Mosquitoland by David Arnold
Mim now lives in Mississippi with her father and his new wife. Her mother has been left behind in Ohio. When Mim finds out that her mother is sick and perhaps dying, she sets off to find her. Mim steals cash from her father and stepmother and buys herself a Greyhound bus ticket to Cleveland. She heads north, determined to reconnect with her real home and her real mother, remembering the days they spent together filled with energy and love. But things happen along the way that keep on slowing Mim’s epic trip down. There is a perverted man on the bus, a kind older woman who smells of cookies and has a mysterious box, and a boy with green eyes and plenty of sarcasm. There is also a bus crash, moments of heroism, another boy who melts Mim’s heart in a different way, and the discovery of a new kind of family and a new kind of home. This bus ride turns out to be completely and wonderfully epic, but for very different reasons indeed.
Arnold dances down the dotted yellow line of humor and tragedy with grace. He melds the immensely sad and harrowing together with the hilarious and strange into a mix that is beautiful and real. He bravely mocks the sort of romance story that this could have been, allowing Mim herself to see the movie that she could have been starring in, before reality comes back and takes over again. Yet along the way, Arnold is also creating a movie and a book that are so much more romantic and beautiful than those false films of the mind.
Mim is a magnificent protagonist. Struggling with mental illness, Mim starts out obediently taking her medication but discovers along the way that her demons may not be the ones she was diagnosed with thanks to her father’s interference. Mim finds her own way to sanity in her journey, connecting with people who speak to her deeply, allowing herself to feel deeply, and rejecting ways that seem false to her. This is a teen who is strong, passionate about life, and luminous on the page. Her voice is her own, a glorious mix of sarcasm, well-read references and humor.
A road trip across the United States that is wildly funny, deeply introspective and completely extraordinary. Appropriate for ages 14-17.
Reviewed from ARC received from Viking.
Families, Families, Families! by Suzanne Lang and Max Lang
Released March 24, 2015.
In rhythmic rhyme, this picture book celebrates each and every kind of family there is. Starting with families with lots of siblings, the book quickly moves to embrace only children, families with gay and lesbian parents, single parent families, and children who live with extended family. Then the book moves into other differences like step families, adoption, and parents who may or may not be married. Towards the end, the book gains momentum and speed and rushes merrily through silly types of differences in families, that underline how the most important thing in each of these different sorts of families is the love that is there.
The rhyming text has a friendly bounce to it and that ramping up of speed at the end of the book is a great twist and a grand way to reach the loving finale. The book maintains a great sense of humor throughout, both in its words and its illustrations.
The illustrations are done with cartoon cut outs placed on photographic backgrounds and then mounted as pictures in a photo album. The use of both cartoons and photographs gives this book a fresh approach. The illustrations also use animals instead of people, making it all the more friendly and approachable for small children who will enjoy finding their own kind of family on the page, probably more than once!
Funny, friendly and embracing everyone, this picture book is all about the love within families and acceptance for all. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Edelweiss and Random House.
Small Elephant’s Bathtime by Tatyana Feeney
While Small Elephant is happy to play in water or drink it, he doesn’t like taking a bath at all. His mother tries all sorts of thing to entice him into the bathtub. She fills it with plenty of toys. She blows bubbles in the air. But nothing works. Small Elephant tries to be too busy to take a bath and gets very mad when his mother insists on a bath. He has a tantrum and then hides from the bath. Then his father gets involved and makes Small Elephant giggle enough to try out the bath after all. But who will be able to get him out when he discovers how much fun he is having?
The author of Small Bunny’s Blue Blanket and other picture books has a winner with this title. Just the right playful tone is set here for toddlers who are also reluctant to stop what they are doing to take baths. The gentle approach of both parents is great to see, offering options towards tantrums and reluctance that are inventive and filled with humor.
As always Feeney’s art has a refreshing looseness about it. Line drawings with splashes of watercolor color, the book has an aesthetic that will appeal to children and adults alike. It uses limited colors to great effect, creating a cohesive and playful feel.
