Solo by Kwame Alexander (9780310761839, Amazon)
Blade has grown up with all sorts of privileges as the son of a rock star, but the big house and huge parties come at a cost. His father is always humiliating him, like when he crashes (literally) Blade’s graduation ceremony where Blade is meant to give a speech. His father tries to clean up his act regularly, but it never seems to stick and he returns to drugs and alcohol. Blade also misses his mother terribly after her death. When Blade finally confronts his father about his behavior, a family secret is revealed that changes Blade’s perspective permanently. He sets off to discover his own history, a journey that takes him to Ghana, a place entirely different than the one he has been living in.
Newbery-Medal winner Alexander has crafted another amazing verse novel here. He moves firmly into teen territory here, with a 17-year-old protagonist who is truly on a journey to discover himself. Alexander starts the novel with the excess of a rock legend’s life and then beautifully changes the novel mid-course to Ghana and people who live as a strong community with few luxuries. The two settings could not be more different nor could what Blade feels while he is in each. Ghana is vividly depicted as is Blade’s reaction to it, rich with people and place.
Alexander’s poetry writing is superb in both settings. Yet it truly comes alive in Ghana, particularly with Joy, Blade’s guide and inspiration while there. Just as Blade cannot look away from Joy, neither can the novel nor the reader since she is so captivating. Throughout the book, there are questions asked that are deep, about wealth and poverty, about privilege and race, about addiction and recovery, about parenting and failure. This is a rich book filled with lots to discover and discuss.
A great read that will be enjoyed by even those teens who may not think they’d like a verse novel. Appropriate for ages 15-18.
Reviewed from ARC received from HarperCollins.
Blood Family by Anne Fine (9781481477734, Amazon)
At age seven, Edward was saved from his abusive stepfather, Harris, when a neighbor saw him peeking out of their apartment through a boarded-up window. He had been shut in with his mother for three years, unable to leave. The only glimpse of the real world that he had was through a series of videotapes that the previous resident had left behind. Thanks to those videos, he was able to learn about the world and mentally escape the horror of his life. After he is rescued, Edward struggles to adapt to real life. He is smart and fascinated by everything, but his peers realize how different he is. When Edward becomes a teenager, he is suddenly confronted by the idea that Harris might be his real father after all. Is there a monster waiting inside him to break free?
Shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal, this novel is heartrendingly realistic. The book is told in many voices. They include Edward himself and also the adults around him from the social worker who first rescues him from the apartment to the couple who foster him to the family that adopts him and his adopted sister. This is necessary as Edward begins to spiral out of control, so that readers can still view him clearly and better understand the hidden impacts and scars that his tortured upbringing have left on him.
Edward is a strong and interesting protagonist who is vastly human and easy to relate to. Fine uses the videos of a Mr. Rogers like figure to explain how Edward’s mind survived intact. As Edward seems completely fine much of the time, it is his fall into darkness that makes the book believable and allows readers to more fully understand the deep despair that has been lapping at him all along. Fine’s writing allows us hope for Edward’s future, then takes that away, only to restore it once again, showing that all of us have the potential to lose ourselves and find ourselves over and over again.
A powerful read that will be popular with those teens who like A Child Called It. Appropriate for ages 13-17.
Reviewed from copy received from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.
A Cat Named Swan by Holly Hobbie (9780553537444)
This is the story of a small kitten, who was suddenly alone on the city streets. He learned a lot about the dangers, scavenged for food, and survived. Until one day, he was taken off of the streets and put into a cage. There was plenty of food there though and no one was mean to him. Soon afterwards, he was adopted. And that is where his life changed. It became a series of perfect days. Days that started with breakfast, were filled with exploring the garden, had visits and naps, and ended with everyone returning home in the evening. Each day became night with him curled on a pillow fast asleep.
This picture book shows the harrowing life of a small kitten alone outside. Then it becomes a rescue and adoption story, one that is pure joy after the rescue takes place. The kitten learns about his new family, the dog, and the garden and house that are his too. There are small adventures, plenty of pleasures like just being with one another and bumblebees. It’s a picture book about small joys and the wonder of having a pet.
Hobbie’s illustrations are filled with energy and carry emotions clearly. The image of the kitten being lifted by his family for the first time is pure sunshine and blue sky. Readers know right then and there not to worry any longer. When they see the gardens and land, they realize that Swan has landed in kitten nirvana.
A testament to the power of animal adoption and the joy of a life well lived. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from e-galley received from Edelweiss and Random House Books for Young Readers.
