Monday, July 15, 2019

July Recommendations


THE BOOK OF BOY, by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, is the story of a boy—a hunchback-- who can talk to animals. When he catches the eye of a passing pilgrim, he’s taken along to carry the pilgrim's sack and the holy relics that are intended to fill it. Although Boy fears his new master Secundus is dangerous, the two of them travel together to Rome, collecting relics in dubious fashion, each hoping to be granted a miracle when they reach the tomb of Saint Peter. Boy and Secondus make for a compelling literary duo, in this Newbery Honor book that's an entertaining and ultimately moving look at life in the Middle Ages, when plague was rampant and relics—real and fake—were prized by all. (MG)

In THE THINGS SHE’S SEEN, by Australian Aboriginal storytellers Ambelin and Ezekiel Kwaymullina, Beth Teller’s been in an accident. She died, but she’s not ready to move on. At least not yet, when her police investigator dad misses her so much, and Beth's thinks that a new case may help get him unstuck from the muddy swamp of his grief. But it’s a brutal murder in a small town just like the one he grew up in—chock full of nasty secrets, and now they're threatening to surface. Beth’s narration is interspersed with that of Catching, an orphan girl involved in the gruesome goings on, whose got a devastating—yet magical—story of her own to tell. This is a quick and thrilling YA.

Easy Reader:

BRUCE’S BIG FUN DAY, by Ryan T. Higgens, is a Level 1 easy reader, starring the one and only Mother Bruce of picture book fame. Bruce is grumpy, but his friend Nibs is determined to cheer up the determinedly bad-tempered bear with a BIG FUN DAY. Unfortunately, BIG FUN DAYS make Bruce grumpy. The hijinks that follow will provide the utmost satisfaction to new readers.

Picture Books:

Did you ever wonder where the images on road signs go when the sun is down and it’s time to play? In SIGN OFF, by Stephen Savage, the mystery is solved, as the figures of children, animals, and machines all leave their brightly colored perches to enjoy a taste of freedom and perform a very important task. Brightly colored art brings this wordless fantasy to life for readers young and old!

SONNY’S BRIDGE, by Barry Wittenstein, illustrated by Keith Mallett, employs an energetic, rhythmic text to spin the story of jazz legend Sonny Rollins, focusing on his decision to step away at the height of success, to play in "a place no one goes,” up on the Williamsburg Bridge, “where he can make notes cry and squeak, beg and plead,/ bend ‘em up, bend ‘em sideways.” The digital illustrations use vibrant colors and dynamic layouts to mesmerize.

Board Book:

BABY LOVES STRUCTURAL ENGINEERING, by Ruth Spiro, illustrated by Irene Chan, is a board book that aims to introduce advanced concepts to an extremely young audience. And it actually succeeds. Using mostly simple terms, Spiro equates engineering structures, like houses, to a baby playing with Duplo-like building blocks. The illustrations are as simple and as detailed as they need to be. It’s surprisingly satisfying.


Monday, July 8, 2019

Shelf Awareness--Shatter the Sky

YA Review: Shatter the Sky

Shatter the Sky by Rebecca Kim Wells (Simon & Schuster, 304p., ages 13-up, 9781534437906, July 30, 2019)

Back before the Empire, when the Verran people settled Ilvera, they bonded with native dragons, "creating a society neither human nor dragon, but somewhere in-between." Then the emperor, the Flame of the West, invaded, stealing all of the dragons, "tearing out the mountain's beating heart" and sweeping a reluctant Ilvera into the Empire. Generations later, Maren loves her life on the "dragon mountain" in Ilvera, but her girlfriend, Kaia, is eager for the pair to travel "downmountain" and explore. Kaia dreams that they'll meet the "the Flame of the West himself" and be given dragons. Maren knows that "the tyrant" will "never grant a dragon to a girl from Ilvera," but Kaia is determined, so Maren will go, "even if it cost[s her] the mountain."

But when the emperor's Aurati seers arrive on their customary pilgrimage, "doling out prophecies and counting up the emperor's subjects," they abruptly steal Kaia away. Knowing that "no one taken ha[s] ever returned," Maren comes up with "an impossible idea": she'll find a dragon that has not yet formed its unbreakable bond with anyone else, and storm the Aurati stronghold to get Kaia back. Dragon kits are housed in the emperor's fortress, but Verrans aren't welcome. Maren disguises herself in Zefedi clothing and manipulates her way into a job as food taster, then quickly talks her way up to an apprenticeship with the Aromatory, "the only person who knows the tools and procedures for training the dragons."

