Sparky by Jenny Offill Book Review

Sparky by Jenny Offill
Illustrations by Chris Appelhans
Publisher: Schwartz & Wade
Release Date: March 11, 2014

A young girl wants a pet, but her mother has declared that, “You can have any pet you want as long as it doesn’t need to be walked or bathed or fed.” This is difficult, but our heroine is able to find one pet who meets her mother's requirements--a sloth. She names him Sparky. The problem with having a pet sloth though is that it doesn't really do much or anything. 

Confession: I think sloths are adorable, especially the baby ones. There is something completely endearing about these slow mammals and I could not blame anyone for wanting one. I love the whimsy of a story where a child can get a mail order sloth. (real children may be upset to learn this is not a thing. I checked) The story is cute and simple, with a pet that is both adorable and frustratingly boring. I think there are parents out there who can also relate to the fact that their children are begging for a pet and the parent simply does not want to deal with a needy animal. The illustrations were cute as well, adding the right tone and white space to the story. This isn't a light and fluffy animal book, but it was this aspect that made it different from a lot of other "child wants a pet" books. Besides, what was the last book you read that featured a sloth?

Just in case that you aren't convinced that sloths are cute:

Big Rig by Jamie Swenson Book Review

Big Rig by Jamie Swenson
Illustrations by Ned Young
Publisher: Disney Hyperion
Release Date: February 4, 2014

Join Frankie the Big Rig truck as he takes us on a journey through the world of trucks. Full of truck driving lingo and colorful illustrations, Big Rig introduces young readers to the words and sounds of the road.

Through the clever use of onomatopoeia (“URRRRNNNT-URRRRNNT!” goes Frankie’s horn), Swenson creates a fun adventure that will grab the attention of any young reader and although it "teaches" it never feels didactic. Although all picture books are meant to be read aloud, this one lends itself perfectly to storytime with its jazzy feel and fun sounds. There is even a "Truck-tionary" at the end with big rig vocabulary terms that are used throughout the book. Ned Young's illustrations are vibrant, reminding me of the movie Cars with its anthropomorphism. A great book for those kids who just can't get enough of trucks.

Interview with Big Rig's Jamie Swenson

At what point did you realize that writing was a viable career option?
This is a really hard question to answer - because - a viable career means something different to each person. For me, with two published and one soon-to-be-released picture books, I have yet to realize the monetary level that my 'other career' provides. I know very few writers who are independently wealthy or earn enough simply by writing to support themselves. Most have part-time/full-time jobs, or have a partner who earns the majority of the income. The writers who are supporting themselves are doing a lot of traveling either to conferences or school visits, which is of course a wonderful thing - but also exhausting! For me, writing is my passion -- but I support that passion by working as an early literacy storyteller/children's associate at my local public library. In my mind, this is the best of both worlds - to be surrounded by children's books at 'work' and to 'work' as a writer. I feel blessed in this regard! I also have a very supportive husband who helps makes my writing time possible. Without these two outside sources of income, I'm not sure being a picture book writer would be a viable career for me.

What does a typical writing day look like for you?
My typical writing day starts as soon as I wake up. Getting into the frame of mind is really important, so I do the 'office work' first for about an hour. This includes catching up on any important emails, updating social media as needed, or reviewing notes from my editor/agent about the current project. Once I have put out any fires, I feel free to write for a few hours. On a good day, I'll write for about three hours before taking a break. My best break is walking my dogs. During my walk, I am revising the morning's work in my head (sometimes by talking aloud - which I think worries those who pass me!). I also use my walk to brainstorm new story ideas. It's amazing how much I get done AWAY from my computer! After my walk - I once again check email/social media etc... and then if I'm actively working on a project, I try to write for another hour. If not, I might spend the afternoon critiquing work for other writers. I am normally done for the day by 3:30 p.m. when my kids get home from school. If I'm very inspired about the current project -- I may work on and off in the late afternoon/evening -- but that's rare. My typical week consists of two full writing days, and three days spent working as an early literacy storyteller at my local library. Many of my ideas hit my while I'm at work - either observing storytime, or interacting with the kids at the library. I'm not sure writers ever really get to leave the writing work behind! I have no idea how to 'turn it off' when I'm not actively at my desk.

