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.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Shelf Awareness--Africville

PB Review: Africville

Africville by Shauntay Grant, illus. by Eva Campbell (Groundwood Books, $18.95, hardcover, 32p., ages 4-7, 9781773060439)

A modern girl daydreams of how life used to be in the once-thriving black community of Africville in Shauntay Grant (Up Home) and Eva Campbell's picture book collaboration.

Located in Halifax, Nova Scotia, at "the end of the ocean,/ where waves come to rest/ and hug the harbor stones," Africville is a place, the child imagines, where "the houses lay out like a rainbow" and "home/ smells like/ sweet apple pie/ and blueberry duff." With berry picking "up over the hill," playing football at "the Caterpillar Tree," rafting "at Tibby's pond" and bonfires "burning red/ like the going-down sun," readers will savor the sweet vision of what life in Africville might have been like.

But, as the backmatter reveals, even though Africville was a "vibrant, self-sustaining community," tax-paying residents had to deal with all kinds of adversity. They lived without such basic services as "running water, sewers and paved roads" and their town became home to "all kinds of unpleasant facilities," including a slaughterhouse and a city dump. Africville was demolished in the 1960s and then, after plenty of opposition, was declared a National Historic Site of Canada in 2002. Former residents later received an official apology from the City of Halifax, and "a replica of the community's church was built on its original site, and... now operates as a museum."

Evocative art, deftly rendered in oil and pastel on canvas, brings to life the heartfelt blending of past and present that coexists in this loving tribute to the Africville community. The final uplifting spreads depict an annual reunion festival now held at the town's original site. Though Africville is gone, young readers may find comfort in the book's final words: "memories turn to dreams, and dreams turn to hope, and hope never ends." --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI.

Discover: A young girl daydreams about the once-thriving community of Africville, in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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--The Wolf, the Duck, & the Mouse

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.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Shelf Awareness--A Festival of Ghosts

MG Review: A Festival of Ghosts

A Festival of Ghosts by William Alexander, illus. by Kelly Murphy (Margaret K. McElderry, $17.99 hardcover, 272p., ages 8-12, 9781481469180)

Rosa Diaz is a ghost appeasement specialist, just like her mom. The two live in a "cozy basement apartment underneath the Ingot Public Library," where their official job is to deal with books that are "too haunted." But ever since the "huge circle of copper" placed around Ingot by its founder, Bartholomew Theosophras Barron, was broken, Rosa and her new friend, Jasper Chevalier, spend a lot of time traveling around town, quieting ghosts and restless spirits.

The previously "library-schooled" Rosa begins attending classes at Ingot Public School to perform the "emergency appeasements" her mother is certain the school will need. She's not worried when, on her first day, small hauntings become evident, including a chalkboard that displays "[e]very mark ever made on it." But when the voices of six students--and the principal--are stolen by ghosts in the water fountain, Rosa and Jasper know they have to find the key to appeasing Ingot's restless dead. As if that weren't enough work for two middle-graders, 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.

A Festival of Ghosts, Alexander's follow up to A Properly Unhaunted Place, is as strong as the first, with Murphy's dynamic pencil illustrations scattered throughout. Rosa and Jasper have all the makings of a terrific literary duo and as the pair grow more comfortable with each other, they affectionately banter their way through all the supernatural tasks, whether they are communicating with ghosts or keeping one step ahead of the people who believe in banishing ghosts forever. Here's hoping for a third book that's just as good! --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI.

Discover: The ghosts are back in Ingot, and Rosa and Jasper have their hands full trying to appease them in William Alexander's follow up to A Properly Unhaunted Place.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

August Recommendations


In THE PARKER INHERITANCE, by Varian Johnson, twelve-year-old Candice Miller, "just a girl trying to get through a horrible summer,” is plunged into a mystery when she finds a letter in the attic. Left behind by her grandmother, who lost her job with the city ten years earlier in a mysterious scandal involving buried treasure, Candace and her new friend Brandon decide to solve the puzzle, clear her grandmother’s name, and maybe find some cash in the process. THE PARKER INHERITANCE is a whip-smart mystery that delves into race relations while spooling out a page-turning plot that takes its inspiration from a classic, The Westing Game. (MG)

THUNDERHEAD, by Neal Shusterman, is the worthy sequel to series opener and recent Printz Honor Book, SCYTHE. In this installment, rogue “fallen apprentice” Rowan has gone "off-grid" and is operating as Scythe Lucifer, illegally gleaning scythes who don’t deserve to wear the honored robes. As Scythe Anastasia, Citra forges her own path. She gleans humanity on her own terms--with compassion--and unwittingly becomes the leader for a new generation of scythes. When nasty Scythe Goddard reappears from the dead, can monumental destruction be far behind? Read the first book and then enjoy this follow up, which explains more of the reasoning behind a “perfect” society ruled and managed by the Thunderhead. (YA)

Easy Readers:

MR. MONKEY BAKES A CAKE, by Jeff Mack, features the titular monkey, way too many bananas, and a grand plan. What could go wrong? Action-packed and full of fun, the clever antics and effective repetition are perfect for drawing in emerging readers. Kids will love the ups and downs of Mr. Monkey’s wacky day in and out of the kitchen.

