Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (no offense to Mildred D. Taylor, but you see what I’m getting at here) while the white kids star in books like Harriet the Spy and Frindle, something’s gotta change. We Need Diverse Books? We Need FUNNY Diverse Books too. Something someone’s going to enjoy reading and want to pick up again. That’s why Christopher Paul Curtis has been such a genius the last few years (because, seriously, who else would explore the ramifications of vomiting on Frederick Douglass?) and why the name Rita Williams-Garcia will be remembered long after you and I are tasty toasty worm food. Because this book IS funny while also balancing out pain and hurt and hope.

An interviewer once asked Ms. Williams-Garcia if she ever had younger sisters like the ones in this book or if she’d ever spent a lot of time in rural Alabama, like they do here. She replied good-naturedly that nope. It reminded me of that story they tell about Dustin Hoffman playing Richard III. He put stones in his shoes to get the limp right. Laurence Olivier caught wind of this and his response was along the lines of, “My dear boy, why don’t you try acting?” That’s Ms. Williams-Garcia for you. She does honest-to-goodness writing. Writing that can conjure up estranged siblings and acts of nature. Writing that will make you laugh and think and think again after that. Beautifully done, every last page. A trilogy winds down on just the right note.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

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3. Debbie Reese at Chicago Public LIbrary, Edgewater Branch, November 7, 2015

I am pleased to be the keynote speaker at the Chicago Public Library, Edgewater Branch, on November 7, 2015, as the library system there kicks off its programming for Native American Heritage Month.

Della Nohl took that photo of me a few years ago when we were both at a Culture Keepers gathering. Do hit that link and see what Culture Keepers is all about. You'll learn a lot about working with Native people and you'll come to know people like Omar Poler of the Sokaogon Chippewa Tribe of Wisconsin, who was named as one of Library Journal's Movers and Shakers in 2014. And, check out Della Nohl's page. Right now (October 28, 2015) the photo at the top of her page is of the Indian Agency House in Portage, Wisconsin.

Knowing about Culture Keepers and knowing about Della Nohl's work is part of my world. Earlier today, I submitted a comment to Betsy Bird's blog post at School Library Journal. There, she is making the argument that people have to read a book in its entirety to say anything meaningful about the book. I disagree.

I don't, for example, need to read every page of Meg Rosoff's Picture Me Gone to say I don't recommend it. My reason? I got to the page where her main character is in a coffee shop with unusual decor. As her character looks around, she describes what she sees, including:
A painting in a big gold frame of an Indian squaw kneeling by a fire needs dusting.
Rosoff's Picture Me Gone is not about Native people. It is, however, a best selling book, and part of what I do is read some of those bestsellers so that I stay abreast of the happenings, so to speak, in children's and young adult literature.

Rosoff used "Indian squaw" -- a term most people view as offensive. Did Rosoff know it is offensive? Did Rosoff's editor know it is offensive? My guess is no. I speculate that they don't know because they don't step over into the world that I am in.

So many Native children don't do well in school. Might they do better if the textbooks they read were ones that honestly presented their nations, past and present? Might they do better if they didn't come across terms like "squaw" as a matter of course, in the literature they read?

As I write this blog post and think about what I'll say in Chicago, I'm thinking about Rosoff's book, and I'm thinking about troubling books that are being discussed as possible winners of prestigious children's literature awards: Laura Amy Schlitz's The Hired Girl and Emily Jenkins and Sophie Blackall's A Fine Dessert troubling. And Rae Carson's Walk On Earth a Stranger has, perhaps, some of the most damaging content that I've seen in a very long time. It was on the long list for the National Book Award.

I do--of course--know of some terrific books that accurately and beautiful present Native peoples, and I will share those, too, on November 7th. I shared some--for teen readers--in a column that went live a few hours ago at School Library Journal. And I shared even more, there, two years ago. Here's the graphics SLJ's team put together, using the book covers for the books I recommended in that column:

My guess is that people who come to my talk on the 7th will be people who care about Native peoples, our histories, our cultures, and our lives. They will likely want me to talk about good books. It isn't enough, however, to know about books that accurately portray who we are; people have to know the others, too, because in the publishing world, they take up a lot of space.

Please put this day of events on your calendar! Bring your friends! Step into my world, and help me bring others into it, too, so that the status quo changes... So that best selling writers and books deemed worthy of awards are not ones that denigrate Native people.

Below is the press release Chicago Public Library is sending out.


October 20, 2015

Chicago Public Library is "Celebrating Diversity," with its annual observance ofNative American Heritage Month. Throughout November, the Library offers a variety of programs highlighting the history, culture, traditions, and contributions Native Americans have made to Chicago, the state of Illinois, and to the U.S.  In addition, a selected bibliography and the Library’s 2015 Native American Heritage Month Calendar of Events are available at chipublib.org.

The opening program for Native American Heritage Month takes place on Saturday, November 7, at 11:00 a.m., at the Edgewater Branch, 6000 N. Broadway St.  Debbie Reese, author, lecturer, and blogger will be the keynote speaker. Ms. Reese is tribally enrolled at Nambe Pueblo and has a PhD in Education from the University of Illinois and an MLIS from San Jose State University. Her research articles and book chapters on American Indians in Children’s Literature are used in Education, Library Science, English, and Creative Writing courses in the U.S. and Canada. Andrea Perkins and the Chi-Nations Youth Council will provide drum performances. A film screening of, From Old to Modern, which focuses modern activism will also be presented by the Chi-Nations Youth Council.

During Native American Heritage Month, the Library will present interesting, entertaining and informative programs for all ages, including storytelling and crafts for children, lectures, film screenings, art exhibitions and workshops, and adult book discussions.

Here are some highlights from the 2015 Native American Heritage Month Celebration:

  • Archery for Beginners
Al Eastman, a certified archery coach with the Olympic Committee’s USA Archery program will teach the ten-step form of safety techniques for a hands-on archery demonstration with Olympic-style recurve bows. Eastman started the archery program at the American Indian Center in 2010 to help youth learn about math, science and history through archery.

  • Ehdrigohr: A Role-Playing Experience
Allen Turner, creator of Ehdrigohr—a table top role-playing game—will present this fun and challenging game that incorporates Naïve American themes. Turner has been involved in storytelling, games, play design, and education for most of his adult life. His work includes coordinating youth and adult programs focusing on literacy, storytelling, role-playing, and team dynamics for developing inference and problem-solving skills.

  • Create a Dreamcatcher
Artist and musician Dan Pierce will explore the meanings Dreamcatcher components and instruct participants in how to use materials to craft Dreamcatchers that they can take home. Pierce has taught music and art in the Chicago Public Schools for more than 20 years.

  • Film Screenings
The Library presents five selected feature films spotlighting Native American culture including:
·         The Exiles by Kent Mackenzie
·         Up Heartbreak Hill by Erica Scharf
·         Sun Kissed by Maya Stark and Adi Lavy
·         In the Light of Reverence by Christopher McLeod and Malinda Maynor
·         Stand Silent Nation by Suree Towfighnia and Courtney Hermann

For more information about the film series, or for the complete listing of Native American Heritage Month events, dates and locations, please visit chipublib.org.

Throughout every calendar year, Chicago Public Library “Celebrates Diversity” and its importance to a sustainable society, during all of its ethnic heritage and diversity month celebrations including: African-American History Month, Women’s History Month, Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, LGBT Pride Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, Polish American heritage Month and Native American Heritage Month.

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4. Review of the Day: Human Body Theater by Maris Wicks

HumanBodyTheaterHuman Body Theater
By Maris Wicks
First Second (a imprint of Roaring Brook and division of Macmillan)
ISBN: 978-1-59643-929-0
Ages 9-12
On shelves now.

I gotta come clean with you. Skeletons? I’ve got a thing for them. Not a “thing” as in I find them attractive, but rather a “thing” as in I find them fascinating. I always have. Back in the 80s there was a science-related Canadian television show called “Owl TV” (a Canuck alternative to “3-2-1 Contact”) and one of the regular features was a skeleton by the name of Bonaparte who taught kids about various scientific matters. But aside from the odd viewing of “Jason and the Argonauts”, walking, talking (or, at the very least, stalking) skeletons don’t crop up all that often when you become grown. So maybe my attachment to Human Body Theater with its knobby narrator has its roots deep in my own personal history. Or maybe it has something more to do with the witty writing, untold gobs of nonfiction information, eye-catching art, and general sense of intelligence and care. Whatever the case, it turns out the human body puts on one heckuva good show!

When a human skeleton comes out and offers to right there, before your very eyes, become a fully formed human being with guts, skin, etc. who are you to refuse? Tonight the human body itself is putting on a show and everyone from the stagehands (the cells) to the players (whether they’re body parts or viruses) is fully engaged and involved. With our narrator’s help we dive deep beneath the skin and learn top to bottom about every possible system our bods have to offer. When all is said and done the readers aren’t just intrigued. They’re picking the book up to read it again and again. Backmatter includes a Glossary of terms and a Bibliography for further reading.

HumanBody2I’ve been a big time Maris Wicks fan for years. It started long ago when I was tooling around a MOCCA (Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art) event and ran across just the cutest little paperback picture book. It couldn’t have been much bigger than a coaster and all it was was a story about a family taking a daytrip to the woods. Called Yes, Let’s it was written by Galen Goodwin and illustrated by a Maris Wicks. I didn’t know either of these people. I just knew the book was good, and when it was published officially a couple years later by Tanglewood Publishing I felt quite justified. But for all that I’d been a fan, I didn’t recognize Ms. Wicks’ work or name, at first, when she illustrated Jim Ottaviani’s Primates. When the connection was made I felt like I’d won a small lottery. Now she’s gone solo with Human Body Theater and the only question left in anybody’s mind is . . . why didn’t she do it sooner? She’s a natural!

Now for whatever reason my four-year-old is currently entranced by this book. She’s naturally inclined to love graphic novels anyway (thank you, Cece Bell) and something in Human Body Theater struck a real chord with her. It’s not hard to figure out why. Visually it’s consistently arresting. Potentially dry material, like the method by which oxygen travels from the lungs to the blood, is presented in the most eclectic way possible (in this case, like a dance). Wicks keeps her panels vibrant and consistently interesting. One minute we might be peering into the inner workings of the capillaries and the next we’re zooming with the blood through the body delivering nutrients and oxygen. The colorful, clear lined style certainly bears a passing similarity to the work of author/artists like Raina Telgemeier, while the ability imbue everything, right down to the smallest atom, with personality is more along the lines of Dan Green’s “Basher Books” series.

For my part, I was impressed with the degree to which Wicks is capable of breaking complex ideas down into simple presentations. The chapters divide neatly into The Skeletal System, The Muscular System, The Respiratory System, The Cardiovascular System, The Digestive System, The Excretory System, The Endocrine System, The Reproductive System, The Immune System, The Nervous System, and the senses (not to mention an early section on cells, elements, and molecules). As impressive as her art is, it’s Wicks’ writing that I feel like we should really credit here. Consider the amount of judicious editing she had to do, to figure out what to keep and what to cut. How do you, as an author, transition neatly from talking about reproduction to the immune system? How do you even tackle a subject as vast as the senses? And most importantly, how gross do you get? Because the funny bones of 10-year-olds demand a certain level of gross out humor, while the stomachs of the gatekeepers buying the book demand that it not go too far. I am happy to report that Ms. Wicks walks that tightrope with infinite skill.

HumanBody1One of the parts of the book I was particularly curious about was the sex and reproduction section. I’ve seen what Robie H. Harris has gone through with her It’s Perfectly Normal series on changing adolescent bodies, and I wondered to what extent Wicks would tread similar ground. The answer? She doesn’t really. Sex is addressed but images of breasts and penises are kept simple to the point of near abstraction. As such, don’t be relying on this for your kid’s sex-ed. There are clear reasons for this limitation, of course. Books that show these body parts, particularly graphic novels, are restricted by some parents or school districts. Wicks even plays with this fact, displaying a sheet covering what looks like a possible penis, only to reveal a very tall sperm instead. And Wicks doesn’t skimp on the info. The chapter on The Reproductive Cycle, for example, contains the delightful phrase, “ATTENTION: Would some blood please report to the penis for a routine erection.” So I’ve no doubt that there will be a parent somewhere who is offended in some way. However, it’s done so succinctly that I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if it causes almost no offense during its publication lifespan (but don’t quote me on that one).

If there is a problem with the book it may come right at the very beginning. Our skeleton hero introduces herself and from there you would expect her to jump right in to Human Body Theater with the bones. Instead, the storyline comes to a near screeching halt from the get go with a laborious explanation of cells, elements, and molecules. It’s not that these things aren’t important or interesting. Indeed, you can more than understand why they come at the beginning the way that they do. But as the book currently stands, this section feels like it was added in at the last minute. If it was going to preface the actual “show” then couldn’t it have been truly separate from the main event and act as a kind of pre-show entertainment?

What parent wouldn’t admit a bit of a thrill when their kid points to their own femur and declares proudly that it’s the longest bone in the human body? Or off-the-cuff speculates on the effects of the appendix on other body functions? We talk a lot about children’s books that (forgive the phrase) “make learning fun”, but how many actually do? When I wrack my brain for fun human body books, I come up surprisingly short. Here then is a title that can push against a certain kind of reader’s reluctance to engage with science on any level. It’s for the science lovers and graphic novel lovers alike (and lord knows the two don’t always overlap). More fun than it has any right to be. No bones about it.

On shelves now.

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Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

Interviews: A great one conducted with Mara and The A.V. Club.


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5. Real Life Tween Review - The Imaginary, by A.F. Harrold

I figured, since I live with you real live tweens, it is high time that I have them write some of the book recommendations that appear on this blog.  Tween 2 read The Imaginary before school was out, and she loved it!  The following is what she has to say about it!


I had just finished a book, and as always, I was looking for a new one. Just like most kids, I like it when a book sticks to me. Sometimes I read the first two chapters of one book and I do not like it and then same with the next, and so on. As usual I asked my mom/librarian for a suggestion. She usually gives me like 8 books and I don’t like any of them, so it is usually hard for her to give me suggestions. This time she gave me this book, and it hooked me right from the introduction. I checked it out and just read it.

The one thing that keeps Amanda happy is her imaginary friend Rudger. After all, she is an only child.  There is just him and her. They are best friends. But Amanda’s mother thinks there is something wrong with Amanda. Amanda loves to imagine. Rudger and Amanda always go on adventures in the backyard. Then one day Mr. Bunting comes to the door.

Mr. Bunting hunts Imaginaries. Rumor has it that he eats them! He sniffs them out and this time he has sniffed out Rudger. With Mr. Bunting’s (well let’s say) “assistant” he has almost got Rudger in his clutches! With Amanda unconscious in the hospital, Rudger is alone with nobody believing in him.  He is starting to fade away with Amanda not being able to imagine him. All at once he is trying to get to Amanda, escape from Mr. Bunting, and not fade before it is all done. On his way he meets some other imaginaries that help him. But can he make it before fading?

