Category: Book Reviews

The King and the Sea by Heinz Janisch

The King and the Sea by Heinz Janisch, illustrated by Wolf Erlbruch

Told in 21 tiny stories, this is the life of a king as he moves through the world he rules and encounters the many ways in which a king is just as powerless as any human. The king declares again and again that he is king, but things like the ocean are not impressed and others like the queen bee assert their own authority over his. Other times, the king is reminded of more important things than power, like spending time in the sunshine, letting the rain wash over his face, and the importance of the stars in the sky.

This lovely picture book is stunningly effective. The short stories are wonderfully brief, all of them less than half a page of text. Each is profound in its own way, showing the importance of the here and now, the limitation of personal power over the universe, and a quiet acceptance of the way things simply are. Translated from the German, the short stories keep their quiet power and their truth.

Erlbruch’s illustrations are delightfully childlike and yet sophisticated too. The King is drawn as a cutout of construction paper drawn on with what looks like crayons. The background he is against in each dual page spread changes, sometimes with elegant vintage prints, other times with the blue of the sea and still others with the simplicity of white snow.

A completely surprising and amazing picture book, this one is perfect for sharing whether with one child or many and looking forward to the discussions it generates. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from library copy.

Two Mice by Sergio Ruzzier

Two Mice by Sergio Ruzzier

Count from one to three and back down to one again in this funny picture book. Three cookies don’t split evenly between two mice, but then neither does only one pair of oars when they head out on the water. Three rocks in the water make two holes in their boat. Luckily there is one island with two trees, which actually are the feet of a giant bird. The two mice cry three tears as they are carried up to be food for three chicks. All it takes is one nest to make their one escape. Back home, the two mice make one soup out of the perfect number of ingredients.

Ruzzier’s counting book is a gem. He cleverly uses the counting as a solid foundation for this story, each moment led forward by the numbers. At the same time, this shows his immense skill as he is able to keep the book funny, warm and dynamic without it becoming too filled with sing-song or too weighted by the structure itself. The story is almost effortless as it reads aloud, each number leaping to the next with the story the focus too.

The art too is jaunty and fun. The bright colors are infused throughout the landscape with clouds and the water ranging from pinks to yellows to oranges. Everything is done in unusual colors except the two main characters who are distinct in their bright white.

A clever counting book, this will make a great pick for bedtime or beginning counters. Appropriate for ages 2-4.

Reviewed from library copy.

Illuminae by Amie Kaufman

Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff (InfoSoup)

Released October 20, 2015.

Kady picked the worst time possible to break up with Ezra: just as their planet was attacked. The two of them manage to survive and are taken into space on two different ships in the fleet. The fleet must keep moving in order to escape the final ship from the attacking forces. As they travel, Kady becomes a hacker, looking at files and documents that only the commanding officers of the fleet would usually see. Ezra becomes a pilot, manning a small spaceship in battles. The two of them can only communicate through texts with one another and when communication between the two ships is shut down, it is up to Kady to reconnect them using her hacking skills. But connecting with each other may be the last thing on their minds as a combination of a deadly plague and an insane artificial intelligence threatens all of them.

This brilliant novel uses documents that recreate the events on the fleet, the hacking of Kady, the piloting by Ezra, and their communications with one another. They are documents from an investigation that takes place afterwards, piecing together what happened to the people aboard the ships. The documents are an amazing mix of different formats which keeps the long novel fresh and fast moving. The documents create a story of mysteries and then horror as the plague takes effect. Horrible and devastating choices must be made that have consequences for many, the tension is tremendous throughout the book and just grows even more ferocious as the novel continues. It’s diabolically plotted in a wonderful twisted way.

The design of this book is gorgeous. Pages loop with text as missiles and space ships weave and fight. Other pages for heartbeats, images made of words. For me, the best part of the book is the artificial intelligence after it has been damaged. It is beyond human, smarter than us all, asking questions that an AI should not be posing, and feeling things that no AI should feel. It is death, life and wonder rolled into one. Brilliance and darkness at the same time.

A glorious science fiction read for teens, this book has romance yes, but at its heart it is a dynamic horror story set in the vacuum of space. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from ARC received from Alfred A. Knopf.

Fur Fins and Feathers by Cassandre Maxwell

Fur, Fins and Feathers: Abraham Dee Bartlett and the Invention of the Modern Zoo by Cassandre Maxwell

As a child, Abraham loved animals. He read all about them, even as he started working as a curator at the Museum of Natural History. As a child he also saw the way that animals were treated, lined up in small cages where they could barely move as people paid to view them. Abraham’s exhibits drew the attention of the members of the London Zoological Society and when they discovered his broad knowledge of animals, they asked him to be the next superintendent of the zoo. Abraham found innovative and kind ways to work with injured animals. He also began labeling exhibits with information about the animals in addition to their names. He figured out that animals need specific diets. Finally, he began to expand the way that the animals were kept, creating larger enclosures filled with trees, where the animals were healthier and people could still view them.

