Leila in Saffron by Rukhsanna Guidroz, illustrated by Dinara Mirtalipova (9781534425644)
Leila isn’t sure she likes what she sees when she looks in the mirror, but her grandmother tells her how lovely the color saffron looks with her dark eyes. It makes Leila feel better, but she still sees her skinny arms and knobby knees in the mirror. As she joins her extended family for dinner, she realizes that she smiles the same as her aunt. Leila helps her grandmother make the curry. She heads out to the neighbor’s garden to ask for some cilantro. Everyone congratulates Leila on a wonderful dinner. Before Leila leaves that evening, her grandmother shows her a trunk of silk scarves. They are all the colors of the foods they just worked with, and Leila discovers a saffron one that makes her see herself clearly in the mirror.
Guidroz has created a book centered on a warm and loving Pakistani family. Leila’s concerns with her appearance are addressed by the family in a more holistic way, talking about beauty but also focusing on her skills and her talents. They never make her feel less for having concerns, instead surrounding her with options and choices to really feel more fully herself.
The illustrations are filled with oranges, yellows, reds and deep greens. They also have lots of patterns, filling the page with different textiles. Those colors pop against the simple white backgrounds.
Rich and warm, this book is just like a good curry. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy provided by Salaam Reads.
If I Was the Sunshine by Julie Fogliano, illustrated by Loren Long (9781481472432)
Two master picture book creators collaborate on this lovely book filled with metaphors and using opposites as more than just a concept. On sun-drenched pages, children and animals explore relationships to one another. Using “If I was…” statements, each of the verses delicately explore the inter-connective nature of the world around us. The book moves throughout a day, from morning through to bedtime. It shows various seasons as the book continues too, filling the pages with autumn apples, frozen lakes, and fireflies in the summer.
It is the combination of the art and the words that makes this picture book exceptional. Fogliano’s words are written with such skill. The verses rhyme without any forcing of the meter or the words, made even more difficult by the relationships embedded in each verse. The play of words is so deftly done, each combination is a surprise and a joy as the pages turn.
Long’s paintings are filled with light, whether it is the spark of a firefly or the gold of summer sun. He shows the relationships with various perspectives and cleverly juxtaposes the characters in double-page spreads that one can almost sink into.
A grand picture book that celebrates our world. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy provided by Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
Sparky & Spike: Charles Schulz and the Wildest, Smartest Dog Ever by Barbara Lowell, illustrated by Dan Andreasen (9781944903589)
Sparky has a dog that is black and white. His dog knows fifty words, loves to each strange things, and only drinks from the bathroom faucet. Sparky and his father always head to the drugstore every Saturday night to pick up the Sunday comics. Sparky loves comics and also loves to draw himself. His teacher says that he may be an artist one day, but Sparky definitely wants to be a cartoonist. But drawing is hard, especially getting characters right in multiple panels. The kids at school love Sparky’s drawings, but ignore him otherwise. When Sparky realizes that his dog could make the comic for Ripley’s Believe It or Not, he sends it in along with his drawing of Spike. Eventually, his drawing and caption are published! It’s just the start for the kid whose real name is Charles Schulz.
Lowell deftly depicts the growth of a young artist as he develops his own dream, his own art and a path forward. It is a pleasure to see a young Charles Schulz and his connection to the dog who will inspire Snoopy. His connection to comics from a young age is also fascinating to see as well as his struggles with friendship. The art by Andreasen is cleverly done with a realistic touch that both pays homage to the work of Schulz but also stands on its own stylistically.
An inspiring look at the creator of Peanuts. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from copy provided by Cameron Kids.
Grandpa Cacao by Elizabeth Zunon (9781681196404)
A little girl and her Daddy are making her birthday cake, a chocolate one. As they bake the cake, her father tells her about Grandpa Cacao who lives in the Ivory Coast and has a cacao farm. The book looks at the importance of the right soil and weather to grow cacao as well as the skill to know when precisely to harvest the crop. The process of harvest and then scooping out the white beans, curing them in the ground, and then drying them is shown in detail. All the while, the girl and her father are baking together, the smell and taste of the chocolate bridging the two story lines. In the end, as the cake is finished, the little girl gets a special birthday treat.
Zunon’s picture book tells the important tale of where chocolate comes from and the fascinating process of going from farm to product that is not at all what one might expect. The framing of the chocolate farming process by a girl about to celebrate her birthday with a chocolate cake is lovely. It is strengthened even more by her family connection to the Ivory Coast and her grandfather’s farm. The treat at the end makes that even more firmly and tangible for readers.
The illustrations by the author are cleverly done. The little girl’s world is done in full color collages filled with rich touches of patterns and textures. The African farm is done in a more flat format with the people simply white outlines against the landscape. When the two worlds come together, they both become full color and lush.
Everyone loves chocolate and this book explains how it comes to our tables. Appropriate for ages 5-7.
Reviewed from copy provided by Bloomsbury Children’s Books.
This Was Our Pact by Ryan Andrews (9781626720534)
At the Autumn Equinox Festival, the town sends paper lanterns down the river. Legend says that the lanterns will drift away and end up floating into the sky and become stars. Ben and his group of friends have a pact to follow the river and see if the legend is actually true. But as their bike ride in the darkness gets longer, the kids start to head back home one-by-one. Finally, it is just Ben and Nathaniel, a boy who has been hanging at the back because he doesn’t fit in. Little do both of them know that this is just the beginning of a huge adventure. It’s an adventure that will take them to meet a fisherman bear who is also following the glowing lanterns, to a potion maker who is having a very busy night, and into a cave that happens to be filled with starlight.
