Category: Book Reviews

Mark of the Plague by Kevin Sands

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Mark of the Plague by Kevin Sands (InfoSoup)

This is the second book in the Blackthorn Key Adventure series. Christopher Rowe survived his first adventure but now London has been hit by the Black Death, with thousands dying every week. As a young apothecary apprentice with no master, he is barely making ends meet since he is not allowed to sell any cures. Christopher discovers that his master left him some treasure, but first he must follow the clues to it and unravel the codes that it is in. Meanwhile, Christopher’s workshop is broken into yet nothing is taken. As the plague worsens, news of a prophet who can predict who will die from the plague arrives as well as an apothecary who claims to have a cure that truly works. As Christopher tries to puzzle through his master’s clues, he is also drawn into a dangerous situation of plague, death and lies.

I enjoyed the first book in this series with its 17th century London setting, the details of the apothecary trade and the focus on codes and secrecy. This second book in the series continues what I enjoyed so much about the first as well as continuing the broad humor that Sands use to offset the darkness of the subject matter. Still, this second book does have a one sophomore issue where the plot drags in the middle as the codes are working on being solved and the true nature of some of the characters are about to be revealed.

Some of the best characters from the first book reappear while new characters emerge as well. One of the most enjoyable new characters is Sally, an orphan who has escaped the orphanage due to the plague. Once again, people in poverty and orphans are shown as those with strong characters. Sally herself proves herself to be brave and strong immediately when we meet her, then she also shows how very useful she can be. It is her resilience that is remarkable, mirroring what readers will have seen in both Christopher and his best friend Tom.

A worthy second title in this winning series, take a journey into plague-ridden London for an adventure filled with humor and heroism. Appropriate for ages 12-15.

Reviewed from ARC received from Aladdin Books.

 

Eat, Sleep, Poop by Alexandra Penfold

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Eat, Sleep, Poop by Alexandra Penfold, illustrated by Jane Massey (InfoSoup)

This funny picture book about the life of a baby is just right for toddlers and slightly older siblings of new babies. The life of a baby is not easy at all. There’s a lot to fit into the day: eating, sleeping and pooping. If a day gets too hectic though, baby can always cut back on sleep to compensate, much to the chagrin of his parents. Then the routine can go back to normal, filled with eating, sleeping, pooping and plenty of love.

Penfold uses plenty of puns and word play in this picture book that will invite laughter and nods from families dealing with a new baby. The text here is very simple, just enough to keep the humor of the situation at the forefront and allow new siblings to understand that this is what all babies do, all day long. There is a strong focus too on love and support and by the end of the book, the tiny baby has grown into a toddler themselves though their routine hasn’t changed much yet.

Massey’s illustrations underscore the importance of a loving family as the backdrop to the infant’s story. She also includes a dog in the family, one who is displaced by the baby and has to learn to cope with the new focus on the baby. The illustrations are bright and friendly with a doting extended family who all participate in baby care.

A warm and funny look at new infants, this book will be welcomed by families who have their own eating, sleeping, pooping machine. Appropriate for ages 1-3.

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

 

The Pros and Cons of Being a Frog by Sue deGennaro

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The Pros and Cons of Being a Frog by Sue deGennaro (InfoSoup)

Told from the point of view of a boy who loves to dress as animals, this lovely picture book embraces differences between people. The boy first tried to dress as a cat, but was chased by a dog. Then he tried a variety of other animals before Camille gave him the idea to try being a frog. He loved it, but frogs are not solitary so he asked Camille to join him. Now Camille is very different from him. She speaks in numbers and science. She agreed to try and was very helpful with measuring for a costume. But soon, she was unable to stand still and the boy yelled at her to stop moving. Camille left. Now it is up to the boy to figure out how to make amends with a girl who is very different from himself.

There is something enchantingly quirky about this Australian import. Just having a boy who dresses as animals and a girl who thinks and speaks in numbers is unique. Then add in the way that the girl uses specific numbers to show her distress, other numbers to say yes and no. This book has lots of levels to it with plenty of room for discussion about friendships, accepting one another’s differences and the importance of communicating even if it’s not easy.

The illustrations add to the appeal. There are the interesting costumes the boy creates for himself. Then there is the language of Camille, which appears as numbers that balance on her hand, fall to the floor, tip and overwhelm, prickle and hurt. The graphic strength of the numbers plays against the softness of the other illustrations, the fine lines swirling into deep colors.

An intriguing picture book that will suit some readers perfectly, rather like a frog suit isn’t for everyone. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from library copy.

 

Goodbye Summer, Hello Autumn by Kenard Pak

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Goodbye Summer, Hello Autumn by Kenard Pak (InfoSoup)

A child wearing a flowing red scarf heads out into the woods on a late summer morning. Branches sway in the cool wind. Animals are out and busy looking for food while others are heading south for the winter. Cozy nests and dens are being crafted too. The flowers are catching the last rays of warm summer sun. There are rumbles of thunder and clouds rolling in. Breezes and drizzle and chill enter the air. Leaves are starting to fall too. The child heads out the next day, into autumn.

