Category: Book Reviews

Review: A Year Without Mom by Dasha Tolstikova

A Year Without Mom by Dasha Tolstikova

A Year Without Mom by Dasha Tolstikova (InfoSoup)

Dasha is twelve when her mother leaves Moscow to go to school in America. Dasha is left in the care of her grandparents. It is the early 1990s and things are changing in Russia. Dasha though is more interested in her first crush on a boy, her friendships, and her trip to Germany for Christmas. She misses her mother terribly and has to figure out how to have a life without her there. Dasha’s life reaches a crisis when she fails an important test because she is having problems with the boy she likes and her friends. When spring comes, Dasha’s life changes again with her mother returning and deciding to take Dasha back to America with her.

This autobiographical graphic novel is something unique and very special. Tolstikova tells a story that is both universal and also very personal. She speaks of liking boys, struggling with friends who are changing, lives changing due to parents leaving, and the strength of family. She also tells her specific story of living with her grandparents, growing up in Moscow, and the self-imposed pressure of getting into a better school.

The graphic novel is illustrated with outstanding and quirky illustrations that are effortlessly modern. Done in primarily black and white line, subtle colors are also on the pages to lift it from any dreariness. Pages are dynamically different from one to the next both in size of the illustrations to using only words in large fonts when someone is yelling.

Beautiful and haunting, this graphic novel captures a time in the author’s life that is fleeting and special. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: Over the River and Through the Wood by Linda Ashman


Over the River and Through the Wood: A Holiday Adventure by Linda Ashman, illustrated by Kim Smith (InfoSoup)

This modern take on the classic holiday song has family members from around the nation traveling to Grandma and Grandpa’s house for the holidays. One family traveling by car comes with 2 dogs, 2 pies and one enormous teddy bear. When their car runs out of gas, they are rescued by a horse and sleigh. The next family, a gay couple with older daughter and baby, travel from a major city via subway and then train. They discover there aren’t any rental cars, but again they are rescued by the same sleigh. Two more families join the pattern, both with diverse family members, and all needing the rescuing sleigh in the end so they can all make it to Grandma’s house by night.

I love the jaunty rhyme here. While it can seem stilted when read silently, once you try to read it aloud it is magically fun and the rhyme works to create a real rhythm to the story. The repetition for each family no matter how they are traveling to Grandma’s house makes for a book that even small children will enjoy. Each meets with a disaster and then is rescued by that same sleigh. Hurray!

The diversity on the page here is especially welcome. Nothing is mentioned in the text, it is the illustrations that bring this large family filled with different types of families together. There is the gay couple, the multiracial family, and one family that may or may not have adopted children. Staying open to interpretation also means that many families will see themselves reflected here.

A great addition to holiday book shelves, this take on a classic song adds a modern sensibility to heading to Grandma’s house. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from copy received from Sterling Children’s Books.


Review: The Story of Diva and Flea by Mo Willems

The Story of Diva and Flea by Mo Willems

The Story of Diva and Flea by Mo Willems, illustrated by Tony DiTerlizzi (InfoSoup)

Diva is a little white dog who lives in a grand apartment building in Paris. She is so small that she is smaller than a foot, which makes her run whenever she hears footsteps of strangers coming. She loves to spend time in the apartment courtyard, though even there she is often startled or scared. Flea is an alleycat who spends his time moving from place to the place in Paris. He has had a lot of adventures throughout the city and has many tales to share. This unlikely pair meet when Flea unintentionally upsets Diva by hanging around her courtyard. Diva teaches Flea about things like going inside for breakfast while Flea teachers Diva about exploring out in the public streets and learning to meet people rather than running away.

Willems was living in Paris when he discovered this story right at his own apartment building, a little dog who was friends with a stray cat. He has taken that initial inspiration and created two outstanding characters in Diva and Flea. The combination of being pampered and frightened is quite clever and a much more creative choice than being pampered and spoiled rotten. Flea too is not stereotypical. He has a very metropolitan flair rather than being uncouth and rude. Their friendship develops right on the page, each of them learning from the other and seeing one another in a new way with each encounter.

The art by DiTerlizzi is gorgeous. He captures the compact vigor of Diva and her panic attacks. Then there is the rangy motion of Flea, where you can almost see him move on the page with his shifting muscles under his fur. Paris too is captured along with them as they look at the Eiffel Tower. I was grinning ear-to-ear to see Willems himself pop onto the page as the person that Diva first attempts not to run away from. Clever indeed.

Another winner from Willems, this book offers his fans a new chapter book with some grand new characters. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: A Step Toward Falling by Cammie McGovern

A Step Toward Falling by Cammie McGovern

A Step Toward Falling by Cammie McGovern (InfoSoup)

Emily prides herself on being a leader in a group at her high school that promotes good causes and explains larger issues. So she is very ashamed when she freezes in the middle of a crisis. When she witnesses Belinda, a developmentally disabled classmate, being assaulted at a football game, she does nothing to intervene. Now she and Lucas, a boy who also failed to come to Belinda’s rescue, have to do community service at a center for people with disabilities. As work at the center, they start to realize the damage that they did through their silence. They search for ways to also directly help Belinda, but Belinda is no longer at school. It will take one big idea that will stretch all of their abilities to start to see serious healing.

McGovern has written an amazing book here. The narration in the novel switches between Emily and Belinda, so readers are able to see the true impact of the assault on Belinda as well as the repercussions in Emily’s life. The book moves readers from the drama of the assault to focus much more on the aftermath and the need for understanding and advocacy.

Belinda is a great character. Her point of view is such an important piece of this novel, showing a bravery after taking time to simply disappear into Pride and Prejudice and Colin Firth for awhile. Her disability is never hidden and yet also not exploited in any way. The way she is shown honors the way her brain works and the intelligence that she clearly has. I also appreciate that Belinda is far from perfect. She is demanding of others, often rudely criticizing them in public, and is not subtle at all. Again, this rings very true and honest. She is not a victim but a survivor.

An important teen novel about stepping up and taking action and responsibility but also about the lives of people with disabilities and the place they deserve in our communities. Appropriate for ages 13-16.

Reviewed from ARC received from HarperCollins.

Review: A Song for Ella Grey by David Almond

A Song for Ella Grey by David Almond

A Song for Ella Grey by David Almond

The Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is transformed into a tale of modern English teens in this masterful novel. Claire and Ella are the closest of friends, in fact Claire is in love with Ella. The two spend all of their time together and with their larger group of friends. When Ella is forbidden to go on the trip with all of the friends to the beaches of Northumberland, Claire goes without her. Throughout though, Claire is longing for Ella. Then she meets Orpheus, a strange and handsome musician whose music is so powerful that all of nature seems to stop when he plays. She calls Ella and holds the phone out so that Ella can hear the music too. That one impulsive moment sets in motion a story of profound love, deep loss, death and beyond.

Almond’s own writing is like the music of Orpheus. It creates an intoxicating blend of timeless Greek myth and wild modern teens. The girls become legends, their longing the desire of ages, their love the love to last all time. Orpheus is directly from myth, a wanderer who is captured in a love that seems to have been in existence for all time. There is such beauty here, not only in the myth itself but in the characters too. This book speaks to the power in each of us to live a story, a legend, a myth and to love in that way too.

Almond’s language is exquisite. His writing flows around the reader, inviting them into the magic that is happening on the page. He focuses on small things, showing how the tiny things in life are the most profound from falling rain to trees in the wind to sand drifting by. It is Orpheus’ music that brings these things to life for his listeners. And the reader falls in love with him alongside Ella, never having heard the music itself but having felt its impact to their bones.

Beautiful, mystic, and mythical, this book is a love song for young people, capturing the tumultuous feeling of tumbling into love and the tenuous nature of life and death. Appropriate for ages 14-17.

Reviewed from ARC received from Delacorte Books for Young Readers.

Review: Goodnight, Good Dog by Mary Lyn Ray

Goodnight Good Dog by Mary Lyn Ray

Goodnight, Good Dog by Mary Lyn Ray, illustrated by Rebecca Malone (InfoSoup)

The little dog knows when people are heading to bed. The light clicks off, quiet night noises start, and the moon comes up. But even though he has a wonderful warm bed, the little dog is not sleepy. He remembers his day filled with playing outside in the sun, running on the grass, and eating. He’s still not sleepy though, so he explores the house with the sleeping people. He climbs into his round bed, still not sleepy. Well, perhaps a little. And before he realizes it, he has slept all night and it is day again with plenty of time to play and eat once more.

This book is magnificent. It is simple yes but also offers a lot of depth. The writing is very special, using symbolism in a way that is appropriate for very small children. Ray beautifully ties together the quiet round of the moon with the warm round of the puppy’s bed with the hot round of the sun during the day. Yet this is not a concept book, it is a book about the magic of night and the lure of bedtime even if you are not sleepy. It is a book that explores words and emotions, that is dreamy and quiet and lovely.

The illustrations by Malone are done in acrylic. They are big and bold, the objects clearly outlined in black and just asking to be pointed to by small fingers and talked about. The little dog is enchanting, his head tipped to the side thinking or listening. He is childlike in his unwillingness to sleep and in his daydream of the day. The book is warm, quiet and cozy.

A delight of a dog story, this bedtime book has a quiet charm that is very special. Appropriate for ages 2-4.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: Finding Winnie by Lindsay Mattick

Finding Winnie by Lindsay Mattick

Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear by Lindsay Mattick, illustrated by Sophie Blackall (InfoSoup)

Told by the great-granddaughter of Captain Harry Colebourn, this is the true story of the real bear who inspired Winnie-the Pooh. The book takes the format of a mother telling a bedtime story to her young son. It is the story of his great-great-grandfather, after whom he was named. Harry was a veterinarian sent from his home in Winnipeg to care for the soldier’s horses in World War I. On the train in Canada, he saw a little bear cub at a station and purchased the bear, even though he was headed into war. Winnie soon charmed all of the soldiers and got her own post to climb in the tent city. Winnie stayed with Harry when they were posted in England, but he had to make a difficult decision and put her in The London Zoo when he was headed to the war zone. It was at The London Zoo that a little boy named Christopher Robin Milne met Winnie and inspired his father to write the beloved stories of Winnie-the-Pooh.

Lindsay Mattick has shared the story of her great-grandfather in different formats through the years, including a radio documentary and an exhibition. In this very personal story, she shows real pride in the great heart that her grandfather showed by seeing something special in a small bear cub. It is clear that it is his dedication and care for Winnie that helped her become the loving and approachable bear that could inspire a series of stories. Mattick’s writing contains just the right amount of detail to keep children fascinated.

Blackall is an incredible illustrator and here she shows a beautiful touch for recreating historical scenes. From the expanse of Canada to the big city of London, she offers just enough visual detail to anchor the scenes in those distinct places. She also shows again and again the bond between Harry and Winnie, from sleeping together to sharing food. The historical photos at the end of the book add to the story, letting readers see the real Winnie.

A wonderful read, this book is an inspiring look at what small choices in our lives can lead to if we only follow our hearts. Appropriate for ages 4-7.

Reviewed from library copy.