Review: Jasper & Ollie by Alex Willan

Jasper & Ollie by Alex Willan

Jasper & Ollie by Alex Willan (9780525645214)

Jasper and Ollie are best friends. At breakfast, Jasper wants to go to the pool and Ollie agrees. Jasper, the fox, wants to race to get there and runs out of the house. Along the way, he pull on his swimsuit, blows past the mailman who dumps his letters, jumps over a turtle painting a fence, and hustles past the ice cream truck. Now Jasper has to wait for Ollie though. And Ollie, the sloth, has a very different approach. He watches butterflies, smells the flowers, picks up the spilled mail, gets a drink, helps paint the fence, and gets an ice cream cone. Meanwhile Jasper is rushing around trying to see if Ollie is somewhere at the pool and manages to get himself thrown out. Luckily, that is just when Ollie arrives with ice cream cones for both of them.

Willan tells this story solely in speech bubbles. He uses framing techniques from comic books to great effect here. On the larger upper frame, he shows Jasper in his speedy desperation to find Ollie. Below, Ollie moves along quietly enjoying his walk to the pool. Jasper is often accompanied by a dashed line showing his movement over and under and around people and obstacles and usually accompanied by chaos in his wake.

The illustrations are brilliantly done with plenty of humor too. It has a wonderful aesthetic to it where the pattern of Ollie’s swimsuit is repeated on various things at the pool that Jasper searches. The illustrations are worth looking closely at to catch all of the funny moments and small touches along the way.

A combination of speed and sloth that makes for a great friendship and plenty of laughs. Appropriate for ages 3-5.

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

Review: Waiting for Chicken Smith by David Mackintosh

Waiting for Chicken Smith by David Mackintosh

Waiting for Chicken Smith by David Mackintosh (9781536207712)

A little boy waits for his friend, Chicken Smith, who usually stays at the same beach for the same week in the summer. The boy comes to beach every year and knows it very well, just like Chicken Smith does. Chicken can do all sort of things like ride his rusty bike without any brakes, just using his foot to slow down. As the boy thinks about Chicken Smith and anticipates his arrival, his sister starts to call him, but he is too busy waiting for Chicken to come. He looks forward to spotting whales together like they did last year. But his sister is still calling, so he heads up to the lighthouse to see what she wants. Out in the ocean, they can see a whale together. Maybe Chicken Smith won’t be coming this summer after all. But hanging out with his sister may not be so bad anyway.

This picture book is about a summer friendship and by exploring their connection with one another, the book also shares iconic summer moments at the beach. Finding a buoy, seeing a flying fish, swimming all day. Mackintosh has fully developed the voice of the little boy, who tells the story from his personal perspective. It is his voice that makes the book come alive and that tells of the ache of not knowing when or if a friend will arrive and what that might do to an entire summer vacation.

The illustrations are modern and move from white sand with a clearly hot sun to images of whales swimming in the sea. Macintosh plays with color, using reds, blues and greens to fill some pages while leaving others bleached out.

Ideal summer reading that mixes sunshine fun with summer friendships. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from copy provided by Candlewick Press.

 

Review: Caterpillar Summer by Gillian McDunn

Caterpillar Summer by Gillian McDunn

Caterpillar Summer by Gillian McDunn (9781681197432)

Cat and Chicken live in San Francisco with their mother who works several jobs, but one is to be a children’s book author with books that feature Cat and Chicken as a caterpillar and chicken. When they head across the country for a summer job, their plans suddenly fall through. Now Cat and Chicken must stay with grandparents they have never met before while their mother works in Atlanta. Their grandparents live on Gingerbread Island, a place their mother hasn’t returned to since before Cat was born. Lily, their grandmother, is warm and maternal, quickly adapting to Chicken’s special needs. Macon, their grandfather, is more distant and gruff, working in his workshop and going on long walks alone. As Cat and Chicken get to know them, they find a wonderful pair of grandparents who love them immensely, so Cat tries to figure out how to bring her family back together again. She hopes that entering a fishing contest, a sport her mother used to love, with give them an opportunity to bond. But things don’t quite work out as planned, just like in her mother’s books.

McDunn has written the ideal summer read. It has a lightness to it that is pure summer sunshine, one that invites reading with sand between your toes or a flashlight in a tent. At the same time, the characters and story wrestle with larger issues of what family means, how a family can form a rift, and how the pressure of having a little brother who is neurodiverse can be challenging for an older sibling. I deeply appreciated Chicken as a character. He is not labeled in any way in the story but shown as having specific challenges that make looking after him different from other children.

