The Fox and the Forest Fire by Danny Popovici

Cover image for The Fox and the Forest Fire.

The Fox and the Forest Fire by Danny Popovici (9781797202822)

A boy moves from the city to a new home in the forest. At first, the nights are too quiet and the mornings are too loud. He goes on hikes with his mother, but it takes him some time to discover that there is a lot to do in the forest. He starts studying the insects, building small rock dams for little fish, and also makes friends with a fox. The two of them spend their days living in parallel. Then one morning, there is a column of smoke on the horizon. The boy and his mother must leave their home and the animals flee in front of the burning forest. They all lose their homes in the blaze. Months later, everyone is safe and they begin to rebuild. The forest doesn’t look the same, but things are slowly returning, the forest healing itself.

Written by a volunteer firefighter, this picture book looks at the deep connectivity to home, particularly one where you experience nature and animals living around you. That first part of the book as the boy steadily grows to love his new home makes a strong foundation for the devastation that follows. Readers will worry about the fox and other animals who can’t leave in a car for safety. The story is moving and timely with the current wildfires.

The art really looks closely at nature and the forest habitat, filling the pages with verdant greens and lovely cool pools of water, flowers, fallen logs, and much more. Some of the pages are wordless, allowing readers to simply sink into the natural world along with the protagonist. The pages about the fire capture the eerie light of the blaze, filling the images with a sense of impending danger.

A look at connecting with nature and the resilience to start again. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from copy provided by Chronicle Books.

Review: The Phone Booth in Mr. Hirota’s Garden by Heather Smith

The Phone Booth in Mr Hirota's Garden by Heather Smith

The Phone Booth in Mr. Hirota’s Garden by Heather Smith, illustrated by Rachel Wada (9781459821033)

Makio loved spending time with his neighbor, Mr. Hirota in his garden that looked down upon the harbor. He could see his father at work along the shore. Then one day, the tsunami came. It took away Makio’s father and Mr. Hirota’s daughter. Everyone in the village lost someone that day. Silence descended upon the town along with their grief. A noise came that was Mr. Hirota building a phone book in his garden. A phone booth with an old-fashioned phone and no wires connecting it anywhere. Painted white, the booth gave the mourners an opportunity to reconnect with their lost family members, sharing their days from a phone booth on the hill overlooking the harbor.

This picture book is based on a true story of a Japanese man who built a phone booth in his garden to speak with his dead brother, which was then used by thousands of mourners in Osaka to speak to their dead relatives after the tsunami. The tale here is told with a deep grace and empathy that shines on every page. The dramatic impact of the wave both on the land and on the people who live there is shown clearly. The grief afterwards is palpable on the page too.

The illustrations were inspired by Japanese traditional techniques using watercolors, black ink and pencils as well as digital assembly. The resulting images are filled with a powerful mix of light and dark with the black ink giving a dramatic and strong impact.

A beautiful and aching story of loss and community. Appropriate for ages 5-7.

Reviewed from library copy.

Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World by Ashley Herring Blake

Ivy Aberdeen's Letter to the World by Ashley Herring Blake

Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World by Ashley Herring Blake (9780316515467)

Ivy’s family is displaced from their home when it is destroyed by a tornado. Ivy manages to save her pillow and her book of drawings, which have pictures of girls holding hands and looking into one another’s eyes. But at the emergency shelter at the school, she loses her drawings. Her family moves into a room at a Bed and Breakfast, but there are six of them in that single room and there seems to be no room for Ivy with her busy older sister and infant twin brothers. Then at school, someone starts to return her drawings to her one-by-one in her locker. Could it be June, the girl that Ivy has a crush on? Or maybe her best friend’s boyfriend who has talked to Ivy about her art? The drawings come with notes encouraging Ivy to talk to someone about her feelings, but will Ivy have the courage to do that?

Blake has created a middle-grade book that is warm and beautifully supportive. She shows being gay as just a piece of who Ivy is and twists her feelings about her sexuality up with how she fits in her family in general and the struggles of middle school friendships. Using Ivy’s art as a platform for her self expression works very well, and her artistic vision is presented as the way she sees the world as a whole.

Ivy’s complicated relationship with her family is presented with honesty, showing a family struggling to handle the loss of their home, young babies, busy lives and still manage to care for everyone. Ivy is shown as a creative and thoughtful character who struggles with telling people the truth, not just about her sexuality but also about her feelings in general.

A strong middle-grade novel about sexuality, families and friendship. Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from library copy.

A Single Stone by Meg McKinlay


A Single Stone by Meg McKinlay (9780763688370)

Released March 14, 2017.

