Category: Book Reviews


gabriel finley and the ravens riddle

Gabriel Finley & the Raven’s Riddle by George Hagen

Gabriel is a 12-year-old who loves riddles, he collects them and loves puzzling over them, just like his father did.  But his father has disappeared, leaving Gabriel behind in the care of his loving aunt.  Outside the house, Gabriel is unaware of the raven’s nest and the little raven growing up in it.  Paladin is a special raven though, one that is destined to have a magical bond with Gabriel, but only if he can survive the attacks upon him.  Owls hunt ravens for food, but worse are the valravens, creatures who serve Corax, a half-man, half-raven.  As Gabriel learns more about his father and his family’s special relationship with ravens, he is drawn into a quest that will lead him and his friends into the underground world of Aviopolis to confront Corax and save his father.

Inventive and unique, this middle-grade fantasy novel is something special.  Gabriel is an interesting protagonist, cautious with the friends he makes and living in a world where magic is suddenly part of his life.  He adapts quickly but believably to what is happening and responds with bravery but also curiosity.  He and his friends have a variety of skills, and they all nicely come into play during their adventures.  There are other characters who may be friends or not, they are written with a wonderful ambiguity that is allowed to be unresolved for a long time, adding richness to the tale.

Hagen has added a lot of depth to her novel with his creation of a raven society where they test one another to see if they are valravens with riddles.  Valravens don’t care for humor, so they are easily identified opposed to the merry ravens.  Much to my delight, it is revealed later in the book that owls love puns.  So the book is filled with wordplay, a grand element of the plot.

A vibrant mix of riddles, adventure and animal tale, this book is definitely one worth discovering.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from Schwartz & Wade.

the cat the dog little red the exploding eggs

The Cat, the Dog, Little Red, the Exploding Eggs, the Wolf, and Grandma by Diane and Christyan Fox

Cat is sitting and reading Little Red Riding Hood when Dog walks up.  Cat starts to explain the story of a little girl who wears a red cape, and then Dog interjects that he loves books about superheroes and asks about what powers Little Red has!  Cat tries to explain that it’s not that kind of book, but Dog continues to find new ways to tie in superpowers:  maybe a kindness ray, or a flying basket, or exploding eggs!  Then Dog tries to find ways to make the Wolf into a super villain.  Why doesn’t the Wolf just eat Little Red in the forest?  Why doesn’t he do more bad things and be a real super villain?  But as the dramatic ending of the real story arrives, it is Dog who thinks that the story might have gone a bit too far.

Perfect to read aloud, this picture book is written entirely as a dialogue between Cat and Dog with the occasional page from the Little Red Riding Hood story added in.  The debates between the two characters about the book are hilariously written.  Though very funny, Dog makes some valid points about the story line of the traditional tale and his superhero version would be great reading too.  The authors make the two voices of the characters clearly distinct from one another, something that takes skill when writing dialogue alone.

Done in black and white line drawings on white backgrounds, the loose feel of the illustrations suit the silly story perfectly.  Occasional bursts of color draw readers into the story being told and the cover of the Little Red Riding Hood book pops with red on the page. 

Funny and clever, children who know the original story will be delighted with this new twist on the tale.  Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from library copy.

nest

Nest by Esther Ehrlich

11-year-old Chirp has grown up in the 1970s exploring the coasts and woods of Cape Cod and particularly watching the birds and learning all she can about them.  Her home life has been stable and warm, but now things are shifting.  Her dancer mother is no longer able to dance because of the pain in her leg.  She’s also having balance problems.  The family tries to continue as normal but when her mother is diagnosed with MS, it throws her mother’s mental state into chaos.  Unable to deal with the diagnosis, her mother falls into a deep depression.  Through it all, Chirp is slowly making friends with the boy who lives in her neighborhood, someone she had always feared in the past.  As their friendship grows, her family falls further and further into distress while Chirp fights to keep her own personal equilibrium.  Unable to cope any longer, Chirp and her new friend form a desperate plan.

