The Little Gardener by Emily Hughes

The Little Gardener by Emily Hughes
Publisher: Flying Eye Books
Release Date: August 11, 2015

There was once a little gardener and his garden meant everything to him. He worked hard, very hard, but he was just too little (or at least he felt he was).

As a fairly new amateur gardener, I have quite fallen in love with children's gardening books. Perhaps it is because the gardens in these books are fantastically beautiful in a way that my patio garden never could be. Perhaps it is due to how the illustrations bring these gardens to life. Or most importantly, it is because these stories are often the most magical while containing very little magic.

This book is charming in its simplicity and magical in execution

Those Darn Squirrels Fly South by Adam Rubin

Those Darn Squirrels Fly South by Adam Rubin
Illustrations by Daniel Salmieri
Publisher: Clarion Books
Release Date: September 11, 2012

If you have been following this series you will know that although Old Man Fookwire is annoyed by the rather smart squirrels in his backyard, he loves them too. Therefore, when the squirrels build a plane and follow the birds south, it is no surprise that he begins to feel a bit lonely and sets off after them.

There should really be a rule at the library concerning new book stickers. Books that are on the New Release shelf should be an actual new release and not something that they just ordered a new copy of. Normally I double-check the copyright year, but in this case I was in a bit of a hurry and since it had a September new release sticker I thought I was safe.

That said, this entire series is adorable. Who doesn't love engineering minded squirrels? Well...possibly anyone who has had to deal with clever squirrels eating all the birdseed out of the bird feeder. Cute and clever, this one makes a great addition to the Darn Squirrels collection, I only wish I had read it three years ago.

Hilo by Judd Winick Book Review

Hilo: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth (Book 1) by Judd Winick
Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers
Release Date: September 1, 2015

D.J. and his friend Gina are totally normal kids. That is, until a boy falls from the sky. Hilo doesn't know where he came from or why, but he does know that whatever is going on, it probably isn't good.

Starting in the middle of the action, I absolutely loved that this story began with the two main characters running for their lives and screaming for about seven pages. Laugh-out-loud funny, Hilo draws on all the humorous elements that both children and adults love reminding me of the old comic strips like Calvin's (from Calvin & Hobbes) Spaceman Spiff, but with more diversity. There were so many wonderful moments throughout the book that I almost wanted to read it aloud, although then it would lose some of its visual charm.

The characters are great. D.J. is rather lonely, not very adventurous, and completely relateable kid, which is what makes Hilo such a great foil for him. Gena, D.J.'s once and now once again neighbor has changed a lot in the years, but as with any true friendship, it withstands the test of time and some growing up. Perhaps it is because I have read so many books lately where the friendships are drifting apart, that I actually found the rekindling of a friendship to be rather refreshing. Spoiler: Hilo, although looking like a blond-haired boy, is in fact a robot from another dimension. And he didn't come alone. Once his memory returns, Hilo goes from being a gooftastic little boy to a scared artificial intelligence with a big mission to accomplish.

Perfect for graphic novel fans who like Cleopatra in Space or Zita the Spacegirl and lots of humor.

Mummy Cat by Marcus Ewert Book Review

Mummy Cat by Marcus Ewert
Illustrations by Lisa Brown
Publisher: Clarion Books
Release Date: July 21, 2015

Mummy Cat roams his pyramid home, hoping for a day when he and his beloved owner can be reunited. The tomb, with its beautiful murals makes the cat miss his Egyptian Queen even more. The day is coming when she will awaken though and they will be together for all eternity.

As a lover of Egyptology, hieroglyphics, and cats I absolutely loved this book. This carefully mummified cat is a great example of love and loyalty, while adding some great Egyptian history into the mix. The tomb itself is beautifully illustrated, with careful attention paid to color and detail. As the cat pads gently through the book, we are given more and more detail concerning the life of his beloved owner, making the cat's longing even more poignant.

At the end of the book, readers while find helpful explanations concerning cats in Egyptian society, mummies, and hieroglyphics. Perfect for lovers of cats, history, or Egypt, and especially for those teaching Egyptian history.

Jake Makes a World by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts Book Review

Jake Makes a World: Jacob Lawrence, A Young Artist in Harlem by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts
Illustrations by Christopher Myers
Publisher: MoMA
Release Date: June 30, 2015

Jacob Lawrence found his artistic inspiration in the people and streets of Harlem. Intricate patterns, bright colors, sounds, smells, and people all played integral roles as he developed into a renowned artist.

Whenever I read these artist biographies, I am instantly reminded how woeful my art history education is. Although I am sometimes vaguely familiar with these artists because I do actually love visiting art museums, but I rarely know their stories.