How did you celebrate when your first book was accepted by a publisher?
I guess the funniest part of that first contract came when I announced it to my family. I sold my first book in December 2010; the book was originally due to come out in Dec. 2012. When I announced the date, my then middle school aged daughter got a pained look on her face and said, "Oh great. That's when the world is supposed to end!" Mayan predictions aside, I don't think I'll ever forget that! I had waited a long time to get 'the call' - and so it made perfect sense that when it finally came it was the end of life as we knew it! All joking aside, I used a bit of the advance to take my family on vacation -- the rest went toward bills. It was an incredible moment in my writing life -- a validation of sorts for all the work, rejection, patience, and time spent at my computer.

What were your 1-2 biggest learning experience(s) or surprise(s) throughout the publishing process?
I think the pace of the industry still surprises me, despite the knowledge that I had coming into the mix. I'd heard stories from published friends about the long wait for the finished product. I knew about waiting. My first manuscript sold after about seven years of near misses. That alone would have probably killed most folks, or sent them running off to self-publish. But I could never walk away. I felt like I was so close for so many years. Years. Thinking back, I have no idea why I kept trying. I just did. And then, one day, *HOORAY!* I sold a book! And it would be out in TWO YEARS! Everyone outside the industry was shocked that my picture book would take TWO YEARS, but I was well-aware of how long it took for a picture book to come out ... what I wasn't expecting was to have an illustrator like Chris Raschka take on the manuscript. When my editor told me he loved it and wanted to work on it - but couldn't start until 2012, I was in shock. Amazingly GOOD shock. My editor actually asked if I would be okay with this ... um... YES! But, when I told my friends and family that the book wouldn't be out until 2014 (at the earliest) they were in disbelief. How on God's Green Earth could a picture book take so many years? I really don't know. They just do. And believe me, when I saw the art for the book and held the advance copy in my hand - all the years (previous to selling the book and the waiting for the book once I signed off on the text) disappeared. So, I guess I'm surprised to tell you, "Yes. The slow pace of the industry is fine with me." If you're out there writing a picture book, know that once you sell it, you might have a bit of a wait before you get to share the finished product with your mom. (Novels don't take such a long time ... and not EVERY publisher takes two years or more for a book ... but, know that it's a possibility).

What role did you play in the illustration process of Big Rig? How has your experience with your previous and upcoming books compared?
My editor for BIG RIG kept me involved with the illustration process of the book, sharing Ned Young's early sketches and asking for my thoughts/opinions. Many of my suggestions were incorporated into the art -- but there were still plenty of fun surprises for me when I saw the final art (for instance - I had NO IDEA there would be dinosaurs in this book - cars/trucks AND dinosaurs? I was thrilled). The process for my Macmillan books was slightly different - I never saw rough sketches and had only minimal input on end pages and cover. So, those books were a complete surprise for me -- which was really fun too!

What made you interested in writing about trucks? Have you done any book events where Big Rigs were involved?
As a children's librarian/storyteller -- I am always using great transportation books, from the classic Crews books to new releases. I love how the kids respond to anything with wheels - boys and girls. One day, while observing a storytime, I heard a little boy yell out, "I am a big rig!" It made me laugh, but the sentence stuck with me. All weekend that voice popped around in my head, but started to change into a very BIG voice with an even bigger attitude. "Howdy, name's Stella. Proud to meet you, I'm a big rig." What? The voice stopped me. I started playing with it and started researching all things truck related. I was so taken with the voice and with all the fantastic truck-related words I discovered that I had no choice but to write the book. If you had asked me the day before I'd heard that little boy yell out if I had any intention of writing about semi trucks - I would have said no. I've learned to be open to any topic and to come at it in a way that makes me smile. BIG RIG, and the truck who is now named Frankie, makes me smile.