Maren watches for an opportunity to steal one of the dragons, hoarding small quantities of oils that are essential for creating a lasting bond. One day she hears "a cacophony of notes... at once unfocused and bell-like" and she realizes it's the sound of dragons singing. She also begins to understand that the vivid, confusing visions she's been having may be "dragon dreams." When she envisions Kaia--thinner, paler and "in danger"--Maren knows it's time to act. She fails miserably. Forced to escape, she finds unexpected help from Sev, a handsome young Zefedi who is also interested in dragons, and the two find themselves on the run together with a stolen dragon egg about to hatch.

Rebecca Kim Wells has crafted a top-notch dragon story. Her fantasy world-building is excellent, the plot anchored by a strong young woman who feels both nuanced and real. Maren struggles with difficult questions in ways readers will understand: Why, if she's in love with Kaia, does she dream of Sev? Is it enough to just save Kaia, or is it time to take down the emperor as well? If so, who will be installed in his place? Is there really a shadow prince conspiring to rule? The story builds momentum until its breathtaking finish, concluding the episode while leaving larger issues unresolved and ready to be picked up in the second installment of this promised duology. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI.

Shelf Talker: In this YA fantasy debut, Mara infiltrates the emperor's fortress to bond with a dragon in order to rescue her kidnapped girlfriend.

Friday, July 5, 2019

July's Book of the Month--They Say Blue

July’s Book of the Month is the 2019 Boton Globe/Horn Book Fiction Award winner, THEY SAY BLUE, by Jillian Tamaki.

“They say blue is the color of the sky," but “they say the sea is blue, too.” Unless it’s clear as glass, like when the young narrator of this picture book cups some in her hands. She wonders whether a blue whale is blue, because she’s never seen one. From there, her thoughts meander to the orange yolk of an egg she holds in her hand, and the red of her blood as it races through her body when she runs. And the golden ocean of a field of grass, which she might be able to sail upon if she builds a boat that doesn’t weigh too much. Gray storm clouds, a purple budding flower, the green of sprouted leaves. Summer means staying quiet and listening, fall means brown leaves to wiggle her toes in, and winter is “all white, up and down.” Black is the color of her hair, which her mother “parts every morning, like opening a window.” And the black crows, too, those “tiny inkblots on a sea of sky."

THEY SAY BLUE is a gorgeous meditation on color and seasons and ways of looking at things differently. It’s full of wonder and creative energy. The illustrations, by Caldecott Honor winner Tamaki are alive and vibrant and always in motion, as is her text.


Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Karen Jameson Interview and Giveaway!

I’m thrilled to introduce my good friend and critique partner, Karen Jameson, whose debut picture book, MOON BABIES, celebrates its book birthday today! Karen has graciously answered my questions about how her book came to be, and what’s next for her. She’s also provided a recipe for moon cookies. And, if you leave a comment below by July 10th, you’ll be entered in a drawing to win a signed hardcover copy of MOON BABIES, written by Karen and illustrated by Amy Hevron!

Karen, how did you get the idea for this sweet and clever bedtime story?

I hadn’t yet had my coffee one morning, when a full page newspaper ad stopped me cold. Moon Valley Nursery was splashed across the page, with their logo of an adorable moon. At first glance, my sleepy brain bypassed the obvious - plant nursery- and jumped right to baby nursery. A moon baby nursery! For months, I’d been trying to come up with a fresh angle for a bedtime book and this was it!

Did you get it right the first time or did you have to revise? If you revised, can you tell us how many drafts you needed?

I did not get it right the first time or the tenth time or the nth time! Ha! I did so many revisions that I lost count. But, I knew that the concept was good and that kept me plugging away.

Judging by the art, your text really “spoke” to your illustrator, Amy Hevron. Are the moon babies in the book similar to how you pictured them?

