Category: Book Reviews

The Legendary Miss Lena Horne by Carole Boston Weatherford

The Legendary Miss Lena Horne by Carole Boston Weatherford

The Legendary Miss Lena Horne by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon (9781481468244, Amazon, GoodReads)

Born into a family of educators and activists, Lena Horne grew to be an African-American star and civil rights activist. As a child, Lena’s parents dreamed of making it big. Her father was a street hustler and her mother was an actress. As a small child, she was left with her grandmother in Brooklyn while her parents sought their fortune. From her grandmother, Lena learned about the value of education, good manners, and black pride. But soon Lena’s mother returned and took Lena on the road with her. During the Great Depression, her mother decided to put Lena on stage. Lena soon outshone her mother, becoming the first African-American actress to get a studio contract. She eventually also found her voice in the civil rights movement.

Weatherford shows Horne as a small child torn between the dreams of her grandmother and her mother. Then in the middle of the book, a transformation happens and Lena takes to the stage, becoming a star. The book beautifully weaves together the two dreams of grandmother and mother, showing how Horne’s life honors them both and how her career evolved to become large enough to encompass everyone’s wishes. Weatherford uses text carefully and deftly, making sure that the book remains readable by younger readers. There is a feeling of verse to her prose that invites readers in.

Zunon’s illustrations are done in oil paint and cut paper collage. The paper collage adds patterns and texture to the images. The paintings provide the people, expressions, and emotions. They show Horne growing and changing, transforming before the reader’s eyes into a star.

This is a gorgeous picture book biography honoring a woman who broke new ground in civil rights using her career and her voice. Appropriate for ages 6-8.

Reviewed from copy received from Atheneum Books for Young Readers.

Bird, Balloon, Bear by Il Sung Na

Bird, Balloon, Bear by Il Sung Na

Bird, Balloon, Bear by Il Sung Na (9780399551550, Amazon, GoodReads)

This is another beautiful picture book for the smallest of children from this author/illustrator. Bird is new to the forest and hoping to make a friend. He spots Bear but can’t quite get up the courage to speak with him. Suddenly though, he sees that Bear has a friend already: a red balloon. Bear plays all day with Balloon, even watching the sunset together. Then one day, a wind gust carries Balloon up into the sky. Bird who has been watching the entire time, tries to rescue Balloon but it’s too late. Balloon pops. Over the shreds of the balloon, Bird and Bear finally meet and soon they have become real friends.

This picture book looks at the pressures of trying to make a new friend, the shyness that naturally arises during that time, and how to move beyond it. The use of a balloon as the other friend is very clever, allowing Bear to have a close friend of sorts but also allowing even the youngest child to realize that Bird would always have made a much more fun and compelling friend from the start.

The illustrations are playful and light. Done on white backgrounds, the bright colors shine on the page. The forest is filled with purples, blues and greens while the sunset emerges with yellows and reds. Still, the illustrations are simple and friendly. Bear is round and cuddly while Bird is a burst of red color and quiet inquisitiveness.

The complications of new friendship have never been lovelier. Appropriate for ages 2-4.

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

Stone Mirrors by Jeannine Atkins

Stone Mirrors by Jeannine Atkins

Stone Mirrors: The Sculpture and Silence of Edmonia Lewis by Jeannine Atkins (9781481459051)

Edmonia Lewis was the first professional African-American sculptor. She lived and worked in the period right after the Civil War. This verse novel takes the little information known about Edmonia and fills in the gaps with what may have happened. Edmonia attended Oberlin College, one of the first colleges to accept women and people of color. Half Objibwe and half African-American, Edmonia struggles to find her place at Oberlin. When she is accused by other students of poisoning and theft she is forced to leave college despite being acquitted of all charges. The book follows Edmonia as she moves to Boston and eventually Italy, becoming a successful sculptor.

This is an exceptional verse novel. Each poem reads like a stand-alone poem and yet also fits into Edmonia’s complete story. Atkins uses rich and detailed language to convey the historical times right after the Civil War to the reader. She also works to share the real soul of Edmonia herself on the page, a girl who has given up the freedom of life with the Ojibwe to study art at a prestigious college only to have it all fall apart again and again. It is a lesson in resilience and the power of art that Edmonia continues to strive to become the artist she truly is despite all of the odds.

This book reads like a series of stunning pieces of art, strung together into a larger display. The use of language is so beautifully done, carefully crafted with skill and depth. Atkins uses the few details of Edmonia’s life to craft a real person of flesh, bone and dreams on the page. Throughout the book, care is taken that no one forget the historical times the book takes place during and their impact on Edmonia as a person of color.

Timely and simply amazing, this verse novel is uplifting and deeply moving. Appropriate for ages 13-16.

Reviewed from copy received from Atheneum Books for Young Readers.

A Perfect Day by Lane Smith

A Perfect Day by Lane Smith

A Perfect Day by Lane Smith (9781626725362, Amazon, GoodReads)

On a sunny day, all of the creatures are having a perfect day. Cat can feel the sun on her back as she walks in the daffodils. Dog is sitting in the cool water in his wading pool. Bert, a little boy, fills the birdfeeder and Chickadee enjoys the seeds. Down below, Squirrel is trying to reach the birdfeeder and Bert gives him corn to enjoy. Everyone is having a perfect day. Until Bear arrives.

