Tuesday, October 15, 2019

October Recommendations


In THE REVOLUTION OF BIRDIE RANDOLPH, by Brandy Colbert, Birdie’s mom wants Birdie to stay “focused”-- on her SATs, getting into a good college, and moving on to “an impressive, high paying job.” But when Birdie’s estranged Aunt Carlene shows up, fresh out of rehab and needing a place to stay, there’s a noticeable change to the family dynamic. Aunt Carlene’s way more laid back, and she’s not afraid to give her opinion. Throw in a secret non-mom-approved boyfriend, and the summer is bound to explode. Colbert weaves a seamless story with great voice and characters that jump off the page. (YA)

SONG OF THE CRIMSON FLOWER, by Julie C. Dao, weaves Vietnamese-inspired imagery and folklore into a fresh and timeless fantasy. Lan hears romantic Tam playing his bamboo flute beneath her window, and all she wants is for them to set a wedding date. But then Bao, a penniless physician’s apprentice, admits he’s the real flute player, and Lan cruelly rejects him. Bao flees downriver, where a legendary witch casts a spell on him, saying that only someone who loves him “heart and soul” can break it. Lan and Bao wrestle with classic fantasy themes, including power hungry rulers and the strength it takes to do the right thing, but at its heart, Song of the Crimson Flower remains a magical love story. (YA)

Picture Books:

ROT, THE CUTEST IN THE WORLD! by Ben Clanton—OK, so this is a book about a mutant potato with a unibrow who sees a sign for a “Cutest in the World Contest.” Other contestants in the line-up? An "itty-bitty baby bunny,” a “little-wittle bewitching bewhiskered cuddly kitten,” and an “eenie-weenie pink and peppy jolly jellyfish.” Of course Rot enters! And we even get to see his cute potato butt. What could be bad? Deadpan humor and perfect timing make this a super-fun story about being yourself and finding your tribe.

RIVER, by Elisha Cooper, follows an unnamed woman making a solo trip down the mighty Hudson River in her canoe. She camps along the riverbank, sees “otters, ducks, dragonflies, a kingfisher,” and sketches in her journal. She paddles over rapids, through storms, and around a waterfall using a lock. Gorgeous art—looks like watercolors but doesn’t say so-- details a journey both harrowing and rewarding.

In ADRIAN SIMCOX DOES NOT HAVE A HORSE, written by Marcy Campbell and illustrated by Corinna Luyken, Adrian is a daydreamer who “tells anyone who will listen that he has a horse.” The narrator, Chloe, gets really annoyed that Adrain keeps talking about his horse, because “he definitely does not have one.” But a walk with her mom, and a visit to Adrian’s house prompt Chloe to reevaluate her classmate. The story is spare but packed with emotion, and the ink, colored pencil, and watercolor art is wonderfully done.

Finally, check out THE ATLAS OF AMAZING BIRDS, by Matt Sewell. He's painted—again, looks like watercolor but doesn’t say so—a selection of “the most beautiful, strange, scary, speedy, and enchanting” birds. They’re organized by continent, with a map at the start of each section, so open to any page and just start marveling. I’ve already spent plenty of time doing this. But--if Dinosaurs are more your thing, Sewell has also compiled THE COLORFUL WOLRD OF DINOSAURS, too. Enjoy!


Tuesday, October 1, 2019

October's Book of the Month--Sweep

Hello! October’s Book of the Month is the middle grade golem story SWEEP, THE STORY OF A GIRL AND HER MONSTER, by Jonathan Auxier. He previously wrote the very excellent—and creepy--The Night Gardener, and I think he’s got a worthy follow up here in SWEEP.

Life was never easy, but little Nan slept soundly as long as the Sweep was by her side. He’d raised her from a baby, and they ended every day with their special song: With brush and pail and soot and song!/A sweep brings luck all season long! But, one night when she’s just six years old, the Sweep disappears without a word, leaving behind only his “sacred” sweep hat, his coat, and “a strange lump of flickering char.”