Soapy, sudsy, bubbly fun for small children who will relate to the emotions Small Elephant feels. Appropriate for ages 2-4.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Edelweiss and Knopf Books for Young Readers.
Red Butterfly by A. L. Sonnichsen
Kara was abandoned as an infant and taken in by an American woman living in China. Her Mama never leaves the apartment they share and Kara doesn’t attend school. Kara does get to leave the apartment each day to run errands on her bicycle, her favorite time of day. In China where the one-child limit is in effect, parents leave infants who have physical challenges like Kara who was born with one hand with only two small fingers on it. Mama longs to return to the United States, but she can’t without abandoning Kara, who has no identification papers and has not been formally adopted. When Mama’s American daughter comes to visit, Kara finds their entire lives turned upside down and their secret exposed. Will Kara be able to bring their family back together again?
Told in lovely rich verse, this novel is elegantly written and conceived. It shows the results of the one-child policy in China and the children who were abandoned because of it. Yet it is far from a condemnation of China or the United States. It is a portrait in contrasts and complexity, showing that there is good and bad in both systems. It is also the story of one very strong young girl who has already lost one family and is determined not to lose another.
Kara is the voice of the book with the poems told from her point of view. She is unique in many ways, including being able to speak English better than she Chinese due to her upbringing. Kara’s disability is handled in a matter-of-fact way for the reader. While she is profoundly ashamed of it, her hand and disability do not label her at all in the novel. Kara’s situation is complicated by the politics of adoption and identity. In her journey to a resolution of where she will live, there are episodes in an orphanage and then later in a home in the United States. These are all deftly and clearly drawn, showing both the universal nature of family and love but also the differences in cultures.
Radiant verse and a very strong young protagonist make this verse novel a treat to read. The unusual subject matter of an older orphan from China makes it a unique read. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Simon & Schuster Books.
When the Wind Blows by Linda Booth Sweeney, illustrated by Jana Christy
Head outside on a windy day in this breezy picture book. When the wind chimes start to ring, a family excitedly gets ready to go outside into the fresh air. Together a little boy and his grandmother fly a kite that eventually breaks free and rides off on the wind. The wind blows the grass and flowers. It also sends the sailboats out on the water racing. The wind gets even stronger and a storm moves in with thunder and rain. They head back home into the bright warm lights of the house. There they are cozy and protected, unworried about the storm that continues outside. It is night when the storm clears and everyone is asleep.
Told in short rhyming lines of poetry, this picture book manages to be fresh and fun rather than stilted in any way. The rhymes and their rhythms offer a dynamic edge to the book, creating movement that echoes that of the wind in the words themselves. The attention is on both humans enjoying the breezy weather and also nature as the storm moves in. This is an invitation to head out into changing weather.
Christy’s illustrations are gorgeous. They have vivid colors and capture the movement of the wind. Just seeing the images evokes wind and breeze, as if fresh air is lifting off each page as you read. She also captures the joy of being out in weather, the fun of wild wind and the beauty of oncoming storms.
A beautiful look at weather, wind and rain that will have everyone looking for their kites on the next breezy day. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy received from G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
The Penderwicks in Spring by Jeanne Birdsall
Released March 24, 2015.
This fourth book in the fabulous Penderwicks series is sure to please longtime fans and inspire new ones. While the Penderwick family is still the center of the story, the focus this time has moved to Batty and Ben rather than the older Penderwick girls. Batty continues to play the piano, loving music passionately. She has also just discovered that she has a noteworthy singing voice thanks to a new music teacher at school. So she has to find a way to make money for singing lessons, since the family needs a new car and to put the Rosalind, Jane and Skye through college. Batty starts a neighborhood business that offers services like dusting and digging up rocks, specifically a Ben job. But the only jobs she gets offered are to dog walk, something that she really doesn’t want to do because it seems very disloyal to Hound, who died recently. Batty has big plans to unveil her singing to her family, but her planning goes seriously awry as Skye starts to push Jeffrey away from both herself and the Penderwick family.
