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.
My Neighbor Is a Dog by Isabel Minhos Martins, illustrated by Madalena Matoso
Originally published in Portugal, this book is a charming import. It is the story of a young girl who gets a new neighbor who just happens to be a dog. The dog is very friendly and kind, but the girl’s parents are not impressed, thinking that he would quickly start acting like the dog he was. Soon after that, more new neighbors arrived, this time a pair of elephants. The girl’s parents complained about them too, but the girl thought they were very nice. Finally, a crocodile moved in. That proved to be too much for her parents and they moved away. But before they did, the little girl finds out that her parents are considered the odd ones in the neighborhood. The final clever twist at the end shows exactly why.
Martins writing is just as vibrant as the bold illustrations. She tells the story with wonderful little touches like the elephants helping with washing cars and the crocodile giving purses and shoes as Christmas gifts. All of these details add to the world that she cleverly building and that wonderful surprise twist at the end. Done in vibrant colors, the illustrations are created in hot pinks, deep blues and bright reds. It is a modern world, with the pop colors adding to that feel.
A look at acceptance and diversity through the eyes of a child, this book will speak to all children about preconceptions and tolerance. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from library copy.
I Am the World by Charles R. Smith, Jr.
In this book that combines verse and photography, children from around the world are celebrated. The images and verse both speak to the wide diversity of people and cultures that make up our world. At the same time, the universal aspects of children from all cultures are celebrated too, including their strength and spirit. The combination of a simple and powerful poem and dynamic photographs make for a book that is just as vibrant as its subjects.
Smith is a Coretta Scott King Award winner and his photographs here speak to his skill. He captures children mid-motion and often in full smile. His photos are combined with a poem that is simple but also strong, offering subtle rhyme and incorporating enough culture-specific words that a glossary is offered at the end.
Beautiful, warm and inclusive, this title is a celebration of children across the globe. Appropriate for ages 6-8.
Reviewed from copy received from Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
The Chickens Build a Wall by Jean-Francois Dumont
The chickens on the farm have built a wall but no one else is quite sure why. It started when the hedgehog suddenly appeared in the middle of the farm. The chickens were all very concerned about this strange new animal that quickly curled itself into a prickly ball. But most alarming was when it had disappeared the next morning. Perhaps it was after the chicks and eggs! None were missing, but that didn’t stop the hens from accusing the hedgehog of eating their worms. The rooster decided that they could not stand by and have this continue happening, so they leapt into action and built a wall. It was not just a small wall, but one that grew so high that one could not see where it ended in the sky. Can this wall save the chickens? And what is it saving them from exactly?
Dumont tells a story about flighty chickens who jump to absurd conclusions immediately about a foreign creature. The hens are frantic in their reactions, going to such lengths to protect themselves from nothing at all. Readers will see parallels between gated communities and the chickens’ wall as well as the fast judgments made about people who are different from ourselves. This would serve as a very nice book to introduce for discussions about diversity and community.
Dumont’s illustrations have a wonderful silliness to them. The chickens are pop-eyed and always moving quickly. The hedgehog is still, low and quiet. The two set each other off nicely in both the illustrations and the storyline.
Translated from the original French, this book has a universal appeal and also a clever quirkiness that adds charm. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Eerdmans Books for Young Readers.
Ribbit! by Rodrigo Folgueiro, illustrated by Poly Bernatene
One morning, the frogs in the pond woke up to discover a very pink visitor among them: a little pink pig. They tried to ask the piglet why he was there, but all he would say was “Ribbit!” The other animals soon heard about the unusual pig and hurried to the pond to see him. All of the animals except the frogs found the entire situation hilarious, but the frogs were getting more and more angry. The animals went in search of the wise old beetle to ask his advice, but when they returned the pig was gone. All of the animals began to wonder what the pig had wanted all along and it wasn’t too late to find out!
Folgueira has created a book with the feel of a traditional folktale but one that also has the humor and feel of a modern story. Told in a clear voice, the book invites readers to wonder about what is actually happening in the book. Happily, the ending ends the questions, but until then there is plenty to think about.
Bernatene’s illustrations have bright tones and fine lines. The watercolor texture of the pages and the pictures add a welcome rustic warmth to the story that suits it well. She has also created one of the most engaging little pigs, with a merry grin and closed eyes formed out of just a few curved lines. Pink perfection.
This is a look at friendship and also at cultures and what happens when someone steps out of their own comfort zone and begins to explore new things. In the end though, it’s a delight of a read aloud that children will enjoy for just the story alone. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy received from Knopf Books for Young Readers.
The Garden of My Imaan by Farhana Zia
Aliya is different than the other kids in her class because she’s Muslim. She does all she can to fit in, but that means she doesn’t stand up to the kids who pick on her or even talk to the cute boy she likes. Then Marwa moves to their town and she is in the same grade as Aliya. Marwa is also Muslim and wears the hijab or head scarf. Marwa also does not just put up with the teasing of others and appears to Aliya to be much more confident than Aliya personally feels. Aliya starts to write letters to Allah which start out as just complaints at first and then lead to something more: action. As Aliya begins to deal with her own insecurities, she discovers that the world is much more accepting of differences if they are handled with confidence.
Zia has created a universal story with a Muslim heroine. Children of all faiths will recognize themselves in these pages. They will have struggled with teasing and bullying, they will have tried too hard to fit in, they will have not liked someone at first and then learned to like them. Zia incorporates details about Zia’s Indian culture, her faith, and her family traditions with great skill, handily defining things with skill and ease.
It is wonderful to see a young heroine whose life includes cute boys but is not driven by it. Faith, family and friendship are really at the heart of this novel, but Aliya is definitely a young girl too. She struggles with issues in a way that shows definite growth in a natural way. Zia writes with a wonderful lightness that makes this book an effortless read.
