Father's Chinese Opera by Rich Lo Book Review

Father's Chinese Opera by Rich Lo
Publisher: Sky Pony Press
Release Date: June 3, 2014

Rich Lo sets the stage of his early childhood, recounting a life at The Chinese Opera that his father earned some brief fame. The story centers around one summer, where a young boy, enamored by his father's work in the opera, wishes to become part of the show. Rehearsing day and night, the boy is sure that after only a brief time he will be able to perform, however he soon learns that following your dreams takes more than just a summer of practicing.

This was a nice story with absolutely gorgeous watercolor illustrations that really embraced the Chinese culture. With the backdrop of the Chinese Opera, Lo explores the relationship between father and son and the importance of hard work and practice.

After reading the afterword by Rich Lo, I found the true story surrounding this picture book to be far more intriguing than the picture book itself. Perhaps not age appropriate, but no sadder than Grandfather's Journey or any children's book about the Holocaust. In other words, I think kids can handle sad. Lo recounts the tale of he and his siblings escaping from China, their father, already a well-respected man within the Chinese Opera circuit, came after. They went to Panama, where for almost a decade, Lo's father received a great deal of notoriety. Then, seeking a better life, the left for America. The fame his father experienced disappeared and he found himself struggling in America. He became a nobody, but he did it for his family.

Perhaps it is because I am an adult that I find the story behind the story more intriguing or perhaps it is because that is the better story. (not that there was anything wrong with the one told) One little boy wanting to learn acrobatics seems so small compared to this other story about escape and fame that is fleeting. Yet this is the story that Lo wanted to tell, the one that captured his imagination as an illustrator. You can almost feel the memories bleeding off the page, just as his watercolors do.

Gaston by Kelly DiPucchio Book Review

Gaston by Kelly DiPucchio
Illustrations by Christian Robinson
Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Release Date: June 3, 2014

In a terrible case of switched at birth, Gaston, a puppy who is clearly not very poodle like, must learn that a family is about love and not necessarily how one looks. After being reunited with his "proper" family, it soon becomes clear that although Gaston is not like the other poodles, that is his family and it is where he belongs.

This is a story that on the surface seems to be a silly about two mixed-up dogs, but right beneath is a much deeper message. It is one of family and belonging and how you don't have to look like your family or be just like them in order to belong. I am a little curious as to whether this story would work well in dealing with adoption or whether the whole switched at birth aspect throws that off a bit.

The beautiful acrylic illustrations, reminiscent of Madeline, bring all already fun story to life. I definitely think this is one that kids, especially the dog lovers, are going to enjoy.

Dreamwood by Heather Mackey Book Review

Dreamwood by Heather Mackey
Publisher: Penguin Putnam
Release Date: June 12, 2014

Lucy Darrington's father is one of the world's most renowned supernatural expert (although disgraced). After running away from boarding school, Lucy arrives where her father should be only to discover he has gone missing. His last letter spoke of a great breakthrough, but as Lucy learns more about the area and a mysterious illness simply called 'The Rust' that is killing all the trees, she realizes that she may have to go rescue her father. As Lucy and her friend Pete make their way to Devil's Thumb, Lucy makes some new friends and some enemies as well who will stop at nothing to keep her from obtaining the last Dreamwood tree.

In essence, this story read like a magical folk tale, carefully sculpted to show both the beauty and danger that lives within nature. There are those who respect such things, like the Lupine Native Americans, who protect Devil's Thumb as well as fear it. Of course, there are others who shun the supernatural elements and insist on doing things their way. As is often the case in these kinds of stores, those characters do not fare so well.

Lucy herself reminded me a bit of myself, especially when I was younger. The need to be right even when you haven't fully assessed all the variables in a situation. Her refusal to give in to fear even when she is aware of what ghosts and spirits are capable of. She is confident, intelligent, and despite a propensity to be overly competitive, she is a girl who will get things done. Pete was a little less fleshed out for me, because I don't think I ever fully understood his motivation. In the beginning he is surly, in the middle he is surly, and in the guessed it...surly. He complains about Lucy not trusting him or thinking him capable of taking care of himself, yet the truth is, Pete is really dealing with a situation that he knows very little about and really does need Lucy's expertise. On the other hand, Lucy is far too trusting and Pete, who is an expert on the bad guys is ignored in his efforts to show Lucy the error of her ways.

