Blue Ethel by Jennifer Black Reinhardt (9780374303822, Amazon)
Ethel is a cat who is old and fat. She is black and white and she has a routine to her days. She first surveys the land from her porch. Then she watches the weather. She chases insects and then explores the sidewalk where she has a favorite square where she likes to roll. But one day, someone has used chalk on the sidewalk square and when Ethel rolls on it, she becomes blue! The other cats look at her very strangely and Ethel runs home to hide. The next morning, Ethel feels blue and licks herself into blue stripes and white stripes. Another kitten is outside waiting for her and he is pink! The two together do Ethel’s routine with a colorful change at the end.
Reinhardt shows in this picture book that even old cats can learn colorful new tricks. Ethel is a wonderful look at the familiar routines turned on their heads. Her life is filled with simple pleasures that make her feel powerful and in charge. But that is all changed with one color. Still, Ethel also shows that while change may be hard, it isn’t impossible.
The illustrations are silly and quirky. The area that Ethel surveys each morning is filled with fake animals like deer, flamingos and one large rhino. It takes what we see as normal lawn ornaments one step farther into farce. Ethel herself is rather odd looking and therefore quite delightful as a character.
A look at colors, changes and resilience. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from library copy.
Tumble & Blue by Cassie Beasley (9780525428442, Amazon)
Released August 29, 2017.
This second book from the author of Circus Mirandus takes readers deep into the Okefenokee Swamp. Blue has known his entire life that he is cursed. He can’t win at anything, no matter how hard he tries. His most recent loss was when his arm was broken standing up to a bully at school. Now his father, who always wins, has dropped him off for the summer at his grandmother’s house. The mystical red moon is rising this summer and Blue will have the chance to break his curse if he can reach the golden alligator before anyone else. But it’s complicated as his grandmother may need her curse broken more badly than anyone else and the entire family is there to compete for the right to head into the swamp. Meanwhile, Blue meets Tumble, a girl desperate to be a hero and who wants to save Blue from his delusion of always losing. But is it a delusion or is it ancient magic at work?
Beasley has written a wonderful second novel that tells a fascinating story of greed and sacrifice even as it speaks to the importance of losing sometimes in life. The book reads easily even as it deals with deeper issues of family, betrayal, love and heroism. It is far more complex than readers may expect as different themes weave beautifully together to form the whole tale. The ribbon of clear magic that swirls throughout the book takes it directly into fantasy even as it is firmly rooted in the real world too. It’s a winning mix.
The two main characters are fascinating. Blue struggles with his constant losing and yet never quite gives up to it. He continues to try to run faster, is willing to attempt to break the curse in different ways. He is a hero who is easily related to, taken in by extended family and looking for home. Tumble is a girl who has lived in an RV for most of her life. Her problems becoming a hero are indications that she too may have a curse she has never realized is there. Even though she fails regularly at being a hero, she too perseveres and is resilient in the face of her challenges.
A vibrant and strong story of failure and heroism. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from ARC received from Dial Books.
The Branch by Mireille Messier, illustrated by Pierre Pratt
Released September 6, 2016.
During an ice storm, a little girl is awakened by a loud sound outside. It turns out to be her favorite branch falling from the tree in her yard. It was the branch she played on, dreamed about and that was a big part of her day. The little girl asks to keep the branch after finding out that it can’t be reattached to the tree and her mother agrees. Her neighbor is next door with his chain saw and the girl stands guard so that no one takes her branch. Her neighbor, Mr. Frank, sees her standing there and asks about her branch. He sees “potential” in it and offers to help her make something with it. It turns out to be just the right solution, one that helps the girl remember the fun she had and looks forward to future happiness too.
Messier conveys the little girl’s emotions very clearly. From the feel of the fallen branch to her attachment to it to the importance of creating something new with it. Each moment echoes with emotions, creating a book that is conducive to discussing feelings with young children listening to the story. The book is also anchored in sensations, the feel of the icy branch in her hands, the noise of the chain saw, the hard work of transforming the branch into something else.
The illustrations by Pratt are filled with deep colors that brighten the pages. The beauty and destruction of the ice storm are captured, each branch encased in ice. The change is seasons is also nicely shown, moving from ice and snow to green in the illustrations.
