The Secret Subway by Shana Corey, illustrated by Red Nose Studio (InfoSoup)
Released March 8, 2016.
This amazing nonfiction picture book takes a look at New York in the 1860s and the lack of options for transportation on the crowded and dirty streets. Everyone knew that something needed to be done, but no one could agree on exactly what that was. Then Alfred Ely Beach had an idea to build a railroad powered by forced air. Beach knew though that he couldn’t propose to create a railroad under the streets, so instead he proposed that he’d build a tube to carry mail. Even Boss Tweed agreed with the plan. So Beach set to work creating a railroad to carry people and not mail. But it was not going to be as easy as just building the machine. He still had Boss Tweed and above ground politics to deal with!
Corey writes with great energy in this picture book. While nonfiction and historical, the book is fascinating and one immediately roots for Beach as he begins to plan and then dig under New York City. The slow digging under the earth is tantalizingly told. Then the rush of opening and the speed of the train are offered with a breathless tone and fast pace. The ending is sad but also hopeful, since everyone knows that air-driven trains are not the way subways were designed. There is a feeling of remembrance at the end, of one man’s amazing dream that led to other opportunities to tunnel under New York City.
It is always a joy to see work by Red Nose Studios. The book opens with a look at how the illustrations are done with figures made from wire and foam and then polymer clay for the faces. There is such attention to detail throughout with the gorgeous tube-shaped subway car appearing like magic. Done with serious flair for the dramatic and a great sense of style, this picture book’s illustrations are noteworthy and wonderful.
A great pick for fans of machines and inventions, this is also a book just right for dreamers of all sorts. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from e-galley received from Penguin Random House and Edelweiss.
It’s Only Stanley by Jon Agee (InfoSoup)
Something odd is happening tonight in the Wimbledon house. There are mysterious noises. The first noise is Stanley the dog howling at the moon. But then new noises start. The clanking noise is Stanley fixing the oil tank in the basement. A little later, the funky smell that makes the cat ill turns out to be Stanley cooking catfish stew in the kitchen. The buzzing noise is Stanley fixing the family’s old TV in the living room. Splashing noises are Stanley fixing the plumbing. Each noise wakes up the human family and the father has to head out to see what is happening. But just as everyone is starting to get very cranky from loss of sleep, something happens that shows exactly what Stanley has actually been up to all night.
Agee is a master at creating understated books that have a distinctive feel about them. Here he takes a strong matter-of-fact tone and uses it to add to the silliness of the entire book. Told in natural-feeling rhyme, the book has a buoyant tone that makes it great fun to share aloud. Throughout the book the father heads out each time without much emotion and returns to report that it is just Stanley and what the dog is up to. The oblivious family heads back to bed only to be awoken again and again. This builds wonderful tension until it’s released with a literal bang.
Agee’s art is done in his unique style with flat color and thick black lines. Throughout, readers will be able to watch for clues as to what Stanley is actually up to and readers who are paying close attention will figure it out before the family does. Even those children who don’t piece together the clues will want to re-read the story to notice them. Also keep an eye on the cat who seems to always get into the worst of it as the story progresses.
Not a bedtime story despite being set at night, this picture book is strikingly funny and has a grand warped feeling throughout. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Dial Books.
Earmuffs for Everyone!: How Chester Greenwood Became Known as the Inventor of Earmuffs by Meghan McCarthy
Chester Greenwood is credited with being the inventor of the earmuffs. The story goes that he was a boy with big ears that were sensitive to cold so he had his grandmother create him a pair of earmuffs from wire and cloth. However, the author also shows that earmuffs were actually invented before Greenwood was even born. He did however get a patent himself at age 19 for ear-mufflers. Chester had a great business sense too, one that he honed even as a boy. He also invented other things besides ear-mufflers, designing new features into kettles and rakes and even creating a portable house. It was an article in Life Magazine in the 1930s that credited Greenwood with the invention and that continued into the 1970s when there was a day named after him in Maine that continues to be celebrated today.
McCarthy immediately invites readers into the earmuff mystery, showing the early patents by others and then turning to Greenwood. Readers will see how convoluted stories can become in history, how distorted credit for inventions can be, and also how hard it can be to piece together the truth fully once again. It is to McCarthy’s credit that her focus is on more than the inventor but also on the others in history and the patent process. Don’t miss her notes at the end which detail even more fully her search for the truth about earmuffs.
McCarthy populates her books with friendly characters with big googly eyes. Her paintings are fresh and colorful. They range from double-page spreads to smaller images on the page. All of them exude a cheery feeling and invite readers to explore.
This nonfiction picture book embraces the complexity of the past and demonstrates the search for the truth behind an everyday object. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from copy received from Simon & Schuster.
Ben Franklin’s Big Splash: The Mostly True Story of His First Invention by Barb Rosenstock, illustrated by S. D. Schindler
Ben Franklin grew up the son of a soap maker and loved to spend his free time on summer days swimming in the river near his home. In the time of his childhood, people just did not swim or wash regularly because they thought it would make you sick, so Ben was considered rather odd for the amount of time he spent in the water. As he swam, Ben started to wonder why it was that fish swim so much better than he could. And so Ben starts to come up with inventions that would help him swim like a fish. First, he made swim fins for his hands out of wood and they did make him much faster, but they also made his wrists sore and tired. The next invention was swim sandals, but they didn’t improve things much since they slid off his feet. But Ben was not a quitter and so he took each defeat as a way to improve his idea. After all, he was a scientist through and through.
