Category: Book Reviews


sam and dave dig a hole

Sam & Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett, Illustrated by Jon Klassen

Barnett and Klassen are an amazing picture book duo who have created with this book an instant classic.  Sam and Dave are two friends who set out to dig a hole on Monday.  They decide that they won’t stop digging until they find “something spectacular.”  They keep digging, deeper and deeper, missing jewels by just a few inches.  They stop and have chocolate milk and animal cookies and then continue to dig.  Maybe another direction will help them find treasure?  But readers will see as they take the turn that they miss the biggest gem yet.  The dog that is along with them though seems to realize that there are things right under the surface, but Sam and Dave don’t pay any attention to him.  They dig and dig, missing everything along the way until they are right above a dog bone.  The two boys take a nap and their dog continues to dig down until suddenly they are falling down from the hole into a world very like their own.  Readers who are paying close attention though will realize that it is a subtly different place.

Children love to dig in the dirt and I think every child has dreamed of digging a truly great hole and finding something amazing.  Barnett keeps his text very straight-forward and simple, allowing the humor to be in the near misses of the illustrations and the perceptiveness of the little dog.  It is this frank delivery that makes the humor of the illustrations really work, giving them a platform to build off of.  The ending is wonderfully open-ended, and some readers will miss the subtle differences and assume they are back home again.  Others though will see the changes and realize that no matter what Sam and Dave have discovered their “spectacular” something.

Klassen’s illustrations are wonderful.  I adore the way that he lets his characters look out from the page to the reader.  He did the same thing in both of his great “Hat” picture books and there is a strong connection from the page to the people enjoying the book.  His illustrations have a textured feel to them, an organic nature that reads particularly well in this dirt-filled world. 

An instant classic and one that will get readers talking about the open ending.  Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from library copy.

mortal heart

Mortal Heart by Robin LaFevers

Released November 4, 2014.

The third in the His Fair Assassin trilogy, this book follows a third sister from the convent of Mortain.  Annith has been kept at the convent longer than her two friends and has never been sent on assignment.  Now she has excelled at all of her training to such an extent that she has surpassed the skills of many of her teachers.  With their Seeress very ill, Annith is proposed to be the next Seeress for the convent, but that would mean that she would never leave, be stuck in stuffy rooms all the rest of her life, and would never put her skills to use.  So Annith works to make sure that the existing Seeress survives her illness, spending long hours nursing her back to health.  When she discovers that even then she will not be sent into the field, she begins to question whether the convent and the Abbess are truly doing the work of Mortain.  So Annith escapes, heading out to see what Mortain has planned for her and her life.  Soon Annith is caught up in the perils of traveling across a war-torn country, fighting for her and her country’s freedom, and falling in love.

LaFevers ends her trilogy on a high note with this book about Annith.  Her trilogy has focused on a different daughter of Mortain in each book, offering a strong cohesion across the series but also a unique perspective and voice with each new protagonist.  Each of the girls is quite different from the other, yet all of them have their demons to face and problems to overcome.  Placed against a backdrop of war and political intrigue, the books ride that wave of ferocity, honor and strategy to great effect.

Annith herself is a very intriguing character.  While the other two books in the series showed her as friendly but rather aloof, this book delves deeply into her motivations and how she came to be the person she is.  As each layer is revealed, her complex personality makes sense and as she begins to leverage it to create the life she wants and deserves, she becomes all the more passionate and powerful.  LaFevers writing is so readable, it gallops along at a fast pace but also is clearly trained and focused. 

A fitting end to a grand trilogy, I can’t wait to see what LaFevers has for us next!  Appropriate for ages 14-17.

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

book with no pictures

The Book with No Pictures by B. J. Novak

No pictures?  In a picture book?  Is it still a picture book?  Is it still for preschoolers?  The answer is a resounding yes!  And even better, this is a book filled with words and no images that preschoolers will delight in.  First, the audience is told that the rule with reading a book aloud is that the reader has to say everything that is on the page, whether they like it or not.  Even if the words are nonsense, even if they have to be sung, even if they insult themselves.  Completely silly, this picture book is filled with funny things the reader has to say aloud and then clever asides about what the reader is thinking to themselves.

