Solo by Kwame Alexander (9780310761839, Amazon)
Blade has grown up with all sorts of privileges as the son of a rock star, but the big house and huge parties come at a cost. His father is always humiliating him, like when he crashes (literally) Blade’s graduation ceremony where Blade is meant to give a speech. His father tries to clean up his act regularly, but it never seems to stick and he returns to drugs and alcohol. Blade also misses his mother terribly after her death. When Blade finally confronts his father about his behavior, a family secret is revealed that changes Blade’s perspective permanently. He sets off to discover his own history, a journey that takes him to Ghana, a place entirely different than the one he has been living in.
Newbery-Medal winner Alexander has crafted another amazing verse novel here. He moves firmly into teen territory here, with a 17-year-old protagonist who is truly on a journey to discover himself. Alexander starts the novel with the excess of a rock legend’s life and then beautifully changes the novel mid-course to Ghana and people who live as a strong community with few luxuries. The two settings could not be more different nor could what Blade feels while he is in each. Ghana is vividly depicted as is Blade’s reaction to it, rich with people and place.
Alexander’s poetry writing is superb in both settings. Yet it truly comes alive in Ghana, particularly with Joy, Blade’s guide and inspiration while there. Just as Blade cannot look away from Joy, neither can the novel nor the reader since she is so captivating. Throughout the book, there are questions asked that are deep, about wealth and poverty, about privilege and race, about addiction and recovery, about parenting and failure. This is a rich book filled with lots to discover and discuss.
A great read that will be enjoyed by even those teens who may not think they’d like a verse novel. Appropriate for ages 15-18.
Reviewed from ARC received from HarperCollins.
It’s Great Being a Dad by Dan Bar-el, illustrated by Gina Perry (9781770496057, Amazon)
One by one, mythical creatures appear and tell the reader how great a life they have. The unicorn loves prancing and their gorgeous horn, but the horn does make it very difficult to eat, particularly if you get a table stuck on it. Bigfoot has a great time being strong and helping his friends, but his big feet can be a problem. The robot loves his flashing lights and memory, but rain is an issue. Then there is the Loch Ness Monster and the “fairy queen ballerina doctor” who help the others. But there are always problems like the sneaky flying alligator pirate. Who can help all of these mythical beasts? Dad, that’s who.
This book embraces the idea of creative and imaginative play completely as the children first introduce themselves as the characters they are pretending to be. Steadily though, the illusion breaks a bit as each new character is introduced and their personas get more complicated. Bar-el does a lovely job of allowing the fantasy to fracture steadily and then break altogether as Dad enters the picture.
Perry has created first a lovely fantasy world with rainbow colors, deep forests, lochs and castles. She then goes on to morph that into a multicultural family filled with children of all ages who are trying to play near one another if not together. The connection between fantasy and reality is strong in the illustrations and children will love seeing the ties.
A warm look at imaginative play and great parenting, this picture book is a celebration of dads. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from library copy.
Me Tall, You Small by Lilli L’Arronge (9781771471947, Amazon)
In the simplest of sentences, this picture book shares the special moments of a parent and child as they live their lives together. The two weasels spend time grocery shopping, bathing, eating, playing and sleeping. Throughout, the pair shows a warm love for one another, a playful spirit and a delight in one another’s company. Through these small vignettes, a fuller story is shown, one of parental care and a familial love.
Translated from the original German, this picture book has a distinct European flair that is very appealing. The simplicity of the structure of the book is also a delight, just two pairs of matching phrases such as “Me pause, You pounce” and “You shout, Me shush” and the story is being told. The words are sometimes opposites and sometimes similar. It’s an engaging way to share concepts with children who will immediately recognize their own parents or caregivers in the book.
The illustrations are simple and friendly. Each image shows the two weasels together. Even without mouths to show expressions, the emotions are clear. There is a lovely playfulness about the entire book with the tone firmly set by the illustrations themselves. Who can resist a little weasel with undies on his head?
A warm and lovely testament to family love, this picture book will work well with the smallest of children. Appropriate for ages 2-4.
Reviewed from library copy.
