The Perfect Plan by Leah Gilbert

The Perfect Plan by Leah Gilbert (9781547605262)

Maya dreams of having the “most incredible and wonderful” fort in the woods. So she researches, designs, plans and gathers supplies. Then she found the perfect spot in the woods for it. But when she started trying to build the fort, it didn’t turn out the way she had planned. But Maya didn’t give up. She went to the beavers at the river and asked them for help. They soon had plenty of branches, but they were too heavy to move. Maya spotted a moose in the trees and asked the moose to help them lift the branches high into the trees. But none of them could climb well enough. So Maya asked the bears for help. Soon they had a frame, but it wouldn’t stay in place. Maya and her team called to the birds for help and they twisted and wound vines around the frame to hold it. The fort was almost perfect, but then a storm blew in and Maya had to go home. Would the fort be ruined after all their hard work?

This story shows how working together and having each creature use their own unique talents can create something very special. At first, the book has Maya working in a solitary way with her own plans. That quickly changes when she needs help and asks for it. As the book proceeds, the words Maya uses to describe the fort they are building change too, to better reflect what that creature brings to the overall project. It’s a dynamic use of language, showing how Maya’s perspective changes with the help of others.

Gilbert’s art really reveals the magic of the forest on the page. Her illustrations are luminous with streaks and rays of sunlight coming through the trees. The greens are fresh and welcoming while the rainstorm is a threatening purple in the sky. The use of colors is very effective throughout the book.

A STEM look at building a fort with friends. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from copy provided by Bloomsbury.

The Mirror Season by Anna-Marie McLemore

Cover image for The Mirror Season.

The Mirror Season by Anna-Marie McLemore (9781250624123)

Ciela rescued a boy who had been drugged and assaulted at a party. At the same time the boy was assaulted, so was Ciela. After dropping him at the ER, Ciela thought she’d never see him again, until he turned up at her school that fall. As the people responsible for their assaults begin to bully Lock, Ciela starts a friendship with him without telling him what she knows. After the assault, Ciela’s world started to change. She could no longer look at a person and know what pan dulce will help them. She also saw mirrored glass everywhere, filling in puddles, replacing leaves and branches, draining the color from the world. As Ciela becomes better friends with Lock, her pan dulce powers start to return, something she thought she had lost forever. But there is still that secret between them, that Ciela knows what happened to him because she was there too. With silence all that is protecting her and Lock, how can she start to speak about what happened?

This harrowing and hauntingly gorgeous novel is so powerful. Its depiction of assault and its aftermath is filled with metaphor but also firmly grounded in what trauma does to someone. The writing is fierce and funny, insistent that the reader not look away. It’s a novel that gets into your heart, rather like a piece of mirrored glass, that burrows there and tears at you. Readers will not be surprised to read in the author’s note that McLemore has personally experience sexual assault, since the experience here is so raw and honest.

The two characters at the center of this novel are amazing. Written with truth and grit, they are both remarkable. Ciela is a brown girl who has lived unapologetically. She is queer and pansexual, making her even more of a target. Her experience is spoken about frankly in the book, the experience of a queer Latinx woman and how it is to live in America. Lock would seem to be her opposite in so many ways. A heterosexual white boy, he is just as interesting as she is somehow, even with her pan dulce magic. Lock is a tree-stealing, finger-biting boy who has been torn apart by trauma and is piecing his life back together, one crocheted mushroom at a time.

Unique characters face a shared assault in this book of trauma, friendship and a dash of magic. Appropriate for ages 15-18.

Reviewed from library copy.

Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Cover image for Fighting Words

Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (9781984815682)

Della has always been taken care of by her older sister, Suki. The two of them stayed together after their mother went to prison and they moved in with her mother’s boyfriend. That boyfriend did something horrible to Della, so the sisters fled. Now they are in foster care together, being really taken care of for the first time in their lives. Suki has always been Della’s protector so what happens when Suki suddenly is the one who needs help and caring for? Della is willing to talk in court about what happened to her, but Suki wants to be silent. Della is good at being loud, sometimes being too loud or swearing in class. It’s time for Della to use her voice to stand up for what they both need, but also to listen to her sister in a new way too.

