Review: Pay Attention, Carter Jones by Gary D. Schmidt

pay attention, carter jones by gary d. schmidt

Pay Attention, Carter Jones by Gary D. Schmidt (9780544790858)

Carter’s family is a bit of a mess. On their first day of school, there are lunches to pack, socks to find, ribbons to tie, and dog vomit to clean up. So when an English butler appears on the doorstep just as Carter is heading out to buy milk, it solves a lot of immediate problems. Still, there are other issues that Carter is still grappling with, including grief and loss. As the story continues, readers learn more about the darkness in Carter’s family and his role as the oldest to be strong for everyone. As Carter matches wits with the butler who seeks to control all of Carter’s free time, the two become a team and along the way start a cricket league at Carter’s new school. As the past becomes too much for Carter to bear alone, he learns about the power of sports, teams and a good butler.

Schmidt takes the spirit of Nanny McPhee and Mary Poppins and gives us a male version in Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick. The book demands a certain amount of setting aside of disbelief for things like cricket being embraced by an entire middle school and a twelve-year-old driving a car. It is mix of lighthearted storytelling and deeper subjects, moving from eliciting laughter into moments of real tragedy with skill. Readers may not fully understand cricket by the end, but will know what a sticky wicket actually is and how the basics work.

Carter is a protagonist who is dealing with a lot. As the book progresses, he learns how vital he is for his little sisters and how his interacting in their lives is powerful. He steadily builds confidence as the story continues with the final scenes fully demonstrating not only his person growth but also the depth of his struggles. As the tragedies of his family are revealed, readers will be amazed that Carter continues on as he does despite it all. He is a figure of resilience and humor.

Another winner from a master storyteller, this novel for middle graders introduces cricket and one amazing butler. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Clarion Books.

 

Review: The House with Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson

The House with Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson

The House with Chicken Legs by Sophie Anderson (9781338209969)

Marinka never asked to be a Yaga, but since she is the granddaughter of a Baba Yaga, she has been learning to speak with the dead and guide them through the Gate and into the stars. All Marinka really wants is to make a real human friend and do things that other twelve-year-olds do. Making friends is nearly impossible though when you live in a house with chicken legs that can move you all over the world overnight. So when Marinka gets another chance to make friends with someone, she takes it, even if it breaks all of the rules that she has been taught. As her decision changes her entire life, Marinka is left to figure out who she really is and what she wants to be.

Anderson has a clear love of Russian folktales, taking a beautiful view of Baba Yaga and giving her a larger community, more chicken-footed houses and a longing for family. The folktales at the center of the book continue to reverberate throughout the story, offering Marinka distinct choices. Marinka makes her own decisions though, ones that readers will not agree with though they might understand. As her situation grows direr, Marinka becomes almost unlikeable, and yet Anderson is able to bring us back to loving her by the end.

Anderson surrounds Marinka with a beautiful and rich world. There is her own Baba Yaga, filling the house with good cooking, lots of love and ghosts every evening. Then there is Jack, Marinka’s pet jackdaw, who sits on her shoulder and puts pieces of food in people’s ears and socks. A baby lamb soon joins them as well. Yet by far, the most compelling member of Marinka’s home is the house itself. Filled with personality and opinions, the house is intelligent and ever-changing.

A dynamic retelling of the Baby Yaga folktale, this picture book offers a big world of magic and ghosts to explore. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Scholastic.

Review: The House in Poplar Wood by K.E. Ormsbee

The House in Poplar Wood by K. E. Ormsbee

The House in Poplar Wood by K. E. Ormsbee (9781452149868)

Released August 28, 2018

After their parents made an Agreement with Death, the Vickery twins had to live with it. It meant that Felix had to serve Death alongside his father, witnessing healing and dying every day. Felix was not allowed to go to school and could not ever see his mother. His father could not see his brother Lee or his mother ever again. Lee in turn lived with his mother on the other side of the house serving Memory. He took bottled memories, labeled them and placed them on shelves. Both brothers had errands in Poplar Wood, Lee to dispense of the memories and Felix to gather herbs. Their life was terrible but steady until Gretchen entered it, determined to figure out how Essie was killed. From a family of Summoners, Gretchen is second born and unable to conduct the Rites. Still, she insists on untangling what is happening in their small town as Death, Memory and Passion let their rivalry get out of hand.

