Finding Francois by Gus Gordon (9780525554004)
Alice Bonnet loved living with her grandmother in their French town. She loved baking together and also loved making lists on her own. But sometimes Alice was lonely, like when she felt small or didn’t feel brave or when her grandmother was napping. So one morning, she decided to try to find a friend. So she wrote a letter, put it in a bottle and threw it from the bridge. The bottle floated into the ocean, was handled by several different creatures, and eventually found its way to an island where Francois the dog lived with his father. Soon the two were writing back and forth, sending the bottle across the ocean again and again. But when Alice suffered a loss, it was hard for her to write letters or make lists or plan any more. So she stopped writing to Francois for some time. Eventually though, Alice began to plan again, make lists and write letters. And soon a big plan came together!
There is such magic about sending messages in bottles and what an idea that you could throw a message into the water and it would go and back and forth forming a true friendship. That underlying magic is a huge part of the charm of this book, though the characters and the French setting have their own magic about them as well. Alice’s optimism and creativity shine in the story, offering hope even when she is terribly sad.
The art in the book is done in watercolor and pencil. It also incorporates clippings from old paper that fill the pages with old-fashioned objects. Some of the illustrations also appear to be done on postcards, which matches the mailing of messages in the story.
Warm and endearing, this picture book looks at new friendships across wide distances. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Dial Books for Young Readers.
Portrait in Poems: The Storied Life of Gertrude Stein & Alice B. Toklas by Evie Robillard, illustrated by Rachel Katstaller (9781525300561)
Enter the marvelous world of Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice B. Toklas in France in the middle of the 20th century. Stein created an art gallery in her home after moving to Paris with her brother. They purchased from many incredible artists of the time, including Picasso. In fact, Picasso was so taken with Stein that he had her sit for a portrait which he then gave to her as a gift. Saturday evenings, they opened their home so that others could see the art. Stein was both a writer and a genius, working on capturing her world in words for both adults and children. Stein and Toklas purchased a dog they called Basket, that was featured in Stein’s work, including the “autobiography” she wrote about Alice.
Robillard captures the essence of the life that Stein and Toklas created together, one of acceptance and adoration for one another. Her author’s note speaks to the complexity of their life in World War II France as well as their relationships with those who conspired with the Germans, which likely allowed them to keep their collection of masterpieces safe during the invasion. These elements are not referred to in the body of the book, instead focusing on the art collection, the world they built for themselves, and Stein’s writing and ideas.
Fitting nicely with the clever writing, the illustrations are playful and jovial with a great quirkiness as well. The images depict Gertrude and Alice together, their garden, their home and Basket as well in a color palette that feels timely and modern.
A lovely picture book biography that celebrates an iconic lesbian couple in history. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Kids Can Press.
Village of Scoundrels by Margi Preus (9781419708978)
Based on the true story of a remote village in France that resisted the Nazi invasion in their own way, this novel is a testament to bravery in the face of seemingly unrelenting evil. The story focuses on several teens who live in Les Lauzes, France in 1943. They go to school, sleep in the local dormitories, and also help in the resistance. Some of them are Jewish, hidden in plain sight with the other teens and children. Others are from the village and know the terrain and area so well that they can be messengers. Still others spend their nights getting people safely across the border to Switzerland. Meanwhile, there is a rather inept policeman who tries to figure out what is going on. He is almost as young as the others, but focused on proving himself and defending his country. As the teens take more and more risks, they learn that resistance is a way through paralyzing fear and towards freedom.
Preus has written such an engaging tale here, with so many of the elements based on real events. In fact, the more unlikely the scenario, the more likely it is to be true. This makes reading the epilogue at the end of the book great fun as one discovers the real people behind the characters. The simple bravery of all of the villagers by taking in Jews and others, hiding them in their homes and barns, and helping them escape is profound. There is a delight in seeing where items were hidden, in realizing the power of forgery, of accompanying these characters on their travels to help people survive.
A large part of the success here is Preus’ writing which contains a strong sense of justice and resistance in the face of the Gestapo. Even as some children are being taken away, the others gather to sing to them, standing in the face of the Nazi force directly. There is no lack of sorrow and pain though, with parents lost to concentration camps, children never having known safety, and arrests being made. Still, there is a joy here, of being able to fight back in some way against overwhelming odds.
A great historical novel with strong ties to the true story. Appropriate for ages 12-15.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Amulet.
