Finding Wild by Megan Wagner Lloyd Book Review

Finding Wild by Megan Wagner Lloyd
Illustrations by Abigail Halpin
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Release Date: May 10, 2016

Two kids set off on an adventure away from their homes and discover the beauty of the natural world. Sudden storms, fire, flowers, snowflakes. As the children make their way through the woods, they find that the wild can exist even in their own backyard.

My husband always makes fun of me because I call the area behind my parents' house "the woods". In truth I am a city mouse and those "woods" are actually about 20 feet thick and you can see the backyard of the neighbor behind them. Yet, to us children, it was nature. We found moles and rabbits in there. A bird feeder hung nearby. My younger brothers would climb the trees and helped my dad build a shed tucked into the trees. A hammock is strung up in their shade. It isn't a forest, but it was out little bit of nature.

A beautifully illustrated story about the wonders of the natural world that can be found far and near, this book has boundless applications. Perfect for city kids, story times, nature unit studies, art, and class room, I love a story that encourages children to look for the beauty in the world around them.

There Is a Tribe of Kids by Lane Smith Book Review

There Is a Tribe of Kids by Lane Smith
Publisher: Roaring Brook Press
Release Date: May 3, 2016

A young goes on a journey and finds groups of things, a smack of jellyfish, a colony of penguins, until he finally discovers friends in a tribe of kids.

Authors really love naming things. This is not the first book I have come across that tries to be creative in collective nouns. And I did wonder at some of the word choices, yet can't deny the whimsy of it either. In the end, the "story" (a rather loose term for this book) is about belonging. I can see it being used for classrooms, but like other more quite and melancholy picture books, I think adults will like it more than children will.

For the Right to Learn by Rebecca Langston-George Book Review

For the Right to Learn by Rebecca Langston-George
Illustrations by Janna Bock
Publisher: Capstone Press
Release Date: September 1, 2015

She grew up in a world where women were supposed to be quiet. But Malala Yousafzai refused to be silent. She defied the Taliban's rules, spoke out for education for every girl, and was almost killed for her beliefs. This powerful true story of how one brave girl named Malala changed the world proves that one person really can make a difference.

You have to have been living under a rock not to know who Malala Yousafzai is. Her story is inspirational and powerful and will hopefully have ramifications for many girls throughout the world. The beginnings of her story are hard, but important. The problem with this particular version of her story is that, despite some lovely illustrations, this picture book is extremely text heavy. Picture book biographies are strange in that their audience pushes out from the normal 3-6 year old age range and can go all the way up to middle school. Yet, the illustrations almost always speak to a much younger audience and so the text and pictures become incongruous. Not to mention that the content of this story about a child being shot is way too intense for younger children. And so we are left with a picture book that is intended for older children and one can't help but wonder if there was a better format to present this story? And there is. A quick search shows numerous other formats of biographies and even an autobiography that will work far better for bringing Malala's story to its intended audience.

Princeless by Jeremy Whitley Book Review

Princeless by Jeremy Whitley
Illustrations by M. Goodwin; Contributors Jung-Ha Kim and Dave Dwonch 
Publisher: Action Lab
Release Date: May 23, 2012

In this girl-power comic books series, Princess Adrienne is tired of waiting for rescue. So she befriends the dragon who is guarding her tower, stages her own death, and sets out to save her other sisters from a similar fate. They soon meet up with a plucky half-dwarf girl named Bedelia and are soon running toward and away from danger. 

I really wanted to like this series. After all, one of my favorite book series ever (The Lioness Quartet by Tamora Pierce) is about a girl who pretends to be a boy so she can become a knight. We have a plucky, funny heroine along with some fantastic one liners. Huge bonus points for Princess Adrienne and her entire family being black. I would say African-American, but this is a fantasy world so there isn't really an Africa or America. I didn't just read this first graphic novel compilation either, but rather five, although I have no idea if I read them in order since that was one of the most confusing parts for me. Sadly, the premise of the story couldn't withstand the clunky dialogue and didactic nature. 

My biggest issue was in the feminism, which I wouldn't mind if I didn't feel like I was being hit over the head with it repeatedly. And just when you think they can't possibly be anymore heavy-handed, the writer squeezes in one more just to make sure that you know, this girl don't need anybody rescuing her. Now, I am not against a princess rescuing herself, in fact that was the best part of the book. The problem was the six pages dedicated to complaining about the skimpiness of women's armor historically. Or the many times that the Princess' father talks about how boys need to be strong and the only use for girls is to be ruled over and rescued. Of course, there are some role reversal moments too where the Prince likes theater and sewing rather than swordfighting, which also felt ridiculous mostly because it was lazy writing. This is just strict role reversal and rather than creating nuanced characters who could like both sword fighting AND theater. 

