The Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell (InfoSoup)
Feo lives with her mother in the Russian wilderness, away from any civilization. They are the people who are sent the wolves who have been reared in luxury in Russian homes. It is bad luck to kill a wolf, so the wolves are given to Feo and her mother to release into the wild. Feo has three wolves who are very special to her, Black, White and Gray. The three live in a nearby chapel that is slowly decaying. They are fully wild, but love Feo too, accepting her as part of their pack. Things are changing in Russia and some people don’t like wolves and the damage they do to livestock. So soldiers come and threaten Feo and her mother, including a man named Rakov who is brutal and cruel. Feo and her mother get another pampered wolf and when she gives birth a young soldier of Rakov’s emerges from the tree and is enchanted by Feo and her wolves. Feo will need his help when her mother is taken to prison in a far-away city and Feo sets off on a quest to free her.
Rundell is one of my favorite authors writing today. Her books are so different from one another, set in completely different times and places. Yet the thing that binds them all together is Rundell’s exceptional story telling. All of her books have strong young heroines, girls who have been raised in unusual circumstances and have grown to be wild women of the very best kind. Feo is the epitome of a wild woman, a girl who raises wolves, who teaches them to be wild and free, who adores the cold and snow, and who is brave enough to cross Russia to save her mother. Feo is not perfect. She is prickly and often unable to express her emotions. Her hugs are brutally hard, her determination unshakeable even when leading her straight into danger, and yet she is loyal and immensely big hearted in a way that will have all readers cheering her on.
Rundell’s writing is exceptional. She writes with her own ferocity, words tumbling and creating such strong imagery and amazing juxtapositions. She creates an entire snowy world for Feo to inhabit, filled with wolves who love deeply, hills to ski down madly, and trees to climb to safety. Here is how Feo sees her snowy home:
Feo loved it. The land around the house shook and shone with life. She had seen people pass by her wood bewailing the sameness of the white landscape, but, Feo thought, they were just illiterate: They hadn’t learned how to read the world properly. The snow gossiped and hinted of storms and birds. It told a new story every morning. Feo grinned and sniffed the sharpness of the air. “It’s the most talkative weather there is…”
Another amazing read from Rundell, get this into the hands of any young wolf girls you know. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC received from Simon and Schuster.
Sunny Side Up by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm (InfoSoup)
Sunny has been sent to spend the summer with her grandfather in Florida. He lives in a retirement community where there are no children or pets allowed. Sunny tries to make the best of it despite the squeaky fold-out bed and her grandfather’s slow pace of life where an outing is a trip to the post office. Then Sunny meets Buzz, the son of the groundskeeper who teaches her about superheroes and comic books. Throughout the story, there are flashbacks to before Sunny came to Florida that involve her wild older brother. His behavior went from disobeying small rules to abusing drugs and alcohol. The tension builds until Sunny’s perfect beach vacation with her best friend has to be changed to sending her away to stay with her grandfather. This book explores the impact of having a family member who is an addict, the guilt children feel about it, and the shame they experience.
In the final pages of the book, Holm reveals that they grew up in a home where a close family member had addiction issues. You can see their first-hand experience in the book where Sunny’s deep emotions about what is happening to her family are held inside until they become too much. All of the emotions throughout this graphic novel are done superbly and communicated in a way that makes them easy to understand and relate to.
Sunny is a great lens to view addiction through, first naively and then as she starts to understand what is happening with a feeling of being part of the problem and contributing to her brother’s deteriorating situation. Even as she goes to Florida and fills her days with finding cats and collecting small rewards that she spends on comic books, she can’t escape what having a sibling with an addiction has done to her and her family.
A book that demonstrates that graphic novels with lighthearted illustrations can deal with big issues, this graphic novel is superb and belongs in every public library. Appropriate for ages 8-11.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Graphix and Edelweiss.
Honor Girl by Maggie Thrash
Released September 8, 2015.
