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.

 

Not As We Know It by Tom Avery

Not as We Know It by Tom Avery

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.

 

Maybe a Fox by Kathi Appelt and Allison McGhee

Maybe a Fox by Kathi Appelt and Allison McGhee

Maybe a Fox by Kathi Appelt and Allison McGhee (InfoSoup)

Jules and Sylvie are sisters, just one year apart. They live with their father in a house that backs onto a woods with a river. There is one part, the Slip, where the girls are forbidden to go, since it’s so dangerous, where the river goes underground. When the girls awaken to late spring fresh snow, Sylvie just has to run down to the river to make a wish. Her wishes are always the same, to run faster. Jules is left behind at home after the two make their snowman family together. Jules waits and waits, but Sylvie does not return. That’s when Jules discovers that Sylvie has disappeared into the river. It’s also when a pregnant fox feels a spirit enter her female cub, a special spirit that has a connection to humans, specifically Jules. Two young females, a fox and a girl, both searching for what is missing and both unable to turn away from their shared bond.

Appelt and McGhee have written a blazingly beautiful novel that pairs adept writing with a powerful connection to nature. The book begins on a spring day filled with snow, a magical time. But even at the beginning there is foreshadowing that something is going to happen, there is the danger of the Slip, the speed of running, a certain desperation, a dead mother. It all adds up gracefully and powerfully to danger and then death. It’s the glorious writing that allows that to be both shocking and also entirely expected too.

The part of the story with the fox brings a richness to the story, another piece that falls into place of animals that have connections and even responsibilities. It too is written with a beauty and a combination of real understanding of foxes and wild animals and then also a haunting connection to death. The entire book also relies on its setting that is shown from human point of view and then again with different terms in the fox viewpoint as well. That element helps to sew the two halves of the book tightly together into a whole. A whole that sings about death, about loss, about grief, and about the power of nature to heal.

Incredibly moving and richly detailed, this novel is a powerful read. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from Atheneum.