Month: November 2013

Review: Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

counting by 7s

Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan

Willow Chance didn’t fit in well at her elementary school, so she is attending a middle school across town which none of her previous classmates will be attending.  But Willow is just not made to fit in with others.  She does fine with her adoptive parents who are accepting of her obsession with gardening and medical conditions as long as she doesn’t tell them everything since that would make them worry.  And one of the things she doesn’t tell them is that the middle school thinks that she cheated on a major standardized test because she got a perfect score.  So she is sent to counseling though Dell, the school counselor has no idea what to do to help her.  Two siblings who also go to see Dell have their own ideas though and that is how Willow comes to be out driving with Dell and the others when she finds out that her parents have been killed in a car accident.  Now Willow has lost her parents, her home, her garden and her will to explore.  This is a story that is about community, building your family one person at a time, and the wonder of what having people in your life that care can do.  It is the story of the amazing Willow Chase.

Sloan’s writing verges on verse at times with its short lines, lined up neatly and speaking profoundly and honestly.  It is writing that examines and explores but also moves the story forward at speed.  It is imminently readable with plenty of white space and few if any dense paragraphs of text.  Rather it has a wonderful lightness about it, even when describing tragedy.  And this book is filled with loss and grief that is handled with a gentle depth.  Yet it is also a book filled with joy and overcoming odds and inspiration. 

Sloan creates not just one incredible character in this novel but an entire group of them.  At first the book seems disjointed with the various perspectives shown, since we get to see things not only from Willow’s point of view, from the other teens, but also from the adults as well.  But those disparate parts come together in a way that a book from just Willow’s point of view never could have.  They add an understanding of Willow’s appeal to others that would not have been possible without it.

This is a tragic story with an indomitable heroine that will leave you smiling through the tears.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from library copy.

2013 Costa Book Awards Shortlist for Children’s Books


The 2013 Costa Book Awards Shortlists have been announced.  The Costa Awards are one of the UK’s most prestigious literary awards.  They are given annually in five categories with the winners in the five categories going on to vie for a single top win as best book of the year.  Here I’ll just focus on the children’s book shortlist:

Alex, the Dog and the Unopenable Door Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse

Alex, the Dog and the Unopenable Door by Ross Montgomery

Goth Girl and the Ghost of a Mouse by Chris Riddell

The Hanged Man Rises Rose Under Fire

The Hanged Man Rises by Sarah Naughton

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein

Review: Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table by Jacqueline Briggs Martin

farmer will allen

Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table by Jacqueline Briggs Martin, illustrated by Eric-Shabazz Larkin

Will Allen is a farmer who can see the potential where others can’t.  When he sees a vacant lot, he sees a farm with enough to feed everyone.  When he was a boy, he grew up helping care for a large garden that kept their family fed.  But Allen did not want to spend his life weeding and digging in the dirt, so he decided to become a basketball player, and he did.  But then living in Milwaukee, he saw empty greenhouses standing vacant and realized that he could feed people who had never eaten a fresh vegetable.  First though, he had to clear the land and then figure out how to improve his soil so that something could grow there.  That was the first time that the neighborhood kids helped out, bringing compost items to feed the worms.  Slowly and steadily, a community garden emerged and Will Allen taught others to be farmers too.  His Milwaukee farm now gets 20,000 visitors a year so that others can learn to grow gardens where there had only been concrete. 

I had seen the documentary, Fresh that includes Will Allen as part of the film about new thinking about food.  So I was eager to see a picture book about this inspiring figure.  It did not disappoint.  Martin captures the natural progression of Allen’s life from child eating from the garden to farmer giving other children that same experience and spreading the word about what is possible in an urban setting.  Martin’s tone throughout has a sense of celebration of Allen and his accomplishments.  She captures his own inherent enthusiasm on the page.

Larkin’s illustrations are striking.  Each could be a poster for farming and urban gardens on their own.  Combined into a book, they become a celebration of this large man with an even larger dream.  The colors are bright, the textures interesting and the image backgrounds evoke farming and nature.

This picture book biography is a visual feast that invites everyone to its community table.  Librarians and teachers in Wisconsin should be particularly interested in adding this to their collection, but it will hold interest in urban and farming areas across the country.  Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from copy received from Readers to Eaters.