With nowhere else to turn, and because she needs a master to get work, Nan indentures herself to the hateful Wilkie Crudd. One day, while cleaning the chimneys in a school for girls, Nan becomes stuck. Roger, a rival sweep who also works for Crudd, decides to use a deadly method-- “the Devil’s Nudge”—to get her out or kill her in the trying. He lights a fire in the coals below, “and then Nan Sparrow burned.”

Except she doesn’t die. She wakes in a crawl space, saved by her strange lump of char, which moves! In fact, this char is a creature, a “golem," wakened by Roger’s fire, and she feels sure it was left by the Sweep to protect her. Determined not to go back to Wilkie’s, Nan and the char, now appropriately named Charlie, find a place to live in an old abandoned mansion. Nan and her golem live well enough, but she still feels responsible for Wilkie’s other sweeps (except Roger!), and Wilkie remains determined to make her pay for her disappearance. Trouble ensues when Nan tries to improve life for all the sweeps, but in the process she learns about friends, family, and what it means to "save [yourself] by saving others.” Have a tissue or two for the sigh-and-tear-worthy ending.

This story, which illuminates the difficulty of life for young orphans, and the poor in general, in Victorian London, has just the right touch of magic to make it perfect for its middle grade audience. Nan is a plucky heroine who finds help where she needs it: in other kind but destitute street kids, in a lonely teacher, in her own hard work—and certainly in the wondrous gifts left to her by her beloved Sweep.


Monday, September 23, 2019

Shelf Awareness--Alma and the Beast

PB Review: Alma and the Beast

Alma and the Beast by Esmé Shapiro (Tundra Books , 44p., ages 3-7, 9780735263963)

Alma and the Beast's main character, an endearing creature covered with long, swirling gray tresses, wakes to a day "like any other." On this seemingly ordinary morning, Alma feeds her "plumpooshkie butterfly," braids the trees, combs the grass and pets the long, silky hair of the roof, "as one does when the days grow chilly and pink." But Alma soon finds that there is "something strange" in the garden. There appears to be a "hairless, button-nose beast" lurking about. Alma tries hiding but, "because beasts do not always go away when you close your eyes," the beast does not disappear. Instead, she insists that she's "TERRIBLY, TREMENDOUSLY STUPENDOUSLY LOST" and needs Alma's help to get home.

Once Alma understands that the beast is sad rather than scary, she leads her through some very hairy landscapes until the pair finally reach "a grand, whimpering, weeping willow." They go up the tree and down the other side, until they stand before the beast's "marvelous" but decidedly "bald" home. Here, Alma enjoys gardens that are watered not combed, roofs that are painted not petted, and hedges that can be trimmed rather than braided. Eventually, the day winds down, and Alma begins to "miss her hairy home."

Esmé Shapiro's (Ooko) gorgeous watercolor, gouache and pencil illustrations allow this story to soar, her boldly colorful palette and textured details bringing Alma to fantastical life. In this charming picture book, which celebrates the broadening of one's borders, Alma's day ends as it began, "like any other," but not before she hugs her new human friend, Mala, having learned that everyone--even "beasts"--have names. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI.

Discover: When a strange "beast" gets lost in Alma's garden, Alma learns to appreciate the ways in which her new friend is different.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Shelf Awareness--The Star Shepherd

MG Review: The Star Shepherd

The Star Shepherd by Dan Haring and MarcyKate Connolly (Sourcebooks, 320p., ages 8-12, 9781492658207)

Soon after the world was first formed, the Seven Elders hung stars "from hooks fastened to the sky." These stars formed a "wide net of light with beams connecting star to star," in order to shield people from "unspeakable horrors that thrived in the darkness." Centuries later, the original burlap casings began to wear out, and it fell to Star Shepherds to "catapult... the stars back into the sky."

