Josephine Against the Sea by Shakirah Bourne

Cover image for Josephine Against the Sea.

Josephine Against the Sea by Shakirah Bourne (9781338642087)

After her mother’s death, Josephine knows that she wants to keep her Daddy’s attention on her. So she manages to chase off any woman looking to be his new girlfriend, using pranks and fish guts. Her father used to love watching cricket matches with her on the weekends, and she is desperate to get him back to doing that again. When one of her pranks goes wrong though, she is forced to use the money she’d been saving to take him to a real match in person to pay for the damages. Josephine also loves to play cricket herself, but at her school only boys play. After being disappointed about the team, Josephine also finds that her father has a new girlfriend. But Mariss isn’t like the other women and doesn’t scare off easily. As strange things start to happen around Mariss, Josephine realizes that she be very different from everyone else and may not even be human!

Full of Caribbean magic, this novel starts out as a story about the loss of a mother and steadily turns into a fantasy about a sea monster who is both kind and vengeful. The author’s own Bajan heritage is reflected throughout the book in the lilt of the dialogue. She also shares Caribbean folktales about a variety of beings and creatures.

Josephine is a grand protagonist. She is hot headed and determined to get what she wants, something that causes both problems and also creates opportunities. She is also willing to reconsider and learn from others, including members of her community and her best friend. Mariss is a complicated villain and monster, which is great to see in a children’s book. She is a mix of kindness and control, a being who wants humans to belong to her and who will destroy them if they don’t obey.

A book of Black girl magic and monsters. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Scholastic.

Strollercoaster by Matt Ringler

Cover image for Strollercoaster.

Strollercoaster by Matt Ringler, illustrated the Raul the Third and Elaine Bay (9780316493222)

Every day there is a time when the inside feels too small for Sam. She kicks toys around the room, stomping and angry. There is only one solution for this, which is to take a ride on the strollercoaster! To start the ride, Sam gets buckled in and the straps are pulled tight. A reminder of keeping hands and feet inside at all times is given, and they are off! Sam’s father runs fast and the neighborhood flies past them. There are cool shops, sweet-smelling bakeries, and the green of a park. Soon Sam feels like she’s flying and she’s smiling. The ride ends with a dark tunnel with a light at the end. By the time they get back home, Sam is asleep and her father is ready for a nap too.

Ringler writes a book that starts with anger and frustration and then shows a way to find delight in life once more with big smiles that turn into a cozy nap. It’s a book with a strong arc that is enhanced by all of the urban elements of the story and the warm relationship of father and daughter. The text in the book plays with the rollercoaster theme, using buckles, straps and the iconic warning and then clicking and clacking uphill. It’s funny, universal and delightful.

The illustrations are playful right from the beginning with all sorts of small details that are great fun to discover. Keep an eye on Sam’s stormcloud t-shirt that is big and bold at first, and then covered up skillfully as she calms down. The urban neighborhood is brought fully to life in the images with rainbow sherbet colors carrying throughout, creating a tropical summer feel.

A dynamic thrillride of a book. Appropriate for ages 2-4.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Little, Brown and Company.

And I Paint It: Henriette Wyeth’s World by Beth Kephart

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And I Paint It: Henriette Wyeth’s World by Beth Kephart, illustrated by Amy June Bates (9781951836047)

This picture book biography looks at the country life of N.C. Wyeth and his family through the eyes of his artist daughter, Henriette. Henriette joins her father as he heads out into the countryside to paint. The two quietly go out, avoiding her talkative sister who is in the henhouse and her brother who is in his workshop building things. Her father greets the flowers along the way, finally stopping to paint the landscape before them. The two sense the world around them, draw the details they see, and smell the earth and plants, painting the sky. They paint together until it is time to head home, and even then Henriette stays behind to paint even more.

The author first discovered Henriette through N.C. Wyeth’s letters and then went on to learn more about her. The statements that the book has Wyeth say to his daughter are taken from his writing about art. The language in the book is poetic and rich, showing all of us how to look more deeply at the world around us and celebrate the small things we see and the large landscape and sky as well.

Bates was also taught art by her own father and notes in her Illustrator’s note that this book pays homage to the Wyeth’s and also to her own experience as she grew up. The illustrations are an engaging mix of watercolor landscapes and then also smaller drawings and paintings that Henriette would have made as they wandered from things she dreamt up and details she noticed.

A lovely look at the Wyeth family, the talented Henriette and how the artistic eye is taught. Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from copy provided by Cameron Kids.

On the Other Side of the Forest by Nadine Robert

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On the Other Side of the Forest by Nadine Robert, illustrated by Gerard DuBois (9781771647960)

A little rabbit and his father live together near the edge of a dark and menacing forest where no one goes. His father has always wanted to know what is on the other side of the forest, so he sets a plan in motion. He takes their wheat harvest and begins to bake bread. When other rabbits in the community come around, he offers them bread in exchange for four large stones. Those stones, the two rabbits use to start building a huge tower to see above the tall trees. Their work continues for weeks and weeks until one day a terrible storm knocks down all of their hard work. The father rabbit falls asleep exhausted near his ruined tower, and that is when the community of rabbits appears and helps to rebuild the tower, higher than it was before. After lots more bread, more stones and plenty of hard work, the tower is complete. The little rabbit and his father are the first to climb to the top and see the surprise waiting for them.

Translated from the original French, Robert’s picture book reads like a folkloric story filled with classic elements such as bread, stones and sacrifice. She uses a storyteller’s voice throughout the book, drawing readers into the story. She excels at brevity in her text, using just enough to keep the story moving ahead and also explaining what is happening with enough details to bring it to life.

The art is exceptional, marvelously mixing modern and vintage elements into something very interesting and unique. The idyllic countryside setting is shown both in the closeup images as well as those showing extensive landscapes. The process of building the tower uses all sorts of levers and pulleys, showing the ingenuity at work and the hard labor involved.

A book full of suspense, fresh bread and community. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Greystone Kids.

Seeking an Aurora by Elizabeth Pulford

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Seeking an Aurora by Elizabeth Pulford, illustrated by Anne Bannock (9781733121279)

A child is awoken by their father in the middle of the night. They head outside into the winter darkness, past the dogs and the cows. The father explains that they are going to see an Aurora, but the child doesn’t know what that means. Are stars in the Aurora? Is the moon? They head up the hill, their breath steaming in the icy air. They sit on the stony ground and look up, marveling together at the colors that streak the sky as the aurora borealis appears. They are silent until their walk back to the house, when the father shares what he knows about the aurora.

Originally published in New Zealand, this picture book is quiet and focused on a specific natural phenomenon. The book is told in very simple language, making it accessible for small children. The gender of the main character is never revealed, since the book is told from their point of view. The anticipation of discovering what the aurora is isn’t lessened by knowing about it ahead of time. The amazement and delight are infectious.

Bannock’s art is full of color even in the nighttime home. Warm reds, bright yellows, deep purples all fill the pages. The colors become more muted as they head outside, the night sky black above them and the stars vivid against it. The icy winter night is shown with a sickle of a moon, bare tree branches, and a layer of snow. The colors of the aurora are captured beautifully in a grand and stirring way that lifts the heart.

Quiet, personal and incredibly moving, this is a glimpse of a natural wonder. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Blue Dot.

One Jar of Magic by Corey Ann Haydu

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One Jar of Magic by Corey Ann Haydu (9780062689856)

The author of Eventown returns with another book showing how children can see beyond the social façade to what is actually happening. Rose is the daughter of the most famous and successful magic capturer in her town, which is the most magical in the world. She has grown up as “Little Luck” knowing that she is the one who will be the one to carry on her father’s legacy, unlike her older brother. She spends her days going barefoot despite the cold, practicing by catching fireflies, and wearing her father’s sweaters and scarves. But all is not quite right in her family, and deep down Rose knows it. The entire family tiptoes around her father’s expectations, making sure they are perfect and happy all of the time. So when New Year’s Day finally comes, Rose just knows she will be the best at finding the magic, but she isn’t. In fact, she just gets one little jar of magic. Now Rose’s father won’t speak to her, her previous friends mock her and ignore her, and everything has changed. Rose has a strange new freedom, accompanied by a new friend who doesn’t use magic, where she can start to see what is really going on not just with magic and her town, but in her family as well.

