Category: Book Reviews


Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly by Stephanie Oakes

The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly by Stephanie Oakes (InfoSoup)

Raised in a cult, Minnow left normal life behind at age 5 to start a new life in the wilderness with her family, other believers, and the Prophet. Minnow was taught to obey, to fear outsiders, to hate people of color, and to not think for herself. When she started to drift too far from the Community’s teachings, she was punished by having her hands cut off. Now she has been taken into custody after attacking a boy. In juvenile detention, she has plenty of time to think about what she has done and all that has happened to her. Her family is in tatters, her community burned to the ground, and Minnow had a part in all of it. Minnow now has to decide how to share the truth and how much of it she can tell without causing even more harm to those she is trying to protect. She also has to figure out what to believe in and how to trust herself at all.

Oakes has adapted a tale from the Brother’s Grimm as the basis of this story. You can hear the echo of those brutal times throughout this novel for teens. The truth of Minnow’s life is told in fits and starts through flashbacks which makes for tantalizing reading and a book that is impossible to put down. Oakes’ portrayal of the cult is very effective, from the wild premises of the faith itself to its leader, the cult is a devastating mixture of the ridiculous and the savage. Trapped in that world, Minnow learns to find beauty where she can and friends in the most unlikely of people and places. The life in the cult contrasts eerily with the order of juvenile detention where there is violence but also protection, enemies but also friends.

Minnow is a protagonist who begins the book almost like a wounded animal with her faith shattered but still clearly influencing her reactions. As the book progresses and she learns not only who she can trust but also of her own strength and her own duty to herself, Minnow grows and evolves. Not only does she turn away from things that she was clinging to in the beginning, but her own beliefs and language change along the way. The growth is organic and subtle. Minnow also thinks in poetry, connected to the wilderness where she spent most of her life. She sees things through that lens, and the beauty of that place returns to her and the reader again and again throughout the novel, strong and pure and lovely.

A book that wrestles with family, faith and truth, this teen novel is a dark and powerful read. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from ARC received from Dial.

Welcome Home Bear by Il Sung Na

Welcome Home, Bear: A Book of Animal Habitats by Il Sung Na (InfoSoup)

Bear has been waking up to the same old forest and blue sky day after day, so he decides that he may need to find a new home. He sets off first to climb up a tree to see Bird’s home, but it was too high. Mole’s underground tunnels were stuffy and full of dirt. Goat’s cliff was too dizzying. Octopus’ underwater home was too deep. Polar Bear’s icy home was too cold. Camel’s desert was too hot on his paws. There were more that were too wet and too muddy. Bear was very sad. Where could he live that was just right for him?

Told in humorous and short lines, this picture book explore animal habitats in a lighthearted way. Bear’s exploration shows the differences in the needs of the animals in a subtle way, focusing more on Bear’s reaction to the places in the world. Bear is a great protagonist for this, since readers know from the very first page where he should be living and how different it is from the many places he visits.

Bear’s discomfort with each new habitat is delightfully illustrated to create humorous moments. From being squirted by a surprised octopus to Bear’s evident hatred of deep mud, the book is fast-paced and funny. The illustrations though are far from just being silly. They are lovely too. The habitats are beautifully depicted from the golden desert sand to the lushness of the rain forest. Each page and the animals themselves are textured and have a depth of color that is gorgeous. The final page of the dejected Bear heading back home with his shadow long on the ground is particularly lovely.

A lighthearted and richly illustrated look at animals and their habitats all through the eyes of one adventurous bear. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

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

Changes by Charlotte Zolotow

Changes: A Child’s First Poetry Collection by Charlotte Zolotow, illustrated by Tiphanie Beeke (InfoSoup)

Celebrate the changing of the seasons with this collection of poetry from master children’s poet, Charlotte Zolotow. The 28 poems move from the joy of the change from one season to the next and then start with a focus on spring. The poems speak of the joy of spring breezes, snow melting, rainfall, violets, and green grass. Summer poems shine with sun, seaside sand, lights at night, and the buzz of insects. Autumn comes next with the joy of fallen leaves, classrooms, firelight, and Halloween. The book finishes with winter and its snow and ice that dazzle in their own way.

The poems here create a whole, a deep look not only at the seasons but also in the power of connecting with nature throughout the year. Zolotow’s mastery shows in each one, her ability to look closely at a small thing, find the immense beauty in it, speak to that and then create a universal experience in words on the page. Everyone will respond to these poems, as they capture those moments in time where we can all connect with nature and with one another.

The illustrations frame each poem, and capture the natural hues of each season. Spring is filled with the brightness of the flowers and grass. Summer is yellow and bright with the sun. Autumn turns golden and orange while winter is blues and whites. There are just enough details to invite readers into the poems and allow the words to really be the focus of the book.

A gorgeous addition to children’s poetry collections, this is one to get into teacher’s hands so they can start using it immediately. Appropriate for ages 4-7.

Reviewed from library copy.

