King of Ragtime: The Story of Scott Joplin by Stephen Costanza

Cover for King of Ragtime.

King of Ragtime: The Story of Scott Joplin by Stephen Costanza (9781534410367)

Released September 14, 2021.

Scott Joplin was a child who loved to listen to the sounds around him rather than using his own voice. He was the son of a man who was once enslaved. Their home was full of music with his father fiddling, his mother playing banjo and singing, and his siblings playing instruments too. Scott played the cornet. To find work, the family moved north to Texarkana where Giles found work laying tracks for the railway. Scott’s mother found work as a housemaid for a wealthy white family who happened to have a piano. When Scott came along to help, he saw the piano and started to play when he had time. Eventually, the Joplin family was able to purchase a piano for Scott and traded housework for lessons. Scott loved learning about the piano and music, but most of all he loved composing his own songs. He played all over town, and eventually made his way north to play in saloons and eventually in Chicago where he heard ragtime for the first time. Scott went to Sedalia, Missouri where he went to college and composed music. He tried to get his songs published and finally found a man willing to take a chance on a Black unknown composer. That’s how “Maple Leaf Rag” became a national sensation.

Constanza’s writing is full of rhythm and talks about music throughout. From his mother singing hymns to his family playing together to learning piano to getting work playing and composing, the entire book dances along to the importance of music in Joplin’s life. The writing also incorporates lots of sounds like the chirping of cicadas, the swish of brooms, the plink of the piano, and the OOM-pah! The writing is full of energy and tells the story of Joplin’s life with style.

The illustrations are bright and full of color and light. They have elements of quilts that fill the ground with patterns. The skies are blue with swirling clouds that dance in the sky. The towns are full of colorful buildings. Everything is inspiration for Joplin’s music, from the trains to the chickens to the flowers to the towns. It all comes together into one warm and bright world.

A jaunty and rhythmic biography of a musical legend. Appropriate for ages 5-8.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Atheneum Books for Young Readers.

Hurricane by John Rocco

Cover image for Hurricane.

Hurricane by John Rocco (9780759554931)

The boy who narrates this story of a hurricane has a neighborhood dock that he loves. No one ever uses it except for him. It’s old, splintery and weathered, and just perfect. He can fish from the dock, catch crabs and swim. One day when he returned home from the dock, the air felt different and his father was putting boards over the windows. A storm was coming. The winds were big enough to shake the whole house and the river crept up the street. The next morning, the boy headed back to his dock, ready to fish. But his neighborhood looked different and the dock was destroyed. The boy asked everyone for help rebuilding the dock, but they were busy fixing their homes. So he knew he had to do it himself. Day after day, he worked on the dock all alone. Just when he was about to give up, help arrived. The whole town helped rebuild the dock into something that they could all share.

Caldecott-Honoree, Rocco, continues his exploration of natural disasters with this third book following Blizzard and Blackout. Rocco captures the joy of being near water, both when you have a treasured place that you can use alone and when it’s bustling and shared. The connection with nature is evident throughout the book, with the unnamed protagonist taking solace during the storm by imagining himself under his dock. The hard work the boy does to get his special place back is then supported by the community and shows the power of helping one another.

Rocco’s illustrations are full of sunshine and water at first. They show how the boy loves his time at the dock. Then the storm comes and Rocco has captured the unique lighting of pre-storm hours and then the darkness that descends. The devastation afterwards is realistic and dramatic, with trees down, shingles on the ground, and a flooded road. The moment that the boy sees his dock is particularly heart-wrenching and also a moment of resilience.

This picture book celebrates nature and community even in moments of devastation. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Little, Brown and Company.

The Robber Girl by Franny Billingsley

Cover image for The Robber Girl.

The Robber Girl by Franny Billingsley (9780763669560)

The Robber Girl was rescued by Gentleman Jack when her family abandoned her. Now she is riding with him and his gang into the Indigo Heart to rob the stagecoach and get Gentleman Jack the bars of gold it carries so he can regain his birthright. Robber Girl has her own dagger, double-edged and sharp, that speaks directly to her in a pointed way that criticizes many of her choices. But the stagecoach is actually a ruse to capture Gentleman Jack. Now for the first time in her memory, Robber Girl is staying in a home. She is dedicated to rescuing Gentleman Jack from the jail, assuring him that she will never turn on him. At her new home, she discovers a dollhouse that is a miniature of the house, one with dolls who talk with her and set her three tasks. As Robber Girl stays longer, she starts to remember scraps of local songs, melodies and the truth, but the dagger’s voice stays just as pointed in her head, insisting that she keep it all forgotten.

