Review: Caterpillar Summer by Gillian McDunn

Caterpillar Summer by Gillian McDunn

Caterpillar Summer by Gillian McDunn (9781681197432)

Cat and Chicken live in San Francisco with their mother who works several jobs, but one is to be a children’s book author with books that feature Cat and Chicken as a caterpillar and chicken. When they head across the country for a summer job, their plans suddenly fall through. Now Cat and Chicken must stay with grandparents they have never met before while their mother works in Atlanta. Their grandparents live on Gingerbread Island, a place their mother hasn’t returned to since before Cat was born. Lily, their grandmother, is warm and maternal, quickly adapting to Chicken’s special needs. Macon, their grandfather, is more distant and gruff, working in his workshop and going on long walks alone. As Cat and Chicken get to know them, they find a wonderful pair of grandparents who love them immensely, so Cat tries to figure out how to bring her family back together again. She hopes that entering a fishing contest, a sport her mother used to love, with give them an opportunity to bond. But things don’t quite work out as planned, just like in her mother’s books.

McDunn has written the ideal summer read. It has a lightness to it that is pure summer sunshine, one that invites reading with sand between your toes or a flashlight in a tent. At the same time, the characters and story wrestle with larger issues of what family means, how a family can form a rift, and how the pressure of having a little brother who is neurodiverse can be challenging for an older sibling. I deeply appreciated Chicken as a character. He is not labeled in any way in the story but shown as having specific challenges that make looking after him different from other children.

Cat herself is a very strong young woman who holds her family together. Her grandmother recognizes that and helps Cat understand better what she is doing. As her grandparents step in to allow Cat to have a summer as a child, she fights them, trying to retain her role as Chicken’s caretaker. That process of letting go is beautifully shown, given time and patience. Throughout the book, nothing is simple, not even Cat’s enemy on the island, whose own story provides reasons for his actions.

Richly drawn and yet still summer light, this novel is a delight. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Bloomsbury.

Review: The Storm Keeper’s Island by Catherine Doyle

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The Storm Keeper’s Island by Catherine Doyle (9781408896884)

Fionn has never visited his grandfather on Arranmore Island. His mother left and never returned after his father died in a storm. So Fionn is surprised to find that his grandfather is seen as a very important man on the island. He is the Storm Keeper and it is his job to capture memories and weather in candles that are then released when lit. As Fionn learns of the magic of the island itself, he discovers that another boy from a different island family is planning to use up the single wish given to their entire generation. Now Fionn must race him to find the hidden sea cave and make a wish that could save his family. Fionn grows more and more connected to the island as he spends time and explores, but something dark is also reaching out to him, something that wants Fionn’s very soul.

Doyle weaves a complex and intricate tale in this book for middle-grade readers. The island setting of the book is truly a character in the tale since the island is aware and able to control certain things. The island is rough and rugged, a place filled with opportunities, magic and danger. Fionn is connected to the island in a deep way that is revealed throughout the book. Doyle’s writing is fresh and honest. She gives Fionn and the reader a chance to explore for themselves and discover the layers of magic on Arranmore as the story progresses. There is a lot going on in this book with a magical island, a historic mage battle, family problems, dementia, depression and more. But it written in a way that allows readers to steadily take on the information. The book is a complete world rather than a narrow peek inside.

Fionn is a strongly-written character as is his grandfather. Those two are the most robustly drawn characters in the novel. Fionn is a younger sibling, tormented by his older sister most of the time. He is excluded from being with the others his age and spends much of his time alone with his grandfather or out on the island. His tie to his dead father is a major theme, since the islanders know he looks just like him. Fionn’s grandfather is a man steeped in magic. His candles surround him filled with memories even as his own mind fails him. He exudes warmth and charm, working to make sure the next Storm Keeper will succeed against the darkness that is coming. Their relationship is bittersweet, one of lost opportunities with Fionn’s father and a sense of impending loss due to the grandfather’s worsening memory.

Unique and dynamic, this novel is full of magic. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy provided by Bloomsbury.

 

 

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.)

 

Hurricane Child by Kheryn Callender

Hurricane Child by Kheryn Callender

Hurricane Child by Kheryn Callender (9781338129304)

Released March 27, 2018.

