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1. 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!

BOOKS BY NATIVE WRITERS

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.


NON-NATIVE WRITERS

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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2. 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
$16.95
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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3. 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.

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

Beastly Verse
By Joohee Yoon
Enchanted Lion Books
$18.95
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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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.

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5. Review of the Day: Everybody Sleeps (But Not Fred) by Josh Schneider

Everybody Sleeps (But Not Fred)
By Josh Schneider
Clarion Books (an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
ISBN: 978-0544339248
Ages 4-6
On shelves April 7, 2015

When attempting to turn small writhing human beings of very little years into mature, forthright, sterling individuals of singular merit and good humor we run into some challenges. There’s teaching them to eat their dinner (even the vegetables). There’s endowing them with an appreciation of tooth brushing. And then there’s the trickiest one of all: bedtime. That moment every day is when the battle of wills must begin. Now for some kids bedtime is merely a nightly inconvenience. For others, a call to arms. It is where our children pull out all the stops and use every last bit of intelligence and cunning at their disposal in the hopes of avoiding the unavoidable. Many is the picture book that has tried to bring that struggle to life on the page. Most catalog avoidance techniques. That is understandable. Like I say, creativity flows like a gushing torrent when kids are trying to get out of sleepytime. But one, a certain Everybody Sleeps (But Not Fred), goes a different route entirely. In this book Fred isn’t just avoiding bedtime. He’s making it nigh well impossible for anyone else to get any shut-eye either. Funny? You don’t know the half of it.

In this book Schneider takes the usual bedtime avoidance metaphors and then proceeds to crank them up to eleven. It’s bedtime. A time when all the animals are getting some well-deserved rest. There are the sheep counting themselves down. There are the monkeys, dreaming of some fine ballet antics. There are the monsters, brushing their teeth before they go down. And then, there is Fred. A Fred, who is not taking any of this lying down. He has a list of things to get done and by golly he’s going to do them. He might be playing loud instruments on the one hand or searching for Bigfoot on the other. Whatever it is he does, he does it loudly and all the animals are having a heckuva time getting some slee . . . wait! What’s this? It looks like Fred is sleeping at last. What a relief! But close the book quietly or he might begin his antics all over again.

So I’m just sitting here waiting for Josh Schneider to do something wrong. Any minute now. Any minute. Surely it’s just a matter of time before he pens a dud, right? Because as of right now in the year 2015 he’s just been hitting it out of the park over and over again. Tales for Very Picky Eaters won itself a Geisel Award. The Meanest Birthday Girl is the best white elephant tale you’ll ever pick up. And Princess Sparkle-Heart Gets a Makeover has to be the best Frankenstein meets pretty pretty princess fare you’ll run ever run across. So even though the cover of this book made me laugh out loud on sight (the giraffe takes up two floors!!!) I tried to read Everybody Sleeps (But Not Fred) with an open mind. Schneider was going to have to earn my love with this one. Yeah, he pretty much does that from page one onwards.

Part of this has a lot to do with Schneider’s love of detail. His is not a changeable illustration style. Once again he employs the same thin black lines. The same L’il Orphan Annie’s pupil-less eyes. But here he’s been given a bit more leeway with the art. I don’t know that I ever felt he was holding himself back before, but if this book is any indication then yes. Yes he has. This is a book that rewards the parent called upon to read and reread certain sections multiple times. Some examples: Turn now to the page where the sheep are getting sleepy. Did you notice that there’s a tally on the wall and that next to one of the tally marks they’ve written a sheep’s name with a question mark? Clearly they’re good at keeping track. And did you notice that the animals that move from page to page are actually Fred’s stuffed animals seen at the beginning and end of the book? This only becomes perfectly clear when you get to the end and the woebegotten sheep Fred has fallen asleep upon turns into a stuffed animal with a mere page turn. Then you have to spend an inordinate amount of time flipping back through the book to figure out where each stuffed animal plays into the narrative.

Is it repetitive of me to mention that it’s funny to boot? Let us not downplay the role of humor in a title. If Schneider was truly told by his editor to go all out and do whatever he liked (which, regardless of whether or not that happened, is the overall impression anyway) you could not get a better mixture of child and adult humor. Some books tip too far in one direction or another. This book walks the fine line. So you’ll have monkeys performing ballet on the one hand (note that to accommodate their feet, Schneider has given their shoes a little extra hole for the superfluous thumb toe) and then you’ll have the text of the world’s most boring bedtime book on the other. At one point in the story we are told that a group of children has been bored into snores by the reading of a particularly draining bunny book. We even get a glimpse of the text and to my mind it is worth the price of the book right there. I won’t ruin it for you. Just know that “foreign monies” does in fact rhyme with “bunnies” and that this may be the first time the term “bunny bender” has ever appeared in any kind of a context in a children’s book.

All this is well and good, but let’s examine the really important part: how does the book read aloud? You see I have a three-year-old residing in my home right now and if a book doesn’t pass the readaloud test then this particular kiddo is not going to care two bits about Fred, sleeping or otherwise. Happily, it reads beautifully. I was able to have particular fun with the “but not Fred” part of each sequence. You just drop a long pause in there. Not so long it loses your audience, but long enough to build anticipation. Then you lean towards the kid and say sotto vox, “… but not Fred.” Gets ‘em every time, guaranteed.

Is it a book that will actually put a kid to sleep? Not in the traditional sense. I mean, you want soporific fare you may as well stick to Goodnight Moon. There is, however, the possibility that Fred’s antics will be so wild and wackadoodle that they’ll exhaust your own child by mere association. And, of course, he’ll amuse them deeply. He and his dead tired animal/monster companions. There are books about avoiding going to bed and then there’s Fred. A book with a spring in its step, a song in its heart, and what appears to be Jolt Cola swimming through its veins. Sleepers awake!

On shelves April 7th.

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6. Review of the Day: My Near-Death Adventures by Alison DeCamp

My Near-Death Adventures (99% True)
By Alison DeCamp
Crown Books for Young Readers (an imprint of Random House)
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-385-39044-6
Ages 9-12
On shelves now

Children’s historical fiction novels often divide up one of two ways. In the first category you have your important moments in history. In such books our heroes run about and encounter these moments by surprise. Extra points if it happens to be a Great Big Bad Moment in history as well. Then in the second category are the books that have opted to go a more difficult route. They may be well grounded in a time period of the past, but they do not require historical cameos or Great Big Bad Moments to transport their readers. Such books run a very great risk of, quite frankly, becoming dull. Read enough of them and, with the exception of a few, they all run together. Humor often helps me distinguish them from the pack. After all, would Catherine Called Birdy command quite so many hearts and minds if it weren’t also deeply amusing? Still, it’s rare to find fiction set in the past for kids that’s quite that original. It takes a certain kind of devious brain to hit on an all-new take. Enter My Near-Death Adventures by Alison DeCamp. Falling squarely into the second category rather than the first, this 1895 charmer utilizes plenty of visuals along with an unreliable narrator and classic comedic setting. I can say with certainty that your kids will never read a work of lumberjack fiction quite as fast and funny as this ever again.

Well, sir, it looks like Stan’s found himself in a heap of trouble. First off there’s the difficulty with his dead father. The problem? He’s not dead. He’s nowhere around, and now he seems to have divorced Stan’s mama, but dead he is not. Then there’s the fact that it’s the middle of winter yet Stan’s mama and his 95% evil Granny (her percentage fluctuates a lot) are packing him up and they’re all heading up to some godforsaken lumber camp in the middle of nowhere. Of course, that’s good for Stan since he’s been hoping to build up his manly skills so that he can support his mama. Unfortunately his cousin Geri, who seems to revel in torturing him, will be there as well. Can Stan fight off his mother’s multiple suitors, keep his eye on the lumberjack he’s dubbed “Stinky Pete”, and learn to be a man (if Geri doesn’t kill him first) all at once? If anyone can, it’s Stan. Probably.

Humor in historical fiction can come across as a case where the contemporary author is shoehorning his or her own beliefs onto characters from the past. Often when this happens it feels fake. I remember once reading a children’s novel set in the Civil War South where an enterprising young woman, with no outside influences, actually said, “Corsets don’t just restrict the waist. They restrict the mind,” or something equally out of left field. So to what extent are anachronisms a threat in books of this sort? For example, would someone like Stan really have called his cousin “Scary Geri”? For me, I don’t worry as much about the small details. If the language isn’t strictly of the late 19th century variety then who in the Sam Hill cares? (Forgive my language, granny.) It’s the big things (like mind restricting corsets) that catch my eye. With that in mind, I was somewhat relieved when I realized that Stan is a sexist jerk. He quite believably does not look on women’s accomplishments as something to commend (which, in turn, is an interesting way of building up sympathy for his cousin Geri). In other words, he’s of his time.

To bring the funny, DeCamp does two things I’ve not seen done in works of historical fiction before. The first involves a ton of late 19th/early 20th century advertisements. Using the conceit that this is Stan’s scrapbook, each image makes some kind of commentary on what Stan is describing. They’re also hilarious. I cannot help but imagine the countless hours DeCamp spent poring through advertisement after advertisement. One wonders if there were parts of the narrative wholly reliant on the existence of one ad or another. Hard to say.

The second clever and hitherto unknown thing DeCamp does with her storytelling is to make Stan an unreliable narrator with unreliable narration. Which is to say, you’ll be reading his private thoughts on the page when suddenly another character will comment on what clearly should have been kept inside Stan’s brain. The end result is that the reader will lapse into a continual sense of security, safe in the knowledge that what they’re reading isn’t dialogue (after all, there aren’t any quotation marks) and then, exactly like Stan, the reader will be shocked when someone comments on information they shouldn’t know anything about. It really puts you directly into Stan’s shoes and helps to make him more relatable. Which is good since he runs the risk of being considered unsympathetic as a character.

Unreliable as a narrator, potentially unsympathetic as a human being, Stan still wins our love. Why? He’s Kid Falstaff! A coward you root for and love, yet still don’t always approve of. Still, even in the depths of his own delusion, how can you not love the guy? He’s a Yooper Telemachus fending unworthy suitors off of his mama. And even when you’ve taken almost all you can take from the guy, you’ll find him saying something like, “This is the furthest I’ve ever felt from being a man. All I really want to do is cuddle up in bed and have Mama read me a book. Or play with the toy soldiers still lined up on my windowsill in the apartment house. But I can’t. Because that’s not manly, and being manly is the only way I’ll ever understand my father . . .” Poor kid.

A good author, by the way, allows their supporting characters some personal growth as well. It doesn’t all have to come from the protagonist, after all. In this particular case it’s Stan’s mama, a character that could easily have just been some passive, maternal bit of nothingness, who comes into her own. For years she’s been held down pretty effectively by her own mother. Now she has a chance at making a bit of a life for herself, choosing her own mate (or not choosing, as the case may be), and generally having a bit of fun. I know no kid reading this book is going to care, but I appreciated having someone other than Stan learn and grow.

I sit here secure in the knowledge that somewhere, at some time, an enterprising adult (be it teacher, parent, or librarian) will take it upon themselves to actually follow Mrs. Cavanaugh’s recipe for Vinegar Pie. The recipe is right there in black and white in the book, clear as crystal. If you have any goodness in your heart and you are tempted to tread this path, here is a bit of advice: don’t. It’s called Vinegar Pie, for crying out loud! What part of that sounds appetizing? You know what is appetizing? This book. Hilarious and heartbreaking and funny funny funny. You know what you hand a kid that gets the dreaded, “Read one work of historical fiction” assignment in school? You hand them this and then sit back to wait for their inevitable gratitude. They may never say thank you to your face, but you’ll be able to rest safe and secure in the knowledge that they loved this book. Or, at the very least, found it enticing and intriguing. 99-100% fantastic.

