Category: Book Reviews


finding spring

Finding Spring by Carin Berger

Maurice is a little bear cub who can’t stop thinking about spring. It may be time for him to go to sleep in the warm cave with his mother, but he stays awake and sneaks out of the cave to search for signs of spring. As he heads through the forest, he meets other animals all busily preparing for the winter. They don’t have time to talk to him for long but find time to warn him that spring’s arrival will take some time. Maurice smells something new on the air and runs towards it, thinking it is spring. When a snowflake falls, he is sure it is spring arriving so he scoops up some snow to keep spring with him and heads back to his mother to sleep. When he awakes in the warmer weather though, his piece of spring has disappeared. But in the end, Maurice manages to find spring all around him.

This picture book has a very simple story with elements that children will relate to. From not wanting to go to bed to the beauty of nature, this book celebrates it all. It is a book of curiosity, adventures and making your own discoveries along the way.

What makes this book exceptional are the illustrations. Berger works in cut paper and collage, creating dioramas that have dimension and shadows. The cut paper contains fragments of words and lovely textures. I particularly love the reverse side of a letter on gray paper being the flowing water in a stream. Throughout the book there are touches like this that work beautifully visually and are artistically inspired.

A lovely new springtime read, this picture book celebrates the seasons of winter and spring side by side. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from copy received from Greenwillow Books.

jessicas box

Jessica’s Box by Peter Carnavas

Released March 1, 2015

Jessica can’t sleep, it’s the day before her first day of school.  The next day her parents assure her that she will make lots of friends, and Jessica had a plan to make sure that happened.  In a box on her lap, she carried her teddy bear to school, but when she revealed it later in the day, kids laughed at her or just walked away.  The next day, Jessica put something else in her box and headed to school.  But the cupcakes in the box disappeared quickly without so much as a thank you from the kids.  The third day of school, Jessica snuck her dog into class.  Doris was very popular, but dogs weren’t allowed at school.  By the fourth day, Jessica was dejected.  She dragged her box to school empty and then put it over her head.  And that’s when Jessica figured out exactly what she should have had in her box all along, something very special indeed.

Carnavas tells a very successful story here.  I love that the main character is in a wheelchair and yet the story is not about her disability.  It’s a first-day-of-school story and a making-friends story instead.  Also throughout the book she is shown as entirely capable and not needing help, except for a little encouragement of different sorts from her family members that any child would want and need.  The use of the box is smartly done, using it both as a metaphor and also as a way to build suspense for the reader about what is being taken to school that day.

The art is friendly and colorful, also helping build suspense with page turns that lead into the reveal of what’s in the box.  Carnavas shows loneliness very nicely on the page, isolating Jessica clearly on the white background.  He also shows connections in a gentle way, displaying a subtlety that is particularly nice on the page with Jessica and her father being quiet together.

A very inclusive book about school jitters and making friends, this will be a nice read aloud to share with kids about to enter school.  Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from digital copy received from Kane Miller.

last stop on market street

Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena, illustrated by Christian Robinson

Take a ride across town on a bus with CJ and his grandmother. Every Sunday after church CJ and his grandmother get on a bus and take a long ride. Along the way, they meet all sorts of people on the bus. There is a man who is blind, a busker who plays the guitar, teenagers who listen to music on their iPods. CJ longs for some of the things he sees, like his friends who have cars to drive places, the iPods the teens have, and the free time his friends have on Sunday afternoons. But his grandmother sees the beauty in the ride, in the other passengers and in the time they spend together. At the end of the ride, they get off in a poorer section of town and head to the soup kitchen which is ringed by a rainbow in the sky. CJ is glad that they made the trip once they are there.

De la Pena is best known for his young adult books.  This is the second picture book he has written.  One would never know that this is not his specialty.  His wording is just perfect for preschoolers, inviting them along on the journey to discover new things on each page. His words form a tapestry of a community, diverse and dynamic. The journey is about more than just seeing new things though, it is also about seeing them differently and in a positive way. From the rain falling to the poor section of town, they are all reframed by CJ’s grandmother into something beautiful.

Robinson’s illustrations are done in acrylic paint and collage.  They are bright, vibrant and filled with people of different colors living happily side-by-side. They capture the busy urban setting with a sense of community that is warm, friendly and fun.

A great journey to take any preschooler on, this picture book celebrates making a positive difference in your community.  Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from copy received from G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

case for loving

The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage by Selina Alko, illustrations by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko

This nonfiction picture book tells of a history that will surprise modern American children. It is the story of love and one family that was brave enough to stand up to a racist law. Mildred and Richard Loving fell in love in the small town of Central Point, Virginia. They had different colored skin and so they were not allowed to get legally married in Virginia. So they crossed state lines into Washington, DC and got married there. When they returned to Virginia though, they were arrested for violating the state law against interracial marriage. The two moved to Washington DC and raised their children there. Things started to change in the 1960s and the Lovings took their case all the way to the Supreme Court to win the right to marry one another in the state of Virginia.

