Tricky Vic: The Impossible True Story of the Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower by Greg Pizzoli
This is a picture book version of the life of Robert Miller, known to law enforcement as Count Victor Lustig, who was one of the greatest con artists of all time. During the early 1900s, Lustig traveled the world doing one con after another. He sailed on ocean liners and befriended wealthy travelers beating them at cards just before they reached their destination. He even conned the legendary Al Capone, pretending to try to double his money while all the time just giving Capone his same money back to appear honest. It worked! His largest con of all time was trying to sell the Eiffel Tower for scrap metal. Amazingly, he did that twice! This incredible story makes for riveting reading and is filled with historical information so young readers will understand concepts like Prohibition.
Pizzoli writes the story of Lustig with great flourish, reveling in the amazing cons that this one man managed to pull off. Pizzoli is known for his simple and clever picture books for younger readers, and in this nonfiction picture book he shows his skills in writing for elementary-aged children. This biography is funny and fascinating, a combination that will have children enthusiastically turning the pages. His writing is filled with the details that make the cons more interesting and using sidebars, he makes sure that children understand the historical context of these cons and how Lustig got away with so much for so long.
Pizzoli’s illustrations add to the appeal. Lustig is shown with only a fingerprint for a head, keeping him a complete enigma throughout the book. At the same time, this bowler-hatted man stands out from the others. The illustrations are an intriguing mix of photographs and drawings, hearkening back to black-and-white photographs even while offering a modern look too.
An impressively compelling subject and cool illustrations combine into a book that is impossible to put down. Appropriate for ages 7-11.
Reviewed from copy received from Viking Books for Young Readers.
A Chicken Followed Me Home!: Questions and Answers about a Familiar Fowl by Robin Page
What do you do when a chicken follows you home? All of the answers you need are in this nonfiction picture book that tells you facts about chickens. First, you will need to know what to feed your chicken. You may also want to know what kind of chicken you now have and whether it is a boy or a girl. You will need a chicken coop to keep your chicken safe from predators and give it somewhere to live. Then there is the question of eggs and if you want fertile eggs you will need both a hen and a rooster. Then the eggs have to hatch successfully. If they do, you will have lots of chickens instead of just two. Maybe they will follow someone else home!
Page is the author of several popular books about animals and she captures the joy of keeping chickens in this picture book. Using the framework of someone suddenly having to care for a chicken makes the book very approachable and readable. The facts are presented rather like a guidebook and offer matter-of-fact information for the new chicken owner or readers interested in chickens. This book will make a great addition to school and public libraries since it is information just at the right level for early report writers.
Page’s illustrations are spectacular. Done in collage and cut paper, she manages to create feathers out of patterned paper that look real and textured. Fuzzy baby chicks are almost touchable on the page as they struggled free from their eggs. The illustrations are large and bold, making this a book good for using with a class.
No need to be chicken, add this one to your library collection! Even children who haven’t found their own hens will delight in this book. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from copy received from Beach Lane Books.
Small Wonders: Jean-Henri Fabre and His World of Insects by Matthew Clark Smith, illustrated by Giuliano Ferri (InfoSoup)
In a small French village lives a strange man who is interested in the smallest of creatures, the insects around us. He lures flies with dead animals that he pays the children in the village to find. His home is filled with specimens. No one realized that he was one of the greatest naturalists of his time. Jean-Henri Fabre grew up in the countryside where he was fascinated by the natural world around him. No one else seemed interested in the same things that he was, but that didn’t deter him from investigating them. Henri became a teacher and studied hard, but not about insects. It was not until a book rekindled his interest that he started to study them in a serious way as an adult. He discovered things about insects that no one else had ever seen and he documented them fully. So when scientists in France nominated one of their own for a tremendous national honor, they voted for Fabre.
Smith writes with a gentle tone throughout, documenting Fabre’s entire life from his childhood to the great honor he received from his peers and his nation. The story starts with the arrival of the president of France for the award and then shows how Fabre’s fascination with insects started as a boy. The period of time when insects were not a focus is clear but also brief and then the book grows almost merry as it documents the many accomplishments of this humble man who followed his own interests in science.
The illustrations are pastoral and lovely. They capture the beauty of the French countryside and also the wonder of the insects, showing them in great detail. There is a playfulness to the illustrations that also reflects the childlike joy that Fabre found in his wonder about insects.
A lovely book about a scientist who followed his own dreams and interests to great acclaim. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from library copy.
A Handful of Stars by Cynthia Lord
Released May 26. 2015
The Newbery Honor winner returns with another winning book for young readers. Lily can’t catch her blind dog Lucky when he escapes and runs away across the blueberry barrens in Maine. Just when she is sure he will make it all the way into traffic, Salma appears and gives the dog her sandwich and chips in order to rescue him. Lily returns with a pork pie for Salma’s family who live in the work camp on the blueberry farm, migrant workers harvesting the berries during the summer months. Soon the two girls are friends, Salma helping Lily decorate her bee houses that Lily sells to try to make enough money to get Lucky an operation to restore his vision. When the pair decide to have a booth at the blueberry festival in town, Salma also decides to compete in the beauty pageant, the first migrant girl to do so. Both girls by the end of the summer have to face hard truths, but they face them together as friends.