Review: Year of the Jungle by Suzanne Collins

year of the jungle

Year of the Jungle by Suzanne Collins, illustrated by James Proimos

Collins, author of The Hunger Games series, takes on a completely different writing challenge in this autobiographical picture book.  Suzy’s father is sent to fight in Vietnam when she is a little girl.  He will be gone for a year, but Suzy isn’t sure exactly how long a year is.  At first, her father sends lots of friendly postcards, but over time they change.  He even mixes up her birthday with her sister’s something he would never have done if he was home.  The the postcards stop altogether and Suzy catches a glimpse of the war on TV.  She starts to forget what her father looks like and is scared of many things.  Then suddenly, her father is home.  But he doesn’t look the same and doesn’t act quite the same either.

This book is so timely for children dealing with deployments in their own family.  Collins writes directly from her childhood persona, delving right into the fears that haunt children, the loss of control and the lack of contact.  It is her writing that makes this book work, her honesty about her emotions and the frankness with which she grapples with the challenges of having a parent fighting overseas.

Proimos’ illustrations are cartoony and rough.  The most successful are double-spreads that take on Suzy’s fears directly, placing them on a black landscape that is filled with tanks, animals, helicopters, and more.  They emanate danger and contrast directly with the more colorful other pages.

Though the book is about Vietnam, it has a universal message for children left behind worried about a deployed parent.  Timely and honest, this is a book that belongs in every public library.  Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from copy received from Scholastic Press.

Review: The Great Trouble by Deborah Hopkinson

great trouble

The Great Trouble: A Mystery of London, the Blue Death, and a Boy Called Eel by Deborah Hopkinson

Things have been a lot worse for Eel in the past, he now has a place off of the streets where he can sleep safely and he only goes to the River Thames to dig for things to sell to make ends meet.  He has serious responsibilities that he keeps entirely private.  It helps that he faked his own death to get Fisheye Bill Tyler off of his trail.  But Eel still keeps his street smarts and listens, so he knows that Fisheye is back after him.  Then in the summer of 1854, his entire world turns upside down and the Great Trouble begins as the Blue Death of cholera comes right into his neighborhood in London.  Everyone knows that it is spread through the air, but one doctor, that Eel does small chores for, thinks differently.  Now it is up to Eel to help the doctor prove that it is the water that carries the disease before hundreds more die.

Celebrating the visionary Dr. John Snow on the 200th anniversary of his birth, this book successfully mixes historical fact with historical fiction resulting in a dynamic book with engaging characters.  At the outset of the book, Hopkinson takes care to make sure that readers understand what living in poverty and parentless was like in Victorian England.  She shows the filth, the danger, the loneliness and the skill that it took to survive. 

Eel is a wonderful protagonist.  He is incredibly smart, driven to help those he cares for, and a mixture of brave and desperate, something that keeps him at the center of this medical mystery.  Hopkinson does a great job of keeping all of her characters true to the time period, offering no modern sensibilities into the equation, but presenting it just as it would have been. 

This is a dark and thrilling novel that will not let you escape until the epidemic is over and the mystery solved.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from Random House Children’s Books.

Review: Battle Bunny by Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett

battle bunny

Battle Bunny by Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett, illustrated by Matthew Myers

Gran Gran has given Alex a very saccharine sweet birthday book filled with bunnies as a gift.  But Alex is clearly not a fan of the original book since he takes his pencil and makes lots of changes so that it’s a book that he wants to read.  Birthday Bunny is turned into Battle Bunny, complete with helmet, utility belt and walkie talkie.  His goal is to unleash his evil plan on the forest and the world that only a boy named Alex can prevent.  Expect danger, cut-down trees, epic battles and much more as Alex tries to defeat the evil that is Battle Bunny!

Told and drawn in layers, this book is something very special. First you have the rather sickly sweet story underneath that celebrates Birthday Bunny’s birthday with lots of dancing and balloons.  It’s silly, friendly and pure sugar.  Over the top of that comes the brilliance of the writing of Scieszka and Barnett who manage by changing a few words in every sentence to make an entirely different story.  Most sentences just have a few words changed, but others towards the end are more edited to really let the story flow.  It works so well that one can forget the words underneath until you eye snags on one and you just have to read a bit of the silly story that has been edited. 

Myers’ art is equally successful.  He takes a dance scene and deftly turns it into an epic battle but one where you can still see the dancing underneath.  On some pages little comics are added in the white space so that more story can be told.  The cutesy nature of the underlying story is captured in his illustrations and one can feel the glee with which he reworked them just as a little boy would.

These three gifted book creators truly channeled their inner children to create this book.  It is funny, smart and immensely creative.  Appropriate for ages 4-7.

Reviewed from copy received from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.