Watercress by Andrea Wang

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Watercress by Andrea Wang, illustrated by Jason Chin (9780823446247)

Riding in their old car along a rural Ohio road, a young girl’s parents come to a stop when her mother spots something growing in the ditch. It’s watercress, so the entire family gets out and starts to harvest it into a paper bag. The girl finds it embarrassing to be in the ditch gathering free food, while her parents are remembering their time in China. The water in the ditch is cold and muddy, the watercress has snails among its roots. The girl finds herself partially hoping that the bottom of the paper bag falls through and this can just be over. That night, the family has the watercress for dinner, but the girl refuses to even try it. She wants food from the grocery store, not free food from a ditch that reminds her of furniture taken from the side of the road and hand-me-down clothes. Then her mother shares a story from China about her younger brother who died from not having enough to eat. The girl is inspired by her family’s history and ashamed of how she has been acting, so she tastes the watercress for the first time, a taste that builds new memories.

The writing in this picture book is exceptional. With delicate poetic words, Wang creates layers in her story. She weaves both the experience of shame for the young girl and the melancholy memories of China for her parents together into a story of generations in a Chinese-American family. From the previously unshared stories of her parents time in China to learning not to be ashamed of the way they live, this book will resonate for so many children.

Caldecott Honor winner, Chin pulls together images of China and Ohio in this book. By putting tall cornstalks against tall bamboo, the images are gateways to one another. The use of yellow to light the pages, works both in sunshine in Ohio and the sepia of memory in China. It is all so beautifully done, so well designed.

One of the best picture books of the year, this book reaches across generations and finds hope. Appropriate for ages 5-7.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Holiday House.

The Great Godden by Meg Rosoff

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The Great Godden by Meg Rosoff (9781536215854)

On their annual beach vacation, a teen and her family experience an unusual summer. It’s a summer of time spent sailing and swimming. A summer full of competitive tennis games, shared meals, and naps. It was also a summer of new love, hot crushes, and strange boys. It was the summer when the Godden brothers arrived. Kit was the golden brother, impossibly handsome and entirely intoxicating when he turned his attention on you. Hugo was the darkness to his brother’s shine, the surliness to his charm. As the narrator watches, her sister and Kit become involved, flirting at first and then becoming more and more. What should be just a summer fling has an underpinning of unease and manipulation, just in time for Kit to turn his attention to the narrator who by now should know better. But even then, he has more chaos to create.

Printz Medal winner, Rosoff has created a slim volume that is impossible to put down. It has the languid and flowing feel of Kit himself, drawing readers in with promises of summer fun and then turning into something quite unusual, dark and menacing. The book is a great coming-of-age story where readers get to see a young woman realize what is happening around her and yet not quite be able to stop it from engulfing her as well. The narrator is never named, but all is seen and felt through her own experiences, making it an intensely personal read.

The writing is exceptional. Rosoff quietly and carefully seeds doubts with the words she chooses to use in describing the characters, the things that the narrator sees, and the questions that she has deep down. Rosoff situates us all with a rather unreliable narrator, who sees her siblings and family in a specific way, then along with the reader has new realizations about them and what that means.

Sun drenched, threatening and vibrantly feminist this is a triumph of a book. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Candlewick Press.

We Became Jaguars by Dave Eggers

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We Became Jaguars by Dave Eggers, illustrated by Woodrow White (9781452183930)

When a boy’s grandmother comes to visit, his parents leave him alone with her even though he doesn’t really remember her. His grandmother immediately drops to the floor and invites him to become a jaguar with her. He joins her, stretching himself thinner and becoming faster. Soon they are out in the forest, moving through it in the way that only jaguars can. The two drink from moonlit water, and his grandmother kills a rabbit and eats it. They venture to high lookouts, take occasional rests, and run fast and often. Their voices rumble like thunder together. As they head into the Himalayas, the boy remembers he has to return to school and wonders how long they have been gone. The ending refreshingly leaves questions of what was imagined and what was real.

Eggers writes in prose that is a mix of simple lines and marvelously captivating moments. Nature plays a large role in the book, inviting readers to think about venturing out into their own forests and having their own outdoor adventures. The time spent together sipping water from a lake, running fast and hard, and bouncing over water like marbles creates a vibrant relationship between the two characters as they get to know one another. It becomes less and less important what is real as their experiences together are what truly matter.

