Book Review: The Enormous Scope of Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample, reviews, and author's bio.

SPOILERS included in an attempt to linearly layout the story.

I have meant for a while to dive into Salman Rushdie’s canon. He is a man whose conviction I greatly admire. For the Satanic Verses, his execution was ordered by an Iranian Ayatollah, leading Rushdie to hide under an alias on British soil.  But he has stood by his publication and continues to write about religions and the big questions.  He has used his fame to speak out on a vast number of social and political issues of our time and to benefit nonprofit programs and generally (to borrow a term) “decrease world suck.”

This is nevertheless the first book of Rushdie’s that I have read.

Rereading The Golem and the Jinni recently ignited in me new interest in the jinn, the mythology of which I think could be useful in my own writing. Finding this book on audio CD at the local library when the book that I’d gone for was missing seemed a sign, and I took it.

The bulk of the story told is about a near future but is told from the perspective of a historian or storyteller 1000 years past the main events, a period of 1001 nights—or two years, eight months, and twenty eight days—that is known as “the time of the strangenesses.”  The story spans from the time of Ibn Rushd’s exile from the court at Cordoba when he lived in the mostly Jewish village of Lucena (c. 1195) until 1000+ years past our present, a stunning scale (1825+ years).

By Rushdie’s account, during Ibn Rushd’s exile, he loved a girl called Dunia, who bore him many children, which Ibn Rushd, when his favor in court was restored, largely cast off along with Dunia. Dunia, awakening the dust of Ibn Rushd long after his death, around our own present, reveals herself to be the princess of Qaf in Peristan, the parallel world that is home to the jinn and other lesser magical creatures. With the veil between the two worlds loosened, other jinn return to the world of men, including the grand ifrits, dark jinn. This sparks a rash of “strangenesses,” unexplainable plagues that affect humanity, and broadly, the return of magic to men. Dunia’s and Ibn Rushd’s descendants have multiplied, and the jinn magic within several of these descendants is awakened by the strangenesses and by Dunia. She deputizes several of these descendants as warriors in her fight against the dark jinn and the grand ifrits. Much of the story focuses on the lives of a few of these deputized warriors, which include a failed graphic novelist who finds himself possessing the powers of his imagined superhero, a woman with lightning’s electricity, and a widowed gardener. These three are viewed as among the human heroes of “the war of the worlds” by the account of the narrator, and they participate in the final battle between Dunia and the last of the grand ifrits. After the closing of the gaps in the veil between the worlds following that battle, according to the narrator, the world is reborn into an age of rationalism, absent the fear of gods or religions or the supernatural, but humanity loses the ability to dream.

It’s a complicated story without a strict linear telling, with many point of view characters, and an omniscient narrator who sometimes interrupts with his opinion and many asides on the nature of the jinn and the nature of humanity.  The action takes place across our globe and in Peristan too.

Mostly I read (or listened to) this story as a fantastical telling of a battle between mythological creatures that takes place mostly in our world, and I was pleased. It is a good action story, a battle between good and evil with a host of characters from around the world and pieces of history thrown in for good measure and grounding. But it is certainly a reflection on the nature of humanity and of the nature and reality or fantasy of a god or gods. It is a warning against prejudice and the creation of the “other.” The world is saved by a several immigrants to the US. It is at once an examination of the worst instincts of humanity and a praise of humanity’s endurance and stolidity. Certainly it is a tale of human reason and ingenuity versus unreasonableness, irrationality, and magic.

This is one of those stories definitely for a much older audience. There are graphic depictions of violence and lots of discussion about sex, consensual and otherwise, if those acts themselves are never described in much detail. I at several times questioned whether I should be playing this audiobook with the windows down at a stoplight, not knowing if young ears were open in cars with open windows around me.

Allusions are dense on the ground in this book, its scope of art almost as vast as its scope of time. I missed many of them but was pleased when I did catch a reference.  I learned more about philosophical texts and ideas than I brought knowledge of philosophy to the book.

Robert G. Slade does voices if not maybe distinct for every character then certainly for some of them who stand out.

****

Rushdie, Salman. Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Days. Narr. Robert G. Slade. Random House Audio-Penguin Random, 2015.