Maggie attends the same summer camp that her mother did and her grandmother did. Camp Bellflower for Girls is one of the oldest camps in the South, and nothing has changed there since it was founded in 1922. Maggie spends her summer with friends she made there previous years. She hates the tether she has to wear to keep herself from sleepwalking at night and she’s really into the Backstreet Boys. Maggie lies the rifle range and finds herself getting better at shooting at least when she can stop herself from thinking too much. That gets a lot harder when she notices Erin, a counselor in the younger girls’ camp. Maggie struggles with her feelings for Erin and though she tries to disguise what she is feeling, other girls at camp notice. Some are supportive while others think that it is very wrong. As Maggie’s summer plays out, she finds ways to deal with the pressure of the rifle range, an angry rival, and also to explore her sexuality.
Thrash’s memoir is told with a broad humor about Christian summer camp and how it feels to be a girl different from most of the others there. At the same time, the humor is never pointed and the girls around Maggie are supportive most of the time and in their own ways. Some want to protect Maggie from her crush, others want to just tease. Yet there is no hate here, which is very refreshing. Thrash also does a nice job of allowing a crush to play out, naturally and tantalizingly. Their feelings for one another are clear even as they themselves feel confused by them. The result is a book about the confusion of being a teen, the tensions of both friendships and attractions with the added dimension of being a lesbian. It is a beautifully done memoir.
Thrash’s book is in full color, but the advanced copy I received is in black and white only. Even with that limited color palette, the illustrations are clear and clever. The characters are unique on the page, which is not easy to do with a camp full of teen girls. Each has a distinguishing feature and it all works so that heroine, her crush, her rival, her friend and others are easily recognized. Throughout the entire book, a river of humor carries through and that same humor is evident in the illustrations. This is a book that could have been heavy and still is emotionally charged. The humor helps that be bearable and makes the book a great read.
A strong and important graphic memoir, this book belongs in every public library graphic novel collection for teens who will enjoy meeting such a strong protagonist. Appropriate for ages 12-14.
Reviewed from ARC received from Candlewick Press.
Bob and Flo by Rebecca Ashdown (InfoSoup)
In a story perfect for small children starting daycare or preschool, this picture book shows how to make new friends and share. Bob really likes Flo’s pink bucket that she brought with her to school. When Flo is busy painting a picture, her bucket disappears. She looks for it everywhere. She notices that Bob has a new pink hat at one point. Then she sees him making a tall tower of blocks standing on something pink. She sees him playing a pink drum. And then at the playground, she finally spies her bucket by the slide. Bob is there too, stuck at the top of the slide. Happily, Flo knows just what to do to help and all it takes is a good pink bucket.
Such a simple book but told so very well. Ashdown perfectly captures the unique ways preschool children interact with one another, often playing alongside each other than right together. She weaves in the humor of Flo seeing her bucket over and over again and not recognizing it. That plays nicely against the creativity that Bob uses when playing with the bucket on each page. Toddler audiences will love spotting the bucket on each page spread.
Ashdown’s illustrations are cheery and bright. The sunny yellow background allows the grey and white penguins to shine on each page. The basic toys around them, evoke every preschool or daycare around. Then the penguins themselves have texture and patterns that give them personality and also make them seem more real and more childlike.
Perfect for returning to preschool in the fall, this picture book is just as much fun as a bucket. Appropriate for ages 2-4.
Reviewed from library copy.
Blackbird Fly by Erin Entrada Kelly
Apple just doesn’t fit in. Her Filipino mother cooks food that no American kids eat. Plus she is so strict that Apple isn’t allowed to take any music classes at school because it might impact her other more important grades. Apple though desperately wants to learn to play the guitar. When they left the Philippines, she took just one picture and a tape of the Beatles that had belonged to her dead father. Apples does have friends, but once they discover that she is on the Dog Log, a list of the ugliest girls at school, they stop hanging around with her. Apple decides to start saving up for a guitar and as she does that she starts to make new friends, other kids that have been singled out as odd or different. But one misstep with a teacher’s wallet marks Apple as a thief and that is all it takes for her former friends to really turn against her. Apple has to figure out how being different can actually be a very good thing.
