Review: Butterfly Yellow by Thanhha Lai

Butterfly Yellow by Thanhha Lai

Butterfly Yellow by Thanhha Lai (9780062229236)

Hang has lived with the fact that she was responsible for her little brother being taken away to American in the last days of the Vietnam War. She had hoped for them both to be taken together, but instead he was ripped screaming from her. Now, six years later,  Hang has come to the United States herself and is determined to find her little brother by following the only clue she has, an address on a card. Not finding anyone at the address, Hang is helped by an urban cowboy, LeeRoy, who longs to ride in rodeos and follow his dreams. LeeRoy is quickly caught up in Hang’s quest and the two of them discover her brother with some lucky help along the way. But that is just the beginning of a summer spent laboring on a farm together, learning about the work of being a cowboy, and finding ways to connect their pasts and their present.

The first chapters of the this book and many of them throughout are so laced with pain and ache that readers will feel it in their own bones. Lai tells the story of Hang in bursts of memory, escaping from the tight hold Hang has over them. The reader and Hang are powerless as the searing memories escape, glimpses of the truth and eventually the full story of a girl strong enough to survive pirates, parasites, icy water, and war. Lai takes two very unlikely protagonists and creates a love story for them, one that captivates with its honesty and originality.

Hang is one of the most remarkable protagonists I have read in years. Far from being broken by her wartime trauma, she continues to fight back, literally at times. She is raw, sarcastic and not defined by her past, but still continuing to be haunted by what happened. She is complicated and so profoundly human. Lai made a brave and smart choice to write Hang’s accented English with Vietnamese typography, echoing Hang’s own notebook that tells her own English is pronounced. Readers will struggle along with Hang at first, but join LeeRoy in understanding her quickly.

Painful and traumatic, this book is filled with sweat, work and more than a little love. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by HarperCollins.

Review: Let ‘Er Buck!: George Fletcher, the People’s Champion by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson

let 'er buck! george fletcher, the people's champion by vaunda micheaux nelson

Let ‘Er Buck!: George Fletcher, the People’s Champion by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, illustrated by Gordon C. James (9781541541801)

George Fletcher moved to Pendleton, Oregon, a place where there weren’t a lot of African-Americans. He made friends with the children from the Umatilla Indian Reservation and learned how to train horses with gentleness. George started riding in competitions at age 16, though he was often shut out of competitions because of the color of his skin or judged unfairly. He got his chance to really show off his skill at the 1911 Pendleton Round-Up, the biggest rodeo in the Northwest. He made the top three finalists for the Saddle Bronc Championship. He outrode the other two competitors, and when the white person was named champion the crowd booed. One man in the crowd decided it wasn’t alright and sold small pieces of George’s hat to the crowd for $5 each. He turned the money over to George and it ended up being more than the grand prize. George was crowned the “People’s Champion” that day.

Nelson writes with a lovely western twang in this nonfiction picture book. She captures the spirit of the west in the words she uses and in particular in her metaphors. George took to the ways of the Umatilla tribes “like a wet kitten to a warm brick.” Ranching suited George “like made-to-measure boots.” These are just two examples of the vivid way that Nelson uses language to firmly place her book in its setting. She also creates a compelling portrait of Fletcher and faces the inherent racism of the system head on.

The illustrations by James are full of color and motion. Created with oil on board, they are a stunning mix of movement, depth and history. One can almost see the action playing out from the lines he uses. Stunning

A strong picture book about racism, horses, rodeos and heroism. Appropriate for ages 4-8.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Carolrhoda Books.

Review: A Story Like the Wind by Gill Lewis

A Story Like the Wind by Gill Lewis

A Story Like the Wind by Gill Lewis, illustrated by Jo Weaver (9780802855145)

A haunting look at the plight of refugees, this short piece of fiction will work well for children and adults alike. Rami floats in the water in a small dinghy with seven other people. All of them are fleeing their homeland in the hopes of finding shelter elsewhere. But the boat motor has broken down and they are now adrift. Rami is alone except for his violin, and he begins to weave a tale filled with music to keep their spirits up. It is a tale of a young man who rescues an orphaned colt from the snow and grows to be able to ride the stallion because he respects the horse’s freedom. As the tale is woven, it is not just a story about horseriding, but also one about power, brutality and the cost of freedom.

Lewis has written a book that dances the line between children’s book and adult book very nicely. It can also seem almost a picture book as the illustrations sweep across the pages. Lewis’ writing is beautiful and filled with emotion. The dangers of the refugee experience are shown tangibly on the page, as are the stories of what they have lost from war. The story of the stallion is given equal weight in the book, rounding out the book and offering another angle from which to view the same story in the end. It is a story that arcs around and creates a whole out of two separate tales wrapped in song.

The illustrations by Weaver are breathtaking, woven from blues and whites. They fill with light and dark, playing against one another and revealing images built from luminescence, music, and wind. The illustrations suit the dark tale so perfectly that the book is one cohesive story.

A dramatic and human look at the refugee crisis and its many victims. Appropriate for ages 9 and up.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Eerdman’s Books for Young Readers.