Returning to the Penderwicks is such a treat. The new focus on the younger members of the family makes me hope that there will be more such treats to come too. Birdsall writes with a such a feel for characters. They all shine through, each unique and distinct from one another. Batty is the same person as that small child that we all fell for in the first novel and so are all of the family members. Adding a new family member in little Lydia is also a treat and she is just as special and wonderful as the others.
Birdsall’s writing pays homage to so many great writers, feeling both modern and vintage at the same time. Her writing is funny, wry and immensely comfortable. It’s a joyous mix of stories, chaos and noise. It is the pleasure of old friends and new adventures that you get to share. The springtime setting is beautifully conveyed and suits the story perfectly as Batty starts to unfold herself into something new along with the trees and flowers.
If you have read the previous books, this one is another delight. If not, what are you waiting for? Appropriate for ages 8-12.
Reviewed from ARC received from Knopf.
The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage by Selina Alko, illustrations by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko
This nonfiction picture book tells of a history that will surprise modern American children. It is the story of love and one family that was brave enough to stand up to a racist law. Mildred and Richard Loving fell in love in the small town of Central Point, Virginia. They had different colored skin and so they were not allowed to get legally married in Virginia. So they crossed state lines into Washington, DC and got married there. When they returned to Virginia though, they were arrested for violating the state law against interracial marriage. The two moved to Washington DC and raised their children there. Things started to change in the 1960s and the Lovings took their case all the way to the Supreme Court to win the right to marry one another in the state of Virginia.
This book is strikingly beautiful with a rich warmth that flows directly from the story and art. The author and illustrator are a husband wife team who are also interracial. Their passion for this subject shines on the page. Alko explains that subject matter with a vibrancy, offering information on the laws in a way that is suitable for small children. The drama of the arrest is also clearly captured, exposing the ludicrous law to today’s perspective.
The art of the book was done by both Qualls and Alko. Their styles marry into a beautiful richness that fills the pages. They are filled will playful hearts and flowers that add a lighter note to the images. At the same time they have detailed paintings filled with texture and power at their center. The combination of both has created a stunning beauty of collage and painting.
An important piece of our civil rights history as a nation, this picture book documents one family willing to take up the fight for themselves and others. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from copy received from Arthur A. Levine Books.
Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai
Born in California, Mai has grown up as a beach girl in Laguna. So she has big plans this summer to spend time at the beach and time with a boy she’s interested in. But her plans have to change when her parents force her to accompany her Vietnamese grandmother back to Vietnam to see if rumors of her grandfather still being alive after the War are true. Mai hates Vietnam immediately, while the food is good and there’s so much of it, it’s also hot, smelly and filled with mosquitoes who love to bite Mai more than anyone else. Mai hides the fact that she can understand the language even if she won’t try to speak it at all. Now she is stuck alone with her grandmother in a tiny village filled with her extended family, dial up Internet access, and a grumpy cousin who seems to only care for her pet frog. Yet as time passes, Mai discovers the beauty of Vietnam, of slowing down and of taking care of family.
Lai has created another wonderful read, this one almost a love letter to Vietnam. She takes readers into the country side and village life, showing first the oppressive heat and lack of modern conveniences, but then revealing in a beautifully natural way that there is much to value perhaps because the days are filled with extra time to be together. The changes in Mai happen organically as she slowly acclimates to her new surroundings and the new society. Nothing is rushed here, even the storytelling is gently done though never dull.
Mai makes a great lens to see Vietnam through, both outsider and relative. Her struggles with the language are cleverly portrayed along with some details about pronunciation in Vietnamese. When she begins to try speaking, the words move to broken English on the page, indicating her troubles speaking the language. At other times, it is Vietnamese on the page. Mai’s growing friendship with her cousin also happens at its own pace and with its own blend of English and Vietnamese.
