Category: Book Reviews


sweep up the sun

Sweep Up the Sun by Helen Frost and Rick Lieder (InfoSoup)

The pair who created Step Gently Out return with another gorgeous book connecting young readers to nature. This picture book focuses on birds and flight, using the metaphor to encourage young people to “fly” themselves and spread their own wings in life. The poem at the heart of the book is simple and lovely, creating a sense of wonder and opportunity. The photographs dynamically capture eleven species of birds in flight and in their natural habitats. There are wide-mouthed babies in the nest and incredible pictures of birds in full flight, like the one on the cover. This is a book that inspires both in words and images.

Frost is a gifted poet who has written novels in verse for older readers as well as picture books for younger readers. Her words here create a positive feeling of strength for the reader, showing them what is possible. At the same time, her poem is also beautifully written, creating imagery that is tangible and that will make sense for children. One of my favorites is that wings are “stitching earth to sky with invisible thread.”

Lieder’s photographs are simply stunning. He has captured birds in poses that are dramatic and amazing, leaving plenty of dappled light and green on the page for the poetry to shine next to his images. I found myself leaning into the book to look even more closely at the structure of wing and feather on the page.

I hope there will be more collaboration between these two since their first two books are so noteworthy. This vibrant picture book will be at home equally in units on birds and poetry. Appropriate for ages 5-8.

Reviewed from library copy.

world in a second

The World in a Second by Isabel Minhos Martins, illustrated by Bernardo Carvalho (InfoSoup)

This picture book explores time and the way that things happen all at once across the world. Small moments are captured from various countries: an elevator stuck in New York City, a horn honks in traffic in Mexico, a volcano erupts, a boy learns to balance on his bike. One after another these snapshots of time are happening all at once and yet also form a lovely series of events that are all entirely human and show how interrelated our world actually is.

The concept is at once immensely simple and also incredibly complex, the understanding that your own life is just one of many being lived at the very same time. Martins embraces that duality in the book, capturing those universal moments but also showing the diversity around the world. A guide at the end of the book includes a map of where the various events take place all at the same time. There is a distinct wonder to the book, a feeling that the world is both larger and smaller than it had seemed to be a second before.

Carvalho’s illustrations are bold and graphic. He uses thick black lines to create scenes that are active and beautiful. One page contrasts with the next, showing diverse people and settings. The result is a feeling of moving clearly from one place to the next with each turn of the page, from lush jungles to concrete settings, from bright sunlight to clouded evening.

Perfect to start discussions about time and place and even time zones, this picture book allows children to think in a bigger way about their world, diversity and their own place. Appropriate for ages 4-7.

Reviewed from copy received from Enchanted Lion Books.

winners crime

The Winner’s Crime by Marie Rutkoski (InfoSoup)

This second book in The Winner’s Trilogy continues the story of Kestrel and Arin. In a strategic choice, Kestrel has given herself into an engagement to the prince of Valoria, never revealing to Arin that she did so to save him and his country from destruction. Now Kestrel is in Valoria, being treated like a princess, but her heart is still with Arin. The emperor is impressed with his son’s new fiancé, and works to hone her into his pawn. But Kestrel has her own political plans that include continuing to try to help Arin from her new position. At the same time, she works to keep Arin at a distance so that he never finds out the sacrifice she is making. But this fragile set up cannot be maintained forever, something must give, and it may end in complete destruction for them all.

Rutkoski’s second book keeps the political thrills of the first and continues to stir in romance and deception. As with the first, the reader and Kestrel really don’t know who they can trust or even if they can trust anyone at all. As with any second book in a series, this book is as much a bridge to a conclusion as anything. Rutkoski plays nicely with pacing throughout the book, allowing things to maddeningly slow for the reader as Kestrel is caught in a trap of her own making. She picks the pace up at the end as tension mounts, creating a book that is captivating to read.

Kestrel is one strong female protagonist. She works against the entire society she lives in to try to set her own course and to be in charge of her own destiny, even if her heart calls for her to do something else. Arin too is a finely drawn character, a romantic figure who is also thoughtful and while he may realize that Kestrel is not telling him the truth cannot force her to give up her game. It’s a dance of two people against an empire, embroidered in romance and dazzling with political intrigue.

This strong second book in this series will have readers desperate to read the third and final book to find out what happens next. Appropriate for ages 14-17.

Reviewed from copy received from Farrar Straus and Giroux.

way home looks now

The Way Home Looks Now by Wendy Wan-Long Shang (InfoSoup)

The author of The Great Wall of Lucy Wu returns with a new novel for young readers. Peter loves baseball just like all of the others in his family, including his mother who is a huge Pittsburgh Pirates fan. His older brother is amazing at baseball and will occasionally join in the neighborhood game and hit homeruns with his favorite bat. But when tragedy strikes their family, Peter stops playing entirely. He can’t seem to find joy in it anymore and starts to spend most of his time alone. As Peter’s mother descends deeply into grief, rarely eating or speaking and never leaving the living room, Peter decides that maybe baseball can inspire her to return to normal. So Peter tries out for a Little League team that his father reluctantly agrees to coach. Soon baseball is once again a huge part of their family, but can it heal the wounds left behind by loss?

Shang has written a book that will appeal to children who adore baseball but also invites in those who may not be fans. This is not a sports book, but rather a novel that features baseball and the catalyst that sports can be for a family to rally around. At the same time, Shang shows the appeal of baseball in particular with its mathematical logic, fascinating trick plays, and the effect that being on a team can have on different kids.

The central family in this novel is Chinese American. Shang weaves details of that heritage throughout the novel. It is more about the reverberations through generations of concepts like honoring your elders and showing respect in very tangible ways. The father in the book had been a distant figure and suddenly becomes that sole caretaker for Peter and his little sister. That transition is shown in all of its difficulty, made even more difficult because of the strict nature of their relationship. These complexities add a lot of depth to the novel, making it about so much more than baseball.

A deep look at grief, loss and baseball, this novel features strong writing and great characters of diversity. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC received from Scholastic Press.

bone gap

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby (InfoSoup)

Finn and Sean had been abandoned by their mother years ago, leaving Sean taking care of Finn. Finn is called Moonface and Sidetrack by people in Bone Gap because he never makes eye contact and is often day dreaming. But things changed for the brothers when Roza appeared. Beautiful Roza lived with them, cooked them Polish food, and fell in love with one brother. Then Roza disappeared. Finn witnessed her being abducted but could not give a full description of the man who took her. The people of Bone Gap had always assumed that Roza would leave, people leave Bone Gap and never return. Now Finn has fallen for a girl who keeps bees and who is known in town as a homely girl, but Finn just sees beauty when he looks at Petey. Finn will need to figure out things about his family, himself and the unique way he sees the world before he can set out to rescue Roza and everyone he loves.

Ruby has created a unique and amazing read. Her world shifts under your feet, seemingly something solid at first and then changing on you, revealing itself and exposing both wonder and horror in the same breath. It is a challenging read, one that puts you on a journey of discovery about all of the characters and about the town itself too. As the book peels open and you see deeper inside, it will surprise you with what it shows. And you will question whether this book is a new genre, one that is not clearly fantasy or horror or reality fiction, though it may read as more real than most of that. it’s a genre bender, one that needs no classification to be great.

The characters in this book are complex and detailed. Each one, even the secondary and tertiary characters have backgrounds and histories. They have all witnessed things and reacted to their pasts in ways that turned them into who they are today. Ruby reveals many of these details while others are untold but also richly displayed. The main characters of Finn, Roza and Petey all have great details and histories. They are thoughtfully shown, moments captured in crystalline details that shimmer and sparkle.

A stunningly beautiful and amazing teen novel, this unique book will impress and delight readers who make the journey to Bone Gap. Appropriate for ages 14-17.

Reviewed from library copy.

hoot owl master of disguise

Hoot Owl, Master of Disguise by Sean Taylor, illustrated by Jean Jullien

A very hungry owl uses a unique approach to find his dinner in this silly picture book. Hoot Owl is a master of disguise, so he as he hunts in the dark night, he switches into different costumes to trick his prey. First, he sees a rabbit and so he puts on his carrot disguise. It doesn’t work to tempt the rabbit, so he moves on to a lamb. Hoot Owl disguises himself as a mother sheep to lure the lamb closer, but that doesn’t work either. Maybe a pigeon will be fooled by his clever birdbath costume? Nope. Then finally, he finds something to eat that can’t move away – pepperoni pizza! But will his waiter costume work?

The voice of owl as the narrator for the story is so much fun to read aloud. He is brazen, confident and sure that eventually his unique approach to hunting will work out. Never daunted by disappointment, he moves on to the next meal quickly and eagerly. Throughout, Hoot Owl expresses himself in metaphors and playful language. The night is “black as burnt toast” and his eyes “glitter like sardines” when they see the pizza.

Jullien’s illustrations are bold and gorgeous. The colors are bright and fun, the orange of owl popping against that black night sky. Hoot Owl’s personality shines on the page, his head peeking out from various angles as he hunts his prey.

This playful picture book is a great read aloud, bright, funny and impressive. Appropriate for ages 3-5. 

Reviewed from library copy.

ms rapscotts girls

Ms. Rapscott’s Girls by Elise Primavera (InfoSoup)

Ms. Rapscott runs a board school for girls that is all about adventure, courage and birthday cake, with candles. When a new summer term begins, five little girls are mailed to the school in their boxes. Mailed because their parents are some of the busiest people in the world and can’t be bothered to drop their children off at school in person. Four little girls make it safe and sound but the fifth has fallen out of her box because it wasn’t sealed properly. Ms. Rapscott has to teach her remaining students some of the basics of life like bathing, brushing teeth, and the importance of stout boots when going on adventures. But most of her lessons are much more fun and involve things like riding the wind into the sky and skimming the surface of the water on seals. As the girls learn how to take care of themselves and embrace adventure, they are also locating the missing student, by trying not to find her.

Funny and delightfully whimsical, this book is at its heart a book that shows that little girls can be just as daring, naughty and adventurous as boys. These are girls who have flaws, like shouting all the time, being a know-it-all, and just wanting to spend time watching TV or asleep. But in each of them is a little adventurer who if fed enough attention and cake will rise to the opportunities before her.

The art in the book adds a delightful richness to the tale as well as breaking up the text so that the book is more approachable for young readers. Done in full double-page spreads, the illustrations show the different parts of the school as well as important moments in the story. At the beginning and end of the book, they appear in a series of illustrations that welcome the girls to the school and then send them home at the end with a promise of adventures to come.

Enter a world of magical wonder in this book for young readers where adventure awaits everyone. Appropriate for ages 7-9.

Reviewed from copy received from Dial Books.

truth commission

The Truth Commission by Susan Juby (InfoSoup)

There are books you never want to end, and this is one of those. These characters are so fresh and new and real that I wanted to spend even more time with them. This novel is about three teenage friends who attend a private art high school together. There is Dusk, the stunningly beautiful girl who creates tiny tableaus for stuffed shrews. There is Neil, a boy stuck in the 1970s and who paints portraits of beautiful women like Dusk. And then there is the protagonist, Normandy, who does tiny needlepoint work and is best known for being the younger sister of the famous graphic novelist. The three start The Truth Commission, where they decide to start asking everyone the truth about things they may be keeping secret. Nothing is off limits from sexuality to love to angry ostrich-raising school secretaries. But Normandy’s family survives on secrets and the question becomes whether she can face the truth about herself and those she loves.

Juby has created a witty and dazzling read for teens. Done entirely in Normandy’s voice and writing as “narrative nonfiction” the book offers footnotes that are often asides between Normandy and her English teacher. This framework creates a real strength of the story, allowing for not only the story to be told but for Normandy to be writing about the past and offer some perspective on what happened. Filled with plenty of clever humor, this book is an impressive mix of tense mystery and gentle romance.

