Posted by Venus on Friday, January 30, 2015
Release Date: December 31, 2014
In a world where bears live next to ducks--sleep is not an option. So bear finds out as he attempts to go to sleep.
If a bear were a grown-up and a duck were a child, this is the story that is written during millions of bedtimes all across the world. Universal in its scope, it can easily join the ranks of the bedtime stories that have come before it. In the end though, this is a familiar book, one that has been done countless times and will continue to be done again and again. The illustrations are cute and playful and one cannot help but feel for the bear, whose bags under the eyes grow larger with each page turn.
Illustrations by Melissa Sweet
Release Date: September 15, 2014
Books are Peter Mark Roget's companions and the more he reads the more he is inspired to write his own. Not fiction though, instead Roget makes lists of words, words that are like other words. He orders the list according to ideas rather than alphabetization and for a long time only his family knew of his many lists. It is his same family that encourages him to seek publication. Of course, there were other books out there that resembled Roget's lists, but none so carefully thought out or thorough. Soon everyone was talking about Roget's book, the Thesaurus and it soon become one of the most important reference books of all time.
The sheer genius of the biographical picture books that came out in 2014 was astounding. Although there are still those boring and dry biographies being published, these masterpieces have begun to take their place, finding a home somewhere between the history section and the picture books. Roget doesn't seem like an obvious choice for a children's picture book either. Although his contributions to the world cannot be denied, the illustrating of something like words and lists seems a daunting task. Melissa Sweet handles it with her usual pizzazz, orchestrating page after page of artistically rendered lists and pictures that make the reader want to slow down, simply to savor the pictures. As Roget matures so do the lists and illustrations as well. It is always a difficult thing with these biographies, but Bryant creates a wonderful through line so that her young readers can relate to the character as he grows older throughout the story. Wonderfully executed, this book showcases the craftmanship of three great people Roget, Bryant, and Sweet.
Posted by Venus on Monday, January 26, 2015
Release Date: January 27, 2015
Alex has always been sickly. Crippled with pain, Alex is often relegated to sitting around, watching as life passes him by. Things start to go from bad to worse though when his mother curates a new exhibit in the Egyptian wing of the museum. Then he dies. He shouldn't have woken up. He shouldn't have been able to come back, but perhaps his mother knows a bit more about the Egyptian Book of the Dead beyond just academic knowledge.
Michael Northrup has a gift for action adventure stories with great characters. The pacing is this book was spot on, walking a careful balance between plot-driven and character-driven. There is little unnecessary details, but this keeps the story focused and short, which is perfect for its target audience. Don't let it fool you though, this book is dark and creepy, and the amount of scorpions in this story is enough to make your skin crawl. Can't say I wasn't warned though since the author did tell me about them himself on Twitter.
Alex and his friend Ren are smart and I love when kids have to sneak around to solve a mystery since the adults are blocking their way. Adults are only a minor inconvenience when there are scary things going on. Also, I love anything to do with Egypt and I have been that way since I was a kid. Ancient mummies coming to life, the Book of the Dead, museums. Sign me up. Since this is a series, there is a bit of an open end, but I wasn't too bothered by it since I am promised another book and the mystery in this one was solved. Additionally, there is a game available at www.scholastic.com/tombquest, that is kind of awesome.
Illustrations by Courtney A. Martin
Publisher: Harry N. Abrams
Release Date: September 1, 2008
In 1884, when men were the only people allowed to vote in national elections, Belva Lockwood took a bold but legal step: She ran for president! Women did not have the same rights as men, but Belva went on undeterred—and she got votes! Her run for office was based on experience and merit: Unlike many women of the time, she went to college, then to law school, and even argued cases before the Supreme Court. Though her campaign was difficult, Belva never wavered in her commitment to equality, earning the respect of many fellow citizens.
Although I typically only review new books, I recently snatched this one up because of one of my reader's email suggestions. Can I tell you how angry I am with my history curriculum as a child? Or myself for that matter. How did I not know about this? Why did no one tell me that another woman had tried to run for president before? Why did this not come up when Hilary Clinton was in the chute for possible candidacy? How is this not considered important? Not only that, but this book is great at showing how our electoral college and voting process works.