A.F. Harrold has created humor, with scary moments and magic all in one plot. This book was super amazing! Emily Gravett has so many great and detailed pictures. The illustrations and the book work in harmony together. This is a must read book! Ten out of ten stars! **********

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6. Review of the Day: Mars Evacuees by Sophia McDougall

MarsEvacueesMars Evacuees
By Sophia McDougall
Harper Collins
ISBN: 978-0-06-229399-2
Ages 9-12

I’ve a nasty habit of finishing every children’s book I start, no matter how dull or dire it might be. I am sort of alone in this habit, which you could rightly call unhealthy. After all, most librarians understand that their time on this globe is limited and that if they want to read the greatest number of excellent books in a given year, they need to hold off on spending too much time devouring schlock and just skip to the good stuff. So it is that with my weird predilection for completion I am enormously picky when it comes to what I read. If I’m going to spend time with a book, I want to feel like I’m accomplishing something, not slogging through it. My reasoning is that not all books are good from the get-go. Some take a little time to get going, you know? It might take 50 pages before you’re fully on board, so I always give the book the benefit of the doubt. Some books, however, have the quintessential strong first page. They are books that are so smart and good and worthy that you feel that you are maximizing your time on this globe by merely being in their presence. Such is the case with Mars Evacuees. A sci-fi middle grade novel that encompasses everything from gigantic talking floating goldfish to PG discussions of alien sex, this is one of those books you might easily miss out on. Stellar from the first sentence on.

At first it seemed like a good thing that the aliens had come. When you’ve got a planet nearly decimated by global warming, it doesn’t sound like such a bad deal when aliens start telling you they’ve got a way to cool down the planet. The trouble is, they didn’t STOP cooling it down. Turns out the Morrors are looking for a new home and if it doesn’t quite suit their needs they’ll adapt it until it does. Earth has fought back, of course, and so now we’re all trapped in a huge space battle of epic proportions. Alice Dare’s mother is the high flying hero Captain Dare, killer of aliens everywhere. But all Alice knows is that she’s being shipped off with a load of other kids to Mars. The idea is that they’ll be safe there and will be able to finish their education in space until they’re old enough to become soldiers. And everything seems to be going fine and dandy . . . until the adults all disappear. Now Alice and her friends are in the company of a cheery robot goldfish and must solve a couple mysteries along the way. Things like, where are the adults? What are those space locust-like creatures they’ve found on Mars? And most important of all, what happens when you encounter the enemy and it’s not at all like you thought it would be?

The first sentence of any book is a tricky proposition. You want to intrigue but not give too much away. Too brash and the book can’t live up to it. Too mild and people are snoring before you even get to the period. Here’s what McDougall writes: “When the polar ice advanced as far as Nottingham, my school was closed and I was evacuated to Mars.” I could not help but be reminded of the first line of M.T. Anderson’s Feed when I read that (“We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck”). But it’s not just her first sentence that’s admirable. In a scant nine pages the entire premise of the book is laid out for us. Aliens came. People are fighting them. And now the kids are being evacuated to Mars. Badda bing, badda boom. What I didn’t realize when I was first reading the book, though, was that this chapter is very much indicative of the entire novel. There is a kind of series bloat going on in children’s middle grade novels these days. Books with wild premises and high stakes are naturally assumed to be the first in a series. There’s a bit of a whiff of Ender’s Game and The White Mountains about this book when you look at the plot alone, and so you assume that like so many similar titles it’ll either end on a cliffhanger, or it’ll solve the immediate problem, but save the bigger issue for later on. It was only as I got closer and closer to the end that I realized that McDougall was doing something I almost never encounter in science fiction books these days: She was tying up loose ends. It got to the point where I reached the end of the book and found myself in the rare position of realizing that this was, of all things, a standalone science fiction novel. Do they even make those anymore? I’m not saying you couldn’t write a sequel to this book if you didn’t want to. When McDougall becomes a household name you can bet there will be a push for more adventures of Alice, Carl, Josephine and Thsaaa. But it works all by itself with a neat little beginning, middle, and an end. How novel!

For all that, McDougall cuts through the treacle with her storytelling, I was very admiring of the fact that she never sacrifices character in the process of doing so. Carl, for example, should by all rights be two-dimensional. He’s the wacky kid who doesn’t play by the rules! The trickster with a heart of gold. But in this book McDougall also makes him a big brother. He’s got his bones to pick, just as Josephine (filling in the brainy Hermione-type role with aplomb) has personal issues with the aliens that go beyond the usual you-froze-my-planet grudge. Even the Goldfish, perky robot that he is, seems to have limits on his patience. He’s also American for some reason, a fact I shall choose not to read too much into, except maybe to say that if I were casting this as a film (which considering the success of Home, the adaptation of Adam Rex’s The True Meaning of Smekday, isn’t as farfetched as you might think) I’d like to hear him voiced by Patton Oswalt. But I digress.

When tallying up the total number of books written for kids between the ages of 9-12 that discuss the intricacies of alien sex, I admit that I stop pretty much at one. This one. And normally that wouldn’t fly in a book for kids but McDougall is so enormously careful and funny that you really couldn’t care less. Her aliens are fantastic, in part because, like humans, there’s a lot of variety amongst them. This is an author who cares about world building but also doesn’t luxuriate in it for long periods of time. She’s not trying to be the Tolkien of space here. She’s trying to tell a good story cleanly and succinctly.

The fact that it’s funny to boot is the real reason it stands out, though. And I don’t mean it’s “funny” in that it’s mildly droll and knows how to make a pun. I mean there are moments when I actually laughed out loud on a New York subway train. How could I not? This is a book that can actually get away with lines like “If you didn’t want me to build flamethrowers you shouldn’t have taught me the basic principles when I was six.” Or “It was a good time in Earth’s history to be a polar bear. Unless the rumors were true about the Morrors eating them.” Or “Luckily I don’t throw up very easily, but it made me feel as if I was being hit lightly but persistently all over with tablespoons.” That’s the kind of writing I enjoy. Silly and with purpose.

So it’s one part Lord of the Flies in space (please explain to me right now why no one has ever written a book called “Space Lord of the Flies”), one part Smekday, and a lot like those 1940s novels where the kids get evacuated during WWII and find a kind of hope and freedom they never would have encountered at home. It’s also the most fun you’ll encounter in a long time. That isn’t to say there isn’t the occasional dark or dreary patch. But once this book starts rolling it’s impossible not to enjoy the ride. For fans of the funny, fans of science fiction, and fans of books that are just darn good to the last drop.

On shelves now.

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Misc: And since this book is British (did I fail to mention that part?) here’s the cover they came up with over there.


I think I may like ours more, though both passed up the fact to display the goldfish, which I think was a mistake.  Fortunately, the Brits at least have corrected the mistake (though I’m mildly disappointed to see that there is a sequel after all).


5 Comments on Review of the Day: Mars Evacuees by Sophia McDougall, last added: 7/18/2015
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7. Review of the Day: Hypnotize a Tiger by Calef Brown

HypnotizeTiger1Hypnotize a Tiger: Poems About Just About Everything
By Calef Brown
Christy Ottaviano Books, Henry Holt (an imprint of Macmillan)
ISBN: 978-0-8050-9928-7
For ages 9-12

Why do I do this to myself? Let me tell you something about how I review. Board books? Pshaw. I can take one and write a nine-paragraph review parsing precisely why it is that Bizzy Bear’s preferred companions are dogs and bunnies. Nonfiction? Lay it on me. I’ll take infinite pleasure in discussing the difference between informational texts when I was a child (long story short, they sucked) and our current golden age. But there is one book genre that lays me flat. Stops me short. Makes it exceedingly difficult for me to get my head in order. Truly, children’s poetry books are the hardest to review. I don’t know exactly why this is. They are the most unloved of the books for kids. No American Library Association accredited awards are made specifically for them. They get checked out of libraries one month a year (April = National Poetry Month) and then lie forgotten. Yet so many of them are bite-sized wallops of greatness. Hypnotize a Tiger by Calef Brown is one of these chosen few. Not many poetry books for kids sport blurbs from Daniel Pinkwater (who found a soul mate in Brown’s art) to Jack Gantos to The Book of Life director Jorge R. Gutierrez. And few author/illustrators are allowed to go as positively wacky and wild as Brown does here. From tomato ultimatums and loofah tortes to velocipede odes and dodgebull (rather than dodgeball) you honestly never know where the book is going next. And you’re grateful for it.

So if it’s so great (and it is) why is reviewing a book of this sort the devil to do? There are any number of reasons. When reviewing a book with, say, a plot, it’s awfully easy for me to merely recap the plot, dish on the characters, bring up some single strange or scintillating point, then close it all down with a conclusion. Easy peasy. But poetry’s not really like that. There’s no plot to Hypnotize a Tiger. There’s not even a running gag that keeps cropping up throughout the pages. Each poem is its own little world. As a result, I’m stuck generalizing about the poems as a whole. And because we are dealing with 84-85 (depending on how you count) of them in total, I’m probably going to end up saying something about how some of the poems work and others don’t. This is kind of a cheat when you’re reviewing a collection of this sort because almost no children’s poetry book is absolutely perfect (Example A: The fact that Shel Silverstein wrote “Hug-a-War” . . . I rest my case). They will always consist of some verses that work and others that do not. In the end, the best I can hope for when reviewing poetry is to try to find something that makes it different from all the other poetry books published in a given year. Fortunately for me, Mr. Brown is consistently interesting. As Pinkwater said in his blurb, “He is a bulwark against mediocrity.”

HypnotizeTiger2I’m very interested in the question of how to get kids around to reading poetry. My own daughter is four at this time and we’ve found that Shel Silverstein’s poetry books make for good bedtime reading (though she’s still thrown off by the occasional grotesquerie). For many children, Silverstein is the gateway drug. But Calef Brown, though he swims in Shel’s surrealism soaked seas, is a different breed entirely from his predecessor. Where Shel went for the easy silly ideas, Brown layers his ridiculousness with a bit of sophistication. Anyone could write a poem about waking up to find a beehive attached to the underside of their chin. It takes a Calef Brown to go one step further and have the unfortunate soul consider the monetary implications. Or to consider the verbal capabilities of Hoboken-based gnomes. So Hypnotize a Tiger becomes a book meant for the kid with a bit of prior poetry knowledge under their belt. You wouldn’t hand this title to a reluctant reader. You’d give it to the kid who’d already devoured all the Silverstein and Prelutsky and came to you asking, “What else you got?” That kid might be ready.

It is useful to note that you need to read this book aloud as well. There should be a warning sticker on the cover that says as much. Not that Brown makes it easy for you. Take the poem “Hugh”, for example. Short and simple it reads, “Meet my Belgian friend / He lives near Bruges, on a farm. / His name is Hugh Jarm.” Then at the bottom one of the tiny interstitial poems reads, “I once had a dream I was visiting Bruges – / snacking on chocolates while riding a luge.” Now the correct pronunciation of “Bruges” isn’t really necessary in the first poem, though it helps. The little tiny poem, however, is interesting because while it works especially well when you pronounce it correctly, you could probably mangle the wordplay easy peasy and still end up with a successful poem. SLJ probably said it best when they mentioned in their review of the book that, “Though there is more than one line that does not roll easily off the tongue and awkward rhymes abound, it is easy to see this clumsiness as part of the spirit of the collection.”

HypnotizeTiger3The subtitle of the collection is “Poems About Just About Everything” and that’s a fairly accurate representation. It does not mean, however, that there isn’t an internal logic to what’s being included here. There’s a chapter of animal poems, of people, insects, vehicles, schools, food, and then more esoteric descriptions like “Facts Poetic”, “Word Crashes”, and “Miscellaneous Silliness.” No poem directly applies to another, but they still manage to work together in tandem fairly well.

I don’t think it’s a serious criticism of a book to say that it’s not for all audiences. Calef Brown is an acquired taste. A taste best suited to the cleverest of the youngsters, absolutely, but acquired just the same. Not everyone is drawn to his style, and more fool they. To my mind, there is room enough in this world for any Calef Brown collection you can name. This book doesn’t have the widely popular feel of, say, a We Go Together but nor is the author writing poems simply to hear himself speak. Hypnotize a Tiger is a book built to please fans of creative curated silliness. Don’t know if you’ll like it? There’s only one way to find out. Pick this puppy up and read it to a kid. The book may surprise you (and so might the kid!).

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

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  • I think this may honestly constitute the greatest class visit of all time.


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8. Review of the Day: The Nest by Kenneth Oppel

NestThe Nest
By Kenneth Oppel
Illustrated by Jon Klassen
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
ISBN: 978-1-4814-3232-0
On shelves October 6th

Oh, how I love middle grade horror. It’s a very specific breed of book, you know. Most people on the street might think of the Goosebumps books or similar ilk when they think of horror stories for the 10-year-old set, but that’s just a small portion of what turns out to be a much greater, grander set of stories. Children’s book horror takes on so many different forms. You have your post-apocalyptic, claustrophobic horrors, like Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O’Brien. You have your everyday-playthings-turned-evil tales like Doll Bones by Holly Black. You have your close family members turned evil stories ala Coraline by Neil Gaiman and Wait Till Helen Comes by Mary Downing Hahn. And then there are the horror stories that shoot for the moon. The ones that aren’t afraid (no pun intended) to push the envelope a little. To lure you into a false sense of security before they unleash some true psychological scares. And the best ones are the ones that tie that horror into something larger than themselves. In Kenneth Oppel’s The Nest, the author approaches us with a very simple idea. What if your desire to make everything better, everyone happier, released an unimaginable horror? What do you do?

New babies are often cause for true celebration, but once in a while there are problems. Problems that render parents exhausted and helpless. Problems with the baby that go deep below the surface and touch every part of your life. For Steve, it feels like it’s been a long time since his family was happy. So when the angels appear in his dream offering to help with the baby, he welcomes them. True, they don’t say much specifically about what they can do. Not at the beginning, but why look a gift horse in the mouth? Anyway, there are other problems in Steve’s life as well. He may have to go back into therapy, and then there are these wasps building a nest on his house when he’s severely allergic to them. A fixed baby could be the answer to his prayers. Only, the creatures visiting him don’t appear to be angels anymore. And when it comes to “fixing” the baby . . . well, they may have other ideas entirely . . .

First and foremost, I don’t think I can actually talk about this book without dusting off the old “spoiler alert” sign. For me, the very fact that Oppel’s book is so beautifully succinct and restrained, renders it impossible not to talk about its various (and variegated) twists and turns. So I’m going to give pretty much everything away in this review. It’s a no holds barred approach, when you get right down to it. Starting with the angels of course. They’re wasps. And it only gets better from there.

It comes to this. I’ve no evidence to support this theory of mine as to one of the inspirations for the book. I’ve read no interviews with Oppel about where he gets his ideas. No articles on his thought processes. But part of the reason I like the man so much probably has to do with the fact that at some point in his life he must have been walking down the street, or the path, or the trail, and saw a wasp’s nest. And this man must have looked up at it, in all its paper-thin malice, and found himself with the following inescapable thought: “I bet you could fit a baby in there.” And I say unto you, it takes a mind like that to write a book like this.

