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.
The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher by Dana Alison Levy
The four Fletcher boys could not be more different from one another. There is the serious ten-year-old Eli who is starting a private school separate from his brothers for the first time and who just may have made a horrible decision changing schools. There is Sam, aged twelve, who loves sports and is popular at school but who will find himself stretching into new interests this year. There is Jax, also aged ten, who has a huge homework assignment that will have him talking to their new grumpy neighbor for help but only after he calms down from a number of things. Finally, there is Frog who is just starting kindergarten along with his imaginary friend and who may have a new imaginary friend named Ladybug. It all adds up to a wonderful read with lots of humor and one amazing family.
Filled with laughter, an angry neighbor, elaborate Halloween parties, soccer, hockey and plenty of pets, this book is sure to please middle grade readers. Add in the diverse backgrounds of the four boys in the family and their two dads and you have a book that celebrates diversity without taking itself too seriously. It’s the ideal mix of completely readable book with its diversity simply part of the story not the main point.
All of the boys as well as the two fathers are unique individuals with their own personal responses to crises and situations. Each chapter begins with a note from one character to another, usually funny and always showing their personality. Perhaps the best part of the book is that this family dynamic is clearly one of love but also filled with normal chaos and the daily strain of work, school, neighbors and friends. It reads like a modern classic.
I hope we get to read more of their misadventures in future books, because this is one family that I want to see much more of! Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Delacorte Books for Young Readers.
Emily’s Blue Period by Cathleen Daly, illustrated by Lisa Brown
An intriguing mix of subjects, this picture book combines art with divorce and it works gorgeously. Emily really likes the work of Picasso and the way that he put body parts in odd places in his cubist work. It reflects the way that Emily feels about her own family life, with her father now living in a different home than the rest of them. Emily tries to help her father pick out furniture for his new home, but it’s not easy and her little brother quickly becomes problematic at the store and has to be carried out. Even art becomes less fun for Emily. She feels blue a lot of the time and not like using any other colors. Then her art teacher shows her about collage, and Emily finds a way to express her feelings through her art and depict her family in their own unique style.
Told in short chapters, this picture book is just right for elementary students. The unique combination of subjects works particularly well, each supporting the other and allowing them to be explored in more depth. Daly manages to use art to show the emotions of children experiencing a divorce and the divorce to show the importance of art in expressing yourself when you can’t find the words.
Brown’s art is light-handed and friendly. She captures Picasso’s art with that same light touch and creates Emily’s blue time with plenty of blue but no darkness. The result is a book that is filled with light, despite it’s more somber subjects. It keeps the book from being too serious and allows the emotions to surface nicely.
A striking combination of art and real life, this picture book truly shows the power of art in one’s life. Appropriate for ages 5-8.
Reviewed from library copy.
Not My Girl by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard
Continue the story of When I Was Eight with this second picture book by the authors. The picture book versions follow two highly acclaimed novels for elementary-aged children that tell the same story at a different level. In this book, Margaret returns home to her native family from the outsiders’ school. Her hair has been cut short, she has trouble speaking the language of her people, and her skills are more suited to school than life in the Arctic. When her mother sees her for the first time, she exclaims “Not my girl!” and rejects her daughter. Slowly, Margaret begins to rebuild her old life and relearn the ways of her family and their traditional life. But it takes time to be accepted by her mother and to find her way around her newly reunited family.
The Fenton family writes all of their books from the heart, clearly creating a case for the damage of the white people and their schools on the lives of Native people and their children. This book serves as the other side of the story from When I Was Eight, demonstrating that even when children were returned to their families it was not easy to integrate once again into that society because of the changes wrought by the schooling system.
Grimard’s illustrations show the Arctic landscape, the way Margaret doesn’t fit in with her clothing or her ways. It also shows the love of her father, his patience and understanding and the slow thaw of her mother and her anger. Grimard captures these emotions with a delicacy and understanding of all of them.
Another impressive entry into the story of Margaret and her childhood, this book should be paired with the first picture book to best understand Margaret’s story. Appropriate for ages 5-7.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Things You Kiss Goodbye by Leslie Connor
Bettina has been raised in a very strict family. She’s not allowed to do anything other than attend dance classes, which ended when her best friend moved away. Otherwise it is only school and home. So when a very sweet basketball player at school asks her out, she is forced to say no. But he doesn’t accept that and manages to charm Bettina’s family enough that she is allowed to go out with him. At first everything is wonderful and Brady is a perfect boyfriend, who takes things very slow and doesn’t pressure. But as they date more, Brady begins to change. He gets angrier as pressure goes up on the basketball court. Then Bettina meets a man who is everything that Brady isn’t. He doesn’t ask for anything from her, never gets mad, and Bettina finds herself longing to spend more time with him even though her family would never approve. Bettina knows she has to leave Brady before he hurts her more badly, but as she hesitates something happens so that the truth of the two men in her life must be revealed.