Just writing that summary demonstrates how unique this book is, yet it also plays with existing myths about shades and summoning. The book makes Death, Memory and Passion into figures that are non-human but still have human desires like revenge and dominance. The book is constructed so that the reader learns more about this fictional world alongside the characters. Each brother knows separate elements and Gretchen brings her own understanding of the other part of the relationships with Shades to the book. The organic way that it plays out via the story itself makes it immensely satisfying.

The characters are definitely worth noting as well. Gretchen is the most compelling character. She is wonderfully curious, prickly and determined. There is no way to tell her no that she will accept and her tenacity drives the story forward. The two brothers are unique from one another as well, one who goes to public school and the other who doesn’t. Their lives are as different as can be, each raised by not only one parent but also influenced deeply by the Shade too. These factors play out in their personalities in a way that is subtle but also clear.

A great fantasy Gothic novel with a mystery at its heart. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Chronicle Books.

 

Review: A Stitch in Time by Daphne Kalmar

A Stitch in Time by Daphne Kalmar

A Stitch in Time by Daphne Kalmar (9781250154989)

Donut’s pops has passed away in an automobile accident and now her Aunt Agnes has come to stay in their small house in rural Vermont. Donut has grown up there, surrounded by the woods and all of the people she considers friends. There is Tiny, a huge boy with a big heart, who is her best friend. There is Sam, the man who taught her to do taxidermy and who creates displays for museums. It’s the place that Donut belongs, one where she can see her father in every part of their home and also her mother, whom she never knew. So when Aunt Agnes decides to take Donut back to Boston with her, Donut knows she must do everything she can to stay, even running away.

Kalmar has created a story with one heck of a heroine at its heart. Donut is unusual in so many ways, from her passion for rivers and geography to her taxidermy of small rodents and birds to her willingness to test out her father’s foldable boat. Donut is not one to shrink away from stating her mind or from taking action to support herself. Readers will immediately feel for Donut being taken away from her home, and in the end they too will be surprised at how Donut has grown and changed.

This historical fiction for middle grades is set in an interesting time period that we don’t see a lot of. It’s in rural Vermont around the 1920s. There is talk of bobbed hair, flappers and Prohibition. The setting of Vermont is fully realized in the book, particularly once Donut heads into the woods on her own. Then nature really emerges around her, beautiful and dangerous at once.

A strong piece of historical fiction, get this into the hands of readers who enjoy a strong protagonist, wilderness settings and cows. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Edelweiss and Feiwel & Friends.

3 New Picture Books about Compassion

The Funeral by Matt James

The Funeral by Matt James (9781554989089)

Norma has to go to her great-uncle Frank’s funeral. She has to miss school, and she gets to see her favorite cousin, Ray. But she still practices her sad face in the mirror. Their car joins a line of cars headed to the church. The funeral is long and Norma has to be quiet. Ray has trouble staying still for that long. Finally, the funeral is done. There are sandwiches to eat and then Norma and Ray head outside to play. They play all afternoon until it is time to go home. Norma thinks that her Uncle Frank would have liked his funeral.

James captures going to a funeral as a small child with a poignancy and beauty. Anyone who attended a funeral as a child will see their own memories come to life. Small things like the flags on the cars, playing outside the church, and the graveyard add up to a full day of remembering someone. James’ illustrations are done in acrylic and ink on masonite. They have deep colors and incorporate collage pieces as well. The illustrations open up and soar when the children go outside, the green of the grass taking much of the space on the page. This is a book that celebrates life and honors the perspective of the child. Appropriate for ages 4-6. (Reviewed from library copy.)