This review is not endorsed by Salman Rusdie, Robert G. Slade, or Penguin Random House. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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Book Review: Vox is a Chilling Dystopia with Current Events as Foundation

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Click to view the publisher's page for links to order, summary, reviews, excerpt, reading guide, and author's bio.

Comparisons between Christina Dalcher’s Vox and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale are nearly unavoidable. Both women are writing speculative dystopian Americas that oppress women by relying on a skewed, ultraconservative Christianity. Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985, but Hulu has recently brought the novel back to the zeitgeist with a streaming video series. I haven’t read it more recently than 2007 or seen any of Hulu’s series.

The chill of Dalcher’s speculative novel is in the near-past and contemporary, concrete news stories and (sub)culture that build the background of her horrific America. I remember reading about Supreme Court seats being filled with ultraconservative Justices during the extremely contentious Kavanaugh hearings in which a potential Justice’s emotional testimony was pitted against a woman’s even-keeled testimony of an assault allegedly committed by that nominee against her (and the man’s testimony was given more credence) and having to put the book down. It is too easy to see the building of this dystopia by tuning into the news—as is also true of Atwood’s book, but the details are not as immediate coming as they do from events from the 1980s.

In Dalcher’s America, a charismatic, ultraconservative, women-hating, mega-church televangelist has taken power, using the American president as a puppet. Women’s passports have been destroyed. Schools have been divided by gender, women relegated to an education that is glorified home economics. Women’s Bibles have been edited. Extramarital sex is punishable by public, televised humiliation, relocation to a work camp, and enforced silence. Dissidents and lesbians are sent to these camps too with the same imposed silence. (Dalcher to my recollection never really addresses whether two men having sex is punished in the same way.) Women of any age have been forced into monitors that count the words that they speak. Each day every word after 100 causes a shock, and the voltage increases in intervals after 100, one woman at one point discovering how to commit suicide using the monitor.

The protagonist, Jean McClellan, is a former Wernicke’s area specialist, seeking a way to reverse the effects of damage to that area, a cure for Wernicke aphasia, a condition that results in fluent speech devoid of meaning. Her husband works for the president.

In college, despite her roommate being an activist for women’s rights, Jean didn’t pay much attention to politics. She didn’t participate in any of the protests or rallies. Now it’s too late.

When she is given the chance to be released from the monitor and to win her young daughter’s freedom too, she reluctantly accepts and works for the president to complete the research and create the serum on which she was working before the changes in policy barred her from work.

But she begins to suspect a larger plan to further curtail women’s and dissidents’ voices and advance the pastor’s cause. The end hurries into a race to uncover the government’s true intentions for McClellan’s research, thwart the government, and escape punishment.

The chapters are short, and I was for a long while reading the book only for 5-15 minutes at a time as I got ready to go somewhere a little more quickly than I thought that I might. It was really only being laid up with a sprained ankle that sped me through the last ¾ of the book.

Dalcher’s seems to be a warning to those who say “it can’t happen here” and to those who choose the sidelines over the frontlines.  Her heroes are as much the ones who acted and called out the slippery slope before the government physically curtailed women’s voices as Jean, who acted to impede further curtailment.  Ultimately it is one of those early criers who continues the fight to overturn the oppression, not Jean, who escapes after helping to end the tyrannical administration.

Science is weaponized by both parties in this fight.

Violence is justified by both.

I read an ARC of this book.

The trade paperback of this novel comes out July 16, 2019.

***

Dalcher, Christina. Vox.  New York: Berkley-Penguin Random, 2018.

This review is not endorsed by Christina Dalcher, Berkley, or Penguin Random House LLC. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Individual Trials and One Light Jog in These 9 from the Nine Worlds

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Click to visit the author's page for links to order and summary.

Spoilers are written in white.  Highlight the text to view the spoilers.

I’ve just reread this short story collection in one sick day. The first time I read it through I was disappointed by the fluffiness of these stories. Reading it a second time, I found them not as excessively airy, still treated with the lighthearted tone with which Rick Riordan writes most things, but on a second reading, I was more into it, less annoyed by it.

Full disclosure: Rick Riordan is currently, easily one of my favorite authors, perhaps even topping that list.

This book hasn’t the tightness, intricacy, urgency, or gravitas of any of the series or even of the Demigods and Magicians, another short story collection, but rather than a plot to instigate war, overturn the cosmic order, or become a god, these stories are connected by a jogging route. Specifically Thor jogs implacably, unswervingly through the Nine Worlds in too tight, leather, running shorts, listening to the sounds of rocks and farting “like a sputtering engine” (99).

