Me, Toma and the Concrete Garden by Andrew Larsen, illustrated by Anne Villeneuve (9781771389174)
Vincent is staying with his aunt Mimi for the summer. She lives in an urban neighborhood with lots of concrete. Vincent is set for a dull summer where one of the most interesting things is the box of dirt balls that Mimi has from a previous boyfriend. But then Vincent meets Toma, a boy from the neighborhood. The two of them spend time together playing and take the dirt balls and toss them into the empty lot across the road. Soon not only is their friendship blossoming but the empty lot is being transformed by the dirt balls they tossed, dirt balls full of seeds. As the community joins together to care for the new garden, Vincent has to head home, but he will return next year to a neighborhood transformed by nature.
Larsen manages to show an urban neighborhood that is disconnected but still active before the garden appears. There are ice cream trucks, nosy neighbors, and balconies that connect people. Yet it is still a concrete space that needs something. It needs a garden! Told in a gentle tone and at a pace that allows space for the book to grow, this picture book is about transformation and community.
Villeneuve’s illustrations are done in quiet grays, pinks and blues that are almost hazy on the page. They transform along with the garden into vibrant colors of green that anchor the community visually and firmly.
A lovely picture book about the power of nature to create community. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from library copy.
Hungry Hearts edited by Elsie Chapman and Caroline Tung Richmond (9781534421851)
Welcome to Hungry Hearts Row, a neighborhood united by good food from many different cultures. Told in thirteen linked stories, this novel explores the power of food to connect, change, grow and even fall in love. There is the story of food that can give you courage and other dishes that can help you get revenge as long as it’s justified. There is the story of a food competition that unites a grandmother and her grandson. There is the quiet girl who knows just what pastry you need just then. There are haunting tales of sacrifice and pain. The stories bridge generations and cultures, they show a neighborhood brimming with new and old connections, and they fill the world with more than a little magic built on shared food.
More than a simple collection of short stories, these short stories are beautifully connected to one another. There are characters who appear across multiple stories long before they have their own tale told. There are restaurants glimpsed over the course of the entire novel, sharing their magic across many tales. Throughout the entire book, it is the neighborhood itself that is always consistent and full of details. Frankly, I’m not sure how this many authors managed to write such a cohesive and yet diverse set of stories. It is extraordinary!
One element of many of the stories is a sense of deep heritage that bridges generations. There are stories about grandparents and parents, about magic shared and taught, about food and the skill to make amazing meals together. Each story has mouthwatering descriptions of different foods, enough to make readers want to try something new and amazing immediately.
A remarkable short story collection about food and magic. Appropriate for ages 13-16.
Reviewed from copy provided by Simon Pulse.
Bear Came Along by Richard T. Morris, illustrated by LeUyen Pham (9780316464475)
A river flowed through the forest. The river had no idea it could have adventures until a big bear came along. As the curious bear toppled into the river, the adventure began. Soon Bear was joined by Froggy and they both climbed onto a log which headed down the river. Along the way, others joined them too. There was the beaver who could captain, the turtles who were worried about disaster, the raccoons who didn’t know how to be careful, and the duck they crashed into. Then came the waterfall…
Morris has written a book that begs to be shared aloud. From the various personalities of all of the creatures to the shared adventure that is filled with twists and turns, this book is full of fun. Morris uses an interesting turn of phrase throughout the book, with each additional animal and the river itself not knowing what they are capable of. It’s a great lens as each of the animals learns that they are not alone but instead part of a larger community and world.
Pham’s illustrations are zany and ever so funny. He completely captures the personalities of each of the characters as they head down the river. From their body language to their expressions, these creatures are in for a lot of adventure together. The added joy of the maps of the river as the endpages are great. Grayed-out at first, they are full color at the end.
A wild ride of a book that is really all about shared fun and community. Appropriate for ages 2-4.
Reviewed from library copy.
Daniel’s Good Day by Micha Archer (9780399546723)
When Daniel walks to his Grandma’s house, many of his neighbors tell him to “Have a good day!” So Daniel decides to find out what makes a good day for some of the people he meets. Mrs. Sanchez, who paints houses, has a good day when the skies are clear so that she can paint. Emma has her kite along and a good day is one with a steady wind. Some people want a shady bench, others for their little ones to take a nap, The bus driver wants a please and thank you, while the gardener is looking for bees on her flowers. Daniel’s grandmother says that a hug from Daniel makes for a good day for her. In the afternoon, as he returns home, Daniel discovers that everyone found what they needed to have a good day, and so did he.
This second book about Daniel is just as charming as the first. The premise of looking at simple things that make for a lovely day allows children to see the importance of small elements in their own lives. Nothing here costs money, all items are significant and create joy in that person’s life. The writing is simple and straightforward, using the structure of an answer to Daniel’s question to move ahead at a brisk pace of a child walking through his urban community.
The illustrations are beautiful. Done in paper collage, they are filled diverse community members. In a city setting, the art also shows gardens and parks to fill the pages with green. The vibrant community is captured very successfully on the page with bright colors and lots of activity.
Another winner for Daniel. Appropriate for ages 2-4.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Little Guys by Vera Brosgol (9781626724426)
The Little Guys are very small but when they work together they can do almost anything! Using leaves to float, they cross deep water. In the big forest, they hold hands to stay together and keep from being afraid. They find berries and form a stack to reach them. But as they continue their search for more and more food, they start using their combined strength in a way that upsets the rest of the forest. Chipmunks go flying, owls get forced out of their nests, and they even beat up a bear! Soon they have all of the food in the forest! But have they gone too far?
