Elizabeth and Zenobia by Jessica Miller

Elizabeth and Zenobia by Jessica Miller

Elizabeth and Zenobia by Jessica Miller (9781419727245)

This novel by an Australian author is enticingly Gothic and ghost-filled. Elizabeth and her father move back to his childhood home, Witheringe House. With them comes Zenobia, Elizabeth’s not-so-imaginary friend whom only she can see. Zenobia loves Witheringe House since she hates sunshine, enjoys dust, and wants to find a “Spirit Presence” in the home. The two girls spend time trying to detect the spirit and even hold seances with a Ouija board. But no one replies. Meanwhile, Elizabeth and Zenobia begin to explore their new home from the weed-choked garden to the overgrown hedge maze and even the forbidden East Wing. It is there that Elizabeth feels a presence, but Zenobia won’t listen to her. What if there really is a ghost in Witheringe House?

Miller has crafted a Gothic ghost story just right for elementary school children who enjoy a good shiver. The use of Zenobia, who is downright ghost-like herself, is an interesting foil for Elizabeth and adds a creepy yet friendly dimension to the book. Elizabeth tends to be more timid and would likely not have explored the house without Zenobia’s prodding. Still, Elizabeth tends to stick with a mystery and follow through, while Zenobia is forever abandoning projects and moving on to the next idea. Elizabeth is brave though scared, while Zenobia just doesn’t feel fear.

The setting of Witheringe House is well drawn and eerie. The house itself becomes almost a character in the novel, the strange wallpaper, the suddenly-appearing housekeeper, the library filled with odd books. There is a melancholy that is echoed in Elizabeth’s loneliness and a strong sense of grief and loss that pervades the novel.

A delightfully creepy Gothic read for elementary students. Get this in the hands of those who enjoyed The Night Gardener by Jonathan Auxier. Appropriate for ages 8-11.

Reviewed from e-galley received from Netgalley and Amulet Books.

Review: The Dog That Nino Didn’t Have by Edward van de Vendel

The Dog That Nino Didn't Have by Edward Van de Vendel

The Dog That Nino Didn’t Have by Edward van de Vendel, illustrated by Anton Van Hertbruggen (InfoSoup)

Nino has a dog, but it’s a dog he never had. It’s invisible to everyone else, but Nino can see it clearly. It’s a dog that climbs trees like a squirrel, loves deep water, and likes salty tears. But one day, that dog disappeared and a new dog took his place. It was a dog that everyone could see, one that had it’s own personality that is completely different from Nino’s other dog. Soon though, Nino is enjoying the new dog. But that doesn’t stop him from thinking up lots more animals that he’s also never had.

Just opening this book, you know you are in for a strange and beautiful treat. Originally published in Belgium, the book carries that elusive European flavor about it. The concept of an invisible friend or pet is not a new one, but as it is done here it takes on extra weight and meaning. Here, the pretend dog is a companion for a lonely boy, a comfort when he needs one, and someone who understands that he misses his father desperately. His real dog can’t quite do all of that at first, but he steadily does take over those duties just in a different way. This is a book about change, resilience and the imagination.

The art here is part of weaving that odd world. It is done in 70s angles and styles with the A-frame houses and long, low station wagons as vehicles. Even the colors hearken back to that time. The book is filled with night skies and bright hot days. Some pages are busy with details while others are open and wide white. Beautiful, strange and wondrous.

This is a strikingly unique book that will speak to anyone who is missing a parent and needs a dog of their own to help. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from library copy.


Review: Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate

Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate

Crenshaw by Katherine Applegate (InfoSoup)

Jackson knows that it’s all about to happen again. His family is having a garage sale for a lot of their stuff, allowing Jackson and his little sister to just pick one bag of items to keep. There just isn’t enough money for rent and Jackson feels hungry a lot of the time. His father doesn’t want to ask for assistance, preferring to find a way through on their own. When Jackson was younger, the family had lived in their minivan for awhile and now Jackson sees the same signs as before. When they lived in their car, Jackson met his imaginary friend, Crenshaw. Now even though Jackson is older, Crenshaw is back and bigger than ever. Crenshaw is a huge cat with a deep purr, who tells Jackson that he is there to help and encourages Jackson to just tell the truth. As Jackson’s world gets more complicated though, how in the world can an imaginary friend make a difference?