The author of Chime returns with a middle grade novel that is a tremendous read. The Robber Girl is one of the best written unreliable narrators I have seen in a book for children. She fully believes what she has been told by Gentleman Jack, though readers will immediately realize that there are holes in the stories. As both the readers and the girl find clues to her past, the largest puzzle of the book is the girl herself and whether she can recover from denial and trauma enough to set her own course before being swept away again by the lies.

Billingsley has written great secondary characters as well. Gentleman Jack is tremendously charming and manipulative. The judge, who takes the girl in, and his grieving wife have real depth to their characters and their stories. They add another look at coping with loss and trauma to the novel. Even the children of the village, who may seem to be bullies, have other levels to them and reveal them over time. It’s an exquisite look at trauma, faith and belonging.

A stellar middle-grade novel that is a tantalizing puzzle of trauma and truth laced with a touch of fantasy. Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Candlewick.

Chez Bob by Bob Shea

Cover image for Chez Bob.

Chez Bob by Bob Shea (9780316483117)

As a rather lazy alligator, Bob comes up with a great plan to get birds to fly right up to his mouth. He opens a birdseed restaurant on his nose. After seasoning his birdseed with his favorite spices, so the birds would taste delicious, news soon spread about his restaurant among the bird community. Soon a small town grew around Chez Bob. Bob wanted to support the community, so he coached the bird basketball team and joined a book club. When a large storm came, Bob offered all of the birds shelter in his mouth. This was his perfect opportunity to eat them all! But he could hear them laughing and talking together and then looked around the empty town. He knew what he had to do.

Shea’s books are always a delight. This one contains just enough adult level humor that parents will enjoy reading it to their children multiple times. Just the book club page alone had me guffawing aloud, and there are lots of moments like that. While Bob may start out as a villain, I agree with him that hero isn’t too strong a word by the end of the story. There is great delight in watching Bob decide what he should do, all for the community good that he accidentally created.

Shea’s illustrations are large and bold, full of bright colors. They feature all sorts of little birds who come to Bob’s community and to Chez Bob too. Bob’s own scheming face is a delight as he plots to eat the birds. By the end though, the scheming grin turns into a genuine smile.

A delicious and sharp-toothed book about the transformation of a villain. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

News to Wake Your Brain Cells – September 10

CHILDREN’S BOOKS

17 children’s books by Latinx authors worth adding to your kid’s bookshelf – PopSugar

41 Canadian picture books to watch for in fall 2021 – CBC

Children who read regularly more likely to do better in school and in life – WTMJ

Lauren Tarshis’s ‘I Survived’ series for kids tackles hard topics like 9/11, war and disasters – OC Register

LIBRARIES

Abolitionist library workers want library access for all. That begins with getting cops out. – In These Times

Boston Public Library hit by cyberattack – NBC 10

New PLA survey illustrates critical digital role played by public libraries – Publishers Weekly

Save Our Libraries: ‘libraries should be communal living rooms for people across Scotland’ – The Scotsman

T-shirt asking, ‘What’s more punk than the public library?’ raises $100K for D.C. branch – The Washington Post

Why have libraries gone fine-free the past few years? – Intellectual Freedom Blog

YA LIT

12 best dystopian books for teens – Cultured Vultures

Confessions of a vintage young adult book reader – Arizona Public Media

Bright Star by Yuyi Morales

Cover image for Bright Star.

Bright Star by Yuyi Morales (9780823443284)

Morales returns with her first picture book since her remarkable Dreamers. A fawn awakens in the desert, alive and bright. The fawn and its mother walk across the landscape, past lizards, jackrabbits, cacti and more. Sometimes, the fawn must lie low and hide so that it is safe, ducked low down among the spikes of the cacti. If the fawn feels afraid, it must shout it out loud, stuck at the endless concrete wall with barbed wire on top. The fawn isn’t alone. When rain comes, it offers secrets of the desert as it bursts into bloom, full of imagination. Just right for the fawn, or child, to realize that they are a bright star in our world.

Written in a combination of English and Spanish, this book speaks to the experience of children who have immigrated to the United States, whether through the desert and the past the wall or in another way. It is also a more universal celebration of children and their positive impact on the world, serving as a source of hope and opportunity to move beyond where we are now. Morales’ writing is beautifully simple and yet also evocative. Her weaving of the two languages is particularly striking.

Morales uses a wide variety of media in her illustrations. She uses handmade wool yarn from Oaxaca to weave words and textures. She used textures from photographs of concrete and fencing. She also created the amazing texture and feel of the children’s faces in the book using a photograph of a baby’s arm at a migrant shelter in Sonora. The entire book has an energy around it that calls us to pay attention to what is happening at the border and to children there.

Powerful and striking, this book calls for justice by showing the beauty of the people caught in the broken system. Appropriate for ages 4-7.