I have always found it very difficult to write picture books because I can’t write anything that short. What is the hardest thing for you when you work on picture books?
Writing 'short' is a challenge - and it's one I adore. My first draft of a book might be 700 words. My next challenge is to cut the ms. down to the bare essentials - to recognize where I've stomped on the illustrators toes by providing too much stage direction/detail -- and where I've fallen in love with my own sentences and given too much narrative ... and looking at the white space - is it balanced? So much of what I write is hidden in the white space -- you have to use your imagination when you look at my manuscript. My books are intended to be illustrated, and I respect the ability of the illustrator to take the words and ideas I've created and flesh out our story and add to it. I really do think of writing picture books as a puzzle ... how can I give the reader a full, rich experience in as few words as humanly possible? Do not waste even one word. Do not be frivolous. Make it count. If you're only using 430 words - each word MUST have a reason and must pull the story along. It's become such a part of me that I'm not certain I could write LONG! grin.

Can you share a little bit about your newest project with us?
My next book, IF YOU WERE A DOG, will come out in Sept. 2014. It's actually the first book that I sold to Macmillan back in 2010. I am in love with how the book turned out. It was illustrated by Caldecott Medalist, Chris Raschka, and was well-worth the four year wait, at least in my opinion. Chris' watercolors seem to match the joy I was feeling when I wrote that text, which is playful and rhythmic and full of what is now my 'trademark' onomatopoeia (I love using sound words in my books, so much fun to read aloud with kids). My current W-I-Ps are a bit zanier than my other books. I'm playing with voice and perspective and language. I'm having fun and I'm playing, which is what I do best.

When you were eight-years-old, what did you think you were going to be when you grew up?
When I was eight, I was thinking about being a famous actor/singer/television news reporter. While I didn't actually become a famous actor/singer, I do still use those skills almost daily - whether I'm sharing books, songs, and action rhymes in storytime, or writing my next book. Picture books are like mini dramas - they're intended to be read aloud with feeling. When you read them, you use some acting skills -- and when you write them -- you imagine and use a ton of acting skills (at least I do) . I find myself reading aloud, imagining the reaction each word might get from the kids -- and freaking out my dogs in the process.

How can readers discover more about you and your work?
Or Tweet me @JamieASwenson

Peggy by Anna Walker Book Review

Peggy by Anna Walker
Publisher: Clarion Books
Release Date: March 5, 2014

Peggy lives in a small house in a quiet street. Then, on a blustery day Peggy finds herself scooped up by the wind and blown into the city. Things are marvelous and strange, but all Peggy wants to do is find her way home.

Children are really going to love this jaunty adventure featuring a very brave chicken and some beautiful illustrations. Peggy notices things that children would notice, bringing the perspective down to their level in a way that is never condescending. There is the never ending crush of the city with it's endless umbrellas and people, but Peggy weathers it all and eventually finds that although she does want to return home, sometimes a visit into the city every now and then isn't such a bad thing. With sparse text and engaging art, this would be a great read for a storytime or for those kids who love a quiet adventure.

Dream Dog by Lou Berger Book Review

Dream Dog by Lou Berger
Illustrations by David Catrow
Publisher: Schwartz & Wade
Release Date: February 25, 2014

Harry has always wanted a dog. His parents, who aren't as on board about getting a canine, get Harry a lizard instead. This forces Harry to take matters into his own hands and with the use of the X-35 Infra-Rocket Imagination Helmet, he creates his own dog—Waffle. Things are great for Harry & Waffle until a real dog comes into his life. Is there room for two dogs, even if one is invisible?

I have to admit, I picked up this book purely for David Catrow's illustrations. I absolutely love his use of color and whimsy that he distills into all his illustrations. The story itself if the perfect mix of imagination and coming of age story. After all, how do children let go of their imaginary friends? I imagine for every child this is different, but it is something young readers will be able to relate to.

Now Playing by Ron Koertge Book Review

Now Playing: Stoner & Spaz II by Ron Koertge
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Release Date: August 9, 2011

Ben Bancroft is still riding high after successfully completing a documentary for a film festival. His girlfriend Colleen is just high. Struggling with his feelings about Colleen and looking to the future, Ben begins to wonder what other people really see when they look at him. Do they see the withered arm and loping gait from cerebral palsy or do they see something else, something better?

