The Cat Man of Aleppo by Karim Shamsi-Basha and Irene Latham, illustrated by Yuko Shinizu (9781984813787)
Alaa lives in Aleppo, a city torn apart by war. He loves the city with its alleys, bazaars and caring people. When the war came, Alaa didn’t flee. Instead, he kept working as an ambulance driver on the rubble-filled streets of the city. Alaa misses his family and loved ones. The cats of the city, left behind by their owners, remind him of his family. Alaa begins to feed the cats, at first only a few but soon many start coming to be fed. Alaa must find a special place for the cats. Donations come from all over the world to help and soon Alaa has enough money to create a sanctuary for them. Alaa is then able to save more types of animals as the donations continue. He builds a playground for children and well for fresh water. Through his big and aching heart, Alaa is able to share hope and sustenance with the cats and people of Aleppo.
This nonfiction picture book tells such a powerful story of resilience and how one person’s actions can impact an entire community. The text focuses on Alaa’s love for Aleppo but also on his big heart and willingness to give his own small amount of money to care for the cats of the city. Readers will celebrate his victories with him on the pages, marveling at how one person could help so many.
Shinizu’s illustrations capture the city of Aleppo both before the war and afterwards. The finely detailed illustrations show bustling bazaars and then the torn and vacant streets. The cats are beautifully drawn, each one has a character of their own, even in a crowded scene.
An important book about war, hope and resilience. Appropriate for ages 5-8.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
When Spring Comes to the DMZ by Uk-Bae Lee (9780874869729)
The DMZ on the Korean Peninsula separates North and South Korea. It is a space of land where people are not allowed to cross and has become a wildlife sanctuary over the 65 years that it has stood. The DMZ stretches 154 miles from the Yellow Sea to the Sea of Japan. While there are no soldiers inside the DMZ, there are heavily armed soldiers on either side and miles of barbed wire fencing. In this picture book, the seasons turn in the DMZ and wildlife flourishes each of those seasons. Meanwhile, a grandfather makes the climb up to view the DMZ each season, looking at the land he once lived on. Against the pastoral backdrop of the nature in the DMZ are the movements of the troops on both sides, drilling and maneuvering.
Lee has created a picture book that embraces the complexities of the Korean Peninsula. He shows the impact the creation of the two nations has had on residents and the ongoing constant military presence in their lives. At the same time, Lee focuses too on the wildlife, animals, birds, fish and plants that are finding footing in the DMZ, some of them almost extinct elsewhere. It is a picture book that shows the hope of peace, the importance of space for native creatures and plants, and the impact of war.
The illustrations by Lee are beautiful. They capture the Korean landscape with the mountains in the background, the miles of barbed wire, and the lushness of the DMZ complete with rusting machinery. Turning from one page to the next, readers experience the beauty of nature and then the oppressiveness of the soldiers’ presence.
A complex and intelligent look at war and peace in our world. Appropriate for ages 5-8.
Reviewed from e-galley provided by Plough Publishing House.
Lovely War by Julie Berry (9780451469939)
The author of the Printz Honor winner, The Passion of Dolssa, returns with another spectacular teen read. In a novel wrapped with the attention of the Greek gods Aphrodite, Ares and Hephaestus, a love story for the ages is told. The story is set during World War I and moves from England to France and directly into the trenches and fog of war. It is the story of Hazel and James, two people who found one another right before James is being shipped off to the front. Without even a kiss to say goodbye, the two are separated. Hazel joins the YMCA volunteers in France, intent to offer her music to the troops as a way of staying close to James. There she meets Colette, a Belgian girl who lost her entire family and fiance to the Germans as they razed her town. Aubrey is an African-American pianist who shares his love of music on the sly with Hazel and Colette and eventually falls hard for Colette. Still, they are in the midst of a war in the early part of the 20th century, so racism and danger is everywhere. As the couples are separated, it is clear they may never find one another again.
Berry has created a pure delight of a book. I lingered over this one, not wanting it to end and yet rather desperate to find out what happens to all of the characters. Berry creates characters who are deep and interesting. In this book, she uses music and architecture to create shared languages that bring people together. Her use of the Greek gods to tell the tale is particularly effective, giving the story a sense of dread that one of these beloved characters will be lost in the war.
Berry’s writing is exquisite. Even as she creates a quintessential romance on the pages, there is nothing fluffy about it. Each moment, each kiss, each long look filled with meaning is given space and a sense of importance. The book is written so that one feels along with the characters, understands falling in love and doing it again and again as life deals new blows.