Haydu moves smoothly into full fantasy with this latest novel for middle grades. She laces magic throughout a world that looks much like our own, adding glitter, rainbows and wonder. She manages to take readers through the same process that Rose goes through, dazzled at first by the magic around them, then questioning it, and finally seeing beyond it to the marvels of the real world beneath.

Haydu’s depiction of Rose’s father is particularly haunting: a man who himself is all glitter with real issues not quite hidden by the magic that surrounds him. His anger, insistence and control are all revealed steadily through the book, alarm bells that grow louder and steadier as it progresses. Rose is a great protagonist, raised to believe herself the most special of all, fallen from that pedestal and able to lift herself to a new place based on reality and her own resilience.

A great fantasy read that asks deep questions about magic, control and freedom. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Katherine Tegen Books.

A Long Road on a Short Day by Gary D. Schmidt

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A Long Road on a Short Day by Gary D. Schmidt, illustrated by Eugene Yelchin (9780544888364)

One January morning, Samuel’s mother mentioned that she wished they had a cow. His father smiled, took his best knife, and invited Samuel to come along to find a cow for his mother. So the two headed out into the cold and snow. At the Snow’s place, they traded the knife for two tin lanterns. Samuel got to play with their dog a bit too. At the Perry’s house they traded the lanterns for a book of poetry. Samuel got to visit some kittens in the barn and got a doughnut too. They traded the book to Widow Mitchell for a pitcher, then the pitcher for a sheep when Dr. Fulton went by. At the general store, the sheep was traded for a pocket watch after Samuel struggled to get it into the pen. He was glad they weren’t keeping the sheep! The pocket watch was traded for a pony and cart. With the storm brewing and night coming on, they almost stopped, but decided to keep trying for a cow. Soon Samuel was picking out a cow in trade for the pony and cart, and he got to choose something else besides!

Schmidt fills this simple story of trading with neighbors with so many small details that the entire small community is populated with characters. Each has a reason for needing to make the trade and often a treat for Samuel along the way. While the road is long and cold, it is also filled with a merry sense of community and shared responsibility. When Samuel makes the hard choice to not keep the little pony and cart, he is rewarded with more than a stubborn sheep for his sacrifice.

Yelchin’s illustrations are done in full-color in this chapter book. They show Samuel meeting each animal along his travels, each animal (except the sheep) one that he longs to keep with him. The illustrations have a marvelous old-fashioned, country quality to them.

A great wintry chapter book with lots of animals and a series of marvelous smart trades. Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Clarion Books.

Before the Ever After by Jacqueline Woodson

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Before the Ever After by Jacqueline Woodson (9780399545436)

ZJ’s father is a famous football star, a father who is everyone’s favorite person, who spends time with ZJ creating music together. He is like a father to ZJ’s friends too, someone that they can talk to and turn to. But something is changing. His father is getting headaches, becoming angry all the time and having trouble remembering things. ZJ must navigate life without really having his beloved father around, as they learn that it is the many tackles that his father sustained that have damaged his brain. Poignantly, sometimes his father returns to who he used to be, but that just reminds ZJ of what he has lost.

Told in Woodson’s dynamic verse, this book is stunningly written with a focus on ZJ himself and his present situation but also flashbacks to his father before he started having symptoms. The book shows a Black family filled with rich love and real attention to each child. The loss is made palpable on the page, the impotent rage at what is happening and the extended family of friends and other football players who care but can’t truly understand what is happening.

Dealing with the impact of head injuries on the lives of professional athletes and their families, this book is firmly modern and important. Woodson keeps the focus on ZJ’s personal experience, making the book deeply personal so that the true loss can be felt more deeply. She explores the emotions directly, not turning away from the ache and pain.

Another magnificent verse novel from a master of the form. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from library copy.

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.