Connor captures an abusive relationship with a delicacy that allows the reader to begin to rationalize what happens to Bettina along with her. This is not straight-forward beatings, but rather teasing taken too far, anger expressed in the wrong way, and as Bettina learns to tiptoe around Brady the reader realizes that they too have been drawn into the wrong relationship alongside her. It is powerfully done. When Connor adds the character of Cowboy to the book, it is a surprising choice. His gentleness and quiet in an older man makes for a charismatic character unusual in teen novels. While he is a foil for the young and angry Brady, he is also himself a complicated and intriguing figure.
Connor seems to write only complicated characters, much to her credit. Bettina is a girl who is eager to leave the confines of her upbringing, pushing against her parents’ control. Yet even her parents are completely drawn characters, struggling to do their best for their daughter. The book plays with overprotective parents who don’t manage to protect their daughter from anything in the end. Yet their love is what lingers beyond that.
A powerful read with moments of breathlessness from surprise and shock, this book is not only about an abusive relationship but about true love and hope too. Appropriate for ages 14-17.
Reviewed from digital copy received from Edelweiss and Katherine Tegen Books.
Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff
The author of A Tangle of Knots returns with a brilliant new protagonist in her new novel. Albie doesn’t get good grades, in fact he was asked to leave his private school and is going to be starting public school instead. Albie isn’t the best artist. He isn’t the best at anything at all. Except maybe at eating doughnuts for breakfast. But when he changes schools, things start to change for Albie. It could be the great new babysitter he gets, since his parents are very busy. Calista is an artist and she thinks it’s OK that Albie reads Captain Underpants books even though he’s in 5th grade and that he sometimes needs a break from school. It could be math club, that starts each day with a joke and sneaks math in when Albie isn’t paying attention. It could be a new best friend, Betsy, someone he can talk to and joke with and who doesn’t get mad when Albie gets confused. But things aren’t all great. Albie’s other best friend is appearing on a reality TV show and suddenly Albie gets popular at school, risking his friendship with Betsy. Albie has a lot to figure out before he knows exactly what he’s good at.
Graff’s writing here is stellar. She writes with an ease that makes for a breezy read, yet it deals with deep issues along the way. Thanks to her light touch, the book reads quickly, never bogging down into the issues for too long before lightening again. Still, it is the presence of those deep issues that make this such a compelling read. The fact that the book deals with so much yet never feels overwhelmed by any of them is a wonder and a feat.
Throughout the entire book the real hero is Albie. He is a character that is ordinary, every-day and yet is still a delight to read about. His perspective is down to earth, often confused, and he walks right into every social trap there is. He is a character you simply have to root for, a regular boy who is also a hero. He shows that simply making it through each day being yourself is heroic, and a win. The world is filled with Albies and this book shows why they should be celebrated. He’s a delight.
A book with at least four starred reviews, this is a standout novel this year. Get your hands on it and share it with kids. It’s a unique and surprising read, just like Albie himself. Appropriate for ages 8-11.
Reviewed from library copy.
Grandmaster by David Klass
Daniel is a freshman in the chess club of an elite private school. He knows he’s one of the poorest kids attending the school, one of the least popular, and also one of the worst chess players. So he’s surprised with two popular and wealthy seniors approach him to invite Daniel and his father to a father son chess tournament in New York City. He’s even more shocked to find out that his own accountant father who doesn’t seem to be good at anything in particular, used to to be a chess grandmaster thirty years ago. Daniel convinces his father to participate and quickly realizes that his father has a profound gift for chess. But as the tournament continues, the stress gets more difficult to deal with and Daniel realizes that his father quitting chess may have been a matter of life and death.
Klass, who was a competitive chess champion himself, writes a book about chess that never lags with too much chess information and is filled with real drama. Klass wisely mixes drama on the board with drama in real life, showing the complexity of competition on a variety of scales. I also appreciate that Klass slowly broke down the shell of the wealthy fathers and sons, showing them for whom they truly were. Happily, he did not end up with stereotypes in any way, rather he showed them all as individuals with various flaws.
Daniel is a great character. He doesn’t realize his own potential and is actually beyond humble. He has a great sense of humor as well, something that works well as he deals with his father. And what a paternal character that is! His father is an amazing mix of wounded chess veteran, incredible brain, and distant man. But that changes, grows, reverts and organically continues throughout the book.
