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1. Reread #46 Dark Triumph

Dark Triumph (His Fair Assassin #2) Robin LaFevers. 2013. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 387 pages. [Source: Review copy]

I first read and reviewed Dark Triumph in March 2013. Dark Triumph isn't a book that one necessarily ENJOYS. It's a dark, exposing-ugly-sins historical novel in Robin LaFevers' His Fair Assassin series. (Grave Mercy, which I also recently reread, is the first in the series.)

Both books are dark. Though reading Dark Triumph makes Grave Mercy appear to be light and fluffy. Both books star assassin nuns. Young women trained at a convent who serve Death as a master, who carry out their master's orders, who kill in other words.

Sybella is the heroine in Dark Triumph. Her story is dark, ugly, desperate. She's a strong heroine. She doesn't hold onto hope so much as vengeance. Her will to live comes from a desire--a need--to kill those that have harmed her. The people that have hurt her most are her very own family: her father and brothers. (Readers learn of the events that led her to the convent.) Her father is Lord D'Albret. (A few details are historically accurate--the names of two of his daughters, Charlotte and Louise, for example, but almost everything is fictional. One should not take LaFevers' depiction as fact.)

Dark as it was, as ugly as it was, I enjoyed Sybella as a character. Her story was beautifully told. I especially loved the romance. I loved, loved, loved "The Beast" of Waroch. Their romance was not typical, it was unique and strong and tender and oh-so-right.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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2. Five Holiday Board Books

Gobble, Gobble, Tucker! Leslie McGuirk. 2014. Candlewick. 32 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Tucker is napping one fall day when he catches a whiff of something delicious. He knows that smell--it's turkey! And that means it must be Thanksgiving! 

I was not familiar with the character of Tucker before reading this board book. Tucker stars in several other books, mostly with a holiday theme (Halloween, Christmas, Valentine's Day, St. Patrick's Day, etc). I can't judge if this book is better or worse or about the same as the rest of the series. It is enjoyable enough for what it is: a story of a dog patiently and sometimes not so patiently waiting for a feast of his own to share with his visiting cousins.

Maisy's Christmas Tree. Lucy Cousins.  2014. Candlewick. 16 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Maisy and her friends are decorating her Christmas tree. Cyril puts on the lights. Tallulah adds pretty ornaments.

If you have a little one who loves Maisy and her friends, this tree-shaped board book might make a good before-Christmas present. (I do not believe in giving Christmas books as presents ON Christmas day.) In this Maisy book, Maisy is celebrating Christmas with her closest friends: Cyril, Tallulah, Charley, and Eddie. The book is simple and short. By the end of the book, the tree is all decorated, and the presents are all wrapped. If you expect Maisy books to have an actual plot, you might be disappointed. But if you love her for her simplicity and familiarity, then you will enjoy this one too. It's a fine addition to a very long series.

Little Blue Truck's Christmas. Alice Schertle. Illustrated by Jill McElmurry. 2014. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 24 pages. [Source: Review copy]

"Beep! Beep! Beep!" 
December's here! 
Little Blue Truck is full of cheer.
Every Christmas, Little Blue has a delivery job to do. 
Five trees ready to take ride. How many trees will fit inside?

I believe this is Little Blue Truck's third book. He was first introduced to readers in Little Blue Truck and Little Blue Truck Leads The Way.

Little Blue Truck has a job to do. He is delivering Christmas trees. He has one tree for each of his friends. He delivers four trees to his friends. He keeps the last tree for himself. The last page of this book features colored twinkle lights on the tree.

It's enjoyable enough. I think the twinkle lights may appeal to some. If your little one loves Little Blue Truck already, then, this one may definitely be worth seeking out.

 Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel! A Sing-along book! Illustrated by Shahar Kober. 2014. Scholastic. 12 pages. [Source: Review copy]

I have a little dreidel. I made it out of clay. 
And when it's dry and ready, then dreidel I shall play!
My dreidel's always playful.
It loves to dance and spin!

A dreidel-shaped board book of the classic song. Each spread introduces readers to an animal family celebrating Hanukkah. Raccoons. Beavers. Mice. Owls. Bears. Various traditions are shown in the illustrations, but the text itself is just the song.

Eight Jolly Reindeer. Ilanit Oliver. Illustrated by Jacqueline Rogers. 2014. Scholastic. 16 pages. [Source: Review copy]



Eight jolly reindeer stretching up to heaven.
Up goes Dasher and then there are....
Seven jolly reindeer start their kicks.
Up goes Dancer and then there are...
Six jolly reindeer learning how to drive.
Up goes Prancer and then there are...


Another shaped-board book. This one is all about Santa's reindeer. It's a counting book. Little Blue Truck's Christmas was a counting book also focused on subtraction. (Counting down from five to one). But. This book is much more entertaining, in my opinion. The rhythm and rhyme work well to make this a fun story to share with little ones. I will admit that this one does have glitter, a bit too much glitter. But despite the glitter, I found myself liking it.


© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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3. Language Arts/Stephanie Kallos: Reflections

I took a single novel with me to Hilton Head Island—the third novel by Seattle-based Stephanie Kallos, who brought us TODAY Book Club selection Broken for You as well as Sing Them Home, which was named by Entertainment Weekly as one Ten Best Novels of the year.

I was expecting very, very good, for I'd read those books and I know a little about Stephanie. I know how hard she has worked over the past four years toward this story she's called Language Arts. I know that she has broken it apart so that she might stitch it back together. That fortitude was required. And faith.

I'll enjoy this, I thought, as I packed my tiny red roller bag.

I had no idea what I was in for and here's the reason: I had no idea that a book like this was possible.

I spent nearly two hours on the plane this afternoon trying to summarize this book. I cannot. Yes, it's about a high school English teacher with a severely challenged (and now institutionalized) son. It's about the teacher's past, his regrets, a best friendship he once betrayed, the wife who left him, the daughter he loves. A family story, a deeply involving family story. It is absolutely that.

But it is also about the Palmer Method of handwriting, a brutalized Italian nun, Janet Leigh, Life magazine, thalidomide babies, and a young student who wears a camera for a necklace and has some ideas about art. Absolutely none of that is decoration, distraction, or tangent; it all counts. How and why it counts is a great part of the genius of this book.

And why you have to read it.

Structurally significant, philosophically whole, unbelievably well written, and please forgive me, Stephanie's best book yet. I could deconstruct this book for days. I could hang the sections by clothespins to a line and lie beneath the fluttering pages, pondering, but I would never be able to figure out just how this book got made. How Stephanie summoned the patience. How she held its many parts together in her head, then put them down for us.

Talk about fluid.

Talk about transporting.

Talk about clever in places and deeply sad in others.

Talk about a stab in the heart, and then a healing.

Language Arts is blurbed by Maria Semple, and anyone who loves Maria Semple (Where'd You Go, Bernadette?) will love this book. It is edited by the very great Lauren Wein of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and anyone who loves Lauren's books (I love Lauren's books) will love this book.

For the rest of you, if there are any rest of you, I give you one small passage about language from Language Arts.
Language left him gradually, a bit at a time. One would expect words to depart predictably, in reverse order—the way a row of knitting disappears, stitch by stitch, when the strand of working yarn is tugged off by the needle—but that was not the case.
Look for it next June.

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4. Review: Crossover

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2014. Reviewed from ARC.

The Plot: Twelve year old twin brothers, Josh and Jordan Bell, are basketball players just like their father. And just like their father, they are GOOD.

Josh loves basketball and words; he is the one telling the story, in a sequence of poems organized by sections as if it were a basketball game, starting with Warm Up, moving on to First Quarter, and ultimately ending with Overtime. His father loves music, giving Josh the nickname Filthy McNasty after a favorite song.

His twin, Jordan, is JB, and loves basketball and betting.

The Crossover takes the twins through a basketball season, ending with an important game. And while this is a book about basketball and basketball players, it is also a story about brothers, a father and sons, a family. The two brothers complement each other on the court, a great pair leading their Junior High team to victory after victory. Their parents are loving but strict, with complications because their mother is also their Assistant Principal; their father, who played professional basketball, is a stay at home father who coaches his sons. And then there is a new girl in school, who Josh likes but before he can say a word, it's his brother who is dating her.

The Good: I'm on a roll of reading good books lately!

I loved Josh, his poetry, his love for his dad, his brother, basketball, words. Oh and his hair: he's proud of his locks, just like his dad wore when he played, and conflict with his brother starts when Josh loses a bet to JB -- a bet that allows JB to cut one of those locks off. There is also competition and jealousy, but those feelings are hidden deep inside Josh, only coming out in full force when JB begins dating. The feelings are so hidden, and the parents are so into reinforcing the brother bond, that these emotions are ones that Josh has a hard time understanding. Their father pushes both sons to be good basketball players, but he's individually pushing them: there is no setting one brother against the other.

If I talk more about the twins' father, it's because of the strong basketball bond between the father and sons. The father stopped playing years ago, explaining to his sons that he saved his money and is happy being with them full-time. As the twins learn, it's a bit more complicated than that: an injury ended their father's career. Health issues continue to plague the family; there's a history of hypertension, and their father has a huge distrust of doctors and hospitals so refuses to see one. (And yes there is foreshadowing there.)

One thing I really liked about The Crossover is that it's a book about two typical kids -- readers will see themselves in Josh as he struggles with his love for his brother but also his jealousy; with wanting to play basketball; enjoying being good at something; practicing to become better. Having a father who is loving and caring; a mother who is also kind and loving but knows when to be strict. Parents who value their sons' education as much as their basketball skills. It's a story played out in towns and cities everywhere.

Another Favorite Book Read in 2014!

Other reviews: The New York Times review; Stacked; Clear Eyes, Full Shelves; Bookshelves of Doom.







Amazon Affiliate. If you click from here to Amazon and buy something, I receive a percentage of the purchase price.