I did wonder if this really was for children too since there were numerous references to things that I don't think kids will get. Like the Xena costume or the Skyrim reference. 

The biggest issue with this series though is that it takes forever for anything to happen. In the first book the only Princess saved is Adrienne herself. A few books in and we get to meet two more sisters. They are so busy trying to tear down female-stereotypes that they sometimes forget to keep the plot going. 

As I said, I would like to like this series. It has fantasy and girl power and a hammer-wielding half-dwarf, but the story was trying just a little too hard to effective. 

Beard Boy by John Flannery Book Review

Beard Boy by John Flannery
Illustrations by Steven Weinberg
Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons Book for Young Readers
Release Date: May 10, 2016

Ben wants a beard. All the coolest people he knows have one. The baker, the barbers, the butcher, and most importantly--his dad. He has tried and tried, but nothing seems to work. Even when his dad says that this is something that is just going to have to wait for him to grow up, Ben is not satisfied. He wants a beard now!

We are now in the era where beard wearing hipster dads are having kids, so it isn't any surprise that there are a number of beard and mustache picture books that have begun appearing. After all, hipsters need picture books too. Which does make me wonder though, were there a plethora of children's books coming out in the sixties and seventies for children of hippies? No matter, this book had a special sort of charm in that of a child wanting to be like his dad. If for no other reason than he looks up to his father and considers him to be "boss". The illustrations are done in child-like cartoons that felt as if Ben himself was illustrating the story. Also, let's not forget that Ben's mother has tattoos, which is also a rarity in picture books and something that made this book stand out all the more.

Over the Ocean by Taro Gomi Book Review

Over the Ocean by Taro Gomi
Publisher: Chronicle Books
Release Date: May 17, 2016

A young girl looks out to sea and wonders what lies beyond. Perhaps there are boats filled with toys, skyscrapers filled with people, home with families. Perhaps there is another little girl standing on the shore of another ocean, thinking the same thoughts.

An old book reprinted for a new audience, Over the Ocean is the timeless story of imagination and wonder. I think we have all wondered what it is like somewhere else, knowing full well that our experiences limit our imaginations and yet we search for that knowledge anyway. For children, that imagining begins with a question. Every page of this book is filled with colorful depictions that try to answer those questions. Despite these rich themes, I admit that I was a bit bored by the book. The child's imagination never goes beyond the practical and this felt so unlike the true thoughts of a child. That issue is vastly outweighed by the wonderful illustrations though.

Three Magic Balloons by Julianna Marguiles Book Review

Three Magic Balloons by Julianna Margulies
Illustrations by Grant Shaffer
Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers
Release Date: May 10, 2016

Three little girls. Three magic balloons. Tie the to the bedposts and they take the girls on a magical journey.

Let me summarize another way: Three angelic girls unselfishly feed animals at the zoo, because feeding animals at the zoo is such a hardship for children. (that was sarcasm) After being given three balloons as a reward for their altruism, the balloons then take the child up to a pseudo-heaven where they meet angels and animals that are fed by the kind thoughts of children.

This book is a hot mess. The story, if we can call it that is illogical and all over the place. It made more sense when I read that this was a story that Julianna Marguiles' dad told his children growing up. Now, no offense to dad's everywhere as some are probably brilliant storytellers, but not all bedtime stories should be made into books no matter how fondly you remember them. My dad used to tell us a story about rings and a jewel and I later figured out that he was regurgitating The Lord of the Rings. I loved his stories, but none of them deserve a print run.

The illustrations are beautiful, but seem wasted because of the weak story. The story itself was a bit too wordy for a picture book and for the age level that would probably enjoy such a story. I think this story needed a bit more tightening up and a stronger focus.

Painting Pepette by Linda Lodding Book Review

Painting Pepette by Linda Lodding
Illustrations by Claire Fletcher
Publisher: little bee books
Release Date: June 7, 2016

In Josette's home, there are portraits for everyone in her home. All except Pepette, Josette's stuffed rabbit. So Josette sets out into 1920s Paris to find an artist who will paint her precious companion. Together they set off for Mantmartre, the art center of Paris, where Josette meets painters like Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Marc Chagall, and Henri Marisse. Each tries their hand at painting Petette, but none look quite right. That is, until Josette paints her and learns that sometimes if you want the job done right, you have to do it yourself.