Novak understands child humor wonderfully.  Reading this book to a group of preschoolers will be a delight, particularly when they realize that the author has you under their control.  Play up your dismay at having to be silly and you will have the children rolling with laughter.  Novak walks the line perfectly here, never taking the joke too far into being mean, but keeping it just naughty enough to intrigue youngsters to listen closely. 

This is one of those picture books that you save to end a story time, since it is guaranteed to keep the attention of the entire group of children.  It’s a winner!  Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from copy received from Dial.

stratford zoo macbeth

The Stratford Zoo Midnight Revue Presents: Macbeth by Ian Lendler, illustrated by Zack Giallongo

When the gates shut at night at The Stratford Zoo, the animals come out to play.  They steal the keys from one of the zoo keepers as they leave and all of the cages are unlocked.  Vendors walk the aisles selling treats like peanuts and earthworms to the growing crowd.  Then on stage, the theater begins with the lion as Macbeth.  After meeting with the witches, the question is whether Macbeth will eat the king.  Lady Macbeth proposes different preparations to make the king taste better, and Macbeth finally succumbs and eats the king.  But then, as with any Shakespearean tragedy, others must be eaten too.  This is a wild and wonderful combination of Shakespeare, hungers both human and animal, and plenty of humor.

Lendler takes great liberties with Shakespeare’s Macbeth.  He combines all of the moments that people remember in the play, from Lady Macbeth trying to wash out the spots of blood to the visits to the three witches and the way their predictions play out.  He also adds in lots of slapstick comedy, plenty of asides from the audience and actors, and also shortens the play substantially. 

Giallongo’s art is colorful and dramatic.  He plays up the drama of the ketchup stains, the growing stomach of the lion, and the ambitions of Lady Macbeth.  Comic moments are captured with plenty of humor visually.  This zoo is filled with fur, claws, fun and drama.

A perfect combination of Shakespeare and wild animal humor, this will please those who know Macbeth and people knew to the play alike.  Appropriate for ages 8-12.

Reviewed from copy received from First Second.

call me tree

Call Me Tree: lámame árbol by Maya Christina Gonzalez

Released November 1, 2014.

This poetic picture book combines a celebration of trees with one of human diversity.  A boy starts to grow under the earth, reaching his arm up to break the surface of the ground.  His arm and fingers becomes a trunk and branches and soon he too is up in the air next to his tree.  Just as trees have freedom, so does he.  Just as each tree is different from another, he is different from the other people too.  Yet they all have roots and they all belong on the earth and in the world.

This very simple book is written like a free verse poem in both English and Spanish, closely tying biodiversity to human diversity in a clever way.  The connection of humans and trees is beautifully shown as well, in a way that ties each person to a tree like them.  It’s a book that is radiant in its delight in our connection to nature and the way that nature’s diversity reflects on our own.

Gonzalez both wrote and illustrated this picture book.  Her illustrations are colorful with deep colors that leap on the page.  The characters on the page are bold and different, each with their own feel of exuberance or quiet contemplation or strength.  Along with each different child, there is a tree connected to them that equally reflects their personality.  It’s a very clever way to clearly tie humans to nature.

This book could serve as inspiration for children to draw their own personal trees that express themselves or it can be a lullaby to dreams of blue skies and green leaves.  Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Edelweiss and Children’s Book Press.

any questions

Any Questions? by Marie-Louise Gay

Where do stories come from?  How are books made?  These questions that authors often get from children are the subject of this picture book from an author who has written and illustrated many picture books.  Together the author and a group of children asking delighted questions create a story right in front of the reader.  They take inspiration from the kind of paper the story is written on, the colors of the page.  They talk about how ideas happen, and how sometimes they are great ideas but don’t become a book or that not all ideas fit into a single story.  Ideas sometimes don’t appear and you have to wait for them, doodling and dreaming of other things until they arrive.  And then something happens, and it starts to become a story!  The children in the book get involved and the story takes a surprising turn.  Luckily story telling is flexible and able to deal with wild purple monsters who come out of the woods.  This is a great look at the creative process and how books are made, written at a level that preschool children will enjoy and understand.