Caroline lives on Water Island near St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. At age twelve, she has had enough bad luck to last a lifetime. She sees things that no one else can see, everyone at her small school hates her, and her mother has left. When a new girl starts attending Caroline’s school, Caroline is surprised to discover that Kalinda is willing to be friends with her. Caroline believes that Kalinda can see the same spirits that she can, so there is hope when the two girls start to search for Caroline’s mother together. But when Caroline starts to have deeper feelings for Kalinda, their friendship may be doomed before they solve her mother’s mystery.

Callender beautifully wraps this book in the setting of the U.S. Virgin Islands, making sure that readers know exactly where they are. Caroline takes a boat to school and back, knows the history of her small island and how slaves escaped to freedom there, and sees her father’s abandoned boat as a symbol of their capsized life without her mother. Throughout the novel there is mysticism present with Caroline’s visions that appear out of nowhere, including a woman that she isn’t sure is good or bad. The book is layered and complex, about many things and about life itself at its heart.

Caroline is equally complex. Reader will identify and empathize with Caroline even while she is prickly toward others. Caroline is confused and hurt, rejected by most of those around her and wary of building trust with others only to be tricked. Yet she is engaging, smart and interesting. An important element to this book is the friendship between Caroline and Kalinda and the way that friendship turns into a crush on Caroline’s part. This is gently shown and then dramatically plays out when others discover how Caroline feels.

Brilliant writing, a unique and wonderful heroine and lots of turmoil make this a gem of a read. Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Scholastic.

Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk

Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk

Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk (9781101994856, Amazon)

The author of Wolf Hollow returns with her second novel for young people.  This is a novel of the Elizabeth Islands in Massachusetts where Crow has lived all of her life. She lives on a solitary island with Osh, the man who found her afloat in a little boat when she was a newborn baby.  The others on the islands won’t associate with Crow, since they all assume that she came from a nearby island that was a leper hospital. Miss Maggie is the exception, she cares fiercely for Crow and makes sure that she learns what she needs to despite not being able to attend school. As Crow starts to piece together her own history, she exposes those she loves to new dangers that are far worse than the storms of nature they weather together.

Wolk once again has created a novel that brings a place to life. Here she has chosen the Elizabeth Islands and the islands themselves feature prominently in the story both in terms of their isolation but also in their beauty. The islands serve as shelter, home, a source of fuel and food, and a community as well. The island with the hospital for lepers insures that Crow is even more isolated than the rest of the community due to the questions of her past. It’s a brilliant setting, one of the best that I have ever read where each page is a reflection of the sea and the islands.

Crow is a dazzlingly great heroine. She is strong and independent, determined to figure things out even as those around her give up. She pieces together clues from the mystery of her past, a mystery that permeates the entire novel even after it is solved. Crow is anxious to learn of her history and throughout the novel explores questions of identity and family of love and betrayal. It’s a novel that swirls and eddies, displaying beauty and dangers in turn.

This is a beautifully written and deep novel for middle grade readers who will long to visit Crow’s island themselves. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC received from Dutton Books for Young Readers.

 

Review: Moonpenny Island by Tricia Springstubb

moonpenny island

Moonpenny Island by Tricia Springstubb

The author of What Happened on Fox Street returns with a beautiful story set on a little island in a large lake.  Flor loves her island home, loves being able to ride her bicycle everywhere, loves that her best friend is the only other person in her grade at school, and loves that she knows all of the people who live there year round.  But things start to change that Flor has no way to control.  Her best friend is sent off the island to attend a different school, leaving Flor the only person in sixth grade.  Flor’s mother leaves to take care of her sick grandmother, and with her parents always fighting, maybe she won’t be back.  Even her very responsible older sister is hiding something from Flor.  Flor has to figure out how to live in this new island landscape where everything is changing around her.  But in change there is also opportunity, perhaps a new friend (or two) and also seeing things for what they actually are. 

Springstubb writes a love letter to her island setting.  She imbues each bike ride of Flor’s with a beauty and a celebration of this small island and its nature.  Her writing sparkles like sun on the water as she picks unique metaphors to show both her characters emotions and the setting.  Here is one of my favorite examples:  “Her heart’s a circus, with trapezes and tightropes and people shooting out of cannons but no nets – someone forgot the nets.”  Springstubb also shows emotions rather than telling about them.  Flor’s emotions come out in the way she digs her toes in sand, how she pedals her bicycle and through what she notices in the island itself. 