Lord creates short and very readable books that are deceptively readable, making them seem light and airy. But this book is anything but that, dealing with tough subjects like the death of a parent, migrant workers, racism, and difficult decisions that come with having an aging pet. Lord manages to weave all of these elements together into a strong and vibrant read that children will love. Given its short length and deep topics, it would make an ideal read aloud in an elementary classroom.
This book has two strong female protagonists. Told in Lily’s voice, the story shows how she has faced loss in her life and how it continues to impact her world. Lily is open to being friends with Salma, but she is not open to others telling her what to do with Lucky. That change comes hard to her and is only possible with the growth she achieves in the course of the novel. Salma is in many ways the opposite of Lily. Salma’s world revolves around her art but also around the tension of being a migrant worker and not having a place to call her own. Still, both girls overcome their challenges to be much more than stereotypes.
Strong writing, tight plotting, two strong girls and one amazing dog make this a book worth reading and sharing. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC received from Scholastic Press.
Enormous Smallness: A Story of E.E. Cummings by Matthew Burgess, illustrated by Kris Di Giacomo (InfoSoup)
This picture book biography of the great poet E. E. Cummings is exceptional. Focusing on Cummings’ early years primarily, the book invites young readers to view their own world with wonder and to try to put it into words. As a young boy Cummings was already creating poetry, starting at age three. His mother wrote down his poems for him as he recited them aloud. His imagination extended to art as well, but his real love was words which he approached very playfully, often creating his own words or mashing ones together into new ones. The book emphasizes the hard work that Cummings put into his craft, including spending lots of quiet time observing the world around him for inspiration. After graduating from Harvard, Cummings headed to New York City where he found new inspiration all around him. He served in World War I and published his first books soon after the war ended. His poems were both loved and controversial as he toyed with form and words. Filled with Cummings’ poems as examples, this picture book is a joy to read.
Burgess does a great job with his prose which introduces the young Cummings and his early poems and then follows him as he grows older and his poems grow with him. I appreciate that the book was not attempted to be written using Cummings’ unique style. Rather it is a book that pays homage to the art, the inspiration and the man himself. Spending so much time on Cummings’ youth makes the book much more appealing to young readers who will find inspiration both in Cummings’ age when he began to write and in his poems simplicity.
The art by Di Giacomo is filled with textures and patterns. Words dance across the page, playful and light. They often break free of the lines of prose, merging to be part of the art itself. Words float up on breezes, lengthen with hot summer days, and zing with the style of New York City.
A fabulous biographical picture book, this book is a great introduction to E.E. Cummings and his work. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from copy received from Enchanted Lion Books.
Gone Crazy in Alabama by Rita Williams-Garcia (InfoSoup)
The third and final book in the Gaither Sisters trilogy is just as delightful as the first two. Delphine, Vonetta and Fern travel south to Alabama to spend the summer with their grandmother and great-grandmother, Big Ma and Ma Charles. After living in Brooklyn, they are surprised at how slow life is in the country with no stores to visit and little to do to pass the time. Their cousin JimmyTrotter lives on the other side of the creek with Miss Trotter who is the half sister of Ma Charles. But the two sisters don’t speak at all except in messages that the children carry back and forth across the creek. The Gaither sisters learn about their extended family and all of the sorts of people that are part of their heritage, including Native Americans and white people. Delphine is just as hard on Vonetta as she always is, but it may be too much when Vonetta runs away from home. When tragedy strikes, it is up to Delphine to rethink the way that she interacts with her sisters, even when they drive her crazy.
Throughout the trilogy, Williams-Garcia has used these books to offer young readers a glimpse at the lives of African-American people in different parts of the country as well as the discrimination they face. This third book celebrates the various parts of African-American history, including some lesser known pieces like Native Americans owning and selling slaves. Here we also see the KKK and the mixed heritage of some of the more hateful people in a community.
Rippling through these more serious parts of the book are the personalities of all of the characters from the three sisters at its heart to their extended family. There are moments of hilarity mixed into it, creating a book that is a pleasure to read but also has a solidity to it thanks to its clear ties to real history. The dynamics of the sisters and their families is also captured in a realistic and loving way. Themes such as forgiveness, anger and family commitments are all part of this gorgeous read.
Readers who loved the first two books will adore this southern country ending to the series, though we will all mourn not being able to join these three sisters in more adventures. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from library copy.
Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones, illustrated by Katie Kath (InfoSoup)
Released May 12, 2015.