Cat herself is a very strong young woman who holds her family together. Her grandmother recognizes that and helps Cat understand better what she is doing. As her grandparents step in to allow Cat to have a summer as a child, she fights them, trying to retain her role as Chicken’s caretaker. That process of letting go is beautifully shown, given time and patience. Throughout the book, nothing is simple, not even Cat’s enemy on the island, whose own story provides reasons for his actions.

Richly drawn and yet still summer light, this novel is a delight. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Bloomsbury.

Review: Sincerely, Harriet by Sarah Winifred Searle

sincerely, harriet by sarah winifred searle

Sincerely, Harriet by Sarah Winifred Searle (9781541542723)

After moving to a new city with her parents, Harriet is stuck sitting around their new apartment alone while her parents start new jobs. She is missing camp back in Indiana and writes her camp friends postcards about sightseeing in Chicago, even though she hasn’t gone anywhere. She starts to pretend that the mailman is sinister, that the third floor of the house is haunted and that the kind owner of the house, Pearl, is a murderer. Pearl though continues to try to connect with Harriet during her long summer, using books and stories as a way to relate to one another. As the book steadily reveals, Pearl’s son had polio while Harriet herself has MS. This book beautifully portrays a teen’s long summer and dealing with a chronic illness.

Set in the 1990s, this graphic novel depicts a Latinx family as they move closer to Harriet’s doctors in Chicago. The family is warm and lovely, connected to Harriet but not hovering or overly worried about her. The graphic novel uses warm colors, sultry breezes and just enough mystery about what the truth of the house could be to keep the pages turning. The focus on books and reading is conveyed through the eyes of a teen who doesn’t really enjoy reading her assigned books. Filled with diversity, there are lots of people of color as well as people experiencing disabilities in this graphic novel.

Harriet herself is a rather prickly character, so I loved when she faked reading The Secret Garden, saying that she didn’t really like the main character that much. Readers will develop a sense of connection with Harriet as her vivid imagination comes to life, even though she may have misled the readers as well as herself at times. There are few graphic novels that have characters with invisible disabilities who sometimes need mobility aids and other times don’t. This is particularly effective in a graphic novel and portrayed with grace and gentleness.

A quiet graphic novel for tweens and teens that is just right with some lemonade and pizza. Appropriate for ages 12-15.

Reviewed from e-galley provided by Graphic Universe.

Review: The Season of Styx Malone by Kekla Magoon

The Season of Styx Malone by Kekla Magoon

The Season of Styx Malone by Kekla Magoon (9781524715953)

After brothers Caleb and Bobby Gene get into trouble for trading their baby sister for a bag of fireworks, they are sentenced to a summer of labor alongside the boy who traded with them. Caleb is determined not to be an ordinary person in life, something his father seems obsessed with him staying at all times, even calling him extra-ordinary! So when Styx Malone enters their lives and offers them a way to trade the ill-gotten fireworks for something even better, the two brothers eagerly join him. But Styx is not telling them the whole truth about his life or even about the trades they are making. As the boys are pulled farther into Styx’s world, Caleb worries that it will all fall apart and that he will be left being just ordinary again.

Magoon has created a story that reads smooth and sweet, a tale filled with adventures and riotous action. At the same time though, she has also created a book that asks deeper questions about family, the foster care system, children in need, and what makes a good friend. Readers may not trust Styx as quickly as Caleb does, so the book also has a compelling narrative voice that is naive and untrustworthy. Even as Caleb, in particular, is drawn firmly into Styx’s plans, readers will be questioning what they are doing. It’s a great book to show young readers an unreliable narrator who is also charming.

The book has complex characters who all rise beyond being stereotypical. Even the adults in the book show glimpses of other sides that create a sense of deep reality on the page. Styx himself is an amazing character. He is clearly doing things on the edge of the law, hustling for deals and acting far tougher than he actually is. The moments where Styx shows his softer side are particularly compelling, like the hotdog cookout and seeing him interact with a father figure. Beautifully nuanced, these moments take this book from a madcap summer to a book that speaks deeply about being a child.

A top read of the year, expect to find incredible depth in this novel about friendship and family. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Wendy Lamb Books.

 

Review: All Summer Long by Hope Larson

All Summer Long by Hope Larson

All Summer Long by Hope Larson (9780374304850)

Bina’s summer has just started, but it’s already going wrong. Her best friend, Austin, is heading to a month-long soccer camp. He’s also acting strangely and has decided that they are too old for some of their regular summer activities. Once he’s left for camp, Bina finds herself watching too much TV and just hanging out alone. Then she bumps into Austin’s older sister who turns out to be into music just like Bina is. The two of them start hanging out but when Austin returns things stay just as strange. Bina has to navigate her way through new friendships and old ones as she also grapples with her love of music and what that means for her friendships too.

