Because of the Rabbit by Cynthia Lord (9780545914246)
Emma is about to start public school for the first time as a fifth grader after being home schooled. On the evening before her first day of school, her father, a game warden, gets a call about a rabbit stuck in someone’s fence. Emma goes with her father on the call and discovers that it’s not a wild rabbit after all, but a domesticated bunny. Emma and her father take the bunny home and plan to turn it over to a shelter the next day. Then Emma must start school where she has plans to find the perfect best friend. However, things don’t go as planned and Emma is paired on a school project with Jack. Jack has problems paying attention in class, speaks when it isn’t his turn, and loves to talk about animal facts. Jack isn’t the friend that Emma is looking for. As Emma struggles to distance herself from Jack and get closer to the girls in her class, she is also learning more about herself along the way.
Lord once again has created a very readable book for older elementary readers. She perfectly captures the stress of going from a home-school environment to a public school classroom as well as the high expectations to find a best friend. As Emma works to manage her high expectations, she discovers that she is also being bullied by a girl in her class who is also mean to Jack. Still, it is not that simple to accept Jack as a friend, because he is different and has troubles, and yet, he may be the exact friend that Emma needs.
Emma is a complex character, which is very impressive given the short length of this novel. As she moves to a public school, she shows her gentleness with her rabbit, her love of family, and her deep longing for a true friend. She grapples with being pushed to work with Jack, being lied to by a classmate, and then finding herself being mean to Jack behind his back. Friendship is not simple!
An appealing read that will hop right into your heart. Appropriate for ages 8-12.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Scholastic Press.
Dragon Night by J. R. Krause (9780525514244)
A boy who is scared of the dark night meets a dragon out of one of his story books who is scared of the knight too. The two set off on a flying journey to explore their fears together, thinking they are talking about the same thing. They find a carnival where night has been driven away but it has a castle. There is a city street with bright lights and no night, but there is a big king. The stadium even has a knight mascot. When the two realize they are talking about different fears, they work together to face them. The dragon helps the boy realize that dark brings the stars out. The boy then creates a new story for the dragon where the knight doesn’t try to hurt him at all.
Krause tells an empowering story of facing one’s fears with a friend in this picture book. His use of a homophone to start the misunderstanding adds to the fun of the story with an element of grammar and a reason for two unlikely beings to connect. Readers may expect the story to end when the boy begins to accept the night, but it continues with a more complicated solution for the dragon. The fact that the child thinks of the solution and creates it himself is a key to the success of this story.
Krause is an animator of shows like The Simpsons, so it is no surprise that the art in this book is compelling. Done in thick lines and limited colors, it has a vintage feel that makes for a great bedtime story. The art is deftly done, the illumination of the boy and the dragon throughout is skillfully and dramatically done.
Let your bedtime take flight with this winning read. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from library copy.
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.
Watch Us Rise by Renee Watson and Ellen Hagan (9781547600083)
Even though they attend a high school focused on social justice, best friends Chelsea and Jasmine are sick and tired of the way that women are treated there. The two decide to start a Women’s Rights Club that focuses on girls, race, and speaking out. They convince a teacher to be their advisor and are given a school club blog to post to. They post all sorts of things online. Chelsea is a poet who loves to perform in front of audiences. Jasmine writes essays and short pieces on intersectionality and being a black girl of size. Their club starts getting attention both in and outside of their school. But the principal has some issues with their approach and the response of other students to their message. When the club is shut down, the two friends continue to raise their voices together.
Watson and Hagan have created an incredible feminist book for teens. They have incorporated the names and stories of feminists whose writing is worth checking out too, so young people inspired by this book can look further and learn more. The writing is exceptional, particularly the poetry and essays attributed to the two main characters. They cry out for justice on so many fronts that it is entirely inspiring to read.
The authors created two inspiring young women. There is Jasmine, who is grappling with being a large black girl and the constant microaggressions she faces for both her race and size. Her father is dying of cancer while she may be falling for her best male friend. Chelsea is a white girl who stands up for others, calls out for justice, but also makes big mistakes along the way. She is struggling with being a feminist but also being attracted to a boy who is paying attention to her while dating another girl officially. The two grapple with the ideals they hold dear and not being able to attain them, allowing readers to see two human teens doing their best.
Powerful and engaging, this feminist read is written with strength and conviction. Appropriate for ages 12-18.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Bloomsbury.
A Friend for Henry by Jenn Bailey, illustrated by Mika Song (9781452167916)
In his classroom, Henry is looking to make a new friend. It can’t be the class pet, because Gilly the fish can’t play on the swings. It can’t be his teacher. As Henry considers different children in his class, he realizes that some of them are too colorful even when you try to do something nice for them. Others don’t listen very well, like a friend would. Other kids break the rules or play with worms. Henry found himself watching Gilly in her fishbowl. Katie is watching Gilly too. Henry thinks about Katie. The two play blocks together quietly and Katie listens to Henry and he listens to her. They play together but each in their own way. It’s just right.
Bailey has written a captivating story about a boy with particular needs and wants in a friend. Henry has strong opinions about friends, ones that make him angry when they are dismissed. When Henry gets too frustrated he ends up in a bit of trouble at school. It is great to see a book embrace the deep emotions of children and not label any of them as wrong. Henry doesn’t have to change at all to find a friend, he just needs some patience.
Song’s illustrations are simple and warm. They depict a diverse classroom of children, all possible friends for Henry to consider. Done in ink and watercolor, they show everyone’s emotions throughout the day very clearly through body language and facial expressions.
A lovely look at the emotions of finding a friend. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Chronicle Books.