My view of women in history, the one painted by the history books, was purely male-centric. I was aware that there were spitfire women out there, but they were often labeled as extremists or outsiders. People voted for Belva! And not just one or two people, either. This must have been a huge deal in 1884, before women were even allowed to vote. Poor Belva. Her whole life was dedicated to pushing the boundaries on women's rights, yet I can't remember ever hearing about her. Never. Until I read this book, I didn't even know such a person existed, which is the wonder and magic of a book, although it makes me sad that I didn't know this important piece of history.
Thank you, dear reader for pointing the way to this great book.
Posted by Venus on Saturday, January 24, 2015
Illustrations by Brian Biggs
Publisher: Harry N. Abrams
Release Date: August 19, 2014
Frank Einstein is an inventor, as he was bound to be with a name like his. In his search for the perfect invention for the science fair, Frank accidentally gives life to Klink and Klank, two super computers with personalities. With their help, Frank and his assistant Watson, create an antimatter flying machine, but not before his archnemesis, T. Edison steals the idea and the robots.
I love John Scieszka's picture books, which are hysterical and often ridiculous. (Stinky Cheese man, anyone?) Going into this book, I had rather high hopes, but was disappointed with the execution. There is a great deal of science, which typically would make me happy, but it was haphazardly inserted throughout, pulling the reader out of the story as they tried to muddle through the heavy science jargon. Thank goodness for some of the illustrations or I would have been completely lost. It also left me with a lot of questions. Why is a kid this smart in elementary school? Why would he even be entering a science fair project when it is clear that he is intelligent enough to be taking high school if not college level science? If a kid really did invent these things, there is no way they would be allowed to keep the technology to themselves.
The humor was age appropriate, with sarcastic robots, bad knock knock jokes, and evil monkey's which proves that Scieszka knows his audience even if the plot was clunky and predictable. Seriously, T. Edison tries to murder Frank & Watson and no one calls the police on them?
This is, in essence, a bridger book. Perfect for the kid who has outgrown Captain Underpants, but isn't ready for Harry Potter. For that reason, it has a place, but I have a feeling this is a book that adults will push on kids, simply for the science aspect, even if the kid isn't interested. That said, there are some funny moments that are sure to make an eight-year-old laugh out loud so who knows.
Release Date: October 30, 2014
The years is 1978 and John Rocco's family experiences a major blizzard, one that dumps 53 inches of snow on his town in Rhode Island. Too deep to even open the front door, they have to crawl out the windows. Cars are buried. School is cancelled. Neighbors can't get to the store. John comes up with a plan for walking in the snow and become the neighborhood hero.
Because I write these reviews weeks before they post, I really hope that this posts while there is substantial amounts of snow near me. Considering I live in NC, most likely we will have an ice storm, but I can still hope for snow. Yes, I am one of those. I adore snow, even as an adult, and don't see it as the horrible travesty that everyone else seems to think it is. Even when I lived up north, snow and me were best buds. (ask my mom about the Boston Christmas Parade during a snowstorm)
Perhaps that is why I really embraced this book. It brought back very fond memories of childhood. Tunneling through the snow, being out all day in it, sled riding. With sparse text and beautiful illustrations John encapsulates the terrible beauty that this blizzard brought to his town. The reader is meant to understand that this isn't just some snow, this is the mother of all snowstorms. This is too much snow. The added element of ingenuity and neighbors helping neighbors is also a nice touch, one that links the struggle between man and nature.
Posted by Venus on Wednesday, January 21, 2015
Illustrations by Lori Nichols
Publisher: Boyds Mills Press
Release Date: September 1, 2014
This Orq. He Cave Boy. Orq loves Woma the wooly mammoth. Bu Mom says Woma shed. Woma smell. Woma not house-trained. Orq convince Mom that Woma is good pet.
Funny. Cute. Bad grammar. At its heart this is a story about one boy and his pet. Never mind that his pet is a wooly mammoth or that he can't use proper sentence structure. Deftly drawn in a way that will capture the imagination, there isn't much to say about this one other than highly enjoyable.
