Kaleidoscope by Brian Selznick

Cover image for Kaleidoscope.

Kaleidoscope by Brian Selznick (9781338777246)

Two people meet and miss one another again and again in these short chapters that move through time. The stories are interconnected and yet also separate images and spaces. They are bound together by the characters themselves and also the themes that cross from one to another. There are butterflies, gardens, and gates among many other images that carry across the entire book. The characters must face their fears, reach across darkness, and grapple with grief and loss. Each chapter is a gem of a story, a short story that threads through to the others in ways that astonish, creating a true kaleidoscope of fractures and wholeness.

Few books are this impossible to summarize. Selznick, who already has written remarkable works, writes a complex book for young readers that is one where themes and metaphors are waiting to be explored. The relationship between the two characters is fascinating, one who is named James and the other who is the narrator, seeking and finding, losing and searching. The emotions in each of the stories change and wrap around one another, creating a pattern of grief, sorrow, love and joy.

It wouldn’t be a book by Selznick without his illustrations. Here he takes an illustration and turns it first into a kaleidoscope image, only revealing the actual image after the page turn. The skill here, done in charcoal gray and white, is dazzling. The images are filled with light, form and are recognizable in the kaleidoscope image. I found myself lingering between the two, flipping back and forth before reading each chapter.

Complex, fractured, and resoundingly gorgeous. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Scholastic.

In the Wild Light by Jeff Zentner

Cover image for In the Wild Light.

In the Wild Light by Jeff Zentner (9781524720247)

Cash doesn’t have much in his small Appalachian town, but what he does have, he loves. He loves spending time with his Papaw on the porch even as Papaw struggles to breathe due to his emphysema. He loves time out on the water in his canoe, which is how he helped his best friend, Delaney, make a scientific discovery of a lifetime. Delaney uses that discovery to secure them both full scholarships to an elite prep school in Connecticut. Cash agrees to go with her, knowing that he will struggle to keep up and will feel entirely out of place among the rich students. Cash doesn’t count on the power of words and poetry to keep him afloat as well as new friends. But even they may not be enough when Papaw takes a turn for the worse.

Zentner is an award-winning author and his writing here is truly exceptional. In Cash, he gives us a natural poet who looks at the world through metaphors and connects readers directly to the beauty of Appalachia. Both settings, Appalachia and Connecticut, are captured with such astute clarity and powerful wording that readers feel as if they are there seeing the light, the trees, the weather, and feeling it all in their chests. There is also a direct emotionality to the writing that reveals Cash’s struggles, his self doubts, his loves and allows readers to see his path forward long before Cash allows himself to.

The characters push back against every stereotype. Cash is a deep thinker, connected viscerally to the place where he came from, and a deep feeler who connects directly to those he cares for. It is easy to see why Delaney wants him with her. Delaney herself is a scientific genius, full of sarcastic wit and a directness in her speech that offers just the right amount of offset to Cash’s rich language. The two best friends that they meet offer diversity to the story and also a clarity that prep schools can be full of interesting people worth loving too.

Brilliantly written, full of great characters and insisting that poetry changes lives. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Crown Books for Young Readers.

The Accursed Vampire by Madeline McGrane

Cover of The Accursed Vampire.

The Accursed Vampire by Madeline McGrane (9780062954350)

Dragoslava is a kid and also a vampire. Born in 1460, Drago has seen a lot of Halloweens and history. They live with their two best friends Eztli and Quintus who are also vampires. Long ago, Drago made a witch angry and now has been cursed to be her servant. When she calls on them to retrieve her grimoire, Drago has to set off on the quest to Baneberry Falls. As the three little vampires reach the Midwest, it’s Halloween, a holiday that they excel at since they don’t need costumes. Plus they get to scare some of the older bullies who are out stealing candy. The three friends reach a creepy mansion, perfect for the local witch to live in. But it turns out that she lives with a vampire too. Now they just have to figure out who took the grimoire, who to trust, and who is out to get them.

This graphic novel is full of humor and just enough blood to be spooky but not frightening. The dynamic mix of witches and vampires adds to the fun with magical and undead powers on display. The characters are all interesting with full backstories, some of which is shared with the readers. The book offers a fully realized world where the characters feel like they have been living for some time and you have just popped into their lives. The characters are interesting and not stereotypical. There are lovely LGBT moments in the book too with lesbian couples and Drago themselves using they/them/their pronouns.

The illustrations are a marvelous mix of homey mundane and fang-filled spookiness. Drago pops on the page with their bald head and black cloak. The colors are rich, including poisonous greens, autumnal oranges, and dark blues and purples.

A spooky and funny graphic novel full of friendship and fiends. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Quill Tree Books.

