God Got a Dog by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by Marla Frazee
Taken from Rylant’s previous book of poetry, God Went to Beauty School, this smaller collection is completely disarming and dazzling. Repackaged for a younger audience, this book celebrates God in a wonderfully homely and down-to-earth way that manages at the same time to make Him/Her all the more wondrous. In a series of poems, God goes to beauty school because he loves hands so much. She goes for a ride in a boat for the first time and gets an entirely new perspective on water. He goes to the doctor. She tries out a desk job for awhile. He visits India. She writes a book. They are small moments, small things to do, but in the end they are all profound and beautiful.
As someone who is trying to slow down and enjoy the small things in life, this book truly speaks to me. It is about God himself doing exactly the same thing. Rylant injects each of the poems with a lovely quiet humor and a softness that enriches each moment. Her poems are completely relatable, understandable by elementary children but also deep enough to be appreciated by adults.
Frazee was the ideal person to illustrate this book. With her soft colors and natural humor, Frazee captures these moments in God’s day. Each is beautifully set up, but also simple and honest. They are singular but also create a lovely whole.
Smart, funny and above all kind and radiant, this book will make a great holiday gift for all ages as well as a wonderful way to start talking about spirituality. Appropriate for all ages.
Reviewed from library copy.
Words with Wings by Nikki Grimes
Gabby has always been a daydreamer, but when her parents started fighting and then separated, she started retreating into her daydreams more and more. Now Gabby lives with just her mother, who is not a daydreaming type at all. So the two of them clash. Gabby also gets in trouble at school due to her dreamy ways and not paying attention to what is happening in class. But along the way, readers will see that Gabby is much more than a daydreamer, she is a poet. Eventually, her mother will come to terms with her way of thinking and she will find that she has a teacher who not only supports Gabby’s daydreaming but makes it part of his curriculum.
Grimes writes in short free verse, some of the poems only a handful of lines long. Yet because these are poems written by a master poet, they each speak truth. There are poems that talk about moving and autumn, others that celebrate family members, and at the heart of the book are the many poems that celebrate dreaming, lingering and Gabby herself. Grimes was clearly the sort of child who also daydreamed, since she captures it so well.
I deeply appreciate that this book does not “fix” Gabby’s daydreaming. Instead it is the adults who adopt a new attitude towards her once they realize that she is thinking and processing and writing in her head. Gabby is expected to change some of her behaviors in class and is supported in doing this by a very engaged and kind teacher who promises that she will have time to dream and to record those dreams she has. Gabby is the sort of heroine that one loves immediately, and she is also one that readers will cheer to see succeeding on her own terms.
Beautiful and strong poems support a world where imagination and creativity is accepted and poets survive their childhood intact. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from library copy.
Salt: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War by Helen Frost
In 1812 in Indian Territory, two boys forge a friendship over hunting, fishing and survival of their families. James’ family runs the trading post at Fort Wayne, living right outside the walls of the fort. Anikwa’s family, members of the Miami tribe, has lived on this land for generations. Now two armies are heading right to Fort Wayne to battle, the Americans and British will meet for a critical battle. The question becomes whose side the Miami will be on when the battle occurs. But even more deep is the question of whether the friendship between the two boys and their two families can survive this battle and the losses that it brings.
Frost has mastered the verse novel, creating a work that functions as beautiful poetry with profound depths and also as a complete novel. Frost puts a human face on history in this novel that tells the story of a major battle in the war of 1812. By the time the soldiers arrive, readers care deeply for both boys and their families. So when the destruction starts, the wounds are real and the losses far beyond numbers. The poems show readers the beauty of the landscape, the bounty of the land, and all that is possibly lost afterwards.
Frost writes from both boys’ points of view in alternating poems. So the lifestyle and losses of both families is shown from their own points of view. Anikwa’s poems are done in a poetic form that creates a pattern on the page. Frost explains in her notes at the end that this is to mimic Miami ribbon work. Without knowing this while reading, I could still see the square form of James’ poem representing the fort and the home he lived in next to the motion-filled form of Anikwa’s poems that exuded nature.