In SERGIO RUZZIER’S FOX AND CHICK: THE PARTY, by—yup—Sergio Ruzzier, Fox and Chick’s very different personalities lead to a series of gentle, endearing adventures. When Fox tries to read, he's interrupted by the irrepressible Chick, who would rather have a party in Fox’s bathroom. When Fox gathers vegetables to make soup, Chick is too full of advice. And when Fox wants to paint a landscape, the twitchy Chick tries to convince him that a painting with a chick in it would be more exciting. Ruzzier’s distinctive character design and colors make FOX AND CHICK really stand out.

Picture Books:

 “Deep in the woods/is a house/just a house/that once was/but now isn’t/a home.” Two kids explore the ins and outs, pasts and present, of this house, in the very wonderful A HOUSE THAT ONCE WAS. Julie Fogliano’s gorgeous, nuanced language is matched by Lane Smith's equally gorgeous, equally nuanced, art.

NIGHT OUT, by Daniel Miyares, showcases stellar art in almost wordless book about a lonely boy who accepts an invitation to a fantastical nighttime party, where he meets some unlikely friends. A magical twist at the end will leave readers sighing with satisfaction.


Monday, August 6, 2018

Shelf Awareness--Grace and Fury

YA Review: Grace and Fury

Grace and Fury by Tracy Banghart (Little, Brown, $17.99 hardcover, 320p., ages 12-up, 9780316471411)

Serina Tessaro has spent her entire life training to become a Grace, a woman handpicked by the Heir to serve as Viridia's "highest standard of beauty, elegance, and obedience." If chosen, Serina will live in the palace, "go to glittering balls and want for nothing"--she'll never have to work as a servant or a seamstress or be forced into marrying the highest bidder. Serina's sister, Nomi, on the other hand, can't accept that the choices for women are so limited, and she doesn't understand how becoming "a possession for [the Heir] to own" is better than those other options, anyway. Despite her opinions, when Serina goes to the city of Bellaqua to "vie for this honor," Nomi goes along as handmaiden.

On their first night, as Serina is being introduced at the Heir's ball, Nomi sneaks into the palace library. Even though women are forbidden to read, Nomi has been taught, and she steals a book that reminds her of home--then immediately runs into the Heir. Although terrified, she responds defiantly to his rude questioning; the Heir, seemingly angry, proceeds to his ball. When he announces his top choices, though, Nomi is stunned to find that she, not Serina, has been named a Grace. Worse, Serina is caught with Nomi's stolen book and is banished to the nightmarish Mount Ruin. Nomi must find a way to rescue her sister while appearing to embrace her new role at the palace.

Grace and Fury's blend of fantasy, feminism and political thriller will likely appeal to fans of The Hunger Games, Marie Rutkoski's Winner trilogy and Sabaa Tahir's An Ember in the Ashes. The dual narratives create plenty of suspense, and the growth and transformation of these two sisters is engrossing. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI.

Discover: In a country where women have few options, Serina competes to become a revered Grace, but all her well-laid plans for the future crumble when her rebellious sister is chosen instead.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

August's Book of the Month--We Are Okay

August's Book of the Month is WE ARE OKAY, by Nina LaCour. It won the ALA's Printz Award this year.

Marin is spending her first winter break at her college dorm in upstate NY. It's a far cry from the California sunshine and her Ocean Beach home in the Bay area. Her beloved gramps died just before the term started, and Marin fled from the secrets he left behind. Now, bruised and battered, she's trying to put herself together again. But first she’s got to make it through a visit from Mabel, her former best friend? lover? sort-of-sister? without falling apart, and possibly mend some important fences along the way.

Present tense passages of Marin in NY, as she’s joined by Mabel, alternate with past tense reminiscences of her possibly “weird" family life with Gramps. WE ARE OKAY is a lovingly-crafted, deftly-woven look at grief and healing. It’s raw and honest, lonely, sad and hopeful. I was transported.


Friday, July 27, 2018

Shelf Awareness--I'm Not Missing

YA Review: I'm Not Missing

I'm Not Missing by Carrie Fountain (Flatiron, $18.99 hardcover, 336p., ages 12-up, 9781250132512)

Ever since Syd showed up in Miranda's third grade class in Las Cruces, N. Mex., the two girls have been best friends. They became even closer the summer before high school, when Syd's mother left rehab and "hightailed it to Colorado." Miranda could relate, as her own mom had taken off seven years earlier. Syd and Miranda performed a symbolic ritual of "honor and blood," swearing "to never stray from the other, and to never go after [their] mothers." Then, in the middle of senior year, Syd vanishes. She had been waiting to hear about her early admission to Stanford as the culmination of an elaborate Escape Plan, and suddenly she is "[g]one, not missing," and it's "as if Syd had never existed."

