Half a Chance by Cynthia Lord
Lucy and her family have moved often, following her father’s love of new places to photograph. So when they move to New Hampshire and a house on a lake, the moving process is nothing new. On her first day at the lake, Lucy meets Nate, a boy who summers on the lake with his family and grandmother. Nate invites her along to help document the loons that live on the lake and soon Lucy is out on the lake every day. Lucy longs to be a great photographer like her father, who has left for the entire summer on a photography shoot. So she decides to enter a photo contest for youth, the only problem is that her father is the judge. As Lucy sets out to prove her own skill at taking photos, she finds herself on a different parallel journey, one that will reveal new friends, expose difficult truths, and one that is far more important than winning any contest.
Lord has written another exceptional book for middle graders. Lord excels at creating seemingly simple books that open with a premise and then blossom into something far more complex by the end. Here she explores several themes that center on families. There is the deteriorating grandmother who is aware of what is happening but unable to stop it. There is Lucy’s own family that is fractured at times but remains strong. There is a search for approval that Lucy undergoes as well as her own harsh criticism of her work. Through it all, honesty is overarching, an unflinching sense of reality and truth that makes it impossible to look away.
Beautifully written, the entire book is memorable. Lucy is a great character, a strong heroine who has self-confidence issues but is also talented, friendly and warm. She is a rare young character who moves often with her family and yet the book is not about her scars from that transient life. Rather it is about so many other things that that is just a small factor in a rich tapestry of her world.
Brilliant, soaring and honest, this book is another great read from one of the best. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from digital galley received from NetGalley and Scholastic.
Tea Cakes for Tosh by Kelly Starling Lyons, illustrated by E. B. Lewis
Tosh loved spending time with his grandma Honey, who baked him tea cakes. She told him stories of the cakes, dating all the way back to his great-great-great-great-grandma Ida who made the best tea cakes around. But those tea cakes were not for her children, they were for her owners since she was a slave. Sometimes though, she would make some extra cakes for her children to promise that things would change. Honey started to forget things, like where she parked her car and phone numbers. Then one day, she forgot how to make tea cakes. Luckily, Tosh knew just how to help.
Lyons has created a relationship between grandmother and grandchild here that is warm and loving and filled with sweet baked good too. She shows the importance of generation in a family by tying in the history of the tea cakes. I appreciate seeing a boy’s relationship with his grandmother where the boy is also interested in his heritage and being in the kitchen.
Lewis has illustrated the book with realistic watercolors that capture the relationship of the two main characters. He switches to black and white images when family history is discussed and shows the tea cakes on recipe cards too. The entire book is filled with warm colors that speak to the sunny relationship being depicted.
A beauty of a book, this picture book celebrates family heritage, grandparents and the power of food to bring people closer together. Appropriate for ages 5-7.
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.
One Frozen Lake by Deborah Jo Larson, illustrated by Steven Johnson and Lou Fancher
A boy and his grandfather head out on the frozen lake to go fishing. They drill through four inches of ice and set up their canvas ice shack. Inside they open their tackle box and have four watery holes to fish through. Other join them out on the ice and cocoa is shared, but after seven hours they haven’t seen a single fish. They play cards together and wait until night falls then, a fish! A ten incher and a keeper! But the boy has different ideas than a fish dinner. This picture book captures the quiet times spent fishing out on the ice with a loved one. It’s sure to appeal to children who have headed out themselves and waiting those long hours for just one bite.
Larson nicely weaves numbers and counting into her words in this book. One frozen lake, two friends, three bundles of gear, four inches of ice, five hours to wait. Then she starts again from one, building her poetic story upon the foundation of counting. But this is not a counting book, instead it is a celebration of Minnesota winters and family.
The art here is exceptional. The story above the ice is shown in realistic paintings that show with accuracy the relationship between grandfather and grandson. The tones are bright, sun-filled but also cold as a northern winter should be. Below the ice is a completely different world. There the images are done as collages with whimsical old-fashioned touches taken from signs and flyers. The result is a pairing that shows the stark difference between surface and depths.
Growing up on a Wisconsin lake, this picture book brought back many memories of walking the frozen lake and seeing the shanties. It’s sure to do the same for many grandparents and grandchildren. This is definitely a keeper! Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from library copy.
