Monday, August 3, 2020

August's Book of the Month--Lovely War

August’s Book of the Month is LOVELY WAR, by Julie Berry.

This is the story of two couples who, pushed and prodded by the gods--Aphrodite, Hephaestus, Ares, Apollo and Lord Hades himself—experience love and loss and love in World War I.

Hazel is a sheltered young lady who plays piano at a parish dance, where she meets James, an Englishman who is scheduled to leave for the Front within a week. The two (aided by Aphrodite, of course) feel a deep and immediate connection, but then James is called away even sooner.

Aubrey is a drummer, a Black soldier in a very segregated United States Army. His regiment is sent to France, where he hears Colette singing, and the two promptly in love. (Aphrodite again.) But Ares, and Apollo, and the Germans, and deeply-held racist beliefs all have a say in how this story unfolds. I have to say that I enjoyed every one of its 451 pages, which end (SPOILER ALERT) with “a kiss for the ages."

As with many of my favorite reads, I was immediately submerged in a world that felt whole and complete. From the very first sentence of the “overture," I was right there with Aphrodite, Hephaestus, and Ares. Then, when we switched over to Act One, it happened again—I had an instant of worry that the change would be jarring but it was not. The stories of Hazel and James, then Aubrey and Colette, sprang to life just as easily as the opening pages had.

Character, setting, plot—this one has it all.


Monday, July 27, 2020

Shelf Awareness--It Happened on Sweet Street

PB Review: It Happened on Sweet Street

It Happened on Sweet Street by Caroline Adderson, illus. by Stéphane Jorisch (Tundra Books, 44p., ages 4-8, 9781101918852)

This zany picture book delivers a tasty treatise on the benefits of keeping the peace--and keeping a variety of desserts at hand!

On Sweet Street, "between the bric-a-brac boutique and the shoemaker," stands the bakery of Monsieur Oliphant, "Exclusive Creator of Cakes." Customers line up to buy his "jelly-rolled," layered and "cherried" creations. When the shoemaker retires, Mademoiselle Fée, "Cookie Concocter par excellence," moves in. Soon there is a line in front of her store, too. People wait to buy treats she has stamped, "tooled... and jeweled" and dusted with sugar. Though there are plenty of customers to go around, Monsieur Oliphant tries to out-create Mademoiselle Fée. Then the bric-a-brac dealer retires and Madame Clotilde moves in. As a third line of customers waits for the pies "the divine Pâtisserie Clotilde" has "rolling-pinned," frilled and filled, both Monsieur Oliphant and Mademoiselle Fée work to "out-concoct" their new rival. When all three bakers angrily step outside, "a massacre of cream, a catastrophe of meringue, a devastation of crumbs" follows, culminating with cheerful coexistence at last.

Author of the Jasper John Dooley series, Caroline Adderson's waggish text promotes the benefits of cooperation over competition in tones as delicate as any Sweet Street confection. Paired with Stéphane Jorisch's (Betty Bunny series) quirky illustrations, rendered in pencil, ink and watercolor then digitally assembled, the stylish color and line work lends credence to the farcical tone of the piece. The lucky people of Sweet Street cheerfully reap the rewards when their bakers finally get the message: there is always room for more dessert. "Délicieuse!!!" --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI.

Discover: When Sweet Street's only baker of cakes must make room for a cookie concoctor and a pie purveyor, things get sticky before they get better.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Shelf Awareness--Catch That Chicken!

PB Review: Catch That Chicken!

Catch That Chicken! by Atinuke, illus. by Angela Brooksbank (Candlewick Press, 32p., ages 2-5, 9781536212686)

In Catch That Chicken!, Atinuke (Anna Hibiscus series) combines irresistible characters with an engaging narrative and sets her age-appropriate tale of self-empowerment in a cozy compound in West Africa.

Lami's compound is busy, with Sister Sadia, who is "speedy at spelling"; friend Fatima, who is "fast at braiding hair"; and big brother Bilal, who is "brave with bulls." But when it comes to catching chickens, Lami is speedier, faster and braver than anyone. In fact, Lami is "the best chicken catcher in the village." That is, until the day Lami chases a chicken right up the trunk of a huge baobab tree, moving so quickly she falls out. With her ankle sprained "so badly it puffs up like the neck of an angry lizard," Lami is certain that if "she can't chase" and "she can't climb," then "she definitely can't catch chickens." Luckily, she's got Nana Nadia close by to suggest that "it's not quick feet that catches chickens--it's quick thinking."

Atinuke's well-paced text uses repetition, alliteration and seamless bilingual text to draw her audience into the story. It's nicely paired with Atinuke's previous illustrative partner (B Is for Baby; Baby Goes to Market) Angela Brooksbank's brightly colored, patterned and energetic mixed-media illustrations, which convey a strong sense of life within the bustling compound. Lami, always bubbling with energy, is especially appealing. Her reaction to adversity is a great lesson for all: with encouragement and the will to try, Lami is able to figure out "the best" way to keep doing what she loves. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI.

