The Wildest Race Ever by Meghan McCarthy Book Review

The Wildest Race Ever: The Story of the 1904 Olympic Marathon by Meghan McCarthy
Publisher: Paula Wiseman Books
Release Date: March 1, 2016

It was 1904 and St. Louis was hosting the World's Fair and America's First Olympics. People traveled from all over the country and the world to watch and participate. One of the strangest things to happen at that years Olympics was the marathon. Forty-two racers registered, thirty-two showed up, and most managed to make it to the finish line one way or another. Unpleasantly warm weather conditions contributed to heat exhaustion in the runners since there weren't enough food and water stations. Cars drove by on the dirt road kicking up dirt and dust that made it hard to see or breathe. One runner from Cuba, showed up in street clothes and seemed more interested in chatting with people along the way than he did with running. One runner was run off the road by stray dogs. Another jumped in a car and drove some of the way before crossing the finish line looking rather refreshed. (He was later disqualified for cheating) And lets not forget the craziest bit, the notion that strychnine would give you strength and so the runners were being given doses of the poison...and still managed to finish the race.

This race was like a series of unfortunate events. It's a wonder anyone managed to finish at all. Make no mistake, most of these people weren't amateurs either. They had qualified to be in the Olympics. The race was simply ill-prepared. The road wasn't closed off to traffic, there weren't enough water stations, and some bad sports medicine added to this bizarre story. It's a wonder any of them managed to finish in such conditions. The cartoony illustrations worked will with this book, capturing the manic bizarre nature of this 1904 race. A lot of great information in the backmatter and will certainly spark the imagination of young Olympic hopefuls.

Rocket and Groot by Tom Angleberger Book Review

Rocket and Groot: Stranded on Planet Strip Mall! by Tom Angleberger
Publisher: Marvel Press
Release Date: March 8, 2016

After battling deadly space piranhas, Rocket and Groot crash-land on a planet made up of strip malls, crazy robots, and killer toilets. It's an adventure that seems too crazy to believe, even if you are a suped-up Raccoon and a walking tree.

When I first showed this book to my husband, he snarled at it skeptically. As he should. Despite this PG-13 movie being spun for kids by Marvel, this comic book was certainly never meant for children. Rocket in particular is supposed to defy the idea of a cute fluffy woodland creature by having an extreme potty mouth, bad attitude, and a pension for killing. So it is just plain weird to see a kids chapter book with Rocket as the main character. How are they going to pull that off, I wondered.

Apparently, the way to make a potty mouthed character suitable for children is to remove the curse words, add some killer pottys (seriously...killer toilets), and a whole lot of fart jokes. On its own the book is your typical middle grade book with just enough pictures for the Wimpy Kid crowd and just enough text for the gatekeepers. It is funny as long as you enjoy a good fart joke and will appeal to fans of Angleberger's other books. This is fluff fiction to be sure and the kids are going to eat it up. But make no mistake, no matter how cute Rocket is in this book, Guardians of the Galaxy is not made for eight-year-old.

The William Hoy Story by Nancy Churnin Book Review

The William Hoy Story: How a Deaf Baseball Player Changed the Game by Nancy Churnin
Illustrations by Jez Tuya
Publisher: Albert Whitman & Company
Release Date: March 1, 2016

All William Ellsworth Hoy wanted to do was play baseball. After losing out on a spot on the local deaf team, William practiced even harder eventually earning a position on a professional team. But his struggle was far from over. In addition to the prejudice Hoy faced, he could not hear the umpires' calls. One day he asked the umpire to use hand signals: strike, ball, out. That day he not only got on base but also changed the way the game was played forever. William "Dummy" Hoy became one of the greatest and most beloved players of his time!"

Sometimes I read a book and I feel rather stupid for not ever wondering why something was a particular way. I always assumed that the hand gestures used in baseball where a part of the game from the beginning. I am so happy to hear that there is such a rich an interesting story behind something that has become an integral part of a beloved sport. William Hoy didn't overcome his disability, but rather used it to enhance a sport that he worked so hard to be a part of. Churnin doesn't shy away from tough subjects, like rejection and prejudice, which makes the story feel so much bigger than its picture book format.

