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.
Darius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram (9780525552963)
Darius can’t seem to fit in anywhere. He is teased at school for being fat and Muslim. He’s never really had a friend. His father doesn’t approve of anything he does and often seems ashamed that Darius is his son. Darius is nothing like his younger sister who is adorable, outgoing and speaks flawless Farsi. So when Darius and his family take their first-ever trip to Iran to see his ailing grandfather, Darius wonders if anything will be different there. There he finally gets to meet his grandparents. His grandfather is intimidating, still watering his trees from up on his roof and driving at breakneck speeds. At the same time, he also gets lost sometimes and has outbursts of temper. Darius’ grandmother is pure love and kindness, creating meals and sharing tea. So when Darius meets Sohrab, a boy from the neighborhood, they cautiously make friends. There are bumps along the way, penis jokes taken too far, but soon they are fast friends who share a special spot overlooking Yazd. When tragedy strikes Sohrab’s family though, Darius is unsure how to help and ends up driving a wedge in their friendship that may not be able to be mended.
This book entirely stole my heart. I enjoyed Darius himself from the very beginning as he struggled with American teenage culture. However, the book truly begins when they get to Iran. It is there that Darius blossoms, but slowly and naturally. The entire book clicks together, beautifully depicting Yazd, carefully leading readers through new experiences and new foods, and celebrating the culture of Iran.
In many ways this book is a love letter to the city of Yazd and Iran itself, but it is also deeply about Darius and his growth as he finds a best friend and a place he fits. There are profound statements here about depression, stress to fit in and the sudden magic of discovering what true friendship is. There is also great humor, struggles to be understood and to understand, cultural issues and family tensions and joy. It’s complicated, just like every good novel should be.
Come fall in love with Darius and Iran at the same time in this amazing debut novel. Appropriate for ages 13-17.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Dial Books.
Trevor by Jim Averbeck, illustrated by Amy Hevron (9781250148285)
Trevor is a very lonely canary who knows that he can escape his cage at any time, but stays put for the seeds. He has one favorite kind, sunflower seeds, that he saves for when he is feeling loneliest. When Trevor sees a lemon outside of his window, he tries to get it to sing with him. He even gives it his last striped sunflower seed, but it won’t eat. The lemon doesn’t reply to Trevor at all and doesn’t give him any gifts in return. Still, Trevor builds a nest in the tree for himself and the lemon. Meanwhile, the seed has fallen to the ground below. Eventually, a storm comes and Trevor must try to save the lemon. When he reaches the ground, he discovers the sunflower has sprouted and grown, scattering seeds across the ground. When a group of hungry birds arrives, Trevor quickly realizes what real friendship feels like.
Averbeck keeps the text of this picture book very simple, making it just right for younger listeners and good to share aloud. The emotions that Trevor feels in the book take center stage, from frustration at the lemon to eventual forgiveness to acceptance about their differences. Trevor is a great mix of brave, inquisitive and friendly as he makes his way into the larger world.
Hevron’s illustrations are painted onto wood. She cleverly allows the wood to show through to create tree branches and leaf spines. Against the pale blue background, the leaves, lemon and Trevor himself pop. One can see the wood grain throughout the book, both covered in color and plain. It makes for a very organic and natural feel.
A lovely quiet picture book about new friends and what to do when life gives you lemons. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy provided by Roaring Brook Press.
Vernon Is on His Way: Small Stories by Philip C. Stead (9781626726550)
Vernon has returned for a second book following A Home for Bird, along with his friends Skunk and Porcupine. In three short stories, readers get to delight in even more time with these characters. The first story is told almost entirely in images since it’s about waiting. Vernon waits and waits until he suddenly realizes that he’s under way already! In the second story, the three of them head out to go fishing. Porcupine though worries that he is ruining the trip for everyone because he’s never been fishing before. As the story goes on it becomes apparent that none of them know what fishing trips actually are, but their version is a huge success for all of them anyway. In the last story, Vernon creates a special garden for himself filled with things he loves and that remind him of Bird. Porcupine and Skunk want to help Vernon feel better about missing Bird, but they struggle to find the right thing to bring him. Along the way they accidentally find exactly what he needs.
As always, Stead hits just the right notes with this book. The three characters are each unique and interesting. Vernon stays as the focal point of the stories but shares the limelight particularly with the worrying Porcupine this time. These books feel like instant classics, the characters will remind readers of Pooh and Eeyore. They are characters you want to spend more time with as they head out on their small adventures together. The illustrations are classic Stead where he uses the white space on the pages very effectively to create space and sometimes longing.
Another winner from Stead that belongs in every library. Appropriate for ages 4-7.
Reviewed from copy provided by Roaring Brook Press.
The Language of Spells by Garret Weyr (9781452159584)
When Grisha was a young dragon still learning of the dangers of the world, he is trapped by a magician into the shape of a teapot. He spends decades trapped in that form, decorating the rooms of the emperor and then joining the household of a small family. Luckily, the father of the family knows how to see magic and realizes what Grisha is. When Grisha is finally released from the spell, he is sent to Vienna to join the rest of the world’s dragons there. It is now after World War II and Grisha is one of the lucky dragons who still walks the streets of the city. He meets a very special little girl, Maggie, and they become close friends. But when Grisha starts to remember what happened to the other dragons, the two feel compelled to try to solve the puzzle and rescue the surviving dragons from the magic that binds them. But at what cost?
Weyr has written a very unique fantasy novel for children that is firmly grounded in the real city of Vienna and world history, but adds dragons and other magic as a vibrant layer on top of that foundation. The world building is cleverly done, meshing history and fantasy into something new and very special. The story is accompanied by illustrations done in black and white that are like small framed windows into the story.
The characters of Grisha and Maggie are compelling. Grisha is immediately fascinating partly because he is a dragon who isn’t quite sure of how a dragon should act. Maggie is a character who has grown up very lonely and then makes one of the best friends ever. Throughout the story there is an air of tragedy, of lost years, of forgotten tragedies. This melancholy only grows larger as the end of the book nears. I recommend having a few tissues on hand.
Beautiful, haunting and tragic, this is a special fantasy for young readers. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from copy provided by Chronicle Books.
A Stitch in Time by Daphne Kalmar (9781250154989)
Donut’s pops has passed away in an automobile accident and now her Aunt Agnes has come to stay in their small house in rural Vermont. Donut has grown up there, surrounded by the woods and all of the people she considers friends. There is Tiny, a huge boy with a big heart, who is her best friend. There is Sam, the man who taught her to do taxidermy and who creates displays for museums. It’s the place that Donut belongs, one where she can see her father in every part of their home and also her mother, whom she never knew. So when Aunt Agnes decides to take Donut back to Boston with her, Donut knows she must do everything she can to stay, even running away.
Kalmar has created a story with one heck of a heroine at its heart. Donut is unusual in so many ways, from her passion for rivers and geography to her taxidermy of small rodents and birds to her willingness to test out her father’s foldable boat. Donut is not one to shrink away from stating her mind or from taking action to support herself. Readers will immediately feel for Donut being taken away from her home, and in the end they too will be surprised at how Donut has grown and changed.
This historical fiction for middle grades is set in an interesting time period that we don’t see a lot of. It’s in rural Vermont around the 1920s. There is talk of bobbed hair, flappers and Prohibition. The setting of Vermont is fully realized in the book, particularly once Donut heads into the woods on her own. Then nature really emerges around her, beautiful and dangerous at once.
A strong piece of historical fiction, get this into the hands of readers who enjoy a strong protagonist, wilderness settings and cows. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Edelweiss and Feiwel & Friends.