An exquisite verse novel that fills history with real people and war with real loss. Appropriate for ages 11-13.
Reviewed from library copy.
Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan
Willow Chance didn’t fit in well at her elementary school, so she is attending a middle school across town which none of her previous classmates will be attending. But Willow is just not made to fit in with others. She does fine with her adoptive parents who are accepting of her obsession with gardening and medical conditions as long as she doesn’t tell them everything since that would make them worry. And one of the things she doesn’t tell them is that the middle school thinks that she cheated on a major standardized test because she got a perfect score. So she is sent to counseling though Dell, the school counselor has no idea what to do to help her. Two siblings who also go to see Dell have their own ideas though and that is how Willow comes to be out driving with Dell and the others when she finds out that her parents have been killed in a car accident. Now Willow has lost her parents, her home, her garden and her will to explore. This is a story that is about community, building your family one person at a time, and the wonder of what having people in your life that care can do. It is the story of the amazing Willow Chase.
Sloan’s writing verges on verse at times with its short lines, lined up neatly and speaking profoundly and honestly. It is writing that examines and explores but also moves the story forward at speed. It is imminently readable with plenty of white space and few if any dense paragraphs of text. Rather it has a wonderful lightness about it, even when describing tragedy. And this book is filled with loss and grief that is handled with a gentle depth. Yet it is also a book filled with joy and overcoming odds and inspiration.
Sloan creates not just one incredible character in this novel but an entire group of them. At first the book seems disjointed with the various perspectives shown, since we get to see things not only from Willow’s point of view, from the other teens, but also from the adults as well. But those disparate parts come together in a way that a book from just Willow’s point of view never could have. They add an understanding of Willow’s appeal to others that would not have been possible without it.
This is a tragic story with an indomitable heroine that will leave you smiling through the tears. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Great Trouble: A Mystery of London, the Blue Death, and a Boy Called Eel by Deborah Hopkinson
Things have been a lot worse for Eel in the past, he now has a place off of the streets where he can sleep safely and he only goes to the River Thames to dig for things to sell to make ends meet. He has serious responsibilities that he keeps entirely private. It helps that he faked his own death to get Fisheye Bill Tyler off of his trail. But Eel still keeps his street smarts and listens, so he knows that Fisheye is back after him. Then in the summer of 1854, his entire world turns upside down and the Great Trouble begins as the Blue Death of cholera comes right into his neighborhood in London. Everyone knows that it is spread through the air, but one doctor, that Eel does small chores for, thinks differently. Now it is up to Eel to help the doctor prove that it is the water that carries the disease before hundreds more die.
Celebrating the visionary Dr. John Snow on the 200th anniversary of his birth, this book successfully mixes historical fact with historical fiction resulting in a dynamic book with engaging characters. At the outset of the book, Hopkinson takes care to make sure that readers understand what living in poverty and parentless was like in Victorian England. She shows the filth, the danger, the loneliness and the skill that it took to survive.
Eel is a wonderful protagonist. He is incredibly smart, driven to help those he cares for, and a mixture of brave and desperate, something that keeps him at the center of this medical mystery. Hopkinson does a great job of keeping all of her characters true to the time period, offering no modern sensibilities into the equation, but presenting it just as it would have been.
This is a dark and thrilling novel that will not let you escape until the epidemic is over and the mystery solved. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Random House Children’s Books.