Maxwell has written a captivating biography of Bartlett that focuses on the way that his personal interest in animals led him to revolutionize zoos. Young readers will be dismayed and startled to see the small cages animals were kept in and as the book progresses, they will see the transformation to the modern zoos they know today.

The cut-paper art has an old-fashioned feel that beautifully conveys the 19th century time period. Maxwell incorporates small details of fashion and decor that firmly keep the setting in the past. There are clever touches of other papers with special textures or patterns that make the illustrations worth looking at closely.

A clever and fascinating biography of the man who created modern zoos, this book would be a welcome read for any class before a trip to the zoo. Appropriate for ages 7-11.

Reviewed from copy received from Eerdmans Books for Young Readers.

Mamas Nightingale by Edwidge Danticat

Mama’s Nightingale: A Story of Immigration and Separation by Edwidge Danticat, illustrated by Leslie Staub

Saya’s mother has been taken to an immigration detention center and held for three months. Saya misses her a lot, spending time at night listening to her mother’s voice on the answering machine. Her Papa spends his evenings writing to judges and the media to find help, but no one ever responds. Every week, Saya and Papa go to visit her mother, but it is always hard to leave her behind again. Then Saya’s mother starts to record stories for her, all based on Haitian folk tales, some sad and some happy. Saya decides to write her own letter to the media and gains their attention. Soon Mama is brought before a judge due to the pressure brought by the media and viewers. The judge allows her to return home until her papers arrive.

Danticat is a National Book Award winner for her adult books. In her Author’s Note she speaks to the impact of immigration and separation in her own childhood. In the United States in recent years, over 70,000 parents of American-born children have been jailed or deported. This is an issue impacting every community in our country. Danticat offers not only a view of how this separation affects a child, but also a way forward for both children to feel they are doing something to help and parents who are jailed to stay in touch with their children through stories from their heritage. Beautifully written, this picture book sings the message of diversity, inclusion and humanity.

The illustrations by Staub are lush and colorful. They show the power of the human voice and shared stories in a visual way, swirling the page with images of Mama as well as from the stories being shared. The colors of joy infuse the pages just as the colors of sorrow appear on others. It is a very effective way to show the myriad of emotions that Saya is feeling.

An important book that is beautifully written and illustrated, this picture book belongs in every library. Appropriate for ages 5-8.

Reviewed from copy received from Dial Books for Young Readers.

Flutter and Hum by Julie Paschkis

Flutter & Hum: Animal Poems by Julie Paschkis (InfoSoup)

In short poems in both Spanish and English, animals are explored in the way that they move and live in their habitats. The book begins with a slithering snake poem that hisses on the page. Other poems include black crows hopping and cawing, the slow movement of a black cow in a golden field, fleeting glimpses of a deer, and the shine of an owl at night. Still other poems focus on domestic pets like dogs and cats who fill the page with their personalities captured in verse on the page.

I was surprised to read in the Author’s Note at the end of the book that Paschkis is not a native Spanish speaker nor a poet. It was Spanish that allowed her to find her poetic voice, which is just as special as her art. She effectively uses her verse in both languages to convey the essence of the animal, celebrating what makes them unique. The poems are stand alone and strong, easily adapted to the classroom for specific units and subjects.

As always, Paschkis’ illustrations are gorgeous. They have a folkart flair about them and have words in both Spanish and English woven into them that let the words become part of the art in a very concrete way. It also gives these bilingual poems a new way to convey the dance of the two languages next to one another.

A dazzling collection of poems, it is welcome both for its bilingual elements and the alluring combination of words and art. Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from copy received from Henry Holt and Co.

Some Things Ive Lost by Cybele Young

Some Things I’ve Lost by Cybèle Young (InfoSoup)

Explore a world of lost items that when lost change and grow and become something else. Figure one is a roller skate, laces flying that was last seen in the basement. Turn the foldout page to see it become something ethereal and unreal. The visor on the next page that was last seen on the lawn grows into something organic and living. One-by-one objects change into a landscape of imagination, becoming something far different than where they began but still having connections to the original object in form and color.

Done with almost no text except a description of the original items and where they were lost, this book is all about the incredible illustrations. Done in 3-D paper art, Young created not just the original object and the final transformation, but several stages in between where you see the clear connection between where we began and what it became. Part way through the book, readers will start to notice an underwater theme to the transformations, as we see coral, jellyfish, fish and anemones. There is a delicacy and luminous quality to the entire book, showing both the lack of permanence and the power of imagination.

