Flowers for Sarajevo by John McCutcheon, illustrated by Kristy Caldwell (9781561459438, Amazon)
Drasko sells flowers with his father in the marketplace in Sarajevo. They sell the best roses in the entire city. But when war came, Drasko’s father leaves to fight and Drasko is alone selling flowers. He is pushed out of their usual spot to one at the edge of the market. The only good thing is that he can now hear the symphony playing. Suddenly, the market is hit by a mortar and 22 people are killed. Drasko returns to the market the next day, but all is silent and empty. Then a man with a cello enters the square and sits down to play. For 22 days, he plays, once for each person who died. Around him, the market returns and Drasko works to find a way that he too can be courageous each day.
Based on the true story of Vedran Smailovic, the cellist who played, this picture book focuses on the impact of the bombing and the bravery of the cellist on one boy. Readers will realize that Drasko is brave from his approach to his father leaving and his returning day after day to sell flowers. The power of the music and the musician though brings that bravery into the light and shows how it’s important to be visibly brave for others too.
The illustrations by Caldwell are layered and misleadingly simple. They show Drasko’s loneliness but also his discovery of a community around him that will support him. The illustrations have inset pieces with frames that shatter with the mortar shell and then return to being whole as the story progresses.
A look at war and acts of bravery and art. Appropriate for ages 6-8.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Epic Crush of Genie Lo by F. C. Yee (9781419725487)
Genie has been focused on getting into an Ivy League school. She has perfect grades, plays killer volleyball and is getting help seeming more human in her application essays. But suddenly things aren’t going to plan when her Bay Area town is attacked by demons. At the same time, a new transfer student comes to her school. Quentin is gorgeous and maddening and clearly connected to the demon attack. As Genie learns about her own powers, she also learns about Chinese mythology as it comes to life around her. Quested with removing the demons from her town and the greater Bay Area, Genie uses her superior studying and learning techniques to figure things out. But even her intelligence might be too late to see what is really happening around her.
I adored this book. It has a kick-ass heroine with mythical previous lives and a razor-sharp humor. Yee made a great choice to combine the pressures of getting into a good school with the high expectations when Gods send you on quests. The duality of those roles is cleverly built upon. Add in the genius humor of the Monkey King and his mix of honor, silliness and skepticism and you have the ideal foil for Genie and her hard-working ways.
I was particularly impressed with the way the mythology is presented in the novel. Only once does it become necessarily explanatory and the rest of the time it simply plays out in front of the reader in a natural way. The twist at the end of the book is surprising but also makes sense. It’s exactly what a book should do and the pace is wild and success never assumed.
A perfect blend of high octane fights, high expectations and mythology, this book is unique and clearly the beginning of a great series. I can’t wait for the next adventure. Appropriate for ages 12-16.
ARC provided by Amulet Books.
Mighty Moby by Barbara Dacosta, illustrated by Ed Young (9780316299367, Amazon)
This thrilling picture book tells the story of Moby Dick in a way that children can understand. The sailors sing of their travels and exploits. Then the captain shouts at a whale, giving chase. Finally, they reach the huge beast and send out boats that quietly row to his side. The captain throws his harpoon, spearing the beast who tows the captain down into the deeps. The whale again returns to the surface and then. Then the story takes a little twist away from the classic tale and into more familiar picture book territory: bath time.
In the author’s note, readers discover that the book was made backwards. Young created the art first out of collage and then Dacosta created the text, the words all taken from the original tale except for one. It is quite an endeavor to turn the huge classic of Moby Dick into a picture book. This one works surprisingly well thanks to a clear focus on the whale and the captain and their battle with one another.
As always, Young’s art is superb. He creates true drama on the page here, as can be seen in the cover image. The spearing of the whale introduces scarlet streams of blood onto the page along with the white of the whale and blue water. They dramatic dive into the water, keeps the red tinge to the whale and emphasizes the size difference between man and whale.
An exceptional work of picture book art. Appropriate for ages 6-8.
Reviewed from library copy.
Landscape with Invisible Hand by M.T. Anderson (9780763687892)
The author of Feed returns to dystopian science fiction in this short and thrillingly sharp novel. Adam can remember the time before the vuvv came to Earth. They brought technologies, medical breakthroughs, and new money for the economy. But as everything was replaced with alien technology, it moved behind a pay wall that made clean water, medical treatment and safe housing impossible for most humans to afford. The lucky wealthy humans live in floating cities high above the decaying world. Adam though is trapped on Earth, looking for a way to save his family. He and his girlfriend decide to make films of their lives for the vuvv, but it all has to be 1950’s style romance and nothing kills real love faster than having to produce it on a schedule. As Adam’s romance fizzles, he comes up with one last chance to save his family but his illness from drinking polluted water may take away his one shot.
