3 Picture Books Featuring Families

Alma and How She Got Her Name by Juana Martinez-Neal

Alma and How She Got Her Name by Juana Martinez-Neal (9780763693558)

Alma Sofia Esperanza Jose Pura Candela had a very long name, one that wouldn’t fit nicely on paper. So her father told her the story of her name. Sofia was her grandmother who loved flowers and books just like Alma. Esperanza was her great-grandmother who longed to travel the world. Jose was her grandfather who was an artist. Pura was her great-aunt who gave Alma her red thread bracelet. Candela was her other grandmother who stood up for what was right. When Alma asks about her first name, she is told that that is her name only so she can become whatever she wishes to be.

Ending with Alma feeling very proud and connected to each of her names, this picture book celebrates connections to family through naming traditions. It is lovely to see Alma identify with each of the family members and find aspects that are similar to her. I also appreciate having a father have this conversation, strengthening the paternal aspect as well. The illustrations are soft greys and blacks with pops of blues and reds that make the images come alive. A great picture book that will speak to many children. Appropriate for ages 4-6. (Reviewed from library copy.)

La Frontera My Journey with Papa by Deborah Mills and Alfredo Alva

La Frontera: My Journey with Papa by Deborah Mills and Alfredo Alva, illustrated by Claudia Navarro (9781782853886)

This bilingual picture book tells the story of a young boy who goes with his father north to cross the border and enter the United States illegally. From a small village in central Mexico, they left a place where their family had lived for over 100 years. When food got scarce, they headed north, leaving the boy’s mother and siblings behind. They traveled with “Coyote,” a man who helped them go north. Reaching the Rio Grande, they tried to cross but lost contact with Coyote. Now the boy and his father were alone. They walked and walked, hungry and tired. Even when they reached the United States though, things were not easy. The boy started school and time passed, until they could be reunited with their family again.

Set in the 1980’s, this book tells the story of Alva’s family with the Spanish and English side-by-side on the page. Written with the help of his neighbor, Mills, the book is filled with the harrowing dangers of border crossing. There are times when the two characters are clearly near death, exhausted and starving. By the end of the story though, hope fills the pages and a better future is clear. The illustrations are filled with rich gem colors. There are sapphire blue nights, emerald grass, and topaz land. The illustrations capture the drama of the story and also the closeness and love of the family.

An important book that tells the story of immigration to the United States for a new life. Appropriate for ages 4-6. (Reviewed from copy provided by Barefoot Books.)

Little Brothers & Little Sisters by Monica Arnaldo

Little Brothers & Little Sisters by Monica Arnaldo (9781771472951)

This picture book is a celebration of siblings and shows perspectives of both older and younger siblings spending time together. Throughout the book, the older siblings get the best of the younger ones. The older ones have a treehouse while the younger ones spy on them. The older ones get the couch and the younger ones the floor. The book then moves to the more private relationships of pairs of siblings, of mistakes and apologies. It shows how the older siblings help, how they lend a hand, give a boost. How they are best friends, after all.

The text in this picture book is very simple with much of the story being relayed through the illustrations. Filled with pairs of siblings, the book has a diverse cast of characters who show the universal complicated relationships of siblings. The illustrations are friendly and bright, filled with a jolly humor at the roles of older and younger siblings. A great pick for sharing with the siblings in your life. Appropriate for ages 3-5. (Reviewed from library copy.)

Review: Just Like Jackie by Lindsey Stoddard

Just Like Jackie by Lindsey Stoddard

Just Like Jackie by Lindsey Stoddard (9780062652911)

Robinson tries to behave in school so that her grandfather doesn’t have to leave his work at the garage and come to the office. She worries that the principal and teachers will notice that his memory is not that good anymore, particularly in the afternoon. But when the class bully won’t leave her alone, Robinson speaks with her fists and lands in trouble. Assigned to a special group that meets in the school counselor’s room, Robbie has to figure out whether she can trust the others. To make it harder, one of them is the bully whose been tormenting her. As Robbie’s grandfather’s memory gets worse, Robbie knows that she has to keep her secrets from everyone, until that becomes impossible.

In this debut book by Stoddard, she writes with a great confidence, allowing Robbie and her unique family to reveal themselves to the reader. The writing is strong, showing complicated relationships, a loving family and a school that steps up to help children in need. Stoddard deftly shows how assignments like a family tree can be daunting to a number of children whether they are dealing with a dying parent, an impossible older sister, divorce or a lack of knowledge.

Robbie is an important protagonist. It is great to see a young female character having to deal with anger issues that she resolves at first by hitting others. The solution to her anger and fear is slow and steady, with set backs along the way, making it a very organic and honest depiction. Robbie also doesn’t look like her grandfather, since she doesn’t appear to be African American, another aspect of the book that is handled with sensitivity.

A brilliant debut novel with changing families, lots of maple syrup but one that isn’t too sweet either. Appropriate for ages 9-12. (Reviewed from copy provided by HarperCollins.)

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.

