Review: Ojiichan’s Gift by Chieri Uegaki

Ojiichan's Gift by Chieri Uegaki

Ojiichan’s Gift by Chieri Uegaki, illustrated by Genevieve Simms (9781771389631)

When Mayumi was born, her grandfather who lived in Japan built her a garden. It was a garden without tulips or flowers. Instead it was a garden of stones of all sizes. Around the edge, the garden had bushes and trees as well as a space for Mayumi to have a meal with her grandfather. As Mayumi grew up, she learned more and more about taking care of her garden alongside her grandfather. But then one summer, her grandfather could not care for his home or the garden anymore. When they arrived, the house was dusty and the garden was overgrown. Her grandfather had to use a wheelchair now. Mayumi is very angry and takes her anger out on the rocks of the garden, trying to topple the largest over. When she is unable to tip it over, she kicks the smaller rocks around. As her anger subsides, she rakes the garden back into order again and has an inspiration of what she can do to help both herself and her grandfather with this transition.

Uegaki was inspired to write this book by her own father who was a traditional Japanese landscaper and gardener. She captures with nicely chosen details the essence of a Japanese rock garden with its order, natural elements and upkeep. She also shows how a garden can create connections between in a long-distance relationship with a grandparent. She manages to have a strong point of view without being didactic at all, instead allowing the reader and Mayumi to experience the results of the garden without extra commentary.

The illustrations by Simms add to the understanding of the Japanese garden. Done in beautiful details, they offer images of the rocks, the moss, the gravel, and all of the elements. Using different perspectives for her images, she shows views from alongside the garden as well as from above. The same is true of the grandfather’s house as views change from outside looking in to the reverse.

A charming look at the connections between grandfather and granddaughter built through a garden. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Kids Can Press.

Review: Grandpa’s Stories by Joseph Coelho

Grandpa's Stories by Joseph Coelho

Grandpa’s Stories by Joseph Coelho, illustrated by Allison Colpoys (9781419734984)

A little girl visits her grandfather all through the year. In the spring they walk together in the garden. The girl thinks of replanting her grandpa’s birthdays so he won’t get old. In summer, the two of them play together with a secondhand racing track. The cars fly off into space and the girl thinks of their laughter being like shooting stars. In autumn, her grandpa gives her a book he’s made for her to draw in. She’d like to capture all of her bright feelings about him there. In winter, the two stay inside and Grandpa shares his stories with her. But then her Grandpa dies. While cleaning out his room, she discovers reminders of their time together as well as a new blank notebook that he made her for spring. She fills it with her memories of her Grandpa.

The writing in this book is exceptional. Coelho captures seasonal moments of the pair together, weaving in the joy that they feel, the connection that is being maintained and built. He uses imagery of the little girl’s thoughts to really create sincere memories for her to have that are compelling for the reader as well. When the death in the book happens, it is to be expected as one can feel some sadness in the book throughout as Grandpa ages more. It is a gentle moment, one done with care and thoughtfulness.

The illustrations by Colpoys depict a family of color joyfully spending time together and then experiencing and processing their loss. She uses amazingly bright colors on her pages, incorporating neon-poppy red, zinging sunshine yellow, waves of water blues and many more. Those colors never dim throughout the book, offering hope in their cheerfulness even during times of loss.

A beautifully written and illustrated picture book of love and loss. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from copy provided by Abrams.

Review: The Biggest Puddle in the World by Mark Lee

The Biggest Puddle in the World by Mark Lee

The Biggest Puddle in the World by Mark Lee, illustrated by Nathalie Dion (9781554989799)

A little girl and her brother Charlie were staying with their grandparents for six days. On the first day, the spent time exploring the big old house. Then it started to rain. It rained the entire second day, as they continued to explore the house. It rained the entire third day, which they spent playing dress-up. The girl asked her grandfather, Big T, where the rain comes from. He promised to show her when the rain stopped and when they had found the biggest puddle. The next day, the sun was out and the children joined their grandfather outside. On their walk to find the biggest puddle, they explored small puddles, a stream, a pond and finally found the sea! Along the way, their grandfather explained the water cycle with evaporation, the clouds, rain and bodies of water.

