Predator and Prey by Susannah Buhrman-Deever, illustrated by Bert Kitchen (9780763695330)
In poems for two voices, this book shows the cunning, evolution and beauty of predators and their prey. From bats to frogs to snakes to hawks to spiders, the poems feature all sorts of animals. Engagingly, often it is sometimes the obvious predator who is actually going to be the prey. That is certainly true in the example of the spider at the center of her web who is being preyed upon by the assassin bug. After each of the poems, there is a section about the animals in nonfiction prose that illuminates the relationship of the two species more clearly.
I was amazed to discover that this is biologist Buhrman-Deever’s first book for children. Her two-voice poems are very effective and could easily be used in classroom activities to be shared aloud by pairs of children who will enjoy being predators and prey since so many of the animals featured are very fascinating. She gives voice to the animals in her poems and then allows scientific information to be shared as well. The end of the book has a lengthy bibliography which is greatly appreciated.
The illustrations by Kitchen are exceptional as well, showing the reader the relationship between the two animals being discussed. They are realistic and dramatic as the animals stand off on the page. Several of the pages also have large gated pages that open to reveal the poem beneath them, allowing Kitchen’s full imagery to be appreciated without words blocking it.
A very successful mix of poetry and science, this one is sure to be preyed upon by hungry readers in classrooms and activities. Appropriate for ages 7-9.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Kadir Nelson (9781328780966)
Two amazing book creators come together in this nonfiction picture book celebrating the resilience, talents and perseverance of African-Americans throughout history. The text of the book is a poem by Newbery-medalist Alexander that leads readers through the horrors of slavery to athletes and artist. The black Civil War soldiers carry forward into the Civil Rights Movement and the tragedies that accompanied it. It touches on police violence towards African Americans and moves forward to continue to celebrate those that excelled despite the odds, changing America as they did so. The poem ends with a call for all of the children of color to realize that this is them too.
Alexander’s poem is a powerful call to remember the beginnings in slavery, the battles along the way, and the impact of continuing to hope and dream despite what America has done. It calls for hope and inspiration, it calls for action. And it does not shy away from modern or historical issues, placing them right in front of the reader. His words are influenced by other great African-American writers too, paying homage to those who went before.
The award-winning illustrator and author, Nelson depicts so many historical figures on the pages of this book. Some are individual portraits, standing strong against the stark white backgrounds. Others are groupings of people and readers can recognize many of them on sight but will need to refer to the appendix for others. Nelson’s images are stirring in their beauty and the fierceness he captured his subjects.
This one will win awards, let’s hope it’s a Caldecott for Nelson! Appropriate for ages 7-10.
Reviewed from library copy.
Focused by Alyson Gerber (9781338185973)
Clea loves to play chess; it’s her favorite thing to do. She likes it a lot better than her classes at school where she struggles to pay attention and follow directions. She’s also having a lot of emotional outbursts now that she’s in middle school. Clea knows that it’s because she’s just stupid and that she doesn’t try hard enough. She thinks that no one around her wants to tell her the truth. Then Clea gets tested for ADHD, and she discovers the reason for her issues at school. Still, it isn’t as simple as just taking medication and having a written schedule. In fact, before she realizes it, Clea has managed to drive her best friend away with her behavior. Clea must start figuring out how to manage her ADHD, her personal life and keep her schoolwork in hand, all while trying to be chosen for chess tournaments on the weekends.
Gerber has once again created a female protagonist who struggles with something beyond their control. I deeply appreciated Gerber’s focus on Clea finding a voice to ask for what she needed and her ability to fall down and get back up again. The book also shows ADHD not as something to blame but as a true issue that a person must manage and deal with on a daily basis. Gerber writes with a sensitivity about ADHD that comes from experiencing the issues herself.
As with her first book, readers will discover a lot to relate to with Clea. Simply understanding invisible disabilities more clearly is helpful for all readers. Those who face similar challenges will find a main character worth cheering for on these pages. Clea works incredibly hard even when she fails, thinks of others often, is a great sister and friend, and still can’t fix this issue on her own. It’s a testament to the power of getting help on a variety of levels.
A personal look at ADHD, this novel is a compelling and thought-provoking read. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Scholastic.
