Home at Last by Vera B. Williams and Chris Raschka (InfoSoup)
Lester is adopted by Daddy Rich and Daddy Albert, who pick him up with their dog Wincka once the adoption is formalized. They head home, put Lester’s new clothes away. But when Daddy Albert tries to put Lester’s suitcase in the attic, Lester shows them that it is full of his action figures and insists that they have to stay right in the suitcase in his room. Lester is happy during the day, playing with his toys and spending time with his new fathers. At night though, he packs up his suitcase and stands near his fathers’ bed. This happens night after night, despite cocoa and toast, singing songs, and explanations that Lester is safe. Finally, one of the fathers loses his temper with the situation and then Lester really opens up about what he is worried about. A solution to the problem is found by Wincka, the dog, who was listening to Lester’s story too.
This was the book that Williams was working on when she died. Raschka had been involved from the beginning with the book and completed the vision that Williams had shared with him. Williams captures the deep-seated fear that adopted children can have, the understanding at one level of newfound family love but also the change that comes at night where fears become larger. Williams also shows two loving gay men, both delighted to be fathers and each different from the other. The two of them together parent Lester with kindness and concern and deep love.
Raschka finished the book, basing his art on sketches by Williams. His large colorful illustrations have a loose feel that ranges across the page, capturing both the mayhem of a family short on sleep but also the warmth of that family too. His watercolors convey deep emotions from the frustrations of sleepless nights to the power of coming together afterwards. All is beautifully shown on the page.
A tribute to adoptive families, LGBT couples who adopt and the importance of love and patience, this picture book is a grand finale to the many books by Williams. Appropriate for ages 4-7.
Reviewed from copy received from HarperCollins.
The Best Worst Thing by Kathleen Lane (InfoSoup)
Maggie is starting middle school and is getting more and more worried. She has rules to live by that keep the people she loves safe, but there is much more to worry about than that. There is the murderer who was loose in their neighborhood after shooting someone at a local mini mart. There is the boy at school who is going to get a gun for his birthday. There are the rabbits next door owned by a man who doesn’t seem to really love them. Plus there are issues in her own family with a teen sister who is pulling away from Maggie and her little sister and a father growing more and more distant too. Maggie starts to plan new ways to protect her family from danger as her fears mount, but it’s all too much for one person to try to control.
Lane has written an incredible novel for middle grades, particularly as a debut author. She captures the intoxication of danger, the thrill of fear, and then what happens when it becomes more than that, toxic and dark. She shows the problems with fear and worries, the way they mount and the intricate ways that children have of coping in a world where nothing seems firm and solid for them, not even their families. As Maggie copes with OCD tendencies, she is also courageous and caring, striving to control the uncontrollable around her.
Lane captures the real world with honesty here. Rabbits are sold for meat. Children are sometimes not cared for. Marriages have problems. Sisters withdraw. It is all there in this book, but there is more too. There are loving parents, helpful neighbors, friends, apple trees and baby rabbits. So not all is dark and dreary, there is light too and hope here. If only one can see it for the worries.
A bright new voice in children’s literature, this debut novel is delicious and rich. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from library copy.
I Used to Be Afraid by Laura Vaccaro Seeger (InfoSoup)
Explore things that are frightening in this picture book and then see that you can turn it all around and not be frightened any more. Spiders are creepy but also very cool. Shadows can be scary, but you can also create shadow puppets. The dark is frightening, but change your perspective and you can see the stars. One after another, this book takes a fear and then looks at it in a fresh way. From moving to a new home to being alone, each fear is shown and then re-examined. This is a good book to start a conversation about what a child is afraid of and then talking about how that too can be seen from a different perspective.
Seeger brings her clear understanding of the child’s perspective to this picture book. Die cuts and sturdy pages add to the toddler appeal here. The words are simple with only half a sentence on each double-page spread. Yet the concepts explored here are large and beg for deeper exploration on a personal level. The book will work with a group or one-on-one.
Seeger’s illustrations add to the appeal. Her use of acrylic paint and collage creates illustrations that are bold and bright. The die-cut aspect creates a delight with each turn of the page, physically moving something scary to a new view.
A fresh look at fears, this picture book will inspire conversations and that’s nothing to be afraid of! Appropriate for ages 2-4.
