The Robber Girl was rescued by Gentleman Jack when her family abandoned her. Now she is riding with him and his gang into the Indigo Heart to rob the stagecoach and get Gentleman Jack the bars of gold it carries so he can regain his birthright. Robber Girl has her own dagger, double-edged and sharp, that speaks directly to her in a pointed way that criticizes many of her choices. But the stagecoach is actually a ruse to capture Gentleman Jack. Now for the first time in her memory, Robber Girl is staying in a home. She is dedicated to rescuing Gentleman Jack from the jail, assuring him that she will never turn on him. At her new home, she discovers a dollhouse that is a miniature of the house, one with dolls who talk with her and set her three tasks. As Robber Girl stays longer, she starts to remember scraps of local songs, melodies and the truth, but the dagger’s voice stays just as pointed in her head, insisting that she keep it all forgotten.
The author of Chime returns with a middle grade novel that is a tremendous read. The Robber Girl is one of the best written unreliable narrators I have seen in a book for children. She fully believes what she has been told by Gentleman Jack, though readers will immediately realize that there are holes in the stories. As both the readers and the girl find clues to her past, the largest puzzle of the book is the girl herself and whether she can recover from denial and trauma enough to set her own course before being swept away again by the lies.
Billingsley has written great secondary characters as well. Gentleman Jack is tremendously charming and manipulative. The judge, who takes the girl in, and his grieving wife have real depth to their characters and their stories. They add another look at coping with loss and trauma to the novel. Even the children of the village, who may seem to be bullies, have other levels to them and reveal them over time. It’s an exquisite look at trauma, faith and belonging.
A stellar middle-grade novel that is a tantalizing puzzle of trauma and truth laced with a touch of fantasy. Appropriate for ages 10-13.
Thomas lost his basket of dried fruit for his wintercake that he had planned to make for Winter’s Eve. His friend, Lucy, the cardinal heads off into the growing snowstorm and takes shelter at a tea house. There she sees another animal with Thomas’ basket of dried fruit. She just knows that he has stolen it to keep for himself! So when he leaves the restaurant, Lucy follows him, all the way to Thomas’ door, where he returns the fruit and the basket. Realizing how wrong she was, Lucy and Thomas decide to make a wintercake for the stranger. They follow his footprints in the snow to an empty hollow where he sits alone in front of a small fire. The two friends approach, accidentally scaring everyone and drop the cake. But there is still cake to be shared and new friends to meet.
Perkins creates her own solstice-like celebration with animals in a forest setting that will work equally well for other winter holidays. She tells a detailed story, showing how assumptions about strangers can be very wrong and also showing how to make up for thinking that way about someone. The sharing, giving and friendship shown here are rich and detailed. It is a picture book that celebrates new friends and new traditions built upon old friends and long-standing traditions.
Perkins’ art is interesting. There is no real clarity of what sort of animal Thomas is, rather like a bear or a groundhog type of creature. The stranger is more of a weasel, which works well with the story. That lack of clarity is part of the charm of the book. Perkins has also created a warm neighborhood of tea houses and cozy homes in trees. The bare hollow is shown in real contrast to those other spaces, making it all the more cold and lonely.
A lovely addition to holiday books. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
The book begins with Chapter One, of course, where it is discovered that Chapter Two is missing! A phone number for the police, an email and even a place to tweet is offered to the reader. When the page is turned to Chapter Two, the reader only sees some erased and illegible text on a few pages. Then the book picks up again in mid-story. The chapters move past quickly, with even the characters noting the brisk pace. The detective arrives, the janitor redecorates with M’s and messes with punctuation. Another story merges in for some chapters and then some are blank as characters think hard about the mystery. In the end, the culprit is identified but not caught. Perhaps the reader though can find proof in their own home. Take a look!
Lieb has written a chapter book full of wild humor and a twisting mystery. The book has only three characters: the first person narrator, the detective and the janitor. So the potential suspects are limited. The joy of the book comes with the silliness of the premise, the jaunty pace and the knowledge that each turn of the page will bring something fresh and different. Lieb uses blank pages, inserts a different genre, mirror writing, and messes with punctuation to great effect.
While this may present as a chapter book, it actually bridges between a chapter book and a picture book as it is filled with illustrations and often the chapters are single pages. Done in black and yellow-orange, the illustrations are very funny, often interacting directly with the text on the page.
Funny and fast, this chapter book is a silly mess that really works. Appropriate for ages 5-7.