Keeping Safe the Stars by Sheila O’Connor
Pride and her two younger siblings, Nightingale and Baby, live with their grandfather, Old Finn. They live on a remote property that Old Finn calls Eden. But when Old Finn enters the hospital and is then transferred to Duluth for more serious treatment, it is left to Pride to care for her family. She had been taught by Old Finn not to rely on charity from others, so she makes sure to not accept help that she can’t pay for. She also knows that if anyone finds out that they are alone at Eden except for Miss Addie, an elderly woman who lives on the property but can’t care for them, they will be taken into foster care. The three children had already been in care when their mother died, before Old Finn came and rescued them. But even on their remote property, there are people who notice that something is wrong in Eden. The question is whether Pride can keep her huge secret until Old Finn returns or not.
O’Connor is the author of Sparrow Road, which was one of my favorite middle school reads the year it came out. She manages to write books that are ideal for tweens but read more like teen books, with pressing issues and serious consequences. She populates her novels with remarkable characters, adult and child alike. The three siblings here are all unique and read like human beings with their own points of view on everything that happens. Seeing it all through Pride’s eyes is an important part of the story, offering her specific viewpoint and moxie about the entire situation.
Historical fiction, set during the Nixon resignation, this book is about the strength of family, resilience and the power of sheer determination. At the same time, it is also about community and the importance of all of us being connected as neighbors and as a larger people. O’Connor’s writing is beautifully done, gliding and light as life tumbles by unstoppable.
A great pick for middle grade readers, this is the story of an unforgettable family. Appropriate for ages 10-12.
Reviewed from copy received from G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
Grammy Lamby and the Secret Handshake by Kate Klise and M. Sarah Klise
Larry wasn’t very excited when his grandmother came to visit. She invented a secret handshake for the two of them on the very first time she visited. The three squeezes meant “I love you.” His grandma also loved to talk and sew, and that’s what she did much of the time she spent at their house. When they went to church, Grammy Lamby wore a big hat and sang louder than anyone else. She even had big plans for trips they would take together when Larry was older. But Larry didn’t want to go anywhere with Grammy Lamby. The next time Grammy Lamby visited, a storm blew into town and tore a hole in their roof. Grammy Lamby sprang into action, fixing and hammering. It was a whole new grandma from Larry’s perspective. And a whole new hero for him to admire.
The Klise sisters have created a winning picture book here. The hesitance of a child with a relative their don’t see often is captured very cleverly here. The way it is approached honors both of the people in the relationship: Larry is cautious and overwhelmed and Grammy Lamby is friendly and trying very hard to be liked. The use of an emergency to have the two of them come together works well, allowing Grammy to display her real skills and character.
The illustrations have a warmth to them that is wonderful. They have small details that invite readers to linger a bit yet are large enough to work with a group.
A great addition to story times about grandparents, this would also make a good present for any long-distance grandparent to give. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Henry Holt and Company.
The Roller Coaster Kid by Mary Ann Rodman, illustrated by Roger Roth
Zach loves spending time in the summer with his grandparents. They go to the beach, fly kites, find shells, and go to Oceanside Park. The only thing Zach doesn’t like there is the rollercoaster. He waits in line with Grandpa but then always changes his mind at the last moment. Instead, he rides the Big Wheel with his grandmother. Zach knows that the next time, he will be able to ride the rollercoaster. But the next time he visits, everything is different: his grandmother is no longer there. His grandfather is not like he used to be at all. Zach knows one thing that is sure to cheer up his grandfather, and that’s the rollercoaster. But will Zach be able to ride it this one, very important, time?
Rodman tells this story with clarity and gentleness. It’s a story of the deep connection between grandparents and grandchildren and how that connection can help with grief. It is also a story of bravery thanks to love. Children will relate to the connection with grandparents, though the jolly cover may not warn parents that this is a story of loss.
Roth’s illustrations have a subtle vintage quality to them, something that hearkens back to yesteryear though it is solidly set in the modern day. The illustrations of Zach on the rollercoaster are wonderful, showing the fear, the doubt and finally the exhilaration.
