I Will Never Get a Star on Mrs. Benson’s Blackboard by Jennifer K. Mann (InfoSoup)
Mrs. Benson gives stars on her blackboard for things like spelling, neatness and raising your hand. Rose though, struggles with all of those things. Plus she isn’t good at math, her voice is too quiet for a star in reading, and she spilled snack on Mrs. Benson. Rose had been distracted by the artist who came to speak with them and dreaming of all of the things that she could create. At the end of the day, there was going to be a check for desk neatness, and Rose knew that she would never get a star for that. Mrs. Benson didn’t quite reach Rose’s desk that evening, so the next day Rose came in early and cleaned her desk. Then they got to make thank you cards for the artist who had visited, but doing art was messy and Rose undid all of her cleaning. At the same time, Rose had made an incredible card and who knows maybe art was a way that she could finally get that star!
Mann captures the pressure that a student who does not conform to classroom norms can feel. Rose desperately wants to do what is right, but none of the qualities that Mrs. Benson wants come easily or naturally to her. The presentation of someone to inspire her to do her best on something that she is definitely good at makes for a natural turning point in the book and allows Rose to continue to be herself all the way to the end. This is a celebration of artistic children who may lack in social graces but make up for it in boundless enthusiasm and creativity.
Mann’s illustrations make the book very kid-friendly as does the subject matter. The friendly round-headed characters are shown in a variety of ethnic backgrounds. Rose stands out in the illustrations with her bright-colored clothing and then the fact that at the artist presentation she is standing and listening rather than sitting. It all shows that she is a vibrant kid, filled with so much zing that it would be impossible to contain her.
A celebration of kids who don’t fit into classrooms easily, this picture book celebrates creativity and being yourself. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Princess and the Pony by Kate Beaton (InfoSoup)
Princess Pinecone is the smallest warrior in a kingdom of warriors. For her birthday, she wanted something other than the cozy sweaters that she usually got. After all, warriors want something that make them feel like champions, not cozy sweaters. So Princess Pinecone asked for a real warrior horse, a grand steed. Unfortunately, what she got was a round little pony who ate what it shouldn’t and then farted too much. The day of a great warrior battle was approaching and Princess Pinecone just asked her pony to do its best. Everyone was fighting with one another and Princess Pinecone stayed at the edge waiting for her opportunity to join in. When Otto, a huge warrior, charged right at her, he was stopped by the cuteness of her pony. One by one all of the fierce warriors stopped to look at her pony, to pet it and hug it. Otto admitted that warriors rarely get to show their cuddly side. And that’s how Princess Pinecone found a use for all of her cozy sweaters and appreciation for her cutest of ponies.
The author of the online comic Hark! A Vagrant has released her first picture book and it’s stellar. First, let’s just applaud a picture book that has a tough heroine at its center, one who uses spitballs, wants to battle, and is looking for a real steed to ride. Second, the book also has other strong female characters, women warriors on the page who are already living the life that the princess seeks. Third, they are also different races. It’s lovely and done without fanfare. Then you also have the fact that the princess is feminine and cute herself. She does not have to reject that part of her to be a warrior. And finally of course you have the cute pony that manages to win a battle in its own way. This book is all about being yourself, whoever you are and the magic that happens when you do just that.
Beaton’s illustrations add so much to the appeal of this book. I love that the pony is a zany cute with eyes that sometimes don’t look in the same direction and a penchant for farting. Round and sturdy, it is impossibly cute. The warriors are also wonderful in their own ways, wearing different types of armor with missing teeth and green hair, they are individuals to the core. And yes, there’s even ice cream at the battle, adding the sense of merriment throughout.
Funny and intelligent, this picture book will have any warrior princess clamoring for more. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from library copy.
Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson
Astrid and Nicole have been best friends for years, but something is changing. When Astrid’s mother takes them to see roller derby, Astrid immediately wants to do it. Nicole is more interested in doing her ballet camp. Without telling her mother that Nicole won’t be helping with carpooling, Astrid starts at roller derby camp. There she discovers that there is a lot to learn about roller skating, hitting and friendship. As Astrid struggles to keep up with the more advanced skaters at the camp, she finds herself dreaming of of being the star of the roller derby. As junior high and the roller derby show near, Astrid has to figure out how to handle her new budding friendship without losing it to jealousy and how to be a strong teammate.
Jamieson is a roller derby girl herself, so the skills and hard work depicted in this graphic novel offer plenty of detail and reality. The result is a book that shows how hard you have to work to be successful and the determination it takes to stand up over and over again after you fall down. At the same time, the tone is realistic, and does not overdramatize learning new skills and being part of a rough sport. The tone is always realistic and honest.
