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.
The Mitten String by Jennifer Rosner, illustrated by Kristina Swarner
Released October 28, 2014.
Ruthie’s family was known for their wool and the mittens they created from it. They sheared their own sheep, prepared their own wool, spun their own yarn. At night, Ruthie and her mother knitted together, with Ruthie in particular making mittens. On market days, they traveled to town to sell their fabric and knitting. One day, they found a woman on the road with her baby where their wagon had broken down. The woman wrote on a slate to communicate, because she was deaf. She used sign language with her little son. Ruthie’s family offered her a place to stay for the night and Ruthie noticed a deep blue piece of yarn around the woman’s wrist. That night, she saw how the women used the yarn to tie herself gently to her baby so that she would know if he needed anything in the night. Ruthie had a great idea and quickly went to work creating a mitten on a string with one sized for an adult and the other for a baby. In return for her kindness, the woman gave Ruthie her string of yarn of the deepest blue and then also showed Ruthie what plant to use to create the blue dye.
As Rosner says in her author’s note, this book is inspired by her great-great-aunt Bayla who was deaf and used the trick of tying a string to her baby’s wrist from her own. She also offers a knitting glossary at the end along with some knitting-related sign language signs. I appreciate that while this book is about a woman who is deaf, she is also a very capable person. The family may offer her help, but it is more about her circumstances than about her deafness. It is a pleasure to have a book about a disability address it in such a positive way.
Swarner’s art has the softness of yarn. Done in the same rich, deep colors that Ruthie knits her mittens out of, the entire world is soft and warm. There are small touches throughout that add details of homeliness and kindness. From the different sizes of mittens around the home to the flowers all over the grass.
This is a picture book about kindness and caring for one another with a brilliant blue thread of love woven throughout. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from e-galley received from Random House Books for Young Readers and Edelweiss.
I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
Jude and Noah are twins and they are so close. Both of them are artists and Noah in particular sees the world as constant inspiration for his artwork. Noah is withdrawn from others his age and bullied by other boys. Jude though is being noticed by the same boys who bully her brother and as they turn thirteen, the two of them may be different but they are still close. Jude is wearing lipstick and diving from cliffs. Noah is starting to fall for the boy across the street. Three years later though, the two of them are completely estranged from one another. They barely speak. Jude is the artist now and Noah no longer paints. Jude has discovered a mentor for her art and a boy who is just as damaged as she is. Noah is a normal straight teen who hangs out with those who once bullied him and now dives from cliffs himself. How did two teens change so much in such a short period of time? That’s the story here, and it involves grief, loss, betrayal, lies, love and truth.
Nelson tells the early part of the twins’ story in Noah’s voice. We get to experience the joy he feels about art and the beauty of his emerging sexuality combined with his fear of being discovered. Jude tells the story after their relationship is fractured. Her story is one of passions and change. They are both stories of trying to hide what you are, trying to become something new. They are stories that veer swiftly, change often and shout with emotion and pain.
Nelson writes with exquisite emotion on the page. She shows the passion, the fear, the grief, the love vividly and with such heart. It is her emotional honesty on the page that avoids sentimentality at all. Rather this book is raw and aching in every way, from the new relationships that are filled with lust and longing to the destroyed sibling relationship that is one lost and hurt betrayal after another. She also manages to somehow capture art and inspiration on the page, the power of art to express, the emotions that it creates and acknowledges, the joy of creation and the agony of being unable to make it.
Powerful storytelling that is beautifully written and tells the story of two siblings and their journey through being teenagers. Appropriate for ages 14-18.
Reviewed from copy received from Dial.
The Storm Whale by Benji Davies
Noi lives with his father in a house by the sea with six cats. Every day, his father goes out fishing, leaving Noi alone all day long. One day, after a big storm, Noi sees something out on the beach. It’s a baby whale. Noi knows it will not live long without water, so he takes the whale home and puts it in the bathtub. He spends time with the whale, telling it stories. But he also worries that his father will be angry when he finds a whale in the house. So Noi tries to keep the whale a secret from his father, but it doesn’t last for long. A whale is a big secret to keep in a small family. Together, the two of them return the whale to the sea, but not before they each learn something about one another and how to move forward as a stronger family.
Davies manages to tell a profound story using minimal words. The text in the book mainly explains the action that is happening. It does not offer insight into the emotions of the characters. That is a large part of the power of this book. So much goes unsaid but is clear to the reader. Noi’s loneliness is shown rather than told. Him lingering by the window as his father leaves, the fact that he brings the whale home across a stretch of beach rather than pushing him back into the nearby water. Even the father’s reaction is shown this way, allowing the emotions to be realized rather than explained.