These nine stories take place over the course of maybe 24 eventful hours, the time that it takes Thor to loop through the Nine Worlds. Thor’s run through the Worlds affects each of the stories in a unique way, sometimes the cause of the story’s trouble and sometimes the answer to a hero’s quandary.

The individual dangers that the heroes overcome are more serious than Thor’s jog. [SPOILERS] Odin needs to find a leader for the Valkyries. Amir escapes a sorcerer. Blitz saves Thor.  Hearthstone saves Inge.  Sam does some intelligence gathering in Jotunheim.  TJ helps Hel. Mallory escapes Nidhogg. Halfborn fights dragons. Alex faces off against Surt.

Starting with a food fight in the Great Hall in Hotel Valhalla (a story narrated by Odin) and ending with a foiled meeting in the palace of Surt in Muspellheim (narrated by Alex Fierro), [END SPOILERS] each story is written in first person from the POV of one of the side characters of Riordan’s Magnus Chase series. The narrative style of each story is fairly similar to every other, though Riordan does do a good job peppering each story with perspectives unique to the character’s backstory, which help to distinguish the voices, though I did often have to look back at the title halfway through the first page to remind myself who was narrating.

Most of these are solo trials. There’s not a great deal of interaction between all the characters of Magnus, and there’s no Magnus (he’s away visiting Annabeth during this jog). The characters are great individually. There’s a sort of intimacy in interacting with these characters away from their friends. But it is different, and I don’t think that I prefer it, especially when I feel like these characters all have fairly similar voices if they do have diverse backgrounds and perspectives, and especially when Magnus was so much about ultimately the power (dare I say, the magic) of friendship (I see a great bit of parallel actually between Magnus Chase and the modern incarnation of My Little Pony).  The final line of this anthology is that same “friendship is magic” chord that I so enjoyed, but it seems an odd last note almost in a book where so few of the characters sought help.

All in all, it was enjoyable to spend some time with these characters again, to learn a little more about them and about the Norse cosmos. I just kind of wish that there had been higher stakes and more that connected the stories to one another; I expect both of these from Rick Riordan, and Demigods and Magicians taught me it was possible even in a short story collection.

Minor complaints that these are, they bear mentioning: I don’t like ragged pages, and the glossy pages of illustrations are oddly placed, intersecting two stories, the first time even interrupting a sentence. That was distracting and a) interrupted the flow of the stories and b) had me hurrying past the illustrations to find the end of the stories, but then because of the ragged pages, struggling to find the illustrations easily again to peruse them at my leisure.

****

Riordan, Rick.  9 From the Nine Worlds.  New York: Hyperion-Disney, 2018.

Intended audience: Ages 8-12.

This review is not endorsed by Rick Riordan, Hyperion, or Disney Book Group.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Flat Characters and Assumed Context in a Hole New World

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample, and reviews.

I read A Hole New World to be better equipped to run a corporate-organized book discussion that used this and three other young reader titles as its jump points. I read the book in a day (after finishing Odd Gods). I am not its intended audience. I have neither played Minecraft (or really any other video games past a few rounds with friends) nor watched the PopularMMOs YouTube channel. I think I missed a lot of this book’s context. There was not a great deal of explanation of… anything. I know enough about Minecraft to have recognized Bomby as a Creeper when he appeared in the illustrations at last, but I haven’t any knowledge of what a Creeper is and what characteristics of Bomby’s persona are typical or atypical of its species.

I feel like I was being told what these fairly flat characters are like rather than being shown how they are. Jen is bubbly but clutzy; Pat says early that she often falls into the craters that Bomby makes. I did like that Jen is portrayed as a great swordswoman and bubbly and pink.  She and Pat are a steady (maybe married) couple.

Pat is the Hero™. He uses his sword to get out of most situations, but is somehow also the more cautious of the couple, looking down instead of forward and so avoiding falling into holes.

Carter, the one dark-skinned character, is a rival for Jen’s affection that Jen likes as a friend despite Pat’s protestations. Maybe he and Jen were previously in a relationship; maybe they were not. Pat is almost unsettlingly antagonistic towards Carter in his “defense” of Jen. Writing about this gets weird because I don’t know how close the characters in this self-insertion fiction are to their real counterparts, so I’m not going to write about it anymore, but just remind everyone not to let your partner try to distance you from your genuine friends.

