Over the Shop by JonArno Lawson

Cover image

Over the Shop by JonArno Lawson, illustrated by Qin Leng (9781536201475)

In this wordless picture book, a little girl lives with her grandmother at their general store. One day, the grandmother posts that they have an apartment for rent above the shop. Soon people are arriving to view it. But the apartment is worn out and ragged with shelves ready to fall off the walls, cracked walls and chipped tiles, boarded up windows and a bare lightbulb. Lots of people come to see it, but no one rents it. Then a young interracial couple sees the rental sign, but the grandmother doesn’t approve of them. The little girl points out that they should give them a chance. Soon the couple is hard at work transforming the apartment with the help of the girl. Their help doesn’t stop with their own space, they also smarten up the front of the store by giving it a new coat of paint and fixing the sign. Even the stray cat in the neighborhood benefits and finds a new home. As the acceptance of this queer interracial couple grows, their positive impact on the entire neighborhood does too.

I love the wordless nature of this book, allowing the illustrations to tell the entire story. Leng’s illustrations are done in watercolor and show both the loneliness of the girl and her grandmother and then the steady transformation and rebirth of the apartment and the general store. The queer nature of the couple is shown via Pride flags as well as mentioned in the dedication at the beginning of the book. I particularly adore the wild-haired grandmother, who is so stuck in her own ways and her own grumpiness that one almost loses hope, but this book shows that growth is possible, change can happen, and it can open one up to new possibilities.

This wordless picture book speaks volumes about acceptance and transformation. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Candlewick.

Review: I Am Small by Qin Leng

I Am Small by Qin Leng

I Am Small by Qin Leng (9781525301155)

Mimi is very small for her age. She’s the shortest in her class at school and the shortest in her family too. Mimi thinks about all of the problems with being the shortest, like viewing pastries in the bakery or being unable to write higher on the blackboard. Her friends see it differently. They point out that she wins at hide-and-seek, that she gets to be first in line at lunch and gets the biggest piece of cake. At home there are advantages too. Mimi can fit between Mom and Dad in their bed, she can swim in the bathtub, and she can even ride on the back of their dog! So when someone even small than Mimi joins the family, Mimi knows just what to say.

Leng has illustrated many several books for children and this is her first time authoring a book. She has created an ode to the challenges and beauty of being small that children on the small side will easily relate to. As the book progresses, Mimi’s tone about her size changes to a much more positive one, just in time for her new little brother to appear. There is a focus on self-acceptance in this picture book that will shine no matter what your size.

Leng’s illustrations are whimsical and fresh. In Mimi, she has created a wonderfully androgynous little girl grappling with her size. Leng populates her pages with small touches and details that bring her scenes to life. Just the feel of characters clothing and the play of movement on the page are special.

A book about self-esteem that proves that size doesn’t matter. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: The Wall in the Middle of the Book by Jon Agee

The Wall in the Middle of the Book by Jon Agee

The Wall in the Middle of the Book by Jon Agee (9780525555452)

A little knight is very happy to be on his side of the wall. After all, there are dangerous animals on the other side as well as an ogre who would eat him up. Unfortunately, he doesn’t notice that there is water starting to fill his own side of the wall. Then large dangerous creatures start to enter too, including a snapping crocodile and big fish. Just as the water fills the entire side though, the ogre comes to his rescue and brings him to the other side of the wall. But will our little knight be devoured there too? Or perhaps the other side of the wall isn’t quite as dangerous or evil as he might have thought.

I love that this book can be read on two levels. There is the  simple story of a wall in a book and then there is the political climate about walls right now in America. Agee shows that making the opposite side dangerous and “othering” them is unsafe for everyone. He also clearly demonstrates that blindly believing that we are better than others can be our own downfall. And at the same time, the picture book works incredibly well as a simple story of a little knight, a wall and an ogre.

The illustrations tell a major part of the story as the little knight does not realize what is happening. Children listening to the book will love seeing the dangers before the knight does and will likely shout warnings when this book is shared aloud.

Political and entirely pleasing, this picture book is just what we need right now. Appropriate for ages 3-7.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Dial Books.

Review: The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson

The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson

The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by Rafael Lopez (9780399246531)

An award-winning author is joined by an award-winning illustrator for this picture book that celebrates diversity and acceptance. There are many ways for children to feel different from others, particularly when starting a new school. Perhaps it’s their skin, their hair, their clothes or the language they speak. There are school activities that will show them they live differently than other children, like not traveling during summer vacation. Lunches brought from home can be too different for other children to accept. Children can feel excluded from games on the playground too. So what is the answer? Finding your own voice, your own courage and telling your stories to the others without apology.

As always, Woodson prose impresses with its accessibility and depth. She manages to keep to a picture book length but speak about differences and resilience in a way that encourages children to be proud of where they come from and their life experience. Beautifully, children of all backgrounds will find themselves on these pages too, because everyone in different in some way. Woodson manages to be inclusive without minimizing the impact of racial differences, which is quite a feat!

The illustrations by Lopez are exceptional. They glow on the page, showing children of diverse backgrounds illuminated by the light of the world. The illustrations move from realism to more imaginative and playful moments as children grow into self-acceptance right in front of the reader.

