Monday, March 18, 2019

Shelf Awareness--Gondra's Treasure

PB Review: Gondra's Treasure

Gondra's Treasure by Linda Sue Park, illus. by Jennifer Black Reinhardt (Clarion, 40p., ages 4-8, 9780544546691, April 2, 2019)

Gondra is a dragon. Her "mom's family comes from the West" and her "dad's family is from the East"; Gondra "was born somewhere in the middle." In Linda Sue Park and Jennifer Black Reinhardt's second collaboration (Yaks Yak), young Gondra playfully explores the benefits of inheriting two very different cultural backgrounds.

This charming narrative unfolds in bantering dialogue among the three family members. Gondra's mother explains that "in the West, dragons breathe fire," while Dad says that "in the East, dragons breathe mist." When Gondra shares a baby photo of herself, she points to "a teeny tiny flame... coming from one nostril and a wisp of mist from the other." Young readers will understand perfectly that lucky Gondra reaps the benefits of both branches of her heritage--in particular, "mist is great for hide-and-seek" and fire comes in handy at a barbecue. The affection between Gondra's parents is always obvious as they cheerfully tease each other about their attributes: Dad thinks fire is dangerous; Mom thinks mist is "pretty boring" ("compared to fire," that is). Certainly, both adults agree that Gondra was "adorable... the most beautiful baby ever."

Gondra goes on to explain other ways her Eastern and Western roots merge. Both of her parents can fly, but "Mom has wings," while "Dad uses magic." If Gondra's wings grow and she inherits flying magic too, she'll "be the fastest in the family!" As for scales, Dad's are "mostly blue and green" and Mom's "side of the family has bronze scales." Gondra herself is "mostly bronze," but the end of her tail is starting to turn the bluish green of her "dear old dad." When Gondra starts talking historical habitat, readers learn that "Mom's ancestors lived in caves full of treasure," while Dad's "family lived in lakes or rivers," their only treasure "a magic pearl that [they] could hold in one claw."

Reinhardt inventively illustrates the various points of Gondra's narrative, perfectly expressing the enthusiasm and awkwardness of the not-quite-grown protagonist. The colorful ink and watercolors depict a cozy, if slightly zany, household, where mist causes rain to fall in the living room if Dad gets too excited. The character design may be somewhat silly but the dignity and grace of Gondra's dragon family is undeniable and, though they have their differences, the love they share is evident at every turn. An interesting author's note provides some historical information on dragons, but the focus of the story is clearly on Gondra's ancestry, and how she is the beautiful product of her mixed heritage. Her loving parents don't need caves full of treasure or a "magic pearl to control the weather" because "times change," and Gondra is "the best treasure ever." --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI.

Shelf Talker: Gondra, daughter of an Eastern dragon and a Western dragon, muses about the attributes of her mixed heritage that make her unusual.

Friday, March 15, 2019

March Book Picks


SMALL SPACES, by Katherine Arden, is top-notch creepy suspense. Sixth grader Ollie and the rest of her class go on a field trip to a local farm that’s got lots--and lots—of scarecrows. Things get especially spooky when the school bus breaks down, the mist comes up, and the weird bus driver issues a cryptic warning: "Avoid large places at night…keep to small." It’s beautifully crafted and kids should gobble it up. (MG)

ECHO NORTH, by Joanna Ruth Meyer, is a retelling of the East of the Sun, West of the Moon folktale, with shades of Beauty and the Beast. Echo Alkaev has had a nasty scar on her face ever since she was attacked by a great white wolf as a child. Years later, when her beloved father goes missing, she finds him in the woods with the same wolf and, in exchange for her father's freedom, agrees to live with the wolf in his enchanted home for one year. It’s a gorgeous, magically-told tale. (YA)

SPEAK, The Graphic Novel, by Laurie Halse Anderson, with art by Emily Carroll, is a terrific reworking of Anderson’s classic into the graphic novel format, making it accessible to an even wider audience. In this powerful story, an assault victim spends her freshman year of high school as an outcast, after she called the cops at a party the previous summer. Melinda's struggles to keep it together and find her voice are brought to life by Emily Carroll’s fine artwork—she won the Eisner award for her previous graphic novel, Through the Woods. (YA)

Picture Books:

In UP THE MOUNTAIN PATH, by Marianne Dubuc, Mrs. Badger is very old but, every Sunday, she hikes up the small mountain behind her house. She greets friends and helps out if she can. One day, she meets a cat named Lulu, who joins her. "Mrs. Badger shares with Lulu all the secrets of the mountain." Until a time comes when Mrs. Badger can’t make it up to the peak anymore, so Lulu brings her own discoveries to share with Mrs. Badger. Tender, moving, wise, and fun, with picture-perfect watercolor and colored pencil art.