On shelves now.

Source:

Final copy sent from publisher for review.

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7. Review of the Day: Lost in NYC by Nadja Spiegelman

Lost in NYC: A Subway Adventure
By Nadja Spiegelman
Illustrated by Sergio García Sánchez
TOON Graphics (and imprint of RAW, Jr.)
$16.95
ISBN: 978-1935179818
Ages 8-12
On shelves April 14, 2015

While I’m aware that public transport was invented to meet the very real needs of urban commuters, when you’re the parent of a city child you can be forgiven for taking an entirely different view of things. Simply put: subways were created for the sole purpose of amusing children. How else to explain the fun maps, bright colors, and awe-inspiring bits of machinery? We already knew that kids loved trains. Now put those trains underground. That’s just awesomeness redoubled. Here in New York City a certain level of excitement about subway trains is almost required of our kids. Yet when it comes to books about the subway system, it’s often disappointing. Either it’s too young, too old, or like Count on the Subway by Paul DuBois Jacobs it gives the subway lines the wrong colors. Sure Subway by Christoph Niemann is the gold standard, but what can you offer older metro fans? Lost in NYC by Nadja Spiegelman hits that sweet spot for the 6-10 year old crowd. Visually stunning (to say nothing of its accuracy) with abundant factual information wriggled into every available crevice, you don’t have to be a New Yorker to enjoy this book (though, boy, does it sure help).

When you have a father that moves your family all over the country, it can be easy to disconnect from the places you briefly live. So when Pablo enters Mr. Bartle’s class on the first day of his new school, he rebuffs cheery Alicia’s attempts at friendship. On this particular day the class is taking a field trip to the Empire State Building. Pablo learns about the subway system that will take the class there alongside everyone else, but when he and Alicia are inspecting a map on the subway he’s briefly confused and takes her with him onto the express 2 train and not the local 1. Now separated from their class, the two kids start to fight and next thing you know they have to find their way back to their classmates entirely on their own. Backmatter and a Bibliography of other subway resources appear at the end.

I’m an adult so after reading this story several times you know whom I feel most sorry for? The teacher, Mr. Bartle. Here the man is, taking his class on a routine subway trip, and along the way he loses two of them at the very first stop. A common New Yorker nightmare is the idea that you might lose your child on the subway. Yet in Spiegelman and Sánchez’s hands it’s a nightmare turned into an adventure. It’s the same reason From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler continues to be read. For children, the thought of being independent in a city as vast as NYC is as enticing as it is horrific. Spiegelman does give Pablo a native guide for the first part of his journey, but pretty soon they two are separated and he has to make his way on his own to his group. This is by no means an interactive book, but I had to withhold a scream when Pablo jumped the 7 train at 42nd Street. He’s lucky he asked for traveling advice as early as he did, else he would have ended up in far distant Queens relatively quickly.

Spiegelman’s writing holds up for the most part. It’s a slim story, clocking in at a mere 52 pages which is only slightly more than your average picture book. Some of that is rounded out with the backmatter too. Filled with history and brimming with photographs, engravings, and other stunning images, Spiegelman outdoes herself with the information found there. For certain subway buffs, the info included (with sections like “Why Are There No H, I, K, O, P, T, U, V, W, X, or Y Trains?”) will be particularly pleasing. However, when we look at the story in this book by itself, it does come to a rather abrupt halt. Pablo spends the greater part of the story declaring that he doesn’t need friends. He parts from Alicia on angry terms, yet when the two are reunited they act like the best buddies in the world. I wasn’t quite sure where the switchover on this relationship occurred. Otherwise, everything seems pretty certain and consistent.

Not all subway books are created equal. I remember years ago encountering a NY subway picture book where a normally elevated stop was pictured in the book as underground. Certainly the cover of this book gave me hope. It seemed to be acknowledging from the get-go that the 1 and 2 trains both stop at 96th, 72nd, and 42nd Street (we will ignore the peculiar inclusion of a “33” since we can assume artist Sergio Garcia Sánchez meant 34th Street). As it happens, Mr. Sánchez is a resident not of one of the five boroughs but of Spain. You wouldn’t know it. The New York found within these pages feels so real and so contemporary that I have difficulty understanding that I’m not going to run into the man on the street when I leave for work tomorrow morning. Artists could learn a thing or two from his attention to detail. From the color of the painted columns to the diversity of the city streets, this is indeed the New York I know and love.

The design of Lost in NYC is also a delight to the eyes. Good graphic novels for children are rare beasties. Half the time you’re left wondering if the editors or artists ever took the time to look outside the standard panel format. If Mr. Sánchez feels inclined to use panels in this book, you can bet it’s a strategic decision. The very first page is almost entirely open, only settling into panels when the kids are approaching the rigid format of a school setting. As the teacher, Mr. Bartle, begins to introduce subway history, we see the characters on a massive topographic map. It’s a visual approximation of the cut-and-cover technique used to create subways in a city chock full of hardened bedrock. Once the kids go underground the panels shift to full two-page spreads, and lots of individual vertical panels like the cars on a subway train. When called upon to render the city blocks in such a way where you can see the characters all converge on the Empire State Building from different directions, the artist either shrinks the buildings and blows up the characters, or he overlaps a subway map onto a street map and you can see the kids meet up that way. Then there are the perspective shifts. The view up into the Empire State Building, a wall or two cut away so that you can get a visual sense of some of the seventy-three elevators in the building, is dizzying. I can say with certainty that even if a child were incapable of reading English (or Spanish, since this book is being simultaneously translated) they would still be able to be moved and stirred by this story.

He’s also filled the book with inside jokes. I was so pleased that I took time to read the “Behind the Scenes: Sergio and the Cop” section at the back of the book. In it, Sergio describes a time he visited NYC and was photographing all the details at the 96th Street subway stop when a cop started paying a little too much attention to him. As a result, if you look in the book you can find Sergio and the cop on “virtually every spread.” Once you see it, it cannot be unseen. It also creates a kind of touching secondary story as the two go from antagonists to, finally, taking a selfie together.

Accuracy in illustration, even (or should I say especially?) in fictional stories, is imperative. You have to make the reader inhabit the setting presented, and the best way to accomplish this is through rigorous research and skill. Mr. Sánchez has both and by pairing with Nadja Spiegelman he may well earn himself an Honorary New Yorker decree. Though filled to its gills with accurate Manhattan details, you don’t have to live anywhere in the five boroughs to recognize the fear that comes with having to navigate an unfamiliar public transit system. Particularly if you’re just a kid. An adventure tale wrapped around a nonfiction core of subways subways subways. What’s not to love?

On shelves April 14th.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

Professional Reviews: Kirkus

Interview: Comic Book Resources spoke with Nadja Spiegelman and she reveals a lot of behind-the-scenes information about the book.

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8. Review of the Day: Sidewalk Flowers by JonArno Lawson

Sidewalk Flowers
By JonArno Lawson
Illustrated by Sydney Smith
$16.95
ISBN: 978-1-55498-431-2
Ages 3-6
On shelves March 17th

When you live in a city, nature’s successes can feel like impositions. We have too many pigeons. Too many squirrels. Too many sparrows, and roaches, and ants. Too many . . . flowers? Flowers we don’t seem to mind as much but we certainly don’t pay any attention to them. Not if we’re adults, anyway. Kids, on the other hand, pay an exquisite amount of attention to anything on their eye level. Particularly if it’s a spot of tangible beauty available to them for the picking. Picture books have so many functions, but one of them is tapping into the mindset of people below the ages of 9 or 10. A good picture book gets down to a child’s eye level, seeing what they’re seeing, reveling in what they’re reveling in. Perspective and subject matter, art and heart, all combine with JonArno Lawson and Sydney Smith’s Sidewalk Flowers. Bright spots of joy and comfort, sometimes it takes a kid to see what anyone else might claim isn’t even there.A girl and her father leave the grocery to walk the city streets home. As he leads, he is blind to the things she sees. A tattooed stranger. A woman in a cab. And on one corner, small dandelions poking out of the sidewalk. As the two walk she finds more and more of the beauties, and gathers them into a bouquet. Once that’s done she finds ways of giving them out. Four to the dead bird on the sidewalk. One to the homeless man asleep on the bench. Five tucked into the collar of a dog. Home once more she plants flowers in her mother’s hair and behind her brothers’ ears. Then, with the last blossom, she tucks it behind her own ear. That done, she’s ready to keep walking, watching and noticing.

Now JonArno Lawson, I know. If I had my way his name would grace the tongue of every children’s librarian in America. However, he is both Canadian and a poet and the dual combination dooms his recognition in the United States. Canadians, after all, cannot win most of the American Library Association awards and poets are becoming increasingly rare beasts in the realm of children’s literature. Time was you couldn’t throw a dart without hitting one or two children’s poets (albeit the slow moving ones). Now it sometimes feels like there are only 10-15 in any given year. Treat your children and read them The Man in the Moon Fixer’s Mask if ever you get a chance. Seen in this light, the idea of a poet turned wordless picture book author is unusual. It’s amazing that a man of words, one that finds such satisfaction in how they are strung together, could step back and realize from the get-go that this story could be best served only when the words themselves were removed.

A picture book as an object is capable of bringing to the attention of the reader those small moments of common grace that make the world ever so slightly better. In an interview with Horn Book editor Roger Sutton, author JonArno Lawson cited the inspiration for this book: “Basically, I was walking with my daughter down an ugly street, Bathurst Street, in Toronto, not paying very close attention, when I noticed she was collecting little flowers along the way . . . What struck me was how unconscious the whole thing was. She wasn’t doing it for praise, she was just doing it.” I love this point. The description on the back of this book says that “Each flower becomes a gift, and whether the gift is noticed or ignored, both giver and recipient are transformed by their encounter.” I think I like Lawson’s interpretation better. What we have here is a girl who is bringing beauty with her, and disposing of it at just the right times. It becomes a kind of act of grace. Small beauties. Small person.

Now we know from Roger’s interview that Lawson created a rough dummy of the book and the way he envisioned it, but how artist Sydney Smith chose to interpret that storyline seems to have been left entirely up to him. Wordless books give an artist such remarkable leeway. I’ve seen some books take that freedom and waste it on the maudlin, and I’ve seen others make a grab for the reader’s heart only to miss it by a mile. The overall feeling I get from Sidewalk Flowers, though, is a quiet certitude. This is not a book that is pandering for your attention and love. Oh, I’m sure that some folks out there will find the sequence with the homeless man on the bench a bit too pat, but to those people I point out the dead bird. How on earth does an artist show a girl leaving flowers by a dead bird without tripping headlong into the trite or pat? I’ve no idea. All I know is that Smith manages it.

Much of this has to do with the quality of the art. Smith’s tone is simultaneously serious and chock full of a kind of everyday wonder. His city is not too clean, not too dirty, and just the right bit of busy. For all that it’s a realistic urban setting, there’s something of the city child to its buzz and bother. A kid who grows up in a busy city finds a comfort in its everyday bustle. There are strangers here, sure, but there’s also a father who may be distracted but is never any more than four or five feet away from his daughter. Her expressions remain muted. Not expressionless, mind you, but you pay far more attention to her actions than her emotions. What she is feeling she’s keeping to herself. As for the panels, Smith knows how to break up each page in a different way. Sometimes images will fill an entire page. Other times there will be panels and white borders. Look at how the shelves in a secondhand shop turn the girl and her dad into four different inadvertent panels. Or how the dead bird sequence can be read top down or side-to-side with equal emotional gut punches.