Sophie has just moved to a farm they inherited from her great-uncle. Sophie’s father hunts for a job while her mother shuts herself in a room to write articles in order to pay the bills. Sophie’s father also works on the farm, trying to figure out how to care for the grapes and how to start the tractor. Sophie discovers a flyer in the barn about exceptional chickens from Redwood Farm Supply. She wants to start raising chickens herself and starts to write letters not only to Redwood Farm Supply, but to her dead Great-Uncle Jim and her deceased Abuelita. Soon Sophie discovers a small house on the farm and then a little white chicken with a grumpy attitude appears. Sophie has a chicken of her own! But a lady shows up and wants to steal the chicken just as Sophie is realizing that this is definitely one of those “exceptional” chickens from Redwood Farm Supply. It is up to Sophie to keep her chicken safe from the chicken thief and also discover what happened to the rest of her great-uncle’s flock of amazing birds.
Jones has inventively mixed magical realism with farming and chickens in this children’s novel. Sophie mentions several times in the book that there are not many other brown-skinned people around their new home. Then her letters to her Abuelita show her own Hispanic heritage in a way that is natural and organic. The book is rich with the wonder of figuring out how to care for all chickens, but it also tingles with the mystery of Redwood Farm Supply, who Agnes actually is, and why she can’t type well at all. Then when the amazing chickens arrive in the story, it’s a treat to see each breed of bird explained but also how their natural traits are heightened into super powers.
Sophie is a great main character. She’s a girl who is not afraid of the hard and dirty work of a farm and caring for chickens. She is lonely and isolated in their new home, partly due to her absent but also helicopter parents who over protect her. While there is plenty of magic in the book, the story also has down-to-earth elements that keep it grounded, including the slow process of making new friends, the pressures of a family low on money, and the satisfaction of hard work paying off.
A delightful mix of magical chickens and farm life, this book will appeal to fantasy readers but also to kids wanting more realistic fiction too. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Knopf Books for Young Readers and Edelweiss.
Dragons Beware! by Jorge Aguirre, illustrated by Rafael Rosado
Released May 12, 2015.
Join Claudette on her second quest as a warrior. This time it is Claudette’s father who heads out alone into battle, attempting to get his sword back from the dragon who swallowed it along with his legs and one of his arms. But Claudette is determined not to be left behind in town and heads off with just her dog with her. Her best friend Marie and her little brother Gaston join her a little later. Together they are all captured by the evil wizard Grombach and his army of stone gargoyles. Grombach has encased the entire town army in amber, using his ability to turn things to stone. When he is distracted by the Apple Hag, the children rescue people along with the Apple Hag who in turn is the one who finds the Gaston could be a magic user. The children continue on toward to dragon’s lair, managing to sneak past the dragon’s offspring and deep within the mountain. There they discover Claudette’s father trapped by the dragon and set out to rescue him. But it will take more than the power of the sword and fighting to get them out alive.
I adore Claudette, a girl who wants to be a warrior and never shrinks away from any battle no matter how outnumbered she is. She is entirely herself, proud to be the girl she is. At the same time, I love that she has Marie as her counterpoint. Marie is a girl who loves pretty dresses and worries about her hair, but she too heads into battle in her own distinct way, this time with diplomacy. Then there is Gaston, the boy who loves to cook but also wants to make his father proud so he’s working on warrior skills like creating swords. He’s not very good at it.
These three protagonists make this book a marvelous adventure. It is filled with their large personalities, laugh-out-loud funny puns and one-liners, and lots and lots of adventure, danger and battles. Claudette’s father fights despite being in a wheelchair and characters of all colors appear in the story. This is a celebration of diversity on the page thanks to the art by Rosado which ranges from completely silly to blazing fight scenes.
A very strong female protagonist is the center of these books and she will thrill children with her bravery. Appropriate for ages 8-11.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Edelweiss and First Second.
Dear Hank Williams by Kimberly Willis Holt
Tate’s class has been told that they are doing a pen pal project and they can either be assigned pen pals or pick them. Tate has just the right person to write to, Hank Williams, who is an emerging star in 1948. Tate tells him all about her life in Rippling Creek, Louisiana where she lives with her Uncle Jolly, Aunt Patty Cake and her little brother Frog. At first, Tate tells Hank Williams that her parents are well known and gone because of their work, her father as a photographer and her mother in the movies. But as she continues to write to them, she reveals the truth of her family life where her father has disappeared and her mother is doing time in jail. There is one final secret that Tate can’t face at all and it will take all of her courage to admit to it.
Holt writes a story of a girl who has concocted a life of dreams for herself. Tate is unfailingly positive about many things. Even when she talks about her mother being in prison, she focuses on the fact that her mother is in an elite singing group while there. Her life with her uncle and aunt is stable and lovely, filled with small moments that demonstrate their love for her, like finding a way to hear her mother sing on the radio and discovering just the right dog at just the right time. Holt gives Tate all the time she needs to face her different truths. And the result is surprising and tender.
Tate is a marvelous character. She is quickly proven untrustworthy as she admits early in the novel to lying about her mother and father. Yet there is something so down-to-earth about her too that readers will somehow trust her despite all of this. Perhaps it is the details of her life that make that work, and the way that she hides truths even from herself. It is a delicate balance and one that Holt does very well.
Young readers will love this book for its heart and the beautiful spark of its main character. Appropriate for ages 8-11.
Reviewed from copy received from Henry Holt and Co.
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.