Nest by Jorey Hurley
This simple and elegant picture book takes a look at a year in the life of a robin. It begins with an egg in a nest and two proud parents. By the next page, the egg has hatched into one very hungry baby bird. As the tree flowers, the little bird is fed by its parents. Then comes the first flight as a speckled robin chick. There are berries on the tree to feast on and when autumn comes the green leaves have turned orange and yellow and started to fall. The last of the berries are eaten while snow flies in the sky. As spring returns, the young robin meets another young robin and they build their own nest together. All of this is told in images since the text of the book is simple single words on each double-spread picture. This is a beautiful and impressive book for the youngest children.
Hurley’s illustrations are strong and clear. Done in PhotoShop, the illustrations have the feel of cut-paper collage in their simplicity. They will project well to a group of children. The storyline is far more than the words on the page, and children will want to discuss what is happening throughout the book.
A wonderful pick for spring units, this book is a celebration of nature and seasons. Appropriate for ages 1-3.
Reviewed from copy received from Simon & Schuster.
Half a Chance by Cynthia Lord
Lucy and her family have moved often, following her father’s love of new places to photograph. So when they move to New Hampshire and a house on a lake, the moving process is nothing new. On her first day at the lake, Lucy meets Nate, a boy who summers on the lake with his family and grandmother. Nate invites her along to help document the loons that live on the lake and soon Lucy is out on the lake every day. Lucy longs to be a great photographer like her father, who has left for the entire summer on a photography shoot. So she decides to enter a photo contest for youth, the only problem is that her father is the judge. As Lucy sets out to prove her own skill at taking photos, she finds herself on a different parallel journey, one that will reveal new friends, expose difficult truths, and one that is far more important than winning any contest.
Lord has written another exceptional book for middle graders. Lord excels at creating seemingly simple books that open with a premise and then blossom into something far more complex by the end. Here she explores several themes that center on families. There is the deteriorating grandmother who is aware of what is happening but unable to stop it. There is Lucy’s own family that is fractured at times but remains strong. There is a search for approval that Lucy undergoes as well as her own harsh criticism of her work. Through it all, honesty is overarching, an unflinching sense of reality and truth that makes it impossible to look away.
Beautifully written, the entire book is memorable. Lucy is a great character, a strong heroine who has self-confidence issues but is also talented, friendly and warm. She is a rare young character who moves often with her family and yet the book is not about her scars from that transient life. Rather it is about so many other things that that is just a small factor in a rich tapestry of her world.
Brilliant, soaring and honest, this book is another great read from one of the best. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from digital galley received from NetGalley and Scholastic.
Max Makes a Cake by Michelle Edwards, illustrated by Charles Santoso
Max was growing up, he could dress himself, almost tie his shoes, and he knew the Four Questions for Passover in Hebrew and English. It was his mother’s birthday and he wanted to make her a cake. But when his little sister started to cry and Max’s dad took her for her nap. Max waited and waited for his dad to come back to bake the cake, but his sister just kept waking up and crying. So Max decided to make some frosting to help. It turned out very nicely, a mix of jam and cream cheese. Max knew that to bake a cake, he had to wait for his father. But then he had a great idea, one perfect for Passover.
Edwards has written a story that organically incorporates Passover and its meaning. She shows a warm and loving Jewish family with a father who takes expert care of his children. Max’s clever solution to the cake is nicely foreshadowed in the book but is also a wonderful surprise solution that readers will not see coming. It is also a pleasure to see a picture book about a child who solves a problem himself with creativity.
Santoso’s art conveys the same warmth as the text. He uses humor throughout in his images, with a cheery note. His depictions of Max are particularly well done as he solves the problem but not without a little mess.
Clever and creative, this is a welcome addition to public library’s Passover collections as well as a great choice for birthday story times. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from digital copy received from Edelweiss and Random House.
Knock Knock: My Dad’s Dream for Me by Daniel Beaty, illustrated by Bryan Collier
Every morning a young boy plays a game with his father. His father knock knocks at the door and the boy pretends to be asleep until his dad is right next to him and they give each other a huge hug. But then one day, his father isn’t there to play the game any more. His father isn’t there to get him ready for school either. Morning pass with no father. The boy thinks that maybe his father is just there when the boy is at school, so he writes him a letter about how much he misses his dad and how much he expected to learn from him. The boy waits for months and nothing happens, then one day he gets a letter from his father. A letter that speaks to their separation but also one that encourages him to continue to live and knock on new doors.
Beaty’s text is deep hearted and searingly honest. As his author’s note says, he had an incarcerated father who had been his primary caregiver as a young child. So Beaty has revealed much in this picture book about the gaping hole left from a missing parent. Yet the genius of this book is that it will work for any child missing a parent for any reason. And I adore a book with such a strong connection between father and child. Beaty manages to convey that in a few pages, leaving the rest of the book to reveal the mourning and grief of loss but also a hope that shines on each page.
