It Wasn’t Me by Dana Alison Levy (9781524766450)
When Theo’s photographs are vandalized at school, he and five other seventh graders spend their spring break doing a Justice Circle. Theo is angry that he has to spend time with the people who may have ruined his photos but also scared that that person targeted him enough to also spoil his pinpoint camera project the next day. But as the Justice Circle works, the five of them discover ways to make new connections: sock puppets, yoga-ball soccer, and lots of candy. Still, as the end of the week nears, no one has confessed to being the vandal and Theo is getting more and more stressed. When one more of his projects is ruined that week, he is convinced he knows the perpetrator. But does he?
Levy’s middle-grade novel cleverly mirrors The Breakfast Club and yet also takes the format in a different direction by adding a mystery. Readers will quickly make assumptions about the different teens themselves. Was it the jock? The weirdo? The goody-goody? The invisible kid? The screwup? One of them has to be the culprit. Still, as the week goes on, readers will question those initial opinions and learn that there is more to each of the characters than a single label.
Strongly written and compellingly paced, this novel is a fascinating look at how justice can be done in a school setting without the use of detentions or suspensions. It asks readers to look deeply at the characters, to join Theo on his journey of learning about the others. As the characters reveal more about themselves, they become all the more human and interesting, and they might just become friends too.
A great novel about the complexities of being a seventh grader and the truths you hide. Appropriate for ages 10-13.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Delacorte Books for Young Readers.
Up the Mountain Path by Marianne Dubuc (9781616897239)
Every Sunday, Mrs. Badger walks to the mountain peak. Along the way, she greets her various animal friends and finds gifts to give others later. She helps anyone who needs it too. When a young cat asks to share Mrs. Badger’s snack, she invites the cat along to the mountaintop. They need to find the little cat her own walking stick and take breaks along the way, but the two eventually make it to the peak. They enjoy one another’s company and the trip so much that they continue to make the trek together again and again. Eventually, Mrs. Badger grows older and has to be the one taking breaks and finally she can’t make the trip any longer. The cat continues to make the walk, finding her own young animal to mentor on the way.
This gentle picture book has such depth to it. Mrs. Badger is a fabulous character, exhibiting deep kindness and thoughtfulness for others. She knows everyone she encounters on the walk and makes connections easily. She demonstrates how to make and keep friends with all of her actions. This becomes even more clear as she walks with the young cat, teaching them how to make the long climb to the peak. The book can be read as a metaphor for life but children can also simply enjoy the story of the friendly badger and a young cat who become friends.
Dubuc’s illustrations move from full pages of images to smaller unframed pictures that offer a varied feel throughout the book. She makes sure to have a special feeling when the characters make it to the mountaintop. The vista is striking but it is the journey itself that makes the book sing.
A quiet book about connections and community. Appropriate for ages 3-6.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Very Last Castle by Travis Jonker, illustrated by Mark Pett (9781419725746)
The very last castle stands in the middle of a small town. No one ever goes into the castle and no one ever comes out. A single guard looks out from the tower. The townspeople can hear noises coming from the castle. Some think it might be monsters, others think it could be giants or snakes. Ibb is a girl who lives in the town and thinks about the castle a lot. One day, she gathers her courage and knocks on the huge castle door, but no one answers and she hears a terrible hiss. Soon afterward, Ibb gets an invitation to appear at the castle gate on Sunday. Ibb goes to the castle and is let inside where she discovers the source of the noises and forms a new connection with the man who lives there.
Jonker’s first picture book is impressive. He uses a traditional picture book tone here built on wonder and curiosity. The incorporation of the various noises that emanate from the castle is a very nice touch, making the book all the more fun to share aloud. His writing is focused and tight and the story can be read both as a straightforward tale but also as an allegory for the walls we build in our lives.
Pett creates a winning young heroine for readers, someone who firmly roots this book in the modern age with her backpack and school days. The juxtaposition between the ancient castle and the young girl works particularly well. The art is playful and the reveal of the interior of the castle is worth the suspense.
A picture book worth exploring. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy provided by Abrams.
The Season of Styx Malone by Kekla Magoon (9781524715953)
After brothers Caleb and Bobby Gene get into trouble for trading their baby sister for a bag of fireworks, they are sentenced to a summer of labor alongside the boy who traded with them. Caleb is determined not to be an ordinary person in life, something his father seems obsessed with him staying at all times, even calling him extra-ordinary! So when Styx Malone enters their lives and offers them a way to trade the ill-gotten fireworks for something even better, the two brothers eagerly join him. But Styx is not telling them the whole truth about his life or even about the trades they are making. As the boys are pulled farther into Styx’s world, Caleb worries that it will all fall apart and that he will be left being just ordinary again.