A cute little book that highlights art, artistic styles, and the art mecca that was 1920s Paris. Lodding captures the different personalities of the famous artists while also introducing readers to a child they can relate to. Fletcher captures the different artistic styles of these famous artists, with a classical whimsy that really draws the eye in. It's a quiet book, but perfect for introducing certain concepts of time and art. Additionally, there is an almost built-in craft idea for home or storytime.

Ada's Violin by Susan Hood Book Review

Ada's Violin: The Story of the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay by Susan Hood
Illustrations by Sally Wern Comport
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Release Date: May 3, 2016

Ada RĂ­os grew up in Cateura, a small town in Paraguay built on a landfill. When a new music teacher arrives, the students begin to dream of a wonderful orchestra. The problem is that musical instruments are hard to find and very expensive. Even if the students do get some of the few coveted instruments, they would probably be stolen. Still wanting the children to have something special, the teacher decides to make instruments out of materials found in the trash. The recycled instruments change the lives of the children and the town forever, playing in venues around the world.

I wanted to like this book more than I did. For sure, the subject material is quite interesting with numerous news stories having been made about the Recycled Orchestra. There is a great deal of pathos within the story and one that would help young children to understand things like extreme poverty, ingenuity, and the importance of music in a society. Yet, it is hard to capture any of those, let alone all three, in a single 32-page picture book. When one writes about music, a very specific form of art, I don't think that there is a way to fully capture the essence of the musicality. With this book in particular, I had a hard time connecting with any of the characters. Despite the title, I never felt a connection to Ada and found myself being pulled out of the story with each page turn. The illustrations are vibrant and paralleled the text with mixed media, but it wasn't enough to carry the story. Despite my love for the picture book biography and picture book non-fiction books, I think that this is one that would have been better served with a bit more length, more details, and a stronger main character or characters for the reader to feel real empathy towards. 

Space Dumplins by Craig Thompson Book Review

Space Dumplins by Craig Thompson
Publisher: GRAPHIX
Release Date: August 25, 2015

Violet Marlocke has the most amazing family in the whole galaxy. Sure, they aren't rich and her dad works a rather hazardous job, but things seem fine until her school is eaten by space whales. Her mom manages to get a job as a fashion designer at the space station, bringing Violet along until they can get her into another school. Then her dad disappears after a huge explosion of corrosive whale poop. Setting off on a rescue missions, Violet collects a menagerie of friends to help her on her quest to bring her family back together again. 

We need to talk about how amazing this book is. Unlike most graphic novels where I can read and quickly glance at the frames, I had to slow down and carefully analyze each frame and spread. I have no idea how long it took for Thompson to complete this novel, but it must have been quite a process. The attention to detail is fantastic. 

I know the story itself seems bizarre. Talking chickens? Space whales? Lumpkins? Here's the thing. One of my favorite things about the science fiction and fantasy genres is that one can use absurd things to delve into deeper topics in a way that won't feel like you are beating home some point. For example: This book deals pretty directly with class-ism. Violet and her family are not wealthy. Her dad has a bit a criminal record. And when her mom gets a job on a space station it is a tentative work relationship. The minute something goes wrong, her mother is among the first to be rounded up and kicked out. And when she tries to protest her treatment and demand someone look for her daughter, she is thrown in jail. Yet, this doesn't feel heavy-handed in the slightest, just another part of the story. There are also absent fathers, loneliness, feelings of betrayal, friendship, family, and even showing understanding to other species no matter if they eat planets or not. Such a wonderful book with a great heroine. I liked it so much that I kind of wish there was a sequel. 

Explorers of the Wild by Cale Atkinson Book Review

Explorers of the Wild by Cale Atkinson
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion
Release Date: April 26, 2016

Two explorers, one a boy and one a bear love the outdoors. There are so many wonderful things to see. They are prepared for anything, except an encounter with each other. As one would expect, at first they are frightened, but they soon learn that they have a lot in common and exploring is a lot more fun when you have a friend with you.

Cale Atkinson has created another wonderfully illustrated and adorable book about friendship. Of course, like To The Sea the premise is a bit absurd, but all the best picture books are really. The boy and the bear parallel each other so nicely and I quite enjoyed their little adventure. So much subtle humor and I a shout out to the diversity aspect in the illustrations.