The author of The Real Boy and Breadcrumbs returns with a new marvelous read for middle graders. Lark and Iris are twins. It’s the thing that everyone notices about them. They are very different underneath their physical similarities. Iris is rational, protective and always willing to argue. Lark is dreamy, creative and sensitive. When the two girls are separated for the first time into different classrooms at school, Lark retreats into herself. She has several humiliating experiences that Iris can’t find a way to help with. Meanwhile, Iris finds herself being quieter without Lark to speak up for and has difficulty finding her own way. She is drawn to a strange new antiques shop and begins to spend time there reading old books that belonged to a mysterious “Alice.” The man in the shop is extremely odd, talking about magic and collections. Other odd things are happening as well with art disappearing around the city and crows gathering in the trees. When Iris finds herself in real danger, the mysteries begin to make horrible sense, but she isn’t sure that anyone will even care she is gone.
Ursu once again weaves an incredible tale of magic. This one is set in Minneapolis and Ursu beautifully shares elements of the northern Midwest and the Twin Cities in the story. The setting of anchors this tale in reality which works particularly well as the reveal of the magical part of the book is so gradual. The book is nearly impossible to summarize well or concisely because there are so many elements to the story. As you read though, it is a cohesive whole, a world that Ursu builds for the reader with real skill where the elements click together by the end of the book.
While the book is about both Lark and Iris, the focus is primarily on Iris, the more prickly and outspoken sister. Lark is seen through the lens of Iris’ concern for her and Lark’s opinion of her own role with her sister isn’t shared until towards the end of the book. That reveal is one of the most powerful elements of the book, demonstrating how Iris has not been seeing things clearly at all. The narrator voice is just as well done, creating a feeling of a tale within a tale, where magic is real all along.
A grand adventure of a book full of magic and girl power. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Walden Pond Press.
In this wordless graphic novel, a little girl brings her stuffed toy fox to school for show-and-tell and it is taken from the playground by a real fox! The girl and her friend chase after the fox, stopping to ask directions when they find a small door in a tree. The squirrel who lives there points them in the right direction. Meanwhile, a weasel tries to steal the toy from the little fox, but a bear steps in and sorts it out. The children arrive at a town where animals live together and they enlist the help of the entire area to search for the fox. Soon they discover the little fox and his stolen toy, but what will they do then?
Graegin tells a really wonderful story solely through images. Using white space to frame her images into a graphic novel format, the story is told with rich details. It clearly establishes the little girl’s long attachment to the stuffed fox and her desire to share it with her class. Then the story becomes a chase sequence and a mystery of where the fox has gone. It then enters a lovely fantasy where the entire animal town comes to life, shown in a wide panorama that makes one want to wander the streets.
One special device used through the book is that the children are shown in black, grays and whites. The color enters the book subtly at first with the little fox and a red bird who watches from above. The children maintain their more somber color palette even as the world around them is vibrant color. Yet these worlds can touch and cross, much to the joy of the reader.
This genre bending graphic-novel picture book is beautiful, rich and worthy of journeying through time and again. Appropriate for ages 3-5.
Reviewed from e-galley received from Edelweiss and Schwartz and Wade.
Ruben would love to have a bike like his friend Sergio has. Even though his birthday is coming, Ruben knows that he doesn’t get presents like bicycles. His family is large and there’s not enough money even for all of the groceries they need some weeks. One day when he is at the store for his mother, a lady in front of him drops a dollar bill. Ruben picks it up and puts it in his pocket, but when he looks at it later he discovers it’s actually a one-hundred dollar bill! That’s enough for him to get the bike he’s always wanted. Now Sergio has a dilemma, does he give the money to his family for groceries? Does he give it back to the woman? Or does he buy the bike of his dreams?
Boelts has created a story that is much more than a lesson in morals. This story is about ethical choices yes, but also about economic disparity and families living on the edge. It is a story told with real subtlety and offering an understanding of what would drive a child who is good at heart to steal what they thought was a dollar. It’s a book about the stories we tell ourselves to make our decisions “right” and the way that doing the right thing may not always be easy or clear.
The illustrations by Jones are modern and rather quirky. They fill the page with the vividness of the urban setting. The love and caring of Ruben’s family are also celebrated in the illustrations.
Subtle and smart, this book about decisions and doing the right thing asks all the right questions. Appropriate for ages 5-7.
