Tumbleweed Baby by Anna Myers Book Review

Tumbleweed Baby by Anna Myers
Illustrations by Charles Vess
Publisher: Harry N. Abrams
Release Date: October 7, 2014

A large, loving family in the 1930s Dust Bowl finds a wild baby in the tumbleweeds. In some ways she fits perfectly in their family and in others, she doesn't at all. The youngest daughter is especially wary of her. Eventually, the entire family warms up the the Tumbleweed Baby, but not before questioning whether they should return her.

The setting of this story was interesting and unique, written in a fun dialect and not something that you see every day. At first, the illustrations didn't draw me in, but I found them growing on me as the story went on. My real problem with the story was in the 'aboutness'. At first, I thought this would be a cute adoption folk-like tale. However, when the family starts to discuss whether they should just return the tumbleweed baby, I instantly knew this would not be an appropriate book to read to a child in foster care or who has been adopted. These kids already have a lot of abandonment issues and worry about fitting in with the family. The idea that their family, or even one sibling, would not like them and their behavior would make their parents think about returning them is no bueno.

Once Upon An Alphabet by Oliver Jeffers Book Review

Once Upon An Alphabet: Short Stories For All the Letters by Oliver Jeffers
Publisher: Philomel
Release Date: October 14, 2014

Once Upon an Alphabet is a picture book with an identity crisis. Each letter has a short story that accompanies it, but the stories themselves are dark and twisted, some with terrible consequences. The various letter alliterations work if you are familiar with the alphabet, but if you were a small child just now learning your ABCs, it would be a bit confusing. There is a reason why we use things like 'I is for Ice Cream' rather than 'I is for Irreverant'. Which is why I would say the audience for this book is really for older elementary school kids and adults, even though both groups already know their alphabet. To test this theory though, I read this book to my nephew one weekend. He is five and is doing very well learning how to spell and read. Although he sat through this entire book, the only comment he made and the only laugh I got out of him was the dead frog in the F story. My sister-in-law on the other hand, kept chuckling at the stories as she folded the laundry.

Personally, I like the stories and thought they were some fun dark humor. The problem is though that this book by format and subject matter, isn't for adults.  

For the Love of Gelo! by Tom O'Donnell Book Review

Space Rocks! 2: For the Love of Gelo by Tom O'Donnell
Publisher: Razorbill
Release Date: October 30, 2014

Chorkle and its human friends, Hollins, Becky, Nicki, and Little Gus have been warped to a strange new galaxy far away from the human's parents and too close to their enemy. With their security shield on the fritz, the decision is made to go to the planet below, which they have identified as Kyral with supposed allies, to seek help. However, when Chorkle's originator doesn't return, Gelo is thrown into political turmoil from a power-hungry Xotonian named Sheln. It is up to Chorkle and its human friends to mount a rescue. Things quickly get out of hand though as an enemy fighter stows aboard and nearly gets them all killed. Their ancient allies after being conquered by the enemy are almost incapable of helping. Kalac is still missing. Chorkle isn't sure if they will ever find what they need to get off planet, let alone to reunite the humans with their parents.

I have made it no secret that Space Rocks!, the first book in this series, is one of my favorite books to come out this year. Full of action, an interesting (dare I say, unique) narrator, and some great sci-fi elements, it felt like the sci-fi books that made me fall in love with reading. For the Love of Gelo is a worthy sequel.

Although these are all the same characters from the first, a couple of new and interesting characters emerge who both frustrate and complicate the situations they are put in. O'Donnell has done such a good job with the world building that it was easy to get upset, frustrated, and despondent just like the characters do. The planet of Kyral is so sad, a conquered place where all their technological advancements were utterly destroyed, leaving the bird-like creatures there to live in relative squalor, fighting one another over traps and food. We are also given a bit of insight into their enemy the Vorem, a warlike race where the word peace doesn't exist. I also cannot express how much I love Little Gus. The youngest of the human group, he is funny, mostly confident, and an all-around cool guy. Also, bonus points for a red-headed boy being in the story. There aren't very many male red heads running around in fiction.

