Mama’s Nightingale: A Story of Immigration and Separation by Edwidge Danticat, illustrated by Leslie Staub
Saya’s mother has been taken to an immigration detention center and held for three months. Saya misses her a lot, spending time at night listening to her mother’s voice on the answering machine. Her Papa spends his evenings writing to judges and the media to find help, but no one ever responds. Every week, Saya and Papa go to visit her mother, but it is always hard to leave her behind again. Then Saya’s mother starts to record stories for her, all based on Haitian folk tales, some sad and some happy. Saya decides to write her own letter to the media and gains their attention. Soon Mama is brought before a judge due to the pressure brought by the media and viewers. The judge allows her to return home until her papers arrive.
Danticat is a National Book Award winner for her adult books. In her Author’s Note she speaks to the impact of immigration and separation in her own childhood. In the United States in recent years, over 70,000 parents of American-born children have been jailed or deported. This is an issue impacting every community in our country. Danticat offers not only a view of how this separation affects a child, but also a way forward for both children to feel they are doing something to help and parents who are jailed to stay in touch with their children through stories from their heritage. Beautifully written, this picture book sings the message of diversity, inclusion and humanity.
The illustrations by Staub are lush and colorful. They show the power of the human voice and shared stories in a visual way, swirling the page with images of Mama as well as from the stories being shared. The colors of joy infuse the pages just as the colors of sorrow appear on others. It is a very effective way to show the myriad of emotions that Saya is feeling.
An important book that is beautifully written and illustrated, this picture book belongs in every library. Appropriate for ages 5-8.
Reviewed from copy received from Dial Books for Young Readers.
Scritch Scratch Scraww Plop! by Kitty Crowther
Jeremy doesn’t like the dark. So when bedtime comes, he is just fine as he gets ready for bed. He’s happy when his father reads him a bedtime story and his mother comes in for a final hug and kiss. But once he is left alone in the dark in bed, he hears something. It’s a “scritch scratch scraww plop” and Jeremy is fairly sure that it is some sort of monster in his room. He goes to tell his father, but his father just moves him back to bed. Eventually after being unable to sleep after several tries, Jeremy climbs in bed with his parents. His father can’t sleep then, and goes to sleep in Jeremy’s room. And that is when he hears a “scritch scratch scraww plop!” He heads back to get Jeremy and the two of them go outside together to figure out what is making that noise.
Crowther takes a universal situation of being scared of the dark and places a lovely natural twist at the end. The fact that Jeremy is not making up or imagining the scary noise he is hearing is central to the story. Reading this book aloud is a treat with the “scritch scratch scraww plop” offering a great opportunity to add a little shiver into the room. The design of the book is old-fashioned and warm. I immediately thought of Jeremy Fisher by Beatrix Potter when I opened the book. The clear celebration of nature at the end of the book is a strong way to finish on a high note.
Crowther’s art is done in discrete panels on each page adding to the vintage feel. The art itself is jaunty and friendly. The pools of water on the floor that make up their carpet is funny and the real darkness on the page done in black is deep and adds to the scary feel when Jeremy is alone.
This import from Belgium will be welcomed as a bedtime story for those who have their own monsters and scary noises to deal with at night. It may also invite exploration out into yards and gardens to discover what is making those noises. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy received from Enchanted Lion Books.
Half a Creature from the Sea by David Almond
In a series of short stories, master author Almond takes readers back to the magical times of his childhood as well as our own. The stories are all set in the places that Almond grew up in. The stories range in topic, but each one offers glimpses of wonder and deep understanding. They also all speak to the power of stories in our lives, whether they are to reveal or to hide the truth. The eight stories in the book give us characters living normal yet extraordinary lives. There is the girl rejected by school and society who finds it easy to believe she comes from somewhere far away. There is the home with a monster hidden inside it where you can hear its noises if you put your ear on the wall outside. There are the boys who run miles and miles to swim in the sea on one perfect summer day. There are poltergeists mixed with soccer games, bullies mixed with heroes. It is a beautiful collection of stories which put together make up a glimpse of a world past that still is relevant in our modern one.