Posted by Venus on Monday, January 19, 2015
Publisher: Harry N. Abrams
Release Date: September 2, 2014
When Cece Bell was four she became ill, so ill that she lost her hearing. Diagnosed as profoundly deaf, Cece had to navigate the world of the hearing as a deaf child. At school she has to wear a giant hearing aid called the Phonic Ear, which draws a lot of attention, but also has a major advantage--she can hear the teacher wherever she is in the entire school. With this secret super-power, Cece names herself El Deafo. But the funny thing about being a superhero is that it's just another way of feeling different and lonely. As Cece juggles school and friends, the familiar struggle of finding self is compounded by finding who she is in the hearing world.
Yet another autobiographical graphic novel, El Deafo is about feeling different, but one with universal appeal. Although young readers will learn a lot about how it feels to be deaf, I think they will also be able to relate to having a first crush, not knowing how to make friends, feeling like an oddball, and having something that sets you apart. Using anthropomorphized rabbits, Bell carefully recreates her life, although she admits, not always in the right order.
I have to say, I was a bit torn when I first saw this book. Although I understand Bell's choice of a rabbit as her foil, I was instantly skeptical because it reminded me of all the picture books out there that use animals rather than people, mostly to avoid any issues with race. Being a book featuring a disability, I found this an odd choice, especially since it is semi-autobiographical, but once I began reading, I didn't have as much of an issue with this. My bigger concern for the book is that it is extremely didactic. The way in which Bell talks to her audience, it is clear that she is trying to teach her hearing audience about what it is like to be non-hearing. For me, the story lacked any kind of plot line or through line. This sounds petty, because this is after all someone else's life, but I think the story could have been framed in a different way that would not feel so teachy. There is also the added aspect that Cece fought very hard against the deaf world, refusing to learn sign language, which would make this book inappropriate for deaf children, once again relegating this to a learning book for the non-disabled. Intermediate level books often have a certain level of preachiness in them, some point that the author was trying to drive home, and although that is not inherently bad, it can definitely detract from the book. Especially if it is lacking in a plot.
Publisher: Viking Juvenile
Release Date: September 30, 2014
In the city of Ashara there are two groups of people: The Kasari, the upper class magicians who run everything from governments to newspaper and the Halani, a lower cast who have no magic and are treated like second class citizens. Despite this Marah Levi sees a bright future for herself. As a promising violinist she plans on auditioning for a secondary music school and from there, possibly playing in an orchestra. However, plans are derailed as people, Kasiri and Halani alike, begin to come down with a terrible illness that turns the victim's eyes dark before ultimately killing them. As Marah watches those she loves fall ill, she finds an unlikely friend in Azariah, a wealthy magician boy. Together, they discover a terrible secret and possibly a cure, but there are secrets within secrets and both realize almost too late that they may have begun a revolution.
The world-building in this story is fantastic. Rich histories, stories, poems, secrets, ruins, relationships, and cultures are all blended together to create a beautiful tapestry of a world that felt almost real. At times, because normal words like violin and cinnamon were used amongst a plethora of strange words, I kept trying to make the story fit into a future Earth narrative, but eventually I gave up. This world is its own.
This is definitely a dark tale, showing the very worst of humanity. There are political asides and alliances, integration, racial purity, prejudice, death. Although the cover and ages of the characters may seem like a middle grade book, I would argue that in tone as well as pacing, this lends itself much more to a young adult novel.
Although I loved the world the story was set in as well as the fact that the plot was not predictable, which is always a relief, the characterizations were a bit lacking. Marah's relationship with her school friends and her best friend were, at times, puzzling. I was surprised that at 13, although she is so aware of this world around her, she and her friends didn't really speak of it much. She acts surprised by talks of rebellion when things have clearly reached a saturation point. You can only treat people so badly for so long before they begin to push back. Her relationship with Azariah also felt a bit muddled. There is a hint of love in the air, but this only makes Marah distance herself emotionally from Azariah, all while building a very deep life-threatening friendship with him. The two were a dichotomy that didn't work. The two most emotional scenes in the book for me involved the breaking of a violin which upsets me because I am a violinist and the second from a secondary character we meet at the very end. There are, of course, many deaths, but they were more expected and therefore less jarring.
