Charlie and Mouse by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Emily Hughes (9781452131535, Amazon)
Based on Snyder’s own two sons, this early chapter book is a real delight. It perfectly captures the relationship of siblings who enjoy spending time together. The four stories in the book are alluringly short and yet immensely satisfying. The book begins with Charlie waking up to a lump next to him, a lump that isn’t ready to get up yet. The second story has the two boys deciding that it’s the day of a neighborhood party and gathering their parents and friends. In the third story, the brothers try to sell rocks for money and find that people would rather pay them to take rocks away. The final story brings the book full circle with the brothers getting ready for bed and the sleepy lump reappearing.
Snyder writes with a refreshing frankness about the children, depicting them playing without fighting and enjoying their time together. Still, these are real children who have silly ideas, strong personalities and a zany sense of humor. The two boys are wonderfully distinct from one another despite the shortness of the chapters.
Hughes is one of my favorite illustrators of children, showing them in all of their playful wildness. These two brothers are the same, their messy hair, interesting wardrobe choices, and outdoor play adding to the feel that these are real children. The illustrations also give a feeling of the neighborhood and community that the children are growing up in, a friendly feel with small town aspects.
We don’t see nearly enough stories about children who love spending time with their siblings. This book celebrates that as well as the silliness of childhood. Children will look forward to the next adventures of these brothers. Appropriate for ages 5-7.
Reviewed from library copy.
Not As We Know It by Tom Avery (InfoSoup)
Jamie and Ned are twins growing up together on a tiny island in the English Channel. They love to do things as a pair, from scouring the beaches for treasures that wash up from the sea to watching Star Trek on DVD. But Ned is not well. He is fighting cystic fibrosis and the most recent treatments don’t seem to be working. Then one day, the brothers find a strange creature on the beach. It is hurt and they carry it to their garage where they fill a tub with saltwater and care for it. It’s like nothing they have ever seen before with its scales and gills combined with arms and legs. As the boys care for the creature, their grandfather tells them tales of mermen and mermaids. Jamie starts to hope that the creature can work a miracle for Ned, though Ned sees it very differently.
This novel for middle grade readers is riddled with sorrow and the drain of watching a loved one slowly decline. Yet Ned is also a ray of light himself, refusing to let his disorder rule his life. Still, the book is clearly headed for Ned to go where Jamie can’t follow, a journey he has to take on his own. As the creature brings hope to Jamie, it also brings him distress as he recognizes that his hope may be futile and readers will see it as a natural way to keep from facing his brother’s approaching death.
Both boys are strongly written characters. Jamie is pure heart, trying to be there for his brother and leaving school to be homeschooled alongside his brother. Jamie is a source of adventure and normalcy for Ned, something that keeps them close and also buoys up Ned’s moods and health. Ned is unwilling to do anything but face the truth of his situation and yet that doesn’t limit his activities. Instead it seems to fuel his desire to be more than just a dying boy. The pair of them together are pure radiance.
A powerful, tragic and hopeful book about brotherhood and death with more than a touch of magic. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from e-galley received from Schwartz & Wade and Edelweiss.
As Brave As You by Jason Reynolds (InfoSoup)
Genie and Ernie are heading to Virginia to stay with their paternal grandparents for the very first time. Though they have met their grandmother before, this is the first time that Genie has met him. The difference between their lives in Brooklyn and their grandparents’ home in rural Virginia are huge. But that’s not the only thing that surprises Genie. He is shocked to find out that his grandfather is blind. Genie is a kid who is full of questions to ask all of the time and so he immediately asks his grandfather questions about his blindness. Genie knows that his older brother Ernie is braver than he is, always taking up fights for Genie and protecting him. He also knows that his grandfather is immensely brave too. When something goes wrong though, Genie will have to rethink what it means to be brave.
Reynolds is so amazingly gifted as a writer. He astounded me with this departure from his more urban writing. He captures the rural world with a beautiful clarity, using the natural world around as symbols for what is happening to the humans who live there. It is done both subtly and overtly, creating a book that is multi-layered and gorgeous to read. Throughout Reynolds speaks to real issues such as guns and disabilities. They are dealt in their complexity with no clear point of view stated, giving young readers a chance to think things through on their own.
Reynolds has created a fabulous protagonist in Genie, a boy filled with so many questions to ask that he has to write them down to keep track of them. He is smart, verbose and caring. Yet at the same time, he agonizes over mistakes, trying to fix them on his own and thus creating a lot of the tension of the book. The depiction of the grandparents is also beautifully done, allowing them to be far more than elderly figures. They are often raw, sometimes wise, and also dealing with life.
A brilliant read for the middle grades, this book is filled with magnificent writing and great diverse characters. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from Atheneum.
Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt
When Joseph joins Jack’s family as a foster child, Jack’s life definitely changes. Joseph is 14 and Jack is 12, both of them end up not going on the school bus the first day that Joseph goes to school, since the bus driver made a comment about Joseph before he even got aboard. So the two boys walk together to school, two miles in the winter weather. As they journey together, they get to know one another better. The dairy farm that Jack’s family owns is also another place where Jack can learn about Joseph. Joseph is immediately accepted by the cows, a good sign in Jack’s opinion. Joseph is desperate to find the daughter he has never met. But it is not simple to do that, even though his life is changing for the better.
