The Most Beautiful Thing by Kao Kalia Yang

Cover image of The Most Beautiful Thing

The Most Beautiful Thing by Kao Kalia Yang, illustrated by Khoa Le (9781541561915)

Based on the author’s childhood growing up in a Hmong refugee family, this picture book looks at the impact of poverty on childhood and the incredible importance of a loving family. Kalia grew up with her grandmother who had been born across the ocean and once threatened by a tiger there. Now her grandmother is old with only a single tooth left. The luckiest of the grandchildren got to help take care of her. It was Kalia’s job to trim her fingernails and toenails. Her grandmother’s feet were rough and her toenails thick. They were cracked with dirt in the cracks from long ago. The family didn’t have a lot of money so regular ice had to stand in for ice cream, peppermint candies shared together took the place of a new dress. Kalia grew tired of not having enough money for treats, eventually asking for braces to fix her crooked teeth. But the family could not afford them. Her grandmother pointed out her own single tooth, and suddenly Kalia realized what beauty is, and it was not perfection.

Yang vividly tells the story of her childhood, inviting readers into her childhood home to see the care and love there. The dedication goes both ways, with her grandmother offering wisdom and love and the grandchildren sharing in taking care of her needs too. The book steadily builds to the take away, a moment that reminds me of the Russian folktale about the little girl describing her mother as the most beautiful person in the world when by societal standards she was clearly not. Throughout the book, poverty is handled in a matter-of-fact way with love as the healing force.

Le’s illustrations depict a household full of children, plants and toys. The wobbly family table and brightly covered couch add to the feel of a family in need but making do together. The Hmong tales told by the grandmother are lush and bright, carrying readers into a mystical world of jungles and creatures.

A thoughtful and rich picture book featuring a Hmong-American family. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Carolrhoda Books.

Robobaby by David Wiesner

Robobaby by David Wiesner

Robobaby by David Wiesner (9780544987319)

In a world of robots, a family gets a new delivery. Cathode has gotten a new baby brother called Flange. The baby comes in a box, advertising it as a new model. Quickly, Cathode’s parents start to assemble the new baby, but it seems that babies have gotten more complex since Cathode was assembled. The parents call on an uncle to come and lend a hand in building Flange. Though Cathode offers to help, she is pushed to the side as Uncle Manny starts to work. But he doesn’t follow the directions and with some “improvements” and a lack of software updates, it all goes wrong. With help from her dog, Cathode steps in, follows the directions, and does the software updates. Finally, there is a newly assembled baby in the family. But wait, there might be another surprise for this family!

Wiesner has won multiple Caldecott Awards and Honors. This picture book is a bit of a departure from his more serious books, offering a merry look at a robotic land where families are much the same as they are now. Cathode is a great character, undaunted by being ignored and willing to make her own choices. The text is strictly speech bubbles, allowing the illustrations to shine and the pacing to be wonderfully brisk.

The illustrations are done in watercolors that glow on the page, filled with the light of robot eyes and a white glowing floor that lights everything. The comic book framing of the illustrations works well as the action picks up, offering glimpses of what is about to go wrong before it actually does.

An engaging look at robots, STEM and sisterhood. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Clarion Books.

Spindlefish and Stars by Christiane M. Andrews

Cover image of Spindlefish and Stars

Spindlefish and Stars by Christiane M. Andrews (9780316496018)

Clo has grown up on the road with her father. They move from village to village, taking small things every time but also repairing and fixing paintings too. When her father doesn’t return one morning, Clo puts their regular leaving plan in action, waiting for him in the woods. But her father doesn’t come, instead sending a boy with a strange ticket and a garbled written message to head to the harbor. There Clo finds she has a half passage aboard a strange ship. They take her to a strange gray island where there are no seasons, no day or night. Clo must wait there for her father to join her. She makes one friend, Cary, on the island where she can’t understand what anyone else is saying except for him. Her grandmother has taken her in, trying to force her to eat a strangely cold and fishy stew that Clo refuses to even try. Her grandmother wants Clo to work, but Clo is busy trying to watch for her father and to figure out the mysteries of the island itself. Clo steadily figures out the mysteries of the island, but it may not be enough to save herself and her father.

Based on Greek mythology, this children’s novel is a marvel of a book. It steadily reveals itself, a puzzle started by an ink-blotched note, a strange transport via ship, and then an even more odd island. One knows there is more going on, but the book holds it back, revealing it to the reader just before Clo herself begins to figure things out. The ties to mythology are dazzling, offering the Fates and Icarus as major characters, though not obvious at first. The pacing here is just right, never losing itself in the grayness of the island nor moving too quickly to resolution.

