Monday, October 15, 2018

October Book Picks


MERCI SUAREZ CHANGES GEARS, by Meg Medina, is one of my favorite kids’ novels this year. It’s a funny, wise, realistic mid-grade story about plucky sixth-grader Merci, who navigates the changes in her life with varying degrees of grace: an escalating rivalry with Edna Santos, the most popular girl in her class, a beloved abuelo who’s becoming increasingly confused, and —gross—puberty. Meg Medina delivers yet again. (MG)

Jeanne Birdsall concludes her fabulous Penderwicks series with THE PENDERWICKS AT LAST. The zany Penderwick family all return to beloved Arundel, the grand estate owned by Honorary Penderwick Jeffery’s insufferable mother, the dreaded Mrs. Tifton. Eleven-year-old Lydia’s sister, Rosalind, is getting married to longtime boyfriend, Tommy Geiger, and Lydia dances her way through plenty of charming hijinks, not all of which are her fault. (MG)

Easy Reader:

BABY MONKEY, PRIVATE EYE, by Brian Selznick and David Serlin, is a meticulously illustrated, beautifully produced, pitch-perfect book for emerging readers. Baby Monkey investigates The Case of the Missing Jewels, The Case of the Missing Pizza, The Case of the Missing (clown) Nose, The Case of the Missing Spaceship, and one more adorable Last Case. The short, repetitive text is lovingly drawn in Selznick’s singular style, and deeply enriched by all sorts of literary, cinematic, historical, etc. references, all of which are listed in the Key to Baby Monkey’s Office at the end—and none of which needs to be understood for readers to enjoy this book. Wow!

Picture Books:

A PARADE OF ELEPHANTS, by Kevin Henkes, is practically perfect in every way. A short, lyrical text is expertly brought to life by the simply-designed, candy-colored elephants trundling about. There’s marching and counting, yawning and stretching, and a dose of wonder at the end. Another wow!

In A BIG MOONCAKE FOR LITTLE STAR, by Grace Lin, Little Star hopes her mother won’t notice as she nibbles her way through the sweet and tasty Big Mooncake that they baked together. The illustrations wonderfully illuminate this tender, original story based on the author’s favorite Asian holiday, The Mid-Autumn Moon Festival. Identical endpapers reinforce the satisfying full-circle structure.

Board Book:

HERE, GEORGE! by Sandra Boynton, illustrated by George Booth, is a little gem of a book about the secret life of a dog. There’s not a wasted word in the text, not a wasted line in the art. Perfecto! (I do wish it was a regular picture book though—the publisher says it’s for one to five year olds, but I think it makes more sense to give it to two to five year olds, and they don’t necessarily eat their books anymore.)


Friday, October 5, 2018

Shelf Awareness--What Do You Do with a Voice Like That?

PB Review: What Do You Do with a Voice Like That?: The Story of Extraordinary Congresswoman Barbara Jordan

What Do You Do with a Voice Like That?: The Story of Extraordinary Congresswoman Barbara Jordan by Chris Barton, illus. by Ekua Holmes (Beach Lane/Simon & Schuster, $17.99 hardcover, 48p., ages 4-9, 9781481465618)

As a child growing up in Texas, Barbara Jordan (1936-1996) was proud of her "big, bold, booming, crisp, clear, confident voice." It was a voice that "made a difference"--that "caused folks to sit right up, stand up straight, and take notice."

Inspired by a lawyer visiting her high school, Barbara studied "long and hard" to earn her law degree. But being a lawyer meant using "a typewriter and pen a lot more than she did her voice," so Barbara began speaking out for political change. Wanting "more justice and more equality," she ran for office and, on her third try, was elected state senator in Texas, where she dedicated herself to ensuring the political system was used to improve people's lives. In 1972, Barbara was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. During the Watergate affair, she gave a stirring, televised speech to remind the nation that the Constitution applies to everyone, even the president of the United States. She was a rising star, "battling" to end discrimination, until her own fight with multiple sclerosis forced her to leave Washington. Back in Texas, she taught college, "[using] her voice to instruct and implore and inspire."