Brilliant, surreal and completely amazing, this picture book is an inspiring look at creativity and imagination. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from library copy.

The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness

The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness

The town that Mikey lives in has been hit by more than its share of strange things. There were the vampires, soul-eating ghosts and the zombies. But Mikey isn’t one of the kids who would get caught up in those situations. He’s not an indie kid, just a normal kid who wants to graduate from high school in a few weeks, maybe kiss one of his closest friends, go to the prom, and just spend time together with the people he loves. But life isn’t that simple and strange things are happening around the town with blue lights glowing, angry cops with blue glowing eyes, dead deer that come back to life, and much more. Mikey is all ready to blame the new kid for everything, including his own inability to date Henna. And Mikey is having to deal with his own OCD returning, unable to stop washing his hands until they are bleeding. Then there’s the problem of his dad’s drinking and his mother’s inattention as she runs her new political campaign. Even Mikey’s older sister is struggling again with her eating disorder. As graduation nears and the town gets even more unstable, Mikey must learn more about himself and his friends before he can realize just how amazing life really is.

Ness adroitly combines several genres in this novel for teens. There are the real-life teen elements of parental dysfunction and mental illness. Those are cleverly combined with a fantasy novel that has children of cat gods, magical elves, and bodies that are used as vessels. And finally, there is the perfect ironic twist of being a parody of popular teen novels like Twilight. Ness does this final piece by having the events of a Twilight-like novel happening around the characters but rarely to them, the story of those events is told in quick manner at the beginning of each chapter and then left aside as Mikey and his story takes center stage with its brilliant mix of magic and normal.

It is that delightful genre bending that makes this book so special. But it is also the fact that though Ness is poking fun at some of the more popular genre tropes, he is also writing a great book that will please fans of those books too. The parody is there yes, but underneath that is a novel that has truly human characters who love one another, struggle with their own failings, yearn for more in life, and work hard to make sure that those they love are protected and cared for. It’s a novel with a true heart, one that is not ironic in any way, but gorgeous and honest.

A fascinating read, this teen novel will have you laughing at the parody while all the time enjoying the real depth of its characters. Appropriate for ages 14-17.

Reviewed from ARC received from HarperTeen.

Zen Socks by Jon J Muth

Zen Socks by Jon J. Muth (InfoSoup)

Stillwater, the giant panda, returns for another picture book filled with Buddhist wisdom. The book takes a look at different ways to reach wisdom. The first section of the book looks to sharing a story as a way to learn. It’s a story about learning too, about the importance of patience, practice and hard work. The next story focuses more on action as a learning tool, about being a bad guy and being a good person, and more positive ways to manage conflict. The final part of the picture book is about taking action to help even if you think your small action won’t make any difference to the world.

The entire book shines with Stillwater’s quiet and wise presence. His guidance is done with subtlety and kindness, modeling the way that parents can inspire different ways of thinking in their children. The stories while based on old tales are also effortlessly modern in their presentation here. These are lessons that transcend any age and remain all the more true in our current world.

Muth’s illustrations are luminous and lovely. They are filled with light and humor, inviting children outdoors to play and explore without ever mentioning it as a goal. As in all of his Zen books, Stillwater is a major presence that demonstrates the importance of having a child’s mind in his playfulness and also being engaged in his community as he teaches the children new ways to see the world.

Another brilliant Zen book, this picture book will be embraced by Buddhists and others looking for some quiet wisdom in our busy world. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from copy received from Scholastic.

In Over and On the Farm by Ethan Long

In, Over and On the Farm by Ethan Long

Following his Geisel Award-winning Up, Tall and High, Long returns to prepositions. Four animals friends have adventures on the farm in this easy reader. Broken into three short stories, each story focuses on one pair of prepositions. Chicken can’t get in the coop, so she is left out in the rain, until she realizes that everyone else is warm and dry in there, so she orders them to get out. In the next story, Chicken can’t get over the fence or go under it either. Luckily Cow has another solution for her, go around! In the last story, Pig is on the tractor and Cow and Goat join him there. When they are all on the tractor though, it starts to roll away and soon they are all thrown off. But they want to go on it again.

Long is a very prolific author and excels at creating books for beginning readers which are a winning mix of humor and simplicity. It also helps that he is a natural storyteller and so his short stories in the book have the feel of being complete tales despite their brevity. His characters are also universal, in their group and individual dynamics. The book is entirely relatable by children and will be enjoyed in classrooms looking at prepositions as well as by individual readers.

Long’s illustrations are funny and filled with a cartoon appeal. The colors are candy-bright and even gray rainy days are tinged in lavender. The incorporation of a few flaps to lift is also very appealing for young readers who will enjoy that the twist for each story is revealed in a physical way.

Silly and very easy to read, these stories have massive appeal. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

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


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