The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr
Lucy Beck-Moreau was considered one of the top concert pianists. Now at age 16, she has abruptly left the concert circuit and doesn’t play the piano at all. Instead she is attending school just like any other teenager, doing homework, and listening to her younger brother Gus practice his piano pieces. When Gus’ aging piano teacher dies, she is replaced by Will, a young teacher who was once himself a child pianist and recommends plenty of time away from the piano for Gus, including once forbidden video games and TV. As Will balances out Gus’ life, Lucy is drawn to him. Will is older and sophisticated and interested in Lucy herself as both a pianist and a person. This is the story of Lucy’s triumph over grief and loss and her struggle to play music on her own terms and for her own reasons.
Zarr has beautifully captured a family of wealth and talent without lingering overlong on those details. It is Lucy who is the center of the novel, which is told in third person but specifically from Lucy’s view. This gives the book a necessary distance so that readers can view Lucy from a small space and recognize the mistakes that she is making and repeating. Lucy is a wonder of a flawed protagonist, filled with talent yet drawn into destructive situations of her own making, one feels an affinity to her and yet pushed away as well.
It is this strength of the central character that lifts this novel above others covering similar subjects. The writing here is strong and clear, and the story flows with a natural feel that allows Lucy to veer dangerously close to disasters that make the reading that much more exciting. Along the way, a dysfunctional family is on display, showing readers how Lucy came to be the way that she is, and also showing hope for what is possible.
A true mix of hope, music and tenacity, this book is beautifully composed and harmonious with lingering crescendos. Appropriate for ages 14-17.
Reviewed from library copy.
Odd Duck by Cecil Castellucci and Sara Varon
Theodora was a very busy duck. She exercised every day, she swam laps in the pond (with a teacup on her head), she ran her errands every afternoon, she rode her bike rather than flying, and in the evening she quietly watched the stars. She had the perfect life of routine and quiet until a strange duck moved in next door. Chad was not like Theodora. He was an artist who made sculptures out of found objects, he colored his feathers, and he liked dancing and swimming in a wild fashion. When fall came and the other ducks flew south, Theodora and Chad were the only two left. Over the winter, they became fast friends. But when someone implied that one of them as an “odd duck” the question became which of them they were talking about.
Castellucci beautifully tells the story of a duck who is obviously unique and then another duck who is unique as well. Readers will at first think that it is about accepting others who are different from you, but the author has something deeper in mind here. It’s about also accepting that you yourself are the odd duck. As we all know we are!
Varon’s illustrations have wonderful small touches. Make sure you check out the titles on her books, since they are good for an additional chuckle. Her characters are winning and cheery, both so very comfortable in their own skin.
Fun, buoyant and with plenty of depth, this children’s graphic novel should fly off the shelves just like a normal duck. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from copy received from First Second.
Bunnies on Ice by Johanna Wright
This icy read is just right for a very cold winter day, like we have been having here in Wisconsin. One little bunny thinks that she is a champion ice-skater. As a champion, she has to wait for conditions to be just right, even if it means waiting through spring, summer and fall! When the waiting is finally over, she has to eat a big breakfast to prepare. Clothing selection is also important, enough layers to be warm, but not too many. Finally, it is time to skate her adoring fans. She demonstrates her high level of skill, well, almost. The day ends with hot chocolate, a warm bath and a cozy bed. The perfect ending for a champion day.
Wright has created a cheery book about not only ice skating but the wonder of big dreams. It is a delight to find a picture book with a young girl exhibiting such strong self-esteem with no hesitation. Wright nicely weaves in the truth behind the little girl’s dreams. This happens particularly when the actual skating begins and readers discover that she’s not really a champion ice skater.
In her illustrations, Wright creates a cozy world. There is the rabbit’s home inside a large tree that is filled with deep colors that evoke a warmth. This contrasts nicely with the blues of the outdoors and the white of the snow. The entire book exudes a cluttered friendliness and family-centered cheer.
Sparkling with ice and plenty of bravado, this picture book will inspire children to dream big themselves. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy received from Roaring Brook Press.
Chocolate Me! by Taye Diggs, illustrated by Shane W. Evans
The main character of the book, who goes unnamed, is teased because he is different than the other boys in the neighborhood. Compared to the white kids, his skin is darker, his hair more poofy, his nose is wider, and his teeth shine brighter. He returns home in tears, because he wants to fit in. His mother talks to him, telling him how special he is and how perfect he is. She tells him that his skin is like “velvet fudge frosting mixed in a bowl.” She gives him a t-shirt that says “Chocolate me!” and he starts to rethink things as do the other kids.
The focus of this book is self-acceptance and self-love. The universal theme of trying to fit in and feeling different than others will speak to all children. Diggs writes with a smoothness and natural rhythm. The book reads as confident poetry, though it does not rhyme. Evans’ illustrations have a great organic feel as well. They are bright colored, rough lined, and filled with motion.
Share this with a group of children discussing self-esteem or diversity. It will also be one of those books that children pick off the shelves thanks to the sunshine bright cover. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy received from Feiwel and Friends.
Anya’s Ghost by Vera Brosgol
This debut graphic novel tells the story of Anya, a first generation American who has worked hard to fit in at school by losing her Russian accent and blending in with the other students. But she can’t quite manage to be normal. Falling down a well doesn’t help, and discovering a ghost in the bottom of the well isn’t a good start either. But as she befriends the ghost, her life starts to become easier. She gets help with tests, manages to connect with a cute boy she has been watching from afar, and gets clothing and makeup tips too. Everything seems to be looking up, until Anya begins to figure out what is truly happening.