A riveting book about chess, competition and father son relationships, get this book into the hands of chess playing middle schoolers, but even more it may inspire some kids to give the game a try. Appropriate for ages 12-14.
Reviewed from copy received from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
The Whispering Town by Jennifer Elvgren, illustrated by Fabio Santomauro
In Nazi-occupied Denmark, Anett and her family are hiding a Jewish woman and her son in their cellar. They must wait for a night with enough moonlight to see the boat in the harbor that will take them to safety in Sweden. Anett works with their neighbors to get extra food to feed them and extra books from the library for them to read. On her errands, Anett notices solders questioning her neighbors and she heads home quickly to warn her parents who in turn knock on the cellar door to alert the people they are sheltering. Eventually, the soldiers come to Anett’s house but no one is home except Anett who manages to keep calm and turn them away. But how will the woman and her son escape with no moon that night? It will take an entire town to save them.
Elvgren tells a powerful story based on actual history in this picture book. Presenting that history from the perspective of a participating child makes this book work particularly well. The support of the town is cleverly displayed as Anett moves through town, informing people that they have “new friends” and the others offer extra food and support. That is what makes the resolution so very satisfying, knowing that these are all people standing up to the Nazis in their own special way, including Anett herself.
Santomauro’s illustrations have a wonderful quirky quality to them. Done with deep shadows that play against the fine lines, the book clearly shows the worry of the Danish people and also their strength as a community.
This is a story many may not have heard before and it is definitely one worth sharing. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from digital copy received from Kar-Ben Publishing.
The Feral Child by Che Golden
Maddy’s parents died recently, so she is sent to Ireland to live with her grandparents. She misses London and her friends dreadfully and doesn’t like her cousins or the town of Blarney. Though she has been told not to enter the grounds of the castle in town, she does anyway one evening because she is so angry and just doesn’t care. She stays longer than she means to when her grandparent’s dog George runs off. It is then that she meets a strange boy. That same boy returns to her house later, tapping at the window and asking Maddy to join him, but she refuses to go to the window at all, because she has realized that he is not what he seems to be. When the boy goes to her neighbor and steals their little boy from out of his bedroom window, Maddy sees it all. But with a changeling in the little boy’s place, no one even knows he is actually missing. It is up to Maddy, her cousins, and George the dog to save him, because no one else can. They must enter the faerie realm to do so and face incredible dangers on their quest.
Golden manages to not actually modernize the faeries and their world, which is quite refreshing. Instead what you have in this middle-grade novel is a modern girl thrust into the strange and timeless world of the faeries. She takes the most menacing and amazing parts of folklore and brings them fully to life, creating a dazzling array of faeries and beasts as the children travel. The dangers are brutally displayed and there are times when death is so close, readers will be amazing that the characters survive.
Maddy is not a particularly likeable character at first in the novel, nor are her cousins. Maddy is the main protagonist and undergoes a believable transformation into heroine as the novel goes on. The same can be said for one of her cousins who comes out of her shell and into her own. The other cousin, the bully, has too easy a transformation and it happens a bit to early in the book as well. But that is a quibble in an impressive faerie tale.
Faeries, Ireland and an amazing quest all come together to create a book that is frightening, riveting and a rip-roaring read. Appropriate for ages 10-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Quercus.
The Baby Tree by Sophie Blackall
A young boy is told at breakfast that a new baby is coming. He has a lot of questions, but the biggest one is “Where are we going to get the baby?” So he starts asking different people. His babysitter Olive who walks him to school in the morning says that you plant a seed and it grows into a baby tree. At school, he asks his teacher where babies come from and she says “from the hospital” but he can’t ask any more questions because it’s time to clean up. That afternoon he asks his grandpa about babies, because he is the only person that the boy knows who has been to the hospital, and Grandpa says that a stork brings the baby in the night and leaves it on your doorstep. The mailman says that babies come from eggs. The boy is very confused, so that night he asks his parents and they explain about babies growing inside their mom, about seeds and eggs and the hospital. Now all the boy has to do is explain it to Grandpa who is clearly uninformed!
Blackall weaves an age-appropriate look at reproduction in this picture book. I particularly appreciated that when the older characters explained it to the boy, there were touches of honesty in each of their answers that come together cleverly in the end, except for Grandpa’s of course! It is a book that explains just enough of the details to answer preschool questions, without going into details that they are not interested in at that age.
As always, Blackall’s illustrations are fresh and unique. Her illustrations are friendly and lovely, focusing on the relationships in this boy’s life beyond his parents. They demonstrate a richness of connections that is a delight.
A great addition to library collections, this is an ideal level of information for preschoolers expecting a new sibling soon. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy received from Nancy Paulsen Books.