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.
It’s Only Stanley by Jon Agee (InfoSoup)
Something odd is happening tonight in the Wimbledon house. There are mysterious noises. The first noise is Stanley the dog howling at the moon. But then new noises start. The clanking noise is Stanley fixing the oil tank in the basement. A little later, the funky smell that makes the cat ill turns out to be Stanley cooking catfish stew in the kitchen. The buzzing noise is Stanley fixing the family’s old TV in the living room. Splashing noises are Stanley fixing the plumbing. Each noise wakes up the human family and the father has to head out to see what is happening. But just as everyone is starting to get very cranky from loss of sleep, something happens that shows exactly what Stanley has actually been up to all night.
Agee is a master at creating understated books that have a distinctive feel about them. Here he takes a strong matter-of-fact tone and uses it to add to the silliness of the entire book. Told in natural-feeling rhyme, the book has a buoyant tone that makes it great fun to share aloud. Throughout the book the father heads out each time without much emotion and returns to report that it is just Stanley and what the dog is up to. The oblivious family heads back to bed only to be awoken again and again. This builds wonderful tension until it’s released with a literal bang.
Agee’s art is done in his unique style with flat color and thick black lines. Throughout, readers will be able to watch for clues as to what Stanley is actually up to and readers who are paying close attention will figure it out before the family does. Even those children who don’t piece together the clues will want to re-read the story to notice them. Also keep an eye on the cat who seems to always get into the worst of it as the story progresses.
Not a bedtime story despite being set at night, this picture book is strikingly funny and has a grand warped feeling throughout. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Dial Books.
The Penderwicks in Spring by Jeanne Birdsall
Released March 24, 2015.
This fourth book in the fabulous Penderwicks series is sure to please longtime fans and inspire new ones. While the Penderwick family is still the center of the story, the focus this time has moved to Batty and Ben rather than the older Penderwick girls. Batty continues to play the piano, loving music passionately. She has also just discovered that she has a noteworthy singing voice thanks to a new music teacher at school. So she has to find a way to make money for singing lessons, since the family needs a new car and to put the Rosalind, Jane and Skye through college. Batty starts a neighborhood business that offers services like dusting and digging up rocks, specifically a Ben job. But the only jobs she gets offered are to dog walk, something that she really doesn’t want to do because it seems very disloyal to Hound, who died recently. Batty has big plans to unveil her singing to her family, but her planning goes seriously awry as Skye starts to push Jeffrey away from both herself and the Penderwick family.
Returning to the Penderwicks is such a treat. The new focus on the younger members of the family makes me hope that there will be more such treats to come too. Birdsall writes with a such a feel for characters. They all shine through, each unique and distinct from one another. Batty is the same person as that small child that we all fell for in the first novel and so are all of the family members. Adding a new family member in little Lydia is also a treat and she is just as special and wonderful as the others.
Birdsall’s writing pays homage to so many great writers, feeling both modern and vintage at the same time. Her writing is funny, wry and immensely comfortable. It’s a joyous mix of stories, chaos and noise. It is the pleasure of old friends and new adventures that you get to share. The springtime setting is beautifully conveyed and suits the story perfectly as Batty starts to unfold herself into something new along with the trees and flowers.
If you have read the previous books, this one is another delight. If not, what are you waiting for? Appropriate for ages 8-12.
Reviewed from ARC received from Knopf.
Apocalypse Bow Wow by James Proimos III
Brownie and Apollo are two dogs who have been happily living together with their two humans. Their only argument is that Apollo always gets the couch. But then their humans fail to return and the two of them are left alone. Brownie knows the humans will be back soon because he’s getting very hungry and they always come back when he’s hungry. But they don’t return. So the dogs have to figure out how to get out of the house. Apollo tries to break down the door, but it doesn’t work so Brownie thinks that licking the doorknob will help. Apollo knows this makes no sense, but lets Brownie try it. And when he does, a deer leaps through the window and breaks it. Ta da! Brownie and his tongue have saved the day. But when they get out into the world, there are no humans anywhere and now they have to find their own food. Can two rather silly dogs find a way to survive the apocalypse?