Collier’s illustrations shine as well. Done in a rich mix of paint and collage, they are filled with light as it plays across faces, dances against buildings, and reveals emotions. His illustrations are poetry, filled with elephants, showing the boy growing into a man, and the man turning into a father. They are illustrations that tell so much and are worth exploring again after finishing the book.
This book belongs in my top picks for 2013. It is beautifully done both in writing and illustrations. I’m hoping it is honored by the Coretta Scott King awards and I’d love to see a Caldecott as well. Appropriate for ages 5-8.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson
Released January 7, 2014.
The amazing Laurie Halse Anderson returns with a book that is powerful, thought-provoking and personal. Hayley and her father just have each other. For the past five years after her mother’s death, they have been hauling freight in his truck. But now they have returned to her father’s home town so that Hayley can finish high school and live in a normal home. However, their home is anything but normal. Her father can’t hold down a job because of the images and flashbacks that come over him from his time in Iraq. He drinks to keep the visions at bay, but then blacks out and forgets what he has done. He has never hurt Hayley, but he is getting worse rather than better and Hayley is all alone in dealing with him. At the same time, Hayley is slowly making friends at school, particularly Finn, a boy who has his own family issues to contend with. As things at home get darker and more dangerous, Hayley has to figure out who she can trust to help, if anyone.
Anderson has written a book about PTSD and the traumas of being a soldier that speak to vets from any war. She herself was the child of a vet from World War II and has a father who struggled himself with these issues. Thanks to this personal connection, her book goes deep below the skin into the world of Hayley, her love for her father, and truly connects with the horrors of heroes who return home just to be haunted by what they have done and seen.
Hayley is a strong character but also deeply flawed. She is hidden behind so many protective layers that readers discover her as she gets to know Finn. She slowly reveals a bright intelligence and witty humor. Her relationship with her father is one based on adoration but also on pure coping with his disabilities. She herself has faulty memories and blank places that she refuses to focus on and think about. She too is hiding from her memories, but in her case they are the happy ones.
This book is deep, dark and haunting. Anderson writes with consummate skill here and looks beyond the headlines into what PTSD in a family member truly means. Appropriate for ages 14-18.
Reviewed from ARC received from Viking.
The Runaway Hug by Nick Bland, illustrated by Freya Blackwood
Lucy is all ready for bed and asks her mother for a hug. When her mother jokes that is the last hug she has left, Lucy offers to borrow it and return it. Lucy heads off to lend the hug to different members of her family, making sure to get it back each time. Each hug is different, some tighter others smell like peanut butter. When Lucy gives her dog a hug though, the dog runs off and Lucy is sure that she has lost her mother’s last hug forever.
Bland and Blackwood make a great team for creating picture books. Black’s tone is playful from the very beginning and one knows that this family is something special just from the way they speak to one another. Throughout there is a sense of humor and an enduring affection for one another that permeates the book. Bland also does a great job of keeping the book securely in Lucy’s point of view, so that readers know from the very beginning that Lucy is taking this last hug seriously. There is no laughing at Lucy for this, rather it serves as the heart of the book and this imaginative play is celebrated.
Blackwood’s illustrations have fabulous soft lines that blur and flow. Blackwood leaves some of her lines from sketching on the page, creating a sense of motion but also a feeling of the connected nature of the world right on the page. She also adds to the warmth of Bland’s writing, her home that she places this family in filled with warmth, some clutter, and reality.
A beautiful pick for bedtime, just make sure you aren’t down to your last hug! Appropriate for ages 2-4.
Reviewed from copy received from Random House Children’s Books.
Big Snow by Jonathan Bean
It is very hard to wait for the snow to come, as David discovers in this picture book perfect for the snowy season. David is waiting for the snow to start, so he helps his mother bake cookies. But then the flour reminds him of the snow so he heads out to check on it. It’s fine and dusty in the air. He heads back inside and helps clean the bathroom, but then is reminded of snow from the bubbles. When he checks, there is more snow but it’s still light. He helps his mother change sheets and is reminded of snow blanketing the ground, when he checks outside that’s exactly what the snow is doing! Then it’s naptime, and David dreams of snow, lots and lots of snow. Will his dream come true?
Bean creates a book not only about waiting for a big snow, but also about the different types of snow that arrive in the course of a storm. It is a wonderful tribute to loving snow and wintry weather and hoping for the white to cover the barren landscape. Bean cleverly ties in David’s reminders of snow with the level of snow outdoors. Children will immediately get the connection and will enjoy watching the storm outside progress.