Filled with giggles between girlfriends, this book reveals the warmth of family and faith in a completely approachable and joyful way. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Peachtree Publishers.
Dreams around the World by Takashi Owaki
Meet thirteen children from around the world who are ready to share their dreams with you! Photographer Takashi Owaki traveled the world, including 55 countries on six continents and interviewed over 1400 children about what they wanted to be when they grew up. In this book, he shares the dreams of some of those children. Each child and their dream is accompanied by photographs, their age, name and country, along with a short paragraph about where they live. At the end of the book, all of the countries are shown on a world map. The book is a celebration of our diversity but also our universal dreams.
Owaki’s photographs are the heart of this book, especially the full-page image of each child looking directly into the camera. The writing itself is simple, speaking to how Owaki met the child and the family they live with. The smaller images with each story also help give context, showing activities and the environment. My only quibble with the book is that it would have been nice to have the map done in a smaller way with each child to help with understanding the geography.
Originally published in Japan, this is a book that celebrates our world and the beauty of dreams. Appropriate for ages 5-8.
Reviewed from copy received from One Peace Books.
John Jensen Feels Different by Henrik Hovland, illustrated by Torill Kove
John Jensen lives in Norway. He lives in an apartment, eats cereal for breakfast, brushes his teeth, and takes the bus to work. But he feels different than everyone else and knows that people are looking at him because he is different. He notices that no one else wears a bowtie, so he changes and wears a regular one. But he still feels different. John Jensen decides that the real problem is his tail, since no one else has a tail like his. So he ties it up and hides it, but all that results in is not being able to sit comfortably and losing his balance. In fact, he loses it so badly that he falls and has to go to the doctor. Thank goodness that Dr. Field turns out to be just what John Jensen needs, a friendly doctor who is also an elephant.
Told in a deadpan voice, this book is pure delight. John Jensen is obviously different, since he’s an alligator. But the book never gives that away except in the illustrations. Instead, it is told as if he is just another Norwegian on the bus. The tension leading to the realization builds and is only partly fixed by the appearance of the elephant towards the end. The book ends shortly thereafter with no sudden realization by John Jensen, just an acceptance that he truly is different. I loved the fact that there was no culminating event at the end, because it made the book really work as a vehicle to talk about all sorts of differences even if you are a human too.
Kove’s illustrations add to the deadpan humor of it all. There are marvelous touches like Camus’ The Stranger as bedtime reading, and the fact that absolutely no one on the bus is actually looking at John Jensen. The illustrations are a large part of what really create the strong Norwegian setting that permeates the book.
Translated from Norwegian, this is a striking picture book in so many ways. It will be one of those books that children shout at thanks to the deadpan nature and the lack of reveal, and I love sharing those books with kids. After all, we all feel different and even a bit green and scaly at times. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Eerdmans Books for Young Readers.
The Hueys in The New Sweater by Oliver Jeffers
All of the Hueys are the same. They are all white ovals with skinny, stick legs and arms. They even acted and thought the same, until one day when Rupert knitted himself a sweater. It was a bright orange sweater with zig-zags and it made him stand out from all of the other Hueys. Rupert was very proud of his sweater, but the other Hueys often reacted in shock and horror at it. Rupert went to talk with Gillespie, who was also intrigued by being different. Gillespie knitted himself a sweater just like Rupert’s and that way they could both be different together! Slowly, the other Hueys started to accept that Rupert and Gillespie were different. In fact, they embraced it, and everyone knitted themselves orange sweaters just like Rupert’s. Now everyone was the same again, until Rupert decided to try a hat!
There is something completely winning about these little creatures that Jeffers has created. So much of this book depends on the images, the style, and the feel. Jeffers manages to create a community that is completely homogenous but not cult-like or frightening. Instead it’s a community that has tea, hangs pictures, and seems very friendly. Even their reaction to Rupert’s sweater is never angry, more one of disbelief, shock and even some tears.
The writing is light and merry, keeping the entire book positive. Jeffers has cleverly created a book that speaks to creativity and being your own person, not being afraid of leaving the crowd, but also one about what happens when your idea is taken over by the crowd. The answer? Do something else!
A great pick for a bedtime read, the book is a smaller format than many picture books and will not work well with a large crowd. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy received from Philomel Books.
The Pirates Next Door by Jonny Duddle
This book first came to my attention when it won the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize in the UK. It is the story of a girl living in a neighborhood where all of the lawns are neat and tidy, until the pirate family moves in next door. They arrive complete with pirate ship, treasure chests and barrels of grog. There is a pirate boy named Jim Lad, his parents, his grandfather, and his little sister, Nugget. Jim Lad and the girl quickly became friends, but the rest of the community was not as welcoming to the pirate family. Rumors spread quickly about all the nasty things the pirates were up to and the fear was that if one pirate family lived there, then more would come. But this pirate family is only there while their ship is being repaired, so soon Jim Lad is off again, leaving behind a touch of pirate treasure for everyone.
Duddle has written a child-friendly book about segregation without ever using the word or focusing on that concept. It is a book about people who are different from you moving into your neighborhood. Happily, the pirates expect to be shunned to a large degree, and just live their lives the way they always would. They are unapologetic, make no efforts to fit in, and then disappear, but not without making a real impact and changing people’s minds.
The illustrations in this book really set it apart. They have that lush feel of cinematic animation. Each character has a unique feeling to them, effortlessly distinct and interesting. That’s true of the pirate family and also of the many elderly neighbors who gossip about them. The effect is rich and striking. The illustrations also use the color palette of cinema, with the dramatic lush colors, deep blues of night, and often playing with light and dark.
This exceptional book takes the appeal of a pirate story and weaves in social commentary with great restraint. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from library copy.