Monster Friends by Kaeti Vandorn

Cover image for Monster Friends.

Monster Friends by Kaeti Vandorn (9781984896827)

When Reggie arrives at his cousin’s home to housesit during their summer vacation, he gets a warm welcome from the huge monster family who are all busy in the cave complex below the main house, making clothes, fixing pipes, and playing cards. Reggie has left his life of exploring and finding treasure for a quiet summer alone. When his first morning is interrupted by a vivacious doglike monster named Emily, he is a bit overwhelmed and not ready to stop being alone and grumpy. Emily though persuades him to head out into the field and explore his new surroundings, discovering a beach but also a rather intimidating cave. Reggie heads over to Emily’s woodland home a little later, meeting her large family and enjoying a spiced apple for his return home. When Emily goes missing, it is Reggie who knows just where she might be, but he has to face his fear of dark caves and revealing his fear to find her.

This graphic novel for chapter book readers offers a world full of furry monsters who are marvelously human, full of self doubt, a need to prove themselves, and struggles to be honest with one another. Readers will love the small world that is built here, full of wonderful nature like the woods, beach and cave. The world is populated with all sorts of monsters, some scaly, some furry, and some shapeshifters. The art style is full of small details that fill out each of the settings. The mushrooms on the shelves in the family cave complex, the spilling bathtub, the toys spread all over the room.

The writing is just as joyous as the illustrations. Reggie is a grand grump of a character, ready to sulk his summer away until Emily literally bounds right into it. Emily is the perfect foil for Reggie, both visually and in personality. But Emily too has her own struggles with her siblings and family that play out on the page. The two become friends naturally, bridged by warm drinks and shared snacks.

A fuzzy monster of a graphic novel full of caves, serpents and surprises. Appropriate for ages 8-11.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Random House.

Dear Treefrog by Joyce Sidman

Cover image for Dear Treefrog.

Dear Treefrog by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Diana Sudyka (9780358064763)

When a girl moves to a new home, she hides in the garden and discovers a treefrog there. When she watches how still the frog is, she slows down too. Looking closely at the frog, she notices his sticky toes and long feet. Iin order to find the frog, she has to take deep breaths and look closely. The frog helps her feel less lonely. He hides when a group of kids visits, something that the girl is thankful for since they were loud and trampled the garden. When a storm blows through, the frog not only survives it but is refreshed by the water. Heading to school, the girl curls up like a frog on her yoga mat. That’s when she meets a classmate who is quiet too, someone she can trust to show the treefrog, another friend.

Told in a series of poems, this picture book is a stellar mix of verse, exploring nature, and treefrog information. The verse is from the little girl’s perspective and readers get to know her quiet well as she is worried at first about the move, finds solace in the treefrog in her garden, and eventually is brave enough to make a new friend who is thoughtful too and wants to spend time outside watching. The treefrog facts are offered in the corner of the page, supported by each poem and celebrating the unique elements of this creature.

The illustrations by Sudyka are lush and full of green. They show a wild garden by the house with plants taller than the girl herself. The frog is there for readers to know on the first pages. The garden frames the girl and frog with plants and greenery, offering them an almost tropical paradise in which to form their friendship.

Fantastic froggy friendship and facts. Appropriate for ages 4-8.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Line and Scribble by Debora Vogrig

Book cover.

Line and Scribble by Debora Vogrig, illustrated by Pia Valentinis (9781797201870)

Though they are very different, Line and Scribble are great friends. They love to show one another what they are creating with ruler-straight lines or dreamy swirls. Line travels by straight roads, railroad tracks or planes that head straight to their destination. Scribble wanders, creates roller coasters. Line makes straight fur on dogs and straight elegant hair on people. Scribble makes fluffy cats and people with curly hair. Line likes breadsticks while Scribble enjoys cotton candy. Line likes to drink with a straw and Scribble makes bubbles. Together the two of them also combine to create a very dramatic visual storm full of straight rain, swirls of tornadoes, and plenty of wind. When the entire page is dark, Line sweeps it all away and the two friends start again.

This Italian import is joyous and full of ways to celebrate differences between friends where you can stay entirely yourself and still play together. Mostly told in the illustrations, this picture book is marvelously stylized with its almost entirely black and white images made of simple lines and swirls. Readers will enjoy exploring shapes and ways to make entire pictures with just a line or curl.

A lively and touching book about friendship because of differences. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from copy provided by Chronicle Books.

Maybe Maybe Marisol Rainey by Erin Entrada Kelly

Cover image for Maybe Maybe Marisol Rainey.