Clo is a great heroine, braver than many would be in her situation. She is opinionated and stubborn, two qualities that serve her well as she figures out the mysteries of the island and does not bow down to the pressure to conform. Her connection with others serves as a beacon for her to find a way forward, even as it threatens her own existence.

Tantalizing, puzzling and very satisfying, this Greek myth fantasy dazzles. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

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

The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen

The Magic Fish cover image

The Magic Fish by Trung Le Nguyen (9780593125298)

Tiến loves to spend the evening together with his mother reading from a book of fairy tales. He reads while his mother continues her work as a seamstress, sometimes fixing Tiến’s clothing too. They don’t have much money, so Tiến’s jacket is full of patches. Happily, his friends don’t mind, not even the boy who Tiến has a crush on. As they share the tales, Tiến is searching for a way to share with his parents that he is gay, but they don’t speak English well, and he can’t find the right word in Vietnamese. When his grandmother dies in Vietnam, his mother leaves to prepare her funeral. Tiến is left behind to navigate his first school dance, where his teacher becomes concerned and he is sent for church counseling. What will his mother say when she finds out?

It is remarkable that this is a debut graphic novel. It is done with such finesse, weaving the fairy tales and the modern world together into a place full of possibility and transformation. The stories shared include versions of Cinderella and The Little Mermaid, versions that grow and change themselves with endings that will surprise those who know the better-known stories. In this way, the author creates real hope on the page, that things will change, that love will prevail and that understanding will flourish, both through tales and in real life.

The art here is unique and exquisitely done. Using color to tell readers whether they are seeing the real world in the present, a flashback or a fairy tale, the effect is both dramatic and clarifies the borders between the various stories. The fine-line work here is beautiful, from each hair on the character’s heads to gorgeous dresses that swirl across the pages to dramatic landscapes and undersea worlds.

A great graphic novel that is about diversity, acceptance and the power of stories to bring us together. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Random House Graphic.

My Day with Gong Gong by Sennah Yee

My Day with Gong Gong cover image

My Day with Gong Gong by Sennah Yee, illustrated by Elaine Chen (9781773214290)

May has been left with her grandfather, Gong Gong, to spend the day. But she doesn’t speak any Chinese and Gong Gong doesn’t speak much English. They go on a walk together through Gong Gong’s Chinatown neighborhood. Her grandfather knows everyone as they walk by, but May can’t understand what they are saying or why they are laughing. May gets hungry and asks for something to eat, but her grandpa just pats her head. They go to a Dim Sum restaurant next, but Gong Gong spends the time chatting, not eating. Then they head to the grocery store and shop. May thinks they may be heading home to eat, but instead they play cards with Gong Gong’s friends in the park. When a pigeon poops on May’s jacket, she bursts into tears. But it turns out that Gong Gong has been paying attention all along and has just the right toy and dumpling to help.

This picture book celebrates the generations spending time together, particularly those from immigrant families who have language barriers. Told entirely from May’s point of view with little asides to the reader of her confusion and hunger, the book captures May’s unease with her grandfather and her belief that he doesn’t understand her at all. That is then flipped around, as the book resolves into a grandfather who has been paying close attention all along.

The illustrations beautifully depict Chinatown streets with many people out and about and colorful shops and signs. The scenes shine with sunlight, showing readers the warmth and friendliness of the community long before May truly feels it herself.

A lovely look at grandparents and finding connection across generations. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Annick Press.

Swift Fox All Along by Rebecca Lea Thomas

Swift Fox All Along by Rebecca Lea Thomas, illustrated by Maya McKibbin (9781773214481)

Swift Fox is nervous. Her father is taking her on a long drive to meet her aunties, uncles and cousins. She will learn more about being Mi’kmaq. Her father assures her on the drive that she has all she needs already inside her; she is already Mi’kmaq. It’s how she walks, talks and thinks. Swift Fox just gets even more nervous. Swift Fox is greeted warmly by her family. They unwrap a red bundle, preparing to smudge, but she doesn’t know how to. They assure her that she does know, since it’s part of who she is. But it’s all overwhelming for Swift Fox, who bursts into tears and runs outside to hide. She keeps hidden until she starts to smell the familiar smell of the bread her father makes. Then another cousin arrives, he is just as scared as Swift Fox is. Suddenly Swift Fox can help someone else, and it gets her to go back inside with her cousin and show him things as she learns too.