Chris Barton's (Dazzle Ships) strong, engaging text is well-matched by the stunning hues and bold textures of Ekua Holmes's (Out of Wonder) mixed-media illustrations. Differing type sizes and colors, along with a generous trim size and strategic use of blank space, make the text easily readable and each illustration stand out. Back matter includes an author's note and timeline, as well as recommendations of additional resources for interested readers. Many of Barbara's former students, Barton's text states, still hear "echoes of her words as they try to make life better for all of us." They, like she did, seek "Equality. Justice. Trust." --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI.

Discover: Throughout her life, the late Texas state senator, U.S. Congresswoman and college professor Barbara Jordan used her strong voice to advocate for equality and justice.

Monday, October 1, 2018

October's Book of the Month--Elizabeth and Zenobia

October’s Book of the Month is the deliciously creepy middle grade debut, ELIZABETH AND ZENOBIA, by Jessica Miller.

Elizabeth Murmur’s mother has run off ("with the opera singer who understudied for the role of Tamino" in The Magic Flute). Now her father, who has stopped going to work, stopped "writing articles about seed dispersal patterns in the dandelion genus,” and has really “just, somehow, stopped,” is moving the two of them back to Witheringe House, where he lived as a child.

Actually, there are three of them, if you count Zenobia—and you really should. Zenobia is Elizabeth’s only friend, and she’s bold and daring, where Elizabeth is meek and afraid. Zenobia’s not imaginary, even though “it’s true no one except [Elizabeth] can see her.”

While Zenobia gleefully investigates the possibility of a Spirit Presence in Witheringe House, Elizabeth stumbles upon a sinister secret the house is keeping. A forbidden East Wing, a mostly dead hedge maze, and a fanciful story that appears only at midnight in a stuffy old book written by Elizabeth’s father long ago all add to the strong sense of Other that permeates ELIZABETH AND ZENOBIA.

Yet, in addition to the otherworldly factor, this is a poignant story about a girl who feels invisible. At Witheringe House, Elizabeth hopes that maybe her father "will stop remembering Mother [is] gone, and start remembering [Elizabeth is] there.”

ELIZABETH AND ZENOBIA would hold its own on a bookshelf next to Holly Black’s Doll Bones, and Jonathan Auxier’s The Night Gardener, which is high praise, indeed!


PS--From the cover and all the way through, the art is vaguely unsettling, thoroughly lovely, and perfectly enhances the text.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Shelf Awareness--There's a Hole in My Garden

PB Review: There's a Hole in My Garden

There's a Hole in My Garden by James Stewart (Albert Whitman, $16.99 hardcover, 32p., ages 3-5, 9780807578551)

In January, a child finds a hole in his garden that's "not a very big hole." But since "it's just the right size for [his] best marble," the unnamed boy drops the marble in and hopes a tree will grow from it. When February rolls around, there's no marble tree (because "[m]arble trees don't grow overnight"), but since the hole is "a little bigger now," he drops in some candy, hoping for "a candy tree." Of course, March comes and "[t]he candy tree isn't growing either." But the hole is even bigger now, so in goes his flashlight. April, May, June... the rest of the year comes and goes with the boy expecting trees to grow out of the increasingly absurd items--robot, piano, dinosaur!--he throws into the ever-enlarging hole. Finally, by December, when the hole has grown so large it's "swallowed the garden," the boy does some research and comes up with his most spectacular idea yet.

There's a Hole in My Garden is a great deal of fun to read aloud, and the understated humor will leave audiences in stitches; the matter-of-fact depictions of the boy throwing bigger and bigger objects into a hole are hilarious. Black-and-white spot art on the left set up the main activities on the right, which play out in full color, full-page displays. Stewart provides just enough context to ground the story in a recognizable world, making the antics more effective, and his somewhat spare style nevertheless delivers plenty of details to discover on subsequent readings. Even the pickiest of young readers should find themselves drawn into the deadpan humor and wowed by the stellar ending. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI.