As you can tell, I am catching up on some of my older reading. The first book, Stoner & Spaz was a book that I used as a positive example of disabilities in middle grade and young adult book, which was the focus of my Master's critical thesis. One of the most important elements I found to a create a good story with disabilities was that the story couldn't be about just the disability. Should you remove the disability from the story, there should still be some sort of plot. Despite his cerebral palsy and the fact that he thinks about it often, the real plot has nothing to do with Ben's disability. Instead this story is really about his relationship with Colleen.

Colleen's story takes center stage this time. Raised in a life full of neglect, abuse, and sexual predators, Colleen struggles for normality, often resorting to drugs to dull her reality. Ben doesn't always know how to deal with her and does question whether he should even be dating her. However, Colleen is also ballsy and when Ben goes to find his mother who abandoned him, it is Colleen who helps put everyone at ease.

My only complaint is that the plot was a bit meandering. Without a focus like the documentary film festival, the plot sped up and slowed down at a pace that was as wonkey as Ben's gait. Ben's mother was so strange and detached that I never really understood what was going on with her. How does someone that slow and out of it hold down a job and get an apartment? Although I was glad to see another book about Ben I still worry about him. Colleen, despite her wanton ways, really is a walking disaster and Ben can't fix her. Will he stay with her once he graduates and goes on to college? I just don't see that happening, no matter how much effort he puts into their relationship.

As promised and for the sake of posterity, Ron Koertge was one of the faculty advisers at Hamline University where I got my MFA.

A Catfish Tale by Whitney Stewart Book Review

A Catfish Tale by Whitney Stewart
Illustrations by Gerald Guerlais
Publisher: Albert Whitman & Company
Release Date: January 1, 2014

Jack lives deep in the bayou along with his beautiful wife. When Jack catches a magic fish that offers to grant a wish in exchange for being set free, Jack can't think of a single thing he wants--but his wife can. She wishes for a mansion with a balcony to sing one, a paddleboat, fame, money. The fish never seems to be troubled by the wishes, but perhaps things have gone a bit too far.

Jack has a really terrible wife. She is not content with her life with Jack. Instead she wants, no demands, fame and fortune from the catfish. A Catfish Tale does read like an old Louisiana fairy tale, but there was a lack of resolution in the end. Did the catfish take it all back or did Jack's wife simply learn her lesson. Jack was willing to do anything for his wife because he loved her, but it wasn't until things got out of control that she even considered going back to her "old" life. I am not entirely sure that she actually learned her lesson although lucky for her Jack loves her just as much in the end as he did in the beginning. The illustrations were vibrant and colorful. I absolutely loved the catfish.

Tramp by Bill Kennedy Book Review

Tramp: A T.K. & Associates Detective Story by Bill Kennedy
Publisher: North Star Press of St. Cloud
Release Date: March 1, 2014

Tramp may seem like a regular dog, but he is anything but ordinary. When Tramp is taken from his home and sent to a neighborhood pet store, all he cares about is finding a family. Little does he know that those friends from the pet shop will become part of his work as a detective. Smart, quick, and able to understand humans, Tramp sets about to solve a mystery with the help of the animals and humans that he has come to know and love throughout his neighborhood.

I readily admit I have never been a dog lover. I know I know, this is sacrilegious to those who are, but I just can't help it. Lucky for me there are some wonderful cats in this story too. Tramp is a very extraordinary dog besides. Able to understand humans and make himself understood, Tramp is sure to catch the interest of its intended audience. At first I was a little unsure as to why the author decided to start the story at the pet shop as it didn't seem to have any relation to the overall plot which I originally thought was just about a dog finding a family. However, as promised, the story is a thrilling mystery in which the beginning is cleverly tied into the plot in a way that felt organic and yet a bit magical.

There isn't magic in this book per se, and yet the anthropomorphic nature of the animals did have that sense of fantasy that every child (and some adults) wish their pets had. We wish that the understood us. In a way they do. Reminiscent of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH and Poppy & Rye, Tramp is a fun adventure story with a slightly dark twist that really shows what it means to be a friend and part of a family.

The advance reader copy of this book was provided to me by North Star Press of St. Cloud and Bill Kennedy for review purposes.