Ten Thousand Tries by Amy Makechnie

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Ten Thousand Tries by Amy Makechnie (9781534482296)

Golden knows that this is the year that he will become captain of his school soccer team. He’s been working toward a goal of practicing ten thousand times in order to master the sport. After all, his father was a pro soccer player, though now he is battling ALS, a progressive disease that is stealing his ability to use his muscles. Golden believes that as long as his father keeps on trying, he can prevent the disease from worsening. And sometimes it even seems like it is working. Golden tries to keep control of everything, making sure that his year is as perfect as possible, but there are so many things outside of his control. The soccer year doesn’t work quite as Golden planned, one of his best friends plans to move away, and his father continues to decline. Golden may need a different approach to all of these things if he is to look after his family and friends well.

Makechnie is the author of The Unforgettable Guinevere St. Clair. In this second book, she writes a heartfelt story about grief and denial. While the book has soccer as a major focus, she writes it in a way that allows the games to make sense for those of us who may not know the rules. Even in the games, the clear purpose is teamwork and supporting one another, things that Golden needs to figure out in the rest of his life too. She creates amazing moments throughout the book of deep connection with one another, wise choices and intangible joys that appear out of nowhere. It’s a book about loss but also about life.

Golden is a remarkable protagonist. He is so deeply in denial that at first his rationales make sense to both him and the reader. As the book and his father’s ALS progress though, the reader steadily realizes that Golden is struggling more profoundly. It’s beautifully done with grace and with a deep empathy for Golden and his family. The secondary characters in the book are all richly drawn, including Golden’s two best friends who have struggles of their own and his family members.

A heart-rending look at grief, this book embraces the joy of life too. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Atheneum.

Jenny Mei Is Sad by Tracy Subisak

Cover image of Jenny Mei Is Sad.

Jenny Mei Is Sad by Tracy Subisak (9780316537711)

A little girl knows that her best friend is sad. She can tell even though Jenny continues to smile, share and make others laugh. Some days though, Jenny isn’t as happy. She gets angry and has to stay late to talk with the teacher. The little girl waits for Jenny to be done and they walk home together. The walk is quiet and they stop for popsicles. One blue and one purple, one blue tongue and one purple tongue. Jenny doesn’t answer when she is asked how she is doing, but her friend stays with her for all of the fun and not-fun times.

This picture book sensitively looks at how a child experiencing a difficulty at home, in this case an adult facing a health crisis, changes and acts. It also shows what a supportive friendship looks like, which really means just being there, asking once, and then listening when they want to talk. The main character of the book isn’t named and the book is told in her voice, making it all the more personal.

The text of the book never directly shares what is happening to Jenny, but the pictures reveal it when Jenny returns home at the end of the day. The illustrations are focused on the girls themselves and their relationship with one another, whether they are across the room or holding hands.

Full of empathy and kindness. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

Jo Jo Makoons: The Used-to-Be Best Friend by Dawn Quigley

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Jo Jo Makoons: The Used-to-Be Best Friend by Dawn Quigley, illustrated by Tara Audibert (9780063015371)

Boozhoo! Welcome to a new chapter book series featuring an Ojibwe girl. Jo Jo has two best friends. There is Mimi, her pet cat, who may need to be saved from having to get shots. Then there is Fern, her school best friend, who has been acting a lot more distant lately. Jo Jo lives on the Ojibwe reservation with her mother and grandmother. Because Mimi must get shots soon, Jo Jo tucks her into her bookbag and takes Mimi to school with her. At school, they have to do a rhyming exercise that Jo Jo doesn’t get quite right. But when she tries to hide Mimi in her shirt and Mimi escapes, Jo Jo suddenly speaks in rhymes much to her teacher’s surprise. With Fern not being overly friendly, Jo Jo realizes she needs to start making new friends besides Mimi, so Jo Jo tries following her grandmother’s advice and being friendly to everyone. But its’ not that easy!

Written with a ton of humor that will have you laughing out loud, readers will immediately love Jo Jo with her unique view of the world. She’s a girl who thinks that her gym teacher’s name is “Jim” and doesn’t realize that words spelled alike sometimes don’t rhyme at all. Meanwhile, she is a great friend, a great artist, and just has to find her own unique way through life.

Quigley’s writing is just right for a chapter book. It pairs well with the illustrations which show Jo Jo and her series of misadventures through a few days in her life. From the chaos of Mimi in class to Jo Jo’s humorous art style to her attempts to be more friendly, all are captured in the images with humor and empathy.

A look the life of a modern young Ojibwe with plenty of giggles. Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Heartdrum.

