Review: Pay Attention, Carter Jones by Gary D. Schmidt

pay attention, carter jones by gary d. schmidt

Pay Attention, Carter Jones by Gary D. Schmidt (9780544790858)

Carter’s family is a bit of a mess. On their first day of school, there are lunches to pack, socks to find, ribbons to tie, and dog vomit to clean up. So when an English butler appears on the doorstep just as Carter is heading out to buy milk, it solves a lot of immediate problems. Still, there are other issues that Carter is still grappling with, including grief and loss. As the story continues, readers learn more about the darkness in Carter’s family and his role as the oldest to be strong for everyone. As Carter matches wits with the butler who seeks to control all of Carter’s free time, the two become a team and along the way start a cricket league at Carter’s new school. As the past becomes too much for Carter to bear alone, he learns about the power of sports, teams and a good butler.

Schmidt takes the spirit of Nanny McPhee and Mary Poppins and gives us a male version in Mr. Bowles-Fitzpatrick. The book demands a certain amount of setting aside of disbelief for things like cricket being embraced by an entire middle school and a twelve-year-old driving a car. It is mix of lighthearted storytelling and deeper subjects, moving from eliciting laughter into moments of real tragedy with skill. Readers may not fully understand cricket by the end, but will know what a sticky wicket actually is and how the basics work.

Carter is a protagonist who is dealing with a lot. As the book progresses, he learns how vital he is for his little sisters and how his interacting in their lives is powerful. He steadily builds confidence as the story continues with the final scenes fully demonstrating not only his person growth but also the depth of his struggles. As the tragedies of his family are revealed, readers will be amazed that Carter continues on as he does despite it all. He is a figure of resilience and humor.

Another winner from a master storyteller, this novel for middle graders introduces cricket and one amazing butler. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Clarion Books.

 

Review: Eventown by Corey Ann Haydu

eventown by corey ann haydu

Eventown by Corey Ann Haydu (9780062689801)

Elodee’s family faced a tragedy this year and had trouble recovering from it. Elodee is always angry and her twin sister, Naomi, is getting quieter. Given those circumstances, moving to Eventown seemed like the best plan. The family had vacationed in Eventown and had great memories of being there. When they move into their house that is just like every other house in town, they discover a life filled with hikes into the hills, no cars, walking to school past a waterfall and woods, and rosebushes everywhere. Their lives find a comforting rhythm there. But things are a bit too perfect: there are no clouds in the sky, no rainy days, and ice cream doesn’t melt down your wrists. When the twins are sent to the Welcome Center, they are given a chance to tell six stories of their lives, days of their greatest sorrows and joys. Naomi goes first and tells her stories, but Elodee’s session is interrupted. Naomi is quickly fitting into the town while Elodee remembers more of their life before and starts to ask questions about their lives in Eventown.

Haydu’s novel takes a deep look at grief and pain and its purpose in our lives. It looks at what happens when bad memories are removed and perfection is put in their place. It is a limited perfection, one with no books to read, only one song to listen to, no cell phones, no Internet and no television. It is idyllic and eerie, a Stepford version of childhood. Horror is sidestepped neatly here, instead becoming a book about empowerment and making your own choices while asking important questions.

Elodee is a great main character. The fact that she is a twin is an important element in the book as it focuses on everyone in Eventown being the same but even then Elodee and Naomi are very different from one another. The twins make an interesting counterpoint to the entire town, with Elodee and her vivid anger, big questions and willingness to be different making an ideal person to expose what is really going on.

Filled with magic and mystery, this book is a compelling look at the price of perfection. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Katherine Tegen Books.

Review: Small Spaces by Katherine Arden

Small Spaces by Katherine Arden

Small Spaces by Katherine Arden (9780525515029)

This shivery novel for middle-grade readers will give just the right amount of creepiness for kids reading Goosebumps. Ollie’s mother died in an accident last year, and Ollie found solace in her books, withdrawing from the kids who were her friends and not talking in class. Her father continues to create a warm home for her filled with fresh-baked bread and other treats. When Ollie meets a strange woman about to throw a book into the lake, Ollie rescues the book and runs away. She reads the book, learning about the “smiling man” and the deal that a local man made with him. When she heads out on a field trip with her class, Ollie is surprised to find herself on the farm in the book that has graves for the people in the story. On their way back home, the school bus breaks down and Ollie escapes with two other students from the clutches of the scarecrows and the smiling man himself. Can they avoid capture and find a way back home before nightfall?