The Epic Adventures of Huggie & Stick by Drew Daywalt, illustrated by David Spencer (9780399172762)
The adventures of Huggie and Stick are told in diary format from each character’s point of view. Stick is an eternal optimist, always seeing the best in every situation. Huggie, on the other hand, is a delight of a pessimist and is regularly complaining and seeing all of the problems surrounding them. As the two friends make their way around the world and visit each continent, readers will delight in the humor on the page and enjoy the way the two points of view show the same voyage from very differing points of view.
Daywalt has a way with humor, creating wonderful timing on each page. He knows when to use plenty of text and other times to let the humor just sit for a moment on the page. The juxtaposition of the two characters is written with flair. Readers may at first be drawn to Stick the optimist but by the end I was entirely in Huggie’s camp as he bore the brunt of the journey. The humor is all the better for the illustrations which show Huggie steadily falling apart on their journey and the ramshackle ways that Stick helps patch him back together.
A journey definitely worth taking, this one would be great to share aloud with elementary-age children. Appropriate for ages 5-7.
Reviewed from library copy.
Me and My Fear by Francesca Sanna (9781911171539)
A girl talks about how her fear had once been small and helped protect her. However, when she came to a new country, her fear grew much bigger and kept on growing. Her fear kept her in the house when she wanted to go out. Her fear doesn’t want her to go to school. Fear fills the girl’s dreams, evenings and meals. It makes her feel separate and lonely. When a boy reaches out to her at school, they draw and paint together. When they head outdoors, a dog barks at the two of them and suddenly both of them reveal their fears to one another. Her fear steadily gets smaller and more manageable as she begins to try new things and meet even more people.
Sanna, the author of The Journey, returns with her second book that once again speaks to the experience of an immigrant child. The use of Fear as a full character in the book works very well, embodying this large emotion and demonstrating how it can control one’s life. Children who are not immigrants will be able to see their own fears represented here as well, making this a strong choice for discussing emotions.
The art plays a crucial role in the book, particularly in the way that the fears are presented. Sanna creates a fear that is friendly at times and ferocious at others. Fear is soft and changes size, sometimes riding on the girl’s back and weighing her down. When Fear shrinks, it becomes almost toylike and very manageable, conveying that some fear is a good thing to have.
An original look at fear as an emotion. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from library copy.
Snow Lane by Josie Angelini (9781250150929)
Annie doesn’t live in the type of family that lets them take tropical vacations during school breaks like some of the kids she goes to school with. She is the youngest of nine children in her family and money is tight. Her father works so much that she barely sees him at all unless it is while she is helping out at their family farm picking berries. Her mother doesn’t pay much attention to any of the children except the two talented ones. As Annie returns to school for a new year, she realizes that she is very different than the other kids and it goes a lot deeper than her having to wear hand-me-downs from her older brother and wait to get new shoes that don’t have a huge hole in them. Annie is consistently resilient and cheerful in the face of everything she has to deal with, something that is all the more impressive as her family secrets are revealed.
Angelini has drawn from her own family history to create one of the most heart-wrenching books of the year. Readers will immediately know that there is something wrong in Annie’s life as they witness her older siblings being cruel to Annie and her closest sister. Annie struggles with dyslexia and one older sister who is physically violent and also emotionally abusive, telling Annie that she is stupid all the time. As the book steadily reveals the truth about the family, things fall into place and leave Annie to find a way forward using her optimism and intelligence.
Angelini writes beautifully here. She allows the story to play out in front of the reader with Annie herself living in denial about what is actually happening in her family. That denial is even explained clearly towards the end of the book, which gives readers hope that Annie will not just survive but start to thrive. Angelini gives Annie two critical friendships at school that allow her to be successful. Both friends clearly have some ideas of what might be happening to Annie, but neither push that too hard, offering instead friendship, food, and safety.
Heartfelt and painfully honest, this book will speak to so many children living in similar circumstances and allow them to know they are not alone. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from library copy.
Small Spaces by Katherine Arden (9780525515029)
This shivery novel for middle-grade readers will give just the right amount of creepiness for kids reading Goosebumps. Ollie’s mother died in an accident last year, and Ollie found solace in her books, withdrawing from the kids who were her friends and not talking in class. Her father continues to create a warm home for her filled with fresh-baked bread and other treats. When Ollie meets a strange woman about to throw a book into the lake, Ollie rescues the book and runs away. She reads the book, learning about the “smiling man” and the deal that a local man made with him. When she heads out on a field trip with her class, Ollie is surprised to find herself on the farm in the book that has graves for the people in the story. On their way back home, the school bus breaks down and Ollie escapes with two other students from the clutches of the scarecrows and the smiling man himself. Can they avoid capture and find a way back home before nightfall?
There is so much to love about this book. It is so readable for kids, a story that is well-paced and actually frightening, but at just the right level for young readers. The scarecrows are particularly effective as they pivot to watch the children go by and come to life at night. The ghosts are eerie as is the hungry gray bus driver. Young readers will also appreciate Ollie’s growing connection to her mother through her mother’s broken watch, something that tells her what to do and by when. It’s a clever addition to the story, offering a sign of hope and a way out of grief.
Throughout the book, there are characters who will surprise readers by going directly against stereotype. First, there are Ollie’s parents with her domestic father and adventurous mother. Then the two children who accompany Ollie through her adventure are a jock who reads and quotes literature at just the right time and a girl who looks tiny and frail but can climb almost anything and is actually brave and strong. These unexpected little touches add up to a team that is unbeatable as they face real demons.
Written with rich prose that is a delight to read, this eerie tale will be enjoyed by any young reader looking for some spine tingles. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC provided by G. P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers.