Octopus Stew by Eric Velasquez (9780823437542)
Inspired by her grandson’s picture of Super Octo, his grandmother decides to make octopus stew. So the two set off for the fish market where she gets the biggest octopus in the store. The boy gets a warning about octopi on his phone, but she won’t listen to him. She starts the water and gets out the biggest pot when they get home. As the two sit together in the living room, a strange noise comes from the kitchen. The octopus is now so big that it has blown the lid off the pot! It grabs grandmother and holds on to her. Now it’s up to her grandson to figure out how to get an octopus to let go!
Velasquez has won both a Pura Belpre and a Coretta Scott King John Steptoe Award. Here, he writes a layered story that has a gatefold in the middle where the entire story is revealed to be just that, a tale being told. Cleverly, the book can be read both ways either as a story being shared aloud or as a full-on monster tale. However you choose to read it, the book has brisk pacing and plenty of action. It features a Latinx family with Spanish words and phrases sprinkled throughout the text.
The illustrations offer a dynamic superhero feel that works well, since the main character is a superhero fan. The action is captured with plenty of drama and the size of the octopus is enough to pose quite the threat.
Grab this picture book and squeeze it tight! Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy provided by Holiday House.
The Hike by Alison Farrell (9781452174617)
Three girls head out on a hike together. It’s their favorite thing to do. They bring along a notebook, a flag and some feathers. At the beginning, they run as fast as they can, stopping only to eat some thimbleberries. They make leaf baskets to try to bring some berries along with them, but end up eating too much. They get lost, pull out maps and find their way again. They get tired, get carried, and eventually make it all the way to the peak. That’s where they let the feathers go on the wind. Then they head back down and back home.
Farrell captures all of the stages of a hike from the initial burst of energy at being in nature to the discovery of things in the forest to startling deer to making it to your destination after being quite tired by the walk. She adds all sorts of details into her book, offering images and names of some of the most common items children will find on their own hikes. The book ends with images from the notebook brought along on the hike, that show even more information about what the characters have seen and experienced.
The illustrations serve as a merry invitation to join the three friends on their hike. Filled with labels and details, they are worth taking the time to pore over with a child and have discussions about what you may have seen before and what is new. Various animals, plants and birds are labeled on the pages which are also filled with the exuberance and friendship of the three girls as they all take turns leading and solving issues.
Any day is a grand day to take this hike. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from library copy.
Not So Pure and Simple by Lamar Giles (9780062349217)
When Del’s mother starts going to church, she drags him along with her. The only thing that gets Del through those dull sermons is watching Kiera Westing, a girl he’s had a crush on since kindergarten. Even better, for the first time ever, Kiera is single! Now it’s up to Del to figure out a way to get close to her. When he sees Kiera joining a group of other students up at the front of the church, Del joins them, not realizing that he’s agreed to be part of the Purity Pledge, not to have sex until marriage. But maybe this is the key to get Kiera’s attention. He knows that his reputation makes him an unlikely participant, since everyone’s heard about the orgy that happened Freshman year. Del, with the help of a new friend, decides to play the long game and prove his pure intent. Along the way, he becomes friends with the other kids doing the Pledge and finds himself taking their sex-related questions to the sex-ed teacher at school, a class none of the other Pledge kids are allowed to attend. Del is sure he has Kiera just where he wants her, but he has yet to realize that Kiera has to be just where she wants to be too.
I am so pleased to see a book about toxic masculinity with a male protagonist who wakes up to the flaws in his intricate plans just a bit too late. Del is a marvelous hero of the book, filled with personal flaws, intelligent but also conniving. He sees himself as a good guy, but others don’t see him that way and readers will recognize that he’s not being honest with anyone, not even himself. Readers will root for Del even as he is manipulating Kiera and others around him. That is one of the best twists of the book, as readers nod along with Del, they too will realize the way they are seeing women and girls, and the changes they need to make to not be toxic themselves.
The clear writing and varied characters make this a great choice. It is the nuanced way that Giles writes about the church and being a male African-American teenager that adds a rich depth to the book. He offers readers opportunities to learn, to grow and to realize things about themselves without ever being preachy about it.
A frank look at sex, lies and toxic masculinity with a main character to cheer for, despite it all. Appropriate for ages 14-18.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by HarperTeen.