Schmidt writes a spare and fierce novel here, one where the biting wind of the winter is tempered only by the warmth of a caring foster family and the love of a dairy cow. The sharpness of the cold is also cleansing, clearing the way for Joseph to tell the truth to Jack and his family. The relationships here are built in a natural and understandable way. It all feels real especially as the story veers into tragedy.
The two main characters are different yet brotherhood grows between the two of them quickly. It happens in leaps and bounds as they both discover that the other will be there for him. Yet that is how brotherhood and friendship works, it is slow until it is fast. This book captures that wonderfully. Jack’s parents are also well rendered, full characters who wrestle with the problems Joseph brings to the family and yet are available and open to see him as he is.
This is a book that speaks to the tragedy of some young people’s lives, the power of love to transform, and the impossible choices that life creates. It is powerful, beautiful and wrenching. Appropriate for ages 10-13.
Reviewed from library copy.
Loula and the Sister Recipe by Anne Villeneuve
The inventive Loula returns for her second outing in this picture book. Here she is sick and tired of her three brothers who refuse to play with her. So Loula decides that what she needs is a little sister, one who is just like her. So she goes to her parents and requests that they get her one. Her father explains that making a sister is a lot like baking a cake and needs special ingredients like a papa and a mama, butterflies in the stomach, a full moon, a candlelight supper, kisses and hugs, and chocolate. So Loula sets off to shop for those things with her ever-helpful chauffeur Gilbert. In the end, it all comes together in one amazing evening filled with candlelight, moonlight, and a sister surprise.
This second picture book about Loula again shows her determination and ability to look at a problem positively as something to solve. Infused with humor, young readers will know that her plan is probably not going to work out the way she thinks, yet few will expect the twist at the end when it comes. Having adored Gilbert the chauffeur in the first book, I was very pleased that this second book has much the same structure with Gilbert helping Loula gather everything she needs, including live butterflies.
The illustrations in this book have a loose flowing quality that has lots of motion and energy. Done in ink and watercolor, they vary from small illustrations with white backgrounds to two-page spreads filled with color. My favorite is the leaping Gilbert attempting to catch a butterfly in a net.
A strong young heroine with plenty of chutzpah combines with plenty of humor in this picture book series. Make sure to read both of the books because it’s even more time to spend with the amazing Loula! Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Kids Can Press.
The Crossover by Kwame Alexander
Josh Bell is a 13-year-old basketball star along with his twin brother Jordan. They are the sons of Chuck “Da Man” Bell, who used to play European ball. Now their father plays only with them, helping them learn the tricks of being a great ball handler. Josh also has a beat, a rhythm that he patters when he plays, creating rap riffs as he runs on the court. As he tells his story in verse, he also reveals more than just playing ball, he shows how he and his brother are becoming strong young men. It just may be though that the strongest man that they know has some weaknesses of his own, ones that come at a huge toll.
Can I just say how important this book is? It is a verse novel, A VERSE NOVEL, for pre-teens that is about young African-American boys who are being reared by two involved parents in a middle-class home. This book takes stereotypes and turns them on their heads. Then you have the incredible verse by Alexander, capturing the rhythm of basketball and also the beat of an entire family. The writing is so strong, so vibrant that the book can’t be put down.
Josh is a great character as is his entire family. None of them are stereotypes and both boys are different and yet similar to one another too. They both struggle with playing the best, meeting girls, living up to their parents’ expectations, and discovering the truth about their father. This is a coming-of-age story, but one that is dynamic and fresh.
Perfect for sports fans, this verse novel will surprise with its rap feel and its incredible depth. Simply spectacular. Appropriate for ages 11-13.
Reviewed from library copy.
Brothers at Bat by Audrey Vernick, illustrated by Steven Salerno
In one family from New Jersey, there were 12 baseball-playing brothers: the Acerra brothers. All of the brothers played high school baseball and their high school had an Acerra on it 22 years in a row! In 1938, the oldest nine brothers formed their own semi-pro baseball team. Their father coached the team and they played on dirt fields that were littered in rocks. Each of the brothers had a different skill set than the others. Some were slow runners but great players, others posed for the cameras naturally, one was a great pitcher that people still talk about today. But all of them supported one another. Then came World War II and the team disbanded as six of the brothers headed off to war. Happily, all six brothers returned from war. The brothers played their last game together as a team in 1952. By that time, they were the longest-playing all-brother baseball team ever. In 1997, the brothers were honored by the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Vernick shares this story of brothers who played together for most of their lives with a real sense of wonder and amazement at what they achieved. The story celebrates their strong brotherhood and sense of family as well as the love of baseball. Vernick offers all sorts of details that really create a vivid picture of the family dynamic and their lives.
Salerno uses a vintage style for the illustrations that firmly roots this picture book in the time period. They are colorful and action filled.
A great non-fiction picture book for baseball fans, brothers, or people who enjoy a little sports with their history. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from library copy.