© Elizabeth Burns of A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy

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5. A Creature of Moonlight (2014)

A Creature of Moonlight. Rebecca Hahn. 2014. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 313 pages. [Source: Review copy]

A Creature of Moonlight is an enjoyable fantasy novel for young adults. Marni, the heroine, is being raised by her grandfather (Gramps). The two live an isolated life, in a way. They don't mingle with the villagers as often as one might expect. Marni, for the most part, is too interested in her garden and the woods. And Gramps, well, he's a lot older than he used to be. Still people come. Some important people. Nobles and such. Some villagers. Now that Marni is nearly grown up, men of all classes are beginning to see her as more than a flower girl, more than "Tulip." Does this make Gramps happy or worried? And how does Marni feel about it herself?

A Creature of Moonlight is fantasy. In the world Hahn has created, the woods are magical and mysterious and more than a little dangerous. There are stories--new stories, old stories, long-handed-down stories--of young women who entered the woods and were never seen again. Marni herself knows one such case. One of her friends disappeared in the woods. But Marni knows the woods. I wouldn't say she feels absolutely at home in the woods. There is a part of her that loves the woods, loves the danger and mystery. There is a hesitant part of her as well, that part keeps her coming home again. As she says so well later in the novel, "You can want a whole slew of things. It's what you choose that ought to matter."

Choices. Marni has difficult choices to make. Does she belong in the woods? Does she belong at the palace? For you see, Marni is no ordinary village girl. Her grandfather was the king. Her uncle IS the king. She is the daughter of a princess--a murdered princess. Neither choice appeals completely to Marni. The novel introduces readers to both settings. Readers see Marni reclaim her place in the royal family. They see her being courted by one of the lords. Readers also see her come into her own in the woods. These chapters in the woods are fascinating in a dark way. Marni learns what happens to young women who WANT to be taken by the dragon of the woods. But is either place right for her?

I liked this one very much. I thought it was beautifully written. There are sentences that are just WOW. The storytelling was nicely done. I liked quite a few of the characters. The characters all seemed appropriately flawed. That being said, not all the characters were given equal depth and substance. Even more characterization might have made this one great. But as it is, it is an enjoyable read.

Quotes:
"But she always kept on until the end. She knew, as I knew, that you don't stop a story half done. You keep on going, through heartbreak and pain and fear, and times there is a happy ending, and times there isn't. Don't matter. You don't cut a flower half through and then wait and watch as it slowly shrivels to death. And you don't stop a story before you reach the end" (11).
"My breath catches. Not just because I thought we'd gone over this, but because as he says it, for one crazy instant I think about saying yes. I think about living with this man, who's always taken my side, who melts me right away with his kisses, who believes in me and my innocence even when he really shouldn't. He really shouldn't. Before I can stop myself, I throw my sewing back on the floor and push myself out of my chair. Edgar rises to his feet as well, wary. "How many times is this?" I say, my voice shriller than I mean it to be, but I push my anger on, fall gladly into it. "What is it with you, my Lord of Ontrei, that makes you think that when I'm telling you no, and no, and no again, what I really must be meaning is ask me again? Could be I'm crazy, but I've no wish to be the stone you step on to reach the throne..." (181)
© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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6. The Case of the Stolen Sixpence

The Case of the Stolen Sixpence. Holly Webb. Illustrated by Marion Lindsay. 2014. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 176 pages. [Source: Review copy]

I liked The Case of the Stolen Sixpence. It is a light historical mystery set in Victorian London. It is light on history and light on mystery. But light isn't necessarily a bad thing. This is an often charming book for young readers.

Maisie Hitchins is the protagonist. Perhaps she is supposed to be helping her grandmother run the boardinghouse. Perhaps she is supposed to be focused on helping with chores and running errands and keeping guests happy. But Maisie sees the world differently. She sees herself as a detective, a young detective perhaps, but one with great potential. She wants REAL cases, HARD cases. But the cases that come her way right now come from her own curiosity. For example, she finds a puppy in a wet sack, she wants to know WHO tried to drown the puppy? (And can she keep him PLEASE!!!!) She hears that the delivery boy has lost his job at the butcher's shop, she wants to know WHY did he lose his job? (And can he have it back PLEASE!!!!) Maisy is certainly likable and there are plenty of cute, charming scenes. The mysteries may be "light" cases, but, they matter very much to Maisy.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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7. Sniffer Dogs (2014)

Sniffer Dogs: How Dogs (And Their Noses) Save The World. Nancy F. Castaldo. 2014. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 160 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Sniffer Dogs was a great read. It is packed with information. I learned so much by reading it. For example, did you know that there are specially trained dogs who can alert diabetics (type 1) if their blood sugar is too high or too low?! While I knew that there were dogs involved in search and rescue, I did not know that there were also dogs especially trained to search out bones. The book is very reader-friendly; I loved all the photographs. I loved the personal stories about the men and women who work with and train dogs to do very special tasks.

I would definitely recommend this one to readers of all ages who love dogs. It would also make a great choice for those readers who enjoy compelling nonfiction. This book is about dogs who make a difference, and also about the special bond between dogs and their trainers/owners.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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8. The Lemonade Crime (2011)

The Lemonade Crime. Jacqueline Davies. 2011. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 160 pages. [Source: Library book]

The Lemonade Crime opens with the fourth day of fourth grade for Jessie and Evan Treski. Evan and Jessie are still convinced that Scott Spencer STOLE $208 from Evan's short pockets on the last day of summer. They become even more convinced of his guilt when Scott starts bragging that he has the latest Xbox. And brag he does to anyone and everyone who will listen. And the teacher seems to be fine with this bragging taking up class time. Jessie wants justice. So she serves him with papers. These "fake" legal papers tell him he has to arrive in court on Friday after-school for his trial by his peers. Jessie assigns roles to her classmates. Her brother, Evan, is the plaintiff. She is his lawyer. Scott is the defendant. Megan is Scott's lawyer. Twelve of their classmates become jurors; six boys, six girls, I believe. David a boy that isn't particularly friendly with either Scott or Evan is chosen to be judge. The rest of the class will be the audience. Jessie takes this trial very seriously. If Scott is found guilty, he will "have" to give up his new Xbox. If Scott is found innocent, then Jessie and Evan will have to apologize in front of everyone.

It's obvious that The Lemonade Crime has a theme of justice. Two kids who feel they were wronged want justice, they want a wrong to be righted. They imagine how sweet it will be to prove Scott to be a liar and a thief in front of everyone. Holding onto this anger, however, is changing Jessie and Evan.

There is also a not-so-subtle, but oh-so-pleasant theme of forgiveness in this novel. This is first hinted at when Jessie notes that Saturday will be Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Several of Evan's friends are Jewish. Several of his friends come to him privately and ask forgiveness for things they did previously. Evan lets this resonate and he begins to reflect. I really liked this turn of events.

I definitely enjoyed this second book in the series.


© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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9. The Bell Bandit (2012)

The Bell Bandit. Jacqueline Davies. (Lemonade War #3) 2012. HMH. 192 pages. [Source: Library]

The Bell Bandit is the third book in the Lemonade War Series. The novel opens with Evan, Jessie, and their mom going to Grandma's house to celebrate the holidays--New Years, to be precise. In the Lemonade Crime, Davies hinted that Grandma's memory was declining. She sent Jessie two copies of Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper. In the subsequent four months or so, things have gotten so much worse! Though I suspect the mom was a bit clueless at how much her mom had lost already.

Jessie and Evan are a bit confused as to WHY their Grandma burned the kitchen down. She'd always been a good cook before. Yet here Grandma was burning holes in walls, ceilings, and floors. And not remembering doing it. Blaming others. But even more disturbing to Evan and Jessie is Grandma forgetting them. Sometimes she remembers Jessie but not Evan. She can be quite cruel and want "that strange boy" to go away, to leave, that she doesn't like him or want him around. Sometimes she forgets Jessie too. Jessie who has always had a hard time reading people, understanding emotions and making solid connections, is truly confused by it all.

By far, this is the most serious the series has gotten. The book deals very honestly with the subject. But. It has its lighter moments. In The Bell Bandit, Jessie teams up with a neighbor, Maxwell (he likes to call himself Maxwell Smart), to solve the mystery of who stole the neighborhood bell. That mystery, of course, is solved by the end.

I continue to like Evan and Jessie. The mom continues to not enter into the story very much. Evan seems to be placed in several awkward moments where he's almost given full responsibility for watching and handling his Grandma. I'm not sure if the mom is truly failing to understand her mom's true condition OR if she's just not very bright. But Evan finds these situations overwhelming because Grandma, as much as he LOVES her, is more than he can handle.
© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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10. Review of the Day: Greenglass House by Kate Milford

Greenglass Review of the Day: Greenglass House by Kate MilfordGreenglass House
By Kate Milford
Clarion Books (an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
$17.99
ISBN: 978-0-544-05270-3
Ages 9-12
On shelves August 26th

When I was a kid I had a real and abiding love of Agatha Christie. This would be around the time when I was ten or eleven. It wasn’t that I was rejecting the mysteries of the children’s book world. I just didn’t have a lot to choose from there. Aside from The Westing Game or supernatural ghostly mysteries sold as Apple paperbacks through the Scholastic Book Fair, my choices were few and far between. Kids today have it better, but not by much. Though the Edgar Awards for best mystery fiction do dedicate an award for young people’s literature, the number of honestly good mystery novels for the 9-12 set you encounter in a given year is minimal. When you find one that’s really extraordinary you want to hold onto it. And when it’s Kate Milford doing the writing, there’s nothing for it but to enjoy the ride. A raconteur’s delight with a story that’ll keep ‘em guessing, this is one title you won’t want to miss.