Beautifully descriptive with both a clear respect for nature, the setting itself is the real gem of the story. From the train ride through the forest, to Pentland, to Devil's Thumb. Each setting felt like a whole and yet separate. It is as if the story is taking place right on the cusp of something, that moment right before technology takes over, before people changed, when the last great spirits roamed the woods.

This is, as in most middle-grade books, a coming of age story. It is also about nature, never giving up, believing in others, respecting things that we don't understand, being a true friend, persevering, all with a great and terrible magic blended in. A wonderful historical fantasy, I think there is a very wide audience for this book.

Smek for President by Adam Rex Book Review

Smek for President by Adam Rex Book Review
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion
Release Date: February 10, 2015

In a sequel that I never expected, Gratuity "Tip" (the human) and J.Lo (the Boov), have returned in another intergalactic adventure. After taking back planet Earth from the Gorg, the Boov have decided to move to one of Saturn's moons. J.Lo still feels guilty about the role he played and wishes to make things right. Together he and Tip travel in Slushious to New Booveworld to do a little sightseeing and to set things right. However, soon Tip and J.Lo are caught up in a web of conspiracy and lies that lands J.Lo in prison, has a mysterious Boov in black who is trying to kill J.Lo, and ends up with Tip in a garbage dump. With a presidential election on the horizon, it is up to Tip to put things right and get back home before she gets into any more trouble.

The True Meaning of Smekday is one of my favorite fun books. Who can't like a book where an Boov alien calls himself J.Lo soups up a car using a slushy machine and then travels to Happy Mouse World? Adam Rex's illustrations are fun and imaginative as I have come to expect from him. This sequel isn't anything less. Tip is her usual strong-willed self who may not always make the best decisions, but is smart and quick-thinking. J.Lo is the character who really has depth though. Wracked with guilt, J.Lo dreams of inventing a time machine in order to fix the mistakes of his past.

Laugh out loud funny, it is fun to see the Boov in their own element, speaking clear sentences, moving around in suck tunnels. Although not all the illustrations were complete, this was just what I would have expected from a sequel. I do recommend that if you haven't read the first book, that you do so. You have a few months to read it before the sequel comes out. I know I will be buying a copy as soon as it does.

ARC was provided in conjunction with Disney-Hyperion and NetGalley.  

Also, did you know they are making a movie from The True Meaning of Smekday by Dreamworks, coming out next spring? Yeah, I just found out too. Other than some names being changed, I am really really excited about it.

Clara's Crazy Curls by Helen Poole Book Review

Clara's Crazy Curls by Helen Poole
Publisher: Picture Window Books
Release Date: January 1, 2014

Clara May wants to have the tallest hair in the world. One day her wish comes true, but she soon learns that having the tallest hair in the world comes with a whole host of problems.

I thought this book was adorable and simple. Neither heavy handed or preachy, it was simply a fun a story with a very simple message, "Be careful what you wish for". I love how Clara embraces her curl. (something I have never done mind you. Straightener all the way) There are so many fantastic laugh out loud parts and a rhythm that rolls off the tongue. The story is so fantastical in its silliness that I think both kids and adults will like this one, although I am sure parents will eventually tire of it after the thirtieth read.

The Silver Six by A.J. Lieberman Book Review

The Silver Six by A.J. Lieberman
Illustrations by Darren Rawlings
Publisher: GRAPHIX
Release Date: June 25, 2013

When a group of orphans discover that their parents all knew each other and more than that, all died together, the group seeks to find out what they died for. Plucky heroine Phoebe leads them on a daring escape to an uninhabited moon. However, their new home holds some secrets, ones that the richest man on earth wants for himself and is willing to kill for. With nowhere to run, the kids do the only thing they can think of--fight back.

This book was so much fun. A science fiction adventure with some fantastic world building and a villain who isn't playing around. Although the various genders, races, and hair colors made me think of Power Rangers at times, there were a lot of fantastic moments that set it apart from kitchy cartoon drama.

In Silver Six there is a terrible corporation that has made land a precious commodity. The image of the kids playing on a playground the size of a bathroom was just plain sad. Phoebe is strong. We know this from the beginning because she has been living on her own for a year. Foster care is no longer a thing in this future either. Orphans are unwanted and treated like free slave labor. Make no mistake, this is a fun story, but not a sweet one.

