Swift Fox All Along by Rebecca Lea Thomas

Swift Fox All Along by Rebecca Lea Thomas, illustrated by Maya McKibbin (9781773214481)

Swift Fox is nervous. Her father is taking her on a long drive to meet her aunties, uncles and cousins. She will learn more about being Mi’kmaq. Her father assures her on the drive that she has all she needs already inside her; she is already Mi’kmaq. It’s how she walks, talks and thinks. Swift Fox just gets even more nervous. Swift Fox is greeted warmly by her family. They unwrap a red bundle, preparing to smudge, but she doesn’t know how to. They assure her that she does know, since it’s part of who she is. But it’s all overwhelming for Swift Fox, who bursts into tears and runs outside to hide. She keeps hidden until she starts to smell the familiar smell of the bread her father makes. Then another cousin arrives, he is just as scared as Swift Fox is. Suddenly Swift Fox can help someone else, and it gets her to go back inside with her cousin and show him things as she learns too.

Thomas has written a very personal book that reflects her own upbringing off of the reservation. In her Author’s Note, she explains the impact of the residential schools on Native cultures and languages. Still, their identity survived. Just like Swift Fox, Thomas continues to learn about her Mi’kmaq identity. Readers of all backgrounds will be inspired by Swift Fox and her transformation of her fear into an energy to help someone else.

McKibbin’s illustrations center on the warmth of Swift Fox’s two families, both her mother and sister and then her large extended family through her father. She captures the characters’ complex emotions on the page, allowing readers to really feel Swift Fox’s butterflies, her fear, and then her inspiration to move ahead.

A powerful book about identity and family. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Annick Press.

I Talk Like a River by Jordan Scott

I Talk Like a River by Jordan Scott, illustrated by Sydney Smith (9780823445592)

Based on the author’s own childhood, this picture book explores the life of a boy with a stutter. The boy wakes every day surrounded by words, many of which he can’t say aloud. They tangle his tongue and stick in his throat. So every morning, he stays silent. He’s quiet at school too, hiding in the back of the class and hoping not to be asked to talk. After a particularly hard day, his father picks him up from school and takes him to the river. After seeing how upset his son is by his “bad speech day,” his father points to the river and says that how the water moves is how his son speaks. The river runs over rocks, bubbling and churning, but it also goes quiet and still after the rocks.

Scott is a poet and his skill with words is on full display here. He uses gorgeous metaphors throughout, including the connection to the river. The words around the boy in the morning connect with his inability to speak at times, the pine trees sticking out from his lips, the crow cawing from his throat, the moonlight shining from his mouth. Each of these gives readers a new way to experience a stutter, each beautiful and haunting.

Smith’s illustrations are done in watercolor, ink and gouache. They capture both the quiet of not being able to speak as well as the connection between father and son. When they go to the water of the river, the illustrations show the bubbling and crashing, taking the boy into the river as he swims to the calm open water. They are exquisite.

A marvel of a book that beams with empathy and understanding of stuttering. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Neal Porter Books.

Again Again by E. Lockhart

Again Again by E. Lockhart

Again Again by E. Lockhart (9780385744799)

This inventive book from the author of We Were Liars offers readers a way to look at the world as more than a single continuum but instead a landscape of possibilities. Adelaide is spending the summer on the empty campus of the private school that she attends and where her father teaches. The plan had been to spend the summer with her boyfriend, but just as summer was about to start, he abruptly broke up with her and headed off to an international study program. Now Adelaide spends her time walking dogs that she doesn’t own and avoiding dealing with her failing grade in a set design course. Then she meets a boy at the dog park and all sorts of options appear to fill her summer with new love, friendship, dogs, accidents, and art.

Lockhart is a constantly creative author who manages to continue to surprise and delight with her novels. Here she explores an entire world of parallel universes driven by small choices in daily lives. It’s a way without being preachy to show us all that we do not have one chosen monogamous relationship that is our destiny, but rather many options, parallel and fascinating, endlessly spiraling out from one another.

I particularly loved the characters that Lockhart creates here. They are maddening at times but also glorious individuals who are creative and interesting. Adelaide in particular is exceptionally drawn, particularly given the parallel choices she could make. This lets us explore her character more deeply, seeing the various options and the life she could have chosen.

A great read that will get you philosophically thinking of your own parallel universes. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Delacorte Press. 