White’s illustrations are full of mystery and moonlight. He uses such deep colors in the book, allowing the jaguars to glow on the page, full of their own light. The gatefold page opens fully to allow the two people to transform in front of the reader into jaguars. The pages are deliciously colored, showing the wonders of nature and a variety of gorgeous landscapes.

Imaginative and invigorating, this playful picture book takes us to the wild side. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from copy provided by Chronicle Books.

I Dream of Popo by Livia Blackburne

I Dream of Popo by Livia Blackburne, illustrated by Julia Kuo (9781250249319)

A little girl grows up seeing her beloved Popo, her grandmother, often in Taiwan. They spend time together cuddling, eating and going to the park. Then the girl’s family decide to move to San Diego, far away from Taiwan. The girl goes to school in America with children of all colors. She doesn’t speak English yet, but she is learning. She calls her grandmother regularly. When they return to Taiwan for a visit, it feels different and she can’t communicate in Chinese as well as she used to. Her Popo’s house seems smaller though it smells just the same and her dumplings taste the same too. When her grandmother gets sick, the girl wishes she lived closer, but a dream is just the right thing to being them together after all.

This #ownvoices picture book is based on the author’s childhood, moving from Taipei to Albuquerque. It shows how a long-distance connection between a grandparent and grandchild is possible, keeping memories fresh and new experiences shared with one another. The book is filled with elements of Taiwan, such as New Year’s celebrations, dumplings and other food. Smells of Taiwan are mentioned regularly, wafting through experiences and dreams.

Kuo’s art is bold and beautiful. She allows the little girl to age through the course of the story, toddling in the park then heading to school, becoming less round and more lean as the pages turn. Popo also ages, the lines on her face more pronounced and her hair changing from black to gray. It is subtle and beautifully done.

A gentle story of immigration and continued connection to those left behind. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Roaring Brook Press.

Merci Suárez Can’t Dance by Meg Medina

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Merci Suárez Can’t Dance by Meg Medina (9780763690502)

This sequel to the Newbery Award winning Merci Suárez Changes Gears continues the story of Merci, her large multigenerational family, and the difficulties of being a seventh grader. This year, Merci has been assigned to manage the small school store along with Wilson, a boy who is amazing at math. As the two reinvent what their school store can be, adding movie merchandise, they end up also being drawn into selling tickets for the Heart Ball, run by Edna, who has managed to become even bossier than usual. Merci has decided not to go to the dance, but is asked to take photographs and agrees as long as she doesn’t even have to enter the gym. When an accident happens, Merci makes a bad decision and covers up the damage, setting off a series of lies that will involve school and family. With no one to talk to, since her grandfather’s dementia is worsening, Merci has to figure out who to trust to help her.

Fans returning to reconnect with Merci will once again find Medina’s rich depiction of Merci’s extended family, her grandfather’s worsening mental abilities, and the gorgeous warmth and love that keeps them all connected. Medina put Merci in quite a horrible situation in this second novel, where she feels alone and unable to be honest. Medina writes it with such empathy and skill that it is almost painful to read, though that makes the resolution all the more marvelous to experience.

As always, Medina’s writing is skillful and detailed. She truly creates a middle school experience with burgeoning romantic feelings and the changes happening between long-time best friends. Medina doesn’t let this all be negative, instead focusing on the confusion but also on the deeper understanding that can result from going through strange middle school circumstances.

Another marvelous Merci novel. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Candlewick.

One-Osaurus, Two-Osaurus by Kim Norman

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One-Osaurus, Two-Osaurus by Kim Norman, illustrated by Pierre Collet-Derby (9781536201796)

Some dinosaurs start their morning with a counting game. “One-osaurus, two-osaurus, three-osaurus, four.” After counting to seven, a huge ROAR interrupts the counting. The dinosaurs gather together in a herd and then make a run for it, knowing that something big is heading their way. Soon they are all hiding behind their numbers, letting us count them one more time: one through nine. Where is ten? He’s coming now, he’s “ten-osaurus rex.” But he may not be what the readers expect when he is revealed and the book takes a great twist in the end too.

Norman’s simple writing begs to be shared aloud. This counting book really works well, the numbers on the page playing into the rhyming text and building with it. The pace is wild and romping, something that makes the counting all the more fun. Thanks to its clever structure, young readers get to merrily count the dinosaurs again and again in the book without it feeling at all repetitious. The humor is a large part of the success of the book too.