Princess Cora and the Crocodile by Laura Amy Schlitz, illustrated by Brian Floca (9780763648220, Amazon)
A Newbery Medalist and a Caldecott Medalist join forces in this wonderful mashup of princess tale and crocodile naughtiness. Cora is a princess who tries her best to do what her father the king and her mother the queen want. She takes three baths a day, studies dull books about finance, and exercises by jumping rope. Over and over again, day after day, until she simply can’t take it anymore. So she writes to her fairy godmother and asks for a pet. But when she opens the box, it’s an enormous crocodile rather than a dog. The princess and crocodile switch places for a day and chaos ensues. The princess has a lovely messy day outdoors exploring and playing. The crocodile meanwhile forces the nanny into the bathtub, locks the queen in the library with only the dull books, and chews on the king in a most sensitive spot! Still, a crocodile may be exactly what this royal family needs.
Schlitz is a chameleon of an author, moving with grace and skill from one sort of format to another. Here she seemingly effortlessly creates a chapter book for newer readers that reveals from the very cover that there is great fun inside. The brilliant and highly unusual combination of princess story with dresses and crowns with a crocodile who isn’t afraid to bite royal ankles and bottoms is pure brilliance. This is a princess book that I would merrily give to any child whether they enjoy princesses or not, after all, there’s a funny crocodile who makes it all wild and wonderful.
Floca’s art is an impressive pairing here. He runs with the mashup of princess and crocodile, the art having a serious tone at first as the royal family is depicted in all of their earnest childraising. The Victorian feel of the book is perfection, until the crocodile appears. Then a green wildness comes into the story, filling it with sharp teeth and plenty of attitude. Floca’s art though is broad enough to fit Victorian rules with crocodile play on the same page with hilarious results. It’s the play of the rules and formality against the silliness that makes the art such a joy.
A great chapter book pick, share this one aloud in a classroom because it will appeal to all readers! Appropriate for ages 6-8.
Reviewed from copy received from Candlewick Press.
The Warden’s Daughter by Jerry Spinelli (InfoSoup)
Newbery Medalist Jerry Spinelli tells the story of a girl who lost her mother as an infant and grew up as the daughter of a prison warden. Cammie isn’t a girl who is silly and lots of fun. In fact, she is fast moving and fast talking, exactly why she has the nickname Cannonball Cammie. Cammie is actually angry most of the time. Her best friend has developed faster and seems to be 17 instead of 13 sometimes. She wants to get on Bandstand and be famous. Cammie though is more interested in riding her bike around town and playing baseball. Cammie thinks that her life would be better with a motherly figure, so she begins to try to get the prisoner assigned as their housekeeper to be more like a mother to her. Then there’s Boo Boo, the prisoner who acts motherly towards Cammie but hides a dark secret. Her father too is a mystery, both present and not there, sometimes at the same time. It’s all a confusing mix of emotions for Cammie, who will need to deal with her own grief both past and present before she can do anything but be angry at the world.
Spinelli has written a completely captivating story in this middle grade novel. The setting is richly created with the prison, a full city and community, and one moment after another where Cammie sets it all ablaze with her anger and acting out. Throughout though, Cammie is far more than just as angry person, she is humanity personified, a girl in search of herself even as she spends her time looking for solutions in others. It’s a compelling story, one that is filled with moments of joy and despair.
Spinelli writes like a wizard, unveiling truths slowly and beautifully. As Cammie storms through her life, she also reveals the truths of others around her. And without revealing the entirely riveting and humbling ending, she creates opportunities where others become more than they have ever been before. It is a staggeringly rich novel that is written with such skill that it manages to read in an accessible way.
A masterful book about loss, childhood and recovery by a master of books for children, this is a must-read and a must-buy for libraries. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from e-galley received from Alfred A. Knopf and Edelweiss.
Two Is Enough by Janna Matthies, illustrated by Tuesday Mourning (InfoSoup)
This picture book shows how one-parent families thrive with lots of attention to the child. It speaks to two being a great number, just right for snowball fights and ice skating. Two is perfect in spring too when planting seeds or picking bouquets. In the summer, two is just right for ice cream cones, building sand castles, and riding tandem bikes. When fall arrives, two is right for playing in leaves, carving pumpkins and marshmallow roasts. Two is just right the whole year long.
Matthies has written a bouncy rhyme here that lends a lot of dash to this picture book. The rhyme bounds along, encouraging children in one-parent families to see themselves as having something entire special. The book can also offer encouragement for children who have a parent who is away often too. As Matthies runs through the seasons and the joy of doing things with one another, she makes sure to show how two people can have a great time doing all of the things you may see as group activities. In fact, they are all the more special when done one-on-one.
Mourning offers a multicultural look at these families as well. Parents of different races appear throughout the book with three families forming the heart of the story. There are mothers with a child and fathers with a child. Grandparents also make an appearance, taking care of grandchildren in much the same way.
