Saucy by Cynthia Kadohata

Cover image for Saucy

Saucy by Cynthia Kadohata (9781442412781)

Becca is a quadruplet which makes it hard to be unique. Her three brothers all have their own thing that makes them special: sports, music or science. Becca doesn’t have anything, though she keeps on searching for it. So when she finds a piglet with a bad case of mange on the side of the road, she thinks she may have found it. After a long stay at the vet, Becca is the owner of a pig, one that will grow to 600 pounds! She knows that eventually she will need to donate the pig to a sanctuary, but for now Saucy lives with her and her family. Saucy though has her own ideas about how to live in a house. They involve flipping chairs to ask for more food, rooting around in the refrigerator at night, and needing Becca to sleep in the kitchen on the floor with her. Becca must wrestle with losing Saucy as she grows bigger and bigger. Then Becca decides that she must find out where Saucy came from, something that will involve her entire family, just like caring for Saucy did.

Kadohata has written award-winning books that are heart wrenching. Here, she offers readers a light and fresh read that is just as well written as her previous books. Just having a pig in a book changes it for the better, offering humorous moments that the pig brings on their own. Saucy is a pig that readers will fall for just as hard as Becca and her family does. There is an underlying question throughout the book about factory farms and the treatment of farm animals that Kadohata takes on directly in a way that shows that children can make a difference even about such large topics.

The characters are great from all of the brothers with their unique attitudes and personalities to Becca herself who is seeking to discover who she really is and clearly does by the end of the book. The adult characters are well done too, including a grandmother who is quite prickly but also smitten with Saucy. Then there is Saucy herself, who makes her own sort of noises and pushes her humans around very effectively.

Funny with real depth, this novel will have you falling in love with Saucy too. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from copy provided by Atheneum.

The Time of Green Magic by Hilary McKay

The Time of Green Magic by Hilary McKay

The Time of Green Magic by Hilary McKay (9781534462762)

When Abi’s father starts to date and then marries Max and Louis’ mom, her entire life is upended. The best part though is that they move into a very special house together, where Abi has her own room, there is a cemetery with foxes, and Abi can have a bit of space. Still, she does have to put up with a new mother, a rather dirty little brother, and become a middle child instead of being an only child. The house the family moves into, after a long search for a home they can afford, is covered with ivy and soon strange things start to happen. When Abi, who loves to read, truly becomes engrossed in a book, she actually enters it, returning covered in salt spray or with parrots flashing across the room. Louis finds a new friend who emerges from the ivy, a cat-like thing that becomes larger as time goes by. It’s all beautiful and enchanting, until suddenly the danger becomes real and the three children must figure out how to save themselves from the magic of the house.

I have always adored McKay’s books about realistic families who tumble through life in a mash of spilled book bags, beloved stories, messy rooms, and lots of love. McKay uses that same template here, providing readers with a blended family just barely making things work with damp school uniforms, a French babysitter more interested in art, and three new siblings finding their way at school and home. Here though, she injects a burst of real magic that takes the story directly into magical realism and fantasy, something she is incredible good at as well.

As always, it is McKay’s characters who are at the center of her book and story. Here we have the quiet and deep Abi, Max who is in a desperate fight with his best friend at school, and Louis who is looking for comfort. Take their blended family and remove the mother to work for a few months and you have a teetering story full of adoration, messes and wonder.

A marvelous venture into fantasy by an acclaimed author, this is worth entering the green ivy for. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Margaret K. McElderry Books.

Rot: The Bravest in the World by Ben Clanton

Rot The Bravest in the World by Ben Clanton

Rot: The Bravest in the World by Ben Clanton (9781481467643)

This follow-up to Rot: The Cutest in the World is a squirmy, squelchy, muddy read. Rot is a mutant potato and just like all mutant potatoes, he loves mud. They play in it, eat it, even sleep in mud. So when Rot found a massive mud pit, he couldn’t wait to jump right in. But before he can, his older brother Snot tells him to watch out for the Squirm, a monster that lives in deep mud, slimy and gross and hungry! Snot leaves laughing, but Rot is not deterred. He just needs a good plan. Perhaps a superhero costume will make him brave enough? When that wasn’t enough, he adds a knight costume on top, but even that doesn’t work. Perhaps adding something that loves mud too? Soon Rot is dressed up as “Sir Super Rot, the Pigtato!” When he goes back to the puddle, he discovers that there is something squirmy in the mud. Will he be brave enough to find out what it is?

Clanton imbues his picture book with a marvelous sense of humor from beginning to end. At the same time he has created a picture book with a strong story arc with Rot as a central compelling character that children will root for. When he begins to put on costumes to make himself more brave, the humor is there but also a strong sense of empathy for this courageous potato.

