Peter & Ernesto by Graham Annable

Peter & Ernesto by Graham Annable

Peter & Ernesto: A Tale of Two Sloths by Graham Annable (9781626725614

Peter and Ernesto are two sloths who are best friends and live together in the same tree. They spend their days looking at clouds, eating snacks and singing songs. Then one day, Ernesto realizes that he wants to see more of the sky than that above their tree. So he sets off on an adventure. He has to cross a shaky bridge and a river, then find a way across the ocean. Ernesto makes friends along the way, discovering oceans, mountains, deserts and arctic places each with different skies. But Peter is worried, and he sets off too, making his own friends along the way. He doesn’t journey as far as Ernesto, but is there waiting when Ernesto returns to the beach. Two very different friends who support one another in their own ways.

Annable’s graphic novel is simple and friendly. The cells of the story are edged in black, sometimes distinct from each other and other times playfully running together to form a single picture broken by the frame. The sloths are nicely distinct from one another visually and also in attitude, each brave in their own way. The adventures they have are distinct from one another but also alike enough to contrast effectively.

A great early graphic novel for elementary-aged readers. Appropriate for ages 6-9. (Reviewed from copy provided by First Second.)

 

Emergency Contact by Mary H.K. Choi

Emergency Contact by Mary Choi

Emergency Contact by Mary H. K. Choi (9781534408968)

Penny heads to college in Austin, Texas, eager to leave behind her uneventful high school years, her dull boyfriend and her over-the-top mother. Her roommate Jude takes her to a coffee place where her uncle works, and Penny finds a connection with Sam immediately. Their friendship steadily grows as they communicate exclusively through texts with one another. But Sam’s life is not a simple one. His ex-girlfriend has announced she is pregnant, he is sleeping in a small room above the coffee shop he works in, and he is trying to break is alcohol habit. As Penny and Sam continue to text one another, their connection grows more serious and soon they are sharing things that they have never told anyone else. But can their friendship survive meeting in real life again?

I fell completely head-over-heels for this teen romance. Penny is a character who is rather neurotic with her bags of supplies and her need for cleanliness. Yet she is also artistic and has a thought process that is just as unique and wonderful as she is. Choi doesn’t try to fix Penny and how idiosyncratic she is, which is a wonder and a relief. Sam too is incredibly written, grappling with so many things at once. One of my favorite scenes happens early in the book when Penny rescues Sam from a panic attack, which demonstrates the amount of anxiety both of these characters have and how they live and love with it.

As the background of both characters is revealed to the reader, their reactions begin to make more and more sense. It’s as if the reader too is meeting a stranger, building a relationship and falling for both of these characters at the same time. A large part of both of the characters are their mothers from Penny’s sexy Asian mother who acts far younger than she is and is constantly getting into trouble to Sam’s mother who ran up credit card debt in Sam’s name, they are influential and painful for both characters.

Beautifully written, awkward in the best way and entirely empowering and accepting, this novel is a warm hug for readers struggling with anxiety. Appropriate for ages 13-17.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

3 Very Friendly New Picture Books

Can I Be Your Dog By Troy Cummings

Can I Be Your Dog? By Troy Cummings (9780399554520)

Arfy is a dog looking for a home, so he writes to each house and business on Butternut Street. One by one though, they each say no. The Honeywells have a cat that’s allergic to dogs. The butcher thinks Arfy might steal too many meatballs. The fire station already has a dog. The junkyard just sends a nasty note back. And no one is living in the abandoned house. But as she delivered each of Arfy’s notes, the letter carrier made her own decision. The book ends with tips on how children can help animals who need a home. The use of letters adds a real appeal to this book as Arfy so politely asks for space and then is turned down with a variety of responses, some friendly, some rude and others businesslike. The book will work well for children learning to write letters who need a great model like Arfy to follow. The appealing artwork adds a playful feel and readers will recognize that Arfy has a friend in the letter carrier from the start. Appropriate for ages 3-5. (Reviewed from e-galley provided by Random House and Edelweiss.)

