The Night Walk by Marie Dorleans

The Night Walk by Marie Dorleans (9781782506393)

Full of deep blue, this picture book takes a family and readers out of their beds and into the night. They get awoken by Mom in the middle of the night, get dressed and head outside. Crickets were chirping outside in the darkness. They walked through the sleeping village, past the brightly-lit hotel, and out into the countryside with the summer night around them. Their eyes adjusted to the darkness, letting them see the cows in the pastures and find the path as they left the road. They headed into the forest until they reached a small pond, where they played with the moon’s reflection and their flashlight beam. They stopped to take a break and looked at the vast sky overhead, stars alight. Then they reached a rocky hillside and climbed, up and up. And that’s when they realized they had gotten there just in time!

The winner of the Landerneau Children’s Book Prize, this French import is a deep and amazing read. It invites us all to think about adventuring out into the world in the dark, discovering how the world feels with nature around us, darkness, summer heat and wonder. The text in the book is simple, guiding us through the night’s adventure, pointing out what can be seen and heard, and allowing us all to marvel at the world covered in night. The text never gets in the way of our amazement, instead encouraging us to see more and play along.

The blue, oh the blue in this book. It perfectly captures the night, light only by the moon and the stars. Broken at times by windows or flashlight beams or passing trains, the night is allowed to take over all of the pages. Dorleans lets us squint a bit, as if our own eyes are adjusting to the darkness, to spot badgers and mice and deer. That blue drops away as dawn comes, almost worth shielding one’s eyes after being in the dark for so long.

Brilliant, magical and immersive. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from copy provided by Floris Books.

Watercress by Andrea Wang

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Watercress by Andrea Wang, illustrated by Jason Chin (9780823446247)

Riding in their old car along a rural Ohio road, a young girl’s parents come to a stop when her mother spots something growing in the ditch. It’s watercress, so the entire family gets out and starts to harvest it into a paper bag. The girl finds it embarrassing to be in the ditch gathering free food, while her parents are remembering their time in China. The water in the ditch is cold and muddy, the watercress has snails among its roots. The girl finds herself partially hoping that the bottom of the paper bag falls through and this can just be over. That night, the family has the watercress for dinner, but the girl refuses to even try it. She wants food from the grocery store, not free food from a ditch that reminds her of furniture taken from the side of the road and hand-me-down clothes. Then her mother shares a story from China about her younger brother who died from not having enough to eat. The girl is inspired by her family’s history and ashamed of how she has been acting, so she tastes the watercress for the first time, a taste that builds new memories.

The writing in this picture book is exceptional. With delicate poetic words, Wang creates layers in her story. She weaves both the experience of shame for the young girl and the melancholy memories of China for her parents together into a story of generations in a Chinese-American family. From the previously unshared stories of her parents time in China to learning not to be ashamed of the way they live, this book will resonate for so many children.

Caldecott Honor winner, Chin pulls together images of China and Ohio in this book. By putting tall cornstalks against tall bamboo, the images are gateways to one another. The use of yellow to light the pages, works both in sunshine in Ohio and the sepia of memory in China. It is all so beautifully done, so well designed.

One of the best picture books of the year, this book reaches across generations and finds hope. Appropriate for ages 5-7.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Holiday House.

The Great Godden by Meg Rosoff

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The Great Godden by Meg Rosoff (9781536215854)

On their annual beach vacation, a teen and her family experience an unusual summer. It’s a summer of time spent sailing and swimming. A summer full of competitive tennis games, shared meals, and naps. It was also a summer of new love, hot crushes, and strange boys. It was the summer when the Godden brothers arrived. Kit was the golden brother, impossibly handsome and entirely intoxicating when he turned his attention on you. Hugo was the darkness to his brother’s shine, the surliness to his charm. As the narrator watches, her sister and Kit become involved, flirting at first and then becoming more and more. What should be just a summer fling has an underpinning of unease and manipulation, just in time for Kit to turn his attention to the narrator who by now should know better. But even then, he has more chaos to create.

Printz Medal winner, Rosoff has created a slim volume that is impossible to put down. It has the languid and flowing feel of Kit himself, drawing readers in with promises of summer fun and then turning into something quite unusual, dark and menacing. The book is a great coming-of-age story where readers get to see a young woman realize what is happening around her and yet not quite be able to stop it from engulfing her as well. The narrator is never named, but all is seen and felt through her own experiences, making it an intensely personal read.

The writing is exceptional. Rosoff quietly and carefully seeds doubts with the words she chooses to use in describing the characters, the things that the narrator sees, and the questions that she has deep down. Rosoff situates us all with a rather unreliable narrator, who sees her siblings and family in a specific way, then along with the reader has new realizations about them and what that means.

Sun drenched, threatening and vibrantly feminist this is a triumph of a book. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Candlewick Press.

