Review: Nobody Hugs a Cactus by Carter Goodrich

Nobody Hugs a Cactus by Carter Goodrich

Nobody Hugs a Cactus by Carter Goodrich (9781534400900)

Hank is a very prickly cactus sitting in a window and overlooking the emptiness of the desert. Occasionally others intrude on his blissful quiet, and he doesn’t respond in a very friendly way. When Rosie the tumbleweed rolls past, Hank ignores her entirely. Hank yells at a tortoise so loudly that the tortoise hides in his shell. Other animals and people pass too, each greeted rudely by Hank. Someone suggests that he needs a hug, but no one wants to hug a prickly cactus. The next morning though, Hank is less angry and more lonely. But what is a grumpy cactus to do? Hank may have a new and friendly idea.

Goodrich has created quite the character in Hank. Hank moves beyond just being rather ferocious and cranky into something more closely approaching sadness and isolation. That shift is the key to this book, one that allows readers to truly start to feel for Hank and his predicament. The use of being “prickly” meaning both personality and having sharp needles is clever handled and not overplayed in the text. The book is engaging and funny with a brisk pace despite being centered on a plant.

The art is done in a desert color palette with sand, rich blue skies at night, and changing clouds and weather. Hank himself is full of personality, grumpy as can be at times while being rather morose at others. Goodrich uses plenty of humor in the illustrations too, particularly with Hank himself.

A great pick for grumpy days when you might be feeling a bit prickly yourself. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from copy provided by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

 

Review: You Are Never Alone by Elin Kelsey

You Are Never Alone by Elin Kelsey

You Are Never Alone by Elin Kelsey, illustrated by Soyeon Kim (9781771473156)

The creators of You Are Stardust return with another book that demonstrates how interconnected we are. This time the focus is on the nature around all of us and how we are never alone in our environment. We can look into the eyes of a dog and feel love, we play in the mud and feel deep happiness thanks to microorganisms, we breathe oxygen that plants create. Nature is there in everything we do, everything we eat, and our connections can be as huge as a whale to as small as the organisms on our skin. We are never alone, because we are supported by this web of life that we too are a part of.

Kelsey’s words are poetic and moving. She points out immense connections to nature like the water cycle and oxygen cycle, then she moves to painting the personal connections to pets and also includes the smallest creatures we know of. It’s a beautiful way to view nature, as supportive and complex, something we must not only trust in but value enough to protect too.

The illustrations by Kim are spectacular. Done in multilayered paper collage, they seem lit from within and shine on the page. Kim plays with perspective and size in most of the illustrations, including fine line drawings, dancing paper leaves and branches, and children everywhere.

A gentle and inclusive look at nature and our world by two gifted children’s book creators. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: Zola’s Elephant by Randall de Seve

Zola's Elephant by Randall de Seve

Zola’s Elephant by Randall de Seve, illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski (9781328886293)

In this exceptional picture book, Zola moves in next door to a little girl. The two mothers have already met and decided the girls should be friends, but the little girl knows that Zola already has a friend. After all, Zola has a box large enough for an elephant and the girl knows that elephants make wonderful friends. As the girl heads different noises, she also thinks about the fun that Zola is having with her elephant. They are taking merry baths together, playing hide-and-seek, and building a lovely clubhouse together. But the truth is shown in the illustrations, explaining the noises that are being heard as much more mundane and downright lonely. Will the little girl have the courage to head over and meet Zola for real?

The text here is rich and evocative. It displays the wealth of imagination that the nameless narrator has as she builds entire worlds of play and merriment from seeing one large box and hearing some noises. It is a book that explores shyness and loneliness and how they live side-by-side and how they can be fixed by one act of bravery. Beautifully, the lonely new neighbor’s pages have no words on them, allowing the image to simply tell the truth.

With illustrations by a two-time Caldecott honoree, the illustrations are detailed, deep and beautiful. Zagarenski manages to create two parallel worlds, one of imagination and brightness and the other stark and blue with isolation. She then captures the moment when those two worlds meet. Done with a circus theme that is embedded in all of the illustrations, she pays homage to the elephant fully even though it doesn’t actually exist.

Beautiful and rich, this picture book is unique and imaginative. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: The Visitor by Antje Damm

The Visitor by Antje Damm

The Visitor by Antje Damm (9781776571888)

Elise never leaves her house. She is scared of everything, including spiders, trees and people. But she does like to open her windows to let in fresh air. One day, a paper airplane flies through the open window and into her house. She immediately scooped it into the fire, but she had nightmares about paper planes all night. The next day a boy knocked on Elise’s front door and asked about his plane. He also asked to use the bathroom. Elise let him in. As the boy came down the stairs, he asked about some pictures on the wall, looked at Elise’s collection of books, and asked to be read to. They played together too and had a snack. That night, Elise knew just what to do and made a new paper airplane.

Originally published in Germany, this picture book has a distinct European feel to it. Damm’s text is simple and concise, offering a straight explanation of what is going on. Along the way, the book reveals how limited Elise’s world has become and the courage it takes for her to open the door to a child. It is a book that captures loneliness and agorophobia in a clear way.

