Tag Archive: friendships


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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.

jessicas box

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.

tale of two beasts

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

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.

my three best friends and me Zulay

My Three Best Friends and Me, Zulay by Cari Best, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton

Zulay is in first grade along with her three best friends.  She starts the day by linking arms with them and singing in the hallways and then waiting in line to hug their teacher hello.  When she finds her desk, she feels with her legs to make sure she is sitting right and then readers see her cane, which she pushes to the back of her desk.  It is at this point that it becomes clear that Zulay is blind.  She still studies what everyone else does, but she also has extra classes to learn to use her cane.  When Field Day is announced, Zulay surprises everyone by declaring that she wants to run in a race.  Will Zulay be able to make her dream come true?

Best introduces Zulay as a person first and then reveals her disability.  It offers readers a chance to meet Zulay as a first grade girl and see how she is just like her friends first and then realize that she is still just like the others in her class but with the added component of blindness in her life.  Best also incorporates all of the details that children will want to know.  How does Zulay find her desk?  How does she do class work?  What is her red and white cane for?  The result is a very friendly book that celebrates diversity in a number of ways.

Brantley-Newton’s illustrations add to that friendly feel.  They feature children of many different races together in school.  She clearly shows the emotions of her characters too from worry to pride to joy.  The illustrations are bright and cheery.

This is a book about diversity and meeting challenges head on.  It’s a great addition to public libraries of all sizes.  Appropriate for ages 5-7.

Reviewed from copy received from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

outside in

Outside In by Sarah Ellis

Lynn has a busy life with two best friends, choir, and a mother who keeps messing things up.  Her mother can’t hold down a job and the man who has brought a lot of stability to their little family for a few years has just left because her mother cheated on him.  Luckily, he is allowing them to keep living in his condo for a few months.  When Lynn chokes on a butterscotch candy at the bus stop, an unknown person helps her.  All Lynn knows about the person is that they were wearing a plaid skirt.  Lynn sets out to find them, but it isn’t until she gives up that Blossom introduces herself.   As her choir sets off to the United States for a competition, Lynn discovers that her mother hasn’t sent in the paperwork for her passport so she can’t attend.  Her friends head out without her and Lynn starts to get closer to Blossom, a strange girl who talks about disguising herself as a “citizen” and lives off the grid.  Soon Lynn has been drawn into the incredible alternate life of Blossom and her family.  But some things they are doing may not actually be legal and in order to be part of their lives Lynn has to promise to never reveal that they exist.  Lynn’s life works as long as the two worlds remain completely separate, but how long can she lie to her friends and mother?

Ellis is a Canadian author and this book is clearly set in Canada.  Lynn’s own family life is portrayed realistically and with great empathy both for her and for her mother.  There is no great villain here, only humans who make mistakes.  The lives of the “Underlanders” are shown as a balanced mix of utopian and harsh.  The moral questions about what they are doing emerge very naturally as the plot moves forward.  Then at the same time, Lynn herself is struggling with the moral ambiguity of lying to her loved ones about what she is doing in order to keep the Underlanders safe.  Again, there are no right answers here, it is about the puzzles of good and bad, wrong and right.

Lynn is a fairly straightforward character caught in a world where her mother is eccentric and unreliable but her friends are her rocks.  Her new relationship with Blossom captures the fact that she has some of her mother in her as well, something that wants a simpler life and a more unique and meaningful one.  Ellis manages to show this without ever mentioning it, allowing her readers to deeply understand Lynn beyond what Lynn does herself.

A complex and short novel for teens, this book is richly written, filled with ethical choices, and made beautiful by a glimpse into another way of life.  Appropriate for ages 11-14.

Reviewed from library copy.

pack of dorks

Pack of Dorks by Beth Vrabel

Lucy just knows that this is the biggest recess of her life, because at recess she will kiss Tom and cement herself as a popular fourth grader along with her best friend Becky.  But after the kiss happens, all she has is a ring that turns her finger green and a sinking feeling about what just happened.  Soon after the kiss, Lucy’s baby sister is born.  Her parents are shocked to have a baby with Downs Syndrome and are caught up in coping with the surprise.  That leaves Lucy alone to cope with the sudden turn of events at school where over the course of a few days she goes from being cool and popular to being one of the lamest kids in the class.  Becky calls Lucy at night to tell her all of the mean things that the other kids are saying about her, claiming that she is still Lucy’s friend but can’t be her friend at school anymore.  In the meantime, Lucy starts to make friends with some of the other kids in her class.  She does a project on wolves with Sam, a very quiet boy who is bullied by the same kids.  Out of that project and her growing group of outcast friends, Lucy decides that the only solution for them is to become their own pack.

Vrabel captures elementary school perfectly with its confusing social pressures that keep people conforming to the norm.  She manages to keep everything at just the right level, never becoming melodramatic about the situation.  At the same time, it is clear how devastating the bullying is to Lucy.  While she has a supportive family, they are distracted by the new baby and rightly so.  Her new little sister helps be a guide for Lucy forward, and is a very smart addition to the story, allowing Lucy her growth and also serving as an example of someone who will also need their own pack to support her.

Lucy is a character who becomes more likeable as the book progresses.  At first with her quests for popularity and kisses, Lucy is shallow but after she becomes shunned by the popular crowd she immediately reveals how smart and strong she actually is.  Vrabel’s brilliant combination of wolf packs and middle school bullies adds strength to the entire novel.

A smart book on bullies, differences and disabilities, this novel is one that will make a great read aloud for elementary classes.  Appropriate for ages 8-11.