It was supposed to be winter vacation. Though Milo’s parents run an inn with a clientele that tends to include more than your average number of smugglers, he can always count on winter vacation to be bereft of guests. Yet in spite of the awful icy weather, a guest appears. Then another. Then two more. All told more than five guests appear with flimsy excuses for their arrival. Some seem to know one another. Others act suspiciously. And when thefts start to take place, Milo and his new friend Meddy decide to turn detective. Yet even as they unravel clues about their strange clientele there are always new ones to take their places. Someone is sabotaging the Greenglass House but it’s the kids who will unmask the culprit.

To my mind, Milford has a talent that few authors can boast; She breaks unspoken rules. Rules that have been dutifully followed by children’s authors for years on end. And in breaking them, she creates stronger books. Greenglass House is just the latest example. To my mind, three rules are broken here. Rule #1: Children’s books must mostly be about children. Adults are peripheral to the action. Rule #2: Time periods are not liquid. You cannot switch between them willy-nilly. Rule #3: Parents must be out of the picture. Kill ‘em off or kidnap them or make them negligent/evil but by all means get rid of them! To each of these, Milford thumbs her proverbial nose.

Let’s look at Rule #1 first. It is worth noting that with the exception of our two young heroes, the bulk of the story focuses on adults with adult problems. It has been said (by me, so take this with a grain of salt) that by and large the way most authors chose to write about adults for children is to turn them into small furry animals (Redwall, etc.). There is, however, another way. If you have a small innocuous child running hither and thither, gathering evidence and spying all the while, then you can talk about grown-ups for long periods of time and few child readers are the wiser. If I keep mentioning The Westing Game it’s because Ellen Raskin did very much what Milford is doing here, and ended up with a classic children’s book in the process. So there’s certainly a precedent.

On to Rule #2. One of the remarkable things about Kate Milford as a writer is that she can set a book in the present day (there is a mention of televisions in this book, so we can at least assume it’s relatively recent) and then go and fill it with archaic, wonderful, outdated technology. A kind of alternate contemporary steampunk, if there is such a thing. In an era of electronic doodads, child readers are going to really get a kick out of a book where mysterious rusted keys, old doorways, ancient lamps, stained green glass windows, and other old timey elements give the book a distinctive flavor.

Finally, Rule #3. This was the most remarkable of choices on Milford’s part, and I kept reading to book to find out how she’d get away with it. Milo’s parents are an active part of his life. They clearly care for him, periodically checking up on his throughout the story, but never interfering with his investigations. Since the book is entirely set in the Greenglass House, it has the feel of a stage play (which, by the way, it would adapt to BRILLIANTLY). That means you’re constantly running into mom and dad, but they don’t feel like they’re hovering. This is partly aided by the fact that they’re incredibly busy. So, in a way, Milford has discovered a way of removing parental involvement without removing parental care. The kids are free to explore and solve crimes and the adult gatekeepers reading this book are comforted by the family situation. A rarity if ever there was one.

But behind all the clues and ghost stories and thefts and lies what Greenglass House really is is the story of a hero’s journey. Milo starts out a soft-spoken kiddo with little faith in his own abilities. Donning the mantle of a kind of Dungeons & Dragons type character named Negret, he taps into a strength that he might otherwise not known he even had. There is a moment in the book when Milo starts acting with more confidence and actually thinks to himself, “And I didn’t even have to use Negret’s Irresistible Blandishment . . . I just did it.” Milo’s slow awakening to his own strengths and abilities is the heart of the novel. For all that people will discuss the mystery and the clues, it’s Milo that holds everything together.

Much of his personality is embedded in his identity as an adopted kid too. I love the mention of “orphan magic” that Milford makes at one point. It’s the idea that when something is sundered from its attachments it becomes more powerful in the process. At no point does Milford ever downplay the importance of the fact that Milo is adopted. It isn’t a casual fact that’s thrown in there and then forgotten. For Milo, the fact that he was adopted is part of who he is as a person. And coming to terms with that is part of his journey as well. Little wonder that he gathers such comfort from learning about orphan magic and its potential.

I’m looking at my notes about this book and I see I’ve written down little random facts that don’t really fit in with this review. Things like, “I did wonder if Milo’s name was a kind of unspoken homage to the Milo of The Phantom Tollbooth. And, “The book’s attitude towards smuggling is not all that different from, say, Danny, the Champion of the World’s attitude towards poaching.” And, “I love the vocabulary at work here. Raconteur. Puissance.” There is a lot a person can say about this book. I should note that there is a twist that a couple kids may see coming. It is, however, a fair twist and one that doesn’t cheat before you get to it. For the most part, Milford does a divine job at writing a darned good mystery without sacrificing character development and deeper truths. A great grand book for those kiddos who like reading books that make them feel smart. Fun fun fun fun fun.

On shelves August 26th.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

First Sentence: “There is a right way to do things and a wrong way, if you’re going to run a hotel in a smugglers’ town.”

Professional Reviews:

Interviews: Milford reveals all with The Enchanted Inkpot.

Misc:

  • In lieu of an Author’s Note, Kate provides some background information on Milo and adoption that is worthy additional reading here.
  • Cover artist Jaime Zollars discusses being selected to illustrate the book jacket here.
  • Discover how the book came from a writing prompt here.

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11. Map. It's What's For Work Today.


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12. The Candy Smash (2013)

The Candy Smash. Jacqueline Davies (Lemonade War #4) 2013. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 240 pages. [Source: Review copy]

The fourth book in Jacqueline Davies Lemonade War series brings us to February in Jessie and Evan Treski's fourth grade year. Apparently after returning to school, Jessie decided to start a classroom newspaper. The Candy Smash is ALL about Jessie working very hard as a journalist and reporter as she tries to figure out the ethics of publishing. For example, if Jessie *knows* that someone like-likes someone, should she report it? Perhaps if Jessie herself were to have a crush, she'd know the answer to that one. But boys, well, they just don't interest her yet. Evan, on the other hand, well, he is definitely interested in one particular girl. (He has been since The Lemonade War!)

The Candy Smash isn't all about journalism. The teacher has started a poetry unit. While some students like hearing and discussing the poems each class day, Evan happens to love it. He tries not to let his love show too much, of course. But Evan's big secret: HE LOVES POETRY. And at home, behind his unlocked "locked" door (there's a sign on the door) he writes poetry of his own. For someone who has struggled with school, Evan's newly discovered gift with words is pure blessing.

The books have been getting more serious as the series progresses. In the Candy Smash, readers learn that Grandma has come to stay with them. I was very relieved to learn that she would not be left on her own. Also, Jessie has started thinking a LOT about her father whom she hasn't seen in over a year. Readers learn that HE is a journalist, that he travels all over the world. I knew, of course, that their mother is a single mom, divorced, but this is the first mention that I can recall revealing details about the dad.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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13. The Magic Trap (2014)

The Magic Trap. (Lemonade War #5) Jacqueline Davies. 2014. HMH. 272 pages. [Source: Review copy]

The Magic Trap is the fifth novel in Jacqueline Davies' Lemonade War series. Her newest book starring Evan and Jessie Treski opens in the month of May. It is almost summer once again, readers have almost spent an entire year with these two siblings.

Mrs. Treski is going on a business trip. She'll be gone a whole week. She's hired a sitter to stay with Evan and Jessie. But hours before she's scheduled to leave and just mere minutes after an unexpected knock at the door, she learns that the sitter has been in a car accident and needs surgery. While she'll be fine, there is no way she'll be able to keep two kids. The knock at the door? Evan and Jessie's father. He just happens to be in town for a day or two; he just happens to be in between stories for the moment; he's a war correspondent. He volunteers to stay with the kids the whole week. She is hesitant. After all, the last visit he stayed just a few hours. He is always in and out of their lives. He rarely stays around longer than a day or two at most. A whole week with the kids?! Is he capable of sticking around that long? Of putting his kids first? She isn't positive. But she goes.

Evan is working on a disappearing act of his own. Evan's new interest? Magic tricks. He's got a handful he's great at. He's working at mastering several more. He's found an old--really, really old--magic book. He needs help, and Jessie and his Dad are ready to help him out. Evan plans a big magic show and everything...

But life doesn't always go according to plan. And Jessie and Evan are about to be severely tested. All week long, their dad has been emphasizing over and over and over again how tough Treskis are and how they can do anything. Jessie and Evan will be given the chance to prove just that...

The Magic Trap certainly has its dramatic moments.
© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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14. The Year We Were Famous

The Year We Were Famous. Carole Estby Dagg. 2011. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 256 pages. [Source: Review copy]

I definitely liked Carole Estby Dagg's The Year We Were Famous. This is historical fiction based on a true story, a true family story. It is fiction; liberties have been taken. Liberties that work in favor of a not-so-bleak ending.

Clara Estby is the heroine of The Year We Were Famous. She is the oldest daughter; she is seventeen. The family farm is in big, big trouble. Her mother, Helga, who suffers--and suffers understandably--from depression, works with her daughter to brainstorm a way to "save" the farm. Her daughter's careless comment about wanting to travel the world and be a journalist sparks an idea that can't be swept aside. Helga is determined to find sponsors, wealthy sponsors who want to test what women are capable of. She wants to make a deal. She and her daughter will walk across country, over three thousand miles, starting with no more than $5, if they reach New York City by the deadline, they will receive $10,000--more than enough to keep the farm. This is where the details are a bit fuzzy in reality because the journals and such were purposefully destroyed by the family. No one is sure *who* the sponsor was, if there even was a sponsor, the intentions of the sponsor, etc.

For over seven months May through December, these two women are on their own and on an adventure of sorts. It is dangerous and exhausting and overwhelming and a once in a lifetime opportunity. They meet new people almost every single day. They are sharing their stories with various newspapers across the country. They are speaking at suffragette events across the country. They are challenging themselves day and night...

I liked this one. It is set in 1896. I appreciated the fact that the author was inspired by her family history.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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15. Six 2014 Picture Books

I Pledge Allegiance. Pat Mora and Libby Martinez. Illustrated by Patrice Barton. 2014. Random House. 40 pages. [Source: Review copy]

On Monday when I get to school, my teacher, Mrs. Adams asks, "Did your great-aunt pass her test?"
"Yes!" I say. "She is very smart." I tell my class all about my great-aunt. She is eighty years old, and my family calls her Lobo, which means "wolf" in Spanish. (She calls us her lobitos--her "little wolves.")
Lobo studied very hard. She learned all about America. 

