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brown girl dreaming

brown girl dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Told in verse, this is Woodson’s memoir of her childhood.  Woodson shows the different influences in her life, from both South Carolina and New York City.  There is the richness of southern life, from the heat to the food to the family.  But it is not all sweetness as Woodson shows her family fracturing as she is raised by her grandparents for some of her childhood.  She also shows the racism and discrimination clearly on the page, never flinching in her powerful verse.  When Woodson and her siblings move to New York to live once again with their mother, the dynamic changes and the flavor is urban as the Civil Rights Movement becomes a focus in her life.  Taking place in the 1960s and 1970s, this book captures a time of change in the United States and is also a compelling look at what forces build a writer.

Woodson’s poetry is a gorgeous and lush mix of powerful voice and strong memory.  Her writing is readable and understandable even by young audiences, but it also has depth.  There are larger issues being spoken about as Woodson tells about her own childhood and family.  There are universal truths being explored, as this book is as honest as can be, often raw and unhealed too.  It is a book that begs to be read, shared and then reread.

One of the things I always look for in a novel in verse is whether the poems stand on their own as well as how they combine into a full novel.  Woodson manages to create poems that are lyrical and lovely, that stand strongly about a subject and could be read alone.  As a collection, the poems are even stronger, carrying the story of family and iron strength even more powerfully.

Rich, moving and powerful, this is one of the best novels in verse available for children.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC received from Penguin.

telephone

Telephone by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jen Corace

A mother bird wants her son Peter to come home for dinner, so she sends the message down the telephone line, literally.  It moves from one bird to the next, but the message immediately gets garbled as each bird adds their own take.  Readers will notice that each bird has its own interests that are added to the message and that the illustrations give hints about the topics that will be included that time.  This is a clever twist on the children’s game of telephone, one that has hilarious results and a resoundingly satisfying ending.

Barnett takes a simple concept in this picture book and makes it extraordinary.  His humor is great, making sure that each statement passed along by the birds rhymes but also taken huge liberties with the subject matter.  When the ending comes with a silly bird where the message becomes much longer and incorporates all sorts of things from earlier messages, it makes for a brilliant break in the pattern that sets the final message up perfectly.

Corace’s art is wonderful.  She shows the birds in silhouette on the wire, indicating early to readers what the story will be about.  The illustrations range from close ups of the birds on the wire to more distant shots that show the human neighborhood beneath the wire.  It is all done with great energy, humor and bright colors.

A winning picture book that is clever, funny and simply wonderful.  Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from copy received from Chronicle Books.

nine open arms

Nine Open Arms by Benny Lindelauf

Translated from the original Dutch, this book is the story of Fing and her family.  Fing’s mother died years ago and since then her father and her grandmother have taken care of them.  They are a big family, with Fing’s three older brothers and her two sisters, Muulke and Jess.  Fing’s father has decided to start a cigar business, so they move out of town to a big old house that has something very strange about it that Fing can’t quite figure out.  They call it Nine Open Arms, because that is how far across it is.  The house is near a cemetery, the front door is at the back, and there is a bed in storage that looks like a tombstone.  As the girls start a new school, they slowly begin to discover the secrets of Nine Open Arms and of their own community and family.

Delightfully wild and incredibly quirky, this book is one of a kind.  From the family that moves constantly, to the cemetery next door where they go to get their water each day, to the crocodile purse that is used to tell family stories, to the controlling grandmother who is dominant but deeply loving in her own way, to the one old story that is the key to understanding it all.  This is a richly rewarding read, one that you have to head out on before you even know what journey you are on.  It is a book that meanders but each turn is essential to the book in the end, where it all clicks into place. 

Told in the first person by Fing, the book unfolds before you, each reveal another piece of the family, another story, another moment that is meaningful.  It is a perfectly crafted book that has a plot that moves in its own time, another time, a less modern pace.  It ties to the pace of the family, one where things are revealed in their own space.  It’s incredibly well done.

Beautifully written, magnificently crafted, this Dutch novel is like nothing you have read before, and that is wonderful!  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from library copy.

little green peas

Little Green Peas: A Big Book of Color by Keith Baker

The peas return for their third book, this time focusing on colors.  Peas play on each page, surrounded by a specific color that also shows up in huge letters across the double page spread.  Told in rhyme, the colors are named and objects that are that color are named too.  Young readers can find those objects on the page.  Turn to the next and you get to see even more little green peas enjoying themselves with that color.  Then on to the next.  This colorful read has a great playfulness to it that will keep the youngest readers giggling as they learn their colors.

Baker knows just when his rhyme and structure have reached their limit and then turns it just slightly to make it fresh again.  His little peas are doing all sorts of things on the page and part of the fun of the book is lingering and just seeing what is happening to each little pea.  The illustrations are big and bold, the colors deep and strong.  Yet the little peas and their detailed big fun make this a book best shared one on one.