Another great picture book biography that will easily earn a place in school libraries and home bookshelves.  Perfect for students who are baseball enthusiasts and not.  

Old MacDonald Had a Truck by Steve Goetz Book Review

Old MacDonald Had a Truck by Steve Goetz
Illustrations by Eda Kaban
Publisher: Chronicles Books
Release Date: March 1, 2016

Old MacDonald had a farm E-I-E-I-O. And on that farm he had a...TRUCK?! With a DIG DIG here and a SCOOP SCOOP there, this classic tale plays to the kids who are obsessed with big vehicles. 

This is going to be both a review and a rant of sorts, so anyone invested in this book (author, illustrator, etc.) should not take this too personally. I liked this story on its own. The illustrations are bright and colorful, full of the life one expects to find in an illustrated song book. 

My rant is with the rehashing of the same story to the point of ad nauseam. Not only does Old MacDonald have a truck, but he also has help from a hen, a dragon, a woodshop, an apartment house, a band, and of course the many many versions of a typical farm. Sure, the picture book audience ages out of a book rather quickly, but is that a reason to keep making the same book over and over. If this was a movie franchise, it would be like remaking The Lion King every five years or so, adding a slight twist, and then expecting people to buy and love it as much as they did the original simply because the kids now didn't see the last one. People lose it when they remake their favorite movies and I find it interesting that people are okay with it happening in books. This is not to say that these books aren't done well, I just wonder what the logic is behind making yet another Old MacDonald book on the part of both the author and the publishers. How easy or hard is it to sell such a concept? Is it like writing an ABC/123 book? Does it matter that there are already a bunch of books like it? Or does the slight twist make it seem different and unique? These are questions I don't have answers to mind you. Just like my movies though, I am far more entertained by books that feel original rather than the rehash of an already familiar topic. 

Parachute by Danny Parker Book Review

Parachute by Danny Parker
Illustrations by Matt Ottley
Publisher: Eerdmans Books for Young Readers
Release Date: April 1, 2016

Toby doesn't like heights. That's why he always carries a parachute with him. His parachute makes him feel safe when he has to climb down from his bunk bed or when he's playing on the swings. But one day, Toby's cat gets stuck in a tree, and it's up to Toby to rescue him. With the help of his parachute, Toby reaches his cat and lowers him safely to the ground. But now Toby is stuck in the tree, unless he can conquer his fears. 

A cute little story, beautifully illustrated, that focuses on a child's fear and how it is possible to outgrow them. Simple in its execution and yet a story that may resonate with more anxious children. The illustrations really are the true gem though.

When Mischief Came to Town by Katrina Nannestad Book Review

When Mischief Came to Town by Katrina Nannestad 
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers
Release Date: January 5, 2016

After the terrible loss of her mother, Inge Marie is sent to live on the tiny island of Bornholm in Denmark. Her grandmother is stern and seems upset by Inge Marie's eccentricities, like talking to inanimate objects. Inge is desperate for her grandmother to be proud of her and so she tries to be the dutiful granddaughter, but sometimes it is so hard to behave. Perhaps mischief is exactly what this little island needs though.

I am not entirely sure what I expected when I started this book. Based on the cover, I think something Pippi Longstocking-esque based on the cover and setting perhaps. There was definitely some Pippi Longstocking-like shenanigans going on, but there was also a great deal of pathos that made the story beautifully heavy in places. Inge desperately missed her mom and although she is moving on with her life, that longing doesn't go away overnight. There were numerous time throughout the book where I teared up or full on cried as Inge comes to terms with the loss of her mother. There is also this wonderful character in the grandmother who may seem rather stern in the beginning, but as the story continues one can see the twinkle in her eye before Inge is even aware of it. The grandmother has the nickname of Dizzy and it turns out that Inge and her grandmother may have a lot more in common than Inga first thought. There is also an additional storyline that deals with what happens to orphaned children that don't have a safety net and how they need a family too.

As I have said before, because my husband and I are in the middle of the adoption process, I am much harsher on books with adoption themes. This book was perfect in that respect. It deals with the loss, doesn't shy away from issues, shows different types of adoption, and still had a wonderful story behind it full of fun mischief and a wonderful little girl. And for the modern American reader, it is just distant enough from our home and time period to not be so immediate for children who may be dealing with the same issues.

