Nooks & Crannies by Jessica Lawson (InfoSoup)
Tabitha has been given an envelope and sternly told that her parents have to be the ones to open it. But when she gets home, she finds her parents packing up and getting ready to leave on a lengthy vacation. They are also planning to leave Tabitha in the local orphanage. Once the envelope is open though, their plans change since Tabitha and her parents have been invited to the home of a wealthy countess for the weekend. Once there, Tabitha discovers that she is one of six children who have been invited to the estate and that the countess is searching for the child who is her grandchild. But all is not what it seems and Tabitha also finds out that she is in the middle of a great mystery. With the help of her pet mouse, it is up to Tabitha to solve the mystery and stay alive while doing it!
Lawson offers up a gorgeous mystery here with all sorts of treats along the way. Readers who enjoy a good British whodunit will find so much to love here. There is a great mansion to explore, complete with hidden passages. There are ghosts all around, haunting everyone in the house. There are odd servants, a prickly butler, and a mad countess. Throughout the mystery makes sense and the pleasure of figuring out the mystery is heightened thanks to the twists and turns along the way.
Tabitha is a great protagonist. She is a true friend, one who stands by her mouse. As she gets to know the other children, the sorrow of her own upbringing is heightened and her loneliness which could have been used as a shield is beautifully displayed and then slowly cracked until she is fully engaged with the others. The mystery is the heart of the book but so is the growth of the confidence of Tabitha as she works to solve the mystery and grows a lot in the process.
A strong British mystery, this book is dark and lovely. A great way to spend some summer afternoons. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Simon & Schuster.
One Family by George Shannon, illustrated by Blanca Gomez (InfoSoup)
A joyous look at how different families can be and how very happy people can be in small and large families. The book is a cheery mix of counting book and family size, moving from one person happily sharing her book with her cat to a very large family of ten with grandparents mixed in. The book celebrates diversity in families as well with people of different ethnic backgrounds and gay parents. This picture book will have every child seeing themselves on the page and able to relate, which is definitely something to be celebrated!
Shannon writes a great little poem that carries this book forward at a brisk and jaunty pace. Each verse looks at a larger family but begins with “One is…” and then the number of people in that family. The verse then goes on to show other objects and items that are that number but still a solid unit, like a bunch of bananas or a flock of birds. The message is one of being loved and included no matter the size of your family or who is part of it.
Gomez’s illustrations are lovely. She creates diversity with a sense of ease, rather than it being forced at all. It is a joy to see the final page where all of the families are in the same neighborhood and mingling outside, one big rainbow of people together. Her paper collage illustrations are friendly and filled with small touches that are worth lingering over. It’s those touches that make the book feel even more warm and the families all the more loving.
A great pick to celebrate the diversity in every community, this is a great pick to share aloud thanks to the clever rhyme and lovely illustrations. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy received from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Ready Rabbit Gets Ready! by Brenna Maloney (InfoSoup)
When Ready Rabbit wakes up in the morning, he doesn’t feel like getting right out of bed. But his mother keeps on calling him so he gets up. Then before he starts to get ready to go, he has to build a spaceship. His mother calls for him to pick up his toys and get ready to go. So Ready decides to get dressed. But what should he wear? He has all sorts of costumes to try on and consider until he remembers that rabbits don’t wear clothes! Breakfast is ready but Ready finds it quite boring to sit and eat. He’d rather be doing a daring rescue with an ambulance. Brushing teeth takes some concentration and before you know it, there’s toothpaste everywhere. Will Ready ever be ready for school?
Maloney creates the ultimate distracted child in Ready Rabbit, a rabbit who can’t concentrate on anything except his imagination. The voice of the mother only appears in voice bubbles and she never appears on the page. So the book is fully centered on the protagonist and his vivid imagination. The book works hard to make sure that the tone of the mother is encouraging and not angry and that Ready is actually slowly making progress towards getting ready even as he plays around.