Thomas has written a very personal book that reflects her own upbringing off of the reservation. In her Author’s Note, she explains the impact of the residential schools on Native cultures and languages. Still, their identity survived. Just like Swift Fox, Thomas continues to learn about her Mi’kmaq identity. Readers of all backgrounds will be inspired by Swift Fox and her transformation of her fear into an energy to help someone else.

McKibbin’s illustrations center on the warmth of Swift Fox’s two families, both her mother and sister and then her large extended family through her father. She captures the characters’ complex emotions on the page, allowing readers to really feel Swift Fox’s butterflies, her fear, and then her inspiration to move ahead.

A powerful book about identity and family. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Annick Press.

On Account of the Gum by Adam Rex

Cover image for On Account of the Gum

On Account of the Gum by Adam Rex (9781452181547)

After falling asleep chewing gum, it ends up in your hair. When your father tries to cut out the gum, the scissors end up stuck there too. They look online and discover that all the website advise to use two sticks of butter. But the websites were wrong, and the butter is also now in your hair. Your aunt adds the grass. Your grandpa adds the bacon and noodles. Your rabbit eats grass, but ends up stuck too. Perhaps the cat will help? Or scaring the cat away from your head with the vacuum cleaner? Nope, those are stuck too. But don’t worry, the firemen are on their way!

Rex writes this book in the second person, inviting the reader to feel what it’s like not just to have gum in your hair, but all of these other things. It makes the book feel personal and also adds to the wild hilarity as the story builds. The focus of the illustrations is just like the cover, with the desperation building. Rex continues to add to the humor all the way to the end, creating a real catastrophe that will have children entirely engaged.

The illustrations are marvelous with the various family members coming in with their own solutions. The desperation in the main character’s eyes adds to the hilarity, even as they look right at the reader. There’s a wonderful blankness there too, a sense of despair.

Hilarious, this is one you are bound to stick with until the end. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Chronicle Books.

Fly on the Wall by Remy Lai

Cover image of Fly on the Wall

Fly on the Wall by Remy Lai (9781250314116)

The author of Pie in the Sky returns with the story of a twelve-year-old who wants to prove his maturity to his helicopter family. Henry’s family monitors what he is doing all the time, packing his backpack for him, making sure he has eaten, and hovering all the time. But Henry knows he can do a lot more than they think. That’s how he came up with a very exact plan to prove his independence: he will fly from where he lives in Australia to Singapore where his father lives. He’s also running from being exposed as the author of a nasty gossip comic at his school, something he is both proud of and terrified by. He just needs his ex-best friend to follow through on the plan, or he will definitely get caught!

The entire adventure that Henry experiences is a delight to experience by his side. His sense of humor both in his gossip comics and on the page is broad and very funny. Throughout the book, he is a disciple hoping to find a shifu to teach him what to do next in his quest. When he meets a girl on the plane, he soon discovers that she might just be the shifu he is looking for, if he can keep from making her so mad that she stops talking to him.

With the text broken up with illustrations done in neon green washes and black ink, this book will appeal to readers of Wimpy Kid. The illustrations range from single illustrations to panels in series to examples from Henry’s own blog done in a completely different style.

Funny, insightful and proof that everyone worth knowing is a little strange. Appropriate for ages 8-12.

Reviewed from copy provided by Henry Holt and Co.

Ty’s Travels: All Aboard! by Kelly Starling Lyons

Ty's Travels All Aboard by Kelly Starling Lyons

Ty’s Travels: All Aboard! by Kelly Starling Lyons, illustrated by Nina Mata (9780062951120)

Ty loves adventures and most of all he wishes his family would play with him. But his father is busy making dinner, his mother is folding the laundry, and his big brother is doing his homework. Ty spots an empty box and knows just what to do with it. Soon he has built a train engine and begins a journey down the tracks. At the first stop, someone is waiting! It’s Daddy, who climbs aboard. At the next stop, it’s Momma who comes aboard in time to see the city go by. The next stop has his big brother join in. The last stop comes eventually and they are back home just in time for dinner.

There is real challenge in writing a good easy reader and Lyons meets that challenge head on here. With her story of a supportive and playful family, she has a story that can be told simply. It has plenty of action and motion to keep the story moving forward in a way that is paced perfectly for new readers.

The illustrations by Mata are friendly and use the white space on the page nicely. They support the text on the page, offering new readers just the right amount of support visually. She also shows the imaginary journey clearly using crayon and simpler graphics that are done in a childlike style.

This series is a great pick for new readers. Appropriate for ages 3-6.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by HarperCollins.