Add in some space travel, a mystery left behind by their parents, storms, a mercenary on their tales, a corrupt corporation, and a Teen Titans stylist feel and it is perfect. Just for extra measure, there is a smattering of comic relief too. I want a sequel!

Send for a Superhero! by Michael Rosen Book Review

Send for a Superhero! by Michael Rosen
Illustrations by Katherine McEwen
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Release Date: May 27, 2014

A father reads his children a bedtime story, one with action and adventure and two villains, Filth and Vacuum who plan on sucking all the money out of banks. Is there no superhero who can stop them? Can a superhero like Extremely Boring Man whose superpower is putting people to sleep?

I hated and loved this book. I absolutely love a picture book comic book format. That part of the story was engaging, action packed, and perfect. What I didn't like was the weird side story where the father is reading the book to his children. It was very 'Inception' like, with a book within a book that was within another book. Then again, a book featuring a father reading to his children is also something special so I think I can give this one a free pass. Besides, superheros are awesome!

From There to Here by Laurel Croza Book Review

From There to Here by Laurel Croza
Illustrations by Matt James
Publisher: Groundwood Books
Release Date: May 1, 2014

A little girl and her family have just moved across the country by train. Their new neighborhood in the city of Toronto is very different from their home in the Saskatchewan bush, and at first everything about “there” seems better than “here.” The little girl’s dad has just finished building a dam across the Saskatchewan River, and his new project is to build a highway through Toronto. In Saskatchewan, he would come home for lunch every day, but now he doesn’t come until supper. The family used to love to look at the stars, and the northern lights dancing in the night sky. But in the city, all they can see is the glare from the streetlights. All the kids used to run and play together, but now older brother Doug has his own friends. Then one day there is a knock on the door. It is Anne, who lives kitty-corner and is also eight, going on nine, and suddenly living in Toronto takes on a whole new light.

Because children are unwittingly forced to move, sometimes numerous times throughout their life, I find it incredibly important that there be issue books like these for kids. As a kid who went through a pretty traumatic move (at least in my mind), I think that any story that can help a child understand and accept a new situation is good. This story is very place specific, but the feelings conveyed are universal.

I wasn't particularly fond of the illustrations, however kids have very little art bias so I doubt that this would be a concern of a child. 

Count on the Subway by Paul DuBois Jacobs Book Review

Count on the Subway by Paul DuBois Jacobs
Illustrations by Dan Yaccarino
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Release Date: May 13, 2014

1 MetroCard, Momma and me.
Down 2 flights—to catch the 3.
4 turnstiles, singers 5.
A rumble, a screech . . . the train arrives!

This bright, young counting book is a trip through the New York City subway system. Hand in hand, child and mother see colorful subway signs and funny passengers, watch trains screeching by, and make new friends. With bold illustrations and a playful, rhyming text, this is not only a counting book, but also a tribute to New York and a sweet story of a child and parent navigating the city together.

When I was a kid, we lived in New Brunswick, New Jersey. New York City was just around the corner and I was never impressed. I have no actual memories of our trips to the city, only pictures, and I promise you I look absolutely miserable in them. After graduating from college in Boston, I had a few job interviews in the city and the thought of moving to a place that was just a slab of concrete and metal, made me anxious. Luckily or unluckily, I didn't get any of those jobs and I moved back home to North Carolina, a place with trees and gardens and greens stuff everywhere. 

I do love the subway, but more for its convenience and cost than anything else. Most subway stations are old and hot, a blessing in the winter and torture in the summer. For a child who lives in New York City, I imagine this book is a very cute local book where the subway is shown in a good light. However, it is very NYC centric and obviously a child not living in a city with public transportation is going to have a difficult time understanding it. 

It's a cute local counting book with clever rhymes and colorful illustrations that anyone from The Big Apple should relate to and enjoy.

On a side note: I always found it interesting that there were so many books set in New York City. Is this because so many editors and agents live in NYC? Is it because readers are interested in the big city? Is it just my imagination? I get that the population of NYC is over 8.3 million, but in the grand scheme of things, that is only (roughly) 2.5% of the United States' population. 

Rules of Summer by Shaun Tam Book Review

Rules of Summer by Shaun Tam
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
Release Date: June 1, 2014

Rather than a traditional book review, I want to just share some of the spectacular illustrations from this book. As I read this sparsely worded story, I found myself remembering my summers full of imaginative adventures that often felt like they took me far from home.