Bean varies the illustrations from close ups of David helping his mother and their cozy home interiors to distance images of their home and neighborhood as it transforms under the snow. One can see the magic of snow happening firsthand. I also love the humor of David disappearing to check on the snow, only the end of his scarf still in the room. And bravo for Bean creating a family of color in a book that doesn’t have anything to do with race.
Even with the icy temperatures outside, this is a book that will get everyone looking forward to the next big snow. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy received from Farrar Straus Giroux.
The Tiny King by Taro Miura
There once was a very tiny king who lived all alone in a big castle, guarded by an army of big soldiers. He ate at a huge table with an enormous feast that he could never finish. He rode a big horse that threw him off every time. He had a big bathtub with a fountain. But all of these things did not make him happy. He slept alone in a big bed and could not sleep very well. Then the tiny king married a big princess and they were very happy. They had ten children and everyone was happy. The soldiers were given a vacation, the castle was bright and busy, they finished the entire large feast, they all rode together on the big horse, everyone bathed together in the big fountain, and best of all, the king could now sleep soundly with all of them fitting perfectly in the big bed.
Miura is a graphic designer from Japan and he has created a book that is gorgeously designed. His illustrations are big and bold, strong shapes popping with color against the solid backgrounds. The backgrounds change as the tone of the book changes. When the king is lonely, the backgrounds are solid black. The page where he meets the big princess is white. Then the pages where he has a family are bright colored. Throughout, Miura incorporates pieces of paper with letters, writing, or stylized vintage objects making it even richer.
The story is a simple one, but also one that speaks volumes about how riches and power do not mean that you are living a fulfilling life. It was not until love and people entered this tiny king’s life that he was happy. Don’t expect a subtle storyline here. It is too basic a book for that, one appropriate for very small children to enjoy.
The story of a tiny king with a big heart and huge amount of love to share is one that toddlers and young preschoolers will enjoy. Appropriate for ages 2-4.
Reviewed from library copy.
Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan
Willow Chance didn’t fit in well at her elementary school, so she is attending a middle school across town which none of her previous classmates will be attending. But Willow is just not made to fit in with others. She does fine with her adoptive parents who are accepting of her obsession with gardening and medical conditions as long as she doesn’t tell them everything since that would make them worry. And one of the things she doesn’t tell them is that the middle school thinks that she cheated on a major standardized test because she got a perfect score. So she is sent to counseling though Dell, the school counselor has no idea what to do to help her. Two siblings who also go to see Dell have their own ideas though and that is how Willow comes to be out driving with Dell and the others when she finds out that her parents have been killed in a car accident. Now Willow has lost her parents, her home, her garden and her will to explore. This is a story that is about community, building your family one person at a time, and the wonder of what having people in your life that care can do. It is the story of the amazing Willow Chase.
Sloan’s writing verges on verse at times with its short lines, lined up neatly and speaking profoundly and honestly. It is writing that examines and explores but also moves the story forward at speed. It is imminently readable with plenty of white space and few if any dense paragraphs of text. Rather it has a wonderful lightness about it, even when describing tragedy. And this book is filled with loss and grief that is handled with a gentle depth. Yet it is also a book filled with joy and overcoming odds and inspiration.
Sloan creates not just one incredible character in this novel but an entire group of them. At first the book seems disjointed with the various perspectives shown, since we get to see things not only from Willow’s point of view, from the other teens, but also from the adults as well. But those disparate parts come together in a way that a book from just Willow’s point of view never could have. They add an understanding of Willow’s appeal to others that would not have been possible without it.
This is a tragic story with an indomitable heroine that will leave you smiling through the tears. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from library copy.
Year of the Jungle by Suzanne Collins, illustrated by James Proimos
Collins, author of The Hunger Games series, takes on a completely different writing challenge in this autobiographical picture book. Suzy’s father is sent to fight in Vietnam when she is a little girl. He will be gone for a year, but Suzy isn’t sure exactly how long a year is. At first, her father sends lots of friendly postcards, but over time they change. He even mixes up her birthday with her sister’s something he would never have done if he was home. The the postcards stop altogether and Suzy catches a glimpse of the war on TV. She starts to forget what her father looks like and is scared of many things. Then suddenly, her father is home. But he doesn’t look the same and doesn’t act quite the same either.
This book is so timely for children dealing with deployments in their own family. Collins writes directly from her childhood persona, delving right into the fears that haunt children, the loss of control and the lack of contact. It is her writing that makes this book work, her honesty about her emotions and the frankness with which she grapples with the challenges of having a parent fighting overseas.
Proimos’ illustrations are cartoony and rough. The most successful are double-spreads that take on Suzy’s fears directly, placing them on a black landscape that is filled with tanks, animals, helicopters, and more. They emanate danger and contrast directly with the more colorful other pages.
Though the book is about Vietnam, it has a universal message for children left behind worried about a deployed parent. Timely and honest, this is a book that belongs in every public library. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from copy received from Scholastic Press.