I don't have a whole lot of criticism. There were one or two preachy moments about everyone getting along, peace, and people being multi-faceted, but they were relatively short and weren't out of sync with what was happening in the context of the story. You will have to read the first book to know what is going on, but I promise this will not be a chore. All in all a very solid sequel. A definite go-to series for the reluctant reader.

My only question is, where is book 3?

Sebastian and the Balloon by Philip C. Stead Book Review

Sebastian and the Balloon by Philip C. Stead
Publisher: Roaring Brook Press
Release Date: October 7, 2014

On a boring day, on a dull street, Sebastian sat high atop his roof dreaming of adventure. He finds it in his hot air balloon made of Grandma's afghans and patchwork quilts.

From the muted color palette to the "quietness" of the story, this tale reminded me of old books for the sixties and early seventies. There is a nonsensical whimsy about the story that made it feel magical, but int the end it wasn't about anything in particular. Beautiful to look at, but not much substance, I imagine this will be a book that adults will like a lot more than kids. An additional star though for Sebastian being darker skinned. We need more diverse picture books.

Star Stuff by Stephanie Roth Sisson Book Review

Star Stuff: Carl Sagan and the Mysteries of the Cosmos by Stephanie Roth Sisson
Publisher: Roaring Brook Press
Release Date: October 14, 2014

For every child who has ever looked up at the stars and asked, "What are they?" comes the story of a curious boy who never stopped wondering: Carl Sagan. Many people know his name, but perhaps you didn't know that Carl Sagan's wonder and imagination began at the 1939 World's Fair. His quest to understand the world and the universe whether through non-fiction or science fiction led him to become the renowned scientist astrophysicist, astronomer, and cosmologist, respected in his field and remembered for his contributions to space exploration. Without him, we would not have such wonderful images taken from Voyager. 

I grew up in a very anti-evolution, anti-science environment. Carl Sagan, due to his outspoken atheistic worldview was seen in a rather dubious light. As if, by him not believing in God, his contributions to science were null and void or at the very least, biased and inaccurate. In those circles, Carl Sagan was a figure of scorn, to be ridiculed whenever the subject of evolution came up. As an adult, I have not lost my faith, but I have garnered a deep, wonderful, and passionate view of science, one that was not given to me as a child. Sure, I was never too good at mathematics, but my natural curiosity coupled with being named Venus, did give me a fascination with the stars. I finally took Astronomy in college and although it was one of the most difficult classes I ever took, I proceeded to take Astronomy II just because I loved it that much.  Yes, I can calculate the phases of the moon 100 years from now and I can also tell you that your astrological sign is most likely incorrect. Vaguely I remember wishing that I could be an astronaut when I was a child, but I was also aware that to be a scientist I would actually have to believe in the science. 

How I wish my parents had let me read books like this. Even if they had though, there would have been long discussions concerning the subject matter and what we did and didn't believe. Don't get me wrong, my parents were teaching me what they believed to be right, but it also kept my world small. My understanding of the universe and its workings even smaller. 

This book was great for young children who are just beginning to understand that not only is there an entire universe out there, but they can be a part of it. That what they love now could very well be their passion when they grow up. The illustrations were perfect and really captured  the beauty of the universe in a way that a small child can grasp. 

The Iridescence of Birds by Patricia MacLachlan Book Review

The Iridescence of Birds: A Book About Henri Matisse by Patricia MacLachlan
Illustrations by Hadley Hooper
Publisher: Roaring Book Press
Release Date: October 14, 2014

Henry Matisse was once a little boy living in a very dreary town in northern France. His world was a world of color though. One of lines and dancing figures, creating beauty in whatever is around him.

Beautifully illustrated, as I have come to expect from artist picture book biographies, this book sings with creativity. The text is sparse and simple, but also the longest run on sentence you have ever seen. This is the third one of its kind that I have read in as many months (Edward Hopper Paints His World The Noisy Paint Box) I can just imagine how difficult it is to mimic an artistic style, a famous one at that, while still retaining your own stylings. Hooper does this with such finesse, although her color palette is a bit more muted than Matisse, I still loved the way it took on a Matisse-like quality without pretending to be Matisse. With all the wonderful artist biographies out there, I think kids can be given a very nice introduction to art, one that will hopefully fuel some creativity of their own.