Get on Your Bike by Joukje Akveld

Get on Your Bike by Joukje Akveld and Philip Hopman (9780802854896)

When Bobbi and William have an argument, William shouts that Bobbi should just get on his bike and leave. So that’s exactly what Bobbi does. Bobbi’s head is filled with anger at first and he doesn’t notice what is around him. But as he rides through town and out into the country, he begins to notice things around him. At each stoplight, Bobbi makes a choice of where to head. Sometimes traffic is loud and busy and other times Bobbi is alone in nature. As he rides, his thoughts move from the fight to his surroundings and he notices more and more. His ride brings him full circle back home, where William is waiting for him with dinner already made, cold but not ruined.

This picture book was originally published in the Netherlands and one can see their cycling culture strongly in the images. In most of the images, the roads are crowded with bikes which share the road with the cars and trucks. The story subtly moves through anger and shows a way of coping that allows a natural  move from frustration and anger to returning to oneself. The illustrations show a world populated with animals rather than people. Bobbi himself is a panda and William is a bulldog. There are birds, alligators, mice and more riding bikes, driving trucks and walking the towns. Refreshing and friendly, this picture book takes a look at anger and cooling down. Appropriate for ages 4-6. (Reviewed from copy provided by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers.)

Hi, Jack By Mac Barnett

Hi, Jack! By Mac Barnett, illustrated by Greg Pizzoli (9780425289075)

Two masters take on the easy-reader format in this first in a new series. Jack is a monkey who gets into all sorts of trouble, most of it of his own making. Accompanied by two other characters, Rex the dog and The Lady, Jack steals the lady’s purse in the first chapter. He returns the purse, but soon Jack and Rex are sporting the lipstick that Jack took! When he returns the red lipstick to The Lady, Jack still has one more trick up his sleeve. Young readers will enjoy the naughtiness of Jack and how he manages to make friends and feel sorry and yet still be entirely himself in the end. The writing is simple and friendly for the earliest readers who will also appreciate the chapter book format. Pizzoli’s art is simple and bright. At the end of the book he offers a tutorial of how to draw each of the characters, inviting children to create their own pictures and stories. A great pick for early readers and early reader collections. Appropriate for ages 4-6. (Reviewed from ARC provided by Viking.)

The Explorer by Katherine Rundell

The Explorer by Katherine Rundell

The Explorer by Katherine Rundell (9781481419451)

When their plane crashes in the Amazon, four children are the only ones who survive. Now it is up to them to figure out how to survive in the vast jungle. There is Fred, a teen who has always dreamed of exploring wilderness and of the fame that comes with it. There is Con, a girl with almost no family and even fewer friends. Then Lila and her five-year-old brother Max complete the group. Lila only wants to keep Max healthy and alive, despite all of his attempts to get into trouble. As they forage for food, they discover a man-made shelter and then a series of clues that lead them to a crude map. Having built a raft from wood and vines, they follow the map to discover another human surviving in the jungle, someone so angry that he may not help them at all.

Rundell’s body of work is one of the most varied in children’s literature. The unifying feature though is her ability to bring a setting fully to life for the reader. Here, the setting is incredibly detailed and readers will get to learn about things like eating grubs, vines that make your skin itch, the right way to cook a spider over an open flame, and much more. Rundell doesn’t just present this information, she injects it into her story, showing how rich and beautiful the Amazon is even as she presents its dangers.

The four young characters make a strong group as they work together to survive. Rundell does not give any of them perfect characters, allowing the oldest to wrestle with his wish for fame, others to struggle to communicate, and the youngest to simply be awfully annoying at times. This too adds to the realistic feel of the novel, and in the end shows that friendships can be forged with even the most unlikely of people.

Filled with adventure, wilderness and plenty of icky moments, this is a gripping and fabulous look at the Amazon. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from Simon & Schuster.

 

Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman

Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman

Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman (9781481487726)

Kiko struggles to find her own voice in many ways. She can’t seem to be herself in crowds, even small ones. She certainly can’t tell her mother what she actually thinks, particularly when her mother lets her uncle return to their home after Kiko had accused him of molesting her as a child. It is only in her art that Kiko tells her own story and speaks the truth. She plans to finally get away from her mother by attending art school in New York City. When she doesn’t get in, Kiko is trapped in a life of seeing her molester in her home, being with her horrible mother, and seeing her best friend head off to school. That is when a childhood friend comes back into her life and she begins to see what a future filled with art and honesty looks like.

I read only the first few lines of this debut book and realized that I had tumbled into the world created by a very talented storyteller. It is a world of abusive mothers, where the abuse is emotional rather than physical. Bowman draws the abuse clearly and subtly, allowing readers to realize the depths of the damage along with Kiko herself as her mother not only fails to protect her but also hurts her directly. It is a world of art, where art pieces end each chapter, the image capturing the emotions that Kiko was just feeling with an accuracy that lets you see it before your eyes.

This is a book that explores being different, particularly Kiko, who is half Japanese and half Caucasian, looking different than her blonde mother. Her mother has specific cruelties related to Kiko’s appearance that are particularly awful. As Kiko begins to think for herself, readers will be able to start breathing along with her and see just how strong Kiko is as a young woman on her own.

A book that celebrates individuality, art and survival, this novel is fresh and deeply moving. Appropriate for ages 15-18.

ARC provided by Simon & Schuster.

Dress Codes for Small Towns by Courtney Stevens

Dress Codes for Small Towns by Courtney Stevens

Dress Codes for Small Towns by Courtney Stevens (9780062398512)

Billie lives in a small town where each year a worthy woman wins the “Corn Dolly.” Billie knows she will never be chosen to compete for it, since she is not the type of girl or woman who gets picked. She is the preacher’s daughter, but she’s also part of the group of teens, the Hexagon, that started her father’s church on fire. Billie loves her friends, taking comfort in their ease with one another. Still, when her best friend Janie Lee confesses that she has a crush on Woods, Billie is devastated. Billie isn’t quite sure what she wants though, could it be that she loves Woods too? Or maybe Janie Lee? As Billie wrestles with her sexuality in a small town, she discovers unexpected allies, new friends, and the power of being yourself.

As someone who grew up outside of a small town, Stevens captures small town life beautifully, from the comfort of knowing everyone to the suffocating nature of everyone knowing you. The micro-world of the small town is so well drawn, demonstrating why one would never leave at the same time showing why some run as soon as they can. This tension plays throughout the book, offering a scaffold for Billie’s questioning of her sexuality that is supportive and evocative.

Billie is exactly the heroine we need right now. She is strong beyond belief, a clear anchor for those in her life. Still, she wrestles with so much, from what it means to be a girl and be feminine to what it means to be in love with a person but not want to “be” with them. There is nothing easy about Billie, she is complex and wondrous. She’s an artist, an inadvertent activist, a hard worker, one-of-the-guys and clearly unaware of her own appeal and beauty. She’s incandescent on the page, a fire to be warmed by.

Complicated and incredibly poignant, this novel for teens rocks. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from e-galley received from Edelweiss and HarperCollins.

Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia

Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia

Eliza and Her Monsters by Francesca Zappia (9780062290137, Amazon)

No one knows that Eliza, a senior in high school, is the creator of the immensely popular webcomic, Monstrous Sea. She spends her days at school working on art for the comic and trying to be invisible. Then a new boy, Wallace, comes to her school. He has the looks of a football player, but doesn’t seem to say much at all, instead spending his time writing. Eliza soon learns that he is a major fan of her webcomic. As their friendship grows and starts to turn into a romance, the two of them do most of their communicating through texts, online chat and written notes. Eliza has to decide whether to share her secret of being the creator of Monstrous Sea with Wallace or whether she can stay anonymous much longer.