That same humor is reflected in the illustrations which are big and bold, adding to the read-aloud appeal. The various dinosaurs are bright colored and pop against the changing colors of the background. Having them hide behind their big black numbers adds to the counting fun, including a page where the numbers aren’t in order and young children can find the numbers in a new way.

Smart, funny and full of dinosaurs. You can count on this one being popular. Appropriate for ages 2-4.

Reviewed from copy provided by Candlewick Press.

My Day with the Panye by Tami Charles

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My Day with the Panye by Tami Charles, illustrated by Sara Palacios (9780763697495)

Fallon is invited by her mother to head to the market together. Her mother wraps her hair in a mouchwa and then sets the panye on her head. Her mother lets Fallon try to carry the panye on her head, but it quickly falls off and crashes to the floor. So they set off together with the panye on her mother’s head. She encourages her daughter to take learning the skill slowly and not rush it. She explains that one must move gracefully under the weight of the panye, one must be strong. After they visit the market, the panye is full of food. Fallon knows that to carry the panye is to care for her family. Now she is ready to try once more. But the panye falls again. Her mother encourages her to build her nest and try again. This time Fallon stands tall and takes her time, walking like her mother all the way home.

Set in Haiti, this picture book celebrates the ancient act of carrying a basket on one’s head to handle a heavy load. It’s a skill taught at a young age, just as Fallon is learning it in the book. Fallon’s mother shows patience with her daughter and encourages her to take her time, filling their walk to the market with lessons on what carrying the panye means to the family and also to Fallon herself. It’s an empowering lesson, one that speaks to the strength and resilience of the Haitian people.

Palacios fills the pages with bright and deep colors that show the bustling market and beauty of the hills outside of Port-au-Prince. The grace of carrying the panye is conveyed in the images too, the women tall and upright, full of strength and balance.

A picture book that speaks to tradition and patience when you’re learning a new skill. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from copy provided by Candlewick Press.

Ten Animals in Antarctica: A Counting Book by Moira Court

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Ten Animals in Antarctica: A Counting Book by Moira Court (9781623542320)

Starting first with briefly exploring the continent of Antarctica itself, this nonfiction picture book quickly moves to the ten animals featured inside. The book is a dynamic mix of animals in Antarctica along with an opportunity to count them as they appear on the double-page spreads. First comes one leopard seal floating on his own iceberg. Two emperor penguins waddle across the next page, followed by elephant seals, whales, petrels, orcas, squid, krill, and fish. The book finishes with ten crimson sea stars that dazzle, bright red against the dark background.

Court has created a picture book that very successfully combines factual information about Antarctic animals with counting them. Her language is marvelous, building rhymes directly into her descriptive sentences. She also uses words that will stretch young vocabularies such as “courtly, portly emperor penguins” and “lumbersome, cumbersome southern elephant seals.” The language is such a treat to discover in a nature-focused counting book.

Court’s illustrations are a combination of printmaking and collage. The deep colors and textures bring the cold and icy landscape to life. Court also beautifully designs each page, paying attention to both ease of counting, but also making all of the animals look lifelike too. Readers will enjoy the additional information at the end of the book on both the continent and the featured animals.

Icy and delightful, this is just right for even the youngest of readers to discover a new continent. Appropriate for ages 2-4.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Charlesbridge.

The One Thing You’d Save by Linda Sue Park

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The One Thing You’d Save by Linda Sue Park, illustrated by Robert Sae-Heng (9781328515131)

A teacher asks her class to think about what they would save in an emergency. You’re allowed to save one thing, knowing that your family and pets are already safe. What would you save, no matter how big it is. Some of the students very quickly decide what they will save while others find the choices almost impossible. Others pick items that were made by grandparents who have passed away. Some have collections they’d want to rescue. Some are very practical, taking their glasses so that they can see or their wallet so they have money to survive. The class has conversations about what they chose and why, giving everyone lots to think about.

Told in verse, this book is written in the dialogue that happens in the classroom. Park captures this dialogue flawlessly, the voices distinct and clear both in their indecision and their decisiveness. Each person reveals a piece of themselves as they reveal why they chose a certain object. The result is a group of students who understand one another a lot better than when they began.

Park writes with such ease on the page that it is amazing to find out in her Author’s Note that she has used a sijo poetic structure throughout the book that limits the number of syllables per line. Within those parameters, she wrote dialogue that never seems limited or stilted as well as offering space for interjections and conversation.

Immensely clever and thought provoking, this book will be embraced by both teachers and students. Appropriate for ages 8-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Clarion Books.