Perhaps it is this gap of understanding that loves these types of books so much. There is a lot of Lawrence's actual artwork included in the book, but Myers was also able to capture Lawrence's style while making the illustrations his own. There is a great flow in the text although I wanted a bit more in the end. This is a typical feeling I have when reading children's book biographies though as it is nearly impossible to distill an entire person's life into a 32-page picture book.

Maple and Willow Apart by Lori Nichols Book Review

Maple and Willow Apart by Lori Nichols
Publisher: Nancy Paulsen Books
Release Date: July 21, 2015

It's been a good run, but now Maple and Willow are going to have to part, for Maple is going to be going to school and Willow must stay behind. Of course, when Maple comes home with all kinds of stories from school, it is little Willows that begins to feel left out. Of course, Maple loves school, but she must admit that she does miss her little sister just a little bit. Together they find a way where they can be together even when they are apart.

Not having ever been a mother of preschoolers or new-to-schoolers, I must rely heavily on the experiences of my friends who have had this experience and it seems to be a universal truth that the younger ones never quite understand when their older siblings head off for school. Never mind that they have had all summer to play together and their absence is greatly felt, but there is also a bit of envy. After all, their siblings come home with things like homework and crafts and stories. They are learning all kinds of things and I am sure that a little one, especially if the children were close in age, would not quite understand.

I can't recall having ever read a back-to-school book that was about two siblings missing one another. Perhaps they exist, but in all those many many back-to-school books the focus seems to be on the child going to school and their many fears. I loved that this book was a twist on this concept and was still in keeping with the Maple & Willow series that Nichols has created.

The Accidental Afterlife of Thomas Marsden by Emma Trevayne Book Review

The Accidental Afterlife of Thomas Marsden by Emma Trevayne
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Release Date: July 28, 2015

Thomas Mardsen and his father are grave robbers, going out each night to London's many cemeteries and digging up the riches of the dead. One fateful night, Thomas's father lets him pick the grave. As they turn the dirt over the last thing Thomas expects to find is himself, but there he is, down to the smallest detail. And the dead boy in the ground has left a note for him. Following the clues left behind, Thomas stumbles across a world of death and faery folk, where fairies are forced to work until they eventually die. Thomas may be able to help, but only if he can find the magic inside of himself to save them.

Riveting from the very beginning, this quick-paced middle grade novel had just the right amount of high-stakes and pathos to suck a reader in and keep them there. Thomas is a smart character although never more than the average twelve-year-old would be in his circumstances. Despite his dubious beginnings and the line of work his father is in, Thomas was raised to be kind and even generous. At first, I was put off by the whole grave-robbing thing, but as the story progressed I realized that this is probably what the author wanted. She wanted the reader to be dubious about the virtue of both Thomas and his family. To doubt them and their motivations, just as the faery folk do.

The other secondary characters were not nearly as complex and their motivations were a bit more on the shallow side, yet there was also a deep sense of loyalty among them. Charlie, Thomas' best friend who also happens to be a thief (or whatever gets him some money) cannot be so easily dismissed as "just a thief" because he also is deeply loyal to Thomas. I liked this complexity.

In the end, the story is simple, moves along at a great pace, and although there are a few twists and turns none felt gimmicky. Trevayne carefully weaves together a story that is one part Oliver Twist, one part fairy tale, and one part The Graveyard Book.

Trombone Shorty by Troy Andrews Book Review

Trombone Shorty by Troy Andrews 
Illustrations by Bryan Collier
Publisher: Harry N. Abrams
Release Date: April 14, 2015

Hailing from the Tremé neighborhood in New Orleans, Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews got his nickname by weilding a trombone twice as long as he was high. A child prodigy, he was leading his own jazz band at the age of six and got to play on stage with Bo Diddly around the same age. Now, Trombone Shorty is a Grammy-nominated artist.

This is the story of music and love and determination. It's about being true to yourself, of doing whatever you have to do to do the thing you love to do. Finding an old trombone on the street, Trombone Shorty was playing when he was just out of diapers. He carried this huge trombone around with him and despite its size, he could really play. I absolutely loved everything about this book. The illustrations are incredible, so vibrant and full of energy, just like the setting of New Orleans. There is so much heart and passion in the story too, the words singing on each page, full of their own kind of jazz. And how adorable is this picture of little Trombone Shorty playing on stage with Bo Diddly? Precious.