The Old Man by Sarah V

The Old Man by Sarah V., illustrated by Claude K. Dubois, translated by Daniel Hahn (9781776571918)

A little girl wakes up and gets ready for school. Outside, an old man gets up too from where he is sleeping on the ground. He is wet and very cold. He walks to warm himself up. He’s hungry and eats out of a trash can. But he is too tired to continue, so he falls asleep on the ground in a park. The police wake him and ask him to move along. He heads to the shelter for something to eat, but can’t remember his name when he’s asked. He leaves and it begins to rain. He sleeps on the bus but has to leave there too. Then the little girl from the beginning of the book appears and offers the man her sandwich. That evening, he is able to go back to the shelter and this time he remembers his name and gets a hot meal.

The author of this picture book focuses on the power of compassion for those around us. Societal issues are not tackled here, just the pieces of the day of a person experiencing homelessness. They are small but vital, each moment leading to the next and each impacting how the man feels and how well he is able to do. The text is very simple though the book is thicker than most picture books. That allows room for the sepia-toned illustrations that take us on a journey through the man’s day. They are shadowy, chilly and seep under the skin like a shiver. An important book about small acts of kindness. Appropriate for ages 4-6. (Reviewed from library copy.)

The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld

The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld (9780735229358)

One day Taylor made a wonderful creation out of blocks. But then everything came crashing down. One animal after another tried to help Taylor feel better. Chicken wanted to talk about it, but Taylor didn’t want to. Bear wanted to shout, but Taylor didn’t feel like it. Elephant wanted to rebuild it exactly the way it was, but Taylor didn’t feel like remembering. Others came one after another, but nothing worked. Taylor was alone until Rabbit came in, moved closer and just sat there right next to Taylor. The rabbit just listened and Taylor talked, shouted, remembered and much more. Then Taylor was ready to create something even better.

Doerrfeld has skillfully created a picture book that looks at anger and disappointment, at the process of working through big emotions and the importance of taking things at your own pace and speed. I appreciate that Taylor eventually is ready to talk, be angry and much more. This is not about bottling up emotions but about listening, supporting and moving forward in your own way. Using animals as the emotional reactions was a smart move, with the frowning bear and chattering chicken. The rabbit immediately changes the tone and feel of the book, mirroring what he is doing for Taylor as well.

An intelligent look at big emotions and how best to deal with them and support one another, this picture book is exceptional. Appropriate for ages 3-6. (Reviewed from library copy.)

 

Stealing Our Way Home by Cecilia Galante

Stealing Our Way Home by Cecilia Galante

Stealing Our Way Home by Cecilia Galante (9781338042962, Amazon)

When Pippa and Jack’s mother died six months ago, everything changed. Their father who had been holding everything together during the last months of her illness, suddenly disappeared into his work. Pippa hasn’t spoken since her mother died. Jack has taken on the responsibility that his father has dropped. Meanwhile, their electricity is being cut off and the children discover that their father has lost his car sales business. Their lives become more complicated as Jack is drawn into his father’s desperation for money and a dangerous scheme. Pippa suspects what is happening and is also struggling at school with her silence. It’s going to take fresh strength as a family for them to come out of this dark time.

Galante has created a multilayered novel that is complex and yet not overly long. She wisely layers in other characters who struggled with loss in their lives too, showing the various ways that people can react to grief. This allows readers to see the response of the father in the book as strange and confusing, much as it seems to Pippa and Jack. The book celebrates the power of family even as it is about one that is entirely falling apart. It is also about the love that makes people do stupid things to keep a family together just as those same decisions tear it further.

Galante tells the story from the points of view of both Pippa and Jack in alternating chapters. This is also a clever choice, showing the internal struggles of both children and allowing readers to see the pain that both of them are experiencing and yet displaying it outwardly in different ways. Throughout the book, the setting is vital and important, the lake itself becoming a reflection of emotions and a way to connect to life.

Beautifully written and intelligently crafted, this novel is a remarkable look at grief and families. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC received from Scholastic.

Big Cat, Little Cat by Elisha Cooper

Big Cat, Little Cat by Elisha Cooper

Big Cat, Little Cat by Elisha Cooper (9781626723719, Amazon)

Master picture book crafter, Cooper tells the gentle and poignant story of the friendship between two cats. The white cat lived alone for some time in his home until a new little black cat came. The older white cat helped the little cat learn what to do, how to use the litter box, when to rest, when to eat and drink. As the days and months passed, the black cat grew to be just as big as the white cat. Then one day, the white cat was gone and doesn’t ever return. Still, life continues and brings a new surprise.