Gay is so open and inviting in this picture book.  She is refreshingly candid about the creative process and all of the bumps and twists along the way.  The invitation to the reader along with the child characters in the book to be part of creating a story is warm and friendly.  All ideas are welcome, some work and other don’t, and that is all embraced as part of creativity. 

Gay’s illustrations continue the cheerfulness of the text.  They combine writing in cursive with story panels and speech bubbles with characters in the book.  It’s all a wonderful mix of styles that gets your creativity flowing.

Expect children to want to write their own stories complete with illustrations after reading this!  Appropriate for ages 5-7.

Reviewed from library copy.

lies we tell ourselves

Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

In 1959, desegregation of schools had become law and could no longer be delayed but that does not mean that it was welcomed.  Sarah Dunbar and her younger sister are two of the first black students to attend Jefferson High School.  She walks a gauntlet the first day of school just to enter the building where adults and students alike spit on her, scream racist remarks, and throw things.  It doesn’t get much better inside with the abusive language continuing, no one willing to sit near the black students in class, and the teachers doing nothing to stop it.  Linda Hairston is one of the white students that attends Jefferson High.  She is also the daughter of the owner of the local newspaper, a man who is fiercely critical of the attempts at desegregation.  Linda has been taught all of her life to fear her father and to keep separate from black people.  Forced to work together on a school project, Linda and Sarah spend more time together and learn about each other.  To make things more complicated, they are also attracted to one another, something that neither of their communities could understand much less embrace.  This is a powerful story about two girls caught in a city at war about desegregation where their own secrets could get them killed.

Talley has created one of the most powerful fictional books about desegregation I have seen.  Using the worst of racist terms that flow like water across the page, again and again, yet never becoming numbing, the language alone is shocking and jarring for modern readers.  Add in the physical and emotional abuse that the black students suffered and you begin to realize the pressure that they were under not only to survive day to day but to excel and prove that they are worthy to be in the school.  The gradual transformation of the attitudes of both Sarah and Linda are done believably and honestly.  Nicely, Linda is not the only one who grows and changes in the process.

Adding in the LGBT element was a brave choice.  While the book is about desegregation as much of the story, the attraction and relationship of the two girls is an equally powerful part of the book.  Modern readers will understand their need for secrecy and somehow the hatred of gay people allows readers to better understand the hatred of African-Americans depicted on the page.  It is clear by the end that bigotry is bigotry and love is love, no matter the color or the sex.  Talley beautifully ties the two issues together in a way that strengthens them both.

Powerful, wrenching and brutal, this book has heroines of unrivaled strength and principles that readers will fear for and cheer for.  Appropriate for ages 14-17.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Harlequin Teen and Edelweiss.

little melba and her big trombone

Little Melba and Her Big Trombone by Katheryn Russell-Brown, illustrated by Frank Morrison

Melba had always loved the sounds of music: blues, jazz and gospel.  Even when she slept notes and rhythms were in her dreams.  When she signed up for music class at school, Melba picked out a long horn that was almost as big as she was.  Melba practiced and practiced, teaching herself to play.  Soon she was on the radio at age 8, playing a solo.  When Melba was in sixth grade, she moved from Kansas City to Los Angeles where she became a star player in the high school band.  When she was 17, she was invited to go on tour with a jazz band.  She played with some of the greats, but she was one of the only women on tour and racism in the South was harrowing.  Melba decided to quit, but her fans would not let her.  All of the top jazz acts in the 1950s wanted her to play with them.  So Melba came back, went on more tours, and her music conquered the world.