Trombone Shorty, thirteen-years-old:

Lillian's Right to Vote by Jonah Winter Book Review

Lillian's Right to Vote: A Celebration of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by Jonah Winter
Illustrations by Shane W. Evans
Publisher: Schwartz & Wade
Release Date: July 14, 2015

An elderly African American woman, en route to vote, remembers her family’s tumultuous voting history in this picture book publishing in time for the fiftieth anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. As Lillian, a one-hundred-year-old African American woman, makes a “long haul up a steep hill” to her polling place, she sees more than trees and sky—she sees her family’s history. She sees the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment and her great-grandfather voting for the first time. She sees her parents trying to register to vote. And she sees herself marching in a protest from Selma to Montgomery. This is about one woman's fierce determination to make it up the hill and make her voice heard.

I wish I could have posted this review on the actual 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, but alas I am a few weeks late. What an extraordinary book. Beautiful in its illustrations and words, Lillian is the embodiment of a movement that spanned a century and more. She remembers her mother, the struggle, women earning the right to vote, the tests, the ridicule, and the pain that were the benchmarks of her life. Moments intertwining in memory as she makes her slow march up a hill. 

It is books like this that remind me of why it is so important to vote, because the right to do so wasn't always a thing. It wasn't for those who had been enslaved. It wasn't for women. It wasn't for so many people. The privilege is important, even when it feels like your vote doesn't count. Although I cannot possibly understand the struggle that many African-Americans went through to earn this right, I am so pleased that we are celebrating the 50th Anniversary that marks it. 

Night Animals by Gianna Marino Book Review

Night Animals by Gianna Marino
Publisher: Viking Books for Young Readers
Release Date: July 14, 2015

First Possum hears it. Then Skunk. Then Wold comes running. A noise in the night. What could it be? The animals run, terrified of the things they are hearing, only to be reminded that the thing they are afraid may very well be themselves.

It's a bedtime story in which the main characters are rather dunderheaded. It's about fear and how stupid we feel when we realize that the thing we are frightened is nothing really. I loved the illustrations as they showed the darkness and how strange things can look in the shadows. The animals are adorable if a bit stupid, but in a way that will make a child laugh instead of fear. And nothing draws back the shadows better than a good laugh.

Survival Guide to Bullying by Aiya Mayrock Book Review

The Survival Guide to Bullying: Written by a Teen by Aiya Mayrock
Publisher: Scholastic
Release Date: June 30, 2015

Bullying is a popular topic in children's books these days, both non-fiction and fiction. Perhaps it is because the idea of bullying is so universal. Even the bullies usually have their own torments and tormentors. My own bullies were those in my neighborhood, kids who thought my family was weird for whatever reasons (some more legit than others). Besides sibling spats, I have only been hit by two people in my life, both kids who lived a few houses down from me. By thirteen I retreated indoors, safe from my tormentors as long as I stayed inside and read my books. Thankfully, being homeschooled also saved me from having to attend the same school as my bullies, a blessing that didn't quite hit home until I read this book.

Aiya Mayrock is a teenager writing for kids. Her advice is sound, although often felt vague and simplistic. Tell a parent or teacher sounds great in theory, but what if your parent thinks you are just being a wuss? What if your principal or teachers won't listen? What if you secretly like the attention because it is the only social interaction you get in your day? In the documentary Bully, that is basically the existence for the main "character" who struggles with extreme bullying every day of his life. In fact, if the makers of the documentary had not stepped forward and shown their footage to the adults in this boy's life, things could have gotten much much worse. I was able to escape my bullies, and Aiya did too once her family moves, but there are so many kids who don't have that option.

All that said, I think this was well done. It is short and to the point with helpful ideas and pointers. The rap poems or "roems" that open each chapter are heartfelt although not terribly inspired. I suspect that this will improve with time as most art forms do. Reading this book brought back a lot of old thoughts and feelings and some pain. I admit I still hold some bitterness towards those people and wonder if they are now mean adults or did they learn the error of their ways? For kids going through this, I think this is a valuable resource and for some, it will be a game changer. Sometimes kids just need to shown solutions. Others need to see that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Mayrock does both of these things. She doesn't promise a world free of pain, but she does show a life in which a person is no longer ruled by their bullies. Sometimes that is enough.

First Grade Dropout by Audrey Vernick Book Review

First Grade Dropout by Audrey Vernick
Illustrations by Matthew Cordell
Publisher: Clarion Books
Release Date: July 7, 2015

Have you ever made a mistake so big that you didn't want to go back to school? So is the case with one first grader who is sure that his embarrassing mistake is enough to make him want to drop out. 

This is a story that most of us can relate to. "I put my hand on my hip, like someone who doesn't care if other people laugh." Who hasn't done this? Pretended like they hadn't just done something incredibly embarrassing, or acting like we had done it on purpose. I have a couple slip-of-the-tongues that people still bring up to this day that I always laugh about, but inside a small part of me seethes. Seriously, that isn't what I meant. 