A book about resilience, connections to nature and its power, and the value of memories, this picture book is full of potential itself. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from e-galley received from Kids Can Press and Netgalley.
Job Wanted by Teresa Bateman, illustrated by Chris Sheban
When an old farm dog walks up to a farm looking for work, the farmer refuses. He sees dogs as a waste of food since they don’t give anything back like chickens or cows do. The dog then offers to be a cow instead of a dog. He gets all of the cows into the barn and lined up ready for milking before the farmer gets there, but the farmer isn’t interested in this dog-cow. The next thing the dog tries is to be a horse. He couldn’t fit in the harness for the plow, but he could run ahead of the horse with treats to get the horse to plow faster. Still, the farmer was not interested in hiring the dog. The dog next tries to be a chicken and tidies up the chicken coop before settling down in a nest of hay himself. It’s there that he finally proves the value of a dog on a farm to the reluctant farmer.
Bateman nicely incorporates a rhythm and repetition into her story. The pattern of the conversation between the dog and the farmer carries through the entire book, creating a framework that functions very nicely. On each job, the dog manages to be useful in his own way, something that is a nice surprise in the book rather than him trying to give milk or eggs himself. One immediately roots for the success of this hard-working dog.
Sheban’s illustrations are done in watercolor, graphite, and colored pencil. The result is a picture book that glows with sunlight. There is a wonderful softness to the illustrations, gauzy light that plays across the farm and the characters.
A shining picture book about resilience and being yourself. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy received from Holiday House.
Little Tree by Loren Long (InfoSoup)
The author of the popular Otis series tells a story about a tree that is heartwarming and encouraging. Little Tree is happy as he stands with the other little trees in the forest. Squirrels play in his branches and a mourning dove stops by. Autumn arrives and the leaves of the little tree change color along with those on the other little trees. The leaves began to fall, except for those on Little Tree. He held onto his tightly. The animals start to ask him why he is holding onto his leaves so long, but Little Tree just holds them even tighter. Spring comes and the other trees are taller and filled with bright green leaves. Little Tree though has only his old brown leaves. The other trees continue to grow around Little Tree, the animals no longer played in his branches, and he just held on ever more tightly. Little Tree would have to figure out how to let go and allow change to happen.
This parable is beautifully told. The parallel between a tree not dropping its leaves and allowing seasons to pass and a human fighting the inevitable changes and progress in life is compelling. Young readers will see clearly how stunted the life of Little Tree becomes and how quickly he loses the very parts of his existence that he loves so much. The writing is simple and straight-forward, making this a very shareable book that could lead to a discussion about what children are holding onto that they may want to release and let go.
Long’s illustrations are luminous on the page. He makes great use of white space, allowing Little Tree to shine on the page in a simple and engaging way. Other pages use double spreads, showing the changing forest as it grows around Little Tree. This too is very effective.
A strong picture book with an important message that is cleverly told, this book encourages young readers to embrace change and the uncertainties of life. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from ARC received from Philomel Books.
Zen Socks by Jon J. Muth (InfoSoup)
Stillwater, the giant panda, returns for another picture book filled with Buddhist wisdom. The book takes a look at different ways to reach wisdom. The first section of the book looks to sharing a story as a way to learn. It’s a story about learning too, about the importance of patience, practice and hard work. The next story focuses more on action as a learning tool, about being a bad guy and being a good person, and more positive ways to manage conflict. The final part of the picture book is about taking action to help even if you think your small action won’t make any difference to the world.
The entire book shines with Stillwater’s quiet and wise presence. His guidance is done with subtlety and kindness, modeling the way that parents can inspire different ways of thinking in their children. The stories while based on old tales are also effortlessly modern in their presentation here. These are lessons that transcend any age and remain all the more true in our current world.
Muth’s illustrations are luminous and lovely. They are filled with light and humor, inviting children outdoors to play and explore without ever mentioning it as a goal. As in all of his Zen books, Stillwater is a major presence that demonstrates the importance of having a child’s mind in his playfulness and also being engaged in his community as he teaches the children new ways to see the world.
