Review: Good Boy by Sergio Ruzzier

Good Boy by Sergio Ruzzier

Good Boy by Sergio Ruzzier (9781481499064)

This is a story of a boy and his dog. It starts simply enough with the boy issuing commands and the dog obeying. He sits, rolls over, jumps, fetches and… juggles! Then the dog makes them a meal and cleans the house. The two of them head outside where the commands become more like requests to have fun together and the pair head off on an adventure. It leads them to build a boat, find an island, build a rocket and then leave earth. They come to a lovely planet where they make new friends but soon miss home. Returning back, the two get ready for bed together and finally fall asleep side-by-side.

Ruzzier cleverly turns the relationship of owner and pet on its head in the book. He begins the book with the more traditional roles and then steadily makes their relationship one of equals and friends. By the end, the tone is entirely different from the beginning, something that is very impressive given that there are only one or two words on each page of the book. It is a beautifully structured book and very intelligently designed.

Ruzzier’s illustrations have his unique feel with surreal landscapes filled with sherbet-colored hills and a green ocean. The illustrations have a friendly cartoon style but also a sophistication that one expects from a book by Ruzzier.

A smart look at a boy and his dog and their adventures together. Appropriate for ages 2-4.

Reviewed from copy provided by Atheneum Books for Young Readers.

Review: Tiger vs. Nightmare by Emily Tetri

Tiger vs. Nightmare by Emily Tetri

Tiger vs. Nightmare by Emily Tetri (9781626725355)

After dinner, Tiger takes an extra plate of food to share with her monster. Monster had been under Tiger’s bed, but they soon became friends. Now they spend time together playing games until bedtime when Monster scares Tiger’s nightmares away. All of Tiger’s family thinks she has an imaginary friend, but Monster is real. Monster fights all sorts of nightmares away until she encounters one that is too big and scary to chase off. As Tiger starts to have nightmares, she realizes that the two of them will need to work together to get rid of this huge nightmare.

Tetri, a cartoonist, has written a captivating graphic novel that is just right for the picture-book set. The pacing is brisk with a concept that shines. There is plenty of humor on the pages that sets off the more dramatic parts of the story. The art is done in watercolors, adding a wonderful traditional feel to the book. One of the more delightful parts is when Monster battles one nightmare after another. The pace slows beautifully in this part and mimics epic battle montages in comic books.

A tale of friendship and teamwork, this is a great early graphic novel. Appropriate for ages 5-7.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by First Second.

 

Review: Astrid the Unstoppable by Maria Parr

Astrid the Unstoppable by Maria Parr

Astrid the Unstoppable by Maria Parr (9781536200171)

Astrid loves living in her tiny village in the mountains. The only problem is that no other children live nearby. She does have a best friend, Gunnvald, a neighbor in his seventies who loves to play the fiddle and can be rather grumpy. Astrid spends her time playing outside, building prototype sleds with Gunnvald, and bothering the owner of the wellness retreat nearby. When some children do come to the retreat (where children are forbidden) Astrid becomes friends with them despite having a fight first. Astrid’s world is idyllic, but something is about to change. When Gunnvald has an accident and has to have surgery, the secret he has been keeping from Astrid is revealed. Could it be that nothing will ever go back to normal again?

This Norwegian book has been translated into languages and sold around the world. It’s wonderful to see it on American shelves. Parr writes with a delightful sense of merriment throughout her book. She speaks to the importance of children having freedom and an ability to make choices in their life (even if one of those choices can’t be missing school all the time). She also demonstrates what a life lived outdoors looks like and the importance of loving a place and identifying with it.

The book uses the story of Heidi as a central plot point, which is very interesting since I had been thinking of how much this tale was like Heidi from the start. It is partly the setting itself of a mountaintop with an older man who is grumpy yet warm. But another large component is the character at the heart of both stories. Astrid, like Heidi, is fiercely independent and loves with all her being.