A marvelous pick to speak about diversity and acceptance with children. Appropriate for ages 4-7.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Nancy Paulsen Books.

Review: Leo: A Ghost Story by Mac Barnett

Leo a Ghost Story by Mac Barnett

Leo: A Ghost Story by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Christian Robinson

Released August 25, 2015.

Leo has lived for a long time alone in his house. Most people can’t see Leo, because he’s a ghost, but if you are reading this book you are one of the special people who can see Leo. When a new family moves into the house, Leo tries to be welcoming by bringing them tea, but the family is frightened of the floating tray. After hearing how much they dislike him because he’s a ghost, Leo leaves his house and roams the city. He is invisible to everyone until he meets Jane, a little girl with a lot of imaginary friends. She thinks that Leo is just another of them and since Leo was so hated because he was a ghost, he doesn’t correct her. The two of them have a grand time playing together and she even gives him a sheet and pillow to sleep by his side. Leo is so happy that he can’t sleep. So he heads downstairs and that’s where he meets the robber who has entered Jane’s house. But what is an invisible ghost to do to stop a robber?

Barnett immediately invites readers into his world by allowing them to suddenly “see” Leo with the first page turn. It creates a real connection with the story and makes Leo all the more tangible to the reader. Barnett excels at creating a simple story but one that has strong implications to real life running throughout. This is a delight of a light ghost story, but it is also about acceptance, honesty and embracing who you really are.

Robinson’s illustrations are light hearted. Her art is done with acrylics and construction paper. Leo himself is see-through and rendered in what looks like crayon, making him very childlike and welcoming. While Leo is pale or completely transparent, the others are all rendered in deep blue construction paper except for the pale-skinned thief.

A book about acceptance and the power of a strong imagination, this picture book will be a welcome addition to Halloween story times. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from copy received from Chronicle Books.

Review: Carnivores by Aaron Reynolds


Carnivores by Aaron Reynolds, illustrated by Dan Santat

It’s hard to be a carnivore when all of the prey whispers behind your back, nobody understands the way you eat, and you are accused of sneaking around.  So a lion, a great white shark and a wolf get together to form a support group.  Their first plan is to become vegetarians, but that doesn’t go well at all.  In fact, the wolf can’t seem to find a berry bush that doesn’t have a bunny in it.  The next plan is using disguises to blend in, but one smell of the lion’s zebra breath turns the antelope against him.  Finally, the lion asked the great horned owl to speak with them.  The owl talked about accepting themselves as carnivores.  The others realize that he is right and follow his advice perfectly.

Reynolds has written a book that is screamingly funny.  Each page has laughter on it with the perfect timing of his jokes.  It begs to be shared aloud with punch lines that just have to be delivered.  Happily, the humor is edgy and truly funny, not just for small children.  With clever twists throughout the story and situations that make for very funny results, children will be delighted with this look at self-acceptance and meat eating.

Santat’s illustrations are perfection here.  Bright colored and bold, just like the humor, they add just the right touch to the book.  He manages to capture the comedy perfectly, but not allow his art to blow the punch lines prematurely.  The large format will work well with a group, but there are also details that will have to be shared too.

Clever, funny and wonderfully inappropriate, this book asks us all to accept our inner or outer carnivores.  Appropriate for ages 4-6, this would also work well as a read-aloud for older elementary kids who will love the humor and the naughtiness of the jokes.

Reviewed from copy received from Chronicle Books.

Review: The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce

unforgotten coat

The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell Boyce

Frank Cottrell Boyce has done it again, creating a book that surprises, amazes, and twists.  This is the story of what happens when two Mongolian boys join a class in England.  They appear out of nowhere, suddenly there in school.  The two brothers refuse to be separated, so the younger boy, Nergui, stays in his older brother’s class.  The two wear large coats and fur hats.  They immediately capture the imagination of Julie, one of their classmates, who is thrilled to be selected as their “Good Guide.”  She wonders where they live, trying for days to follow them home, but they elude her.  Chingis, the older boy, has photographs of Mongolia that he shares with everyone.  The entire class learns more about Mongolia than they had ever known.  But everything is not as it seems, and Julie discovers the truth too late to be of any help in the end.

The book is short, under 100 pages, with most of it being told in a flashback by an adult Julie.  The design of the book adds much to the story, with lined pages that resemble a notebook and Polaroid photographs that capture Mongolia and England, perhaps a mix of both.  The photographs in particular are cleverly done, hiding the truth and then revealing with equal success.

This is a powerful story that seems easy.  It reads as a simple story about two unusual children joining a classroom, and then twists and turns.  It speaks to community and acceptance throughout, showing a class that is eager and willing to embrace the new children, much to my delight.  Then the story takes on a more serious subject, about immigration, fear and deportation.  There is no didactic message here that is too heavy handed, instead it is kept serious but not message driven. 

The book also dances along an edge of imagination and reality where children who pay close attention will realize that even in the end there are questions about what has happened and what truly was.  This dance strengthens the novel even more, making it a powerful choice for discussion.

Highly recommended, this book may just be his best, and that is definitely saying something.  The short length, powerful subject and complex storyline all combine to make a package that is approachable for young readers, discussable by classes, and pure delight to experience.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from library copy.

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