Ehrlich captures a family both on the brink of crisis and then moving fully into complete dysfunction.  Through it all, the characters react as humans rather than stereotypes.  Readers will be caught up in the turbulence of these lives, the hope as things seem to improve, and the devastation as they continue to fail.  Ehrlich guides the story with a steady hand, allowing the characters to come to life on the page and react as honestly as they can.  She also makes sure that this is shown through Chirp’s point of view, something that both protects young readers but also allows the sudden changes to be even more powerful.

Chirp and her humor and unique point of view keep this book from sliding too far into tragedy.  She is inventive, creative and has her own passions for birds and nature that crop up throughout the book.  Joey, her new friend, has a complicated family life and also a spirit all his own.  He is a male character we rarely see in books, a boy who turns away from becoming a bully to become a friend, all on his own without adult intervention.  Her family is complexly drawn too, from the older sister who wants to escape to a different family to her father who is desperate to keep his family together and continues to be loving in the most difficult of times.

Written with a strong new voice, this debut novel is filled with rich characters who come together just to survive.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

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

bluebird

Bluebird by Lindsey Yankey

Bluebird has never flown without the company of her friend, the wind.  She just can’t bring herself to try to fly without the wind’s help, so she sets off on a quest to find the wind before she flies.  There was no wind blowing the seeds off the dandelions, no wind lifting the kite to the sky, no wind rippling the willow leaves.  Heading into the city, Bluebird found that the newspaper pages weren’t being blown by the wind at all and even a balloon was being moved by a child rather than the wind.  Bluebird decided to look higher, but even from above the flags were drooping on the flagpoles and the sailboats were not racing.  Bluebird landed on a roof and wished deeply for her friend to return, and that’s when she noticed that she’d been flying for some time without the wind to help her! 

Yankey’s text captures both the wishing for what the wind does every day and also how things are without the wind blowing.  The contrast between what Bluebird knows the wind does and how things are when they are still is wonderfully written with simplicity and grace.  The entire book has a jaunty brisk pace that will remind readers of a good stiff wind blowing along the pages and moving the story along.

The illustrations in this picture book set it apart.  They are an amazing mix of collage, pencil, ink, block print and paint.  The result is a richness of styles that zing on the page next to one another and create a world that is unique.  Somehow those divergent components form a cohesion feel on the page that is mesmerizing.

A perfect read for a breezy day, this book will invite everyone to find the confidence to fly.  Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from library copy.

tiny creatures

Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Emily Sutton

There are tiny creatures all around us that do the most amazing things!  Microbes are too small to be seen by the human eye, but look through a microscope and you enter a world of them.  There are microbes like viruses that cause diseases or colds.  And there are others that are very good for our health and turn milk into yogurt and compost into dirt.  Microbes may be very small but their impact on our world and our lives is very big.  This book shows the huge impact they have and how much we need to appreciate them.

Davies has written very engagingly about microbes in this book.  When talking about something like microbes, the numbers can get too large to understand, but Davies nicely ties these huge numbers to others that make sense.  She shows how quickly a microbe can reproduce using the page of the book.  The entire book is cleverly done, exposing the facts about microbes in a friendly and approachable way.

The illustrations by Sutton show both the microbes and their effect on the world.  The pages with the tiny microbes are fascinating as one gets to see the different types up close.  The illustrations have a friendly charm about them that makes the subject matter even more fun to read.

A great book on microbes, this will encourage children to pick up a microscope and learn even more about these tiny little creatures.  Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from library copy.

red pencil

The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Shane W. Evans

Amira is an artist who spends her free time drawing with sharp sticks in the dirt.  She has just turned twelve and is now old enough to wear a toob.  Amira longs to go to school, but her mother doesn’t believe that girls should go to school.  So Amira stays on the family farm with her parents and younger sister who was born with misshapen legs.  Then the peace is shattered when their farm is attacked and Amira’s beloved father is killed.  Now they must leave their farm behind and head to a refugee camp where people are crowded into a small space and hunger is constant.  But when Amira is given a red pencil, her mind once again is able to escape into her art and she starts to once again dream of a different future and how to get there.

Set in Sudan, this verse novel is filled with power, wrenching written.  The brutality of the attack is captured clearly on the page as is the shock of loss that continues to ripple and tear at the small family remaining.  Pinkney captures grief on the page, writing with a clarity and beauty that is stark at times and layered and subtle at others.  Her verse speaks to the power of dreams to lift people out of where they are trapped and make a difference. 

