Category: Book Reviews


map to everywhere

The Map to Everywhere by Carrie Ryan and John Parke Davis

The first book in a new series, this novel invites readers along on a journey into a series of worlds that are tied together by the Pirate Stream, a river of pure magic.  Fin is an orphan with a strange power where no one remembers him after a few minutes, not even the people at the orphanage who cared for him as a child.  He uses that skill to be a master thief, but then he receives a letter with instructions that take him on a quest to find his mother.  Marrill is living in Arizona, a perfectly dull life, when a ship suddenly appears next to her in the desert.  Climbing aboard, she suddenly finds herself on an adventure in the Pirate Stream with a wizard, the ship’s captain, and the crew of rats.  She has to find the parts of the Map in order to make her way home, exactly what Fin also needs to find his mother.  This adventure takes readers to unknown worlds filled with sinister magic, great friendships, and plenty of action.

Ryan and Davis have crafted a wild fantasy novel that is constantly surprising.  Thanks to the strange waters of the Pirate Stream, the travels on board the ship bring readers and the characters to lands that are unique and fascinating.  There is an island of trees that speak and think where rumors and whispers rule.  There is a frozen land with a leaning tower filled with treasure.  There is a bird made from part of the Map that can lead them to the other pieces.  There are mad wizards who create sorrow wherever they go and are determined to destroy themselves and all of the worlds.

While the adventure is a large part of the book, at its heart is the friendship of Marrill and Fin.  Both of them are lonely children before they meet one another, Marrill because she has traveled a lot with her parents and never settled in one place and Fin because everyone forgets him.  Marrill though does not forget Fin, because she cares so deeply.  Their friendship offers both of them riches beyond treasure and delight beyond the adventure.

This strong middle grade fantasy novel will have readers looking forward to the next book and returning to the dangers and wonders of the Pirate Stream.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

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

dory fantasmagory

Dory Fantasmagory by Abby Hanlon

Dory is the youngest in her family and her older siblings won’t play with her at all.  So she is left to play on her own and thanks to her great imagination, Dory has a lot of fun.  Dory has a best friend, Mary, a monster who sleeps under her bed and is always willing to play.  There are also other monsters all over their house.  When Dory continues to bother her brother and sister, they make up a story about Mrs. Gobble Gracker, a horrible woman who steals baby girls and is looking for Dory!  So when the doorbell rings, Dory knows it is Mrs. Gobble Gracker coming for her.  Hopefully the little man who says he’s her fairy godmother will be able to help defeat her.  In the end though it is Dory’s own creativity and bravery that will save her and maybe even get her siblings to play too.

Hanlon brilliantly captures the wild imagination of a little girl who doesn’t slow down for a minute, zinging from one idea to the next even as those around her groan.  Dory could have been a problematic character, but thanks to the book being told from her point of view, readers will get to see how strong a person she is long before she displays it to her family.

Hanlon’s art makes this a book that younger readers will happily pick up and read.  Her black and white illustrations are more than paragraph breaks, they show the story of Dory and all of the characters she dreams up over the course of the day.  On the page, we see what Dory sees, not what her family doesn’t see and it’s quite a world that she has created.

Fast moving, wild and full of laughs, this book is a dynamic introduction to a fresh new face that will appeal to fans of Junie B, Jones.  Appropriate for ages 6-8.

Reviewed from copy received from Dial.

here comes santa cat

Here Comes Santa Cat by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Claudia Rueda

Cat tries out a new disguise in this follow up to Here Comes the Easter Cat.  Cat is worried that he has not been nice enough to get a present from Santa.  So his solution is to become Santa so that he can give himself a present.  Of course, he has to learn how to climb down chimneys, which doesn’t go well.  He also has to figure out how to fly without Santa’s magic reindeer.  Perhaps a jet pack?  He tries giving gifts to children, but they don’t seem to appreciate the fish.  He even tries to decorate a tree, but it too ends in disaster.  What is one naughty cat to do?

