Thursday, March 15, 2018

March Recommendations


YOU BRING THE DISTANT NEAR, by Mitali Perkins, is a multigenerational story beginning with two sisters, Sonia and Tara Das, who move from London to New York with their family. Their Bengali traditions and people’s expectations make it difficult for them to fit in. The story follows as they grow into themselves and fall in love, and then follows their children as they do the same. It’s in these later chapters that we actually learn more about the girls mother, through the eyes of her grandchildren. It’s a lovely look at the way one family thrives while balancing the old and the new. (YA)

TEMPESTS AND SLAUGHTER, by Tamora Pierce, is the first book in The Numair Chronicles. It begins the origin story of a powerful mage who previously appeared in Pierce’s Wild Magic (of The Immortals series). Ten-year-old Arram Draper is a talented student at the Imperial University’s School for Mages. He’s been moved ahead two terms, but he’s still bored. Until the day he taps into “the strange shove of power” within, loses control of his Gift, and nearly drowns his entire class. Together with “leftover prince” Ozorne Tasikhe, and Varice Kingsford, the three friends are seen as “the most rapidly advancing students in the Lower Academy,” brought together by “[s]ome special thread.” Pierce is a wonderful writer. (YA)

In THE CRUEL PRINCE, by Holly Black, when a tall stranger mysteriously appears in the home of seven-year-old twins Jude and Taryn, "as if stepping between one shadow and the next," he proceeds to murder their parents right in front of them. Then he whisks away the twins and their older half-fey sister, Vivi, to live with him in Faerie. Now seventeen, Jude knows that life as a mortal in Faerie will never be easy. When she’s recruited to spy for Prince Dain, she takes the opportunity to prove herself and is drawn into dangerous games of power and intrigue. Fabulous, fabulous fantasy!!!! (YA)

Picture Books:

WHEN I AM BIG, by Maria Dek, is a beautifully illustrated counting book. From the beginning, where the narrator will be "really big, like 1 big giant!” all the way up to the lovely finish for the number 25, this book perfectly channels the magic of a child’s imagination. Gorgeous color, design, and whimsy from the creator of A Walk in the Forest.

OWL BAT BAT OWL, by Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick, is a wordless picture book showing how Mama Owl worries for her babies when a bat family moves into their tree. The babies want to play. And then it gets windy… A sweet reminder not to prejudge others, and a good example of how to write an engaging book that’s got a message.

WHY AM I ME? with words by Paige Britt and pictures by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko, is an expressive, child-friendly meditation on what makes us who we are. With questions like “Why am I me…and not you?” and “If I were someone else, who would I be?” this stunning book, illustrated with acrylic paint, colored pencil, and collage, will have readers wondering, too.


Sunday, March 11, 2018

Shelf Awareness--Blood Water Paint

YA Review: Blood Water Paint

Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough (Dutton, $17.99 hardcover, 304p., ages 14-up, 9780735232112)

Seventeen-year-old Artemisia Gentileschi lives for the moments when she connects "the brush to the paint to [her] breath to the canvas." Her father, Orazio Gentileschi, is a professional painter of "mediocre" talent. Artemisia labors as his apprentice, touching up his commissions with "strokes/of [her] own choosing," while always striving to better her craft. It's Artemisia's skill that brings in the clients who pay for their bread, but she's virtually invisible, as Orazio Gentileschi, rather than Artemisia, signs the finished art. "

In this "world of men"--17th-century Rome--women are merely "beauty/ for consumption." So when Agostino Tassi, who's been engaged to give her art lessons, actually seems interested in Artemisia's skill, she's easily smitten. All too soon, though, "Tino" shows his real interest is in taking Artemisia for his mistress. Devastated, the girl spurns him, and Tassi rapes her: "I've no authority," the fictional Artemisia recounts, "He is teacher, I am student,/ man and girl/ power, nothing..../ The sudden realization/ of what's going to happen next/ descends."

The real Artemisia brought charges against Agostino Tassi, even though she knew it was unlikely she would win. This piece of historical fiction, told in luminous verse and based on transcripts from that trial, tackles issues of gender and power in a way that is relevant today. In the novel, Artemisia's mother, before her death, told her daughter stories of two women, Susanna and Judith, who triumphed over the monumental injustices they faced because of their gender. Susanna and Judith serve as Artemisia's spiritual mentors, and from them she draws strength to paint her own path. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI."