Discover: Hoping to grow an unusual tree, a boy plants larger and larger objects in an ever-widening hole in his garden.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

September Book Picks


In WONDERLAND, by Barbara O’Connor, all Mavis Jeeter wants is to live in one place long enough to have a real best friend. But her mom moves the two of them, yet again, to a new job, in another state, as housekeeper for the wealthy Tully family. Luckily, young Rose Tully could use a best friend, too. But the girls are so different. And when Henry, a dog in search of a home, shows up, the girls will need to break plenty of Mrs. Tully’s rules if they want to get Mr. Duffy, the gatekeeper, to adopt a new pet… O’Connor does a great job, the writing reminds me of Kate DiCamillo, and this book will probably be mentioned in Newbery discussions. (MG)

A FESTIVAL OF GHOSTS, by William Alexander is the follow up to A PROPERLY UNHAUNTED PLACE, and it’s just as good as the first. Rosa Ramona Diaz is a ghost appeasement specialist, just like her mom. She and her new friend, Jasper Chevalier, travel around town quieting ghosts and restless spirits. When Rosa begins attending classes at Ingot Public School, the hauntings begin to escalate. To make matters worse, Rosa worries that she's being haunted by the spirit of her dad, and Jasper is determined to reopen the Ingot Renaissance Festival, even though the grounds have been taken over by dueling ghosts. These books champion respect and the power of listening. (MG)

Chapter Book:

TIME JUMPERS, by Wendy Mass, is a new time-travel adventure series, along the lines of THE MAGIC TREEHOUSE books but for less experienced readers. In the first book, STEALING THE SWORD, Chase and Ava find a mysterious old suitcase that magically transports them to King Arthur’s Court. The kids must return the hilt of Excalibur to the king before he fights in the tournament, but an angry man is trying to steal it. There’s lots of action, an intriguing setting, and plenty of illustrations to help new readers stay on track.

Picture Books:

Do “[b]unnies in their hutches" eat orange? How about gorillas and giraffes? In WHO EATS ORANGE? written by Dianne White and illustrated by Robin Page, we see a variety of animals working their way through a veritable rainbow of foods. This early non-fiction book is as fun to read aloud as it is beautiful to look at. Plenty of back matter makes it a great choice for classrooms, but kids will enjoy it just as well on laps and for library story-time.

Want a bouncy, rhyming bedtime book about robots? Give BITTY BOT, by Tim McCanna, illustrated by Tad Carpenter, a try. Follow along, in pitch-perfect rhythm and rhyme, as Bitty Bot, not yet ready to be “tucked in tight,” takes his homemade rocket ship on a trip to the moon. The art adds plenty of details, colors, and goofy moonpeople to ratchet up the fun.

Maybe you’d prefer your bedtime books a bit more dreamlike and magical. In TIME FOR BED, MIYUKI, by Roxane Marie Galliez with illustrations by Seng Soun Ratanavanh, every time her grandfather asks if she’s ready, a little girl finds one more task she needs to complete before she can sleep. But when Miyuki, with Grandfather’s help, has prepared for the Dragonfly Queen, watered her garden, gathered the snails, covered the cat, “danced the last dance of the day,” and taken her bath, she’s finally ready to be tucked in to hear a very special story. Watercolor and colored pencil illustrations are luminous.


Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Shelf Awareness--Hey, Kiddo

YA Review: Hey, Kiddo

Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett J. Krosoczka (Graphix/Scholastic, $24.99 hardcover, 320p., ages 12-up, 9780545902472, October 9, 2018)

In Hey, Kiddo, Jarrett J. Krosoczka, author/illustrator of picture books and graphic novels for children, puts his talents to use on a more sophisticated project: delving into his own chaotic past. In his first work for young adults, Krosoczka describes how his life was shaped by his mother's addiction and his family's love.