Anderson’s writing is refreshingly frank. Adam narrates the book with a bleakness that is understandable and exactly the right tone. There is a sense of horror as the book continues; the ramifications of pay walls, levels of society, and the denial of simple necessities ring very true and very close to home. Even without an alien invasion, this could be the future of our society, one that is brutal, unconscionable and desperate. It is the frenzied need to attract the vuvv’s attention that makes this book so riveting. One can’t look away, particularly as the climax becomes so horrifying.
Anderson skillfully places fine art into the mix of the book, giving Adam the gift of art and the decision of what to capture with his old-fashioned paint and canvas. It is art that shows the desolation of Earth but also what might prove to be Adam’s salvation if he is willing to modify what he does for the vuvv.
Get this one into the hands of dystopian fans. It is also short enough at 160 pages that it could be shared in a classroom setting and would lead to fascinating discussions about society today and in the future. Appropriate for ages 15-18.
ARC received from Candlewick Press.
Me and You and the Red Canoe by Jean E. Pendziwol, illustrated by Phil (9781554988471, Amazon)
In this incredible poetic picture book, two children wake up in their tents on the shore of a Canadian lake. Quietly, after drinking some hot chocolate, they head out onto the water with their fishing tackle and rods in a red canoe. Paddling quietly through the water, they see a moose in the shallows, a beaver repairing its home, and hear a chattering squirrel. As the sun rises the light changes and they see an eagle flying and an eagle’s nest. The children start to fish, battling and landing a trout before heading back to the campsite. The morning continued with fish for breakfast for everyone.
Pendziwol is a gifted writer. Her verse bring the Canadian wilderness to life with all of the creatures going about their morning business, the silence of the lake and the wonder of it all. The fishing is a dynamic contrast to the quiet of the morning, the battle with the trout and the final win. It punctuates the book much like the appearance of the animals do, in little bits of delight. Her poetry flows much like the water on the lake, clean and clear, quiet but not ever dull. It invites readers into exploration of their own in canoes and on lakes.
The illustrations by Phil are rough and rustic. They are painted on wood with nail holes and cracks running straight through the pictures. These illustrations suit the entire book perfectly, creating a feeling of natural warmth and timelessness.
A winning picture book for those spending their summers on lakes or those who only dream of it. Appropriate for ages 4-7.
Reviewed from library copy.
Mama Lion Wins the Race by Jon J. Muth (9780545852821, Amazon)
It is race day for Mama Lion and Tigey. Tigey works on their car while Mama Lion reminds him that winning isn’t everything. In fact, she may have spotted just the right prize for Tigey and it isn’t the big trophy. When the race starts, Mama Lion and Tigey are immediately in the lead. Unfortunately though, when swerving to avoid an obstacle, their wheel comes off. Nicely, one of their competitors, the Flying Pandinis stops and helps them repair their car. They are soon passed though by Bun Bun who is scattering seeds as she rides her motorcycle and the Knitted Monkeys who are always a little naughty. As they race toward the finish line, Mama Lion and Tigey have a decision to make. Should they win the race?
Muth is the author of the acclaimed Zen Shorts series of books. It’s a joy to see him use those same ideas and concepts in a picture book about racing that is also about so much more. Muth has embedded Buddhist thought and ideals in this picture book in a way that is natural and never didactic. This is a picture book with a message that is so deeply ingrained in story itself that the message flows and never feels forced. The characters of Mama Lion and Tigey along with the other toy animals are dynamic and complex. This is a rich picture book that turns the concept of winning entirely on its head.
Muth’s illustrations have a zingy energy to them that matches the subject matter beautifully. They are filled with animals that are clearly toys. The Knitted Monkey team is exactly that. The Flying Pandinis are small round stuffed pandas. Mama Lion and Tigey are clearly beloved stuffed animals with whiskers, buttons and of course racing goggles.
A truly special picture book, this one is for those kids who love racing and those who love toys and those who love a great read. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from library copy.