Lee combines a science lesson with a fictional picture book very successfully here. The initial story of children visiting grandparents is filled with lovely moments of play and connection. The children may be bored at times, but they also find ways to spend their time even as rain comes down all around the house. When the sun returns, the world opens up to them and their adventures becomes less imagination and more real. The facts shared about the water cycle are shown as part of their walk and a natural conversation. Dion’s illustrations are light and filled with a sense of movement and air. The gray rainy days spent inside contrast beautifully with the sunshine of the outdoor pages.

A quiet picture book about family, weather and water. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Groundwood Books.

Review: Albert’s Very Unordinary Birthday by Daniel Gray-Barnett

Albert's Very Unordinary Birthday by Daniel Gray-Barnett

Albert’s Very Unordinary Birthday by Daniel Gray-Barnett (9781525301186)

Albert lives a very ordinary life and even his birthday is just an ordinary day. No parties for him, instead he got birthday socks as his gift and plain toast for breakfast. All he could do was imagine that he had a candle to blow out on his piece of chocolate-cherry-ripple cake. Suddenly, there was a knock at the door and when Albert answered it, there stood his Grandma Z. She told his parents that they were just going to do ordinary birthday things, but their day together was anything but ordinary! They explored the woods, climbed a huge rock, looked at a dragon’s tooth, visited a palace, rode a roller coaster over and over again, and finally had a big slice of chocolate-cherry-ripple cake.

This import from Australia is an entirely energizing read. Nicely, the text doesn’t rhyme but instead holds together with its structure and tone. Told in a breathless voice once the fun starts, the book moves from its staid and dull beginnings into a hurtling pace of doing all sorts of marvelous things over the course of one amazing day. The text and illustrations work together well, showing them flying with birds, a dragon asleep in a cave nearby, and horses riding the coaster with them.

A wild ride of a birthday book, expect requests for chocolate-cherry-ripple cake in the future. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Kids Can Press.

Review: Merci Suarez Changes Gears by Meg Medina

Merci Suarez Changes Gears by Meg Medina

Merci Suarez Changes Gears by Meg Medina (9780763690496)

Merci’s life starts to really change during sixth grade. She doesn’t fit in at her private school with the other kids, mostly because she is a scholarship student. Her brother Roli seems to be able to fit in naturally thanks to his love of science. As part of her community service for the school, Merci is a Sunshine Buddy. When she is paired with a boy to guide around school, Merci is shocked but opinionated Edna is bothered by how much time and contact Merci now has with the new cute and popular boy. Meanwhile, Merci’s grandfather is struggling. He has started to forget things, calls people by the wrong name, can’t ride a bike anymore and get angry over small things. Other times, he is just as he has always been, immensely patient and loving. Middle school is always a confusing time, but Merci has a lot more to deal with than other kids. Can she navigate family and school without losing who she is?

Medina has created an engaging middle-grade novel that grapples with several big topics. There is a theme of bullying at school, particularly because of differences in social status and culture. At the same time, readers will notice long before Merci does that she is deeply liked by many of her classmates and forms connections with ease as long as she is herself. There is her grandfather’s Alzheimer symptoms, something that Merci tries to figure out but is not told directly about until late in the novel. Her confusion and concerns turn to anger when she discovers that she is being treated like a child and not included in knowing about the diagnosis.

Throughout the novel, Merci is a strong character who has a lot more going for her than she realizes. Bringing people into her life and allowing her family and school life to become one is a skillful way to show that being ashamed of one’s family is actually not the solution. Merci takes the novel to figure things out, a steady and organic evolution for her character, a character that young readers will relate to easily.

A winning middle-grade novel that is part of #ownvoices, this is a must-read. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Candlewick Press.