This is Applegate’s first novel for children since winning the Newbery Medal for The One and Only Ivan. Applegate imbues this new book with a shining magic of imagination. She keeps the wonder of Crenshaw real on many levels, not only for Jackson himself but also creating moments where readers will know that Crenshaw is much more than imaginary. This luminous touch keeps the entire book dazzling for readers.

It is even more important given the issues that the book explores. Family poverty and homelessness are critical in our world today and so few books tell that story from the point of view of a child experiencing it. Applegate keeps the story real here, focusing on the impact of being hungry, on the fear that being homeless generates in a child. She also makes Jackson a real hero. A child facing immense problems who, with the help of his imaginary friend, manages to tell his parents what this kind of life does to him. It is powerful, heart wrenching and true.

An important book that mixes an imaginary friend with the harsh reality of homelessness, this is a top pick for young readers. Appropriate for ages 7-11.

Reviewed from copy received from Feiwel & Friends.

Review: Imaginary Fred by Eoin Colfer

Imaginary Fred by Eoin Colfer

Imaginary Fred by Eoin Colfer, illustrated by Oliver Jeffers (InfoSoup)

If you are lonely, you can’t just wish a friend to life. Or can you? Perhaps with a zing of electricity, some luck or even magic, you can! And it will be an imaginary friend like Fred. Fred worked hard to be the best imaginary friend a kid could have. But each time it ended the same way. The child made a real friend and Fred faded away. When Fred arrived in Sam’s life, Fred had never been happier. The two of them loved the same things like reading, figuring out how the toilet worked and listening to music. But then Sam made a new friend. Fred sat Sam down and explained that in a few days, Fred would disappear and move on and that it was not Sam’s fault. But Sam would not accept that and after making a scene showed Fred a solution that he’d never even considered possible.

Colfer’s text is pure bliss to read. While the book is wordier than many picture books, it maintains a balance that works very well. The text streams along, telling the story in a way that is robust and satisfying. It doesn’t slow the book, instead offering more detail and understanding of Fred and Sam, their dynamic together and how special it is.

As always, Jeffers’ art is very special. Fred is blue and made up of dots while the “real world” is drawn in lines. That makes Fred more colorful than the other characters and it also allows him to really fade away. The result is a shimmering combination of delicacy and graphic strength.

A winning collaboration between two masters, this book embraces imaginary friends for life. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from copy received from HarperCollins.

Review: We Forgot Brock! by Carter Goodrich

We Forgot Brock by Carter Goodrich

We Forgot Brock! by Carter Goodrich (InfoSoup)

Phillip’s best friend is Brock, the problem is that no one else can see Brock except Phillip. The two of them spend all of their time together and Phillip’s parents are supportive, waiting for Brock to move his motorcycle out of the way, giving him imaginary seconds at dinner. One day, the family heads to the Big Fair where Brock wants to ride the Brain Shaker. Phillip and Brock ride a lot of rides together and eventually Phillips falls asleep. Brock though still wants to ride the Brain Shaker, so he is left behind at the fair. When Phillips wakes up in the car, he discovers that they have left Brock behind! Brock is discovered by a little girl who has her own friend, Princess Sparkle Dust. She invites Brock to come home with them. But Brock misses Phillip and Phillip continues to search for Brock. Good friends are hard to find!

Goodrich is the author of the Zorro series of picture books and brings the same humor and charm to this new book. The subject of imaginary friends has been a popular one recently. This picture book shows a child not ready to leave their imaginary friend behind yet, which makes it much less of an issue book and much more cheerful in general.

The illustrations clearly keep the imaginary from reality, with Brock and Princess Sparkle Dust done in child-like crayon drawings that have a single color and a white background. Meanwhile the other art is more sophisticated and colorful. This lets the imaginary characters pop against reality, somehow giving them even more presence rather than less.