This book is strikingly beautiful with a rich warmth that flows directly from the story and art. The author and illustrator are a husband wife team who are also interracial. Their passion for this subject shines on the page. Alko explains that subject matter with a vibrancy, offering information on the laws in a way that is suitable for small children. The drama of the arrest is also clearly captured, exposing the ludicrous law to today’s perspective.

The art of the book was done by both Qualls and Alko. Their styles marry into a beautiful richness that fills the pages. They are filled  will playful hearts and flowers that add a lighter note to the images. At the same time they have detailed paintings filled with texture and power at their center. The combination of both has created a stunning beauty of collage and painting.

An important piece of our civil rights history as a nation, this picture book documents one family willing to take up the fight for themselves and others. Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from copy received from Arthur A. Levine Books.

fish in a tree

Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt

The author of One for the Murphys returns with a brilliant second novel. Ally hates school. She’d much rather spend her days drawing the vivid pictures in her head. Homework is almost impossible for her, since she has such trouble reading. To cover up her problems, she uses her disruptions and gets sent to the principal’s office often. When Ally gets a new teacher though, things start to change. Mr. Daniels can see who she is under the reading and writing problems, offering her compliments about the way she thinks and the way she draws. As Ally gets more confident, she just might be brave enough to ask for the help she needs rather than hiding and trying to be invisible.

Hunt writes with a light touch, never negating the powerful feelings that Ally is wrestling with and how serious her issues are. Yet it is that soft touch that allows the book to be so effective in its approach to dyslexia and the variations in the ways different brains think. Throughout the book, there is hope and readers will yearn to have Ally recognized as the bright and funny person they now her to be. Hunt also incorporates a bully who is intelligently drawn with just a glimpse as to why she is that way and who is just cruel and mean enough to be realistic.

Ally is a wonderful protagonist. She doesn’t hide her difficulties from herself at all, but works so hard to hide them from everyone else in her life, something she can achieve because she is so bright. Throughout Ally is immensely likable, someone who would make a tremendous friend. I love that she does not become this as the novel moves on, but she is already there, just waiting for others to discover her behind the barriers she puts up. The two characters who become her close friends are also strongly written and unique voices too, adding depth and diversity to the story.

An incredibly strong novel, this one belongs in every library and will be inspiring to students and teachers alike. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from library copy.

sand swimmers

Sand Swimmers: The Secret Life of Australia’s Desert Wilderness by Narelle Oliver

Set in the ferocious center of Australia, this book looks at one of the harshest climates in the world and the animals that not only survive there but thrive there. The “Dead Heart” of Australia can appear completely uninhabited at first, but this book has us look closer and see what the Aboriginal people have known for thousands of years. The huge salt lake has lizards, shrimp and frogs if you know where to look. The mulga scrublands have tangled timber but that is also shelter for spiders, ants, geckos, and birds. Down deep under the earth, there are even more animals sheltering. Even the oceans of rock and sand have animals living there. Explore an amazing ecosystem along with early explorers of Australia who failed to see the creatures hiding around them.

Oliver takes readers on an amazing journey through various regions of the center of Australia. Even the rocks and sand and plants themselves are wild and different from other parts of the world. Everything seems to combine to make the most uninhabitable ecosystem in the world, but that’s not true if you look deeper. Oliver takes readers deeper into the desert and readers will discover the beauty and life hidden in this desolate landscape.

Oliver’s illustrations combine line drawings of the creatures with smudged drawings of the early explorers. The combination of the crisp line drawings with the more smudged ones is very successful, giving readers a taste of both the animals themselves and the history.

A brilliant look at a fascinating habitat, this book goes far beyond the stereotypical kangaroos and koala bears of Australia. Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from library copy.

seeds of freedom

Seeds of Freedom: The Peaceful Integration of Huntsville, Alabama by Hester Bass, illustrated by E. B. Lewis

Violence was a large part of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.  However in Huntsville, Alabama something quite different happened, quietly and successfully.  They managed through cooperation, quiet civil disobedience, and courage to stand up for what was right for all members of their community.  There were lunchroom protests where young black people sat at the counters they were not allowed to eat at.  There were marches with signs.  There were arrests, even one of a mother with an infant that gained national news. There were lovely protests like refusing to purchase new clothes for Easter and instead dressing in blue jeans to deny some stores their business. There were balloons with messages of coming together even as a segregationist ran for governor. There were brave children who attended schools where they were the only people of color. Yet it all happened in a community of support and with no violence at all.

Bass emphasizes throughout her book that there were challenges in the society and reasons for protest.  Time and again though just as the reader thinks things will be more rough and confrontational, it abates and progress is made. Her use of details from the other cities in Alabama as well as the national Civil Rights Movement will show children how violent the struggles often were. It is against that backdrop that the progress in Huntsville really shines.

Lewis’s paintings also shine.  He captures the strength and determination of those working for their civil rights.  On each page there is hope from the children reaching to the sky with their balloons to the one black child in the class and his smile.  It all captures both the solemnity of the struggle and the power of achieving change.