This engaging picture book offers a cheery look at small families and the joy that they bring throughout the seasons. Appropriate for ages 2-4.
Reviewed from library copy.
When I Am Happiest by Rose Lagercrantz, illustrated by Eva Eriksson (InfoSoup)
The third in the charming series about Dani, this book has school ending. Dani has now managed to finish the school year after her best friend moved away. She has a project to finish, a book about how happy she is. But then her father is hit by a car on his bicycle, and suddenly Dani is not happy at all. Dani is taken home by her grandparents where they wait for updates on her her father is doing. How can Dani ever finish her book now? And what will happen if her father never wakes up again?
Translated from the Swedish, this series is one of my favorites. Lagercrantz captures the emotions of having your best friend move away and then the long process of recovering from that. In this novel, she shows how a sudden accident can sweep the air out of your life as a child. Lagercrantz never lectures about being positive, but that’s exactly what her books embrace. Through Dani’s reactions to adversity, readers can see the power of positive thinking and how the good outweighs the bad even when you don’t realize it.
Eriksson’s art is done in line drawings that help break the text up, making this book just right for elementary readers who may still find large paragraphs overwhelming. The art is done with a sense of humor, such as the image of Dani getting her ears pierced with her father unable to look but bravely holding her hand anyway. When Dani is overwhelmed by the news of her father, you can see it in every bone of her body as it curves protectively inward.
Another winner in this great series, get these into the hands of fans of Clementine for another amazing young heroine. Appropriate for ages 6-8.
Reviewed from library copy.
Ask Me by Bernard Waber, illustrated by Suzy Lee (InfoSoup)
A little girl and her father take a walk through their neighborhood. Along the way, the girl asks her father to ask her questions like “Ask me what I like?” and he does, question after question. She finds a lot of nature along the walk to enjoy, from frogs to geese in the air and in the water, bugs, beetles, and flowers. She asks him to ask if she likes ice cream cones and they both happily walk away with cones after she announces how much she loves them. The two talk about trips they have taken together, favorite colors like the red balloon, stories, birds, and much more. Once back home, it’s time to think about her upcoming birthday and then time for bed.
Waber adeptly creates a realistic relationship between father and daughter here on the page. The use of her questions is particularly clever as it gives the book a repeating structure that feels natural and unforced. Parents will also recognize the way children want to be asked questions and have them answered. It is very effective to have this sort of relationship where the girl is saying what she wants out of their conversation and the father is happily agreeing. The entire day spent together is blissful and lovely and is entirely about their relationship with one another. Gorgeously structured and written.
Lee’s art is done in pencil. It dances along with gentle colors until suddenly fall bursts on the page. The deep rich colors don’t seem like pencil until you see the drawing lines on the page. The illustrations celebrate the closeness of this father and his daughter, playing with perspectives and celebrating their day outside in nature together.
Gorgeous illustrations and writing combine into one special picture book that is a dazzling book to share aloud. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from library copy.
Dad’s First Day by Mike Wohnoutka (InfoSoup)
Oliver and his dad have had a great summer together, playing and doing so much. Now it’s time for Oliver to start school for the first time. Oliver is all ready and excited to go. But that first morning, Dad’s stomach starts to hurt. He’s nervous and when it’s time to leave the house he even hides from Oliver. But Oliver manages to get his dad to the car, though he drives to school very slowly. Once there, Oliver happily joins the class but his father starts to cry when it’s time for him to leave Oliver in school. Back home, Dad thinks a lot about Oliver and heads off to school to check on him. Through the door, he sees Oliver happily participating in class and realizes that they are both ready for school after all.
Wohnoutka takes the first day of school jitters and turns them on their head with this cheery picture book. The father in the book acts just like a child at times, adding to the broad humor in the book. Most of the time though parents will recognize their own feelings about a child entering school for the first time. It’s a great title to have conversations about how you and your child are feeling about school and the fact that you will both miss one another even when you are both ready to start school.
The illustrations are approachable and have a cartoony appeal. Dad in particular is a wonderful rendition of a middle-aged father. There is cause for celebration when you have a back-to-school book focused on a father who takes care of his child and then also cares so emotionally as well. The illustrations amp up the emotions and then take a humorous approach to keep the book sunny and silly.
A back-to-school book for the entire family, parents too, this picture book will have families laughing even as the first day of school approaches. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Bloomsbury.