That same tone continues in the depiction of the friendships that Astrid has. The two friendships, one that Astrid is growing out of and one that is just beginning, are shown in all of their fragility. Astrid’s own responses are honest and depict the difficulties of a young girl trying to find her own voice and her own place in the world. Many readers will see themselves on the page, whether or not they are derby girls.
Get this one into the hands of fans of Raina Telgemeier! It’s another graphic novel with a strong and funny female protagonist. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Dial Books.
Red: A Crayon’s Story by Michael Hall
A blue crayon labeled as red is not very good at being red at all. His fire trucks were all wrong. He thought more practice might help, but his strawberries didn’t look anything like Scarlet’s. When he tried to mix with other colors, like Yellow to make orange, it turned very green on him. His parents tried to warm him up with a scarf, but it didn’t work either. Everyone had advice for him, like just trying harder or sharpening himself to a new point. Nothing made any difference. Then he made a new friend who asked him to make an ocean for her boat to sail on. Red protested at first because oceans aren’t red, but then agreed to try. And suddenly he realized that he had been blue all along!
Told in symbolism that children will immediately understand, this book works on a variety of levels. It can inspire children to be who they really are on the inside and to be true to that and not the labels that society puts on you. Others will read it as a metaphor for being gay or transgendered and I think it works beautifully for that as well. Perhaps the best praise that can be given this book is that it can mean so many different things to people.
Hall’s artwork is simple and lovely. His various crayons are different heights and have wonderful color names that range from more normal colors to “Cocoa Bean” and “Hazelnut” and “Grape.” They all have something to say too, helpful and not-so-helpful alike. But they are Red’s community and children will see in them things that are said to people who are different in some way.
A celebration of inner diversity, this picture book is all about accepting and celebrating our differences. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy received from HarperCollins.
Geek Girl by Holly Smale
Released January 27, 2015.
This British import is hilarious, geeky and great fun. Harriet Manners knows that she is not a popular person. She shares too many factoids about things, she doesn’t care about fashion to the point that she took wood shop to avoid going to a fashion event, and she even has a list of the people who hate her. So when Nat, her best friend, demands that she come along to the fashion event, Harriet knows that she has to. Nat has dreamed her entire life of being a model, something that Harriet doesn’t even start to understand. She’d much rather be a paleontologist and spend her time watching nature documentaries. But everything goes wrong and it is Harriet who is discovered at the fashion show, and now Harriet starts a series of lies and cover ups to keep both her best friend and her step mother from knowing anything about her being discovered. Modeling is hard when you’ve never walked in heels before, when you don’t know the rules and when you are sitting next to the most gorgeous boy you have ever seen.
Smale has managed to give us a perfect mashup of geek and Next Top Model in this novel. Harriet is an unforgettable heroine, someone who is awkward in the extreme, entirely herself, and uncertain about who she wants to be. She is bullied by a classmate even as she is being discovered as a model. Even as she wants modeling to transform her into someone else, Harriet manages to be a voice for teens who are different, fascinated by facts, think in charts and graphs, and who are different from the rest.
Smale is also deeply funny. Harriet has wonderful asides that reference geeky movies and books. Her father and step mother have the most marvelous arguments, ones that read like a real argument when things stop making sense and have plenty of zinging comments. Best of all, the arguments don’t end their relationship but somehow form a basis for it. The writing throughout is clever and witty, making it a book that is impossible to put down.
The first book in a trilogy, this book came out in the UK in 2013 and was nominated and won several awards. It certainly lives up to the hype with its wit, strong heroine and inherent joy. Appropriate for ages 13-15.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Harper Teen and Edelweiss.
Extraordinary Jane by Hannah E. Harrison
Jane lived in an extraordinary world at the circus, but she was just an ordinary dog. Her mother could do tricks on the back of horses. Her father could lift an elephant. Her brothers got shot out of cannons and her sisters performed on the high wire. But Jane didn’t do any of that. She tried to find her own special talent, but nothing seemed to work. She even managed to cause some disasters along the way. Jane was just ordinary, but in her own quiet way she was very special too.
Harrison has created a quiet heroine in her picture book. This book will speak to dog lovers but also to children who feel that they don’t live up to their older siblings. It is a story that celebrates kindness, supportiveness and just being yourself whether that is loud or quiet, flashy or subtle. The setting of a circus was an inspired choice, offering the most contrast between a regular dog and the daredevil family she has.
Harrison’s art is wonderfully detailed. She offers spreads of the entire circus and its three rings filled with action. The dogs fur is shown in individual hairs, the wrinkles on the elephants are striking, and the perspectives are engagingly diverse.
For all of the quiet stars out there, this amazing dog will be inspiring for them to just be themselves. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy received from Dial.