Wasps are perhaps nature’s most impressive bullies. They seem to have been given such horrid advantages. Not only do they have terrible tempers and nasty dispositions, not only do they swarm, but unlike the comparatively sweet honeybee they can sting you multiple times and never die. It’s little wonder that they’re magnificent baddies in The Nest. The only question I have is why no one has until now realized how fabulous a foe they can be. Klassen’s queen is particularly perfect. It would have been all too easy for him to imbue her with a kind of White Witch austerity. Queens come built-in with sneers, after all. This queen, however, derives her power by being the ultimate confident. She’s sympathetic. She’s patient. She’s a mother who hears your concerns and allays them. Trouble is, you can’t trust her an inch and underneath that friendliness is a cold cruel agenda. She is, in short, my favorite baddie of the year. I didn’t like wasps to begin with. Now I abhor them with a deep inner dread usually reserved for childhood fears.

I mentioned earlier that the horror in this book comes from the idea that Steve’s attempts to make everything better, and his parents happier, instead cause him to consider committing an atrocity. In a moment of stress Steve gives his approval to the unthinkable and when he tries to rescind it he’s told that the matter is out of his hands. Kids screw up all the time and if they’re unlucky they screw up in such a way that their actions have consequences too big for their small lives. The guilt and horror they sometimes swallow can mark them for life. The queen of this story offers something we all can understand. A chance to “fix” everything and make the world perfect. Never mind that perfect doesn’t really exist. Never mind that the price she exacts is too high. If she came calling on you, offering to fix that one truly terrible thing in your life, wouldn’t you say yes? On the surface, child readers will probably react most strongly to the more obvious horror elements to this story. The toy telephone with the scratchy voice that sounds like “a piece of metal being held against a grindstone.” The perfect baby ready to be “born” The attic . . . *shudder* Oh, the attic. But it’s the deeper themes that will make their mark on them. And on anyone reading to them as well.

There are books where the child protagonist’s physical or mental challenges are named and identified and there are books where it’s left up to the reader to determine the degree to which the child is or is not on such a spectrum. A book like Wonder by R.J. Palacio or Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper will name the disability. A book like Emma-Jean Lazarus Fell Out of a Tree by Lauren Tarshis or Counting by 7s by Holly Sloan won’t. There’s no right or wrong way to write such books, and in The Nest Klassen finds himself far more in the latter rather than former camp. Steve has had therapy in the past, and exhibits what could be construed to be obsessive compulsive behavior. What’s remarkable is that Klassen then weaves Steve’s actions into the book’s greater narrative. It becomes our hero’s driving force, this fight against impotence. All kids strive to have more control over their own lives, after all. Steve’s O.C.D. (though it is never defined in that way) is part of his helpless attempt to make things better, even if it’s just through the recitation of lists and names. At one point he repeats the word “congenital” and feels better, “As if knowing the names of things meant I had some power over them.”

When I was a young adult (not a teen) I was quite enamored of A.S. Byatt’s book Angels and Insects. It still remains one of my favorites and though I seem to have transferred my love of Byatt’s prose to the works of Laura Amy Schlitz (her juvenile contemporary and, I would argue, equivalent) there are elements of Byatt’s book in what Klassen has done here. His inclusion of religion isn’t a real touchstone of the novel, but it’s just a bit too prevalent to ignore. There is, for example, the opening line: “The first time I saw them, I thought they were angels.” Followed not too long after by a section where Steve reads off every night the list of people he wants to keep safe. “I didn’t really know who I was asking. Maybe it was God, but I didn’t really believe in God, so this wasn’t praying exactly.” He doesn’t question the angels of his dreams or their desire to help (at least initially). And God makes no personal appearance in the novel, directly or otherwise. Really, when all was said and done, my overall impression was that the book reminded me of David Almond’s Skellig with its angel/not angel, sick baby, and boy looking for answers where there are few to find. The difference being, of course, the fact that in Skellig the baby gets better and here the baby is saved but it is clear as crystal to even the most optimistic reader that it will never ever been the perfect baby every parent wishes for.

It’s funny that I can say so much without mentioning the language, but there you go. Oppel’s been wowing folks with his prose for years, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a cunning turn of phrase when you encounter it. Consider some of his lines. The knife guy is described like “He looked like his bones were meant for an even bigger body.” A description of a liquid trap for wasps is said to be akin to a, “soggy mass grave, the few survivors clambering over the dead bodies, trying in vain to climb out. It was like a vision of hell from that old painting I’d seen in the art gallery and never forgotten.” Or what may well be my favorite in the book, “… and they were regurgitating matter from their mouths and sculpting it into baby flesh.” And then there are the little elements the drive the story. We don’t learn the baby’s name until page 112. Or the very title itself. When Vanessa, Steve’s babysitter, is discussing nests she points out that humans make them as well. “Our houses are just big nests, really. A place where you can sleep and be safe – and grow.”

The choice of Jon Klassen as illustrator is fascinating to me. When I think of horror illustrations for kids the usual suspects are your Stephen Gammells or Gris Grimleys or Dave McKeans. Klassen’s different. When you hire him, you’re not asking him to ratchet up the fear factor, but rather to echo it and then take it down a notch to a place where a child reader can be safe. Take, for example, his work on Lemony Snicket’s The Dark A book where the very shadows speak, it wasn’t that Klassen was denying the creepier elements of the tale. But he tamed them somehow. And now that same taming sense is at work here. His pictures are rife with shadows and faceless adults, turned away or hidden from the viewer (and the viewer is clearly Steve/you). And his pictures do convey the tone of the book well. A curved knife on a porch is still a curved knife on a porch. Spend a little time flipping between the front and back endpapers, while you’re at it. Klassen so subtle with these. The moon moves. A single light is out in a house. But there’s a feeling of peace to the last picture, and a feeling of foreboding in the first. They’re practically identical so I don’t know how he managed that, but there it is. Honestly, you couldn’t have picked a better illustrator.

Suffice to say, this book would probably be the greatest class readaloud for fourth, fifth, or sixth graders the world has ever seen. When I was in fourth grade my teacher read us The Wicked Wicked Pigeon Ladies in the Garden by Mary Chase and I was never quite the same again. Thus do I bless some poor beleaguered child with the magnificent nightmares that will come with this book. Added Bonus for Teachers: You’ll never have to worry about school attendance ever again. There’s not a chapter here a kid would want to miss.

If I have a bone to pick with the author it is this: He’s Canadian. Normally, this is a good thing. Canadians are awesome. They give us a big old chunk of great literature every year. But Oppel as a Canadian is terribly awkward because if he were not and lived in, say, Savannah or something, then he could win some major American children’s literary awards with this book. And now he can’t. There are remarkably few awards the U.S. can grant this tale of flying creepy crawlies. Certainly he should (if there is any justice in the universe) be a shoo-in for Canada’s Governor General’s Award in the youth category and I’m pulling for him in the E.B. White Readaloud Award category as well, but otherwise I’m out to sea. Would that he had a home in Pasadena. Alas.

Children’s books come with lessons pre-installed for their young readers. Since we’re dealing with people who are coming up in the world and need some guidance, the messages tend towards the innocuous. Be yourself. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Friendship is important. Etc. The message behind The Nest could be debated ad nauseam for quite some time, but I think the thing to truly remember here is something Steve says near the end. “And there’s no such thing as normal anyways.” The belief in normality and perfection may be the truest villain in The Nest when you come right down to it. And Klassen has Steve try to figure out why it’s good to try to be normal if there is no true normal in the end. It’s a lesson adults have yet to master ourselves. Little wonder that The Nest ends up being what may be the most fascinating horror story written for kids you’ve yet to encounter. Smart as a whip with an edge to the terror you’re bound to appreciate, this is a truly great, truly scary, truly wonderful novel.

On shelves October 6th.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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Professional Reviews: A star from Kirkus,


6 Comments on Review of the Day: The Nest by Kenneth Oppel, last added: 8/28/2015
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9. Review of the Day: The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch by Chris Barton

JohnRoyLynch1The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch
By Chris Barton
Illustrated by Don Tate
Eerdmans Books for Young Readers
ISBN: 978-0-8028-5379-0
Ages 4-8
On shelves now

“It’s the story of a guy who in ten years went from teenage field slave to U.S. Congressman.” Come again? That’s the pitch author Chris Barton pulled out when he wanted to describe this story to others. You know, children’s book biographies can be very easy as long as you cover the same fifteen to twenty people over and over again. And you could forgive a child for never imagining that there were remarkable people out there beyond Einstein, Tubman, Jefferson, and Sacajawea. People with stories that aren’t just unknown to kids but to whole swaths of adults as well. So I always get kind of excited when I see someone new out there. And I get extra especially excited when the author involved is Chris Barton. Here’s a guy who performed original research to write a picture book biography of the guys who invented Day-Glo colors (The Day-Glo Brothers) so you know you’re in safe hands. The inclusion of illustrator Don Tate was not something I would have thought up myself, but by gum it turns out that he’s the best possible artist for this story! Tackling what turns out to be a near impossible task (explaining Reconstruction to kids without plunging them into the depths of despair), this keen duo present a book that reads so well you’re left wondering not just how they managed to pull it off, but if anyone else can learn something from their technique.

From birth until the age of sixteen John Roy Lynch was a slave. The son of an overseer who died before he could free his family, John Roy began life as a house slave but was sent to the fields when his high-strung mistress made him the brunt of her wrath. Not long after, The Civil War broke out and John Roy bought himself a ride to Natchez and got a job. He started out as a waiter than moved on to pantryman, photographer, and in time orator and even Justice of the Peace. Then, at twenty-four years of age, John Roy Lynch was elected to the Mississippi House of Representatives where he served as Speaker of the House. The year was 1869, and these changes did not pass without incident. Soon an angry white South took its fury out on its African American population and the strides that had been made were rescinded violently. John Roy Lynch would serve out two terms before leaving office. He lived to a ripe old age, dying at last in 1939. A Historical Note, Timeline, Author’s Note, Illustrator’s Note, Bibliography of books “For Further Reading”, and map of John’s journey and the Reconstructed United States circa 1870 appear at the end.

JohnRoyLynch2How do you write a book for children about a time when things were starting to look good and then plummeted into bad for a very very long time? I think kids have this perception (oh heck, a bunch of adults too) that we live in the best of all possible worlds. For example, there’s a children’s book series called Infinity Ring where the basic premise is that bad guys have gone and changed history and now it’s up to our heroes to put everything back because, obviously, this world we live in right now is the best. Simple, right? Their first adventure is to make sure Columbus “discovers” America so . . . yup. Too often books for kids reinforce the belief that everything that has happened has to have happened that way. So when we consider how few books really discuss Reconstruction, it’s not exactly surprising. Children’s books are distinguished, in part, by their capacity to inspire hope. What is there about Reconstruction to cause hope at all? And how do you teach that to kids?

Barton’s solution is clever because rather than write a book about Reconstruction specifically, he’s found a historical figure that guides the child reader effortlessly through the time period. Lynch’s life is perfect for every step of this process. From slavery to a freedom that felt like slavery. Then slow independence, an education, public speaking, new responsibilities, political success, two Congressional terms, and then an entirely different life after that (serving in the Spanish-American War as a major, moving to Chicago, dying). Barton shows his rise and then follows his election with a two-page spread of KKK mayhem, explaining that the strides made were taken back “In a way, the Civil War wasn’t really over. The battling had not stopped.” And after quoting a speech where Lynch proclaims that America will never be free until “every man, woman, and child can feel and know that his, her, and their rights are fully protected by the strong arm of a generous and grateful Republic,” Barton follows it up with, “If John Roy Lynch had lived a hundred years (and he nearly did), he would not have seen that come to pass.” Barton guides young readers to the brink of the good and then explains the bad, giving context to just how long the worst of it continued. He also leaves it up to them to determine if Lynch’s dream has come to fruition or not (classroom debate time!).

JohnRoyLynch4And he plays fair. These days I read nonfiction picture books with my teeth clenched. Why? Because I’ve started holding them to high standards (doggone it). And there are so many moments in this book that could have been done incorrectly. Heck, the first image you see when you open it up is of John Roy Lynch’s family, his white overseer father holding his black wife tenderly as their kids stand by. I saw it and immediately wondered how we could believe that Lynch’s parents ever cared for one another. Yet a turn of the page and Barton not only puts Patrick Lynch’s profession into context (“while he may have loved these slaves, he most likely took the whip to others”) but provides information on how he attempted to buy his wife and children. Later there is some dialogue in the book, as when Lynch’s owner at one point joshes with him at the table and John Roy makes the mistake of offering an honest answer. Yet the dialogue is clearly taken from a text somewhere, not made up to fit the context of the book. I loathe faux dialogue, mostly because it’s entirely unnecessary. Barton shows clearly that one need never rely upon it to make a book exemplary.

Finally, you just have to stand in awe of Barton’s storytelling. Not making up dialogue is one thing. Drawing a natural link between a life and the world in which that life lived is another entirely. Take that moment when John Roy answers his master honestly. He’s banished to hard labor on a plantation after his master’s wife gets angry. Then Barton writes, “She was not alone in rage and spite and hurt and lashing out. The leaders of the South reacted the same way to the election of a president – Abraham Lincoln – who was opposed to slavery.” See how he did that? He managed to bring the greater context of the times in line with John Roy’s personal story. Many is the clunky picture book biography that shoehorns in the era or, worse, fails to mention it at all. I much preferred Barton’s methods. There’s an elegance to them.

I’ve been aware of Don Tate for a number of years. No slouch, the guy’s illustrated numerous children’s books, and even wrote (but didn’t illustrate) one that earned him an Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Honor Award (It Jes’ Happened: When Bill Traylor Started to Draw). His is a seemingly simple style. I wouldn’t exactly call it cartoony, but it is kid friendly. Clear lines. Open faces. His watercolors go for honesty and clarity and do not come across as particularly evocative. But I hadn’t ever seen the man do nonfiction, I’ll admit. And while it probably took me a page or two to understand, once I realized why Don Tate was the perfect artist for “John Roy Lynch” it all clicked into place. You see, books about slavery for kids usually follow a prescribed pattern. Some of them go for hyperrealism. Books with art by James Ransome, Eric Velasquez, Floyd Cooper, or E.B Lewis all adhere closely to this style. Then there are the books that are a little more abstract. Books with art by R. Gregory Christie, for example, traipse closely to art worthy of Jacob Lawrence. And Shane W. Evans has a style that’s significantly artistic. A more cartoony style is often considered too simplistic for the heavy subject matter or, worse, disrespectful. But what are we really talking about here? If the book is going to speak honestly about what slavery really was, the subjugation of whole generations of people, then art that hews closely to the truth is going to be too horrific for kids. You need someone who can cushion the blow, to a certain extent. It isn’t that Tate is shying away from the horrors. But when he draws it it loses some of its worst terrors. There is one two-page spread in this book that depicts angry whites whipping and lynching their black neighbors. JohnRoyLynch3It’s not shown as an exact moment in time, but rather a composite of events that would have happened then. And there’s something about Tate’s style that makes it manageable. The whip has not yet fallen and the noose has not yet been placed around a neck, but the angry mobs are there and you know that the worst is imminent. Most interesting to me too is that far in the background a white woman and her two children just stand there, neither approving nor condemning the action. I think you could get a very good conversation out of kids about this family. What are they feeling? Whose side are they on? Why don’t they do something?