When a squirrel discovers that some of his nuts are missing one winter night, he heads straight to the police station where Detective Gordon, Chief of Police, can help him. But when he gets there, no one seems to be around until he finds the great detective fast asleep on his paperwork with cake crumbs all around. Once awoken though, Detective Gordon heads out to help solve the crime. But it’s a very cold night and Detective Gordon can’t climb to the hole in the tree to see the crime scene. When he stands watch, he manages to freeze solid. That’s when a little mouse steals one nut from the tree and ends up helping Gordon back to his warm police station. The little mouse is soon named Buffy and settles into the police station as an assistant to Gordon. She can scramble up trees and seems to have a knack for crime solving too. It doesn’t hurt that it’s all accompanied with lots of warmth, tea and cakes. But who is stealing the nuts? Will they strike again? And how can one very young mouse and one old toad figure it all out?
Translated from the original Swedish, this book is a toasty little joy. It has gorgeous elements to it, filled with small touches that bring it entirely to life. From the various cakes for each time of day and the delight at discovering each new flavor to the pleasure both Buffy and Gordon get from stamping each document when its completed, this book is perfect for quiet and cozy crime fighters and detectives. The mystery is just right for small children and the cozy nature of the story makes this an idea bedtime read. The descriptions are vivid, enhancing the strong feeling of a woodsy community as a whole.
Spee’s illustrations add to the snug feeling of the story. She creates fires that glow with a halo of warmth, cakes that line up with plenty for everyone, and beds that are stacked with eiderdown. It is all very domestic and wonderful and also has a little humor mixed in, just like the story itself. The full-color illustrations make this a perfect book to move young readers and listeners to longer books.
A pleasure of a book, this cozy mystery for children is clearly European in origin which adds to the fun. Appropriate for ages 7-9.
The Toad brothers have taken over Drywater Gulch and are causing no end of trouble. But then a new sheriff arrives in town, a kid in a white suit riding a tortoise. He doesn’t have many skills with guns and has an early bedtime, but he does know all about dinosaurs. He is hired on the spot. And that’s right when the Toad brothers blow up the bank, rob the stagecoach, and jump someone’s gold claim. The sheriff is quick to point out how each of the escapades involved dinosaurs, T-Rex and velociraptors. It seems that the crimes will never be solved by this young sheriff, but soon his paleontological plans turn out to be just what was needed to capture some human bandits.
Shea clearly has great fun creating these characters, this town and this world of dinosaurs mixed with the Wild West. He plays with language throughout, creating wonderful moments where the new sheriff rides – very slowly – into town on his tortoise. Just the way the Toad brothers are introduced early in the book will show how fun this book is to read aloud: “Why, those Toad brothers would steal your gold, kiss your cattle, and insult your chili. Hootin’, hollarin’, and cussin’ all the while.” You can’t read that without a drawl and huge grin.
Smith’s illustrations are equally fun. Using a palette of browns, blacks and tans, he creates the world of Drywater Gulch on the page. There is a great sandiness and grit to the illustrations, and he also plays with perspective and fascinating rock formations of the desert. The wild characters are placed in this world, popping on the page against the gritty backgrounds.
A great read aloud, this picture book is silliness through and through with a western twang. Appropriate for ages 4-7.
Reviewed from copy received from Roaring Brook Press.
Originally published in Germany, this is a gorgeous coming-of-age story that is dark and immensely funny. It is the story of Mike who just doesn’t fit in. He’s considered one of the most boring people in his school, ignored entirely by girls and laughed at when he reads his writing out loud. He’s not even invited to the best party of the year though everyone else is. Everyone but Andre, better known as Tschick, who comes to school drunk, looks like he’s been fighting, and wears outdated clothes. Tschick and Mike have absolutely nothing in common, but when Tschick shows up unexpectedly in a stolen car when Mike has been left home alone for an extended time, they head on a road trip that no one will ever forget.
Winner of several awards in Germany, this book is much more than a standard teen road trip book. What could have been cardboard stereotype characters instead blossom in the hands of Herrndorf to become much more complex and intriguing. They get more and more interesting as the book progresses, steadily revealing themselves to one another and to the reader. It turns out that Mike is far from boring in any way and Tschick is far from any sort of stereotype.
Readers know from the beginning how the road trip ends, but the joy is in getting to that point. I guarantee it is not a straight line! The setting of modern Germany is one that many teens may not have explored, especially through the eyes of native Germans. The translation is done very well, leaving it particularly European, but also making it flow for English speakers.
I am usually not a fan of road trip stories, but this is definitely one trip worth taking. Funny with a lightness but also depth, this is a wonderful teen read. Appropriate for ages 14-16.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Arthur A. Levine Books and NetGalley.