From waves of wheat on the page to the family together, Evans’ illustrations support the powerful verse.  As the tone of the poems shift, so does his art which moves from playful to dramatic along with the text.  My favorite images capture small pieces of life, little glimpses of what makes a home and a day.

An impressive novel in verse, this book offers a strong survivor of a protagonist who uses art as a force to lift herself.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley received from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers and Edelweiss.

sequoia

Sequoia by Tony Johnston, illustrated by Wendell Minor

This is a poem about Sequoia, a giant and ancient tree and how he lives through the year.  As the seasons change, Sequoia opens his arms and gathers different things to him.  He gathers owls to him in the springtime when he is cloaked in green.  When fires come in the heat of summer, he gathers flames to him.  As the birds fly away in the autumn, he gathers one last crow.  In the winter, he gathers snow.  He also listens quietly and deeply to the nature around him and shares stories that he has gathered over time with the smaller cedars.  This picture book is a celebration of ancient trees and this one sequoia in particular.

Johnston uses repetition very skillfully in his poem.  It is enough of a structure to allow children to have something to lean on when reading, but the poem is also free too.  It’s a strong mix of structure and freedom that is perfect for a tree poem.  As the seasons change, children will see nature change as well.  There is a joy to this work, a dedication to preservation of trees like this, and a thrill in the wildness of nature.  Johnston uses gorgeous imagery throughout that further ties the wild to this tree and how he feels.

Minor’s illustrations are exceptional.  They carry the beauty of the verse to new heights as readers get to see the glory of this single sequoia standing so tall above everything else.  Yet Minor also makes sure that Sequoia is part of the nature around him.  The light is beautiful in these images streaming through the trees in beams, bright dawn on other pages, and the softness of twilight at others. 

A wild and beautiful poetic celebration of a tree, this book is less about the facts of sequoia trees and more about the experience of one.  Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from copy received from Roaring Brook Press.

farmer and the clown

The Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee

In a wordless picture book, Frazee captures what happens when a young clown falls off of a circus train and is rescued by a lonely farmer.  The desolate and flat landscape is unbroken until the bright circus train passes.  The farmer is clearly reluctant to take in the bright little smiling clown, but he does anyway, taking him by the hand back to his tiny house.  There, the two of them sit together, share a meal and eventually wash up and the clown washes off his face paint.  Now it is the little clown who is worried and sad, his smile removed with the water.  The farmer sits with him as he tries to fall asleep.  Along with the light of dawn, the farmer starts to cheer up the little clown with silly faces and antics.  Soon the two are living a mix of their two lives:  eggs are gathered and juggled, hard work is shared, and the two head out on a picnic together.  While on the picnic, they hear a train coming and it is the circus train filled with clowns.  But somehow, the ending is not sad as the little clown returns to his family and the farmer returns to his farm, both changed forever.

I’m not sure how Frazee manages to convey so much in a wordless format.  She uses symbolism, like the face paint for removing barriers, the connection of the characters through held hands, and their very different hats being removed and shared and eventually exchanged.  It’s lovely and heartfelt and very special. 

I’ve seen this book on a lot of people’s top book lists for the year, and I completely agree.  It’s a gem of a book that has such depths to explore.  The wordless format might imply a simple story, but here readers will find subtlety about friendship, caring for others, and building connections. 

A masterpiece of wordless storytelling, this is a radiant picture book made to be shared.  Appropriate for ages 2-6.

Reviewed from copy received from Beach Lane Books.

right word

The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus by Jen Bryant, illustrated by Melissa Sweet

The incredible and award-winning team of Bryant and Sweet return with a picture book biography of Peter Roget.  The book looks deeply into his childhood as a boy who grew up moving around a lot in Switzerland.  He found that books stayed good friends through the many moves he made.  Roget was also a boy who enjoyed making lists, lists about all sorts of things:  Latin words, elements, weather and words for things in the garden.  As a teenager, he spent time silent and alone outside, making lists of birds and insects.  Then one day, he realized that it would be great to have a book that listed all the different words to choose from, and his idea of a thesaurus was born.  But it would take many years of hard work to come to fruition.