Beautifully told and illustrated, this nonfiction picture book offers a compelling story about a community’s willingness to change without violence.  Appropriate for ages 7-10.

Reviewed from library copy.

prairie fire

Prairie Fire by E.K. Johnston

Released March 1, 2015.

This sequel to The Story of Owen continues the dragon-slaying adventures of Siobhan and Owen.  Upon graduating from high school, Owen joins the Oil Watch, the international organization that trains dragon slayers and their support teams to fight a variety of different dragons. Despite the damage to her hands, Siobhan manages to qualify to join the Oil Watch too, the first bard in a long time to do so. They must first survive basic training, designed to get them working as a team and Siobhan has the added problem of figuring out a role for a bard in a situation where it is about killing dragons, putting out fires, and tending medical emergencies. As their basic training ends, the dragon slayers are sent all over the world to where they are needed most. But the Canadian government has not forgiven Owen for what happened and their posting is not one that will forge a new dragon slaying hero. That is unless Siobhan can create the songs and stories that tell a different story.

With writing just as fresh and engaging as the first book, this new novel is superb. It builds upon the first novel, returning us to that wonderful world of alternate history with a modern Canada and North America awash in dragon fire. Johnston continues to show her prowess is rewriting history and filling it with dragons as well as creating a new Canada and United States with boundaries that shift and politics that are complexly drawn.

At its heart always though is the intense friendship of Siobhan and Owen, a bard and her dragon slayer, a musician and her muse. Johnston continues as she did in the first book to create a story that is not about romance but instead two complicated people who care deeply for one another as friends. Again, there is no kissing between the two and no longing glances either. It makes for a refreshing change.

A riveting read with a powerful ending that I am working hard not to spoil in the least. This novel is beautifully written, bravely done and purely epic. Appropriate for ages 14-17.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Netgalley and Carolrhoda Books.

bus ride

The Bus Ride by Marianne Dubuc

Released March 1, 2015.

A little girl sets off on her first bus ride all by herself.  Her mother packed her a snack and her sweater too.  But this is not a normal bus, with its passengers of rabbits, a bear, a turtle, a mouse and a very sleepy sloth.  Stop by stop, the bus picks up and drops off more and more animals.  A family of wolves enters the bus at one point and the little girl shares her snack happily with the little wolf.  The bus goes through a dark tunnel and everything gets mixed around in the dark, but things are quickly sorted back into some sort of normal.  There is even a cunning fox thief that the little girl helps chase off the bus at the next stop.  This is one wonderful adventure for a little girl all on her own who has an amazing ride.

First published in France, this picture book celebrates a child traveling on their own.  Though the larger animals may seem threatening at first, those fears are quickly allayed by their actions.  Even the wolf family acts very appropriately on the bus.  There is the thief but again the little girl is empowered enough to put a stop to his shenanigans herself.  Children in the U.S. will be astonished at the freedom of this little girl and the trust she is given.  They will also love the Little Red Riding Hood ties that are evident in the story.

Dubuc’s illustrations are done in fine lines and subtle colors. That adds to the gentleness of the tale and the feeling that everything is nonthreatening and OK.  Subtle things change on each page and children will want time to look closely at the pictures, particularly after the tunnel switches things around.

Warm and confident, this picture book is a friendly introduction to bus rides even though real life ones aren’t likely to have bears, wolves and sloths as part of the community. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Netgalley and Kids Can Press.

queens shadow

The Queen’s Shadow by Cybele Young

Released March 1, 2015.

This fascinating and unique nonfiction picture book takes a mystery and turns it into information about how various animals see.  At the Queen’s Ball, several different animals have gathered.  Then there is a flash of lightning and a moment of darkness.  When the lights come back on, the Queen’s shadow has been stolen!  Who stole it and how can they prove it?  One by one, each animal offers testimony to what they witnessed “colored” by the way they are able to see the world.  There are the eyes of the chameleon who can look in two directions at once but only shoot out his tongue when both eyes are focused on the same thing.  The shark excels at seeing contrast more than anything and notices patterns of light and dark. Pit viper sees in heat and cool. Dragonfly offers perspective from compound eyes. It will take each of their ways of seeing the world to solve this mystery. 

Young creates an entirely abstract and amazing world here. There is a strong sense of decorum throughout the book, no animals attacking each other and the human queen unafraid of any of her more predatory guests. She combines information for the mystery about what was witnessed through that specific set of eyes and then shares strictly scientific information in offset text boxes too. The result is a book that keeps you turning pages not only to solve the mystery but to continue seeing the world in such unique ways and learning more.

The illustrations have a feel of vintage illustrations with finely detailed ink drawings washed with color. This style is reworked though when seeing through other animals’ eyes so that with each turn of the page, the art is ever-changing and fascinating.

Peculiar in a delightful way, this nonfiction picture book is one that will appeal to children wanting to “see” more of the natural world.  Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Netgalley and Kids Can Press.

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