The Haunting of Falcon House by Eugene Yelchin (InfoSoup)
Twelve-year-old Prince Lev Lvov moves in with his aunt at Falcon House. It is a house that he will inherit as he is heir to the Lvov estate. Lev wants to be just like his grandfather, a general in the Russian army, stern and strong. Things are strange though at Falcon House where he finds wonders like an elevator in the home but also rooms that have not been touched in years. As he enters the home, Lev sees another young boy there, playing on the banister. Lev is sent to sleep in his grandfather’s old study where he can’t sleep and finds himself drawing and drawing with much more skill than he ever had before. In fact, he finds it nearly impossible to put the pen down. Slowly Lev starts to learn the secrets of his family and realize that some of the family secrets are more terrifying than ghosts.
Yelchin won a Newbery Honor for Breaking Stalin’s Nose. Here he very successfully merges historical Russia with a dark ghost story. Based on the premise of having found old notes and drawings from Lvov, the book is immediately mysterious and filled with wonder. There is the amazing setting of the huge mansion, filled with things like death masks and a basement of mothballed clothes. There are the servants who manage to work for his aunt despite her disdain and harshness. There is the ghost, who tells his own story but ever so slowly. They all create a world of darkness and beguilement.
Then the book turns and changes, becoming something deeper and more filled with emotion. It looks beyond the cranky aunt and into why she acts the way she does. It examines the death of a boy and eventually becomes about who is responsible for it and why. It looks at servants and royals, at status and power. It figures out what it takes to become someone willing to wield that power too.
Entirely gorgeous, haunting and deep, this novel is chillingly dark and wonderfully dangerous. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from library copy.
Ruby Lee and Me by Shannon Hitchcock
Sarah knows that she is responsible for her little sister being hit by a car. Their entire summer has changed now with Robin in the hospital and her prognosis unclear. Sarah has moved to live with her grandparents on their remote farm, which is usually one of her favorite places but even that has changed. Her best friend, Ruby Lee, is changing too because the color of their skin has become all the more important in North Carolina as the school desegregate. When it looks like the girls will be going to school together, they struggle with their friendship under the rules of their parents and grandparents and their own high expectations. Sarah has a lot to navigate in this summer before middle school.
Based on the author’s family history with a car accident and a sibling, this book’s real heart is the family itself. The warmth of the grandparents’ love and care during the tragedy are palpable as they feed Sarah all sorts of good homemade cooking and teach her skills in the kitchen too. Sarah discovers that she is surrounded by people who care, but even that is not enough to assuage her guilt at what has happened to her sister as well as her guilt about how she treats Ruby Lee.
As this guilt builds, it becomes almost another character in the book, unspoken and real. It traps the real Sarah beneath it, unable to speak of what she needs to say most desperately. This is an honest depiction of what it is to feel this level of responsibility and not be able to communicate that at all. The book embraces these large feelings, gives them space to come out and be revealed, and also shows how these emotions play into civil rights in a larger scale where guilt, tradition and societal expectations come together and stop forward momentum.
A powerful mix of personal story and Civil Rights history, this book shows how important change is at every level. Appropriate for ages 10-13.
Reviewed from ARC received from Scholastic Press.
Three Bears in a Boat by David Soman
The co-creator of the Ladybug Girl series returns with a completely different type of book. It is the story of three little bears who accidentally break their mother’s favorite blue seashell, so they set off to find her a new one. Along the way they meet other bears on boats but only one can give them any advice about finding a blue seashell, they need to look for a hat-shaped island and then look in the right place. As they travel, the bears look and look for a blue seashell, but don’t find one. Once they give up hope, they start to argue and as they fight a storm blows up around them. They may be forced to return home to Mama empty handed, and after all, their mother is a bear!
Soman has created an exceptional picture book. It hearkens back to many classic picture books, particularly ones by Maurice Sendak like Where the Wild Things Are and the Little Bear series. It also has ties to the three bears, Beatrix Potter and even Melville. But best of all, it reads like it is a classic already, one that will be shared with children for years, and very rightly so. The story arc is brilliantly crafted, moving the story forward and also coming full circle, returning the bears in time for a warm supper with Mama. It is so strongly built that there is a sense of coming home when reading the story, but also one of surprise and delight at discovering it.