This tween novel has a strong mix of a multicultural main character combined with middle school popularity and racism. Kelly does not flinch away from the blatant racism that teenagers can engage in as well as the casual hate that they throw at each other, particularly kids who are different from them. Kelly’s writing has a friendly, straight-forward tone even as she deals with the drama of both middle school and a parent who is over protective. Using music as a language that bridges new friendships and new understandings works particularly well and serves as a backbone for the entire novel.
Apple is a character with lots going on in her life. She faces racism on a daily basis at school and in turn takes it out on her mother, turning her back on much of their Filipino culture. She is embarrassed by her mother and angry at her lack of support for Apple’s musical dreams. As Apple puts together a misguided plan to run away, readers will hope that she finds a way to live in the life that she already has, particularly because they will see how special she is long before Apple can realize it herself.
A great tween read, this book offer complexity and diversity in a story about individuality and friendship. Appropriate for ages 10-13.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Edelweiss and Greenwillow Books.
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.
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.
Jessica’s Box by Peter Carnavas
Released March 1, 2015
Jessica can’t sleep, it’s the day before her first day of school. The next day her parents assure her that she will make lots of friends, and Jessica had a plan to make sure that happened. In a box on her lap, she carried her teddy bear to school, but when she revealed it later in the day, kids laughed at her or just walked away. The next day, Jessica put something else in her box and headed to school. But the cupcakes in the box disappeared quickly without so much as a thank you from the kids. The third day of school, Jessica snuck her dog into class. Doris was very popular, but dogs weren’t allowed at school. By the fourth day, Jessica was dejected. She dragged her box to school empty and then put it over her head. And that’s when Jessica figured out exactly what she should have had in her box all along, something very special indeed.
Carnavas tells a very successful story here. I love that the main character is in a wheelchair and yet the story is not about her disability. It’s a first-day-of-school story and a making-friends story instead. Also throughout the book she is shown as entirely capable and not needing help, except for a little encouragement of different sorts from her family members that any child would want and need. The use of the box is smartly done, using it both as a metaphor and also as a way to build suspense for the reader about what is being taken to school that day.
The art is friendly and colorful, also helping build suspense with page turns that lead into the reveal of what’s in the box. Carnavas shows loneliness very nicely on the page, isolating Jessica clearly on the white background. He also shows connections in a gentle way, displaying a subtlety that is particularly nice on the page with Jessica and her father being quiet together.
A very inclusive book about school jitters and making friends, this will be a nice read aloud to share with kids about to enter school. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from digital copy received from Kane Miller.
A Tale of Two Beasts by Fiona Roberton
Released March 1, 2015
First we hear the story from one point of view, then the other. A little girl tells of walking in the woods and seeing a little beast in the forest. He was stuck in the tree and very sad, so she rescued him and took him home with her. There she bathed him, dressed him in a hat and sweater, gave him nuts to eat and built him a house out of a cardboard box. She even walked him in a leash to give him exercise. But in the end, he escaped out of the window. Alone in her bed, she couldn’t sleep and then the beast returned to get his hat so they headed off into the woods together. But she couldn’t stop wondering about why he came back. The second half of the book is told from the little animal’s point of view and it’s a very different perspective. But in the end, the two of them found a connection despite their different ways of seeing what happened.
Roberton could have kept this book solely about perspectives and had it be full-on humor, but instead she manages to imbue the book with a real heart. The connection between the two “beasts” is slow to come, with the final moment of real understanding being so freeing for both of them as they in turn realize that the other one is not quite as bad as they had thought. Using similar language for both stories in that moment really shows their connection, particularly because otherwise their perspectives had been so very different.
Roberton uses her art to frame the story, showing the same exact story not only verbally from different perspectives but also vividly in the images as different from one another. One moment that stands out is the cardboard box home that she builds the creature, which he detests. The illustrations show her pleasure at it and then in turn his trapped feeling of being in the box with nothing to do. And don’t miss their final dash together into the woods and then their clothing hanging on tree branches side-by-side. Freedom!
Cleverly crafted and told, this picture book explores points of view and how connections are possible even with different beasts. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from online copy from Kane Miller.
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.