Hurricane by John Rocco

Cover image for Hurricane.

Hurricane by John Rocco (9780759554931)

The boy who narrates this story of a hurricane has a neighborhood dock that he loves. No one ever uses it except for him. It’s old, splintery and weathered, and just perfect. He can fish from the dock, catch crabs and swim. One day when he returned home from the dock, the air felt different and his father was putting boards over the windows. A storm was coming. The winds were big enough to shake the whole house and the river crept up the street. The next morning, the boy headed back to his dock, ready to fish. But his neighborhood looked different and the dock was destroyed. The boy asked everyone for help rebuilding the dock, but they were busy fixing their homes. So he knew he had to do it himself. Day after day, he worked on the dock all alone. Just when he was about to give up, help arrived. The whole town helped rebuild the dock into something that they could all share.

Caldecott-Honoree, Rocco, continues his exploration of natural disasters with this third book following Blizzard and Blackout. Rocco captures the joy of being near water, both when you have a treasured place that you can use alone and when it’s bustling and shared. The connection with nature is evident throughout the book, with the unnamed protagonist taking solace during the storm by imagining himself under his dock. The hard work the boy does to get his special place back is then supported by the community and shows the power of helping one another.

Rocco’s illustrations are full of sunshine and water at first. They show how the boy loves his time at the dock. Then the storm comes and Rocco has captured the unique lighting of pre-storm hours and then the darkness that descends. The devastation afterwards is realistic and dramatic, with trees down, shingles on the ground, and a flooded road. The moment that the boy sees his dock is particularly heart-wrenching and also a moment of resilience.

This picture book celebrates nature and community even in moments of devastation. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Little, Brown and Company.

The Robber Girl by Franny Billingsley

Cover image for The Robber Girl.

The Robber Girl by Franny Billingsley (9780763669560)

The Robber Girl was rescued by Gentleman Jack when her family abandoned her. Now she is riding with him and his gang into the Indigo Heart to rob the stagecoach and get Gentleman Jack the bars of gold it carries so he can regain his birthright. Robber Girl has her own dagger, double-edged and sharp, that speaks directly to her in a pointed way that criticizes many of her choices. But the stagecoach is actually a ruse to capture Gentleman Jack. Now for the first time in her memory, Robber Girl is staying in a home. She is dedicated to rescuing Gentleman Jack from the jail, assuring him that she will never turn on him. At her new home, she discovers a dollhouse that is a miniature of the house, one with dolls who talk with her and set her three tasks. As Robber Girl stays longer, she starts to remember scraps of local songs, melodies and the truth, but the dagger’s voice stays just as pointed in her head, insisting that she keep it all forgotten.

The author of Chime returns with a middle grade novel that is a tremendous read. The Robber Girl is one of the best written unreliable narrators I have seen in a book for children. She fully believes what she has been told by Gentleman Jack, though readers will immediately realize that there are holes in the stories. As both the readers and the girl find clues to her past, the largest puzzle of the book is the girl herself and whether she can recover from denial and trauma enough to set her own course before being swept away again by the lies.

Billingsley has written great secondary characters as well. Gentleman Jack is tremendously charming and manipulative. The judge, who takes the girl in, and his grieving wife have real depth to their characters and their stories. They add another look at coping with loss and trauma to the novel. Even the children of the village, who may seem to be bullies, have other levels to them and reveal them over time. It’s an exquisite look at trauma, faith and belonging.

A stellar middle-grade novel that is a tantalizing puzzle of trauma and truth laced with a touch of fantasy. Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Candlewick.

Chez Bob by Bob Shea

Cover image for Chez Bob.

Chez Bob by Bob Shea (9780316483117)

As a rather lazy alligator, Bob comes up with a great plan to get birds to fly right up to his mouth. He opens a birdseed restaurant on his nose. After seasoning his birdseed with his favorite spices, so the birds would taste delicious, news soon spread about his restaurant among the bird community. Soon a small town grew around Chez Bob. Bob wanted to support the community, so he coached the bird basketball team and joined a book club. When a large storm came, Bob offered all of the birds shelter in his mouth. This was his perfect opportunity to eat them all! But he could hear them laughing and talking together and then looked around the empty town. He knew what he had to do.