Review: The Little Barbarian by Renato Moriconi

The Little Barbarian by Renato Moriconi

The Little Barbarian by Renato Moriconi (9780802855091)

In this wordless picture book, a barbarian mounts his horse and proceeds across a series of challenges and obstacles. They leap a crevasse, are attacked by a flock of birds, jump a pit of snakes, dodge arrows, avoid orcs and much more. Page after page is a new obstacle and the little barbarian blithely marching, leaping or galloping across the page. Children who enjoy fantasy creatures will love this barbarian who faces the challenges with his eyes closed and sword and shield raised. When the truth is revealed at the end of the book, everyone will want another ride.

There is plenty of space for young imaginations to fill in the stories. That is probably the best part of this. I don’t expect the book to read particularly quickly with small children, who will want to supply monster noises, sword crashes and heroic details to the tale. Still, the oblivious way the barbarian crosses the pages is quite funny. The high and low paths the barbarian takes make perfect sense at the end of the book with the twist. The illustrations are humorous, colorful and filled with imagination, making the book entirely compelling.

A delight of a wordless read, this is one that children with their own toy swords will love. Appropriate for ages 2-4.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: Do You Believe in Unicorns? by Bethanie Deeney Murguia

Do You Believe in Unicorns by Bethanie Deeney Murguia

Do You Believe in Unicorns? by Bethanie Deeney Murguia (9780763694685)

That must be a horse wearing a tall hat, right? It couldn’t be a unicorn in disguise. Perhaps it’s all in how you choose to see things. Maybe the horse is having a bad hair day? It could just like the color red. Yet even when the hat is removed, there’s still a question of whether you the reader believe in unicorns or not. So, do you?

This very simple book has text with a modern vibe that keeps the book firmly rooted in today rather than a mythical world. So the questions become whether young readers believe in unicorns right now, or not. The illustrations are a huge part of the book, particularly when the hat comes off. The horn question remains unanswered thanks to clever formations and shapes behind the animal’s head.

Funny and nicely designed for both horse and unicorn lovers. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from copy provided by Candlewick Press.

 

Review: Adrian Simcox Does Not Have a Horse by Marcy Campbell

Adrian Simcox Does Not Have a Horse by Marcy Campbell

Adrian Simcox Does Not Have a Horse by Marcy Campbell, illustrated by Corinna Luyken (9780735230378)

Adrian Simcox is always talking at school about the horse that he owns. But Chloe knows he is lying, since he lives with his grandfather in a small house in town. There is no room there for a horse. She also knows that Adrian’s family isn’t wealthy and a horse costs a lot of money to keep. So Chloe complains to her friends, her mother and eventually to the entire class about Adrian lying. When Chloe’s mother takes her to Adrian’s house, Chloe knows she is going to be proven right. But she doesn’t bargain for what she is actually going to find there.

This beautifully told story will have readers siding with Chloe from the beginning, since her reasons for not believing Adrian are clear and logical. Still, as the story unfolds readers will start to understand what Adrian is doing long before Chloe does and will begin to feel for him and relate to Adrian. The book does this without becoming didactic at all, instead naturally leading children to an empathy before Chloe gets there. The prose is strong and the pacing is just right in this quiet book.

The illustrations by Luyken are done with lots of white space around Chloe and then riotous plants and gardens around Adrian. Even on the playground, there is a sense that Adrian can create his own world out of imagination, filling the white space in a way that the others can’t. It’s an ideal analogy for the story line itself.

A great book to discuss lying and imagination, friendship and support. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Dial Books.

The Horse’s Haiku by Michael J. Rosen

The Horse_s Haiku by Michael J. Rosen

The Horse’s Haiku by Michael J. Rosen, illustrated by Stan Fellows (9780763689162)

This book of haiku poetry focuses solely on horses and their daily lives. Starting with their time in the field as young foals, the poems include dust baths, rainwater pools, and dappled shade. Moving into the barn, readers get to see humans interacting with horses, feeding them apples, and going on a ride together. The next chapter of poems has an even greater focus on riding, galloping and jumping.

The poems capture the beauty and grace of horses, the unique relationships they have with the people who care for them, and the joy of running fast. Each haiku is a separate moment in time, showing the importance of slowing down, of seeing each moment as unique and in sharing them to create a universal joy of horses.

The illustrations are done in watercolor that dapples the page, creating sunlight and shadow, hoofprints and breezes in the grass. They have a wonderful sense of freedom about them that mirrors the celebratory tone of the haiku, inviting readers to feel movement on the page.

A stellar book of focused haiku. Appropriate for ages 6-9. (Reviewed from library copy.)

3 New Picture Books to Get You Moving

Dance, Dance, Dance!

Dance, Dance, Dance! By Ethan Long (9780823438594)

A great mix of picture book and beginning reader, this story features Horse who loves to dance. Buggy is a little concerned though because there isn’t any music, so is Horse really dancing? Horse invites Buggy to join him, but Buggy just isn’t sure. When Horse tries to make Buggy feel better about not being able to dance, he manages to insult her. So Buggy starts dancing too. They add some great music. Soon Buggy is dancing but now Horse is doing something else: resting.