Almond’s writing is exceptional. This shorter form allows him to create little worlds of magic, astonishing moments of clarity, decisions that reverberate in the community. He invites us into his home, revealing in paragraphs before each story the way that the story ties to his childhood or to a place that is dear to him. It gives us a look at his process, a way to understand the fictionalizing of memories and the beauty of turning everyday into amazement. The fantasy elements are there, dancing under the cloak of faith but there still, explained but also not completely fictional. There is a delicacy to this writing and yet a robustness to the setting that work particularly well together.
One of the best short story collections I have read in a very long time, this collection is exceptional. Appropriate for ages 8-12.
Reviewed from ARC received from Candlewick Press.
The Doldrums by Nicholas Gannon
Archer lives in a house that his grandparents filled with all of their discoveries from exploring the world. That’s the closest that Archer has ever gotten to having his own adventure. In fact, he’s really not allowed to leave the house except to attend school because his mother is afraid that he has “tendencies” towards exploring. And she is right! Even though he is stuck in the house, Archer manages to make two close friends in Oliver and Adelaide. The three of them begin planning to rescue Archer’s grandparents from the iceberg where they were last seen two years ago. They have to avoid detection from Archer’s mother as well as their horrible teacher who also lives in their neighborhood. As they plan their escape, the three friends are in for the adventure of a lifetime.
It is amazing that this is Gannon’s debut book. It is written with such surety and clarity. The plot is very strong, one that readers can count on answering questions after allowing the reader to puzzle and stew a bit. The writing is lovely, creating a setting that is clear and crisp. The house itself is a world separate from the rest, filled with mounted animals, surprising gifts, and red trunks. Descriptions are used to create this world and paint it before your eyes. They manage to not slow the pace of the book, which moves from leisurely storytelling to a wild mania at the end.
The illustrations too are exceptional. Done in old-fashioned full-color panels, they are filled with wonderful details. You get to see the various houses depicted in minute detail. The characters too are shown in a wonderful delicacy that shines with lamplight and sun. Even the darkness of the classroom is lit from the side, glowing with a wonder that matches the storyline.
An imaginative and wonderful read, this book is one to snuggle up with and share aloud. Appropriate for ages 8-11.
Reviewed from copy received from Greenwillow Books.
Mango, Abuela and Me by Meg Medina, illustrated by Angela Dominguez (InfoSoup)
Mia’s abuela has come to live with Mia and her family in the United States. She can’t speak English and Mia can’t speak Spanish, so the two of them spend time together in silence, feeding the birds and watching TV. Mia’s mother reminds her of how a classmate learned to speak English and Mia starts to work to teach her abuela the new language. They point at things and share the English and Spanish words. Mia labels items around the house with their English names. Then when Mia and her mother go to the pet store for treats for her hamster, Mia sees a parrot that she knows will remind her abuela of the home she left. Mango, the parrot, starts speaking both languages and helps Mia’s abuela connect with both her past and her granddaughter.
Medina has written this picture book with a lovely clarity of voice. The first person narrative is told from Mia’s point of view and shows the growing relationship with her grandmother, from the first shy days to the later part of the book where they are happily chatting and reading together. The book speaks to the importance of family and also to the ways that language can be learned and shared. It is particularly important that Mia learned Spanish too.
The illustrations are simple and colorful. They show the limited space that the family has, so Mia and her grandmother share a room together. The urban setting is shown with a bright friendliness that captures a vibrant community. The chronicling of the growing relationship is shown very effectively in the images.
A strong picture book that celebrates families and new language learners. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from library copy.