Soman’s art is extraordinary: from the faces of the little bears that show every emotion clearly despite the fur to the landscapes that are like opening a window to the ocean. There are page turns where you simply sit for a moment and linger, looking at the new vista before you until you are ready to read the words on the page.
A top Caldecott contender, this picture book feels like returning home to Mama after a long trip at sea. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from copy received from Dial Books.
The Sin-Eater’s Confession by Ilsa J. Bick
Ben saw what happened to Jimmy. Ben was the only witness except for the murderers who stoned Jimmy to death in the woods. Ben shouldn’t even have been there, not after what Jimmy did to him by taking a sensual photo of him when he was sleeping. But Ben found himself drawn to Jimmy and understood that Jimmy had no one else to turn to. His older brother was dead and his parents could not accept having a son who was suspected of being gay. Ben wasn’t sure that Jimmy is gay, and he was not clear about himself either. What he does know is that Merit, Wisconsin was not an easy place to be gay with prejudice still very evident throughout the community. Ben had to decide what to do about what he witnessed, what to tell the police. Now he has to grapple with the guilt that came from the decisions he made and what he intends to do moving forward.
Bick is the author of the Ashes trilogy and here writes a contemporary teen novel that focuses on several large issues. Issues like parental pressures are huge in Ben’s life where his mother expects him to get into Yale and become a doctor. Ben never goes out, has never dated anyone, and pours all of his energy into school and his part time jobs. The book also covers prejudice and homophobia, along with domestic violence. It’s a lot for a single book to deal with and at times some of the subjects seem to be there more for effect and to make a point than to really be part of the story itself.
The book does suffer from slow pacing in some areas, though the underlying story is taut and almost mesmerizing. Seeing into Ben’s thought process is interesting at first, but there are some layers to it that could have been left off to make the book even stronger.
What Bick really does well here is to create a compelling character in Ben. Jimmy was interesting as well, but it is Ben who really is the soul of the story. Through his eyes and his hindsight, readers are able to see the mistakes that Ben has made, the impossible decisions he has been forced into, and eventually his coming to terms with his own responsibility for what happened. Bick has left large parts of Ben unexplained, which works well. Readers will never be clear about his sexuality, which mirrors the questions about Jimmy as well, placing the reader right in the same place as the bigots in the community. One has to start questioning why it matters so much to label someone.
A harsh and unflinching look at bigotry and one’s personal responsibility in a community, this book asks tough questions and then leaves the answers in the reader’s hands. Appropriate for ages 16-18.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Netgalley and Carolrhoda Books.
Dog in Charge by K. L. Going, illustrated by Dan Santat
Dog had been busy all day. He had sat, stayed and even danced dressed in a pink ribbon and tutu. But his entire day changed when he was left in charge of the cats when the humans left. Dog knew just what to do. He would have the cats sit and stay. But before he could order the cats around, all five of them had completely disappeared. One-by-one dog found the cats. They were lapping milk on the kitchen counter, hiding in the fireplace, in the clothes hamper, in bed, and putting on makeup. Dog had to think of something quick! Then he had a great idea: cat treats! Unfortunately, they smelled so delicious that he couldn’t help himself and ate the entire bag. Then, exhausted and full, he fell asleep. When the cats found him, you will never guess what they did next!
Going has a wonderful tone and patter for slapstick comedy. Her timing is right on and makes the book a delight to read aloud. She also puts on an unexpected ending that will warm the heart and makes the book all the more wonderful to share.
Santat’s illustrations are done in a mixture of different types of frames that add a dynamic touch to the book. At the same time, they bring to mind vintage cartoon characters and have all of their charm and wit.
This jolly picture book would make a great addition to storytimes about either cats or dogs. It’s one of those that you can hold until the end to make the little bodies stay still. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from copy received from Dial Books for Young Readers.