Inspired by her own aunt who became a citizen in her seventies, Pat Mora and Libby Martinez have crafted a lovely story of friendship between a young child and her great-aunt. While her great-aunt is preparing to become a citizen, to say the pledge of allegiance in a big ceremony, her young niece is preparing to lead the pledge of allegiance in her class. The two discuss what they love about the U.S.

I liked the focus on family. It was very sweet. A lot of the charm of this one is communicated through the illustrations.

Text: 3 out of 5
Illustrations: 4 out of 5
Total: 7 out of 10

Duck & Goose: Go To The Beach. Tad Hills. 2014. Random House. 40 pages. [Source: Review copy]

"Don't you love it here, Duck?" Goose honked. The two friends relaxed in the early-morning sun and listened to the hum of the meadow. Butterflies flitted and grass swished in the breeze. "Yes, I do," Duck agreed. "Let's never leave," said Goose. 
Suddenly, Duck jumped up. "You just gave me the greatest idea, Goose!" he quacked. "Let's leave! Let's go away!"

I enjoy Duck and Goose. I do. Perhaps I don't love these two as much as say Gerald and Piggie. But I definitely like this friendship. These two star in many books together. I can't say that Duck & Goose Go To The Beach is my absolute favorite of the series. (I enjoy others in the series more actually.) But it is a fun summer addition for Duck & Goose fans.

The book begins with Duck wanting desperately to go somewhere, to have an adventure. Goose is super hesitant. He likes home. He likes the familiar. Duck does persuade Goose to come along. By the end, Goose has definitely become more comfortable! But will Duck like where the adventure leads him?! He may not!!!

Text: 3 out of 5
Illustrations: 3 out of 5
Total: 6 out of 10

Peppa Pig and the Vegetable Garden. 2014. Candlewick Press. 32 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Peppa Pig and her little brother, George, are playing at Grandpa Pig and Granny Pig's house. They love to help Grandpa Pig in the garden.

If you enjoy the show Peppa Pig, chances are you'll enjoy reading the series of books based on the show. I know I do! In this book, Peppa Pig and her brother George are visiting their grandparents. They work in the garden. They plant seeds. They play in the garden. They pretend to be snails, butterflies, and worms. When Mummy Pig and Daddy Pig arrive, they pick blackberries. If you've seen the show, you know that usually means trouble! In this instance, it is Mummy Pig who ends up making a mess of things! The book concludes with a nice family meal.

Text: 3 out of 5
Illustrations: 3 out of 5
Total: 6 out of 10

Peppa Pig and the Great Vacation. Candlewick Press. 2014. 32 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Peppa Pig is one of my favorite children's shows. It is. I love Peppa Pig and her brother George. I enjoy her parents Mummy Pig and Daddy Pig. I enjoy watching their adventures. The books which are based on the show can be great fun, but, they don't always match the quality or the charm of the show. I did enjoy Peppa Pig and the Great Vacation. But I didn't love it.

In Peppa Pig and the Great Vacation, Peppa and her family go on vacation. They do some hiking. They do some shopping. They have at least one picnic. (The family does love having picnics!) They go to the beach. Every day Peppa Pig calls home to see if Grandpa Pig and Granny Pig are properly watching her fish. Readers will see if they did a proper job by the end of the book!

Text: 3 out of 5
Illustrations: 3 out of 5
Total: 6 out of 10

Help! We Need A Title! Herve Tullet. 2014. Candlewick Press. 64 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Hey! Someone's watching us!
Guys, come here. Look at this.
There are people here...and they've opened our book!
Hi there.
Who are you? What do you want?
You're very sweet. Wow! 
So, what now?
I think they would like a story.

The reader catches the characters by surprise in Herve Tullet's new picture book. The illustrations, the characters, are an unfinished mess. They are. They know they are. They do not have a story ready to tell the reader. They know the reader expects a finished product, an actual story. But they do their best. They talk amongst themselves. They talk about what a book needs to work. Characters. Backdrops. A story or plot. Possibly a villain. But they're amateurs. What they need is a real author to help them. So they team up and surprise one. The author they choose, of course, is Herve Tullet. His photo is blended into the illustrations charmingly. He is willing to help them if they're willing for his story to be short and sweet.

 This one is definitely creative and unique. I liked it. It was originally published in France.

Text: 3 out of 5
Illustrations: 3 out of 5
Total: 6 out of 10

Very Little Red Riding Hood. Teresa Heapy. Illustrated by Sue Heap. 2014. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 32 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Very little Red Riding Hood was going to her Grandmama's for a sleepover. "I go see Gramma with cakes," said Very little Red Riding Hood.
"Yes, my love, I know," said her Mummy.
"Off you go. Be gentle with Grandmama. And don't break anything!"
"Bye bye, my Mummy!" said Very little Red Riding Hood.
So Very little Red Riding Hood set off for Grandmama's house. She hadn't gotten very far when she met a Wolf.
"A FOXIE!" said Very little Red Riding Hood. 
She gave him a BIG hug.

As I hope you can tell from my beginning quote, VERY little Red Riding Hood is a young girl with a BIG personality. She is truly the star of this fun retelling! You won't find VERY little Red Riding Hood scared or intimidated by the wolf! Not in this story! I loved, loved, LOVED this one!!!

This retelling is very fun, very creative, just a joy to read and reread. I definitely recommend it. The only predictable thing about it is perhaps the little girl's homesickness that she experiences at her first sleepover. But with Grandmama and "Foxie" by her side, all is good. (This one was originally published in the UK).


Text: 5 out of 5
Illustrations: 4 out of 5
Total: 9 out of 10

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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16. Review of the Day: Princess Sparkle-Heart Gets a Makeover by Josh Schneider

PrincessSparkleHeart Review of the Day: Princess Sparkle Heart Gets a Makeover by Josh SchneiderPrincess Sparkle-Heart Gets a Makeover
By Josh Schneider
Clarion (an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-544-14228-2
Ages 3-7
On shelves now

Sometimes I’ll just sit back and think about how the advent of the internet has affected literary culture. I don’t mean book promotion or reviews or any of that. I’m talking about the very content of books themselves. On the one hand, it accounts for the rise in Steampunk (a desire for tactile, hands-on technology, gears and all). On the other, it has led to a rise in books where characters make things. So why, you may be asking yourself, am I saying all this when ostensibly I’m supposed to be reviewing a picture book with the title Princess Sparkle-Heart Gets a Makeover? Because, best beloved, Josh Schneider has created a picture book that provides solutions. If something terrible happens to something you love, do you sit on the floor and cry and bemoan your fate? NO! You go out and find the solution, even if it means getting your hands a little dirty. We’re seeing a nice uptick in books where kids make things and fix things on their own. Add in a jealous doggy and a twist ending that NO ONE will see coming and you have a book that could easily have been written in the past but contains a distinctly 21st century flavor through and through.

Amelia just couldn’t be happier. When she gets her new doll, Princess Sparkle-Heart, the two bond instantly. They do tea parties, royal weddings, share secrets, the works. Never mind that Amelia’s pet dog eyes their happiness with an envious glare. The minute the two are separated, it acts. One minute Princess Sparkle-Heart is reading a book to herself. The next, she’s a pile of well-chewed bits and pieces on the floor. At first Amelia is distraught, but when her mother proposes putting the doll back together Amelia provides direction and ideas. This is the all-new Princess Sparkle-Heart, ladies and gentlemen. One that is NOT going to be taken advantage of again.

PrincessSparkle2 300x191 Review of the Day: Princess Sparkle Heart Gets a Makeover by Josh SchneiderI’ll be the first to admit to you that I like a little weird with my children’s literature. The only question is whether or not kids like the same kind of weird that I like. There’s no question that some of them do have a taste for the unusual, after all. It’s adult selectors that grow disturbed by some of this author/illustrator’s choices. In the case of Princess Sparkle-Heart (can I tell you how much I love that her last name is hyphenated?) I’ve already seen a schism between some adults and others. Some adults find this book freakin’ hilarious. They love the odd way in which Schneider chooses to empower his heroine. Others aren’t amused in the least. For my part, I found it a wonderful new girl/doll story. I was particularly fond of the spread where Amelia looks at a wall of fashion magazines and zeroes in on the sole solitary superhero comic found there instead. So if Schneider is telling readers something, he’s being subtle about it.

I’ve also been noticing a rather nice trend recently in books starring young girls. There’s a real movement in the country right now to give girls the impetus to make and create and build. Books like The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires where the heroine not only builds but deals repeatedly with disappointment are really quite fabulous. In Princess Sparkle-Heart Amelia’s unseen mother is the one doing the construction of a new princess, but it’s Amelia who provides the number of parts and the specifications. If the new princess is completely different from her prior incarnation, that’s thanks to Amelia’s contributions. Meanwhile the Frankenstein connection that some have noted (and that I entirely missed the first time around) is clearly intentional. How else to explain the two screws that appear in the “M” of the front cover’s “Makeover”? No doubt Princess Sparkle-Heart’s conversion will strike some as monstrous. For others, it’ll be like your average everyday superhero origin story. Nothing wrong with that!

PrincessSparkle3 300x194 Review of the Day: Princess Sparkle Heart Gets a Makeover by Josh SchneiderI’ve been oddly amused by dog books this year. I am not a dog person. I can take ‘em or leave ‘em. But in 2014 we’ve seen some really spectacular canine picture books. Things like Shoe Dog by Megan McDonald, and I’m My Own Dog by David Ezra Stein, and now this. The dog in this particular book is awfully similar to the one in Bears by Ruth Krauss as re-illustrated by Maurice Sendak, with its jealousy of a beloved toy. Cleverly Schneider has positioned the dog’s growls to serve as a running commentary behind the action. A low-key “GRRRRRRRRRR” runs both on and off the page, bleeding into the folds, falling off the sides. Schneider’s humans never have pupils (and combined with her red hair this gives Amelia a distant L’il Orphan Annie connection) but the dogs and stuffed animals do. As a result, the dog ends up oddly sympathetic in spite of its naughty ways (and indeed there is a happy ending for all characters at the story’s close).