An Interview with Tramp's Bill Kennedy

 Before we get started talking about your writing, Bill, I would like to tell our audience a little about the author. Tell us about yourself, where you’re from, what you do for a living—if you’re not a full time writer, what hobbies you have. That sort of thing.

Born: Peoria, Illinois
Lives: Jamestown, ND
Job: Development Director, James River Valley Library
Hobbies: Reading, Walking

What does a typical writing day look for you
I write in the evenings and on weekends. I write long hand using a fast pencil and pad of paper. Revisions are done on a Dell Laptop with Windows 8. 

What is the most challenging part of writing for you?
Sitting down and starting. 

In your book there are a lot of really great animal characters. Are any of them fashioned after animals you own or have owned in the past?
Tramp is inspired by a real dog. We loved him and he loved us. He controlled his own destiny and sometimes ours. Buster is inspired by a real parakeet who lived a few blocks away. Calico, Pauly and Suzette are blends of other neighborhood pets. The Angel-Mouse Chorus? no idea where they came from. 

What drove you to write this story?
I wanted to pay tribute to Tramp and our neighborhood. It was a magical place to raise a family with open doors, and backyards full of kids and animals. Close enough to downtown to take the bus to work in downtown Minneapolis and two blocks from a beautiful lake. The humans are based on our family and our neighbors who are as real as Tramp. 

You are planning on writing more books about Tramp. How do you go about planning a series? Do you have a story arc planned or is it more episodic in nature? Tramp gave us more than enough adventures to keep T.K. & Associates busy. Future books will stay in the Twin Cities and introduce new animals and humans.
Can you share a little bit about your newest project with us?
Tramp’s next caper is in the same Minneapolis setting where his skills as a detective are developed with the help of old and new characters, both animal and human. Perhaps a stranger that walks by Tramps house every day talking out loud to no one in particular as the result of, well we will see.

How can readers discover more about you and your work?

If you could be any character in fiction, who would you be?

Adult Novel
Atticus Finch, To Kill A Mockingbird , Harper Lee
Atticus cares deeply about his children, Scout and Jem, and his deceased wife. He never lets the kids lose sight of her importance to the family. As a lawyer in a small southern town, he shows courage, respect and love to all To Kill A Mockingbird’s characters.

Children’s Picture Book
Bonaparte, Bonaparte, Marsha Wilson Chall
Bonaparte, a dog, loves his boy, Jean Claude, and will not allow him to be taken away to La School d’Excellence without his company. “NO DOGS ALLOWED” does not stop him. He outwits the boarding school administrators by saving their reputation and opening the school to all dogs. 

Weasels by Elys Dolan Book Review

Weasels by Elys Dolan 
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Release Date: February 25, 2014

Weasels. What do they do all day? Well, little did you know but they are plotting world domination. This adventure story is full of mischief, failed attempts, and coffee as the weasels work toward the ultimate plan to take over the world.

A busy book with a lot to look at one each page, giving personalities to the various weasels using speech bubbles. All I have to say, don't give a weasel access to coffee. They have a habit of spilling it a lot, which may be why the world domination machine is broken. Who knows? This is a bit long for the younger readers if you read all the speech bubbles and there are definitely some asides that only an adult reader is really going to understand, but it is cute and nicely illustrated so I think the 5-8 year-olds will enjoy it greatly.

Sure Signs of Crazy by Karen Harrington Book Review

Sure Signs of Crazy by Karen Harrington
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Release Date: August 20, 2013

There are a lot of trouble words in Sarah Nelson's life. Like love, mom, and crazy. When Sarah was two-years-old her mother tried to drown her and her twin brother. Her brother died. Now Sarah worries about whether or not she will become crazy one day. After all, she talks to a plant, keeps two diaries, likes to stand on a stump in the middle of her yard, and her mother is definitely nuts. As Sarah begins to grow up, experiencing her first real crush, she finds an inner strength and the answer to questions she has been desperately searching for.

Despite an interesting premise, this is one of those "quiet" books. Completely character driven, there is only a meandering plot with a lot of introspection, which was in keeping with the character but also felt like a running monologue sometimes. Sarah's feelings, her concern about growing up to be crazy like her mom is very understandable and I thought it was a real shame that with all the psychologists she saw, not one told her that crazy isn't catching. Not once is postpartum depression mentioned.