And Tate has adapted his style, you can see. Compare the heads and faces in this book to those in one of his earlier books like, Ron’s Big Mission by Rose Blue, in this one he modifies the heads, making them a bit smaller, in proportion with the rest of the body. I was particularly interested in how he did faces as well. If you watch Lynch’s face as a child and teen it’s significant how he keeps is features blank in the presence of white people. Not expressionless, but devoid of telltale thoughts. As a character, the first time he smiles is when he finally has a job he can be paid for. With its silhouetted moments, good design sense, tapered but not muted color palette, and attention to detail, Mr. Tate puts his all into what is by far his most sophisticated work to date.

This year rage erupted over the fact that the Confederate flag continues to fly over the South Carolina statehouse grounds. To imagine that the story Barton relates here does not have immediate applications to contemporary news is facile. As he mentions in his Author’s Note, “I think it’s a shame how little we question why the civil rights movement in this country occurred a full century following the emancipation of the slaves rather than immediately afterward.” So as an author he found an inspiring, if too little known, story of a man who did something absolutely astounding. A story that every schoolchild should know. If there’s any justice in the universe, after reading this book they will. Reconstruction done right. Nonfiction done well.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

Professional Reviews:

Misc: For you, m’dear?  An educator’s guide.

Videos: A book trailer and everything!


6 Comments on Review of the Day: The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch by Chris Barton, last added: 9/12/2015
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10. Review of the Day: Robo-Sauce by Adam Rubin

By Adam Rubin
Illustrated by Daniel Salmieri
Dial (an imprint of Penguin Books)
ISBN: 978-0525428879
Ages 4-6
On shelves October 20th.

When I whip out the old we’re-living-in-a-golden-age-of-picture-book-creation argument with colleagues and friends, they humor what I’m sure they consider to be my hyperbole. Suuuuuure we are, Betsy. Not prone to exaggeration or anything, are you? But honestly, I think I could make a case for it. Look at the picture books of the past. They were beautiful, intricately crafted, and many of them are memorable and pertinent to child readers today. What other art form for kids can say as much? You don’t exactly have five-year-olds mooning over Kukla, Fran and Ollie these days, right (sorry, mom)? But hand them Goodnight Moon and all is well. Now look at picture books today. We’re living in a visual learner’s world. The combination of relaxed picture books standards (example: comics and meta storytelling are a-okay!), publishers willing to try something new and weird, and a world where technology and visual learning plays a heavy hand in our day-to-day lives yields creative attempts hitherto unknown or impossible to author/illustrators as recently as ten years ago. And when I try to think of a picture that combines these elements (meta storytelling / new and weird / technology permeating everything we do) no book typifies all of this better or with as much panache as Robo-Sauce. Because if I leave you understanding one thing today it is this: This may well contain the craziest picture book construction from a major publisher I have EVER seen. No. Seriously. This is insane. Don’t say I didn’t warn you either.

We all know that kid who thinks pretending to be a robot is the most fun you can have. When the hero of this story tries it though he just ends up annoying his family. That’s when the narrator starts talking to him directly. What if there was a recipe for turning yourself into a REAL robot? Would you make it? Would you take it? You BET you would! But once the boy starts destroying things in true mechanical fashion (I bet you were unaware that robots were capable of creating tornadoes, weren’t you?), it’s pretty lonely. The narrator attempts to impart a bit of a lesson here about how to appreciate your family/dog/life but when it hands over the antidote the robot destroys it on sight. Why? Because it’s just created a Robo-Sauce Launcher with which to turn its family, its dog, the entire world, and even the very book you are reading into robots! How do you turn a normal picture book into a robot? Behold the pull out cover that wraps around the book. Once you put it on and open the other cover, the text and images inside are entirely robotized. Robo-Domination is near. It may, however, involve some pretty keen cardboard box suits.

So you’re probably wondering what I meant when I said that the book has a cover that turns into a robot book. Honestly, I tried to figure out how I would verbally explain this. In the end I decided to do something I’d never done before. For the first time ever, I’m including a video as part of my review. Behold the explanation of the book’s one-of-a-kind feature:

These days the idea that a narrator would speak directly to the characters in a book is par for the course. Breaking down the fourth wall has grown, how do you say, passé. We almost expect all our books to be interactive in some way. If Press Here made the idea of treating a book like an app palatable then it stands to reason that competing books would have to up the ante, as it were. In fact, I guess if I’m going to be perfectly honest here, I think I’ve kind of been waiting for Robo-Sauce for a long time. Intrusive narrators, characters you have to yell at, books you shake, they’re commonplace. Into this jaded publishing scene stepped Rubin and Salmieri. They’re New York Times bestsellers in their own right ( Dragons Love Tacos) so they’re not exactly newbies to the field. They’ve proven their selling power. But by what witchcraft they convinced Penguin to include a shiny pull out cover and to print a fifth of the book upside down, I know not. All I can be certain of is that this is a book of the moment. It is indicative of something far greater than itself. Either it will spark a new trend in picture books as a whole or it will be remembered as an interesting novelty piece that typified a changing era.

RoboSauce2Let’s look at the book itself then. In terms of the text, I’m a fan. The narrator’s intrusive voice allows the reader to take on the role of adult scold. Kids love it when you yell at a book’s characters for being too silly in some way and this story allows you to do precisely that. Admittedly, I do wish that Rubin had pushed the narrator-trying-to-teach-a-lesson aspect a little farther. If the lesson it was trying to impart was a bit clearer than just the standard “love your family” shtick then it could have had more of a punch. Imagine if, instead, the book was trying to teach the boy about rejecting technology or something like that. Any picture book that could wink slyly at the current crop of drop-the-iPhone-pick-up-a-book titles currently en vogue would be doing the world a service. I’m not saying I disagree with their message. They’re just all rather samey samey and it would be nice to see someone poke a little fun at them (while still, by the end, reinforcing the same message).

As for Salmieri’s art, the limited color palette is very interesting. You’ve your Day-Glo orange, black, white, brown, and pale pink (didn’t see that one coming). Other colors make the occasional cameo but the bulk of the book is pretty limited. It allows the orange to shine (or, in the case of the robot cover, the limited palette allows for something particularly shiny). And check out that subtle breaking down of visual stereotypes! Black dad and white mom. A sister that enjoys playing with trucks. I am ON BOARD with all this.

I won’t be the last parent/librarian/squishy human to hold this book in my hands and wonder what the heck to do with it. What I do know is that it’s a lot of fun. Totally original. And it has a bunch of robots in it causing massive amounts of destruction. All told, I’d say that’s a win. So domo arigato, Misters Rubin and Salmieri. Domo arigato a whole bunch.

On shelves October 20th.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

Professional Reviews: A star from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus,

Misc: Still need some help figuring out the cover?  Check out the book’s website here.


3 Comments on Review of the Day: Robo-Sauce by Adam Rubin, last added: 9/25/2015
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11. Review of the Day: The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz

hiredgirlThe Hired Girl
By Laura Amy Schlitz
Candlewick Press
ISBN: 978-0763678180
Ages 12 and up

Bildungsroman. Definition: “A novel dealing with one person’s formative years or spiritual education.” A certain strain of English major quivers at the very term. Get enough Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man shoved down your gullet and you’d be quivering too. I don’t run across such books very often since I specialize primarily in books for children between the ages of 0-12. For them, the term doesn’t really apply. After all, books for kids are often about the formation of the self as it applies to other people. Harry finds his Hogwarts and Wilbur his spider. Books for teenagers are far better suited to the Bildungsroman format since they explore that transition from child to adult. Yet when you sit right down and think about it, the transition from childhood to teenagerhood is just as fraught. There is a beauty to that age, but it’s enormously hard to write. Only a few authors have ever attempted it and come out winners on the other side. Laura Amy Schlitz is one of the few. Writing a book that could only be written by her, published by the only publisher who would take a chance at it (Candlewick), Schlitz’s latest is pure pleasure on the page. A book for the child that comes up to you and says, “I’ve read Anne of Green Gables and Little Women. What’s new that’s like that?”

The last straw was the burning of her books. Probably. Even if Joan’s father hadn’t set her favorite stories to blazes, it’s possible that she would have run away eventually. What we do know is that after breaking her back working for a father who wouldn’t even let her attend school or speak to her old teacher, 14-year-old Joan Skraggs has had enough. She has the money her mother gave her before she died, hidden away, and a dream in mind. Perhaps if she runs away to Baltimore she might be able to find work as a hired girl. It wouldn’t be too different from what she’s done at home (and it could be considerably less filthy). Bad luck turns to good when Joan’s inability to find a boarding house lands her instead in the household of the Rosenbach family. They’re well-to-do Jewish members of the community and Joan has no experience with Jewish people. Nonetheless she is willing to learn, and learn she does! But when she takes her romantic nature a bit too far with the family, she’ll find her savior in the most unexpected of places.

I mentioned Anne of Green Gables in my opening paragraph, but I want to assure you that I don’t do so lightly. One does not bandy about Montgomery’s magnum opus. To explain precisely why I referenced it, however, I need to talk a little bit about a certain type of romantically inclined girl. She’s the kind that gets most of her knowledge of other people through books. She is by turns adorable and insufferable. Now, the insufferable part is easy to write. We are, by nature, inclined to dislike girls in their early teens that play a kind of mental dress-up that’s cute on kids and unnerving on adolescents. However, this character can be written and written well. Jo in Little Women comes through the age unscathed. Anne from Anne of Green Gables traipses awfully close to the awful side, but manages to charm the reader in the process (no mean feat). The “Girl” from the musical The Fantastiks would fit in this category as well. And finally, there is Joan in The Hired Girl. She vacillates wildly between successfully playing the part of a young woman and then going back to the younger side of adolescence. She pouts over not getting a kitten, for crying out loud. Adults reading this book will have a vastly different experience than kids and teens, then. To a grown-up (particularly a grown-up woman) Joan is almost painfully familiar. We remember the age of fourteen and what that felt like. That yearning for love and adventure. That yearning can be useful to you, but it can also make you bloody insufferable. As such, adults are going to be inclined to forgive Joan very easily. I can only hope that her personality allows younger readers to do the same.

My husband used to write and direct short historical films. They were labor intensive affairs where every car, house, and pot holder had to be accurate and of the period. It would have been vastly easier to just write and direct contemporary fare, but where’s the fun in that? I think of those days often when I read works of historical fiction. Labor intensive doesn’t even begin to explain what goes into an accurate look at history. Ms. Schlitz appears to be unaware of this, however, since not only has she written something set in the past, she throws the extra added difficulty of discussing religion into it as well. Working in a Jewish household at the turn of the century, Joan must come to grips with all kinds of concepts and ideas that she has hitherto been ignorant of. For this to work, the author tries something very tricky indeed. She makes certain that her heroine has grown up on a farm where her sole concept of Jewish people is from “Ivanhoe”, so that she is as innocent as a newborn babe. She isn’t refraining from anti-Semitism because she’s an apocryphal character. She’s just incapable of it due to her upbringing, and that’s a hard element to pull off. Had Ms. Schlitz pushed the early portion of this book any further, she would have possibly disinterested her potential readership right from the start. I have heard a reader say that the opening sequence with Joan’s family is too long, but I personally believe these sections where she wanders blindly in and out of various situations could not have worked if that section had been any shorter.

But as I say, historical fiction can be the devil to get right. Apocryphal elements have a way of seeping into the storyline. Your dialogue has to be believably from the time and yet not so stilted it turns off the reader. In this, Laura Amy Schlitz is master. This book feels very early 20th century. You wouldn’t blink an eye to learn it was fifty or one hundred years old (though its honest treatment of Jewish people is probably the giveaway that it’s contemporary). The language feels distinctive but it doesn’t push the young reader away. Indeed, you’re invited into Joan’s world right from the start. I also enjoyed very much her Catholicism. Characters that practice religion on a regular basis are so rare in contemporary books for kids these days.

As I mentioned, adults will read this book differently than the young readership for whom it is intended. I do think that if I were fourteen myself, this would be the kind of book I’d take to. By the same token, as an adult the theme that jumped out at me the most was that of motherhood. Joan’s mother died years before but she has a very palpable sense of her. Her memories are sharp and through her eyes we see the true tragedy of her mother’s life. How she wed a violent, hateful man because she felt she had no other choice. How she wasn’t cut out for the farm’s hard labor and essentially worked herself to death. How she saw her daughter’s future and found the means to save her (and by golly it works!). All the more reason to have your heart go out to Joan when she tries, time and again, to turn Mrs. Rosenbach into a substitute mother figure. It’s a role that Mrs. Rosenbach does NOT fit into in the least, but that doesn’t stop Joan from extended what is clearly teenaged rebellion onto a woman who isn’t her mother but her employer. Indeed, it’s Mrs. Rosenbach who later says, “I felt her wanting a mother.”

Is it a book for a certain kind of reader? Who am I to say? It’s a book I’d hand to a young me, so I don’t think I can necessarily judge who else would enjoy it. It’s beautiful and original and old and classic. It makes you feel good when you read it. It’s thick but it flies by. Because of the current state of publishing today books are either categorized as for children or for teens. The Hired Girl isn’t really for either. It’s for those kids poised between the two ages, desperate to be older but with bits of pieces of themselves stuck fast to their younger selves. A middle school novel of a time before there were middle schools. Beautifully written, wholly original, one-of-a-kind. Unlike anything you’ve read that’s been published in the last fifty years at least, and that is the highest kind of praise I can give.

On shelves now.

Professional Reviews:

Interviews: Laura speaks with SLJ about the book.


More discussions of the book and where it came from!