Home at Last by Vera B. Williams and Chris Raschka (InfoSoup)
Lester is adopted by Daddy Rich and Daddy Albert, who pick him up with their dog Wincka once the adoption is formalized. They head home, put Lester’s new clothes away. But when Daddy Albert tries to put Lester’s suitcase in the attic, Lester shows them that it is full of his action figures and insists that they have to stay right in the suitcase in his room. Lester is happy during the day, playing with his toys and spending time with his new fathers. At night though, he packs up his suitcase and stands near his fathers’ bed. This happens night after night, despite cocoa and toast, singing songs, and explanations that Lester is safe. Finally, one of the fathers loses his temper with the situation and then Lester really opens up about what he is worried about. A solution to the problem is found by Wincka, the dog, who was listening to Lester’s story too.
This was the book that Williams was working on when she died. Raschka had been involved from the beginning with the book and completed the vision that Williams had shared with him. Williams captures the deep-seated fear that adopted children can have, the understanding at one level of newfound family love but also the change that comes at night where fears become larger. Williams also shows two loving gay men, both delighted to be fathers and each different from the other. The two of them together parent Lester with kindness and concern and deep love.
Raschka finished the book, basing his art on sketches by Williams. His large colorful illustrations have a loose feel that ranges across the page, capturing both the mayhem of a family short on sleep but also the warmth of that family too. His watercolors convey deep emotions from the frustrations of sleepless nights to the power of coming together afterwards. All is beautifully shown on the page.
A tribute to adoptive families, LGBT couples who adopt and the importance of love and patience, this picture book is a grand finale to the many books by Williams. Appropriate for ages 4-7.
Reviewed from copy received from HarperCollins.
Dara Palmer’s Major Drama by Emma Shevah (InfoSoup)
Dara knows that she is a star. She can make all of the facial expressions in her favorite teen movies, has huge posters of her two favorite actors on her bedroom walls, and has lots of imaginary conversations with them as she dreams of her future in Hollywood. Her first step to stardom is landing the lead in the school production of The Sound of Music, and she just knows that her name is going to be called. But then it isn’t. Dara starts to wonder if it’s about the color of her skin, since she knows she’s an amazing actress. Dara was adopted from Cambodia. Then she notices that others with different skin colors are in the cast. The teacher offers her the role of stage manager, but Dara won’t agree to that. The teacher also invites her to join her acting classes, but Dara knows she doesn’t need them. As Dara slowly realizes that she may have a lot to learn after all, readers become convinced that Dara may just be the star she always thought she was.
Shevah has created in Dara a character who is both repulsive and compelling. Dara is unthinking, rather vain and unable to listen at the beginning of the book. Wisely, Shevah frames the book as looking into the past and Dara knowing that she wasn’t a very nice person back then. This gives readers permission to dislike Dara and yet also enjoy her humor, drive and sparkle. It also makes Dara’s deep changes all the more believable. Various characters also help Dara see herself anew, including her siblings, her parents and her best friend. This is done in many different ways from overt to subtle and is a skillful way to create change in a character.
The voice throughout the book is entirely Dara’s. The fonts change with Dara’s emphasis on various words, showing the passion and emotions behind them. The book design is fresh and friendly, having designs around the page edges and illustrations that break up the text a bit.
A strong and funny protagonist becomes much more self-aware in this gorgeous novel. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from library copy.
My New Mom and Me by Renata Galindo (InfoSoup)
When a puppy comes to live with his new cat mother, he is scared. But his mother reassures him. He tries to give himself stripes so he looks more like her, but she says there is no need to change at all. She likes that they are different and the puppy does too. His new mom takes care of him and plays with him. Not all days are perfect, but his mother tells him that they can do better next time and that it is OK. This is a portrait of a newly formed family finding their way together.
Galindo captures the emotions of a newly adopted child in this picture book. She tells the story with a frank simplicity that really works, not trying to explain away the emotions but allowing them to show in their messiness as a reassurance that such emotions will not undo a new adoption. Galindo also shows the connection building and love that an adoptive family feels. Her decision to use a single parent is one that is not always seen in picture books about adoption.
The art is very effective. Large on the page, it is done in a limited palette of oranges, yellows and grays. The differences between cat mother and dog child are beautifully clear and the part where the puppy paints stripes on himself is a visual reminder of the desire to be a solid family unit. Just the use of a dog and cat as the characters was a brilliant choice. It is clear to children that they are very different and could even have points of view that are opposites.
A simple and strong new picture book about adoption from the child’s point of view. Appropriate for ages 2-4.
Reviewed from library copy.
