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.

Review: Nya’s Long Walk by Linda Sue Park

Nya's Long Walk by Linda Sue Park

Nya’s Long Walk by Linda Sue Park, illustrated by Brian Pinkney (9781328781338)

This is a companion picture book to the author’s novel A Long Walk to Water. It shows the plight of people in the South Sudan as they search for clean and safe water sources within walking distance of their homes. The book focuses on Nya and her little sister Akeer. The two head out on a two-hour walk to get water for their family. But today, Akeer is not merry and active along the way. She drags behind and eventually is revealed to be sick and unable to walk any farther. It is a two-hour walk back home, and Nya has to dump much of the precious water back out to be able to also carry Akeer on her back. She finds that even when she thinks she can’t make it all the way back to the village, she can take one more step.

Park’s writing is captivating in picture book format, a lovely combination of pared down writing with dramatic content. Readers will believe that Akeer is simply going slowly at first, until her waterborne illness is revealed. The difficult decision to leave just enough water behind to make the walk possible is gut wrenching. The long and difficult walk is a gripping series of pages that show human resilience and strength vividly.

Pinkney’s art is full of movement and lines. They twirl around the characters who stand out on the page that has bright sunlight and brown dirt. The lines form halos around both of the girls, dancing on to mark their path and show the way.

A look at the impact of unclean water and the health crisis happening in South Sudan, this book also offers solutions. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao by Kat Zhang

Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao by Kat Zhang

Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao by Kat Zhang, illustrated by Charlene Chua (9781534411333)

Amy can do a lot of things like brush her teeth and tie her shoes. But the one thing she can’t do is make the perfect bao, a steamed dumpling. So she sets out one day to make the perfect bao. It’s an all-day effort by her entire family. Her father makes the bao dough, and Amy helps him pound the dough and let it rise. Her mother makes the filling, and Amy helps her too. Then everyone sits down at the table to form the bao, including Amy’s grandmother. When things don’t go right for Amy, everyone offers her advice on how to do it. That’s when Amy realizes that the dough has been cut for adult hands. When her grandmother cuts the dough into smaller pieces for Amy, suddenly she too can make perfect bao! In the end though, all of the bao, perfect or not, taste delicious.

Zhang takes the universal story of a young person not being as good at something as they want to be and wraps it in a delicious bao package. Readers are invited into Amy’s Chinese-American home and she leads readers through the process of making bao. The frustrations of learning and perfecting a process are openly shared. The discovery that Amy makes that solves the problem is nicely portrayed as well and I appreciate that the child is the one who realizes her own solution.

The art by Chua is wonderfully bright and vivacious. Amy is shown as an optimist throughout, even as she is trying to brush her teeth and tie her shoes at the same time. The backgrounds in the illustrations suit the mood of the moment, moving from gold to orange to blue.

A tasty treat of a book that will leave readers hungry for more. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

Reviewed from copy provided by Aladdin.

Review: Home in the Woods by Eliza Wheeler

Home in the Woods by Eliza Wheeler

Home in the Woods by Eliza Wheeler (9780399162909)

After her father dies, a girl, her mother and seven siblings move into a tar-paper shack in the woods. The shack is worn but inside they discover a root cellar with a pump that offers clean water. The family plants a garden with seeds they brought with them and find a large berry patch too. In autumn, Mum walks to town to get work doing chores and all of the children pitch in at home. They can their harvest so that it will last through the winter. In winter, the boys go hunting and often return home empty handed. But when they get a turkey, the family feasts. When spring arrives, the family starts to trade baked goods for eggs and milk from neighbors and the little shack looks like home now.

Wheeler takes a story from her own family history during the Great Depression and turns it into this heartwarming story of determination and resilience in the face of incredible poverty. The focus here is on how the entire family worked together to meet the challenge, each sibling taking on duties and roles that suited their age and ability. The stalwart mother is also shown as an incredible cook, a source of hope and the reason the family survived.

Wheeler’s illustrations ensure that hope is the focus of this picture book. While drab and dirty at first, the little shack is transformed just by the people who inhabit it. Games are simple and done without any real toys, even the baby finding leaves and sticks the perfect things to play with. The jewel-like canned foods enliven the darkness of the root cellar, promising safety in the cold.

A brilliant historical picture book. Appropriate for ages 5-8.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Nancy Paulsen Books.

Review: The Feather by Margaret Wild

The Feather by Margaret Wild

The Feather by Margaret Wild, illustrated by Freya Blackwood (9781760124212)

A giant white glowing feather floats down into a dystopian world where the sky is always gray. Two children find it and take it to the village, amazed by how light it is to carry. The children know it doesn’t belong inside. The adults in the village though want to contain its beauty, but before they can, the feather changes. It becomes dirty and dull, absorbing the weight of their ideas and thoughts. The villagers disperse, angry at being tricked. The children carry the heavy feather back with them, caring for it through the night until in the morning it is brilliant once more. The children decide to set it free, and as the feather floats skyward, it leaves behind a promise of blue skies.

Wild’s story is deep and wondrous, rather like the feather itself. The gigantic nature of the feather, its ability to remind people of blue skies and fresh breezes, makes it magical. And yet, it can be squandered by needing to own that magic, to contain it. The dulling of the feather is a profound answer to that selfishness. The children’s own willingness to care for the feather cleanses it once more. It’s a lovely analogy about selflessness, sharing joy, and finding hope together.

Blackwood’s illustrations are glorious. She creates a feather that is both light and weighty, radiant and white. It lights the world around it, then absorbs the darkness into itself in a way that is heartbreaking. Her vision of the gray world is haunting and aching for a brightening, a possibility.

A picture book that will spark discussion about hope, change and making a difference in your world as a child. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from library copy.