Flor is a great young protagonist.  She reads like an eleven year old, desperate to hold her family and friends together.  She has a youthful and frenzied love of her island, something that readers can see may change in the future but it is her connection to this place that makes this book work so beautifully.  She is fiercely protective of her siblings, throwing herself in to defend and protect them even as she proves that she has no understanding of teen love, something refreshing in a young protagonist.

Strong written, this book is beautiful, deep and rich just like its island setting.  Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from digital galley received from Edelweiss and Balzer + Bray.

Review: Captain Cat by Inga Moore

captain cat

Captain Cat by Inga Moore

Captain Cat is a trader, but he’s not very good at making profitable deals.  You see, instead of trading for riches, he trades for cats.  So his ship is full of them.  All of the other traders make fun of him for this, but Captain Cat is very happy surrounded by the furry creatures.  He decides to head off and see new places, far from the trade routes he usually travels.  On the way, he is caught in a violent storm that blows him off course, right off the map!  There he discovers a small rocky island led by a young queen.  She and the population are very friendly, and have never seen cats before.  When the cats take care of the island’s rat problem, the queen begs Captain Cat to leave them behind.  What is a cat-loving caption to do?

This is a very engaging book.  It was different right off of the bat with a sailor surrounded by cats who hate water.  Throughout the story, it continues to surprise and delight.  It never heads where you expect it to, yet ends up being completely delightful both along the way and in the end.  Unlike many picture books, Moore tells a full story here.  It not only has the structure of a full story, but also has a depth that can be missing in picture books.

The illustrations are finely done with lots of details.  Done in mixed media, they have fine lines and soft colors.  Thanks to their detail, this book would best be used with small groups or individual children.

Take a feline-filled journey with this clever picture book.  Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: Explorer: the Lost Islands

explorer lost islands

Explorer: The Lost Islands edited by Kazu Kibuishi

This second book in the Explorer series again takes a single theme and has short illustrated stories that center on that.  The book is a collection of different illustrators and authors, so one story to the next is very different both in the story itself and in the style of the art.  It makes for a very compelling book to read.  I had several favorite stories in the book, including The Mask Dance by Chrystin Garland where the setting is dark and looming and people are disguised by masks.  The reveal of the truth is great fun while still being dark and eerie.  Another favorite was Desert Island Playlist by Dave Roman and Raina Telgemeier.  Readers of Smile and Drama will enjoy seeing another piece of work by Telgemeier.  This story too has a mystery at its heart all set on a desert island.  This is another strong graphic novel that young readers are sure to enjoy.

This second book loses some of the darkness and wonder of the first which was a masterpiece.  At the same time, it is a book worth getting because it displays such a wide range of art styles and story types.  Both books in the series are like unwrapping presents when you turn to a new story, you are sure to be surprised.

Amulet fans, graphic novel readers and students interested in art should all find something to love in this new collection.  Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from copy received from Abrams.

Review: Fog Island by Tomi Ungerer

fog island

Fog Island by Tomi Ungerer

Always expect to be surprised by a picture book by Ungerer.  The Three Robbers is one of our favorites in our house and we’ve also loved the short film of the book and quote lines and sing the song from it years later.  This new book from Ungerer has some of the feel of that earlier title, with fog and darkness and danger.  It is the story of Finn and Cara who lived by the sea.  Their father built them a small boat, a curragh, and warned them to only use it in the bay and never go near Fog Island because people who go there have never returned.  But one day, the two of them were trapped in the fog and a current pulled them out of the bay and towards the doomed island.  Once there, they explored and met the Fog Man, who created the fog from sea water and heat from the center of the earth.  He entertained them and fed them well, but when they awoke the next morning, they were in a ruin rather than his castle.  But where had the warm quilt and hot stew come from?

Ungerer weaves a tale of rural life by the sea and folklore together.  The book could be set during any time at all, with the timeless nature of the story and the way of life.  It has the cadence of a story from oral traditions.  He takes the time to fully introduce the characters, the setting and create a world that contrasts beautifully with the wonder of Fog Island itself.  At the same time, Ungerer is happy to leave the magic of the island unexplained and amazing. 

The art is especially atmospheric, particularly the scenes in the fog with the children adrift.  There is one double page spread with no words that leaves a sense of wistfulness, dread and longing.  One can almost here the bell on the buoy and the silence and muffled world beyond.  Throughout the book, the double spreads are worth lingering over, showing rather than explaining the world that Ungerer has created here.

Magical, dark, and filled with fog, this book would make a great story time paired with The Three Robbers.  Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from library copy.