It is the illustrations that truly make this book special. Done in cut paper dioramas, the illustrations play with light and color. At first, Elise’s world is dark and gray. As the boy enters the house though, light and bright color come with him. He stays longer and soon the entire room is awash in splashes of bright colors. This more than anything shows the transformation taking place for Elise as she dares to make a new connection.

Great illustrations lift a book about empathy and community. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: Stumpkin by Lucy Ruth Cummins

Stumpkin by Lucy Ruth Cummins

Stumpkin by Lucy Ruth Cummins (9781534413627)

Stumpkin is one of the pumpkins for sale outside a little shop in the big city. He is a nearly perfect pumpkin. He is bright orange, round and large. Unfortunately though, Stumpkin is missing his stem and only has a little stump instead. As Halloween grows closer, one pumpkin after another is selected to be turned into a jack-o-lantern in the neighborhood. They are placed up in apartment windows and look down at the little shop below. Even the gourd is selected before Stumpkin, leaving him all alone. But there is a happy Halloween ending to come!

Cummins’ story written in a simple style. She shows the difference between Stumpkin and the others, explaining why he is left behind. Children listening to the story will protest that they would pick Stumpkin first since he is so lovely. The feeling of being different and left out builds as the story moves ahead and Stumpkin is left alone and sad. The simple art adds to the appeal of the book with its bright oranges, black cat and jack-o-lantern grins. It is impressive how much emotion she can convey with a few dots and lines on a round pumpkin.

Perfect pumpkin pick for those looking for non-scary Halloween and autumn tales. Appropriate for ages 2-4.

Reviewed from copy provided by Atheneum.

3 New Picture Books That Get Emotional

Grumpy Monkey by Suzanne Lang

Grumpy Monkey by Suzanne Lang, illustrated by Max Lang (9780553537864)

Jim was having a very grumpy day where nothing was going right. He couldn’t figure out what was wrong. His neighbor Norman suggested that Jim might be grumpy, but Jim insisted that he wasn’t. As the two headed off on a walk, they met different animals who all pointed out how Jim seemed or looked grumpy. So Jim fixed those things and looked very happy on the outside, but it didn’t change how he actually felt. All of the animals had suggestions about what might help Jim, but it only made him grumpier. When he finally shouted at everyone, he decided to leave and be by himself. But when Norman also starts to have a bad day, the two discover that they will feel better soon.

The cover of this book will have children picking it up, whether they are grumpy or not. Then the inside will have them giggling, whether they are grumpy or not. Jim is ever-so-grumpy and not just a little bit, but exceptionally so. The illustrations capture this beautifully from his slump to his grimace. Perhaps the best part of the book is when he looks happy but is still grumpy as can be. Throughout, Lang keeps the pace brisk and the humor just right. The illustrations add to the fun with their jungle setting, huge trees, and vibrant characters. Grumpiness galore in this picture book that challenges readers not to grin. Appropriate for ages 4-6. (Reviewed from e-galley provided by Edelweiss and Random House Books for Young Readers.)

Wallpaper by Thao Lam

Wallpaper by Thao Lam (9781771472838)

This wordless picture book tells the story of a little girl who moves to a new town. As the is unpacking her boxes, she hears talking outside her window and looks out to see three children in a treehouse next door. When they spot her, they wave but she ducks out of sight, shy to meet them. As she sits under her window, a small yellow bird made of wallpaper emerges from a tear in the room’s wallpaper. It flies out the window and the little girl peels more of the paper away and a flock of yellow birds fly out. She peels more and a jungle-like wallpaper is revealed that she steps into. Then a yellow monster appears and the girl peels the paper away to reveal the next layer. She dashes through polka-dots then watery blue and green with frogs, then black sheep. Finally the monster stops chasing her and sits there dejected. The little girl heads back and introduces herself to him. They play together until the girl heads off to lunch. Now can she meet the kids outside?

A lovely portrayal of being shy and needing to think through what to say when meeting someone new and prepare oneself for it. The wallpaper is done beautifully, the layers deep and rich. The entire book is done in paper collage, filled with layers, patterns both subtle and vivid, and offers a gorgeous depth that will have readers looking closely at the art. A superb picture book. Appropriate for ages 3-6. (Reviewed from library copy.)

Whale in a Fishbowl by Troy Howell

Whale in a Fishbowl by Troy Howell, illustrated by Richard Jones (9781524715182)

Wednesday was a whale who lives in an enormous fish bowl surrounded by a city filled with bustling people and cars. It was the only home she had ever known. If she jumped high enough though, she could see a tiny bit of blue far away. Whenever she glimpsed it, her heart would leap. She kept on leaping to see that blue in the distance and soon more people watched her, thinking that she was doing tricks. One day, a little girl visited Wednesday’s tank and told her that she didn’t belong in the fish bowl. That got Wednesday to wonder where she did belong and what it had to do with the blue in the distance.