Sonya’s Chickens by Phoebe Wahl (InfoSoup)
Sonya was given three tiny chicks by her father. It was her job to take good care of them. At first, the chicks liked in the house in a cardboard box while Sonya’s parents fixed up the coop in the yard. Soon they grew into pullets and were living outside. They followed Sonya everywhere she went. She took good care of them, giving them food and water and cleaning out their coop. They grew into three large happy hens and started laying eggs. Then one night, Sonya was woken by squawking in the chicken coop. She headed outside and one of her chickens was no longer there, only two hens were up in the rafters hiding. Sonya’s father explained that a fox had gotten the hen and told her about why he would have taken her. Sonya and her family had a funeral for the hen and worked to repair the coop so that a fox could not get in again. Then the circle started once more when one of the eggs began to hatch.
Wahl embraces honesty about the death of pets and grief in this picture book. Beautifully told, the loss of the chicken may surprise some readers. It is handled with care and truth, the father in the story explaining that the fox has to hunt for his family in order to feed his kits. Sonya is allowed time to express her feelings, supported by her family. The ending of the book has a new chick joining Sonya’s flock and her willing to continue on despite the loss. It’s a lesson in resilience.
The illustrations in this picture book are impressive. Done with watercolor, collage and colored pencil, they are vibrant and richly colored. The images show a mixed-race family in a rural setting, something that isn’t seen enough in picture books. They have a great textural feel and also depict a fully-realized home and family with most of the pictures taking up an entire page with their rich colors.
An honest look at grief and loss of a pet, this picture book is a winner. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Marvels by Brian Selznick (InfoSoup)
Released September 15, 2015.
The author of The Invention of Hugo Cabret returns with his third book. In this novel that mixes his vivid artwork with longer passages of text, the focus is on one amazing family, The Marvels. It begins in the 18th century with a shipwreck where a boy survives the sinking of The Kraken and finds his way to London. Just as the ship was sinking, he had been participating in a play on board along with his brother who was killed in the wreck. So when he reached London, he found the Royal Theatre and people willing to take him in. Time passed and the boy turned into a man who one day finds a baby left on the theater doorstep. So begins a theatrical family until one generation does not want to be on stage anymore. Time turns again, now it is 1990 and the story is that of Joseph who has run away from boarding school to the home of his uncle whom he has never met. Looking through the windows of the home, it is as if a huge family has just left the room. But his uncle lives there alone. Odd noises filter through the house too, a bird sings where there is no bird and footsteps can be heard. As Joseph is allowed to stay, he discovers that he is living in a mystery and one that he must solve in order to understand his uncle.
This is another stunning novel from Selznick. Again it marries his art with his prose, both of which are beautiful and evocative. His art depicts the theater life and shows how like ship rigging the ropes all are. It shows art and family and irreconcilable differences. Then comes the prose where Selznick paints a picture of the uncle’s home with the same detail and care that he uses in his images. They come to life in a different but complementary way. It is stirring and beautiful to experience vivid depiction of two settings, one in text and the other in art. This results in a book that is visually arresting but also has prose that is worthy of celebrating and sinking into as well.
Joseph and his uncle are both very interesting characters. Both are rather isolated and lonely, finding their own space in the world. Both struggle to fit in, but also find ways that allow them to not have to change their own personality much at all. It is a book that looks at love and the various places you can find it in life as well as its power to transform. As the story unfolds, there are wonders and almost magic at work. This is an exploration of theater and performance too, a look at what is truth and what is real and an acknowledgement that theater can be both.
I was rapt when reading this novel. It is a treat to have a new Selznick to explore and this one lives up to his stellar reputation. Appropriate for ages 8-12.
Reviewed from ARC received from Scholastic.
Sharing the Bread: An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving Story by Pat Zietlow Miller, illustrated by Jill McElmurry
Released September 22, 2015.
Told in rhyme, this picture book is a celebration of a family preparing Thanksgiving dinner together. The nineteenth century American traditions echo our modern ones closely. Readers will see the turkey go into the wood-burning oven. Dough for the bread is kneaded and allowed to rise. There is cranberry sauce made on the stove and a pumpkin pie with hand-whipped topping. Mashed potatoes are added to the feast as well as a jug of cider. Soon everyone is gathered around the table and prayers are said together. It’s an American Thanksgiving done in true traditional style.