Occasionally folks will ask me for “Princess Book” recommendations. Admittedly I’m far more partial to subversive princess tales (The Paperbag Princess, The Princess and the Pig, etc.) than those that adhere to the norm. Keeping that in mind, this is definitely going into my princess book bag of tricks. With its twist ending, strong female character, and princess that looks like she could take down twenty monsters without a blink, I’m a fan. I wouldn’t necessarily hand it to the kid looking for fluff and fairies and oogly goo, but for children with a wry sense of humor (and they do exist) this book is going to pack a wallop. Funny and surprising and a great read through and through. You ain’t never seen a makeover quite like THIS before.

On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

  • Dahlia by Barbara McClintock
  • Bears by Ruth Krauss, illustrated by Maurice Sendak

Other Blog Reviews: Sal’s Fiction Addiction,

Professional Reviews: A star from Publishers Weekly, A star from Kirkus,

Misc: There is a TON of stuff related to the book on the publisher’s website.  Everything from sewing patterns to a Q&A to early sketches to more more more!

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17. Six Early Readers (2014)

Petal and Poppy. (Level 2, Green Light Readers) Lisa Clough. Illustrated by Ed Briant. 2014. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 32 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Poppy is not here. It is time to practice my tuba. Bah-bwab-baah! Bwah-bu-baah! 
Ack! Petal is practicing. It is time to go scuba diving!

Petal and Poppy are best friends. (Petal is the elephant. Poppy is the rhinoceros.) They are best friends, but, they are very different from one another. In this first book, readers learn that Petal can be a worrywart, and that Poppy is very understanding.

Poppy goes scuba diving. Petal comes along. She brings her tuba. She alternates playing her tuba and panicking about Poppy. Is Poppy okay? How about now? And now?

Did I like it? Sure. I didn't not like it. With the exception of Elephant and Piggie, I am unlikely to get EXCITED about any early readers I pick up.

Petal and Poppy and the Penguin. (Level 2, Green Light Readers) Lisa Clough. Illustrated by Ed Briant. 2014. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 32 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Someone has stomped on my flowers. Uh-oh--a storm is coming! Boom! Honk, honk! Who is there? Ahhh! A monster! 

Was there really a monster? Or was Petal, the elephant, just panicking again? Poppy, the rhinoceros, is such a good and understanding friend. Poppy will "save" Petal from the monster outside who is stomping on the flowers. Who is the monster making spooky sounds? A penguin, of course! It is called Petal and Poppy and The Penguin after all. These two take the penguin in. Petal very reluctantly. But these three may be great friends yet.

I liked this second book better than the first. I'm not surprised. I think with series books it can take a few books sometimes for readers to make a connection with characters. The third book in the series will be released at the end of August.  Petal and Poppy and the Spooky Halloween.

Steve & Wessley in The Ice Cream Shop. (Level 1 Reader) J.E. Morris. 2014. Scholastic. 32 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Steve walked down the street. 
Steve walked by an ice cream shop.
Did someone say "ice cream"?
Steve liked ice cream.
Steve liked ice cream very much.

I like Steve. I do. He may not be very bright or smart. But there is something about him that is just likable. (Maybe he reminds me of Pinky?) In this book, Steve really wants ice cream. He wants it bad. One thing is standing in his way. The door. It won't open. Steve is very frustrated. What is the deal with this door?!

Wessley is much smarter than Steven. He realizes that some doors you push, and other doors you pull. 

I liked this one fine. The second book in this new series will release at the end of August. The Sea Monster.

Days of the Knights. (Level 2 Reader) Robert Neubecker. 2014. Scholastic. 32 pages. [Source: Review copy]

"What's up, Joe?" asked Lilly. 
"I'm doing a report on the Middle Ages." Joe shrugged. 
"With knights and queens and castles? What fun!"
"I guess so," mumbled Joe.
"I'll help you research," said Lilly. She tapped the keys on the library computer...

In Days of the Knights, readers meet Lilly, Joe, and Red the Time Dragon. Red the Time Dragon is their personal guide to the middle ages. Lilly and Joe learn a handful of facts about the middle ages during their brief stay. Red the Time Dragon also manages to find time to lead a peasant revolt against Sir Vile, a selfish knight.

I don't know what to think about this new series. I really don't! The second adventure is Racing the Waves. It releases in late August.


Little Big Horse: Where's My Bike? (Level 1) Dave Horowitz. 2014. Scholastic. 32 pages. [Source: Review copy]

I can't wait for class to be over. 
Finally.
To the bikes!
Where is my bike? I left it right here.

Someone has stolen his bike! Who did it? Why? What motivated the crime? Will he get his bike back?

This one is very simple. Of all the books I'm reviewing today, this one is the simplest. Simple can be a good thing. Young readers need access to simple books with big font.

I liked it well enough. I liked the illustrations. I liked reading the emotions on the faces of the two characters we meet.

Drop It, Rocket! (Step 1) Tad Hills. 2014. Random House. 32 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Rocket and the little yellow bird love words. They love their word tree, too. "Are you ready to find new words for our word tree?" asks the bird. "Yes, I am!" says Rocket.

Readers may be familiar with the character of Rocket already. Rocket is the star of several picture books: How Rocket Learned to Read and Rocket Writes a Story.

This story is simple and repetitive. Rocket wants to learn new words and add new words to the word tree. He brings new things--new objects--to his friend the yellow bird. The bird tells him to "drop it" each time. Rocket is usually a good dog, so he obeys. New words are added. But what happens when Rocket does not want to drop it?

I liked this one. I liked the problem solving. It's a cute story.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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18. Review of the Day: Bad Bye, Good Bye by Deborah Underwood

BadByeGoodBye Review of the Day: Bad Bye, Good Bye by Deborah UnderwoodBad Bye, Good Bye
By Deborah Underwood
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-547-92852-4
Ages 3-7
On shelves now

As a mother who recently spent the better part of twenty hours in a car with a three-year-old and a three-month-old baby, I feel a special kinship with parents who have also engaged in the ultimate endurance sport: travel with children. If you feel no particular sympathy for those engaged in this activity that is because you have not experienced it firsthand yourself. But even when my daughter was projectile vomiting regularly and even when the breast pump tipped to one side spilling milk all over my pants and EVEN WHEN I found myself wedged in the backseat between two car seats trying to change my son’s diaper on my lap while parked, I could still feel grateful because at least it was just a vacation. It wasn’t like we were moving to a new town or anything. Because if I’d had to deal with the abject misery of my three-year-old on top of the vomit/milk/diapers I don’t know how my sanity would have remained intact. And yet, other parents do it all the time. Every day someone somewhere packs up all their worldly possessions, their pets, and their miserable offspring and heads for a whole new life. It’s daunting. You can’t help but admire their guts. And boy, you’d sure like to hand them a book that they could use to show their kids that as scary as a move like that can be, ultimately it’s going to be okay. Enter a book so sparse and spare you’d never believe it capable of the depth of feeling within its pages. Deborah Underwood lends her prodigious talents to Bad Bye, Good Bye while artist Jonathan Bean fills in the gaps. The effect is a book where every syllable is imbued with meaning, yet is as much a beautiful object as it is a useful too.

“Bad day, Bad box” says the book. On the page, a boy wrestles with a moving man for possession of a cardboard box, doomed to be loaded into the nearby moving van. The boy, we see, is in no way happy about this move. He clearly likes his home and his best friend, who has come with her mother to bid him goodbye. On the road he and his little sister pitch seven different kinds of catfits before sinking into a kind of resigned malaise. Time heals all wounds, though, and with the help of a motel swimming pool, diners, and multiple naps, they arrive in their new town in the early evening. As the family and movers pile boxes and other things into the new house, the boy meets another kid who just happens to live next door. Together they collect lightning bugs and star gaze until that “bad bye” at the beginning of the book morphs into a far more comfortable “good bye” when the new friends bid each other goodnight.

This isn’t Underwood’s first time at the rodeo. The art of the restrained use of language is sort of her bread and butter. Anyone who has seen her work her magic in The Quiet Book is aware that she says loads with very little. I sincerely hope someone out there has been bugging her to write an easy book for kids. The talent of synthesizing a story down to its most essential parts is a rare one. In this book there is a total of 57 words (or so). These usually appear in two word pairs and by some extraordinary bit of planning they also rhyme. We begin with all “bads”. It goes “Bad day, Bad box / Bad mop, Bad blocks / Bad truck, Bad guy, Bad wave, Bad bye.” The book then slips into neutral terms as the initial misery wears off. Then, as we near the end the “goods” come out. “Good tree, Good sky / Good friend, Good bye.” Such a nice transition. You could argue that it’s pretty swift considering the depths of misery on display in the early pages, and that’s not too far off, but kids are also pretty resilient. Besides, motel swimming pools do indeed go a long way towards modifying behavior.

Jonathan Bean’s one to watch. Always has been. From the moment he was doing Wendy Orr’s Mokie & Bik books to the nativity animalia title “One Starry Night” to all those other books in his roster, he proved himself a noteworthy artist. Watching his work come out you have the distinct sense that this is the calm before the storm. The last minute before he wins some big award and starts fielding offers from the biggest names in the biz. In this book I wouldn’t necessarily have said the art was by Bean had I not seen his name spelled out on the cover. It’s a slightly different style for him. Not just pencil and watercolors anymore. A style, in fact, that allows him to try and catch a bit of Americana in the story’s pages. When Underwood writes something like “Big hair, White deer” it’s Bean’s prerogative to determine what that means exactly. His solution to that, as well as other sections, is layering. Time and landscapes are layered on top of one another. America, from diners and speed limit signs to windmills and weathervanes, display scenes familiar to traveling families. A great artist gives weight and meaning to the familiar. Jonathan Bean is a great artist.