Using only 32 words, GOOD BOY, by Sergio Ruzzier, tells a complete, satisfying, and increasingly fantastical story of a boy and his dog --or a dog and his boy??? From doing tricks around the house to a surprise journey to the moon, the action flows and ebbs with masterful timing. Ruzzier's color and line are unique and inspirational!

CARTER READS THE NEWSPAPER, written by Deborah Hopkinson and illustrated by Don Tate, tells the story of Carter G. Woodson, who supplemented his meager education, and “got his first glimpse of the wider world," by reading the newspaper aloud to his father. Later, after working all day in the coal mines, Carter read the newspaper to other miners. Eventually, Carter finished high school and college, earned a PhD from Harvard, and made it his life’s work to celebrate a history of America “that includes all people.” It’s an excellent NF picture book bio about a “hero we sometimes forget.”


Sunday, March 3, 2019

March's Book of the Month--Merci Suárez Changes Gears

March’s Book of the Month is the 2019 Newbery winner, MERCI SUÁREZ CHANGES GEARS, by Meg Medina, a middle-grade look at family, friends, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Attending Seaward Pines Academy on a scholarship means that Merci Suárez gets extra community service and always has to be on her best behavior. Being in sixth grade means she's coping with changes that include homeroom and lockers, embarrassing health class topics, and an escalating feud with popular—and rich--Edna Sanchez. But there are changes happening at home, too. Her beloved grandfather Lolo has been acting really strangely. He’s forgetting stuff, making mistakes, and getting angry for no reason, and no one is telling Merci what’s going on.

I love how Medina has created a vibrant, well-intentioned character in Merci, one who navigates her way through upheavals at home and at school with plenty of strength and honesty. Balancing a rich, multi-generational home life, budding friendships with kids in her classes, and all of Miss McDaniels’s rules at Seaward Pines, Merci learns to appreciate the changes of a memorable sixth grade year.


Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Shelf Awareness--Spectacle

YA Review: Spectacle

Spectacle by Jodie Lynn Zdrok (Tor Teen, 368p., ages 13-up, 9780765399687)

Ever since the accident left Maman unable to work, 16-year-old Nathalie Baudin has been earning money penning "the daily morgue report" for Le Petit Journal. Nathalie and other Parisians stand in long lines to cluster eventually at "the viewing pane," where they can see the latest murder victim. Two weeks into her tenure, Nathalie accidentally touches the glass and is transported to "another place" where she sees the murder occur, "silent[ly] and in reverse." Her reaction to this experience is witnessed by "the fetching young morgue worker" Monsieur Gagnon, but she's too shaken to respond honestly to his inquiries.

Nathalie's friend Simone urges her to go to the police, but Nathalie is scared they'll think she's "unhinged." Nathalie's parents and her Aunt Brigitte were subjects in a series of experiments by now-disgraced Dr. Henard in which patients were given blood transfusions to grant them "magical powers." The procedure, once seen as "a promising new discovery," is now considered dangerous. Nathalie's Aunt Brigitte is proof of this: she is in an asylum, unable to tell the difference between dreams and reality. As the gruesome body count rises, the "Dark Artist" killer gets up close and personal, and Nathalie must decide whether to run from her visions or allow them to lead her to the murderer.

Jodie Lynn Zdrok has created an eminently readable, unapologetically macabre period piece that evokes the dark mystery of Jack the Ripper-era serial murders. Featuring a strong and likable heroine in Nathalie--who's proud to be the first woman "of any age" to write for Le Petit Journal--the power of Spectacle "is real, beautiful, and devastating," and should be especially welcome to fans of Libba Bray's Diviners novels. --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI.

