A Possum’s Tail by Gabby Dawnay, illustrated by Alex Barrow
Little Samuel Drew walks along the streets of London pulling his toy dog behind him, headed in one particular direction. He passes all sorts of people, markets, even Buckingham Palace on his way to London Zoo. He sees many different animals in the zoo, but it’s the possum family in particular that he’s come to visit. But when he gets there, they are all hanging upside down by their tails, fast asleep. So Samuel heads back home again, not noticing that the possum family has woken up and have grabbed hold of the dog’s tail and are all five following along behind. Once home after creating chaos on the London streets, Samuel serves tea to the possums. But wait! How will they get back to the zoo? Another kind of tail to the rescue.
Dawnay has written this book in rhyming couplets that skip along merrily. The pacing is brisk and the humor is whimsical and deliciously drawn out as Samuel fails to see the possums until he reaches home. There is a delightful moment as Samuel returns homeward and passes the same people going the other way. The text repeats itself again in a lively way, echoing the journey that Samuel made to the zoo.
Barrow’s illustrations add to the joy of the journeys to and fro. He first shows the bustling London streets in a straight forward way, then on the return trip the possums cause quite an uproar, though Samuel doesn’t notice at all. Children will love looking at both sets of pictures and seeing the differences even though the words remain the same. The illustrations have a vintage feel with Samuel in a sailor suit and the dog on a string that hearkens to books like Madeleine.
A clever cheerful read that explores London with humor and whimsy. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy received from Tate.
Born in the Wild: Baby Mammals and Their Parents by Lita Judge
Explore different baby mammals from around the world in this nonfiction picture book. Learn about how different animals function when they are born, polar bear babies are tiny and are kept safe for months before going outside while giraffes are born ready to run right away. Baby animals eat in different ways too. Baby bears nurse, baby wolves learn to eat meat quickly, and other animals eat grass and drink their mother’s milk. Other subjects like protection and shelter are examined as well as grooming, moving from place to place, and what their families look like. This book is a celebration of the diversity of mammals on the earth and all of the ways in which they are loved and cared for as they grow.
Judge offers just enough information on each animal to make the book readable. She gives intriguing glimpses of each animal before moving on to the next. It’s a fast paced book that merrily jumps from one animal to the next. More in-depth information on each of the featured mammals can be found at the end of the book.
Judge’s art is exceptional. Her animals are filled with personality. The baby mammals look straight out at the reader at times, their parents’ eyes are filled with love, and there is a tangible joy to each of the images. The cuteness factor could have been unbearable, but instead it’s perfect, just the right amount of cute and wild mixed together.
A great choice for smaller children who love animals, this book is gorgeous as well as informative. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Roaring Brook Press.
Over There by Steve Pilcher
Shredder lives all by himself in the big forest. He has a cozy bed in a matchbox under a maple tree, he has plenty to eat which means worms since he’s a shrew, and he has a pet acorn. But acorns can’t talk and Shredder felt that something was missing. So he sets off to see if there is something more out there. Seeing a twinking in the distance, he heads out to see what it is. After a long journey all night, it turns out to be a tiny silver boat and Shredder climbs aboard. But the boat doesn’t float for long. Happily, just as Shredder disappears under the water, a hand reaches out to save him. It’s a mole, named Nosey. As the two of them spend time together, Shredder starts to realize that he has found “something more” after all.
Pilcher’s story is straight forward and speaks directly to loneliness and the journey to find a new friend. He incorporates clever elements that create wonderful quiet moments in the book. The time that Shredder spends with his silent acorn pet, the question of what the shining thing in the distance is, the floating moments on the water, the warmth of new friendship.
What is most special about the book though is the art. Done by Disney Press as part of their Pixar Animation Studios Artist Showcase, it will come as no surprise that the entire book reads like an animated movie. The backgrounds on the page have a cinematic depth to them. Shredder himself is immensely likeable as a character, a tiny shrew often dwarfed by the world around him.
A fine picture book, this book is very appealing thanks to its friendly art and the jolly adventure at its heart. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Dragon and the Knight by Robert Sabuda
This new pop up book by Sabuda, a master of the form, is very child friendly. While I admired his remakes of the classics like The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, those books spoke more to adults than to children. This new book is perfect to share aloud with a child who will enjoy a romp through different fairy tales. A knight starts chasing a dragon through different stories including Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel, and Little Red Riding Hood. Each page opens to a different scene that pops open showing the characters of the story created out of the pages of their book. Entirely clever, quick reading and worthy of revisiting again and again.
Sabuda’s art in creating pop up designs will astound young readers. Two pages in particularly are stunning. There is the entire gingerbread house from Hansel and Gretel that pops into being in 3D complete with awnings, windows, door and chimney. Another amazing page is Little Red Riding Hood where the trees pop into a woods that has different dimensions and lots of height. Readers will also enjoy the little reveal at the end as the knight takes off HER helmet.
As always, pop up books aren’t really for very small children, but this is one of those that could be shared carefully with preschoolers who will love the detail and the incredible joy of the format. Appropriate for ages 4-9.
Reviewed from copy received from Simon & Schuster.
Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer
Jam has been taken by her family to The Wood Barn, a boarding school in Vermont for fragile teens. After losing her British boyfriend, Reeve, Jam has been unable to function at all. She just wants to be left alone with her grief and loss. Jam spends her days sleeping and thinking about Reeve and how in only a few weeks their relationship grew into love only to have him die suddenly. At her new school, Jam finds herself selected for a small and exclusive English class where they will read one author for the entire semester. They are also given journals to record their feelings and ideas, old books that look ancient and valuable. As Jam starts to write in hers for the first time, she is transported to a world where Reeve is still alive, where they can spend a brief time together, and where they can relive their experiences with one another. All of the students in the class are having this experience and together they decide to only write in the journals twice a week to make them last, because no one knows what happens to this strange world of the journal when the pages run out. By the end of their experiences in the place they call Belzhar, Jam must face the truths of her loss and her grief.
Wolitzer has earned acclaim as the author of adult literary novels and her short works of fiction. Those skills really show here as she turns what could have been a novel about teenage love and loss into a beautiful and compelling work of magical realism. When I started the novel, I had not expected the journals to be anything more than paper, so that inclusion of a fantasy element thoroughly changed the novel for me. It made it richer, more of an allegory, and lifted it to another level.
Jam, the protagonist, is a girl who does not open up readily. The book is told in her voice and yet readers will not know her thoroughly until the end of the book. It is because of Wolitzer’s skill as a writer that readers may not even realize until the twist comes that the book has even more to reveal. Jam is also not particularly likeable, and I appreciate that. Instead she is lonely, prickly, eager to please and complex. That is what makes the novel work.
This is a particularly deep and unique novel for teens that reveals itself slowly and wondrously on the page. Appropriate for ages 14-17.
Reviewed from copy received from Dutton.
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 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.
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.
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: 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.