Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer
Jam has been taken by her family to The Wood Barn, a boarding school in Vermont for fragile teens. After losing her British boyfriend, Reeve, Jam has been unable to function at all. She just wants to be left alone with her grief and loss. Jam spends her days sleeping and thinking about Reeve and how in only a few weeks their relationship grew into love only to have him die suddenly. At her new school, Jam finds herself selected for a small and exclusive English class where they will read one author for the entire semester. They are also given journals to record their feelings and ideas, old books that look ancient and valuable. As Jam starts to write in hers for the first time, she is transported to a world where Reeve is still alive, where they can spend a brief time together, and where they can relive their experiences with one another. All of the students in the class are having this experience and together they decide to only write in the journals twice a week to make them last, because no one knows what happens to this strange world of the journal when the pages run out. By the end of their experiences in the place they call Belzhar, Jam must face the truths of her loss and her grief.
Wolitzer has earned acclaim as the author of adult literary novels and her short works of fiction. Those skills really show here as she turns what could have been a novel about teenage love and loss into a beautiful and compelling work of magical realism. When I started the novel, I had not expected the journals to be anything more than paper, so that inclusion of a fantasy element thoroughly changed the novel for me. It made it richer, more of an allegory, and lifted it to another level.
Jam, the protagonist, is a girl who does not open up readily. The book is told in her voice and yet readers will not know her thoroughly until the end of the book. It is because of Wolitzer’s skill as a writer that readers may not even realize until the twist comes that the book has even more to reveal. Jam is also not particularly likeable, and I appreciate that. Instead she is lonely, prickly, eager to please and complex. That is what makes the novel work.
This is a particularly deep and unique novel for teens that reveals itself slowly and wondrously on the page. Appropriate for ages 14-17.
Reviewed from copy received from Dutton.
Hug Machine by Scott Campbell
A little boy considers himself a hug machine in this fanciful cheerful picture book. All day long the hug machine goes around giving hugs, because he is simply the best at hugging. He cannot be resisted. His hugs do many things, they can calm you down, cheer you up. He hugs objects, animals, and crying babies. He even hugs things that never get hugged, like porcupines (but not without the proper protection). Huge whales are not too big for him to hug either. What is the secret to his amazing hugging? Plenty of pizza for power and knowing when he is too tired to hug anymore and just needs to be hugged by someone else.
Campbell uses simple text in this picture book, focusing mostly on the action of hugging a lot on each page. He uses repeating structures but always throws in a nice little twist or change up that keeps the book fun to read. The entire book exudes the warmth of a hug and the wry little touches of humor add to that feeling. I must also say that having a book with a male character who loves being hugged and giving hugs is refreshing. It’s also a pink book about a boy, hallelujah!
The art in the book is wonderfully warm and cozy. It captures not only the loving hugs of the boy but the various reactions by the things being hugged. Readers will find that the text often does not match what is happening on the page, making for more comic moments in the book. After all this is the hug machine telling the tale, so he thinks people are a lot more excited to be hugged than they may actually be.
A loving and hug-filled book that avoids being too sweet and instead is a bright cheerful picture book perfect for sharing. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy received from Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
Half a World Away by Cynthia Kadohata
Jaden was adopted from Romania four years ago. He knows that he’s a huge disappointment to his adoptive parents, who had expected a much younger child than the 8-year-old who came off the plane. Jaden gets angry sometimes and shows it in destructive ways like burning his stuffed animal. He also hoards food, particularly bread. He is obsessed with electricity and can’t seem to stop his bouts of aggressive running that always end with him hurting himself. Now his parents are heading to Kazakhstan to adopt a baby from there. But Jaden knows that he is being replaced by this new baby, a way to fix the failure that he has been. When the family gets to Kazakhstan though, the baby they had chosen has already been adopted. Now they have a new baby to try to bond with and it doesn’t feel right to any of them. Meanwhile, Jaden has met a toddler named Dimash who is three years old and barely talks. Jaden feels an immense bond with Dimash, but his parents say that they came for a baby. For the first time, Jaden starts to feel a powerful emotion that is not pure rage. The question is what he can do with this newfound love.
Kadohata gives us a completely unique novel for children. The point of view of an adopted child is not new, but one this troubled and angry in a children’s novel is a powerful new voice. As a character Jaden is a study in complexity and contradictions. His emotions are constantly high, but he mainly feels rage. He has never felt love, but manages to make connections with people that are meaningful for them. He is not a stereotype in any way, wildly human and profoundly troubled.