Friends by Aiko Ikegami Book Review

Friends by Aiko Ikegami 
Publisher: Albert Whitman & Company
Release Date: March 1, 2016

A little girl is beginning her first day at school, but she doesn't speak the language and looks different from everyone else. Then she meets a squirrel. Soon she has made friends with all kinds of woodland creatures which leads to human friends too. And when a new student show up, the little girl knows just how to make him feel at home.

Ahh, if only we could all just sit around and then magically make new friends, life would be so much easier. The illustrations in this book are quite lovely, but I found the message to be a little unrealistic. Friends don't just come to you, animal and human alike. It requires patience and work on both parts. Although, I did appreciate the effort she made to make the new kid feel welcome. As someone who has moved a few times now, I get being the new person in a new place and have always taken great care to befriend those who are new because I know what it feels like.

Jazz Day by Roxane Orgill Book Review

Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph by Roxane Orgill
Illustrations by Francis Vallejo
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Release Date: March 8, 2016

In 1958, a photo was planned with Esquire magazine to pay tribute to the American jazz scene that was all over Harlem. They were all there, beloved jazz musicians and the kids who looked up to them. Art Kane, the photographer, had sent out word but had no idea if anyone would show up for the photo shoot. Told with poetry, this is the story of how one famous photograph came together.

I thought this book was beautiful and inspired, with some wonderful perspectives that allow the reader to learn about jazz and the people behind the music. Who showed up? Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk to name a few. Fifty-seven in total. Vallejo illustrates all of this so deftly too, making the various jazz greats come to life in a way that never felt like a caricature.

My biggest question is who the audience is for this book though. Poetic non-fiction already has a very narrow audience, but make it a wordy picture book and it gets narrower. Sadly, I think that this book really isn't for kids. It is for the gatekeepers, librarians and teachers who will love it and put it on their shelves for learning purposes, but I don't see kids picking this up on their own.

The Dead Bird by Margaret Wise Brown Book Review

The Dead Bird by Margaret Wise Brown
Illustrations by Christian Robinson
Publisher: Harper
Release Date: March 1, 2016

When a group of children find a bird lying on the sidewalk, they are sad to find that it has died. Instead of passing on their way, the children decide to say good-bye. In the park, they dig a hole and cover it in flowers. They speak sweet words over it and sing a song.

A re-illustrated edition of one of Margaret Wise Brown's classic stories, The Dead Bird feels like one of those books that would never have gotten published nowadays. Beautiful in its simplicity, the book is about death, a subject that is relegated to the "issues" section of the bookstore these days. I have met so many parent's these days that try to shield their children from such a subject that I imagine they aren't going to be terribly happy about this one. I mean, I had parents returning That's My Hat because the rabbit is eaten in the end. Then there is the whole children-touching-dead-animals thing that may upset modern parents too.

What I love about this book though is that it is helping perpetuates the idea that death is just a part of life. Life should be respected, as should death. I think it is important to talk about death with children not only because it is a part of life, but so that they understand the concept before they have to deal with it. Less traumatic that way. The new illustrations are quite lovely and much more colorful than the original.

In Memoriam: Anne Tews Schwab

Two years ago I did an interview with one of my former classmates and writer friend, Anne Tews Schwab. Yesterday I found out she passed away unexpectedly. Normally, I would review a book today, but in honor of Anne, I am reposting her interview here and mourning the loss of a wonderful person and a great talent. I will miss her daily pirate poems. She had so many wonderful stories inside her.

Do you recall how your interest in writing as a academic pursuit and career originated?
  •      I think it all started right after I learned how to write my name ... I was so proud of my new skill,  and so eager to share it with the world, that I grabbed a good friend and a pair of red crayons, and my co-author and I went on a writing spree. We wrote and wrote and wrote, covering the outside walls of our houses, our trash cans and our white picket fence. It was my first experience in self publishing and it was thrilling and exhilarating - until my mother discovered our work and handed us a bucket and scrub brush and instructed us to wash it all off. And that was how I first discovered the joy and pain of editing. 