Gaijin by Matt Faulkner Book Review

Gaijin: American Prisoner of War by Matt Faulkner
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion
Release Date: April 5, 2014

Koji Miyamoto has a white mother and a Japanese father. When Pearl Harbor is attacked Koji finds himself being forced into an internment camp. His mother joins him, despite being a white American citizen. Once they are taken to the internment camp, Koji learns that being half white at the camp is just as bad as being half Japanese on the streets of California. Based on true events, Koji's story is one of sadness, where fear made people prisoners of war in their own country.

Through the years I have read a number of stories in regards to the Japanese internment camps during World War II. Personally, I enjoy the ones based on true stories because of the authenticity value. I don't have anything against historical fiction because I believe it does have a place within literature, but fiction and fact are different. This one blends the two. Matt Faulkner, at the end of the story, tells us about his family and their time at the camps. Interestingly enough, Faulkner chooses to tell a story that is similar to his families', but fictional as well. This is an interesting choice, but in no way does it detract from the power of the story and its emotional depth. Even though the setting may be outside the experience of young readers, I think that Faulkner does a great job with the characterization so that any child who has dealt with bullying or peer pressure is sure to understand on some level. My only real criticism of the story was that the camps, although shown as not being pleasant places to stay, were also not shown to be as awful as many of the other autobiographies I have read. This could have simply been because Faulkner's illustrations were so vibrant, that it was impossible to make anything look too terrible.

The story isn't the real gem here though. That would be the illustrations. Using watercolor and gouache, each image leaps off the page, vibrant and true.

Hands & Hearts by Donna Jo Napoli Book Review

Hands & Hearts: With 15 Words in American Sign Language by Donna Jo Napoli
Illustrations by Amy Bates
Publisher: Harry N. Abrams
Release Date: May 13, 2014

A mother and daughter spend a sunny day at the beach together where they swim, dance, build sandcastles, and, most importantly, communicate. But their communication is not spoken; rather, it is created by loving hands that use American Sign Language.

Beautiful and simple, Hands & Hearts is a quiet picture book that is interactive in a way that I have not seen before. Sure there are non-fiction titles and a handful of baby signs books, but one that is telling a story through pictures, words, and sign? Well, if they exist, there aren't many. Amy Bates' illustrations are charming as always and lend to the gentle feel of the book. I can see this book having so many uses for so many different groups of people. 

The Problem With Dystopian: Defying Logic

Fantasy and Science Fiction often go hand in hand as far as a genre is concerned. For some, the two are interchangeable words, for what is science fiction but a fantasy, albeit one rooted in some kind of science. For me, dystopian books fall right in-between. Often set in the future, but dark fantasies that take one piece of society and twist it to its darkest extreme. I will never grow tired of dystopian sci-fi. I have loved it since the moment I picked up a book by H.M. Hoover when I was twelve. However, over the years I have read some truly terrible dystopian fiction. Books that I felt were so lacking in any redeemable qualities that I wouldn't even blog about them. (although they do spawn posts like this) The reason the "bad ones" don't work though, isn't because people are tired of them or because they are dark and twisted, but rather because they have one thing in common--they do not follow an internal logic. 

Like with any world building, it is imperative that your world, whether it be fantasy or reality, have consistent rules and logic. In almost every fantasy book I have read, magic has rules and boundaries that allow the reader to understand the world and the limits of the people within. I have read very few fantasy books where I felt like the author wasn't following a consistent internal logic. However, that is not the case with Dystopian. I have pinpointed this problem down to something very simple that it is almost ridiculous. What is the one thing that all dystopian books have in common? 

They are supposed to be our future, a dark and twisted one, but our future nonetheless. 

The breakdown appears to happen when authors forget about all the things we currently have in our world that would not disappear easily and would not result in humanity returning to some kind of stone age. Although I understand there are extenuating circumstances, let me point out a couple of "modern" inventions that would not simply disappear should the gas prices start soaring, or the moon gets closer to the earth, or the government moved most of the population into bubble cities.