Reviewed from copy received from Roaring Brook Press.
Lenny & Lucy by Philip C. Stead, illustrated by Erin E. Stead (InfoSoup)
This award-winning husband and wife team return with another winner of a picture book. Peter knows that moving to a new house is a bad idea, especially when he sees the dark woods. Their new house is on the other side of a bridge from the woods. Peter and his dog Harold spend a sleepless night watch the bridge to make sure nothing crosses it from the woods. Then they head out and use pillows and blankets to create Lenny, a guardian. Unfortunately, they worried that Lenny might be lonely out there at night all alone, so again they did not sleep. The next day, they took blankets and leaves and created a second guardian, Lucy. That night, everyone slept. And the next day, a visitor arrived, one who shows that despite the scary woods this might be a good place to live after all.
Stead has the beautiful ability to create a story out of leaves, pillows and blankets. This book speaks to all children who have moved and those who have been afraid of other things too. There is a menacing sense from the woods, and Stead combats that with a concrete feel of normalcy but also a strong creativity. This all feels like childhood to me, capturing that wonder mixed with fear that turns into something else all the more powerful.
Erin Stead’s art has a delicacy about it that matches Philip’s tone in his prose. She creates a linear forest, uncluttered and somehow all the more strange and alien because of that. The hulking bodies of Lenny and Lucy are so solid on the page that they combat that feeling just by being there. Readers will immediately see the safety in these creatures.
This is a story of moving but also about wonder and fear. It’s a brilliant picture book, one to finish with a contented smile. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy received from Roaring Brook Press.
Night Animals by Gianna Marino (InfoSoup)
When Skunk walks by, he notices that Possum is hiding and asks why. She’s hiding from “the night animals” and hushes Skunk. The two hide together in a hollow tree until Skunk hears Wolf coming. Wolf shouts for help and says that something big is chasing him. Meanwhile Skunk has gotten alarmed and released his scent which has Possum fainting. Bear arrives in a panic saying that something HUGE is following him! It must be a night animal. Logic is restored by a little bat who informs all of the animals that THEY are the night animals. So what could they be afraid of? You will see!
Marino captures the hectic pace of panic neatly in this picture book. It builds from one animal to the next until it reads at almost breakneck speed as the animals grow in both size and number. The text is very simple and lends itself to lots of voices and humor when read aloud. Children may realize that all of these are nocturnal animals right away, but the final twist of the book will have even those clued into the lack of reason for any panic laughing.
The illustrations add so much to this book. With backgrounds of the darkest black, the animals pop on the page with their light coloring. Speaking in speech bubbles, they are funny and frightened. The addition of Skunk’s overuse of his scent makes for an even funnier read, particularly with it being Possum who is always hit with it.
Funny and a delight to read aloud, this picture book is ideal for sleepovers and bedtime reading, particularly if done by flashlight. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy received from Viking Books for Young Readers.
Orion and the Dark by Emma Yarlett (InfoSoup)
Orion is scared of a lot of things thanks to his big imagination, but the thing that he is most frightened of is the dark. He hates bedtime and spends the night watching for monsters and listening for scary noises. One night, he is so upset that he shouts at the dark to just go away! That’s when the Dark outside his window changed and became alive. It entered his room and Orion cautiously greeted him. Then the Dark invited Orion along on an adventure. First, the two explored the darkest and most frightening parts of Orion’s house together and it turned out that those places were a lot of fun. They faced the scary sounds in the darkness together and found out that they weren’t that frightening after all. Finally, they headed out into the darkest place of all, the night sky and there Orion discovered that not only wasn’t he scared of the Dark anymore, but they had become the best of friends.
Yarlett has written a dynamic picture book that does a lot to soothe fear of the dark. First, it turns the dark into a character who is warm, friendly and filled with stars. He’s also rounded and rather like a sparkling stuffed animal. There is certainly nothing to fear there. Then as they explore the dark places and noises together, readers and Orion realize that there is nothing to be afraid of there either. The ending of the book as they fly up into the night is magical and marvelous, offering another way to see the night.
The illustrations are done with plenty of humor. The paper switches as Orion thinks of things or plans to lined paper that makes it more like a school assignment. His ideas also show up in childlike crayon, including the fierce monsters that he imagines are in the closet. A couple of the pages have Dark’s arm as part of them, moving the arm makes the Dark shake hands with Orion, and really allows the Dark to greet the reader too.