The villain Evil Jen excuses her desire for world domination and causing a zombpocalypse with a tragic backstory about being thought unattractive for having overlarge lips. (Otherwise she looks “just like” Jen. What?? Making a trait deemed typically attractive unattractive does not a feminist or a body positive message make, just as the “real women have curves” slogan excludes another group of women from womanhood instead of creating a more inclusive view of femininity.)

Every other character passes in a few pages, which is almost a shame because how can you only wave at characters like a grumpy boat captain named Captain Cookie who we are told previously rescued the protagonists or a rebellion leader named Mr. Rainbow who is a rainbow-wooled sheep with access to magic loot boxes and a palatial hideout?

With Carter’s help and Mr. Rainbow’s help, Pat and Jen fight Evil Jen’s zombie minions to venture deeper into this hole new world, seeking to rescue their friend Bomby from Evil Jen.

All in all, I felt like an outsider reading this. The whole thing felt jagged and unfinished as a book detached from its webseries. But I think—I hope—that fans of the webseries won’t find it so without context, seeing the whole book as more of a tribute than as a separate entity. It’s a rare film that stands up to its original book. Maybe that goes backwards too.  But I definitely wish there had been more character-building and more “show don’t tell.”

**

PopularMMOs, Pat and Jen. A Hole New World. Illus. Dani Jones. New York: HarperCollins, 2018.

Intended audience: Ages 8-12.

This review is not endorsed by PopularMMOs’ Pat or Jen, Dani Jones, or HarperCollins Publishers.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: New Kid is Important and Eloquent

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Click to visit the publisher's site for links to order, summary, audio excerpt, reviews, and author's bio.

I read an ARC of Jerry Craft’s new graphic novel, New Kid. Actually I’ve now read it twice. In the ARC, most pages were left in grayscale.  The finished novel is fully colored.

The book opens on Jordan Banks’ first day at a new school, Riverdale Academy Day School, which touts itself as a premier education, but which his father points out does not look to be a particularly diverse environment. Jordan is picked up from his Washington Heights home by his guide Liam and Liam’s father, who warns Liam to stay in the car with the doors locked when he goes to the door for Jordan.

Of every book I have ever read, this one perhaps best illustrates the harm that microagressions, even thoughtless ones, cause. There aren’t many African American students in Jordan Banks’ new school. He and other students (and staff) of color are subjected to stereotyping in a multitude of ways by their peers and the school staff, some of them acting intentionally cruelly and others not even aware of their racist acts. This comes out even in the types of books that the librarian recommends to the students of color versus the ones that she recommends to the white students. Drew in particular is forced to endure one of the teachers unable to remember that his name is not Deandre, the name of an older African American student in the school, though every African American character including one of the teachers faces this problem.

Jordan has to code-switch between his mostly white school and his Washington Heights neighborhood. This too is very elegantly and succinctly described, the nervousness of moving between the two worlds, the burden of having to do so, the exhaustion caused by such hyper-awareness of the environment.

But he wants the same intimacy with all of his friends and seeks on the advice of his grandfather to find a way to hang out with all of his friends together.

For these illustrations, the ways in which Craft captures the myriad ways that internalized racism effects his protagonist, I cannot recommend this book enough especially to white people, especially to white educators. It is such a poignant reminder of the harm that we can unknowingly or unthinkingly inflict on kids just trying to get through the day, fighting for their dreams. It’s not even a difficult or long read. I think the last time I read it, it took only a day, maybe two.

Jordan himself is such a likeable and relatable protagonist.

In the end, Jordan even takes pity upon the bully of his school year, whom earlier that year he had helped to finally get his comeuppance by standing up for a falsely accused friend.

This is the story of Jordan’s navigating this new, predominately white space, coming to figure out how he can be himself and grow in such a space, and how he can improve that space for himself and for his classmates of every color. And his confrontations with injustice are painted as not requiring a great deal of forethought or planning. There is nothing elaborate about his calls for justice. He merely speaks up for himself and his friends when he sees injustice. I think that too is important.

In sum, go read this book.