Review: The Fall of Innocence by Jenny Torres Sanchez

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The Fall of Innocence by Jenny Torres Sanchez (9781524737757)

When Emilia was eight years old, she was attacked in the woods near her elementary school. After the attack, Emilia identified Jeremy Lance as her attacker, a boy with special needs, who lived at the boy’s home near the school. He was a boy she had seen break a school bus window with his fists as he stared out at her. Emilia’s recovery was slow and painful. At first, she would not speak at all partly because of biting through her own tongue during the attack. She saw crows all around her, watching over her and caring for her. At times, she thought that she was a crow too. Now at age 16, Emilia is a survivor. But all of that will be tested as a man comes forward as her real attacker and Emilia’s fragile world begins to crumble.

This book is not a mystery and readers looking for that sort of survival story will not find it here. Rather this is a delicate and complex look at a girl’s survival of an attack and the way that though she has survived, she has not recovered. It is a look at a family fractured by an attack, a family that has never again found its footing. It’s a look at a brother who has been ignored, his needs set aside for Emilia to be the focus. It’s a look at a father unable to stay, needing to flee his family. It’s a look at a mother who sacrificed herself for her daughter and still things are broken and unable to be repaired.

The book has Emilia at its heart, a girl who has avoided mental health care effectively.  Readers will hope that she will find the help that she needs before the darkness becomes too much to bear. Emilia creates her own fantasy world, her own space to live in that gives her room to breathe. She faces her own demons without allowing anyone to help her, isolated though there are so many who would help her.

Delicate yet strong writing allows this book to move with Emilia’s mental state, exploring darkness and mental health. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Philomel Books.

Review: What I Leave Behind by Alison McGhee

What I Leave Behind by Alison McGhee

What I Leave Behind by Alison McGhee (9781481476560)

Will has discovered that walking the streets of Los Angeles helps him stop thinking about the tragedies in his life. After his father’s suicide, he is trying to find a new rhythm to his life and it seems to be filled with long walks, ones that keep him from being at home too much or visiting the places he went with his father. When Will is home, he works to perfect his father’s cornbread recipe, but nothing seems to improve it at all. Then there is the other thing that he is avoiding, his best friend Playa was raped at a party. Will has no idea how to help her or make it better. So he takes his job at the Dollar Store and turns it into a way to reach out into the world and make connections with Playa and others. Small acts of kindness that allow him to break through the walls he has placed around himself, if he dares.

This book is steeped in sadness to profound that you almost expect your skin to come away tinted with blue. McGhee captures those traumas that are so deep that one cannot deal in a normal way, but only manage to escape in whatever way is possible. In the middle of this sadness is the amazing character of Will, a boy searching for connections while refusing to see those right in front of him. A boy who sees moments of awe and humanity in people that almost bring him to his knees. McGhee shows us all of these with a tenderness that honors his pain and also brings hope.

The writing here is beautiful. Written in small bite-sized pieces accompanied by calligraphy on the opposite page done in gentle grays, these small moments are magnified and made into important life events, as they are. And yet, the importance is an everyday one, a day-by-day one. That is the hope here.

Tender, profound and tragic, this book for teens is cathartic and hopeful. Appropriate for ages 13-17.

Reviewed from copy provided by Atheneum.

Review: Summer of Salt by Katrina Leno

Summer of Salt by Katrina Leno

Summer of Salt by Katrina Leno (9780062493644)

Georgina has grown up on the island of By-the-Sea where generations of the women in her family have lived. They are women of specific talents: her mother can brew useful potions, her sister can float slightly off the floor particularly when she’s not paying enough attention. But Georgina doesn’t have any powers at all. The sisters are getting ready for college and leaving the island for the first time in their lives. It’s an island with one special resident, a bird that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world, a bird with a distinct family connection. But this year, the bird doesn’t arrive, much to the dismay of the entire island and the birding community who arrive each summer. As the search for the missing bird intensifies, tragedy strikes and soon the summer is filled with salt, magic and mystery.

This is one of those books that you fall for hard. It sweeps in with poetic language that invites readers to explore the island of By-the-Sea, breathe in the magic, taste beautifully-named ice cream flavors and linger in the autumnal graveyard for awhile. Leno lingers over the details, creating a world that is so specific, small and focused. It seeps into your pores, this story, invades you like tainted tea and asks you to believe. And you will.

The characters are all written with such care, each one unique and special. Georgina may feel like a side kick, but she is the full-on protagonist here. She is brave, smart and quite the leader when given the chance. She faces real evil on her island home, must find the perpetrator and meanwhile is in the throes of leaving her home for college while not getting any magical powers herself at all. She is complicated, exploring new romance with the hot girl who visited the island, solving a mystery, and coming into her own.

An amazing read, just right for summer. This is one that fans of magical realism are going to adore. Appropriate for ages 13-17.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Edelweiss and HarperTeen.

 

Review: Front Desk by Kelly Yang

Front Desk by Kelly Yang

Front Desk by Kelly Yang (9781338157802)

When Mia and her family first moved to the United States from China, she expected to live in a big house with a car and have plenty of money. But her parents have struggled from the beginning to find jobs. When they become caretakers of a motel, the job gives them free rent, but requires one of them to be on duty at all times and Mia’s parents to spend all of their time doing laundry and cleaning the rooms. Mia steps up to help by manning the front desk. She gets to know the “weeklies” who are the people who stay at the motel long term. Her family quickly realizes that the man who owns the motel is dishonest but Mia has a plan to help her parents get off of the roller coaster of poverty. All she needs is to write a perfect letter in English and somehow find $300.