Secret Tree Fort by Brianne Farley Book Review

Secret Tree Fort by Brianne Farley
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Release Date; April 12, 2016

Two sisters are sent outside to play, but one is far more interested in her book than playing. Her sister regales her with long descriptions of a cool fort that they could build, making it more and more fantastical with every turn of the page. Nothing seems to phase her sister though. Nothing that is, until the promise of a secret.

We never had a tree fort growing up. Instead we had planks of wood that we would wedge between two branches that allowed for a place to sit. But in our imaginations we had the entire Swiss Family Robinson treehouse. It was one of our favorite games and we often freaked our neighbors out as we climbed higher and higher. Which is why this book really captured my imagination. I found myself pausing on each page, imagining how one would make a trap door to look at the stars. How cool it would have been to have a lookout. What I would have done if I had a tree house like that when I was little. What I would do if I had a tree house like that now. Yes, I did start imagining what my grown-up tree house would look like. The illustrations were lovely, but simplistic enough that the reader can imagine this tree house as their own.

HiLo Book 2: Saving the Whole Wide World by Judd Winick Book Review

HiLo Book 2: Saving the Whole Wide World by Judd Winick
Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers
Release Date: May 17, 2016

Remember HiLo? That crazy robot kid from another dimension who destroyed was sucked into The Void in order to save earth from a terrible robot? Well, HiLo is back, along with DJ and Gina, to stop more monsters from coming through. There's a giant mutant chicken, a magical warrior cat that owes HiLo a debt, millions of killer vegetables, and a monster robot that is threatening to break free of The Void. Top that all up with an existential crisis as HiLo gains more and more memory from his former life, and we have ourselves one bona fide adventure.

These books are seriously laugh out loud funny. So many great little moments like HiLo talking out of his big toe, the only body part that wasn't sucked into the void. HiLo's hyper cheery attitude is contagious. It's hard to have a lot of character growth and depth in a graphic novel for middle graders, yet Winick does so as if it is nothing. And I won't spoil the ending, but it is seriously tragic and I don't think I expected it to go there. Also, upset that I have to wait almost a year to find out what happens.

A fantastically rendered graphic novel that is going to leave kids in hysterics and I'm thinking will make some wonderful presents for some of the little readers in my life.

Rules of the House by Mac Barnett Book Review

Rules of the House by Mac Barnett 
Illustrations by Matt Myers
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion
Release Date: May 3, 2016

Rules are meant to be followed and Ian is the best rule follower in his home. His sister, Jenny, doesn't seem especially concerned about the rules, breaking them whenever it suits her. Which is why, upon arriving at their vacation home, Ian is pleased to see an already made list of rules. And Jenny doesn't obey any of them. Now the house is angry at their little rulebreaker and are ready to make a tasty soup of Jenny. Ian is faced with a terrible reality--should he rescue his sister even if it means to break the rules?

I was never much of a rule follower. I obey the law of course (most of the time), but will disregard the rules if it seems necessary. This is a matter of contention between by former-cop husband and I. Which means that, I could really relate to Jenny...although no  anthropomorphized household objects stalk me for it.

The best part of having these two extremes is that I think kids can find a bit of themselves in one or both characters. It is also a great opportunity, if you use books to do so, to discuss rules and what they mean. What rules should always be obeyed and which ones should be obeyed but only if someones life is in danger. Since I am always thinking in terms of adoption these days, I also think this one would be a great book for parents who are bringing in foster or adopted kids in this targeted age group to help facilitate family rules. Of course, there are the "monsters" in the story, but they feel almost like figments of the children's imaginations and their cartoony appearances should lessen any scariness.

A cute book for both the rule-follower and the rule-breaker.

The Careful Art of Writing Book Reviews

I love reading. And I love writing. I also like writing book reviews for the things I have read. Writing reviews is a way for me to keep my finger on the pulse of children's literature and what is new. It gives me a manufactured deadline to finish reading books and a way to organize my thoughts on each book in a way that goes beyond my own headspace. Having worked for bookstores for over a decade, five years doing storytime, an internship at a children's book publisher, a Bachelor's degree in Publishing and an additional Master's Degree in Children's Writing, I have the credentials to back up my reviews.

Of course, not every book I read is one that I like or love. I try to be as objective and fair as I can be. If I cannot be objective I try to let the reader know this. If the book is truly horrid, I don't usually review it. (with a few notable exceptions) I will never link a review on Twitter unless the review is glowing because I don't think it is fair to the author to link them to a review that isn't raving. Particularly if they are the kind of author who doesn't normally read reviews. I am aware that these books are an author's (and editor's) baby. They think it is awesome, as they should.

