Category: Book Reviews


fox and the crow

The Fox and the Crow by Manasi Subramaniam, illustrated by Culpeo S. Fox

A new version of a classic Aesop fable, this picture book explores the tale of Fox and Crow.  Crow is all set to perch with his fellows on a wire but then smells the bread cooling in a window below.  Down he swoops and heads into the woods with it.  But Fox is there too, sneaking along.  Fox howls, singing beneath Crow.  Crow must respond in song, opens his mouth and down falls the bread into Fox’s waiting mouth below.  It’s a tale we all know, but told in such a masterful way that it is made new again.

Subramaniam’s text adds to the drama of this short tale.  This is writing with lushness and body, using words that will stretch young children in just the right way.  Words like raucous, wafting, twilight and temptress fill the story and enrich it.  They cleverly play up the darkness, the wildness and the tricks that are being played.

Fox’s illustrations are just as rich and dark.  Each illustration is a painting that stands on its own in composition and beauty.  Fox uses spatters to add texture to his deep color palette that evokes the encroaching twilight and evening.  On some pages the colors of the sunset enter, adding more drama.

A reinvention of an old tale, this is an incredible new telling.  Appropriate for ages 4-7.

Reviewed from library copy.

hidden

Hidden: A Child’s Story of the Holocaust by Loic Dauvillier, illustrated by Marc Lizano and Greg Salsedo

Translated from French, this graphic novel delicately but powerfully explains the impact of the Nazis on a child.  Told by a grandmother to her granddaughter, this is the story of Dounia, a young Jewish girl whose life changes when the Nazis come to Paris.  First she has to wear a yellow star, then she stops attending school, and finally her parents are taken away and she is sheltered by neighbors.  She has to call the neighbor woman “mother” even though she doesn’t want to.  The two flee Paris and head to the countryside where Dounia is able to live comfortably with enough food, but worries all the time about whether she will ever see her parents again.  This is a book about families but also about those people thrown together by horrors who become family to one another to survive.

Dauvallier first offers a glimpse of what Dounia’s life was like just before the Nazis arrived.  Quickly though, the book changes and becomes about persecution and the speed of the changes that Jews in France and other countries had to endure.  Isolation from society was one of the first steps taken, the loss of friends and mentors, then the fear of being taken away or shot entered.  But so did bravery and sacrifice and heroism.  It is there that this book stays, keeping the horrors at bay just enough for the light to shine in.

The art work is powerful but also child friendly.  The characters have large round heads that show emotions clearly.  There are wonderful plays of light and dark throughout the book that also speak to the power of the Nazis and the vital power of fighting back in big ways and small. 

A powerful graphic novel, this book personalizes the Holocaust and offers the story of one girl who survived with love and heroism.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from First Second.

tap tap boom boom

Tap Tap Boom Boom by Elizabeth Bluemle, illustrated by G. Brian Karas

Join a group of city kids as a thunderstorm bursts overhead.  It starts with just a “tap tap” of rain and the umbrellas come out.  Then a “boom boom” enters and a “crackle” of lightning too.  Puddles form and the wind swells.  So the children head down into the subway to get underground.  Lots of people gather and shelter in the subway, including some very wet dogs that shake themselves dry on everyone.  People stop, talk with one another, share umbrellas.  Then the storm ends and there is a gorgeous surprise in the sky.

Bluemle offers a jaunty rhythm in her poem that also has rhymes that work well.  She captures the unexpected nature of a summer storm and combines it with the camaraderie that forms when people shelter together.  This is a very positive book, one that has all different sorts of people put together in one large urban community. 

Karas’ illustrations are done in his signature style.  His pictures are a mix of drawings, paintings and photographs.  The combination creates a slick urban feel with added warmth from his very personable characters who fill up the space. 

A great choice for thundery spring weather, this picture book celebrates storms.  Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from library copy.

fly worm

The Fly by Elise Gravel

The Worm by Elise Gravel

The first and second books in the new Disgusting Critters series of nonfiction picture books, these books take a humorous look at the biology of a specific creature.  The first book deals with flies, specifically the common house fly.  Inside are all sorts of interesting facts like the fly being covered in hair and information on eggs and maggots.  More disgusting aspects are played up, which should appeal to young children, like the diet of flies and how germ filled they are and why.  The second book is about worms and focuses on their unique anatomy, such as having no eyes and no limbs.  There is also a focus on habitat, diet and reproduction.  Throughout both books, humorous asides are offered, making this one of the most playful informational book series around.