Larson is the author of several graphic novels for children and teens. Here she tackles middle-school summers with a focus on music and individuality. Bina’s summer will feel familiar to readers, a stretch of time that is meant to be the best but ends up being time that needs filling with more than binge-watching TV. The incorporation of a friendship between a boy and a girl that does not involve romance or attraction is great to see. Readers will fret that Austin’s strange attitude means he “likes” Bita, but the truth makes sense and fits the story well.

The art is friendly and approachable. Done in a limited orange and black palette, it speaks of summer heat and sun. Bita herself is lanky and tall, her angles oozing with middle-school gawkiness in an appealing way. Her parents are just involved enough but also absent in a way that shows trust too.

A graphic novel perfect for summer reading.  Appropriate for ages 12-14.

Reviewed from copy provided by Farrar Straus Giroux.

3 New Summery Picture Books

Grains of Sand by Sibylle Delacroix

Grains of Sand by Sibylle Delacroix (9781771472050)

Two small children return home from a beach vacation. The little girl notices that her shoes are still filled with sand. When her brother asks her what she will do with them, she decides to plant them in the garden like seeds. Perhaps they will grow into yellow beach umbrellas, or huge pinwheels, or lemon ice cream. They could form a huge sandcastle, big enough to live in. Or best of all, maybe a beach will form at home. Before they can think of more ideas though, it’s time for bed and their father promises another trip to the beach next year. This picture book has a lovely mix of boisterous imaginings and also a steady quietness. The two children dream of what would grow from the grains of sand, thinking together about the possibilities even as they settle in at home. The illustrations are beautifully done in pencil with bursts of blue and yellow, the yellow setting the page aglow. This is a winner of a summer read, just right for bedtime. Appropriate for ages 2-4. (Reviewed from library copy.)

The Sandcastle That Lola Built by Megan Maynor

The Sandcastle That Lola Built by Megan Maynor, illustrated by Kate Berube (9781524716165)

This summery picture book offers a riff on The House That Jack Built. Lola is busily building a sandcastle on the beach. She makes a tall tower and tops it with a piece of sea glass that will signal the mermaids. But then a kid playing frisbee accidentally knocks her castle down. He stays to help rebuild this time with a wall around the castle to protect it. A little boy pushes a bulldozer into the wall and he stays to help dig a moat around the wall. A girl trips and spills her shells. She stays to build too. But then a wave wipes all of their building away. Lola is ready to quit until the others inspire her to keep on building.

Using the format of The House That Jack Built as a place to build from, this book does not stick solely to that structure. Instead it adds walls, moats, and friendship to the tale, creating a looser storyline. The illustrations are friendly and bright with a diverse cast of children who play together and others who fill the beach in the background. A great book to enjoy with your feet in the sand. Appropriate for ages 2-4. (Reviewed from e-galley provided by Edelweiss and Alfred A. Knopf.)

Summer Supper by Rubin Pfeffer

Summer Supper by Rubin Pfeffer, illustrated by Mike Austin (9781524714642)

Told entirely in words that start with the letter S, this picture book is a celebration of summer, seeds and sunshine. In their garden, a family grows spinach, squash, spuds, strawberries and sunflowers. The story begins with the sowing of the seeds, watering them and the sprouts growing. It moves quickly on to harvest where the vegetables are made into salad and succotash. The night ends with music, cleaning up and bed. And maybe one final snack.

Told in very simple words, the story is accented by “s” words shared right in the illustrations. The book is fast moving which will be welcomed by small children who are eager to see the results of the hard work of gardening. The celebratory nature of the book revolves around the harvest and the family. The illustrations are bright and merry, showing the color of the garden. A yummy book to share throughout the spring, summer and fall. Appropriate for ages 2-4. (Reviewed from e-galley provided by Edelweiss and Random House.)

3 New Picture Books Full of Animals

Honey by David Ezra Stein

Honey by David Ezra Stein (9781524737863)

This is a companion book to Leaves with the same bear. This time the bear has woken up from hibernation and is hungry for honey. Everything around him reminds him of aspects of honey like the golden sun and the flowing river. But it is too early for honey to be ready, so the bear tries to forget about it. Still, he keeps on thinking of the sweet treat as he spends his days. He enjoys the rain, swimming in the water, and exploring his surroundings. Finally it is time for honey! And then the days start to cool again and fall approaches.