Discover: Seventeen-year-old Artemisia Gentileschi struggles to make her way as a woman and a painter in a time where women are seen as little more than property.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Shelf Awareness--Tempests and Slaughter

YA Review: Tempests and Slaughter

Tempests and Slaughter by Tamora Pierce (Random House, $18.99, hardcover, 480p., ages 10-14, 9780375847110)

Ten-year-old Arram Draper doesn't have any friends at the Imperial University's School for Mages. Though he's a talented student who has been moved ahead two terms, he's still bored--until the day he taps into "the strange shove of power" within, loses control of his Gift and nearly drowns his entire class. Headmaster Cosmas recognizes that Arram needs to be given a more "engaging" schedule to keep him out of trouble, and moves the boy into a new dormitory with "leftover prince" Ozorne Tasikhe, the emperor's nephew and fourth in line for the throne (therefore not likely to ascend to it). Together with Varice Kingsford, "the most beautiful girl [Arram] had ever seen," they form an inseparable trio. Headmaster Cosmas confides in Arram that he believes the three are "the most rapidly advancing students in the Lower Academy" and have been brought together by "[s]ome special thread."

As Arram's studies progress, his talents become more prominent. He meets Enzi, god of the river crocodiles, who warns Arram that he has "a destiny"--a part to play in "the battle one day." Not long after Arram hears this prophecy, a teacher is found dead and secrets and lies begin to surface. Heirs to the throne are dying, and suddenly Ozorne is not so far down the line of succession. Tempests and Slaughter, the first book in the Numair Chronicles, begins the origin story of a powerful mage who previously appeared in Pierce's Wild Magic (the Immortals Quartet). This new saga, with its deeply compelling characters and nuanced magical world, will surely attract new fans while welcoming back the old. This is first-class fantasy from a master writer. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI.

Discover: Mage scholar Arram Draper develops his extraordinarily powerful Gift while learning to deal with schoolmates, teachers and political intrigue in his roommate's royal family.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

March's Book of the Month--Long Way Down

March’s Book Talk book is LONG WAY DOWN, by Jason Reynolds. LONG WAY DOWN was recently named a Newbery Honor Book, a Coretta Scott King Honor Book, a Michael L. Printz Honor Book, and the audio (narrated by the author) won an Odyssey Honor at the ALA Awards this year.

LONG WAY DOWN tells the story of fifteen-year-old Will, whose brother Shawn has just been shot. The sadness feels like a tooth, “somewhere in the back,/ one of the big/ important ones,” has been ripped out and now there’s a “new empty space,/ where you know/ a tooth is supposed to be/ but ain’t no more.” After all the screaming, and the sirens, and the questions, Will knows that it’s up to him to follow The Rules: no crying, no snitching, and, finally, “[i]f someone you love/ gets killed/ find the person/ who killed/ them and/ kill them.” Will finds his brother’s gun, and gets on the elevator to look for the kid he’s sure is responsible for his brother’s death. But on his way down to the lobby, Will is joined by some very important ghosts who make him question everything he thinks he knows.

I think the form of the novel is pretty brilliant. Telling it in free-verse and, for the most part, during a one minute elevator ride allows the author to cut straight to the heart of his story. The riders who join Will form a chain of violence, and readers will feel all the pain, panic, and despair that drive him to believe he must follow the same Rules that got these ghosts from his past killed. The ambiguous finish hints at a possible end to the seemingly inevitable cycle of violence. Hope is good.


Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Shelf Awareness--A Couch for Llama

PB Review: A Couch for Llama

A Couch for Llama by Leah Gilbert (Sterling, $16.95 hardcover, 40p., ages 4-up, 9781454925118)

This charming and silly picture book begins by announcing that "[t]he Lago family's couch was very well-loved." But now, after playing host to many cozy activities, including "snuggling... fort building, and hiding and seeking," it's clear that the couch has seen better days. The family decides it's time to replace it. After trying a couch that is "too big" and one that is "too small," the Lago family happily finds a replacement that is "JUST RIGHT." They pack their perfect new couch on top of their car and head home. Unfortunately, before they get there, the new couch flies off the car and into a field, where it lands at the feet of a rather startled llama.

