The Madman of Piney Woods by Christopher Paul Curtis
This companion novel to Elijah of Buxton continues the story of the town of Buxton and the people who live there. This book, which takes place forty years after the first book, is the story of two boys, Benji and Red. Benji, who lives in Buxton, dreams of becoming a newspaper reporter. He has two pesky younger siblings who also happen to be gifted builders with wood. That doesn’t mean though that Benji doesn’t try to put them in their place when they need it. Benji also has a way with the forest, spending hours walking the trails and exploring. He is one of the first to see the Madman of Piney Woods. Red is a scientist. He’s been raised by his father and maternal grandmother, who hates anyone who isn’t Irish like she is. She is strict with Red, smacking him regularly with her cane hard enough to raise a lump. When the two boys meet, they immediately become friends even though their backgrounds are so different. But can their friendship withstand the brimming hatred of some people in their communities?
I loved Elijah of Buxton so much and I started this book rather gingerly, hoping that it would be just as special as the original. Happily, it certainly is. It has a wonderful feeling to it, a rich storytelling that hearkens back to Mark Twain and other classic boyhood friendship books. Curtis makes sure that we know how different these two boys are: one with a large family, the other small, different races, different points of view. Yet it feels so right when the two boys are immediate friends, readers will have known all along that they suit one another.
Curtis explores deep themes in this novel, offering relief in the form of the exploits of the two boys as they figure out ways to mess with their siblings and escape domineering grandmothers. There are scenes that are laugh-out-loud funny. Other scenes though are gut-wrenching and powerful. They explore themes like the damage done to the psyche during wars, racism, ambition, responsibility and family ties. It is a testament to the writing of Curtis that both the humor and the drama come together into an exquisite mix of laughter and tears.
A great novel worthy of following the award-winning original, this book will be met with cheers by teachers and young readers alike. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Scholastic Press.
Wall by Tom Clohosy Cole
When the Berlin Wall was built, a boy was separated from his father who was on the other side. His mother told him that his father was in a place where life was better. They were not allowed to leave their side of Berlin. The boy dreamed of his father coming and rescuing them, but he knew that was unlikely to happen. So he started to plan ways to get past the wall himself. Other people tried to get past the wall, many of them died in their attempts. But it was worth the risk to see his father once again, so the boy started digging out in the woods near the wall. When the tunnel was ready, the boy led his family to it, but along the way they were stopped by a soldier. Would this be the end of their brave journey to reunite their family?
Cole captures the separation and division caused by the Berlin Wall. He also clearly shows the fierce drive of a family to reunite and be together once again. Told in very simple sentences, the book relies on its fine artwork to carry the story. It is the art that conveys the danger, the deaths and the risks that people took to see loved ones again or to attain freedom.
The art here is exceptional. Cole uses lighting on his pages to show the hope of the West versus the darkness and gray of the other side of the wall. The illustrations are atmospheric and dramatic. They convey the feeling of isolation and the fear.
A strong picture book about the Berlin Wall and the power of family and hope. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from library copy.
Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A. S. King
Glory can’t see a future for herself. She has no plans once she graduates from high school, not applying to any colleges. Perhaps she is just like her dead mother, who committed suicide four years ago. It’s the reason that Glory has only eaten microwaved food years, since her father won’t replace the oven her mother used to kill herself. Glory can’t even seem to get along with her best friend who lives across the road in a commune. It was there that they found the desiccated bat that they mixed with water and drank. It was a decision that changed Glory’s life because now when she looks at other people she can see their future, and it’s a future that is filled with civil war, hate of women, and horror. As Glory sees everyone’s future but her own, she starts to slowly explore the family secrets that surround her and even her own way forward.
