When You Trap a Tiger by Tae Keller (9781524715700)
Lily, her mother and sister move in with her elderly Korean grandmother. In the small town, Lily soon discovers that everyone knows and loves her grandmother, who wears glamorous clothes and tries to offer advice and help to her community. Halmoni has always been special to Lily too, sharing stories of tigers, girls and stars with her and her sister. So when they are heading to Halmoni’s house and Lily sees a tiger out of the car window, she knows it’s from her grandmother’s tales and that tigers are tricksters. As Lily starts to understand that her grandmother is severely ill, she believes that she can help by working with the tiger to release the stories from her grandmother’s jars. The stories emerge and shine in the darkness, returning to the sky as stars and allowing Lily to hear some of the more difficult stories for the first time. Yet, Lily isn’t sure if the tiger is actually real and if the tiger is, can she be trusted to really help Halmoni?
Keller’s novel for middle grade readers explores the complexity of stories both in terms of folklore but also stories of previous generations in a family and the difficulties they faced in other countries and in traveling to the United States. The power of stories themselves is never in question here, shining through as each tale is shared. They connect, explain and inspire. But stories here are also hidden, carefully kept from others so that their pain need not be shared. This too speaks to their incredible power and the importance of them being told. So in the end, whether you believe in the tiger or not, you will believe in the stories themselves and their magic.
This novel is so beautifully written. Readers will experience it as a series of jars to be opened and released by them. The tales themselves are told in language and tones that really make them understood to be part of an oral tradition. The rest of the book, the story of Lily and her family, is layered and fascinating. All of the characters are complex and have multiple dimensions to their personalities. Lily is caught up in her own world of tiger traps and magical jars, but everyone else has their own perspectives on what is happening to Halmoni and their family.
A powerful book of stories, magic and tigers. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Random House Books for Young Readers.
The Phone Booth in Mr. Hirota’s Garden by Heather Smith, illustrated by Rachel Wada (9781459821033)
Makio loved spending time with his neighbor, Mr. Hirota in his garden that looked down upon the harbor. He could see his father at work along the shore. Then one day, the tsunami came. It took away Makio’s father and Mr. Hirota’s daughter. Everyone in the village lost someone that day. Silence descended upon the town along with their grief. A noise came that was Mr. Hirota building a phone book in his garden. A phone booth with an old-fashioned phone and no wires connecting it anywhere. Painted white, the booth gave the mourners an opportunity to reconnect with their lost family members, sharing their days from a phone booth on the hill overlooking the harbor.
This picture book is based on a true story of a Japanese man who built a phone booth in his garden to speak with his dead brother, which was then used by thousands of mourners in Osaka to speak to their dead relatives after the tsunami. The tale here is told with a deep grace and empathy that shines on every page. The dramatic impact of the wave both on the land and on the people who live there is shown clearly. The grief afterwards is palpable on the page too.
The illustrations were inspired by Japanese traditional techniques using watercolors, black ink and pencils as well as digital assembly. The resulting images are filled with a powerful mix of light and dark with the black ink giving a dramatic and strong impact.
A beautiful and aching story of loss and community. Appropriate for ages 5-7.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake (9781368048088)
Lyric, Maine was the ancestral home of Violet’s family, established by her great-great-great-grandmother who survived a shipwreck. Now Violet has been sent there after a wreck of her own, created when she partied too much and almost lost her brother Sam to suicide. Stuck in the small town, she finds a volunteer job at the local aquarium. That’s where she meets Orion, a gorgeous boy her age who knows all about marine life and how to run the cash register, skills that Vi can only dream of having. Orion’s best friend is Liv, who happens to be obsessed with the Lyric shipwreck and can’t wait to meet Violet, a direct descendant. Things get more complicated as Violet tries to help Liv and Orion move forward in a romantic way, Violet tries to avoid romance herself and along the way makes the best friends of her life.