An incredible piece of historical fiction. This is one of the best of the year. Appropriate for ages 14-adult.
Reviewed from ARC provided by Viking Books for Young Readers.
And the Ocean Was Our Sky by Patrick Ness, illustrated by Rovina Cai (9780062860729)
Get ready for a tale that will literally turn your perspective upside down. This is a novel that takes Moby Dick and transforms it into something new and fresh. Bathsheba is a hunter, serving her Captain and hunting men. As whales, they have their own ships, pulled by their Captain and containing the spoils of war. Whales waste nothing, unlike men. There is one man, Toby Wick, who is legendary. Having taken a man hostage, they have him lead them to Wick. But Bathsheba finds herself connecting with their prisoner and she refuses to kill him, making excuses to keep him alive with them. They continue their hunt of Wick, all heading to their destinies.
Ness draws readers immediately underwater and into the gravity-defying world of the whales. There is no chance to catch your breath and find your balance, instead you must trust in the current and follow where Ness leads you. His storytelling is that of a master, offering brevity and clarity as he builds a marvelous world below the surface of the water. There is a richness to his writing even though it is so crisp too, emotions deep and generations long playing out on the page.
Bathsheba is a compelling main character, filling the page with her doubts and questions about prophecies and destinies even as the book draws her closer and closer to her own. Throughout the book there is a feeling of a tragedy playing out before you, the homage to Moby Dick is deftly done. Readers familiar with the classic will immediately see the strong connections and still it is also a fascinating read without knowing the classic at all.
Another tremendously original and marvelous read from Ness. Appropriate for ages 10-13.
Reviewed from ARC provided by HarperTeen.
The Treasure Box by Margaret Wild, illustrated by Freya Blackwood (9780763690847, Amazon)
Nominated for the CBCA Picture Book of the Year, this picture book is exceptional. In a time of war, the library is burned and only one book survives. Peter’s father has that book and creates an iron box to keep it safe. When Peter and his father flee their town, they carry the book with them. Peter’s father dies on the journey and he continues to carry the book with him, even leaving behind his suitcase to manage it. Finally, Peter must leave the box behind, but he hides it safely first. Years later, Peter is able to return to the box and rescue the book, restoring it to his hometown and its library.
Wild’s lovely and simple text allows the drama of the story elements to speak for themselves, never injecting more horror into it. That approach allows the reader to feel deeply the loss and pain of losing one’s homeland. Even the death of Peter’s father is subtle and gentle, allowing the grief to permeate more fully. It makes the focus on the importance of the book all the more tangible and vital.
It is Blackwood’s illustrations that truly make this book amazing. She has created layered illustrations that have shadows and depth to them. Throughout the images, there are pages of books shown. They fall as scraps of paper with words of hope on them, dash across the page as rain, and form the smoke of the burning town. They create the landscape and the foundation beautifully. Here is an image from the book and Blackwood’s blog:
A war-torn book that speaks to the power of history and knowledge along with resistance and resilience. Appropriate for ages 4-6.
Reviewed from library copy.
The Secret Project by Jonah Winter (9781481469135, Amazon)
What an incredible risk to take, creating a picture book about the creation of the atomic bomb. A mother-son team not only take that risk but create a book that is heart pounding, historical and riveting. In a shut-down school in the desert of New Mexico, a very secret project begins. The world’s greatest scientists gather to work on the “Gadget.” They work day and night working to cut an atom in half. After two years of work, the device is ready to be tested. The book ends with a countdown to the test and the resulting mushroom cloud.
Told in the simplest of language, this picture book looks at the process of building the atomic bomb, the secrecy of the project and the skill and time that it took. There is a constant growing foreboding as the project continues, as the science progresses. This book is not about the importance of the weapon and does not glorify it in any way. Instead it brings the science down to nuts and bolts, looks at the damage that it creates, and ends in a way that makes sure to leave readers with their heart in their throats.
The illustrations have a strong sense of formality and control to them. Each is framed in a square box and the rest of the page is white. They are almost tiles that decorate the wall for the reader. That all changes as the test begins and suddenly the strict rules are broken wide open, adding to the drama of the end.
Stunning, powerful and brave, this picture book belongs in all library collections. Appropriate for ages 6-8.
Reviewed from copy received from Beach Lane Books.