In a Jar by Deborah Marcero (9780525514596)
Llewellyn was a rabbit who loved to collect things in jars. He collected small things from his days like bright yellow leaves in the autumn which would remind him of what he had done and seen. One night when the sunset turned the sky “the color of tart cherry syrup,” Llewellyn went down to the shore with a lot of jars. He gathered the light of the night into his jars and gave one to a girl who came by. Evelyn was amazed to find that the in the jar glowed all night long the color of sunsets. Soon the two of them were gathering all sorts of things in jars like rainbows, the sound of the ocean, and even entire seasons. Their collection got very large, until one day Evelyn’s family moved away. For some time, Llewellyn felt like an empty jar but then he had an idea. He went out one night and collected a meteor shower in a jar and sent it to Evelyn. In turn, she collected the sounds and lights of the big city she now lived in and sent it to Llewellyn. Llewellyn set out on an autumn day to gather a jar for Evelyn and that’s when he met Max, and Llewellyn happened to have a jar for him too.
Marcero sets the tone for this book right from the first page. You simply know that something amazing and magical is about to happen. She does this with simple words that children will easily follow and then also throws in lines like the sky the color of “tart cherry syrup” and “the wind just before snow falls.” Each of these lines creates a beautiful image and moment for the reader, indicating that something special is happening. This continues through the book, reminding readers that it is these moments that make life magical, whether you can bottle them or not.
The art here is tremendously gorgeous. Marcero creates pages of meteor showers, sunsets filled with birds soaring, and entire seasons on two pages that are filled with moments of wonder and amazement, and yet that are also moments we could all have and share. There’s a beautiful tension between the beauty on the page and also the normalcy of it all.
A picture book that shows everyone that these magical moments are there for us all to collect and share. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
Our House Is on Fire: Greta Thunberg’s Call to Save the Planet by Jeanette Winter (9781534467781)
Greta was a quiet girl living in Stockholm until she learned about climate change. Once she heard a little bit about it at school, she started reading and watching films to learn even more. Greta soon realized that the world was in serious danger of fires, floods, droughts and catastrophic environmental change. She was sad and depressed for a long time, then she decided to go on strike from her school to protest the lack of action on climate. She protested outside the Parliament building every Friday, at first alone and then with other students. Soon children around the world were joining the protests. The quiet girl from Stockholm has become one of the leading young voices for climate change in the world.
Winter makes this book not only about Greta but also about climate change itself. As Greta finds her passion for working on climate, readers learn alongside her about the dangers that climate change brings to the world. As with all of her nonfiction picture book, Winter distills the story of Greta into something digestible by small children. Her pages are full of illustrations with words that explain but never become narrative or overwhelming. Her illustrations are bold and fresh, depicting climate disasters in images on the wall, the dangers to wildlife in Greta’s thoughts, and also the resilience and determination it took for Greta to continue to protest when no one seemed to be listening.
A timely and strong biography about one of the most important people working in climate today. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy provided by Simon & Schuster.
When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller (9781524715700)
Lily, her mother and sister move in with her elderly Korean grandmother. In the small town, Lily soon discovers that everyone knows and loves her grandmother, who wears glamorous clothes and tries to offer advice and help to her community. Halmoni has always been special to Lily too, sharing stories of tigers, girls and stars with her and her sister. So when they are heading to Halmoni’s house and Lily sees a tiger out of the car window, she knows it’s from her grandmother’s tales and that tigers are tricksters. As Lily starts to understand that her grandmother is severely ill, she believes that she can help by working with the tiger to release the stories from her grandmother’s jars. The stories emerge and shine in the darkness, returning to the sky as stars and allowing Lily to hear some of the more difficult stories for the first time. Yet, Lily isn’t sure if the tiger is actually real and if the tiger is, can she be trusted to really help Halmoni?
Keller’s novel for middle grade readers explores the complexity of stories both in terms of folklore but also stories of previous generations in a family and the difficulties they faced in other countries and in traveling to the United States. The power of stories themselves is never in question here, shining through as each tale is shared. They connect, explain and inspire. But stories here are also hidden, carefully kept from others so that their pain need not be shared. This too speaks to their incredible power and the importance of them being told. So in the end, whether you believe in the tiger or not, you will believe in the stories themselves and their magic.
This novel is so beautifully written. Readers will experience it as a series of jars to be opened and released by them. The tales themselves are told in language and tones that really make them understood to be part of an oral tradition. The rest of the book, the story of Lily and her family, is layered and fascinating. All of the characters are complex and have multiple dimensions to their personalities. Lily is caught up in her own world of tiger traps and magical jars, but everyone else has their own perspectives on what is happening to Halmoni and their family.
A powerful book of stories, magic and tigers. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Random House Books for Young Readers.
