I Talk Like a River by Jordan Scott

I Talk Like a River by Jordan Scott, illustrated by Sydney Smith (9780823445592)

Based on the author’s own childhood, this picture book explores the life of a boy with a stutter. The boy wakes every day surrounded by words, many of which he can’t say aloud. They tangle his tongue and stick in his throat. So every morning, he stays silent. He’s quiet at school too, hiding in the back of the class and hoping not to be asked to talk. After a particularly hard day, his father picks him up from school and takes him to the river. After seeing how upset his son is by his “bad speech day,” his father points to the river and says that how the water moves is how his son speaks. The river runs over rocks, bubbling and churning, but it also goes quiet and still after the rocks.

Scott is a poet and his skill with words is on full display here. He uses gorgeous metaphors throughout, including the connection to the river. The words around the boy in the morning connect with his inability to speak at times, the pine trees sticking out from his lips, the crow cawing from his throat, the moonlight shining from his mouth. Each of these gives readers a new way to experience a stutter, each beautiful and haunting.

Smith’s illustrations are done in watercolor, ink and gouache. They capture both the quiet of not being able to speak as well as the connection between father and son. When they go to the water of the river, the illustrations show the bubbling and crashing, taking the boy into the river as he swims to the calm open water. They are exquisite.

A marvel of a book that beams with empathy and understanding of stuttering. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Neal Porter Books.

The Blue House by Phoebe Wahl

The Blue House by Phoebe Wahl

The Blue House by Phoebe Wahl (9781984893369)

Leo lived with his father in a blue house that they loved. The paint may have been peeling, there may have been leaks, and it might shake when the wind blew, but the house was theirs. It was cold in the winter, but Leo and his dad just baked pies to keep the kitchen warm and had dance parties in their hats and scarves. The house had a big garden and a yard where Leo loved to spend all day playing. But their neighborhood was changing, and eventually it was their house that needed to be knocked down. They got evicted by their landlord and had to move. Leo was very angry, and his father let him express it with angry music but they still needed to pack. After painting their farewell on the walls, they left and moved into a white house, a house that didn’t feel at all like home. But perhaps they could make it feel better after all.

There is so much to love about this picture book with its look at the cost of new construction on a neighborhood and a family. It is also a book that celebrates this small family of a dad and son and the way they deal with forced changes in their lives. The focus here is on quality of life rather than wealth, on home rather than real estate, on love rather than land. The story shares these ideals of simple living without preaching, never pushing them, just showing how a life focused on love looks.

Wahl’s art is marvelous. The end pages of the book show the full neighborhood that this little family lives in. Then readers get to see their home with its rambling garden, laundry on the line, trampoline and rather ramshackle house. It’s a home filled with delights of home-baked pies, rock music, dancing and togetherness. The long-haired little boy and his father are marvelously modern with an engaging nod towards simpler times throughout the images.

Richly illustrated, this picture book focuses on love and simple joys. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Knopf.

Weekend Dad by Naseem Hrab

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Weekend Dad by Naseem Hrab, illustrated by Frank Viva (9781773061085)

When his father moves out of the house, the narrator of this picture book thinks about him a lot. His father is just a bus ride away, past the park and through the tunnel. On Friday, the boy gets to visit him, making sure to take his stuffed hedgehog Wendell along. Father and son take the bus together through the tunnel, talking the entire time. Then they are at the boy’s second home, but it doesn’t feel like home at all, since his mother isn’t there. The night is different and strange, sleeping in an empty room that has yet to be decorated with even a bed. His father wants to do something special, but the boy wants a normal day. So they have breakfast, play cards, go to the park, have dinner. Before returning to his mother, the boy leaves Wendell on his father’s bed to keep him company.

It is the tone here that is particularly effective. Hrab captures the strangeness of suddenly living in a divorced family and being a child navigating moving between two homes for the first time. Both parents are loving and gentle, showing their son support for the changes he is facing. But he still needs to experience them and go through them, even if his parents are lovely.

Viva’s illustrations are in his signature style that wonderfully warp, color and expose the strangeness of regular life. His distorted figures match the strangeness that the main character is experiencing, almost like a fun-house mirror at times and then other times frank and direct.