The placement of each blossom deserves some credit as well. Notice how Smith (or was it Lawson?) chooses to show when the flowers are bestowed. You almost never see the girl place the flowers. Often you only see them after the fact, as the bird or dog or mother remains the focus of the panel and the girl hurries away. The father is never bedecked, actually. He seems to be the only person in the story who isn’t blessed by the gifts, but that’s probably because he’s a stand-in more than a parent. For adults reading this book, he’s a colorless reason not to worry about the girl’s capers. His purpose is to help her travel across the course of the book. Then, at the end, she takes the last remaining daisy, tucks it behind her ear, and walks onto the back endpapers where the pattern changes from merely a lovely conglomeration of flower and bird images to a field. A field waiting to be explored.

The use of color is probably the detail the most people will notice, even on a first reading of the story. In interviews Lawson has said that folks have told him that the girl’s hoodie reminds them of Peter in The Snowy Day or Little Red Riding Hood. She’s a spot of read traveling through broken gray. Her flowers are always colorful, and then there are those odd little blasts of color along her path. The dress of a woman at a bus stop is filled with flowers of its own. The oranges of a fruit stand beckon. The closer the girl approaches her home, the brighter the colors become. That grey wash that filled the lawns in the park turn a sweet pure green. As the girl climbs the steps to her mother (whose eyes are never seen), even her dad has taken a rosy hue to his cheeks.

After you pick up your 400th new baby book OR story about an animal that wants to dance ballet OR tale of a furry woodland creature that thinks that everyone has forgotten its birthday, you begin thinking that all the stories that could possibly be told to children have been written already. Do not fall into this trap. If Sidewalk Flowers teaches us nothing else it is that a single child could inspire a dozen picture books in the course of a single hour, let alone a day. There’s a reason folks are singing this book’s praises from Kalamazoo to Calgary. It’s a book that reminds you why we came up with the notion of wordless picture books in the first place. Affecting, efficient, moving, kind. Lawson’s done the impossible. He wrote poetry into a book without a single word, and you wouldn’t have it any other way.

On shelves March 17th.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher.

Like This? Then Try:

  • Big Red Lollipop by Rukhsana Khan – For another picture book about grace.
  • Knuffle Bunny by Mo Willems – For a tale of a girl and her father out for a walk in the city.
  • The Silver Button by Bob Graham – For a tale that matches this one in terms of small city moments and tone.

Blog Reviews: Nine Kinds of Pie

Professional Reviews: A star from Kirkus

Interviews: Roger Sutton talks with JonArno Lawson about the book.

Misc: I can’t be the only person out there who thought of this comic after reading this book.

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9. Review of the Day: Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead

Goodbye Stranger
By Rebecca Stead
Wendy Lamb Books (an imprint of Random House Children’s Books)
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-385-74317-4
Ages 10-14
On shelves August 4th

After much consideration, I think I’m going to begin this review with what has to be the hoity toity-est opening I have ever come up with. Gird, thy loins, mes amies. In her 2006 book Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity (don’t say you weren’t warned), philosopher Rebecca Goldstein wrote the following passage about the concept of personal identity: “What is it that makes a person the very person that she is, herself alone and not another, an integrity of identity that persists over time, undergoing changes and yet still continuing to be — until she does not continue any longer, at least not unproblematically?” In other words, why is the “you” that you were at five the same person as the “you” at thirteen or fourteen? Now I don’t know that a lot of 10-14 year olds spend their days contemplating the philosophical meanings behind their sense of self from one stage of life to another. But if they hadn’t before, they’re about to now. Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead has taken what on the surface might look like a fluffy middle school tale of selfies and first loves and turned it into a much more layered discussion of bodies, feminism, the male (and female) gaze, female friendships, relationships, and betrayals. And fake moon landings. And fuzzy cat ear headbands. Hard to pin this one down, honestly.

By all logic, Bridge should have died when she was eight years old. She skated into the street and got hit by a car, after all. Yet Bridge lived and with seemingly no serious repercussions. Recently she’s been taking to wearing little black cat ears on her head, but her best friends Emily and Tab don’t mind. It’s their seventh grade year and there are bigger things on their minds. Emily’s been flirting with a cute older soccer player, Tab’s trying to save the world in her way, and now Bridge has become friends with Sherm, a guy she’d never even talked to until this year. When a wayward selfie throws the friends into a tizzy, it’s all the three can do to keep their promise to one another never to fight. Meanwhile, several months in the future, an unnamed teenager is skipping school. Something terrible has happened and she wants to avoid the blowback. But while thinking about her ex-best friend and the way things have changed, she may be unable to hide from herself as well as she hides from others.

Let’s get back to that idea that with every new age in your life, you’re an entirely different person than you were before. That philosopher I was quoting, Ms. Goldstein, asks, “Is death one of those adventures from which I can’t emerge as myself?” Actual death, she’s saying, is where you change into something other than your own “self” for good. But aren’t the changes throughout your life little deaths as well? Is that five-year-old you in that photograph really you? Do you share something essential? Stead isn’t delving deep into these questions but simply raising points to make kids think. So when her teenage character ponders that her best friend has undergone a change from which her old self will never return the book reads, “But another part of you, the part that stayed quiet, began to understand that maybe Vinny, your Vinny, was gone.” Poof! Sherm wonders something similar about his grandfather and the man’s odd actions. He writes in a letter that his grandfather now feels like a stranger and then says, “Is the new you the stranger? Or is the stranger the person you leave behind?”

To write one part of the book, the teenager, in the second person was a daring choice. It’s so unusual, in fact, that you cannot look at it without wondering what the reasoning was behind its direction. When Ms. Stead was deciding how to put Goodbye Stranger together, there had to come a point where she made the conscious decision that the teenager’s voice could only work in the second person. Why? Maybe to make the reader identify with her more directly. Maybe to make her tale, which is significantly less fraught than some of the other stories in this book, more immediate and in your face. Insofar as it goes, it works. The purpose of the narrative is perhaps to prove to kids that age does not necessarily begat wisdom. For them, the revelation of the identity of the runaway, who was previously seen as so wise and older, should prove a bit of a shocker. It also drives home the theme of changing personalities and who the “self” really is from one age to another really well.

Right now, I can predict the future. Don’t believe me? It’s true. I see hundreds of children’s books clubs assigned this book. I see hundreds of teachers having kids read it over the summer. And time after time I see kids handed sheets of paper (or maybe virtual paper – I’m flexible) with a bunch of questions about the book and their interpretation of the events. And right there, clear as crystal, is the following question: “What is the significance of Bridge’s cat ears?” Don’t answer that, kids. Don’t do it. Because if the adult who handed you this book is asking you that question, then they themselves didn’t really read the book. You could ask a hundred questions about “Goodbye Stranger” but if the cat ears are your focus then I think you took the wrong message away from this story.

And there’s such beautiful prose to be enjoyed as well. Sentences like “You can see the sun touching the tops of the buildings across the street, making its way through the neighborhood like someone whose attention you are careful not to attract.” Or, “You can have it all, but you can’t have it all at once.” And maybe my favorite one, “You know what my dad told me once? He said the human heart doesn’t really pump the way everyone thinks . . . He said that the heart wrings itself out. It twists in two different directions, like you’d do to squeeze the water out of a wet towel.” Trust me – if I could spend the rest of this review just quoting from this book, I’d do it. I suspect that would only amuse me in the end, though.

Bane of the cataloging librarian’s job, this book is a middle school title for middle schoolers. Not young kids. Not jaded teens. Middle. School. Kids. As such, were it not for the author’s fantastic writing and already existing fan base, it would languish away in that no man’s land between child and teen fiction. Fortunately Stead has a longstanding, strong, and dedicated group of young followers who are willing to dip a toe into the potentially murky world of middle school. There they will find exactly what we all found when we were that age. There will be kids who seem to be enjoying an extended childhood, while others have found themselves thrust into mature bodies they have no experience operating. With this book the selfie has officially entered the children’s literature lexicon and woe betide those who seek to turn back the clock. Naturally, this will lead some adults to believe that the book is better suited in the YA and teen sections of their libraries and bookstores. I condemn no one’s choice on where best to place this book, particularly since some communities are a bit more conservative in their tastes and attitudes than others. That said, I am of the firm opinion that this is a book for kids. We may like to believe that the situations that occur here (and they are very PG situations, for what it’s worth) don’t occur in the real world, but we’d be fooling ourselves. If the heroine of the book had been Bridge’s friend Emily and not Bridge herself, then a stronger case could be made for the book’s YA inclinations. Moreover the tone of the book, while certainly filled with intelligent kids, is truly intended for a child audience. Adults will enjoy it. Teens might even enjoy it. But it’s kids that will benefit the most from it in the end.

The trickiest part of the book, and the part that may raise the most eyebrows, is Stead’s handling of the notion of feminism and the perception of girls and women. Emily and Bridge’s friend Tab takes a class from a woman who seems to have stepped out of a 1974 women’s studies college course. Her name is Ms. Berman but she says the kids can call her Berperson. Tab, for her part, devours everything the Berperson (as they prefer to call her) says and then takes what she’s learned and applies it in a bad way. She’s a middle schooler. There are college girls who do very much the same thing. So I watched very closely to see how Tab’s feminist interpretation of events went down. First off, the Berperson does not approve of what Tab does later in the book. Then I wanted to see if Tab’s continual feminist statements made any good points. Sometimes they really really do. When it comes to the selfie, Tab’s the smartest of her three friends. Other times she’s incredibly annoying. So what’s a kid going to take away from this book re: feminism? For the most part, it’s complicated but the end result is that Tab is left, for all her smarts early on, a fool. That’s a strong message and one that I’m worried will cast a long shadow over the concept of feminism itself, reinforcing stereotypes that it’s humorless and self-righteous. On the flip side, there are some very intelligent things being said about how girls are perceived in society. When a girl is slut shamed (the exact phrase isn’t used but that’s what it is) for her picture, she says later, “But the bad part wasn’t that everyone was looking at the picture. I mean, it was weird and not great. But the bad part was that it felt like they were making fun of my feeling good about the picture. Of me liking myself.” Lots to unpack there.

If Stead has a known style then perhaps it’s in writing mysteries that aren’t mysteries. Every question raised by the text along with every loose end is tied up by the story’s close. Characters are smart and their interactions with one another carry the thrill of authenticity. Stead is sort of a twenty-first century E.L. Konigsburg. Her kids are intelligent but (unlike Konigsberg, I would argue) they still feel like kids. And there are connections between the characters and events that you didn’t even think to hope for until, at last, they are revealed to you. I heard one adult who had read this book say that it was “layered”. I suppose that’s a pretty good way of describing it. It has this surface simplicity to it but even the slightest scratch to that surface yields gold. I’ve focused on just a couple of the aspects of the title that I personally find interesting, but there are so many other directions that a person could go with it. If Stead has a known style, maybe it isn’t mysteries or kids smart beyond their years or multiple connections. Maybe her style is just writing great books. The evidence in this case speaks for itself.

On shelves August 4th

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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Other Blog Reviews: educating alice

Videos:

Those of a certain generation may be unable to read the title of this book without the Supertramp song of the same name coming to mind. So, with them in mind . . .