This book is incredibly simple and exceedingly perfect itself. Smith uses only a few short sentences to tell the story. Repetition is used to keep the book focused and also to make it nicely accessible to even the smallest children. There is a lovely quiet to the book, a joy in the simple and everyday that then becomes something surprising and entirely unusual in the end.

I love that the cover has the bear on it, foreshadowing the twist for little children. The illustrations are done in mixed media that is deeply textured and warm. One can almost pet the cat on the page, feel the cool water in the pool, and run fingers over the cob of corn. It adds to the simple delights of the book immensely.

Perfection to share with toddlers and preschoolers, expect this one to become a favorite. Appropriate for ages 2-4.

Reviewed from copy received from Roaring Brook Press.

The Catawampus Cat by Jason Carter Eaton

The Catawampus Cat by Jason Carter Eaton

The Catawampus Cat by Jason Carter Eaton, illustrated by Gus Gordon (9780553509717)

Released March 21, 2017.

The cat arrived in town one day and no one noticed at first. Then a grocer noticed the cat who walked entirely askew, crooked to the world. He and his wife tilted their heads to match and discovered her lost wedding ring, romance blossomed. Soon others in town were tilting too. The barber discovered a new haircut, a housepainter created modern art, the librarian pulled a different book out and found a new passion, and a young boy discovered a new way to look at math. The town entirely changed, rebuilding their houses to be crooked and having their cars made that way too. They named a day after the cat and threw a big event. But in the end, the cat had a new way once again of looking at things.

Eaton’s writing is playful and fresh. He embraces thoroughly the impact of a crooked cat on an entire city, one small change after another building to an entire shift in the society. The picture book looks not only at how one individual’s point of view can change the world but also about how being flexible enough to look at the world from a different viewpoint can change an individual and improve a life. The entire book is hopeful, funny and joyful.

Gordon’s illustrations are a mix of collage and painting. With lighthearted cartoon style, they are immensely appealing. Done in subtle colors, they combine vintage clippings, photographs of objects and loose-lined illustrations.

A winsome picture book, this one can be used to spark discussion about our own catawampus approach to life. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from e-galley received from Edelweiss and Crown Books.

The Lotterys Plus One by Emma Donoghue

The Lotterys Plus One by Emma Donoghue

The Lotterys Plus One by Emma Donoghue (9780545925815)

Released March 28, 2017.

Sumac lives in a very unusual family in a very large house called the Camelottery. Her family is large, very large, with four parents, a baby, several teenagers, even more children and lots of pets. The four parents are really two couples who are all best friends with one another. All of the children are home schooled and there is always something happening around the busy house. Then something changes, and one of Sumac’s grandfathers moves in with them. He’s not used to the wildness of children, the busyness of the large household and his struggle with dementia isn’t helping. Sumac is appointed as the one to help him better understand their family, but after he makes several comments about the color of their skins and the way they live, Sumac decides that it is up to her to find a different place for her grandfather to live where he will be happier and they will be rid of him. It’s really the perfect solution, isn’t it?

Oh how I adored this novel. The creation of a household where the parents won the lottery and no longer have to work but just care for their ever-growing household and volunteer for causes they believe in is lovely. Make it a family with parents who are gay and lesbian and the book becomes something very special. Add in the character of Brian who at age five is just starting to voice his preferred gender. Then mix in even more diversity with adopted children and biological ones all loving and living together.

Donoghue doesn’t just get the mix of characters right, she then gives them all voices that are so honest and true that they live on the page. The fast-paced conversations of the large family around the dinner table are immensely joyful even as they are sometimes strained. The patter of the conversations all have a natural rhythm and flow, something that is very difficult to get this right. And my goodness, it is exactly right.

A grand new LGBT-friendly book that families will love sharing together no matter how many mothers, fathers or children they have. Appropriate for ages 8-11.

Reviewed from ARC received from Arthur A. Levine Books.

The Road Home by Katie Cotton

The Road Home by Katie Cotton

The Road Home by Katie Cotton, illustrated by Sarah Jacoby (9781419723742)

A variety of animals travel on their way home. Birds fly to warmer places, escaping the chill of winter. Mice build nests in the grass that offer safety and warmth. Wolves hunt for food to fill their hunger. Rabbits hide in the brambles, chased clear by the wolves on their heels. They reach their burrow and safety. The next day, the wolves and rabbits are outside again along with the birds and the mice. All sharing a larger home with one another.

Cotton’s poem is delicious. From the initial rhyming stanzas on the first page, she builds a full story of the importance of home and the strength of parent/child pairs in survival. Throughout the poem there is a sense of arrival or approaching home, defined in different ways for the different species. There is also a focus on security and warmth, on being together despite the odds and filling small burrows and nests with love.

Jacoby’s illustrations embrace the natural setting. They keep readers from realizing that all of the animals are in the same area by using a different feel for their habitats. The mice are in golden nests of straw, the birds soar in the sky, the wolves hunt through a forest and the rabbits are close by. Then the final reveal of them together is like the sun returning, a beautiful reveal.

Gorgeous poetry combines with strong illustrations to create a celebration of home no matter what species you may be. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from library copy.