As with the first book, the art is bold. It is filled with rich potato and mud browns. The handwritten dialogue is shown in bubbles that look like potatoes too. Keep an eye out for the little pink insect who follows Rot on his adventures.

Squidgy and muddy fun. Appropriate for ages 2-4.

Reviewed from copy provided by Atheneum.

We Dream of Space by Erin Entrada Kelly

We Dream of Space by Erin Entrada Kelly

We Dream of Space by Erin Entrada Kelly (9780062747303)

Welcome to 1986, the year of the Challenger disaster and a year when all three of the Thomas children find themselves in seventh grade together. Fitch and Bird are twins and used to be very close. Bird loves science and exploring how things are made. As the Challenger nears its launch, she finds herself spellbound by the potential it represents for women in space and for her own future. Fitch meanwhile is struggling to deal with the anger that rises inside of him constantly, filling his days playing Major Havoc in the local arcade. Cash has been held back a grade and no longer plays basketball, which he misses desperately. He finds himself wondering if he is actually good at anything at all in life. The three siblings grow up in a family that is filled with anger, regular arguments and verbal abuse. As the three grow apart, circumstances including the Challenger disaster pull them back together, just in time to allow them all to find a potential way forward.

Kelly is a Newbery Medalist and this book shows her skill and superb understanding of the minds of youth. Using the setting of the mid-1980’s, she invites readers to see that while some things are different, much of the emotions, family tensions and life was the same as today. The Challenger disaster provides the ideal unifying factor in each of the sibling’s stories which are told from their own points of view. Yet Kelly does not overplay that element, never drawing the lines starkly but allowing readers to connect elements themselves.

The three siblings are quite different from one another and yet their shared upbringing and lack of safety at home create a unified experience that they all emerge from in different ways. Bird, the smart one, who takes things apart and does well at school, wonders if she is disappearing. Fitch burns with an anger he can’t explain, lashing out at others. Cash too is frustrated but he takes it out on himself and struggles internally.

A deep and magnificent middle-grade novel. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Greenwillow Books.

The Bear in My Family by Maya Tatsukawa

The Bear in My Family by Maya Tatsukawa

The Bear in My Family by Maya Tatsukawa (9780525555827)

A little boy lives with a bear, who sleeps in the room next door. The bear is big, with sharp teeth and strong arms. It runs really fast, is bossy and loud. When the boy tries to tell his family that they live with a bear, they tell him not to be silly and to go play outside. Outside on the swings, the boy is approached by some bullies. Luckily though, the strong, mean, big, fast bear is nearby. The bear also shows how it can be pretty fun to have a bear, or big sister, in the family after all.

Younger siblings will adore this book about living with a rather cranky older sibling. It shows both sides of having a bear in the family, from the disruption and orders to the fun games and protection they offer. The tone of the book is just right, using the bear analogy to show the sibling relationship as it becomes strained and then later when peace is made. The final little twist at the end adds to the fun.

The digital art in this picture book is done with handmade textures that add an organic appeal to the images. With a feel of watercolor complete with colors bleeding into one another, the illustrations are colorful and funny.

Missing this one might be unBEARable. Appropriate for ages 2-4.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Dial Books for Young Readers. 

Review: Freedom Bird by Jerdine Nolen

Freedom Bird by Jerdine Nolen

Freedom Bird by Jerdine Nolen, illustrated by James H. Ransome (9780689871672)

John and Millicent were slaves on a plantation in the south. The siblings’ parents were sold away from them, never to be seen again. But before they left, they made sure that their children knew about freedom, hoping that it would come in time for them. The two worked hard labor on the plantation from dawn to night. One day, a great black bird flew over the field only to be shot down and left for dead. The two children head out after dark to see if the bird survived and rescue it. But the next morning, John is hired away to another farm, likely to be gone for many months. Millicent continued to care for the bird, keeping it alive and quiet until John returned. Reunited, the two hear of plans to sell John away and decide to act and choose freedom.

The cruelties and horrors of slavery are front and center in this picture book. The dismantling and breaking of families, the threats and violence, the backbreaking work day after day. The addition of the bird adds a symbol of hope to the book, clearly offering it as a representation of freedom that must be looked after and tended. The text is dense for a picture book, but important as it explains slavery, freedom and the importance of seeing a better future.

Ransome’s illustrations are paintings that play with perspective, looking at the world from the bird’s perspective, seeing its shadow long before it appears, and glimpsing the two children entering the dark field to rescue the bird. One illustration in particular is powerful and dramatic with Meredith and the bird stretching arms and wings together.