The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta

The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta

The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta (9780062990297)

This award-winning teen verse novel deals with gender, identity and fabulous drag performances. Michael’s father is entirely absent in his life, leaving the room when they are in the same house together. Michael does have a connection with his father’s Jamaican family, receiving gifts from them and time spent together. He lives with his Greek-Cypriot mother in London; she accepts Michael entirely, from the time he was a small boy wanting to play with Barbies to college as a gay man. Along the way, Michael must deal with racism, of not being black enough and assumptions being made about him by society. He doesn’t know any other gay black people, forging a path on his own that leads him to university and a club that does drag where he finds his voice and a stage persona too.

Atta is a poet and this is his debut YA novel which has already won the Stonewall Book Award. Just starting reading, it is clear that the poems are done by a master storyteller. They allow readers to deeply understand the struggles of Michael from his family life to friendships that come and go to coming out and then performing. There is a valuable evolution on the page where Michael comes out and yet doesn’t quite become himself fully for several years, until he finds a place to belong.

Atta’s writing is beautiful. He mixes his own poetry with that of Michael the character, moving gracefully between the two. Somehow they are distinct from one another, the voices similar and still separate. The use of poetry to tell such a personal and deeply-felt story makes this really work, as poetry and verse are a fast way to allow readers to see the heart and soul of a character.

Brave, beautiful and deep, this teen novel is masterful. Appropriate for ages 15-18.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Balzer + Bray.

Review: Child of Glass by Beatrice Alemagna

Child of Glass by Beatrice Alemagna

Child of Glass by Beatrice Alemagna (9781592703036)

This unusual French picture book is deep, questioning and modern. Giselle was born near Florence and Bilbao. She was born made entirely of glass, transparent and capturing the light of life around her. People could also see right into her head, viewing her thoughts as she had them. If she was fearful or worried, people would reassure her when they saw those thoughts. As she grew older though, her thoughts were sometimes very dark and sad. When people saw those things, they grew angry, asking how she could think that way and demanded that she stop. The tension of trying to change caused fractures in her glass body. Finally, Giselle decided to leave and find another place to live. But every place treated her exactly the same. Eventually, Giselle returned home, deciding to live as she is without trying to change, entirely transparent and whole.

This picture book wrestles with the very idea that children have dark thoughts, that they are worried and afraid at times, that their imaginations are not always light and playful. It’s a story about being different and being forced to conform uniquely to the crowd’s ideas. Yet it is also a story about finding oneself, living life on your own terms. The book is about reality, a lovely allegory to the importance put upon conforming and the necessity for us all to live our authentic lives, transparently.

The illustrations are complex and filled with different media. They include collage, different types of pens, markers, and pencils. They are layered and dramatic, capturing the mood of each part of the story. Some of the pages are transparent, looking through Giselle’s thoughts and emotions.

Unique and fascinating, this picture book embraces the dark side of our minds and the beauty of individuals. Appropriate for ages 5-7.

Reviewed from copy provided by Enchanted Lion Books.

Review: Beverly, Right Here by Kate DiCamillo

Beverly, Right Here by Kate DiCamillo

Beverly, Right Here by Kate DiCamillo (9780763694647)

This is the third novel in the Raymie Nightingale series, focused this time on Beverly Tapinski. After her dog dies and is buried under the orange trees, Beverly just leaves town. She catches a ride to Tamaray Beach, not having any plans other than getting out. There she finds herself a job bussing tables in a fish restaurant, even though she hates fish. She also finds herself a place to live with Iola, a friendly woman who lives in a trailer near the ocean. Beverly spends her days working hard enough not to think anymore. She makes a new friend at Zoom City, a boy who gives children a dime to be able to ride the mechanical horse outside the store. Beverly seems to be building a new life, but it’s still connected to the one she left behind even as she celebrates Christmas in July in August, joins a labor dispute, and finds a boy to hold hands with.

There is something very special about DiCamillo’s writing. She writes with a purity and simplicity that is immensely inviting for young readers. In doing so though, she lays the entire world open in front of the reader, filled with longing, loss and finding yourself no matter how far you may run. She also writes amazing secondary characters, who are alive on the page, filled with their own struggles and humanity too. Deftly paced, this book takes place in a very focused setting that belongs specifically to Beverly.

It’s a great feat to have a trilogy of books, each just as strong as the next and each focused on a different character almost entirely. The stories are just as compelling as the writing, skillfully telling the story of a girl’s heart on the page, and allowing readers to fall deeply into that person’s world.

A third winner in a powerful trilogy. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Candlewick Press.