*****

Craft, Jerry. New Kid. New York: HarperCollins, 2019.

Intended audience: Ages 8-12, Grades 3-7.

This review is not endorsed by Jerry Craft or HarperCollins Publishers.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Poor Mythological and Tired School Representation in Odd Gods

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample, and reviews.Spoilers have been whited out. Highlight the space between the brackets to read.

I am going to start out by saying that this book I read because work “required” it rather than because it is anything that I would have chosen. The necessity of my reading it (to be able to feel adequately prepared to lead a discussion using this book and three others as launch points) has colored my reading, and despite the event going fairly well overall, I can’t un-color my opinion.

I read an ARC of this book over two days. The ARC was missing a few illustrations, and several of the illustrations I think were unfinished, still having a more sketchy quality than others in the book.

David Slavin and Daniel Weitzman’s Odd Gods, illustrated by Adam J. B. Lane, is a middle school of cliques and stereotypes, “bathroom humor,” bad puns, and representations of mythological characters that are largely unsupported by ancient canon. Adonis and Oddonis are twin boys born to Zeus and Freya. Let’s start there. Zeus isn’t one to create a stable household. Would he have bedded a Norse goddess? Almost certainly if opportunity presented itself. Would he have stayed with her? Almost certainly not. Hera is completely absent from Slavin’s mythos here. If she hadn’t been, Freya would have been roasted, starting a war between the Vanir and the Greek gods. If Odd’s mother had been Hera and not Freya, he probably would have been cast off of Mount Olympus like her other imperfect son by Zeus. The Greek Adonis is mortal, not a god, or at least he began that way, and his death gave rise to the anemone and a festival commemorating his death. DON’T look for this to help you ace your mythology test, because it won’t. Go back to Riordan for that.

Here Adonis is a god, the Greek ideal in contrast to his odd twin brother. The gods are the cool kids of the school who bully and cheat their way to the best of everything that the middle school has to offer. The odds are the rejects of the school. It’s a tired trope that I’ve seen better done. In this school they seem to be split near 50/50, though we only get a few main characters from each pack: Adonis, Poseidon, Heracles, and Aphrodite vs. Odd, Mathena, Germes, Puneous, and Gaseous.  (Note that that’s only two girls in a horde or boys too.  I think this might pass a Bechdel test if I am correctly remembering the math teacher to be a woman, but the only interaction that I concretely remember is between any two women in the whole story is Aphrodite bullying Mathena, so if it passes, it doesn’t pass well.)

Math is singled out in this novel as a particularly abhorrent subject, and Mathena is the only god relegated to Odd’s group of outcasts.

[SPOILER] Odd ignores his classwork and study in favor of planning his campaign against his brother for class president and nearly looses by default when it is revealed that he is failing math. Despite spending his time with the goddess of math, he has failed to ask his friends for help when he needs it, or failed to see the importance of study, or both. He does apologize to his friends, and work hard to recover from the mistake, and his hard work is rewarded. [END SPOILER]  That is laudable, a good lesson: ask for help and work hard, and you might be rewarded.

Odd and the “odd gods” come to grips with their oddness by accepting and acknowledging their quirks and that the things that make them unusual make them individual.  The gods acknowledge odd quirks in themselves too (particularly fears and superstitions), and tout themselves as individual too because of them.

Personally, I’m ready to set aside this idea that this is middle school: everyone breaks off into their stereotyped roles, hangs out together in packs of like-stereotyped individuals, and the “cooler” kids bully the individualists, the “kids like me” (I think it rare that anyone sees themselves as a Heather, Plastic, or a jock from such films and books). I think it’s time we start modeling what middle school could be instead of telling kids that this is what middle school was like for me, and this is what it will be like for you. It won’t improve until we tell them that they don’t have to accept what they see. And though many of these films and books resolve by some re-balancing of power, whether the cool kids are knocked off the pedestal or the outcasts gain some power, the model, the beginning framework is still the same.  High School Musical actually resolved this well, better I think than did Odd Gods, with the breaking up of the caste system, the rejection of the “status quo,” the release of everyone to explore their own interests.  I think High School Musical surpasses Odd Gods in part because the kids are given some more control over the things that make them individual, where Odd Gods‘ quirks are inherent and innate.