Rich in details and completely immersive, this novel will inspire travel dreams in those who read it, perhaps to discover their own family roots. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Edelweiss and HarperCollins.
Moonpenny Island by Tricia Springstubb
The author of What Happened on Fox Street returns with a beautiful story set on a little island in a large lake. Flor loves her island home, loves being able to ride her bicycle everywhere, loves that her best friend is the only other person in her grade at school, and loves that she knows all of the people who live there year round. But things start to change that Flor has no way to control. Her best friend is sent off the island to attend a different school, leaving Flor the only person in sixth grade. Flor’s mother leaves to take care of her sick grandmother, and with her parents always fighting, maybe she won’t be back. Even her very responsible older sister is hiding something from Flor. Flor has to figure out how to live in this new island landscape where everything is changing around her. But in change there is also opportunity, perhaps a new friend (or two) and also seeing things for what they actually are.
Springstubb writes a love letter to her island setting. She imbues each bike ride of Flor’s with a beauty and a celebration of this small island and its nature. Her writing sparkles like sun on the water as she picks unique metaphors to show both her characters emotions and the setting. Here is one of my favorite examples: “Her heart’s a circus, with trapezes and tightropes and people shooting out of cannons but no nets – someone forgot the nets.” Springstubb also shows emotions rather than telling about them. Flor’s emotions come out in the way she digs her toes in sand, how she pedals her bicycle and through what she notices in the island itself.
Flor is a great young protagonist. She reads like an eleven year old, desperate to hold her family and friends together. She has a youthful and frenzied love of her island, something that readers can see may change in the future but it is her connection to this place that makes this book work so beautifully. She is fiercely protective of her siblings, throwing herself in to defend and protect them even as she proves that she has no understanding of teen love, something refreshing in a young protagonist.
Strong written, this book is beautiful, deep and rich just like its island setting. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Edelweiss and Balzer + Bray.
Hold Tight, Don’t Let Go by Laura Rose Wagner
Magdalie lives in Haiti with her cousin Nadine and Nadine’s mother, but Magdalie considers them to be her sister and mother. Her aunt works for a wealthy lady, cooking and cleaning, and the three of them live in the lower rooms of the house. When the earthquake hits Haiti in 2010, the girls survive but Nadine’s mother is killed. The two girls have nowhere to go but they are rescued by Magdalie’s uncle and move into the refugee camp. Soon after they move, Nadine’s father gets her a visa and she moves to Miami to live in the United States. Nadine promises to send for Magdalie as soon as she can. Magdalie is left all alone, unable to afford to attend school any longer and mourning the loss of her sister and mother. Magdalie holds tightly to the hope of heading to the United States, but eventually has to admit that she is staying in Haiti and figure out how to not only survive but thrive there.
Wagner writes with a passion that shines on the page. She shows the beauty of Haiti, creating a tapestry of food, sounds and voices that reveals what is often buried beneath the poverty. She does not shy away from the ugliness of poverty, from the waste, the violence and the impossible choices facing a girl like Magdalie. Sex simmers constantly around her, offers are made to young girls, and in one instance Magdalie must make the choice of whether she is willing to be taken care of in exchange for sexual favors.
Through it all, even when she is deep in despair, Magdalie is clearly a smart girl who loves to learn and wants to be something more than where she finds herself. Magdalie is incredibly strong too, facing on a daily basis things that American readers will never have experienced. And that too is part of Wagner’s amazing depiction of Haiti. She makes it clear that it is because of the society of Haiti that there is immense poverty but also that people can survive that poverty. When Magdalie visits a rural part of the country, readers revel right alongside her in the natural beauty. When she longs to return to the camps and the filth, readers too will begin to understand what she sees there and the potential it offers her if she can just find a way.
This is a complex book that does not try to answer society’s issues in a pat or simple way. Rather it stands as witness to the brutality, beauty and incredible strength of Haiti and its people. Appropriate for ages 13-17.
Reviewed from ARC received from Amulet Books.