Note the waitress.  I wonder if she’s taking a vanilla shake and cinnamon toast to a table.

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10. 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)
$17.99
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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11. Review of the Day: Red by Michael Hall

Red: A Crayon’s Story
By Michael Hall
Greenwillow (an imprint of Harper Collins)
$17.99
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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Professional Reviews: Kirkus

Other Reviews: Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast st Kirkus

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12. 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.

Like This? Then Try:

Other Blog Reviews: Views From the Tesseract

Professional Reviews: A star from Kirkus

 

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13. Review of the Day: Neighborhood Sharks by Katherine Roy

NeighborhoodSharks 235x300 Review of the Day: Neighborhood Sharks by Katherine RoyNeighborhood Sharks: Hunting with the Great Whites of California’s Farallon Islands
By Katherine Roy
David Macaulay Studio – Roaring Brook (Macmillan)
$17.99
ISBN: 9781596438743
Ages 7-12
On shelves now.

When you’re a librarian buying for your system, you come to understand that certain nonfiction topics are perennial favorites. You accept that no matter how many copies you buy, you will never have enough train or joke or magic books. And the king daddy topic to beat them all, the one that leaves a continual gaping hole in the Dewey Decimal area of 597.3 or so, is sharks. Kids can’t get enough of them. Heck, adults can’t get enough of them. Between Shark Week and movies like Sharknado, sharks haven’t been this pop culturally relevant since the good old days of JAWS. And sure, we’ve plenty of truly decent shark books on our shelves already. What we don’t really have are books that combine the blood and the facts with the beauty of full-color, wholly accurate paintings. We’ve never truly had a shark book that’s as accomplished and stunning as Katherine Roy’s Neighborhood Sharks. It’s crazy to contemplate that though shark books are never unpopular, only now did someone take the time and effort to give them a publication worthy of their terror and wonder.

A single great white shark cuts through the waters surrounding San Francisco’s Farallon Islands “just 30 miles from the city”. Prey comes in the form of a fine fat seal and before the mammal realizes what’s happening the shark attacks. What makes a shark the perfect killer? Consider its weapons. Note the body, covered in “skin teeth”, capable of acting like a warm-blooded fish. Observe its high-definition vision and five rows of teeth. Did you know that a shark’s jaws aren’t fused to the skull, so that they can actually be projected forward to bite something? Or the method by which you would go about actually tagging this kind of creature? With candor and cleverness, author/artist Katherine Roy brings these silent killers to breathtaking life. You may never desire to set foot into the ocean again.

It’s hard to imagine a book on sharks that has art that can compete with all those shark books laden with cool photographic images. Roy’s advantage here then is the freedom that comes with the art of illustration. She’s not beholden to a single real shark making a real kill. With her brush she can set up a typical situation in which a great white shark attacks a northern elephant seal. The looming threat of the inevitable attack and the almost Hitchcockian way she sets up her shots (so to speak) give the book a tension wholly missing from photo-based shark books. What’s more, it makes the book easy to booktalk (booktalk: a technique used by librarians to intrigue potential readers about titles – not dissimilar to movie trailers, only with books). There’s not a librarian alive who wouldn’t get a kick out of revealing that wordless two-page seal attack scene in all its horror and glory.

The remarkable thing? Even as she’s showing an eviscerated seal, Roy keeps the imagery fairly kid friendly. Plumes of red blood are far more esoteric and even (dare I say it) lovely than a creature bleeding out on land. You never see the shark’s teeth pierce the seal, since Roy obscures the most gory details in action and waves. There are even callbacks. Late in the book we see a shark attacking a faux seal, lured there by researchers that want to study the shark. Without having seen the previous attack this subsequent wordless image would lose much of its punch. And lest we forget, these images are downright lovely. Roy’s paintbrush contrasts the grey sea and grey shark with a whirling swirling red. You could lose yourself in these pictures.

Yet while Roy is capable of true beauty in her art, it’s the original ways in which she’s capable of conveying scientific information about sharks that truly won my heart. She’s the queen of the clever diagram. Early in the book we see an image of a shark’s torpedo-shaped body. Yet the image equates the shark with an airplane, overlaying its fins and tail with the wings and tail of a typical jet plane. Seeing this and the arrows that indicate airflow / how water flows, the picture does more to convey an idea than a thousand words ever could. I found myself poring over diagrams of how a shark can let in cold water and convert it in an internal heat exchange into something that can warm its blood. It’s magnificent. The close-up shot of how a shark’s five rows of teeth tilt and the shot that will haunt my dreams until I die of projectile jaws will easily satiate any bloodthirsty young shark lover hoping for a few new facts.

The projectile jaws, actually, are an excellent example of the tons of information Roy includes here that feels original and beautifully written. Roy is consistently child-friendly in this book, never drowning her text in jargon that would float over a kiddo’s head. Using the framing sequence of a shark attacking a seal, she’s able to work in facts about the creatures and their environment in such a way as to feel natural to the book. Neighborhood Sharks is one of the first books in the David Macaulay Studio imprint and like Mr. Macaulay, Ms. Roy is capable of artistic prowess and great grand factual writing all at once. The backmatter consisting of additional information, a word or two on why she decided not to do a spread on smell, Selected Sources, Further Reading, and a map of The Farallons is worth the price of admission alone.

The book is called “Neighborhood Sharks” for a reason. When we think of big predators we think of remote locations. We don’t think of them swimming along, so very close to places like the Golden Gate Bridge. Plenty of adults would be horrified by the notion that they might run into an unexpected shark somewhere. Kids, however, might see the prospect as exciting. Neighborhood Sharks has the potential to both satisfy those kids that have already read every single book on sharks in their local library and also convert those that haven’t already made sharks their favorite predator of all time. Remarkably beautiful even (or especially) in the face of straightforward shark attacks, this is a book that sets itself apart from the pack. If you read only one children’s shark book in all your livelong days, read this one. Disgusting. Delicious. Delightful.

On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

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14. Tell us your favourite book of 2014 and WIN!

2014 is drawing to a close and what another fantastic year of books and reading it has been. To celebrate we are giving away 8 copies of one of our favourite books of 2014; The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North (you can read our review here). All you have to do is […]

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15. AICL's Best Books of 2014

Lists! People love lists. I do, too. For those of you looking for a list of Best Books published in 2014, by American Indians/First Nations writers, and by writers who aren't Native but got-it-right, here's AICL's incomplete list. A few reviews are still in-process. Links to those reviews will be added as reviews are completed and posted. If you think I've missed something, please let me know!

Age levels are always slippery. I'm using rough categories, with the understanding that older readers can get a lot out of picture books, and because what you/I deem appropriate for any given reader depends on the reader, younger kids can read books intended for middle or high school students.

BOOKS BY NATIVE WRITERS

Comics:



Picture Books


For Middle Grade



For High School

  • Dreaming in Indian edited by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Leatherdale, published by Annick Press
  • Feral Curse by Cynthia Leitich Smith, published by Candlewick Press
  • House of Purple Cedar by Tim Tingle, published by Cinco Puntos Press
  • Crazy Horse's Girlfriend by Erika Wurth, published by Curbside Splendor Publishing


BOOKS BY NON-NATIVE WRITERS 

During 2014 I read a few books that have a fleeting reference to Native culture, or, a more in-depth one, that I want to include on this post about Best Books. They are:



Yes, just two. I'm sure there are others out there. If you know of one, let me know!

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16. The Best Nonfiction Books of 2014

Dear Readers, It's that time of year when we reflect upon the past twelve months and look for titles that rose to the top. 2014 was an excellent year for nonfiction, so our list of favorite books is lengthy. We have organized our favorite books into categories: history, science, poetry, and biography/memoir. The list is alphabetical by title and includes links to our reviews. We'll continue our

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17. Announcing NYPL’s 2014 100 Books for Reading Sharing List!

You know, folks, there are lists and then there are LISTS.  And I’m not saying one is any better than another.  Of course not.  But when we look at lists of children’s books there’s only one that truly has my heart.  Coming in at 103 years old this year, NYPL’s 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing list is one of the oldest (if not THE oldest) continually published children’s book lists in the nation.  It is also the most beautiful.  Doubt me?  Then check out our 2014 edition.

You can see our interactive list of the 100 books here.

And here’s the cover of our list:

100TitlesNYPL2014 500x386 Announcing NYPLs 2014 100 Books for Reading Sharing List!

Shall I go on?

You like lists with diversity?  Feast your eyes on what we chose.  Recently the Center for the Study of Multicultural Literature released their Best Multicultural Books of 2014.  We had eight of their titles on our list and included at least eight multicultural books that they did not.  The recent list by Latinas for Latino Lit called Remarkable Latino Children’s Literature of 2014? We listed three of their seven titles and included at least three others that they didn’t mention (Saving Baby Doe, Caminar, and Viva Frida).  Your move, New York Times.

You like lists that show a variety of books?  The 100 Titles list is split into the following sections:

Picture Books (for children ages 2-6)
Stories for Younger Readers (for children ages 6-8)
Stories for Older Readers (for children ages 9-12)
Graphic Books
Folktales and Fairy Tales
Poetry
Nonfiction

In short, ladies and gentlemen, it’s a tip top list.  Sure, it’ll miss one or two of your favorites.  But I guarantee you’ll see amazing books on there that you almost missed this year.  Did you read Mikis and the Donkey?  Did you almost fail to hear about Handle With Care?  The best books aren’t necessarily the best known.  If nothing else this list proves as much.

Enjoy!

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18. Betsy Regretsy: Books I Most Regret Not Reviewing in 2014

Babies.  They just sorta throw the whole reviewing machine into a tizzy.  When I first started blogging I was actually able to do a review a day.  That was crazy.  Then kiddo #1 was born and that slowed to 2-3 reviews a week.  Manageable.  This year (2014) kiddo #2 made his debut and now I feel inordinately accomplished if I can get one review out a week.

All this is to say that there’s a whole host of fabulous children’s books out there that I missed my chance to review in 2014.  I have a tendency to only review books within their current publishing year.  So, with a tip of my hat and a shuffle off the stage, here are the books of the year that I jolly well would have LOVED to have reviewed.  These are the best books I’ll never tell you about.  Cue “Thanks for the Memories” and . . .

Picture Books

The Big Bad Bubble by Adam Rubin, ill. Daniel Salmieri – Because there are monsters and there are bubbles and combining the two?  It just makes good clean sense.

Big Bug by Henry Cole – Finding really simple texts in picture books can be hard.  This fits.

A Dance Like Starlight by Kristy Dempsey, ill. Floyd Cooper – So incredibly good.  Floyd Cooper at his best.

Dragon’s Extraordinary Egg by Debi Gliori – The ultimate blended family tale.  Why do all the best stories about different kinds of families involve penguins?

Elsa and the Night by Jons Mellgren – I just loved the art in this one, as well as the metaphor at work.  What was the metaphor?  Darned if I know.  But if I’d reviewed it, maybe I could have pinned it down.

The Farmer’s Away! Baa! Neigh! by Anne Vittur Kennedy – Have you read this one aloud to a large group yet?  It takes a bit of practice but once you’ve got the rhythm down there’s really nothing to compare.

Here Comes Destructosaurus! by Aaron Reynolds, ill. Jeremy Tankard – To my mind, this is one of the best metaphors for toddler/preschooler destruction I’ve ever seen.  And you get to see someone destroy NYC!

I Wish I Had a Pet by Maggie Rudy – I wish I had more books like this.