Discover: In 1880s Paris, 16-year-old Nathalie grapples with her job as morgue reporter as well as her rather macabre "gift."

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Shelf Awareness--Just Right: Searching for the Goldilocks Planet

PB Review: Just Right: Searching for the Goldilocks Planet

Just Right: Searching for the Goldilocks Planet by Curtis Manley, illus. by Jessica Lanan (Roaring Brook Press, 48p., 9781250155337)

"When you look toward the stars, do you ever wonder if anyone is looking back?" A girl gazes up at the sky, lost in thought. "Is Earth the only planet with intelligent life? Is it the only planet with life at all?" These questions, and many more, are explored in the pages of Just Right: Searching for the Goldilocks Planet.

Although "people believed that other worlds must exist" for "thousands of years," it wasn't until 1995 that astronomers found proof that "some other stars... have planets." Now they're asking whether any of these distant "exoplanets" can support life. Using telescopes and "special methods for looking at starlight," astronomers have "already found a few Earth-sized exoplanets orbiting within the habitable zones of their [own] stars." But they don't yet know if any of these planets can support the kind of life we have on Earth.

Curtis Manley's text explains its fairly sophisticated concepts--including big ideas like "what could we do" if we found evidence of "beings like ourselves"--in a clear, concise way. Jessica Lana's illustrations cleverly take this informative text and make it accessible to young readers. By following the girl and her family as they enjoy a day trip to the planetarium, Lana presents much of the book's scientific information as dynamic exhibits on view; her expansive double-page spreads bring the material to life, depicting molten cores, gaseous and rocky exoplanets and more behind and around the family. Endpapers and back matter further enrich the volume, which emphasizes the tantalizing mysteries that abound in the search for "a planet much like our own--a Goldilocks planet, a planet that's just right." --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI.

Discover: Astronomers search the stars, hoping to learn whether life exists anywhere else in the universe.

Friday, February 15, 2019

February Book Picks


In WICKED NIX, by Lena Coakley, with illustrations by Jaime Zollars, Nix is a fun—if unreliable—narrator in a story of fairies and humans coexisting rather badly. All the other fairies have left for the Summer Country, but Nix has been left behind by the Queen to guard their forest. Since he can’t use magic, he decides to make plenty of mischief when “a people" moves into an abandoned cottage nearby. WICKED NIX, at 110 pages, is a short and completely enjoyable tale. (MG)

In EVERLASTING NORA, by Marie Miranda Cruz, the main character is as twelve-year-old girl in Manila who, along with her mother, becomes homeless after the death of her father. The two must move into a cemetery, where they live alongside a whole community of others who squat in and among the tombs. When her mother disappears, Nora begins a frantic search, gaining friends, family, and a deeper awareness of herself along the way. It’s well crafted and moving. (MG)

SWEEP, THE STORY OF A GIRL AND HER MONSTER, is by Jonathan Auxier, author of The Night Gardener. In this new yarn, even though life on the road is difficult, as long as Nan Sparrow has the Sweep by her side, the world is full of “all sorts of wonderful things.” But when her beloved guardian disappears, leaving only a "charred lump of soot” behind, six-year-old Nan is forced to work alongside Newt, Whittles, Shilling-Tom, and the awful Roger, in Master Wilkie Crudd’s much abused Clean Sweep crew. But after Nan, now eleven, gets stuck in a chimney and almost dies, she wakes to find her bit of char has miraculously turned into a creature that’s alive. Nan knows at once that this is a gift from her Sweep, so she takes little “Charlie” and runs away from Crudd, hoping somehow for a better life as her own master. Auxier has done it again with this magical, complex, and rewarding read. (MG)

Picture Books:

“It’s my birthday. So boo! I hate all of you.” Thus begins I HATE EVERYONE, written by Naomi Davis and illustrated by Cinta Arribas. The main character is not having a good day, but readers follow along as she works her way through a very interesting tantrum. The art is bold and appealing, with a decidedly weird pink, blue, purple, and orange palette. “Don’t sing…okay, go ahead. Sing.” And enjoy!

