Allie, First at Last by Angela Cervantes
Released March 29, 2016.
Allie has never won anything in her life. Her entire family though has a shelf of trophies. Her older sister is a national debate champion. Her brother is a star soccer player. Even her little sister is a rising star as an actress. Allie is almost certain she is going to win the science fair, but it ends up a disaster instead of a win. That’s thanks to “help” from Victor, a new boy at school. When another opportunity to win an award comes up, Allie knows that she has to try hard. She decides to do a photo essay on her great-grandfather who is a decorated World War II veteran. But her ex-best friend who won at the science fair has also decided to use Allie’s grandfather as the subject of her entry. When is it going to be Allie’s turn to shine?
This is a very accessible book, written with a light hand and a friendly tone. That lightness allows this book to deal with deeper truths without getting caught up in darkness. It is a book that speaks to the importance of doing well, healthy competitiveness and the pleasure of a job well done. It also looks deeply at how that healthy competition can twist and become something that is no longer positive in one’s life. Allie’s entire family tries to teach her this in different ways, some by being more competitive and others speaking to her intrinsic worth whether she has trophies or not.
While Allie was a great protagonist, two secondary characters really stand out in this book. First is Victor, a boy who is from a poor family and someone that Allie assumes is being tutored. It turns out that Victor is incredibly smart and is doing the tutoring. Victor though is less concerned with acclaim than with his future. Allie’s great-grandfather is another amazing character. He offers sage advice and a point of view that is particularly filled with grace and compassion. The fact that almost all of the characters in the novel are Hispanic and offer a wide array of points of view about life makes this book all the more winning.
A charming story with strong characters and a clear message that winning is not everything. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC received from Scholastic.
The Hula-Hoopin’ Queen by Thelma Lynne Godin, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton
Kameeka just knows she can beat Jamara at hula hooping, but her mother reminds her that today is Miz Adeline’s birthday, so she can’t go and hula hoop. Instead Kameeka has to help get ready for the party. Kameeka helps sweep, dust, wash floors, clean windows, and peel potatoes. Her mother makes a cake but Kameeka is so distracted that she sets the temperature too low and the cake is ruined. So her mother sends her out to get more sugar. On the way home from the store, Kameeka meets Jamara and the two start competing for who can hoop the longest. It isn’t until another of their family friends walks up that Kameeka remembers Miz Adeline’s party. Now Kameeka is going to have to explain why there isn’t a cake at the party. But some quick thinking finds a solution and then Kameeka herself is in for a surprise, hula hoop style.
This clever picture book shows different elements of a community. There are moments of good-natured competition, times that you have to put your own wishes aside and think of others, and other times where forgiveness is important too. Godin manages to wrap all of this into a very readable book that invites readers into the heart of a tight-knit community where the older generation may just has some tricks up their sleeves too.
The illustrations by Brantley-Newton show a diverse urban community with busy streets and brightly-colored stores and shops. She uses patterns to create the curbs on the road, wall coverings and floor textures. Despite being animated and dynamic, the illustrations keep a lightness on the page that keeps it sunny.
Community-driven, intergenerational and a great look at personal responsibility, this book has a wonderful warmth and charm. Appropriate for ages 5-7.
Reviewed from library copy.
Grandmaster by David Klass
Daniel is a freshman in the chess club of an elite private school. He knows he’s one of the poorest kids attending the school, one of the least popular, and also one of the worst chess players. So he’s surprised with two popular and wealthy seniors approach him to invite Daniel and his father to a father son chess tournament in New York City. He’s even more shocked to find out that his own accountant father who doesn’t seem to be good at anything in particular, used to to be a chess grandmaster thirty years ago. Daniel convinces his father to participate and quickly realizes that his father has a profound gift for chess. But as the tournament continues, the stress gets more difficult to deal with and Daniel realizes that his father quitting chess may have been a matter of life and death.
Klass, who was a competitive chess champion himself, writes a book about chess that never lags with too much chess information and is filled with real drama. Klass wisely mixes drama on the board with drama in real life, showing the complexity of competition on a variety of scales. I also appreciate that Klass slowly broke down the shell of the wealthy fathers and sons, showing them for whom they truly were. Happily, he did not end up with stereotypes in any way, rather he showed them all as individuals with various flaws.
Daniel is a great character. He doesn’t realize his own potential and is actually beyond humble. He has a great sense of humor as well, something that works well as he deals with his father. And what a paternal character that is! His father is an amazing mix of wounded chess veteran, incredible brain, and distant man. But that changes, grows, reverts and organically continues throughout the book.
A riveting book about chess, competition and father son relationships, get this book into the hands of chess playing middle schoolers, but even more it may inspire some kids to give the game a try. Appropriate for ages 12-14.
Reviewed from copy received from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Too Tall Houses by Gianna Marino
Rabbit and Owl live right next door to one another at the top of a hill in separate small houses. Rabbit likes growing vegetables and Owl likes the view of the forest. They were good friends. Until one day, Rabbit’s vegetables got so tall that they blocked Owl’s view of the forest. Rabbit refused to cut his vegetables down, so Owl built his house taller. Then Owl’s house was blocking the sun from reaching Rabbit’s garden, so Rabbit built a taller house and put his garden on the roof. So started the competition to have the tallest house. And my, do the houses ever get taller and taller!
Marino does a great job of telling a story that has the heart and soul of a classic folktale. The friendship and competition between the two animals carries a subtle lesson that is masked effectively in humor. She doesn’t back away from carrying the tale to its very funny extreme ending. The story is kept simple, allowing the illustrations to carry much of the story forward.
Marino’s illustrations have the colors of fall and warmth. From the orange branches Owl uses to create his home to the terra cotta bricks of Rabbit’s, the colors are bright and autumnal. As the houses grow into the sky, the colors are cooler, emphasizing that they are leaving the comfort of their warm homes and creating homes simply to beat someone else.
This is a funny, warm and memorable read that will get your audience laughing. Perfect for reading aloud any time of year. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Viking.
Shark vs. Train by Chris Barton, illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld
Two young boys dash to the toy box and dig around. One emerges with a shark toy while the other brandishes a toy train. So now the sides are clear, but which toy would win a battle? Well, that all depends! Would it be underwater or on train tracks? Would they be eating pies or having a burping contest? The ideas of the sorts of competitions will have readers giggling in delight as the shark wins one and then the train wins the next. Each competition is illustrated for humor and the reasons for winning are often surprising and funny. Get this book into the hands of children as quickly as you can!
Barton’s text is kept simple and easy. He frames the competition and then steps back to witness who wins. Towards the end, the competitions get wilder and neither shark nor train are comfortable. The book ends with the two boys being called to lunch. The illustrations are a large part of the pleasure and success of this book. The emotions on the faces of both shark and train will have readers quickly understanding the situation. There are small touches and asides in the illustrations that bring the story depth and added humor.
This book is sure to be popular in any library. Place it face out and it will disappear. The only question is whether it is the shark or train that gets the book more attention. Competition anyone? Appropriate for ages 4-7.
Reviewed from library copy.