This graphic novel is told in distinct scenes, creating a rather movie-like experience reading it. The two dog characters are great foils for one another, Apollo being the more grounded and logical dog while Brownie is rather confused and hopelessly optimistic about everything. Though the book never explains where the humans have disappeared to, readers will happily just go along with the scenario presented thanks to the humor and the silliness.
Proimos’ illustrations are very funny and the way he uses the page is deftly done, making the scenes all the more humorous. Readers of Jarrett J. Krosoczka’s books will be right at home here with the illustration style.
A humorous take on a bleak dystopian disaster, this book will be enjoyed by children who don’t mind a dark side to their graphic novels. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Bloomsbury and Netgalley.
Sam & Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett, Illustrated by Jon Klassen
Barnett and Klassen are an amazing picture book duo who have created with this book an instant classic. Sam and Dave are two friends who set out to dig a hole on Monday. They decide that they won’t stop digging until they find “something spectacular.” They keep digging, deeper and deeper, missing jewels by just a few inches. They stop and have chocolate milk and animal cookies and then continue to dig. Maybe another direction will help them find treasure? But readers will see as they take the turn that they miss the biggest gem yet. The dog that is along with them though seems to realize that there are things right under the surface, but Sam and Dave don’t pay any attention to him. They dig and dig, missing everything along the way until they are right above a dog bone. The two boys take a nap and their dog continues to dig down until suddenly they are falling down from the hole into a world very like their own. Readers who are paying close attention though will realize that it is a subtly different place.
Children love to dig in the dirt and I think every child has dreamed of digging a truly great hole and finding something amazing. Barnett keeps his text very straight-forward and simple, allowing the humor to be in the near misses of the illustrations and the perceptiveness of the little dog. It is this frank delivery that makes the humor of the illustrations really work, giving them a platform to build off of. The ending is wonderfully open-ended, and some readers will miss the subtle differences and assume they are back home again. Others though will see the changes and realize that no matter what Sam and Dave have discovered their “spectacular” something.
Klassen’s illustrations are wonderful. I adore the way that he lets his characters look out from the page to the reader. He did the same thing in both of his great “Hat” picture books and there is a strong connection from the page to the people enjoying the book. His illustrations have a textured feel to them, an organic nature that reads particularly well in this dirt-filled world.
An instant classic and one that will get readers talking about the open ending. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from library copy.
Rain Reign by Ann M. Martin
Rose loves homonyms. She spends her days looking for new ones to add to her list, and then once she gets home adding them or rewriting the entire list if she runs out of space. Her dog Rain has a name that has two homonyms: reign and rein, which is why she picked it. Her father also gave her Rain on a rainy night. He found Rain wandering around after he left the bar one night. Rain is one of the best things in Rose’s life, since her father spends most evenings drinking at the bar and Rose spends them alone. Luckily, she also has her uncle in her life. He takes her to school, helps her find new homonyms, and protects her when necessary from her father when he loses patience with Rose. Then a fierce storm hits their town and Rose’s father lets Rain out into the storm and she disappears. Rose’s father refuses to explain why he let Rain out in a storm and also refuses to help Rose find her dog. It is up to Rose to find Rain so she devises her own plan and calls on her uncle for help. But when she finds Rain, she also discovers that Rain has other owners and Rose has to make a heartbreaking choice about right and wrong and love.
Martin captures a truly dysfunctional family on the page here. Rose’s father is brutal, cruel and a constant threat in her life. At the same time, the book glimmers with hope all of the time. Rose herself is not one to dwell on the shortcomings of her life, preferring to immerse herself in her words, her dog and her time with her uncle. Martin manages to balance both the forces of love and fear in this book, providing hope for children living with parents like this but also not offering a saccharine take on what is happening.
