Winston & George by John Miller, illustrated by Giuliano Cucco
Released March 21, 2014.
Winston is a crocodile and George is a crocodile bird, the kind of bird that cleans a crocodile’s skin. The two of them would fish together in the river with George calling out when he saw a fish and Winston diving into the water to catch it. Then they would share the meal together on shore. But George had the bad habit of playing pranks on all of the crocodiles as well as on Winston. The other crocodiles tell Winston to just eat George to end the problem, but Winston can’t eat his friend. Then George takes a prank too far and puts Winston’s life in danger. He has to convince the other crocodiles and animals to help, but at what price?
Written and illustrated 50 years ago, this picture book is finally being published. Unfortunately, the illustrator died in 2006, so he did not live to see this work finally come to the public. Happily though, the book is fresh and vibrant with a wonderful vintage feel that makes it feel like an immediate classic. Miller’s words are simple and drive the story forward at a fast pace. The ending is immensely satisfying and sharing it aloud one can expect cheers of joy and relief.
Cucco’s illustrations are superb. They have a wonderful grace of line combined with bright tropical colors that pop on the page. The dramatic moments of the book are captured with plenty of motion and action. Best of all, the humor of the text translates directly into humor of image.
A humorous and dramatic look at an unusual friendship, one only wishes that Winston & George could go on more adventures together. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Enchanted Lion Books.
A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd
Felicity’s mother loves to move to new places, so Felicity has lived all over the country. But when her mother returns to the small town of Midnight Gulch, Felicity quickly realizes she has never lived in any place quite like this one. Midnight Gulch had once been full of magic of all sorts, but then a curse took the magic away and drove two brothers apart as well. But there is magic left in town, if you know where to look. It’s not big magic, just little pieces that were left behind. Felicity has one of those pieces of magic herself, she can see words everywhere, words spoken aloud and words thought silently. She is a word collector keeping a list of the words she finds. Others in town have some magic too, including Jonah, a mysterious boy who calls himself the Beedle and does good deeds around town. Then there’s also the ice cream factory that makes a flavor that evokes memories both sweet and sour. Felicity loves Midnight Gulch, but can she figure out a way to keep her mother from moving on to new places again?
This book was such fun. Lloyd has created an entire town that is filled with a wonderful mix of magic and history. Throughout the book, we learn about what first made Midnight Gulch so magical and then how it was taken away. Then little by little in tantalizing ways readers see the magic that is left and are offered clues about how it may return someday. It’s a book that is surprising and very readable.
Felicity is a great protagonist as she struggles to keep her family in one place. As she finds out more about her own family history and discovers members of her family and community she never knew before, she finds herself less lonely in a way that she never though possible. Perhaps the most delightful piece of all is that Felicity does not need her magic to solve her family’s issues, rather it is about piecing together a mystery and solving a riddle.
Glowing with magic, this novel is a shining read that should be savored just like an ice cream cone on a hot day. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC received from Scholastic.
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.
Why We Took the Car by Wolfgang Herrndorf
Originally published in Germany, this is a gorgeous coming-of-age story that is dark and immensely funny. It is the story of Mike who just doesn’t fit in. He’s considered one of the most boring people in his school, ignored entirely by girls and laughed at when he reads his writing out loud. He’s not even invited to the best party of the year though everyone else is. Everyone but Andre, better known as Tschick, who comes to school drunk, looks like he’s been fighting, and wears outdated clothes. Tschick and Mike have absolutely nothing in common, but when Tschick shows up unexpectedly in a stolen car when Mike has been left home alone for an extended time, they head on a road trip that no one will ever forget.
Winner of several awards in Germany, this book is much more than a standard teen road trip book. What could have been cardboard stereotype characters instead blossom in the hands of Herrndorf to become much more complex and intriguing. They get more and more interesting as the book progresses, steadily revealing themselves to one another and to the reader. It turns out that Mike is far from boring in any way and Tschick is far from any sort of stereotype.
Readers know from the beginning how the road trip ends, but the joy is in getting to that point. I guarantee it is not a straight line! The setting of modern Germany is one that many teens may not have explored, especially through the eyes of native Germans. The translation is done very well, leaving it particularly European, but also making it flow for English speakers.
I am usually not a fan of road trip stories, but this is definitely one trip worth taking. Funny with a lightness but also depth, this is a wonderful teen read. Appropriate for ages 14-16.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Arthur A. Levine Books and NetGalley.
Brimsby’s Hats by Andrew Prahin
Brimsby was a hat maker and he had a quiet life. He had a best friend and they had wonderful conversations together over a marvelous cup of tea. But then his friend decided that he wanted to be a ship captain and left for the sea. Brimsby’s life changed suddenly and he was all alone. He set out on a walk when he was feeling particularly lonely and came upon a tree full of birds trying to remove snow from their nests and keep warm. Brimsby thought they would make marvelous friends, but the birds were too busy working to talk with him. Brimsby headed back home after dark all alone and sat in his dark home and thought. Can a lonely hat maker figure out how to make new friends?