A great pick for learning colors, children will enjoy the little peas on each page.  Appropriate for ages 1-3.

Reviewed from library copy.

ruin and rising

Ruin and Rising by Leigh Bardugo

The final book in the Grisha trilogy, this is an amazing ending to an incredible series.  After her failed battle with the Darkling, Alina has been hiding in the White Cathedral, slowing healing from the damage of the fight.  But Alina has lost much of her power and must rely on trickery to display the light of the Sun Summoner.  She is surrounded by those who believe her to be a saint, but also by those who would control her for their own means.  It is soon time for Alina to escape, but in her battered body and mind, planning such a thing is insurmountable.  Luckily, she still has some of her faithful friends around her, who are only too pleased to free her and themselves from the protection of the Cathedral.  Now Alina must figure out how to find the final amplifier that will allow her to complete the set and access her full power.  But the Darkling is still hunting her, and he will not stop until she is under his control.

This is one of those books that you read at breakneck pace, turning the pages quickly.  Bardugo has created such a rich world in this series that it is one that is hard to leave behind, and when you do it continues to call to you as a reader to finish the story.  Mixing Russian aspects into the story makes this very unique, but she also has a world that has its own rules, ones that make sense and hold true throughout the books. 

Rife with romance, the book also offers different choices in future lives to Alina.  There is the ever-steady Mal who is the only one who can track the final amplifier for Alina.  There is the prince who is charming and funny, giving Alina freedom but also making her a queen.  And of course, there is the choice of the Darkling himself, destructive and evil but so alluring.  Alina is a wondrous mix of delicacy and steel.  She is a stunning heroine.

Make sure to start this trilogy from the beginning, but also make sure to read it through to this riveting, dark and sun-streaked ending.  Pure bliss!  Appropriate for ages 14-17.

Reviewed from library copy.

ninja red riding hood

Ninja Red Riding Hood by Corey Rosen Schwartz, illustrated by Dan Santat

This companion to The Three Ninja Pigs mixes ninja training, wolves and girls in red capes into one great homage to the traditional tale.  Wolf can’t catch any animals to eat.  They all defeat him with their ninja skills, so he decides to get training himself.  After practicing for hours, he heads into the woods where he sees Riding Hood carrying a treat to her grandmother.  He suggests that Riding Hood pick some flowers for her grandmother, and dashes off to the grandmother’s house himself.  She isn’t home, so he puts on her clothes.  After Riding Hood slowly realizes that this is not her grandmother in a wonderful mix of traditional and martial arts storytelling, it is revealed that Riding Hood has also had ninja training.  But when the two are evenly matched, it will take one butt-kicking grandmother to save the day.

Schwartz mixes the traditional tale with ninja skills and martial arts to form a tremendously fun book that happily does not leave the original story too far behind.  The moments of the story where the original story is followed closely are quickly turned into a more Japanese and ninja storyline.  Cleverly mixed, one never quite knows what is going to happen from page to page, making it all the more delightful to read and even better to share with a group.

Santat’s art has his signature modern style.  He has a natural feel for comedic timing and that is used extensively in this book.  He mixes in Japanese touches throughout, from the dojo to grandmother’s traditional Japanese home.  Bright, bold and filled with action, this book begs to be shared.

Another successful twisted tale, let’s hope there are more ninja folk tales coming!  Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from library copy.

turtle of oman

The Turtle of Oman by Naomi Shihab Nye

Aref’s family is moving to Ann Arbor, Michigan from where he has always lived in Muscat, Oman.  After his father heads off ahead of Aref and his mother, the two of them head home to finish packing and for his mother to finish working.  But Aref does not want to leave Oman, leave his bedroom to his cousins who will be living there while they are gone for several years, leave his pet cat behind.  But particularly, he does not want to leave his grandfather.  Aref pretends to pack, but finds himself playing instead, riding his bike, ignoring the packing entirely.  His mother gets frustrated and asks Siddi, his grandfather, for a hand.  So the Aref and Siddi head out on a series of adventures that let them spend time together, but also let Aref say goodbye to his beloved Oman and be open enough to greet the future in Michigan.

Nye is the author of Habibi as well as an acclaimed poet.  Her novel is short and wonderfully vivid, painting a picture of Oman for young readers who will be drawn to the natural beauty.  Readers will also be taken by the loving family, where parenting is done with grace and kindness, and where a grandfather is willing to spend lots of time saying farewell, as much time as a child needs. 

