I Know a Bear by Mariana Ruiz Johnson
A little girl gets to know a bear who comes from somewhere that he calls The Land of Bears. Breakfasts there are sweet as honey, the land is vast, and the rivers are lovely for swimming. Even the naps are better there, they go on for months. But he can never return there, since he is in a zoo. So the little girl has an idea, something that will let him feel a connection with the wilderness and something that she can set free. It’s a powerful idea too.
Johnson tells this story in very short sentences, which one might think would be terse but instead feel slow and Zen-like. It is a book about a girl who is forging her own connections with animals, making her own decisions too. There are no adults in the story, just one little girl and one huge hairy bear. It is a book about small choices making a big difference in the world. It is simple and luminous.
Johnson’s illustrations have a wonderful light touch to them. The pages with the huge bear can be dark and filled with fur, but then the book opens to a new page filled with white and lightness. They are studies in contrast but also create a book that is a joy to read through with changes of feel from one page to the next.
An empowering story about one little girl and her connection with one big bear and the beauty of freedom. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from e-galley received from Edelweiss and Schwartz & Wade.
Turtle Island by Kevin Sherry
The author of I’m the Biggest Thing in the Ocean returns with a picture book all about friendship. Turtle is very big but Turtle is also all alone and getting lonely. Then one day, a ship wrecked near him and he rescued a bear, an owl, a cat and a frog from the ocean waters. They climbed aboard his shell and Turtle supplied them with fish to eat. Happily, Owl could knit, Bear could build, Frog could cook, and Cat could draw. The four quickly went to work and created a home aboard Turtle. Turtle wasn’t lonely any more. One might think the book would end there, but instead the four smaller animals got very homesick and missed their families. They had to return home, leaving Turtle all alone in the big ocean again. What is a big lonely turtle to do, especially now that he realizes the importance of having good friends?
Sherry has a way with simple storytelling. He manages to convey complicated emotions using a combination of his storyline and his illustrations. Here the impact of having friends is looked at with humor and through a unique relationship of a huge turtle and characters riding on his back. It’s a very nice metaphor for needing to support friends in different ways.
As with all of Sherry’s books, his cartoony illustrations are child friendly and add to the humor. They keep this story from becoming overly sweet, showing goggle-eyed animals in different colors and always clearly showing that Turtle is simply huge.
Gently funny, simple and honest, this picture book is a friend to any story time on friendship or turtles. Appropriate for ages 2-4.
Reviewed from library copy.
Absolutely Almost by Lisa Graff
The author of A Tangle of Knots returns with a brilliant new protagonist in her new novel. Albie doesn’t get good grades, in fact he was asked to leave his private school and is going to be starting public school instead. Albie isn’t the best artist. He isn’t the best at anything at all. Except maybe at eating doughnuts for breakfast. But when he changes schools, things start to change for Albie. It could be the great new babysitter he gets, since his parents are very busy. Calista is an artist and she thinks it’s OK that Albie reads Captain Underpants books even though he’s in 5th grade and that he sometimes needs a break from school. It could be math club, that starts each day with a joke and sneaks math in when Albie isn’t paying attention. It could be a new best friend, Betsy, someone he can talk to and joke with and who doesn’t get mad when Albie gets confused. But things aren’t all great. Albie’s other best friend is appearing on a reality TV show and suddenly Albie gets popular at school, risking his friendship with Betsy. Albie has a lot to figure out before he knows exactly what he’s good at.
Graff’s writing here is stellar. She writes with an ease that makes for a breezy read, yet it deals with deep issues along the way. Thanks to her light touch, the book reads quickly, never bogging down into the issues for too long before lightening again. Still, it is the presence of those deep issues that make this such a compelling read. The fact that the book deals with so much yet never feels overwhelmed by any of them is a wonder and a feat.
Throughout the entire book the real hero is Albie. He is a character that is ordinary, every-day and yet is still a delight to read about. His perspective is down to earth, often confused, and he walks right into every social trap there is. He is a character you simply have to root for, a regular boy who is also a hero. He shows that simply making it through each day being yourself is heroic, and a win. The world is filled with Albies and this book shows why they should be celebrated. He’s a delight.
A book with at least four starred reviews, this is a standout novel this year. Get your hands on it and share it with kids. It’s a unique and surprising read, just like Albie himself. Appropriate for ages 8-11.
Reviewed from library copy.
Saving Lucas Biggs by Marisa de los Santos and David Teague
When Margaret’s father is sentenced to death, she can’t believe it since she is certain he is innocent. But this is what happens when someone tries to stand up to the company that owns the entire town. It’s also the company that owns Judge Biggs. The only way that Margaret can see to save her father is to change Judge Biggs’ mind. According to Grandpa Josh, her best friend’s grandfather, Judge Biggs used to be a good person until his father was accused of murder and hung himself. The only person who can change the course of time is Margaret who has to use her family’s forbidden power of time travel. But history resists change and Margaret only has a few days before history rejects her to make the necessary changes to save her father.