There is so much to love about this book. It is so readable for kids, a story that is well-paced and actually frightening, but at just the right level for young readers. The scarecrows are particularly effective as they pivot to watch the children go by and come to life at night. The ghosts are eerie as is the hungry gray bus driver. Young readers will also appreciate Ollie’s growing connection to her mother through her mother’s broken watch, something that tells her what to do and by when. It’s a clever addition to the story, offering a sign of hope and a way out of grief.

Throughout the book, there are characters who will surprise readers by going directly against stereotype. First, there are Ollie’s parents with her domestic father and adventurous mother. Then the two children who accompany Ollie through her adventure are a jock who reads and quotes literature at just the right time and a girl who looks tiny and frail but can climb almost anything and is actually brave and strong. These unexpected little touches add up to a team that is unbeatable as they face real demons.

Written with rich prose that is a delight to read, this eerie tale will be enjoyed by any young reader looking for some spine tingles. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by G. P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers.

Review: The Rough Patch by Brian Lies

The Rough Patch by Brian Lies

The Rough Patch by Brian Lies (9780062671271)

Evan, a fox, and his dog did everything together from taking rides in the truck to sharing ice cream. What they loved to do most of all was work in Evan’s large garden together. Evan was known for growing large vegetables, competing for the largest pumpkin. But when his dog died, Evan saw his garden as a bitter place. One day, he went out and smashed it into emptiness. But things grow in empty spots, weeds and brambles rose up. They matched Evan’s mood, so he cared for them. Soon his garden was prickly and grim, just like him. When a pumpkin vine came into the garden, Evan cared for it too because it had prickles. Just as the pumpkin turned orange and huge, Evan realized it was time for the fair. Evan found himself enjoying the fair, meeting old friends and eating treats. And the grand prize was just right to set his life and his garden on a new course.

This book is so poignant. Lies captures grief and loss vividly on the page, the bitterness of loss, the emptiness it leaves, and prickliness of emotions left behind. Evan the fox though is a gardener through and through, so he cared for those prickly things, those weeds, and allowed them to flourish. It is a perfect allegory for the process of grief, moving from anger to despair to sadness and finally to acceptance and looking to the future. The arc is beautifully shown.

The illustrations are exceptional. Done with marvelous small details, even Evan’s grief garden is depicted with care from small signs warning of poison to the fences of the garden made of pitchforks. The use of light and dark is done so well, as Evan looks out from the darkness of his home into the light of the garden and gets violently angry.

One of the top picture books of the year, this is a dead dog picture book worth reading. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from library copy.

 

 

Review: A Stone for Sascha by Aaron Becker

A Stone for Sascha by Aaron Becker

A Stone for Sascha by Aaron Becker (9780763665968)

A wordless picture book, this tells the story of a girl’s first summer without her beloved dog at her side. As the family heads off on their camping trip, she finds herself on the lake shore alone. She starts skipping stones and as one sinks, the story turns to one of a crashing meteor and dinosaurs. From that meteor comes a rock that moves through time, starting as a large rough chunk of stone and becoming smaller and smaller as it is redesigned. It is the heart of a large statue, the keystone in an arch for a bridge, an elaborate treasure box, and then it sinks beneath the waves when a ship goes down. It is still there until the girl finds it, yellow and bright in her hand, timelessness and connection in a single stone.

This picture book shines with its strong message about the passage of time, the deep feeling of loss and the resilience to recover. It is a book filled with beauty, one that really comes alive with the turning of time deep into the past. That twist at its center is brave, surprising and is what really makes the book ring so true. As always with Becker, the art is exceptional. He captures emotions so clearly on the page and imbues his images with wonder.

An exceptional read by a master storyteller. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from library copy.