For little ones, embarrassment, particularly at the hands of strangers is a very new and hard emotion to process. Mistakes happen and while they may not be easily forgotten, one can learn how to deal with them in a way that doesn't include skipping school for the rest of one's life. Told in a way that will drawn in readers without feeling didactic, this story had just the right amount of humor and real emotion to make it feel significant.  

14 Cows for America by Carmen Agra Deedy Book Review

14 Cows for America by Carmen Agra Deedy and Wilson Kimeli Naiyomah
Illustrations by Thomas Gonzalez
Publisher: Peachtree Publishers
Release Date: August 31, 2009

14 Cows for America In June of 2002, a ceremony begins in a village in western Kenya. Hundreds of Maasai surround an American diplomat to bestow a gift on the American people. The gift is as unsought and unexpected as it is extraordinary. A mere nine months have passed since the September 11 attacks, and hearts are raw. Tears flow freely as these legendary warriors offer their gift to a grieving people half a world a Full description.

It is that day again. The day when many of us think back on that terrible terrible day fourteen years ago. Perhaps it is fitting that I should discover this book, 14 Cows for America exactly fourteen years later. My heart still aches, but this book actually brought a bittersweet smile to my face. These people, the Maasai, most of which have never even seen a skyscraper, opened their hearts in solidarity with us here in America. Cows, for most of us, mean burgers and milk and their worth is mostly known by those who work with them. Yet, these cows are priceless, a memory for those who have been lost. 

There are so many wonderful books about 9/11 that carefully explore the day in a way that young children will be able to comprehend. This one is my favorite. 

Other 9/11 picture books: The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, Fireboat, September Roses, The Little Chapel That Stood, On That Day, America is Under Attack, 

Little Bird's Bad Word by Jacob Grant Book Review

Little Bird's Bad Word by Jacob Grant
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Release Date: July 1, 2015

Little Bird has learned a new word, but he quickly learns that no one likes his new word. It is rude, it make turtle hide, and hurts his friend's feelings. There is only one word that will make it better.

Does anyone remember that picture book called Elbert's Bad Word? Similar concept about a boy who, after a string of terrible events, lets out a very bad word. He is then ushered off to learn that there are far more creative, and socially acceptable words to use when something bad happens. That book contained a reason for the word and a solution to the use of it. This book had neither of those things. I am a bit on the fence about this because this book is clearly geared towards a younger age group than Elbert, yet expects the same takeaway. I'm also unsure why any parent would want to introduce the idea of curse words to their very young children unless they are already using the words, which I would hope a parent would deal with directly and not use a picture book as their form of communication. Yet the book is fairly age appropriate as far as the word (Blark) is concerned and am unsure who much a child would internalize the message.

Dory Fantasmagory by Abby Hanlon Book Review

Dory Fantasmagory by Abby Hanlon
Publisher: Dial Books
Release Date: October 9, 2014

Dory, also called Rascal, is the youngest in her family, full of imagination and energy. Her brother and sister find her annoying and never want to play with her. She's too much of a baby for them. And so Dory does what she does best: Play. Whether she is outsmarting monsters, escaping from prison, or pretending to be a dog, there is one things that one cannot forget about Dory--she earns her nickname.

Dory is one of the best examples I have seen of a true-to-life six-year-old in children's literature. This is not an understatement. Hanlon perfectly captures the thought process of Dory in a way that felt so incredibly authentic that I was transported back to when I was a young child. Also, there is enough humor for parents and older siblings that this book is great as a read-aloud and a family book, which are also things that I don't see very often. Perfect for any child who has pretended to be something (dinosaur, dog, princess, etc.) for longer than an hour, then you and your child will be able to relate to this one very well.

...And Nick by Emily Gore Book Review

...And Nick by Emily Gore
Illustrations by Leonid Gore
Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Release Date: June 16, 2015

Once there were four mouse brothers: Rick, Mick, Vick, and Nick. Nick is the youngest and always seems to be a bit behind. Whether that be when they are riding bikes or even picking out clothes. But it turns out that Nick is just a late bloomer.

Given the way mice produce young, I assumed that the four mouse brothers were quadruplets and Nick was just a bit behind his siblings. Having been a late bloomer myself, I can definitely relate to books like this. Nick is adorable. He is evident proof that you don't always have to be the bravest or the brightest or the best. Sometimes it is about being you and working with what you have. The message is simple, but it doesn't need to be more than what it is. Just like Nick.