King is amazing. While the cover may compare her to John Green, she is has a voice that is entirely unique and her own. King has created here a book that mixes photography with philosophy. Glory speaks the language of film, pre-digital and more physical and tangible. She uses light meters and ties the numbers she uses directly to her life: “By shooting the darkest areas three zones lighter, you turned a black, lifeless max black zone 0 into a zone 3. I think, in life, most of us did this all the time.” King also embraces a fierce and beautiful feminism in this book. It’s the feminism that we all viscerally crave, one that speaks to the power of girls and women, a feminism that can save us from ovens.
Glory is such a strong character. I love that she is cool and real, and yet she feels that she is the most awkward, unsexy and unreal person in the world. That is such a teen feeling, a feeling of hiding and being masked and fake. King captures it beautifully. Glory grows throughout the book, emerging from behind all of the barriers that she has set up for others before they can meet who she really is. The problem is that she is also hiding from herself.
Strong, beautiful, feminist and fierce, this book is one inspiring read for all of us who hide and need to be found by ourselves. Appropriate for ages 15-18.
Reviewed from library copy.
My Grandfather’s Coat by Jim Aylesworth, illustrated by Barbara McClintock
Based on a Yiddish folksong, this picture book celebrates the thrift, hard work and skills of immigrants to the United States. Told in the first person by the grandchild, this book looks at one man who came to the US and worked hard as a tailor. He met a woman and they got married and he made his own coat for the wedding. He wore it everywhere until finally, it was worn it. So then what did he do? He made it into a jacket. He wore that everywhere and eventually wore it out too. So then he made it into a vest. He then wore that until it was frayed. The book progresses through a necktie and finally a stuffed mouse made from the last of the old fabric and even when that is eventually torn apart, a mouse finds it to be perfect for her nest.
Aylesworth uses a repeating structure throughout this book, first introducing his character of the grandfather and then having him make a garment, wear it out, make another, and start the cycle again. He uses just the right amount of rhythm and rhyme to hold the story together, making the repetition clear and rollicking. It reads like a folk tale, filled with a celebration of one man and his skills at reusing things.
McClintock’s illustrations suit this subject matter perfectly. Her artwork’s vintage feel is right at home here, creating repeating tableaus on the page that reflect the changing time as children grow up and also the process and time of recreating garments from the scraps. Her art shows the loving family, the shrinking deep blue fabric, and the passage of time.
This story of reuse and recycling takes that modern movement and translates it directly into the frugality of our American ancestors. Cleverly written, striking illustrated and a great read aloud, this book is appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Scholastic Press.
Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms by Katherine Rundell
Having loved Rundell’s Rooftoppers, I looked forward to reading this book. I wasn’t expecting such a different read from her first novel. Will has grown up on her father’s farm in Zimbabwe. She plays with the boys on the farm, spending her days on horseback, hanging out with her best friend, and exploring the land. Her days are pure bliss, filled with golden sunshine, fresh air, and freedom. But that is not to last. When her father dies and their farm is sold, Will is reluctantly sent to England to boarding school by her grandfather in a plot devised by her new grandmother. But Will does not fit in with the girls in the school who torment Will because she is different, refuses to comb her hair, and can’t do the schoolwork. There is only one choice for Will and that is to run away and try to survive on her own in the wilds of London.
This book moved me over and over again. First the beauty and the freedom of Will’s life in Zimbabwe is so beautiful and written with a tension. It’s almost as if it is a bubble that must inevitably break, and it does. The father’s death scene is one of the most poignant deaths I have experienced in books for children. Will’s emotions are so strong on the page, that you literally ache for her and for the further changes to come that readers will see much earlier than Will does. Going from such beauty to such loss is wrenching and masterful.
Rundell grew up in Zimbabwe and London, so Will’s time in England is equally well drawn. From the bullying students to the kind teacher to the people she meets on the street, Will encounters all sorts of people. As her situation grows more dire and one thinks she can’t go on, Will draws from the years of golden sun and freedom and continues on. Through it all, that golden light continues to shine, hope glows even in the darkest of times.
Will is a strong, wild heroine, a girl that you want to ride bareback with across Africa and one that all readers will fall madly head over heels for. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Simon & Schuster.
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.