Llama is intrigued. He sniffs and brays and tries to share his lunch, but the couch doesn't say anything or seem very hungry. It doesn't taste good either, so Llama concludes the couch is useless. But, just as the Lago family discovers their couch is missing, Llama realizes his new couch is not as boring as it seems.

The illustrations showing Llama making friends with the couch are not to be missed. Llama has a big round belly and teeny-tiny legs, making his jumping and twirling very comical indeed. He exudes plenty of emotion, moving from a "stubborn, couch-loving kind of llama" to a dejected, couch-less llama in a jiffy as the family takes away his "smooshy-mooshy, fluffy-puffy cushions" that he "completely" loves. A Couch for Llama manages to be both tender and action packed, and shows the rewards of spreading the happiness around. It's a thoroughly entertaining read, especially while ensconced on a suitably comfortable couch of one's own. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI. 

Discover: When a family tries to bring a perfect new couch home from the store, it falls off the car, landing at the feet of a very startled llama.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

February Recommendations

WHILE YOU ARE SLEEPING, by Mariana Ruiz Johnson, is a work of stunning picture book magic. Beginning with a close up of a little girl going to bed, the artist pulls back to depict a night full of wonder taking place around her while she sleeps. Johnson’s world is a fantastical blend of human and animal, city and nature, all of it vibrantly portrayed.

A WALK IN THE FOREST, by Maria Dek, follows a boy as he spends a day in “the best playground ever,” where he can shout, follow footprints, find treasure, and maybe meet a fox. As with the book talked about above, gorgeous art brings magic into the picture.

In spare, rhyming text, MY FAMILY FOUR FLOORS UP, written by Caroline Stutson and illustrated by Celia Krampien, describes the simple joys of a girl walking to the park with her dad and her "small brown pup.” Swinging and playing in the sandbox come to an end when a storm blows in, but there’s still the pleasure of “splash, splash, splashing in the tub” to look forward to, along with supper, a story, and bed. A sweet read-aloud for younger kids.

In A COUCH FOR LLAMA, by Leah Gilbert, the Lago family needs a new couch so they drive to the store to buy a replacement. Unfortunately, on the way home it flies off the top of their car and into a field. Where Llama finds it. At first, he’s not sure what to do with a couch but, by the time the Lagos have come back to claim their errant furniture, Llama has figured it out. The illustrations of Llama bouncing and twirling on the couch are not to be missed!

In I WANT TO BE IN A SCARY STORY, by Sean Taylor with illustrations by Jean Jullien, Little Monster finds he's afraid of all the spooky stuff, so he and the narrator try to put him in a funny story instead. This interactive picture book, with its brightly colored, cartoony illustrations, manages to be scary, funny, surprising, AND adorable!

LOVE, by Matt de la Peña and Loren Long. Well. This incredible partnership of gorgeous prose and stunning art somehow manages to be an homage to so many different kinds of love and ways there are to experience it, while also somehow feeling like a love poem to America. Not to be missed.


Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Shelf Awareness--Tess of the Road

YA Review: Tess of the Road

Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman (Random House, $18.99 hardcover, 544p., ages 13-up, 9781101931288, February 27, 2018)

When high-spirited Tess Dombegh is six, she becomes "immoderately obsessed" with "the mystical origins of babies." Tess's energetic attempts to discover the mechanics behind brother Ned's birth disappoint her very devout, very unhappy mama, who gives her a spanking "for the ages." Mama requires "the wicked punished," and years of spankings have let Tess know she is "singularly and spectacularly flawed." Tess realizes that she'll have to work much harder than her twin sister, Jeanne, to make it into heaven.