Magoon has created a story that reads smooth and sweet, a tale filled with adventures and riotous action. At the same time though, she has also created a book that asks deeper questions about family, the foster care system, children in need, and what makes a good friend. Readers may not trust Styx as quickly as Caleb does, so the book also has a compelling narrative voice that is naive and untrustworthy. Even as Caleb, in particular, is drawn firmly into Styx’s plans, readers will be questioning what they are doing. It’s a great book to show young readers an unreliable narrator who is also charming.
The book has complex characters who all rise beyond being stereotypical. Even the adults in the book show glimpses of other sides that create a sense of deep reality on the page. Styx himself is an amazing character. He is clearly doing things on the edge of the law, hustling for deals and acting far tougher than he actually is. The moments where Styx shows his softer side are particularly compelling, like the hotdog cookout and seeing him interact with a father figure. Beautifully nuanced, these moments take this book from a madcap summer to a book that speaks deeply about being a child.
A top read of the year, expect to find incredible depth in this novel about friendship and family. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Wendy Lamb Books.
No Fixed Address by Susin Nielsen (9780735262751)
Felix loves trivia and his gerbil who is named after a famous Canadian game show host. He lives with his mother Astrid, who struggles to keep jobs and tends to tell lies whenever she wants. Living in Vancouver is expensive, so when Astrid loses her job and then offends the person who takes them in, Felix finds himself living in a camper van. It’s only temporary, so Felix starts school and doesn’t explain to anyone where he is living. Astrid uses her ability to stretch the truth convincingly to get him a place in the school he wants and to get them a mailing address. Still, living in a van is not any fun after awhile and as Felix makes new friends, he finds it hard to keep lying to them. But there is a way out, if Felix can win the junior version of a national game show, he might just have enough money to get them back on their feet and into a home.
Nielsen tells a story about the power of hope, the importance of friendship and the creation of a community of people who care. It is also the story of a mother who is struggling with depression and an inability to keep a job. Astrid is a great character, a mother who manages to continue to be sympathetic but also disastrous. She is complicated just like their story of homelessness is. This is not a flat look at homelessness but instead an in-depth exploration of how it happens, the trap of being in it, and the long climb back out.
Felix too is a wonderful character. He is bright, funny and written as a twelve-year-old boy. That means that his sense of humor is a little naughty and his sense of integrity and honor is strong. His voice resonates as that of a child his age, not reaching up to be a teen yet. The friends he makes are also depicted well, from his old childhood friend with the warm and messy home to the girl he likes, maybe, and her straight-talking hard-hitting journalism approach.
A nuanced and skilled look at homelessness with great characters to discover along the journey. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy provided by Tundra Books.
The Visitor by Antje Damm (9781776571888)
Elise never leaves her house. She is scared of everything, including spiders, trees and people. But she does like to open her windows to let in fresh air. One day, a paper airplane flies through the open window and into her house. She immediately scooped it into the fire, but she had nightmares about paper planes all night. The next day a boy knocked on Elise’s front door and asked about his plane. He also asked to use the bathroom. Elise let him in. As the boy came down the stairs, he asked about some pictures on the wall, looked at Elise’s collection of books, and asked to be read to. They played together too and had a snack. That night, Elise knew just what to do and made a new paper airplane.
Originally published in Germany, this picture book has a distinct European feel to it. Damm’s text is simple and concise, offering a straight explanation of what is going on. Along the way, the book reveals how limited Elise’s world has become and the courage it takes for her to open the door to a child. It is a book that captures loneliness and agorophobia in a clear way.
It is the illustrations that truly make this book special. Done in cut paper dioramas, the illustrations play with light and color. At first, Elise’s world is dark and gray. As the boy enters the house though, light and bright color come with him. He stays longer and soon the entire room is awash in splashes of bright colors. This more than anything shows the transformation taking place for Elise as she dares to make a new connection.
Great illustrations lift a book about empathy and community. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge by M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin (9780763698225)
Released September 25, 2018.
