Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pena, illustrated by Christian Robinson
Take a ride across town on a bus with CJ and his grandmother. Every Sunday after church CJ and his grandmother get on a bus and take a long ride. Along the way, they meet all sorts of people on the bus. There is a man who is blind, a busker who plays the guitar, teenagers who listen to music on their iPods. CJ longs for some of the things he sees, like his friends who have cars to drive places, the iPods the teens have, and the free time his friends have on Sunday afternoons. But his grandmother sees the beauty in the ride, in the other passengers and in the time they spend together. At the end of the ride, they get off in a poorer section of town and head to the soup kitchen which is ringed by a rainbow in the sky. CJ is glad that they made the trip once they are there.
De la Pena is best known for his young adult books. This is the second picture book he has written. One would never know that this is not his specialty. His wording is just perfect for preschoolers, inviting them along on the journey to discover new things on each page. His words form a tapestry of a community, diverse and dynamic. The journey is about more than just seeing new things though, it is also about seeing them differently and in a positive way. From the rain falling to the poor section of town, they are all reframed by CJ’s grandmother into something beautiful.
Robinson’s illustrations are done in acrylic paint and collage. They are bright, vibrant and filled with people of different colors living happily side-by-side. They capture the busy urban setting with a sense of community that is warm, friendly and fun.
A great journey to take any preschooler on, this picture book celebrates making a positive difference in your community. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai
Born in California, Mai has grown up as a beach girl in Laguna. So she has big plans this summer to spend time at the beach and time with a boy she’s interested in. But her plans have to change when her parents force her to accompany her Vietnamese grandmother back to Vietnam to see if rumors of her grandfather still being alive after the War are true. Mai hates Vietnam immediately, while the food is good and there’s so much of it, it’s also hot, smelly and filled with mosquitoes who love to bite Mai more than anyone else. Mai hides the fact that she can understand the language even if she won’t try to speak it at all. Now she is stuck alone with her grandmother in a tiny village filled with her extended family, dial up Internet access, and a grumpy cousin who seems to only care for her pet frog. Yet as time passes, Mai discovers the beauty of Vietnam, of slowing down and of taking care of family.
Lai has created another wonderful read, this one almost a love letter to Vietnam. She takes readers into the country side and village life, showing first the oppressive heat and lack of modern conveniences, but then revealing in a beautifully natural way that there is much to value perhaps because the days are filled with extra time to be together. The changes in Mai happen organically as she slowly acclimates to her new surroundings and the new society. Nothing is rushed here, even the storytelling is gently done though never dull.
Mai makes a great lens to see Vietnam through, both outsider and relative. Her struggles with the language are cleverly portrayed along with some details about pronunciation in Vietnamese. When she begins to try speaking, the words move to broken English on the page, indicating her troubles speaking the language. At other times, it is Vietnamese on the page. Mai’s growing friendship with her cousin also happens at its own pace and with its own blend of English and Vietnamese.
Rich in details and completely immersive, this novel will inspire travel dreams in those who read it, perhaps to discover their own family roots. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Edelweiss and HarperCollins.
The Secret Hum of a Daisy by Tracy Holczer
Grace can’t stand being near the river, because that’s where she found her mother’s body. It was right after they had argued about moving once again. Grace wanted to stay where she finally felt at home, but her mother wanted to move again. Now Grace has been sent to live with her mother’s mother, a grandmother she has never known. She only wants to return to the family she and her mother had been staying with last, but she has to come up with a plan to escape. In the meantime, Grace starts to find clues to a treasure hunt, similar to the ones her mother did for her every time they moved to a new town. Is it her mother creating a final path for her daughter to find a home? Or could it be that Grace is just seeing patterns where there are none?
Holczer shows great depth and richness in this her first book. In this character-driven novel, she excels at the relationships she builds between her vividly drawn characters. Grace is a character in search of a place to call home, but unable to see a home when it is right in front of her and unable to register the love being shown her. She is complicated in a very organic way, her reactions honest and true. The same is true of the grandmother character who radiates frankness but also regret for what happened over the years with her daughter. She is a very complex adult character, particularly for a book for middle grade students.
Holczer’s writing itself is straight-forward, allowing a sturdy framework for these character to relate to each other within. The writing rings with confidence and Holczer asks deep questions about death, what dead people can communicate to the living, and what makes a family. The answers are not simple and are not easily arrived at. They come about very naturally and one must wait to see what the truths are and where the characters will arrive in this beautifully paced novel.
Rich, organic and special, this middle grade novel offers us all a view of what a second chance at family can be. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Penguin.
Wild Berries by Julie Flett
Clarence has gone berry picking with his grandmother since he was a baby. Now he is big enough to carry his own bucket as they walk and sing. The two of them pick the berries, Grandma looking for the sweet ones and Clarence for the bigger, sour ones that pop. They pick the berries and eat the berries. Then Clarence looks around the woods and sees different insects, spiders, and a fox. It is time to go home, they say thank you and walk back home together.
This book weaves Cree into the story, separating the words out and providing pronunciation information at the end of the book. Even these few Cree words evoke a different feeling, a new rhythm that is powerful. Flett tells a very simple story here about going out to pick berries in the forest. Yet it is a timeless story, one the embraces wildlife, the environment, and giving thanks for the bounty of nature.
Flett’s art is a beautiful mix of cut paper collage, texture and painting. She manages to show the depth of the woods without darkness. She uses bright colors that pop on Grandma’s red skirt and the red sun in the sky. The grass is drawn in individual blades and the tree bark varies from paper art to marker lines. Put together, it is a rich and beautiful book.
Simple, powerful and honest, this picture book celebrates Cree and nature together. Appropriate for ages 2-4.
Reviewed from library copy.
A Special Gift for Grammy by Jean Craighead George, illustrated by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher
Hunter collected a big pile of stones and put them on his grandmother’s porch. When his father and grandmother ask him what she is meant to do with them, Hunter replied, “What everyone does with a pile of stones.” Hunter turned out to be right. Everyone who saw the stack of stones knew just how to use one or more of them. The postal carrier used one to weigh down the mail on a breezy day. Workmen used them as hammers or weights. They are used to stop wheels from rolling and show people what way to turn. When Hunter returned only six little stones were left. But this time it’s Grammy who knows just what to do with them.
I have one big issue with this book: the title. It does very little to convey the charm that is inside this book. I love the idea of a pile of stones that everyone borrows from and uses. Then the end of the book is intensely satisfying. I must admit though that with the uninteresting title, I almost passed on this book, expecting it to be a book about the death of a grandparent or a saccharine poem about familial love. Instead it is a well-designed look at community, family and connections. I’d much rather have had the title reference the stone pile or stones or rocks.
The illustrations are done in collage, acrylic and pencil. They have gorgeous deep colors, combined with lots of texture from the collage. The collage is done in such a subtle way that it is almost invisible, just adding a level of texture and pattern to the paintings.
This book truly is a special gift, but one that could use a new title. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from HarperCollins Publishers.
Grandma and the Great Gourd retold by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, illustrated by Susy Pilgrim Waters
This picture book is a retelling of a Bengali folktale. Grandma was invited by her daughter to visit her on the other side of the jungle. Before Grandma traveled there, she left the responsibility for her garden and home with her two loyal dogs. On her way across the jungle, Grandma met a series of hungry animals: a fox, a bear and a tiger. To each, she explained that she is very thin now, but will be plumper when she returns from seeing her daughter, so they let her go. Grandma had a good time at her daughter’s home, eating lots of food and visiting. But eventually, she had to return home to her dogs and her garden. But how was she to get back? That’s where the giant gourds in her daughter’s garden came in, and you will just have to read the book to find out how.
Divakaruni has taken a traditional folktale and left it wonderfully traditional. The story reads like an oral tradition, filled with repetition, small descriptions, and a story that just keeps on rolling forward like a gourd. She includes noises in the story as well, the khash-khash of lizards slithering over dry leaves, the thup-thup-thup of elephants lumbering on forest paths, and the dhip-dhip of her heartbeat.
Waters’ illustrations are lush and colorful. She uses texture and pattern to create a jungle. The colors range from earthy browns to deep oranges and hot pinks. The cut paper collages have strong clean lines and add a perfect organic feel to the story.
A great choice for library folk tale collections, this is a story that reads aloud well and has just the right mix of repetition, sound and inventiveness. Appropriate for ages 4-7.
Reviewed from copy received from Roaring Brook Press.