When Kyro's mom died five years ago, his father, Tirin, honored her by sending a star back to the heavens in her name. Tirin became a Star Shepherd, but, as time went on, it seemed as if each newly fallen star became a reminder of his loss. Now, all Kyro wants is to "protect the stars" alongside his father and to be allowed to "feel like a part of his own family again," but Tirin barely even notices his son. When unprecedented numbers of stars begin falling and legendary monsters resurface, Tirin disappears, leaving his beloved watchtower in the hands of his worried son. As days go by and Tirin fails to return, Kyro, accompanied by his good friend Andra and his faithful pup Cypher, sets out to find his father and, while he's at it, discover who's been cutting down the stars.

Haring and Connolly have crafted an inviting fantasy that combines the epic feel of a creation myth with plenty of monsters to fight and monumental wrongs to right. Kyro's love--for his father and for the stars--stays strong and, like the best of heroes, he takes his quest seriously. Originally envisioned as an animated film, this handsome volume is adorned with plenty of spot art and striking, full-page illustrations and is likely to draw in younger middle-grade readers as well as tween fantasy lovers. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI.

Discover: Kyro, the son of a star shepherd, must find his missing father and figure out why so many stars have begun falling from the sky in this illustrated middle grade fantasy.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

September Recommendations


BEVERLY, RIGHT HERE is Kate DiCamillo’s follow up to her two recent novels, RAYMIE NIGHTINGALE and LOUISIANA’S WAY HOME, about three young Florida “rancheros" who meet at baton twirling classes. In this third story, 14-year-old Beverly Tapinski leaves home after her dog Buddy dies. Her mom barely notices. Beverly makes it to Tamaray Beach, where she finds a a job in Mr. C's fish restaurant, and a place to stay with a lonely old woman who lives in a pink trailer and appreciates Beverly's company. The prose in this novel feels pared down and spare, and, while I was reading, I wondered if perhaps too many things were being left unsaid. But, once I was finished, it felt simply perfect—not one word too few or too many in this wonderful balancing act of the author knowing how to trust her readers. (MG)

OWL’S OUTSTANDING DONUTS, by Robin Yardi, features an owl who loves donuts with pink icing. He also loves his Big Sur home, so when two shady figures in a white truck dump a load of “stinky slop” into a ditch by the side Highway One, Alfred (the owl) interrupts his midnight snack to enlist the help of Mattie, a young girl who lives in the airstream next to his favorite donut shop. Mattie and her friends launch an investigation into the crime, and they have exactly eight days before school starts to save the nearby creek (and drinking water in the area), find "the real gloppers,” and clear Aunt Molly’s name and so she won’t have to sell the donut shop. It's a sweet example of magical realism meets environmental activism. (MG)

Picture Books:

In WHO WET MY PANTS? written by Bob Shea and illustrated by Zachariah Ohora, when Reuben discovers a wet spot on his pants, he demands to know who is responsible. Even though it “was probably just an accident” and his “super great friends" are completely understanding, Reuben insists that “NO ONE gets donuts" until he gets "justice and dry pants.” Kids will love it when they figure out the mystery of the wet pants, and they’ll surely relate to Reuben’s approach to managing his embarrassment. This funny, kid-friendly tirade is told strictly through dialog, and rendered with colorful acrylic illustrations that include plenty of speech bubbles.

FOX AND THE BOX, by Yvonne Ivinson, is the story of a fox—with a box-- at the seaside, who wants to use his tail for a sail. But “Oh no! Tail sail fail.” Good thing there’s a “sail for sale." Told in very few words, sometimes only one to a page, this is a completely realized, magical summertime adventure, and another example of terrific illustrations rendered with acrylic paint.

TWO BROTHERS, FOUR HANDS: THE ARTISTS ALBERTO AND DIEGO GIACOMETTI, by Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan, illustrated by Hadley Hooper, tells an inspiring dual biography of these talented brothers who worked together for most of their lives. It describes Alberto’s journey to becoming a respected artist, and how he was helped along the way by Diego, who eventually came to be recognized in his own right. The text is clear, the illustrations (paint and ink, finished in Photoshop) make expert use of color and line, and the book, with its thick paper and thoughtful design, is itself a work of art.

