Ship in a Bottle by Andrew Prahin

Cover image for Ship in a Bottle.

Ship in a Bottle by Andrew Prahin (9781984815811)

Mouse had been trying to live with Cat, but there were problems. Most of them from the fact that Cat wanted to eat Mouse all the time. Mouse loved her ship in a bottle, so she filled it with gingersnaps and with some help from Cat headed out into the world. Her bottle floated along and while it was sometimes peaceful, there were also attacks by rude seagulls trying to get the cookies. Mouse came to shore and met lots of new rabbit friends who loved gingersnaps, though once the cookies were gone, they sent Mouse on her way. Mouse continued downstream with nothing but a few crumbs that eventually ran out. Then a storm arrived with lightning and big waves. She came to a shore near a large city where she met a chipmunk who shared a berry and the ship. Mouse soon met many new friends who helped her, even some kind seagulls who shared. She was able to find safe sunshine, a safe place for her ship in a bottle, and a community.

Prahin’s picture book has a merry sense of humor throughout. His timing is perfect, landing some of the twists of the story with a wry grin. From the first part of the book with Cat chasing Mouse all over their house to the middle with hopes dashed, all builds beautifully to finding a place where Mouse is accepted, can help others, and finds friends. The arc of the story is very effective, offering a wonderful circle back to Cat at the end.

The illustrations do so much to reflect Mouse’s own emotions. There is the darkness and gray of the house with Cat which turns to blues, greens, and pinks as Mouse is freed to float away down the stream. When the rabbits eat Mouse’s gingersnaps and then reject her, the world turns dingy again as the storm threatens. The world brightens and fills with colors once more as Mouse finds a place she belongs.

A lovely look at community, acceptance and a watery adventure. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

Sunshine by Marion Dane Bauer

Cover image for Sunshine.

Sunshine by Marion Dane Bauer (9781536214116)

Ben lives with his father and his faithful imaginary dog, Sunshine. This summer, he’s going to spend an entire week with his mother, whom he hasn’t seem since he was three. She lives alone on an island in northern Minnesota. As he and his father journey to meet her, Ben struggles to ignore Sunshine, since his father thinks Ben is too old to have an imaginary friend. After journeying to his mother’s island home by canoe, Ben finds himself struggling with his anxiety and often unable to speak. He has so many questions he wants to ask her and has imagined many conversations together, but nothing comes out. He desperately wants to figure out how to get her to return to living with them. Instead of asking, Ben spends his days on the island, giving his mother time to read. After a disastrous expedition to see some bears and another harrowing solo journey in a canoe, a disaster hits the island and a path to forgiveness is formed.

Bauer is such a remarkable writer. Her books are invitingly brief for young readers and also offer real depth of emotion. In this novel, she shows the struggles of someone with anxiety who is often asking “what if” rather than diving in. She doesn’t allow it to be superficial, instead really exploring what it feels like. At the same time, readers will realize that Ben is incredibly brave and fueled by anger that he won’t acknowledge. His connection to Sunshine is fully realized, from the way they curl up to sleep together to her position in the canoe to their ongoing friendship in a new place.

Ben is a complex character and so are his parents. His father is fastidious, clearly anxious himself in ways that Ben can’t articulate. His mother is a remarkable character in children’s literature. A mother who left her child behind for reasons that are hinted at but not fully revealed until later in the novel. Yet she is given the space to be warm, kind and caring while also being rather distant and reserved. She is many things, and also far more than she realizes.

A book full of dangers, adventure and heart. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Candlewick.

Follow That Frog! by Philip C. Stead

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Follow That Frog! by Philip C. Stead, illustrated by Matthew Cordell (9780823444267)

The great combination of Stead and Cordell return with another energetic and funny picture book collaboration. In a house full of chickens, there is a knock on the door. Sadie rushes to wake up Aunt Josephine. But Aunt Josephine is much more interested in sharing a tale of her time in Peru cataloging amphibians for Admiral Rodriguez who recently experienced a tragic banana accident. His son was flirting with Josephine when suddenly he was swallowed by a giant frog. Josephine gave chase, trying to catalog the fast-moving frog and rather disinterested in the fate of the Admiral’s son. The frog fled around the world, through deserts aboard an ostrich, into the waters of the Panama Canal, onto the back of a whale, all to lose sight of the frog forever. But who could be at the door?

Stead’s text is marvelous, moving from the rather wordy but fascinating Aunt Josephine into her story which is fast paced and frenetic. The journey around the world is great fun, dashing along behind the huge frog. There is so much to enjoy here, including Josephine’s ignoring of the Admiral’s son in all of this, her interest in nature and the world, and the story-within-a-story structure. The ending is also a delight sure to satisfy readers.