I Dream of Popo by Livia Blackburne

I Dream of Popo by Livia Blackburne, illustrated by Julia Kuo (9781250249319)

A little girl grows up seeing her beloved Popo, her grandmother, often in Taiwan. They spend time together cuddling, eating and going to the park. Then the girl’s family decide to move to San Diego, far away from Taiwan. The girl goes to school in America with children of all colors. She doesn’t speak English yet, but she is learning. She calls her grandmother regularly. When they return to Taiwan for a visit, it feels different and she can’t communicate in Chinese as well as she used to. Her Popo’s house seems smaller though it smells just the same and her dumplings taste the same too. When her grandmother gets sick, the girl wishes she lived closer, but a dream is just the right thing to being them together after all.

This #ownvoices picture book is based on the author’s childhood, moving from Taipei to Albuquerque. It shows how a long-distance connection between a grandparent and grandchild is possible, keeping memories fresh and new experiences shared with one another. The book is filled with elements of Taiwan, such as New Year’s celebrations, dumplings and other food. Smells of Taiwan are mentioned regularly, wafting through experiences and dreams.

Kuo’s art is bold and beautiful. She allows the little girl to age through the course of the story, toddling in the park then heading to school, becoming less round and more lean as the pages turn. Popo also ages, the lines on her face more pronounced and her hair changing from black to gray. It is subtle and beautifully done.

A gentle story of immigration and continued connection to those left behind. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Roaring Brook Press.

Merci Suárez Can’t Dance by Meg Medina

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Merci Suárez Can’t Dance by Meg Medina (9780763690502)

This sequel to the Newbery Award winning Merci Suárez Changes Gears continues the story of Merci, her large multigenerational family, and the difficulties of being a seventh grader. This year, Merci has been assigned to manage the small school store along with Wilson, a boy who is amazing at math. As the two reinvent what their school store can be, adding movie merchandise, they end up also being drawn into selling tickets for the Heart Ball, run by Edna, who has managed to become even bossier than usual. Merci has decided not to go to the dance, but is asked to take photographs and agrees as long as she doesn’t even have to enter the gym. When an accident happens, Merci makes a bad decision and covers up the damage, setting off a series of lies that will involve school and family. With no one to talk to, since her grandfather’s dementia is worsening, Merci has to figure out who to trust to help her.

Fans returning to reconnect with Merci will once again find Medina’s rich depiction of Merci’s extended family, her grandfather’s worsening mental abilities, and the gorgeous warmth and love that keeps them all connected. Medina put Merci in quite a horrible situation in this second novel, where she feels alone and unable to be honest. Medina writes it with such empathy and skill that it is almost painful to read, though that makes the resolution all the more marvelous to experience.

As always, Medina’s writing is skillful and detailed. She truly creates a middle school experience with burgeoning romantic feelings and the changes happening between long-time best friends. Medina doesn’t let this all be negative, instead focusing on the confusion but also on the deeper understanding that can result from going through strange middle school circumstances.

Another marvelous Merci novel. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Candlewick.

Where Wonder Grows by Xelena Gonzalez

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Where Wonder Grows by Xelena Gonzalez, illustrated by Adriana M. Garcia (9781947627468)

When grandmother heads to her garden, her granddaughters know to follow her. They spread blankets on the ground and get their magic rocks. Grandma taught them that the rocks are alive with wisdom from the long time they have spent on earth, so they respectfully call them grandmothers and grandfathers. The rocks are used in the sweat lodge where they help send songs and prayers into the air and to ancestors. The girls ask about the rocks that can heal. Grandma shows the colorful crystals and shares stories about them. They look at rocks worn by the water and others that fell from the sky. The rocks remind them of their place in the world, of their brief time on earth, their connection to the stars.

Gonzalez writes in beautiful short sentences, showing the connection between the generations of a Native American family, between the group of granddaughters and their grandmother. It’s a book that slows down, lingering over the various rocks, telling their stories, explaining their importance and making space for some dreams too. There is joy here, a delight in time spent together in a lovely garden and in the rocks themselves and what they mean.

Garcia’s illustrations are unique and creative. She lights each illustration as if the family and rocks glow from outside and within. The colors are deep and evocative. The book moves from the brightness of daylight to night with its purples and more subtle light. It is beautiful and filled with portraits of the family members.

An inviting look at rocks, their mystical qualities and how they connect us all. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Cinco Puntos Press.

Too Small Tola by Atinuke

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Too Small Tola by Atinuke, illustrated by Onyinye Iwu (9781536211276)

Tola lives in Lagos, Nigeria with her older brother and sister and her grandmother. Tola is the youngest and quite small, though she notices throughout these three stories that often the smallest people turn out to be the strongest too. In the first story, Tola goes with her Grandmommy to the market because she is the best at counting change. She and her grandmother carry the heavy groceries and items back on their heads, stopping along the way for treats. In the next story, the water stops working in their apartment, so Tola wakes her siblings to get water from the well early so they aren’t late for school. But her clever idea doesn’t quite work out as expected. In the last story, Tola and her brother help their neighbor the tailor after he gets into an accident and can’t ride his bike. Thanks to her way with numbers, Tola can measure the clients for their new clothes and her brother is strong enough to pedal them all over the city.