It’s common advice to leave the art to the experts, namely the illustrator, art director and editor. So, I didn’t give it too much thought initially. It was surprising to me, when editors were quick to ask, “What do moon babies look like?” I didn’t have any idea, but Amy Hevron sure did! I was absolutely smitten with her darling moon babies from the start. Amy’s dreamy color palette and acrylic-on-board technique, blend seamlessly to create a charming moon nursery.

You were an elementary teacher for more than 30 years. Did you do any other writing before you sold this story?

Apart from the little poems and such that I wrote for my family, I dabbled in some grant writing at school. In April 2013, I was lucky enough to attend Alexis O’Neill’s UCLA Extension class on magazine writing for children. That course led to the publication of my first nonfiction science articles in ASK and AppleSeeds magazines.

Are there any future projects in the works?

I’m delighted to say that I have a few picture books in the queue! WOODLAND DREAMS (2020) and FARM LULLABY (2021) are coming out from Chronicle Books. More are on the way!

Author Bio
Karen is the author of the lyrical picture books MOON BABIES (Putnam, 2019), WOODLAND DREAMS (Chronicle, 2020), and FARM LULLABY (Chronicle, 2021). More stories are in the works! She was awarded the 2016 Sue Alexander Grant for the Working Writers Retreat (SCBWI LA) for her rhyming picture book, WOODLAND DREAMS. A retired teacher and active member of SCBWI, she holds a master’s degree in education. Lover of books, wildflowers, farmers’ markets and everything chocolate, Karen lives and works in sunny, Southern California. You can visit her website at

Crescent Moon Cookies

Makes 2 ½ dozen out-of-this-world cookies!
1 cup softened butter
½ cup powdered sugar (plus extra for dipping)
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 tablespoon water
1 cup finely chopped pecans or walnuts

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
2. In a large bowl, beat the butter and powdered sugar with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Beat in the water and vanilla. Gradually add in the flour on low speed.
3. Stir in the chopped nuts.
4. Shape heaping spoonfuls of the dough into 2-inch crescents and place about 2 inches apart on baking sheets.
5. Bake cookies for 12-15 minutes or until lightly golden on the bottom. Cool on baking sheets for 2-3 minutes, then roll warm cookies in powdered sugar. Place cookies on wire racks to cool completely.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

June Recommendations


KING OF SCARS, by Leigh Bardugo, is a compulsively readable fantasy set in the same Grishaverse as her Shadow and Bone trilogy, Six of Crows duology, and a short story collection, The Language of Thorns. In KING OF SCARS, Nikolai Lantzov, the charming king of Ravka, has a demon lurking inside, and it's literally turning him into a monster. Zoya Nazyalensky is his powerful Grisha general, devoted to protecting Ravka’s sovereignty. And Nina Zenik is a spy, working in the neighboring country of Fjerda to save as many Grisha as she can from its hostile government. The three of them form the triumvirate of an action-packed tale of gods and monsters, magic and power. (YA)

Picture Books:

In FLOATY, by John Himmelman, cranky Mr. Raisin doesn’t like anything other than sewing, but when a floating puppy is left in a (covered) basket on his doorstep, things begin to change. A tale delightfully told and illustrated.

OTTO AND PIO, by Marianne Dubuc is another unlikely friendship story. When squirrel Otto stumbles upon a strange green ball outside his treehouse and it hatches into a small, round, furry creature, adjustments, both welcome and not, are in order. It's charmingly offbeat and and heartwarming with Duboc’s always lovely colored pencil and watercolor art.

In MOTH, AN EVOLUTION STORY, Isabelle Thomas and Daniel Egnéus endow their picture book about the transformation of the peppered moth (Biston betularia) with a sense of wonder that elevates it to the realm of myth. It’s a deeply fulfilling look at the ups and downs of natural selection, rendered in stunning art that manages to feel soft and organic, yet also, when it needs to, intricate and precise.

WE ARE GRATEFUL, OTSALIHELIGA, by Traci Sorell and illustrated by Frané Lessac, is a rumination on the way Cherokee people express their gratitude “daily, throughout the year, and across the seasons.” The prose is lyrical, informative, and inviting, and the art is vibrantly expressive.

HEDY LAMARR’S DOUBLE LIFE, written by Laurie Wallmark and illustrated by Katy Wu, describes how a child who loved science and technology, while being “crazy about motion pictures,” grew up to become a glamorous movie star who was also a passionate inventor. Even now, her greatest invention "helps keep our cell phone messages private and defends our computers from hackers.” This is an inspiring look at following—all of—your dreams.