A folktale look at freedom and the evils of slavery. Appropriate for ages 6-9.

Reviewed from copy provided by Simon & Schuster.

Review: The Year We Fell from Space by Amy Sarig King

The Year We Fell from Space by Amy Sarig King

The Year We Fell from Space by Amy Sarig King (9781338236361)

Liberty loves the stars. She creates star maps that allow her to capture what she sees in the stars by drawing her own constellations on the night sky. But when her parents get a divorce, it is like her entire world fell apart. Her father assures her that she will see him often, but they don’t see him for 86 days after the divorce! In the meantime, Lib has witnessed a meteorite fall to earth and recovered the heavy stone. As time goes on, Liberty begins to seethe with rage. It’s an anger that emerges in school sometimes, sometimes at her parents, but mostly sits inside her, red and hot. It’s that anger that made her throw the toaster through the kitchen window, hides a diamond ring from a bully at school, and allows her to tell her father what she really thinks. Liberty worries that she might have depression like her father, and she gradually learns the power of talking about her feelings openly.

Amy Sarig King is the name that the YA author A.S. King writes under for middle-grade books. She does both extremely well. Here King shows the first months of a divorce from the children’s point of view. She steadily reveals what happened in the parent’s marriage, but the real focus is on grief as the two sisters must navigate their way through the pain of losing their family. The emotions run high, from tears to yelling to throwing things. They all feel immensely authentic and real on the page.

Liberty is a great heroine. Far from perfect, particularly at school, she is navigating life by confiding in a meteorite and trying to help everyone else. She is filled with rage much of the time, but also filled with a deep compassion for others, sometimes to her own detriment. King looks frankly at mental health issues here both in parents and in Liberty herself. The use of counselors is spoken of openly and without issue as the family gets the help they need.

A powerful look at divorce, grief and coming to terms with life. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Arthur A. Levine Books.

Review: The Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake

The Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake

The Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake (9781368048088)

Lyric, Maine was the ancestral home of Violet’s family, established by her great-great-great-grandmother who survived a shipwreck. Now Violet has been sent there after a wreck of her own, created when she partied too much and almost lost her brother Sam to suicide. Stuck in the small town, she finds a volunteer job at the local aquarium. That’s where she meets Orion, a gorgeous boy her age who knows all about marine life and how to run the cash register, skills that Vi can only dream of having. Orion’s best friend is Liv, who happens to be obsessed with the Lyric shipwreck and can’t wait to meet Violet, a direct descendant. Things get more complicated as Violet tries to help Liv and Orion move forward in a romantic way, Violet tries to avoid romance herself and along the way makes the best friends of her life.

I must admit this was one of the hardest books to summarize. There is so much here that all fits so beautifully into the novel but can’t be easily explained. There is the power of music, the impact of nature, the importance of dreams, the vitality of connection to one another, and the continued reverberation of loss and grief. All of that is here in these pages, written so beautifully that it aches. There are some cliches like Violet shaving her head, but those disappear into the richness of the book, becoming references and anchors to other stories rather than taking up too much space here.

The writing is exquisite, the emotions on the page are allowed to be raw but also often are hidden from view behind banter or fights about other things. Violet’s bisexuality is shown organically and openly, something that is simply there and innately understood by the reader. Mental illness is treated much the same way with panic attacks, depression, and anxiety all included in the story, important to the plot, but never gawked at.

Beautiful, powerful and full of feeling, this book is amazing. Appropriate for ages 14-18.

Reviewed from library copy.

Review: Bunny in the Middle by Anika A. Denise

Bunny in the Middle by Anika Aldamuy Denise

Bunny in the Middle by Anika A. Denise, illustrated by Christopher Denise (9781250120366)

Three rabbit siblings fill these pages with their daily activities as being the middle child is explored. When you are a middle child, you are the one in between. Your older sibling helps you and you help your younger sibling. You know when to share and when to hold on. You know the best time to lead and the best time to follow, but you also know when to do things your own way. Yes, you get hand-me-downs and also have to share a room. But it also means that you are often just the right size for a lot of things, including being right in the middle.

While the words in this book focus on explaining the good and bad of being the middle child, it is the pictures that are something entirely special. The images of the three rabbits are filled with sunlight, sticky frosting, leafy adventures, and coziness. From the lankier and rather bossy older sister to the plump toddler younger sibling, this little family is a joy to spend time with. The middle child is often unperturbed in the midst of chaos or demands, showing just what it takes to excel at being that special on in the center of a family.

Gorgeous illustrations illuminate a story of a little group of siblings. Appropriate for ages 2-4.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Henry Holt and Company.