Reviewed from copy provided by Neal Porter Books.

I Am Smoke by Henry Herz

Cover image for I Am Smoke.

I Am Smoke by Henry Herz, illustrated by Merce López (9780884487883)

Told in first person by smoke itself, this picture book celebrates the many ways in which smoke appears. It’s around every campfire, forming from burning branches into a mist of carbon dioxide, water vapor and ash. Smoke can be dangerous but it can also be helpful, used to warm seeds into germination. Smoke can clear insects out of structures and make bees sleepy. It can also communicate, used for centuries around the world to send signals and emerging from incense during religious ceremonies. It can flavor our foods and act as a medicine at times. It returns to earth when it rains, ready to feed the forests and then start the cycle again.

Told in simple sentences, this picture book also shares scientific information. In a book that can be used with small children, there are marvelous science details too that will inspire some children to look at smoke differently. The uses of smoke are shared on the pages, each one highlighted and celebrated as the book continues.

The illustrations capture the wonder of the campfire and other flames. What is done best though is the way that the smoke itself is depicted. Sometimes it reaches fingers onto the page, other times it fills the page with white vapors and still others it darkens the scene. The smoke is layered and full of movement, beautifully shown in each image.

A fiery look at smoke and its impact on our world. Appropriate for ages 3-6.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Tilbury House Publishers.

I Can Help by Reem Faruqi

Cover image for I Can Help.

I Can Help by Reem Faruqi, illustrated by Mikela Prevost (9780802855046)

Zahra loves to volunteer to help a boy in her class. Kyle has problems with reading, writing, cutting and gluing. Kyle is great at drawing and other things though. As Zahra helps him, she discovers that he is generous, funny and kind too. Then one day, when Zahra is swinging high on the swings and seeing the new colors of the leaves, she overhears some girls saying mean things about Kyle. She stops swinging and one girl asks her why she volunteers to help Kyle anyway. The next day, the girls stare at Zahra as she is asked to help Kyle cut some paper. Zahra makes a poor choice and stops helping Kyle, telling him to do it himself. Zahra has become a mean girl that she doesn’t even recognize. The next year, at a new school, Zahra has a chance to make different decisions and do better, and that’s just what she does.

The author of Amira’s Picture Day returns with a book based on her own experience as a child. It’s a look at a child who longs to be helpful but allows peer pressure to lead her away from who she sees herself being. The bullying nature is written so accurately, not overblown into something but kept slick and insidious. Zahra’s own response is honest and real, the shame of acting that way and not seeing a way forward. This book could have turned didactic very quickly and nicely shows a child making her own decisions and coming out of it having learned something about herself and who she intends to be.

The illustrations offer a diverse classroom. They use plenty of white space while expanding to larger images at times too. The children’s faces are done very effectively, showing a wide range of emotions.

Sure to create opportunities for discussion, this picture book gives space for children to make mistakes and recover from them. Appropriate for ages 4-7.

Reviewed from copy provided by Eerdmans.

In the Wild Light by Jeff Zentner

Cover image for In the Wild Light.

In the Wild Light by Jeff Zentner (9781524720247)

Cash doesn’t have much in his small Appalachian town, but what he does have, he loves. He loves spending time with his Papaw on the porch even as Papaw struggles to breathe due to his emphysema. He loves time out on the water in his canoe, which is how he helped his best friend, Delaney, make a scientific discovery of a lifetime. Delaney uses that discovery to secure them both full scholarships to an elite prep school in Connecticut. Cash agrees to go with her, knowing that he will struggle to keep up and will feel entirely out of place among the rich students. Cash doesn’t count on the power of words and poetry to keep him afloat as well as new friends. But even they may not be enough when Papaw takes a turn for the worse.

Zentner is an award-winning author and his writing here is truly exceptional. In Cash, he gives us a natural poet who looks at the world through metaphors and connects readers directly to the beauty of Appalachia. Both settings, Appalachia and Connecticut, are captured with such astute clarity and powerful wording that readers feel as if they are there seeing the light, the trees, the weather, and feeling it all in their chests. There is also a direct emotionality to the writing that reveals Cash’s struggles, his self doubts, his loves and allows readers to see his path forward long before Cash allows himself to.

The characters push back against every stereotype. Cash is a deep thinker, connected viscerally to the place where he came from, and a deep feeler who connects directly to those he cares for. It is easy to see why Delaney wants him with her. Delaney herself is a scientific genius, full of sarcastic wit and a directness in her speech that offers just the right amount of offset to Cash’s rich language. The two best friends that they meet offer diversity to the story and also a clarity that prep schools can be full of interesting people worth loving too.

Brilliantly written, full of great characters and insisting that poetry changes lives. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Crown Books for Young Readers.