In CAMP TIGER, written by Susan Choi, illustrated by John Rocco, it’s time for this family of four to enjoy their annual camping trip at Mountain Pond. Except this time, while they're pitching their tent, a tiger joins them. Good thing dad brought an extra tent. Choi weaves a thoughtful, yet fantastical, tale (one which should prove—again--that kids will eagerly sit through a rewarding story longer than 500 words), and Roccos watercolor, pencil, and digital illustrations bring it expertly to life.


Thursday, September 5, 2019

September's Book of the Month--A Big Mooncake for Little Star

September's Book of the Month is A Big Mooncake for Little Star, by Grace Lin.

In this Caldecott Honor Book, Little Star’s mama bakes a Big Mooncake for Little Star, and places it “onto the night sky to cool.” When Mama asks Little Star not to touch until she gets permission, Little Star agrees. She washes, brushes, and goes to sleep. But, when Little Star wakes during the night, she can only think of her Big Mooncake sitting there in the sky. So…pat pat pat, she tiptoes over and takes "a tiny nibble.” The next night, Little Star remembers how “sweet and tasty” that piece of Mooncake was, and the next night, and the next night, too, until Little Star's Big Mooncake is all gone, except for “a trail of twinkling crumbs.” When her smiling mama asks if Little Star “ate the Big Mooncake again,” Little Star agrees, smiling back at Mama, and off they go to make another Big Mooncake for Little Star.

This cyclical, original fable feels timeless, yet also fresh and new. I enjoy the gentle way Little Star’s “bad” behavior is received, as if this is a joke the two have played on each other many times before. The illustrations are striking, with painterly renderings of the characters both blending in and standing out amid the star-dotted black backgrounds of the sky. Two-thirds of the way through, readers are treated to a view of all the phases of the moon which Little Star nibbles her way through, simultaneously in one gorgeous double page spread.


Monday, August 26, 2019

Shelf Awareness--The Very Short, Entirely True History of Unicorns

PB Review: The Very Short, Entirely True History of Unicorns

The Very Short, Entirely True History of Unicorns by Sarah Laskow, illus. by Sam Beck (Penguin Workshop, 96p., ages 8-12, 9781524792732)

No matter how readers picture unicorns--majestic, pure white, horse-like creatures or cartoon characters sporting manes streaked with all the colors of the rainbow--when they open the pages of this inviting compendium they'll find plenty of fascinating, fun facts about the ever-popular magical creatures.

A Greek doctor living in Persia "more than 2300 years ago" wrote about "the existence of fantastic one-horned 'wild asses' " whose "bodies are white, their heads dark red, and their eyes dark blue." In the centuries that followed, one-horned beasts were said to resemble goats, deer and bulls. The horns themselves were reported to vary from "a foot and a half in length," to three feet, to "four feet long and spiral," until finally, "by the 1200s, some writers thought the unicorn's horn was ten feet long!"

Sarah Laskow's text provides a fine collection of information about the history of human fascination with the unicorn. A limited number of period drawings, tapestries and coins are heavily supplemented with comics artist Sam Beck's illustrations. The material brings the creature into modern times with the inclusion of more recent oddities such as Lancelot the "Living Unicorn" (which traveled with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus in the late 1980s) as well as a concise survey of 21st-century cartoons, video games, emojis and memes based on the mythical beast. Foods, too, have been affected by the popularity of unicorns--Laskow even includes a recipe for "Unicorn Poop Bark." Overflowing with evidence that "people have been talking and thinking about unicorns for thousands of years," The Very Short, Entirely True History of Unicorns suggests there is every reason to expect the fascination will continue. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI.

Discover: This small but wide-ranging history provides a wealth of information about the mythological unicorn.