Red Butterfly by A. L. Sonnichsen
Kara was abandoned as an infant and taken in by an American woman living in China. Her Mama never leaves the apartment they share and Kara doesn’t attend school. Kara does get to leave the apartment each day to run errands on her bicycle, her favorite time of day. In China where the one-child limit is in effect, parents leave infants who have physical challenges like Kara who was born with one hand with only two small fingers on it. Mama longs to return to the United States, but she can’t without abandoning Kara, who has no identification papers and has not been formally adopted. When Mama’s American daughter comes to visit, Kara finds their entire lives turned upside down and their secret exposed. Will Kara be able to bring their family back together again?
Told in lovely rich verse, this novel is elegantly written and conceived. It shows the results of the one-child policy in China and the children who were abandoned because of it. Yet it is far from a condemnation of China or the United States. It is a portrait in contrasts and complexity, showing that there is good and bad in both systems. It is also the story of one very strong young girl who has already lost one family and is determined not to lose another.
Kara is the voice of the book with the poems told from her point of view. She is unique in many ways, including being able to speak English better than she Chinese due to her upbringing. Kara’s disability is handled in a matter-of-fact way for the reader. While she is profoundly ashamed of it, her hand and disability do not label her at all in the novel. Kara’s situation is complicated by the politics of adoption and identity. In her journey to a resolution of where she will live, there are episodes in an orphanage and then later in a home in the United States. These are all deftly and clearly drawn, showing both the universal nature of family and love but also the differences in cultures.
Radiant verse and a very strong young protagonist make this verse novel a treat to read. The unusual subject matter of an older orphan from China makes it a unique read. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Simon & Schuster Books.
Wolfie the Bunny by Ame Dyckman, illustrated by Zachariah OHora
When the bunny family came home, they found a little bundle on their doorstep. It was a baby wolf! Mama and Papa were thrilled to take him in, but Dot knew that the wolf was going to eat them all. Still, the bunny family took Wolfie in. Dot kept an eye on him all night long, and tried again at breakfast to warn her family that they were going to be eaten. No one listened, again. Finally, Dot’s friends agreed that Dot was right and they went to play somewhere else. When she got back, Wolfie would not leave Dot alone. Days went by and Wolfie started to grow and grow. He also started to eat and eat, so Dot was sent to the store along with Wolfie. It was there that Wolfie finally showed his fangs, but it doesn’t turn out in the way that Dot was expecting!
Dyckman has created a very clever little book that shows adoption and new siblings in a fresh way. Dot is convinced from the very beginning that taking in Wolfie is a bad idea and that it will be catastrophic for her family. This feeling of doom is very much what human children feel when a new baby is announced. Wolfie goes through all of the steps of a new sibling, from getting all of the attention to being a pest. Yet through the entire book, Dyckman keeps the focus on wolves and bunnies and how it will all play out, creating a welcome added dynamic to the story.
OHora’s illustrations add to the humor on the page. Done in acrylic, the illustrations have a signature flat feeling to them that is very modern. They capture the cheerful bunny family, the worried Dot, and the adorable Wolfie. OHora also creates a dynamic neighborhood for the story to take place in that makes the entire book feel grounded and real. Or as real as a book about wolves and bunnies can be.
Clever, funny and bright, this picture book captures have a new sibling in a fresh way. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from library copy.
Half a World Away by Cynthia Kadohata
Jaden was adopted from Romania four years ago. He knows that he’s a huge disappointment to his adoptive parents, who had expected a much younger child than the 8-year-old who came off the plane. Jaden gets angry sometimes and shows it in destructive ways like burning his stuffed animal. He also hoards food, particularly bread. He is obsessed with electricity and can’t seem to stop his bouts of aggressive running that always end with him hurting himself. Now his parents are heading to Kazakhstan to adopt a baby from there. But Jaden knows that he is being replaced by this new baby, a way to fix the failure that he has been. When the family gets to Kazakhstan though, the baby they had chosen has already been adopted. Now they have a new baby to try to bond with and it doesn’t feel right to any of them. Meanwhile, Jaden has met a toddler named Dimash who is three years old and barely talks. Jaden feels an immense bond with Dimash, but his parents say that they came for a baby. For the first time, Jaden starts to feel a powerful emotion that is not pure rage. The question is what he can do with this newfound love.
Kadohata gives us a completely unique novel for children. The point of view of an adopted child is not new, but one this troubled and angry in a children’s novel is a powerful new voice. As a character Jaden is a study in complexity and contradictions. His emotions are constantly high, but he mainly feels rage. He has never felt love, but manages to make connections with people that are meaningful for them. He is not a stereotype in any way, wildly human and profoundly troubled.
Yet Kadohata allows us to live with this boy without fixing him, without changing him, just allowing him to grow before us. While Jaden does have a therapist and it is clear he is getting all the help his parents can find, that is not the focus of this book. It is not a book about repairing the damaged child, rather it is one that gives that child a voice. That’s courage in writing.
