Saturday, December 15, 2018

December Book Picks


MAC B., KID SPY #1, MAC UNDERCOVER, by Mac Barnett, features the kind of zany shenanigans that middle schoolers will love, filled with plenty of action, kid-appropriate sarcasm, and illustrations by Mike Lowry. In the first installment, when Mac was a kid, the Queen of England called to ask him to find the missing Crown Jewels. An envelope arrived with “a plane ticket and a stack of colorful British money.” So Mac began his “extremely dangerous” mission as a fully-fledged secret agent for the Queen of England. It’s an absurd story, but one that makes total sense and is heaps of fun. (MG)

In INKLING, by veteran fantasy writer Kenneth Oppel, an ink blob comes to life and turns a sixth-grader’s life upside down. Even though Ethan’s father is a famous artist, Ethan can’t draw anything more complicated than stick figures. But his class is working on graphic novels, and Ethan’s group picked him to be their artist, believing he's just messing around when he says he can’t draw. The ink blob can help! But is it right? And what happens when other aspiring —and established—artists find out about the magic? Drawings by Sydney Smith help bring this surprisingly complex novel to life. (MG)

THE DARK DESCENT OF ELIZABETH FRANKENSTEIN, by Kiersten White, is a dark and creepy reimagining of the original—dark and creepy—classic. Elizabeth Lavenza was being raised by a poor woman of “brutally efficient meanness,” so when she’s given the chance to be a “special friend” to smart, inquisitive, solitary Victor Frankenstein, she’s determined to do whatever it takes. But Victor’s depraved secrets multiply, until he disappears and it’s up to Elizabeth, along with companion Justine, to find him before Elizabeth’s place in the wealthy household is forfeit. This one is really edgy, but it’s edgy in service of a well-written, fascinating story. (YA)

Picture Books:

GIRAFFE PROBLEMS, by Jory John, illustrated by Lane Smith, is a humorous, beautifully designed and illustrated look at Giraffe, who doesn’t like his neck because, among other things, it’s too "necky.” Lots of animals couldn’t care less, until Giraffe finds one who can relate. Page turns are used to great effect as the story unfolds to its satisfying conclusion.

POTATO PANTS, by Laurie Keller, is the story of how Potato is super excited because Lance Vance’s Fancy Pants Store is having a one day sale on potato pants, but he gets aced out of the last pair because of an eggplant, who’s nothing but trouble. This is high energy hijinks, with lots of fun wordplay and dialog depicted in speech bubbles, that follows Potato as he works through his crisis.

SHAWN LOVES SHARKS, by Curtis Manley, with pictures by Tracy Subisak, is a great example of an enjoyable fictional story can integrate elements of STEM non-fiction. Shawn loves sharks so much that he thinks about them all the time, and even pretends to be one at school. He chases all the kids, including Stacy who screams the loudest. But when the class each picks a different animal to study, Shawn gets the seal. And Stacy gets the shark! Clean, clear illustrations do a nice job of showing both facts and fantasy.


Sunday, December 2, 2018

December's Book of the Month--Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut

December’s Book of the Month is the highly lauded CROWN: AN ODE TO THE FRESH CUT, written by Derrick Barnes, illustrated by Gordon C. James. It’s won a Caldecott Honor, a Newbery Honor, A Coretta Scott King Author Honor, Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor, Exra Jack Keats New Writer Award, Ezra Jack Keats New Illustrator Honor, and a Society of Illustrators Gold Medal. Oh, and it also won the Kirkus Prize for Young Readers’ Literature, along with the accompanying hefty cash prize. Probably some more awards that I don’t know about.

So. What makes this book so special? I have to say that I think it’s the sheer enormity of the HOPE gifted to readers by this young narrator. A trip to the barbershop becomes a portal to the fulfillment of every dream. It’s about confidence—how you’ll leave the shop feeling: “Magnificent. Flawless. Like royalty.” Any problems you had had going in? Solved by the cut, which brings out “the gold medal you.”

And the engaging, infectious voice of this young man who’s ready to take on the world. . .

The author, in an endnote, adds that, in addition to this universal moment of self-esteem "when black and brown boys all over America…hop out of the chair,” a trip to the barbershop is also a time to “become privy to the conversations and company of hardworking black men from all walks of life.” And, it’s an opportunity to understand that you have “a soul that matters.” Because you do.

The painterly illustrations capture the boundless pride and personality of the narrator, as well as all the other characters he mentions.

All the acclaim should help ensure that his terrific story finds its way into the hands of readers who need it most.