Smile: How Young Charlie Chaplin Taught the World to Laugh (and Cry) by Gary Golio, illustrated by Ed Young (9780763697617)
Growing up on the streets of London, Charlie Chaplin was raised by a single mother who performed as a singer. At age five, Charlie himself started to perform in place of his mother as her voice quit. The family ended up in the poorhouse and when they managed to get back out, Charlie went to school. That was where he learned of his love of attention and the spotlight. At age nine, Charlie joined a boys theater troupe and among other jobs, he worked his way up on stage. Eventually, he made his way to the United States. He starred in a movie but when people in the industry saw how young he was, they doubted him. With one clever costume choice though, Charlie Chaplin invented his iconic tramp character.
Golio’s poetic approach to this nonfiction picture book suits the subject completely. It has a sense of lightness and playfulness with plenty of optimism in the face of hardship. Even as Charlie’s childhood turns bleak, there are moments of light and wonder too. The writing is rich and invites readers to better understand the subject and where he came from. I’d recommend sharing some Chaplin clips with children so they can watch the genius at work. Young’s illustrations are exceptional. The images are bold and full of strong graphical elements. Using colorful silhouettes, they play with light and dark, whimsy and reality.
A mix of humor and sadness, just as Chaplin would have wanted it. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from copy provided by Candlewick Press.
Caterpillar Summer by Gillian McDunn (9781681197432)
Cat and Chicken live in San Francisco with their mother who works several jobs, but one is to be a children’s book author with books that feature Cat and Chicken as a caterpillar and chicken. When they head across the country for a summer job, their plans suddenly fall through. Now Cat and Chicken must stay with grandparents they have never met before while their mother works in Atlanta. Their grandparents live on Gingerbread Island, a place their mother hasn’t returned to since before Cat was born. Lily, their grandmother, is warm and maternal, quickly adapting to Chicken’s special needs. Macon, their grandfather, is more distant and gruff, working in his workshop and going on long walks alone. As Cat and Chicken get to know them, they find a wonderful pair of grandparents who love them immensely, so Cat tries to figure out how to bring her family back together again. She hopes that entering a fishing contest, a sport her mother used to love, with give them an opportunity to bond. But things don’t quite work out as planned, just like in her mother’s books.
McDunn has written the ideal summer read. It has a lightness to it that is pure summer sunshine, one that invites reading with sand between your toes or a flashlight in a tent. At the same time, the characters and story wrestle with larger issues of what family means, how a family can form a rift, and how the pressure of having a little brother who is neurodiverse can be challenging for an older sibling. I deeply appreciated Chicken as a character. He is not labeled in any way in the story but shown as having specific challenges that make looking after him different from other children.
Cat herself is a very strong young woman who holds her family together. Her grandmother recognizes that and helps Cat understand better what she is doing. As her grandparents step in to allow Cat to have a summer as a child, she fights them, trying to retain her role as Chicken’s caretaker. That process of letting go is beautifully shown, given time and patience. Throughout the book, nothing is simple, not even Cat’s enemy on the island, whose own story provides reasons for his actions.
Richly drawn and yet still summer light, this novel is a delight. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Bloomsbury.
The True History of Lyndie B. Hawkins by Gail Shepherd (9780525428459)
Lyndie is definitely not a good Southern girl, much to her grandmother’s despair. She tends to find trouble easily and not make friends quickly. When her father loses his job, they move in with his parents. Lady, Lyndie’s grandmother, has specific ideas of how Lyndie should act and even creates a strict schedule for her that gives her no free time. But somehow on Lyndie’s first day of school, she finds an injured fawn on the way to school and ends up not making it to school that day. Lyndie’s best friend is a do-gooder whose family takes in a boy from a local juvenile detention facility. As Lyndie gets to know him, they become friends and share secrets with one another. When Lyndie chooses to put family before friends, she could lose everyone.
The voice in this novel is unique and confident. Set in 1985, the characters are grappling with the impact of the Vietnam War on the men in their community. The book looks at the results of the war and how one suicide can ripple through several families. Shepherd does not make this simple or easy, she allows it to stand in all of its complexity and gives us a young history buff to explore it with.