Lucy and Henry Are Twins by Elizabeth Winthrop

Lucy and Henry Are Twins by Elizabeth Winthrop, illustrated by Jane Massey (InfoSoup)

Lucy and Henry are toddler twins who spend a merry day together. From waking up where Lucy is wide awake and Henry is slower to move to the way they come downstairs, the personalities of the two children are completely individual. Riding in strollers, the two go to the park where they both explore the different slides, swings and other equipment. Then the two play with a ball. Finally, they head back home again. Their busy day is filled with activity, play and the two of them exploring the world together.

Winthrop keeps this book at just the right level for busy toddlers. The book moves at a brisk pace, showing the different things the children are doing and moving quickly on to the next thing. The text rhymes, which adds to the jaunty feel of the book. The two children are shown equally, sometimes having fun and other times not. Nicely, Winthrop makes sure that each child is brave at times and more skittish at others and happy at times and grumpy at others. Both children are well rounded and believable.

Massey’s illustrations are bright and bold. The children are featured very closely with only the legs and arms of the parents ever in view. This keeps the children at the heart of the story. Interestingly, because the parents are never named or fully seen, this book will work well for gay and lesbian parents and grandparents to share aloud with their little ones.

A particularly strong book for toddlers, this one is not overly sweet and feels like a real outing with toddlers to the park. Appropriate for ages 1-3.

Reviewed from library copy.

Nooks and Crannies by Jessica Lawson

Nooks & Crannies by Jessica Lawson (InfoSoup)

Tabitha has been given an envelope and sternly told that her parents have to be the ones to open it. But when she gets home, she finds her parents packing up and getting ready to leave on a lengthy vacation. They are also planning to leave Tabitha in the local orphanage. Once the envelope is open though, their plans change since Tabitha and her parents have been invited to the home of a wealthy countess for the weekend. Once there, Tabitha discovers that she is one of six children who have been invited to the estate and that the countess is searching for the child who is her grandchild. But all is not what it seems and Tabitha also finds out that she is in the middle of a great mystery. With the help of her pet mouse, it is up to Tabitha to solve the mystery and stay alive while doing it!

Lawson offers up a gorgeous mystery here with all sorts of treats along the way. Readers who enjoy a good British whodunit will find so much to love here. There is a great mansion to explore, complete with hidden passages. There are ghosts all around, haunting everyone in the house. There are odd servants, a prickly butler, and a mad countess. Throughout the mystery makes sense and the pleasure of figuring out the mystery is heightened thanks to the twists and turns along the way.

Tabitha is a great protagonist. She is a true friend, one who stands by her mouse. As she gets to know the other children, the sorrow of her own upbringing is heightened and her loneliness which could have been used as a shield is beautifully displayed and then slowly cracked until she is fully engaged with the others. The mystery is the heart of the book but so is the growth of the confidence of Tabitha as she works to solve the mystery and grows a lot in the process.

A strong British mystery, this book is dark and lovely. A great way to spend some summer afternoons. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from Simon & Schuster.

High Tide for Horseshoe Crabs by Lisa Kahn Schnell

High Tide for Horseshoe Crabs by Lisa Kahn Schnell, illustrated by Alan Marks (InfoSoup)

The annual spawning of the horseshoe crabs serves as a way to speak about the life cycle of this fascinating creature. As the crabs come to the shore, they ride the high tide to get far enough up on the beach for their eggs to be safest. Following the crabs are the shorebirds who are looking for a feast. Humans are coming too, scientists who study both the crabs and the birds. The horseshoe crabs begin laying their eggs, their bodies piled high at the edge of the shore, all trying to reach the sand to deposit their eggs. The scientists tag the crabs, allowing them a better way to study how these creatures live and where they travel. The eggs that survive the birds feasting start to grow and the adult crabs return to the sea. A few weeks later, the baby crabs hatch and make their way down the sand to the sea too.

Schnell has created a book that celebrates the horseshoe crabs and highlights not only their life cycle but their impact on the larger habitat as well. Tying the human scientific element into the book as well informs young readers that there are interesting natural studies happening all around them. The final pages of the book offer many additional details on the horseshoe crab and how they function in the food system. Readers will also find more resources on the crabs including websites and books to explore.

Marks’ illustrations are beautiful and functional. He shows the wonder of life under the water as well as the gorgeous moonlit night that the crabs come to shore. The mix of underwater, sea and sky create a palette of blue that celebrates life.

A strong nonfiction picture book that highlights a fascinating and unique creature. Appropriate for ages 5-7.

Reviewed from library copy.

Mesmerized by Mara Rockliff

Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France by Mara Rockliff, illustrated by Iacopo Bruno (InfoSoup)

When Benjamin Franklin went to France to ask them for their help in gaining freedom for the American colonies, he discovered that they were fascinated by science. Particularly, they were abuzz about Dr. Mesmer, a man who staged shows and used an unseen force that he claimed was similar to electricity to cure people of their health issues and control their thoughts. Even Marie Antoinette was taken with Dr. Mesmer and in awe of his powers. The King of France asked Ben Franklin to explore what the force was. So Franklin started the very first blind test, literally, by blindfolding people and experimenting to see if they could tell if Dr. Mesmer was using the force or not. In the end, several things were discovered like the placebo effect and the amazing power of the human mind itself.