What draws you to children’s books specifically?
  •      The tight truths delivered in straightforward narratives, the subtext available for deep readers to discover, the inquisitive minds of young characters determined to unravel the mysteries of the world as they come of age in times of trouble, war and/or peace.

How do you birth a poem and how does it grow into something like a book?
  •      I think a poem grows the same way a story does - it all starts with a seedling, an acorn, a random thought, observation, question, revelation, and from there it gathers energy and power, growing in scope and size, gathering companions and forming alliances with other poetic ideas and forms until the group assembles and organizes into something resembling a narrative.

What is your favorite poem in Capsized?
  •      Probably the diamanté (Black Diamond) about a grand piano. This was such fun to write while working out the puzzle of how to best fit the piano imagery into this distinctive and elegant poetic form!

What is the most challenging part of writing for you?
  •      Feeling like there aren't enough hours in the day to write all the stories roaming around in my head!

What have you learned about writing that you didn’t know 5 years ago?
  •      I think my favorite thing that I've heard over and over and have finally taken to heart as gospel truth is the simple idea of: Write, write, write! In other words, in order to succeed, first you must complete!

Can you share a little of your current work with us?
  •      I'm working on a draft of an epic novel about pirates and mermaids with a bit of global warming thrown into the mix :) And if I could solve the more hours in the day conundrum, I might finally get it polished!

How can readers discover more about you and you work?

You write a pirate poems that you post on Facebook, where did the idea of a pirate poem a day come from and is it difficult to maintain?
  •      I was inspired to write daily poems after a workshopping session at Hamline (where I received my MFA in Creative Writing for Children and Young Adults). We tried a new poetic form every day to begin the session, and after that I was hooked!

Can you describe one of your writing fantasies? Does it include a best-seller, a corrugated display, book tours, school visits? Oprah?
  •      Well, if I'm dreaming big, then I'd say: my pirate adventure published as a middle grade series that ends up getting picked up by Steven Spielberg and made into a movie. 

One last very important question: Have you ever gone out in public with your shirt on backwards, or your slippers on, and when realizing it, just said screw it?
  •      I've had many dreams (nightmares?) where this has happened but I can't recall it ever happening in real life... But there's always tomorrow!

Let's Play by Hervé Tullet Book Review

Let's Play by  Hervé Tullet 
Publisher: Chronicle Books
Release Date: March 29, 2016

It's just a yellow dot, but that isn't just what it does. As in Press Here, readers will find that a little bit of interaction and they yellow dot takes on a life of its own.

I thought Press Here was cute and original. But that has been done and so this book felt a bit old hat, although to be fair it was better than Mix It Up. I think kids are going to like it though.

Puddle by Hyewon Yum Book Review

Puddle by Hyewon Yum
Publisher: Farrar, Straus, & Girroux
Release Date: March 8, 2016

One rainy day, a little boy is upset because he can't go out and play. His mom comes up with a way to keep him entertained--by drawing a picture of herself and him going outside, playing in the rain, and splashing in a giant puddle. They have so much fun drawing themselves that they decide to venture out and make the most of the rainy weather.

This is the classic, "I'm bored", scenario. It's raining outside and there is nothing to do. Completely relateable for both kids and parents. Of course, the mother doesn't do anything terribly extraordinary other than take some time to draw and play with her child, but it is a cute book that is perfect for a mother who wants to engage with her kid. An opportunity to draw together perhaps?

Have You Seen Elephant by David Barrow Book Review

Have You Seen Elephant by David Barrow
Publisher: Gecko Press
Release Date: October 1, 2016

One would think that playing hide and seek with an elephant would be easy, but not so for one little boy and his pet elephant. Absurdly funny, this story struck just the right balance between adorable and weird. There is no point to it, which I appreciate amongst the sea of didactic picture books. The illustrations are beautiful where even the end pages are used to tell a story. Additional bonus points for including a dark skinned child who, based on the family gallery in the front of the book, is of mixed race.