Friday, June 7, 2019

Shelf Awareness--Small World

PB Review: Small World

Small World by Ishta Mercurio, illus. by Jen Corace (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 32p., ages 4-8, 9781419734076, July 2, 2019)

When Nanda is young, "the whole" of her world is composed of comforting circles. Just after she's born, this means being "wrapped in the circle of her mother's arms." As a toddler, the meaning expands to include "the circle of her loving family" and, as a girl of elementary-school age, there is room for "a bubble of giggling playmates."

It's not long before Nanda's world encompasses other shapes, as well. Nanda gets "bigger and bigger," and her world grows with her. It opens up to include not only the natural wonder that is "a sway of branches," but also human creations like "scaffolds of steel" and "cables and cogs." Nanda's world continues to increase in size as she rides a train from the "sun-kissed maze of wheat" near her hometown, past "pinecone-prickled mountains and the microscopic elegance of fractals in the snow," all the way to the "symphony of glass and stone" that defines her college years.

Nanda's lifelong love of science "spool[s] through spirals of wire and foam" at school, where she helps to create "a human-powered helicopter" with her classmates. Still, Nanda and her world continue to grow. As Nanda gets "bigger and bigger and BIGGER," her world becomes "the roar of twin engines, a glittering ocean far below, and the curve of the planet beneath her." Nanda's world expands even more, to include "a sea of stars, moonless and deep," as her feet touch "foreign soil" in outer space.

Mercurio's gorgeously poetic text effortlessly balances the wonders of the natural world with the wonders created by scientists and engineers. Her repeating refrain as Nanda gets bigger and bigger ensures that this story is comforting to its youngest readers, while including enough variation to inspire older ones. Corace's gouache, ink and pencil spreads are always warm and bright, anchored by geometric shapes and patterns. Of particular importance are those comforting circles--on the very first spread, baby Nanda forms the bottom half of a circle which is completed by her mother's loving arms, a strong image that is mirrored at the end by two distinct half circles that form the "softly glowing" Earth, "a circle called home." The illustrations reinforce the text's premise that, with encouragement and self-motivation, Nanda will continue to feel secure in her "safe, and warm, and small" world, even as its boundaries expand. An author's endnote relates how the inspiration for this story came from a photograph taken at the Indian Space Research Organization showing five women "celebrating after they had helped put a satellite into orbit around Mars." Small World, like that photograph, depicts the joy there is to be found when young girls and women "all over the world" follow their dreams. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI.

Shelf Talker: As Nanda grows, so does her world, in this sweet and inspiring story about perspective and following your dreams.

Monday, June 3, 2019

June's Book of the Month--The Parker Inheritance

June's book of the month is THE PARKER INHERITANCE, by Varian Johnson.

When 12-year-old Candice Miller moves to Lambert, South Carolina, for the summer, she imagines it will be horrible. She wants her real room in her real house in Atlanta. But soon after meeting bookish Brandon Jones from across the street, Candice decides Lambert might not be so bad, after all. The two go hunting for something to read in the attic, where Candice finds an old letter that lays out a “puzzle mystery” with clues that lead to a hidden fortune, and the summer really takes off.

Candace knows her grandmother, after receiving this very same letter ten years earlier, was forced to resign from her job and leave Lambert in disgrace. Now, Candace and Brandon become caught up in solving a mystery that might have the power to “make right what once went so utterly wrong,” beginning when the Washington family was run out of Lambert decades earlier, “victims of the city’s long-standing discrimination against black people.” Candice and Brandon become the very best of friends as they work their way through the clues, taking the words of Candice’s grandmother to heart: Find the path. Solve the puzzle.

This is a really engaging middle grade mystery that pays homage to that puzzle-rich classic, The Westing Game, while layering in plenty of issues that should interest today’s readers. Front and center are matters of racial tension and intolerance, bullying, and the right of any kid/person to be gay, straight, or whatever without ridicule or harassment. Divorce and its aftermath figure in, as well, but the story is upbeat and action-heavy, despite references to these “real world” problems. At its heart, it’s a tale of friendship and kid smarts.

Have you read THE PARKER INHERITANCE? What do you think?