In a society entirely closed off from the rest of the world by mountains and fallen stone, Jena leads the line, a string of girls who can find the fuel in the mountains that allows their village to survive the winter. The Mothers watch over the village, deciding who is in the line, setting the rules and helping birth the babies. Girls are considered far more valuable than boys, since men are forbidden to enter the mountain at all. Girls must be tiny and petite, yet strong enough to brave the demands of climbing through tight passages in the stone. As Jena begins to learn more of the control that the Mothers have placed on everyone and the larger decisions they are making with no one knowing, she starts to have doubts about everything she has ever known.

McKinlay has written a wonderfully claustrophobic book with walls of stone that limit and surround everything and then the dangers of the blind travel through darkness and stone. Even as Jena figures out what is truly happening to the village, there is suffocating attention that adds to the pressure keg of a novel. The book has a brisk pace, deliberately impacted at times by the slow treachery of journeys into the mountain. This adds to the mounting tension of the book.

Jena is a strong female protagonist, willing to ask questions about her village. She is cast as a leader and yet also someone who is separate because her family has died even as her father tried to flee. Jena was taken in by another family and yet remains somewhat separate allowing her to naturally see things that others may have overlooked or missed. As more people are risked and die, Jena must find even more heroism inside her to confront those in control.

Strong writing and a delicious tension make this book a stand out teen fantasy. Appropriate for ages 13-16.

Reviewed from ARC received from Candlewick Press.

Review: Drowned City by Don Brown

Drowned City by Don Brown

Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina & New Orleans by Don Brown (InfoSoup)

This powerful graphic novel tells the story of Hurricane Katrina from the very beginning as the hurricane forms and grows in power to the slow recovery of New Orleans in the aftermath. As the winds and rains of the storm breach the levees around the city, readers will see the devastation that occurs as 80% of the city floods. The book tells the true story, one where everyday people are heroes, where supplies and help are not sent in a timely way, where presidents make appearances but don’t remedy the problems, and where people looking for help just find more death and despair. It is also the story of selfless people who come in and make a real difference, of rescues and saved lives. It is in short, a true story that unflinchingly tells the story of a storm and a city.

With an enormous list of references and sources at the back of the book, this graphic novel is based entirely on facts and first-person accounts. Brown tells the tale without any need to make it more dramatic, just offering facts about what happened and what went wrong to make it even worse. Brown’s account though is also filled with humanity, offering glimpses of the horrors that people survived, of the losses as they mounted, and of a world turned upside down for people trying to escape the city.

Brown’s art in this graphic novel is done mostly in browns and greens. There are striking pages that stop a reader for awhile, such as the art on pages 30 and 31 which has dead bodies floating past in purple water, even as survivors are being hauled up to a roof. Brown conveys the heat and the desperation of survivors, the desolation of the flooded city, and then the slow rebuilding process.

A riveting and powerful look at one of the worst disasters in American history, this graphic novel is a way to talk with children about Hurricane Katrina. Appropriate for ages 8-12.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: Hold Tight, Don’t Let Go by Laura Rose Wagner

hold tight dont let go

Hold Tight, Don’t Let Go by Laura Rose Wagner

Magdalie lives in Haiti with her cousin Nadine and Nadine’s mother, but Magdalie considers them to be her sister and mother.  Her aunt works for a wealthy lady, cooking and cleaning, and the three of them live in the lower rooms of the house.  When the earthquake hits Haiti in 2010, the girls survive but Nadine’s mother is killed.  The two girls have nowhere to go but they are rescued by Magdalie’s uncle and move into the refugee camp.  Soon after they move, Nadine’s father gets her a visa and she moves to Miami to live in the United States.  Nadine promises to send for Magdalie as soon as she can.  Magdalie is left all alone, unable to afford to attend school any longer and mourning the loss of her sister and mother.  Magdalie holds tightly to the hope of heading to the United States, but eventually has to admit that she is staying in Haiti and figure out how to not only survive but thrive there.

Wagner writes with a passion that shines on the page.  She shows the beauty of Haiti, creating a tapestry of food, sounds and voices that reveals what is often buried beneath the poverty.  She does not shy away from the ugliness of poverty, from the waste, the violence and the impossible choices facing a girl like Magdalie.  Sex simmers constantly around her, offers are made to young girls, and in one instance Magdalie must make the choice of whether she is willing to be taken care of in exchange for sexual favors. 

Through it all, even when she is deep in despair, Magdalie is clearly a smart girl who loves to learn and wants to be something more than where she finds herself.  Magdalie is incredibly strong too, facing on a daily basis things that American readers will never have experienced.  And that too is part of Wagner’s amazing depiction of Haiti.  She makes it clear that it is because of the society of Haiti that there is immense poverty but also that people can survive that poverty.  When Magdalie visits a rural part of the country, readers revel right alongside her in the natural beauty.  When she longs to return to the camps and the filth, readers too will begin to understand what she sees there and the potential it offers her if she can just find a way.