Cooper excels at simple stories and illustrations with profound implications. Here there is a gentle message of death and life that is just right for little ones. There is a quietness here, a stillness that resonates throughout as well, the sense that a life well lived is the important thing and the connections made along the way. This is there, but subtle, a book filled with deep thought that is there to find but not projected at you. It’s a book of quiet insight.

Cooper’s illustrations are just as simple and discerning as the story itself. The use of black and white cats is a smart choice that allows the illustrations to stay simple and yet speak to differences and connections clearly and deeply. As the little cat grows, the two are different only in color and then the circle of life becomes all the more definite.

Simple and insightful, this book is solid and true. Appropriate for ages 2-4.

Reviewed from copy received from Roaring Brook Press.

 

Scythe by Neal Shusterman

scythe-by-neal-shusterman

Scythe by Neal Shusterman (InfoSoup)

Released November 22, 2016.

Set in a future where death no longer exists for humans, the only way to die is to be selected at random to be gleaned by a Scythe. Scythes live separately from other people and want for nothing though they usually live minimally. When Scythe Faraday appears in Citra’s home, her life changes even though he is only there for a meal and not to glean anyone in her family. Faraday also visits Rowan’s school where he gleans the school’s football star. Faraday then selects Citra and Rowan to serve as his apprentices and compete for the honor of becoming a scythe. However, there are forces at work in the scythe web of power that will set Citra and Rowan truly against one another and call into question everything that the scythes have been built upon. Citra and Rowan must figure out how to maneuver through the political and personal intrigue and survive.

Shusterman has created a future that many of us would say is a utopia, one where no one dies. Against that vivid and bright wonder he has created killing machines, people who glean or  murder with a personal touch that is horrifying, unsettling and all too real and logical. Shusterman has built a world that is striking and vivid. He has teens who kill themselves just to be restored to life again. He has elderly people who can reset their age back to their twenties again and again, so no one knows how old people actually are. It is a society both free from death and still obsessed with it.

Shusterman at the heart of the novel is also asking what makes us human. And could it be that mortality itself is a vital part of our lives? Is that what makes us musicians, artists and lifelong learners? It is against this dearth of art and knowledge that Citra and Rowan are growing up, looking forward to nothing in life other than its inevitability and endlessness. Then they are made scythe apprentices and the world shifts to something dark and dangerous. Suddenly though, they are alive.

Brilliant and complex, this novel asks real questions about life, death and the ability to murder for society. Appropriate for ages 14-17.

Reviewed from ARC received from Simon & Schuster.

 

Benny and Penny in How to Say Goodbye by Geoffrey Hayes

benny-and-penny-in-how-to-say-goodbye-by-geoffrey-hayes

Benny and Penny in How to Say Goodbye by Geoffrey Hayes (InfoSoup)

Benny and Penny return in another graphic novel perfect for new readers. In this story, the two mouse siblings start the story by jumping in piles of leaves. Penny worries that Benny will hurt the leaves, but Benny explains that the leaves are already dead. Then Penny discovers a dead salamander in the yard. Penny wants to bury the salamander but Benny gets angry and tries to stop her over and over again. As Penny moves ahead with burying the salamander with the help of another friend, Benny listens in and then starts feeling sad rather than angry about the little dead creature.

Hayes speaks to the experience of death for young children in a gentle and understanding way. He captures the movement from anger at loss to grief in a way that is organic and natural, allowing Benny the ability to feel his emotions and contrasting those with the way his sister is reacting. Both reactions are supported by the book, allowing children to think about their own emotions.

Hayes sets the book in autumn, showing seasonal aspects throughout the story. There are fallen leaves, bare trees, and a sense of change throughout the book. As always, Hayes beautifully illustrates his graphic novels, allowing them to be an ideal bridge between picture book and chapter book.

A lovely look at a child’s first experience with death, this graphic novel is gentle and filled with kind understanding. Appropriate for ages 5-7.

Reviewed from copy received from TOON Books.