DOOR, by JiHyeon Lee, is a wordless fantasy, in which a boy finds a key, and follows a mysterious bug to an old door in a wall. The key fits, and opens the door into a world of outrageous—and friendly—beings who invite the boy to join their picnic. The beasties speak an unintelligible language, but all parties manage to communicate anyway. The “real world” is monochrome, while the fantasy appears to be delicately drawn in colored pencil. It’s a lovely piece of bookmaking from Chronicle and JiHyeon Lee.

STORIES OF THE NIGHT, by Kitty Crowther, is another picture book with lots of pink in it, but it’s very different from the one above. Little Bear wants "three stories, please, please, please?” so Mother Bear obliges with one about the Night Guardian who bangs a gong when it’s time for sleep, a second about a tiny girl who gets lost while picking berries until she meets up with her friend Jacko Mollo (a bat), and a third about a little man who never takes off his coat and has trouble sleeping until he finds one of his friend Otto’s “stone poems.” Whimsical, nonsensical, original, and truly lovely.


Thursday, February 7, 2019

Shelf Awareness--When I Found Grandma

PB Review: When I Found Grandma

When I Found Grandma by Saumiya Balasubramaniam, illus. by Qin Leng (Groundwood Books, 32p., ages 4-7, 9781773060187, March 5, 2019)

When Maya says that she wants to see her grandma, Mother explains "Grandma lives many thousands of miles away." But, a few weeks later, while walking home from school, Mother says she has a surprise for Maya, and it's even "more special" than cupcakes. Inside, Maya finds her "special surprise": Grandma!

Maya learns right away that Grandma does things differently. She wears a "crimson sari" and offers "homemade sweets"--which Maya quickly decides she doesn't like as much as cupcakes. The next day at dismissal time, instead of waiting outside Maya's classroom with the rest of the parents and grandparents, Maya's grandma strides right in, wearing her "fancy clothes" and jingling her bangles. Not only does she draw attention to herself, she draws embarrassing attention to Maya, calling her by the wrong name (Mayalakshmi). For dinner, Grandma cooks "a meal with rice and cashews," and Maya pushes the nuts away. Worst of all, the next morning, instead of taking the exciting trip Father had promised to an island with a carousel, Mother says the family will pray at a temple for Holi. Maya "wishe[s] Grandma had never come."

Recognizing how upset her granddaughter is, Grandma offers to pray on the island with the carousel--it doesn't matter where she prays, she says, because "strong prayers come from honest hearts." Mother packs cupcakes and Grandma leaves her sari at home, borrowing pants and shoes from Mother; she even buys a bright red-and-blue, "all-American" baseball cap along the way. When they get to the island, Maya races ahead to the carousel "to show Grandma her favorite pony." But when she gets there, Grandma--and the rest of her family--are nowhere in sight. As Maya closes her eyes and tries to pray "honestly," just like Grandma said, she hears a familiar "loud voice" and sees Grandma's "red-and-blue cap bob[bing] in the distance, high over people's heads." That night, when Grandma makes her rice and cashew dinner again, Maya tries the nuts and decides they aren't so bad after all.

Saumiya Balasubramaniam takes a tender yet piercing look at the complexity of family bonds, especially when they span oceans and generations. Maya's initial unhappiness gives way to acceptance and love in a way young readers are sure to understand. Her struggles with cultural differences are convincingly stated, and reinforced perfectly by Leng's lively ink and watercolor illustrations: on page after page, Maya's body language makes her thoughts crystal clear. Leng's broken lines and dynamic use of color and texture help promote the feeling of a strong little girl in motion. Her detailed paintings so clearly define Maya's world that her abstract treatment of the moments when Maya is lost feel even more powerful by contrast. When I Found Grandma is a book for all ages, likely to have lasting appeal. Maya's and Grandma's compromises are satisfying and, by the end, as Father points out, Maya didn't just find Grandma, they "found each other." --Lynn Becker, blogger and host of Book Talk, a monthly online discussion of children's books for SCBWI.

Shelf Talker: Maya is eager to see Grandma, who lives far away, but the visit gets off to a difficult start when Grandma dresses, cooks and acts differently than Maya expects.