Underwood has created a delightful sequel to her first Cat book.  Once again Cat uses signs to communicate with the reader.  The voice of the narrator is one of an adult, making this an ideal book to be read aloud by a teacher or parent.  The rather disapproving but still encouraging tone of the narrator sets up the humor perfectly and with Underwood’s clear sense of comedic timing, the results are hilarious. 

Rueda’s art adds to the zany humor, often serving as the final funny note to a gag.  She uses gentle colors and delicate lines, supporting the storyline clearly.  Her comedic timing too is wonderfully spot on.

A very funny addition to crowded Christmas picture book shelves, save this one to share aloud on Christmas Eve.  Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from copy received from Dial.

sebastian and the balloon

Sebastian and the Balloon by Philip C. Stead

A little boy named Sebastian is having a very boring day even though he is up on the top of the roof where he’s never supposed to be.  So he decides to head on a journey.  First, he packs everything he needs, then he heads for the hot air balloon he made from his grandmother’s afghans and quilts.  He sets off and meets a bear next to a leafless tree.  He offers the bear a pickle sandwich and the bear joins him on his journey.  Flying in the fog, they hear a loud pop and find that a bird has flown into the balloon.  They land atop a a colorful worn house where three sisters help them knit their balloon together again.  As the three elderly ladies work, they mention the time that they went over the mountain as children and found a rollercoaster.  You can guess where they all headed next!

Stead has created a quiet and lovely book here.  It is an adventure book, but somehow it is imbued with a gentleness and dreaminess.  Perhaps it is the balloon flight, the drifting and silence and quiet of that mode of transportation.  Or it could be the fog, the friendly bear, and the three grandmothers.  It all adds up to a wonderfully whimsical book that dances along dreamily.

Stead’s illustrations are always a treat.  I love that his protagonist is a little boy of color, someone who glows against the background, who is resourceful, smart and creative.  The three grandmothers, each with their own color that is also represented in their home, are drawn with a humor that is gentle and gorgeous.  The entire book sings of whimsy and imagination.

Ideal for bedtime reading, this book is sure to create dreams of hot air balloon rides and an array of friends.  Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from copy received from Roaring Brook Press.

madman of piney woods

The Madman of Piney Woods by Christopher Paul Curtis

This companion novel to Elijah of Buxton continues the story of the town of Buxton and the people who live there.  This book, which takes place forty years after the first book, is the story of two boys, Benji and Red.  Benji, who lives in Buxton, dreams of becoming a newspaper reporter.  He has two pesky younger siblings who also happen to be gifted builders with wood.  That doesn’t mean though that Benji doesn’t try to put them in their place when they need it.  Benji also has a way with the forest, spending hours walking the trails and exploring.  He is one of the first to see the Madman of Piney Woods.  Red is a scientist.  He’s been raised by his father and maternal grandmother, who hates anyone who isn’t Irish like she is.  She is strict with Red, smacking him regularly with her cane hard enough to raise a lump.  When the two boys meet, they immediately become friends even though their backgrounds are so different.  But can their friendship withstand the brimming hatred of some people in their communities?

I loved Elijah of Buxton so much and I started this book rather gingerly, hoping that it would be just as special as the original.  Happily, it certainly is.  It has a wonderful feeling to it, a rich storytelling that hearkens back to Mark Twain and other classic boyhood friendship books.  Curtis makes sure that we know how different these two boys are:  one with a large family, the other small, different races, different points of view.  Yet it feels so right when the two boys are immediate friends, readers will have known all along that they suit one another. 

Curtis explores deep themes in this novel, offering relief in the form of the exploits of the two boys as they figure out ways to mess with their siblings and escape domineering grandmothers.  There are scenes that are laugh-out-loud funny.  Other scenes though are gut-wrenching and powerful.  They explore themes like the damage done to the psyche during wars, racism, ambition, responsibility and family ties.  It is a testament to the writing of Curtis that both the humor and the drama come together into an exquisite mix of laughter and tears.

A great novel worthy of following the award-winning original, this book will be met with cheers by teachers and young readers alike.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from Scholastic Press.

pack of dorks

Pack of Dorks by Beth Vrabel

Lucy just knows that this is the biggest recess of her life, because at recess she will kiss Tom and cement herself as a popular fourth grader along with her best friend Becky.  But after the kiss happens, all she has is a ring that turns her finger green and a sinking feeling about what just happened.  Soon after the kiss, Lucy’s baby sister is born.  Her parents are shocked to have a baby with Downs Syndrome and are caught up in coping with the surprise.  That leaves Lucy alone to cope with the sudden turn of events at school where over the course of a few days she goes from being cool and popular to being one of the lamest kids in the class.  Becky calls Lucy at night to tell her all of the mean things that the other kids are saying about her, claiming that she is still Lucy’s friend but can’t be her friend at school anymore.  In the meantime, Lucy starts to make friends with some of the other kids in her class.  She does a project on wolves with Sam, a very quiet boy who is bullied by the same kids.  Out of that project and her growing group of outcast friends, Lucy decides that the only solution for them is to become their own pack.

Vrabel captures elementary school perfectly with its confusing social pressures that keep people conforming to the norm.  She manages to keep everything at just the right level, never becoming melodramatic about the situation.  At the same time, it is clear how devastating the bullying is to Lucy.  While she has a supportive family, they are distracted by the new baby and rightly so.  Her new little sister helps be a guide for Lucy forward, and is a very smart addition to the story, allowing Lucy her growth and also serving as an example of someone who will also need their own pack to support her.

Lucy is a character who becomes more likeable as the book progresses.  At first with her quests for popularity and kisses, Lucy is shallow but after she becomes shunned by the popular crowd she immediately reveals how smart and strong she actually is.  Vrabel’s brilliant combination of wolf packs and middle school bullies adds strength to the entire novel.

A smart book on bullies, differences and disabilities, this novel is one that will make a great read aloud for elementary classes.  Appropriate for ages 8-11.

Reviewed from library copy.

wall

Wall by Tom Clohosy Cole

When the Berlin Wall was built, a boy was separated from his father who was on the other side.  His mother told him that his father was in a place where life was better.  They were not allowed to leave their side of Berlin.  The boy dreamed of his father coming and rescuing them, but he knew that was unlikely to happen.  So he started to plan ways to get past the wall himself.  Other people tried to get past the wall, many of them died in their attempts.  But it was worth the risk to see his father once again, so the boy started digging out in the woods near the wall.  When the tunnel was ready, the boy led his family to it, but along the way they were stopped by a soldier.  Would this be the end of their brave journey to reunite their family?

Cole captures the separation and division caused by the Berlin Wall.  He also clearly shows the fierce drive of a family to reunite and be together once again.  Told in very simple sentences, the book relies on its fine artwork to carry the story.  It is the art that conveys the danger, the deaths and the risks that people took to see loved ones again or to attain freedom. 

The art here is exceptional.  Cole uses lighting on his pages to show the hope of the West versus the darkness and gray of the other side of the wall.  The illustrations are atmospheric and dramatic.  They convey the feeling of isolation and the fear. 

A strong picture book about the Berlin Wall and the power of family and hope.  Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from library copy.

foxs garden

Fox’s Garden by Princesse Camcam

Gorgeously illustrated, this wordless picture book invites readers into a snowy world.  A fox finds her way into a village, warm lit against the cold snow that is falling.  She is shooed away by several people but discovers an open greenhouse.  A little boy sees her enter and brings her a basket of food.  Now there is a fox with four baby foxes nursing.  Soon after, the mother fox leads her kits to the boy’s room where they plant flowers from the greenhouse into his rug which he discovers in the morning.  The five foxes disappear back into the woods.