Yet Kadohata allows us to live with this boy without fixing him, without changing him, just allowing him to grow before us. While Jaden does have a therapist and it is clear he is getting all the help his parents can find, that is not the focus of this book. It is not a book about repairing the damaged child, rather it is one that gives that child a voice. That’s courage in writing.
Strong, marvelous writing allows this book to be a stirring tale of love in its many forms. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Atheneum 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.
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
Eleanor is the new girl at school. She is different from everyone else with her bright red hair and men’s clothes. Park has gone to this school forever, he knows everyone on the bus and just wants to keep his head down and be ignored. But Park can’t ignore Eleanor when she is standing in the aisle and needs somewhere to sit. So he lets her sit by him. They don’t talk though, until he notices that she is reading his comics too. Their relationship slowly grows and they start talking together only about comics. Eleanor doesn’t want to talk about her horrible home life that had her kicked out of the house for a year. Park doesn’t want to scare her off by pushing. Little by little, this becomes a book about first love between two teens who didn’t fit in anywhere else. Little by little, this book steals your heart too.
I honestly don’t think I can voice how good this novel is. Rowell writes with such truth and passion through the entire book that it makes your breath catch at times. She does not turn away from the most horrible parts of being a teen, bullying, family crisis, the stumbles on the way to a connection. These are the moments that cast the others in such light, that make the others shine and dazzle.
Eleanor and Park both narrate the story in turns. That decision was critical to this book, allowing each teen to talk about what they love about the other and the amazement they feel that someone likes them too. The two characters are so different, from such differing backgrounds. They are living people, ones who enter your dreams because you feel like they are part of you.
Her book is just like first love. It is stunning, honest and raw. It is unforgettable. Appropriate for ages 15-18.
Reviewed from library copy.
Little Cub by Olivier Dunrea
The author of the Gossie books returns with this companion book to Old Bear and His Cub that explains the way that Old Bear and Little Cub met. Little Cub lived all alone near the forest with ono one to take care of him. He was often hungry and slept alone and cold outside. Old Bear lived alone too. He had plenty to eat and a warm place to live, but no one to share it with. Then one day, Old Bear heard odd noises coming from a pile of rocks. It was Little Cub, trying to sleep curled into a ball. It was Old Bear who named him Little Cub and Old Bear who took him home, gave him food, tucked him into a warm bed, and promised to teach him how to fish. And it was Little Cub who filled up that empty bed so that neither of them had to be alone any more.
This is such a warm story. Showing the way that Little Cub and Old Bear came together to be a family is honey rich. Dunrea takes him time showing the parallels between the two bears’ lonely lives. Though they are different in age, in being able to care for themselves, they are alike at heart and searching for something new.
Dunrea’s writing is simple but also cheery. Though it explores a child alone in the cold wilderness, one doesn’t worry because there is a sense of safety throughout. Children will understand the hunger and chill and also that level of joy that is clear. A large part of this are the illustrations that show blustery winds but also have the security and solidity of Old Bear right there too. He is the hope for Little Cub, one that radiates across the pages.
Fans of Dunrea will enjoy this new series and those who read the first in the series will cheer to see Old Bear and Little Cub return. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy received from Philomel.
I Haiku You by Betsy Snyder
This diminutive book is filled with equally small haiku poetry. Each poem is a celebration of either love for someone else or a warm moment in time. There are poems about warm soup, purple popsicles and lemonade. Each one is a tiny look into a universal and noteworthy moment. Turning from one page to the next, the book manages to avoid being overly sweet through its humor and the sense of joy that pervades it. In other words, these are far more organic and natural poems than Hallmark ever manages to create. Instead these are wonderful little gifts of haiku that are invitations to celebrate the small moments of life that we share with one another.
Snyder has created illustrations that are equally warm and special. Done on cream paper, the illustrations have pops of purples, oranges, reds and yellows but still have a softness. The result is a book that is cheery and warm.
A perfect Valentine’s Day gift, this book should also be useful as an introduction to the haiku format. Or one could just curl up at bedtime and share some short and lovely poetry. What better way to create beautiful dreams? Appropriate for ages 4-7.
Reviewed from copy received from Random House.