Richly told, this book is a delightful wintry read that feels like a long-lost classic. Get it into the hands of fans of Heidi and Pippi Longstocking. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Candlewick Press.

Review: Sanity & Tallulah by Molly Brooks

Sanity & Tallulah by Molly Brooks

Sanity & Tallulah by Molly Brooks (9781368008440)

Living on Wilnick, an outdated and aging space station at the end of the galaxy could be dull, but not for best friends Sanity and Tallulah. Sanity, who has always wanted a pet despite rules against having one, decides to create one herself. It turns out to be a very cute three-headed kitten with a taste for meat. The kitten manages to escape soon after Tallulah’s mother finds out that she exists. The girls set out to find out whether the problems that are happening across the space station are the fault of one cute kitten or maybe it’s something else. Meanwhile, there seems to be a very large monster on the loose and the coolant tank appears to have been drunk dry. As disaster looms aboard the space station, it’s up to Sanity to save the day thanks to the technology she explored when creating her illegal pet.

Brooks sets exactly the right tone in this graphic novel. The girls best friends who tend to talk one another into getting into even more trouble while trying to fix what they have already done. Add in a three-headed kitten and mayhem follows. The two girls could not be more different, which makes for an odd-couple chemistry between them. The story is fast paced and a delightful mix of STEM and girl power.

The art in the book is done in a limited color palette with pinks and deep blues. The art brings to life the space station and its size, conveying the hazards of keeping it functional while giving the girls a lot of space to run into trouble. The cast of characters is wonderfully diverse and that extends to all of the people who live aboard the space station.

A strong graphic novel with plenty of appeal. Appropriate for ages 9-12

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: Deadendia: The Watcher’s Test by Hamish Steele

Deadendia The Watcher's Test by Hamish Steele

Deadendia: The Watcher’s Test by Hamish Steele (9781910620472)

Barney has just gotten a job as the janitor at the Dead End theme park in the haunted house. His best friend Norma works there too. But Dead End is not just a haunted house, it’s much more a portal to literal hell. There are visiting demons, some of them friendly like Courtney who serves as an ambassador and others terrifyingly evil and powerful like Temeluchus. Temeluchus is the demon that Barney and Norma defeat in the early part of the book, who ends up possessing Pugsley, Barney’s dog. Pugsley gains magical powers and the ability to speak. Soon the three of them discover the dangers of running a portal to hell but also manage to work on their love lives along the way.

Steele has created one of the zaniest, twistiest and most demonic graphic novels around. The novel is a collection of his web comics and sometimes starting a new chapter is rather like starting a new story. That’s not a complaint, because it suits the spirit of the book but those looking for a more linear tale will find themselves confused at times. Just go with it!

The diversity here is very strongly represented. Barney is a transgender character and the book deals with this in an upfront way and also allows readers to see glimpses of Barney’s past. Perhaps the best part is the love storyline for Barney and Logs, though I also appreciate his friendship with Norma who is equally enjoyable, strong and multidimensional, sometimes literally.

A graphic novel for teens that has enough demons, laughter and romance to entice anyone. Appropriate for ages 13-16.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: All Summer Long by Hope Larson

All Summer Long by Hope Larson

All Summer Long by Hope Larson (9780374304850)

Bina’s summer has just started, but it’s already going wrong. Her best friend, Austin, is heading to a month-long soccer camp. He’s also acting strangely and has decided that they are too old for some of their regular summer activities. Once he’s left for camp, Bina finds herself watching too much TV and just hanging out alone. Then she bumps into Austin’s older sister who turns out to be into music just like Bina is. The two of them start hanging out but when Austin returns things stay just as strange. Bina has to navigate her way through new friendships and old ones as she also grapples with her love of music and what that means for her friendships too.