Maybe Maybe Marisol Rainey by Erin Entrada Kelly (9780062970428)

Marisol is the only one in her family who hates the big magnolia tree in their back yard. She has named the tree Peppina, and doesn’t like it because Marisol is scared of climbing trees. Her best friend Jada isn’t scared of anything. She can climb the tree like a flash and so can Marisol’s older brother. Marisol though worries a lot. She even worries about worrying too much. She is scared of learning to swim and almost didn’t learn to ride a bike either. Marisol is the only person in her class whose mother was born somewhere else. Her mother was born in the Philippines. She’s also the only person whose father works on an oil rig during the week. That’s why she also worries about Evie Smythe, a mean girl in her class who seems nice but makes fun of Marisol and her family. So what will happen when Marisol decides she has to climb Peppina after all? Maybe something amazing!

Award-winning author Kelly based Marisol upon herself as a child. Marisol’s worries and internal voice ring so true because of that connection to the author. As Marisol frets, she finds herself up in the middle of the night often and spends the time watching silent movies so no one else wakes up. She loves Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, naming some of the objects around her home after the actors she sees on screen. These are the clever moments in the book that fully bring it to life.

Readers will enjoy Marisol who may be worried, but also is entirely her own person. While she keeps some of her quirks between herself and Jada, others are more obvious in her life. Marisol is funny and filled with imagination, allowing her to become a bird even if she doesn’t like heights.

A charmer of a chapter book that “may be” just the one you are looking for. Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Greenwillow Books.

What’s the Matter Marlo? by Andrew Arnold

What’s the Matter Marlo? by Andrew Arnold (9781250223234)

This picture book about friendship explores what happens when a best friend is grieving and angry. Told in the first person, the book draws readers directly into the tale. Two children are best friends, and they do everything together from hide-and-seek to joke books. No matter how well Marlo hides, his best friend can find him. But then one day, something was wrong and Marlo didn’t want to play. He told his friend to go away. Sharing a joke made it even worse and Marlo got angrier and angrier, until his anger took up all the space. But his friend remembered that no matter what they could always find Marlo. That’s when they found out what was going on and did just what a best friend should do, they cried together.

Arnold captures the beauty of a young friendship based on shared humor, a great dog and playing games together. He shows the richness of the friendship and how connected these two children are. That gives the platform for Marlo’s deep anger and anguish to appear. While it is confusing, his friend does just the right thing, staying around and offering comfort and empathy. Remarkably, the book is told in short and approachable sentences, allowing the images to tell a lot of the story too.

The illustrations are full of green grass, backyard spaces, and play. When Marlo’s anger appears, it is a black scribble of emotion that steadily grows to turning all of the pages to pitch black. It is in that moment that his friend finds him. That friend who speaks in first person is marvelously androgynous, able to be either girl or boy and it doesn’t matter at all.

A resonant friendship story about empathy and grief. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Roaring Brook Press.

Swashby and the Sea by Beth Ferry

Cover image for Swashby and the Sea

Swashby and the Sea by Beth Ferry, illustrated by Juana Martinez-Neal (9780544707375)

Swashby spent all of his time on the sea. He loved the sea, and the sea understood him better than anyone else. He lived as close to the sea as he could in a small house. His life was just how he liked it: simple and serene. That is until one day a little girl moved in next door. Swashby shut himself in his house, fed their gift of cookies to the seagulls, and wrote a message in the sand: NO TRESPASSING. But the sea changed it a little, leaving only SING, which the little girl proceeded to do while dancing on Swashby’s deck. The next message is turned into W-ISH, and when the little girl decides to wish on a starfish, Swashby comes out to show her how to do it properly. The next message has her playing on the beach, and Swashby find himself showing her how to make sandcastles that won’t topple. After Swashby again retreated, the water didn’t and soon the sea had pulled the little girl out with it. The choice was clear for Swashby.

This picture book is a stellar marriage of story and illustrations. Ferry offers two great characters here, the solitary seaman and the charming little girl. Oh and one more, the sea herself, who plays such a role in the story with both her support of Swashby and in her meddling with his messages. The text is just the right length, robust enough to create a full story to tell and short enough to read aloud well. The fiddling of the sea is just right, not quite easily guessed by the reader and very cleverly done.

The illustrations are marvelous. Done in acrylics, colored pencil and graphite, they capture the bright seaside where the sea fizzes along the beach. Swashby is pure prickles from his bristly beard to his scratchy sweater. Meanwhile the little girl is colorful and soft. The two together on the page make for a study in contrasts that is sure to please.

Satisfying sea fare. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from library copy.