Gravel combines both humor and facts in her book.  She keeps the two clearly defined, with the animals themselves making comments that add the funniness to the books.  The facts are presented in large fonts and the design of the book makes the facts clear and well defined.  These books are designed for maximum child appeal and will work well in curriculums or just picked up by a browser in the library.

The art in the books, as you can see by the covers, is cartoonish and cute.  The entire effect is a merry romp alongside these intriguing animals.  I know some people believe that books about science for children should be purely factual, but Gravel’s titles show how well humor and touch of anthropomorphism can work with informational titles.

Information served with plenty of laughs, these science titles will be appreciated by children and teachers.  Appropriate for ages 5-8.

Reviewed from library copies.

may the stars drip down

May the Stars Drip Down by Jeremy Chatelain, illustrated by Nikki McClure

Quiet and lovely, this is a picture book version of the lullaby by indie rock band Cub Country.   That song is haunting and beautiful with its slow pace.  This book is much the same.  The lyrics to the song read as a poem on the page, one that takes a child on a journey of dreams before returning back home again.  It is a book designed for reading at bedtime in the same soothing pace as the song. 

McClure’s cut paper art adds to the beauty of the book.  Done entirely in blues and whites, the book invites children to twilight and darkness.  Throughout the book the night is celebrated in its beauty, from the moon on the sea to the the owl winging past.  There is a sense both in the poem and the art that you are seeing into the secrets of the evening.

A gorgeous new version of a song, this book is ideal for bedtime reading and dreaming.  Appropriate for ages 2-5.

Reviewed from copy received from Abrams Books.

west of the moon

West of the Moon by Margi Preus

Astri lives with her stepmother, stepsisters and younger sister until she is sold to the cruel goat farmer.  He takes her to his home, refuses to ever let her bathe, has her do drudge work, and doesn’t let her ever return to see her sister.  Then Astri discovers another girl kept locked in a storage shed, who spins wool into yarn all day long.  Astri escapes the goat farmer, taking his book of spells and his troll treasure.  She heads off with the other girl to find her younger sister and then all three flee, heading to find their father in America.  But it is a long trip to get to the sea and an even longer trip from Norway to America.  Along the way, the goatman continues to pursue them, they meet both friendly faces and cruel, and the story dances along the well-traveled roads of folk tales.  Astri slowly pieces together her own story and then resolutely builds herself a new one with her sister by her side.

An incredible weaving of the gold of folktales with the wool of everyday life, this book is completely riveting.  Preus has created a story where there are complicated villains, where dreams are folktales and folktales build dreams, where girls have power and courage, and where both evil and kindness come in many forms.  It is a book that is worth lingering over, a place worth staying in from awhile, and a book that you never want to end.

Astri is a superb character.  Armed with no education but plenty of guts and decisiveness, she fights back against those who would keep her down and separate her from her sister.  As the story progresses and she escapes, she becomes all the more daring and free spirited.  Her transformation is both breathtaking and honest.  One roots for Astri throughout the story, fights alongside her and like Astri wills things to happen. 

A wondrously successful and magical story that is interwoven with folktales, this book is a delight.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC received from Amulet Books.

nightingales nest

Nightingale’s Nest by Nikki Loftin

Based on a story from Hans Christian Andersen, this book takes “The Nightingale” and turns it into magical realism.  Little John’s family is in turmoil.  His little sister died jumping out of a tree, his mother can’t deal with the loss and often forgets that her daughter died, and his father is struggling to make enough money to keep them from being evicted.  So Little John has to help his father take down trees to make money.  It is at Mr. King’s home that Little John first meets Gayle, a young foster child whose singing voice seems to heal people and who has built a nest high in one of the trees.  Then Mr. King decides that he has to record Gayle’s voice and hires Little John to bring her to him within a week.  Little John doesn’t want to, so Mr. King resorts to blackmail and money to get him to do it.  This story explores responsibility, betrayal, and loss in a poignant and beautiful way.

Loftin’s writing is exquisite and simple.  She has taken an old tale and breathed freshness and vibrancy into it.  Her setting is tightly woven, just the scope of Little John’s own summer days.  It makes the focus very close, intensifying the choices that Little John is forced to make.  More than most books for tweens, this one truly asks a character to face an impossible decision and then shows what happens afterwards and how that decision has repercussions for many people. 

Little John is a great male protagonist.  He is pure boy, resentful of the situation his family is in but also bound to them by love and blood.  At the same time, he is a gentle soul, worried about Gayle and the circumstances she is living in.  The only character who stretches believability is Mr. King who reads like a stereotypical villain, but he is the only character without nuance. 