This, in the end though, is a plot-driven story and what a plot it is. There is terrible darkness within some of humanity and Glewwe brings it to the surface, on display for all to see. It is heavy, with little humor to break up the terribleness, but it isn't bad. In fact, I have found myself thinking about it over and over since I read it. What the story lacks in characterization, it has made up for in though-provoking social commentary.
Posted by Venus on Friday, January 16, 2015
Illustrations by Eric Velasquez
Publisher: Harry N. Abrams
Release Date: November 4, 2014
Waking up, a young boy remembers that he needs to say his prayers. Kneeling by his bed, a beautiful harvest moon illuminating the city beyond, the boy offers up his prayers. Prayers for peace, the homeless, and the hungry.
I am not sure what I loved more about this book. The beautifully crafted illustrations, the fact that this child never asks for anything for himself, or the things that he prays for. Eric Velasquez is a fantastic illustrator. More than likely you are already familiar with his work, you have been seeing it for years on covers of Encyclopedia Brown and Apple Classics. Or perhaps you read A Thirst for Home that I reviewed last spring, or Houdini, The Sound That Jazz Makes, and The Other Mozart. Velasquez perfectly captures the beauty and solemnness of the text. I will admit, I teared up a bit while reading this story. This child doesn't pray for the newest toy he wants, he isn't forced to say his prayers by an adult who stands over him while he mumbles out something appeasing. This child gives a genuine prayer for those that need it. He prays for the homeless. Soldiers far from home. He remembers his family of course, but also the hungry. The poetic text is sparse, but perfectly encapsulates the beauty of one child's prayer. I also liked that this book has universal appeal as well, since no specific god or specific belief system is mentioned. A powerful picture book with an important outward focus.
Posted by Venus on Wednesday, January 14, 2015
Illustrations by Meilo So
Release Date: November 4, 2014
Grandpa Tu is famous for his special noodles and as the emperor's birthday approaches, he is determined to teach his granddaughter, Mei, the family trade. However, Mei struggles to make the noodles, unable to find the magic within herself. Grandpa Tu has confidence in her, even the moon goddess does, but it isn't until Mei believes she can do it that the real noddle magic can happen.
An interesting and engaging "traditional" feeling story that invokes beautiful imagery of time past. There is a nice smattering of magic, although Mei's noodle creation felt a bit more like an accident than something of her own doing, but it was no less magical. The idea behind the story, of believing in yourself, of others believing in you, and how important that is, was the real gem though. Mixed within are fantastic watercolor illustrations that meshed so well with the text. A great story for grandparents to read to their grands and would also be a nice addition to a Chinese New Year celebration.
Posted by Venus on Monday, January 12, 2015
Publisher: Fiewel & Friends (Macmillan Kids)
Release Date: October 7, 2014
Rose Howard is obsessed with homonyms and prime numbers, some of the more obvious manifestations of her Asperger's syndrome. When her father brought her home a dog, she gave him the name Rain which has two homonyms (Reign, Rein), which makes him extra special. With an impatient father who drinks a bit too much, Rain has quickly become her friend and refuge. When Rain gets lost in a storm, Rose begins a search for her dog, using her OCD like tendencies to her advantage. But what happens when you find out your dog may belong to someone else?
When people ask how I liked this book, I always (half joking) say that I shouldn't have read it the week before we were scheduled to have a meeting with my entire family regarding my brother with Aspergers. Therefore, I gave myself a bit of distance before I reviewed this book, hoping to see it in a more analytical rather than emotional state.
The amount of books out there that include characters with disabilities is on the rise, although still only making up a very tiny portion of the books currently in print. Of those, even fewer of them have the main character with the disability, usually settling for the perspective of a friend or sibling. (This is not a criticism, but simply a fact. Sometimes that viewpoint is necessary.) That makes this book very unique. When I first began my thesis on disabilities in children's literature, I did so because I was helping create a reading list for my then 17-year-old brother and I was having trouble finding books with characters like him. At the time, I found one title that featured a character with Asperger's (Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco Stork) and the author was pretty non-committal with a diagnosis. Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine has now been added to this list, but unless someone knows something I do not, this is the third book that I know of for children that has a character with diagnosed Asperger's.