Told in black-white-and-gray illustrations, this graphic novel has a deep appeal. Anya is a girl that readers will immediately relate to. She has insecurities about her body, her school, and herself. The strength of the novel comes in her character which rings very true and is written with a solid humanity. The inclusion of the ghost lends a more fantasy tone to the book, offering an appealing foil to this very real protagonist.
The illustrations are clear and often very funny. Emotions come through nicely and characters are depicted in ways that expand their character beyond the words on the page. Anya is shown as a normal girl with curves, which makes her very relatable. It doesn’t hurt that she is also sarcastic.
The storyline is strong, developing into a scary story that is hauntingly appealing. Appropriate for ages 14-17.
Reviewed from library copy.
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Hattie the Bad by Jane Devlin, illustrations by Joe Berger
Hattie was a very good little girl until she realized how dull it was. Then she became Hattie the Bad, doing naughty but very fun things. The other children loved her, but their parents stopped letting them play with Hattie. So Hattie decided to be good again, perfect even. The parents started pushing their children to be more like Hattie, but then the children stopped playing with her because she was so perfect. Hattie was so very good that she even got an award for being the Best-Behaved Child Ever! When in front of the cameras and asked to speak, Hattie stopped being good for good.
This book is all about being true to yourself and not trying to be what others expect you to be. Hattie strikes a nice balance at the end of the book, being quite naughty, with “just a teensy bit of good.” Devlin’s writing is over the top, adding to the fun and zinging energy of the book. Berger matches that with his great illustrations. Though the cover has a limited orangey palette, the book uses a more full spectrum of color. Nicely, the illustrations have a bit of seventies vibe in them. Readers should have fun watching for the frogs to appear and reappear throughout the book as well as laughing in glee when Hattie turns back into herself.
A naughty girl, perhaps, but a very nice read. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Dial.
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A Very Big Bunny by Marisabina Russo
Amelia is a very big bunny, the largest bunny in her class. She stands out in a crowd, but wishes that she was a more normal size. At recess, no one will play with her because she is too tall for jump rope, her feet are too big for hopscotch, and she is too heavy for the seesaw to work. So she spends recess standing at the edge of the playground, listening to the wind and watching the clouds. When Susannah joins their class, she is the smallest bunny. The children won’t play with her at recess either because she is too low for jump rope, too small for hopscotch, and too light for the seesaw. So Susannah tries to join Amelia at the fence, but Amelia rebuffs her. Susannah though does not give up, and so Amelia slowly transforms into a big-hearted friend for a small bunny. She also learns that it’s not that bad standing out from the crowd.
Amelia is a bunny that I can completely relate to. I was always one of the tallest children in my class, too heavy for the seesaw. And I too had to learn, just as all children do, that it’s OK to be different. In fact, it’s downright essential! Almost every child is different from the crowd in some way, Amelia’s difference is size, but she will be easily related to no matter what difference the reader may have.
Russo’s writing reads aloud wonderfully with its natural cadence. The pacing is wonderful, especially when the friendship between the two girls is developing. I really appreciated that it was slow and steady, making their friendship more real. Russo’s gouache illustrations are filled with bright colors and capture with confidence and ease the differences of the bunnies without making it comical or extreme.
Embrace your inner big bunny and stand out with this book! Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Random House.
Smile by Raina Telgemeier
Based on personal experiences, this graphic novel will speak to those of us who are teenagers and those who have survived that age. Raina just wants to be a normal kid. But one evening, she falls when running, tripping and damaging her front teeth. This sets her on a journey of braces, dental surgery, and headgear. On top of her dental issues, Raina also deals with the normal teen issues of friends, bullies, and crushes on boys. Readers get to watch Raina grow up from a sixth grader to a high school student as she learns about acceptance, self-esteem, and the importance of good dentists.
Written with lots of humor, this book has a feel for what makes being a teenager both funny and painful. Telgemeier’s writing is refreshing and fast paced. Her art is friendly and silly. With her art and writing combined, she has created a book with a fresh feel that has universal appeal. While speaking of her own issues with teeth, she speaks to all of our strange teen situations and what each of us dealt with or is dealing with.
A fresh, funny look at being a teen, this book will easily find a readership and be eagerly passed from person to person. Appropriate for ages 11-14.
Reviewed from Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) where most of the illustrations were not yet in color.
Camille McPhee Fell Under the Bus by Kristen Tracy
Camille is having a rough time as a fourth grader. Her best friend has moved to Japan, and Camille has not gotten a letter from her yet. She has low blood sugar and has to carry extra food to school in a cooler which makes her stand out from the others. Her desk is right under a dangling hornet. And to top it all off, she fell under the bus when she was trying to get on. It’s enough to make someone give up entirely! But not Camille McPhee. Instead she is hopeful that things will get better. She even has a plan to avoid making new friends by acting like a lone dingo. And how could that fail?
Tracy has created a book that is modern and fresh. It speaks to everyone who has been accident prone, or a misfit, or just has days or years filled with things going wrong. In other words, it will speak to everyone. Camille is a great heroine with a spot-on voice that is wry, funny and entirely herself. Throughout the book, we can see Camille grow despite her own best efforts at staying the same. The secondary characters are equally interesting from her warring parents to the girls who just might become her friends if she lets them.
A funny book about self-esteem, friendship and life in general, this book is a winner of a novel. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from publisher.
Check out Kristen Tracy’s website.