This book is seriously one of the best of the year. Period. Written by an author who is consistently impressive, this is a book that is stunningly good. Bradley gives a voice to those who have experienced child abuse, showing them that they are more than the abuse, more than that trauma. It is a book that doesn’t duck what happened to these sisters, but builds towards the awful truth, warning readers that it is coming and then dealing with it when it happens. It removes the stigma of the trauma in a way that is full of compassion and empathy, giving space for assault and for the recovery from it.

Bradley’s writing is exceptional. She does so much with the voice of Della, making her both a clarion call to be heard and listened to, but also giving her a realistic vocabulary of swear words and a way to deal with them in a book for children. This book is beyond impressive. It is important and vital: a book to be shared with children and adults, an example of what children’s literature can be at its highest level.

Bravo! One of the best of the year, if not one of the best of all time. Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from library copy.

All of a Sudden and Forever by Chris Barton

All of a Sudden and Forever by Chris Barton

All of a Sudden and Forever: Help and Healing After the Oklahoma City Bombing by Chris Barton, illustrated by Nicole Xu (9781541526693)

This nonfiction picture book takes the tremendous tragedy of April 19, 1995 and leads readers to hope and a way forward. It looks deeply at the loss of life, at how so many people were lost and so many more were impacted by the deaths. It looks at the many broken bones and also the broken minds that resulted from the bombing too. The book then moves to after the bombing and the one tree that remained standing nearby. That American elm tree was battered  and scorched by the blast, yet it remained upright. It survived and became a beacon of hope for those who were impacted by the bombing. In spring, someone collected its seeds which then became part of the annual memorial service for the victims. As new tragedies happen, and they did and will in the future, those seeds and seedlings from Oklahoma City start the healing process and show that survival is possible and hope can return.

Barton’s words ache on the page. They are impossible to read without a deep feeling of mourning and loss, without recognizing what happened and what will continue to happen. The weaving of the story of the elm tree into the book is masterfully done, offering a glimpse of green and a path to the future. Barton writes with such empathy here. He allows the story to be told in all of its anguish and pain, and yet makes sure that hope has its place there as well.

The art by Xu is extraordinary. She uses the roots of the tree to intertwine with and embrace those in mourning, to show how interconnected we all are to one another. Done in ink and digitally, the art is a strong mixture of ethereal colors and grounding tree roots, people and spaces.

A powerful and evocative book about tragedy that celebrates life. Appropriate for ages 8-12.

Reviewed from library copy.

The Cat Man of Aleppo by Karim Shamsi-Basha and Irene Latham

The Cat Man of Aleppo by Karim Shamsi-Basha

The Cat Man of Aleppo by Karim Shamsi-Basha and Irene Latham, illustrated by Yuko Shinizu (9781984813787)

Alaa lives in Aleppo, a city torn apart by war. He loves the city with its alleys, bazaars and caring people. When the war came, Alaa didn’t flee. Instead, he kept working as an ambulance driver on the rubble-filled streets of the city. Alaa misses his family and loved ones. The cats of the city, left behind by their owners, remind him of his family. Alaa begins to feed the cats, at first only a few but soon many start coming to be fed. Alaa must find a special place for the cats. Donations come from all over the world to help and soon Alaa has enough money to create a sanctuary for them. Alaa is then able to save more types of animals as the donations continue. He builds a playground for children and well for fresh water. Through his big and aching heart, Alaa is able to share hope and sustenance with the cats and people of Aleppo.

This nonfiction picture book tells such a powerful story of resilience and how one person’s actions can impact an entire community. The text focuses on Alaa’s love for Aleppo but also on his big heart and willingness to give his own small amount of money to care for the cats of the city. Readers will celebrate his victories with him on the pages, marveling at how one person could help so many.

Shinizu’s illustrations capture the city of Aleppo both before the war and afterwards. The finely detailed illustrations show bustling bazaars and then the torn and vacant streets. The cats are beautifully drawn, each one has a character of their own, even in a crowded scene.

An important book about war, hope and resilience. Appropriate for ages 5-8.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

The Dark Matter of Mona Starr by Laura Lee Gulledge

The Dark Matter of Mona Starr by Laura Lee Gulledge

The Dark Matter of Mona Starr by Laura Lee Gulledge (9781419734236)

Mona’s best and really only friend is moving to Hawaii and leaving her to face school and life on her own. It’s made even harder by Mona’s Matter. Her Matter is her dark thoughts that tell her she isn’t good enough and her depression that can take control. Mona steadily learns to make new friends, connecting with others in orchestra. She also learns ways to deal with her depression, the Matter, that keeps it under better control. She meditates, uses art to express herself, and leans on those who love her. In a culminating episode, when her depression seems to be causing physical pain, no one can figure out what is wrong. Mona insists that more tests are run and a problem that requires surgery is found. The battle against her Matter may not be fully won, but one victory at a time makes a difference.