3 Deep and Watery Picture Books

Aquarium by Cynthia Alonso

Aquarium by Cynthia Alonso (9781452168753)

A little girl heads down to the dock near the water to watch the fish, dreaming of one day swimming alongside many fish at the same time. When a small orange fish jumps out of the water, she catches it in a water bottle and runs home with it. With a black hose, lots of containers, and plants, she creates a new watery space for the fish. When she swims along with the little fish in her pool though, the fish jumps out into a puddle. In that moment, the girl decides to return the fish to the sea.

This wordless picture book beautifully explores a little girl’s connection to nature and her own desire to be part of it and have a piece of it for herself. Through the images, one knows that the little girl means no harm, only to celebrate the fish and her connection to it. Still, readers will know that it will be a problem if the fish is kept from his home for too long. The illustrations are full of the blues of the sea which contrasts with the rest of the scenery that is left barely sketched and uncolored. It is water that really brings the book alive, combined with trees and rushes. A beautiful look at connecting with nature by preserving it. Appropriate for ages 3-5. (Reviewed from copy provided by Chronicle Books.)

Ocean Meets Sky by The Fan Brothers

Ocean Meets Sky by The Fan Brothers (9781481470377)

Finn lives by the sea, On the day that would have been his grandfather’s birthday, it is a good day for sailing and for building a boat, one that will help him find the place that his grandfather told him about, where the ocean meets the sky. So Finn spent his morning building a boat that was suitable for a long journey and then he took a nap. When he awoke, the boat was rocking in the sea and the journey had begun. As Finn got lonely in the open sea, a large golden fish emerges from the water and agrees to show him the way to the place he is searching for. They travel past Library Islands filled with birds and books, an island of giant shells, and a sea of glowing jellyfish. Until they finally reach the place where the ocean meets sky and Finn’s boat soars out of the water and into the sky, all before dinner.

This beautifully rendered book is exceptional. There is a lovely consistency throughout even in the more dreamlike sequences. The text is simple and inviting, creating a world that children will enjoy exploring alongside Finn himself. The book moves from a feeling of grief and loss that is handled with delicacy to hard work in honor of Finn’s grandfather and then into a world of dreams and wonder.

The illustrations move from black-and-white memories of Finn’s grandfather to pastels for the real world of today and then into sharp details and deeper colors of dreams. I love that the dreamworld is the most defined and colorful. Grandfather appears throughout the dreams in the form of the large fish and the moon. His presence is everywhere.

A lovely and layered picture book about grief, memories and wonder. Appropriate for ages 4-6. (Reviewed from copy provided by Simon & Schuster.)

Water Land Land and Water Forms around the World by Christy Hale

Water Land: Land and Water Forms around the World by Christy Hale (9781250152442)

One of the most inventive uses of cut pages that I have seen! This picture book takes water forms and with a turn of the page creates corresponding landforms. A lake becomes an island. A bay turns into a cape. Strait and isthmus compare beautifully. It goes on and on. One will turn back and forth between water and land, stunned by the comparisons and the feeling of a complete ecosystem on the page.

It is the art that is central in this book. With cut pages, the drawings are active around the land and water forms. Boats and trucks cross land and water, diverse people play on the sand, sharks circle in the water. A brilliant book that will have young readers looking at water and land in a new way with plenty of terms to name what they are seeing. Appropriate for ages 4-6. (Reviewed from library copy.)

 

Review: A Stitch in Time by Daphne Kalmar

A Stitch in Time by Daphne Kalmar

A Stitch in Time by Daphne Kalmar (9781250154989)

Donut’s pops has passed away in an automobile accident and now her Aunt Agnes has come to stay in their small house in rural Vermont. Donut has grown up there, surrounded by the woods and all of the people she considers friends. There is Tiny, a huge boy with a big heart, who is her best friend. There is Sam, the man who taught her to do taxidermy and who creates displays for museums. It’s the place that Donut belongs, one where she can see her father in every part of their home and also her mother, whom she never knew. So when Aunt Agnes decides to take Donut back to Boston with her, Donut knows she must do everything she can to stay, even running away.