Ten years later, Tess is a lady-in-waiting at court, tamping down her more "esoteric interests." Tess (now with a much more thorough understanding of those "mystical origins of babies") has the "whiff of scandal" about her, so it's up to sweet, mild, virtuous Jeanne to marry and save the family. Since it was discovered that their father's first wife was a dragon in human form ("illegal five times over"), he was stripped of his license to practice law and the family has suffered much ill fortune. When the very eligible Lord Richard proposes to Jeanne, Tess dares to hope that "[a]fter two years at court, diligently securing her family's future," she might be set free. But Mama wants her sent to a convent and, after making a horrible, drunken mess of Jeanne's wedding, the abhorrent plan becomes Tess's only apparent option. 

That is, until Tess is gifted with a pair of fine leather boots that "[seem] to be a suggestion"--she runs off to a distant city to make a new start as a seamstress. On the way, she meets up with her old best friend, the "lizardy" quigutl (a subspecies of dragon) named Pathka, who is on a journey of his own. Pathka's quest is an old dream of Tess and the two agree to adventure together. Eager to be rid of her past, Tess disguises herself and desperately tries to keep the unbidden voice of her mother--accusatory, destructive and quoting vindictive saints--out of her head.

Tess of the Road, first in a duology, is a companion book to Seraphina and Shadow Scale, which introduced Tess's half-dragon half sister. Now, author Rachel Hartman returns to this same world to share the story of fully human Tess, whose life has been constrained by shame and the medieval expectations of others. Her growing awareness of the inequality and unfairness she has been subjected to, along with an unfolding sense of herself and her potential, will captivate any reader. Tess's ultimately unquenchable spirit, her struggles and adventures--be they at home or on the road--are a delight. --Lynn Beckerblogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI.

Shelf Talker: Tess's spirit has been crushed by the weight of her mother's vindictive saints, but when Mama decides to send her to a convent, Tess runs off to make her own way.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

February's Book of the Month--All the Wind in the World

February’s Book of the Month is the lyrical, magical YA novel ALL THE WIND IN THE WORLD, by Samantha Mabry.

Sarah Jac and James have a dream. Even though they work in dusty fields of the American Southwest, they want their own place someday, a ranch on the East Coast where they can work with horses and dip their toes in the ocean. Unfortunately, like so many others, they are stuck harvesting maguey, the plant used to make pulque, mescal or, for the very rich, tequila. It’s the only thing that grows now that more than half the continent is desert, with what water that’s left being “salty, unfiltered, and full of the dust-remains of dead fish and birds.” When Sarah Jac steps in to help a fellow worker and a foreman ends up dying, she and James flee to a strange ranch in Texas where they know they’ll find work. Cursed fields, an owner who hexes his workers, drugged food, and strange injuries are just some of the rumors muttered about The Real Marvelous.

Sarah Jac and James know how dangerous it can be to show weakness to others, so they harden their hearts and trust no one. Even though they’re a couple, they routinely run a scam where James takes up with another woman. But, at The Real Marvelous, when James manages to catch the eye of the owner’s daughter things begin to spiral out of control.

Long-listed for the National Book Award, ALL THE WIND IN THE WORLD evokes a tough and gritty landscape where only a lucky few have the means to live a decent life. Author Mabry sets up a terrific conflict when she shoves the temptation to be one of them at James. I think he’s perhaps the most interesting YA love interest I’ve ever read, and Mabry plays it well—do we ever really know what’s going on in the heart and mind of James? Beautiful language, the element of magical realism, and a romance that’s being scoured by the dusty desert make this one heck of a page-turner.


Monday, January 15, 2018

January Recommendations


THE SECRET OF NIGHTINGALE WOOD, by Lucy Strange: When 12-year-old Henrietta (Henry) and her family move to the English countryside, it's supposed to be a fresh start. But, after the tragic death of Henry's older brother, Mama is kept sedated and Father escapes by taking a job abroad. When nasty Doctor Hardy takes baby Piglet away, Henry is determined to save her family, even when the adults question her own sanity. Strange's debut is a gorgeous coming-of-age tale, probably my favorite mid-grade of 2017. (MG)

THE WAR I FINALLY WON, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, is the follow up to Newbery Honor book The War that Saved My Life. Ada finally gets surgery to repair her club foot. But the war is still on and people keep dying. “Iron-faced” Lady Thornton offers Ada, Jamie, and Susan a cottage to live in after Susan’s house is bombed, but then the British army requisitions Lady Thornton’s home, and she moves in too. Along with her daughter, Maggie, and a Jewish girl from Germany. A German! Ada is a remarkable character and this second book is a worthy follow up to the first. (MG)

