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.
Daughters of Ruin by K.D. Castner (InfoSoup)
Four princesses have all lived together as sisters since they were small children. But they are far from being sisters, each heir to their own throne. After a war ravaged all of their kingdoms, the victor brought the daughters of his enemies together in peace to forge a new truce. Ten years later, the girls still live together but the peace between them is strained and fraying. There is Rhea, distrusted by the other princesses because her father is the king. Cadis is the beauty and the strongest fighter but there is some question about whether her democratic sea-faring society even lets her be royalty. Iren is the quiet and meek one, concentrating on long letters home to her mother. Finally there is Suki, the youngest of them and most volatile. When the peace of the palace is breached, the princesses have to choose alliances and take up arms.
Castner has created a very strong debut novel. She has not just one strong young woman but four, each of them different from the others. Castner gives them each a unique perspective and voice and yet also keeps them from becoming stereotypical in any way. These are all princesses of war, teens who have been raised to kill and damage, to defend their kingdoms and to win. While some of them are closer than others to being true sisters and friends, others are almost enemies. The dynamics of a four teenagers living closely together and isolated is intriguing and Castner captures the subtleties of it as well as the broader issues.
Castner focuses mostly on the girls themselves and the world comes into focus as the girls leave the palace and venture outside it. Because so much of the book is political intrigue, it makes for a book that truly is from the perspective of the main characters where what they are touched by is the thing that the reader knows most about. In this way, Castner also avoids lengthy exposition about the world made up by the kingdoms. There is just enough detail for it all to make sense and work and nothing more.
Strong female protagonists who wield weapons with panache combine with politics and plenty of twists and turns to create a debut worth exploring. Appropriate for ages 12-15.
Reviewed from copy received from Margaret K. McElderry Books.
The Winner’s Kiss by Marie Rutkoski (InfoSoup)
This is the third and final book in the Winner’s Trilogy. Arin is now fighting to keep his country from once again falling into the hands of the Valorians. He has a new alliance with the Dacran queen who has sent her brother to monitor the war and Arin. Arin is trying to convince himself that he doesn’t love Kestrel anymore after she rejected him so clearly. Kestrel is being sent to a work camp where no one knows who she is. She mines sulfur by day, her strength increased by a drug in the food and water. At night, another drug allows her to sleep without thinking of what she has lost. Even drugged though, Kestrel cannot help but try to escape. When news comes of Kestrel’s death from disease in a remote area, Arin refuses to believe it. Then he gets a whisper of her true circumstances and sets off to find her. But it may be far too late for them.
Rutkoski has managed to keep this romantic fantasy trilogy entirely engaging and powerful through the entire series. In this third book, readers will once again discover her skill in writing battles and fight scenes which do not scrimp on blood, sweat and emotions. She is also highly skilled in creating a world that feels real with the various kingdoms at war and two people caught between them.
And then there is the romance as well. Here readers who adore Arin and Kestrel get to watch them reconnect and rebuild what was stolen from them. It is a romance of timid and tender beginnings, false starts and sudden flares of passion. It is written with a delicacy that is beautiful, particularly against the backdrop of war, personal risk and sacrifice.
A glorious end to a remarkable fantasy romance trilogy, fans will need to know how the story ends. Now we can look forward to what is next from the talented author. Appropriate for ages 14-18.
Reviewed from copy received from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
The Tiger Who Would Be King by James Thurber, illustrated by Joohee Yoon
Released September 15, 2015.
Thurber’s profound story is brought to vivid life in this new picture book version. Tiger wakes up and decides that he wants to be king of the beasts, declaring to his wife that he will be king before the night is over. He believes that others are calling for change as well and that the moon will rise in his colors, striped and orange. Lion though is not willing to give up his title. The two start fighting and soon all of the animals in the jungle are fighting too, though many don’t know why they are fighting. Eventually after an immense battle, there is only one survivor, Tiger. He may be king, but there are no beasts to rule any more.
Yoon takes the words of Thurber and creates a picture book that is startling and incredible. She captures in expressions, the pride of declaring yourself to be a ruler, the shock of the old ruler being challenged. The epic battle is shown on pages that fold out to a four-page spread that brings to mind Picasso’s Guernica in its confusion and brutality. Done in only two colors, the green and orange capture the moist heat of the jungle. Though the illustrations appear to be prints, they are actually done with a combination of hand drawing and computer art. However it was done, it is pure brilliance.
A great book to spur discussion about war, pride and costs, this picture book will resonate with young readers. Appropriate for ages 5-8.
Reviewed from copy received from Enchanted Lion Books.
The Day My Father Became a Bush by Joke van Leeuwen
Toda lives with her father and grandmother. Her mother left them years earlier and went to a neighboring country. Now Toda’s father has gone to be a soldier in a war. Toda discovers that he has learned how to become a bush, so that he will not be shot. At first Toda stays with her grandmother in their family bakery, but that soon becomes too dangerous. Her grandmother sends her off to her mother, but Toda must make a dangerous journey with strangers to cross the border. Though her grandmother has made plans, they go awry along the way and Toda must navigate much of the border crossing on her own. Even once she is across the border, she doesn’t know where her mother is and how she will ever locate her. This is a story told from a child’s view of war and being a refugee.
With such an unusual title, I wasn’t sure what this book was going to be about. It was surprising to find myself in a book about war. Even more amazing to find that it was a book filled with humor. Van Leeuwen has written a book with a wild sense of humor but even more importantly a very unique point of view. Toda sees the world in her own special way, often misunderstanding what adults around her are trying to say. This gets her into all sorts of adventures along the way.
With such a grim subject of a child refugee separated from all those who love her and continuing forward on her own, one would expect it to be frightening. It certainly is at times, yet the grim reality is held at bay much of the time through Toda’s optimism about what is going to happen to her. There are still moments where the reader is unsure of what is going to happen next and whether Toda is going to be severely injured if not killed. Those moments are handled with the same frank and open attitude as the more silly moments. Together they form the fabric of the story, one that is harrowing but also incredible.
Completely unique, this book features a fresh and noteworthy point of view that comes from a young survivor who has no idea how very brave she is. Appropriate for ages 9-12.
Reviewed from digital galley received from NetGalley and Gecko Press.