Shea’s books are always a delight. This one contains just enough adult level humor that parents will enjoy reading it to their children multiple times. Just the book club page alone had me guffawing aloud, and there are lots of moments like that. While Bob may start out as a villain, I agree with him that hero isn’t too strong a word by the end of the story. There is great delight in watching Bob decide what he should do, all for the community good that he accidentally created.

Shea’s illustrations are large and bold, full of bright colors. They feature all sorts of little birds who come to Bob’s community and to Chez Bob too. Bob’s own scheming face is a delight as he plots to eat the birds. By the end though, the scheming grin turns into a genuine smile.

A delicious and sharp-toothed book about the transformation of a villain. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

Be Strong by Pat Zietlow Miller

Cover image for Be Strong.

Be Strong by Pat Zietlow Miller, illustrated by Jen Hill (9781250221117)

Being strong doesn’t just mean that you can make it to the top of the climbing wall in gym like Cayla. The young narrator has been told by her family that being strong will get you through life when hard times hit. But some days she can’t even lift her heavy backpack. So she asks her father how she can be strong. He tells her that strength is showing up like when they help people who have lost their homes. Her mother says strength is speaking up, like when her mother worked to get a crossing guard at a busy street. Her grandmother says it means not giving up, like her starting to run. So the girl figures out what the means for her, how she can help those around her, how she can speak up and change the way things work, and how if she keeps on trying she can reach her goals both on her own and with some help.

Miller cleverly plays against the stereotypical definition of strength early in this picture book. She shows that yes, physical strength is definitely strength and then proceeds through the rest of the book to show the other aspects of strength, including resilience, determination, speaking up, setting goals, and asking for help. Miller’s text is simple and reads aloud well. She nicely walks young readers through what strength is, allowing them to see it both in themselves and others.

Hill’s illustrations show a diverse cast of characters in an urban setting. The young narrator is Black and her community of classmates and others are a variety of races and religions. The illustrations are bright and friendly, inviting readers into a world where children can make a difference.

A vibrant look at strength and community. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Roaring Brook Press.

All We Need by Kathy Wolff

Cover image for All We Need.

All We Need by Kathy Wolff, illustrated by Margaux Meganck (9781619638747)

This picture book explores what we need to live. That includes essentials like air, food and water, then the book also explores the importance of learning opportunities, having a home, and the joy of family and friends. Told in poetic text, the book explores the necessities in ways that show how they bring special moments to our lives. For example, air is explained first as stillness and deep breaths. Food is explored both for filling bellies but also through the illustrations as cultural connection. This picture book takes simple essentials and shows the way they allow us to form community and inclusion.

Wolff’s poetic writing establishes those connections clearly, exploring the deep connection we have to air, water, food and one another. The book ends by establishing what we should do when we have enough or more than we need. Sharing becomes just as essential as the other elements here, connecting to new people and a larger community through generosity and giving.

Meganck’s illustrations are bright and colorful with a diverse cast of characters, including diverse races, religions and LGBT representation. The illustrations tell a lot of the story, showing playful elements of air and water. The images are given several full-page wordless spreads that reveal new ways to connect and form community with one another.

A look at sharing, connection and being human. Appropriate for ages 2-4.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Bloomsbury Children’s Books.

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.

The Perfect Plan by Leah Gilbert

The Perfect Plan by Leah Gilbert (9781547605262)

Maya dreams of having the “most incredible and wonderful” fort in the woods. So she researches, designs, plans and gathers supplies. Then she found the perfect spot in the woods for it. But when she started trying to build the fort, it didn’t turn out the way she had planned. But Maya didn’t give up. She went to the beavers at the river and asked them for help. They soon had plenty of branches, but they were too heavy to move. Maya spotted a moose in the trees and asked the moose to help them lift the branches high into the trees. But none of them could climb well enough. So Maya asked the bears for help. Soon they had a frame, but it wouldn’t stay in place. Maya and her team called to the birds for help and they twisted and wound vines around the frame to hold it. The fort was almost perfect, but then a storm blew in and Maya had to go home. Would the fort be ruined after all their hard work?