The First Rule of Punk by Celia C. Pérez (9780425290408, Amazon)
Malú doesn’t want to move with her mother to Chicago, even if it is only for a couple of years and not permanently. She knows her mother wants her to be much more of a proper Mexican young lady just like her. But Malú is much more into punk rock and creating zines. When they get to Chicago, Malú finds herself in a very diverse middle school where she manages to violate the dress code on the very first day. As she struggles with the rules of the new school, Malú starts a punk rock band of other kids who don’t fit in. They enter the school talent contest but don’t get any further than the audition and then are rejected for the performance. Now Malú has to channel her own punk attitude to stand up and be heard.
This is such a winning and cleverly built novel that one can’t really believe it’s a debut book. Pérez captures the push and pull of middle school and being a person with unique interests struggling to find friends. Pérez also weaves in the main character’s cultural heritage throughout the book, making it a vital part of the story and playing it against the rebellion of punk rock. That play of tradition and modern attitudes is a strength of the book, allowing readers to learn about Mexican culture and also about rock and roll.
Malú is a great protagonist, filled with lots of passion and energy. She has a natural leadership about her even as she is picked on by another girl at school. Still, Malú is not perfect and it’s her weak moments when she despairs or lashes out where she feels most real. Her zines are cleverly placed in the book, thanks to the skills of the author who also publishes zines.
A fresh and fun new read that blends Mexican Americans with punk rock in a winning formula. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
The winners of the 2017 Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) Book of the Year Awards have been announced. Here are the winning titles and honor books in each category:
OLDER READERS – WINNER
One Would Think the Deep by Claire Zorn
OLDER READERS – HONOUR BOOKS
The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon
Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley
YOUNGER READERS – WINNER
Rockhopping by Trace Balla
YOUNGER READERS – HONOUR BOOKS
Captain Jimmy Cook Discovers Third Grade by Kate Temple, Jol Temple and John Foye
Dragonfly Song by Wendy Orr
EARLY CHILDHOOD – WINNER
Go Home, Cheeky Animals! by Johanna Bell, illustrated by Dion Beasley
EARLY CHILDHOOD – HONOUR BOOKS
Gary by Leila Rudge
Nannie Loves by Kylie Dunstan
PICTURE BOOK – WINNER
Home in the Rain by Bob Graham
PICTURE BOOK – HONOUR BOOKS
Mechanica by Lance Balchin
The Patchwork Bike by Maxine Beneba Clark, illustrated by Van T. Rudd
EVE POWNALL AWARD FOR INFORMATION BOOKS – WINNER
Amazing Animals for Australia’s National Parks by Gina M. Newton
EVE POWNALL AWARD FOR INFORMATION BOOKS – HONOUR BOOKS
A-Z of Endangered Animals by Jennifer Cossins
The Gigantic Book of Genes by Lorna Hendry
CRICHTON AWARD FOR DEBUT ILLUSTRATOR
The Patchwork Bike by Maxine Beneba Clark, illustrated by Van T. Rudd
The Secret Sheriff of Sixth Grade by Jordan Sonnenblick (9780545863209, Amazon)
Released August 29, 2017.
Maverick knows that sixth grade is going to be his year. This year he’s going to make a difference. He’s going to help those smaller than him, if he can find anyone shorter than he is. He’s going to stand up to bullies, particularly Jamie and Bowen, who have tormented him for years. But being a hero is not as simple as carrying the plastic badge that his father left him. Every time that Maverick tries to help, things turn out worse, often for him. He can’t stand up to his mother’s abusive boyfriend, can’t get his mother to stop drinking so much, and can’t seem to stop ending up in the assistant principal’s office. Can you be a hero when your own life is endless trouble?
Sonnenblick’s take on sixth grade is wonderfully dark and funny. He looks straight at bullying in middle school and clearly understands it. This book grapples with serious subjects such as physical abuse, abandonment, alcoholism and the loss of a parent. Happily, Maverick is a character who somehow manages to look at these troubles with a sarcastic wit that allows readers to cope as well. When looked at without Maverick’s lens on things, his home life is not only terrible but dangerous as well. Sonnenblick manages to use humor not to minimize these issues but to allow readers to see them clearly without pity but with lots of empathy.
Sonnenblick’s take on school administration is equally successful. He creates a pair of horrors for students: The Bee who is the terrifying assistant principal and The Bird who is the awful school nurse. The Bee turns out to have a heart of gold and to be aware of what is happening in the halls almost before the students are. The Bird on the other hand wields Lysol spray as antiseptic for cuts.
A triumphant story of a young hero who finds help in unlikely places on his journey. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC received from Scholastic.