Trowbridge Road by Marcella Pixley

Cover image for Trowbridge Road

Trowbridge Road by Marcella Pixley (9781536207507)

June Bug lives with her mother in the house on Trowbridge Road that everyone thinks is haunted. Her father died of AIDS, leaving June Bug with her mother who is scared of germs and obsessed with being clean. That means that she never leaves the house and food can be scarce. June Bug’s uncle brings her food once a week, limited because her mother won’t allow him to come more often, so she is often hungry as the supplies run out. Then Ziggy arrives to live with his grandmother down the road. June Bug watches them from a nearby tree, dreaming of being friends and sharing the food that his grandmother prepares for him throughout the day. Ziggy too has experienced his own troubles, immediately getting the attention of the local bullies. As June Bug and Ziggy meet and become friends, their troubles mount, but they have one another as a safe place to share and heal, because at times home is not that place at all.

Set in the mid-80’s, this novel for middle graders is written with such beauty. Pixley creates a neighborhood that is lovingly shown as a mix of safety, imaginative play and also reveals the harshness of reality too. From the foundations of a fallen house where magic blossoms to the shelter of a large tree that can be scrambled up and down, this is a neighborhood seen through the eyes of two creative children who create their own reality together to care for one another.

The two protagonists are children who have experience abuse of various kinds and find kindred spirits in one another. They have both been hungry, both been physically hurt, and both lived with emotional abuse. They are both survivors, using their imagination and the neighborhood itself as places to escape to together. The power of love soars through this book, in extended families who offer care and shelter, in neighbors who reach out and take action. It’s a book about being able to ask for help and the positive change that can come when aid arrives.

Wrenching, powerful and filled with hope, this book is exceptional. Appropriate for ages 11-14.

Reviewed from copy provided by Candlewick.

Hamish Takes the Train by Daisy Hirst

Hamish Takes the Train by Daisy Hirst (9781536216592)

Hamish the bear and Noreen the goose love to watch trains together. Hamish longs to take a train to the city, but Noreen isn’t interested. So Hamish set off, following the train tracks on foot. When he got to the station though, he found he needed a ticket, so he just kept on walking. As night fell, he came to a railroad yard and discovered a caboose all lit up inside. There he found Christov who was sick with the flu and too ill to go to work in the morning and run a big crane. So Hamish offered to help. He borrowed Christov’s hat and jacket and headed into the city on the train. When he got to the building site though, he didn’t have any boots, luckily he was able to find some nearby. Then it was time to run the huge crane. Hamish worked hard, running the crane from the cozy cabin. He did it for the five days that Christov was sick and was offered a job himself by the end. But Hamish was missing Noreen and took a train home, to share his adventures with her, and maybe have some new ones together.

Hirst tells a charming tale of Hamish, a bear with a taste for adventure and trying new things. He is also a very helpful and thoughtful character, helping out where he can and finding unique solutions to problems he encounters along the way. I was most impressed that Hamish was a success as he tried to help. It became a celebration of trying new things, learning and succeeding rather than what is often seen in children’s books like Curious George where helping becomes failing in a funny way.

The art is simple and friendly, capturing both the expanse of the countryside and the bustle of the city streets. Some of the pages are fully colored while others use white space and smaller images that move the story ahead. Throughout there is a sense of happy positivity.

A glorious adventure full of trains and cranes. Appropriate for ages 2-4.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Candlewick Press.

Evelyn Del Rey Is Moving Away by Meg Medina

Evelyn Del Rey Is Moving Away by Meg Medina

Evelyn Del Rey Is Moving Away by Meg Medina, illustrated by Sonia Sanchez (9781536207040)

Evelyn and Daniela are best friends. Evelyn tries to act like today is just like any other day, but it’s not. Daniela goes across the street to find a big truck getting filled with boxes and their furniture. The two climb the stairs two at a time, the way they always do. They go past Evelyn’s neighbors who they know so well, into the apartment which is a twin of where Daniela lives across the street. The furniture is all packed and just a few boxes are left, so the girls play in an empty box until it is time for Evelyn to go. In the empty apartment they spin together, then discover stickers to share. A heart pressed to a cheek to seal the promise of a future visit together. Then it is time to go, knowing they will always be best friends.

Medina proves here that she can write just as beautifully for preschoolers and elementary age as she does for older readers. Focusing on the long goodbye, this picture book shows how farewells can be done with smiles and promises. Medina invites us into their shared imaginative play, the joy of big empty boxes, the pleasure of hiding from adults together, and finally the sadness of goodbyes. The twinning of the two girls with their similar apartments and attitudes works so well here, showing their connection in a physical way.

Sanchez’s art is glorious. Full of the deepest of colors, saturated reds and oranges, cool blues and greens. They are paired with textures of wallpaper, cardboard corrugations, red bricks, and floorboards. This is an entire world of apartments and friendship.

A great picture book with an empowering final page. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Candlewick.