The characters are the heart of the book. Normandy reveals herself on the page and hides nothing. She shows through her own reactions to her sister’s graphic novels, which depict Normandy as entirely useless and ugly, as the only one who is thoughtful and credible in her family. As she hides from the wrath of her sister, making herself small and quiet, she also becomes her sister’s confidante. Her best friends too are intriguing mixes of truth and denial. Dusk is the artistic daughter in a family of doctors, and yet one can see her own ties to medicine through her art. Neil seems to be the son of a stereotypical middle-aged man who hits on teen girls, but both he and his father are far more lovely than that.

Strongly written with great characters and a dynamic mix of humor, romance and mystery, this teen novel is one of the best of the year so far. Appropriate for ages 14-17.

Reviewed from ARC received from Viking Books for Young Readers.

room for bear

Room for Bear by Ciara Gavin (In InfoSoup)

Bear visited the Duck family one spring and then never left. He fit in perfectly in many ways, except for their house which was not designed for someone Bear’s size. So Bear set off in search of a perfect space for all of them. But it was hard to find a place that worked. Places that fit Bear perfectly did not work for the Ducks. Where the Ducks were happy, Bear was not. Then Bear thought that maybe it was because HE did not fit in with the Ducks after all, so he went away to find a home just for him. The Ducks missed Bear horribly, and Bear missed the Ducks. Finally, Bear found just the right huge cave for himself and then came up with a clever Duck-sized solution that would let them all live together happily.

This picture book is about families and what makes a family. Told from the point of view of animals, it speaks beyond cultures and skin color to a feeling where differences in general are embraced and honored. At the same time, the book honors the feeling a person can have of fitting in just fine sometimes and in other situations feeling that they are an outsider. These complex feelings are caught on the page without over dramatizing them. The result is a book the embraces adoptive and blended families of all sorts without making the picture too rosy and uncomplicated.

Gavin’s illustrations are done with a whimsical sense of humor. From Bear trying to fit into a tiny and tippy Duck boat as a home to the unhappy Ducks sitting around the table forlornly missing Bear, she captures emotions clearly on the page as well as the dilemmas of differences. The illustrations are softly painted with fine ink lines that allow both the big bear and small ducks to have personality galore.

A winning read that speaks to all families and particularly adoptive and blended families. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from library copy.

i was here

I Was Here by Gayle Forman (InfoSoup)

The author of the very popular If I Stay series returns with another winner of a read for teens. Cody is betrayed and shocked when her best friend commits suicide by drinking poison. Meg had always been the adventurous one, the smart one, the one that Cody relied on. When they graduated from high school, Meg headed off to a private school on a full scholarship. Cody was left behind in their small town and as time went by the two drifted apart. Now it is up to Cody to head to Meg’s college apartment and gather her things to bring back to Meg’s family, a family that was very much Cody’s too. While she is there, Cody discovers that there is a lot that Meg was keeping from everyone back home. There is a bunch of missing emails on Meg’s computer as well as an encrypted file that is in her computer’s trash. As Cody starts to piece Meg’s last months together and solve the mystery of what caused her death, she also grows closer to Meg’s roommates and to a boy who may have broken Meg’s heart. Cody has to figure out what caused Meg to take her own life and also how Cody can go on without her.

Forman’s writing is pure comfort reading. Her writing is solid and strong. Here she creates a small town girl longing for big city life, but it goes far beyond that. As Cody starts to understand Meg, she also starts to understand herself and the mother she has long dismissed. At the heart of the book is of course suicide, and Forman there too manages to make it about more than a tragedy. It is about the inevitable guilt and blame that surrounds a loss like this. The ways that you return again and again to the pain and the ways you manage to deny it for awhile. The story arc is wonderfully fractured, showing the starts and stops as Cody deals with different stages of grief.

Cody is a great protagonist, one who slowly begins to see who she is as the novel progresses. At first she is what she sees herself as, just a shadow of a person without Meg around. Yet as she starts to choose her own path and see her way forward, she shifts and grows. She is a person who is not desperate for a boyfriend, but desperate for the truth of what happened to her best friend. Unable to stop following the mystery, she is also clearly and wholly in denial, creating a tension that carries the entire book forward.

When great authors create more great works, it’s a beautiful thing and this is one beautiful read. Appropriate for ages 14-17.

Reviewed from copy received from Viking.

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