I must admit this was one of the hardest books to summarize. There is so much here that all fits so beautifully into the novel but can’t be easily explained. There is the power of music, the impact of nature, the importance of dreams, the vitality of connection to one another, and the continued reverberation of loss and grief. All of that is here in these pages, written so beautifully that it aches. There are some cliches like Violet shaving her head, but those disappear into the richness of the book, becoming references and anchors to other stories rather than taking up too much space here.
The writing is exquisite, the emotions on the page are allowed to be raw but also often are hidden from view behind banter or fights about other things. Violet’s bisexuality is shown organically and openly, something that is simply there and innately understood by the reader. Mental illness is treated much the same way with panic attacks, depression, and anxiety all included in the story, important to the plot, but never gawked at.
Beautiful, powerful and full of feeling, this book is amazing. Appropriate for ages 14-18.
Reviewed from library copy.
Joe Quinn’s Poltergeist by David Almond, illustrated by Dave McKean (9781536201604)
At first Davie doesn’t believe that Joe Quinn has a poltergeist in his home. After all, Joe has told lies before about his family. But when Davie and his best friend head over to Joe’s house to witness it themselves, they see bread and butter fly through the air, chips hit the wall, and dishes break. Davie himself lost a sister when she was very little, and he longs to know if ghosts are real because if so, she might still be there. But could it just be Joe playing a prank? Perhaps bringing the village priest in will help make things more clear and perhaps it will cloud things even more.
Almond and McKean have created several of the most inventive and incredible graphic novels in the last few years, including The Savage, Slog’s Dad, and Mouse Bird Snake Wolf. It is great to see another of their weird collaborations. This book is not about answering questions about whether ghosts exist. It’s about grief and loss, violence and families, and being willing to live with questions unanswered. It is a book that takes a short story by Almond and turns it into something visceral and pointed, a book for Halloween yes, but also for everyday darkness and wonder as well.
The illustrations by McKean are filled with sharp edges, fractured panes. They have characters who writhe on the page, almost beyond human and filled with amazing flaws. There are times of amazing green grass and sunshine, others of the sun breaking through blood-red clouds, others of filled with shadows of prison bars. The images are stunning in their stretched-out haunting nature.
A graphic novel that is not for everyone, but fans of dark corners will love what they find here. Appropriate for ages 12-15.
Reviewed from library copy.
Grandpa’s Top Threes by Wendy Meddour, illustrated by Daniel Egneus (9781536211252)
Henry’s grandfather is gardening a lot lately. Henry doesn’t understand, and his mother tells him just to give his grandfather time. But Henry isn’t patient enough to leave his grandfather alone. So he tries out their favorite shared game, asking his grandfather what his top three sandwiches are. When his grandfather doesn’t respond at first, Henry offers his top three and then his grandfather shares his own list. The two of them eat their favorite sandwiches together by the pond. Henry keeps asking for his grandfather’s top threes until one day, his grandfather starts the game, asking what Henry’s top three days out are. So they do all three together, one after another.
Meddour’s story is one of a grieving man who was turning away from his family and then his grandson invites him to return to the world and find joy again. The process is slow and steady, Meddour doesn’t rush it at all, allowing it play out naturally on the page. The relationship between grandfather and grandson is shown as vital and life-changing, with the child taking steps to really impact his grandfather’s life for the better.
Egneus’ illustrations glow with an inner light. The bright red hair of Henry and the bushy beard of the grandfather offer a wonderful play against one another on the page. The images echo the text with their focus on connection to one another.
Full of lots of emotion, this one may bring tears to your eyes. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy provided by Candlewick Press.
Ghost Cat by Kevan Atteberry (9780823442836)
A little boy thinks that he sees a ghost cat out of the corner of his eye. It reminds him of the cat he used to have but the boy can never get a good look at this ghost cat. The ghost cat seems to sleep on his bed at night, curled up and purring. It plays with cat toys on the stairs. It meows outside of the boy’s door and knocks things off of shelves. But the boy is always too late to see anything more than a blur moving quickly. Then one day, the boy really sees the ghost cat clearly. He chases after it and the cat leads him to something new and very special right outside.