Squeak! by Laura McGee Kvasnosky and Kate Harvey McGee (9780525518150)
When a summer breeze tickles a little mouse’s ear early one morning, an entire cacophony follows. With one loud squeak, the mouse starts the world waking up. The chipmunks wake up, sending a pine cone into the river. The trout jump. The elk bonks into a tree launching the eagle off. The sound of her huge wings wakes the bears, whose growls wake the wolves. The wolves howl waking the bighorn lamb who leaps high. Finally, the bison bellows and all of the other creatures in the area awaken too. Except for one little mouse, who is now asleep.
The author plays with sounds in this book as they ripple across an ecosystem in this nature-focused read. From the small mouse squeak to the huge bison bellow, all of the sounds are unique and interesting. Children listening to the story will love the chance to howl like wolves, leap like trouts, or fly like eagles along the way. The book is filled with a sense of joy and wonder as the series of noises awaken all of the animals.
The art is done in two steps by the two creators, one who did the black lines and the other who colored them in digitally. The result is almost like stained glass. The sense of the glow of morning light carries through all of the illustrations. They are united by a strong feeling of being in a shared place too.
A great read aloud for a group, expect lots of participation. Appropriate for ages 2-4.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Oldest Student: How Mary Walker Learned to Read by Rita Lorraine Hubbard, illustrated by Oge Mora (9781524768287)
Born a slave in the mid-1800’s, Mary was not allowed to learn to read. Even when emancipation came, she was unable to learn to read because she and all of her time was used in making very little money. When a group of evangelists gave her a Bible, she promised herself that one day she would be able to read it. All three of her sons’ births were recorded in that Bible by other people who could read and write. Mary could only leave her mark by the words. After a lifetime of hard work, Mary became too old to sharecrop any longer and took on other jobs like cleaning and babysitting. At well past ninety years old, Mary’s sons read to her but they each passed away, her oldest son dying at age ninety-four. Mary lived on and learned of reading classes taught in her building. She spent the next year learning to read, and finally could read at age 116. She was awarded the title of the nation’s oldest student by the US Department of Education and went on to receive many gifts, some from Presidents of the United States.
Hubbard cleverly fills in the details of Mary Walker’s early life since very little is known about it. It is a fact that she had her Bible for over 100 years before she could actually read it. It is also a fact that she learned to read that quickly. Chattanooga, Tennessee gave her the key to the city twice in the 1960’s and has a historical marker in her name. Her life stands for the ability to learn at any age, the resilience of surviving slavery, and the power of the written word to bring opportunity into your life. Beautifully, the book doesn’t need to lecture on any of those values, Mary’s life simply speaks on its own.
Mora’s art is done in mixed media of acrylic paint, marker, pencil, paper and book clippings. She uses a heavily textured and painted background in some images that sweeps the sky across the pages. In others, patterns and words fill the space offering glimpses of her future long before she could actually read.
This picture book based on a true story is inspiring. Appropriate for ages 5-7.
Reviewed from copy provided by Schwartz & Wade.
Amazons, Abolitionists, and Activists: A Graphic HIstory of Women’s Fight for Their Rights by Mikki Kendall and A. D’Amico (9780399581793)
Take a trip back through women’s history to discover queens, warriors, suffragettes, and much more! This graphic novel is set in the future and has a computer instructor who takes a group of girls back in time to understand the basis of women’s rights around the world. The book starts by looking deep into human history with the Assyrians, Mesopotamians, Eqyptians, Greeks and much more. The book then shows how the rise of the patriarchy eclipsed early women’s rights and replaced it with much more like what we see still today. The book moves forward in time, taking female rulers and warriors from around the world. There is also an exploration of civil rights as well as LGBTQ rights in the book that increases the representation of diverse experiences even farther.
Kendall’s writing could have simply become a lengthy list of women from history, but she weaves a deeper narrative throughout. It also helps that she includes history as far back as she does. The supportive nature of those early societies is likely to surprise modern readers. Kendall works with intentionality to offer as diverse a cross-section of women as she can. They come from all over the world and represent many different countries, continents and races. Even more impressive is the way that Kendall is frank about the shortcomings of many of the women, acknowledging openly their open racism or unwillingness to challenge the status quo for others besides themselves.
The art is great. The number of portraits in the book is daunting in its scope. Those women who are familiar visually are recognizable immediately. The additional information on each woman also offers vibrant images of their lives. The more tragic events are documented in more subtle tones, offering a visual cue that something dire has happened.
A stellar graphic piece of nonfiction. Appropriate for ages 12-15.
Reviewed from library copy.