The goblins and elves have found peace after a long war. Brangwain Spurge, an elf who studies goblin history, is catapulted into the goblin kingdom to deliver a gift to the strange being who rules the goblins. He is hosted there by Werfel, a goblin who studies elven history. Werfel is delighted to host Spurge, but that soon changes as Spurge is cantankerous, judgmental and hates everything goblin. He even detests an elven feast put on in his honor. Werfel also discovers that Brangwain is actually a spy, sending messages in images back to the elves. As the political intrigue grows, readers discover that Spurge is being used by his own government to start a new war, one that the elves will have the upper hand in thanks to duping him. But never doubt the ability of Spurge to ruin a solid plan!
What a pairing of master storytellers! Anderson writes the clever text, showing Werfel’s point of view and delighting in the slapstick comedy moments, the clashing of two cultures, and the dangers of hosting a guest. Meanwhile, Yelchin tells Spurge’s side of the tale through sly images alone, depicting what Spurge is sending back to the elves. The tales of course do not match and yet the also work together to tell a more complete story of misunderstandings, biases and prejudice more fully than words ever could.
The political pieces of the tale are particularly well drawn, showing how forces at work are not really in charge but may just be playground bullies who are being bullied themselves. The focus on differences and similarities is cleverly crafted into the story with the finale strengthening the connection and leaving no doubt that change is possible.
A timely look at political intrigue and getting beyond what holds us apart with plenty of humor to make it a delight. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Candlewick Press.
Otherwood by Pete Hautman (9780763690717)
After Grandpa Zach died in the storm, pages of his book strewn around him, Stuey and his mother packed his writing up and put it all away. Grandpa Zach had told Stuey that ghosts walk on the golf course that has now become an overgrown wood. It was where Stuey’s great grandfather disappeared along with the district attorney who was prosecuting him. The two were never seen again. Now when Stuey and his best friend Elly Rose go into the deadfall of trees that seems to form a sort of castle or ship in the woods, they hear voices and music. Stuey has even seen a figure like his grandfather appear. When Elly Rose disappears one day right before Stuey’s eyes, no one believes him. But Elly Rose is gone though Stuey can occasionally still make contact with her. It seems she has entered a different reality where Stuey is the one who vanished. In this splintered new world, how can the two of them restore their own reality?
Hautman beautifully combines a mystery with a ghost story with quantum physics in this ode to a woods. The woods itself, the overgrown golf course, is as much a character here as the two children. It is a woods from all of our childhoods, one that seems far larger than it actually is, one that invites you in, scares you a bit, and releases you back into reality. Hautman cleverly uses the woods as the way that people vanish, that hatred is fought and that people take a stand.
Stuey and Elly Rose are unlikely friends which makes the book all the better. Stuey has suffered great loss in his life with only his mother left. He is surrounded by his grandfather’s home and his grandfather’s secrets. Elly Rose is imaginative, playful and a bit bossy, deciding what games they will play together. Still, they are fast friends even as their reality splits apart around them.
Smart and sophisticated, this middle grade novel is a dynamic mix of fantasy and science. Appropriate for ages 10-13.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Candlewick Press.
Good Rosie! by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Harry Bliss (9780763689797)
Released on September 4, 2018.
Rosie is a dog who lives with George. She gets lonely without any other dogs to play with. Still, George takes her on walks and that makes her less lonely. When George sees a dog in the clouds in the sky one day, he is inspired to take Rosie to the dog park. There are lots of dogs there, but Rosie isn’t sure how to make friends. She doesn’t like big Maurice who is too loud. She also doesn’t like Fifi with her sparkly collar and jumping around. But when Maurice plays too roughly with Fifi, Rosie knows just what to do. Soon all three dogs are learning to make friends and play together.
As always, DiCamillo’s storytelling is skilled and warm. She introduces us to a new heroine here, a little friendly dog who is just not quite sure how to make friends yet. Children will relate to the struggles to make new friends on a playground. The two very different dogs that Rosie meets are also a pleasure. One bumbling in his enthusiasm and the other yipping around for attention. Rosie remains firmly a dog throughout the story, not becoming overly anthropomorphized along the way.
The illustrations by Bliss give the book the feel of a graphic novel. They are multi framed and yet the dialogue is not in speech bubbles, so this is a mashup of a chapter book and a graphic novel that is very successful. It is partly the illustrations that keep Rosie firmly a dog. They are realistic and lush, the sort of illustrations that make you want to reach out and pet the dogs on the page.
A dog-gone good chapter book with graphic novel appeal. Appropriate for ages 5-7.
Reviewed from copy provided by Candlewick Press.