Review: Caterpillar Summer by Gillian McDunn

Caterpillar Summer by Gillian McDunn

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.

Review: The True History of Lyndie B. Hawkins

The True History of Lyndie B. Hawkins by Gail Shepherd

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.

Review: Magic Ramen: The Story of Momofuku Ando by Andrea Wang

Magic Ramen The Story of Momofuku Ando by Andrea Wang

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.

 

Review: Trees by Verlie Hutchens

Trees by Verlie Hutchens

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.

Review: Climbing Shadows by Shannon Bramer

Climbing Shadows by Shannon Bramer

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.

Review: Because of the Rabbit by Cynthia Lord

Because of the Rabbit by Cynthia Lord

Because of the Rabbit by Cynthia Lord (9780545914246)

Emma is about to start public school for the first time as a fifth grader after being home schooled. On the evening before her first day of school, her father, a game warden, gets a call about a rabbit stuck in someone’s fence. Emma goes with her father on the call and discovers that it’s not a wild rabbit after all, but a domesticated bunny. Emma and her father take the bunny home and plan to turn it over to a shelter the next day. Then Emma must start school where she has plans to find the perfect best friend. However, things don’t go as planned and Emma is paired on a school project with Jack. Jack has problems paying attention in class, speaks when it isn’t his turn, and loves to talk about animal facts. Jack isn’t the friend that Emma is looking for. As Emma struggles to distance herself from Jack and get closer to the girls in her class, she is also learning more about herself along the way.

Lord once again has created a very readable book for older elementary readers. She perfectly captures the stress of going from a home-school environment to a public school classroom as well as the high expectations to find a best friend. As Emma works to manage her high expectations, she discovers that she is also being bullied by a girl in her class who is also mean to Jack. Still, it is not that simple to accept Jack as a friend, because he is different and has troubles, and yet, he may be the exact friend that Emma needs.

Emma is a complex character, which is very impressive given the short length of this novel. As she moves to a public school, she shows her gentleness with her rabbit, her love of family, and her deep longing for a true friend. She grapples with being pushed to work with Jack, being lied to by a classmate, and then finding herself being mean to Jack behind his back. Friendship is not simple!

An appealing read that will hop right into your heart. Appropriate for ages 8-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Scholastic Press.

 

Review: Snowman – Cold = Puddle: Spring Equations by Laura Purdie Salas

Snowman - Cold = Puddle Spring Equations by Laura Purdie Salas

Snowman – Cold = Puddle: Spring Equations by Laura Purdie Salas, illustrated by Micha Archer (9781580897983)

As winter turns to spring, changes happen all around. Refreshingly, this book looks at those changes through a mix of poetry and science. In the first pages, the differences between poetry and science are pointed out in a way that makes perfect sense. Subjects like hibernation, streams, wildlife, maple syrup, flowers, wind, bees, and clouds are all explored. The poetry is entirely in equation form like the title, swiftly capturing the essence of something rather like a haiku but in an even briefer format. Readers are encouraged to see poetry and science all around them.

Salas plays with the poetic form here, creating a mathematical poetry style that is entirely joyous to read. Because of the brevity of the form, the narrative is particularly necessary for some of the poems to make sense for readers. The narrative is also brief and focused, explaining the science behind what we see in nature.

The illustrations by Archer are done in oils and collage. They are filled with deep colors of spring sky, blooming flowers, pond water and other parts of nature. Layered and filled with textures too, the illustrations are rich and saturated.

A winning mix of poetry and science, this is a book that captures the wonder of spring. Appropriate for ages 4-8.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Charlesbridge.

Review: Sweeping Up the Heart by Kevin Henkes

Sweeping Up the Heart by Kevin Henkes

Sweeping Up the Heart by Kevin Henkes (9780062852571)

Amelia is stuck at home during spring break while her best friend is off in France, probably forgetting all about Amelia. Amelia spends her time with Mrs. O’Brien, the neighbor who has helped care for her for most of her life. She also goes to the local art studio in her Madison, Wisconsin neighborhood and works on her pottery. When she is there one day, she meets Casey, a boy who is trying to rescue his parents’ marriage without much success. As Amelia and Casey start to become friends with a shared sense of humor and love of art, they notice a woman hanging around the area who looks a lot like Amelia, but Amelia’s mother died ten years ago. Is she a ghost? Has Amelia’s entire life been a lie? The two set out to discover the truth.

Henkes’ excels at both novels for children and picture books. His novels are like small gems. His writing is focused and lovely, exploring the intense emotions of childhood without mocking them at all. Instead, he endows them with a deep understanding and empathy, demonstrating how small untruths can turn larger in unexpected ways. Henkes looks closely at young artists in this book, exploring how art can convey emotions, serve as a release, and connect people to one another.

Amelia is a detailed character, a girl who is lonely in a very deep way. With a dead mother and a distant father, she is close to her babysitter, but missing her friends too. Casey is feeling a sorrow and grief for his parents’ dissolving marriage. Both children have a powerlessness to them as well that turns into action as they work together to solve who the unknown woman actually is. A warning, this is not a mystery story but instead a more quiet character study.

Henkes once again stuns with his deep connection to his characters and his skill as a writer. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Greenwillow Books.

Review: Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpre by Anika Aldamuy Denise

planting stories the life of librarian and storyteller pura belpre by anika aldamuy denise

Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpre by Anika Aldamuy Denise, illustrated by Paola Escobar (9780062748683)

The deep impact and life of librarian Pura Belpre is shown in this picture book biography. The first Puerto Rican librarian in New York City, Pura entered the job with a deep understanding of her native folklore and the power of storytelling with children. But the shelves of the library did not have any of the Puerto Rican tales. So Pura sets off to fix that as well as demonstrating ways to tell stories using puppets. Soon her first book is published and she can use it when she travels to different library branches to share her stories. Pura gets married to a musician and the two of them travel to different cities to perform his music and her stories. When her husband dies, Pura returns to New York City to discover that the stories she planted years ago have germinated something bigger.

Denise writes with a tone of wonder as she tells of this librarian who created her own way to tell the stories she loved. The text is infused with Spanish in a way that allows for comprehension and also clearly ties this book to its Puerto Rican subject. The text reads like poetry, gamboling across the page filled with activity and Pura’s own decisiveness.

The illustrations are rich and vibrant. They depict the library, Pura’s storytelling with children, and the subject matter of her stories. Filled with textures and deep colors, the illustrations pay close attention to the time period of the book and yet have a playful lightness to them as well.

A strong picture book biography of a remarkable librarian. Appropriate for ages 5-8.

Reviewed from library copy.