Rosenstock sets just the right playful and rather silly tone with this biographical picture book. She includes plenty of details about the society in the 1700s and how it was different from our modern one. Using different fonts and repeating words, she also emphasizes the importance of trial and error in science and solving problems. She also ties in the fact that this is how science works and how scientists learn things, along with a healthy dose of dedication and resolve.
The illustrations by Schindler are marvelous, cleverly covering up the more private parts of the naked swimming boy with splashes and waves. They have a light-hearted quality to them and also a visual lightness that makes the book even funnier as they swim across the page.
A book to inspire children to try to solve problems they discover, this is a fresh and summery look at a boy genius at play. Appropriate for ages 5-8.
Reviewed from library copy.
Queen Victoria’s Bathing Machine by Gloria Whelan, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter
Queen Victoria longs to get out of the heat of the summer as well as her itchy clothes and tight corset and just be able to swim in the sea. But her lady-in-waiting collapses even considering the scandal that could take place if someone were to see the queen before she reached the water! The queen gives up the idea, realizing that there is no way that she could be properly dressed and still able to swim. Prince Albert though wants to try to figure out a way to get his beloved wife into the water. Albert came up with many ideas, but none of them worked. Then he struck upon a wonderful idea, a wheeled wooden cart that could be pulled right into the water. This true story of a queen who wanted a touch of freedom ends with an image of the restored bathing machine that is now on the Isle of Wight in England.
Whelan takes a wonderfully playful look at solving the queen’s swimming problems. She makes sure that at the base of the entire story is the adoration between Albert and Victoria, a rich love story even though they were monarchs and parents. Cleverly having a fainting lady-in-waiting who is the voice of propriety in the book helps children understand the expectations of decorum in a previous day. Whelan writes in a free rhyming verse here, the looseness of the poems feel simple by belie that skill that it takes to write in this style.
Carpenter’s illustrations also have a sprightly humor to them. They also celebrate the love of the two historical figures. Perhaps the most joyful images are Victoria finally able to swim and cavort in the water. Or maybe it is the final illustration where Victoria is happily held in Albert’s arms dripping and happy.
This piece of historical fiction is based on a true story and shows creativity and problem solving galore. Appropriate for ages 5-8.
Reviewed from copy received from Simon & Schuster.
Papa’s Mechanical Fish by Candace Fleming, illustrations by Boris Kulikov
Based on a true story, this picture book reads more like a far-fetched fantasy. Papa is an inventor but has never made anything that works. All he needs is one incredible idea, but they don’t come easily. So the family takes a trip to the lake where one of the children, the narrator of the book, asks what it is like to be a fish. That gives Papa the incredible idea he was looking for. The first version of his mechanical fish is so small that Papa himself can barely fit into it. It almost works. The second version is bigger and has a fin and a propeller and seats two people. It almost works. Whitefish III is even bigger, seats three, and is covered in copper. It almost works too. The fourth version is huge, fits the entire family, and… Well, you just have to read the story to see how it ends.
The whimsy of these inventions is a large part of what makes this book so successful. From the slow progress of the machines from one version to the next to the joy of seeing them tried out in the story, this is a book where you must find out what happens next. Fleming has also written a charming story of a family that supports the inventor. There is a rhythm to the story that makes it a pleasure, each attempt and failure met with similar satisfying responses from his family. This makes the book work for a larger age range and makes reading it all the more fun.
Kulikov’s illustrations are a mix of realistic illustrations, huge fish that float past as inspiration in the water, and blueprints that let you glimpse the inside of each version of the submarine. The entire book has a wonderful frantic quality to it, engaging the reader right in the moment of Aha! and then through the different trials.
A treat of a book, this book will be inspiring to young engineers and inventors. Appropriate for ages 5-8.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer, illustrated by Elizabeth Zunon
This picture book version of the nonfiction book manages to translate the story of William Kamkwamba with clarity and inspiration. When a drought hit his village in Malawi in 2001 and 2002, 14-year-old William and his family were in real danger of starving. William had always through about machines and even after he was forced to leave school due to the drought, he kept reading books about them. He thought about what could be done with a windmill in his village, bringing light and water. So he hunted through the junk yard and found pieces to use. Built entirely out of scraps, his first windmill and its electric wind brought electricity to the valley. The afterword gives more details about William’s story and how it took him longer years to bring his dream of pumping water to fruition. This inspirational story speaks to the inventor, the doer, and the dreamer in all of us.
The writing here is lovely. The imagery is impressive, such as comparing the windmill to a “clumsy giraffe” and giving William’s sorrow at having to leave school a physical sense: “alone with the monster in his belly and the lump in his throat.” The book carefully captures what life in Malawi was like and what little could be done to make a difference before transforming into a book where dreams create change.
Zunon’s illustrations are exquisite. They are a captivating mix of painting and collage. Filled with texture, the textiles of the clothing come to life and the objects have weight and feel. The most impressive are the faces of the people, filled with light. The faces become the place your eyes go first, making the message of the book just that much stronger in a subtle but powerful way.
A luminous picture book version of a compelling real-life story, this book should inspire others to not only dream but to make those dreams happen. Appropriate for ages 7-10.
Reviewed from copy received from Dial Books for Young Readers.