In the tradition of epilogues destroying a decent ending (I’m looking at you, Rowling), [SPOILER] after Odd agrees to co-president with Adonis because he recognizes that the division between the odds and the gods is toxic, Adonis asks for a recount, undoing any character growth that he had hitherto very briefly obtained via agreeing first to yield to Oddonis and congratulating his brother as the better candidate. [END SPOILER]

Overall, there was too much that I personally didn’t like about this book for me to rate it well. My bar for books based on mythology is set awfully high, and this book took a limbo approach to this high jump competition while relying on tired tropes and negative representations of school atmosphere.

But it was all right.  The lessons of inclusivity and acceptance and equality and standing up for oneself and one’s friends, of hard work and of not being afraid to ask for help, and the forgiveness of friends were good.

**

Slavin, David and Daniel Weitzman. Odd Gods. Illus. Adam J. B. Lane. New York: HarperCollins, 2019.

Intended audience: Ages 8-12.

This review is not endorsed by David Slavin, Daniel Weitzman, Adam J. B. Lane, or HarperCollins Publishers.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Reviews: May 2019 Picture Book Roundup: A Few Brand New Books

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Fun aside:  I was looking over my stats for this blog.  This past month in particular, I seem to have been getting a lot of views from readers all the way across the globe in Hong Kong.  Hi, Hong Kong readers!  Welcome to the blog!

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample pages, reviews, author's and illustrator's bios, and activity sheets.

If I Was Sunshine by Julie Fogliano and illustrated by Loren Long. Atheneum-Simon & Schuster, 2019. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

The store received a review copy of this poetic picture book. There’s a definite pattern to the text, stanzas that begin with analogies “if i was A, and you were B” or “if you were C, and i was D” “i’d call you E and you’d called me F” (Fogliano writes all in lowercase). There’s little to the text itself.  The book’s meaning emerges through the reader’s reckoning of the relationships between the four varying objects of the stanzas. The text is accompanied by Long’s soothing and brightly colored illustrations, mainly of creatures interacting with nature.

****

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order and summary.

A Friend Like Him by Suzanne Francis and illustrated by Dominic Carola and Ryan Feltman. Disney, 2019. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

The trailers have me excited for this new live-action remake, which I haven’t actually seen as of writing this review. I was excited to have the chance to theme a story time around the story.  This book was a decent length for my young audience and told the story in a different way than did the 90s cartoon. This story centers the story of Aladdin on Genie, on Genie’s experience of being trapped in the lamp for millennia, occasionally emerging to grant wishes for wealth or power or fame to greedy masters, on his meeting Aladdin, a new master without that creepy look in his eyes, whom Genie instantly likes and grows to like more and more until they actually call one another friends. The message of friendship being the ultimate prize, the greatest thing to be wished for, and the best wish to grant is heartwarming. The perspective is fresh. The text is sweet without being saccharine, funny without being corny.

****

 Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample pages, reviews, and author's bio.

High Five by Adam Rubin and illustrated by Daniel Salmieri. Dial-Penguin Random, 2019. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

I… kind of expected better from the creators of Dragons Love Tacos and Dragons Love Tacos 2. As a note, I read this first to myself and then to a crowd of children, but always with the idea of reading it to a crowd and dreading reading it to a crowd. My fears proved unfounded. I feared that every kid would want to high five the page as required by the story. I had only one little friend who was willing to high five the pages, and I had to do so first the first few times that the book required before he wanted to join in the interactive fun. I think this book would be better one-on-one and one-on-one between a reader and a listening child with whom the reader already has a playful relationship.

This story enters the reader into a high five competition. We are first introduced to our trainer, a yeti-ish creature called Sensei with a bunch of trophies on his shelves. Sensei walks the reader through the best techniques for high fiving. To win the competition, he warns, the reader will need flare. The competition begins, and the reader is pitted against a flurry of creatures (a kangaroo joey and its mother, a snake, an octopus), until we are paired with an elephant against whom we had trained. The award for winning the competition (which the reader does) is a trophy at the end of the book that takes up a two-page spread and requires the book to be turned 90 degrees to view properly.

The text mostly rhymes with the instruction to “HIGH FIVE” breaking the rhythm and highlighting the command even more.  The illustrations are done in a bold neon palette colored pencil with a lot of white.

***

These reviews are not endorsed by any of the authors or publishers or anyone else involved in the making of these books. They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.