Elliot by Julie Pearson, illustrated by Manon Gauthier (InfoSoup)
Elliot was a little boy whose parents loved him very much. But there was a problem, when Elliot cried his parents did not understand why and when he yelled they did not know what to do. So one day a social worked named Thomas came and Elliot was taken to a new family with a new mother and father. It was different there and Elliot’s new family understood when he was hungry, when he was upset and when he needed attention. Elliot still got to see his parents sometimes too and they had a lot of fun together. His parents did try to care for him once again, but they still did not understand what he needed so he got moved to another family who could respond to his needs. Finally, Elliot came to a family where they wanted him to stay forever. They understood his needs even more deeply than any other family had and said things like “I love you forever, forever.”
This book is so very important. It is a book about the foster care system and one that is so intensely honest that it can be hard to read at times. Pearson manages to not make Elliot’s parents bad at all, keeping their neglect of Elliot vague enough to fit the experiences of many children. That also keeps the book appropriate for the youngest listeners. At the same time, Pearson shows the way children are moved from home to home, the way that they can go back to their parents, and the ability to finally find a permanent home where they are loved and cared for. The moment where parents finally use the word “love” with Elliot is so powerful because readers until that moment will not have realized that he had not been told it before. It’s a moment of realization that stings the heart.
Gauthier’s illustrations are done in cut paper collage. The colors are muted and quiet, creams and tans with lines on them. The background colors change slightly with the various families that Elliot lives with, but they are always muted. I appreciated this subtlety in the colors that supports the quiet and undramatic feel of the entire book.
Honest and vital, this picture book fills a huge gap in children’s books with its depiction of the foster system for small children. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy received from Pajama Press and Myrick Marketing & Media.
The Story I’ll Tell by Nancy Tupper Ling, illustrated by Jessica Lanan (InfoSoup)
An adoptive mother knows that her son will eventually ask her where he came from. She dreams of what she will tell him. Perhaps that he floated down from a hot-air balloon. Or that he was delivered by horseback by a man in a cape. Or that she found him in the garden among the tiger lilies. Or that she rescued him from a dragon queen. But the story of where he really came from is special enough, filled with joy and tears, with winged flight over the ocean. That is the story to tell.
Each of the stories that the boy’s mother creates contains a touch of truth. Throughout there is a tie to China, there is flight, crossing long distances, and a story of rescue. This imaginative look at the power of international adoption and the formation of a family is endearing and magical. The stories create a beautiful rhythm among themselves, dancing and weaving a tale that invites children to see their adoption as something particularly special.
Lanan’s art evokes that same special magical feel. Throughout the book, there are creatures in the clouds, dragons rising into the sun, roosters summoning dawn. Each shows a future part of the story, the tiger lilies gracing the garden gate long before they are mentioned in the book. Fish float on walls, ribbons tie each experience to the next. It is a rich tapestry of illustration filled with Chinese symbols.
A gem of a book for adoptive families, this picture book conveys the joy of adoption and the wonder of finding one another and forming a family. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from e-galley received from Lee & Low Books and Edelweiss.
Mother Bruce by Ryan T. Higgins (InfoSoup)
Bruce is a bear who likes very little in life. But he loves eggs. He finds complicated recipes on the internet that he tries out. When he discovers a recipe for goose eggs, he immediately heads into the forest to source the items. Back home, he puts the eggs in water but then has to run out for firewood. Returning home, he finds that the eggs have hatched into four goslings. He considers eating them with butter, but loses his appetite. He tries to return them, but Mother Goose has left for the winter. So he is stuck with the four little goslings who follow him everywhere. He tries to make the best of it, but it’s very challenging for one grumpy bear to suddenly be a mother to four little birds.
Higgins has created a laugh-out-loud funny picture book about a bear who finds himself unable to say no to parenting four goslings. The humor is wonderfully silly, from the way that Bruce “shops” and “locally sources” his ingredients in the forest to the attempts to get the geese to migrate south. The book shows that this grumpy bear has a heart of gold as he cares deeply for the geese and allows his entire life to be changed by them without getting overly mushy at all. The ending too was a surprise, one that fits perfectly but I didn’t expect at all.
A lot of the humor of this picture book is carried in its illustrations which have a real attitude of their own and a point of view. Readers will fall for Bruce despite his grumpiness thanks to the illustrations alone. The little goslings too are a delight as they imitate Bruce, drape themselves around, and explore the world. The illustrations of the goslings as teens is perfection.
Funny, perfect to read aloud, and a surprise of an autumnal read, this picture book is great fun. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from library copy.