Cordell’s illustrations fit perfectly with Stead’s writing. His merry illustrations add to the wild storyline with their large fonts. His truly huge frog is interesting as are the chickens peppered around the place. Throughout there is a sense of giggles rising to the surface.

A grand escapade of a picture book. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from copy provided by Neal Porter Books.

We Became Jaguars by Dave Eggers

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We Became Jaguars by Dave Eggers, illustrated by Woodrow White (9781452183930)

When a boy’s grandmother comes to visit, his parents leave him alone with her even though he doesn’t really remember her. His grandmother immediately drops to the floor and invites him to become a jaguar with her. He joins her, stretching himself thinner and becoming faster. Soon they are out in the forest, moving through it in the way that only jaguars can. The two drink from moonlit water, and his grandmother kills a rabbit and eats it. They venture to high lookouts, take occasional rests, and run fast and often. Their voices rumble like thunder together. As they head into the Himalayas, the boy remembers he has to return to school and wonders how long they have been gone. The ending refreshingly leaves questions of what was imagined and what was real.

Eggers writes in prose that is a mix of simple lines and marvelously captivating moments. Nature plays a large role in the book, inviting readers to think about venturing out into their own forests and having their own outdoor adventures. The time spent together sipping water from a lake, running fast and hard, and bouncing over water like marbles creates a vibrant relationship between the two characters as they get to know one another. It becomes less and less important what is real as their experiences together are what truly matter.

White’s illustrations are full of mystery and moonlight. He uses such deep colors in the book, allowing the jaguars to glow on the page, full of their own light. The gatefold page opens fully to allow the two people to transform in front of the reader into jaguars. The pages are deliciously colored, showing the wonders of nature and a variety of gorgeous landscapes.

Imaginative and invigorating, this playful picture book takes us to the wild side. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from copy provided by Chronicle Books.

The Star Outside My Window by Onjali Q. Rauf

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The Star Outside My Window by Onjali Q. Rauf (9780593302279)

Aniyah and her brother are new in the foster-care system. At ten-years-old, Aniyah grew up in a family where they worked hard to placate her father’s temper and eventually hid from him with her mother and little brother. Now her mother is gone, but Aniyah knows she isn’t gone forever. When Aniyah hears that a new star has been found in the sky, she knows that it is her mother transformed. But the international contest to name the star will get it wrong! Aniyah, her brother and two of the other foster kids in the house set out on a wild Halloween-night journey to London and the Royal Observatory to make sure that the star is named after Aniyah’s mother after all.

This is the second book by the author of the award-winning The Boy at the Back of the Class. It is a story of familial abuse and terror, but told through the eyes of a ten-year-old whose mother tried to shelter her from what was actually happening. Aniyah has stories built around all of the noises she heard, from “moving furniture” to “playing hide and seek.” It makes the truth of the matter all the more haunting for readers who will understand what happened to Aniyah’s mother long before the character does.

It creates a deep tenderness between the reader and the main protagonist. Aniyah and her little brother are voices of pure innocence in the book, accompanied by other children who have been warned not to reveal the truth to her. Their lengthy experience in foster care contrasts profoundly with Aniyah’s demonstrating to the reader how special their foster mother is and how traumatic many of the children’s lives are.

A fine weaving of grief, innocence and trauma. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy provided by Delacorte Books for Young Readers.

Dungeon Critters by Natalie Reiss and Sara Goetter

Dungeon Critters by Natalie Reiss and Sara Goetter (9781250195463)

Join a band of brave heroes who adventure through dungeons and then take on more sinister threats above ground. There is Rose, the pun-flinging pink cat mage. June is the quieter dog healer who keeps the entire group alive. Goro is the big green creature who serves as the muscle. Finally, Jeremy is the frog with a sharp sword and a vendetta against The Baron. After finding a strange plant, our heroes must figure out how it is being used by The Baron to potentially take over the world. As they work through the threats and puzzles, the group steadily reveal themselves to the reader. Goro misses his boyfriend Horse Boy and Jeremy seems to be far more royal than he first appeared. Meanwhile, there is some romantic heat between Rose and June that plays out throughout the book.

Perfect for anyone who has spent time with Dungeons and Dragons or crawled through video game dungeons like World of Warcraft, this book is captivating. There is plenty of action for those who love that aspect of gaming, but really where this book shines is in the character development, just like any great D&D campaign. The inclusion of LGBT elements and full-on romance is marvelous. It’s a book sure to make everyone feel included in gaming, dungeons and even fancy dances.

The art is bright and dashing while the writing adds the joy of puns as well as moments that will have you laughing out loud. The two together make for a book that is a fast read because the action gallops along and readers will want to know what happens to these characters that they love.

