Category: Book Reviews


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Colors of the Wind: The Story of Blind Artist and Champion Runner George Mendoza by J.L. Powers, illustrated by George Mendoza and Hayley Morgan-Sanders

George loved to move, so he decided to be a basketball player.  Then one day the world outside looked red to him and he started to see other colorful squiggles in the air and suffer from constant headaches.  The doctor told him that he was going blind, but George didn’t lose all of his sight, instead he continued to see bright colors and flashing lights.  He had to stop playing basketball because he could no longer see the basket.  Eventually, George took up running, mostly because it made him so tired that he could forget being blind.  He could run very fast, so fast that he went to the Olympics, twice.  But George continued to see a world of colors that no one else could see.  It wasn’t until a friend was killed that he started to ask himself why he was there, and George started to talk about being blind to groups and also to paint the world that he sees.

A truly inspirational story, Mendoza is an example of someone being incredible resilient in the face of a life-changing disability.  The fact that he began to run after losing his sight is amazing and also inspiring.  But it is his visions and his art that shine on the page, a world painted in colors that only he can see.  The process of George becoming an artist is shown in all of its slow progression which also gives the sense that there is time to find your path, time to be the person you are meant to be.

Seeing his paintings on the page is immensely powerful.  They are bold and bright, done in thick lines.  They have a voice to them that shouts on the page and they tell the story of what George sees more clearly than any words can. 

Highly recommended, this picture book biography is a powerful tale of resilience and overcoming barriers.  Appropriate for ages 7-10.

Reviewed from pdf received from J.L. Powers.

mr ferris and his wheel

Mr. Ferris and His Wheel by Kathryn Gibbs Davis, illustrated by Gilbert Ford

After the Eiffel Tower stunned World’s Fair visitors in 1889, it was up to Chicago to impress people at their 1893 World’s Fair.  So a nationwide contest was announced, but unfortunately many of the designs were just slightly-modified Eiffel Towers, so all of them were rejected.  George Ferris was an American engineer who had already designed big bridges, tunnels and roads across the nation.  He had an idea for a structure that would not just rival the stature of the Eiffel Tower, but would also move and be able to be ridden.  The judges of the contest reluctantly agreed to let him try, but would not offer him a penny of funding.  Ferris managed to find a few wealthy investors to help him and construction began on the huge project of creating a delicate wheel that would be strong enough to turn filled with people.  The tale of the building and invention of this now iconic ride is rich with suspense and the delight of accomplishment.

Davis has written a very successful picture book biography on George Ferris and his delight of an invention.  Occasionally in the text, there are sections in smaller font that offer more details and information.  It is all fascinating and those sections will be enjoyed as much as the main text.  Davis clearly explains differences between today and the late 1800s, such as the lack of Internet to carry ideas.  The story has plenty of dangers, lots of action and the ever-present danger of failure to carry it forward and make it enjoyable reading.

Ford’s illustrations are filled with rich, deep colors that capture different times of day.  They are a winning mix of straight, firm lines and hand-drawn characters and structures.  The play of the two on the page makes for illustrations that are eye-catching and that draw you into the story and the time period.

This is a particularly strong picture book biography that children will pick up thanks to the everlasting appeal of the Ferris Wheel.  Appropriate for ages 7-10.

Reviewed from library copy.

three little peas

Three Little Peas by Marine Rivoal

Two little peas jump down from their pea plant to get some air.  They head out on an adventure across the garden.  They visit a cat, some snails, and even try out how it feels to be a flower or a different kind of plant.  They go high and low, exploring together.  But when they reach a frightening part of the garden filled with insects and animals, they try to run away.  Then they find a safe place in the warm soil where they hide.  Only to become a large pea plant of their own the next spring, and then one little pea jumps free, making it three little peas.

The story here is simple enough for a toddler to enjoy and they will love going on an adventure along with two charming green peas.  The peas pop in their green on the page where everything else is black and white.  But oh my, what a black and white world it is!  Rivoal does her art using etching and the effect is beautifully layered, almost crystalline forms.  The illustrations show below ground as well with rocks and other objects hidden there.  Even the blades of grass are lovely in the attention to detail and their grace.

Stunningly lovely and unique illustrations elevate this simple picture book to something magnificent.  Appropriate for ages 2-4.