Brosgol follows her incredible Leave Me Alone! with this clever look at the impact of collective action and what happens when even the smallest of us upset the balance of nature and society. The text is simple and straightforward, told in the voice of the Little Guys as they head out scavenging. They are full of confidence as they make the trek to find food and it’s a stirring picture of the power of community until it goes awry in such a spectacular way.
Brosgol’s Little Guys are ever so adorable with their acorn caps and stick-thin limbs. Their orange bulbous noses also add to their appeal. With almost no facial expressions, it is impressive how she gives them emotions with body language. The dwarfing of their size in the forest and beside the other animals is also effectively portrayed.
A delight of a picture book that is an unusual look at sharing with your community. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy provided by Roaring Brook Press.
The Line Tender by Kate Allen (9780735231603)
Released April 16, 2019.
An incredible debut novel, this is the story of Lucy, a thirteen-year-old girl who lives in Rockport, Massachusetts. Her mother, a shark biologist, died when she was seven of a brain aneurysm while out in a boat studying sharks. Lucy lives with her father, a diver who puts in lots of extra hours as he works to rescue or recover people. Lucy also lives next door to her best friend, Fred. Fred is a scientist while Lucy prefers art. Together during the summer, they are working on a field guide about wildlife in Rockport. So when Sookie’s nets bring in a great white shark, Lucy and Fred immediately head to the pier to see it. Fred begins to study Lucy’s mother’s proposals to study sharks in a new way. When tragedy strikes, Lucy must figure out how to navigate a new loss even as white sharks begin to appear along the coast, seeming to be a sign to follow a specific path to learn more about her mother.
The writing here is simply incredible. Allen invites you into Lucy’s world, showing how a community came together to help raise her when her mother died. The setting in Rockport is drawn with attention and love. From the wildlife and beaches the two friends explore to the community with its open doors, lifelong connections to one another, and always room for Lucy. The sheltering nature of the community make the deep loss all the more shocking and affecting.
It is hard to believe that this is a debut novel given its attention to detail, meticulous building of a story, and the immediate trust one has in the author. Lucy is an incredible character. She has overcome one loss already, so the next one could maybe break her. Instead, she copes in inventive ways, asks for help and pulls her friends and family closer to her side. The information and connection to sharks is an effective way to allow the story to move forward even as everyone is trapped in their grief.
A brilliant debut that is rich, layered and shows that connection to nature can allow one to weather new storms. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Dutton.
Thank You, Omu! by Oge Mora (9780316431248)
When Omu makes her thick red stew in her apartment, its delicious smell brings people to her door to discover what she is cooking. One by one, she feeds each of them some of her stew. There is the little boy, the police officer, the hotdog vendor, and many more. By the time Omu has given each of them a bowl, her large pot of stew is empty and there isn’t any left for her own dinner! Someone once again knocks on her door and it is all of the people she fed that day offering their own thanks and food to share with her.
Mora writes with the feel of a traditional tale. On just the first page, there is a cadence that feels immediately familiar and warm. Details are shared in just the right way, then the repetition kicks in, linking this even more with a traditional folktale. Mora has crafted the book with collage pages that combine different mediums. The stew itself is always red and often flowered. The smell wafts across the page in a swath of light-colored haze. Meanwhile, the vibrant urban community is brought to life and abuzz with energy.
A top read-aloud of the year, this picture book should be shared just like red stew. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Very Last Castle by Travis Jonker, illustrated by Mark Pett (9781419725746)
The very last castle stands in the middle of a small town. No one ever goes into the castle and no one ever comes out. A single guard looks out from the tower. The townspeople can hear noises coming from the castle. Some think it might be monsters, others think it could be giants or snakes. Ibb is a girl who lives in the town and thinks about the castle a lot. One day, she gathers her courage and knocks on the huge castle door, but no one answers and she hears a terrible hiss. Soon afterward, Ibb gets an invitation to appear at the castle gate on Sunday. Ibb goes to the castle and is let inside where she discovers the source of the noises and forms a new connection with the man who lives there.
Jonker’s first picture book is impressive. He uses a traditional picture book tone here built on wonder and curiosity. The incorporation of the various noises that emanate from the castle is a very nice touch, making the book all the more fun to share aloud. His writing is focused and tight and the story can be read both as a straightforward tale but also as an allegory for the walls we build in our lives.
Pett creates a winning young heroine for readers, someone who firmly roots this book in the modern age with her backpack and school days. The juxtaposition between the ancient castle and the young girl works particularly well. The art is playful and the reveal of the interior of the castle is worth the suspense.
A picture book worth exploring. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy provided by Abrams.
We Are Grateful: Otsaliheliga by Traci Sorell, illustrated by Frane Lessac (9781632896339)
This picture book looks at modern life in the Cherokee Nation. Looking at being grateful, the book explores the year and its seasons. Along the way, various Cherokee words are shared with the reader both in English lettering and also in Cherokee syllabary. Throughout the book, a strong connection with nature is shared with buckbrush, cane flutes, wild onions, and large gardens. There is also a clear connection with Cherokee history from the Trail of Tears to family members who have passed on to festivals and memorials. This is a book about community that celebrates the earth, survival, and family.
This is Sorell’s debut picture book. A member of the Cherokee Nation, her prose here reflects her skill as a poet, bringing a soaring feel to the moments she shares. The book ends with a glossary of terms that will inform readers about the connection to things like stickball and gigging. Sorell uses the title phrase of “We are grateful” again and again in the book, creating a rhythmic feel of a traditional tale.
Lessac’s illustrations are done in gouache, creating bright and rich colors that show entire scenes on the page. The greens of nature, the blues of the water and sky, the bursts of color in homes and gardens, all have a great depth of color.
A wonderful modern look at Cherokee traditions and our universal gratitude for community and family. Appropriate for ages 5-9.
Reviewed from library copy.