1. Solar Powered Anything In the book Empty the teen characters spend a good portion of the book running around trying to charge their cellphones due to rolling blackouts. Let me first point out that there are people all around the world, living in areas without electricity 90% of the time, who manage to have and keep their cellphones charged. It is absolutely ridiculous that none of these teens would have a single solar-powered charger of some sort. Here's the thing though, we have a ton of solar powered things. Solar powered lights, phone chargers, backpacks, houses, fans, birdbaths, wind turbines, watches, calculators, and even airplanes. Sure, these things have to be manufactured, but I still have my solar powered calculator from twenty years ago, so at the very least, I don't think bankers are going to have to go back to using abacuses.

2. Tools It is believed that the axe was used as early as the Neolithic period ending in 4,0000 to 2,0000 BC. In ancient Egypt, unframed saws were documented as early as the Early Dynastic Period around 3,100 to 2,686 BC. Blacksmithing is just as old a profession. Yet, I am constantly reading books in which the characters are living in shacks or dilapidated towns after the fall of civilization. Suddenly people can't figure out how to build proper houses or fix the ones they have. Our American ancestors marched across American and built places like San Francisco and Seattle and Denver in just a few decades. Sure San Francisco's streets were unbelievably muddy as it took a bit to figure out how to fix that mess, but if you keep things up, a house can last a good century or more. The people who can't figure out how build themselves a proper shelter, those are the people who would die off. The survivors in your dystopian world are going to be tough and smart and will actually know how to use an axe.

In 1835, Englishman William Richardson erected the first independent homestead in what is now San Francisco. Sixteen years later in 1851, this is what San Francisco looked like.  
3. Windmills When William Kamkwamba was a teenager, he created a functioning windmill that powered some electrical appliances in his family's home using materials from a local scrapyard. Since then, he has also built a solar-powered water pump that supplies drinking water in his village and two other windmills that have given his entire village power. He did all this with one book and ingenuity. As long as we have an atmosphere there will always be wind and wind can be harnessed to create electricity. So what if the government shut off the power? This doesn't mean that your characters suddenly go back to being cavemen with no way to take care of themselves beyond scavenging. I get that there is a certain period of anarchy that may happen after the decline of civilization, but we have seen civilizations fall throughout history and those people eventually settled down, rebuilt, and started a new world for themselves.  

4. Science Okay, so it isn't exactly an invention, but it counts because thanks to modern science we understand and can create things like medicine, anesthesia, telephones, electricity, light, airplanes, surgery, photography, cars, trains. Not to mention all the other countless things that we have learned over the past 150 years. Now, unless every single book was burned or destroyed and all the scientists, doctors, and inventors died at once, there is no way that all this knowledge would suddenly disappear. Sure, it may resemble more of a third-world country when it comes to medicine, but we wouldn't go back to an era when we think mercury can cure people, that bloodletting works, or using dirty tools to operate on people is in any way safe. 

5. Bicycles I get it. Gas is getting kind of expensive. However, does anyone really believe that people would be driving around if gas was $30 a gallon? By the time gas prices rose that high, people will have already switched over to smarter forms of transport. You would see bicycles everywhere. Public transportation, especially hydrogen powered buses like they have in Boston, would become extremely popular. People would move in closer to one another in order to be nearer to goods and services. More and more cities would convert to becoming more bicycle friendly. How do I know? Because it is already happening. Washington D.C. has been looking for alternative public transportation for decades now. Look at pictures of other countries where bicycles and mopeds are the main form of transportation. That is what a city would look like, not a bunch of kids scrounging their dollars in order to get gas to drive across town for a party. No, you would see a huge pile of kids on bikes heading to that party, perhaps wearing some glowsticks.

And what if the book you are writing doesn't have one or all of these things? Fine. That's okay. But it better make sense. Tell me why? Why is that banker using an abacus instead of a calculator? Is it so far in the future that all those solar powered calculators broke and no one knows how to make one anymore? If medicine isn't available it needs to make sense. That is the bottom line here. If this is our world, only in the future, then it is important for the reader to know why these things that already exist aren't being used or at the very least, why they have been forgotten

Help! We Need A Title! by Hervé Tullet Book Review

Help! We Need a Title! by Hervé Tullet
Publisher: Walker Books Ltd.
Release Date: September 1, 2013

Someone has been opening this book... I think they’re looking for a story! The characters are still only sketches, there’s a setting and a few ideas about color, but who can they turn to for the story? It’s not long until they go after the author and disturb him in the middle of his work...