The illustrations tell much of the story here, but again in a quiet and frank manner. The emotions are not broadcast from the character’s faces but from their situations and their body language. It’s a brave way to tell a story about a father and son reconnecting with one another.
Adeptly conceived and powerful, this picture book speaks to loneliness and family, and would be great as a discussion book for young children about emotions. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy received from Henry Holt and Co.
Nest by Esther Ehrlich
11-year-old Chirp has grown up in the 1970s exploring the coasts and woods of Cape Cod and particularly watching the birds and learning all she can about them. Her home life has been stable and warm, but now things are shifting. Her dancer mother is no longer able to dance because of the pain in her leg. She’s also having balance problems. The family tries to continue as normal but when her mother is diagnosed with MS, it throws her mother’s mental state into chaos. Unable to deal with the diagnosis, her mother falls into a deep depression. Through it all, Chirp is slowly making friends with the boy who lives in her neighborhood, someone she had always feared in the past. As their friendship grows, her family falls further and further into distress while Chirp fights to keep her own personal equilibrium. Unable to cope any longer, Chirp and her new friend form a desperate plan.
Ehrlich captures a family both on the brink of crisis and then moving fully into complete dysfunction. Through it all, the characters react as humans rather than stereotypes. Readers will be caught up in the turbulence of these lives, the hope as things seem to improve, and the devastation as they continue to fail. Ehrlich guides the story with a steady hand, allowing the characters to come to life on the page and react as honestly as they can. She also makes sure that this is shown through Chirp’s point of view, something that both protects young readers but also allows the sudden changes to be even more powerful.
Chirp and her humor and unique point of view keep this book from sliding too far into tragedy. She is inventive, creative and has her own passions for birds and nature that crop up throughout the book. Joey, her new friend, has a complicated family life and also a spirit all his own. He is a male character we rarely see in books, a boy who turns away from becoming a bully to become a friend, all on his own without adult intervention. Her family is complexly drawn too, from the older sister who wants to escape to a different family to her father who is desperate to keep his family together and continues to be loving in the most difficult of times.
Written with a strong new voice, this debut novel is filled with rich characters who come together just to survive. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Random House Children’s Books.
The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Shane W. Evans
Amira is an artist who spends her free time drawing with sharp sticks in the dirt. She has just turned twelve and is now old enough to wear a toob. Amira longs to go to school, but her mother doesn’t believe that girls should go to school. So Amira stays on the family farm with her parents and younger sister who was born with misshapen legs. Then the peace is shattered when their farm is attacked and Amira’s beloved father is killed. Now they must leave their farm behind and head to a refugee camp where people are crowded into a small space and hunger is constant. But when Amira is given a red pencil, her mind once again is able to escape into her art and she starts to once again dream of a different future and how to get there.
Set in Sudan, this verse novel is filled with power, wrenching written. The brutality of the attack is captured clearly on the page as is the shock of loss that continues to ripple and tear at the small family remaining. Pinkney captures grief on the page, writing with a clarity and beauty that is stark at times and layered and subtle at others. Her verse speaks to the power of dreams to lift people out of where they are trapped and make a difference.
From waves of wheat on the page to the family together, Evans’ illustrations support the powerful verse. As the tone of the poems shift, so does his art which moves from playful to dramatic along with the text. My favorite images capture small pieces of life, little glimpses of what makes a home and a day.
An impressive novel in verse, this book offers a strong survivor of a protagonist who uses art as a force to lift herself. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from e-galley received from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers and Edelweiss.
I Am a Witch’s Cat by Harriet Muncaster
A little girl believes that her mother is a witch and that she is her mother’s black cat. Dressed in a cat costume, the little girl gives examples of the witchy things that her mother does each day. She has potions in the bathroom that the little girl isn’t allowed to touch. She buys weird things at the grocery store. She goes magical herbs (like carrots) in her garden that she then uses to make potions in the kitchen. She has a group of friends who come over and they cackle together. All of these examples are shown in the pictures to be completely normal and easily explained. But a nice little twist at the end of the book will have readers wondering if perhaps there’s some truth to her mother being a good witch!
Told entirely in first person by the unnamed little girl, this book is jaunty and playful. It is a very positive depiction of a family of two, their interactions together glow with warmth and connection. The dynamic between the beliefs of the little girl about her mother and the mundane truths shown in the illustrations will have children trying to figure out whether the mother is a witch or not. It’s a simple premise for a book that lets the unique illustrations shine.
And what illustrations they are! Muncaster has created miniature worlds out of paper, fabric and other materials and then photographed them for the illustrations. They have a wonderful wit and dazzle to them. At first the 3D effect is subtle enough to be missed, but once it catches your eye you will be entranced with these unique and lovely illustrations.