Now the cover of this book is also well worth noting. I don’t say that about a lot of picture books either. Generally speaking a picture book’s cover advertises the book to the best of its ability but only occasionally warrants close examination. Jonathan Bean, however, isn’t afraid to convey pertinent information through his cover. In fact, if you look at it closely you’ll see that he’s managed to encapsulate the entire story from one flap to another. Begin at the end of the book. Open it up. If you look at the inside back flap the very first thing you’ll see underneath the information about the author and the illustrator is the image of the boy in the story straining against his seatbelt, his face a grimace of pure unadulterated rage. Now follow the jacket to the back cover of the book and you see the boy crying in one shot and then looking miserably back in another. The weather is alternating between a starry night sky and a windy rainy day. Move onto the front cover and the rain is still there but soon it turns to clear skies and the boy’s attitude morphs into something distinctly more pleasant. In fact, by the time you open the book to the front flap he’s lifting his hands in a happy cheer. The attitude adjustment could not be more stark and it was done entirely in the span of a single book jacket. Not the kind of thing everyone would notice, and remarkable for that fact alone.

People are always talking about “the great American novel”, as if that’s an attainable ideal. We don’t ever hear anyone talk about “the great American picture book”. I don’t know that Bad Bye, Good Bye would necessarily fit the bill anyway. This is more the picture book equivalent of On the Road than To Kill a Mockingbird, after all. It’s a road trip book, albeit a safe and familiar one. For children facing the frightening prospect of the unknown (and let’s face it – adults hardly do much better) it’s good to have a book that can offer a bit of comfort. A reassurance that no matter how things change, good can follow bad just as day follows night. They are not alone in this uprooting. Somewhere out there, in another car, with another family, there might be a kid just as miserable as they are and for the exact same reason. And like all humans this knowledge ends up being comforting and necessary. Therefore give all your love to Bad Bye, Good Bye. It has necessary comfort to spare.

On shelves now.

Like This? Then Try:

  • A New Room for William by Sally Grindley
  • Herman’s Letter by Tom Percival
  • The Good-Pie Party by Liz Garton Scanlon
  • Alexander, Who Is Not (Do You Hear Me? I Mean It!) Going to Move by Judith Viorst
  • Tim’s Big Move by Anke Wagner

Misc: And I interviewed Ms. Underwood about the book here.

share save 171 16 Review of the Day: Bad Bye, Good Bye by Deborah Underwood

8 Comments on Review of the Day: Bad Bye, Good Bye by Deborah Underwood, last added: 8/31/2014
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19. Love by the Morning Star (2014)

Love by the Morning Star. Laura L. Sullivan. 2014. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 320 pages. [Source: Review copy]

I was disappointed by Laura Sullivan's Love by the Morning Star. I wanted to love it. I did. It is a novel set in English countryside in 1938-1939. It offers an upstairs/downstairs view of life. Or supposedly so. Two young women come to Starkers. One is a gold digger spy. Her father is a Nazi-sympathizer to say the least and his gang (for lack of a better word) wants her in position at this estate. She's told she'll be a maid. The other young woman is a Jewish refugee. She is actually a relation of the family who owns the estate. She's coming to Starkers to stay with her aunt and uncle. One girl is Hannah. The other girl is Anna. One will be treated well. The other won't.

In case you haven't guessed it, mistaken identity is the name of the game. These two women also happen to fall in love with the same man.

Why was I disappointed? Well. I'm not sure if it's because of the setting or the tone. I think I might have tolerated the tone--the silliness, the lightness, the double entendres, etc. if it wasn't set during such a dark time. It's hard to make light of the Nazis gaining power and destroying the lives of the Jewish people. The subject is serious and it deserves better. If it had been set twenty-five or thirty years earlier, then, perhaps it would have worked for me.

The romance. I liked the secret meetings between the hero and the heroine. There were only a handful of these scenes, but, they kept me reading.

I just have to add that I HATED one of the characters. I disliked a few more as well. But there was one that stood out above the rest as being AWFUL.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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20. Nine 2014 Picture Books

Max and the Won't Go To Bed Show. Mark Sperring. Illustrated by Sarah Warburton. 2014. Scholastic. 32 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Ladies and gentlemen! Boys and girls! Hurry, hurry, for the BEST SHOW ON EARTH! Tonight for your entertainment and delight, we proudly present, from all the way behind the curtain, the world's youngest magician. Please put your hands together for... MAX THE MAGNIFICENT. 
DRUMROLL, PLEASE!
Tonight we will see his world-famous and death-defying PUTTING OFF BEDTIME FOR AS LONG AS POSSIBLE SHOW!
For his first trick...

 Max and the Won't Go To Bed Show is a delightful picture book. The hero, Max, who is not tired and does not want to go to bed--at least not yet--is putting on a show for his family. The show also involves the family dog, Brian. Brian, well, he's not quite as magnificent as Max himself. The text is lively and clever. I love the descriptive language and the playfulness of it. It is a bit over-the-top, but, in a good way. For example,
And now prepare to be SHOCKED and AMAZED. You are about to witness the seldom seen FLOATING PAJAMA TRICK. Max will cause his pajamas to float off the chair and across the room. And, perhaps the most difficult part of all, he'll attempt to put them on. Audience, be warned, this trick can take up to half an hour to perform...though, luckily, not tonight. 
I also love the illustrations. I do. I loved Max's expressions. Overall, this one is oh-so-easy to recommend. (This one was originally published in the UK.)

Text: 5 out 5
Illustrations: 5 out of 5
Total: 10 out of 10

Red Panda's Candy Apples. Ruth Paul. 2014. Candlewick. 32 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Red Panda is selling candy apples. He made them himself. They are delicious and very sticky. Rabbit is his first customer. He gives Red Panda some money. Red Panda counts the coins and puts them in a jar. But Red Panda is sad to give Rabbit the candy apple. He is not very good at selling things he would like to eat himself. Lick. Crackle. Crunch.

I love this book. I do. I love the character of Red Panda. I could sympathize with his dilemma. On the one hand, he has made the apples to sell, and he is making money. On the other hand: Lick, crackle, crunch. He has to watch his customers eating "his" candy apples. I loved this one cover to cover. The text has a just-right feel to it. Not too wordy, not too sparse.

I love the illustrations. They are quaint but not cutesy. I love the subdued colors. I definitely recommend this one. I agree that this book may now wow everyone. (It's not a call-attention-to-myself book like, for example, Max and the Won't Go To Bed Show.) But what picture book ever does, really? (This one was originally published in New Zealand.)

Text: 5 out of 5
Illustrations: 4 out of 5
Total: 9 out of 10

I'm My Own Dog. David Ezra Stein. 2014. Candlewick. 32 pages. [Source: Review copy]

I'm my own dog. Nobody owns me. I own myself. I work like a dog all day. When I get home, I fetch my own slippers. I curl up at my own feet. Sometimes, if I'm not comfortable, I tell myself to roll over. And I do.

What a fun book! I'm My Own Dog is a funny, playful book about a dog and his pet human who follows him home one day. The first half of the book establishes his independence, and the second half focuses on his new relationship. The book ends with a sweet confession.

As I said, it's fun, playful, and a good read-aloud choice. Especially for dog-lovers. I found the text to be quite clever.

Text: 5 out of 5
Illustrations: 4 out 5
Total: 9 out of 10

Peppa Pig Ballet Lesson. Adapted by Elizabeth Schaefer. 2014. Scholastic. 24 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Mummy Pig is taking Peppa to her first ballet lesson. Madame Gazelle greets them at the door. "You must be young Peppa," she says with a graceful bow.

I love Peppa Pig. I do. That being said, some Peppa Pig books are better than others. Some seem to capture the magic of the show in book-form better than others. I thought the Ballet Lesson worked well. It captures the playfulness of the episode well. I liked all the thumping. I liked how Mummy Pig and Daddy Pig just happen to have been quite good at ballet back in the day.

For fans of the show, this book is a good read aloud choice. It is also an affordable choice.

Text: 3 out of 5
Illustrations: 3 out of 5
Total: 6 out of 10

I Feel Five. Bethanie Deeney Murguia. Candlewick. 32 pages. [Source: Review copy]

On his fourth birthday, Fritz Newton ate birthday pancakes, got his very own cape, and picked apples for birthday pie. Being four was fun, but tomorrow...Fritz will be five! And he is quite sure that five will feel very different. He'll probably even lose his first tooth.

 Will Fritz wake up FEELING five on his birthday? Will being five really feel differently than being four? Fritz thinks so. At least in the beginning. He has this idea in his mind of what it will be like to be five, what it will feel like. Ultimately, he's disappointed for most of the book. What he does day-to-day at five is essentially the same as what he did day-to-day when he was four. There does come a point in the book where Fritz does start feeling five. This happens when he helps a girl. He helps her by picking an apple for her from the tree. Something he can do--just barely--by jumping in his brand-new shoes.

I Feel Five! is an almost book for me. The premise makes sense, in a way; people of all ages can have high expectations of BIG birthdays and be a little disappointed at the sameness. And it does handle the concept of disappointment relatively well. It is a thoughtful book. But it isn't exactly a happy again-again read-aloud. It's not funny or playful or sweet.

Text: 3 out of 5
Illustrations: 3 out of 5
Total: 6 out of 10

Go To Sleep, Little Farm. Mary Lyn Ray. Illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal. 2014. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 40 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Somewhere a bee makes a bed in a rose,
because the bee knows day has come to a close.
Somewhere a beaver weaves a bed in a bog. 
Somewhere a bear finds a bed in a log.
Somewhere gray mice hide their bed under roots,
safe from the owl who whoo-whoo-hoots.