Zappia’s writing is completely captivating. She writes with a lovely confidence, telling the story of an introverted young creator with grace and understanding. Her characters are deeply human, struggling with real trauma and finding their safe place in communities online where they can be authentic and original. She speaks to the power of art and creativity in your life, making something that you can’t stop creating and having others find value in it too. Still, there is a tipping point where fans’ expectations can become too much and overwhelm the creative process. Zappia shows how mental distress can be dealt with and progress forward can be made, slowly.

Perhaps one of the greatest things about this book, though there are many great elements is Zappia’s portrayal of introverts. There is a coziness here, a feeling of safety in the pages, as if they are forming a critical spot for introverts to bloom, just like an online community. The book shows how introverts may be awkward but are also incredibly creative, thoughtful and deep people who just need their home and dog to recharge sometimes, alright often. The book allows Eliza and Wallace to steadily use online tools to communicate and learn about one another, building their relationship with honesty and humor.

Get this in the hands of Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from library copy.

Real Friends by Shannon Hale

Real Friends by Shannon Hale

Real Friends by Shannon Hale, illustrated by LeUyen Pham (9781626724167, Amazon)

Newbery Honor winning author Hale tells the story of her own elementary-school years and the tensions of changing friendships. Shannon has been friends with Adrienne since they were little, but it all starts changing when Adrienne joins the popular kids, particularly Jen who leads The Group. The girls in the The Group vie for Jen’s attention and who will sit closest to her at lunch or at recess. Shannon loves to create stories but can’t seem to tell them without having someone with her. As the years pass, Shannon’s relationships with the other girls in The Group ebb and flow, with situations like bullying and sibling rivalry emerging as well. But what does it take to find real friends?

Hale takes all of the emotions and tensions of becoming a middle grader and honors them in her novel. By using her own personal experiences growing up, she has imbued the tale with personality and wit. It is filled with honesty and humor while not minimizing the drama of bad situations at all. This graphic novel is illustrated by award-winning illustrator Pham. The illustrations are friendly and bright. They reflect both the reality of Shannon’s life but also her rich imagination and the games and stories that emerge from it.

This is a book that will speak to all children in elementary school who are navigating the changes that come at that stage of life. Appropriate for ages 8-12.

Reviewed from ARC received from First Second.

At the Edge of the Universe by Shaun David Hutchinson

At the Edge of the Universe by Shaun David Hutchinson

At the Edge of the Universe by Shaun David Hutchinson (9781481449663, Amazon)

Ozzie is the only one who remembers his boyfriend Tommy. He’s known Tommy since they were young children and they started dating in middle school. Now though, no one remembers that Tommy existed, including Ozzie’s family, his friends, and Tommy’s parents. Ozzie has figured out that the universe is shrinking around him, erasing people like Tommy from existence and rearranging history as if they were never there. Meanwhile, Ozzie’s world continues to change. His best friend Lua is becoming a rock star, his brother is headed to basic training, and his parents’ marriage is breaking up. One bright spot in Ozzie’s life is Cal, a confusing boy he is paired with for a physics project but the feelings developing between them complicate his ongoing search for Tommy.

This book sweeps you up, whisks you into Ozzie’s world and you believe, oh my, do you believe. Even though it’s impossible, questionable, and strange, you are along for the ride and the wonder of it all. This is because the emotions are so strong and real, the terror of life changing and the lack of control, the love between people that survives even though one is gone, the joy of new connections and friends. It’s all there, exactly what young readers are experiencing themselves but shown in a way that no one has seen before.

While Ozzie may believe the universe is shrinking, readers will question that right up to the end. What they won’t question is the world that Hutchinson has created here, filled with vibrant characters that you want to love and befriend. The LGBT themes are strongly written and beautifully presented. While the main character is gay, his friends are just as diverse. Lua is gender variant, striking and dramatic, changing pronouns with outfits. Other characters are asexual, presented in just the same frank and unquestioning way. LGBT characters in the book talk about sex, have sex, explore sex. It’s all brilliantly normal in a book that is anything but.

This is a book you must read to completely understand it. I hope you find it just as compelling and wondrous as I did. Enjoy! Appropriate for ages 14-18.