Magical and beautiful, this is perfect for discussion in a classroom, this book begs to be talked about thanks to its complexity.  Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from copy received from Penguin.

jacobs new dress

Jacob’s New Dress by Sarah and Ian Hoffman, illustrated by Chris Case

At school, Jacob loves to dress up as the princess during play time.  Christopher though doesn’t approve of Jacob wearing girl clothes even to pretend.  Jacob’s teacher steps in and explains that you can imagine being anything you like.  At home, Jacob tells his mother about what Christopher said and she says that he is welcome to get out the dress he wore for Halloween and play in that.  Jacob loves the witch dress and wants to wear it to school, but Jacob’s mother doesn’t think that’s a good idea.  So Jacob creates his own dress from a towel that he wears to school, but Christopher pulls it off at recess and teases Jacob about wearing it.  Back at home, Jacob asks his mother to make him a real dress to wear.  She is reluctant, but agrees, and then Jacob has a new dress that is all his own to wear whenever he wants.

The authors take the issue of gender variance head on in this picture book, keeping it firmly at a level that children will understand.  The focus is on Jacob’s desire to wear a dress, not the complexities of what that may mean to label him in any way.  That makes this a book that is about inclusiveness and bullying as well as addressing the need for children who have gender differences to see themselves in a book.

I also appreciate the way the authors included not just Jacob’s emotions about asking for a dress from his mother, but also her own complex reaction to it.  While the entire exchange was positive and supportive, the pauses placed in the text spoke volumes about the emotions happening at the same time.

Case’s art is colorful and cute.  The characters clearly show their emotions on their faces.  The various dresses that Jacob wears are cleverly depicted.  The lace on his final dress is clear but so are the dirty spots from playing in it. 

An important book for libraries to have, this book will speak to children exploring their own gender roles and would make a great addition to diversity units.  Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from library copy.

thomas jefferson

Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything by Maira Kalman

The author of Looking at Lincoln takes on Thomas Jefferson in her newest picture book biography.  The focus in this biography is on the wide range of Jefferson’s interests and how he truly was a Renaissance man.  Monticello, the house Jefferson designed and built, serves as a fine background to his interests since the home itself was ever changing and also housed many of his interests as well.  The book looks at fascinating small details like the design of Jefferson’s bed, the extensive vegetable gardens, and his hours spent practicing music.  After fully exploring Jefferson personally, the book turns to the Declaration of Independence and Jefferson becoming the third President of the United States.  Then the book also explores the fact that Jefferson had slaves and fathered children with one of them, Sally Henning.  This is a complex and thorough look at a man who was brilliant in so many ways but troubled as well.

Kalman writes biographies with her own opinions right on the page.  So when she addresses the slave issue, she speaks of “our hearts are broken” and then speaks to how tragic it is that Jefferson’s children who could pass as white had to hide who they really were.  This adds a personality to the book, making it far richer than simple facts would.  It will assure young readers that it is good for them to have opinions about history and to express them too.

As always, it is Kalman’s art that sets this book apart.  Her illustrations range from more serious portraits of the historical figures to eye-popping bright colors in the vegetable gardens where paths are pink next to the bright green of the grass.  It is all entirely rich and joyful.

Another dynamic and unique biography from Kalman, this book belongs in every public library serving children.  Appropriate for ages 7-10.

Reviewed from copy received from Nancy Paulsen Books.

scraps

The Scraps Book: Notes from a Colorful Life by Lois Ehlert

This nonfiction picture book allows readers a glimpse into Ehlert’s creative process as well as her personal history.  The book begins with a very young Ehlert and how she was raised by parents who enjoyed making things with their hands.  She even had her own art space in the house.  After art school, she worked on her own art in the evenings and in an art studio by day.  She wasn’t creating books right away, but when she started she found inspiration right in her own life.  At this point, the book focuses on Ehlert’s previous work and the process she uses to create her beloved books.  This is a colorful and delightful visit to an artist’s studio.

Ehlert approaches this biographical book just as she does her fictional picture books.  The pages are scattered with scraps, cut out objects, designs from her previous work, and photographs from her past.  The result is a book that shines with her own personal style and energy.  This could be no one else’s studio and no one else’s art.  Ehlert invites young readers not only to explore her own history and approach to art, but also to seek out their own and create things themselves. 

Bright, beautifully messy, and wonderfully creative, this book will be inspiring to young artists and authors.  Appropriate for ages 6-8.

Reviewed from copy received from Beach Lane.

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