On the story side, I enjoyed the character of Rose. She has her obsessions, which is normal for someone with Asperger's, but I found them to be interesting rather than annoying. Homonyms and prime numbers are how Rose makes sense of the world, a world that is confusing and full of perils for someone like her. Although she loves her father, he is a dangerous figure in her life, incapable of understanding her or giving her the type of love that she needs to succeed. Her Uncle is instantly likeable, although at times I almost felt like the author was trying to create a good vs. evil type scenario, which made me uncomfortable. Her father is painted as complex and I cannot fully villainize him because of this. It was overall, a rather melancholy story, reminiscent of Because of Winn Dixie. Rose will be okay and things may even improve for her, but I don't know what the future holds for a child like her. I didn't see the ending as entirely happy, only better, which may be the point.
Posted by Venus on Saturday, January 10, 2015
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Release Date: August 26, 2014
Adrian is nearly thirteen, but you wouldn't know it if you looked at him. Asthmatic, small for his age, and with albinism, most people in his village see him as useless or at the very least, sent from the devil. Even his father, a bowyer, doesn't think Adrian is strong enough to be a bowyer's apprentice. When the Scots invade England though, Adrian sees his opportunity to prove his worth. He follows his best friend Hugh into battle, bow on his back, but war as not as glorious as he thought it would be and finding his friend even more difficult.
Set in 1327, Kathryn Erskine does a fantastic job of rooting her readers in this medieval world that almost feels like a fantasy realm. Medieval language is peppered throughout the book, not too heavily as to be unreadable for intermediate readers, but enough to feel rooted solidly in this world. Like Karen Cushman, Erskine has done her research, but doesn't get so bogged down in the details that she loses the story.
As for the characters themselves, Adrian is wholly unlikable in the beginning. He is selfish, self-centered, rude, judgemental, thoughtless, jealous, and impulsive. Only twelve-years-old, he has thoroughly convinced himself of the joys of battle and listens to no one who says anything to the contrary. It is no wonder that his father and horrible "Good" Aunt worry over him. Between the albinism, asthma, and stunted growth, it seems that Adrian's life choices are very limited. That is the heart of the story though. This is a coming of age story, with a young boy discovering what he truly is good at and getting some sense knocked into him along the way. The horrors of battle do that, but there are also the characters of Hugh his best friend and Bess, Adrian's cousin. Hugh is quick to point out Adrian's attitude toward his cousin is wrong and as the story progresses, Hugh proves time and again what a wonderful caring and kind person he is. Don't lose heart though, by the end Adrian is well on his way to becoming a much better person.
My only criticism is that although Adrian is small for his age, his Aunt tells everyone that he is probably done growing. I get that this is 1327, but surely puberty started around the same time if not later than it does today? It seemed rather foolish (although Good Aunt is a fool) to claim that a twelve-year old had reached the peak of their physical maturity. I also wish there was a map included in the book, but lucky me, there is always Google for that.
A solid historical fiction from an interesting time with a solid character arc. Bonus points for disability diversity. Can you even think of another kids book that featured a character with albinism?
Posted by Venus on Thursday, January 8, 2015
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Release Date: November 11, 2014
Scientist is friends with Pirate. Scientist is also friends with Viking. One would think that Pirate and Viking would get along, but no. It's a disaster. This makes Scientist sad. Using the scientific method Scientist decides to find a way to get his friends to get along. Scientist forms a hypothesis, conducts an experiment, observes the results, and tests his subjects again and again until he discovers the perfect formula for friendship.
Reminiscent of The Most Magnificent Thing, this is a fantastic book featuring the scientific method and the varying results. Funny enough, I think adults can really relate to this book as well because who hasn't had a tense moment between two friends who don't exactly get along? Or worse, the whole, I can't invite this person if I invite that person. Wouldn't it be nice if we could all use the scientific method to get our friends to get along? In this respect the book is pure fantasy, but I didn't mind so much since the more obvious "message" was that of the scientific method rather than whether all your friends will get along with one another.