Shepherd creates an entire world in her writing, one that invites readers in to deeply feel for and cheer for Lyndie even as she makes plenty of mistakes and missteps. Lyndie is a champion though, and readers will completely understand her motivations as she chooses one direction or another. Happily, Lyndie is her own person, filling her days with the history of the region, exploring news on microfilm, and finding ways to live in a new home with rigid expectations.
An exceptional debut novel that invites readers to care just as deeply as Lyndie does. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy provided by Kathy Dawson Books.
Magic Ramen: The Story of Momofuku Ando by Andrea Wang, illustrated by Kana Urbanowicz (9781499807035)
In the aftermath of World War II, Osaka remains devastated. Food is scarce with bad harvests and rationing. The luckiest people stand in long lines for bowls of ramen. When Ando sees this, he realizes that something must be done to help people. He decides to dedicate his life to food, first opening a salt business and eventually following his memories of those hungry people to figure out how to make instant ramen. It was a long process of invention, trial and error. Once he created the perfect noodles, he moved on to trying to figure out how to create the broth too. He tried many things and continued to fail until he saw his wife frying tempura and was inspired to fry his noodles first. Eureka!
This nonfiction picture book offers a frank and fascinating look at the process of the invention of instant ramen. From the original inspiration through all of the mistakes and trials to the final result. The book has a great pacing, lingering over the more touching moments of inspiration, zooming through years where Ando had other priorities, and then slowing once again to explore the experimental process of invention.
The illustrations are completely appealing and often have a broad sense of humor included. They have a sense of motion and cinematic approach, particularly while Ando is inventing the ramen. Using panels, the ideas flow quickly and fail just as fast. The result is a cleverly designed book that inspires.
Just as satisfying as a warm bowl of ramen, this is a delicious read. Appropriate for ages 5-8.
Reviewed from library copy.
Trees by Verlie Hutchens, illustrated by Jing Jing Tsong (9781481447072)
Celebrate trees in this book of verse with each poem focused on one type of tree. There are willows, oaks, birch, aspen and more. A total of fourteen trees are highlighted here in free verse, each one embracing the unique nature of that tree with clarity and brevity. The poems are only a few lines long, yet the capture the tree perfectly. The poems are more about the inherent nature of the tree than really describing them physically. There are trees that pride themselves on their straight arrow-like height, others that are filled with giggles in spring. Each poem suits the tree its about, changing in tone to match.
The art by Tsong is exceptional. Some of the taller trees are done so that the book must be turned to read the words and see the tree upright. Others are shown in a full landscape whether budding in spring or standing against a snowstorm. The illustrations are done using digital collage with hand-done elements. They are filled with lines that swirl and move, creating breezes on the page and rings on the branches and trunks of the trees.
A beautiful book of poetry about the trees in our world. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from copy provided by Beach Lane Books.
Climbing Shadows: Poems for Children by Shannon Bramer, illustrated by Cindy Derby (9781773060958)
Poetry books for children can be some of the worst books on the market. There are some poets who do it extraordinarily well without being saccharine or sing-songy, and now there is a new name to add to that list. Open this book of poetry and you are suddenly in an unknown land. There are no rhymes, the words are evocative, and the thoughts and ideas fresh and amazing. My immediate response to reading the first poem was, “Is this for children?” I read it again. Yes, yes they certainly are. But they are poems that are complicated and deep, but well worth swimming in.
Bramer takes widely varied ideas like drawing pictures, spiders, skeletons, octopi, polka dots, birthday parties and owls and turns them into poems. The poems look beyond the obvious and turn into something far more than that original theme. The birthday poem is about storms and friendship. The one about an octopus is also about climbing trees. The poem about drawing is about roads, stars and lines. Each of them is a journey of discovery, one that makes sense by the end but is gorgeously surprising along the way.
The illustrations by Derby add so much to this book. They too are not what one might expect for a book of poetry for young children. The first poem is accompanied by a dark image of a glowing fox climbing the tree line drawn by a child. Her watercolor images range from gentle and achingly lovely to others that are dramatic and haunting.
One of the most original and surprising books of poetry for children, this one is worth exploring. Appropriate for ages 8-12.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Groundwood Books.