I'm sure many of you are familiar with Press Here, a strange and wonderfully interactive book where children touch dots in a book and seemingly by pressing, things in the book change. Sadly, this book suffered some major problems, resulting in a story that felt overly long, stilted, and entirely too meta. Don't get me wrong, I love meta...if it is done right. For example: Chloe and the Lion was an hysterical story in which the author and illustrator battle it out. But it was funny and cute and had a plot, none of which existed in this book. I can't even speak about the great illustrations because the art is purposefully made to look like a 4 year-old drew it.

On a wholly different note, I find it interesting that this book is not your standard 32 page picture book, but rather twice that size. This was rather jarring as it could have easily been half that length.  

Larklight by Phillip Reeve Book Review

Larklight by Phillip Reeve
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Children's Books
Release Date: September 19, 2006

Arthur (Art) Mumby and his irritating sister Myrtle live with their father in a huge rambling house called Larklight, which travels on a remote orbit far beyond the Moon. On a rather ordinary morning they receive a correspondence informing them that a gentleman is on his way for a visit, a Mr. Webster. However, when their guests arrive it becomes apparent that Mr. Webster is actually a giant spider in a bowler hat, intent on killing them. Together Art and Myrtle escape and are soon swept up in a cosmic adventure that bring them in close contact with all sorts of aliens, darkness, spiders, and strange ancient devices.

With a true Jules Verne vibe, this tale hearkens back to the era where space wasn't a cold vast place, but rather one in which all manner of colorful aliens lived and thrived. Although technically I think we would consider this to be "steampunk" by today's standards, I felt it had more of a classical feel to it. There is of course, the obligatory parallel history, but beyond a giant automaton, it felt much more like Verne's The Voyages Extraordinaires.

The story itself was exciting and action packed, although I didn't care for either of the Mumby children who are regrettably the main characters. Although funny in narration, Art lacks any drive and despite being smart, would not have gotten very far at all on his own. Myrtle is so terribly spoiled, sanctimonious, and downright rude that I was kind of glad when she was kidnapped because I thought we wouldn't have to hear from her for a while. This was not the case however, for Myrtle gets her own chapters to tell her story, which (I think) were supposed to make me like her. Most interesting of all is that, as mentioned before, it has a classic adventure story feel, but the author went all the way, making sure that his main female character (Myrtle) faints or wants to faint on a fairly regular basis and matches the typical weak female archetype found in Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and  Haggard. To be fair, in the end, Myrtle does help save the day and is a little less insufferable, however considering she is still sanctimonious and extremely biased I just couldn't get on her side. If the story had been more about our pirate friend Jack Havok I would have been much more interested for not only did he have a much more interesting backstory, but he was also smart, kind, and knew what to do in any given situation. Yes, Jack and his crew would have made for more interesting characters.

This is in all a fun plot-driven story with fun twists. There are pirates, spiders, mushroom Moon people, giant moths, Venusian plagues, and even the Queen of England. Despite my dislike of the characters, I am definitely intrigued enough to pick up the second book and see where the story takes me.

If You Happen To Have A Dinosaur by Linda Bailey Book Review

If You Happen To Have A Dinosaur by Linda Bailey
Illustrations by Colin Jack
Publisher: Tundra Books
Release Date: May 13, 2014

If you happen to have a dinosaur just lying around and you aren't sure what you can do with it, may I suggest a can opener? Or a nutcracker? There are so many uses for random dinosaurs from umbrellas to kites to pillows, never mind that a dinosaur could scare off any potential burglars. Oh, and the whole dinosaur ate my homework excuse would be very fitting.

A cleverly silly book, If You Happen To Have a Dinosaur simply sings with fun. The jokes and asides are perfect for its intended audience and will be sure to keep parents smiling even after the hundredth read. I also cannot forget to mention Dreamworks illustrator Colin Jack whose cartoon style is distinctive and full of life. Perfect for the dinosaur lovers, which in my experience is just about every little kid I meet at some point in their young lives.

I also suggest a quick snoop around Colin Jack's blog. There is a fantastic video on the making of the illustrations for this book (that I cannot embed in this post) that will fascinate adults and children alike.

Return of Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke Book Review

Return of Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke
Publisher: First Second
Release Date: May 13, 2014

Zita the Spacegirl has returned in the final installment of her adventures. She has saved planets, battled monsters, and wrestled with interplanetary fame, but when she is imprisoned for these "crimes" Zita knows she must escape. With her usual pluck and kindness, Zita quickly makes friends along the way and finds a way to help her friends in a daring jailbreak that will hopefully end the prison warden's plans for interstellar domination.