Larson is the author of several graphic novels for children and teens. Here she tackles middle-school summers with a focus on music and individuality. Bina’s summer will feel familiar to readers, a stretch of time that is meant to be the best but ends up being time that needs filling with more than binge-watching TV. The incorporation of a friendship between a boy and a girl that does not involve romance or attraction is great to see. Readers will fret that Austin’s strange attitude means he “likes” Bita, but the truth makes sense and fits the story well.

The art is friendly and approachable. Done in a limited orange and black palette, it speaks of summer heat and sun. Bita herself is lanky and tall, her angles oozing with middle-school gawkiness in an appealing way. Her parents are just involved enough but also absent in a way that shows trust too.

A graphic novel perfect for summer reading.  Appropriate for ages 12-14.

Reviewed from copy provided by Farrar Straus Giroux.

Review: All of This Is True by Lygia Day Peñaflor

All of This Is True by Lygia Day Peñaflor

All of This Is True by Lygia Day Peñaflor (9780062673671)

When Miri, Soleil and Penny make a plan to get close to their favorite author, Fatima Ro, at one of her signings, they couldn’t predict what would eventually happen. The girls meet Fatima, make a connection with her and suddenly are walking out with her and are invited to an exclusive gathering at a local coffee shop. Soon they are friends with Fatima, invited over to her house and spending time with her. They bring along Jonah, a boy who has just started at their private school and who seems to have a secret. As their friendship with Fatima deepens, their lives begin to revolve around her book, her ideas of human connection, and each of them having their own sort of connection to the famous author. But is everything what it seems?

This is one delicious read, even if readers figure out the twist ahead of time watching it play out and the reverberations it has for the characters is great fun. Penaflor writes the book in a series of texts, conversations, interviews and notes. Added in are excerpts from the new book that Fatima Ro has written, inspired by the teens themselves. Throughout, there is a wonderful creepiness as the novel written by Fatima mirrors the lives of the teens so closely. Readers will not trust any of the characters because they are all immensely flawed and biased in their recounting of what happened.

The novel explores privilege and power. It looks deeply at whether someone who has done something atrocious can be redeemed, can recover themselves and can regain their life. I’m someone who loves ambiguous endings to books and this one is particularly well done, working well with the layered quality of the novel as a whole.

A perfect summer novel that is a thrilling, compulsive read. Appropriate for ages 14-17.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: The Unforgettable Guinevere St. Clair by Amy Makechnie

The Unforgettable Guinevere St. Clair by Amy Makechnie

The Unforgettable Guinevere St. Clair by Amy Makechnie (9781534414464)

When Gwyn and her family move in with her Nana in rural Iowa, it’s a big change from living in New York City. It’s all to help her mother, Vienna, develop new memories. Vienna remembers nothing since she was thirteen, including Gwyn and her little sister Bitty. Gwyn and Bitty quickly befriend two boys from the neighborhood, Micah and Jimmy. They live with Micah’s mother, Gaysie Cutter, a woman who tries to bury Gwyn alive the first time they meet. So when a man goes missing, Gwyn knows that Gaysie had to have something to do with it. Now she just has to prove it and not damage her friendship with Jimmy and Micah along the way. But there are many secrets in their small town, ones that threaten to topple Gwyn’s theory of Gaysie’s guilt.

This is Makechnie’s first novel, and it is very impressive. Gwyn is a stellar character, who doesn’t shy away from being entirely herself and different from everyone else. She is a girl who will learn how to lift fingerprints, share her theories directly with the police, stand up to a group of bullies, and dare to speak up around Gaysie Cutter. All of the characters are well drawn and interesting, including Gwyn’s mother who is struggling with the limits of her memory, her father who could be a suspect too, and the two boys who are as different as possible but also brothers through and through.

This story has many layers, making it a very rich read for middle graders. One piece that really works well is the layering of the previous generation growing up in the same small Iowa town. As Gwyn learns of the connection between her mother, father and Gaysie during their childhood, she also finds out about a terrible accident that changed them all forever. That element is then echoed through to the present day with the new generation of children getting into trouble themselves.