Atteberry tells a wonderfully gentle story here about the loss of a pet and the gap that it leaves. It is also a great ghost story with no scariness at all, just a playful cat ghost doing cat-like things all over the house. The tone is delightfully breathless and wondering, just right for a ghost story. The dashing nature of the bulk of the book slows at the end to allow readers to bask in the new discovery.
The illustrations, done digitally, are filled with warm tones that allow the ghostly form of the cat to really pop. Readers will enjoy seeing the cat fleetingly on the page, moving just away from the boy and the reader.
Comforting and understanding, this book takes ghosts and grief and turns them into something very special. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy provided by Neal Porter Books.
How It Feels to Float by Helena Fox (9780525554295)
Biz can float through her life, realizing that she is part of a larger universe and leaving her current troubles behind. But every time, she is drawn back to her body and back to her life. She does have great people in her life, including her mother and the twins. Plus her best friend Grace. She also has her father, who died when Biz was young, but stays with her, reminding her of his love for her. But when something happens on the beach, things start to spiral out of control. Grace loses her boyfriend over it, and they both lose their larger friend group. When Grace reacts with fury, her family moves her away. Biz’s father disappears and she stops being able to go to school, almost unable to leave her bed. When she eventually does get help via therapy, Biz doesn’t tell the entire truth, figuring out how to build bits of her life back until they tumble over once again.
This is a remarkable debut novel. Set in Australia, the book explores mental illness with a tenderness that is haunting. The beauty of the world Biz’s mind creates for her is a mix of tantalizing promises and real dangers. Even as readers know that Biz is unwell, they too will be caught up in her visions, understand her desire to keep floating, to enter the sea, to find connections. The setting of Australia is just as lovingly depicted with details of the landscape, the stunning coastline and a trip into the heart of the continent.
In Biz, readers will find a very intelligent teen who is struggling as her mental illness continues to impact her life in profound ways. Biz is warm and funny, a person first and her illness second. Her sarcasm draws people to her. After she loses most of the support structure in her life, she meets new people who love her, accepting her as she is, though she continues to search for what she has lost.
Aching and heart wrenching, this teen novel is an honest and profound look at mental illness and being human. Appropriate for ages 13-18.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Dial Books.
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.
The Things She’s Seen by Ambelin and Ezekiel Kwaymullina (9781984848789)
Beth died in a car accident and now her father is the only one who can see and hear her. He is struggling with his grief, and Beth knows that the best thing for him is to get back to work as a police detective and solve a mystery. Luckily, he is sent on what should be a simple case in a small Australian town. A dead body was found in the aftermath of a fire at a foster care home. But the mystery isn’t that simple as a witness comes forward and speaks to Beth and her father. The witness, Catching, tells an unbelievable tale of almost dying in a flood, her mother sacrificing herself, and then being taken by unusual beings to be fed upon. Still, Beth and her father realize that Catching is telling the truth if they can just figure out what that is and how it ties into the mystery itself.
This #ownvoices tale shares the dark truth of residential schools for Aboriginal children in Australia and the aftermath of entire lost generations. The authors create an amazing story by mixing modern police procedural with a ghost story that vividly shows Aboriginal storytelling and beliefs. The resulting book is one unlike anything you have read before.
From Catching’s poetic and disturbing tale of losing her colors and then finding a way back using the women in her family as points of strength to Beth’s own process of helping her father and then finding a way to let go to Crow’s story of truth and revenge, this is a book that celebrates the power of Aboriginal women to find their voices on the way to getting justice. The three Aboriginal young women at the heart of the book are studies in various kinds of strength, shining on the page and not allowing their light or colors to dim.
Unusual and incredibly powerful and moving, this genre-bending novel is one of a kind. Appropriate for ages 14-18.
Reviewed from copy provided by Knopf Books for Young Readers.