A Piece of Cake by LeUyen Pham – This one has a slow burn.  Read it the first time and missed a LOT of the details.  Subsequent readings (my kiddo’s a fan) revealed just how clever it really is.

Sticks n’ Stones n’ Dinosaur Bones by Theodore Enik, illustrated by G.F. Newland – I only review a couple self-published books in a given year.  This year I only did one.  But if I could have done two, this book would have been the second, you betcha.

Viva Frida by Yuyi Morales – GAH!  Why didn’t I do this one?  There’s so much to love here.

Early Chapter Books

Tales of Bunjitsu Bunny by John Himmelman – The most underrated early chapter book of 2014. Seriously, if you haven’t read it, run, don’t walk, to your nearest library and check it out.

Jim’s Lion by Russell Hoban, ill. Alexis Deacon – When I compare this to the original version there simply isn’t any comparison.  It’s amazing.  I had some issues with the Magical Black Friend aspects, but otherwise this reinterpretation was jaw-dropping.  I must now find everything Deacon has ever done.

Pinocchio by Kate McMullan, ill. Pascal LeMaitre – By some weird lick of fate, this book ended up the very first chapter book my daughter was able to listen to all the way through.  Maybe it’s the episodic nature of the text.  Maybe the pictures.  Whatever it is, it works.

Princess in Black by Shannon Hale & Dean Hale, ill. LeUyen Pham – It’s a female Zorro.  Nuff said.

Fairytales & Folktales

My Grandfather’s Coat by Jim Aylesworth, ill. Barbara McClintock – I know everyone’s crazy about the other McClintock book out this year (Where’s Mommy?) but for me she’s doing her best work with this title.  And just look at that cover?  Nothing compares.

The Princess Who had no Kingdom by Ursula Jones, ill. Sarah Gibb – Has a wry sense of humor you wouldn’t necessarily associate with a princess tale.

The Six Swans by the Brothers Grimm, ill. Gerda Raidt – Keeps close to the original material without getting all icky with the accusations of cannibalism.  Oddly child-friendly (if that makes sense).

You Can’t Have Too Many Friends! by Mordicai Gerstein – So weird that I fell in love with it instantly.  Maybe I’m alone, but this book took some serious risks.  Risks that paid off!

Fiction

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander – Arg!  I wish I’d gotten to this.  The language, man, the language.

Hook’s Revenge by Heidi Shulz – This was actually the next on my pile to review.  *sigh*

File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents by Lemony Snicket – Because I always had a weakness for those “10 Minute Mystery” books that were popular when I was a kid.

The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza by Jack Gantos – Don’t know if it really stands on its own (if you’ve read the other books in the series it makes a lot more sense) but the writing is abso-friggin’-lutely amazing.

The Whispering Skull by Jonathan Stroud – And if you haven’t read this then you need to relieve yourself of that personal flaw.  The most fun you will have this year.  Go on.  I can wait.

Graphic Novels

Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: Treaties, Trenches, Mud, and Blood: A World War I Tale by Nathan Hale – The only reason I didn’t review it was that I’d already done other books in the series before.  But Hale really goes all out in this.  Tricky subject matter handled with a twist that actually works.

Gaijin: American Prisoner of War by Matt Faulkner – Initially I found it off-putting but as I got into it I really began to love what Faulkner was doing with the material.

Princeless 1: The Arduous Business of Getting Rescued by Jeremy Whitley, ill. M. Goodwin – Probably one of the most popular graphic novels in my library branches right now.  A pity there are only two in the series thus far.

Nonfiction

Greek Mythology by Ken Jennings, ill. Mike Lowery – Initially I’d disregarded the book as a marketing gimmick.  Then I actually read it and found out how amazing it is.  Lowery’s art does a lot to help as well.

Guys Read: True Stories edited by Jon Scieszka, ill. Brian Floca – So so good.  So so gross.  Hope you like maggots!

Edward Hopper Paints His World by Robert Burleigh, ill. Wendell Minor – There is no other artist living today who could have pulled off what Minor is doing here.

Have You Heard the Nesting Bird? by Rita Gray, illustrated by Kenard Pak – Pak is one to watch.  A little bit of picture book nonfiction that a kid could actually use in their day-to-day lives.

Shooting at the Stars: The Christmas Truce of 1914 by John Hendrix – Hendrix could probably illustrate IRS statements and I’d read them.  So it helps when the subject matter is this interesting.

Tuesday Tucks Me In: The Loyal Bond Between a Soldier and His Service Dog by Luis Carlos Montalvan with Bret Witter, photos by Dan Dion – I know it’s just a younger version of an adult tale, but it’s so sweetly done.  Making PTSD understandable to a young audience is so tough, only a book like this could pull it off.

Poetry

Winter Bees and Other Poems of the Cold by Joyce Sidman, ill. Rick Allen – Of all the books I review, poetry is the most difficult.  This book was rather perfect and perfect does not make for a good review.  Maybe I was right not to do it then.  Hm…

Santa Clauses: Short Poems from the North Pole by Bob Raczka, ill. Chuck Groenink – Anytime you see a new collection of Raczka poems, that is cause enough for celebration.  This book is good above and beyond the Christmas season, by the way.  It’s just straight up awesome.

For a similar post to this one (that came out first) check out Travis Jonker’s piece 7 Picture Books I Loved (But Didn’t Review) in 2014.

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19. 100 Magnificent Children’s Books 2014

If I’m going to be honest about it, this is a list I do every year strictly for myself.  It sort of helps me get my head in order.  Figure out what I liked.  What I didn’t.  What I reviewed.  What I missed.  I recommend you make your own sometime.  The categories are from the 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing List as created by New York Public Library.  I like how they help me parcel out the genres.

 

Picture Books (For Children Ages 2-6)

Anna Carries Water by Olive Senior. Illustrated by Laura James. Tradewind Books.

The Baby Tree by Sophie Blackall. Schwartz & Wade.

Bad Bye, Good Bye by Deborah Underwood. Illustrated by Jonathan Bean. HMH Books for Young Readers.

A Dance Like Starlight by Kristy Dempsey. Illustrated by Floyd Cooper. Philomel.

Dragon’s Extraordinary Egg by Debi Gliori. Bloomsbury USA.

Elsa and the Night by Jons Mellgren. Little Gestalten.

Fox’s Garden by Princesse Camcam. Enchanted Lion Books.

The Girl and the Bicycle by Mark Pett. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

Have You Seen My Dragon? by Steve Light. Candlewick.

Henny by Elizabeth Rose Stanton. Paula Wiseman Books.

Here Comes Destructosaurus by Aaron Reynolds. Illustrated by Jeremy Tankard. Chronicle Books.

Hug Machine by Scott Campbell. Atheneum Books for Young Readers.

I Wish I Had a Pet by Maggie Rudy. Beach Lane Books.

Lindbergh: The Tale of a Flying Mouse by Torben Kuhlmann. NorthSouth.

The Mermaid and the Shoe by K.G. Campbell. Kids Can Press.

The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires. Kids Can Press.

Once Upon an Alphabet: Short Stories for All the Letters by Oliver Jeffers. Philomel.

Princess Sparkle-Heart Gets a Makeover by Josh Schneider. Clarion Books.

Rules of Summer by Shaun Tan. Arthur A. Levine Books.

Three Bears in a Boat by David Soman. Dial.

Viva Frida by Yuyi Morales. Roaring Brook.

 

Folktales and Fairy Tales

The Fox and the Crow by Manasi Subramaniam. Illustrated by Culpeo S. Fox. Karadi Tales.

Issun Boshi: The One-Inch Boy by Icinori. Little Gestalten.

My Grandfather’s Coat by Jim Aylesworth. Illustrated by Barbara McClintock. Scholastic Press.

Hansel and Gretel by Neil Gaiman. Illustrated by Lorenzo Mattotti. TOON Books.

The Princess of the Springs by Mary Finch. Illustrated by Martina Peluso.  Barefoot Books.

The Princess Who Had No Kingdom by Ursula Jones. Illustrated by Sarah Gibb. Albert Whitman & Company.

The Six Swans by the Brothers Grimm. Illustrated by Gerda Raidt. NorthSouth.

You Can’t Have Too Many Friends by Mordecai Gerstein. Holiday House.

 

Poetry

Firefly July: A Year of Very Short Poems selected by Paul B. Janeczko. Illustrated by Melissa Sweet. Candlewick.

Hi, Koo: A Year in Seasons by Jon J. Muth. Scholastic Press.

A Pond Full of Ink by Annie M.G. Schmidt. Illustrated by Sieb Posthuma. Eerdmans Books for Young Readers.  

Santa Clauses: Short Poems from the North Pole by Bob Raczka. Illustrated by Chuck Groenink. Carolrhoda Books.

Water Rolls, Water Rises / El Agua Rueda, El Agua by Pat Mora. Illustrated by Meilo So. Lee & Low Books.

Winter Bees and Other Poems of the Cold by Joyce Sidman. Illustrated by Rick Allen. HMH Books for Young Readers.


Stories for Younger Readers

Dory Fantasmagory by Abby Hanlon. Dial.

Jim’s Lion by Russell Hoban. Illustrated by Alexis Deacon. Candlewick.

Leroy Ninker Saddles Up by Kate DiCamillo. Illustrated by Chris Van Dusen. Candlewick.

Lulu and the Rabbit Next Door by Hilary McKay. Illustrated by Pricilla Lamont. Albert Whitman & Company.

Night Sky Dragons by Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham. Illustrated by Patrick Benson. Candlewick.

Oliver and the Seawigs by Philip Reeve. Illustrated by Sarah McIntyre. Random House Books for Young Readers. 

Pinocchio by Kate McMullan. Illustrated by Pascal LeMaitre. Henry Holt & Co.

Princess in Black by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale. Illustrated by LeUyen Pham. Candlewick.

Tales of Bunjitsu Bunny by John Himmelman. Henry Holt and Company.

 

Stories for Older Readers

Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff. Philomel

Audrey (cow) by Dan Bar-el. Illustrated by Tatjana Mai-Wyss. Tundra Books.

Boys of Blur by N.D. Wilson. Random House Books for Young Readers.

Caminar by Skila Brown. Candlewick.

The Cat at the Wall by Deborah Ellis. Groundwood Books.

The Categorical Universe of Candice Phee by Barry Jonsberg. Chronicle Books.

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander.  HMH Books for Young Readers.

Curiosity by Gary Blackwood.  Dial.

The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm. Random House Books for Young Readers.

The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson. Arthur A. Levine Books.

Greenglass House by Kate Milford. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Hook’s Revenge by Heidi Shulz. Illustrated by John Hendrix. Disney-Hyperion.

The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza by Jack Gantos. Farrar Straus and Giroux.

The Luck Uglies by Paul Durham. Illustrated by Pétur Antonsson. Harper Collins.

The Madman of Piney Woods by Christopher Paul Curtis. Scholastic Press.

The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier. Illustrated by Patrick Arrasmith. Harry N. Abrams.

Nightingale’s Nest by Nikki Loftin. Razorbill.

Operation Bunny: The Fairy Detective Agency’s First Case by Sally Gardner. Illustrated by David Roberts. Square Fish.

Saving Baby Doe by Dannette Vigilante. Putnam Juvenile.

Secrets of the Terra-Cotta Soldier by Ying Chang Compestine & Vinson Compestine. Harry N. Abrams.

Under the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald. Dial.

Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere by Julie T. Lamana. Chronicle Books.

West of the Moon by Margi Preus. Harry N. Abrams.

The Whispering Skull by Jonathan Stroud. Disney-Hyperion.

 

Graphic Books

The Dumbest Idea Ever! by Jimmy Gownley. GRAPHIX

El Deafo by Cece Bell. Harry N. Abrams.

Gaijin: American Prisoner of War by Matt Faulkner. Disney-Hyperion.

Hidden: A Child’s Story of the Holocaust by Loic Dauvillier. Illustrated by Marc Lizano & Greg Salsedo. First Second.

Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales: Treaties, Trenches, Mud and Blood by Nathan Hale. Harry N. Abrams.

Phoebe and Her Unicorn by Dana Simpson. Andrews McMeel Publishing.

Sisters by Raina Telgemeier. GRAPHIX .

The Stratford Zoo Midnight Revue Presents: MacBeth by Ian Lendler and Zack Giallongo. First Second.

 

Nonfiction

Angel Island: Gateway to Gold Mountain by Russell Freedman. Clarion Books.

At Home in Her Tomb: Lady Dai and the Ancient Chinese Treasures of Mawangdui by Christine Liu-Perkins. Illustrated by Sarah S. Brannen. Charlesbridge.

Ballerina Dreams: From Orphan to Dancer by Michaela and Elaine DePrince. Illustrated by Frank Morrison. Random House Books for Young Readers.

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson. Nancy Paulsen Books.

Buried Sunlight: How Fossil Fuels Have Changed the Earth by Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm. The Blue Sky Press.

Chasing Cheetahs: The Race to Save Africa’s Fastest Cat by Sy Montgomery. Photos by Nic Bishop. HMH Books for Young Readers.

Edward Hopper Paints His World by Robert Burleigh. Illustrated by Wendell Minor. Henry Holt & Co.

Everybody Paints! The Lives and Art of the Wyeth Family by Susan Goldman Rubin. Chronicle Books.

Grandfather Gandhi by Arun Gandhi and Bethany Hegedus. Illustrated by Evan Turk. Atheneum Books for Young Readers.

The Girl from the Tar Paper School: Barbara Rose Johns and the Advent of the Civil Rights Movement by Teri Kanefield. Harry N. Abrams.

Greek Mythology by Ken Jennings. Illustrated by Mike Lowery. Little Simon.

The Griffin and the Dinosaur: How Adrienne Mayor Discovered a Fascinating Link Between Myth and Science by Marc Aronson and Adrienne Mayor. Illustrated by Chris Muller. National Geographic Children’s Books.

Guys Read: True Stories edited by Jon Scieszka. Illustrated by Brian Floca. Walden Pond Press.

Handle With Care: An Unusual Butterfly Journey by Loree Griffin Burns. Photos by Ellen Harasimowicz. Millbrook Press.

Have You Heard the Nesting Bird? by Rita Gray, illustrated by Kenard Pak. HMH Books for Young Readers.

He Has Shot The President! by Don Brown. Roaring Brook Press.

Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker by Patricia Hruby Powell. Illustrated by Christian Robinson. Chronicle Books.

Mama Built a Little Nest by Jennifer Ward. Illustrated by Steve Jenkins. Beach Lane Books.

My Country, ’tis of Thee: How One Song Reveals the History of Civil Rights by Claire Rudolf Murphy. Illustrated by Bryan Collier. Henry Holt and Company.

Neighborhood Sharks: Hunting the Great White Sharks of California’s Farallon Islands by Katherine Roy. David Macaulay Studio.

Roller Derby Rivals by Sue Macy. Illustrated by Matt Collins. Holiday House.

Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh. Harry N. Abrams.

Shooting at the Stars: The Christmas Truce of 1914 by John Hendrix. Harry N. Abrams.

Stubby the War Dog: The True Story of World War I’s Bravest Dog by Ann Bausum. National Geographic Children’s Books.

 

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20. Review of the Day: Wolfie the Bunny by Ame Dyckman

Wolfie the Bunny
By Ame Dyckman
Illustrated by Zachariah OHora
Little, Brown and Co.
$17.00
ISBN: 978-0-316-22614-1
Ages 3-6
On shelves February 17th

Not every child views the imposition of a new sibling as an interloper, but a fair number of them do. They’re just tooling along, enjoying the natural bliss that comes with being the one and only star in their parents’ firmament when BLAMMO! A squalling person of inadequate size is there, hogging the attention. Unsurprisingly a low burn (or, in other cases, epic) rivalry erupts. Plenty of children’s books have addressed this issue, to varying degrees of success. It was then with great joy that I read one of the finest the other day. Wolfie the Bunny by Ame Dyckman may look, at first glance of the cover, like a lupine variation on that bunny suit worn by Ralphie in A Christmas Story but inside you will instead find a delightful tale of sibling rivalry as well as a cautionary tale of the dangers that come when shopping at a Brooklyn co-op. Issues every child should certainly be made aware of.

If you are a bunny and your parents find that a baby wolf has been left on their stoop, you would be well within your rights to have some qualms. But when Dot’s Mama and Papa first lay eyes on little Wolfie, all tucked tight into his little basket, it’s love at first sight. Not so Dot, who declares with refreshing candor, “HE’S GOING TO EAT US ALL UP!” Her protestations, however, fall on deaf ears. Next thing she knows, Dot has a little, toothy brother. He likes eating carrots for breakfast. He sleeps very well through the night. And he absolutely loves and adores his new big sister to the point where she can’t use the potty or color without Wolfie drooling all over her. Time passes and soon Wolfie’s a great big furry guy eating the family out of house and home. When he and Dot are dispatched to the nearby Carrot Patch Co-Op to pick up some additional grub, she is certain that this will be the moment he makes his predatorial move. However, when the chips are down and Wolfie finds himself in peril, it’s up to his big sister to swoop in and save the day.

In her Author’s Note at the back, Dyckman mentions that much of the inspiration for this book came from her daughter who, as a toddler, would occasionally “transform” into what they called a “Wolf Baby”. Yet in her story it’s Dot who’s the star of the show. For all that the book is called “Wolfie the Bunny”, Dot has the reader’s sympathies from the get go. Then, after you’re Team Dot for a while, Dyckman cleverly gives us a glimpse into Wolfie’s p.o.v. When Dot and her friends run off after they’ve screamed a customary “HE’S GOING TO EAT US ALL UP” we see baby Wolfie crying for the first time. It’s from that point on that Wolfie attaches himself to Dot like a saliva-producing shadow. To give the book the right sound when reading it aloud, Dyckman also adds a little gentle repetition into the text. Combating Dot’s war cry of Wolfie’s dining predilections are her father’s proud exclamations whenever Wolfie does pretty much anything at all. If Mama says he’s sleeping then Papa will note, “He’s a good sleeper”. If Dot complains about him drooling Papa says, “He’s a good drooler.” And back go your sympathies to Dot. It’s a delicate balance but Dyckman pulls it off.

And yet, for all that, you still might have difficulty seeing Wolfie as anything but a bloodthirsty bunny eater, were it not for the elegant stylings of artist Zachariah OHora. Having already cut his teeth on making 500-pound gorillas adorable (but not cute) in “No Fits, Nilson”, OHora’s thick acrylics are perfect for “Wolfie” here. He’s toothy, no question, but his eyes sport this wide-eyed innocence that’s hard to resist. Truth be told, you fall for him as thoroughly as Mama and Papa when you see him. All this is set against a limited color palette. Aside from mustard yellow, green, red, and pink, there really aren’t a lot of other colors. The thick black paints are abundant, and the colors are seemingly subdued, yet pop when required to do so.

Now generally speaking I have a problem with picture books where animals subsume their natural instincts. Books like Miss Spider’s Tea Party where the whole point is not to judge someone, even if they’re a spider that should, by all rights, be eating her guests. So I should probably be upset that Wolfie has somehow gone off his natural wolf instincts. Instead, I’m charmed. This is nature vs. nurture at its finest. Sure he’s drooling on Dot, but anyone who has ever witnessed a kid in the throes of teething will understand what that’s like. On the one hand you could argue that it is cruel to dress a wolf in a bunny suit, no matter how kindly the bunnies or sweet the wolf. On the other hand, this is clearly Wolfie’s choice. You get the distinct impression that the bunny suit might even have been his idea. So what does that say about the choices our children make, even when they don’t gel with society’s expectations? No idea. I just like the image of a wolf in a bunny suit. It’s funny.

It is difficult to estimate how many authors and illustrators of children’s literature live in Brooklyn, NY. General wisdom states that the borough contains the highest concentration of folks of that ilk in the country. Certainly every season we see a new crop of books that reference and work in little Brooklyn-based details and elements. The kicker is that the place exerts such a pull that even artists who have moved away can’t help but reference it. Such is the case with Zachariah OHora. As he mentions in his Artist’s Note, though he now lives in Pennsylvania, the setting of his book is his old Park Slope neighborhood. The co-op, his old co-op. And then when you look a little closer you see other Brooklynesque details. Mama and Papa, for example, are so hip it hurts. I mean just check out their collection of vintage cameras (they must have a basement full of Polaroid film). You just know they both are adept on the ukulele, brew their own beer, and go to art house films with the kids every Saturday morning. But I digress.

Who hasn’t looked at their younger brother or sister and thought at one time or another that they bore more in common with animals than people? Wolfie the Bunny isn’t really going to change their minds on that front. Nope. Instead it’s going to just strike them as amazingly funny. With its catchy refrains, stellar pictures, and original storyline, this is one of the more charming picture books out there. A great book. Personal sibling issues not required.

On shelves February 17th.

Like This? Then Try:

Source: F&G sent from publisher for review.

Professional Reviews:

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21. Year End Favorites

For many reasons, I will be super happy to kick 2014 to the curb.  But as I look back on all of the amazing books I read this year, I will keep them as a bright spot of the last 365.  I make no attempts to balance my favorites of the year. I don't look at award criteria. What I look for is a balance of high quality writing, great stories, interesting information and the good old heart-song book.  There were many to choose from this year, and these were the ones that rose to the top for me.

Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson

Rising to the very top is this amazing memoir that goes beyond genre and format and is simply dreamy.  Luscious and glorious all at once, this is a family story, a writer's story, a story of race in America, and the story of a girl. It is a book I will revisit in pieces and as a whole.







Greenglass House, by Kate Milford

This is a book where I have loaned out my personal signed copy (sans dust cover) to a student when we didn't have it in the library.  Rich in setting and cinematic in scope, I just love Milo and his family and can imagine that if I read this at 11 years old, I would have dreamed of living in the inn. I think this may become a read aloud Christmas tradition in my house.






The Crossover, by Kwame Alexander

There is no denying the poetry of Kwame Alexander.  Begging to be read aloud, but at the same time an intimate story of brothers and family that wants to be read in corners and quiet rooms, this one will surprise, delight and kick you in the gut in equal measure.






Nest, by Esther Ehrlich

Character driven, so sad yet hopeful, Chirp and Joey went straight to my heart. This is a quiet book nestled into the Cape Cod 1970s setting that tackles serious themes with aplomb.







Neighborhood Sharks, by Katherine Roy

Defying age categorization, this non-fiction incredibly illustrated book about the Great Whites of the Farallon Islands will have readers pouring over the pages again and again.







The Family Romanov, by Candace Fleming

Incredibly informative and readable at the same time, this is Fleming at her best.  Thought provoking and oddly timely.









These are the titles that rose to the top for me.  What are your favorites of 2014?