Full of action, romance and humor, this is a dungeon worth crawling for. Appropriate for ages 10-14.

Reviewed from library copy.

Donut Feed the Squirrels by Mika Song

Cover image of Donut Feed the Squirrels

Donut Feed the Squirrels by Mika Song (9781984895837)

Norma and Belly are squirrels who live in a large tree together. When Norma tries to make pancakes for breakfast, she burns them so badly that not even Belly can eat them. Then they smell something even sweeter coming from a food truck nearby: donuts! They try collecting nuts to trade for a donut, but the man in the truck squirts them with water instead. It’s time for a cunning plan that will need bravery, dexterity, cooking skills and a getaway car! They leave a real mess behind, but also one great idea that inspires a new donut flavor: sweet chestnut.

This graphic novel for elementary-aged readers is a real treat! The entire story is told in dialogue that is minimal and full of silliness. This creates a fast read, speedy and racing ahead of the reader, keeping on great pun in front. The book is full of squirrel ingenuity too and a sense that great ideas can come from anywhere, as well as a skilled getaway driver.

Screamingly funny at times and wildly silly, this graphic novel’s illustrations use white space cleverly. The expressions on the squirrels’ faces are marvelously emotive, their ears and eyebrows moving around, their mouths often open in surprise, and their eyes always thinking of something new to do.

Nutty and sweet, this is a marvelous read sure to appeal to those who love furry critters with their donuts. Appropriate for ages 7-11.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Random House Graphic.

Lightfall: The Girl & the Galdurian by Tim Probert

Lightfall cover image

Lightfall: The Girl & the Galdurian by Tim Probert (9780062990471)

Bea lives with her adopted grandfather, the Pig Wizard. Their life is quiet and simple with Bea entering the forest each day to gather ingredients for the potions they sell. Then one day, when Bea falls from a tall tree, she meets Cad. Cad is a Galdurian, a member of the ancient race who created the lights in the sky and rescued everyone from constant darkness. When they return to the shop, the Pig Wizard is gone, headed out on a quest that may or may not be real thanks to his faulty memory. Bea and Cad head after him, journeying across the land and encountering many strange and dangerous things. There are huge crabs that try to kill them, lizard men who try to eat them, and a pack rat who keeps stealing Bea’s Jar of Endless Flame. Meanwhile, in darkness, more creatures are stirring, creatures who are after what Bea has and who will follow her anywhere to get it.

In this debut graphic novel, Probert shows himself to be a graphic novelist of superb skill. The art and story flow together seamlessly, creating a world that shines with golden light. He creates vistas in his world so that readers can view the expanse of the continent. Then he populates this glowing world with amazing elements straight out of fantasies like the Last Airbender, Star Wars or Indiana Jones. With a sly sense of humor, he brings this world fully to life.

Cad is a marvelous hero, mowing down villains with his sword, and devoting himself to saving others. He is part frog, part giant, and full of myth and wonder. Bea is a great contrast with him. She worries a lot, the darkness spreading around her limbs and head, almost carrying her away at times. But she is also a hero, jumping in when she is needed, bravely fighting off foes and having cold feet (literally) along the way.

The first in a new graphic novel series that is sure to delight young fantasy fans. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by HarperAlley.

Fly on the Wall by Remy Lai

Cover image of Fly on the Wall

Fly on the Wall by Remy Lai (9781250314116)

The author of Pie in the Sky returns with the story of a twelve-year-old who wants to prove his maturity to his helicopter family. Henry’s family monitors what he is doing all the time, packing his backpack for him, making sure he has eaten, and hovering all the time. But Henry knows he can do a lot more than they think. That’s how he came up with a very exact plan to prove his independence: he will fly from where he lives in Australia to Singapore where his father lives. He’s also running from being exposed as the author of a nasty gossip comic at his school, something he is both proud of and terrified by. He just needs his ex-best friend to follow through on the plan, or he will definitely get caught!

The entire adventure that Henry experiences is a delight to experience by his side. His sense of humor both in his gossip comics and on the page is broad and very funny. Throughout the book, he is a disciple hoping to find a shifu to teach him what to do next in his quest. When he meets a girl on the plane, he soon discovers that she might just be the shifu he is looking for, if he can keep from making her so mad that she stops talking to him.

With the text broken up with illustrations done in neon green washes and black ink, this book will appeal to readers of Wimpy Kid. The illustrations range from single illustrations to panels in series to examples from Henry’s own blog done in a completely different style.

Funny, insightful and proof that everyone worth knowing is a little strange. Appropriate for ages 8-12.

Reviewed from copy provided by Henry Holt and Co.