Stepping Stones: A Refugee Family’s Journey by Margriet Ruurs, artwork by Nizar Ali Badr (InfoSoup)
Told in both English and Arabic, this picture shares the story of a family of Syrian refugees. The book begins with Rama talking about their life in Syria and how things have changed and freedoms have been lost. War arrived with a lack of food and people began to leave. Still, Rama and her family stayed until bombs fell too close to their home and they joined “the river of people.” They walked and walked until they reached the sea where they boarded a small boat. People died aboard but Rama’s family survived. They walked farther, no longer in a world torn by war until they came to their new home and were greeted by smiling new neighbors.
This picture book is simple enough to share with children. It speaks to the horrors of war but with a delicate touch. Still, it is a book that will spark questions and discussion for children who will want to understand if they will ever need to be refugees themselves and how they can help. It is a picture book that speaks to our universal humanity, the power of war and the courage of hope.
The illustrations are spectacular. Ruurs opens the book with an explanation of discovering his art on Facebook and reaching out to him to see if he would do a book with her on Syrian refugees. His art is moving and emotional, the faceless rocks somehow capturing fear, strain, despair and eventually joy. Done with subtle natural colors, the art is powerful and wrenching.
A noteworthy and extraordinary picture book on the refugee crisis, this picture book belongs in all libraries. Appropriate for ages 5-8.
Reviewed from library copy.
Beautiful Blue World by Suzanne LeFleur (InfoSoup)
Released September 13, 2016.
In a country at war, even children are not safe. Sofarende is being bombed, including the town where 12-year-old Mathilde lives. There isn’t enough food, the sirens sound often, and then there is the destruction and people dying. Mathilde does have her best friend Megs who lives only a few doors away. Now the government has started recruiting children into service. It offers families a chance to have enough food and enough money to survive. The children have to pass a test. Mathilde knows that if Megs takes the test, she will be taken into service since Megs is top of their class. Mathilde takes the test as well, realizing that she too can change the way her entire family survives and lives though recognizing that she isn’t as gifted as Megs in school. But this test isn’t like any other they have ever taken, so the results aren’t either.
LeFleur has written a haunting look at war and the way that it impacts families and children. She presents us with a society that is already battered by the conflict and facing serious shortages. Into that angst and fear, she introduces a way forward, sacrificing children to the effort. It is that moment that mirrors so many choices that families must face in war, sending children to safety, sacrifice in order to find hope, becoming refugees. It is a powerful moment that LeFleur allows to stand and lengthen beautifully.
In the latter part of the book, the children’s efforts at war are meticulously written, yet there is a lovely lack of clarity as well. There is hope in what they are doing, a sense that children see the world very differently from adults and that that is important and valid. At its heart is hope for the future, an end to the conflict and an ability to look beyond today. This too is a powerful time, where conversation and humanity could win over war and despair.
This is the first in a series and I look forward to the next installment. The combination of skillful writing and a powerful scenario with a dynamic and unique heroine creates a series that is very special. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Wendy Lamb Books and Edelweiss.
The Journey by Francesca Sanna (InfoSoup)
The book begins with a family who enjoys going to the beach together often. But then things change and the war begins. Darkness invades and takes over the landscape, then the children’s father is taken by the war. Their mother hears of people leaving for a safer place, far away. She decides to leave as well. They leave at night, hide in different vehicles along the way. They reach the border but are turned back by a guard. They manage by paying for help to reach the sea, but their journey has not ended. As they continue to travel over dangerous seas and past many borders, the narrator notices that birds too are migrating along with them on their own long journey.
This picture book captures the current refugee crisis through a lens that is very appropriate for children. The impact of war is shown as a dark figure, destroying buildings and wreaking havoc. It envelopes them for awhile, particularly with the death of their father. There is a feeling of a constant state of upheaval and danger, the journey is one with its own dangers but is a way forward away from an even more violent situation. The focus here is on the devastation of war and the turmoil it brings, rather than a specific population. The message is that it could be any of us.
Sanna’s illustrations are so wrenching and evocative. War as a long-fingered destruction that envelopes and changes everything is beautifully shown. The book has a feeling of motion throughout, the long pages leading one on your own journey. The huge guard at the gate, stands horrifyingly large on the page, dwarfing the family. Then alone in the woods, the mother is their safe place and their home yet ever so human as well. The illustrations are artistic, beautiful and speak volumes about the emotions of refugee families.
An important and vital book, this book allows children to understand the plight of refugees in our world and will open hearts. Appropriate for ages 5-7.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Flying Eye Books and Edelweiss.