Filled with Halloween magic, this book is one amazing treat. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy received from HarperCollins.
Half a World Away by Cynthia Kadohata
Jaden was adopted from Romania four years ago. He knows that he’s a huge disappointment to his adoptive parents, who had expected a much younger child than the 8-year-old who came off the plane. Jaden gets angry sometimes and shows it in destructive ways like burning his stuffed animal. He also hoards food, particularly bread. He is obsessed with electricity and can’t seem to stop his bouts of aggressive running that always end with him hurting himself. Now his parents are heading to Kazakhstan to adopt a baby from there. But Jaden knows that he is being replaced by this new baby, a way to fix the failure that he has been. When the family gets to Kazakhstan though, the baby they had chosen has already been adopted. Now they have a new baby to try to bond with and it doesn’t feel right to any of them. Meanwhile, Jaden has met a toddler named Dimash who is three years old and barely talks. Jaden feels an immense bond with Dimash, but his parents say that they came for a baby. For the first time, Jaden starts to feel a powerful emotion that is not pure rage. The question is what he can do with this newfound love.
Kadohata gives us a completely unique novel for children. The point of view of an adopted child is not new, but one this troubled and angry in a children’s novel is a powerful new voice. As a character Jaden is a study in complexity and contradictions. His emotions are constantly high, but he mainly feels rage. He has never felt love, but manages to make connections with people that are meaningful for them. He is not a stereotype in any way, wildly human and profoundly troubled.
Yet Kadohata allows us to live with this boy without fixing him, without changing him, just allowing him to grow before us. While Jaden does have a therapist and it is clear he is getting all the help his parents can find, that is not the focus of this book. It is not a book about repairing the damaged child, rather it is one that gives that child a voice. That’s courage in writing.
Strong, marvelous writing allows this book to be a stirring tale of love in its many forms. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
El Deafo by Cece Bell
Author/illustrator Cece Bell has created a graphic novel memoir of her loss of hearing as a child. At age four, Cece contracts meningitis and the disease takes away her ability to hear. At first Cece attends school with other children who have hearing loss and wear hearing aids, but then she is sent to first grade with a new super-powered hearing aid, the Phonic Ear. Her new teacher has to wear a microphone, one that she sometimes forgets to take off (even when she uses the bathroom) which leads to some rather interesting sounds! But along with these superpowers come some ethical questions and some technical problems. As Cece copes with her hearing loss, she is also living the normal life of a child, attending school, making new friends, all with a big hearing aid on her chest.
Bell writes with a great honesty here, revealing helpful hints about what deaf people need to help them read lips and understand people better, things that other people can help with. There is plenty of humor throughout the novel, making it very appealing. Also adding to the appeal is Bell’s transformation from human to bunny in the illustrations, sending herself as an imaginary superhero flying upwards with her long ears.
While this is a book about a disability, it is much more a book about Bell and how her creativity helped her through times that required a real strength of character. Her sense of humor also helped immensely, and it is her positive take about her hearing loss that makes this such an incredible read.
A top graphic novel for children and libraries, this is a must-read and a must-have. Appropriate for ages 7-10.
Reviewed from ARC received from Amulet Books.
brown girl dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
Told in verse, this is Woodson’s memoir of her childhood. Woodson shows the different influences in her life, from both South Carolina and New York City. There is the richness of southern life, from the heat to the food to the family. But it is not all sweetness as Woodson shows her family fracturing as she is raised by her grandparents for some of her childhood. She also shows the racism and discrimination clearly on the page, never flinching in her powerful verse. When Woodson and her siblings move to New York to live once again with their mother, the dynamic changes and the flavor is urban as the Civil Rights Movement becomes a focus in her life. Taking place in the 1960s and 1970s, this book captures a time of change in the United States and is also a compelling look at what forces build a writer.
Woodson’s poetry is a gorgeous and lush mix of powerful voice and strong memory. Her writing is readable and understandable even by young audiences, but it also has depth. There are larger issues being spoken about as Woodson tells about her own childhood and family. There are universal truths being explored, as this book is as honest as can be, often raw and unhealed too. It is a book that begs to be read, shared and then reread.
One of the things I always look for in a novel in verse is whether the poems stand on their own as well as how they combine into a full novel. Woodson manages to create poems that are lyrical and lovely, that stand strongly about a subject and could be read alone. As a collection, the poems are even stronger, carrying the story of family and iron strength even more powerfully.
Rich, moving and powerful, this is one of the best novels in verse available for children. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC received from Penguin.