The rhyming stanzas evoke a feeling of a jaunty folksong as they tell the story of a family making their Thanksgiving dinner. The rhymes create a great rhythm to the book, that will have toes tapping if they are read with enough snap and vigor. The rhyme and rhythm combine to create a strong framework for the book, one where there is a building anticipation for the meal and for the family to all arrive. There are extended family present, including adult siblings, aunt, uncle and grandparents. Throughout, there is lots of work to be done but it is all done in good cheer and everyone lends a hand.
McElmurry’s illustrations have a folkart quality to them that works well. Done in paint, the illustrations are simple and warm, inviting you back in time to share a meal that is familiar to everyone. There are lots of period details in the images such as water pumps, dried herbs in bunches on the wall, a wash tub, and large cast iron pots and pans.
Warm and flavored with tradition and love, this book is as gratifying as a fresh loaf of bread. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Schwartz & Wade and Edelweiss.
Double Happiness by Nancy Tupper Ling, illustrated by Alina Chau
Told in individual poems, this is the story of a brother and sister who must move away from San Francisco and the extended family they have there, including their beloved Nai Nai. Before they leave, their grandmother gives them empty boxes to fill with reminders of where they have been. For Jake there is a penny, gum rolled into a snake shape, and a blue-green marble. For Gracie, there is a panda from home, a eucalyptus leaf, and one final elusive element from home. The children have adventures in the airport, make the transition to a new home with wintry weather, and throughout their connection with their family and their heritage stays strong.
Ling writes poems that shine with warmth. She captures what it feels like to be a beloved child in an extended family and the angst of leaving that place for another. Wrapped throughout the poems are references to China and Chinese-American culture that makes this book a real joy for its diversity that stays so strong throughout. The poems are individual but work together into a picture book that offers a way to cope with a move and to capture the changes and experiences along the way.
Chau’s illustrations are bright and friendly. The children are small on the page compared to the adults, and their size changes with the emotions they are feeling. Both are bright rays of colors on the page with their banana yellow and plum outfits. The illustrations too swirl with Chinese characters as well as symbols like the phoenix and dragons.
This book speaks to the emotions of moving through lovely poetry but also a concrete way to focus on the positive in the change. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Chronicle Books.
Apple and Rain by Sarah Crossan (InfoSoup)
Apple has lived with her Nana for eleven years, ever since her mother abandoned her at age 3. Nana is strict and won’t let Apple even walk back home from school. When Apple’s mother returns, she is sophisticated and charming and not strict at all. She wants Apple to live with her and it seems like a great idea, after all she will let Apple wear makeup, walk home from school, and even shares some sips of wine. Apple agrees to move in, leaving Nana living alone, and then she discovers that she has a younger sister, Rain. Rain carries a doll around with her and pretends that it is a real baby. As the sisters grow closer together, Apple’s mother starts to spend more time away, leaving Apple caring for Rain and missing school. When tragedy almost strikes, it will take a serious choice by Apple to figure out what sort of family she really wants to be a part of.
Nominated for the British Carnegie Medal, this novel’s writing is clear and lovely. Throughout this novel, Crossan deals with serious situations and large emotions. She uses metaphors to show the depth of emotion and also ties Apple’s emotions into the poems she writes. The images she uses are strong and compelling, allowing the reader to truly understand what Apple is feeling even when her emotions are at their most turbulent.
Crossan also excels at creating relationships between characters and this book is all about relationships on a variety of levels. We have friendships both budding and decaying, maternal relationships that are troubled, and sibling relationships that are problematic yet positive. In each of these, the people are human and real. They are invested in the relationship in their own unique way, often either unable to speak to its importance in their life or unable to see beyond themselves to its importance. Apple is a strong protagonist, longing for a relationship with a mother who even after she returns cannot be the mother than Apple needs. Apple is capable, caring and wonderfully like her Nana in many ways, a touch that I particularly appreciated.
This novel about families, abandonment, and freedom will resonate with middle school readers who may be feeling their own need to be a little less monitored too. Appropriate for ages 12-15.
Reviewed from ARC received from Bloomsbury.