Kalmar has created a story with one heck of a heroine at its heart. Donut is unusual in so many ways, from her passion for rivers and geography to her taxidermy of small rodents and birds to her willingness to test out her father’s foldable boat. Donut is not one to shrink away from stating her mind or from taking action to support herself. Readers will immediately feel for Donut being taken away from her home, and in the end they too will be surprised at how Donut has grown and changed.

This historical fiction for middle grades is set in an interesting time period that we don’t see a lot of. It’s in rural Vermont around the 1920s. There is talk of bobbed hair, flappers and Prohibition. The setting of Vermont is fully realized in the book, particularly once Donut heads into the woods on her own. Then nature really emerges around her, beautiful and dangerous at once.

A strong piece of historical fiction, get this into the hands of readers who enjoy a strong protagonist, wilderness settings and cows. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Edelweiss and Feiwel & Friends.

Review: What I Leave Behind by Alison McGhee

What I Leave Behind by Alison McGhee

What I Leave Behind by Alison McGhee (9781481476560)

Will has discovered that walking the streets of Los Angeles helps him stop thinking about the tragedies in his life. After his father’s suicide, he is trying to find a new rhythm to his life and it seems to be filled with long walks, ones that keep him from being at home too much or visiting the places he went with his father. When Will is home, he works to perfect his father’s cornbread recipe, but nothing seems to improve it at all. Then there is the other thing that he is avoiding, his best friend Playa was raped at a party. Will has no idea how to help her or make it better. So he takes his job at the Dollar Store and turns it into a way to reach out into the world and make connections with Playa and others. Small acts of kindness that allow him to break through the walls he has placed around himself, if he dares.

This book is steeped in sadness to profound that you almost expect your skin to come away tinted with blue. McGhee captures those traumas that are so deep that one cannot deal in a normal way, but only manage to escape in whatever way is possible. In the middle of this sadness is the amazing character of Will, a boy searching for connections while refusing to see those right in front of him. A boy who sees moments of awe and humanity in people that almost bring him to his knees. McGhee shows us all of these with a tenderness that honors his pain and also brings hope.

The writing here is beautiful. Written in small bite-sized pieces accompanied by calligraphy on the opposite page done in gentle grays, these small moments are magnified and made into important life events, as they are. And yet, the importance is an everyday one, a day-by-day one. That is the hope here.

Tender, profound and tragic, this book for teens is cathartic and hopeful. Appropriate for ages 13-17.

Reviewed from copy provided by Atheneum.

The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle by Leslie Connor

The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle by Leslie Connor

The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle by Leslie Connor (9780062491497)

Released January 23, 2018.

Mason is the biggest kid in his grade and it doesn’t help that he’s also the sweatiest. To make matters worse, he has dyslexia and trouble with reading and writing. His family has gone through a series of tragedies with his mother dying and then his best friend falling out of a tree house in Mason’s family orchard. Since his death, Mason has been trying to tell the police his side of the story, but he can’t write it down and the officer interrupts him and makes it all confusing. Now Mason has a new best friend, one he made when running from the neighborhood bullies who throw balls and apples at them as they get off the bus. The two create a club house for themselves in an abandoned root cellar behind Mason’s house. But trouble seems to find Mason, and soon there is a a new tragedy to overcome.

Connor writes books that soar and are completely heartfelt, this book is another of those. Connor looks at what grief does to a family, the time that it takes to recover and what happens when a series of incidents occur to the same family and they can’t return to normal. Still, there is hope in every day things. There is hope in the clean kitchen, NPR playing, banana milkshakes. There is hope in good dogs, new friends and people surprising you. Connor’s book shines with that hope, despite the clutter of their life, the dirt on the carpet, the laundry on the floor.

Mason too shines with hope and honesty. He is an unlikely hero with his size and his sweat. And yet, readers will immediately see beyond that. They will see Mason as a friend and a source of protection and care. Readers will also figure things out well before Mason does, including the fact that he is suspected of contributing to his best friend’s death.

Filled with heart and hope, this is a wonderful read. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley received from Edelweiss and Harper Collins.