Strong, marvelous writing allows this book to be a stirring tale of love in its many forms. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
Gaston by Kelly DiPucchio, illustrations by Christian Robinson
Gaston lives with his mother and his three siblings, Fi-Fi, Foo-Foo, and Ooh-La-La. They are all poodles, but Gaston is something else. He worked hard to be the best poodle puppy he could be, not slobbering, barking correctly and walking gracefully. When the poodle family went to the park, they met a bulldog family there that had its own unusual family member who looked like a poodle. There had clearly been a mix up! So Gaston switches places with Antoinette. Now the families look just the way they should, but neither Antoinette or Gaston seem to feel right in their “correct” families. What is a dog to do?
Right from the first pages, readers will know that there is something unusual about Gaston and how he fits into his family. It all becomes clear once the other dog family appears in the story and readers may think that fixing the mix up is the resolution of the story. Happily, it isn’t and the book becomes more about where you feel you fit in rather than where the world might place you. Gaston is a great mix of energetic bulldog puppy and also a prim poodle attitude. Antoinette is the reverse, a delicate poodle who plays like a bulldog.
Robinson’s illustrations are done in acrylic paint that gives texture to the images. The bold illustrations have bursts of color throughout and are done in a large format that will work well when shared with a group. All of the dogs have charm, though readers will immediate fall for the bright spunk of Gaston in particular.
A book about adoption and families that doesn’t hit too hard with the message of inclusiveness and diversity. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
A Mom for Umande by Maria Faulconer, illustrated by Susan Kathleen Hartung
Based on a true story, this picture book tells of how a baby gorilla found a mother of his own. When Umande was born, his mother didn’t know how to care for him. So the keepers of the zoo had to step in and help, taking care of his infant needs and later showing him to to play and eat as a young gorilla. After he was 8 months old, the zoo moved Umande to a different zoo across the country where Lulu, an experienced gorilla mother was waiting for him. They were slowly introduced to one another, but soon enough they were a pair. Umande had found his mother!
This story of a baby gorilla makes a wonderful picture book. Faulconer uses just enough detail about the zoo staff and the efforts they took to raise baby Umande to make it fascinating. She keeps the pace brisk and the story moving forward, making it just the right length for young readers to enjoy. The text also reads aloud well, and this would be a nice addition to story times about mothers.
Hartung’s art captures the charm of gorillas on the page. Even though Umande’s real mother didn’t know how to care for him, the art is carefully done to show that the gorillas are more baffled than mean or careless. The cautious approach of the new mother gorilla and Umande as they are introduced is portrayed in a touching way on the page as is the final connection of the two gorillas.
This book is sure to speak to adoptive families as well as fans of gorillas and zoos. It is a great pick for story times on any of these subjects. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy received from Dial.
Girl in Reverse by Barbara Stuber
Lily can just barely remember her “Gone Mom” as she calls her birth mother. She was adopted by her family when she was three years old. All she knows is that her mother gave her up for adoption and then disappeared and has never been heard from since then. With the Korean War brewing, Lily is the target of many “commie” jokes because of her Asian heritage. Her parents don’t take the targeting seriously, encouraging her to ignore it. When her little brother finds a box from Lily’s Gone Mom hidden in their attic, Lily suddenly has clues to follow about her mother. She heads back to the orphanage that she was adopted from and finds one of the nuns who cared for her while she was there. The nun has one last item from Lily’s mother that she has kept safe for years, which she gives to Lily, a fragile glass slipper. As Lily and her brother begin to piece together Lily’s past, her present continues to interfere with the racial jokes getting more overt and a boy at school showing real interest in Lily as something more than a friend. Lily must balance finding out about her past with her dreams for the future and learning to live with parents who lied to her about what had happened.
Stuber very successfully combines historical fiction with diversity in this novel. Set in the 1950s, Lily struggles with how to react as racism becomes the norm during her school day. Lily finds support with a janitor at the school while she is serving detention for leaving school grounds after being bullied. He is a warm and wonderful African-American character who can speak and put words to what Lily is going through.
The characters in the book are all robustly written and fully explored. Even Lily’s dysfunctional parents have depth to them, reasons for their deceit, and the ability to learn and change. Stuber’s prose is lovely, walking us through emotions and moments in a beautiful way. Here is how she describes Lily’s mother on Page 208:
My father may wear the pants in the family, but Mother wears the perfume – her mood reigns, soaks everything, rules the day, the night, and everything in between. But at this moment I cannot sniff her mood.
Beautifully written with complex characters, this middle school book takes us into history on a personal level. Appropriate for ages 11-13.
Reviewed from copy received from Margaret K. McElderry Books.
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.
Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell
Sophie was found floating in a cello case after a shipwreck, scooped out of the water by a fellow passenger, Charles, who became her guardian. He was a single man and a scholar, and unlikely to be a suitable parent, but the two of them got along perfectly well. The Welfare Agency did pursue the two of them and it finally got so bad that the two fled to Paris before Sophie could be sent to an orphanage. Sophie knew that her mother was still alive although everyone else thought she was dead. And her guardian always taught her to never ignore a possible. So they searched Paris for her mother, following the clue she found in the cello case. There she met Matteo, a boy who appeared in her skylight and led her to a world of the rooftops. Together they search the roofs of Paris for the sound of her mother’s cello. But how long can Sophie search before she is caught by the authorities?
Rundell writes so beautifully, it is impossible not to stop and linger over her phrases. She uses unusual metaphors like “…he held her in his large hands – at arm’s length, as he would a leaky flowerpot…” She also paints gorgeous images of her characters, “Think of nighttime with a speaking voice. Or think how moonlight might talk, or think of ink, if ink had vocal chords.” And she also vividly shows how characters think, “Mothers are a thing you need, like air, she thought, and water. Even paper mothers were better than nothing – even imaginary ones. Mothers were a place to put down your heart. They were a resting stop to recover your breath.” I could go on and on with quotes, since her entire novel is filled with moments like this.
Sophie and Charles are great characters, entirely unique and quirky. At first they are living in a normal society where they don’t fit at all and the tension between them and normalcy is finely conveyed. It is when she reaches the rooftops of Paris though that the book becomes pure quicksilver magic. Impossible to put down, one wishes that they too could climb to the rooftops of Paris in the confident hands of Matteo, who is also a vivid and amazing character.
Profoundly original and filled with shining prose, this novel is a wondrous read. Appropriate for ages 11-13. Reviewed from digital galley received from Edelweiss and Simon & Schuster.
Little Cub by Olivier Dunrea
The author of the Gossie books returns with this companion book to Old Bear and His Cub that explains the way that Old Bear and Little Cub met. Little Cub lived all alone near the forest with ono one to take care of him. He was often hungry and slept alone and cold outside. Old Bear lived alone too. He had plenty to eat and a warm place to live, but no one to share it with. Then one day, Old Bear heard odd noises coming from a pile of rocks. It was Little Cub, trying to sleep curled into a ball. It was Old Bear who named him Little Cub and Old Bear who took him home, gave him food, tucked him into a warm bed, and promised to teach him how to fish. And it was Little Cub who filled up that empty bed so that neither of them had to be alone any more.
This is such a warm story. Showing the way that Little Cub and Old Bear came together to be a family is honey rich. Dunrea takes him time showing the parallels between the two bears’ lonely lives. Though they are different in age, in being able to care for themselves, they are alike at heart and searching for something new.
Dunrea’s writing is simple but also cheery. Though it explores a child alone in the cold wilderness, one doesn’t worry because there is a sense of safety throughout. Children will understand the hunger and chill and also that level of joy that is clear. A large part of this are the illustrations that show blustery winds but also have the security and solidity of Old Bear right there too. He is the hope for Little Cub, one that radiates across the pages.
Fans of Dunrea will enjoy this new series and those who read the first in the series will cheer to see Old Bear and Little Cub return. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy received from Philomel.
Little Chick and Mommy Cat by Marta Zafrilla, illustrated by Nora Hilb
Little Chick has been raised by Mommy Cat since she was still in an egg. When Little Chick was very small, he thought that he was a cat too. He tried to be a cat, but it didn’t work. He couldn’t meow, or lick his paws or flick his tail. His mother explained to him that he was not a cat, but a chick and his real mother was a hen. When the two of them would go out, others would stare at them because they were different. His mother told him that it’s not bad to be different, what is bad is to want to be like everyone else. His mother also made sure to give him time to be with other chicks by taking him to the Bird School so he could learn everything he needed to about being a chicken. The other chicks asked him all sorts of questions because his mother was so different from the others. Little Chick though is happy to be part of his different but very loving family.
This picture book speaks directly to the issues of diversity and different types of families. It will also be happily embraced by families who have adopted children, because it manages to explain clearly and with no hesitation the basic love and acceptance of diversity in adoptive families. Small children will respond to the animal characters but easily also draw connections to themselves.
Zafrilla’s text is straight forward, tackling larger issues and bringing them to a level that small children will easily understand. She builds an unlikely family and happily shows the love and attachment between a cat and a chick. This is a book that is unlikely to be read as a straight animal story, because the connection to adoption is so clear. That said, the clarity and honesty here is what makes it shine.
Hilb’s illustrations add a colorful touch to the story. The colored pencil illustrations use delicate lines and soft colors to tell the story. The feathers and fur beg to be petted with their textures. Hilb maintains the size difference throughout the story, further emphasizing the differences between the cat and her chick.
This picture book focuses on diversity, love and the many forms it can come in. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Independent Publishers Group.