THORNHILL, a graphic novel by Pam Smy, tells two parallel stories. Mary is a lonely orphan at the Thornhill Institute in 1982. Ella, in 2017, is also lonely, having just moved into a new house, with no mother and a father who’s always working. When Ella glimpses a girl’s face in the window of run-down, abandoned Thornhill, she begins to investigate. Mary’s story is told in diary entries, Ella’s in atmospheric black and white art. Echoes of Jane Eyre lend creepiness and foreboding to this ghostly tale. (MG/YA)

Picture Books:

ON A MAGICAL DO-NOTHING DAY, by Beatrice Alemagna, is the story of how a kid, stuck in a cabin with his mom, his electronic game taken away, begins to explore. Outside, in the rain, he discovers a (real) word full of (real) treasures. You’ve got to see this art!

HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS WITH A GHOST, by Rebecca Green, is your handy guide for creating “a lifelong (and beyond) friendship” if you’re lucky enough to be found by a ghost. Charming art illuminates detailed instructions that are funny and sweet.

AFTER THE FALL: HOW HUMPTY DUMPTY GOT BACK UP AGAIN, by Caldecott winner Dan Santat, is a powerful story about not giving in to your fears. It takes place after Humpty falls from his wall, after all the king’s men DO manage to put him (mostly) back together again. Humpty really wants to be up on that wall again, high above the city, but he’s afraid of heights. The ending will knock your socks off!


Monday, January 8, 2018

Shelf Awareness--Dear Girl

PB Review: Dear Girl

Dear Girl by Paris Rosenthal and Amy Krouse Rosenthal, illus. by Holly Hatam (HarperCollins, $17.99 hardcover, 40p., 9780062422507)

Beloved children's author Amy Kraus Rosenthal and her daughter, Paris, offer young readers plenty of uplifting, empowering advice in the form of a series of letters shared by a mom to her "Dear Girl." They tell readers to "[k]eep that arm raised! You have smart things to say!" and "[i]f your instinct is telling you to say no, say no, you know?" The message to young girls is clear: be bold and find your own way.

These timeless bits of wisdom encourage all kids to celebrate what makes them distinctive, from freckles to birthmarks to hair color. Girls are advised to accept a wide range of feelings, whether they need "a good cry" or a friend or a moment to dance. And, just as importantly, the letters promote taking time to experience the wonder of rainbows, crazy handshakes and coloring outside the lines.

Holly Hatam's art is lighthearted and energetic, with a variety of textures and techniques employed to demonstrate pointers that are both practical and full of whimsy. Amy Kraus Rosenthal died in 2017, but this collection is no weepy farewell. Adults may realize how bittersweet it is for the book to end "Most of all, dear girl who I love, know that you can always always always... turn to me." But readers of any age will want to return again and again because, as the authors advise, "Whenever you need an encouraging boost, remember you can turn to any page in this book." --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI.  

Discover: Letters from a mom to a young girl emphasize empowerment and self-acceptance.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

January's Book of the Month--Leave Me Alone!

January's Book of the Month is a 2017 Caldecott Honor Book, LEAVE ME ALONE! by Vera Brosgol.

The old woman of this tale lives in a small village, in a small house, but her very big family makes it just about impossible to sit quietly and knit. And knit she must. So she packs her things in a sack and leaves. She travels to a forest (which has curious bears). She climbs a mountain (which has hungry goats). And she even reaches the moon (inhabited by aliens who want to examine her with scanners that go “beep boop"). But don’t worry, she finds the perfect place to finish her knitting. Though it's not all that long before she thinks twice about her new situation.

This Russian-tinged story is an imaginative take on classic fairy tales, but the material is fresh and new in Brosgol’s hands. Much like Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen’s The Wolf The Duck & The Mouse, LEAVE ME ALONE! feels like it’s been created by someone who wants to bring her own spin on the classics to a modern audience. The color of the art is stunning, and Brosgol makes good use of the white of her pages, too. The old woman’s facial expressions are priceless. Did I mention it’s funny? And absurd. And . . . a winner!