De los Santos and Teague have written a book that takes on time travel in a very refreshing way. The idea that history actively resists change and that there is a physical toll on the time travelers makes for frustrating time travel. Yet it feels right and also creates tension in the story at just the right moment. The authors also explore company towns and how workers tried to stand up to unfair business practices. Here there is plenty of action in that fight, including murder and gunfire as well as quiet desperation.
Margaret is a winning character, one who travels in time very reluctantly but is given little choice when she is the sole person who has a chance of saving her father. The story dives into complexity, never making things easy or simple. One aspect of this is the way that redemption is viewed. Characters are seen as changeable, able to be rescued from what happened to them even in their elder years. This book is about getting chances to make the right choice in the end, forgiveness for poor choices earlier, and friendships that stand through time and betrayal.
A rich and vibrant look at time travel, this fantasy will also appeal to history buffs. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from HarperCollins.
Infinite Sky by C. J. Flood
This book begins with the death of a boy but the identity of the dead person is not revealed. We are then taken back to the beginning of summer, three months after Iris’ mother has left their family and just as the travelers come to stay in the field near Iris’ home. She lives with her father and Sam, her brother, who continues to struggle with his mother leaving. Iris starts watching the travelers in the field and becomes friends with Trick, a boy who is easy to talk to and easy to listen to. Tensions start to rise as a theft is discovered and the travelers are blamed for it. The long, hot British summer inexorably leads towards the death of one of the boys, but who is it? Is it Trick or Sam?
Flood’s writing is beautiful and detailed. The setting she creates of the British countryside in summer is one that is so finely drawn that you can see it in its entirety. In fact, you can hear it, feel it, smell it too, so clear and strong are her descriptions. The book’s structure of starting with the tragedy that defines the story adds a great amount of tension. Because the boy who dies is not revealed until towards the end of the book, that mystery is a focus. Yet at times one is also lost in the summer itself, its heat and the freedom it provides.
Flood has also created a complicated group of characters in this book. All of the characters have complicated family lives, whether it is a mother who left or an abusive father. Yet these characters are not defined by those others, they are profoundly affected by it, but are characters with far more depth than just an issue. This is a book that explores being an outsider, falling in love, expressing emotions, and most of all being true to yourself and doing what you know is right.
A perfect read for a hot summer day, this is a compelling mix of romance, mystery and tragedy. Appropriate for ages 12-14.
Reviewed from copy received from Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
This One Summer by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki
Rose goes to Awago Beach every summer with her parents, but this summer things don’t feel quite the same. Rose’s friend Windy is also there and the two of them hang out together just like every other summer. But Rose’s parents are always arguing and her mother won’t go swimming with them at all. Rose and Windy find their own way to escape the fighting, they rent horror movies from the local shop. While they are there picking out and returning their movies, they watch a summer of teenage drama unfold in front of them. This is a summer unlike any others, one where secrets are hidden and revealed and where sorrow mixes with the summer sun.
Done by the pair that did Skim, this is an amazing graphic novel for teens. It deals with that fragile moment in life where children are becoming teens and everything around them is changing. These two girls are suspended in that time during the summer, learning about themselves, about their parents and witnessing events around them in a new way. The use of a summer vacation to capture that moment in time is superb. Yet this book is not a treatise on the wonder of childhood at all. It deals with deeper issues, darker ones, ones that the two girls are not ready to handle yet. And that’s what makes it all the more wondrous as a book.
The art in the book is phenomenal. The two girls are different physically, one a little stouter than the other and both are real girls expressing real emotions. And the larger of the two girls is not the shy, meek one. She has a wonderful sassiness to her, an open grin, and rocks a bikini. Hoorah! The art captures summer days, the beach, what a face of sorrow looks like and how it tears into ones entire physique. Done in blue and white, the images are detailed and realistic.
A glimpse of one summer and what happens during it, this book is about capturing a moment in time, one that is filled with depth, despair and desire. Appropriate for ages 13-16.
Reviewed from digital copy received from
The 26-Story Treehouse by Andy Griffiths, illustrated by Terry Denton
This sequel to The 13-Story Treehouse tells the story of each of the main characters and how they all met. Most of it’s even true! But it’s not that straight forward either because emergencies keep happening, like the sharks in the treehouse’s shark pool eating Terry’s underpants and getting very sick. Thank goodness that Jill can come over and try to have them feeling snappy again soon. Then of course no story is complete without a villain and Captain Woodenhead, the evil pirate makes a great one. Set aside your disbelief heading in, because this rollicking and very funny book will have you believing in plenty of nonsense by the end!
After the first book, I knew there would be more adventures of Terry and Andy, but I hadn’t expected double the number of floors on the treehouse! This book is more of the merry adventures of Terry, Andy and Jill. The flying cats return and many other favorites from the first book make an appearance, but this is a fresh story too, perfect for fans to get even more of the humor and silliness of the series.
Looking for a new series for Wimpy Kid fans, this one has illustrations that break up the text, a similar amount of funniness, and plenty of gross outs too. Appropriate for ages 8-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Feiwel & Friends.