Discover: Lami is the speediest, fastest and bravest chicken catcher in the village, until a sprained ankle threatens to slow her down.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

July Recommendations


WAYS TO MAKE SUNSHINE, by Renée Watson, is the first book of a contemporary middle grade series about a plucky girl with a boy’s name. Ryan means “king,” and her mother wants her to “feel powerful,” like “a leader" every time she hears it. Ryan really tries, but life can be frustrating. Her parents say they have to move to a smaller, more affordable house, so of course there are plenty of adjustments, and fourth grade is tough, no matter how you look at it. However, a loving family, a creative mind, and a boatload of confidence all help. Ryan is a delightful character who rarely lets anything get her down for long. (MG)

THE TIME OF GREEN MAGIC is the latest in a long list of artfully crafted, literary novels from Hilary McKay. Like Renée Watson's book above, this one involves a move to a new house, but THE TIME OF GREEN MAGIC is set in England rather than Portland, Oregon. When Abi and her father Theo blend their family with Max, Louis, and their mother Polly, there are a lot of domestic issues to work out. Throw in a babysitter who’s an art student from France, and a touch of magic seemingly conjured from the eerie house itself, and you get another winner from McKay. (MG)

I’m late to the party, but THE VANDERBEEKERS OF 141st STREET, by Karina Yan Glaser, is such a fun read! The Vanderbeeker family lives in a brownstone “in the middle of a quiet block on 141st Street.” As the story begins, they are being evicted by a grouchy landlord, forced to leave their beloved house and Harlem neighborhood behind. Dear friends join in to help, as the five quirky siblings dream up plan after plan to try to convince Mr. Beiderman to allow them to stay. (If you loved The Penderwicks, give this a try—and if you haven’t read The Penderwicks, you should!) The third Vanderbeekers book came out last fall. (MG)

Picture Books:

In SPACEBOT, by Mike Twohy, a UFO touches down and robo-dog called Spacebot disembarks. But, alas for the poor earth-dog who wants to play, Spacebot is way more interested in hanging out with the kitchen appliances. Short, punchy text and energetic art—rendered in watercolor and felt pen—make this book especially appealing for beginning readers. (And for parents reading aloud who appreciate brevity.)

CAT DOG DOG: The Story of a Blended Family, with words by Nelly Buchet and art by Andrea Zuill, is an even shorter text, mainly comprised of combinations of the words Dog and Cat, accompanied by a few choice additions. Add in the ink and digital illustrations, and this book tells the complete story of—well, of a blended family. It’s spot on and very clever.

WHOO-KU HAIKU, by Maria Gianferrari and Jonathan Voss, is a stunner. Gorgeous digitally enhanced ink and watercolor illustrations accompany an impressive story told completely in haiku. A family of owls find a nest, lay eggs, and hatch baby owlets, who eventually fledge. Back matter adds more information and suggests additional resources.


Thursday, July 2, 2020

July's Book of the Month--Fry Bread

July’s Book of the Month is FRY BREAD: A Native American Family Story, written by Kevin Noble Maillard, and illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal. Every time I read it, I’m struck by the tremendous volume of material that lives in this rich, uncluttered picture book.

The main text is a poem. The first line of each stanza is boldly displayed, and the words that follow briefly elaborate with sensory details. Sight, sound, smell, motion, emotion, all are employed. Important concepts are taken on with grace and age-appropriate simplicity: “Fry bread is color” is followed by "Golden brown, tan, or yellow/Deep like coffee, sienna, or earth/Light like snow and cream/Warm like rays of the sun.” The words are accompanied by illustrations of children representing all these beautiful colors. Martinez-Neal’s acrylic, colored pencil, and graphite illustrations beautifully handle both the literal and more esoteric ideas portrayed within these pages.

"Fry bread is time...Fry bread is art…Fry bread is history…” Following the poem, the author’s back matter cleverly uses these opening sentences as headings to delve more deeply. In fact, Maillard likens the story of this ubiquitous treat to “the story of American Indians.” The depth of feeling the creative team achieves, and the wealth of information, in this personal, yet universal, story is staggering. This is one book for all to treasure! There’s even a fairly simple and tasty-looking recipe for fry bread :—)


Sunday, June 21, 2020

Shelf Awareness--I'm Afraid Your Teddy Is in the Principal's Office

PB Review: I'm Afraid Your Teddy Is in the Principal's Office

I'm Afraid Your Teddy Is in the Principal's Office by Jancee Dunn, illus. by Scott Nash (Candlewick Press, 40p., ages 3-7, 9781536201987)

In this delightful picture book by Jancee Dunn (How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids), illustrated by Scott Nash (Flat Stanley), when an unnamed child gets called into the principal's office it's not the child who's in trouble--instead, the child's teddy bear is the naughty one.