These are probably my favorite graphic novels for kids. Zita is so likable, so quick to help others, and never afraid of adventure, and all of that plus a great plot makes for a perfect story. Let me also point out that science fiction for the middle grade set is very rare, however this does seem to be a popular genre for middle grade graphic novels. Within the sci-fi fantasy genre there is Cleopatra in Space, the Amulet series, Robot Dreams, Walker Bean, Ghostopolis, Hereville, Bigfoot Boy, Explorer, and Monster on the Hill among others.

Although this third book takes readers to a rather sad place, I think that it was a very good ending to the series and really shows the character growth of Zita and her friends. I may have teared up at the end.

Big Bad Bubble by Adam Rubin Book Review

Big Bad Bubble by Adam Rubin
Publisher: Clarion Books
Release Date: May 6, 2014

To us, a bubble is harmless. To the monsters of La La Land, however, a bubble is an object of great terror. The random appearance of said bubbles send the Yerbert, Froofle, and Wumpus running, crying and screaming. With a little encouragement from the narrator and readers though, the monsters are encouraged to try touching one with surprising adults.

Reminiscent of Monsters Inc., where children are the scary objects, this tale fell a little flat in that it was mostly about irrational fears of bubbles rather than a whimsical tale about bubbles and monsters in another world. There is a lot of room for readers to interact with the book, which is great, especially for story times, but I felt like it was missing that extra bit of magic.

The Geese March in Step by Jean-François Dumont Book Review

The Geese March in Step by 

, but as I have stated many times, the beauty of picture books is that young children don't know nor do they care about originality. To them, everything is new and fun. This book will definitely find itself an audience among young children and would work really well for a storytime or classroom. 

Another Day As Emily by Eileen Spinelli Book Review

Another Day As Emily by Eileen Spinelli
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Release Date: May 13, 2014

When Suzy Q's next door neighbor collapses, it is Suzy's brother who comes to her rescue, calling 911 and becoming an instant hero. Caught up in his fifteen minutes of fame, Suzy is rather jealous. Feeling cast aside, Suzy decides that she is going to live like Emily Dickinson, in a life of solitude and white dresses. Her parents are worried, but Suzy is sure that this will help her to be who she really is--Emily.

I am afraid that his book, despite how well-written it is, has a very narrow audience. Elementary school age girls who like very character-driven novels in verse and have some interest in Emily Dickinson or at least an interest in 19th century history. This is what I would typically consider a "quiet book". There is very little in the way of a plot and most of the story deals with Suzy's feelings, which are very age-accurate and relateable. 

A poetry expert I am not, however I thought that the writing was good, but felt more like paired down prose rather than the kind of poetry I found in books like Out of the Dust and Love That Dog. Also, not being much of a poetry expert, I need someone else to tell me how appealing Emily Dickinson really is to a 10 year-old girl? I mean, I remember Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters being a big deal to some of my teenage friends, but was Emily Dickinson? Will this book really grab attention or will it go gently into the night? (yes, that was a purposeful Dylan Thomas reference...see, I do know some poetry)

Froodle by Antoinette Portis Book Review

Froodle by Antoinette Portis
Publisher: Roaring Brook Press
Release Date: May 6, 2014

In a normal neighborhood, on a typical day, the birds chirp, the dogs bark and the cats meow. When Little Brown Bird decided she doesn't want to sing the same old song, out comes a new tune that shakes up the neighborhood and changes things forever.

This is a great read aloud, especially perfect for story times. It isn't necessarily the most original idea, however the vibrancy of the illustrations and the funny noises is enough to make any kid giggle.

Queen Victoria's Bathing Machine by Gloria Whelan Machine Book Review

Queen Victoria's Bathing Machine by Gloria Whelan
Illustrations by Nancy Carpenter
Publisher: Paula Wiseman Books
Release Date: May 6, 2014

Queen Victoria desperately wants to go for a swim, however Victorian modesty concerns mean that getting into the water is a little bit tricky. In a stroke of genius, Prince Albert builds his wife a Bathing Machine that will allow her to go for a dip without anyone spying her in her bathing suit.