Lovely illustrations that embrace the darkness of night combine with strong storytelling in this picture book that will have everyone wishing they too could make friends with the Dark. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from library copy.
I’m Trying to Love Spiders by Bethany Barton (InfoSoup)
Using a great premise, this nonfiction picture book offers up lots of information on spiders. Told in first person, the narrator says that they are working to love spiders, but it just doesn’t seem to be working. They try looking more closely at them, but that doesn’t work and ends up with a spider squished on the page with the reader’s help. The next attempt goes a little better, focusing on the spiders’ eyes, webs and how they are able to walk up walls. Even the attempt to gently pet a spider ends up squished. But when a cloud of bugs invades the book, there’s only one thing that can help! Spiders to the rescue!
Barton takes the subject of arachnophobia and turns it into a clever look at spiders. The premise of the book is very engaging and gets even more so when the reader is called upon to use their own hand to squish or pet the spiders on the page. The facts shared are engaging and fascinating. They are selected to be interesting even to those struggling to love spiders. Even better, the book encourages children to take a closer look at things that scare them and shows how to approach changing your attitude.
Barton’s art has a wonderful loose quality to it that works particularly well with the zany interactions here. Her spiders are rather cute, fuzzy and googly eyed and very easy to love. Her humor is great, integrated into both her text and her illustrations. I particularly enjoyed what a human spider web made from our hair would look like as a house.
Inventive, funny and engaging, this nonfiction picture book will have you petting spiders in no time. Just be really careful not to smash them! Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from library copy.
Swim, Duck, Swim! by Susan Lurie, illustrated by Murray Head
Told in rhyme, this picture book illustrated with large photographs explores one day in the life of a duckling who just won’t get into the water. His parents are with him, encouraging him to try and so are all of the other fuzzy ducklings that are already swimming around. But he is not sure that swimming is for him. He might sink! He hates to be wet! And this might just be the perfect time for a nap. But with his parents encouraging him to keep on trying, there is suddenly a splash and he is swimming around merry and proud.
Lurie’s rhymes have just the right amount of bounce and energy. She captures the obstinate toddler who just won’t do what his parents are pushing him to try. Children and parents alike will relate to this battle of wills where patient and positive parenting wins out in the end. The text is simple and jaunty, keeping the duckling clearly an animal but giving words and emotions to his actions.
I’m a huge fan of photographs in children’s picture books. Particularly when they are done as beautifully as Head’s. The large format of all of the illustrations works beautifully, and I appreciate that they run all the way to the edge of the page rather than being framed in white. The effect is an expansive one, these are pictures that pull you in until you too are pond-side and cheering on the duckling.
A great pick for kids heading to their first swimming lessons, this book would also make a nice addition to story times on ducks or trying something new. Appropriate for ages 2-4.
Reviewed from library copy.
Fraidyzoo by Thyra Heder
It’s the perfect day to go to the zoo and the whole family is excited. Well, maybe not the whole family. Little T certainly is not, in fact she is frightened of the zoo. But she can’t remember what in the zoo scares her. So her family set out to find out what might be scaring her. They start out at the beginning of the alphabet and acting out the animals. It’s not alligator, bat or camel. As they go on, the costumes they use become more and more elaborate and they all help act them out with plenty of laughter and silliness. They make it all the way to zebras and still Little T can’t remember why she is scared of the zoo. So they decide to go the next day. But there is something very frightening at the zoo, and her older sister might just find it a little too scary.
Heder does a superb job here of creating costumes out of boxes and ropes that look like they just might work in real life. As the costumes grow more and more outrageous and complex, they also get more beautiful. Along the way, Heder does not name any of the animals being portrayed, so the book has a guessing-game element to it as well. The ending is funny and satisfying.
Heder’s art really is the majority of the story here. The text is almost secondary to the full-page images that gallop and dash across the page. They are filled with motion, color and smiles. This is art that will inspire children to play with boxes and rope. Expect your living room to be strewn with cardboard and ideas.
Creative and a joy to read, this is much more fun than any visit I’ve had to the zoo. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy received from Abrams Books for Young Readers.