This is a complex book that does not try to answer society’s issues in a pat or simple way.  Rather it stands as witness to the brutality, beauty and incredible strength of Haiti and its people.  Appropriate for ages 13-17.

Reviewed from ARC received from Amulet Books.

Review: Serafina’s Promise by Ann E. Burg

seraphinas promise

Serafina’s Promise by Ann E. Burg

The author of All the Broken Pieces returns with a new verse novel.  Serafina lives with her mother and father in Haiti.  She and her best friend dream of becoming doctors in order to help save people like her baby brother who died.  But Serafina’s family cannot afford for her to even attend school.  Instead she has to work hard to help her mother who is pregnant with another baby.  Serafina carries water for her family, empties chamber pots, sweeps the floor, and keeps the family fire burning.Her father is one of the lucky ones who has a steady job in the nearby city that he walks to every day.  There is no extra money for anything though, even with his work.  When a large storm comes, their small village is ruined and Serafina’s family moves to higher ground.  It is there that Serafina’s dreams start to come true with her new garden and the money it brings.  Then the earthquake strikes.

Burg tells a gripping story of  a young girl with huge dreams living in abject poverty.  Her family is strong and loving, just unable to lift themselves out of the poverty that surrounds them everywhere.  Burg shares small details of life in Haiti, nicely weaving them into the poetry so that it is revealed in a rich and natural way.  The Creole language is also used throughout the book, offering a rhythm and sound that enlivens the entire setting.

Serafina is a well-developed character.  Many of the poems show her own inner feelings in all of their complex beauty.  She is not a perfect character, sometimes showing stubbornness and jealousy, but that just makes her all the more compellingly human.  And the verse throughout the book is lovely, evocative and very effective.  Readers will know that the earthquake is coming and that also creates a tension that makes the book riveting.

This is a powerful look at the Haitian earthquake through the eyes of one extraordinary young woman.  Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from ARC received from Scholastic.

Review: Kenta and the Big Wave by Ruth Ohi

kenta and the big wave

Kenta and the Big Wave by Ruth Ohi

When the tsunami sirens sounded, Kenta headed up the big hill to the school just as he had practiced.  But along the way, he lost hold of his soccer ball and it rolled down the hill.  Kenta’s parents were already at the school and when they returned to their house, it was ruined.  They had to sleep in the school gym and search in the rubble for things to salvage.  But Kenta’s soccer ball had been carried off by the water.  Kenta tried making a soccer ball from scraps but it didn’t work well.  Meanwhile, his ball was being carried by the ocean until it reached another country.  Would it ever find its way back to Kenta?

Ohi has written a very simple but compelling look at surviving a natural disaster.  Her focus on a single beloved possession works particularly well.  I also appreciated that it was not a doll or a stuffed animal but rather something that older children can relate to.  It was also a good choice to not have Kenta and his family in direct peril and survive.  The safe status of everything but the ball and other material objects makes it easier for the ball to be important and mean more.

Ohi’s illustrations are filled with color.  The yellows of the grass pop against the blues of the ocean.  Kenta wears a bright red hoodie and stands out on each page.  The time the ball spends in the ocean is particularly lovely and quiet compared to the mess of the town.

Based on true accounts of objects appearing in other countries after the tsunami in Japan, this book celebrates the connection people can have without ever having met.  Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from copy received from Annick Press.

Review: Flood by Alvaro F. Villa


Flood by Alvaro F. Vila

This wordless picture book shows the impact of a flood on a family.  The book starts with a sunny day at a house along the river.  The children are playing outside, the house is wrapped by a picket fence, and the windows are being replaced.  It is idyllic, beautiful and peaceful.  The storm front arrives along with the rain.  Sandbags are brought to the house and the family builds a wall of them to protect their home.  The new windows are boarded up and the family leaves their house behind.  Water quickly surrounds the house and soon it breaches the sandbags, rushing violently into the house.  The waters recede and the house is left, broken and damaged, filled with mud and muck.  But all is not lost, as the family rebuilds.

Though wordless, this book tells a powerful story of family, floods, loss and rebuilding.  The illustrations range from those colorful images of the perfect family home to images of destruction.  Vila captures the violence of these storms and the water itself.  There are several images that are very powerful including the first glimpse of the large storm front coming across the landscape to the close up of the water entering the home.  These natural images have a beauty to them but also a sense of foreboding.

This is a wordless book that will work well with a range of ages.  It is a timely read as well as weather systems grow more powerful and more families are facing natural disasters.  Appropriate for ages 4-7.

Reviewed from library copy.