A look at divorce through the eyes of a child with inventive illustrations and a genuine exploration of emotions. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Groundwood Books.

Brick by Brick by Heidi Sheffield

Brick by Brick by Heidi Sheffield

Brick by Brick by Heidi Sheffield (9780525517306)

Papi is strong, because he works hard all day long as a bricklayer. He builds walls, spreading the mortar, tapping the brick in place, and scraping the drips. He climbs high on scaffolds. Luis doesn’t mind heights either, climbing to the top of the jungle gym. They have a dream of a their own house, but it’s a “someday” dream. Father and child have the same lunches of empanada and horchata. Then both head back to work and school. At night, Papi returns home, hot and tired. On Saturday, Papi has a surprise. After a long drive, they pull up to a brick house, their new always home!

Told in simple language just right for smaller children, this book speaks to the hard work, resilience and patience it takes to create a home. Sheffield cleverly uses repetition in her text and mirrors the experience of father and son throughout their day.

The design of the book is exceptional. She has created the illustrations from photographs, collage and digital painting. She also notes that Luis and his father are formed from photographs of bricks, strong and resolute. The warm color palette is brightened with blue skies. The city skyline is formed from bricks as well as words like “dream” and “build.”

Strong and vibrant. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Nancy Paulsen Books.

Papa Brings Me the World by Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw

Papa Brings Me the World by Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw

Papa Brings Me the World by Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw (9781250159250)

Lulu’s papa travels for a living. When he is about to leave, she tucks notes into his pocket to remind him of her love. In his work as a photojournalist, her papa climbs mountains, swims in oceans, rides camels, and explores the world. He brings Lulu items from his travels like coins from 28 countries. Lulu longs to join him on his travels, but instead she follows his journeys with her mother, using a map on the wall. Sometimes Papa has to miss big events because he is gone, but he always returns. In fact, on his next trip Lulu finally gets to travel along and fill her own journal with her experiences.

In her author’s note at the end of the book, the author speaks of her own childhood growing up in a family with a father whose work took him around the world. Her deep understanding of the mixture of sorrow, pride and longing that the young protagonist feels makes this book all the more poignant and impactful. Her art is done in mixed media, including collage, pencil, acrylics and stamping. The illustrations are rich and layered, offering a glimpse into the life of this busy multiracial family.

A warm and loving look at a father who has a job unlike regular parents. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from copy provided by Henry Holt and Company.

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo (9780062882769)

After a plane crashes on its way to the Dominican Republic, two families are impacted with grief and loss. Camino lives in the Dominican Republic with her auntie who is a local healer. She dreams of becoming a doctor and going to college in America. Her father, who died in the plane crash, lived most of the time in New York City, spending every summer with Camino. In New York City, Yahaira’s father was also killed in the crash. Yahaira had adored her father until she discovered his secret. She had been his champion chess player, competing and winning for him. But once she found out that he had another family in the Dominican Republic, she never forgave him. Now he is gone and it isn’t until they are preparing for his funeral that Yahaira and Camino discover that they are half-sisters born within months of one another.

Written in verse, this novel moves between the perspectives of Camino and Yahaira. The book begins with their father still alive and quickly moves to the crash and the shock of loss. The differences between their lives are stark with the poverty of the Dominican Republic clearly depicted as well as the dangers for teen girls. Still, it is also shown as a place of strong community, loving families, with bright colors, great food and warm welcomes.

Acevedo so clearly could have allowed the revelation of their shared father to be the defining moment of both of the girls’ lives. But she moves beyond it, creating a bond between these two teenagers that is powerful and haunting. It is not automatic, but steadily built as the trust grows between them, offering them both a way forward from the crash that they never anticipated.

Beautifully written, this is another marvel of a read from Acevedo. Appropriate for ages 14-17.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Quill Tree Books.

Almost Time by Gary D. Schmidt

Almost Time by Gary D. Schmidt

Almost Time by Gary D. Schmidt and Elizabeth Stickney, illustrated by G. Brian Karas (9780544785816)

Ethan finds it really hard to wait for the maple sap to start running in the late winter. He knows the signs of the time approaching. It’s when he doesn’t have maple syrup for pancakes or oatmeal. His father explains that the days have to get warmer for the syrup to run as well as the nights getting shorter. Ethan thinks he notices it changing, but sometimes gets too eager like not wearing his winter coat anymore. When Ethan’s tooth gets loose, his father tells him that it should fall out around the same time as the sap starts running. Now Ethan has two things to wait for, but one that he can perhaps make happen a bit faster by wiggling it. Still, it takes some time for his tooth to loosen and for the weather to change. Then one day, it’s finally time both for maple syrup and for his tooth to fall out.

Schmidt and Stickney have created a classic tale about patience and waiting for things to happen. Ethan is wonderfully impatient and yet also able to wait, though not really without asking again and again about it. As the darkness refuses to lessen and the days refuse to warm, readers will understand his anticipation. The use of breakfasts to mark a lack of syrup is clever and homey, just to add even more warmth and love to the book. It’s great to see a book with a caretaker father which is not about the lack of a mother or being in a unique family. It’s particularly wonderful to see such a skillful and loving dad.

Karas’ illustrations capture the dark days of winter, the snow that refuses to disappear, and the slow process of the arrival of early spring. The darkness lurks against the warm yellow of the interior of the home, offering real contrast as the pages turn.

A sweet but not syrupy picture book about fathers, patience and food. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks

From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks

From the Desk of Zoe Washington by Janae Marks (9780062875853)

This debut middle-grade novel is a stellar look at family, taking risks and doing what you know is right despite opposition from those you love. Returning from her twelfth birthday party at a bakery, Zoe discovers a letter from her father, a man she’s never met. Zoe knows that her father went to prison for murder, but that’s about it. Zoe is sure that her mother won’t let her write back to her father, but Zoe decides to do it behind her back and soon the two are corresponding. When Zoe’s grandmother discovers that the two of them are in touch, she doesn’t object and helps Zoe continue, also letting her speak to Marcus on the phone at her house. Marcus claims that he is innocent of the crime he’s been convicted of and at first Zoe isn’t sure whether to believe him or not, then her grandmother agrees that she has always thought he was innocent. Now Zoe decides that she can find the alibi witness Marcus’ lawyer was unable to locate for his trial. It’s just going to take even more lying to her family.

Marks writing is delectable. She moves seamlessly between writing about Zoe’s interest in baking and her time spent in a professional bakery helping out and then the mystery and drama of Marcus’ crime and his potential innocence. Her depiction of Zoe is deftly done, creating a truly multidimensional character who is juggling her own dreams, problems with her closest friend, and now communicating with her birth father. All of these elements could have been jarring but come together as a perfectly baked treat.

Race is definitely a powerful element in this middle-grade novel where Zoe’s exploration of men falsely convicted of crimes speaks about how many are African-American men. Zoe’s own family is multi-racial, and she is aware of the negative attention that brings even in their large community of Boston. 

A novel that’s not afraid to ask deep questions and seek answers. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Katherine Tegen Books.

Review: My Winter City by James Gladstone

My Winter City by James Gladstone

My Winter City by James Gladstone, illustrated by Gary Clement (9781773060101)

Experience the wonder of a snowy day in the city with this picture book. Told in poetic text, the story invites you to journey with a child and their father through the snowy streets early in the morning. There is slush and moving buses, plenty of footprints from other people. The bus is crowded and steamy as it takes them to the sledding hill. There they sled and have plenty of snowy fun, even stopping to make snow angels in the park. They return home, sleepy from all of the cold activities outside.

Gladstone’s text really makes this a special day. He creatively shows the beauty of snowfall in the city, including all of the sights and sounds of the experience. Readers will love the descriptions of “crinkly ice crystals” and “light powder pillows” of snow. At one point, they walk past a greenhouse which is “like a warm, rainy summer in a country far away.” All of these small elements and quiet touches add up to a full experience of a wintry day.

Clement’s illustrations embrace the falling snow from a variety of perspectives. He makes sure that the urban setting is central to all of the images, showing the bustle and busyness around the pair of characters. There is a sense of warmth and community here as well.

A snowy day filled with urban delights. Appropriate for ages 2-4.

Reviewed from library copy.