The illustrations make this book particularly special. Ready Rabbit and all of his things are objects with Ready being a knit bunny with a face that is a piece of fabric with changing expressions drawn on it. One might not think it would work, but the result is charming and has a very different vibe than many picture books.
Families trying to get ready in the morning will recognize their own wish to play just a little bit longer. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy received from Penguin.
In a Village by the Sea by Muon Van, illustrated by April Chu (InfoSoup)
In a fishing village near the sea, there is a small house high in the hills. In that house, there is a kitchen with a warm fire where a pot of noodle soup is simmering. A woman watches and waits, grinding spices in a mortar and pestle while a baby sleeps nearby. Their dog looks down into a hole in the floor and spots a cricket there. The cricket is painting on an easel, creating an image of a stormy sea with large waves. In that sea there is a small boat with a worried fisherman hoping to get out of the storm soon and dreaming of his family in a small house above the sea.
Both the author and illustrator are Vietnamese-Americans. The story was inspired by the author’s father and his ancestral village in Central Vietnam. It is the story of both the men who head onto the sea to fish and the families they leave behind. It is also a story of the cycle of life, of connections to one another. After all, the storm itself is both on the cricket’s easel but also part of the heart of the story too. It’s a book that twists a bit, so that one forgets the origin of the storm and the story, but knows that it echoes with history and truth.
The illustrations are dramatic and gorgeous. They evoke Vietnam with its stunning shoreline. They also capture the danger of the high waves and surging seas, conveying that tension clearly without making it too frightening or intense for young readers. The entire book celebrates the cozy home but also the wildness of nature, dancing from one to the other with ease and creating a strong dichotomy but also connection between the two.
Beautifully illustrated and told, this cyclical story is a journey to Vietnam and a celebration of their way of life. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Baby Swap by Jan Ormerod, illustrated by Andrew Joyner (InfoSoup)
Caroline is not happy to have a baby brother. Her mother adores him despite his dribbling mouth. She talks all of the time about his yellow eyes and green skin and how very cute he is. When her mother goes into town to exchange her hat for one that is just right, Caroline gets an idea and heads to the baby store to trade her baby brother in for one that is just right too. The baby panda with yellow eyes like her mother likes eats the bamboo furniture. The baby elephant is too squirty and ends up breaking a fountain. The two baby tigers are too active and too much of a handful for her. By the time she goes through all of the available babies, the store only has one left, her original baby brother. But after all of that, he looks pretty perfect to her!
Ormerod takes a humorous look at sibling rivalry in this picture book. Caroline is clearly jealous of the time that her mother spends with her little brother, but that is transferred to disliking his drool and activities. The idea of exchanging an infant for one who fits and suits you better is a clever one, and an idea that children will understand. The ending where Caroline takes her own brother back works very well and doesn’t feel forced or overplayed. Instead it feels like the natural extension of the experience that the character has had.
Joyner’s illustrations add to the humor of the book. Filling his pages with a community of different animals, Joyner makes sure that it is a modern world with cell phones, portable music, and cars. Yet it also has a distinct vintage feel in the way that the characters dress and touches like the price tags on the babies and their cloth diapers. It’s a distinctive mix of the two, one that is modern and yet warm.
A great addition to the crowded shelves of sibling rivalry books and one that takes a more lighthearted and humorous approach to the situation. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Simon and Schuster.
Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley
Grandpa Ephraim has been telling Micah stories of Circus Mirandus since he was a small child. It is the story of a circus that is so magical that adults cannot find it, only children who need to. You can’t get in without a ticket, but you never know what form that ticket will take. Once inside, you get to see acts like a flying birdwoman and a man who creates entire worlds in seconds. But now Grandpa Ephraim is sick and probably dying. Micah’s great-aunt Gertrudis has arrived to take care of both of them and that means no disturbing his grandfather and no talk of magic at all. When a talking and thinking parrot appears, Micah knows that the circus is real and then finds out that the most powerful man at the circus promised his grandfather a miracle that his grandfather saved. Now Micah knows exactly how to save his grandfather. He has to find the circus and use that miracle to stop him from dying and he has to do it quickly!
Beasley has written a terrific read one that nods to books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in the way that an entire magical world is placed adjacent to our own, one that is just close enough to glimpse at times. She has also created a book which while it pays homage to classic children’s literature also modernizes it and mixes in magic too. The story arc works particularly well here, built on a strong tale that is filled with marvelous and amazing creatures and beings. The result is a book that is very readable and one where you aren’t quite sure what’s going to happen next, in the best possible way.
Micah is a very likable protagonist. He struggles to make friends and when he does their friendship takes time to grow. It feels very organic and the two of them are not natural friends who see the world the same way. Instead it is much more like making a real friend where it is the willingness to be friends that makes a huge difference and a decision to stop arguing when you don’t agree. It is these parts of the book that are so realistic, where the relationships shine, that make the book as strong as it is. Without these clever human elements the book would be too frothy and light. These keep it grounded and real.
A magical book filled with real people alongside the mystical ones, this book for young readers will be enjoyed almost as much as a visit to Circus Mirandus itself. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC received from Dial Books.
Little Red Henry by Linda Urban, illustrated by Madeline Valentine (InfoSoup)
Henry’s family does way too much for him. They dress him. They feed him. They bring him anything he needs. But they haven’t noticed that Henry is getting much more independent and wants to start doing things himself. So Henry starts to insist on doing things entirely on his own. Henry feeds himself. Henry brushes his own teeth. He gets himself dressed, refusing all of their suggestions for things to wear. Then he headed next door to his friend’s house to play. His worried family peers at him from behind trees and other objects, but Henry does just fine on his own. At first Henry’s family doesn’t know what to do with themselves with no Henry to take care of. Slowly though, they start to find their own way again. When bedtime comes, Henry gets himself ready for bed, but he just might still need some help going to sleep.
A perfect story for children in the age of helicopter parenting and a reminder for parents to give their children the space and opportunities they need, this picture book has a snappy tone that is great fun to read aloud. It plays homage of course to The Little Red Hen who asks for help and gets none. Nicely, this book is the reverse and echoes the flip at the end of the traditional story with one of their own as well. It’s a great riff on a beloved tale, modernizing it and changing it so that young readers may not even realize the connection.
Valentine’s illustrations add to the pizzazz of the book. The worried and overbearing family is filled with doting love. Henry is vividly independent, standing on chairs and being entirely himself. There are great moments of activity where Henry tries on different outfits and where the family tries out new activities. This echoing of each other adds to the pleasure of the read.
A modern riff on a classic tale, this picture book is sure to support independent kids and send helicopter parents spinning. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from library copy.
Yard Sale by Eve Bunting, illustrated by Lauren Castillo (InfoSoup)
Callie’s family is moving from their house into a small apartment, so they are having a yard sale. It’s a bright sunny day but Callie is filled with mixed feelings as she sees all of the parts of their lives out in the front yard for sale. Callie has visited their new apartment and seen where she will sleep. It’s even a cool bed that pulls out of the wall. But she is going to miss her friends in the neighborhood and doesn’t really understand why they have to move except that it has to do with money. When Callie sees her red bicycle being purchased by someone she gets upset and then when a friendly woman asks if Callie herself is for sale, Callie gets alarmed. In the end after the sale in their almost-empty house, Callie and her family look forward to a fresh start together as a family.
Bunting beautifully and sensitively captures the mixed feelings of moving and the additional burden of being forced to downsize due to financial reasons. She shows from Callie’s point of view how upsetting it can be. At the same time, she shows supportive parents who work with Callie to discuss her feelings and validate her emotions. The yard sale is a strong image to have at the heart of the book, demonstrating the loss of so many items of property but at the same time strengthening the image of the family who is left strong and resilient.
Castillo has created a neighborhood of friendly people, bright balloons and lots of sunshine that works very nicely here. The deep feelings expressed by the protagonist play against the dazzling day and the contrast makes the emotions all the more real. The three members of the family are clearly a unit from their similar dark hair to the color palette that holds them together as well. It is subtly done, but very effective.