Gulledge has written a fictional but very autobiographical graphic novel. Her representation of depression as “Matter” is really well done. It will serve as both a reflection of experience to those who have depression and a way of learning about it to those who don’t. The physicality of depression is captured here, the isolation that is self built, the nastiness of self talk, and the bravery it takes to break free of the cycle.

The art is gorgeous, beautifully showing the darkness of the Matter that lurks in corners only to suddenly surge and take over. That same darkness though is also a canvas for stars, a way of seeing the rays of yellow that promise hope and light through all of the bleak times. Gulledge uses the yellow sparingly, allowing it to pierce and glow at specific times.

A great graphic novel that tackles depression, courage and recovery. Appropriate for ages 12-15.

Reviewed from copy provided by Amulet.

Catherine’s War by Julia Billet

Catherine’s War by Julia Billet

Catherine’s War by Julia Billet, illustrated by Claire Fauvel (9780062915603)

This graphic novel from France is a reworking of a novel based on the experiences of the author’s mother during World War II as a Jewish child during the Nazi occupation. Rachel lives at a children’s home in Sevres, France in 1942. Her parents are still in Paris. The children’s home allows its students the freedom to study what they are interested in. Rachel loves photography and developing and printing her own images. She begins to document her experiences of the war. Soon as the danger gets closer, Rachel changes her name to Catherine and gets a new identity. She moves from place to place, leaving friends behind, finding new ways of life with each new place she lands. She works on a farm, helps the Resistance, and along the way finds time to take pictures and find places to develop her film. She even manages to fall in love with a boy who loves photography the way she does. Still, she must leave him behind as well, as she continues to try to find a safe place in a world hunting her down. 

Based on her mother’s story, this graphic novel is a dazzling mix of danger and hope. Billet does not minimize the constant danger the Jewish children found themselves in, hiding in cellars and gaining new identities, missing their families horribly. This book is not an adventure across France, but a fearful dash from one safe place to the next, each move causing more loss and anguish. Billet uses hope and the joy of photography to show that life continued despite the war, but always impacted by it. 

The art is marvelous and the story works really nicely as a graphic novel which keeps the pace fast. All of the danger and the moves from place to place spiral past the reader, as new people step forward to offer Catherine a safe place to live for even a brief period of time. The journey and the devastation are one and the same, even when walking through beautiful French landscapes, there is a sense of loss and dread.

A marvelous balance of resilience, tenacity and war. Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: Chirp by Kate Messner

Chirp by Kate Messner

Chirp by Kate Messner (9781547602810)

Mia is moving to Vermont where her grandmother has a cricket farm. Her arm is still recovering from being broken after a fall from a balance beam, but her mother insists that she go to summer camps. Mia chooses to attend a maker camp and also a warrior camp that will have her climbing rock walls and swinging from rings. As Mia makes new friends and finds new fans for her grandmother’s cricket treats, she is also helping by making a business plan for her grandmother’s farm. There are strange things happening at the farm though as disaster after disaster befalls the delicate crickets. Her grandmother insists that she is being sabotaged, but could her grandmother actually be losing her memory? Mia and her friends tackle the mystery, build up the business, and learn to speak out along the way too. 

Messner writes a middle grade novel that neatly embeds sexual harassment and abuse information into the story. In fact, that is at the heart of Mia’s injury and also at the heart of many women and girls that are in the book too. This book is deeply about survival as a girl, a woman and as a cricket. It’s about finding your voice, using your power and finding ways to get justice. It is also about the incredible bravery it takes to be a survivor, whether you have spoken out yet or not. 

Messner has written a compelling mystery to solve alongside the social justice. There are great suspects, more than one potential reason for the problems, and finally a dramatic resolution as well. Add in a science competition and you have one amazing Vermont summer filled with the crunch of crickets.

A great look at friendship, speaking out and taking back power. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Bloomsbury Children’s 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.