Well. It has at least one starred review. (Publishers Weekly) But. This bedtime book didn't quite work for me. Not that it was awful. It wasn't. It leans more towards poetry than most picture books. For better or worse. Some lines, some rhymes seem to work well. Take the opening line, for example, "Somewhere a bee makes a bed in a rose, because the bee knows day has come to a close." This book is all about imagery and language and the sounds of words--being lulling. If a lulling bedtime book works, works dependably to send little ones to sleep quickly, or, efficiently then that has some value especially to parents.

The reason this one doesn't quite work for me is because some of the imagery is a bit too bizarre or whimsical...for me. It doesn't start out that way. It really doesn't. So the whimsy sneaks up on a reader. Is that good? Is that bad? Who can say! I'll show you what I mean, "Now little fish lie still in a brook. Somewhere a story goes to sleep in a book. Somewhere a worm sleeps in the dirt. Somewhere a pocket sleeps in a skirt."

The illustrations. Well. Some spreads I do love. Others seem--at least at first glance--even more bizarre than the text itself. They do match the whimsical, surreal tone of the text. So if you love one, you'll probably love the other.

Text: 3 out of 5
Illustrations: 3 out of 5
Total: 6 out of 10

The Scarecrows' Wedding. Julia Donaldson. Illustrated by Axel Scheffler. 2014. Scholastic. 32 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Betty O'Barley and Harry O'Hay were scarecrows. (They scared lots of crows every day.) Harry loved Betty, and Betty loved Harry. So Harry said, "Betty, my beauty, let's marry! Let's have a wedding, the best wedding yet. A wedding that no one will ever forget." Betty agreed, so they hugged and they kissed. Then Betty said, "Harry, dear, let's make a list." "Just as you say," answered Harry O'Hay. So they wrote down the Things they would Need on the Day: a dress of white feathers, a necklace of shells, lots of pink flowers, two rings and some bells. Then Harry gave Betty O'Barley his arm and the scarecrows set off on a hunt round the farm.

It's certainly an interesting story with a couple of unique elements. I had no idea what to expect, and, it certainly ended up surprising me here and there. Which I guess is a good thing? The first half of this book is focused on Betty and Harry being together and looking for all the things on their list. The trouble occurs when the two go their separate ways. Just one item remains on their list. Harry wants to get it himself. But. Harry is slow, very, very, very, very slow. So slow in fact that the farmer presumably gets another scarecrow to replace him! His name is Reginald Rake. Almost everything that occurs after his arrival is a bit bizarre. (I wasn't expecting cigars in a picture book! I actually found that plot twist a bit disturbing.) It is still plenty predictable though by the end. I'm not quite sure how this book was both predictable and surprising, but, it was.

(This one was originally published in the UK.)

Text: 2.5 out of 5
Illustrations: 3 out of 5
Total: 5.5 out of 10

The Loch Mess Monster. Helen Lester. Illustrated by Lynn Munsinger. 2014. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 32 pages. [Source: Review copy]

In faraway Scotland there was a famous lake called Loch Ness. And legend had it that deep in this lake lived a monster. No one had ever seen it. But guess what? The legend was false. In truth, way, way, down at the bottom of Loch Ness there lived not one...but three monsters! there was Nessie, her husband, Fergus, and their wee laddie, Angus.

The Loch Mess Monster has a glossary of Scottish terms (in order of appearance) before the story. It is needed. Trust me. Unless you happen to know that hummie-doddies are mittens or that puggy-nits are peanuts. The story will make more sense if you familiarize yourself with the vocabulary!

The Loch Mess Monster is a book about being messy, too messy. It is a book about how one should clean up after himself, to put things back where they belong. Angus is the mess-maker. His messy room is out of control. Some of his mess belongs in the trash. It's simply disgusting. Some of his mess are his own books and toys. Until he sees for himself the dangers of being TOO messy, the problem just keeps growing worse.

The book is obviously a lesson book. For better or worse. This one is not my favorite on the subject. But it's a nice book. This one will appeal especially to storytellers who like to do accents or try to do accents.

Text: 3 out of 5
Illustrations: 2.5 out of 5
Total: 5.5 out of 10

Big Bad Bubble. Adam Rubin. Illustrated by Daniel Salmieri. 2014. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 40 pages. [Source: Review copy]

You may not know this, but when a bubble pops, it doesn't just disappear. It reappears in La La Land...where the monsters live. For some reason, all the big, scary monsters are terrified of bubbles. Froofle, why are you running away? Yerburt, what's the matter? Wumpus, stop crying. (Tell Wumpus to stop crying.)

What you see is what you get. For the most part. In my opinion, if a book is going to be strange and bizarre, it's best to know that from the start, preferably from the cover. Monsters and bubbles. That's what readers are promised. Now. Are the bubbles big and bad?! Well, that's a matter of perspective. Readers expect monsters to be big and bad, but, bubbles?

The premise of this one is silly but simple. Monsters live in La La Land. Monsters are scared of bubbles. Bubbles disappear from here--when they're popped--to La La Land. Therefore monsters spend a lot of their summers terrified by bubbles. The narrator (and the reader) try to talk some sense into the monsters. Bubbles are not scary. Bubbles can be easily popped. Especially by monsters. There is no reason to run away from a bubble. Will the narrator successfully help the monsters?

It's silly. It's weird. It's certainly unique. It probably won't be for everyone. It seems like a book people will either love or hate. It was better than I expected. However, I wasn't expecting much.

Text: 4 out of 5
Illustrations: 2 out of 5
Total: 6 out of 10

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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21. Mythmaker: Life of J.R.R. Tolkien

Mythmaker: The Life of J.R.R. Tolkien. Anne E. Neimark. 2012. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 144 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Mythmaker: The Life of J.R.R. Tolkien is a biography ideal for young(er) readers, perhaps readers who have shown an interest in reading The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. This biography may not satisfy adult readers who want more or need more. (Then again, it may be a good place to start if you just want the basics.) But as a basic biography with a literary focus, it works well.

Readers learn the basics: where he was born, what his childhood was like, the hardships and successes of his growing years, his influences, his school years, his time as a soldier in World War I, etc. Readers learn about how he met his future wife, what their courtship was like, when they got married, how many children they had, where they lived, etc. But most of the focus I would say is on his writing. Readers learn about how he came to create his fantasy world, his own languages, his own mythology. Readers get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of his writing of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. And also The Silmarillion. I knew he years writing that one, but, I didn't realize he spent DECADES. He started writing it during World War II and was still working on it in the 1970s! I liked how the focus was on his books, writing and publishing and the fans!
© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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22. Three New-ish Board Books

Hide and Seek Harry Around the House. Kenny Harrison. 2014. Candlewick. 20 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Harry is our best friend. Hide-and-seek is always on his mind. He tries so hard to hide--and he thinks he's tough to find. Is he in the kitchen?

I enjoyed this one! Harry is a hippo who loves, loves, loves to play hide and seek with his friends. In this adventure, Harry and the little boy and girl who love him are playing hide and seek around the house. Harry has many hiding places, but he always seems oh-so-easy to find!

I liked this one. I liked the art. It was very cute. I think one of my favorites was seeing Harry hiding up a tree in the yard!

Hide and Seek Harry At the Beach. Kenny Harrison. 2014. Candlewick 20 pages. [Source: Review copy]

At the beach with Harry...we play hide-and-seek! While Harry goes to hide, we promise not to peek. Is he on the sand dunes? Is he in the sea? Where, oh, where can Harry be?

I enjoyed this one! This time Harry and his friends are at the beach playing together. Harry loves, loves, loves to play hide and seek, even at the beach! Here he has an almost endless amount of places to hide. Will he do a better job of hiding in this adventure? One thing is for certain, Harry and his friends will always enjoy being together!

I liked this one. These two books are good fun. I definitely recommend them both.

Five Little Monkeys Sitting in a Tree. Eileen Christelow. 1991/2014. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 12 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Five little monkeys and their mama walk down to the river for a picnic supper. Mama spreads out a blanket and settles down for a snooze...while five little monkeys climb a tree to watch Mr. Crocodile. 
Five little monkeys, sitting in a tree, tease Mr. Crocodile, "Can't cat me!"
Along comes Mr. Crocodile...
SNAP!

I like this one. I'm not sure I love it. There are so very many books in this series, some worth reading again and again, and others not so much. This one is fun, and it stars Mr. Crocodile. The part I enjoyed best in this story is Mr. Crocodile's snapping! As you've probably guessed this is repeated again and again until there are no more monkeys left to tease them. But. Careful readers, really careful readers who pay attention to every single detail in the illustrations, will guess before the big reveal, that all the monkeys are safe after all.

Do you have a favorite book in this series?

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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23. Reread #19 The Lemonade War

The Lemonade War. Jacqueline Davies. 2007. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 192 pages. [Source: Library]

I enjoyed this book even more the second time around. (I first reviewed it in October 2007). The Lemonade War is the story of two siblings--Evan and Jessie--and their week-long war over who can make the most money selling lemonade. Officially, this war is all about WHO can earn $100 in just five days, the last five days of summer vacation. The winner takes it all. If he wins, he gets to keep his earnings and her earnings. And vice versa. He dreams of an iPod. She dreams of giving money to an animal rescue league.

Until the last week of summer, these two kids had had an enjoyable summer, with plenty of time together and plenty of time to themselves. But when a letter comes from the school alerting the mom to a big change, well, Evan loses it. Evan thought it was bad enough that his sister was skipping a grade, that she would be in the same grade--fourth. NOW he learns that they will be in the same class. (The school has gone from two fourth grade classes to one.) Evan and Jessie react very differently. Evan focuses only on his weaknesses: he's horrible at math, he doesn't want everyone to know that his sister is SMARTER and BETTER than he is. Evan may see Jessie that way, but Jessie sure doesn't see herself that way. Jessie has trouble reading people; she doesn't always connect the dots between what people say and what people mean. Most of her second grade year, she was miserable, absolutely miserable. There was even a "We Hate Jessie" club led by a group of particularly mean girls. Jessie is worried that she'll have just as much trouble in fourth grade socially. Evan, she feels, is oh-so-comfortable and oh-so-confident. He never seems to have trouble talking to anyone. If only she could be like him!!!