A great companion book to the first stellar picture book, this one feels so connected to the first. The art has the same free and flowing style as the first that was so compelling. In this book, honey is the focus and Stein cleverly shows how different parts of the bear’s day remind him of honey even when he is distracted. The illustrations are compellingly summerlike, the sunshine clear on the page. A welcome new sweet treat of a book to share. Appropriate for ages 2-4. (Reviewed from library copy.)

The Moon Man by Isabel Harris

The Moon Man by Isabel Harris, illustrated by Ada Grey (9781680100785)

One day Cat, Rabbit and Squirrel discovered a new addition to the wheatfield they lived near. It was a scarecrow, but only Rabbit knew that. The friends played near the scarecrow because he smelled nice and had a friendly face. That night, Fox, Owl and Hedgehog came out into the field and see the scarecrow. They think that he’s a moon man and leave him food to eat. The next morning, the other animals believe the scarecrow has left them some treats to eat. They in turn give the scarecrow flowers. The nocturnal animals see the flowers and think that the moon man has picked them because the moon doesn’t have any flowers. Perhaps they should build him a rocket to return home. When the farmer returns, he finds his scarecrow quite different! He moves it to another field, so the nocturnal animals believe their rocket has worked!

Grey’s picture book has young readers in on the joke immediately. The day animals know what the scarecrow is and their jubilant reaction sets the tone for the book. The nocturnal animals are the most confused, but their story is what makes the book really work. It is particularly nice that their story of what is happening is never disproven and instead remains intact throughout the book. The illustrations are bright and summery, filled with golds and greens. The nighttime illustrations fade to grays and pastels. A book about imagination and creativity, this picture book is full of humor and friendship. Appropriate for ages 2-4. (Reviewed from library copy.)

Pignic by Matt Phelan

Pignic by Matt Phelan (9780062443397)

An adorable family of pigs head out on a sunny day for the perfect picnic. A friendly turtle helps the littlest pig climb up into a tree. As other pigs want to fly a kite, a wolf sneaks up on them. There isn’t any wind, but luckily the wolf has a solution and fixes the problem with a “Huff puff.” Called to eat, the pigs leave the wolf holding the kite. Soon storm clouds gather and rain pours down in a gush. It leaves lots of mud behind, much to the joy of the pig family!

With one problem after another, the pigs still manage to have a wonderful picnic together. The text is very simple, with a natural rhythm that ends with a chorus of “Hooray!” when each obstacle is overcome. This playful book shows the power of helping one another and having a positive outlook. The illustrations are done in watercolors and pencils, showing pink pigs of all sizes ready for a great day together. Even the blue wolf is not scary, just right for the littlest listeners. A book that will have everyone planning the next picnic. Appropriate for ages 2-4. (Reviewed from library copy.)

The Summer of Owen Todd by Tony Abbott

The Summer of Owen Todd by Tony Abbott

The Summer of Owen Todd by Tony Abbott (9780374305505)

Owen and his best friend Sean are looking forward to the perfect Cape Cod summer spent playing baseball, driving go-karts at Owen’s family’s business, and just messing around. But then Sean’s mother hires a babysitter for him for the summer even though he’s eleven years old, because she has a new job out of town and Sean has diabetes that she worries about. She also won’t let Sean head to the go-karts anymore. Owen tries to spend a lot of time with Sean anyway, but their summers steadily head in different directions. When Sean tells Owen that his babysitter is treating him strangely, Owen can’t tell how serious the problem is. Sean swears Owen to secrecy and seems fine a lot of the time. But other times, when Sean shares more of what is happening, Owen can’t tell if Sean is lying or not. When Owen realizes that it is all true, it may be too late to save his friend.

Abbott has created a book about the beauty of summer as a kid. That theme contrasts with the darkness of sexual abuse that is also central to the story. It’s a book about friendship and what it takes to be a best friend, break a confidence, and tell. It’s also a book about being a kid, the epic nature of summer break and growing up. Abbott beautifully contrasts Owen’s experiences with the trauma that Sean is going through.

This book simply because of its theme may be too mature for some readers. The way the abuse is dealt with offers just enough details for young readers to understand the seriousness of what is happening but not too much to overwhelm them. This is a book that demands to be discussed and will leave readers feeling shaken. There is no simple happy ending here, which speaks to the damage and complexities of sexual abuse.

Strong writing combines with a harrowing story to create a book about what it means to really be a best friend. Appropriate for ages 10-13.

Reviewed from ARC provided by Farrar Straus Giroux.