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22. Review of the Day: Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge

Cuckoo Song
By Frances Hardinge
Amulet Books (an imprint of Abrams)
$17.95
ISBN: 978-1419714801
Ages 10 and up
On shelves May 12, 2015

I was watching the third Hobbit movie the other day (bear with me – I’m going somewhere with this) with no particular pleasure. There are few things in life more painful to a children’s librarian than watching an enjoyable adventure for kids lengthened and turned into adult-centric fare, then sliced up into three sections. Still, it’s always interesting to see how filmmakers wish to adapt material and as I sat there, only moderately stultified, the so-called “Battle of the Five Armies” (which, in this film, could be renamed “The Battle of the Thirteen Odd Armies, Give Or Take a Few) comes to a head as the glorious eagles swoop in. “They’re the Americans”, my husband noted. It took a minute for this to register. “What?” “They’re the Americans. Tolkien wrote this book after WWI and the eagles are the Yanks that swoop in to save the day at the very last minute.” I sat there thinking about it. England has always had far closer ties to The Great War than America, it’s true. I remember sitting in school, baffled by the vague version I was fed. American children are taught primarily Revolutionary War, Civil War, and WWII fare. All other conflicts are of seemingly equal non-importance after those big three. Yet with the 100 year anniversary of the war to end all wars, the English, who had a much larger role to play, are, like Tolkien, still producing innovative, evocative, unbelievable takes that utilize fantasy to help us understand it. And few books do a better job of pinpointing the post traumatic stress syndrome of a post-WWI nation than Frances Hardinge’s Cuckoo Song. They will tell you that it’s a creepy doll book with changelings and fairies and things that go bump in the night. It is all of that. It is also one of the smartest dissections of what happens when a war is done and the survivors are left to put their lives back together. Some do a good job. Some do not.

Eleven-year-old Triss is not well. She knows this, but as with many illnesses she’s having a hard time pinpointing what exactly is wrong. It probably had to do with the fact that she was fished out of the Grimmer, a body of water near the old stone house where her family likes to vacation. Still, that doesn’t explain why her sister is suddenly acting angry and afraid of her. It doesn’t explain why she’s suddenly voracious, devouring plate after plate of food in a kind of half mad frenzy. And it doesn’t explain some of the odder things that have been happening lately either. The dolls that don’t just talk but scream too. The fact that she’s waking up with dead leaves in her hair and bed. And that’s all before her sister is nearly kidnapped by a movie screen, a tailor tries to burn her alive, and she discovers a world within her world where things are topsy turvy and she doesn’t even know who she is anymore. Triss isn’t the girl she once was. And time is running out.

From that description you’d be justified in wondering why I spent the better half of the opening paragraph of this review discussing WWI. After all, there is nothing particularly war-like in that summary. It would behoove me to me mention then that all this takes place a year or two after the war. Triss’s older brother died in the conflict, leaving his family to pick up the pieces. Like all parents, his are devastated by their loss. Unlike all parents, they make a terrible choice to keep him from leaving them entirely. It’s the parents’ grief and choices that then become the focal point of the book. The nation is experiencing a period of vast change. New buildings, new music, and new ideas are proliferating. Yet for Triss’s parents, it is vastly important that nothing change. They’re the people that would prefer to live in an intolerable but familiar situation rather than a tolerable unknown. Their love is a toxic thing, harming their children in the most insidious of ways. It takes an outsider to see this and to tell them what they are doing. By the end, it’s entirely possible that they’ll stay stuck until events force them otherwise. Then again, Hardinge leaves you with a glimmer of hope. The nation did heal. People did learn. And while there was another tragic war on the horizon, that was a problem for another day.

So what’s all that have to do with fairies? In a smart twist Hardinge makes a nation bereaved become the perfect breeding ground for fairy (though she never calls them that) immigration. It’s interesting to think long and hard about what it is that Hardinge is saying, precisely, about immigrants in England. Indeed, the book wrestles with the metaphor. These are creatures that have lost their homes thanks to the encroachment of humanity. Are they not entitled to lives of their own? Yet some of them do harm to the residents of the towns. But do all of them? Should we paint them all with the same brush if some of them are harmful? These are serious questions worth asking. Xenophobia comes in the form of the tailor Mr. Grace. His smooth sharp scissors cause Triss to equate him with the Scissor Man from the Struwwelpeter tales of old. Having suffered a personal loss at the hands of the otherworldly immigrants he dedicates himself to a kind of blind intolerance. He’s sympathetic, but only up to a point.

Terms I Dislike: Urban Fairies. I don’t particularly dislike the fairies themselves. Not if they’re done well. I should clarify that the term “urban fairies” is used when discussing books in which fairies reside in urban environments. Gargoyles in the gutters. That sort of thing. And if we’re going to get technical about it then yes, Cuckoo Song is an urban fairy book. The ultimate urban fairy book, really. Called “Besiders” their presence in cities is attributed to the fact that they are creatures that exist only where there is no certainty. In the past the sound of church bells proved painful, maybe fatal. However, in the years following The Great War the certainty of religion began to ebb from the English people. Religion didn’t have the standing it once held in their lives/hearts/minds, and so thanks to this uncertainty the Besiders were able to move into places in the city made just for them. You could have long, interesting book group conversations about the true implications of this vision.

There are two kinds of Frances Hardinge novels in this world. There are the ones that deal in familiar mythologies but give them a distinctive spin. That’s this book. Then there are the books that make up their own mythologies and go into such vastly strange areas that it takes a leap of faith to follow, though it’s worth it every time. That’s books like The Lost Conspiracy or Fly By Night and its sequel. Previously Ms. Hardinge wrote Well Witched which was a lovely fantasy but felt tamed in some strange way. As if she was asked to reign in her love of the fabulous so as to create a more standard work of fantasy. I was worried that Cuckoo Song might fall into this same trap but happily this is not the case. What we see on the page here is marvelously odd while still working within an understood framework. I wouldn’t change a dot on an i or a cross on a t.

Story aside, it is Hardinge’s writing that inevitably hooks the reader. She has a way with language that sounds like no one else. Here’s a sentence from the first paragraph of the book: “Somebody had taken a laugh, crumpled it into a great, crackly ball, and stuffed her skull with it.” Beautiful. Line after line after line jumps out at the reader this way. One of my favorites is when a fellow called The Shrike explains why scissors are the true enemy of the Besiders. “A knife is made with a hundred tasks in mind . . . But scissors are really intended for one job alone – snipping things in two. Dividing by force. Everything on one side or the other, and nothing in between. Certainty. We’re in-between folk, so scissors hate us.” If I had half a mind to I’d just spend the rest of this review quoting line after line of this book. For your sake, I’ll restrain myself. Just this once.

When this book was released in England it was published as older children’s fare, albeit with a rather YA cover. Here in the States it is being published as YA fare with a rather creepy cover. Having read it, there really isn’t anything about the book I wouldn’t readily hand to a 10-year-old. Is there blood? Nope. Violence? Not unless you count eating dollies. Anything remarkably creepy? Well, there is a memory of a baby changeling that’s kind of gross, but I don’t think you’re going to see too many people freaking out over it. Sadly I think the decision was made, in spite of its 11-year-old protagonist, because Hardinge is such a mellifluous writer. Perhaps there was a thought to appeal to the Laini Taylor fans out there. Like Taylor she delves in strange otherworlds and writes with a distinctive purr. Unlike Taylor, Hardinge is British to her core. There are things here that you cannot find anywhere else. Her brain is a country of fabulous mini-states and we’ll be lucky if we get to see even half of them in our lifetimes.

There was a time when Frances Hardinge books were imported to America on a regular basis. For whatever reason, that stopped. Now a great wrong has been righted and if there were any justice in this world her Yankee fans would line the ports waiting for her books to arrive, much as they did in the time of Charles Dickens. That she can take an event like WWI and the sheer weight of the grief that followed, then transform it into dark, creepy, delicious, satisfying children’s fare is awe-inspiring. You will find no other author who dares to go so deep. Those of you who have never read a Hardinge book, I envy you. You’re going to be discovering her for the very first time, so I hope you savor every bloody, bleeding word. Taste the sentences on your tongue. Let them melt there. Then pick up your forks and demand more more more. There are other Hardinge books in England we have yet to see stateside. Let our publishers fill our plates. It’s what our children deserve.

On shelves May 15th.

Source: Reviewed from British edition, purchased by self.

Like This? Then Try:

Other Blog Reviews:

  • Here’s the review from The Book Smugglers that inspired me to read this in the first place.
  • And here’s pretty much a link to every other review of this book . . . um . . . ever.

Spoiler-ific Interviews: The Book Smugglers have Ms. Hardinge talk about her influences.  Remember those goofy television episodes from the 70s and 80s where dopplegangers would cause mischief.  Seems they gave at least one girl viewer nightmares.

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23. Review of the Day: Over the Hills and Far Away collected by Elizabeth Hammill

Over the Hills and Far Away: A Treasury of Nursery Rhymes
Collected by Elizabeth Hammill
Illustrations by Various
Candlewick Press
$21.99
ISBN: 978-0-7636-7729-9
Ages : All
On shelves March 10th

Not all nursery rhyme collections are created equal. That is something you discover when you have small children. A parent, even a children’s librarian type parent, will inevitably come to a shocking realization sometime during their child’s early years that when you read a nursery rhyme, the kiddo really and truly seems to love it. Nursery rhymes, far from simply being “good for the child” in some lofty, educated manner, have stuck around as long as they have because they really and truly do speak to the kids. The cadences and rhythms and images are incomparable, and that is regardless of nation or heritage. So as you seek out new nursery rhyme books, you begin to fancy yourself a kind of connoisseur. Some authors provide the classics in an effective manner (Lobel, de Paola, etc.) while others seem to be finding their footing. And really, how many ways can you re-imagine Little Boy Blue anyway? One thing you don’t find in a lot of nursery rhyme collections? Diversity. You pick up something like Over the Hills and Far Away and you see that “more than 70 celebrated artists” are included. It ain’t lying. It also ain’t the white white world we’re so used to in nursery rhyme collections. Tsimshian and Creole, Jamaican and Australian, Chinese American and Chippewa, this is a book that not only speaks to a wider audience than nursery rhyme collections of the past, it’s cleverly constructed and perfectly illustrated to boot. Hammill has clearly created the very first nursery rhyme collection of note for the 21st century.

Read the publication page of the book and you will be told that “Over the Hills and Far Away gathers poems from various parts of the English-speaking world, including Great Britain, the Caribbean, Australia, and the United States. Regional spellings and usage have been retained in order to preserve the integrity of the originals.” Fair enough, and I understand why this statement reads the way it does, but it does run the risk of leading the casual reader to believe that this book only collects poems from the English-speakers of the world. Happily, even the most cursory flip through will relieve you of that mistake (to say nothing of reading the Introduction). Because if there is one thing the nursery rhyme books of your average library lack, it is diversity. Generally speaking, if a person wants to find Inuit, Jamaican, Latino, or South African nursery rhymes, you find separate collections of them and that’s that. Almost never do you find them integrated seamlessly with English and American rhymes. Hammill notes in her Introduction that “Nowhere… have I found a wide-ranging collection that sits alongside these Mother Goose favorites and injects fresh life into them – providing a genuine intercultural experience.” Why? Research. Dedication. It takes a single-minded intensity to not only track them down but to also pair each and every one with just the right artist.