We Love Fishing by Ariel Bernstein

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We Love Fishing by Ariel Bernstein, illustrated by Marc Rosenthal (9781534438644)

Bear, Porcupine, and Otter love fishing. Squirrel isn’t quite as enthusiastic as the others. Bear, Porcupine and Otter love eating fish. Squirrel thinks fish smell too fishy. Bear, Porcupine and Otter love walking through the woods on their way to catching fish. Squirrel doesn’t like the bugs, the steep terrain or the rocks. In fact, he’d much rather take a taxi. The others love the hours it takes to catch the fish while Squirrel is horribly bored. The other don’t mind the rain which makes Squirrel’s hair frizz. After a mishap with the only fish they manage to catch, the others realize they love Squirrel and his offer to buy dinner more than they like fishing.

Told in marvelously “factual” statements that the entire foursome love the same things, this picture book shows Squirrel’s opinions in a wry and funny way. Bernstein’s very simple writing is just right for sharing aloud. The change from enthusiastic fishing to frustration is one that most people on fishing trips have experience at one time or another. Happily, this group has Squirrel and his phone to save the day and fill their stomachs.

The art is simple and bold, showing clearly the emotions that each creature is feeling on their day out together. Rosenthal uses body language and facial expressions to great effect. The images use plenty of white space, inviting readers to both enjoy the outing and also to understand Squirrel’s point of view too.

For anyone who has ever gone fishing, particularly those of us who fall asleep in the boat. Appropriate for ages 2-4.

Reviewed from copy provided by Simon & Schuster.

The Memory Thief by Jodi Lynn Anderson

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The Memory Thief by Jodi Lynn Anderson (9781481480215)

The first in the Thirteen Witches trilogy, this fantasy novel tells the story of Rosie Oaks who survived a witch attack as a newborn baby. She was left though with a mother who cannot love her and can barely care for her at all. Rosie has always known her mother to be this way, so she doesn’t expect anything else. Rosie spends her time reading books and writing her own stories until one day she decides that she is too old for them and burns her stories. That triggers the sight, allowing her to see the ghosts that live all around her. Ebb, a ghost boy, shows her the Witch Hunter’s Guide to the Universe, a book her mother hid that contains all she knew about the thirteen witches that control the world. Rosie discovers that her mother has been cursed, her memories stolen by the Memory Thief, a witch who may be the weakest but is also unstoppable. As Rosie learns more about the witches, her mother’s curse, family secrets and friendship, she realizes that she is the one who must now hunt the witch but at what cost?

Anderson has written a unique fantasy novel where witches are profoundly powerful beings, able to steal memories, stop time, and inflict curses. The world building is skillfully crafted, offering a world parallel to our own where a ladder goes to the moon, where ghosts exist and strive to head to the Beyond, and where witch hunters have magical weapons they craft themselves. Through Rosie, readers get to experience the wonder of discovering that world as well as feel the tragedy of her mother’s curse deeply too.

Anderson populates her book with characters who are fascinating and worthy of their own novels. There is Ebb, the ghost boy who has his pet ghost spider and who befriends Rosie when she needs it most. There is Germ, Rosie’s only friend, who loves Rosie and can see ghosts suddenly just like Rosie can. There is the Murderer, an angry ghost with his own tragic story who Rosie discovers holds the secret to her own survival as an infant. The Memory Thief herself is a fascinating mix of tragedy, danger and horror.

A great start to a new fantasy trilogy, this book mixes ghosts, magic and witches into something spectacularly new. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy provided by Aladdin.

Merci Suárez Can’t Dance by Meg Medina

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Merci Suárez Can’t Dance by Meg Medina (9780763690502)

This sequel to the Newbery Award winning Merci Suárez Changes Gears continues the story of Merci, her large multigenerational family, and the difficulties of being a seventh grader. This year, Merci has been assigned to manage the small school store along with Wilson, a boy who is amazing at math. As the two reinvent what their school store can be, adding movie merchandise, they end up also being drawn into selling tickets for the Heart Ball, run by Edna, who has managed to become even bossier than usual. Merci has decided not to go to the dance, but is asked to take photographs and agrees as long as she doesn’t even have to enter the gym. When an accident happens, Merci makes a bad decision and covers up the damage, setting off a series of lies that will involve school and family. With no one to talk to, since her grandfather’s dementia is worsening, Merci has to figure out who to trust to help her.

Fans returning to reconnect with Merci will once again find Medina’s rich depiction of Merci’s extended family, her grandfather’s worsening mental abilities, and the gorgeous warmth and love that keeps them all connected. Medina put Merci in quite a horrible situation in this second novel, where she feels alone and unable to be honest. Medina writes it with such empathy and skill that it is almost painful to read, though that makes the resolution all the more marvelous to experience.

As always, Medina’s writing is skillful and detailed. She truly creates a middle school experience with burgeoning romantic feelings and the changes happening between long-time best friends. Medina doesn’t let this all be negative, instead focusing on the confusion but also on the deeper understanding that can result from going through strange middle school circumstances.

Another marvelous Merci novel. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Candlewick.