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.
Phoebe and Her Unicorn by Dana Simpson
When Phoebe skipped a rock (four times!) across a pond, she accidentally hit a unicorn in the nose, distracting the unicorn from gazing at her amazing reflection. The unicorn was bound to offer Phoebe a wish and though Phoebe tried to wish for more wishes and things like that, she wasn’t allowed to. So Phoebe wished that the unicorn, Marigold Heavenly Nostrils, be her best friend. The two become inseparable, much to Heavenly Nostrils’ dismay at first. Soon they truly became the best of friends, dealing with bullies in unexpected ways, having slumber parties, and playing games together.
This friendship between a girl and a unicorn is filled with great humor, including lots of biting sarcasm which helps offset the cuteness factor. It is not the traditional unicorn and girl relationship either, both of them have unique personalities and sometimes they just don’t get along. It’s those moments of reality that keeps the relationship honest and makes this a graphic novel to celebrate.
Simpson’s illustrations have strong ties to Calvin & Hobbes. Readers will immediately find themselves right at home in the world she creates, one where unicorns are real but sheltered by a Shield of Boringness that keeps others from realizing how special the unicorn is. These plot devices are brilliant and funny.
I brought this book home and my 17 year old immediately rejoiced since she reads the comic online. So you will have fans in your library for this book already. Get it on the shelves for kids and into the hands of adults who will also enjoy it immensely. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
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.
Lowriders in Space by Cathy Camper, illustrated by Raul the Third
Three friends, Lupe, El Chavo and Elirio, work together in a garage where they fix cars. They dream of one day having their own garage. Lupe loves working on engines and the mechanics. El Chavo washes them until they shine with his octopus arms. Elirio uses his mosquito size and his long nose to detail the cars. Their favorite kind of car are the low and slow lowriders. So when a contest with a large prize comes along, they know they have to enter. Now they just have to turn a junker into the best car in the universe, so they head into space to see what they can do. This is one unique read that combines space, cars and great friendship.
Camper incorporates Spanish into her story, firmly placing this book into the Hispanic culture. Her characters are clever done. The female in the group is the one who loves engines and mechanical things, yet is incredible feminine too. The book seems to be firmly housed on earth until one big moment launches it into outer space. The incorporation of astronomy into the design and art of the car makes for a book that is wild and great fun to read.
The illustrations by Raul Gonzalez have a cool hipness to them that is honest and without any slickness at all. Done in a limited palette of red, blue and black, the art has a vintage feel that is enhanced by the treatment of the pages with stains and aging.
This graphic novel is cool, star filled, rich with science, and has friendship at its heart. Appropriate for ages 7-10.
Reviewed from copy received from Chronicle Books.
Over There by Steve Pilcher
Shredder lives all by himself in the big forest. He has a cozy bed in a matchbox under a maple tree, he has plenty to eat which means worms since he’s a shrew, and he has a pet acorn. But acorns can’t talk and Shredder felt that something was missing. So he sets off to see if there is something more out there. Seeing a twinking in the distance, he heads out to see what it is. After a long journey all night, it turns out to be a tiny silver boat and Shredder climbs aboard. But the boat doesn’t float for long. Happily, just as Shredder disappears under the water, a hand reaches out to save him. It’s a mole, named Nosey. As the two of them spend time together, Shredder starts to realize that he has found “something more” after all.
Pilcher’s story is straight forward and speaks directly to loneliness and the journey to find a new friend. He incorporates clever elements that create wonderful quiet moments in the book. The time that Shredder spends with his silent acorn pet, the question of what the shining thing in the distance is, the floating moments on the water, the warmth of new friendship.
What is most special about the book though is the art. Done by Disney Press as part of their Pixar Animation Studios Artist Showcase, it will come as no surprise that the entire book reads like an animated movie. The backgrounds on the page have a cinematic depth to them. Shredder himself is immensely likeable as a character, a tiny shrew often dwarfed by the world around him.
A fine picture book, this book is very appealing thanks to its friendly art and the jolly adventure at its heart. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee
In a wordless picture book, Frazee captures what happens when a young clown falls off of a circus train and is rescued by a lonely farmer. The desolate and flat landscape is unbroken until the bright circus train passes. The farmer is clearly reluctant to take in the bright little smiling clown, but he does anyway, taking him by the hand back to his tiny house. There, the two of them sit together, share a meal and eventually wash up and the clown washes off his face paint. Now it is the little clown who is worried and sad, his smile removed with the water. The farmer sits with him as he tries to fall asleep. Along with the light of dawn, the farmer starts to cheer up the little clown with silly faces and antics. Soon the two are living a mix of their two lives: eggs are gathered and juggled, hard work is shared, and the two head out on a picnic together. While on the picnic, they hear a train coming and it is the circus train filled with clowns. But somehow, the ending is not sad as the little clown returns to his family and the farmer returns to his farm, both changed forever.
I’m not sure how Frazee manages to convey so much in a wordless format. She uses symbolism, like the face paint for removing barriers, the connection of the characters through held hands, and their very different hats being removed and shared and eventually exchanged. It’s lovely and heartfelt and very special.
I’ve seen this book on a lot of people’s top book lists for the year, and I completely agree. It’s a gem of a book that has such depths to explore. The wordless format might imply a simple story, but here readers will find subtlety about friendship, caring for others, and building connections.
A masterpiece of wordless storytelling, this is a radiant picture book made to be shared. Appropriate for ages 2-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Beach Lane Books.
Wednesday by Anne Bertier
Little Round and Big Square are the best of friends. Every week on Wednesday, they get together to play their favorite game: one of them says a word and they both transform into it. Big Square starts with “butterfly” and the two of them change into butterflies, Big Square with sharp angles and Little Round with half circles. They go through “flower” and “mushroom” until Big Square gets carried away and starts naming lots of different things all at once, things that Little Round can’t shift into. Soon the friends are arguing, but just like with any friendship there are rough patches and they both have to figure out how to fix it.
Done in just two colors, the dot and the square and the many shapes they make pop on the page, the blue and orange contrasting vibrantly on the white background. It is the illustrations that tell the story here, and the strong style they are done in is striking. Children will immediately relate to both the square and the circle. They may not have faces, but they convey emotions clearly on the page from anger to exuberance to friendship.
Strong and vibrant, this picture book translated from the French, is a great pick for units on friendship or shapes. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy received from Enchanted Lion Books.