Rockliff writes a rollicking book where science is what everyone wants to know more about but also where science is in its infancy. This look at a specific moment in history is dynamic and great fun, particularly due to the personalities involved and also the fact that it demonstrated scientific ideas that are still in use today. Rockliff relishes the fun of the entire story along with the reader, allowing this story to carry forward on its own wild pace which will delight teachers looking for a book on science that is fun to share aloud.

Bruno’s illustrations add to that wild feel with their fancy flounces when talking of Dr. Mesmer and the straight-forward but period touches when Franklin takes the page. There are full color double-page spreads mixed with other pages with more white space. The illustrations have a broad sense of humor that ties in well with the text.

A fabulous nonfiction book that is sure to surprise and enthrall history and science buffs. Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from library copy.

Dreams of Freedom

Dreams of Freedom: in words and pictures (InfoSoup)

An incredible picture book that follows its sister book, We Are All Born Free. In association with Amnesty International, this book celebrates freedom around the world in a variety of ways. With quotations about freedom, the book’s text flies and builds an expectation that no one should live in the different forms of slavery or abridged freedom. The freedoms are large and expansive: the freedom to be a child, the freedom to learn, freedom from fear and freedom from slavery. This book embraces them all, creating a place where conversation can leap from.

The quotes from various luminaries from around the world were carefully selected so that children will be able to understand them. Sources range from the Dalai Lama to Harriet Tubman to Anne Frank. The illustrations are also rich and varied. They are done by various master children’s book illustrators including Mordicai Gerstein, Birgitta Sif and Chris Riddell. Each page of the book creates a singular moment to explore that type of freedom and to create hope and peace.

A strong book about freedom that invites conversation, this book belongs in both public and school libraries. Appropriate for ages 7-10.

Reviewed from library copy.

More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera

More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera (InfoSoup)

Aaron has always scoffed at the claims that the Leteo Institute could successfully erase memories of traumatic events and allow people a fresh new life. But when his father kills himself in their home, Aaron struggles to go on. After making an attempt on his own life, by carving a smile into his wrist, Aaron has to figure out how to cope in a different way. He does have a great girlfriend, one whose father is rarely home and that gives them time to fool around. He also has a new friend in Thomas, another teen who has a great setup on the roof of his apartment building to watch movies on a huge screen. When Aaron’s girlfriend leaves for an art program, he finds himself growing much closer to Thomas and even starting to think that he may possibly definitely be attracted to him. As Aaron grapples with this new insight into his sexuality, he drifts away from his neighborhood friends: kids who would not accept him being gay. Aaron has to figure out what the truth is about himself and whether he wants to forget it all and start again, straight this time.

Silvera’s book is pure joy. He has teens who talk like teens, swear like teens, fight like teens. They play vicious games based on childhood playground themes that are brilliant and sadistic and real. His teens have sex, multiple times, and deal with the consequences. His urban Bronx setting is a brilliant mix of poverty, race and community that echoes with intolerance and also support. It’s all wonderfully complicated and nothing is simple. There are no real villains, no real heroes and the book is all the better for it.

I don’t want to spoil this book for anyone, so I will not refer to how the book resolves or ends. Let me just say that Silvera writes it like it is one book and then it twists and turns and takes you down several roads until you reach the final one with tears streaming down your face. It’s just as sadistic as the playground games the characters play. It’s unfair and brutal and brilliant and alive.

This is a book that speaks volumes about LGBT hate, self-loathing and the lengths we will go to in order to start again fresh and different. One of the best of the year. Appropriate for ages 15-18.

Reviewed from library copy.

Elvis by Bonnie Christensen

Elvis: The Story of the Rock and Roll King by Bonnie Christensen (InfoSoup)

This picture book biography offers a glimpse into the journey of Elvis Presley from poverty to becoming a rock and roll legend. The book begins in segregated Mississippi with the birth of Elvis in 1935. Elvis’ father went to jail and even after he returned to the family, they lived a hard life of poverty. But through it all flowed music from their Sundays in church to listening to the radio at home. Elvis was shy and quiet, but he could sing and at age 10 he entered his first contest and then at 11 got his first guitar. His family moved to Memphis when he was 13 and Elvis found a new kind of music. He graduated from high school and eventually worked up the courage to enter a recording studio and offer his singing services. After a disastrous first session, Elvis was filled with nerves and picked up a guitar, singing That’s All Right. It got onto the radio and suddenly everyone wanted to hear more!

Christensen makes sure that readers understand that Elvis came from a difficult background, one where there was no money and no opportunities. His shyness was another thing that Elvis had to overcome, turning his shaking on stage into his signature moves. Christensen also keeps it clear that this was a different time, a time when these sorts of music did not mix together and that Elvis was uniquely situated to be the one who created the new sound. In all, this is a testament to the power of dreams and talent.

Christensen’s illustrations gleam with hope and the future even as Elvis is being moved to yet another house and another school. She makes sure that the light shines on the little boy and that readers see that there are possibilities to come.

A strong introduction to Elvis, make sure to play some of his music when reading it to children so that they can feel that beat too. Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from library copy.

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