This story has such a complete feel to it. Unlike other stories about friendship that can become trite, this one has nuance and balance. Prahin creates a central character who is believable and understandable. He also builds the book around a universal theme. Then he takes a different approach to the solution of finding new friends that is completely surprising and satisfying.
His art is equally pleasing with its rich colors playing against pastels. There is a lightness to the illustrations and also a great quirky feel to them that matches the story well. He uses perspectives and dark and light to reveal just how lonely Brimsby becomes after his friend leaves.
A thoughtful and creative look at friendship that is entirely exceptional and perfect for a wintry day. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Simon & Schuster.
Salt: A Story of Friendship in a Time of War by Helen Frost
In 1812 in Indian Territory, two boys forge a friendship over hunting, fishing and survival of their families. James’ family runs the trading post at Fort Wayne, living right outside the walls of the fort. Anikwa’s family, members of the Miami tribe, has lived on this land for generations. Now two armies are heading right to Fort Wayne to battle, the Americans and British will meet for a critical battle. The question becomes whose side the Miami will be on when the battle occurs. But even more deep is the question of whether the friendship between the two boys and their two families can survive this battle and the losses that it brings.
Frost has mastered the verse novel, creating a work that functions as beautiful poetry with profound depths and also as a complete novel. Frost puts a human face on history in this novel that tells the story of a major battle in the war of 1812. By the time the soldiers arrive, readers care deeply for both boys and their families. So when the destruction starts, the wounds are real and the losses far beyond numbers. The poems show readers the beauty of the landscape, the bounty of the land, and all that is possibly lost afterwards.
Frost writes from both boys’ points of view in alternating poems. So the lifestyle and losses of both families is shown from their own points of view. Anikwa’s poems are done in a poetic form that creates a pattern on the page. Frost explains in her notes at the end that this is to mimic Miami ribbon work. Without knowing this while reading, I could still see the square form of James’ poem representing the fort and the home he lived in next to the motion-filled form of Anikwa’s poems that exuded nature.
An exquisite verse novel that fills history with real people and war with real loss. Appropriate for ages 11-13.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Story of Fish & Snail by Deborah Freedman
This is the story of Fish and Snail who were great friends. Every day, Snail would wait for Fish to return with a new story. This time, Fish returned with a great story, one so wonderful that Fish wanted to show Snail instead of tell about it. But Snail doesn’t want to leave the book they are in. Snail wants to stay right there and play kittens instead of pirates. The two start to argue and finally Fish declares that it is THE END and leaves the book. Snail was so sad. This was not the way the story was meant to end. So Snail leans farther outside of the page and sees Fish in a watery book below. Will Snail leave his safe book and dare to tumble down to the other ocean below? Will Fish return with more stories?
Freedman captures a story-within-a-story here with her setting of two characters living not just in one picture book but many. It is the story of two opposite characters who still manage to be friends, most of the time. There is the sedentary Snail who longs for the stories but not the real adventure. Then there is the irrepressible Fish who jumps and leaps literally off of the page. The pair make for a balanced friendship but also one with plenty of room for misunderstanding too. Their conversation and fight are written strongly and honestly.
Freedman’s art is gorgeous. Readers will recognize her as the author and illustrator of Blue Chicken. She uses similar splash effects in her art here. The blues are gorgeously green and filled with light. When Fish swims the bubbles take on a stronger form as Freedman lets the watercolor dapple the page. There is one beautiful image of Snail looking down to the other book that plays with perspective cleverly.
I’ve heard Caldecott rumblings for this one and with its playful yet artistic illustrations, I’d love to see that. In the end though, it’s also a great story about friendship, books and being willing to take risks. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy received from Viking.
Henry’s Hand by Ross MacDonald
Get ready for a perfect non-Halloween Halloween book! Henry is a monster who often loses bits and pieces of himself. So every morning he goes through a little rhyme to make sure that all of his pieces are there. Henry’s right hand was his favorite body part. They played games together and traveled everywhere together. Then Henry got lazy and started using his right hand to do all of the chores that he didn’t want to do himself. Hand got more and more upset until finally, he just left. Hand was off to the big city on his own and Henry was left behind, knowing that it was all his fault. But how do you apologize to someone who has already left? And how do you know they are OK and not hurt? Henry had to figure out not only how to live without his right hand, but how to get him back.
MacDonald has written a wonderfully original book that is unafraid of being wildly wacky. Behind that wild premise though is a book with plenty of heart. It is a story of real friendship, the loss of a best friend, and finding a way back to reunite. MacDonald has a nice feel for pacing and drama, peppering his book with plenty of action.
This is a book set in a world that has a vintage feel about it, the city is filled with early century vehicles and technology. Henry himself is an homage to the monsters of that time, yet he is also completely friendly and nonthreatening.
Add this to your Halloween reads, monster story times, and units on body parts and friendship. It is sure to come in handy! Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Abrams Books for Young Readers.