If You Ever Want to Bring an Alligator to School, Don't! by Elise Parsley Book Review

If You Ever Want to Bring an Alligator to School, Don't! by Elise Parsley
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Release Date: July 7, 2015

Note to self: If your teacher tells you to bring something from nature for show-and-tell, she does not want you to bring an alligator! But nothing will stop Magnolia, who's determined to have the best show-and-tell of all--until her reptilian rapscallion starts getting her into some major trouble. Now it's up to Magnolia to find a way to send this troublemaker home.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this story is that it is written in second person which is a rather difficult narrative viewpoint to maintain for any length of time although more doable in a picture book. Written in the same voice as If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, the book reads a bit like an instructional guide to kids about what not to bring to show-and-tell. The thing that really stood out to me though were the illustrations. Not only were they bright and lively, but there is a great mix of diversity and I am pretty sure Magnolia is of Asian descent. 

Perfect for any time of year but especially for little ones who are just starting school.

Anna Banana and the Chocolate Explosion by Alexis Dormal Book Review

Anna Banana and the Chocolate Explosion by Alexis Dormal
Illustrations by Dominique Roques
Publisher: First Second
Release Date: June 16, 2015

The story is simple. Anna Banana and her friends are going to make a cake. Grizzler the bear doesn't want to join them. They make a huge mess as children are wont to do and then in comes Grizzler with a beautiful already-baked cake. Of course, the other animals are suspicious and they follow the Bear...all the way to the bakery. Bear admits to cheating, but soon agrees to help them bake a real cake.

In this semi-graphic novel picture book, Anna Banana is at it again. What I love about these books is that they are a very early introduction into the comic book style of reading. Anna and her animal friends are lively, animated, and full of personality. I love her larger than life personality and how her imagination brings these animals to life. I am also imagining the look on her mother's face when she walks into that room and sees the chocolate explosion. Perfect for the budding cook in the family or the kid with way too many stuffed animals, Anna Banana and the Chocolate Explosion will make the little ones giggle and the grown-ups moan.

Nick and Tesla's Special Effects Spectacular by Bob Pfluegfelder Book Review

Nick and Tesla's Special Effects Spectacular: A Mystery with Animatronics, Alien Makeup, Camera Gear, and Other Movie Magic You Can Make Yourself (Nick and Tesla #5) by Bob Pfluegfelder
Illustrations by Steve Hockensmith
Publisher: Quirk Books
Release Date: May 5, 2015

Nick and Tesla are a brother sister duo who have a knack for science, electronics, and solving mysteries. When a Hollywood production rolls into town helmed by their friend DeMarco's aunt, the kids are giving a behind-the-stage pass to visit. However, someone appears to be sabotaging the film and it is up to Nick, Tesla, DeMarco, and movie-obsessed Silas to find out who.

Starting a series on book five has some serious pitfalls. For example, by this point in the story the characters have been established, which means that although there was a tad bit of backstory, there were times when I was confused as to who was who. Add to that some references to previous books, missing parents, and an absentee Uncle, and I felt like I was definitely starting at a deficit. Seriously, what is going on with the parents? And side note, I absolutely hate these kid's names. It's like naming your twins Marco and Polo or Edgar and Allen. ugh.

This story had a lot of great examples of how movies are actually made. There is a ton of lingo, information about special effects, steadicams, makeup, and even how movie contracts work. Within the book are five different projects that readers can work on that are directly correlated to the stories plot. There is also a lot of emphasis tied to science and technology and a great deal of care in making this book relateable to both girls and boys.

I did think the mystery was a bit weak, but it was a fun adventure so there was that. As a geek, I was a bit annoyed with the portrayal of the comic book store geeks who were protesting the movie shoot as they were the usual cast of stereotypes. Of course, our plucky heroes weren't like those geeks at all, even though they have their own obsessions going on. Like Silas, their filmmaking obsessed friend who seems to know everything about special effects and B-grade movies.

All in all, a fun little adventure for those who love filmmaking or project building, or both.

Happy Birthday, Cupcake! by Terry Border Book Review

Happy Birthday, Cupcake! by Terry Border
Publisher: Philomel Books
Release Date: July 7, 2015

Planning a birthday party is not easy, especially when you friends have special dietary needs. No ocean party because Soup seasick. Donut melts in the sun. And Cupcake could very well get squashed while playing musical chairs. Not to worry, Blueberry Muffin to the rescue.

Today just so happens to be my birthday, so what better book to review on this auspicious day, than a book about cupcakes and birthdays. As with his first book Peanut Butter & Cupcake, the food puns are great and the food photogenic. The concept still works, although is fairly simple as far as storyline goes.