The problem, one that becomes more apparent as I make more and more friends and connections with authors, editors, and other KidLit people, is the idea that if you can't give a book a good review, you shouldn't give one. If you don't have something nice to say, in essence. I get it. Really I do. No one wants to read a bad review. And some can be downright nasty, as if the reviewer has some kind of personal vendetta. The review reads more like an epic bully rant than an honest review of a piece of art. I still wish there was a rule that stated that if you didn't finish a book you are not allowed to review it or give it stars on Goodreads and Amazon. It brings down the average for the book and isn't fair since you didn't actually read the book in its entirety.

When I read a post from a friend complaining about reviews and reviewers, I admit that it hurts my feelings momentarily. Because I am writing reviews with good intentions too, just like the writers who wrote the book. I genuinely enjoy the act of reading and writing and just like they feel when a book gets a bad review, I don't enjoy it when people thumbs down the reviewer. I have not always written glowing reviews. There are times where I have written a review and rewrote it because I felt like I was being too harsh. But I am not going to stop writing reviews for books that weren't completely fabulous either. Most books have redeeming qualities even if I felt like there were some issues. Some books are great for a very specific audience. Others are just mediocre or more-of-the-same and I don't think it is okay to just pretend like those books don't exist or act like they are great in order to pander to the author or other people involved with the book.

It is hard, because some of the people who do the complaining are publishing books that I am going to review. What if this book of theirs isn't good? I ask myself. Do I dare post a bad or mediocre review? Do I just pretend like I didn't read it? In the end, I try to be fair and kind, while still being professional and informative. In the end, the goal is to get people reading and since everyone's tastes are so different, I am going to assume that some of my readers will actually love some of the books I am lukewarm on.

It's a balance. I could simply write reviews only for the books I like, but I also think it is important to talk about the books I didn't enjoy too. It is intellectually stimulating to look at a book critically, see the plot holes, to wonder about character choices, or meander over the theme and meaning. Children are taught to do this in school from a young age. We review poems by Keats and discuss their hidden meanings. We make students write reports on The Outsiders and Pride & Prejudice. Why would we not think any less critically of books coming out now? I get that these books mean a lot to the people who wrote them and I try to honor that. But once you have released your art out into the world, it is up to the reader to disiminate information, find meaning, and take away what they will. And sometimes, your book just doesn't connect with your reader. The Great Gatsby is considered one of the greats of American literature...and I hated it. I found it a slog to get through. Verbose prose that masked a boring plot and intellectual snobbery. My opinion isn't going to change this book's status in literary history. Others who also suffered thought it will find solace that someone else didn't love the book and others will shake their head in confusion, seeing the work as a masterpiece. I haven't seen a book yet where everyone loved it.

If you are in the book business, or any kind of business where you are creating some kind of art, one must grow used to criticism. To rejection. That was the primary thing I came away with in Grad School. Rejection is par for the course. You will be rejected by agents, editors, gatekeepers, and readers. If you have a hard time handling a bad or mediocre review, then I recommend not reading them. If you can't avoid them, then one must learn to let it roll off their backs. I have had people email me with complaints about books, usually kids and teens who are upset that I didn't give a glowing review to one of their favorite books. I too must learn to shrug my shoulders and understand that some people really can't take criticism. And in a perfect world, every book would be perfect and everyone loves it. As it stands we have such a wonderful variety of people and readers that it should be accepted that someone won't like. And if someone is lukewarm on it and is reviewing it, at least it is being reviewed. I get thousands of blog views in a month, which means that, even if I didn't like the book, thousands of people have read the book and if I did my job well, you have a couple more readers who are intrigued.

One Day in the Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus Tree by Daniel Berstrom Book Review

One Day in the Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus Tree by Daniel Berstrom 
Illustrations by Brendan Wenzel
Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books
Release Date: May 3, 2016

A giant snake is gobbling up its victims at an alarming rate. What he doesn't know is that deep down in its belly, they are planning their escape.

A beautiful and modern version of There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly, One Day in the Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus Tree simply rolls off the page and onto your tongue. I know how strange that sounds. The title itself feels like a mouthful, but I promise, the language in this book is somewhere between a song and a poem and it's wonderful that it is both. Berstrom has a wonderful cadence and gives the illustrator so much to work with. I loved the various surprising things the snake swallows down like a sloth, a beehive, to a single apple, which all proves to be too much for this greedy reptile. Perfect for reading aloud, this will be one of those books that kids are going to want to read over and over and over again.