One positive thing about this war, in my opinion, is that it challenges both Jessie and Evan to rise above their weaknesses. Evan must face his fear of math, of figuring out HOW to do "story problems" in real life. With Evan, readers get to see the practical side of *why* math is important. Jessie faces her fear of talking to people, of taking the first steps, of making friends. She seeks out girls who will be in her class, and, she makes allies, in a way.

The Lemonade War is, in a way, all about problem-solving, of meeting life's problems with determination. That and it's about love and hate.

I really liked the character of Jessie. I did. I liked how she clings to Charlotte's Web. I liked her spirit, her determination. Not that she was perfect. Not that she didn't make mistakes. But they both made mistakes.

I would definitely recommend this book!

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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24. Review of the Day: The Simples Love a Picnic by J.C. Phillipps

SimplesLovePicnic 300x300 Review of the Day: The Simples Love a Picnic by J.C. Phillipps The Simples Love a Picnic
By J.C. Phillipps
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-544-16667-7
Ages 3-7
On shelves now

I am on a mission. A quest. A journey to find the funniest picture books published for children in a given year. It isn’t an easy thing to do. First, you have to deal with the sheer awe-inspiring number of picture books published these days. Then there’s the fact that funny is as funny does. What strikes me as friggin’ hilarious may not cause so much as a flick of the lips from you. This is probably why humor awards for children’s literature are few and far between. Then add in the fact that what kids find funny and what adults find funny is vastly different. If the very existence of knock knock jokes has taught us nothing it has taught us that. But you know . . . there are exceptions. I’ve seen kids and adults rolling in the aisles with a good reading of Bark, George by Jules Feiffer. I’ve seen adults laugh in honest surprise along with their kids when surprised by the events in Fortunately by Remy Charlip. And I bet your bottom dollar that if read correctly The Simples Love a Picnic by J.C. Phillipps could be one of those books a classroom of first graders fight to the death to check out from the library. The lie is in its very name: “Simple”. As a quick perusal shows, what Phillipps is able to accomplish here is anything but simplistic. After all, writing funny books is no easy task, yet The Simples Love a Picnic blows that notion right out of the water. Highly hilarious stuff.

It started off with an innocent enough suggestion. “Let’s have a picnic,” Dad proposes. The kids, Lulu and Ben, are unfamiliar with the concept, which is probably what prompts Lulu to pack a tub of ice cream amongst the supplies (her logic that “ice cream doesn’t spill” seems sound enough at the time). Off goes the family and after the occasional mishap (the dog chasing squirrels up trees, the cat appearing in Lulu’s backpack) they find themselves in the park. But locating the perfect location for a picnic turns out to be only slightly less hazardous than surviving what happens after the food comes out. In the end, the family finds the perfect place to devour a meal, though it isn’t where you might expect it to be.

SimplesLovePicnic1 300x300 Review of the Day: The Simples Love a Picnic by J.C. Phillipps I can pinpoint the precise moment I fell in love with this book. I mean, sure I liked it from the get-go. Phillipps utilizes this cheery, upbeat can-do spirit that any child will tell you is just ASKING for trouble. And I was already pretty amused when son Ben started wondering what one eats at a picnic only to come up with a short list of what might be the worst picnic foods of all time (“Cereal?”, “Soup?”, etc.). And I could just hear myself reading this aloud to a group of kids when Rocco the dog went hell-for-leather for that squirrel up a tree (going the extra mile in turning Ben completely 180 degrees upside down). But really, it wasn’t until the picnic was underway that I went hook, line, and sinker for what Phillipps had conjured up. The family attempts to find a spot to have their picnic and Ben’s location turns out to have “Too many ants”. Pretty funny, but not as funny as Lulu’s spot. Now the sentence, “Too many birds” may not sound amusing, but suddenly Phillipps turns the scene into something out of an Alfred Hitchcock film. Lulu is seen clutching her head as, presumably, a bird dive bombs towards her, others calmly checking out the basket’s wares. This moment is echoed later when some melted ice cream sets off a kind of apocalyptic picnic frenzy of hoards of ants and even more dive-bombing birds (to say nothing of the squirrels). I’ve a weakness for any book that builds to a ridiculous climax and this one tapped into that feeling perfectly.

Phillipps isn’t exactly unknown to the world of funny picture books. It takes a very particular sort of brain to come up with titles like “Wink: The Ninja Who Wanted to be Noticed” (a book that was way into ninjas before the vast hoards of them published this year, by the way). From that book you got the very clear sense that Phillipps wasn’t just an author/illustrator to watch. She also was funny as all get out. Since that book’s release Ms. Phillipps has kept herself busy, but her books have always been big and bold. Ninjas and simians with names like Monkey Ono and the like. So part of what I admire so much about The Simples is that the book isn’t high-concept. On paper it doesn’t look like much: Family goes outside to picnic. Epic picnic fail. Family goes inside to picnic. Fin. Not much going on there. But what makes the book so great is that Phillipps is channeling great works of literature about seriously stupid people like The Stupids by Harry Allard and the Dumb Bunny books of Sue Denim. And in doing so, she manages to make something seriously smart.

I confess that I wonder if in this age of high self-esteem and fear of offense whether or not Allard’s books about the Stupids would be able to see the light of publication. Yet even as I say this I don’t mind the “simple” appellation Phillipps came up with here in the least. Yes, of course I’m aware of the term’s use historically as a sort of universal catchall for anyone mentally impaired. But taken in its modern context alongside the family featured here and it would take some pretty thin skin to find anything to object to. After all, this family isn’t really out-and-out dumb (though I have my worries about Ben). They just seem prone to awful decisions and bad luck. You could just as easily have named them The Schlimazels and probably would have been more accurate in the process (note to self: write picture book about The Family Schlimazel).

If the family’s actual name refers to anything then it’s probably the art style Phillipps chooses to utilize here. It utilizes the cut paper look that’s served her so well, but here she’s simplified it beyond her usual complexities. Of the family itself you’re pretty much lucky if you get so much as a line for your nose. Features are flattened, clothes cut and pasted. The result is not that a child could do this, but rather that a child could at least make an attempt at it. Yet for all that their eyes are mere dots in the head, Phillipps gets a lot of pathos and expression out of her little paper people. Whether it’s the turn of a mouth (comically upside down “u” shaped) to denote misery or the slant of an eyebrow over an eye, these people are pretty darn expressive. One should also note that Phillipps takes a page or two out of the graphic novelists’ handbooks when she splits her narratives on certain pages or makes use of distance and perspective. These people may be flat, but the storytelling never is.

This is the kind of book that tends to not get quite enough respect. It’s hardly the first picnic book in the world (love that Picnic by Emily Arnold McCully) but it may well be the most amusing. Between the psychotic birds and the suicidal squirrels there’s lots here to love. A great readaloud for groups and a hilarious romp overall, I am pleased as punch to designate this one of the funniest picture books of the year. Silly in all the right ways. Don’t miss it.

On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

Professional Reviews: Kirkus

Videos:

Yep!  It has a trailer and everything.

And this one goes behind the scenes a bit.  If nothing else, it shows us how cool it would be to live in Ms. Phillipps’ house.

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25. Preacher's Boy (1999)

Preacher's Boy. Katherine Paterson. 1999/2013. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 176 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Is the end near?! That's the question Robbie Hewitt faces in Katherine Paterson's Preacher's Boy. The year is 1899. The novel follows the troubles of one mischievous boy, our narrator, Robbie. Well, what can one say about him? If you've read Tom Sawyer, you know EXACTLY what kind of boy he is. He's always getting IN and OUT of trouble. Since it seems impossible to stay mad at him, I suppose, you could call him charming too. How much trouble can a boy get into in one year?! Quite a bit.

Robbie likes pranks, and this book tells about several of them. Readers know what to expect from Robbie from the very start:
"On Decoration Day, while everyone else in town was at the cemetery decorating the graves of our Glorious War Dead, Willie Beaner and me, Robert Burns Hewitt, took Mabel Cramm's bloomers and run them up the flagpole in front of the town hall. That was the beginning of all my troubles. It wasn't that we got caught. In fact, I've often thought since that would have been the best thing in the world." 
One of the stories in this novel is that Robbie becomes worried about "the end of the world." He isn't worried about where he'll end up. He's not sure there is a heaven or a hell. But. He is worried about missing out on LIFE. He makes a list of ALL the things he wants to do BEFORE THE END. It's a dreamer's list, in many ways, but that is part of the charm. For example, he knows it would be RIDICULOUS to write down OWN AN AUTOMOBILE. But he can't stop himself from writing down RIDING IN AN AUTOMOBILE.

This one has some interesting characters. I wouldn't ever say this one lacks plot, and by "plot" I mean ACTION. But to me the charm of this one is in the characters themselves. I liked Robbie. I liked seeing Robbie struggle. I liked seeing tension in his relationship with Elliot, his older brother with special needs. Robbie LOVES his brother, but, he doesn't always LIKE him. He struggles with his place in the family. It isn't just that his father is the preacher and EVERYONE in town watches him and judges him. It is that he feels out of sorts in his family. He feels Elliot gets all the attention, all the love and support. I thought most of Robbie's family was well-drawn. I liked getting to know Robbie, his dad, and Elliot. (I can't say that his mother and sisters came into the story much.) Robbie was also challenged a bit when he met a strange-but-bossy girl with problems of her own.

I liked the setting. I liked the writing. I liked the characters. Overall, I'd definitely recommend this historical coming-of-age novel.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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