Review: Rabbit and the Motorbike by Kate Hoefler

Rabbit and the Motorbike by Kate Hoefler

Rabbit and the Motorbike by Kate Hoefler, illustrated by Sarah Jacoby (9781452170909)

Rabbit is the sort of creature who stays close to home, never venturing far from his home in the wheat fields. He does dream of leaving at night, but never does. He also loves to hear about Dog’s adventures on his motorbike. Dog is older now and doesn’t ride any longer, but his stories are wonderful and carry Rabbit far from his home. When Dog dies, he leaves his motorbike to Rabbit. Rabbit tries to make it part of his life, leaving it in his garden, taking it inside his house, but never riding it. Then one day, he decides to just ride the bike to the end of the road. But roads are long, and soon Rabbit is off on his own adventure that echoes that of Dog, who he can feel riding along with him at times.

Hoefler’s skill at poetry is apparent on the pages of this picture book. Her words here loop the reader into the quiet of Rabbit’s wheat field, the beauty of his dreams at night, and the reluctant return to his regular life after listening to Dog’s stories. The longing in the story is beautifully drawn out, lingering across the wheatfield and whispering stories of the road as Rabbit weaves the motorbike into his everyday life.

That same emotional tug is shown in the illustrations as well, wheatfields in the sunshine and also wheatfields at night with the moon illuminating single blades. The drama of Dog (and later Rabbit) riding the motorbike is accompanied by swirls of color, showing the freedom and delight of the ride. The colors are a great mix of dramatic night and gentle colors in the daytime scenes that are airy and inviting to sink into.

A picture book about taking risks and finding freedom. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: What Riley Wore by Elana K. Arnold

What Riley Wore by Elana K. Arnold

What Riley Wore by Elana K. Arnold, illustrated by Linda Davick (9781481472609)

Riley loves to dress for every occasion. Riley wore a bunny costume on the first day of school, even though no one else worse a costume. At the dentist’s office Riley wore a superhero outfit for bravery. Riley wore a ballgown to dinner with Oma and Otto because they went to a fancy restaurant. Space pajamas were just right for Universe Day at school. A hard hat was ideal for a visit to the hardware store. Some days at home were perfect not to wear anything at all. When Riley wore a complicated outfit to the park, Riley was asked if they were a boy or a girl. Riley answered by talking about her outfit’s roles and joined in playing with everyone.

Arnold writes with such skill here that it is only partway through the book that readers may notice that there are no pronouns or genders shared about Riley. Every child can see themselves in Riley and be dazzled by Riley’s costumes and outfits along the way. There is a sense of merriment in all of the things Riley wears and a strong expression of identity as well.

Davick’s illustrations are filled with bright colors and a celebration of Riley’s sense of style. The mixed costumes are complicated and Davick captures them beautifully, showing exactly what Riley was trying to convey.

Ideal for kids of every gender and every way of expressing themselves through clothing. Appropriate for ages 2-5.

Reviewed from copy provided by Beach Lane.

Review: Where Are You From? by Yamile Saied Mendez

Where Are You From by Yamile Saied Mendez

Where Are You From? by Yamile Saied Mendez, illustrated by Jaime Kim (9780062839930)

A little girl is always asked where she is from. She tries to answer by saying “I’m from here, from today, same as everyone else,” but they simply insist that she tell them where she is really from. So the girl asks her Abuelo where she is from. He closes his eyes and gives her an unusual but important answer. He tells her of the varied places that her people come from. They come from wide open land in the Pampas, from brown rivers that give food, from high mountains where condors fly. She also comes from ocean waters, from hurricanes where rain makes tiny frogs sing. She comes from people who were enslaved for the color of their skin, from plazas filled with sadness. But most of all, she comes from love and from the dreams and hopes of her ancestors.

I must admit that I expected a book about the damage of asking that question of children of color. This book surprised and delighted me as it offers children being asked the question a positive way to see their ancestry whether it makes sense to others or not. The answer from the Abuelo in the book is pure poetry, taking readers on a journey through parts of the world and carrying self-acceptance along as an important theme. There is a sense of shared strength in all of the images of places that is embodied in that child.

The illustrations are beautifully rendered with deep colors that shine on the page. The varied landscapes carry readers forward into the story, inviting them to cool off on mountaintops and slow down to float on ocean waves. It is a book that celebrates our world, our cultures and our histories.

Powerful and poetic, this is one that belongs in all libraries. Appropriate for ages 3-6.

Reviewed from library copy.