Authors & Illustrators: Kazu Kibuishi, Jen Wang, Steve Hamaker, Faith Erin Hicks, Doug Holgate, Jason Caffoe
Publisher: Harry N. Abrams
Release Date: October 14, 2014
A series of graphic novel short stories all with a similar theme, Exploration & Doors. Like the previous two books, these stories are creative, varied, and beautifully illustrated. Some of the stories include 'Asteria Crane' where a doctor follows a young boy into his mind to help bring him out of a coma. 'The Giant's Kitchen' features, what else, a Giant who isn't so intent on eating humans as much as getting a little bit of help with some magic mixed in. There are other stories that include a boy who tries to remake himself and not for the better, a boy who wants to run away, a nuclear robot, mummy grave robbers, and evil trolls bent on mayhem. There wasn't a single story that I didn't like and definitely a great series for the visual learning and/or reluctant reader.
Posted by Venus on Monday, January 5, 2015
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Release Date: April 22 , 2014
The Boundless is the greatest train ever built with 900 cars stretching over nine miles. There is also a murderer on board and he is out to kill Will who in possession of the funeral car key where it is rumored there is treasure. He must warn his father who is the manager of the railway and all the way up in first class. In order to survive, Will joins the traveling circus with Mr. Dorian and Maren, a girl his age who he met years ago and helped get her this job. Things would be simpler if Mr. Dorian and Maren didn't want something from the funeral car too. Is he willing to risk his life for them?
This book could not decide what it wanted to be. Fantasy or historical? Strangely silly or serious? The thugs are thugs for no other reason than they are thugs. Will is a wannabe artist whose talent is obviously not enough to impress his dad, but at least plays a part in the plot. There are sasquatches, but they are absolutely pointless to the storyline other than to add some fantastical element to the story, which already exists by having bog witches and a nine mile train. I just didn't see the point of the fantasy elements in this story and that is saying a lot from a girl who loves fantasy.
The real problem of the story was this though...the train was just too damn big. Not only did it defy the laws of physics, but it also defied reason. If a guard on your train gets murdered and is missing and you don't notice for several days, then you have a very serious security problem. There is only one law man on a train that is basically a rolling city? No one patrols the third class cars. It's like Snowpiercer, but for kids. (it's a graphic novel and movie, look it up) There is no telegraph on board and no way to tell anyone at the front of the train about the fact that their breakmen are out for gold and blood.
Posted by Venus on Saturday, January 3, 2015
Release Date: November 4, 2014
Piggie has a surprise for Gerald, but he is going to have to wait for it. And wait. And wait. But this surprise is worth it, or so Piggie says. Only problem is Gerald really doesn't like waiting.
The newest Piggie & Elephant book (#22) is amazing as always. Like morality tales, these books so beautifully capture the emotions and daily frustrations that little ones deal with. If you have spent any time with a child, you know that patience is almost a foreign concept to them. You can practically feel Gerald's impatience. I found myself really anticipating the surprise and when it came, it really was beautiful and worth the wait, as Gerald and Piggie both note. And what is the surprise? Well, you will just have to wait and see.
Posted by Venus on Friday, January 2, 2015
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Release Date: November 11, 2014
George is brave. He stands up to bullies, has a stomach of iron, and will swing higher than any of the other kids. However, all his bravery goes out the window when the lights go out. Then his bedroom becomes nightmare fuel. George's bravery is tested when his Bear ends up on the other side of the room and George must rescue him.
This is a story about courage without the fantasy ending that by facing his fear, George has overcome it completely. Yes, he rescues his bear (of course he does), but I didn't get the impression that George is still that comfortable with the dark. I also love the idea that a child can be fearless about some things, but still have things they are afraid of. I was always the kind of child who didn't mind heights, climbing trees until the limbs were snapping beneath me. No fear. But bring a needle anywhere near me and I became a complete basket case. Whether children are afraid of the dark or not, I think that they can relate this story and it is definitely a great jumping off point for talking to little ones about things they are afraid of and how they too can be brave like George.