This timely and beautiful picture book looks at animals trapped in cages and fish tanks and where they do belong and where they should be living. Using a whale as the focal character, makes the book even more touching and speaks directly to issues seen at aquariums recently. The book has an ache to it, a longing on every page until the triumphant ending. The illustrations are rich and beautiful, the contrast of concrete and seawater is mesmerizing. A celebration of freedom and a deep dive into what that means for all living creatures. Appropriate for ages 4-7. (Reviewed from e-galley provided by Edelweiss and Schwartz & Wade.)

Charlotte the Scientist Is Squished by Camille Andros

Charlotte the Scientist Is Squished by Camille Andros

Charlotte the Scientist Is Squished by Camille Andros, illustrated by Brianne Farley (9780544785830, Amazon)

Charlotte is a serious scientist with science instruments and protective goggles. She had one big problem, her family left her squished for room all the time. There was no space for her experiments where her siblings weren’t messing around with her equipment. So Charlotte started an experiment by asking a question, stating her hypothesis and then testing the hypothesis. Her hypothesis was that if her siblings disappeared, she’d have room to be a real scientist. Charlotte tried several ways to make her brothers and sisters disappear until she finally decided that she had to leave instead. She crafted a rocket and flew to the moon. She loved space, but as she drew her conclusions she realized that she was getting lonely. How would she find the perfect balance of space and family?

Andros has combined the scientific process with a picture book very successfully. It functions as a very strong structure for the story, using the book to both demonstrate the process but also to tell a good story about a girl scientist. The busy and crowded household will resonate with children reading the book and they will recognize their own wish for space at times, and maybe even outer space!

Farley’s illustrations are dynamic and busy. The crowded family and their interruptions to Charlotte’s experiments are clearly depicted. Charlotte’s carrot-shaped rocket is also lovely both on the moon and on earth. The images of Charlotte’s loneliness are suddenly filled with wide space despite the robot bunnies wrapped in toilet paper nearby.

An intelligent picture book with a strong scientific heroine just right for STEM units. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from library copy.

Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly

Hello Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly

Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly (9780062414151, Amazon)

Four middle schoolers start their summer vacation and steadily their lives begin to come together. There is Virgil, a quiet boy who lives in a family of loud, boisterous people. Except for his grandmother who understands him and tells him stories from her village in the Philippines. Valencia is a girl who is deaf and wears hearing aids to help her lip read. She used to have close friends but enjoys spending her days outside in the local woods where she takes care of a stray dog. Kaori believes that she has psychic powers and is helping Virgil gain the courage to speak with a girl he wants to be friends with. Finally, there is Chet who bullies Virgil and Valencia. He starts problems one day in the woods and Virgil finds himself in real danger. But can Kaori and Valencia figure out what has happened before it’s too late?

Kelly’s novel is rich and riveting. She writes about children who are lonely and interesting. The book speaks to children who don’t fit in, who are bullied, and who are unique in some way. It’s about staying true to yourself and not trying to be someone else. Important subjects weave throughout as well, including deafness and diversity. These enrich the novel even further, making it a book that grapples with important topics and yet stays entirely accessible and filled with plenty of action.

The characters are what make this book sing. Each of them is more than what could have been a stereotype. From the mystical Kaori to shy Virgil to Valencia and her hearing aids, each child has a full personality and plenty to offer the reader. Each is grappling with loneliness and unable to move forward though they know they need to. There is a beautiful theme of folktales and myth throughout the novel with the grandmother’s stories forming a basis for the coincidences and fate that brings our young heroes together.

An intelligent adventure of a book that is about friendships that seem impossible but happen anyway. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy received from HarperCollins Publishers.

The Wild Robot by Peter Brown

The Wild Robot by Peter Brown

The Wild Robot by Peter Brown (InfoSoup)

A ship carrying crates of robots capsizes in the ocean. Some of the crates float, only to be dashed on the rocks of a small island. One crate though survives and is left safely on the island. Some curious otters explore the crate and accidentally turn on the robot inside. That robot is Roz, designed to ensure her survival and help people. Soon Roz is exploring the island, climbing high on the rocks to see her surroundings. As she explores, the animals of the island declare her a monster and avoid her. Roz begins to acclimate to the island, figuring out how to camouflage herself. It is by sitting still and hidden that she starts to learn the language of the animals around her. As time passes, Roz is no longer gleaming and clean and she can speak with the animals. It isn’t until a deadly accident happens though that Roz shows the island residents who she really is.

This book is entirely magnificent. It is a book about nature, its beauty and grandeur and danger. It is a meditation on the outside, the power of it to change even a robot’s life. It is a look at the importance of listening and learning and finding one’s own way forward in unexpected circumstances. But most of all, it is a book about love and life and the way that finding someone to love transforms each of us.

There is something achingly beautiful about this book. Yes, there is more than enough action and humor to keep the book moving and of interest to children. Yes, the characters are brilliantly created and their relationships are drawn with skill and attention. Yes, its pacing is exceptional. It that ache though, that makes this book exceptional. The way that it is allowed to just be there, loneliness and acceptance, loss and love.

Truly an exceptional read created by a picture book author in his first foray into middle-grade books. Wow. Appropriate for ages 8-12.

Reviewed from library copy.