A great read, a grand mystery, and a strong protagonist. Appropriate for ages 9-12. (Reviewed from copy provided by Atheneum.)

3 New Picture Books Featuring Friends

A House That Once Was by Julie Fogliano

A House That Once Was by Julie Fogliano, illustrated by Lane Smith (9781626723146)

Two children head into the woods and discover an old house that is no longer a home. Once painted blue with an overgrown path, the house has a door that is stuck partly open. So the children enter through a broken window. Inside they find clues about the people who used to live there. There are art supplies, photographs, things in the kitchen for cooking, and beds that are still made. Could the owner have been a sea captain? Or perhaps a woman who painted in the garden? A girl or a boy? A king or a queen? And why did they leave this house waiting for them, never to return?

Such a gorgeous picture book. The writing is exceptional, the poetry invites readers to head forward slowly as if exploring an old house themselves. The writing looks at things from different angles, puts words together carefully and asks readers to think a bit before moving on. The pacing is delicious and just right, echoing the activities described on the page. Smith’s illustrations are layered and loose, the color on the page almost lifted by the breeze like pollen. It settles and lifts again.

Seriously one of the best picture books of the year. This is treat by two master artists must be shared with children!

Jerome by Heart by Thomas Scotto

Jerome by Heart by Thomas Scotto, illustrated by Olivier Tallec (9781592702503)

This beautiful, heartfelt picture book shows the incredible joy of having a true childhood friend. In this book, Raphael loves his best friend Jerome. He’s a friend who isn’t afraid to hold hands, picks Raphael as his partner at school, shares his snacks, and defends Raphael if anyone picks on him. When Raphael’s parents react rather rudely when he expresses his admiration and adoration of Jerome, Raphael heads to his room. There he looks for a great gift for Jerome, until he is distracted thinking about adventures that he and Jerome can have together. Because they will!

A French import, this picture book is childhood captured on the page. There is a merriment to the boys’ time together and an innocence inherent in the way they treat one another. And yet Raphael has beautifully concrete reasons that he loves Jerome and it’s all about how well he is treated and how Jerome makes him feel inside. The parents’ reaction may echo some of the reactions of adult readers who may wonder if there is more connection between the boys than just friends. That is neatly put in its place as Raphael heads off to be with his friend regardless of what that friendship may eventually mean for them.

Tallec’s illustrations are as masterful as ever. The pairing of the two boys is depicted with solid connections between the two of them. They have a lovely playfulness about them that capture the friendship of the boys and mimics the merriment that the boys feel when together. A delicate and touching story of friendship. Appropriate for ages 3-5. (Reviewed from copy provided by Enchanted Lion Books.)

Rescue & Jessica A Life-Changing Friendship by Jessica Kensky

Rescue & Jessica: A Life-Changing Friendship by Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes, illustrated by Scott Magoon (9780763696047)

Written by two of the survivors of the Boston Marathon bombing, this picture book is the true story of one of them and their service dog, Rescue. It is the story of a dog learning to serve and a girl learning to survive after losing a leg. Both of them train long and hard separately until they are paired together. The two of them spend their days together and Rescue helps Jessica heal after she loses her remaining leg. After that, the training starts all over again, but this time they do it together. This picture book captures a story of resilience and survival after a tragedy and the difference a service dog makes in that recovery and life afterwards.

The writing here is told with a light tone where possible. It helps tremendously that readers can see Rescue training to be Jessica’s dog even as her story is deep in shadows and pain. The mirroring of their hard work is also very successful, showing the dedication they both had to have even before they meet one another. The illustrations are very effective, using white and black backgrounds to show hope and challenging times. Throughout though, there is hope, in the form on one black dog who stands strong against dark and light. A winning picture book that is inspiring and courageous. Appropriate for ages 4-6. (Reviewed from library copy.)