Sunday, November 25, 2018

Shelf Awareness--The Kissing Hand 25th Anniversary Edition

PB Review: The Kissing Hand 25th Anniversary Edition

The Kissing Hand 25th Anniversary Edition by Audrey Penn, illus. by Nancy M. Leak and Ruth E. Harper (Tanglewood, 32p., 9781939100184)

"Chester Raccoon stood at the edge of the forest and cried." Like many children facing their first day of school, Chester would prefer to stay home with his mother, doing familiar things. Mrs. Raccoon promises that, at school, he will "make new friends. And play with new toys." Also, she has a secret to share: Mrs. Raccoon kisses Chester "right in the middle of his palm," and says that anytime he's lonely and needs "a little loving from home," this "very kiss" will fill him with "toasty warm thoughts." Not to be outdone, Chester turns the tables on his mother in a satisfying twist at the end of this gentle, reassuring picture book. The expressive illustrations bring Chester to life and help to ensure that The Kissing Hand is as lovely and relevant today as it was when it was first published 25 years ago. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI.

Discover: When it's time for Chester Raccoon to start school, his mother shares a secret that will make their separation easier.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

November Book Picks


LOUISIANA’S WAY HOME, by Kate DiCamillo, is a gem, whether or not you’ve read the previous RAYMIE NIGHTINGALE. This time, Louisiana Elefante narrates her own story, which begins when Granny pulls her out of bed at 3am. They hit the road, leaving behind Louisiana’s pet cat Archie, along with her best two friends, Raymie Clarke and Beverly Tapinski. There is also Buddy, the one-eyed dog. Louisiana begins to believe that Granny does not have her best interests in mind… (MG)

In THE EXTREMELY INCONVENIENT ADVENTURES OF BRONTE METTLESTONE, by Jaclyn Moriarty, the title character has been raised by Aunt Isabelle ever since she was a baby. Her parents left her in Aunt Isabelle’s lobby and went off to have adventures. So when Bronte is ten years old, and she's notified that they've been killed by pirates, she’s not overcome with sadness. But her parents have left an unbreakable will (bordered by fairy cross-stitch), which sends her on a dangerous journey to deliver very specific gifts in very specific ways to her ten other aunts. Moriarty’s smart, inventive fantasies are always chock-full of quirky characters, whether human, water sprite, or evil Whispering Dark Mage. (MG)

Jarrett Krosoczka, author/illustrator of picture books--such as Baghead--and graphic novels for young children, turns to a young adult project with HEY KIDDO, which describes how his life has been shaped by his mother’s addiction. When her bad decisions make life too dangerous for three-year-old Jarrett, the boy is taken in by his grandfather and grandmother, "two incredible parents" who "just happened to be a generation removed.” Krosoczka’s powerful memoir shows how art helps him to make sense of his world, including his unconventional upbringing. (YA)

Picture Books:

In BLUE, Laura Vaccaro Seeger follows up her Newbery Honor Book, GREEN, with the story of a boy and a puppy who grow up/old together. A tender look at how life goes on. The text consists of variations on the word “blue,” and there are subtle die-cuts that add interesting continuity throughout.

HOW TO KNIT A MONSTER, by Annemarie van Haeringen, tells of Greta the goat, who is a very, very good knitter. When she doesn’t pay attention to her work, a wolf jumps off her needles! Things escalate until Greta manages to make things right. An award-winner in Holland, where it was first published.

And, finally, GREEN PANTS, by Kenneth Kraegel, features young Jameson, who only ever wears green pants. Because when he wears them he can do anything. But when he’s asked to be in his cousin's wedding party, it’s with the understanding that he must wear a (black) tuxedo. Will Jameson decide to be in the wedding without his green pants?


Friday, November 9, 2018

Shelf Awareness--Muse of Nightmares

YA Review: Muse of Nightmares

Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor (Little, Brown, $19.99 hardcover, 528p., ages 13-up, 9780316341714)

In Strange the Dreamer, the first book in Laini Taylor's spellbinding duology, orphan Lazlo Strange joined a delegation tasked with saving the city of Weep from the shadow of a towering citadel, once home to tyrannical blue-skinned gods who raped, tortured and murdered Weep's citizens. Lazlo fell in love with Sarai, one of five surviving "godspawn" living secretly in the citadel since the day an enslaved human broke free and led a deadly revolt. As the citadel finally toppled, Lazlo discovered he has a powerful, magical gift and must be godspawn; in the same moment, Sarai, who spent her life entering dreams, plunged to her death.

Now, in Muse of Nightmares, Sarai is a ghost. She's been saved from "the tide of evanescence" by her sister Minya, who has the power to bind souls. Minya makes it clear that she will bind Sarai if Lazlo doesn't help her wreak revenge on the murderous humans. The godspawn subdue the girl and try to figure out how to "unwork Minya's hate" while also attempting to locate the thousands of other godspawn "who'd vanished before" and make peace with the humans below. Then, a new terror arrives. Nova is a wrathful blue "soldier-wizard" from the same world as the slain gods, who also has a powerful gift. She's spent hundreds of years searching for her sister, Kora--stolen away by the very gods who terrorized Weep--and won't be appeased until Kora is found.

Gods and humans collide as master fantasist Taylor employs multiple points of view to explore the wonder of magic and the madness of vengeance. She seems to effortlessly conjure whole worlds for her readers' delight. The elegant prose is at once lofty and lusty, tender and brutal, as Taylor weaves her deeply tangled tale of revenge and redemption. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI.

Discover: Lovers Sarai and Lazlo are nearly swept away by the fallout from a war between gods and the humans they preyed upon.

Monday, November 5, 2018

November's Book of the Month--You Bring the Distant Near

November’s Book of the Month is YOU BRING THE DISTANT NEAR, by Mitali Perkins.

This story presents three generations of Das women, who struggle to balance multiple cultural identities.

We begin with the voices of Sonia and Tara Das, as they move with their mother from London, England, to Flushing, Queens, USA (they’re Bengalis who have also lived in Ghana). They join their father, who has gone ahead to find work. Flushing isn’t to Mrs. Das’s liking—too many people of color make her feel unsafe. Her daughters, however, quickly adapt. Budding actress Tara goes from channeling Twiggy to mastering Marcia Brady, while high-achieving, feminist Sonia finds peace by documenting her life in notebooks. Both girls navigate the ups and downs of the American dream, Das family-style.

The saga is later taken up by their daughters, Shanti and Annu, who are equally compelling characters exploring their own identities and futures. And, although the story mostly belongs to its various teenage narrators, Mrs. Das functions throughout as something of a backbone. Like the wonderfully complex, evolving human being that she is, her journey, possibly the most difficult of all, ultimately feels the most triumphant. YOU BRING THE DISTANT NEAR is the journey of strong, unique women who experience life on their own terms.


Friday, October 26, 2018

Shelf Awareness--Got to Get to Bear's!

PB Review: Got to Get to Bear's!

Got to Get to Bear's! by Brian Lies (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $17.99 hardcover, 32p., ages 4-7, 9780544948822, October 30, 2018)

When Izzy, a chipmunk who lives in a cozy-looking home (complete with furniture, books and a tiny guitar), gets a note from Bear asking her to "[p]lease come at once!" she doesn't consider refusing. Izzy knows the summons must be important, because "Bear never ask[s] for anything." Even though the sky looks ominous, Izzy puts on her striped scarf, grabs a lantern and hurries out, just as the "flakes [begin] to flutter down." The snow continues to fall, piling "deeper and deeper and deeper" until, before long, Izzy finds herself stalled, up to her chest in snow.

Scritch (a squirrel in a green hoodie) comes by and asks Izzy where she's headed. On hearing that Bear wants to see the chipmunk right away, Scritch agrees that "if Bear asks you, you gotta go." The helpful squirrel invites Izzy to hop on board, exclaiming "we'll be there in a jiff!" The duo make great progress using the "treetop road" until the branches become too slippery with snow. Bingle the duck (sporting a knitted winter cap with earflaps and a pom pom) appears just in time, and insists that Izzy and Scritch pile on, because "[y]ou don't say 'no' to Bear!" Bingle flies them through the darkening "skyway" as the "wind [grows] wild, and snow [stings] their faces like tiny bees." Visibility decreases and the three come to a "sudden stop" on a snow-covered roof, and then the group is back to walking. They toil along in snow that's "too deep to waddle," until Snaffie (a raccoon in a sweater) catches up with them. Izzy, Scritch and Bingle ride the rest of the way on Snaffie's back, through the dark and increasingly treacherous storm. By the time Bear opens her door, only Izzy is visible above the snow line. But their teamwork has paid off, because Izzy, Scritch, Bingle and Snaffie are all present to share in the great surprise that awaits them in "the warmth of [Bear's] den."

Brian Lies (Bats at the Beach; The Rough Patch) illustrates his wintertime adventure in meticulous detail. His snow scenes, such as the one where Bingle flies through the darkening sky, perfectly convey the claustrophobic nature of a fierce winter storm. Fur and feathers are rendered with exquisite care, as are textures on the distinguishing pieces of cold-weather clothing each animal wears. The characters all have their own distinct personalities, but each is on board with the shared mission of persevering together toward their common goal: getting Izzy to Bear's house. Friendship, teamwork and an overall commitment to helpfulness give this story its warmhearted appeal. Subtle foreshadowing of the surprise will provide satisfaction during subsequent readings of this beautifully realized picture book, imbued with the gratifying sentiment that "[n]o matter how steep or tough the climb, a friend is worth it, every time!" --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI.

Shelf Talker: When Bear asks Izzy to come over "at once," Izzy and her three friends, Scritch, Bingle and Snaffie, brave a dark and stormy night to get there.