This story shows how working together and having each creature use their own unique talents can create something very special. At first, the book has Maya working in a solitary way with her own plans. That quickly changes when she needs help and asks for it. As the book proceeds, the words Maya uses to describe the fort they are building change too, to better reflect what that creature brings to the overall project. It’s a dynamic use of language, showing how Maya’s perspective changes with the help of others.

Gilbert’s art really reveals the magic of the forest on the page. Her illustrations are luminous with streaks and rays of sunlight coming through the trees. The greens are fresh and welcoming while the rainstorm is a threatening purple in the sky. The use of colors is very effective throughout the book.

A STEM look at building a fort with friends. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from copy provided by Bloomsbury.

On the Other Side of the Forest by Nadine Robert

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On the Other Side of the Forest by Nadine Robert, illustrated by Gerard DuBois (9781771647960)

A little rabbit and his father live together near the edge of a dark and menacing forest where no one goes. His father has always wanted to know what is on the other side of the forest, so he sets a plan in motion. He takes their wheat harvest and begins to bake bread. When other rabbits in the community come around, he offers them bread in exchange for four large stones. Those stones, the two rabbits use to start building a huge tower to see above the tall trees. Their work continues for weeks and weeks until one day a terrible storm knocks down all of their hard work. The father rabbit falls asleep exhausted near his ruined tower, and that is when the community of rabbits appears and helps to rebuild the tower, higher than it was before. After lots more bread, more stones and plenty of hard work, the tower is complete. The little rabbit and his father are the first to climb to the top and see the surprise waiting for them.

Translated from the original French, Robert’s picture book reads like a folkloric story filled with classic elements such as bread, stones and sacrifice. She uses a storyteller’s voice throughout the book, drawing readers into the story. She excels at brevity in her text, using just enough to keep the story moving ahead and also explaining what is happening with enough details to bring it to life.

The art is exceptional, marvelously mixing modern and vintage elements into something very interesting and unique. The idyllic countryside setting is shown both in the closeup images as well as those showing extensive landscapes. The process of building the tower uses all sorts of levers and pulleys, showing the ingenuity at work and the hard labor involved.

A book full of suspense, fresh bread and community. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Greystone Kids.

The Water Lady: How Darlene Arviso Helps a Thirsty Navajo Nation by Alice B. McGinty

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The Water Lady: How Darlene Arviso Helps a Thirsty Navajo Nation by Alice B. McGinty, illustrated by Shonto Begay (9780525645009)

Cody, a child living in the Navajo Nation, wakes up thirsty. The bucket in the kitchen is empty and so are all of the water barrels outside. This is the only water that Cody and his family have. Meanwhile, Darlene Arviso is getting ready to work. She has running water in her trailer, but many in the Navajo Nation do not. She climbs aboard the school bus she drives and delivers students to school. Then she heads to her other job. She fills the yellow tanker truck with water from the water tower and heads out onto the road once more. She drives many miles through the mesas, steep hills and valleys. Eventually, she reaches Cody’s home where she fills the water barrels. Over the course of a month, Darlene delivers water to over 200 families and then starts over again.

McGinty offers a glimpse into the story of one woman and her hard work that allows people on the Navajo Nation to survive without running water. At the same time, she also speaks to the hardship of lives lived without modern conveniences and the worry that can create in children like Cody. Throughout the book, Darlene is treated as the hero she is, a critical link to drinking water for families who ration it, using a fraction of what modern families tend to use.

Begay’s art captures the beauty of the Navajo Nation by showing many landscapes full of purple, blue and yellow light. Using watercolor washes to fill the background, he creates moments of worry, tenacity and joy as Darlene finally reaches them with water.

A powerful look at modern Navajos and the impact of community in the face of poverty. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Schwartz & Wade.