Cezanne’s Parrot by Amy Guglielmo, illustrated by Brett Helquist (9780525515081)
Cezanne was a French painter who longed to be told that he’s a great artist, so he tried to train his parrot to say that to him. Cezanne’s focus on ordinary events and people as well as his unique style of thick paint and heavy lines did not speak to the professors at the famous Academie des Beaux-Arts where he longed to study. Monet advised Cezanne to head into the French countryside for inspiration. But Monet painted quickly and Cezanne painted very slowly, sometimes taking over 100 visits to a site before his painting was complete. He continued to submit his art for consideration by the Academie, but continued to be rebuffed. The Impressionists emerged as a group that broke the rules of art, but Cezanne didn’t fit in, even with them. He continued to paint the way that only he could, eventually becoming a huge success.
Cezanne’s continued disappointments in gaining attention for his art flavor this picture book biography with rejection and sorrow. They also give readers a chance to see someone who never gave up even as people mocked him. This incredible resilience is also captured in the humor of teaching his parrot to compliment him, something that finally happens in the picture book towards the end.
Helquist’s illustrations are saturated with color, rich and vibrant. He reproduces several of Cezanne’s masterpieces on the page while the majority of the illustrations are filled with images of Cezanne’s hard work, using speech bubbles and humor when appropriate.
A look at one of the greatest painters of all time and what it took to be a success. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
Lighter Than Air: Sophie Blanchard, the First Woman Pilot by Matthew Clark Smith, illustrated by Matt Tavares (9780763677329, Amazon)
This picture book biography tells the story of Sophie Blanchard, the first woman to fly on her own. In the 18th century, France was filled with “balloonmania.” Every balloonist was male and they were breaking records. Meanwhile, a girl was growing up by the seaside and dreaming of flight. When she met the famous balloonist Jean-Pierre Blanchard, the two realized they had a shared passion for flight. They were soon married and started flying together. After two shared flights, Sophie went up alone and became the first woman to fly a balloon solo. Her husband died from a heart attack and fall from a balloon and Sophie stopped flying for awhile. Eventually, she flew again and earned a living with her flight. Napoleon made her Aeronaut of the Official Festivals and Chief Air Minister of Ballooning.
Smith offers exactly the right amount of detail in this picture book. The dangers of ballooning are mentioned but not dwelled upon, just like the death of Jean-Pierre. Sophie’s own death in a balloon is only mentioned in the Author’s Note which also speaks to how little is actually known about her despite her accomplishments. Her childhood, in particular, is unknown and Smith created some of the details himself. Throughout the book, it is the wonder of human flight that is the focus and that unites Sophie’s adult life with her childhood dreams.
Tavares has illustrated this picture book with period details that capture the balloons and the fragility of the baskets. In other illustrations, he captures the sky and the expanse that Sophie is flying into. Two illustrations mirror one another with darker skies as Sophie dreams as a girl of flying and when she returns to flight after her husband’s death.
An important picture book about a brave and groundbreaking woman who refused to be limited by the rest of the world. Appropriate for ages 6-8.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Artist and Me by Shane Peacock, illustrated by Sophie Casson (InfoSoup)
Told from the point of view of a child in Arles, France, this book looks at how unique people in the world have their own way of viewing things. The boy joins with the adults in the town to mock and bully painter Vincent van Gogh. Van Gogh was seen as a wild man, living in poverty who wasted his days creating art that didn’t sell and that went against everything that people knew about art. Yet he just kept on painting. The boy eventually finds himself in a field with the artist, suddenly seeing the world as something amazing and vibrantly colored rather than the same place it has always been. The artist offered the boy his painting but the boy refused, only to see it years later on the wall of a museum.
Peacock has created a picture book about bullying but also about so much more. It is about the way that society reacts to a genius who refuses to follow their rules, who walks his own path through the fields, painting as he goes. The child is clearly following what the adults around him are saying. He is also intrigued in many ways by the strange artist and the way he lives. Plus he is drawn in by the paintings that he can glimpse. It’s a lovely balance of rejection and attraction that makes the book surprising and effective.
The art by Casson uses vibrant colors to capture the French countryside. The golden of the wheat fields, the purple of the sky, all tied together with reds and blues and add depth and even more color. The result is a different style than Van Gogh, but a nod to his use of color and sense of freedom.
A book that works on many levels, this picture book looks at bullying, genius, art and the power of connection. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from library copy.