In a world where string bikinis aren't an uncommon sight at the beach, the Victorian world of modesty and manners seems almost foreign. Queen Victoria is depicted as more human than I am used to seeing her, surrounded by her children, and her loving husband and simply desperate for a good swim. Although the text never mentions Victoria's nine children, every page is a witness to their antics. The Bathing Machine isn't really a machine per se but rather a wheeled wagon, the mechanics of which are simply. The Queen (or bather) enters through the door where she is able to change in complete privacy. Then the "machine" is wheeled either by humans or horse into the water until it is a safe distance where the Queen can enter the water without her ankles or modesty being spied. When done, she can climb back into the machine, be wheeled to dry land, and change back into her clothes. I simply adored this book. It made me laugh out loud and there may have been a tear in my eye in the end.

Sisters by Raina Telgemeier Book Review

Sisters by Raina Telgemeier
Publisher: Scholastic
Release Date: August 26, 2014

A companion to Telgemeier's first book Smile, Sisters is about Raina's journey with her little sister. So excited to become a big sister, Amara is not what Raina was expecting. Amara is cute, but also cranky, grouchy, and a loner, and it doesn't get better as they get older. Things really get interesting when they go on a road trip to San Francisco for a family reunion where there might or might not be a dead snake somewhere in the van.

Although I know this is basically a memoir, it makes me sad to read books where siblings dislike each other so much. I got in fights with my brothers all the time, but I also liked them a lot. Still do. Therefore, it saddens me that Raina and Amara have such a dislike for each other that seems to go far beyond simple bickering. There is also hope there as well. A wink at the reader that lets us know that eventually these sisters do figure each other out and have managed to become friends, despite a very rough start. Just to keep things in perspective Raina is careful not to paint herself as saintly. Sure the book is from her perspective, but she doesn't hold back on her own culpability in the situation.

As with her previous two books Smile and Drama, the illustrations serve the story well and draw in the reader. Can I also say how much I love that every page is in color? Although I don't mind black and white and understand its place within this medium, sometimes there is something to be said about color. I mean, can you imagine Superman without color illustrations? Me neither.

Separate is Never Equal by Duncan Tonatiuh Book Review

Separate is Never Equal:Sylvia Mendez and Her Family's Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh
Publisher: Harry N. Abrams
Release Date: May 6, 2014

Almost 10 years before Brown vs. Board of Education, Sylvia Mendez and her parents helped end segregation in California. An American Citizen of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent who spoke perfect English, Sylvia was denied enrollment in her local school, being told that she had to attend a Mexican school down the road because she was dirty and didn't speak English. Her parents took action by organizing the Hispanic community and filing a lawsuit in federal district court. Their success eventually brought an end to segregated education in California.

Not being from California or of Latin American descent, this was an area of history in which my education was sorely lacking. Logically, I knew that there must have been some kind of precedent or court case that integrated schools, but I just imagined that it happened during the civil rights movement or possibly a little earlier as it did in the north. This was a very well done biographical account concerning this family and court case. The illustrations had a distinct ethnic folksy quality that really brought life to these "characters". Emphasis is placed not just on the court case and racism, but also on how government and wealth works with poor communities. Despite such complex subjects Tonatiuh adeptly explains it in a way that young readers will understand and empathize.

I can definitely see this as a great addition to a classroom or learning environment.

The Baby Tree by Sophie Blackall Book Review

The Baby Tree by Sophie Blackall
Publisher: Nancy Paulsen Books
Release Date: May 1, 2014

Sooner or later, every child will ask, Where do babies come from? The answer, it seems, it terribly complex involving seeds and trees and birds. Eventually, he is told the truth, but not before some very confusing answers.

I am not a parent, but I imagine that this question is enough to send some parents into a panic, especially when asked by a four-year old. It seems that the parents in this story do the right thing by telling the truth, but shame on all those adults for confusing this poor kid with their ridiculous stories. I mean, I guess you could treat anatomy and reproduction like Santa Clause, but that seems incredibly irresponsible. Yes, yes, this is my own opinion. However, it is this exact reason that this book exists.

So far, I don't think I have read a terrible book on reproduction for little ones. Some are overly simplistic, but most do the job they were intended for. This one is cute in that is feels a bit more like a picture book rather than a didactic issue pamphlet. Although, I do suggest having this one handy before your kid asks the question. Perhaps it would make a good baby shower gift?

Because I couldn't resist: