Tag Archive: families


storm whale

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

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.

red pencil

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 witchs cat

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

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

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

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.

nine open arms

Nine Open Arms by Benny Lindelauf

Translated from the original Dutch, this book is the story of Fing and her family.  Fing’s mother died years ago and since then her father and her grandmother have taken care of them.  They are a big family, with Fing’s three older brothers and her two sisters, Muulke and Jess.  Fing’s father has decided to start a cigar business, so they move out of town to a big old house that has something very strange about it that Fing can’t quite figure out.  They call it Nine Open Arms, because that is how far across it is.  The house is near a cemetery, the front door is at the back, and there is a bed in storage that looks like a tombstone.  As the girls start a new school, they slowly begin to discover the secrets of Nine Open Arms and of their own community and family.

Delightfully wild and incredibly quirky, this book is one of a kind.  From the family that moves constantly, to the cemetery next door where they go to get their water each day, to the crocodile purse that is used to tell family stories, to the controlling grandmother who is dominant but deeply loving in her own way, to the one old story that is the key to understanding it all.  This is a richly rewarding read, one that you have to head out on before you even know what journey you are on.  It is a book that meanders but each turn is essential to the book in the end, where it all clicks into place. 

Told in the first person by Fing, the book unfolds before you, each reveal another piece of the family, another story, another moment that is meaningful.  It is a perfectly crafted book that has a plot that moves in its own time, another time, a less modern pace.  It ties to the pace of the family, one where things are revealed in their own space.  It’s incredibly well done.

Beautifully written, magnificently crafted, this Dutch novel is like nothing you have read before, and that is wonderful!  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from library copy.

turtle of oman

The Turtle of Oman by Naomi Shihab Nye

Aref’s family is moving to Ann Arbor, Michigan from where he has always lived in Muscat, Oman.  After his father heads off ahead of Aref and his mother, the two of them head home to finish packing and for his mother to finish working.  But Aref does not want to leave Oman, leave his bedroom to his cousins who will be living there while they are gone for several years, leave his pet cat behind.  But particularly, he does not want to leave his grandfather.  Aref pretends to pack, but finds himself playing instead, riding his bike, ignoring the packing entirely.  His mother gets frustrated and asks Siddi, his grandfather, for a hand.  So the Aref and Siddi head out on a series of adventures that let them spend time together, but also let Aref say goodbye to his beloved Oman and be open enough to greet the future in Michigan.

Nye is the author of Habibi as well as an acclaimed poet.  Her novel is short and wonderfully vivid, painting a picture of Oman for young readers who will be drawn to the natural beauty.  Readers will also be taken by the loving family, where parenting is done with grace and kindness, and where a grandfather is willing to spend lots of time saying farewell, as much time as a child needs. 

Nye’s writing shows her poetic skills again and again.  Her prose reads like verse, filled with imagery and striking wording.  When Aref goes to the sea with his grandfather, Nye describes it like this:

The sky loomed with a few delicate lines of wavery cloud, one under the other.  It looked like another blue ocean over the watery blue sea.  Aref took a deep breath and tried to hold all the blue inside his body, pretending for a moment he didn’t have to move away or say good-bye to anything or share his room and cat, none of it.

Many of the moments with Aref and his grandfather are written like this, celebrating the tiny pieces of beauty in the world, relishing the time, treasuring the wonder.  Her book is like a jewel, faceted and lovely to turn and marvel at.

This short novel is a vivid and majestic look at the Middle East, at familial love, and at the special relationship of a boy and his grandfather.  Appropriate for ages 8-12.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Greenwillow Books and Edelweiss.

fourteenth goldfish

The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm

Released August 26, 2014.

Eleven-year-old Ellie loves doing puzzles, because the pieces fit together so neatly.  She doesn’t like change at all, like the way that her best friend Brianna never talks with her anymore.  She lives with her mother in a tiny house with the garage filled with costumes from her job directing high school theater.  Her mother wants her to find her own passion, but Ellie isn’t sure that she has one.  Then something very strange happens, and her grandfather comes to live with them.  But he’s not really himself, instead he’s thirteen years old again!  Now Ellie has a “cousin” Melvin who goes to school with her but dresses, talks and thinks just like her grandfather.  Could he really have found the key to eternal youth?  This is the classic story of growing up, mixed with someone who is trying to grow down.

Holm’s signature light touch is a large part of the success of this novel.  Dealing with big issues like aging, death, and growing up, Holm manages to keep the tone light enough to make the reading great fun.  She mixes science into the story, clearly displaying her own interest in the subject, but also making sure that the science is just as readable as the story.

She populates her story with great characters from the dramatic mother to Ellie herself who readers will relate to quickly and easily.  Melvin is my favorite character in the book, written for pure delight as a great mix of teen boy and aging man.  In particular, I love that Holm kept him wearing the same clothes, talking to his daughter in the same way, and relating with teens he meets as if he didn’t resemble them in the least.  He’s a brilliant character, a wonderful grandfather, and profoundly funny.

Grab this as a great book to share in a classroom, it has lots to discuss but is immensely readable and serves as a clever entry point to science fiction reading.  Also, get this into the hands of Holm fans who are ready for something beyond Babymouse.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Random House and Edelweiss.

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