This graphic novel is amazing. It has a sense of wonder throughout from the very moment the lanterns are set afloat to the final pages of the book. One never quite knows what is going to happen next, which makes for an enticing read. The world building is well done, the different pieces of the story seeming to not fit until they click neatly into place. The characters are well developed and consistent throughout the book, their decisions making sense as the story progresses. The art is luminous and modern, inviting readers into a marvelous world.
A great graphic novel for elementary and middle grades, it is magical. Appropriate for ages 8-12.
Reviewed from copy provided by First Second.
Waiting for Chicken Smith by David Mackintosh (9781536207712)
A little boy waits for his friend, Chicken Smith, who usually stays at the same beach for the same week in the summer. The boy comes to beach every year and knows it very well, just like Chicken Smith does. Chicken can do all sort of things like ride his rusty bike without any brakes, just using his foot to slow down. As the boy thinks about Chicken Smith and anticipates his arrival, his sister starts to call him, but he is too busy waiting for Chicken to come. He looks forward to spotting whales together like they did last year. But his sister is still calling, so he heads up to the lighthouse to see what she wants. Out in the ocean, they can see a whale together. Maybe Chicken Smith won’t be coming this summer after all. But hanging out with his sister may not be so bad anyway.
This picture book is about a summer friendship and by exploring their connection with one another, the book also shares iconic summer moments at the beach. Finding a buoy, seeing a flying fish, swimming all day. Mackintosh has fully developed the voice of the little boy, who tells the story from his personal perspective. It is his voice that makes the book come alive and that tells of the ache of not knowing when or if a friend will arrive and what that might do to an entire summer vacation.
The illustrations are modern and move from white sand with a clearly hot sun to images of whales swimming in the sea. Macintosh plays with color, using reds, blues and greens to fill some pages while leaving others bleached out.
Ideal summer reading that mixes sunshine fun with summer friendships. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy provided by Candlewick Press.
Nobody Hugs a Cactus by Carter Goodrich (9781534400900)
Hank is a very prickly cactus sitting in a window and overlooking the emptiness of the desert. Occasionally others intrude on his blissful quiet, and he doesn’t respond in a very friendly way. When Rosie the tumbleweed rolls past, Hank ignores her entirely. Hank yells at a tortoise so loudly that the tortoise hides in his shell. Other animals and people pass too, each greeted rudely by Hank. Someone suggests that he needs a hug, but no one wants to hug a prickly cactus. The next morning though, Hank is less angry and more lonely. But what is a grumpy cactus to do? Hank may have a new and friendly idea.
Goodrich has created quite the character in Hank. Hank moves beyond just being rather ferocious and cranky into something more closely approaching sadness and isolation. That shift is the key to this book, one that allows readers to truly start to feel for Hank and his predicament. The use of being “prickly” meaning both personality and having sharp needles is clever handled and not overplayed in the text. The book is engaging and funny with a brisk pace despite being centered on a plant.
The art is done in a desert color palette with sand, rich blue skies at night, and changing clouds and weather. Hank himself is full of personality, grumpy as can be at times while being rather morose at others. Goodrich uses plenty of humor in the illustrations too, particularly with Hank himself.
A great pick for grumpy days when you might be feeling a bit prickly yourself. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy provided by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.
Hair Love by Matthew A. Cherry, illustrated by Vashti Harrison (9780525553366)
Zuri has hair that can do almost anything. It curls all over when she gets up in the morning. She wears it in all different styles. In braids and beads, she is a princess. With two puffs, she is a superhero. Then one day she wakes up and it’s a very special day. Her father is still asleep, so she decides to try to do perfect hair herself. After a little accident in the bathroom, her father joins her. Together they figure out how to get her hair just right, but not without a few mishaps along the way. All in time for her mother to return home!
This picture book celebrates African-American hair. Offering all sorts of styles, the book exudes warmth and self-esteem. Creating an opportunity for a father to try to do hair, makes this book all the more lovely, also adding just the right dash of humor too. The use of modern technology to help is also something you don’t see a lot in picture books. The digital art is full of bright colors, humor and light.
Fall in love with this family and their hair. Appropriate for ages 2-4.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Kokila.
Brave Face by Shaun David Hutchinson (9781534431515)
Hutchinson, author of several amazing novels for teens, shares a memoir of his teen years as he grapples with being gay and having depression. Hutchinson is open from the beginning of the book that it involves a suicide attempt. He states it with great empathy for both the reader and for his younger self. That tone of self-understanding plays through the novel, never allowing himself to become overly self-deprecating. Hutchinson speaks as a person engulfed in a society telling him that because he was gay, he was broken, focused only on sex, and would live a short life probably because of AIDS. Though he had a wonderful best friend, he could not see a future for himself. Along the way, he started to self harm, started smoking to gain a boy’s attention, and sunk deeper and deeper into depression and self loathing. The spiral is filled with pain and darkness, but the book is ultimately filled with hope and a way forward into life.
It is no surprise to his fans that Hutchinson has written a moving and deep memoir. However, it is amazing how far he is willing to explore his life as a teen, how open he is about all of the things he was feeling and experiencing, and how much he shares in these pages. He bares his entire soul here, in the hopes that it will help someone else find their way out of darkness too. I guarantee, it will.
Hutchinson shares how small decisions, individual conversations, new crushes, and tiny moments shape our lives. He is honest about how he damaged several relationships in his life, how he continued to be absent and self-absorbed, and how that too changed as he dealt with his depression. While it is a book of hope, it is also one about the hard work it takes to come back from the brink, how friends and family can help, and how some questions are simply too hard to ask.
Brave, fierce and incandescent. Appropriate for ages 15-19.
Reviewed from copy provided by Simon & Schuster.