The Glass Sentence by S.E. Grove Book Review

The Glass Sentence by S.E. Grove
Publisher: Viking Juvenile
Release Date: June 12, 2014

In 1799, for reasons that no one can fathom, the Great Disruption threw the world into different time periods. In Boston it is 1891. Other parts of the world are in the future, some in the past. Traveling between these periods can be dangerous as Sophia Tims learned when her parents went missing. Eight years after their disappearance Sophia's Uncle Shadrack also goes missing, but this time she thinks she knows why and where she needs to go next. Having never been outside of Boston before, Sophia teams up with a boy named Theo and soon is on an adventure that will cross the ages.

I loved the idea of this book. The beginning read like some of my favorite mystery video games like Myst and Siberia. A world that is split not by boundary lines and oceans, but by time periods. How easy to get lost when you can walk from the past into the future, or killed if you should stumble upon dinosaurs or glaciers. This is why there are adventurers, explorers, and mapmakers. People who dedicate their lives to creating not just paper maps, but memory maps. These maps allow you to see three-dimensionally into a specific time, allowing not just the place but the people to be mapped as well. What an awesome concept.

Sadly, the execution left something to be desired. Miss Sophia, who claims to be "wise beyond her years", is a rather boring childish character. There are so many great concepts here with her parents missing, the relationship with her Uncle, the inkling of her wanting to help others, Boston closing their borders (which made no sense in the context of the actual story), but in the end, she was just blah. A maiden archetype who wouldn't be worth beans if she didn't keep coincidentally running into people who were willing to help her. Theo, a mysterious boy from the Baldlands, also had a lot going for him and I kept expecting some great truth to be revealed and it never was. Theo is mysterious for no other reason than he has learned how to lie and manipulate over the years. This makes Sophia distrustful but not enough to part ways with him. This portion of the book drove me nuts because she is accusatory and distrustful, but seeing as nothing comes of it and he doesn't change, it felt more like a plot device than actual character growth. In fact, for all her hooting and hollering about not trusting Theo, Sophia is actually very trusting. She believes people when they say they want to help, she obeys when ordered to do things that go against her conscience, and it's a good thing these people are all who they say they are or she would be in some real trouble. Really, I am still trying to figure out why the men who kidnapped her Uncle didn't take her too. It made no sense to leave her behind and then have to go chasing after her later.

To be very frank, I found this book to be extremely confusing. I was constantly having to loo at the maps in the book. I have no idea why the book is even called The Glass Sentence instead of something like The Glass Map or Memory Map. I'm still confused by how these memory maps are made. Absolutely no clue. It must be magic, but I am still unclear as to whether people all lose their memories when making a memory map, or if it has to be done a certain way in order to remain sane. What time period is the Baldlands supposed to be? Do they not share information with other ages? This would have made for a rather amazing Steampunk novel, but with no one from a future age sharing technology with those of different ages, there was just missed opportunities.

There is a mixed bag of opinions about this book, but for me it just felt garbled and full of missed opportunities.

Kwanzaa Stories Book List

This was a difficult book list to put together. So many of these stories remind me of badly written issue books that I almost gave up making the list altogether. It was rather discouraging, because although I know this is not a widely celebrated holiday, I think all holidays and faiths deserve good representations through books and literature. Some are nice introductions to the basic principals of Kwanzaa, but I wouldn't necessarily count them as good Kwanzaa books or well-written. In the end, there are a couple dozen books on this subject, but very few are of the quality that I see in Christmas and even Hanukkah stories.

Hannukah Stories Book List

Can I tell you how many amazing Hanukkah books there are out there? This is only a small sampling of them.  

Also, because this song gets stuck in my head all the time....and I don't actually know the words to the original, I give you this video so it will be stuck in your head too.

The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

It's not the greatest quality, but this is by far one of my favorite Christmas movies. It is one of the few movies that was not available on DVD until recently and so I dig out my VHS player to watch it. I should add that I was a bit of a trouble child as a kid so I always related more to the Herdmans than I did to the other children.

