Puddle by Hyewon Yum Book Review

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

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

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

Have You Seen Elephant by David Barrow Book Review

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

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

The Big Dark by Rodman Philbrick Book Review

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

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

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

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

Green City by Allan Drummon Book Review

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

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

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

Thunder Boy Jr. by Sherman Alexie Book Review

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

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

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

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

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

Swap! by Steve Light Book Review

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

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

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

Unicorn vs. Goblins by Dana Simpson Book Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Friends by Dean Robbins Book Review

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

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

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

Bloom by Doreen Cronin Book Review

Bloom by Doreen Cronin
Illustrations by David Small
Publisher: Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books
Release Date: February 9, 2016

Poor Mud Fairy. Although she has helped her kingdom in more ways than one, no one seems to appreciate her in the glass kingdom. And so she leaves. Who needs people who constantly complain about the dirt and puddles that she leaves her in wake? The kingdom moves on, years go by, exaggerated stories are told of Bloom and her contribution to the kingdom. Whether they like it or not though, the King and Queen do need her help as the glass castle begins to crack. When they send a knight to find Bloom, he rejects her, not willing to see that this dirty little fairy is in fact the answer to their problems. So the King and Queen choose their meekest, most ordinary girl in the kingdom named Genevieve. Together the little girl and Bloom work together to save the kingdom, messy muddy hands and all.

Like many picture books, this book had a message, one that implied that sometimes something that seems ordinary (or dirty) can make something extraordinary. Sure we all would love for out children to do something extraordinary, but what if you are just an ordinary kid? Or what if you are the kid whose talents are underappreciated because they aren't as sparkly and clean as someone else's. My only major complaint is that Genevieve has to be fixed, as if she wasn't good as she was.

Message aside though, this story very much felt like a cute little story about a kingdom and fairy. Like a little adventure in similar tone to Princess Hyacinth and The Paperbag Princess. The illustrations are classic David Small, full of life and energy. I think little ones, especially ones who like their fairies a bit more rough and tumble, will enjoy this one.

The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness Book Review

The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness
Publisher: Walker Books
Release Date: August 27, 2015

What if you aren't the one who is supposed to fight the zombies, or soul-eating ghosts, or the vampire apocalypse? What if you are just a regular kid trying to get through high-school?

This concept has always fascinated me. In historical novels kids are always precocious and different than everyone else around them, but what about the girl who wanted to get married at seventeen or the boy who didn't mind working on his father's farm. What about in super hero movies when things are being destroyed? What about the guy who was drinking his latte and now is suddenly running for his life? What about the ghost hunters sister who can't see ghosts but worries about her sibling all the time? This is why I found the premise of this story so intriguing. Why don't we see more books about the normal average Joe or Jane who is just trying to live life? Answer: Because their stories are boring.

There is clearly something supernatural happening in the context of this story. We are given glimpses of it at each chapter opening, but the main characters are so far removed from it, that it may as well be non-existent. Even when the supernatural crosses their path, these kids are more concerned about the prom then they are about their classmates. I mean, people at their school are being killed left and right and because they are the "indy kids" (aka the ones who fight monsters) it's like they don't care. After all, no one really bothers to get to know the indy kids so it's not like they have any emotional attachment to them. Which is a problem in itself because even if you don't know someone, the death of classmates should affect you. These kids have the emotional empathy of a turnip.

What makes it worse is that there is this strange idea that only kids really believe the supernatural is happening and that when people become adults, they just pretend like what they experienced didn't happen. So that vampire apocalypse? Drugs in the water. I just didn't buy it. I get that there is supposed to be this notion that adults forget what it is like to be a kid and that adults choose to ignore what is happening that doesn't male sense, but it wouldn't be everyone.

There were some interesting characters here too, like the kid who is part demi-god and whom cats worship wherever he goes. Such an interesting character. The main character's mom is running for political office which no one really cares about but her, to the detriment of their family. And this would have been okay if there weren't some crazy weird things happening at the same time in their town. So, although I understand what the author was trying to do, I understand why author's write stories about the kids who save the day. Because an entire book about the normal ones turned out to be rather boring.

Lionheart by Richard Collingridge Book Review

Lionheart by Richard Collingridge
Publisher: David Fickling Books
Release Date: February 23, 2016

Richard hears a sound in his room right before bedtime. Perhaps it is a monster. Richard is not going to wait around the find out though and so he sets off over hills, through forest and field, finally finding himself in a magical jungle. It is there, with the help of his stuffed Lion that Richards learns how to be brave enough to face his fear.

Reminding me Jerry Pinkney's The Lion and the Mouse, this is a story that many children can relate to. For whatever reasons, I have met a lot of anxious and scared children whose fears range from monsters in the closet to not wanting to try something that may be too hard and this message of facing those feels is spot on. Kids have such vivid imaginations, which may be the reason they are afraid in the first place, but this book shows that imagination can be used as a tool for good as well. I am not a psychologist, but perhaps this book could be helpful for children who are very anxious or fearful. Giving them a stuffed lion like Lionheart and encouraging them to talk about and face their fears in a positive way. This book doesn't have to be heavy though, it is a beautifully illustrated read that was also make a nice bedtime story whether the child has fears or not.

How Kate Warne Saved President Lincoln by Elizabeth Van Steenwyk Book Review

How Kate Warne Saved President Lincoln: The Story Behind the Nation's First Female Detective by Elizabeth Van Steenwyk
Illustrations by Valentina Belloni
Publisher: Albert Whitman & Company
Release Date: March 1, 2016

In 1856, when Kate Warne went to see Allan Pinkerton, only men were detectives. But Kate convinced Allan to hire her for his detective agency. She explained that she could worm out secrets where men could not go--in disguise as a society lady! Join Kate on her most important mission--to thwart a plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln on the way to his inauguration.

Kate Warne's accomplishments as a female detective were well ahead of her time since women weren't even allowed to join the police force until 1891 and didn't work officially as detectives until 1903. Yet there must have been something about her that made Pinkerton take her on despite knowing very little about her. She claimed to be a young widow  yet there is very little evidence for this. Whoever she was, Kate proved herself over and over to her employer, although rumor has it she was the mistress to Pinkerton so one does wonder what role that played in their professional relationship. 

Although her life was rather interesting if a bit mysterious, I did feel like this book fell a bit flat for me. The illustrations, while colorful were confusing at times. Presidential hopeful Abraham Lincoln is not recognizable and I found it hard to pick him out of a group of men on a spread. Also, even though this book is a picture book and written in language that the average 4-7 year old would understand, one must have some previous information concerning Lincoln as well as some basic geography knowledge, things that the average picture book audience is still developing. This story really should have been geared towards upper elementary school students, but  there simply wasn't enough included information for that age group. In fact, I felt so confused by the story as it seemed like Kate Warner was nothing more than an advisor in this assassination plot, that I ended up looking up more information about her. Now, this could be viewed as a good thing as this book led me to learn more, but writers cannot assume that everyone will do this and so it is important that all the relevant data is presented as succinctly as possible while maintaining the integrity of the story.

The Secret Subway by Shana Corey Book Review

The Secret Subway by Shana Corey
Publisher: Schwartz & Wade
Release Date: March 8, 2016

1860 New York City was a mess of crowds, garbage, and sewage. The streets were crowded and Alfred Ely Beach had an idea. Using an idea that was being used for banks, Beach had an idea to create a pneumatic (fan-powered) underground subway. With a lot of conniving and a few lies, Beach's construction crew began to dig. It opened on February 26, 1870, but the world wasn't quite ready for underground trains.

It's weird, but I have actually read four books that have mentioned or featured Beach's pneumatic subway. I find it fascinating how some people seem to be born in the wrong era, for surely if Beach had been inventing things just twenty years later, enabled by some of the other inventions of the era, he would have had a very successful year. As it stands, he is one of those inventors who have nearly been lost to the annals of time. Which is why I love this book so much. Not only is the story interesting, but the way it is told and illustrated draw in readers both young and old. I am continually amazed by the picture book biographies that have come out in the past year or two.

Josh Baxter Levels Up by Gavin Brown Book Review

Josh Baxter Levels Up by Gavin Brown
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Release Date: February 23, 2016

Video game fanatic Josh Baxter has moved yet again. Seventh grade is hard enough without having to go to another school and make new friends. Josh is tired of hitting the reset button on his life. This time though, Josh makes a big mistake, one that makes him the enemy of almost the entire school. Not to mention that his grades are plummeting and because of this his mother has taken away all of his video games. Josh knows that it is time to get out of this funk and so he begins his own life video game in which he is Player One and leveling up means making better grades, more friends, and not screwing up.

To say that Josh Baxter is obsessed with video games would be an understatement. This kid thinks in video games, to the point that even his metaphors are video game related. Now, I am a huge geek. There are some things that I can seriously obsess over. The amount of books I read being one of them. But I don't think in book metaphors all the time. That would be strange. And it is strange when Josh does it too. I get that he  loves video games, I just felt like it could have been taken down a notch.

Although this book was evenly paced, I found it a little too predictable and stereotypical. Some of the friends that Josh makes feel a little too archetypal or stereotypical. The Asian kid whose dad insists on him making good grades and freaks out when he wants to date someone of a different ethnicity. There is of course, one absent/dead parent. And a bully who is clearly bullied at home and leaves Josh alone once Josh manages to defeat him via video games. The story is quick, full of pictures and video game references, but on the whole, it failed to impress. That said, it will definitely appeal to the reluctant readers and young video game fanatics.

Snappsy the Alligator (Did Not Ask to Be in This Book) by Julie Falatko Book Review

Snappsy the Alligator (Did Not Ask to Be in This Book) by Julie Falatko
Illustrations by Tim Miller
Publisher: Viking Books for Young Readers
Release Date: February 2, 2016

Snappsy the alligator is trying to have a normal day, but there appears to be a narrator whose version of events are rather sensationalized. Snappsy isn't a big, mean alligator obsessed with prowling for defenseless birds and soft, fuzzy bunnies. He is not obsessed with snack foods that start with the letter P. Then again, maybe he is. But there is no way the narrator is going to be invited to his party.

In the style of The Monster at the End of this Book and Mo Willem's We Are in a Book (the illustrations look a lot like Willem's too), this fourth-wall breaking story is a nice giggle. With adorable illustrations, readers will quickly be sucked into the banter between one unwilling alligator and his pushy narrator. I especially like when Snappsy gets angry with the narrator for trying to predict what will happen. This would also make a great book for teaching young children about narration and tone.

Apples and Robins by Lucie Felix Book Review

Apples and Robins by Lucie Felix 
Publisher: Chronicle Books
Release Date: March 8, 2016

For an apple, all you need is a circle and the color red. An oval becomes a bird. Triangles into birdhouses.

I have said it before, but it should be repeated, I love cut outs and reveals in books. In a way it almost feels like magic when you turn the page and discover how one shape becomes something or reveals something that was otherwise hidden. This clever concept book uses nature to reveal simple shapes and ways in which they can be viewed. There is a loose through line as the reader climbs the ladder to pick the apples, taking a bite, finding a worm. The book then walks the reader through the different seasons, returning in the end to where it began. See for yourself: