Category: Elementary School

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: 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: Drowned City by Don Brown

Drowned City by Don Brown

Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans by Don Brown (InfoSoup)

This powerful graphic novel tells the story of Hurricane Katrina from the very beginning as the hurricane forms and grows in power to the slow recovery of New Orleans in the aftermath. As the winds and rains of the storm breach the levees around the city, readers will see the devastation that occurs as 80% of the city floods. The book tells the true story, one where everyday people are heroes, where supplies and help are not sent in a timely way, where presidents make appearances but don’t remedy the problems, and where people looking for help just find more death and despair. It is also the story of selfless people who come in and make a real difference, of rescues and saved lives. It is in short, a true story that unflinchingly tells the story of a storm and a city.

With an enormous list of references and sources at the back of the book, this graphic novel is based entirely on facts and first-person accounts. Brown tells the tale without any need to make it more dramatic, just offering facts about what happened and what went wrong to make it even worse. Brown’s account though is also filled with humanity, offering glimpses of the horrors that people survived, of the losses as they mounted, and of a world turned upside down for people trying to escape the city.

Brown’s art in this graphic novel is done mostly in browns and greens. There are striking pages that stop a reader for awhile, such as the art on pages 30 and 31 which has dead bodies floating past in purple water, even as survivors are being hauled up to a roof. Brown conveys the heat and the desperation of survivors, the desolation of the flooded city, and then the slow rebuilding process.

A riveting and powerful look at one of the worst disasters in American history, this graphic novel is a way to talk with children about Hurricane Katrina. Appropriate for ages 8-12.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: Two White Rabbits by Jairo Buitrago

Two White Rabbits by Jairo Buitrago

Two White Rabbits by Jairo Buitrago, illustrated by Rafael Yockteng, translated by Elisa Amado (InfoSoup)

A little girl and her father travel together. As they go, the little girl counts different things like chickens and the people who live by the train tracks. They are accompanied by a coyote, shown as an animal here but clearly meant to represent the person they pay to get them to safety eventually. The two board a train, riding on the roof where the little girl counts clouds and falls asleep when it gets dark. They and their coyote avoid soldiers, wait on the side of a highway, and even make new friends along the way. Her new friend gives her two white rabbits to take with them, rabbits that they eventually release into the wild near a border wall.

Filled with a powerful blend of the naive understanding of the young child and the harshness of trying to escape to a new country with a coyote, this picture book captures the risk and harrowing nature of that journey. The book ends with a statement by the President of IBBY Foundation about the millions of people who make journeys like this every year, including the hundreds of thousands of children from Central America traveling north. The author uses symbolism in a powerful way, showing the coyote as an animal and also the two white rabbits who are clearly both a present and the father and daughter themselves. The ending is ambiguous and will invite discussion about what happens to the rabbits and to the people.

The art by Yockteng is filled with delicate lines. He takes what could have been thoroughly grim moments and enlivens them with the eyes of the child. So the crossing of a muddy river becomes an adventure, the ride aboard the train is time to spend close together, and the wait by a highway is a chance to bond with another child. At the same time, readers will also see the truth, the danger and the exhaustion of the journey. It is a delicate balance that is beautifully achieved.

A book to inspire discussion, this picture book speaks the truth about desperate families looking for a better life and the risks they will take to reach it. Appropriate for ages 7-9.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman

The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman

The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Chris Riddell (InfoSoup)

When a group of dwarfs travels through their tunnels in the mountain to another land, they discover that a sleeping curse is spreading across the world and will soon threaten the kingdom they live in. It all originated with one castle, an angry fairy and a young princess. The dwarfs return through the mountain and let their queen know of the danger. Though it is about to be her wedding day, she goes with them. They discover a land falling fast asleep and that the sleepers will follow them slowly. The castle has a hedge of thorns around it that seems impenetrable. Inside the castle is an old woman who is the only one left awake. She knows that no one can pass the thorns and considers killing the beautiful girl asleep on the bed to lift the curse, but she doesn’t. It is the queen alone who can figure out how to pass the thorns and who will recognize the evil for what it actually is.