What I did love was that this felt like a glimpse into the life of someone who has been through something traumatic like this. Sarah's father was also put on trial (even though he was not there at the time), but was acquitted. Years later the news story continues to come up though and anytime a woman kills her children, this tiny family has to re-live these terrible events. They move over and over again whenever word gets out that they are in town, because there are people who still believe her father played some part in it and got away with murder. The press badger them whenever they try to visit the grave of her twin brother. These elements made the story so sad and painted such a vivid portrait of grieving families who are never really allowed to move past there trauma. It also made the book solidly a young adult book. Although the language and age of the character read like an intermediate level book, I wouldn't give this to any kid in elementary school unless I knew they were dealing with some of these exact same issues. I mean, Sarah is not only into boys but she has a complete crush on a nineteen-year-old. Also noteworthy, Sarah refers to "To Kill a Mockingbird" often and I think young readers would be much better served if they already had a working knowledge of either the book or movie or both.

On the downside, there is a lot going on in this book. If the crazy storyline wasn't enough, then there is the crush, and her babysitter's bad boyfriend, their next door neighbor, her obsession with words, her dad's alcoholism, Sarah becoming a woman, her letters for school, and the constant word definitions that have almost become trope in middle grade books. Sarah is such a lonely and sad child and I was left with the feeling that despite finding a bit of her voice, this isn't going to change. There is still so much healing needed for this family and they are going to both need some serious counseling. Without it, I can see Sarah running off with some older guy at sixteen, still writing in her journals and despite saying she wouldn't, discovering the same drink her father did.

29 Myths on the Swinster Pharmacy by Lemony Snicket Book Review

29 Myths on the Swinster Pharmacy by Lemony Snicket
Publisher: McSweeney's McMullens
Release Date: February 11, 2014

There are many myths surrounding the Swinster Pharmacy. 29 are listed in this book. Who is the owner? Is it really closed on the weekends? Why are there three Styrofoam heads in the window? There are many theories, but none will ever hope to shed a light on the mystery that surrounds this little pharmacy.

I have enjoyed many of Lemony Snicket's books over the years, but this one is a terrible bore that was both meandering and pointless. Believe me, I understand the point of it. Children trying to debunk myths surrounding a place with little hope of a resolution. Therein lies the problem though. There is simply no resolution and no point, which made the reading of it feel entirely pointless.

If this book has an audience it lies with adults who will appreciate the strange way the book is crafted as well as the dark tone of the book. I am not saying that children won't understand the book, simply that adults will find it more interesting. Honestly, I feel like I am missing something here and I am not entirely sure what. 

Just Jake by Jake Marcionette Book Review

Just Jake by Jake Marcionette
Illustrations by Victor Revis Villa
Publisher: Grosset & Dunlap
Release Date: February 4, 2014

Jake is made of pure awesome. Problem is, the kids in his new school don't know it yet. Following a few simple rules to raise his awesome quotient, Jake navigates his new school, neighborhood bullies, and one strange kid who may be even more awesome than anyone can imagine.

For the Wimpy Kid lovers, Jake is simple book with a character who is anything but humble, just like Greg Hefley. The biggest difference between the two is that Jake is (or says he is) actually awesome and Greg just imagines that he is. There were the usual tropes, an older teen sister that he hates, the moving to a new city, a bully, and a weird kid. The plot was rather simplistic, with no subplots beyond sibling rivalry and no winks to the reader like in Wimpy Kid. Part of the whimsy of the Wimpy Kids books is that Greg really does think he is great and it is the reader who is aware that he is self-centered and a terrible friend. For Jake, there is no such depth to the plot or the character. Jake is awesome, now he just has to prove it. Truth be told, there really wasn't anything awesome about Jake. He is an average kid with a passing talent at drawing and a knack for finding other kids who have similar awesome potential. He isn't a bad or mean character, he is just entirely self-centered.

 The clip art and illustrations are what will draw the reader into this story though. It is perfect for the reluctant reader and also written on a reading level that would make it perfect for students moving from chapter books into middle grade fiction.

