Category: Book Reviews


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.

you are not small

You Are (Not) Small by Anna Kang, illustrated by Christopher Weyant

An orange bear declares to a smaller blue bear that the shorter one is “small.”  The little one says that that is not true, rather the orange bear is “big.”  The orange bear shows that he has other big creatures just like him and just his size, but so does the blue bear.  The two groups start to argue and fight about whether they are big or small.  Then another creature arrives and another one yet that help put size into perspective for everyone. 

This very simple book has a great sense of humor throughout.  The creatures that seem like bears to me are fuzzy and friendly.  Against the white background, the bears pop on the page.  With only a few lines per page, this book will be enjoyed by small children learning about concepts like big and small.  The humor makes the entire lesson in size and relativity completely enjoyable and it will be a book that children will ask to be read again.  There is even a great little (or big) twist at the end.

Weyant’s illustrations are a large part of the appeal of the book.  The New Yorker cartoonist has created fuzzy creatures that are loveable and cute as can be, no matter what size they are.  Weyant has clearly loved playing with the differences in sizes, creating characters who live large on the page.

Bold illustrations, charming characters and funny situations make this a winning picture book for the smallest (and largest) among us.  Appropriate for ages 2-4.

Reviewed from ARC received from Two Lions.

beetle boy

Beetle Boy by Margaret Willey

Charlie Porter never expected to have a girlfriend who cared this much for him.  Enough to bring him into her home after he had surgery on his Achilles tendon and care for him while he could not walk.  But now Clara is starting to ask pointed questions about Charlie’s childhood and his family, questions that Charlie does not want to answer.  Clara knows that Charlie was once billed as the world’s youngest author and sold story books about beetles.  She also knows that he has nightmares every night that usually involve screaming.  She doesn’t know though that Charlie’s dreams are filled with huge black beetles or that the books he sold were not really his own stories.  She doesn’t know that his mother abandoned him, that his father forced him to sell books, that his brother hated him then and still does for abandoning him.  She knows so little, but can Charlie open up and let her see the truth about him without her leaving him entirely?

Willey paints a tragic and painful look at a young man continuing to wrestle with the demons of his childhood.  At 18-years-old, Charlie continues to dream about his past and to live as if it is his future as well.  The book shows how difficult dysfunctional and neglectful childhoods can be to escape, even after one has physically left if behind.  Willey manages to create a past for Charlie that does not become melodramatic.  She makes it painful enough but not too dramatically so. 

Charlie is a very interesting protagonist.  He is not a hero, because he is too damaged to be called that.  He is certainly a survivor, wrestling with things that will not let him go or let him progress.  He is frightened, shy, and can’t see a future for himself.  He is a tragic figure, one that readers will root for entirely, but also one that drips with anger, shame and sadness.  One of the best parts of the novel is the end, which does not end neatly or give a clear path for Charlie.  The ending has hope, but continues the complexity of the issues that Charlie faces.  Perfectly done.

A brilliant and powerful look at neglect and abuse and the long shadow it casts over a life.  Appropriate for ages 14-17.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Carolrhoda Books and Netgalley.

anybody shining

Anybody Shining by Frances O’Roark Dowell

Released September 23, 2014.

12-year-old Arie Mae loves living in the Appalachian Mountains.  She is so proud of her mother, who sings the old songs like an angel and her father who loves modern and traditional music.  All that is missing in her life is a best friend.  Arie Mae starts writing letters to her cousin who lives far away in Baltimore and whose mother had grown up in the mountains.  After sending letter after letter, Arie Mae gets no response, but continues writing anyway, sharing the details of her life and adventures.  Then Arie Mae gets another chance to make a new friend.  A group of children from Baltimore are coming to the mountains along with the song catcher ladies, who will record the traditional songs and who have also created a new school for people to learn traditional crafts that can then be sold.  Arie Mae knows right away that she won’t be friends with the bossy girl who looks down on the mountain children.  But there is a boy with a limp who loves to hear the traditional stories and refuses to let his limp stop him from exploring.  His mother warns Arie Mae that he should not exert himself much because of his health, but nothing is going to slow either of them down now that they are friends and there are woods and mountains to discover together. 

Dowell writes with a beauty that brings the Appalachians to life.  She captures the lifestyle of these people without flinching from the poverty that they live in, but also revealing the incredible simplicity of this life that makes it possible.  She shows the tension between traditional ways of life and the modern world in a very developed way, where the outsiders are the ones who want the traditions to continue and their lives to be undisturbed by modern conventions.  This is a beautiful novel about the power of writing, the question of whether those living in the mountains need saving, and the quest for a best friend.

Arie Mae is a wonderful character.  She is the lens through which we see the mountains and it is her love for them that appears on the page.  So does her voice, which is clarion clear and written with the rhythm of the mountains entwined in it.  Here is a passage from page 22 of the e-galley where she writes to her cousin about how writing has changed her:

I have found that since I started writing letters to you I’ve been paying close attention to all the doings and comings and goings of a day.  It’s like saving secrets to share with a friend late in the evening, when the lights are dimmed but for a single lantern hanging on a neighbor’s porch across the holler.

These are the sorts of images shared throughout the book, sprinkled throughout.  The setting of the mountains is as much a character on the page as Arie Mae is.  And it is brought to life just as vividly.

Strongly written, with beautiful passages, this novel for middle graders invites them to spend time with Arie Mae in the mountains and to join in the adventures.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Atheneum Books for Young Readers and Edelweiss.

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