Noggin by John Corey Whaley
Travis died five years ago. Now he’s alive again. But not the same and nothing else is the same either. Travis’ head is now attached to a different body, a healthy body, one not dying of cancer. You see, when Travis was dying of cancer, he and his parents took a huge risk and had his head severed from his body and frozen. Now Travis is one of two survivors of the cryogenic procedure and he has returned to the same home, the same parents, the same friends, but not the same life. His girlfriend is now engaged to someone else. His best friend who had admitted he was gay just before Travis died is now dating a girl and about to move in with her. His mother can’t look at him without crying. And Travis’ room which used to be his haven now is sterile and hotel-like. But Travis is the same except for his body. It was as if he closed his eyes and reopened them. So what is a guy to do? Well, he still has to finish high school, get his driver’s license and of course try to regain the girl. But nothing is simple when you are on a completely different timeframe than everyone else!
Whaley blends immense amounts of humor into his novel. Though Travis’ experience is unique, it also speaks to the universal experience of being a teen, of not fitting in, of making bad decisions, and yet of being vitally alive at the same time. Whaley also cleverly turns the trend of books about dying teens on its head (pun intended). This is a book about life but also deeply about loss, grief and death and how funny it can all be.
What is most surprising about this book is the honesty it has and that through its humor there are deep truths revealed. Whaley deals with the emotions of Travis’ return beautifully like in this scene on page 40 when he sees his best friend for the first time:
He let go for a second and wiped his face with the back of one sleeve before holding me by each shoulder and sort of just staring at me for a while with this expression that I’m still convinced no other person has ever had, a combination of shock, joy, pain, and terror. It was like I could see all his memories of me projected into the air between us, rushing and swirling around and enveloping us both in a nostalgic haze.
This book has tremendous heart and a strong sense of its absurdity. It has depth, humor and cool scars too. Pure teen reading perfection. Appropriate for ages 14-17.
Reviewed from copy received from Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
Where’s Mommy? by Beverly Donofrio, illustrated by Barbara McClintock
Released March 11, 2014.
I am so pleased to see a follow-up story to Mary and the Mouse, The Mouse and Mary! This new book focuses on the daughters of Mary and Mouse. Maria is a little girl who has a mouse for a best friend named Mouse Mouse. The two of them never reveal to anyone else that they know one another because otherwise the mice would either be driven off or have to move. The two girls live parallel lives, getting ready for bed in the same way and both calling for their mothers at the same time. But both mothers are nowhere to be found! The search is on by both girl and mouse to figure out where their mothers have gone. They both look all over their homes, check with their fathers, and ask their siblings. Nothing. Then they notice a light on in the shed and both head directly for it. And if you read the first book, you will know exactly who they will find in the shed.
Donofrio has written a clever parallel story that reveals the lives of two friends. The upstairs downstairs aspect of the book has incredible appeal as does the wee details of mouse life. There are little touches throughout the book that make the text charming and lovely. Her pacing is also adept and keeps the entire book moving along and yet completely appropriate for bedtime reading.
So much charm and style comes from the illustrations. I particularly enjoy looking closely at the world of the mice created from borrowed items from the human home. These little touches truly create a world under the floor that any reader would love to discover or live in themselves. The illustrations are rich with color and details, worthy of lingering over when you aren’t quite ready for lights out.
Beautifully written and lovingly illustrated, this book is a suitable companion to the first. They both stand alone fully on their own, but I’d think that anyone finding out there was another in the series would want to read them both, probably back to back. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from ARC received from Schwartz & Wade.
Five, Six, Seven, Nate! by Tim Federle
This sequel to the award-winning Better Nate Than Ever is one of the strongest second books in a series I have read. After getting cast as ET in the upcoming ET: The Musical, Nate is now living in New York City with his aunt who is also an actress. But Broadway isn’t everything that Nate has dreamed it would be. There seems to be a feud between the video-game creator who is their director and the choreographer. Nate is an understudy and a member of the chorus but he can’t tap dance and is put into extra classes to improve. But there are also high points. Nate has a secret admirer who leaves notes and gifts, and he certain he knows who it is. Nate is also secretly helping another of the ET actors with her lines and they become close friends over manicures. Like any great Broadway story there are twists and turns and some romance too. It’s one hell of a second act.
Federle writes in a way that is so easy to read and creates books that are impossible to put down until the final curtain falls. This ease of reading though is because he is really writing directly for children in a way that is open, honest and speaks to all children whether they are actors or not. Add in Nate’s questioning his sexual identity and you have a book with plenty of depth.
What Federle does best is to create characters who surprise and delight. Nate himself captures this. Nate could come off as a stereotypical actor, but instead because the book is in first person, Nate reveals all of his inner dialogue. Much of which is screamingly funny. But Nate is not the only deep character here. Even tertiary characters are interesting and offer glimpses of how unique they are. Among the secondary characters, there are many who would make great books all on their own. Federle is a master of creating characters and making us care for them.
Bravo! This is a smash production filled with humor and delight. Appropriate for ages 10-13.
Reviewed from copy received from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.