Based on her own childhood growing up as a family managing motels, Yang tells a vibrant story of hope in the face of crushing poverty. It is a book that shows how communities develop, how one girl can make a big difference in everyone’s life and how dreams happen, just not in the way you plan. Yang’s writing is fresh, telling the tale of Chinese immigrants looking for the American dream and not finding it easily due to prejudice. She valiantly takes on serious issues of racism and poverty in this book.

Mia is a great protagonist. She never gives up, always optimistic and looking for a new way to problem solve. Her own desire to be a writer plays out organically in the novel, showing how someone learning a new language can master it. The examples of her editing and correcting her own writing are cleverly done, showing the troubles with American expressions and verb tenses.

A great read that embraces diversity and gives voice to immigrant children. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Scholastic.

Review: Rosetown by Cynthia Rylant

Rosetown by Cynthia Rylant

Rosetown by Cynthia Rylant (9781534412774)

Flora is a quiet child, who loves the purple chair in the window of the used book store more than any other place. That’s particularly true now that her parents are separated and living in different houses from one another. Flora has also lost her dog recently, so things feel very off kilter. Even fourth grade seems very different from other school years. Still, as Flora navigates the changes in her life, she also has some happy surprises. She meets Yury, a boy from the Ukraine, who enjoys animals and survival stories too. The two become close friends and soon each of them have new pets in their lives too. Flora’s other friend Nessy is steadily discovering her own talents. And though Flora hasn’t discovered her own yet, she soon will.

Set in Indiana in 1972, Rylant has created a book that captures being a worried and anxious child just right. Flora is quiet and a tad shy, unless she knows something. She worries about different things and her family is gentle and understanding with her. Even as she grows in this short novel, that aspect of her personality is embraced and not being fixed by others. The book itself is gentle in tone, slow paced and lovingly written.

A book that will have a specific audience who will adore it, this one may not be for everyone but will be just right for some children. Appropriate for ages 7-10.

3 New Picture Books with City Settings

Bus! Stop By James Yang

Bus! Stop! By James Yang (9780425288771)

When a boy misses his bus, he finds himself in a city filled with strange vehicles that are certainly not his bus. One bus is too tall and the passengers have to use their propeller hats to board it. The next is pulled by horses and shaped like a covered wagon, just right for the people in cowboy hats who climb aboard. When people wearing sailor suits arrive next, readers can guess the ship is about to arrive. There is another bus that bounces passengers high. The boy catches the next bus, even though it isn’t his either. It floats high above, away from the little girl who just missed the bus.

Told in very simple lines of text that are shown as speech bubbles, this picture book is all about the illustrations. With a modern edge, they have a playful feel thanks to their bright colors and the wild sorts of transportation shown on the pages. The matching of passengers to each conveyance is particularly skillful and will have children guessing what sort of “bus” is about to arrive on the next page. Humorous and jolly, stop for this book! Appropriate for ages 2-4. (Reviewed from library copy.)

Daddy, Me and the Magic Hour by Laura Krauss Melmed

Daddy, Me and the Magic Hour by Laura Krauss Melmed, illustrated by Sarita Rich (9781510707917)

When the family arrives home, Daddy starts cooking while Mommy feeds the baby. After supper, the little boy heads outside with his father for Magic Hour, their after supper walk. They greet a neighbor watering her roses. Meet dogs out for a walk, run a bit, find sticks and feathers. They play at the quiet playground that they have all to themselves. On their way home, the crickets start to chirp, they catch fireflies and release them. The daylight disappears and they walk home in the moonlight.

A book about the specialness of time spent together, this picture book celebrates quiet moments that string together to make a childhood. The text is jolly and short, the images telling parts of the story that are not put into words. The illustrations use comic-like framing to show each moment and connection in a special way. Along the walk the little boy steadily fills his bucket with memories, each tangible and solid. A delight of a bedtime read. Appropriate for ages 3-5. (Reviewed from library copy.)

In the Darkness of the Night by Emily Rand

In the Darkness of the Night by Emily Rand (9781849764810)

This book invites children to think about what happens after they head to bed at night. In the deep blue darkness of the city, windows are lit. Dishes are being washed, car doors slam as people arrive home again. Some people are still out, the trains are running through the night. Sirens sound, mothers are up with babies, some people work at night too. City foxes begin to explore, airplanes land. And morning comes with garbage pick up, mail being delivered, and the cat returning home again.

There is a wonderful mix of sleepiness and activity in this book. Told in rhyme, the book really works thanks to its rocking structure and its inherent quietness. Throughout, readers get to peek into windows of the city both ones that are lit and those that are dark. It’s a clever way to invite readers to explore the images that support the story so well. Deep blue throughout, this book is a city lullaby worth sharing. Appropriate for ages 2-4. (Reviewed from copy provided by Tate Publishing.)