Henny by Elizabeth Rose Stanton
Henny was born just a little different than all of the other chickens. She was born with arms instead of wings! Henny liked her arms sometimes like when they flapped when she ran. Other times, she didn’t like her arms. Sometimes she liked being different and other times it made her feel sad and lonely. Henny had to worry about different things than other chickens like gloves or mittens. She tried to fit in with the other chickens, but she was always different no matter what she did. Then one day, she caught a falling egg and started to see how many ways she could use her arms and hands.
Stanton has captured exactly what it feels like to be distinctly different from others and the transformation that can occur when you realize the good parts of being unique. The text of the book is simple. She uses humor throughout the book to make sure the spirit stays light, even during Henny’s darker moments of doubt.
The watercolor illustrations are also quite funny. I particularly love the image of Henny running with her arms flapping behind her and that being one of Henny’s favorite things about her arms. By the end of the book, you are almost surprised to see other chickens with wings since the arms suit Henny perfectly.
A great pick to start discussions about being different, the light touch here keeps the subject approachable. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.
Love Monster by Rachel Bright
Love Monster lives in a world filled with soft and cuddly pastel animals and everyone loves them. But no one loves a red, googly-eyed monster who isn’t so cute. So Love Monster decides to head out and see if he can find someone who will love him despite not being cuddly. Love Monster searches and searches for someone like this. He even thinks he’s found them, but then discovers that he has not. He’s just about to give up, but learns some things are worth working hard to find.
Bright does an admirable job of creating a book that has a very large message without it consuming the story too much. She uses a narrator voice that is strong and individual which helps keep the book from becoming to sweet as well. Love Monster is a great character, primarily because he isn’t a complainer and refuses to just settle for a life alone.
Bright’s art is bight and large. Love Monster pops against each pastel page with the pages getting darker colored as the story progresses. Finally, night has fallen and the stars come out in a black sky and Love Monster pops there too.
Monsters and love, sounds like a great Valentine’s Day book for little monsters. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy received from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Mo’s Mustache by Ben Clanton
Mo just got a brand new mustache in the mail! But when he shows it to all of his friends, they all get their own mustaches and soon it isn’t special anymore. So Mo decides to wear a striped scarf instead and leave his mustache off. Then all of his friends get scarves too. Mo loses it and shouts at his friends, demanding to know why they are copying him. Everybody explains to him that he has a great sense of style, so they like to imitate him. Mo had never thought of it like that. So he sets up a fashion show where everyone can show off their own sense of style. And you will never guess what Mo wears to the party!
Clanton’s writing is brisk and brightly funny. He uses dialogue from the various monsters to tell much of the story and each one has an impressively different voice and tone from the others. It all makes this book a treat to share aloud. It is also a book that celebrates being yourself and having your own personal style.
The art is modern and zany. Mo himself has a star on the end of his tail, other monsters are furry, still others are tiny with just one eye. They are all clearly individuals from the start and so it is a treat to see how they all use the new accessory in their own unique way.
Clever, smart and full of zest, this book will have you picking out your favorite mustache and scarf too. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from library copy.
Fat Angie by E. E. Charlton-Trujillo
Angie has hit rock bottom. She tried to kill herself in front of the entire school and now she just wants to make it through each day. She numbs herself with lots of junk food, eating her way past the pain of her sister being held hostage in Iraq and her adopted brother being cruel to her both in public and at home. Her mother is just anxious for Angie to be normal or at least to appear normal to everyone. But Angie’s entire world changes when the new girl is nice to her. KC Romance is not from Dryfalls, Ohio and it is obvious. She is innately cool, something that Angie has never even tried to pretend to be. Best of all, KC sees past the fat and the walls that Angie puts up to the real Angie, the one that Angie herself has never really known was there. Now Angie is inspired to do more and that means big changes both inside and out.
This teen novel deals with all sorts of issues, all focused through Angie herself. There is suicide, binge eating, being overweight, a sister missing in Iraq, cutting, and sexuality. One might think that it all doesn’t fit into a single novel, but it does thanks to the incredible character of Angie. The author writes with a wonderful snarky voice yet one that is ultimately human and smart. She is entirely herself even though she isn’t sure who that is.
I particularly enjoyed the snippets of therapy that are shared along with the therapist’s notes. This is the sort of humor that pervades this book. Yet there is incredible sadness within it as well. There is grief that others don’t share, mean girls that are beyond cruel, and a family that doesn’t try any longer. Angie has a lot to be angry and sad about, but somehow she rises beyond that. Most remarkable of all though is that in this book, she does it herself. And along the way, she helps others rise too.
Beautifully written, dark and wildly funny, this book will have you crying, raging and cheering. Appropriate for ages 15-18.
Reviewed from library copy.