A strong and warm book about imaginary friends and friendship in general. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: Dory Fantasmagory by Abby Hanlon

dory fantasmagory

Dory Fantasmagory by Abby Hanlon

Dory is the youngest in her family and her older siblings won’t play with her at all.  So she is left to play on her own and thanks to her great imagination, Dory has a lot of fun.  Dory has a best friend, Mary, a monster who sleeps under her bed and is always willing to play.  There are also other monsters all over their house.  When Dory continues to bother her brother and sister, they make up a story about Mrs. Gobble Gracker, a horrible woman who steals baby girls and is looking for Dory!  So when the doorbell rings, Dory knows it is Mrs. Gobble Gracker coming for her.  Hopefully the little man who says he’s her fairy godmother will be able to help defeat her.  In the end though it is Dory’s own creativity and bravery that will save her and maybe even get her siblings to play too.

Hanlon brilliantly captures the wild imagination of a little girl who doesn’t slow down for a minute, zinging from one idea to the next even as those around her groan.  Dory could have been a problematic character, but thanks to the book being told from her point of view, readers will get to see how strong a person she is long before she displays it to her family.

Hanlon’s art makes this a book that younger readers will happily pick up and read.  Her black and white illustrations are more than paragraph breaks, they show the story of Dory and all of the characters she dreams up over the course of the day.  On the page, we see what Dory sees, not what her family doesn’t see and it’s quite a world that she has created.

Fast moving, wild and full of laughs, this book is a dynamic introduction to a fresh new face that will appeal to fans of Junie B, Jones.  Appropriate for ages 6-8.

Reviewed from copy received from Dial.

Review: The Adventures of Beekle by Dan Santat

adventures of beekle

The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat

Join Beekle, an imaginary friend, who is so special that no child seems to be able to even imagine him.  He waits and waits along with the other imaginary creatures, but he is never dreamed of by a child.  So Beekle does what no other imaginary friend has ever done, he heads out to find his child in the real world.  He finds himself in a big city, filled with grey people and lots of adults.  Luckily, he spots a bright familiar color and shape and follows it to a playground where he thinks he can find his special friend.  But they don’t come.  Beekle climbs a tree to see if he can spot his friend, but still no one comes.  Beekle climbs down, then a small girls gestures for him to get her paper out of the tree.  And on that page…  Well, you will just have to imagine it for yourself or get this charmer of a book to read and find out what happens next.

Santat has created a book that reads like a modern classic.  He has combined so many wonderful moments and positive feelings here that it’s like drinking a cup of cocoa for the spirit.  Beekle himself is perfection, a round and friendly little soul whose crown is made of construction paper and tape and who is unwilling to sit lonely when he could do something about his situation.  His positive reaction to a dismal situation is a great model for children. 

At the same time, this is a testament to imagination.  Both a warm embrace of imaginary friends and their positive role in children’s lives.  But also a celebration of Santat’s own imagination.  The world he creates is filled with the grey of adulthood, but childhood and imagination make that world shine in new colors. 

A delight of a picture book, this is one to share cuddled up in bed and to cheer aloud with the story.  Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from library copy.



Dotty by Erica S. Perl, illustrated by Julia Denos

Wherever Ida goes, Dotty goes too.  Even on her first day of school, Dotty comes along: huge, horned and covered in red spots.  Once Ida is at school, she realizes that many of the others in her class have brought their own imaginary friends too.  But as the year goes on, the other children start to leave their imaginary friends behind.  Ida though is still connected to Dotty, still carrying the blue string that ties them together.  Eventually, the other children tease Ida about Dotty, even the children who had imaginary friends of their own just a few months ago.  When Ida reacts angrily and Dotty bashes into a girl who was once Ida’s friend, they have to write apologies to each other.  Ida’s teacher finds out about Dotty and turns out to be a kindred spirit, just what Ida needed.

This is a book that really embraces imaginary friends, tying it winningly with the first day of school and growing older.  Best of all is the ending of the book which took a turn that I had not been expecting.  It is a book that honors imagination and creativity, embracing being different and maturing at your own pace or just not maturing entirely at all.  Perl’s writing is charming and warm, really creating a world filled with imaginary creatures that dwindle away slowly.  Denos’ art is equally successful with a modern edge and children who are modern and yet not slick.  They look like the children I see every day.  She also has a great mix of ethnicities that is done effortlessly.

While this is a book about imaginary friends, I would also include it in any return-to-school unit because it addresses the larger issues of people being different in ways that are not immediately apparent.  Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from library copy.

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