"Somehow" Teddy has called on "a number of his stuffed animal pals" to jump into their children's backpacks and infiltrate the elementary school. Teddy, an elephant, a giraffe and all manner of stuffed animals wait in the cubbies until their children leave the room. "That's when the party began." Stopping by the cafeteria, the gym and the music room, Teddy and company have a field day. Finally, the animals wind up in the art room where they make a glue trap for the art teacher, roll in finger paint and twist pipe cleaners into a rope so they can escape out the window. Now, the principal insists, this wayward group "must face the consequences." Fortunately for all, this principal once had a teddy, too.

This follow-up to the duo's 2017 I'm Afraid Your Teddy Is in Trouble Today continues the terrific conceit, staging a scolding young readers can thoroughly enjoy. The text, told entirely from the principal's point of view, takes on a gravity belied by her colleague's obvious amusement, conveyed in his facial expressions. Nash's bold and colorful digital illustrations skillfully convey all of the fun in this absurd situation, his dark outline showing active motion and his changing perspectives depicting a teddy's-eye view. Any child who's ever been in trouble will adore the turnaround, agreeing with the principal that "there are no naughty bears--only naughty behavior." Hugs all around! --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI.

Discover: When a child's teddy bear makes mischief at school, it's not the child who's in trouble this time--it's the bear.

Monday, June 15, 2020

June Recommendations


THE MERMAID, THE WITCH, AND THE SEA, by Maggie Tokuda-Hall, is a brooding, magical adventure with a healthy dose of intrigue. Ever since Flora killed a man to prove herself worthy of a pirate's life aboard the Dove, she's been desperate to escape to a better life. Lady Evelyn Hasegawa is desperate to avoid an arranged marriage in the Floating Islands, a “several-months-long voyage” away from home. When Evelyn boards the Dove, Flora is given the task of guarding her, so the lady may be sold--intact--to work as a "slave-whore" on the Red Shores. Although Flora sees Evelyn as a typical spoiled Imperial, she is impressed by the compassion Evelyn shows when she uses her own blood to keep a captured mermaid alive. And the Sea, mother to all mermaids, notices, too... (YA)

A SONG BELOW WATER, by Bethany C. Morrow, is the second mermaid (well, technically siren/mermaid/magical creature) book I want to talk about this month. In it, Tavia does all she can to stay hidden and safe. Because now that sirens are exclusively Black women, “the romance is dead.” All it takes is the suspicion that a dead woman was a siren, and her murderer will likely go free. Along with “play-sister” Effie, who is not a siren--but lives for her part as Euphemia the Mer at the Renaissance Faire every year—Tavia does her best to navigate high school in a modern-day Portland that is chock full of sprites, elokos, a gargoyle, and more. But, as the furor over Rhonda Taylor’s murder grows, Tavia finds it harder and harder to stay silent. Narrated alternately by Tavia and Effie, who possibly has a magical origin story of her own, this compelling tale of fantasy and friendship has plenty to say about a host of important issues, including bigotry, oppression, and the need for change. (YA)

OUR FRIEND HEDGEHOG: The Story of Us, by Lauren Castillo, is a tender friendship story, with a classic feel to it, which describes the series of events that brings Hedgehog, Mutty, Mole, Owl, Beaver, Hen and Chicks, and Annika Mae together. Hedgehog and Mutty live together on a tiny island in the center of the river. Life is pretty good, until the Terrible Storm blows Mutty away, and Hedgehog immediately swims to the mainland to find him. This book, the start of a series, describes Hedgehog's quest to find her beloved friend. It’s a beautifully illustrated and designed chapter book, with a gorgeous, textured cover. It should appeal to the same audience as the Toys Go Out series, but a more obvious comparison is to Winnie the Pooh. (CB)

Picture Books:

OUTSIDE IN, written by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Cindy Derby, highlights the way, even when "we forget Outside is there," it still reminds us by "send[ing] the sunset and shadows inside to play.” Outside “feeds us,” “cuddles us in clothes, once puffs of cotton,” and “holds us in wooden chairs, once trees.” I need to stop now, or I’ll retype the entire, text, each line more lovely than the last. Watercolor and powdered graphite illustrations make alarmingly good use of color, and the cover is designed to work with the dust jacket in an intriguing way.

SWASHBY AND THE SEA, written by Beth Ferry, illustrated by Juan-Martinez Neal, is the story of curmudgeonly retired Captain Swashby, who loves the sea. When he retires, it's “to a small house on a small beach as close to the sea as he could be.” Life is “salty and sandy and serene,” until the new neighbors move in next door, “a girl and her granny, who planted umbrellas, scattered beach chairs, AND boarded Swashby’s deck without permission!” Swashby wants nothing to do with them, but the sea has other ideas… Martinez-Neal’s ebullient illustrations are masterfully rendered in acrylics, colored pencils, and graphite on hand-textured paper.

Finally, if you’re looking for a wordless, wonder-filled picture book, there's DANDELION’S DREAM, by Yoko Tanaka. A budding dandelion dreams of unfurling into a “real” lion, to enjoy a magical journey by train, ship, and plane, all the way to a most glorious finish.The striking charcoal illustrations are enhanced with digitally applied yellow to highlight the main character’s whimsical exploits.