Nye’s writing shows her poetic skills again and again.  Her prose reads like verse, filled with imagery and striking wording.  When Aref goes to the sea with his grandfather, Nye describes it like this:

The sky loomed with a few delicate lines of wavery cloud, one under the other.  It looked like another blue ocean over the watery blue sea.  Aref took a deep breath and tried to hold all the blue inside his body, pretending for a moment he didn’t have to move away or say good-bye to anything or share his room and cat, none of it.

Many of the moments with Aref and his grandfather are written like this, celebrating the tiny pieces of beauty in the world, relishing the time, treasuring the wonder.  Her book is like a jewel, faceted and lovely to turn and marvel at.

This short novel is a vivid and majestic look at the Middle East, at familial love, and at the special relationship of a boy and his grandfather.  Appropriate for ages 8-12.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Greenwillow Books and Edelweiss.

fourteenth goldfish

The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm

Released August 26, 2014.

Eleven-year-old Ellie loves doing puzzles, because the pieces fit together so neatly.  She doesn’t like change at all, like the way that her best friend Brianna never talks with her anymore.  She lives with her mother in a tiny house with the garage filled with costumes from her job directing high school theater.  Her mother wants her to find her own passion, but Ellie isn’t sure that she has one.  Then something very strange happens, and her grandfather comes to live with them.  But he’s not really himself, instead he’s thirteen years old again!  Now Ellie has a “cousin” Melvin who goes to school with her but dresses, talks and thinks just like her grandfather.  Could he really have found the key to eternal youth?  This is the classic story of growing up, mixed with someone who is trying to grow down.

Holm’s signature light touch is a large part of the success of this novel.  Dealing with big issues like aging, death, and growing up, Holm manages to keep the tone light enough to make the reading great fun.  She mixes science into the story, clearly displaying her own interest in the subject, but also making sure that the science is just as readable as the story.

She populates her story with great characters from the dramatic mother to Ellie herself who readers will relate to quickly and easily.  Melvin is my favorite character in the book, written for pure delight as a great mix of teen boy and aging man.  In particular, I love that Holm kept him wearing the same clothes, talking to his daughter in the same way, and relating with teens he meets as if he didn’t resemble them in the least.  He’s a brilliant character, a wonderful grandfather, and profoundly funny.

Grab this as a great book to share in a classroom, it has lots to discuss but is immensely readable and serves as a clever entry point to science fiction reading.  Also, get this into the hands of Holm fans who are ready for something beyond Babymouse.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Random House and Edelweiss.

im my own dog

I’m My Own Dog by David Ezra Stein

This dog takes care of himself.  He tells himself to roll over, he throws a stick for himself and then goes to get it, he scratches his own itches.  Except for the one in the middle of his back, he can’t quite reach it.  So when a human follows him home and knows right where to scratch, the dog adopts him.  He teaches the human how to hold a leash, how to play the stick game, and how to follow commands.  Yes, he has to clean up after the human, but in the end the two of them become the best of friends.

A clever twist on people getting a dog, in this book it is the dog that gets the person.  Stein plays up the humor with his short text that is done entirely from the point of view of this very independent canine.  The book is a quick read with a zippy pace that adds to the pleasure.  Stein’s illustrations are bright and loose.  The watercolor gives a flowing feel to the images and offer gorgeous colors on the page as they mix.

One dynamite dog book, this one will get kids giggling but ends with the honest truth of finding a new best friend.  Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from library copy.

fire wish

The Fire Wish by Amber Lough

The war between the jinnis and the humans has been going on for years.  Najwa is a young jinni who is being specially trained in covert operations and visiting the human world.  Zayele is a human, selected to marry a  prince whom she’s never met.  When the two of them meet, Zayele makes a wish on Najwa and switches their places.  Now Zayele is the jinni, living among other jinnis in the crystal caves under the earth and Najwa is the human, heading for marriage to a prince.  The two must keep themselves secret, both knowing that they will be killed by the people around them if they are discovered.  But war and love make everything more complicated and the two discover secrets about themselves and their worlds that will change everything.

Lough’s debut novel is the first in a series.  It intelligently combines the author’s experience in the deserts of the Middle East with the fantasy elements of jinnis and wishes.  The setting is vividly depicted, both the crystal caverns of the jinnis with the lakes of dancing flame and the desert world of the humans are well drawn.  The differing cultures juxtapose clearly against one another, each with different freedoms and neither considered wrong or right.  There is a lot of respect for cultures in this novel.

The two main protagonists are also nicely different from one another.  While Najwa is a character who is very likeable and easily related to, Zayele serves as her foil.  Najwa worries more for her entire people while Zayele makes choices that focus more on herself and her situation.  Neither character would completely work without the other there too and both display nice and natural growth as the story progresses.  The book also has an element of romance to it, it too is handled with a natural pace and progression.

A strong debut book that is a tantalizing blend of romance, magic and wishes.  Appropriate for ages 13-15.

Reviewed from copy received from Random House Children’s Books.

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