This picture book biography of Melba Doretta Liston shows how music virtuosos are born.  Her connection with music from such a young age, her determination to learn to play her selected instrument, and her immense talent make for a story that is even better than fiction.  Melba faced many obstacles on the way to her career but overcame them all.  She survived the Great Depression, found her musical voice early and then professionally.  She also had the challenges of sexism and racism to overcome on her way to greatness.  This is all clearly shown on the page and really tells the story of a woman made of music and steel (or brass).

Morrison’s art beautifully captures the life of Liston on the page.  His paintings are done in rich colors, filled with angles of elbows, horns and music, they leap on the page.  They evoke the time period and the sense of music and jazz. 

Put on some Dizzy Gillespie with Melba Liston playing in the band and share this triumphant picture book with music and band classes.  Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Lee & Low Books and Edelweiss.

rain reign

Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin

Rose loves homonyms.  She spends her days looking for new ones to add to her list, and then once she gets home adding them or rewriting the entire list if she runs out of space.  Her dog Rain has a name that has two homonyms: reign and rein, which is why she picked it.  Her father also gave her Rain on a rainy night.  He found Rain wandering around after he left the bar one night.  Rain is one of the best things in Rose’s life, since her father spends most evenings drinking at the bar and Rose spends them alone.  Luckily, she also has her uncle in her life.  He takes her to school, helps her find new homonyms, and protects her when necessary from her father when he loses patience with Rose.  Then a fierce storm hits their town and Rose’s father lets Rain out into the storm and she disappears.  Rose’s father refuses to explain why he let Rain out in a storm and also refuses to help Rose find her dog.  It is up to Rose to find Rain so she devises her own plan and calls on her uncle for help.  But when she finds Rain, she also discovers that Rain has other owners and Rose has to make a heartbreaking choice about right and wrong and love.

Martin captures a truly dysfunctional family on the page here.  Rose’s father is brutal, cruel and a constant threat in her life.  At the same time, the book glimmers with hope all of the time.  Rose herself is not one to dwell on the shortcomings of her life, preferring to immerse herself in her words, her dog and her time with her uncle.  Martin manages to balance both the forces of love and fear in this book, providing hope for children living with parents like this but also not offering a saccharine take on what is happening. 

Rose is an amazing character.  She talks about having Asperger’s syndrome and OCD.  She is the only child in her class with a full-time aide and it is clear from her behaviors in class that she needs help.  Yet again Martin balances this.  She shows how Rose attempts to reach out to her classmates and then how Rain helps make that possible and how Rose manages to use her own disability as a bridge to help others cope in times of loss.  It’s a beautiful and important piece of the story.

A dark book in many ways, this book shines with strong writing, a heroic young female protagonist and always hope.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from Feiwel and Friends.

hug machine

Hug Machine by Scott Campbell

A little boy considers himself a hug machine in this fanciful cheerful picture book.  All day long the hug machine goes around giving hugs, because he is simply the best at hugging.  He cannot be resisted.  His hugs do many things, they can calm you down, cheer you up.  He hugs objects, animals, and crying babies.  He even hugs things that never get hugged, like porcupines (but not without the proper protection).  Huge whales are not too big for him to hug either.  What is the secret to his amazing hugging?  Plenty of pizza for power and knowing when he is too tired to hug anymore and just needs to be hugged by someone else.

Campbell uses simple text in this picture book, focusing mostly on the action of hugging a lot on each page.  He uses repeating structures but always throws in a nice little twist or change up that keeps the book fun to read.  The entire book exudes the warmth of a hug and the wry little touches of humor add to that feeling.  I must also say that having a book with a male character who loves being hugged and giving hugs is refreshing.  It’s also a pink book about a boy, hallelujah!

The art in the book is wonderfully warm and cozy.  It captures not only the loving hugs of the boy but the various reactions by the things being hugged.  Readers will find that the text often does not match what is happening on the page, making for more comic moments in the book.  After all this is the hug machine telling the tale, so he thinks people are a lot more excited to be hugged than they may actually be.

A loving and hug-filled book that avoids being too sweet and instead is a bright cheerful picture book perfect for sharing.  Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from copy received from Atheneum Books for Young Readers.

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