A powerful book about children caught in the impact of the economic downturn, this book is not bleak but rather filled with hope for the future. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Porcupine of Truth by Bill Konigsberg
17-year-old Carson has moved from New York City to Billings, Montana with his mother to take care of the dying alcoholic father he hasn’t seen in 14 years. When they first get to town, his mother drops Carson off at the zoo to spend the day while she handles the initial contact with his father. At the zoo, Carson meets Aisha and finds himself able to speak to a pretty girl for the first time. Aisha is cool, she doesn’t mind his odd sense of humor, and she is also a lesbian. Carson also discovers that Aisha is homeless, thrown out by her father once he found out about her sexuality. Carson begins to discover that there are secrets in his own family, ones that lead him and Aisha to head out on a road trip to explore what happened to his grandfather and what caused him to leave his family and never return. Carson hopes that the answers to these secrets may be enough to help his father heal, but they also have the potential to hurt him badly as well.
I adored Openly Straight by Konigsberg and I am equally excited about this novel. In both, Konigsberg manages to speak to the gay teen experience but he does it in very inventive ways. The focus here is on Carson, a white straight male, but one who is beautifully and hauntingly damaged. Throughout the book, that damage is explored and exposed. Aisha is an incredible character too, an African-American lesbian character who refuses to be anyone’s sidekick or any novel’s secondary character. This is her journey as well, though the two of them are looking for different things along the same path. Konigsberg also takes a hard look at AIDS and early gay activism in this novel, something that is important for modern teens both gay and straight to understand.
I am rarely a fan of road trip novels since they often meander too much for my liking. That is not the case here where the journey is part of the discovery about the characters. The journey is also a way to give these two teens time to talk about big things like families and faith. It offers the core of the novel, a connection between two very different personalities where both of them discover home in one another. Even better, it’s not a romance book at all even though it has a male and a female in the lead roles. Hurrah!
An important addition to the LGBT collections, this book explores faith, sexuality, and family with humor and depth. Appropriate for ages 14-16.
Reviewed from ARC received from Scholastic.
Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella (InfoSoup)
Released June 9, 2015.
The bestselling author of the Shopaholic series has released her first novel for teens. Audrey stays at home all of the time wearing dark glasses and unable to look into anyone’s eyes except for her four-year-old brother’s. After a horrible bullying incident, Audrey has had to put her life slowly back together. Now her therapist wants her to start making a documentary film about her family and also to get out of the house and meet people. But how can Audrey do that when just the sight of one of her older brother’s friends in the house is enough to send her running away? As Audrey makes slow progress with her anxiety disorder, her family is struggling too. Her mother is obsessed with getting her brother off of computer games even though he’s prepping for a gaming tournament. Her father is focused on his Blackberry and work all of the time. Audrey begins to realize the impact of her disorder on her family, but could she push herself to get better too quickly?
Firmly set in Britain, this book will appeal to Anglophile readers. Audrey’s anxiety disorder is shown with great humanity but also with humor. The book has a natural cadence to it, a pacing that is slow but steady and where readers will realize the progress that Audrey is making before she does. This natural feel works very well for a book about recovery and even when Audrey starts to push things too fast, the results feel organic and honest. I must also mention how well this also works for the romantic piece of the book. That too feels real and it makes the connection between the two characters all the more believable and lovely.
The characters here are particularly well done. From Audrey who is the voice of the novel and who is struggling to her entire family who all deal with the stress in their own way. Each person is unique and it is their mix of family warmth and striking out at one another that makes this book work so well. Filled with humor, the book is very funny making it one of the lightest and easiest to read books about anxiety that I’ve ever read. Teens who enjoy books about issues will be surprised to see how well a lighter tone works when dealing with very serious issues.
Refreshing and funny this book will delight teen readers who will hope that Audrey will return for another book. Appropriate for ages 13-15.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Delacorte Books for Young Readers and Edelweiss.