Review: The Shadow in the Moon by Christina Matula

The Shadow in the Moon A Tale of the Mid-Autumn Festival by Christina Matula

The Shadow in the Moon: A Tale of the Mid-Autumn Festival by Christina Matula, illustrated by Pearl Law (9781580897464)

The whole family gathers for the Mid-Autumn Festival to give thanks for the harvest. They will look at the moon and then each person makes a wish for the upcoming year. As the mooncakes are served, Ah-ma tells the story of Chang’e, the Spirit and Lady in the Moon. It was in a time when there were ten suns in the sky, baking the earth. The suns would not listen and stop shining so hard, so a young archer, Hou Yi, shot down nine of the moons. The last one he asked to share the sky with the moon. Hou Yi was given a magic potion for his courage by the Immortals. When a thief came to steal the potion, Hou Yi’s wife, Chang’e, drank it rather than have it fall into the wrong hands. The potion turned her into the Spirit and Lady in the Moon. Hou Yi discovered what had happened and would sit in the garden and look up at the moon, providing mooncakes on the anniversary of the day she transformed. After the story, the girls are ready to light their paper lanterns and make their wishes, inspired by the heroism of Hou Yi and Chang’e.

Matula merges a modern tale of a Chinese family with the legend that inspired this festival. The two stories are clearly separate, which works really well for a young audience. Her writing is clear, describing the mooncakes in a mouthwatering way and the inspiring actions of the legendary characters in a way that allows the melancholy yet beautiful tale to shine. The illustrations also make a clear distinction between the stories. The modern family is shown on white backgrounds that are clean and crisp. The legend is shown with primarily deep jeweled colors as the background, inviting readers into the richness of the tale.

A wonderful and warm introduction to Chinese festivals, this picture book offers a look at how festivals carry on in modern society while also telling the story behind it all. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from copy provided by Charlesbridge.

Review: Drawn Together by Minh Le

Drawn Together by Minh Le

A boy heads to stay with his grandfather and is clearly not excited to be there. The two of them eat different foods, the grandfather has ramen and the boy has a hotdog and fries. When they try to talk together, they don’t even speak the same language as one another. When they try to watch TV, the language barrier reappears and the grandson walks away. He gets out his sketchpad and markers and starts to draw. Quickly, his grandfather joins him with his own pad of paper, brushes and ink. Soon the two of them are drawing together, communicating and seeing one another for the first time. It’s not all perfect, sometimes the distance reappears but it can be bridged with art that combines both of them into one amazing adventure.

The story here is mostly told in images with many of the pages having no text at all. The text that is there though moves the story ahead, explains what is happening at a deep level and fills in the blanks for readers. Santat’s illustrations are phenomenal. He manages to clearly show the child’s art and the grandfather’s art as distinct and unique while then moving to create a cohesive whole between them that is more than the sum of the two. This is pure storytelling in art form and is exceptionally done.

Look for this one to be on award lists! Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Disney Hyperion.

Review: Just Like Jackie by Lindsey Stoddard

Just Like Jackie by Lindsey Stoddard

Just Like Jackie by Lindsey Stoddard (9780062652911)

Robinson tries to behave in school so that her grandfather doesn’t have to leave his work at the garage and come to the office. She worries that the principal and teachers will notice that his memory is not that good anymore, particularly in the afternoon. But when the class bully won’t leave her alone, Robinson speaks with her fists and lands in trouble. Assigned to a special group that meets in the school counselor’s room, Robbie has to figure out whether she can trust the others. To make it harder, one of them is the bully whose been tormenting her. As Robbie’s grandfather’s memory gets worse, Robbie knows that she has to keep her secrets from everyone, until that becomes impossible.

In this debut book by Stoddard, she writes with a great confidence, allowing Robbie and her unique family to reveal themselves to the reader. The writing is strong, showing complicated relationships, a loving family and a school that steps up to help children in need. Stoddard deftly shows how assignments like a family tree can be daunting to a number of children whether they are dealing with a dying parent, an impossible older sister, divorce or a lack of knowledge.

