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.

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.