Bryant’s text has just the right amount of information about Roget and his life.  She wisely chooses to focus on his interest in lists as a child and how that grew into the thesaurus as Roget himself grew up.  This natural progression of interest from youth to adult is something that children will enjoy seeing in both Roget and in their own lives.  Bryant’s Author’s Note at the end of the book speaks to all of the research that goes into writing a biography for young children and the inspiration she herself found in Roget.

As always, the illustrations by Sweet are a highlight of the book.  Here, as she explains in her Illustrator’s Note at the end of the book, she has incorporated the Latin words that Roget used in his notebooks.  The other words that she weaves into her art are found in the first edition of his thesaurus.  Her art incorporates different papers, watercolors, and objects.  There is one page where it feels like it pops off the page, a book that contains words, creatures, plants and ideas.  Simply amazing art.

A noteworthy addition to the already impressive shelves of Bryant and Sweet, this is one that belongs in every library and in the hands of all young wordsmiths.  Appropriate for ages 7-10.

Reviewed from copy received from Eerdmans Books for Young Readers.

It’s a great year for Christmas books, and I have four top choices for your holiday reading pleasure:

first christmas

The First Christmas by Jan Pienkowski

With text from the King James version of the Bible, this picture book tells the nativity story with stateliness and words that will be familiar to many.  The great joy of the book is the silhouette illustrations by Pienkowski who has created images that glow on the page.  She combines her black silhouettes with colors that shift and seem to be lit from behind.  Her detailed cut paper art is awe-inspiring and adds just the right touch of wonder to the story of the birth of Jesus.  Recommended for all ages. 

Reviewed from e-galley received from Knopf Books for Young Readers and Edelweiss.

manger

Manger selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins, illustrated by Helen Cann

On Christmas Eve at midnight the animals are given the gift of being able to speak.  The poems in this book tell what each of the animals would say during the nativity about what they witnessed and how they contributed.  Hopkins has compiled a collections of poems from a dozen poets.  The collection ranges in styles and lengths but is also cohesive and the differences in the poems creates a variety that adds freshness. 

Cann’s illustrations are lovely with rich colors and fine details.  They show the animals clearly and also the wonder of the nativity on each page whether they are fish, fowl or mammal.  The poems range from very serious approaches to ones that are gently humorous but they are all done with great respect and honor the reason Christmas exists.  Appropriate for ages 5-9.

Reviewed from copy received from Eerdmans.

santa clauses

Santa Clauses: Short Poems from the North Pole by Bob Raczka, illustrated by Chuck Groenink

Santa tells his own story of Christmas in these 25 short haiku poems that offer a glimpse into what goes into making Christmas happen.  From the joy of snow to the seasonal chores like fixing Christmas lights, readers will see their own holiday preparations in Santa’s world too.  But there are also things that are just in Santa’s world like the many letters from children, hard-working elves, reading stories to the reindeer and finally flying off to deliver presents. 

These poems are cleverly done, often showing the beauty of the winter season just as much as they are celebrating the Christmas holiday.  The mix of natural beauty with Christmas makes the book rich and a holiday treat to share.  The illustrations too show the wonder of nature on the page alongside the bustle of the holiday season.  It is the quiet snowy scenes and the small special moments that make the strongest impressions both in poem and art.  Appropriate for ages 4-8.

Reviewed from library copy.

12 days of christmas

The Twelve Days of Christmas illustrated by LeUyen Pham

The traditional holiday carol is told in a warm new rendition with illustrations that are traditional but also very funny.  The carol is unaltered in this picture book that shows what happens as the various gifts arrive.  Though in the first pages it seems to be a book that will stack and pile the huge number of gifts on each page, this book is more subtle about things and therefore more successful.  Instead it is a delightful mix of diversity, different cultures and the joy of the season.  It turns out this is a modern and fresh take on the carol sure to spread joy.  Appropriate for ages 4-9.

Reviewed from e-galley received from Doubleday Books for Young Readers and Edelweiss.

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