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.

Review: Some Places More Than Others by Renee Watson

Some Places More Than Others by Renee Watson

Some Places More Than Others by Renee Watson (9781681191089)

When a project about family is assigned at school, Amara realizes that there is a lot she doesn’t know about her own family. Her mothers’ parents are both dead and she had no siblings, but her father’s side lives across the country in Harlem. Amara asks if she could travel to Harlem to see her grandfather whom she only knows from phone calls and cards, since her father often goes there on business. Her parents refuse for some time, then agree to allow her to go. It will be the first time in twelve years that her father sees his own father. Now it is Amara’s job to complete her school assignment by interviewing family members, explore New York City and also bring her family back together, all in a single week!

Newbery Honor winner, Watson brings her considerable writing skill to a fractured family. She captures how forgiveness is difficult even though love is still there and allows the connection between father and son to organically rebuild. All of this is seen through Amara’s eyes as she discovers that her family is different than she realized and that her father has a surprising history she knew nothing about.

Setting is so important in this novel with Harlem and New York City becoming characters in Amara’s story. Many important places in African-American history are explored including the Apollo Theater and the Schomburg Center. Murals and sculptures that feature African-American figures in history are also featured in the story. Readers will want to explore these streets themselves.

A warm and rich exploration of complicated family relationships and love. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Bloomsbury.

Review: Hair Love by Matthew A. Cherry

Hair Love by Matthew A. Cherry

Hair Love by Matthew A. Cherry, illustrated by Vashti Harrison (9780525553366)

Zuri has hair that can do almost anything. It curls all over when she gets up in the morning. She wears it in all different styles. In braids and beads, she is a princess. With two puffs, she is a superhero. Then one day she wakes up and it’s a very special day. Her father is still asleep, so she decides to try to do perfect hair herself. After a little accident in the bathroom, her father joins her. Together they figure out how to get her hair just right, but not without a few mishaps along the way. All in time for her mother to return home!

This picture book celebrates African-American hair. Offering all sorts of styles, the book exudes warmth and self-esteem. Creating an opportunity for a father to try to do hair, makes this book all the more lovely, also adding just the right dash of humor too. The use of modern technology to help is also something you don’t see a lot in picture books. The digital art is full of bright colors, humor and light.

Fall in love with this family and their hair. Appropriate for ages 2-4.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Kokila.

Review: Up, Up, Up, Down! by Kimberly Gee

Up, Up, Up, Down! by Kimberly Gee

Up, Up, Up, Down! by Kimberly Gee (9780525517337)

A toddler’s day is filled with opposites in this adorable picture book. Being lifted up out of their crib and set down on the ground the play. Saying no to all kinds of breakfast and then yes to blueberries. Clothes go on and then come right back off again. They hurry up and then slow down. There is making and breaking things. Balloons are “yay!” and then “uh-oh!” Sadness becomes better again too.

Filled with all kinds of little kid action, this book will resonate with toddlers and their parents alike. The concept of opposites is nicely woven into the activities of a normal day out and about. The text has a rhythm to it as the words repeat. The illustrations show an African-American father and child who spend their day together. The end of the day shows an exhausted father and a mother home from work.

A concept book ideal for toddlers, this one is a joy. Appropriate for ages 1-3.

Reviewed from copy provided by G.P. Putnam’s Sons. 

Review: My Papi Has a Motorcycle by Isabel Quintero

My Papi Has a Motorcycle by Isabel Quintero

My Papi Has a Motorcycle by Isabel Quintero, illustrated by Zeke Pena (9780525553410)

Daisy loves to ride with her father on his motorcycle. After he finishes his work in construction, he always has time for an evening ride with her. They ride like a comet on the hot asphalt, zigzagging through the streets. Together they rumble through their Southern California town and visit all of the sites that Daisy loves. There is Joy’s Market where they see their librarian shopping. Murals on the walls tell the story of their history as Mexican-Americans. They plan to stop for a sweet treat, but the store has closed. They pass her grandparent’s home with happy waves and a plan to visit tomorrow. Their ride ends with a visit to her father’s workplace and then a curving race around Grand Boulevard. They return home to find that the owner of the closed shop has is running a food cart instead.

Quintero’s text is lush and beautiful. It’s remarkable for a picture book to use language the way that she does, yet she manages it without leaving small children behind. It is particularly evident in the places where Daisy’s imagination soars. As Daisy pictures them as a comet flying, Quintero’s prose flies alongside her imagination lifting it with colors, and sentences like “We become a spectacular celestial thing soaring on asphalt.” What more could a reader want?

The illustrations are a true celebration of the community Daisy and her Papi right through. The murals are shown in bright colors, the city itself bathed in the heat and sunshine of a summer day. Perspectives are done playfully at times with chasing dogs and narrow streets.

A summer treat of a book, this one is worth the ride. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Kokila.

Review: Lawrence in the Fall by Matthew Farina

Lawrence in the Fall by Matthew Farina

Lawrence in the Fall by Matthew Farina, illustrated by Doug Salati (9781484780589)

When Lawrence finds out that his teacher wants the students to bring in their collections to share, he is very worried. He doesn’t have a collection at all. At home, he tells his father about not having a collection and his father has an idea. The two of them head into the forest together to see what they can find. But Lawrence doesn’t want to collect bugs the way the spider does and he can’t reach the shiny, smooth rocks that the river has collected. When a sudden storm begins, Lawrence gets separated from his father and finds himself standing near a large tree full of bright-colored leaves. Lawrence calls to the tree and it drops a beautiful leaf down to him. Now Lawrence knows exactly what to collect!

Farina captures the emotions that can accompany an assignment at school, including sadness and isolation. Thanks to the warmth of his father’s response, the two of them tackle the problem, taking action rather than despairing. In the end, Lawrence delights all of the children in his class by sharing his collection freely with them. The book has a touch of magic about it as Lawrence requests leaves from the trees, and they freely offer them.

The art by Salati captures Lawrence’s emotions beautifully. The double-page spreads of the forest are dramatic and could be seen as something frightening, particularly when Lawrence is separated from his father. In the end, the forest becomes something very special, a place where Lawrence discovers nature.

A lovely picture book with delicate illustrations and a strong story. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Disney-Hyperion.

Review: Hush Little Bunny by David Ezra Stein

Hush Little Bunny by David Ezra Stein

Hush Little Bunny by David Ezra Stein (9780062845221)

Caldecott Honor-winner Stein has rewritten the classic song of Hush Little Baby into a rabbit-filled delight. A papa bunny spends a day with his little bunny, experiencing a day in spring just as the snow is disappearing. The two of them explore the meadow together, running under the big blue sky. They munch on clover, hide from a hawk, and then return to play in the sun. In the afternoon, the little bunny plays with other young bunnies and papa bunny intervenes when someone is mean. As the day comes to a close, they watch fireflies and rejoice in spending time together.

The book follows the phrasing and structure of the original song, which will inspire singing along when sharing this one aloud. There is such a sense of joy throughout this book about the warming weather, the beauty of spring and the pleasure of being with someone you love and who loves you. The illustrations echo that spirit with their playful nature. The watercolors are filled with the greens of spring and the gold of the sun.

Another winner for Stein, this one is just right for springtime reading. Appropriate for ages 2-4.

Reviewed from library copy.

 

Review: Sweeping Up the Heart by Kevin Henkes

Sweeping Up the Heart by Kevin Henkes

Sweeping Up the Heart by Kevin Henkes (9780062852571)

Amelia is stuck at home during spring break while her best friend is off in France, probably forgetting all about Amelia. Amelia spends her time with Mrs. O’Brien, the neighbor who has helped care for her for most of her life. She also goes to the local art studio in her Madison, Wisconsin neighborhood and works on her pottery. When she is there one day, she meets Casey, a boy who is trying to rescue his parents’ marriage without much success. As Amelia and Casey start to become friends with a shared sense of humor and love of art, they notice a woman hanging around the area who looks a lot like Amelia, but Amelia’s mother died ten years ago. Is she a ghost? Has Amelia’s entire life been a lie? The two set out to discover the truth.

Henkes’ excels at both novels for children and picture books. His novels are like small gems. His writing is focused and lovely, exploring the intense emotions of childhood without mocking them at all. Instead, he endows them with a deep understanding and empathy, demonstrating how small untruths can turn larger in unexpected ways. Henkes looks closely at young artists in this book, exploring how art can convey emotions, serve as a release, and connect people to one another.

Amelia is a detailed character, a girl who is lonely in a very deep way. With a dead mother and a distant father, she is close to her babysitter, but missing her friends too. Casey is feeling a sorrow and grief for his parents’ dissolving marriage. Both children have a powerlessness to them as well that turns into action as they work together to solve who the unknown woman actually is. A warning, this is not a mystery story but instead a more quiet character study.

Henkes once again stuns with his deep connection to his characters and his skill as a writer. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Greenwillow Books.