10 Comments on Review of the Day: The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz, last added: 10/9/2015
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12. A Glorious List of YA Apocalypse Books

I have a deep love for all books about the end of the world and the apocalypse. It’s exciting! I love the speculation of what could happen. Because zombies could totally happen. Or angels. Or destruction by walking trees. WHO KNOWS. Today I have a list of Young Adult books about the apocalypse and the end of the world. […]

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13. Review of the Day: Tricky Vic by Greg Pizzoli

Tricky Vic: The Impossibly True Story of the Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower
By Greg Pizzoli
Viking (an imprint of Penguin Group USA)
ISBN: 978-0-670-01652-5
Ages 8-11
On shelves now

I was listening to a favorite podcast of mine the other day when the panelists began discussing the difference between heist films and con man films.  A heist film is one where the entire movie is a build-up to a great and fabulous heist.  Ocean’s 11 and that sort of thing.  In the children’s book world this would be The Great Greene Heist.  A con man film is different.  There you have a single individual, and not necessarily a heroic one either.  Catch Me If You Can is a con man film.  And on the children’s book side?  Honestly, we don’t have a lot of them.  Maybe Pickle by Kim Baker but that’s a stretch.  It really wasn’t until I laid eyes on Greg Pizzoli’s Tricky Vic that I could appreciate what I had been missing all these years.  Told with a relaxed easygoing style, Pizzoli takes one of the world’s most notorious individuals in the con game, and refuses to humanize him.  Here we see a character that was larger than life.  Makes sense that he’d try to sell a structure that was in many ways his equal.

In 1890 he was born Robert Miller, but that didn’t last.  Names came and went and by the time he was an adult, Miller was a professional gambler turned con artist.  His preferred method of payment was gambling on transatlantic ocean liners but then along came WWI and Miller, now calling himself Count Victor Lustig, needed a new occupation.  Through a little low level trickery he got the blessing of Al Capone and then set about bilking the easy rich.  But his greatest feat, and the one that would put him down in the history books, was his successful con of “selling” the Eiffel Tower to prospective buyers.  Though in time he was eventually caught and jailed (in Alcatraz, no less), Vic’s odd life shines a spotlight on those individuals willing to get ahead on our own greed and misplaced hope.  Backmatter includes an Author’s Note, Glossary, Selected Sources, and a note on the art.

Every great picture book biography finds something about an individual that is interesting to child readers.  In The Boy Who Loved Math it was Paul Erdos’s sheer enthusiasm and childlike goofiness.  In The Noisy Paintbox it was Kandinsky’s ability to translate sound to sight and back again.  And in Tricky Vic it’s shamelessness.  Kids don’t often encounter, in any form, adults that unapologetically do wrong.  Vic ultimately pays for his crimes, and in many ways that’s the only way you can get away with what Pizzoli is doing here.  You see, the trouble with con man storylines is that they’re just too much fun.  You can’t help but root for Vic when he pulls the old Romanian Money Box scheme or when he cons the great Al Capone himself.  Really one of the few objections I’ve heard lobbed against the book is a question as to whether or not kids will have any interest in an obscure two-bit criminal.  But like all great nonfiction authors for kids, Pizzoli knows that children’s biographies do not begin and end with Amelia Earhart and Abraham Lincoln.  Sometimes kids appreciate far more the biographies of the people who didn’t go about with halos hovering around their ears.  There’s room on our shelves for the baddies.

Now when Greg Pizzoli debuted with his picture book The Watermelon Seed two years ago, there was nothing to indicate to me that he had any inclination to go the nonfiction route.  “The Watermelon Seed” utilizes a three-color print job and distinctly retro aesthetic.  That aesthetic remains intact in Tricky Vic but Pizzoli but the technique has been cranked up to eleven.  In “A Note About the Art in This Book” at the back, Pizzoli says that the illustrations seen here were “created using pencil, ink, rubber stamps, halftone photographs, silkscreen, Zipatone, and Photoshop.” The end result is a book that straddles the line between those picture books actually concocted in the 1930s and a distinctly contemporary creation.

Dig a little deeper and Pizzoli’s illustration choices go beyond mere novelty.  The choice to render Vic’s head as a thumbprint has so many different uses.  With a mere change in tone or color, Pizzoli can render his personality and character different from one page to the next.  This chameleon of a man couldn’t ask for better representation.  But much of the success of the book lies in how it tackles the question of Vic as a bad person.  Pizzoli’s choice to make Vic expressionless throughout the book is key to this.  Because kids aren’t exactly reading about a role model, it’s important that Vic never look like he’s having too much fun.  Remove his mouth and eyes and voila!  An instant blank slate on which to project your storyline.  Let the facts speak for themselves.

And speaking of facts, in no time in our nation’s history have picture book biographies for children fallen under as much scrutiny as they do today.  Time was the D’Aulaires could write varying fictional accounts of everyone from Pocahontas to Abraham Lincoln and win Caldecotts for their efforts.  These days, the debate rages around how much an author is allowed to do and the crux of that debate centers on made up dialogue.  I am firmly of the opinion that made up dialogue is unnecessary in a children’s book biography.  However, when handled creatively, there are exceptions to every rule.  And “Tricky Vic” is, if nothing else, vastly creative.  If you read the book the actual text is all factual.  There is some mucking about with the timeline of one of the major events in Vic’s life, but Pizzoli comes clean about that in his Author’s Note in the back, and I give a lot of credit to folks who fess up plainly.  Getting back to the text, look a little closer and you’ll see that there is some made up dialogue but Pizzoli keeps it at a minimum and gives it its own separate space.  Little speech balloons between the characters will occasionally crop up at the bottom of the pages.  The feeling is that these are interstitial fictional bits that simply support the rest of the text.  A reader doesn’t walk away from them thinking that they’re strict representations of the past.  They are, instead, a little colorful complement to the text to give it a lighter bouncier feel.

I recently conducted a Salon in my library on children’s nonfiction picture book illustration and historical accuracy.  During the course of the talk we discussed Vincent Kirsch’s work on Gingerbread for Liberty and the times when a bouncier, more light-hearted feel to the illustrations best fit the text.  In Tricky Vic Pizzoli isn’t going for a meticulous reconstruction of past events in his art.  He’s going for something with a historical feel, but with fun built in as well.  The design elements are what really step things up a notch.  I also loved the factual sidebars that complemented the text but never dominate.  As kids read they encounter sections talking about Prohibition, The Tower’s Critics (the folks who hated it from the get-go, that is), the Hotel de Crillon, Counterfeiting, and Alcatraz.  The end result is as dynamic as it is informative.

I wonder vaguely if this book will receive any challenges from concerned parents living in the mistaken belief that Pizzoli has penned a How To manual for little budding criminals.  As I mentioned before, the line between celebrating your biographical picture book subject and simply reporting on their life is thin.  The beauty of Tricky Vic, I think, is that his life is just as wild and weird as any fictional character.  There is value in showing kids the fools of the past.  I don’t think anyone will walk away from this thinking Vic had it all figured out, but I do think a fair number of them might want to follow-up on Pizzoli’s Selected Sources for a little independent reading of their own.  And if this book encourages just one kid to rethink their attitude towards nonfiction, then this title has earned its place in the world.  The gorgeous art and great writing are just gravy.  For one.  For all.  Un-forgettable.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

Other Blog Reviews: 100 Scope Notes

Professional Reviews: The New York Times

Interviews: Greg Pizzoli discusses his technique at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.


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14. Review of the Day: Red by Michael Hall

Red: A Crayon’s Story
By Michael Hall
Greenwillow (an imprint of Harper Collins)
ISBN: 978-0062252074
Ages 3-6
On shelves now

Almost since their very conception children’s books were meant to teach and inform on the one hand, and to inform one’s moral fiber on the other. Why who can forget that catchy little 1730 ditty from The Childe’s Guide that read, “The idle Fool / Is whipt at School”? It’s got a beat and you can dance to it! And as the centuries have passed children’s books continue to teach and instruct. Peter Rabbit takes an illicit nosh and loses his fancy duds. Pinocchio stretches the truth a little and ends up with a prominent proboscis. Even parents who are sure to fill their shelves with the subversive naughtiness of Max, David, and Eloise are still inclined to indulge in a bit of subterfuge bibliotherapy when their little darling starts biting / hitting / swearing at the neighbors. Instruction, however, is a terribly difficult thing to do in a children’s book. It takes skill and a gentle hand. When Sophie Gets Angry . . . Really Really Angry works because the point of the book is couched in beautiful, lively, eye-popping art, and a story that shows rather than tells. But for every Sophie there are a hundred didactic tracts that some poor child somewhere is being forced to swallow dry. What a relief then to run across Red: A Crayon’s Story. It’s making a point, no doubt about it. But that point is made with a gentle hand and an interesting story, giving the reader the not unpleasant sensation that even if they didn’t get the point of the tale on a first reading, something about the book has seeped deep into their very core. Clever and wry, Hall dips a toe into moral waters and comes out swimming. Sublime.

“He was red. But he wasn’t very good at it.” When a blue crayon in a wrapper labeled “Red” finds himself failing over and over again, everyone around him has an opinion on the matter. Maybe he needs to mix with the other kids more (only, when he does his orange turns out to be green instead). Maybe he just needs more practice. Maybe his wrapper’s not tight enough. Maybe it’s TOO tight. Maybe he’s got to press harder or be sharper. It really isn’t until a new crayon asks him to paint a blue sea that he comes to the shocking realization. In spite of what his wrapper might say, he isn’t red at all. He’s blue! And once that’s clear, everything else falls into place.

A school librarian friend of mine discussed this book with some school age children not too long ago. According to her, their conversation got into some interesting territory. Amongst themselves they questioned why the crayon got the reaction that he did. One kid said it was the fault of the factory that had labeled him. Another kid countered that no, it was the fault of the other crayons for not accepting him from the start. And then one kid wondered why the crayon needed a label in the first place. Now I don’t want to go about pointing out the obvious here but basically these kids figured out the whole book and rendered this review, for all intents and purposes, moot. They got the book. They understand the book. They should be the ones presenting the book.

Because you see when I first encountered this story I applied my very very adult (and very very limited) interpretation to it. A first read and I was convinced that it was a transgender coming-of-age narrative except with, y’know, waxy drawing materials. And I’m not saying that isn’t a legitimate way to read the book, but it’s also a very limited reading. I mean, let’s face it. If Mr. Hall had meant to book to be JUST about transgender kids, wouldn’t it have been a blue crayon in a pink wrapper? No, Hall’s story is applicable to a wide range of people who find themselves incorrectly “labeled”. The ones who are told that they’re just not trying hard enough, even when it’s clear that the usual rules don’t apply. We’ve all known someone like that in our lives before. Sometimes they’re lucky in the way that Red here is lucky and they meet someone who helps to show them the way. Sometimes they help themselves. And sometimes there is no help and the story takes a much sadder turn. I think of those kids, and then I read the ending of “Red” again. It doesn’t help their situation much, but it makes me feel better.

This isn’t my first time at the Michael Hall rodeo, by the way. I liked My Heart Is Like a Zoo, enjoyed Perfect Square, took to Cat Tale, and noted It’s an Orange Aardvark It’s funny, but in a way, these all felt like a prelude to Red. As with those books, Hall pays his customary attention to color and shape. Like Perfect Square he even mucks with our understood definitions. But while those books were all pleasing to the eye, Red makes a sudden lunge for hearts and minds as well. That it succeeds is certainly worth noting.

Now when I was a kid, I ascribed to inanimate objects a peculiar level of anthropomorphizing. A solo game of war turned a deck of cards into a high stakes emotional journey worthy of a telenovela. And crayons? Crayons had their own lives as well. There were a lot of betrayals and broken hearts in my little yellow box. Hall eschews this level of crayon obsession, but in his art I noticed that he spends a great deal of time understanding what a crayon’s existence might entail if they were allowed families and full lives. I loved watching how the points on the crayons would dull or how some crayons were used entirely on a slant, due to the way they colored. I liked how the shorter you are, the older you are (a concept that basically turned my 3-year-old’s world upside down when she tried to comprehend it). I liked how everything that happens to Red stays with him throughout the book. If his wrapper is cut or he’s taped together, that snip and tape stay with him to the end. The result is that by the time he’s figured out his place in the world (and shouldn’t we all be so lucky) he bears the physical cuts and scars that show he’s had a long, hard journey getting to self-acceptance. No mean feat for a book that primarily utilizes just crayon drawings and cut paper, digitally combined.

Not everyone thinks, as I do, that Mr. Hall’s effort is successful. I’ve encountered at least one librarian who told me straight out that she found the book “preachy”. I can see why she’d say that. I mean, it does wear its message on its sleeve. Yet for all that it has a purpose I can’t call it purposeful. What Hall has done so well here is to take a universal story and tell it with objects that almost every reader approaching this book will already be familiar with. These crayons don’t have faces or arms or mouths. They look like the crayons you encounter all the time, yet they live lives that may be both familiar and unfamiliar to readers. And in telling a very simple fish-out-of-water story, it actually manages to make kids think about what the story is actually trying to say. It makes readers work for its point. This isn’t bibliotherapy. It’s bibliodecoding. And when they figure out what’s going on, they get just as much out of it as you might hope. A rare, wonderful title that truly has its child audience in mind. Respectful.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

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6 Comments on Review of the Day: Red by Michael Hall, last added: 3/30/2015
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15. Review of the Day: Castle Hangnail by Ursula Vernon

Castle Hangnail
By Ursula Vernon
Dial (an imprint of Penguin Group)
ISBN: 978-0803741294
Ages 8-11
On shelves April 21st

These are dark times for children’s fantasy. Dark times indeed. Which is to say, when I pick up a fantasy novel for kids, more often than not I find the books filled with torture, violence, bloody blood, and other various unpleasant bits and pieces. And honestly? That is fine. There are a lot of kids out there who lap up gore like it was mother’s milk. Still, it’s numbing. Plus I really wish that there was more stuff out there for the younger kiddos. The ones who have entered the wide and wonderful world of children’s fantasy and would rather not read about trees eating people or death by cake. Maybe they’d like something funny with lovable characters and a gripping plot. Even Harry Potter had its dark moments, but in the early volumes the books were definitely for the younger readers. Certainly we have the works of Eva Ibbotson and Ruth Chew, but newer books are always welcome, particularly if they’re funny. Maybe that’s part of the reason why Castle Hangnail blew me away as much as it did. Here we have a story that knows exactly what it is, what it wants to do, and manages to be hilarious and charming all at the same time. If you like your children’s fantasy novels full of psychotic villains and mind-numbing action sequences, seek ye elsewhere. This one’s for the kids.

To some, Castle Hangnail might appear to be a “pathetic rundown little backwater” but to the minions who live there it’s home. A home desperately in need of a new Master and Mistress. After all, if they don’t get someone soon the castle might be sold off and destroyed. Maybe that’s why everyone has such mixed feelings at first when Molly appears. Molly is short and young and wearing some very serious black boots. She looks like a 12-year-old kid and Majordomo, the guardian of the castle, is having a hard time coming to terms with the fact that she’s supposed to be their new Wicked Witch. Yet when he gives her the necessary tasks to make Castle Hangnail her own, Molly appears to have a couple tricks up her sleeve. She may have her secrets but everything seems to be okay . . . that is until the REAL master of Castle Hangnail arrives to claim it.