Rose is an amazing character. She talks about having Asperger’s syndrome and OCD. She is the only child in her class with a full-time aide and it is clear from her behaviors in class that she needs help. Yet again Martin balances this. She shows how Rose attempts to reach out to her classmates and then how Rain helps make that possible and how Rose manages to use her own disability as a bridge to help others cope in times of loss. It’s a beautiful and important piece of the story.
A dark book in many ways, this book shines with strong writing, a heroic young female protagonist and always hope. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Feiwel and Friends.
Remy and Lulu by Kevin Hawkes, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes and Hannah E. Harrison
Lulu the dog finds a new owner in the struggling portrait painter, Remy. The two head out into the French countryside together looking for new clients for Remy’s work. He doesn’t get many repeat customers because of his abstract style. Lulu herself is also an artist and quietly begins to add her own meticulous and smaller paintings to the corner of Remy’s large canvasses. Her tiny art is of the subject’s pets and once the owner sees the tiny rendering, they absolutely love it. Remy quickly becomes the toast of the town, but is unaware of what is really happening. What will happen when Remy discovers that a large part of his fame is Lulu’s talent?
This is a wonderfully rich picture book. The story has lots of depth to it, filled with creativity of both humans and hounds. It is a tale of friendship, of artistry, of pride and of forgiveness and acceptance. Remy is a wonderful character, bearded and smocked; he is a great blend of gruff exterior and a huge heart. Lulu herself has a wonderful delicacy that plays in delightful contrast to Remy. They are a solid pair.
Most inventive in this picture book is that Hawkes did the larger illustrations, the ones with rich colors that pop on the page as well as Remy’s abstract work. Paired with his work is that of Harrison, who is an award-winning miniatures artist and her work is shown as Lulu’s. The difference in the two artists is gorgeous and striking, perfectly matching what is happening in the story itself. It’s a delight.
Best for slightly older children, this book will be embraced by art teachers and art-loving children and dogs alike. Appropriate for ages 4-7.
Reviewed from e-galley received from Edelweiss and Knopf Books for Young Readers.
I’m My Own Dog by David Ezra Stein
This dog takes care of himself. He tells himself to roll over, he throws a stick for himself and then goes to get it, he scratches his own itches. Except for the one in the middle of his back, he can’t quite reach it. So when a human follows him home and knows right where to scratch, the dog adopts him. He teaches the human how to hold a leash, how to play the stick game, and how to follow commands. Yes, he has to clean up after the human, but in the end the two of them become the best of friends.
A clever twist on people getting a dog, in this book it is the dog that gets the person. Stein plays up the humor with his short text that is done entirely from the point of view of this very independent canine. The book is a quick read with a zippy pace that adds to the pleasure. Stein’s illustrations are bright and loose. The watercolor gives a flowing feel to the images and offer gorgeous colors on the page as they mix.
One dynamite dog book, this one will get kids giggling but ends with the honest truth of finding a new best friend. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from library copy.
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.
Tuesday Tucks Me In: The Loyal Bond between a Solider and His Service Dog by Luis Carlos Montalván
A child-friendly version of this author’s adult book about his service dog, this picture book version is told from the dog’s point of view. Focusing on a single day together, the book shows how Tuesday takes care of Luis and helps him cope with his PTSD symptoms as they arise. Tuesday also helps Luis remember to take his medication. The two visit a veterans hospital together and then relax a bit at the dog park where Tuesday gets to play just like any other dog. Throughout their day together in the city, Tuesday is there to reassure Luis when walking, when it gets too crowded, and when he gets overwhelmed. But this is a special day and Luis has a surprise for Tuesday!
This book tells such an important story, not only about a service dog but about the recovery of a veteran surviving PTSD. The text is simple and straight forward, following the pair throughout their day. What shines from the page are the pictures, the obvious love the two have for one another, the joy they find together, and the support that goes both directions. Tuesday is wonderful in images, just the kind of gentle dog that everyone wants to love.
Children who need service dog help will see themselves on the page. The book expands the idea of what service dogs are for, offering a broader look at the power of these dogs to aid and calm.
A very strong nonfiction picture book, this would make a good addition to dog story times and units on soldiers. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from library copy.