Pak’s writing is poetic and simple. He allows nature to have a voice in this picture book. The trees talk about the wind, the animals speak to what they are doing to prepare for cold weather, etc. It’s a lovely way to capture the changes through the living things that are experiencing it first hand. The child too is experiencing the changes in temperature, the clouds, the rain and the winds. There is a sense of being immersed in nature and experiencing changing seasons directly as they change from one to another.

Pak’s illustrations truly make this book spectacular. From the flow of the child’s scarf on the page, marking the wind as it blows to the woods itself filled with strong trunks and tall grasses. The tops of the trees shine with the light of late summer and start to change to early autumn as the book progresses, still filled with the same light and air.

This book is a testament to the beauty of changing seasons, the natural aspects of those changes and the vitality of being outside and being part of it. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from library copy.

 

Unbound by Ann E. Burg

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Unbound by Ann E. Burg (InfoSoup)

This novel-in-verse tells the story of Grace, a girl living as a slave on a plantation. Grace is selected to start work in the Big House, leaving her mother, stepfather and two little brothers behind. Grace is warned by everyone that she has to keep her eyes down and her opinions to herself, not even allowing them to show on her face or in her eyes. But Grace realizes that things are very unfair on the plantation where some people work in the fields from dawn to dusk and white people aren’t even expected to dress themselves. Grace finds it impossible to keep these thoughts deep inside her, and puts her family at risk. So they all flee to try to find freedom, heading deep into the Great Dismal Swamp where the men and dogs hunting them can’t track them.

The author of All the Broken Pieces returns with another verse novel just as stunning as her previous ones. Here she shares a piece of history that many don’t know about, slaves who found freedom by living deep in the Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia and North Carolina. The entire book is fraught with dangers from whippings and punishments as a slave to the dangers of reaching possible freedom to the real dangers of the swamp itself.

Told in verse, the poems are in Grace’s voice and it rings with authenticity but also a righteous anger at what is being done to people because of the color of their skin. Readers hearing Grace’s voice will understand her situation and spirit on a deep level. That is the power of poetry, to cut past exposition right to the heart of the person speaking. Burg does this with a simplicity that adds to that power, cutting right through to the core.

Beautifully written, this powerful story tells of the importance of freedom for all people. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC received from Scholastic.

 

Rules of the House by Mac Barnett

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Rules of the House by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Matt Myers (InfoSoup)

Ian loves to follow the rules while his sister Jenny breaks all of them. So when they go on a trip with their father to a cabin in the woods, Ian loves that there is a list of rules on the wall. Jenny though, ignores the rules, breaking each one of them. The final rule is not to open the red door, which Jenny does. Nothing happens. Until later that night, when the mud-tracked bear rug, the dirty bathtub and the empty woodstove come into the children’s room. At first, Ian flees while his sister is captured by the monsters. But he returns to try to help her. But it may mean breaking the rules!

This book is a delight. It’s a riff on classic horror movies as well as Bluebeard with the forbidden door in an isolated house. Barnett keeps the tone light at all times, making sure that the book is just frightening enough to give shivers but not too frightening for young readers. The focus on following rules is turned on its head with the culmination of the story and learning that sometimes rules are meant to be broken in the right circumstances.

The art by Myers is dark and atmospheric. It plays up the horror motif with long shadows, a scratched up red door that looks like things have tried to break in, and objects that look like monsters even before they fully emerge as monsters. The long moment after the door is opened is drawn out even farther by the full double page spread, showing the quiet house. Wonderful timing!

A great just-right scary read for Halloween that is just creepy enough to enchant. Appropriate for ages 4-7.

Reviewed from library copy.

 

They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel

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They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel (InfoSoup)

A cat walks through the house and the backyard and is seen by different people and animals in their own unique way. The child sees a very friendly cat, the mouse a terrifying creature with huge teeth, the fish sees a watery figure, the bat sees the space the cat takes up, and the worm sees the vibrations of the cat through the earth. Each creature perceives the cat in a different way. Even the cat itself, as it heads to the water, is about to see itself in a personal way.

This very simple book offers a fascinating look at perception and the ways that each of us sees and views the world around us. The repeating first line of “The cat walked through the world, with its whiskers, ears and paws…” keeps the book clearly focused and adds an important stylistic component. The book also celebrates imagination as children can start to see the unique ways not only they view the world but can imagine the ways that other creatures see the world in such a different way. The idea of perspective is also introduced, particularly from the cat itself, a flea riding in the cat’s fur and the bird flying high above. There is plenty to discuss in this book and it invites investigation and learning.

The illustrations are a critical part of the concept, showing how an insect’s eyes see the world in a very different way. They also capture not only how an animals sees but their relationship with the cat. The dog sees a lean and almost whiplike creature. The fox sees a juicy round animal. This use of both physical perspective and personal perspective is very cleverly and clearly done.

A book to generate discussion, I can see this being used in conversations about differing points of view as well as art classes on perspective. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from copy received from Chronicle Books.