The Big Dark by Rodman Philbrick Book Review

The Big Dark by Rodman Philbrick
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Release Date: January 5, 2016

A solar flare reverses the Earth's magnetic field, causing electrical outages across the entire planet. Charlie lives in a small rural town in New Hampshire. At first, when everything goes dark, they just assume the power would come back on soon. After all, it is the middle of the winter. But after several days, another snow storm, and too far away from any town to get news, they assume they are on their own. Things would have been fine too if it weren't for the survivalist anti-government gun toting conspiracy nuts that life in a compound outside of town. They make it clear that not only do they think the government is behind the outages, but that they should be running the town. When Charlie realizes that his mother is running out of diabetes medication though, it is soon clear that he is going to have to travel to the next big town to get her the medicine she needs. But the big towns are in even worse shape and no one knows if they are even going to survive the winter let alone what they are going to do about bullies with guns.

This book was so good. Realistic, evenly paced, adrenaline pumping, and thrilling. At first, even though it is the middle of the winter, I wasn't as concerned about the people in this town. They genuinely cared for one another and were used to occasional power outages, although usually they had backup generators. Even so, fireplaces were a thing and these people employed them. Enter the antagonists. These already described yahoos are intent on taking over this town and are not remotely afraid to hurt people in order to do so. The thread that keeps them from stepping over the line is thin and it doesn't take much for them to step over it. Charlie is a reactionary character, in a good way. He is selfless and does what he can to help those around him. Of course, the adult in his life are trying to shield him from adults worries, but Charlie will have none of it.

I don't know what would happen if the electricity suddenly shut off. I imagine some amount of chaos and yet it won't turn into a crazy dystopian world overnight. The biggest concerns would be food and medication. Probably not as big a deal if you live in the country and are used to fending for yourself, but a problem for city dwellers. Wintertime in New York City without power would leave many people starving. Part of me wished that there had been another story, one set somewhere entirely different to see how those people survived, like in the Pfeffer series. A place where they didn't have to worry about freezing to death and could ride bikes to other towns relatively quickly, but had to deal with too many people and not enough food. We would be okay in my home for a few days, but then what? This is what makes this book so good. It makes the reader think. And it may make you a bit concerned if you have some nut-cases living in a compound anywhere near you.

Green City by Allan Drummon Book Review

Green City: How One Community Survived a Tornado and Rebuilt for a Sustainable Future by Allan Drummond
Publisher: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux
Release Date: March 15, 2016

In 2007, an EF5 tornado ripped through Greensburg, Kansas, destroying the 95% of the town. The residents wanted to rebuild, but they decided that they didn't want to make the town exactly how it used to be, they wanted it to be better. This new town would be able to withstand another tornado, but it would also be built in an environmentally sustainable way. Greensburg is now often described as the "greenest" town in America.

Told from the perspective of a child, this was a good nonfiction tale of one town standing up to adversity and not just making the best of it, but making it better. The illustrations were cute, but I am not entirely sure if an illustrated picture was the best format for this type of a story. Firstly, because I really wanted to see real pictures of real people. The cartoon illustrations took away from the immediacy of the tragedy. I was disappointed that there wasn't even a picture of the rebuilt town in the back matter. Never mind that I really wanted a lot more information. There was some basic information throughout the text and in the back matter, but I don't feel like I got the full picture of what a completely sustainable community actually looks like. On the one hand, this limited information did lead me on a fact finding mission on the Internet, but since not every reader is going to do this, it would be nice if all the needed information was already in place. Again, I thought the book was good, but for the age of children that would be reading it, there needed to be more information befitting a book for upper elementary students.

Thunder Boy Jr. by Sherman Alexie Book Review

Thunder Boy Jr. by Sherman Alexie
Illustrations by Yuyi Morales
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Release Date: May 10, 2016

Thunder Boy Jr. is named after his dad, but he wants to have a name that is his own. They call his dad Big Thunder, which is awesome, but he doesn't like being called Little Thunder. He wants to be celebrated for something he has done. A name like Touch the Clouds, or Not Afraid of Ten Thousand Teeth, or Full of Wonder would do. It takes time, but soon Thunder Boy Jr. finds a name that it all his own, one that is sure to light up the sky.

There are times when I am in awe as to how so much story can be squeezed into such a small format as a picture book. This is one of those times. This is a story about wanting independence and identity. It is about a relationship between a father and son. It is about a Native American family celebrating their heritage and traditions. Yet, like much of Sherman Alexie's work, it is so universal in scope that many different kinds of people can enjoy it.