Half a Chance by Cynthia Lord Book Review

Half a Chance by Cynthia Lord
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Release Date: February 25, 2014

When Lucy's family moves to an old house on a lake in New Hampshire, she isn't really sure what to expect. Her father, a famous photographer will be away on a photo shoot for most of the summer. Lucy quickly makes friends with the boy next door and an enemy is the girl across the lake, but it is the discovery of a photo contest that her father is judging that becomes the framework for her summer. As she seeks out subjects for her photos, Lucy helps her new friend Nate with Loon Watch, but her camera reveals a sadness that Nate does not want to see: his grandmother's memory slipping away.

As with Rules, Cynthia Lord has created another believable and sometimes heart wrenching story. Of course, the real sadness of the story rested solely on Grandma Lilah who has dementia.This is a subject that I feel is rarely discussed in children's literature or with children in general. As a child I remember being very afraid of old people. My children's church group used to visit a nursing home fairly regularly and I don't remember anyone ever explaining to me why these old people couldn't remember their names or acted strangely.

This was a fun summer story with a wonderful sense of place, one made all the more poignant with the loons and photography sub-plots. I love that Lucy eventually learns the importance of not always seeing life through the lens of her camera.  For me, the real win though is in the fact that I teared up a couple of times. There were some parts that moved a little slow and Lucy was a rather introspective child, but for the most part, the pacing was fine. I think that teachers are really going to love this book as it has many elements (photography, bird watching, new friendships) that teachers can teach and use in the classroom. I think kids will love it for all the same reasons, especially if they are one of the lucky ones who gets a school visit from Ms. Lord.

Hi Koo! by Jon Muth Book Review

Hi Koo! A Year of Seasons by Jon Muth
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Release Date: February 25, 2014

It is said that poetry is a dying art form, but I think the one place that it still thrives is within picture books. The poetry form of Haiku though, is a rarity indeed. Hi Koo is a beautiful picture book that transverses the seasons along with one of Muth's signature pandas. Each page and verse highlights a different letter of the alphabet. The ideas within the story are simple enough for a young child to understand and yet told in a way that is both lovely and complex. It is what I would typically refer to as a "quiet book", but sometimes it is the quiet ones that speak the loudest.

Rapture Practice by Aaron Hartzler Book Review

Rapture Practice: The True Story About Growing Up Gay in an Evangelical Family by Aaron Hartzler
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Release Date: April 9, 2013

When Aaron Hartzler was little, he couldn't wait for the The Rapture in which Jesus would come down from the clouds and whisk he and his family up to heaven. However, as he grows older Aaron finds himself questioning a lot of what his family believes and why. He begins to realize that although his parents have a disdain for television and movies, alcohol, premarital sex, and rebellion, his view of the world isn't exactly lining up with theirs. Whether he's sneaking out, making out, or playing hymns with a hangover, Aaron learns some lessons that aren't found in the Bible and the weird thing about believing is that no one can do it for you.

As I begin this review let me first tell you what this book isn't. This isn't a coming out story. Aaron Hartzler did not come out as gay until he was in college, a good two years past the last events in this book. This is not a book written as a vendetta against his family either. Although he clearly doesn't and didn't agree with some of their parenting methods, Aaron is very respectful of both them and their beliefs. This is simply a coming of age story, one that I think some people can relate to. The subtitle is a little misleading in my opinion, because it suggests that he was living as a gay teen, where it seemed to me like that wasn't even something he considered until he was almost out of high school, mostly because he was just trying to survive and understand this family he was in. I am sure it was a part of him, even then, but he doesn't really appear to dwell on it, not with all these other doubts and feelings swirling through his brain.

This story really resonated with me on a very deep and emotional level. Without getting too personal, there were a lot of elements to this story that were very similar to the way I grew up and raised. Aaron grew up without a television and was taught that things with witches or wizards was evil. I grew up without a television and wasn't allowed to watch Smurfs because it had a sorcerer in it. His mother ran a Bible study for the kids in the neighborhood, they attended church three times a week, Bible studies were done after dinner every night, he attended private Christian schools, he belonged to a "more Christian" version of Boy Scouts, (mine was called Missionettes), and his parents put great emphasis on virgin until married. The biggest differences were that my parents mellowed out over the years and eventually did buy a television. They also allowed me to question, doubt, discuss, and comment on my faith and the things in my life. If I didn't want a promise ring, I didn't have to wear one.