The Yuckiest, Stinkiest, Best Valentine Ever by Brenda A. Ferber, illustrated by Tedd Arnold
Leon has a crush on a girl, so he makes her a construction paper heart for Valentine’s Day. But when he tries to put the valentine into an envelope, the valentine runs away insisting that Leon can’t tell Zoey Maloney that he loves her! In fact, the valentine thinks love is “mushy and gross and just plain YUCKY!” He says that Valentine’s Day is not about love, but about candy. Soon Leon is chasing after the valentine, trying to get him to stop. They pass a group of boys, a group of girls and a group of teens before finally coming to Zoey Maloney herself, and a valentine that she has made for Leon. Maybe Valentine’s Day is about more than candy after all?
Ferber marries Valentine’s Day and the pacing and style of the Gingerbread Man together very successfully in this book. This is a book about crushes and valentines that is far from being too sappy. It is full of humor, action and lots of silliness, mocking the entire idea of love and then in the end turning around and seeing that life (and Valentine’s Day) is sweeter than candy.
Arnold’s style plays perfectly with this story. His swirling lines add to the motion and action. His characters are always clearly showing emotion and the large-headed child characters have an endearing quality to them.
This is one Valentine’s Day book that will appeal to boys and girls alike, those with crushes and those who are just looking for candy. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Dial Books.
Charley’s First Night by Amy Hest, illustrated by Helen Oxenbury
Pure bliss, that’s what this book is. This is the story of Henry who brings Charley, a new puppy, home. When they get home, Henry makes sure to show Charley all around his new home, even showing him where his mother hides the birthday presents. Henry’s parents inform him that he’s the one in charge of walking Charley and feeding Charley. Henry is thrilled and can’t wait to do those things forever. Then there’s the discussion of where Charley is going to sleep. Henry knows that Charley wants to sleep in his room, but his parents want Charley to sleep in the kitchen. Henry worries about Charley alone in the kitchen, but goes about setting up a pillow, a bear to keep him company, and a ticking clock for a heartbeat sound. Henry stays with Charley until he falls asleep, but Charley doesn’t stay asleep for long.
Hest’s writing here is so dazzling. She captures perfectly the swooning adoration of a child with a new puppy. She shows the instant connection, the small memorable moments together, and the communication and understanding that flows. Henry loves Charley with a purity that is piercing and Hest’s text makes it all the more real and true. She uses quiet repetition and brings the reader into the intimacy of this new relationship, allowing them to notice the small things that Henry is seeing and feeling.
Oxenbury’s illustrations are classic and lovely. They lift the story up, making it feel all the more timeless. There is a beautiful warmth to her art that works particularly well for this subject. The small images of Charley eating, romping and even making a mess will be sure to charm.
Two master picture book creators have come together to give readers a radiant book about the first love of child and puppy. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from library copy.
Every Day by David Levithan
A wakes up as a different person every morning. All A knows is that it is going to be someone different and somewhat nearby the last person. After living life this way for 16 years, A has gotten used to it and doesn’t know any other way of life. A can jump into either a girl or a boy, straight or gay, abused or adored, each day is completely different and each life and family exists for just a day. There is freedom in this life but also loneliness. A has rules, trying not to do any damage to the person whose life is being borrowed, trying to pass tests and live a normal day. But then A meets Rhiannon as A spends a day in her boyfriend’s body. The two of them spend an amazing day together at the beach, skipping class. A is in love for the very first time, but how can a person who moves from body to body even go on a first date?
This beautifully written book is told in the first person from A’s point of view. The concept of the book is immensely strong and makes for a read that is so strong and vibrant that it lingers with you and you think about it afterwards. A is an amazing character whose life is wildly different from our own and yet it’s a life that also sheds light on what we should be celebrating as we live our more stable lives. A manages to show how truly broad human experience can be. Moving from body to body, there are no longer judgments about straight and gay, race or religion. It is all about being immensely and breathtakingly human.
Levithan also examines many facets of being human, from family ties and relationships to being different in profound ways to self acceptance. His writing is a gorgeous mix of fast-paced storytelling and lingering thoughts. It is in those moments where he puts words to love, life and being human that his writing is transcendent.
A strikingly bold concept, a vibrant main character who is impossible to define and amazing writing make this one of the best teen novels of the year. Appropriate for ages 15-18.
Reviewed from digital review copy received from NetGalley.