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.
The Season of Styx Malone by Kekla Magoon (9781524715953)
After brothers Caleb and Bobby Gene get into trouble for trading their baby sister for a bag of fireworks, they are sentenced to a summer of labor alongside the boy who traded with them. Caleb is determined not to be an ordinary person in life, something his father seems obsessed with him staying at all times, even calling him extra-ordinary! So when Styx Malone enters their lives and offers them a way to trade the ill-gotten fireworks for something even better, the two brothers eagerly join him. But Styx is not telling them the whole truth about his life or even about the trades they are making. As the boys are pulled farther into Styx’s world, Caleb worries that it will all fall apart and that he will be left being just ordinary again.
Magoon has created a story that reads smooth and sweet, a tale filled with adventures and riotous action. At the same time though, she has also created a book that asks deeper questions about family, the foster care system, children in need, and what makes a good friend. Readers may not trust Styx as quickly as Caleb does, so the book also has a compelling narrative voice that is naive and untrustworthy. Even as Caleb, in particular, is drawn firmly into Styx’s plans, readers will be questioning what they are doing. It’s a great book to show young readers an unreliable narrator who is also charming.
The book has complex characters who all rise beyond being stereotypical. Even the adults in the book show glimpses of other sides that create a sense of deep reality on the page. Styx himself is an amazing character. He is clearly doing things on the edge of the law, hustling for deals and acting far tougher than he actually is. The moments where Styx shows his softer side are particularly compelling, like the hotdog cookout and seeing him interact with a father figure. Beautifully nuanced, these moments take this book from a madcap summer to a book that speaks deeply about being a child.
A top read of the year, expect to find incredible depth in this novel about friendship and family. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Wendy Lamb Books.
Africville by Shauntay Grant, illustrated by Eva Campbell (9781773060439)
A girl visits the historical site of Africville, in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She imagines what the community was once like, how the children would play together. She imagines lunch on the tables, picking blueberries over the hill. She imagines playing games, going rafting, and bonfires by the water. Her great-grandmother had lived in Africville before it was destroyed in the 1960s after surviving for over 150 years. But the black community of Africville never received the same services as the rest of Halifax despite paying taxes. The community was eventually relocated from the site and moved to public housing. Africville is now a park where former residents and their descendants return to remember the community that had once stood there.
Grant gives us a glimpse of what Africville once was. The picture book keeps descriptions short and the focus on children and their lives in the community. There is an author’s note at the end of the book that offers more context for what Africville was and what happened to its residents. The use of a modern child to dream about what might have been in Africville is a great lens through which to look at life there. The peacefulness and sense of community pervade the entire read.
Campbell’s illustrations are filled with deep colors. The bonfire pages glow with reds of fire and sunset. There is lush green everywhere and the houses pop with bright paint colors. She creates the warmth of a real community on the pages, illustrations that seem to have sunlight shining from them.
A gorgeous tribute to a piece of Canadian history. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from library copy.
Louisiana’s Way Home by Kate DiCamillo (9780763694630)
Fans of Raymie Nightingale are in for a treat with this new novel that focuses on Louisiana Elefante. Louisiana is thrown into an adventure when her granny wakes her in the middle of the night and drives across the state line from Florida into Georgia. Along the way, she talks about feeling unwell and eventually is incapacitated by a toothache. Louisiana takes the wheel and drives them, with a few mishaps, to a small town to find a dentist. After granny’s teeth are all removed because of advanced decay, they find a place for her to recuperate. Louisiana longs to return to Florida and her friends, but with granny in no state to travel, she is stuck. She meets a boy with a crow for a best friend, discovers the sweetness of a pink house filled with cake, and learns that a minister may not have all the answers but can still help. Louisiana’s life has been filled with goodbyes, perhaps this small town can break that curse.
DiCamillo tells Louisiana’s story with a deft humor and a deep empathy. The book begins as a strange road trip in darkness, becomes a comedic romp of a kid driving a car, but then starts to ask big questions about honesty and family. As Louisiana learns more about her own personal history, she begins to question everything that her granny has told her over the years. Still, even the truth is hard to accept at times.
Louisiana herself is a wonderfully compelling character and one of the most interesting ones from Raymie Nightingale. Here readers get to know her better and will find her even more compelling. The book has a gentleness to it, a tenderness, that lifts it up. The supporting characters add to that, treating Louisiana with a care that her granny has been unable to provide her.
Beautifully written and filled with amazing characters, this one is a winner from a master storyteller. Appropriate for ages 8-12.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Candlewick Press.
Auntie Luce’s Talking Paintings by Francie LaTour (9781773060415)
A little girl heads to Haiti from her home in America to visit her Auntie Luce, a painter. The girl has sat for a painting year after year since she was seven and first visited. She leaves the snow and cold behind for the tropical world of Haiti with its heat, bright buses, pink cathedral and green hills. She asks her aunt why she never left Haiti, and her aunt explains that she wants to stay in Haiti her entire life and that she is simply different than the girl’s mother who moved to America. There are many things different in Haiti, including the paintings that cover the walls of Auntie Luce’s small home. The girl sees portraits of national Haitian heroes as well as generations of her own family. As her portrait is finished, Auntie Luce encourages the little girl to see herself as both Haitian and American, not one or the other.
This picture book cleverly incorporates small pieces of the history of Haiti into the story line. The little girl has many questions about Haiti in particular but also about why some family members choose to stay while others leave. Small bits of Haitian life are also mentioned, showing the differences between Haiti and America very clearly. The book also looks at art and the way that it offers a chance to speak in a different way about difficult things. Even the paintings themselves are described in gorgeous language that will have readers seeing even more details than they might have.