And the artists, in this particular case, are jaw-dropping. It isn’t just the number of well known names on display. Certainly Mo Willems, Shaun Tan, Lucy Cousins, Ed Young, Jon Klassen, Shirley Hughes, Jerry Pinkney and so on and such are impressive right from the get go. It’s also the fact that there are a great number of artists working here who are not, first and foremost, famous names. Hammill says in her opening that these artists included both the established and the emerging, as well as winner of an Illustration Competition for U.K. art students.

And how do these illustrators do? I was pleased. Every collection out there is going to have its stronger and weaker elements. So there were some artists who had clearly put a lot of time and thought into their art, while others seemed to phone it in. The Marcia Williams take on “Old Mother Hubbard” reminded me of the poem in Nursery Rhyme Comics which also turned the rhyme into sequential comic art (it really lends itself to the form well). Meanwhile Eric Carle’s art is just a series of animals taken from his previously published books. Jerry Pinkney created original art of a familiar character when he referenced his Caldecott Honor title Noah’s Ark in the rhyme “Who Built the Ark?” Sometimes the artists alleviate potential creepiness (as with Gus Gordon’s rather charming if carnivorous “Algy Saw a Bear”) while others add to it (I’m thinking of the uber-sketchy men peering at the cheerful girl eating her food alongside the rhymes “Brow Bender”, “Earkin-Hearkin”, and “Knock at the Door”). But by some great good fortune, the bulk of the work is very strong, charming, and actually honestly interesting to kids. Let’s not forget that little factor.

I was charmed by the art. I was taken with the selection. But the real reason Hammill’s work on this book blew me away as much as it did? It’s simple. The woman has a gift for pairing complimentary rhymes together. As the mother of a 3-year-old and a new baby I’ve done my due diligence and read every nursery rhyme book I could get my hands on. Yet while artists like Tomie dePaola and Arnold Lobel would pair similar rhymes together in clever ways (rain poems on one page, love poems on another), Hammill sort of kicks everything up to another level. First there are the pairings that are so obvious you’re shocked you haven’t seen them before. “Yankee Doodle” next to “The Grand Old Duke of York”. Or glutinous “Hannah Bantry” with “Jack Sprat” and wife. In her introduction, Hammill notes that in her research she “came upon anthologies of parallel rhymes and verse that have entered and enhanced the English lexicon from Asia, the Caribbean, and African, Native-American, and Hispanic cultures and elsewhere.” It reminds me of that old collection of world fairy and folktales World Tales collected by Idries Shah, which noted similarities in single stories throughout different cultures. Here you’ll see how well some poems pair. Some pairs are the lighthearted kind mentioned above. Others have quite a bit more to say, as when “Hush-a-bye, Baby” sits alongside the Chippewa “Little Baby, Sleep” and artist Olivia Lomenech Gill crafts a fascinating construct of “baby” King George falling off the tree while, on the other page, a Chippewa mother holds her child’s cradle board.

In the back of the book you will find a list of sources used to find some of these poems and rhymes. This is followed by a section thanking directly some of the people who helped to find these rhymes, like Pascale Arpin, coordinator of Arts Programming at Nunavut Arts and Crafts Association and Ashley Bryan who opened “his extensive personal library to me and introducing me to important collections of African and Caribbean verse and rhyme”. Many of the collections sourced are older, from the 1929 rhymes from the Bureau of American Ethnology to the 1900 Chinese Mother Goose Rhymes. I’m no nursery rhyme historian so I take it on faith that Hammill took steps to ensure accuracy where the poems are concerned. You need a certain level of trust in these cases. I leave it to others to ascertain one source’s authenticity over another’s.

Gone are the days when the publishing industry could put out nursery rhyme collection after nursery rhyme collection and not have to think about the diverse audience who might be reading the poems. Generally when nursery rhymes are produced these days the hat tip made to cultural diversity rests squarely on the shoulders of the illustrator, not the selection of poems themselves. What sets Over the Hills and Far Away apart is the fact that not only has Elizabeth Hammill found a wide range of interesting and intelligent rhymes, she has found ways to interweave them with similar rhymes from other cultures to create a real understanding of why rhymes from children are universally desired and important. For all that we talk about diverse books for kids, I’ve never heard anyone suggest that someone create a book like this before. Now it is here. If you own only one nursery rhyme collection on your shelves, own this one.

On shelves March 10th.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

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Misc: See more images from the book here.

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24. Review of the Day: The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

The War That Saved My Life
By Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Dial Books for Young Readers (an imprint of Penguin)
$16.99
ISBN: 9780803740815
Ages 9-12
On shelves now.

As a child I was what one might call a selective reader. Selective in that I studiously avoided any and all works of fiction that might conceivably be considered “depressing”. Bridge to Terabithia? I’ll have none please. Island of the Blue Dolphins? Pass. Jacob Have I Loved? Not in this lifetime. Lord only knows what caused a book to be labeled “depressing” in my eyes before I’d even read it. I think I went by covers alone. Books picturing kids staring out into the vast nothingness of the universe were of little use to me. Happily I got over this phase and eventually was able to go back to those books I had avoided to better see what I had missed. Still, that 10-year-old self is always with me and I confer with her when I’m reading new releases. So when I read The War That Saved My Life I had to explain to her, at length, that in spite of the premise, cover (again with the kids staring out into nothingness), and time period this isn’t the bleak stretch of depressingness it might appear to be. Enormously satisfying and fun to read, Bradley takes a work of historical fiction and gives the whole premise of WWII evacuees a kick in the pants.

Ada is ten and as far as she can tell she’s never been outdoors. Never felt the sun on her face. Never seen grass. Born with a twisted foot her mother considers her an abomination and her own personal shame. So when the chance comes for Ada to join her fellow child evacuees, including her little brother Jamie, out of the city during WWII she leaps at the chance. Escaping to the English countryside, the two are foisted upon a woman named Susan who declares herself to be “not nice” from the start. Under her care the siblings grow and change. Ada discovers Susan’s pony and is determined from the get-go to ride it. And as the war progresses and things grow dire, she finds that the most dangerous thing isn’t the bombs or the war itself. It’s hope. And it’s got her number.

I may have mentioned it before, but the word that kept coming to mind as I read this book was “satisfying”. There’s something enormously rewarding about this title. I think a lot of the credit rests on the very premise. When a deserving kid receives deserving gifts, it releases all kinds of pleasant endorphins in the brain of he reader. It feels like justice, multiple times over. We’re sympathetic to Ava from the start, but I don’t know that I started to really like her until she had to grapple with the enormity of Susan’s sharp-edged kindness. As an author, Bradley has the unenviable job of making a character like Ada realistic, suffering real post-traumatic stress in the midst of a war, and then in time realistically stronger. This isn’t merely a story where the main character has to learn and grow and change. She has this enormous task of making Ava strong in every possible way after a lifetime of systematic, often horrific, abuse. And she has to do so realistically. No deus ex machina. No sudden conversion out of the blue. That she pulls it off is astounding. Honestly it made me want to reread the book several times over, if only to figure out how she managed to display Ada’s anger and shock in the face of kindness with such aplomb. For me, it was the little lines that conveyed it best. Sentences like the one Ada says after the first birthday she has ever celebrated: “I had so much. I felt so sad.” It’s not a flashy thing to say. Just true.

You can see the appeal of writing characters like Ada and Jamie. Kids who have so little experience with the wider world that they don’t know a church from a bank or vice versa. The danger with having a character ignorant in this way is that they’ll only serve to annoy the reader. Or, perhaps worse, their inability to comprehend simple everyday objects and ideas will strike readers as funny or something to be mocked. Here, Bradley has some advantages over other books that might utilize this technique. For one thing, by placing this book in the past Ada is able to explain to child readers historical facts without stating facts that would be obvious to her or resorting to long bouts of exposition. By the same token, child readers can also pity Ada for not understanding stuff that they already do (banks, church, etc.).

Ms. Bradley has written on her blog that, “I don’t write in dialect, for several reasons, but I try to write dialogue in a way that suggests dialect.” American born (Indiana, to be specific) she has set her novel in historical England (Kent) where any number of accents might be on display. She could have peppered the book with words that tried to replicate the sounds of Ada’s London accent or Susan’s Oxford educated one. Instead, Ms. Bradley is cleverer than that. As she says, she merely suggests dialect. One of the characters, a Mr. Grimes, says things like “Aye” and ends his sentences with words like “like”. But it doesn’t feel forced or fake. Just mere hints of an accent that would allow a reader to pick it up or ignore it, however they preferred.

Basically what we have here is Anne of Green Gables without quite so much whimsy. And in spite of the presence of a pony, this is not a cutesy pie book. Instead, it’s a story about a girl who fights like a demon against hope. She fights it with tooth and claw and nail and just about any weapon she can find. If her life has taught her anything it’s that hope can destroy you faster than abuse. In this light Susan’s kindness is a danger unlike anything she’s ever encountered before. Ms. Bradley does a stellar job of bringing to life this struggle in Ada and in inflaming a similar struggle in the hearts of her young readers. You root for Ada. You want her to be happy. Yet, at the same time, you don’t want your heart to be broken any more than Ada does. Do you hope for her future then? You do. Because this is a children’s book and hope, in whatever form it ultimately takes, is the name of the game. Ms. Bradley understands that and in The War That Saved My Life she manages to concoct a real delight out of a story that in less capable hands would have been a painful read. This book I would hand to my depression-averse younger self. It’s fun. It’s exciting. It’s one-of-a-kind.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

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Notes on the Cover: I may poke fun at the fact that this cover looks so much like the “serious” ones I avoided like the plague in my youth, but I should point out that it’s doing something that almost no other similar children’s books dare.  Inevitably if a book is about a kid with a physical ailment of some sort, that ailment will not make the cover.  Much as publishers avoid putting overweight kids on book jackets, so too do they avoid physical disabilities.  Here, however, the artist has shown Ada’s foot, albeit in a simplified manner.  It’s not particularly noticeable but it’s there.  I’ll take what I can get.

Professional Reviews:

Misc: The author stops by Matthew Winner’s fabulous Let’s Get Busy podcast to chat.

Video: And finally, see Ms. Brubaker Bradley talk about the book herself.

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25. Moonpenny Island, by Tricia Springstubb

Flor and Sylvie are the best of friends.  They live on Moonpenny Island - a small island that only boasts 200 residents when all of the summer folks leave.  Even though Sylvie and Flor seem quite different from one another, they compliment each other very well.  Sylvie doesn't make fun of Flor's fears, and when she does laugh at her, it's not the kind of laugh that hurts her feelings.

Imagine Flor's surprise when Sylvie announces that she is leaving Moonpenny and moving to the mainland in order to live with her aunt and her uncle and attend private school.  It seems that Sylvie's big brother's mess ups have made her parents want a better situation for her.

One day, Flor goes off on her bicycle to hang out in the old quarry after her parents have a fight. She runs into a girl she doesn't know! It's a girl with hiking boots wearing an oversized sweatshirt.  She says her dad is a geologist, and that they are on Moonpenny Island because of all of the fossils.  The girls strike up an awkward friendship and not unlike Flor and Sylvie, Flor and new girl Jasper need each other.

What follows is a poignant story of friendship, family and change. Springstubb is at her very best as she coaxes the characters along in their journeys and sets the stage for the story to unfold. This is the summer that everything is changing for Flor and her family.  It's that eye opening summer...the one where a certain degree of innocence is lost and truths are revealed.  The juxtaposition of the three families gives readers much to think about.

This is a book that will stay with readers.

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