Mesmerized: How Ben Franklin Solved a Mystery that Baffled All of France by Mara Rockliff, illustrated by Iacopo Bruno (InfoSoup)
When Benjamin Franklin went to France to ask them for their help in gaining freedom for the American colonies, he discovered that they were fascinated by science. Particularly, they were abuzz about Dr. Mesmer, a man who staged shows and used an unseen force that he claimed was similar to electricity to cure people of their health issues and control their thoughts. Even Marie Antoinette was taken with Dr. Mesmer and in awe of his powers. The King of France asked Ben Franklin to explore what the force was. So Franklin started the very first blind test, literally, by blindfolding people and experimenting to see if they could tell if Dr. Mesmer was using the force or not. In the end, several things were discovered like the placebo effect and the amazing power of the human mind itself.
Rockliff writes a rollicking book where science is what everyone wants to know more about but also where science is in its infancy. This look at a specific moment in history is dynamic and great fun, particularly due to the personalities involved and also the fact that it demonstrated scientific ideas that are still in use today. Rockliff relishes the fun of the entire story along with the reader, allowing this story to carry forward on its own wild pace which will delight teachers looking for a book on science that is fun to share aloud.
Bruno’s illustrations add to that wild feel with their fancy flounces when talking of Dr. Mesmer and the straight-forward but period touches when Franklin takes the page. There are full color double-page spreads mixed with other pages with more white space. The illustrations have a broad sense of humor that ties in well with the text.
A fabulous nonfiction book that is sure to surprise and enthrall history and science buffs. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from library copy.
Hidden: A Child’s Story of the Holocaust by Loic Dauvillier, illustrated by Marc Lizano and Greg Salsedo
Translated from French, this graphic novel delicately but powerfully explains the impact of the Nazis on a child. Told by a grandmother to her granddaughter, this is the story of Dounia, a young Jewish girl whose life changes when the Nazis come to Paris. First she has to wear a yellow star, then she stops attending school, and finally her parents are taken away and she is sheltered by neighbors. She has to call the neighbor woman “mother” even though she doesn’t want to. The two flee Paris and head to the countryside where Dounia is able to live comfortably with enough food, but worries all the time about whether she will ever see her parents again. This is a book about families but also about those people thrown together by horrors who become family to one another to survive.
Dauvallier first offers a glimpse of what Dounia’s life was like just before the Nazis arrived. Quickly though, the book changes and becomes about persecution and the speed of the changes that Jews in France and other countries had to endure. Isolation from society was one of the first steps taken, the loss of friends and mentors, then the fear of being taken away or shot entered. But so did bravery and sacrifice and heroism. It is there that this book stays, keeping the horrors at bay just enough for the light to shine in.
The art work is powerful but also child friendly. The characters have large round heads that show emotions clearly. There are wonderful plays of light and dark throughout the book that also speak to the power of the Nazis and the vital power of fighting back in big ways and small.
A powerful graphic novel, this book personalizes the Holocaust and offers the story of one girl who survived with love and heroism. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy received from First Second.
The Mighty Lalouche by Matthew Olshan, illustrated by Sophie Blackall
Over 100 years ago in Paris, there was a postman named Lalouche who thanks to his job delivering the mail was nimble, strong and fast. He lived a quiet life with just his pet finch and a view of the Seine River. When his job was replaced with an electric car, he was forced to turn to boxing to support himself. At first, he was laughed at because he was so small and slight, but once he got in the ring, he proved that those same postal service skills made him a great boxer. Soon he was pitted against The Anaconda in a major fight. What happens when Lalouche finally meets a boxer just as strong, nimble and fast as himself?
This is going to be one gushing review, since I complete adore this picture book. Olshan’s writing strikes just the right balance between history and humor. His text is completely readable and ideal to read aloud to a group. The names of the wrestlers are delightful: The Piston, The Anaconda, The Grecque. The story is satisfying and complete, one of those picture books that is all about the tale it is telling, much to its credit.
Blackall is the ideal illustrator for this quirky French picture book. She plays with proportions and size here, creating wrestlers that dwarf the little Lalouche. Her cut paper illustrations have a great dimension to them, the layers of paper creating shadows and depth. I love the warmth of the world she creates in her version of Paris, everything faded, watermarked and somehow familiar.
Highly recommended, this picture book would make a stellar pick to read aloud to elementary classes thanks to its boxing, action and humor. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Random House.