Reviewed from copy received from Enchanted Lion Books.

vanilla ice cream

Vanilla Ice Cream by Bob Graham

This is a story of the journey of a sparrow from a rural truck-stop in India to a metropolis in the south.  Told in simple writing, readers follow the sparrow as he tries to steal food from a customer of the truck stop.  Then he flies aboard a truck carrying bags of rice.  The rice is loaded aboard a ship and the sparrow follows the food aboard.  They head south and he is able to find food and water on the long slow journey.  When the sparrow arrives in the city, he spots Edie Irvine, a toddler walking with her grandparents.  And so the two worlds of sparrow and child mash together in a wonderfully sweet way.

Graham has created a story built upon little moments and small decisions.  Happily, the culmination of the story is not about all of those moments building to something monumental, but instead they lead to another small and lovely moment.  In that way, the chain is continued rather than ended and readers can think about what might happen next to either the characters or to themselves. 

As always, Graham has written this book with a gentle touch.  His art reflects that as well with its soft color palette set against white backgrounds blushed with colors.  Graham also uses art to allow moments to linger longer, to show their importance, and to create drama in his story. 

A book of small moments that is certainly worth spending some time of your own reading.  Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from library copy.

poisoned apples

Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty by Christine Heppermann

Released September 23, 2014.

Filled with the stark, violent and frightening truths behind the fairy tales you loved as a child, this book of 50 poems is designed for teens ready to see beyond the beauty of a princess dress.  The poems bring the fairy tales into the modern day, introducing us to the dirty side of the entire princess and beauty myth.  Here are girls who are trapped in the stories society has sold them, girls who cannot eat, girls with no hope, girls who do as they are told, until they don’t.  You will find all of the princesses on the pages here, by they are not who you think they are.  There are poems told in their voices and others that are based on rhymes.  They are all caustic, brave and vary from tragic to hilarious.  I dare you to try to put this one down.

Brilliant.  I read the first poem in this book and knew that I had found something entirely unique and amazing.  Heppermann skewers the princess trope, firmly demanding that girls realize what is happening to them.  That they recognize that it is built on them not for them, that they are all beautiful no matter what the ads say, and that if you listen too much your life becomes a mockery or a tragedy.  This is satire at its very best, paying tribute to the fairy tales but savagely tearing them apart to form a new garment and march onward.

Get this one for your teen collections, hand it directly to girls who don’t like poetry because this will change their minds forever.  This book will speak to every girl, because we have all been sold the same stories.  Appropriate for ages 14-17.

Reviewed from e-galley received from Greenwillow Books and Edelweiss.

iron trial

The Iron Trial by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare

Two masters of the fantasy genre come together to create a strong new series for middle graders.  Call was raised by his father to fear the Magisterium and magic itself.  When he accidentally split the sidewalk wide open with his powers as a child, his father was not pleased.  So when Call is required to go through testing for entering the Magisterium, he makes a plan to fail.  But the tests are not what he expected at all and soon he is entering the dreaded Magisterium, a place where he believes people are imprisoned against their will and killed for the sake of magic.  As Call joins the students, he finds himself making friends for the first time in his life.  But all is not what it seems, even for the nightmares that Call has thought up.  It is the ultimate battle of good and evil, but not in the way you’d ever expect.

Black and Clare play with similarities with the Harry Potter series, since theirs is also set in a school for magic.  But the magic here is different, as is the school itself.  Call too is no Harry, being a prickly and unusual protagonist who is at times quite nicely unlikeable.  This book is also set during a magical war, one that is actively being waged.  There are tests that are literally as dull as dirt, others that have the students battling elementals, and then there is a student who tries to escape the school. 

Black and Clare have great pacing throughout the book.  They have also created a very strong setting with the book, the school has a feeling of eternity about it, though we also know that Call is somehow very special.  It is that specialness that makes the book’s twists work so well.  They are completely surprising, shocking even.  In a genre like this where readers will come to it with a certain jadedness, it is great to read a book with that kind of zapping electrical charge.

Fans of Harry Potter will enjoy both the differences and similarities here, though readers of Percy Jackson will also find themselves right at home.  Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from e-galley received from Scholastic and NetGalley.

i know a bear

I Know a Bear by Mariana Ruiz Johnson

A little girl gets to know a bear who comes from somewhere that he calls The Land of Bears.  Breakfasts there are sweet as honey, the land is vast, and the rivers are lovely for swimming.  Even the naps are better there, they go on for months.  But he can never return there, since he is in a zoo.  So the little girl has an idea, something that will let him feel a connection with the wilderness and something that she can set free.  It’s a powerful idea too.

Johnson tells this story in very short sentences, which one might think would be terse but instead feel slow and Zen-like.  It is a book about a girl who is forging her own connections with animals, making her own decisions too.  There are no adults in the story, just one little girl and one huge hairy bear.  It is a book about small choices making a big difference in the world.  It is simple and luminous.