A roller coaster book that shows the roller coaster ride of life as well, this book addresses the loss of a grandparent with a shining heart. Appropriate for ages 5-7.
Reviewed from copy received from Viking.
How to Babysit a Grandpa by Jean Reagan, illustrated by Lee Wildish
Done in the format of a how-to guide, this book takes a warm and cheerful look at a grandparent coming to babysit. Except in this book, the child thinks that he is the babysitter. He tells you how to stay quiet when you are hiding from your grandpa and what to feed your grandpa (hint: it involves a lot of ice cream and cookies). Then there are walks to take, entertainment to provide, and lots of playing together. When your grandpa finally announces naptime, it’s time for his nap. Get him a long book to read, and he will be asleep in no time. But since you are the babysitter, you have to stay awake. You can wake up your grandpa later, help tidy the room, and then get ready for your parents to return. Make sure you have some parting gifts for your grandpa, since he’s sure to miss you a lot.
What could have been an overly-sentimental picture book is taken to a sweet and comfortable level thanks to Reagan’s use of the how-to format. I also appreciated that the little boy in the story did not use any of his advice to be naughty. Instead, he took his duties very seriously. Reagan’s writing has a great playful quality to it. It is also writing that reads aloud very nicely, thanks to its light touch.
Wildish’s illustrations have a humor to them that adds to the book. When the book says in a straight-forward tone that on a walk in the cold, grandpas need to be bundled up, she shows us a grandpa so very bundled that he cannot move. In sun grandpas need sunscreen, and the image shows the boy emptying a bottle of sunscreen onto his grandpa’s head. Small silly touches that really make the book fun.
A great book for grandparents to bring to share with their grandchildren, this would also make a great additional to a story time about grandparents. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Alfred A. Knopf.
Kindred Souls by Patricia MacLachlan
Billy has lived on the farm his entire life. He was raised in the sod house that is now tumbled down and covered by weeds. Billy is the center of his grandson Jake’s world, especially their walks around the farm together. Jake gets to see the farm through Billy’s eyes and spend time as his kindred soul. When Billy gets sick, Jake isn’t worried. He knows that Billy will live forever. There’s only one wish that Billy has ever spoken about and that is having another sod house built on the farm. As Billy recuperates in the hospital, Jake and his older brother and sister decide to build a house for him. But the job is huge and Billy is coming home soon. Can they pull off the special surprise?
MacLachlan excels at creating great depth in small packages. This is another of her very short books that plunges readers into a family and immediately takes up space in your heart. There is the beauty of a long life lived on a farm that is almost spiritual. There is a young family that has an elder as their center. And then there are the small moments that create their days and weave together a story that is bittersweet in the best way.
This small book looks at the role of grandparents in the lives of children in a quiet yet powerful way. Billy is the center of the book, since he is the center of Jake’s world. The book, told in the first person by Jake, also explores connections between generations that are strong and true. The sense of kindred spirits is strong but never overplayed. This entire book exudes a quiet strength that makes for a compelling read.
A strong book that would make a great read-aloud (especially by grandparents), this book is a beauty. Appropriate for ages 7-9.
Reviewed from library copy.
Love, Mouserella by David Ezra Stein
Mouserella misses her grandmother. She had to go back to the country, and Mouserella lives in the city. So her mother suggested she write a letter, and she did! The pages are filled with drawings, photographs, and plenty of great details. Though Mouserella doesn’t think there is much to share, she actually finds lots of everyday things to talk about: creating seed parachutes, visiting a museum, experiencing a blackout, and playing with her brother. The story is jolly and warm, filled with homey details, a loving family and the joys of the small things in life.
Stein’s writing and art here create a harmonious whole. The writing is winningly child-like and wandering. Mouserella’s voice is clear and personal throughout, creating a solid base for the book. Stein then embellishes the book with art that ranges from Mouserella’s drawings to photographs of her world. The combination of crayon art with Stein’s own more realistic but still whimsical art makes for a striking read.
This warm, wonderful picture book will be enjoyed by grandmothers and grandchildren alike. It is a perfect accompaniment to letter writing units or story times about grandparents. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Penguin Young Readers Group.
Also reviewed by A Year of Reading.