Review: Xander’s Panda Party by Linda Sue Park

xanders panda party

Xander’s Panda Party by Linda Sue Park, illustrated by Matt Phelan

Xander is planning a party just for pandas, but soon realizes that he is the only panda at the zoo.  So he changes the invitation to include all sorts of the bears at the zoo.  Then Koala is left out because she’s a marsupial, not a bear.  Xander chewed some bamboo and thought a bit, then changed the party to be for all mammals at the zoo.  After going through several more versions, Xander’s party changed to invite all of the animals at the zoo.  It was almost time for the party to start, when a truck and a crate arrived at the zoo.  It was a new creature for the zoo!  But would it ruin Xander’s updated party plans?

Clever, clever, clever.  This book carefully offers information on animal taxonomy to readers who will not even realize they are learning it thanks to the party-theme of the book.  Park’s writing is so impressive.  When I opened the book to see it rhyme, I must admit that I sighed.  But Park managed to created a rhyming book that is not written in stanzas.  She instead builds whole paragraphs that read like rhyming poems and make the rhymes work throughout the sentences.  It is a smart way to approach a book that harnesses the rhyme rather than galloping away with it.

Phelan’s art is entirely brilliant.  His lines have a looseness that really works, creating whole settings in just a few lines.  All of the animals have their own unique personalities.  I particularly enjoyed the rhino glaring from behind his wall and the montage of the different types of bears.  There are small touches throughout that add humor and coziness to the story.

A book that has science mixed with a message of inclusiveness, this is one has mass appeal.  Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: The Real Boy by Anne Ursu

real boy

The Real Boy by Anne Ursu

The author of Breadcrumbs has returned with another beautiful fairy tale.  Oscar was taken in by the last known magician, Master Caleb, and in return works for him as his hand.  That means that Oscar manages the harvesting and preparation of the many herbs and plants Master Caleb uses in his magic.  Oscar is very happy with his life below the shop, accompanied only by the cats that live there too.  The only problem is Wolf, Master Caleb’s apprentice, who brutally teases Oscar any chance he gets.  But the world around Oscar is quickly changing.  The Barrow, the forest of ancient wizard wood trees that encircles the city, has also begun to be affected.  It may be that the very magic itself is changing too. 

Ursu weaves such beauty into her books.  She lingers over small things, taking the time to build a world in which her characters live.  One examples of this is her description of the Barrow early in the book:

The trees had magic in their leaves, their berries, and their bark.  Plants and shrubs and flowers grew everywhere; purplish-greenish moss crawled on the rocks; improbable mushrooms sprang from the soil in tiny little groves of their own.

The entire book is infused with a sense of rich detail and layering.  Oscar’s own small world below stairs is just as lovingly described and detailed until one longs to be the hand of a magician too and have cats for friends.

Oscar himself is an amazing character.  Because the book is told from his point of view, readers will understand him easily, but Oscar struggles with human beings, emotions and understanding what is meant.  When he is forced out from his snug workspace, the world becomes confusing.  He holds himself stiffly, hates looking people in the eye, and struggles to be social.  Clearly on the autism spectrum, Oscar has unique abilities too, allowing him to see what others do not by paying close attention. 

This amazing fantasy novel is one of the best reads for middle graders this year.  Get your hands on this one!  Appropriate for ages 11-13.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Edelweiss and Walden Pond Press.