Yuyi Morales' illustrations are perfect, full of energy and color. She honored the Native American aspects of the story without hitting the readers over the head with it. Yuyi uses every inch of her canvas and easily draws the reader's eye exactly where she wants it to go.

There are very very few picture books featuring Native Americans that aren't some kind of historical account of something or another. This book stands apart, unique and beautiful. It may be a bit early to say this, but I am sure this one is going to win an award or two. It certainly deserved them.

Swap! by Steve Light Book Review

Swap! by Steve Light
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Release Date: February 9, 2016

Do you remember that story a couple of years ago about the guy who exchanged a paper clip for a house? The idea being that he started with one red paper clip and kept swapping things for bigger and better things until eventually I swapped for a house. This is that story in essence. Trading back and forth, One button for three teacups, keeping two teacups and swapping one for something else, until the captain has everything they need for a fine sailing ship, complete with anchor and sails.

I love Steve Light's books. They are so simple and yet they present great complex ideas that go beyond and "normal" concept book. This is a book that goes beyond the numbers, presenting an easy way to understand the exchange of goods. Although I think the idea of exchanging a button for a three tea cups is much more awesome than usually boring old money.

Unicorn vs. Goblins by Dana Simpson Book Review

Unicorn vs. Goblins (Heavenly Nostrils #3) by Dana Simpson
Publisher: Andrews McMeel Publishing
Release Date: February 23, 2016

Phoebe and her Unicorn have returned in a third installment featuring one little girl and her extremely self-absorbed not-so-imaginary best friend, Marigold Heavenly Nostrils. In this book Phoebe gets to meet Lord Splendid Humility, continue the Phobegold Detective Agency, spend a week at Wolfgang Music Camp, and battle Phoebe's frenemy Dakota whose magicked hair has literally taken on a life of its own.

I love Phoebe. I love Marigold. Like Calvin & Hobbes, the two discuss philosophy, life, and deal with goofy parents. Don't get me wrong though, Phoebe is certainly not Calvin as she is pretty much your average elementary school student. Sadly, despite the title, there aren't that many goblins in the story, which isn't to say the book was bad simply a little bit of false advertising. A better title would have been Phoebe vs the Magic Hair since that played a much bigger part in the storyline. Although I enjoyed this book, I didn't think it was as funny as the first two and did wish for there to be a little bit more action and varied scenarios as in the first two. Great if you have read the rest of the series, but just didn't hit the mark for me this time.

Oops, Pounce, Quick, Run! by Mike Twohy Book Review

Oops, Pounce, Quick, Run!: An Alphabet Caper by Mike Twohy
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Release Date: February 16, 2016

It's an epic chase on a alphabetical scale. Told through one or two words, each page carries the reader deeper into the adventure and the alphabet, making letter learning feel like something exciting. Great alphabet book that stands out from the usual A is for Apple and B is for Ball subset.

Two Friends by Dean Robbins Book Review

Two Friends: Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass by Dean Robbins
Illustrations by Sean Qualls & Selina Alko
Publisher: Orchard Books
Release Date: January 5, 2016

Two friends, Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass, often get together for tea and conversations. They talk about friends and family and their fight to win rights for women and African Americans. Although their struggles seem different, the two build a friendship based on a mutual fight for rights.

I am always a bit iffy on biographies that take liberties with what a character said if there is no actual record that they said it. We know that Anthony and Douglass were in fact friends, a plaque portraying them having tea together in Rochester, NY being the inspiration of this book. However, we don't know what those conversations entailed. One would assume they discussed civil rights and their own personal struggles against a system that seemed against them. The two met while Douglass was on a speaking tour and became friends before either was particularly famous. And their friendship wasn't without its drama, since Douglass did not necessarily agree with Anthony concerning women's suffrage. There are definitely plenty of sources, letters and quotes concerning their friendship and ideals and it isn't hard to imagine what the two would have talked about. So I understand why the author decided to fictionalize their conversation and I think in this instance it works, but by being a children's picture book biography it also simplifies the friendship a great deal and the truth is, none of us will ever know what it is they talked about when they were alone.