The Madman of Piney Woods by Christopher Paul Curtis
This companion novel to Elijah of Buxton continues the story of the town of Buxton and the people who live there. This book, which takes place forty years after the first book, is the story of two boys, Benji and Red. Benji, who lives in Buxton, dreams of becoming a newspaper reporter. He has two pesky younger siblings who also happen to be gifted builders with wood. That doesn’t mean though that Benji doesn’t try to put them in their place when they need it. Benji also has a way with the forest, spending hours walking the trails and exploring. He is one of the first to see the Madman of Piney Woods. Red is a scientist. He’s been raised by his father and maternal grandmother, who hates anyone who isn’t Irish like she is. She is strict with Red, smacking him regularly with her cane hard enough to raise a lump. When the two boys meet, they immediately become friends even though their backgrounds are so different. But can their friendship withstand the brimming hatred of some people in their communities?
I loved Elijah of Buxton so much and I started this book rather gingerly, hoping that it would be just as special as the original. Happily, it certainly is. It has a wonderful feeling to it, a rich storytelling that hearkens back to Mark Twain and other classic boyhood friendship books. Curtis makes sure that we know how different these two boys are: one with a large family, the other small, different races, different points of view. Yet it feels so right when the two boys are immediate friends, readers will have known all along that they suit one another.
Curtis explores deep themes in this novel, offering relief in the form of the exploits of the two boys as they figure out ways to mess with their siblings and escape domineering grandmothers. There are scenes that are laugh-out-loud funny. Other scenes though are gut-wrenching and powerful. They explore themes like the damage done to the psyche during wars, racism, ambition, responsibility and family ties. It is a testament to the writing of Curtis that both the humor and the drama come together into an exquisite mix of laughter and tears.
A great novel worthy of following the award-winning original, this book will be met with cheers by teachers and young readers alike. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Scholastic Press.
From There to Here by Laurel Croza, illustrated by Matt James
This sequel to the award-winning I Know Here continues the story of a little girl who has moved from Saskatchewan to Toronto. She now contrasts their life in the rural woods with that in a new city. So much of her days are different now. Her father no longer comes home for lunch. They live on a city street instead of a quiet gravel road. Here they lock their doors, there everyone kept their homes open. There you could see the stars in the sky at night, here there are only the lamps shining. There the children played all together and there wasn’t anyone her age. Here there is!
Croza deftly shows the differences between two places, drawing them each with an eye to the positive. Even as the little girl misses and even yearns for her nature-filled home, she starts to see what is good about the new place she lives. Any child who has undergone a move will see themselves in this book, yet Croza has also written a very personal story of one little girl.
James’ art is rich and layered. He uses sweeps of colors on the page to convey motion and change. At the same time, he also uses parallel images that show the similarities of the places at the same time examining the differences.
Another triumph of a picture book, children will enjoy this as a sequel but it also stands nicely on its own. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Story of Owen by E. K. Johnston
When the world saw Lottie Thorskard fall from a girder, everyone wondered what she would do next. No one expected her to move to the tiny town of Trondheim and start slaying dragons there with her wife, her brother and his son. But that is how Owen started attending the same school as Siobhan. Siobhan is not a popular student, but she gets good grades and loves to play and write music. None of this should have made her even noticeable by Owen, whom everyone wanted to know better. Somehow though Siobhan with her biting wit gets invited over to Owen’s home for dinner and Owen’s family including the famous Lottie have a plan that involves Siobhan. They want her to be Owen’s bard. Which will involve being nearby when they fight dragons. So Siobhan must train to defend herself with a sword, learn more about different types of dragons, and she becomes an important piece of Owen’s story herself.
This is one of those books that surprises right from the beginning. Somehow I didn’t realize that this is a modern-day dragon tale set in Canada. In this book, the world has always had dragons and they form the heart of literature and song going back into history. Johnston takes the time to rewrite the lives of famous people for the reader, building her world so successfully that it all makes perfect sense that dragons are here and have always been.
The juxtaposition between the two main characters is brilliantly done. But perhaps the very best part is that this is not a romance. Yes, a male and female main character but no sparks, no kissing, no sex. Instead they are busy trying to save their community together. Siobhan and Owen are both vibrant and intelligent. They have the sort of brilliant dialogue that one would expect from a John Green book. Except they do it while fighting dragons! Amazing.
A completely incredible debut book, this takes fantasy and turns it on its head with a thoroughly modern take on battling dragons and extraordinarily deep world building. This is one of the best and most unique fantasy novels I’ve read in years.
Reviewed from digital galley received from NetGalley and Carolrhoda Books.
Once Upon a Northern Night by Jean E. Pendziwol, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault
This glimmering book takes a lingering and loving look at a Canadian winter night. It starts just before the snow begins to fall, one flake then more. Then the ground is covered with a snowy blanket, a blanket just like the one you are sleeping under. The book goes on to talk about the beauty of the winter forest, snow that will dust your head and nose as you pass under the trees. Animals appear; the deer munch on the frozen apples, a great gray owl silently drifts by, rabbits scamper only going still when the fox walks past. The book continues to talk about the beauty of the snow once the sky clears, the patterns of frost on window panes. It ends with the dazzle of the snowy morning.
As a native of Wisconsin, this Canadian import speaks directly to my love of winter evenings, nights and days. This lullaby of a book opens each poetic stanza with “Once upon a northern night…” and then leads into another beautiful wonder that is present there. Northern readers will see their own love reflected here, others will start to understand the beauty and exquisite nature of winter. Pendziwol plays with imagery and truly finds the wonder in each moment she captures. It is pure beauty, glittery as snow but oh so much warmer.
Arsenault’s illustrations are done in nighttime sepia tones, the color drained away except for pops of frozen apples, owl eyes, fox orange and deep night sky blues. The snow itself makes up much of the images, dancing in the air, covering branches, capturing footprints. One can almost feel the coldness seep from the page. Then there is the final page with morning arriving that is suddenly color and ends the book just perfectly with its icy shimmer.
This picture book is perfect for a bedtime story curled up near the fire or under toasty warm blankets as the snow falls. It is a quiet and lovely book, one to treasure and share. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from library copy.
Good Luck Anna Hibiscus by Atinuke
Have Fun Anna Hibiscus by Atinuke
In the first two books about Anna Hibiscus, readers were treated to a glimpse into life in Africa among a large extended family. But Anna Hibiscus has even more family, a grandmother who lives in Canada. Book three in the series tells the story of Anna Hibiscus’ preparations for heading to Canada for the first time. The first few stories reintroduce Anna Hibiscus’ family, including her baby brothers who get into all sorts of trouble. The other stories tell of trying to find warm clothes suitable for a Canadian winter in Africa and how her family gives her a send off. Book Four follows Anna Hibiscus to Canada starting with her plane trip. Those of us in North America will see snow with fresh eyes, enjoy Anna Hibiscus’ first attempt at ice skating, and will enjoy getting to know her grandmother’s dog too. This series continues to be a celebration of family, expanding now to far-flung families and new adventures.
Atinuke tells all of her stories with a storytellers structure and tone. There is repetition that echoes throughout the series, tying them all together nicely. At the same time, her structure remains easy and friendly, offering an inviting cadence to old and new readers alike.
The entire series is illustrated by Lauren Tobia. The illustrations weave throughout the book, creating a window into the cultures shown in the stories. They make the book welcoming for newer readers who will find a great friend in Anna Hibiscus.
If you were a fan of the first two Anna Hibiscus books, make sure to check out these two as well. They are just as lovely as the first. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from copies received from Kane Miller.