Basically what we have here is Downton Abbey for kids, albeit with significantly more dragon donkeys (and isn’t Majordomo SUCH a Carson?). This raises the question of where precisely this book takes place. Remembering that author Ursula Vernon herself is not actually British, one supposes that the story could be read as a U.S. tale. Due to its distinct Eva Ibbotson flavor, the initial inclination is to see the book as British. Our picturesque little towns pale in comparison to their picturesque little towns, and we’ve far fewer castles lying about the place. Still, there’s no reason it couldn’t be American. After all, I’ve seen many an American author fall into the trap of putting cockney characters into their books for no apparent reason. Vernon has a good head on her shoulders. She’s not falling for that game.

Truly a book like this hinges on the characters created. If you don’t believe in them or don’t like them then you won’t want us to follow them into your tale. You have to sympathize with Majordomo, even when he does some unfortunate things. You have to like Molly, even when you don’t initially understand her back-story. It takes a little while but Vernon also makes it clear how someone can be wicked as opposed to evil. “Wicked was turning somebody into an earwig and letting them run around for a week to give them a good scare. Evil was turning someone into an earwig and then stepping on them.” An evil heroine is tricky to love. A wicked one is on par with your average 12-year-old reader.

Speaking of characters, Vernon makes some very interesting narrative choices as well. For example, our heroine is introduced to us for the first time on page six. However around Chapter 33 she disappears from the storyline and really doesn’t appear again until Chapter 39. You have to have a very strong supporting cast to get away with that one. It would be a lot of fun to ask kid readers who their favorite character was. Did they prefer Pins or his neurotic goldfish? The minotaurs or the moles? Me, I like ‘em all. The whole kooky gang. For a certain kind of reader, there’s going to be a lot of allure to having minions as lovable as these.

Even the lightest bit of middle grade fluff needs a strong emotional core to keep it grounded. If there’s nothing to care for then there’s nothing to root for. For me, the heart of this particular tale lies in Molly’s relationship with the evil sorceress (and teenaged) Eudaimonia. Lots of kids have the experience of wanting to befriend someone older and meaner. The desire to please can lead a person to act unlike themselves. As Molly says, “It’s like a weird kind of magic . . . Like a spell that makes you feel like it’s all your fault.” Molly also wrestles with being different from her kittens and sparkles loving twin and so the theme of finding yourself and your own talents come to the fore.

And now a word in praise of humor. Funny is hard. Funny fantasy? That’s even harder. Vernon has always blown away the competition in the hilarity department. Pick up any “Danny Dragonbreath” comic and you’ll see what I’m talking about. She can sustain a narrative for an early chapter book, sure, but full-blown novels are a different kettle of fish (is that a mixed metaphor?). So how does she do? You’d swear she’d been churning these puppies out for years. Here are three of my favorite lines in celebration:

- “Harrow was one of those people who is born mean and continues to lose ground.”

- “Magic was a requirement in a new Master, unless you were a Mad Scientist, and Molly didn’t look like the sort to hook lightning rods up to cadavers while wild Theremins wailed in the background.”

- “For there are very powerful spells that are very simple, but unless you happen to be the right sort of person, they will not work at all. (And a good thing too. You can raise the dead with five words and a hen’s egg, but natural Necromancers are very rare. Fortunately they tend to be solemn, responsible people, which is why we are not all up to our elbows in zombies).”

Parents wander into the children’s room of a library. They ask the librarian at the desk to recommend a fantasy novel for their 8-year-old. “Nothing too scary”, they say. “Maybe something funny. Do you have anything funny?” Until now the librarian might try a little Ibbotson or a touch of E.D. Baker. Perhaps a smattering of Jessica Day George would do. Still, of all of these Castle Hangnail appeals to the youngest crowd. At the same time, it can be equally enjoyed by older kids too. Smart and droll, it’s the fantasy you’ve always wanted to hand to the 10-year-old Goth girl in your life (along with, let’s face it, everybody else you know). A true crowd pleaser.

On shelves April 21st.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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Professional Reviews: A star from Kirkus



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16. Review of the Day: Beastly Verse by Joohee Yoon

Beastly Verse
By Joohee Yoon
Enchanted Lion Books
ISBN: 978-1-59270-166-7
Ages 3 and up
On shelves now

Poetry. What’s the point? I say this as a woman who simultaneously gets poetry and doesn’t get it. I get that it’s important, of course. I only need to watch my three-year-old daughter come up with an ever increasing and creative series of bouncy rhymes to understand their use. But what I don’t get is Poetry with a capital “P”. I have come to accept this as a failing on my own part. And to be fair, there are works of poetry that I like. They just all seem to be for the milk teeth set. With that in mind I was particularly pleased to see Beastly Verse, illustrated by Joohee Yoon. Full of fabulous classic poems and art that manages to combined a distinctive color palette with eye-popping art, Yoon’s creates a world that takes the madcap energy of Dr. Seuss and combines it with the classic printmaking techniques of a fine artist. The end result keeps child readers on the edge of their seats with adults peering over their shoulders, hungry for more.

As I mentioned, the resident three-year-old is much enamored of poetry. This is good because it makes her an apt test subject for my own curiosity. I should mention that my goal in life is to NOT become the blogger who uses her children to determine the value of one book or another. That said, the temptation to plumb their little minds can sometimes prove irresistible. Now Beastly Verse is not specifically aimed at the preschooler set. With poems like William Blake’s “The Tiger” and “Humming-Bird” by D.H. Lawrence, the verse can at times exceed a young child’s grasp. That said, none of the poems collected here are very long, and the art is so entrancing that the normal fidgets just tend to fade away as you turn the pages. My daughter did find that some of the more frightening images, say of the carnivorous hummingbird or the spangled pandemonium, were enough to put her off. Fortunately, each scary image is hidden beneath a clever gatefold. If the reader does not want to see the face of a tiger tiger burning bright, they needn’t open the fold at all. Not only is it a beautiful technique, it makes the book appropriate for all ages. Clever.

One might not associate Yoon’s particular brand of yellows reds, oranges, greens, and blues with evocative prints. Yet time and again I was struck by the entrancing beauty of the pages. Yoon’s traditional printmaking techniques can bring to life the hot steam that rises even in the coolest shade of a tiger’s jungle. Another page and Lewis Carroll’s “The Crocodile” lingers below the surface of the water, his innards heaving with “little fishes”. Yoon saves the best for last, though, with a poem I’d not come across before. “Dream Song” by Walter de la Mare is set in the gleam of “Sunlight, moonlight / Twilight, starlight” when the sun is just a sliver of a white hot crescent on the horizon. All the forest is lit by the orange and red rays, and out of a tree pokes the head of a single owl. The hypnotic verses speaking of “wild waste places far away” mix with the image, conjuring up the moment moviemakers call “magic hour”.

Mind you, there is always a nightmarish mirror image to each seemingly sweet picture. The eyeless caterpillar all maw and teeth is turned, on the next page, into a beautiful but equally unnerving butterfly. Only Yoon, as far as I’m concerned, could have brought us the horrific implications of “The Humming-Bird” and its existence “Before anything had a soul.” Even the last seemingly innocuous image of Captain Jonathan cooking himself an egg takes on a dire cast when you realize it’s that of a pelican (of the poem “The Pelican” by Robert Desnos) he’s about to devour.

This is by no means the first collection of animal poetry to grace our shelves. It was only two or three years ago that J. Patrick Lewis helped to collect the National Geographic Book of Animal Poetry. Many of the poems found in this book can be found in that one as well. However, while that book seemed to be going for sheer girth, Yoon’s selections here are carefully positioned. I was interested in the layout in particular. You begin with the aforementioned Carroll poem (which seems appropriate since a manic smiling cat graces the title page) and then transition into a nursery rhyme, a bit of typical Ogden Nash flippery (only three lines long), and then Blake’s best-known poem. Variety of length keeps the poems eclectic and interesting to read. They keep you guessing as well. You never quite know what kind of poem will come next.

Having read the deliciously multicultural Over the Hills and Far Away, collected by Elizabeth Hammill, it is difficult to pick up a collected work of poetry without hankering for a similar experience. Aside from artist Joohee Yoon’s own name and the fact that Robert Desnos was Jewish, there is very little in this collection that isn’t white and American/European. The reasons for this may have something to do with permissions. Every poem in this book, with the exception of a few, is in the public domain. None were commissioned for the book specifically. Mind you, it would have been possible for the book to follow Hammill’s lead and locate international public domain animal poems of one sort or another written specifically for children. It is therefore up to the reading public to ascertain if the book stands stronger as a collection of similar types of poetry or if it would have benefited from a bit of variety here and there.

In the end, it’s a beautiful piece. Children’s rooms are no strangers to beautiful art in their poetry collections, but Yoon’s distinctive style is hard to compare to anyone. The only poet/illustrator with the same energy that comes to mind (and that writes for kids) would have to be Calef Brown. And as debuts go, this is a stunner. A truly inventive and original collection that deepens with every additional read. Kids like it. Adults like it. It could have benefited from some diversity, absolutely. Overall, however, there are few things like it on our shelves. An inspiration.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

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Other Blog Reviews: A Year of Reading

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Misc: Years ago, it was Jules at Seven Impossible Things who alerted the children’s book world to Ms. Yoon’s presence.  Here is the post.


5 Comments on Review of the Day: Beastly Verse by Joohee Yoon, last added: 4/16/2015
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17. The Water and the Wild, by K. E. Ormshee

Every now and again a book comes along that renders me smitten. In this case, the book was unexpected.  It showed up on my front porch, which is something that doesn't happen so often these days. I was intrigued by both the cover and the title and since it was a weekend, I settled in.

There is not much that makes Lottie Fiske happy.  She is stuck living in the boarding house with Mrs. Hester Yates after her intended guardian passes away in his porridge.  Mrs. Yates is not much like her husband who was always doing things that were kind.  She finds Lottie a bother who doesn't help with the chores, and is more likely found cavorting in the garden with her imagination.

Two things do make Lottie happy, and they are the apple tree in her yard, and her best friend Eliot.  She has been putting her wishes in that tree for ages now and each year on her birthday she receives the trinkets she asks for. So when Eliot's health takes a turn for the worse, Lottie knows she needs to use her birthday wish for something more important than hair bows.

An apple tree gateway, a magical legacy, political intrigue and plenty of double crossing do not deter Lottie from trying to get what she needs in order to help Eliot. The problem is, Eliot's not the only one who needs what Lottie has come for.

Ormshee has written one heck of a charming story that had me right from the beginning. Setting, character, story and world building all come together in a way where readers do not see the strings. The writing itself is a pleasure to read, and I am planning on reading this aloud this summer to my own daughters. The book comes blissfully map free, but I find myself wanting to draw not only Lottie's journey, but the characters she meets along the way.  From her apple tree, to Iris Gate and especially the Wisps...I have them in my mind's eye, but want to put pencil to paper and give them more shape and look upon them.  While this book doesn't scream sequel (and you all know how much I adore the stand alone), I find myself wanting more of these characters.  For fans of the faery, friendship, poetry and a well spun yarn.

0 Comments on The Water and the Wild, by K. E. Ormshee as of 4/20/2015 9:15:00 PM
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18. Review of the Day: On the Shoulder of a Giant by Neil Christopher

On the Shoulder of a Giant: An Inuit Folktale
By Neil Christopher
Illustrated by Jim Nelson
Inhabit Media
ISBN: 978-1-77227-002-0
Ages 4-7
On shelves now

My daughter is afraid of giants. She’s three so this isn’t exactly out of the norm. However, it does cut out a portion of her potential reading material. Not all giants fall under this stricture, mind you. She doesn’t seem to have any problem with the guys in Giant Dance Party and “nice” giants in general get a pass. Still, we’ve had to put the kibosh on stories like Jack and the Beanstalk and anything else where getting devoured is a serious threat. Finding books about good giants is therefore an imperative and it walks hand in hand with my perpetual search for amazing folktales. Every year I scour the publishers for anything resembling a folktale. In the old days they were plentiful and you could have your pick of the offerings. These days, the big publishers hardly want to touch the stuff, so it’s up to the smaller guys to fill in the gaps. And no one stands as a better folktale gap filler than the Inuit owned company Inhabit Media. Producing consistently high quality books for kids, one of their latest titles is the drop dead gorgeous On the Shoulder of a Giant. Funny, attractive, and a straight up accurate folktale, this is children’s book publishing at its best. And as for the giant himself, my daughter has never run into a guy like him before.

“…if there is only one Arctic giant story you take the time to learn about, this is the one to remember.” Which giant? Why Inukpak, of course! Large (even for a giant) our story recounts Inukpak’s various deeds. He could stride across wide rivers, and fish full whales out of the sea. In his travels, there was one day when Inukpak ran across a little human hunter. Misunderstanding the man to be a small child, the giant promptly adopted him. And since the man was no fool he understood that when a giant claims you, you have little recourse but to accept. He went along with it. The giant fished their dinner and when a polar bear threatened the hunter Inukpak flicked it away like it was no more than a baby fox or lemming. In time the two became good friends and had many adventures together. Backmatter called “More About Arctic Giants” explains at length about their size, their fights, their relationship to the giant polar bears, and how they may still be around – maybe right under your feet!

I’ve read a lot of giant fare in my day and I have never encountered a tale quite like this. Not that the story really goes much of anywhere. The only true question you find yourself asking as you read the tale is whether or not the hunter will ever confess to the giant that he isn’t actually a child. But as I read and reread the tale, I came to love the humor of the tale. Combined with the art, it’s a lighthearted story. In fact, one of the problems is also a point in its favor. When you get to the end of the tale and are told that Inukpak and the hunter had many adventures, you want to read those immediately. One can only hope that Mr. Christopher and Mr. Nelson will join forces yet again someday to bring us more of this unique and delightful duo.

I’m no expert on Inuit culture so it doesn’t hurt that in the creation of “On the Shoulder of a Giant” author Neil Christopher has the distinction of having spent the last sixteen years of his life recording and preserving traditional Inuit stories. Having seen a fair number of books of Native American folktales where the selection of the tales is offhanded at best, the care with which Christopher chooses to imbue his book with life and vitality is notable. The book reads aloud beautifully, and would serve a librarian well if they were told to read aloud a folktale to a group. Likewise, the pictures are visible from long distances. This story begs for a big audience.

I’ve seen a lot of small presses in my day. Quality can vary considerably from place to place. Often I’ll see a small publisher bring to life a folktale but then skimp on the artist chosen to bring the story to life. It’s a sad but common occurrence. So common, in fact, that when it doesn’t happen I’m shocked out of my gourd. Inhabit Media is one of those rare few that take illustration very seriously. Each of their books looks good. Looks not just professional but like something you’d want to take home for yourself. On the Shoulder of a Giant is no exception. This time the artist tapped was freelance illustrator Jim Nelson. He’s based out of Chicago and his art has included stuff like Magic the Gathering cards and the like. He is not, at first glance, the kind of artist you’d tap for a book of this sort. After all, he works with a digital palette creating images that would seemingly be more at home in a comic book than a classic Inuit folktale. Yet what are folktales but proto-superhero stories? What are superhero comics but just modern myths? Inukpak is larger than life and, as such, he demands an artist who can bring his physicality to bear upon the narrative. When he’s fishing for whales I wanna see that sucker fighting back. When he strides across great plains I wanna be there beside him. Nelson feeds that need.