Reviewed from library copy.

sam and dave dig a hole

Sam & Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett, Illustrated by Jon Klassen

Barnett and Klassen are an amazing picture book duo who have created with this book an instant classic.  Sam and Dave are two friends who set out to dig a hole on Monday.  They decide that they won’t stop digging until they find “something spectacular.”  They keep digging, deeper and deeper, missing jewels by just a few inches.  They stop and have chocolate milk and animal cookies and then continue to dig.  Maybe another direction will help them find treasure?  But readers will see as they take the turn that they miss the biggest gem yet.  The dog that is along with them though seems to realize that there are things right under the surface, but Sam and Dave don’t pay any attention to him.  They dig and dig, missing everything along the way until they are right above a dog bone.  The two boys take a nap and their dog continues to dig down until suddenly they are falling down from the hole into a world very like their own.  Readers who are paying close attention though will realize that it is a subtly different place.

Children love to dig in the dirt and I think every child has dreamed of digging a truly great hole and finding something amazing.  Barnett keeps his text very straight-forward and simple, allowing the humor to be in the near misses of the illustrations and the perceptiveness of the little dog.  It is this frank delivery that makes the humor of the illustrations really work, giving them a platform to build off of.  The ending is wonderfully open-ended, and some readers will miss the subtle differences and assume they are back home again.  Others though will see the changes and realize that no matter what Sam and Dave have discovered their “spectacular” something.

Klassen’s illustrations are wonderful.  I adore the way that he lets his characters look out from the page to the reader.  He did the same thing in both of his great “Hat” picture books and there is a strong connection from the page to the people enjoying the book.  His illustrations have a textured feel to them, an organic nature that reads particularly well in this dirt-filled world. 

An instant classic and one that will get readers talking about the open ending.  Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from library copy.

100 sideways miles

100 Sideways Miles by Andrew Smith

Finn is epileptic with seizures that he can’t control.  He’s actually not sure he’d want to anyway, because his seizures are beautiful experiences, even though he pees himself during them.  Finn also has eyes that are different colors.  But those are not the wildest things about Finn.  Finn’s mother was killed in the same freak accident that left him with epilepsy, a dead horse fell from a knackery truck passing on a bridge overhead and struck them both.  Perhaps even wilder though is Finn’s best friend Cade, who is almost certainly insane but also staggeringly funny.  Finn has a theory about his life.  His father wrote a book that has a character with many of the same characteristics as Finn who happened to be a murdering alien.  Perhaps Finn is caught in that book, or maybe the entire world is just a knackery truck.  Then Julia enters Finn’s life and he is suddenly shown that there is much more to life or the knackery than he had ever realized. 

Smith has written several acclaimed novels and this one is by far my favorite.  He writes with a solid honesty, with teen characters who swear, who have sex, who talk about sex, who love and lust.  The book is filled with humor, even the scene where Finn and Cade are accidental heroes is filled with slapstick moments mixed with profound courage.  That is the way this book plays, it is humorous but also exceptionally though provoking.

Finn is a deeply flawed character who sees the world in a unique and strange way.  He measures time in terms of distance, something that is unsettling at first but then becomes almost a natural way to view time by the end of the book.  There is also something wonderfully darkly humorous about a character in a book worrying that he is a character in another book.  The novel has layers upon layers and invites readers to look deeply into the story and to find their own way through the knackery of life.

A great teen novel, one of the best of the year, get this into the hands of teens who will enjoy the humor, understand the depth and not be offended by the strong language.  Appropriate for ages 14-17.

Reviewed from copy received from Simon & Schuster.

Review: Wildlife by Fiona Wood

wildlife

Wildlife by Fiona Wood

Set in Australia, this teen novel features the first person voices of two sixteen-year-old girls experiencing a semester in a school wilderness camp.  Sib has been in this school for a long time, so it surprises everyone, including herself, when she is selected as a model for a billboard and modeling campaign.  Suddenly instead of ignoring her, everyone is paying attention to her.  That includes Ben Capaldi, the cutest and most popular boy in school.  Sib has no idea how to deal with this new interest, but her best friend is very willing to guide her, perhaps too willing.  Lou is a new girl in school and is recovering from the loss of her boyfriend in an accident a year ago.  She has no interest in joining into school life or making new friends.  Instead she wants to be left alone, connect with her old friends, grieve and try to figure a way out of her extra counseling sessions.  But even as she walls herself away from the others at school, she finds herself getting drawn into the drama and life happening around her.  This story of two very different and equally compelling young women dives deep into romance, sexuality and friendship.

Wood has made recent news through her frank depiction of teen female sexuality.  This book stands out clearly with its positive but also nuanced and honest look at one girl’s first sexual experience.  With moments of humor throughout, the sex is shown with lots of heat, tons of desire, and then reality as well.  In the end, the character decides what is right for her, not what is right for all teens, but there is no shaming, no despair, no regret, just decisions going forward.  This is sex as teen girls experience it, done with intelligence and care.

The reason the sex in the book works so well is that Wood has created two main characters who are themselves intelligent, caring and fascinating.  Sib is dealing with suddenly breaking the role that she had been cast in, and being thrust into popularity for something that she sees no value in, modeling.  It’s a deft combination of feminism and pop culture.  She also has a manipulative best friend, a character who is beautifully drawn and one that readers will adore to dislike.  Lou too is a complex character with her grief but also her growing interest in those around her.  Her internal voice is wonderfully wry and funny, showing a spirit and intensity well before she reveals it to the world around her. 

Set in a clever parent-free wilderness setting, this book is smart, funny and just what fans of Rainbow Rowell are looking for.  Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from library copy.

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