Any new book by Atinuke is a treat, but one that introduces a new character and her family is a particular delight. As always, Atinuke shows both the poverty in Nigeria but also the strength of the community. Tola works hard throughout the book, making sure that she is taking care of her grandmother, her siblings and her neighbors. She uses her own particular skills to help, including her ability to notice small things, count correct change, and measure closely. She also uses her innate kindness and love for others to motivate herself.

The illustrations are done in friendly and often funny line drawings. These drawings show vital elements of the story such as the size of the rice bag that Grandmommy carries on her head and the length of the line at the well. They also help to break up the text, making this early chapter book approachable and adding clever humor.

Another charmer from a master Nigerian storyteller. Appropriate for ages 5-8.

Reviewed from copy provided by Candlewick Press.

The Ramble Shamble Children by Christina Soontornvat

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The Ramble Shamble Children by Christina Soontornvat, illustrated by Lauren Castillo (9780399176326)

From two award-winning artists comes this picture book about children who are definitely not the traditional family. Merra, Locky, Roozie, Finn and Jory all live together in their “ramble shamble house.” They have chickens in the yard, a nice big mud puddle that Jory loves to play in, and a bountiful vegetable garden. Their lives are merry and busy with working in the garden together. Then one day, they discover a picture of a beautiful pristine house that is far more proper than theirs. So they set out to make their rustic house into something closer to the lovely model home. Out go the carrots to make way for rose bushes. The mud puddle is covered up. The chickens get an ornate home of their own. They even make their own chandelier. Things may be proper, but they aren’t quite right the next day. The hens refuse to use their new house, the chandelier is carried off by crows, but worst of all, Jory has disappeared. They find him in a new patch of mud, helping them all realize that they may just need to accept they are a ramble shamble family.

As the proud owner of a wild natural garden outside my front door and a house covered in vines that please me immensely, I firmly embrace being ramble shamble. With this picture book, Soontornvat proves that she can write almost anything from children’s fiction to nonfiction to picture books. Her tone here is cozy and warm, embracing the way the children live from the very first page. The hard work the children do, their closeness and care for one another, and their desire to have a proper home all speak to the importance of having a family around one.

Castillo’s illustrations show the children arriving together at the house and then show how they live together. The children are diverse and range in ages from little Jory who is close to a toddler to Merra who is an older child. The illustrations show their connection to one another, how they all help out, and the beauty of their ramshackle life they have built together.

A charmer of a picture book sure to warm the heart and ease the need for a proper life. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from copy provided by Nancy Paulsen Books.

The Wide Starlight by Nicole Lesperance

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The Wide Starlight by Nicole Lesperance (9780593116227)

Eli was born in the tiny community of Svalbard, Norway. She was raised by a mother who loved stories that made their lives extraordinary. From magical tales in front of the fire to three girls set free from their destinies to marry princes, her stories were both a comfort and a concern. Then one night, Eli’s mother vanished from a frozen fjord leaving Eli behind in the icy darkness as she was swept up by the Northern Lights. Since then, Eli has lived a very normal life with her father in Cape Cod. Everything changes though when she receives a mysterious note brought by the wind and left in a bush for her. The Northern Lights are coming to Cape Cod, and Eli realizes that she may be able to bring her mother back. After whistling for her mother under the sweep of colors in the sky, her mother does return, but not without other consequences. Her mother is icy cold with fingernails that melt away and eyes full of darkness. When meteorites start to fall around them and narwhals beach nearby, Eli knows she must make the trip to Svalbard and find out how to save her mother.

Lesperance’s fantasy novel is beautifully crafted, full of echoes of stories like “East of the Sun, West of the Moon.” It builds from these stories, creating something new and magical. The story spans continents, taking readers from Norway to America and back again. The contrasts between ways of life are profound and interesting. They support the wild and raw stories that come to life around Eli and her family. The settings are both depicted with clarity and a real attention to the details that make them special.

Eli and her mother are fabulous characters. Eli must find her way through the layers of the stories to see the truth within them that will lead her to her mother. She has to figure out how to trust, and it may just be the most unlikely people around her. The depiction of her grandmother is one of the best in the book, showing what could have stayed a stereotypical cruel woman and turning her into something complex who supports the entire story.

Clever writing, beautiful world building and a twist on classic folk tales make this a book worth exploring, perhaps with mittens. Appropriate for ages 12-16.

Reviewed from copy provided by Razorbill.