Since Nelson isn’t Inuit himself, the question of how authentic his art may be arises. I am willing to believe, however, that any book published by a company operating with the sole intent to “preserve and promote the stories, knowledge and talent of Inuit and northern Canada” is going to have put the book through a strict vetting process. It would not be ridiculous to think that Nelson’s editor informed him of where to research classic Inuit clothing and landscapes. I loved every inch of Nelson’s art on this story but it was the backmatter that really did it for me. There’s a section that is able to show the difference in size between a inukpasugjuit (“great giant”), a inugaruligasugjuk (“lesser giant”), and a regular human that does a brilliant job of showing scale. That goes for the nanurluit (giant polar bear) in one of the pictures, relentlessly tracking two tiny hunters in their boats. But it is the final shot of a sleeping giant under the mountains as people walk on to of him, oblivious that will really pique young imaginations.

I’m not saying that On the Shoulder of a Giant has the ability to single-handedly rid my daughter of her fear of giants as a whole. It does, however, stand out as a singularly fun and interesting take on the whole giant genre. There’s nothing on my library shelves that sounds or feels or looks quite like this book. It could well be the poster child for the ways in which small publishers should examine and publish classic folktales. Beautiful and strange with a flavor all its own, this is one little book that yields big rewards. Fantastico.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

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19. AICL's Best Books of 2015

In December of 2014, I made a list of books that I'd recommended in 2014. It was a list of books that were published in that year.

This year I'm starting the Best Books of 2015 list today (May 6) and will update it as the year progresses. If you're looking over the list and want me to consider a book, do let me know!


Comics and Graphic Novels:

  • The Blue Raven written by Richard Van Camp, illustrated by Steven Keewatin Sanderson, published by Pearson.

Picture Books:

For Middle Grades:

For High School:

  • Feral Pride written by Cynthia Leitich Smith, published by HarperCollins.


Comics and Graphic Novels:

Picture Books:

For Middle Grades:

For High School:

  • Shadowshaper written by Daniel Jose Older, published in 2015 by Arthur A. Levine (imprint of Scholastic). 

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20. Review of the Day: Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer

UnusualChickensUnusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer
By Kelly Jones
Illustrated by Katie Kath
Alfred A. Knopf (an imprint of Random House Children’s Books)
ISBN: 978-0-385-75552-8
On shelves now

The epistolary novel has a long and storied history. At least when it comes to books written for adults. So too does it exist in novels for children, but in my experience you are far more likely to find epistolary picture books than anything over 32 pages in length. That doesn’t stop teachers, of course. As a children’s librarian I often see the kiddos come in with the assignment to read an epistolary novel and lord love a duck if you can remember one on the spot. I love hard reference questions but if you were to ask me to name five such books in one go I’d be scrambling for my internet double quick time. Of course now that I’ve read Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer I will at long last be able to pull at least one book from my crazy overstuffed attic of a brain instantaneously. Kelly Jones’s book manages with charm and unexpected panache to take the art of chicken farming and turn it into a really compelling narrative. Beware, though. I suspect more than one child will leave this book desirous of a bit of live poultry of their very own. You have been warned.

After her dad lost his job, it really just made a lot of sense for Sophie and her family to move out of L.A. to her deceased great-uncle Jim’s farm. Still, it’s tough on her. Not only are none of her old friends writing her back but she’s having a hard time figuring out what she should do with herself. She spends some of her time writing her dead Abuelita, some of her time writing Jim himself (she doesn’t expect answers), and some of her time writing Agnes of the Redwood Farm Supply. You see, Sophie found a chicken in her back yard one day and there’s something kind of strange about it. Turns out, Uncle Jim used to collect chickens that exhibited different kinds of . . . abilities. Now a local poultry farmer wants Jim’s chickens for her very own and it’s up to Sophie to prove that she’s up to the task of raising chickens of unusual talents.

UnusualChickens2There are two different types of children’s fantasy novels, as I see it. The first kind spends inordinate amounts of time world building. They will never let a single thread drop or question remain unanswered. Then there’s the second kind. These are the children’s novels where you may have some questions left at the story’s end, but you really don’t care. That’s Unusual Chickens for me. I simply couldn’t care two bits about the origins of these unusual chickens or why there was an entire company out there providing them in some capacity. What Ms. Jones does so well is wrap you up in the emotions of the characters and the story itself, so that details of this sort feel kind of superfluous by the end. Granted, that doesn’t mean there isn’t going to be the occasional kid demanding answers to these questions. You can’t help that.

I have a bit of a thing against books that present you with unnecessary twists at their ends. If some Deus Ex Machina ending solves everything with a cute little bow then I am well and truly peeved. And there is a bit of a twist near the end of Unusual Chickens but it’s more of a funny one than something that makes everything turn out all right. The style of writing the entire book in letters of one sort or another works very well when it comes to revealing one of the book’s central mysteries. Throughout the story Sophie engages the help of Agnes of the Redwood Farm Supply (the company that provided her uncle with the chickens in the first place). When she at last discovers why Agnes’s letters have been so intermittent and peculiar the revelation isn’t too distracting, though I doubt many will see it coming.

Now the book concludes with Sophie overcoming her fear of public speaking in order to do the right thing and save her chickens. She puts it this way: “One thing my parents agree on is this: if people are doing something unfair, it’s part of our job to remind them what’s fair, even if sometimes it still doesn’t turn out the way we want it to.” That’s a fair lesson for any story and a good one to drill home. I did find myself wishing a little that Sophie’s fears had been addressed a little more at the beginning of the book rather that simply solved without too much build up at the end, but that’s a minor point. I like the idea of telling kids that doing the right thing doesn’t always give you the outcome you want, but at least you have to try. Seems to have all sorts of applications in real life.

In an age where publishers are being held increasingly accountable for diverse children’s fare, it’s still fair to say that Unusual Chickens is a rare title. I say this because it’s a book where the main character isn’t white, that’s not the point of the story, but it’s also not a fact that’s completely ignored either. Sophie has dark skin and a Latino mom. Since they’ve moved to the country (Gravenstein, CA if you want to be precise) she feels a bit of an outsider. “I miss L.A. There aren’t any people around here- especially no brown people except Gregory, our mailman.” She makes casual reference to the ICE and her mother’s understanding that “you have to be twice as honest and neighborly when everyone assumes you’re an undocumented immigrant…” And there’s the moment when Sophie mentions that the librarian still feels about assuming that Sophie was a child of the help, rather than the grandniece of the Blackbird Farm’s previous owner. A lot of books containing a character like Sophie would just mention her race casually and then fear mentioning it in any real context. I like that as an author, Jones doesn’t dwell on her character’s ethnicity, but neither does she pretend that it doesn’t exist.

UnusualChickens3You know that game you sometimes play with yourself where you think, “If I absolutely had to have a tattoo, I think I’d have one that looked like [blank]”? Well, for years I’ve only had one figure in mind. A little dancing Suzuki Beane, maybe only as large as a dime, on the inner wrist of my right hand. I’ll never get this tattoo but it makes me happy to think that it’s always an option. I am now going to add a second fictional tattoo to my roster. Accompanying Suzuki on my left wrist would be Henrietta. She’s the perpetually peeved, occasionally telekinetic, and she makes me laugh every single time I see her. Henrietta’s creator, in a sense, is the illustrator of this book, Ms. Katie Kath. I was unfamiliar with her work, prior to reading Unusual Chickens and from everything I can tell this is her children’s book debut. You’d never know it from her style, of course. Kath’s drawing style here has all the loose ease and skill of a Quentin Blake or a Jules Feiffer. When she draws Sophie or her family you instantly relate to them, and when she draws chickens she makes it pretty clear that no other illustrator could have brought these strange little chickies to life in quite the same way. These pages just burst with personality and we have her to thank.

Now there are some fairly long sections in this book that discuss the rudimentary day-to-day realities of raising chickens. Everything from the amount of food (yes, the book contains math problems worked seamlessly into the narrative) to different kinds of housing to why gizzards need small stones inside of them. These sections are sort of like the whaling sections in Moby Dick or the bridge sections in The Cardturner. You can skip right over them and lose nothing. Still, I found them oddly compelling. People love process, particularly when that process is so foreign to their experience. I actually heard someone who had always lived in the city say to me the other day that before they read this book they didn’t know that you needed a rooster to get baby chickens. You see? Learning!

I don’t say that this book is going to turn each and every last one of its readers into chicken enthusiasts. I also know that it paints a rather glowing portrait of chicken ownership that is in direct contrast to the farm situation perpetuated on farmers today. But doggone it, it’s charming to its core. We see plenty of magical animal books churned out every year. Magical zoos and magical veterinarians and magical bestiaries. So what’s wrong with extraordinary chickens as well? Best of all, you don’t have to be a fantasy fan to enjoy this book. Heck, you don’t have to like chickens. The writing is top notch, the pictures consistently funny, and the story rather moving. Everything, in fact, a good chapter book for kids should be. Hand it to someone looking for lighthearted fare but that still wants a story with a bit of bite to it. Great stuff.

On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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Professional Reviews: A star from Kirkus


4 Comments on Review of the Day: Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer, last added: 6/2/2015
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21. Review of the Day: Hilo by Judd Winick

HiloHilo: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth
By Judd Winick
Random House Children’s Books
ISBN: 978-0-385-38617-3
Ages 9-12
On shelves September 1st

Relentless cheer. You can use it for good. You can use it for evil. You can use it in the name of humor too, but that’s a trickier game to play. I’m not saying it can’t be done. It just takes a certain level of finesse. Now I read a lot of graphic novels for kids in a given year that sell themselves as “funny”. And while I know that humor is subjective, I tell you plain that most of them aren’t of the laugh-out-loud variety. So when someone tries to sell me on the “funny” line with a comic I don’t actually expect that it’s gonna make me guffaw on the subway and embarrass me in front of the other riders. I guess I should be pretty peeved at you, Hilo for doing just exactly that, but how can I be mad at you? Your crazy positive outlook on life combined with your funny funny lines just makes you the most enjoyable hero to hit the library shelves in years. We get a lot of heroes around here but hardly any of them make us laugh. This guy, I like. This guy, your kids will like. This guy’s a keeper.

What if the one thing you were good at up and moved away and left you all alone? D.J. hasn’t the talents of the other people in his family and the way he figures it the only thing he was ever good at was being friends with his next door neighbor Gina. So when Gina moved away, so did the one thing that made him feel important. Three years pass, D.J.’s alone, and that’s when he spots something falling out of the sky. It’s small. It’s blond. And it’s wearing sparkly silver underpants. By all appearances the visitor is a small boy who calls himself Hilo. He doesn’t remember who he is or why he’s there or even what he is, but what he DOES love is discovering everything, and I mean everything, about the world. It looks like Hilo may be from another dimension, which is great. Except it looks like he’s not the only one. And it looks like he’d better remember who he is and fast because someone, or some THING, is after him.

We hear a lot of talk about “likability” and whether or not you relate to a story’s hero. In terms of D.J., I think that even the most accomplished children out there can relate to a kid who feels like he isn’t good at anything at all. Hilo’s a little different. He has more than a smidgen of The Greatest American Hero in his make-up, alongside a bit of Mork from Mork and Mindy and Avatar (the Nickelodeon cartoon). First, you get someone with powers they don’t completely understand. Next, you get a otherworldly funny being with superpowers figuring out day-to-day life. And finally, he’s a kid who ran from his frightening responsibilities and is now trying to undo a great wrong. I really love that last trope a lot because it’s something we all suspect we’d do ourselves when under serious pressure. Plus, like Avatar, Hilo delivers its message with a diverse cast and more than a smidgen of the funny.

In his bio at the back of the book Winick mentions that amongst his various influences he grew up reading the comic strip Bloom County. He’s not the first children’s book author/cartoonist to cite Berkeley Breathed as an inspiration (by the way, I love that Winick’s characters live in “Berke County”), but unlike the Bloom County imitators I’ve seen out there, Winick has managed to take the flavor and humor of the original strips and give them his own distinctive twist. Granted, the tighty whities and method of drawing toes look awfully similar to the feet and underwear of Milo Bloom, but there the direct correlations quit.

Actually, Winick’s artistic style is kind of fascinating. Particularly when it comes to characters’ eyes. A lot of the time he uses the old L’il Orphan Annie technique of keeping the pupils white and blank. But periodically, and for emphasis, small black pupils will appear. Then, in particularly emotional moments, full-color irises as well. Watching when precisely Winick chooses to use one kind of eye or another is a kind of mini lesson in comic drawing techniques in and of itself. Now Hilo is rendered in full-color glory, a fact that Winick uses to his advantage whenever he wants to create something like a portal to the Earth. But what I really liked watching, and the opening sequence is a brilliant example of this, is how he uses panels. The beginning of the book, which is a kind of flash forward into the future events to come, is a mix of action and visual humor. Even though you don’t know who these characters are, you are instantly on their side. Running from gigantic killer robots sort of cuts the “empathy” timeline in half, after all.

Now if I’ve learned anything from my time on this hallowed globe it’s that kids aren’t fans of true cliffhangers. The books where the hero is literally at the end of some screaming precipice or staring down certain death? It bugs them. They won’t stand for it. This isn’t to say that don’t like it when there’s the promise of another volume of their favorite series. But you’ve gotta ease into that, right? Leave them wanting more but solve the problem at hand. I won’t lie to you. Hilo ends on a cliffhanger. Fortunately, it’s the kind that isn’t going to make you mad when you get to it. Unless you can’t get the next book in the series. Then you’ll be furious.

I was trying to find equivalent kid comics to Hilo that know how to ratchet up the funny alongside the fast-paced. There’s a Jeff Smith blurb on this book so obviously Bone comes to mind. But I’d also be sure to mention Jorge Aguirre and Rafael Rosado’s Giants Beware in the same breath. Any maybe Jeffrey Brown’s Star Wars: Jedi Academy just to be safe. All these books understand that while kids will follow an exciting, well-drawn comic to the ends of the earth, throw in a little humor there and they’ll go from merely enjoying it to loving it with some deep, buried part of their little comic-loving souls. That’s the fandom Hilo is poised to create. Good clean laser-beams-coming-outta-your-hands fun for the whole family. Now hand me #2, please. I have some more reading to do.

On shelves September 1st.

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22. Hilo - The Boy Who Crashed to Earth, by Judd Winick

There are never enough graphic novels for kids.  This is a simple truth. When I look to our circulation at school, out of the top 50 circulating titles during the school year 44 were graphic novels.  88%!  So I was pretty delighted when my colleague Karyn told me there was a graphic novel for kids I needed to check out.  I finally got my hands on the arc and sat down to give it a go.

DJ is just an average kid in the middle of an above average family.  The one thing he was really good at was being a good friend to Gina, but Gina moved away 3 years ago.