Even though his mother, Leslie, "started using when she was just thirteen years old" and wasn't sure who his father was until Jarrett was born, the boy "came home in an oversized stocking on Christmas day" to a family that cared deeply for him. When Leslie's "terrible decisions" became too dangerous for three-year-old Jarrett, his grandfather Joe insisted on becoming the boy's legal guardian. Joe and Jarrett's grandmother, Shirley, had already raised five kids and were just about to turn into "empty-nesters" when they took in the toddler.

Jarrett's grandfather, usually depicted puffing a cigarette, frequently expressed love for his grandson, and provided for him in the best way he could. Joe saw to it that, when Jarrett's school repeatedly slashed its art program, the boy got art lessons at the Worcester Art Museum, since "[a]rt was the only thing that [he] had any sort of interest in." Shirley--also a heavy smoker and a drinker--was abrasive, though she clearly loved the boy. Still, Jarrett "always felt the void that Leslie's absence created."

When she did come around, there were good times. A birthday party at a McDonald's, months away from his actual birthday, was "a lot of fun" and "the only party that [he] ever had with friends throughout [his] entire childhood." Likewise, rare presents of a stuffed polar bear and, years later, the matching scarves Leslie knit for Jarrett and his pet gerbil, were treasured. But an even bigger gift might have been the letters and homemade cards they exchanged, where he'd "request a cartoon from her and then she'd request one back from [him]." The letters show that Leslie told Jarrett she loved him--"a lot." But her presence in his life was sporadic and "just as quickly as she'd [reappear], she was gone again."

Eventually, Jarrett found himself in art. This memoir serves as a wonderful expression of the richness of his gift, as well as a tribute to his "two incredible parents" who "just happened to be a generation removed." Rendered in black, white and a range of grays, with touches of color coming from the addition of rusty orange tones, the inked art is moody and expressive. The reproductions of actual letters and drawings from Jarrett's childhood lend authenticity and poignancy to the book. By the time he graduated from high school, Jarrett gained a measure of maturity that allowed him to come to terms with the family that, though far from "idyllic," is uniquely his. Perhaps, as Leslie told Jarrett while he was working on this book, their story "could help somebody who might be walking a similar path to the one [they] had walked." Here's hoping! --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI.

Shelf Talker: Jarrett Krosoczka's graphic novel is a reflection on his unconventional upbringing, which included being raised by grandparents due to his mom's devastating addiction.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

September's Book of the Month

September’s Book of the Month is another successful collaboration from that prolific picture book dynamic duo, Mac Barnett and Jon Klaassen. In THE WOLF, THE DUCK & THE MOUSE, when a mouse encounters a wolf, he’s “quickly gobbled up.” But imagine the mouse's surprise when, instead of meeting his end, he meets a duck who invites him to sit down to a delicious breakfast. Bread and jam, to be exact, and served on a tablecloth. As the duck explains, “I may have been swallowed, but I have no intention of being eaten.” The mouse decides to stay with the duck in the wolf’s belly. Life is good until too much dancing in there causes the wolf's stomach to ache, and his loud moaning attracts the attention of a hunter. So the duck and the mouse ride out to defend their home...

Klassen’s shrewd, collage-like illustrations perfectly match the droll text. For the “interior” scenes, he uses the dark browns and black of the wolf’s belly to cast a spotlight on the absurd antics in the foreground. When the action moves outdoors, he plays with light and dark there, as well. Like a previous Barnett/Klassen collaboration, EXTRA YARN, the story of THE WOLF, THE DUCK & THE MOUSE feels old fashioned, but with a modern, smart-alecky twist. Like a sardonic relative of an old pourquoi story or fairy tale, with hints of Peter and the Wolf. The subtitle of this witty E. B. White Award-winner could easily have been “Why the Wolf Howls at the Moon.”


PS—it’s really interesting to me how the emotion is conveyed in this book—the eyes are so expressive, these characters don't even have mouths most of the time! If you want to study how to infuse gobs of feeling into your characters, check out the rest of Klassen’s work and also the other master of this, Mo Willems.