Johnson’s illustrations have a wonderful light touch to them.  The pages with the huge bear can be dark and filled with fur, but then the book opens to a new page filled with white and lightness.  They are studies in contrast but also create a book that is a joy to read through with changes of feel from one page to the next.

An empowering story about one little girl and her connection with one big bear and the beauty of freedom.  Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from e-galley received from Edelweiss and Schwartz & Wade.

winter is coming

Winter Is Coming by Tony Johnston, illustrated by Jim LaMarche

A stunningly gorgeous picture book about the changing seasons, this is a perfect way to welcome winter even when you don’t want it to arrive.  The book begins on a cold day in September with a girl out in nature watching the animals.  She has along her drawing pad and climbs into a tree house to see even better.  From that platform, she sees a red fox stealing the last wrinkled fall apple from a low branch.  A mother bear and her cub are also in the woods searching for food.  As fall progresses, she sees different animals: a family of skunks, rabbits, woodpeckers, a lynx, chipmunks, deer and geese.  All are preparing for the approaching winter in their own way.  As winter gets closer, the animals stop appearing until the day the snow arrives when the red fox is out to see it too.

Johnston has created a book that truly shows children what it is like to be surrounded by the wonder of nature during one changing season.  Her poetry sparks on the page, showing not only the different animals but also explaining what is beautiful and special about each one.  Even more mundane animals like the chipmunks get this honor.  Young readers will be inspired to get outside and sit still and just watch.

The art from LaMarche is stunning.  He takes advantage of the length of the pages and creates wide landscapes that embrace the changing colors of the seasons.  They turn from the bright yellows of early fall to the deeper reds and browns and then to the chill grays of winter.  He uses light beautifully throughout and various perspectives that all center around one tree and one girl.  It is extraordinary.

Perfect pick for just this time of year, get your hands on this beautiful picture book and then be ready for adventures outside, hopefully with your own pen and paper along.  Appropriate for ages 4-8. 

Reviewed from copy received from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

fathers chinese opera

Father’s Chinese Opera by Rich Lo

A first person account of a little boy who spent a summer backstage at his father’s Chinese opera in Hong Kong.  He watched the actors, the orchestra, and all of the vibrant action of the acrobats.  The boy approached the top acrobatic actor and asked if he would train him.  He promised to work hard to learn all of the complicated movements.  After practicing for awhile, the boy announced that he was ready for the stage now, but his trainer laughed at him.  The boy was heartbroken until his father explained that it had taken him many steps of training to earn the right to lead the opera.  So the boy began again, this time starting in the lowly role of flag boy onstage but also adding his own movements too.

Lo reveals in his Author’s Note that he grew up with his father taking him to the theater for opera rehearsals and performances.  This book captures the dreams of a young boy and his wish to not only be like his father but also to be on stage and perform.  The focus on hard work and determination is clear in this picture book and is presented in an approachable way for young readers. 

The illustrations by Lo are bright and filled with movement.  He captures the acrobats in mid-flip on the page.  The costumes shine on the page, the rainbow of colors rich against the white background.  He uses flowing lines to crate motion and watercolors that are bright and flow together.

An impressive look behind the scenes at a Chinese opera and a lesson in hard work as well, this picture book will be enjoyed by teachers and children alike.  Appropriate for ages 5-8.

Reviewed from library copy.

firebird

Firebird by Misty Copeland, illustrated by Christopher Myers

Wow!  Misty Copeland, soloist at American Ballet Theatre, is only their second African-American soloist in their history and the first in more than 20 years.  Here she writes her debut picture book and through it encourages other young dancers of color.  Lest you think this is a book just for dancers, it is not.  It is for anyone who needs to hear a voice of success speak about how important dedication and hard work is to creating that success.  Copeland tells it all in poetry that soars and dances just as she does.  This is a beautiful book of inspiration that reaches far beyond dance.

Copeland’s verse is exceptional.  It is hard to believe that poetry with this much control and beauty comes from someone who has not written many books.  It is shining verse that lifts the reader up and invites them to leap across the page along with Copeland.  She weaves lovely metaphors throughout her words, “stitching worn-out slippers, swift as applause” is one of my favorites and it is just as vivid and unique as Copeland herself.

Myers art is a lush mix of media that is just as radiant as the verse.  The pages are filled with Copeland and young African-American dancers who fly across the pages.  Myers creates motion on the page with his strips of paper that frame as well as enliven the illustrations. 

A magnificent picture book for young dancers that will inspire them to see joy in dance and also to understand the dedication it will take to be a success.  Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from copy received from Putnam.

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