DJ is sitting on the roof of his club house when he sees something crash out of the sky.  Imagine his surprise when a blond boy in silver undies climbs out of the newly formed crater in the earth.  This kid has a lot of energy and even more questions since his "memory is a busted book" and he's not quite sure where he's from or what he's doing on earth.  DJ takes Hilo in without much of a plan, and quickly finds himself with his hands full.

DJ is surprised when Gina ends up back in town, and notices that she's changed quite a bit in the 3 years she's been out of Berke County which makes DJ notice that he hasn't really changed. At all.

As Hilo's past is revealed to him in his dreams bit by bit, it soon becomes apparent that danger is on the way.  And now maybe DJ will realize he's not so ordinary after all.

This outstanding graphic novel needs to be purchased in multiples.  Winick has created lovable, funny and real characters that readers will laugh with and cheer for.  The movement in the art is reminiscent of both Watterson and Gownley and I defy anyone to read Hilo without feeling moments of joy.  While reviewers have pegged this as a 9-12 title, I'm saying all ages.  I know we will have kids from 6 to 14 eager to check this one out.

I heart Hilo.

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23. The Founding Fathers! by Jonah Winter

The Founding Fathers!: those horse rider; fiddle-playin’, book-readin’, gun-totin’, gentlemen who started America By Jonah Winter; Illustrated by Barry Blitt Atheneum Books for Young Readers. 2015 ISBN:9781442442720 Grades 6-12 I borrowed a copy of this book from my local public library. In March of this year, I read a piece by Seymour M. Hersh in the New Yorker Magazine entitled, “

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24. Review of the Day: The Case for Loving by Selina Alko and Sean Qualls

CaseLoving1The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage
By Selina Alko
Illustrated by Sean Qualls
Arthur A. Levine Books (an imprint of Scholastic)
ISBN: 978-0545478533
Ages 4-7
On shelves now.

When the Supreme Court ruled on June 26, 2015 that same-sex couples could marry in all fifty states, I found myself, like many parents of young children, in the position of trying to explain the ramifications to my offspring. Newly turned four, my daughter needed a bit of context. After all, as far as she was concerned gay people had always had the right to marry so what exactly was the big deal here? In times of change, my back up tends to be children’s books that discuss similar, but not identical, situations. And what book do I own that covers a court case involving the legality of people marrying? Why, none other than The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage by creative couple Selina Alko and Sean Qualls. It’s almost too perfect that the book has come out the same year as this momentous court decision. Discussing the legal process, as well as the prejudices of the time, the book offers to parents like myself not just a window to the past, but a way of discussing present and future court cases that involve the personal lives of everyday people. Really, when you take all that into consideration, the fact that the book is also an amazing testament to the power of love itself . . . well, that’s just the icing on the cake.

In 1958 Richard Loving, a white man, fell in love with Mildred Jeter, a black/Native American woman. Residents of Virginia, they could not marry in their home state so they did so in Washington D.C. instead. Then they turned right around and went home to Virginia. Not long after they were interrupted in the night by a police invasion. They were charged with “unlawful cohabitation” and were told in no uncertain terms that if they were going to continue living together then they needed to leave Virginia. They did, but they also hired lawyers to plead their case. By 1967 the Lovings made it all the way to The Supreme Court where their lawyers read a prepared statement from Richard. It said, “Tell the court I love my wife, and it is just unfair that I can’t live with her in Virginia.” In a unanimous ruling, the laws restricting such marriages were struck down. The couple returned to Virginia, found a new house, and lived “happily (and legally) ever after.” An Author’s Note about her marriage to Sean Qualls (she is white and he is black) as well as a note about the art, Sources, and Suggestions for Further Reading appear at the end of the book.

CaseLoving2“How do you sue someone?” Here’s a challenge. Explain the concept of suing the government to a four-year-old brain. To do so, you may have to explain a lot of connected concepts along the way. What is a lawyer? And a court? And, for that matter, why are the laws (and cops) sometimes wrong? So when I pick up a book like The Case for Loving as a parent, I’m desperately hoping on some level that the authors have figured out how to break down these complex questions into something small children can understand and possibly even accept. In the case of this book, the legal process is explained as simply as possible. “They wanted to return to Virginia for good, so they hired lawyers to help fight for what was right.” And then later, “It was time to take the Loving case all the way to The Supreme Court.” Now the book doesn’t explain what The Supreme Court was necessarily, and that’s where the art comes in. Much of the heavy lifting is done by the illustrations, which show the judges sitting in a row, allowing parents like myself the chance to explain their role. Here you will not find a deep explanation of the legal process, but at least it shows a process and allows you to fill in the gaps for the young and curious.

It was very interesting to me to see how Alko and Qualls handled the art in this book. I’ve often noticed that editors like to choose Sean as an artist when they want an illustrator that can offset some of the darker aspects of a work. For example, take Margarita Engle’s magnificently sordid Pura Belpre Medal winner The Poet Slave of Cuba. A tale of torture, gore, and hope, Qualls’ art managed to represent the darkness with a lighter touch, while never taking away from the important story at hand. In The Case for Loving he has scaled the story down a bit and given it a simpler edge. His characters are a bit broader and more cartoonlike than those in, say, Dizzy. This is due in part to Alko’s contributions. As they say in their “About the Art” section at the back of the book, Alko’s art is all about bold colors and Sean’s is about subtle layers of color and texture. Together, they alleviate the tension in different scenes. Moments that could be particularly frightening, as when the police burst into the Lovings’ bedroom to arrest them, are cast instead as simply dramatic. I noticed too that characters were much smaller in this book than they tend to be in Sean’s others. It was interesting to note the moments when that illustrators made the faces of Richard and Virginia large. The page early in the book where Richard and Mildred look at one another over the book’s gutter pairs well with the page later in the book where their faces appear on posters behind bars against the words “Unlawful Cohabitation”. But aside from those two double spreads the family is small, often seen just outside their different respective homes. It seemed to be important to Qualls and Alko to show them as a family unit as often as possible.

CaseLoving3Few books are perfect, and Loving has its off-kilter moments from time to time. For example, it describes darker skin tones in terms of food. That’s not a crime, of course, but you rarely hear white skin described as “white as aged cheese” or “the color of creamy mayonnaise” so why is dark colored skin always edible? In this book Mildred is “a creamy caramel” and she lives where people ranged from “the color of chamomile tea” to darker shades. A side issue has arisen concerning Mildred’s identification as Native American and whether or not the original case made more of her African-American roots because it would build a stronger case in court. This is a far bigger issue than a picture book could hope to encompass, though I would be interested in a middle grade or young adult nonfiction book on the topic that went into the subject in a little more depth.

Recently I read my kid another nonfiction picture book chronicling injustice called Drum Dream Girl by the aforementioned Margarita Engle. In that book a young girl isn’t allowed to drum because of her gender. My daughter was absolutely flabbergasted by the notion. When I read her The Case for Loving she was similarly baffled. And when, someday, someone writes a book about the landmark decision made by The Supreme Court to allow gay couples to wed, so too will some future child be just as floored by what seems completely normal to them. Until then, this is certainly a book written and published at just the right time. Informative and heartfelt all at once, it works beyond the immediate need. Context is not an easy thing to come by when we discuss complex subjects with our kids. It takes a book like this to give us the words we so desperately need. Many thanks then for that.

On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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Misc: Don’t forget to check out this incident that occurred involving this book and W. Kamau Bell’s treatment at Berkeley’s Elmwood Café.


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25. Review of the Day: Boats for Papa by Jessixa Bagley

boatsforpapaBoats for Papa
By Jessixa Bagley
Roaring Brook Press (an imprint of Macmillan)
ISBN: 978-1626720398
Ages 4-7
On shelves now

So I’m a snob. A children’s literature snob. I accept this about myself. I do not embrace it, but I can at least acknowledge it and, at times, fight against it as much as I am able. Truth be told, it’s a weird thing to get all snobby about. People are more inclined to understand your point of view when you’re a snob about fine china or wines or bone structure. They are somewhat confused when you scoff at their copy of Another Monster at the End of This Book since it is clearly a sad sequel of the original Jon Stone classic (and do NOT even try to convince me that he was the author of that Elmo-related monstrosity because I think better of him than that). Like I say. Kid book snobbery won’t get you all that far in this life. And that’s too bad because I’ve got LOADS of the stuff swimming between my corpuscles. Just take my initial reaction to Jessixa Bagley’s Boats for Papa. I took one glance at the cover and dismissed it, just like that. I’ll explain precisely why I did so in a minute, but right there it was my gut reaction at work. I have pretty good gut reactions and 99% of the time they’re on target. Not in this case, though. Because once I sat down and read it and watched other people read it, I realized that I had something very special on my hands. Free of overblown sentiment and crass pandering, this book’s the real deal. Simultaneously wrenching and healing.

Buckley and his mama are just two little beavers squeaking out an existence in a small wooden house by the sea. Buckley loves working with his hands (paws?) and is particularly good at turning driftwood into boats. One day it occurs to him to send his best boats off into the sea with little notes that read, “For Papa. Love, Buckley”. Buckley misses his papa, you see, and this is the closest he can get to sending him some kind of a message. As Buckley gets better, the boats get more elaborate. Finally, one day a year later, he runs into his house to write a note for papa, when he notices that his mother has left her desk open. Inside is every single boat he ever sent to his papa. Realizing what has happened, Buckley makes a significant choice with this latest seagoing vessel. One that his mama is sure to see and understand.

The danger with this book is determining whether or not it slips into Love You Forever territory. Which is to say, does it speak more to adults than to kids. You get a fair number of picture books with varying degrees of sentimentality out there every year. On the low end of the spectrum is Love You Forever, on the high end Blueberry Girl and somewhere in the middle are books like Someday by Alison McGhee. Some of these can be great books, but they’re so clearly not for kids. And when I realized that Boats for Papa was a weeper my alarm bells went off. If adults are falling over themselves to grab handkerchiefs when they get to the story’s end, surely children would be distinctly uninterested. Yet Bagley isn’t addressing adults with this story. The focus is on how one deals with life after someone beloved is gone. Adults get this instantly because they know precisely what it is to lose someone (or they can guess). Kids, on the other hand, may sometimes have that understanding but a lot of the time it’s foreign to them. And so Buckley’s hobbies are just the marks of a good story. I suspect few kids would walk away from this saying the book was uninteresting to them. It seems to strike just the right chord.

It is also a book that meets multiple needs. For some adult readers, this is a dead daddy book. But upon closer inspection you realize that it’s far broader than that. This could be a book about a father serving his time overseas. It could be about divorced parents (it mentions that mama misses papa, and that’s not an untrue sentiment in some family divorce situations). It could have said outright that Buckley’s father had passed away (ala Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas which this keeps reminding me of) but by keeping it purposefully vague we are allowed to read far more into the book’s message than we could have if it was just another dead parent title.

Finally, it is Bagley’s writing that wins the reader over. Look at how ecumenical she is with her wordplay. The very first sentences in the book reads, “Buckley and his mama lived in a small wooden house by the sea. They didn’t have much, but they always had each other.” There’s not a syllable wasted there. Not a letter out of place. That succinct quality carries throughout the rest of the book. There is one moment late in the game where Buckley says, “And thank you for making every day so wonderful too” that strains against the bonds of sentimentality, but it never quite topples over. That’s Bagley’s secret. We get the most emotionally involved in those picture books that give us space to fill in our own lives, backgrounds, understandings and baggage. The single note reading, “For Mama / Love, Buckley” works because those are the only words on the page. We don’t need anything else after that.

As I age I’ve grown very interested in picture books that touch on the nature of grace. “Grace” is, in this case, defined as a state of being that forgives absolutely. Picture books capable of conjuring up very real feelings of resentment in their young readers only to diffuse the issue with a moment of pure forgiveness are, needless to say, rare. Big Red Lollipop by Rukhsana Khan was one of the few I could mention off the top of my head. I shall now add Boats for Papa to that enormously short list. You see, (and here I’m going to call out “SPOILER ALERT” for those of you who care about that sort of thing) for me the moment when Buckley finds his boats in his mother’s desk and realizes that she has kept this secret from him is a moment of truth. Bagley is setting you up to assume that there will be a reckoning of some sort when she writes, “They had never reached Papa”. And it is here that the young reader can stop and pause and consider how they would react in this case. I’d wager quite a few of them would be incensed. I mean, this is a clear-cut case of an adult lying to a child, right? But Bagley has placed Buckley on a precipice and given him a bit of perspective. Maybe I read too much into this scene, but I think that if Buckley had discovered these boats when he was first launching them, almost a full year before, then yes he would have been angry. But after a year of sending them to his Papa, he has grown. He realizes that his mother has been taking care of him all this time. For once, he has a chance to take care of her, even if it is in a very childlike manner. He’s telling her point blank that he knows that she’s been trying to protect him and that he loves her. Grace.

Now my adult friends pointed out that one could read Buckley’s note as a sting. That he sent it to say “GOTCHA!” They say that once a book is outside of an author’s hands, it can be interpreted by the readership in any number of ways never intended by the original writer. For my part, I think that kind of a reading is very adult. I could be wrong but I think kids will read the ending with the loving feel that was intended from the start.

When I showed this book to a friend who was a recent Seattle transplant, he pointed out to me that the coastline appearing in this book is entirely Pacific Northwest based. I think that was the moment I realized that I had done a 180 on the art. Remember when I mentioned that I didn’t much care for the cover when I first saw it? Well, fortunately I have instituted a system whereby I read every single picture book I am sent on my lunch breaks. Once I got past the cover I realized that it was the book jacket that was the entire problem. There’s something about it that looks oddly cheap. Inside, Bagley’s watercolors take on a life of their own. Notice how the driftwood on the front endpapers mirrors the image of Buckley displaying his driftwood boats on the back endpapers. See how Buckley manages to use her watercolors to their best advantage, from the tide hungry sand on the beach to the slate colored sky to the waves breaking repeatedly onto the shore. Perspective shifts constantly. You might be staring at a beach covered in the detritus of the waves on one two-page spread, only to have the images scale back and exist in a sea of white space on the next. The best image, by far, is the last though. That’s when Bagley makes the calculated step of turning YOU, the reader, into Mama. You are holding the boat. You are holding the note. And you know. You know.

I like it when a picture book wins me over. When I can get past my own personal bugaboos and see it for what it really is. Emotional resonance in literature for little kids is difficult to attain. It requires a certain amount of talent, both on the part of the author and their editor. In Boats for Papa we’ve a picture book that doesn’t go for the cheap emotional tug. It comes by its tears honestly. There’s some kind of deep and abiding truth to it. Give me a couple more years and maybe I’ll get to the bottom of what’s really going on here. But before that occurs, I’m going to read it with my kids. Even children who have never experienced the loss of a parent will understand what’s going on in this story on some level. Uncomplicated and wholly original, this is one debut that shoots out of the starting gate full throttle, never looking back. A winner.

On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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Misc: Be sure to check out this profile of Jessixa Bagley over at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast.


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