LaTour’s illustrations turn this picture book into a real look at Haiti through the eyes of someone who clearly loves it. The images come alive as they show a bustling street, the mountain home of Auntie Luce, and the images of ancestors and heroes from Haiti.
A vibrant look at Haiti in a picture book. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Groundwood Books.
The Patchwork Bike by Maxine Beneba Clarke, illustrated by Van Thanh Rudd (9781536200317)
An award-winning poet and spoken-word artist, Clarke has created a picture book that shimmers and sings. It tells the story of a little girl whose brothers have created a bicycle out of scraps. Their family lives on the outskirts of the no-go desert and there is little all around them. The best thing though, is their bike. Built out of tin cans, buckets, bark and wood. It is enough to carry all of them back and forth, ignoring their fed-up mother as they whisk past.
The words in this picture book are meant to be shared aloud, coming alive as they are spoken. The rhythms emerge and the various invented and evocative words shine, such as “winketty wonk” and “shicketty shake.” Even the words she uses to describe the setting around them become tangible with the “stretching-out sky” above it all.
The illustrations are somehow equal to the glorious poetry. Done in acrylic on recycled cardboard, they have ghosts of tape and printed words still on them. The smooth texture of the cardboard is used next to ripped areas that show the corrugation and offer new textures to the images. This use of recycled material to tell the story of a scrap bike, sets just the right tone. And on that cardboard is a story of celebration and childhood.
One of the best picture books of the year! Appropriate for ages 3-6.
Reviewed from library copy.
Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett J. Krosoczka (9780545902472)
The author of the wildly popular Lunch Lady series has now created a graphic memoir of his childhood. Raised by his colorful grandparents, Jarrett grew up not understanding why he couldn’t see his mother more often. It turned out that she was in jail or recovery centers dealing with the consequences of her addiction. Jarrett didn’t even meet his father until his teens. Jarrett told only one friend when he found out that his mother was an addict, trying to keep the veneer of normalcy in place. He even tried to keep his grandparents from attending school events for the same reason. As Jarrett grew older and became focused on being an artist, he discovered who his father was and that he had two half-siblings. Soon his unusual family grew another branch.
The story here is personal and painful. It is a tale that so many children will relate to, that will show them how success can blossom from pain and how art can help to express that which can’t be said aloud. It is a brave book, one that tells tragic pieces of his life, and yet a hopeful one as well with the humor of his grandparents and the relationships Jarrett has and had with his extended family.
This graphic novel is quite simply gorgeous. It uses a color palette that is refined and limited, combining gray with a subtle orange. The entire feel of the art has a more clouded feel and less crisp lines than his previous work, creating a work that exudes memories and the not-so-distant past.
Personal, painful and profound, this graphic novel is honest and deep. Appropriate for ages 10-14.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Graphix.
Bitter and Sweet by Sandra V. Feder, illustrated by Kyrsten Brooker (9781554989959)
Hannah’s family was moving to a new city, but Hannah didn’t want to move away from her friends, her house or her neighborhood. Her grandmother told her about when she moved from the old country to America and how the experience was a mix of bitter and sweet. But when Hannah’s family moved, all she could see around her were bitter reminders of what she had lost. The new house had a smaller porch, the road was too hilly for good biking, and she didn’t know anyone. Even when a neighbor girl came over to meet Hannah, the gift of cocoa she left was bitter when Hannah tried it. The next day at school, the girl talked to Hannah about needing to add sugar. Soon Hannah realized that she had to put forth a little effort to discover the sweet that was always there.
Picture books about moving are plentiful every year, but this one has a lovely feeling about it that makes it stand out. The advice from her elders turns out to be true but I also appreciated that Hannah put her own spin on it in the end. The book depicts Hannah’s Jewish family with warmth and scenes that show their traditions. The advice also rings with Jewish wisdom and brings a traditional feel to a modern story.
The illustrations are done in mixed media that combines paint and collage very successfully. The result are images that have a lovely texture to them, fabrics and paper that layer with one another. There is a beautiful light and color to the images that conveys hope even as Hannah struggles to see the sweet.
A rich picture book that looks at difficult times in life through a lens of hope and acceptance. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Groundwood Books.
Finding Langston by Lesa Cline-Ransome (9780823439607)
After Langston’s mother died, he and his father moved from rural Alabama to Chicago. Langston misses his mother and grandmother as well as their way of life in Alabama. In Chicago, it’s hard for him to make friends and lonely in the apartment when his father is gone. Even the food that his father provides is nothing like the skilled cooking of the women who raised him. But there is one part of Chicago that makes up for all of the changes. The public library branch in his neighborhood is not whites-only like the one in Alabama. Hiding from bullies after school, Langston soon discovers the beauty of poetry, particularly that written by a man with the same name, Langston Hughes.
Cline-Ransome is best known for her picture books and this is her first novel. The skilled writing here would never lead anyone to believe that this is a debut novel though. The prose has the flow and rhythm of poetry as it plays out on the page. The connection to Alabama is also strong in the prose, the way that Langston speaks and the way he sees the world. Somehow Cline-Ransome makes all of that clear in her writing alone.
Langston is a fascinating character living in a very interesting time in American history, the Great Migration when African Americans left the south and headed north to cities like Chicago. Langston’s love of reading and books is not only a way for him to find a home in the local library branch but also eventually a way for him to connect with peers over a love of the written word.
Skilled story telling and a strong protagonist make this book a very special piece of historical fiction. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from library copy.