Long has a great touch with humor in picture books. He makes it broad enough for children to immediately relate to it but not so much as to lose the appeal of discovering the humor for yourself. Horse and Buggy make a strong pair, with the exuberant Horse doing his own thing and Buggy reflecting more of what the reader’s reaction is. The illustrations are large and vibrant filled with bright-colored backgrounds and the gyrations of Horse and Buggy’s dances. One to get the wiggles out! Appropriate for ages 2-4. (Reviewed from copy provided by Holiday House.)

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The Field by Baptiste Paul, illustrated by Jacqueline Alcantara (9780735843127)

Told in both Creole and English, this picture book tells the story of a group of children who want to play soccer together, but they have all sorts of obstacles to overcome. They have to move the cows and goats out of the field and then start to play. Once the game really gets going, the rain starts. They quickly decide to keep right on playing even in the wet and the mud. At the end of the day, they go home dirty and happy.

Set on the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia, the book invites readers to see connections between Creole and other languages. The text is simple and bold, poetic with its short lines. The entire book is filled with energy and action as the children take the initiative to create a field and play together. The illustrations convey this energy with deep colors that shine on the page. The green grass is nearly neon, the sunlight almost glows, and the color of the children’s clothes completes the rainbow-like palette. A great read that will appeal to young sports fans of any culture. Appropriate for ages 4-6. (Reviewed from library copy.)

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A Hippy-Hoppy Toad by Peggy Archer, illustrated by Anne Wilsdorf (9780399556760)

A teeny-tiny toad sits on a twig above a little puddle on the road. His adventure begins when the twig snaps and sends him flying upwards into a tree. A bird tries to peck him, so he jumps down landing on a flower where he has to escape a buzzing bee. He hops down into the safety of the grass on the side of the road, where the toad spots a cricket worth chasing. The cricket escapes thanks to a dog and a lizard. The toad is then picked up with the leaves by the wind and blown into a shoe that takes him on a wild run along the road, right back to his very own twig above the little puddle.

Told in rollicking rhyme, this picture books is a galloping read that begs to be read aloud, giggled at together and shared. There is a wonderful rhythm to the book, a structure that is familiar and yet played with just enough to not be predictable. The nod to traditional songs is appreciated as are the modern touches. The illustrations are filled with small touches of nature with wildflowers blooming and snails and ants climbing around. They also capture the wild journey of our little toad as he adventures through the habitat.

Share this one at your next story time focused on frogs, toads or if you just want kids to jump around a bit. Appropriate for ages 2-5. (Reviewed from e-galley provided by Schwartz & Wade Books and Edelweiss.)

3 New Animal Picture Books to Love

If I Had a Horse by Gianna Marino

If I Had a Horse by Gianna Marino (9781626729087)

This poetic picture book dreams of having a horse. The entire book is dreamy and soft, a more spiritual and sense-filled look at horses than the reality of barns and saddles. In the images, the little girl meets a horse in a field and offers him the largest apple she can find. There are moments of shyness and quiet as the two meet. They admire one another’s qualities of strength and gentleness. The little girl does ride the horse but not so easily until they become better friends. Then they head out together to meet other horses. The illustrations are done entirely in silhouettes filled with rich watercolor washes. The hair of the little girl mirrors that of the horse’s mane and also the blades of grass in the field around them. A beautiful dream of a picture book. Appropriate for ages 3-5. (Reviewed from copy provided by Roaring Brook Press.)

Many The Diversity of Life on Earth by Nicola Davies

Many: The Diversity of Life on Earth by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Emily Sutton (9780763694838)

This picture book invites readers to think about the wide amount of diversity in the animals and plants that live on our planet. The book offers a small scientific facts on some pages, giving a closer look at things like mushrooms, microbes, elephants, and habitats. The book moves on to fill pages with images of different types of animals, one fascinating two-page spread has animals that were discovered in the last 50 years. It also explores food cycles for several different species. The book ends with information on how humans are negatively impacting species in the world and encourages children to be aware of how they can make a difference. Filled with interesting facts and vibrant illustrations, this picture book is an invitation to explore nature even further. Appropriate for ages 4-7. (Reviewed from library copy.)

Trio The Tale of a Three-Legged Cat by Andrea Wisnewski

Trio: The Tale of a Three-Legged Cat by Andrea Wisnewski (9781567926088)

Trio was a cat born with only three legs. Even though he was missing a hind leg, he still managed to fully explore the chicken coop that he lived in with his siblings and a flock of chickens. Trio liked to explore the world like a chicken would with dust baths and eating bugs. But he could not lay an egg like they did. When Trio finally got all the way up to the nesting boxes, he found that it was warm and cozy there. One day, Trio found an egg in the nest, one that cracked and moved. It eventually hatched into a very special chick. Told in the simplest of sentences, this picture book is filled with a warmth and strong sense of style. The story is based on a real cat who has three legs, though he may not have hatched a chick of his own yet. The illustrations are done in gorgeous paper cuts, that evoke the feeling of woodblock printing. With their organic feel, they add to the friendly warmth of the book. A lovely and accepting look at being differently abled. Appropriate for ages 2-4. (Reviewed from library copy.)