Robbie is an important protagonist. It is great to see a young female character having to deal with anger issues that she resolves at first by hitting others. The solution to her anger and fear is slow and steady, with set backs along the way, making it a very organic and honest depiction. Robbie also doesn’t look like her grandfather, since she doesn’t appear to be African American, another aspect of the book that is handled with sensitivity.

A brilliant debut novel with changing families, lots of maple syrup but one that isn’t too sweet either. Appropriate for ages 9-12. (Reviewed from copy provided by HarperCollins.)

3 New Picture Books that Embrace Families

Hooked by Tommy Greenwald

Hooked by Tommy Greenwald, illustrated by David McPhail (9781596439962)

A young boy loves to spend his time fishing, but his father doesn’t want to join him in this picture book. Joe loves to fish, but his father just doesn’t understand the appeal and won’t participate. So Joe joins the local fishing club and they fish all over the area in different bodies of water. The in the winter, the club decides to do ice fishing and every kid will need an adult along. Joe is worried that his father will refuse again, but instead he agrees to do it just once. When the two of them get to the frozen lake, nothing much happens at first. Then they start to talk and talk together and suddenly Joe’s father understands.

This is a lovely quiet book, one that celebrates the silence and beauty of fishing and also the way that quiet hobbies can create opportunities for deep connection with others. Children not interested in fishing will still recognize the way that parents sometimes duck out of games and hobbies that they find unappealing. The illustrations are classic McPhail filled with luminous glowing light and a playful sense of storytelling. A great pick for fishing story times or for a quiet evening of stories together. Appropriate for ages 4-6. (Reviewed from library copy.)

How Mamas Love Their Babies by Juniper Fitzgerald

How Mamas Love Their Babies by Juniper Fitzgerald, illustrated by Elise Peterson (9781936932009)

This picture book talks about how different mothers love their children. The text is simple and straightforward but the examples are what makes this book stand out. Mothers use their bodies to care, like breastfeeding their babies. Mothers protest for better worlds for their babies. Some mothers stay home with their children while others work. Some mothers clean houses, others watch other people’s children, others work in government, others work in the fields. Some mothers wear uniforms and some dance for a living. All mothers, no matter what they do for a living, love their children.

The inclusion of mothers who may have to dance for a living is what makes this book so special. That combines with an acceptance of all lifestyles, of all races and religions in the illustrations of the book. The women come in all sizes and colors in the vintage-style collages throughout the book. There is an acceptance of everyone here that is hard to find in children’s books and makes this one for all libraries to own. Appropriate for ages 2-4. (Reviewed from e-galley provided by Edelweiss and Feminist Press.)

On the Other Side of the Garden by Jairo Buitrago

On the Other Side of the Garden by Jairo Buitrago, illustrated by Rafael Yonkteng (9781554989836)

The author and illustrator of Walk with Me and Two White Rabbits return with a picture book that is immediately immersive. A little girl gets dropped off at her grandmother’s house by her father. When she wakes up in the night, there are three animals looking in at her through the window: an owl, a mouse and a frog. They seem friendly, so she opens the window for them. Soon they are inviting her out into the garden, her feet touching grass for the first time in a long time since she lived in the city. As they escape the house, the moon shines white on the page and lights their way. They explore the nearby creek, a hill that lets them look back at the house, and fields. The little girl starts to open up about why she is there at her grandmother’s house, a grandmother she barely knows. She returns back to the house just as the sun comes up, where her grandmother is waiting for her.

There is such beauty in this book. The tone of the text is wistful and wondering, inviting the reader along on the adventure. It is a journey of opening up, of finding new friends who warm you when the wind blows and who surprise and delight you. It is a book of knowing the truth but not being quite ready to face it yet. The illustrations are a play of dark and light. They fill the pages right to the edge, deep blue and full of nature and movement. They are stunningly lovely, unique and emotional. A very special book that is soulful and moving. Appropriate for ages 6-9. (Reviewed from library copy.)