Miranda is forced to recognize "a basic truth about [her] life": content all these years to exist in the shadow of Syd's "superstar light," she has no idea "what to do or how to be or even what to look at" without her best friend by her side. Rather than walk alone past Nick, the boy she's been in love with for three years, the one who stood her up for prom, she skips class. But Nick has a secret that involves both Syd and Miranda, and he reaches out to her to talk.

Though Miranda is no closer to discovering where Syd has gone, she begins to discover herself. In her debut novel, poet Carrie Fountain writes with grace and fluidity as she reveals twists and turns that are fresh and surprising. Miranda's sweet romance with Nick proceeds in realistic fits and starts as the pair earnestly navigates the rough terrain of love and betrayal. By the end, readers will almost certainly feel hopeful about the prospects of Fountain's very real, very compelling characters. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI.

Discover: High school senior Miranda's best friend suddenly runs away, leaving her alone to deal with life and love.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Shelf Awareness--The Letting Go

YA Review: The Letting Go

The Letting Go by Deborah Markus (Sky Pony Press, $16.99 hardcover, 360p., ages 12-up, 9781510734050)

When a dead body shows up at Hawthorn Academy for Independent Young Women, a secluded California school for sensitive, artistic, mostly Ivy League-bound types, Emily doesn't know what to think. She's changed her last name. She's cut ties to almost everybody she ever knew. And she keeps her fellow students away by being "aggressively unpleasant." But Emily fears that this dead body (a murder victim, shot in the back of the head) might be her fault, that the mysterious killing of everybody she's ever loved--parents, friends, even pets--is "starting again."

In an effort to create distance between herself and others, Emily immerses herself in Emily Dickinson's poems, using Dickinson's words as her own. She relentlessly quotes Dickinson on death and dying in her independent study project and believes she'd feel at home in the poet's time, when "death was more ordinary." And now, even though she's played by "the rules" and "everyone [at Hawthorne] was willing to leave [her] the hell alone," the uproar surrounding the dead body has somehow made her appear approachable to new student M. Mischievous and very much alive, M decides she's not going to let Emily's bad behavior chase her away. Much as she wants to, Emily can't let herself forget the danger M is courting by pursuing this friendship.

In The Letting Go, her debut novel, Deborah Markus has created a perfectly tortured main character whose horrible past has forced her to become an "unusually restless shadow." As the mystery of the new murder eats at her, she becomes ever more confused about what is real. Events hurtle toward a terrible and satisfying conclusion in this fascinating literary thriller. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI.

Discover: Emily thought she was safe after changing her identity, but when a corpse appears at the front door of her new school, she fears the murders may be starting again.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

July Recommendations


I’ve gone back and reread two of my all-time favorite fantasies, GRACELING, and companion book (prequel?) FIRE, by Kristin Cashore. In Graceling, Katsa has been used as King Randa’s weapon for years. Her powerful killing Grace makes her virtually impossible to defeat. But Katsa has had enough, and she's formed a secret council to try to make amends. When she rescues an elderly Leonid man from the neighboring kingdom of Sunder, she meets Prince Po, whose Grace of fighting is similar to Katsa’s own. The two set off to solve the mystery of who kidnapped the grandfather and end up on a life and death mission to save the heir to the Monsean throne. Thrilling adventures and a completely satisfying romance, set in a superbly crafted world. (YA)

In FIRE, the kingdom of the Dells is verging on war, with rebel lords amassing armies to unseat young king Nash. Fire is a human monster—able to read minds, though she doesn’t care to use her power if she can possibly help it. Her father had certainly used his, though, contributing greatly to the current state of crisis in the Dells. When Prince Brigan arrives to take her to King City to help the royal family, she has to decide whether her convictions are worth the possible downfall of the kingdom. An equally satisfying romance fills the pages of this companion book, and it also sheds light on the origins of King Leck, from GRACELING. If you haven’t read these books, which conclude with BITTERBLUE, you’ve waited long enough! (YA)

Board Book:

HI! by Ethan Long, is simple yet effective. A series of neatly-rendered animals says hello: "Hoo! Moo! Growl! Howl!” and so on. It comes full circle and there’s a cute finish. The board book format makes it perfect for babies, and also for kids who are ready to think about learning to read.

Picture Books:

In I AM A CAT, by Galia Bernstein, Simon thinks he’s a cat, but Lion, Cheetah, Puma, Panther, and Tiger disagree. Even though he’s small, Simon sets them straight. Kids will love it.

THERE MIGHT BE LOBSTERS, by Carolyn Crimi, illustrated by Laurel Molk, stars a small dog named Sukie who is afraid of everything that can go wrong at the beach. She wants to sit safely while her human, Eleanor, has all the fun. But when her stuffed monkey gets a little too close to the water....

ALL THE ANIMALS WHERE I LIVE, by Philip C. Stead, is an example of a picture book that breaks "the rules." It’s quiet, it rambles, and there’s no child—or child-like—protagonist. And yet it’s a beautiful example of the art of picture book-making. There’s plenty to discover as Stead describes his new home in a satisfyingly roundabout way.