Done in cut-paper illustrations, the images have a beautiful 3-D quality to them.  You want to stroke the page and think that you will be able to lift flaps, so strong are the images. Against the white and gray snow and woods, the characters pop.  The fox gloriously orange in the snow and the little boy wearing red. 

Camcam lights her paper work beautifully as well, almost as if it were a stage.  She conveys the welcoming warmth of the light in the village, the yellow of the windows lit against the storm.  More subtly, she plays with shadows and underlighting in specific scenes, showing the cold and the night clearly.

This is a haunting picture book, done with an immense delicacy and skill.  Simply beautiful.  Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from copy received from Enchanted Lion Books.

iridescence of birds

The Iridescence of Birds: A Book about Henri Matisse by Patricia MacLachlan, illustrations by Hadley Hooper

Henri Matisse grew up in a town in northern France that was cold, gray and dreary.  But his mother filled their world with color with the plates that she painted with nature scenes.  She also let Henri mix the paint colors.  He was also the person who arranged the fruit and flowers that they bought in the market, on the blue and white tablecloth.  Red rugs adorned the walls of their house, filling it with color too and making the whole world turn red.  Henri also raised pigeons with their iridescent feathers.  And all of these elements of his childhood came together in his work as an adult, reflecting the color that one can see in the dreariest of towns.

MacLachlan has written this picture book in an unusual second person, inviting the reader to feel the environment just as Matisse himself did as a child.  The slow reveal of the richness of his childhood at home plays beautifully against the original gray and dullness of the outside.  It is as if he was given another world to grow up in, one of colors and delight.  Though when readers really look at it, it is about small things, tiny touches, being surrounded by paint, and of course the brilliance of pigeons too.

The illustrations by Hooper are rich and saturated with color.  Done in a combination of relief printmaking and digital formats, the book has a grounding in the solidity of printmaking that gives it texture and a feeling of tradition.  Playing against that is the modern lightness of the little boy, surrounded by the color and delight of his home.  It’s an exquisite pairing.

Rich, detailed and delightful, this picture book biography of the inspiration that Matisse found in his childhood home is sure to invite young readers to find their own sources of inspiration around them.  Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from copy received from Roaring Brook Press.

give and take

Give and Take by Chris Raschka

A farmer who grows apples discovers a strange little man out in his orchard just as his apples are ready to pick.  The little man is named Take and he encourages the farmer to listen to him so that he can have a fine life.  Though the farmer already has a fine life, Take promises to make it better.  So the farmer goes through his day taking everything.  He takes all of his neighbors pumpkins when she offers him some.  He takes her advice to make pumpkin soup, and he takes a long hike.  Left wishing he had some apples to eat, he kicks out Take the next morning.  Then when he visits his orchard that morning, he meets another little man named Give.  Give promises to make his life sweeter, so once again the farmer tries.  He gives everything away, including his apples and all of his opinions.  He is left hungry another night and kicks Give out.  But in the morning, he discovers the two little men fighting with one another.  Can a farmer outwit these two battling forces?

Raschka has written this picture book with the tone of a fable.  Readers will immediately see Take as a selfish force and then think that Give is the angelic voice.  But Raschka’s take is more nuanced than that, showing the harm in being too giving with everything in your life and how it can turn toxic and harmful too.  He then goes about having his farmer propose a balance of giving and taking in life.  The result is a book that has balance, a folkloric rhythm and tone, and is a great read aloud and opportunity for discussion.

Raschka’s illustrations are his trademark flowing and free style.  He uses watercolors contained with thick black lines.  The bright red of the farmer’s nose and the apples pop on the page along with the pink pig and the orange pumpkins.  As always, his book is art, changing with each turn of the page as the story is told.

Perfect for discussions about balance, generosity and greed, this picture book is a great balance of art and folklore itself.  Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from copy received from Atheneum.

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