Part of me does not want to recommend this book. I already have to deal with people who have a very negative image of Evangelical Christians and they have very strong opinions concerning the way I was raised. Part of me wants to protect myself and others, to tell my readers that only those who grew up like this will truly understand. However, I also think that Aaron does such a spectacular job of portraying his parents, despite their strictness, as nothing but loving and caring, that people should walk away with an expanded mind rather than added bias. I also think that anyone who has lived with parents who are strict in any sense of the word, or found themselves questioning their faith (even if their parents weren't Evangelical Christians), stumbling around in the world of mixed up emotions, and desperately grasping at their sexual identity will find a kindred spirit in the pages of this book.

Thus, I do recommend it. I recommend it because I know it is an important conversation, one that some teens simply aren't having (or can't have) with their parents and parents aren't having with their kids. It is part of a reality that is sometimes confusing and for some, all too familiar.

Maple by Lori Nichols Book Review

Maple by Lori Nichols
Publisher: Nancy Paulsen Books
Release Date: February 20, 2014

While Maple is still in her mother's stomach, her parents plant a maple tree in her honor. She and the tree grow together and even though the tree isn't always the best playmate, it doesn't mind when she is moody or loud. Then Maple becomes a big sister and finds that babies can be loud too. luckily Maple knows the perfect answer for her little sister—Willow.

This is a nice addition to the big brother/big sister genre that parents are always looking for. I also loved the tree element and the two beautiful names. What an adorable idea to plant a tree that your child is named after in order that they may grow up with it. Of course, this trend could become a serious issue should they decide to have a number of kids because 1) you may run out of trees and 2) you could run out of yard for all those trees. I would also say that this could fit into the nature story category as well. A simple book about trees for a 3 or 4 year old. Either way, it is a nice debut novel by Lori Nichols with adorable illustrations. 

Motordog by Kurt Cyrus Book Review

Motordog by Kurt Cyrus 
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion
Release Date: February 25, 2014

A dog is man's best friend, even if he is robotic, but Flip gets more than he bargained for when Scoot the Cat comes on scene. Soon his new robo-pet is not obeying any of the voice commands and things begin to go completely haywire.

There is no doubt that Kurt Cyrus, a concept artist who has worked for Disney and Pixar, is a talented artist. However, the story itself felt a little flat. The rhymes did not roll off the tongue and I found myself tripping over the book as I read it aloud to my nephew. In fact, after looking over the book again, I think it would have made a rather nice wordless picture book. Add a few more gadgets for Motordog and it would be almost like an Inspector Gadget like character without the clunky poetry. 

That said, my nephew loved it and did want me to read it to him again, but unlike my favorite Piggie & Elephant books, I don't think parents are going to love reading this one over and over again.

The Noisy Paint Box by Barb Rosenstock Book Review

The Noisy Paint Box: The Colors and Sounds of Kadinsky's Abstract Art by Barb Rosenstock
Illustrated by Mary GrandPre
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Release Date: February 11, 2014

Vasily Kadinsky is considered one of the very first abstract artists. Throughout his life, Kadinsky experienced synesthesia, hearing colors as sound. He discovered this world of sound and color after being given a paint box by his aunt, a paint box that turned out to be, for Kadinsky, rather noisy.

I am torn with this book. On the one hand I dislike children's biographies that take creative license and basically turn a biographical story into a work of fiction. This reminds me of a lot of biographies that were written in the 60's and 70's that were heavy on the fiction and light on the fact. The author's saving grace is that she admits that her story is only based on a true story. I find this a shame because Hollywood does "based on" a lot and we all know how that works out. (Perhaps you saw a little movie about Mr. Disney and Mrs. Travers?)

On the other hand, the illustrations by GrandPre were simply spectacular. Beautifully drawn, capturing the essence of Kadinsky but making it her own. On one page Kadinsky is clearly bored and even the dead fish on the table looks miserable.

Books That Feature Birds - A Book List for the Birdbrained