Gaiman takes the Grimm story of Sleeping Beauty and makes it lush and incredibly beautiful. His prose is gorgeous, lingering on small things and building a world that is filled with a deadly magic. The queen herself is a great character, much more interested in being a heroine than a queen and having adventures rather than a gorgeous wedding dress. Gaiman does not cringe away from a woman saving another woman, and then he does an amazing twist to the story. One that readers will be shocked by and one that allows it all to click into place, hauntingly.

Riddell’s illustrations are done in pen and ink, made shimmering by touches of gold throughout. Yet it is truly his art which shines here, the details of people asleep as spider’s weave webs across their faces, the dark beauty of the queen and the blonde beauty of the sleeping girl. There is also a beauty to the old woman that is unique and special and to the dwarfs too with their roughened features. The setting too is brought clearly to life as they traverse it.

A glorious new feminist version of Sleeping Beauty that twists and turns before a very satisfying ending. Appropriate for ages 8-11.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: The Thing about Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin

The Thing about Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin

The Thing about Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin (InfoSoup)

Suzy knows that things happen for a reason. She loves nature and all of the facts about it and the way that science makes sense. But when her best friend drowns, Suzy just can’t make sense of it. They had fought before Franny left on vacation and now there is no way for Suzy to fix that. Suzy retreats into silence, refusing to speak to her parents or to anyone at school. As Suzy searches for a reason, she discovers that Franny might have been stung by a jellyfish. It is up to Suzy to prove that that is what happened and to let everyone see that there was a cause for Franny’s death. Filled with natural wonder and tangible grief, this book is an elegant and powerful look at how one child copes with loss.

Benjamin writes about nature with such awe, sharing facts about animals as if they were precious jewels. The facts about jellyfish alone are profound and concerning, allowing readers to understand Suzy’s fascination with them. Yet though these facts are in the book, it is Suzy’s inability to cope with reality that shines. Her unwillingness to accept that death can be an accident without any reason at all will speak to all readers.

Suzy is a great character. Filled with a powerful and all-encompassing grief, she becomes silent and yet somehow does not withdraw from life. Instead her silence allows her time to be more creative, more thoughtful about the loss she has experienced even while she is in denial about what has happened. Benjamin also beautifully tackles the grieving process, mingling it with the difficulties of middle school. Filled with flashbacks about the changing friendship of Franny and Suzy, this book addresses the way that even best friends grow apart.

Beautiful and luminous, this book is a powerful look at grief, loss and the way that we process our lives. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: The Girl Who Could Not Dream by Sarah Beth Durst

Girl Who Could Not Dream by Sarah Beth Durst

The Girl Who Could Not Dream by Sarah Beth Durst

Sophie lives above her parents’ bookstore that is actually much more than a place to sell books. Downstairs below the store is another shop, the dream shop, where her parents deal in dreams harvested from dreamcatchers and then bottled. Sophie never has dreams of her own and she has been forbidden from ever drinking a dream. One day though she tries one and discovers that she has the ability to bring things back from her dreams into real life. That’s how she gets her best friend, Monster, a creature from a nightmare. Dealing in dreams can be dangerous business since it is done on the black market. When the dream shop is robbed and Sophie’s parents are taken, Sophie has to figure out who is responsible and the find a way to free her family that will mean trusting outsiders and breaking family rules.

Durst is a master storyteller. Her flights of fancy here are intoxicatingly original and yet also pay homage to traditions too. Monster is one of my favorite characters, a wise-cracking, fuzzy and loveable creature who is ferociously loyal, brave and hungry. Then there is a snooty pegasus who has his own attitude and speaks harsh truths, not to mention the multicolored ninja bunnies. Durst builds a story that has room for all of them and remains wonderfully clear and focused on the real story going on.

Sophie is a character who is known by classmates as being prickly. It’s difficult to create a character who is embraced by the reader as a hero but faces real issues at school with making friends. Durst does it with real skill, giving Sophie a personality that is by necessity very private but also making her warm and loving to those in her inner circle. The use of that privacy is also used to isolate Sophie, making the adventure all the more harrowing and forcing her to open up to those she would not otherwise trust.

A strong fantasy for elementary readers, this book is filled with smart humor and great characters. Appropriate for ages 8-11.

Reviewed from digital galley received from NetGalley and Clarion Books.