The Last Christmas Tree by Stephen Krensky Book Review

The Last Christmas Tree by Stephen Krensky
Illustrations by Pascal Campion
Publisher: Dial Books
Release Date: October 1, 2014

Among the grand firs and pines at the Christmas tree lot, sits a little hunched tree that is missing some branches. Nevertheless, the little tree is filled with Christmas spirit and waits in great anticipation for his turn to be picked. As the weeks go by though, no one picks the little tree. No families want him. Some even make fun of him. By Christmas Eve he is the last tree in the lot. That is when a special visitor wearing a red and white outfit shows up to give the little tree a home for Christmas.

In the vein of The Tale of Three Trees, this anthropomorphized little tree story is full of heart. I may have teared up a little when that little tree was sitting there all alone in the lot after being rejected over and over. The sweetness of the ending, the idea that Santa takes home the little trees that are left over brought a tear to my eye. As I sometimes do with these books though, I thought I would run it through a child test. (aka read it to my nephews) I could not, for the life of me, get them to actually sit through this book. I started it over twice, we abandoned it, and then I tried to read it to them once with with the response being, "We don't want to read that one." Either my nephews aren't in the holiday spirit yet or something about it didn't appeal to them, so perhaps this one is a adults-will-like-it-more-than-kids book. If that is the case then I can at least guarantee that the parents will enjoy reading it.

Christmas in Young Adult & Middle Grade Books List

Obviously there are a lot of books out there with Christmas themes, but I am trying to keep this list short and not so obvious. Or at the very least, different. I would be interested in adding Hanukkah stories to this list if anyone knows of some I can add. It still amazes me the subjects that have not been written about or are included in middle grade and young adult books. 

My Favorite Santa Stories - Book List

The Christmas Stick by Tim J. Myers Book Review

The Christmas Stick by Tim J. Myers Book Review
Illustrations by Necdet Yilmaz
Publisher: Paraclete Press
Release Date: November 1, 2014

One Christmas Eve in a far kingdom, the royal family gathered to open presents, which mostly means watching the prince open his. However, the royal prince is a bit of a spoiled brat and none of his wonderful presents keeps him entertained for long. There is one person though that sees how truly miserable the prince is, his grandmother, and she offers him something he doesn't know he needs--a stick. It is this gift that finally opens the prince up to be grateful and to find the cure for his sadness.

A different kind of Christmas story, this one isn't just about a child being bored or not being appreciative of all their gifts, but also about discovering true joy and happiness. There is an obvious lesson to be learned, but one that will open up dialogue concerning a number of topics. I know around this time of year there are talks about what Christmas and the Holidays really are about is a big deal in a lot of families. Children can seem greedy as they beg for the biggest, brightest, loudest toys and most parents know that the child could be just as happy with a pile of blocks. Try convincing your little prince or princess of that though. The illustrations were bright although a bit computer-flat to me, but I'm sure the bright colors will still draw in young readers.

A review copy was provided by the publisher for an honest review. 

Nativity Stories Book List

I have always had a problem with Nativity stories. Not because I have a problem with the birth and celebration of that birth, but rather I take issue with the lack of diversity and factual information within them. However you may feel about the nativity story, the truth is over the past 2,000 years a number of inaccuracies have cropped up. It is understandable that in 1400 Germany where the majority of the population was illiterate, that you would draw pictures of this story in a way that the people would understand and accept. You would paint Mary and Joseph as looking German. They would wear clothes that were vaguely reminiscent of middle eastern clothing, but just barely. But now? Now, we know and understand what people from this area of the world look like and yet we continue to do the same thing. It bothers me that the majority of nativity stories feature a very fair couple and their even paler child. As I was building this book list I even found one where Joseph had red hair and freckles. Are you kidding me?! Then there are the myths that have slowly been built based on out of context misinformation, misunderstandings, and not understanding the language that the Gospels were written in. Example: There was no innkeeper. Look it up. He/She does not exist in this story. Never mentioned. Not once. Don't get me started on the whole barn/stable thing. That is only the beginning of the inaccuracies featured in these nativity stories. Frankly, if I had a young child I think I would avoid most of these stories altogether and go straight to the original source along with some serious explanations. Below are a few stories that I think are cute, beautiful, or interesting, but I challenge you (if you are so inclined) to research the historical context of this story. It is very interesting and very different from what you have learned over the years.