Another brilliant Zen book, this picture book will be embraced by Buddhists and others looking for some quiet wisdom in our busy world. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Scholastic.
Loula and the Sister Recipe by Anne Villeneuve
The inventive Loula returns for her second outing in this picture book. Here she is sick and tired of her three brothers who refuse to play with her. So Loula decides that what she needs is a little sister, one who is just like her. So she goes to her parents and requests that they get her one. Her father explains that making a sister is a lot like baking a cake and needs special ingredients like a papa and a mama, butterflies in the stomach, a full moon, a candlelight supper, kisses and hugs, and chocolate. So Loula sets off to shop for those things with her ever-helpful chauffeur Gilbert. In the end, it all comes together in one amazing evening filled with candlelight, moonlight, and a sister surprise.
This second picture book about Loula again shows her determination and ability to look at a problem positively as something to solve. Infused with humor, young readers will know that her plan is probably not going to work out the way she thinks, yet few will expect the twist at the end when it comes. Having adored Gilbert the chauffeur in the first book, I was very pleased that this second book has much the same structure with Gilbert helping Loula gather everything she needs, including live butterflies.
The illustrations in this book have a loose flowing quality that has lots of motion and energy. Done in ink and watercolor, they vary from small illustrations with white backgrounds to two-page spreads filled with color. My favorite is the leaping Gilbert attempting to catch a butterfly in a net.
A strong young heroine with plenty of chutzpah combines with plenty of humor in this picture book series. Make sure to read both of the books because it’s even more time to spend with the amazing Loula! Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Kids Can Press.
Father’s Chinese Opera by Rich Lo
A first person account of a little boy who spent a summer backstage at his father’s Chinese opera in Hong Kong. He watched the actors, the orchestra, and all of the vibrant action of the acrobats. The boy approached the top acrobatic actor and asked if he would train him. He promised to work hard to learn all of the complicated movements. After practicing for awhile, the boy announced that he was ready for the stage now, but his trainer laughed at him. The boy was heartbroken until his father explained that it had taken him many steps of training to earn the right to lead the opera. So the boy began again, this time starting in the lowly role of flag boy onstage but also adding his own movements too.
Lo reveals in his Author’s Note that he grew up with his father taking him to the theater for opera rehearsals and performances. This book captures the dreams of a young boy and his wish to not only be like his father but also to be on stage and perform. The focus on hard work and determination is clear in this picture book and is presented in an approachable way for young readers.
The illustrations by Lo are bright and filled with movement. He captures the acrobats in mid-flip on the page. The costumes shine on the page, the rainbow of colors rich against the white background. He uses flowing lines to crate motion and watercolors that are bright and flow together.
An impressive look behind the scenes at a Chinese opera and a lesson in hard work as well, this picture book will be enjoyed by teachers and children alike. Appropriate for ages 5-8.
Reviewed from library copy.
Firebird by Misty Copeland, illustrated by Christopher Myers
Wow! Misty Copeland, soloist at American Ballet Theatre, is only their second African-American soloist in their history and the first in more than 20 years. Here she writes her debut picture book and through it encourages other young dancers of color. Lest you think this is a book just for dancers, it is not. It is for anyone who needs to hear a voice of success speak about how important dedication and hard work is to creating that success. Copeland tells it all in poetry that soars and dances just as she does. This is a beautiful book of inspiration that reaches far beyond dance.
Copeland’s verse is exceptional. It is hard to believe that poetry with this much control and beauty comes from someone who has not written many books. It is shining verse that lifts the reader up and invites them to leap across the page along with Copeland. She weaves lovely metaphors throughout her words, “stitching worn-out slippers, swift as applause” is one of my favorites and it is just as vivid and unique as Copeland herself.
Myers art is a lush mix of media that is just as radiant as the verse. The pages are filled with Copeland and young African-American dancers who fly across the pages. Myers creates motion on the page with his strips of paper that frame as well as enliven the illustrations.
A magnificent picture book for young dancers that will inspire them to see joy in dance and also to understand the dedication it will take to be a success. Appropriate for ages 6-9.
Reviewed from copy received from Putnam.