Join in voting on the 2013 Opening Round to select the Best Middle Grade & Children’s book on GoodReads. Voting for this initial round runs through November 9th. Here are the 15 nominees:
Chasing the Prophecy by Brandon Mull
Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan
Doll Bones by Holly Black
Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library by Christ Grabenstein
Fortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman
Fyre by Angie Sage
The House of Hades by Rick Riordan
The Land of Stories by Chris Colfer
Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool
Prisoner B-3087 by Alan Gratz
The Runaway King by Jennifer A. Nielsen
The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud
The Sun Trail by Erin Hunter
Tales from a Not-So-Happy-Heartbreaker by Rachel Renee Russell
Trust No One by Linda Sue Park
Explorer: The Lost Islands edited by Kazu Kibuishi
This second book in the Explorer series again takes a single theme and has short illustrated stories that center on that. The book is a collection of different illustrators and authors, so one story to the next is very different both in the story itself and in the style of the art. It makes for a very compelling book to read. I had several favorite stories in the book, including The Mask Dance by Chrystin Garland where the setting is dark and looming and people are disguised by masks. The reveal of the truth is great fun while still being dark and eerie. Another favorite was Desert Island Playlist by Dave Roman and Raina Telgemeier. Readers of Smile and Drama will enjoy seeing another piece of work by Telgemeier. This story too has a mystery at its heart all set on a desert island. This is another strong graphic novel that young readers are sure to enjoy.
This second book loses some of the darkness and wonder of the first which was a masterpiece. At the same time, it is a book worth getting because it displays such a wide range of art styles and story types. Both books in the series are like unwrapping presents when you turn to a new story, you are sure to be surprised.
Amulet fans, graphic novel readers and students interested in art should all find something to love in this new collection. Appropriate for ages 10-13.
Reviewed from copy received from Abrams.
My Basmati Bat Mitzvah by Paula J. Freedman
Tara’s father is Jewish and her mother is East Indian, so Tara has mixed feelings about her upcoming bat mitzvah. Some of the kids in her Hebrew class even wonder if she is actually Jewish at all. Tara though is more concerned with whether she actually believes in God and if she doesn’t, does that mean that she can’t have a bat mitzvah? She also worries about what celebrating this side of her family says to the other side. So Tara decides to make sure that both sides of her family are represented by wearing a family sari that had been passed down for generations. Unfortunately though, the sari is accidentally burned and Tara has to figure out how to tell her mother about it. But that’s not the only complexity in Tara’s life. Her best friend Rebecca seems to be spending more time with another girl, someone that Tara doesn’t get along with. Her other best friend Ben-o seems interested in being more than friends sometimes but other times spends a lot of time with another girl. It’s up to Tara to navigate all of the confusion and make her bat mitzvah her own.
Freedman very successfully tells the story of a young woman dealing with two distinct family heritages. Happily, she doesn’t feel the need to build heightened angst about it, allowing Tara’s personal doubts to really drive this part of the story. Her family around her does not have the same feelings, sharing holidays with one another and enjoying the same foods, most of the time.
The book has a lightness of tone that makes the book very enjoyable. Freedman explores bullying with a perfect touch, but less successfully explores the underlying issues. Tara is a strong heroine who is far from perfect. She has a temper, responds physically at times, and can be too self-absorbed to really see what is happening with her friends.
Hurrah for a book with a brown-skinned girl right on the cover that explores her multicultural heritage in such a straight-forward way! Appropriate for ages 11-13.
Reviewed from ARC received from Amulet Books.
March: Book One by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate Powell
This is the first book in a planned series of graphic novels that follow the life of Congressman John Lewis and his work in the civil rights struggle. This first book opens with President Obama’s inauguration day and then flashes back to critical points throughout Lewis’ life. It tells the story of his connection to animals on the farm, particularly chickens. It also shows him as a young minister and his determination to stay in school and then to attend college. Readers get to witness the violence of the opposition to the Civil Rights Movement including many pivotal moments in history like the sit-ins at Nashville lunch counters.
This is one powerful graphic novel. The writing is sterling and strong. It shines with an honest portrayal of historical events from someone who did not just witness them, but fought the battles personally. The book clearly explains the world of the 1950s and 1960s, making sure that modern readers understand the dangers of the times and the differences. It is both a historical book but also one that is important for modern teens to understand how far we have come and how far we have to go.
Powell’s art is stellar. It is stirring art that evokes history with a fresh eye. He creatively uses light and dark, playing with words across it at times, other times allowing the darkness to take control. There is a sense of witnessing history throughout the book in both the words and the art.
An impressive graphic novel for teens, this book shines light on the Civil Rights Movement. Appropriate for ages 12-15.
Reviewed from library copy.