Book Reviews: April 2019 Picture Book Roundup: Empowered Children and Specialized Vocabulary

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Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample pages, reviews, and author's and illustrator's bios.

Woke Baby by Mahogany L. Browne and illustrated by Theodore Taylor III. Roaring Brook-Macmillan, 2018. Intended audience: Ages 0-3.

This young black baby is ready to raise a fist like a little panther. Using activist phrases and historical references, this little one wakes ready to take on a world without a glass ceiling to shatter, with no one to tell this baby no. The text is poetic, beautiful even, and clever, empowering, loving, describing the child’s fists, toes, eyes, voice, dance all as acts of self-expression and tools to change the world for the better.  The text addresses the child in second person:  “Here are your hands.”   The illustrations are of the child waking, wailing for a parent, being heard, and being lifted from the crib, playing, and resting. The intended audience is certainly young children, toddlers, but I would love to wake up to this myself.

*****

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, trailer, sample pages, reviews, and author's bio.

The Very Impatient Caterpillar by Ross Burach. Scholastic, 2019. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

I didn’t love this story as much as I had hoped to do, and I’m struggling a little to determine why. The premise is simple enough: an impatient caterpillar who doesn’t realize at the beginning of the book that becoming a butterfly is even possible for it is impatient to be a butterfly now. It doesn’t like having to wait in its chrysalis to become a butterfly. I know the caterpillar’s impatience and its ignorance, its constant questioning are supposed to mimic a child’s behavior, and certainly it gives Burach the time to include some facts about the caterpillar’s/butterfly’s transformation process (terminology and the length of time that the transformation takes), but I found it irritating, and more so I found the other caterpillars’ (or whatever one calls a caterpillar halfway through a transformation) responses to it irritating too. They are irritated, sometimes yelling, so I felt irritated reading their responses aloud, reading in tone. Told in dialogue and soliloquy, I feel like this is the type of book better acted out and probably better with two actors. The impatient caterpillar finally overcomes its impatience through meditation and deep breathing exercises and emerges as a “changed” butterfly, ready to be patient, though the final page hints that its transformation may not have been so complete as that.

***

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, and author's bio.

100 First Words for Little Artists by Kyle Kershner. Familius, 2019.

Familius has been publishing this series in which each book in the series offers 100 words of a particular specialized vocabulary. I read 100 First Words for Little Geeks in 2018, which took its words from various sci-fi and fantasy fandoms of literature and film. This 100 First Words is all about the world of art, the tools (including coffee) that an artist uses to create in a wealth of mediums. Some of these are words that I, a 30-year-old woman who took art classes through high school, never learned. As a series, this is a neat concept. There are words and phrases in these primers that you will never find elsewhere. But I think that the market for these may be narrow. It’s definitely a fun book for young artists that are becoming parents.

***

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, and letters from from the author and Julia Bascom.

Family Forever: A Julia Storybook by Leslie Kimmelman and illustrated by MaryBeth Nelson. Sesame Workshop, 2019.

This book, exclusively printed for Barnes & Noble but otherwise available digitally, is a gem of an education tool! Julia, one of the newer Muppets to join the Sesame Street cast, has autism. Never is autism or Julia seen by any of the characters in this book as an inconvenience. She and her family (mother, father, and brother) go for a picnic. While at the park, she and her brother leave the picnic blanket to play with Elmo and Abby. Julia’s big brother Samuel is excellent at making sure that Julia is included and her strengths acknowledged. He suggests a game. He asks Julia to be the leader first. Julia is upset when she realizes that sometime during the play, she has lost her stuffed friend, Fluffster. Her family and friends help to locate the toy. Sometimes Julia expresses herself in different ways, but her ways are not seen as lesser. She uses a talker sometimes to help her communicate when she can’t find the right words.  Elmo at one point even uses Julia’s talker when Julia doesn’t need it to express herself.  She flaps her hands when she is excited sometimes, and she rocks when she is upset.  The story itself—of a missing toy lost and recovered—has a good, full arc and is relatable I think to most children (and adults), but it means all the more when it offers a too rare example of a child with autism in a picture book, handled with compassion and love and empathy.

*****

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, awards list, reviews, sample page, and author's bio.

Julián Is a Mermaid by Jessica Love. Candlewick, 2018. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

Julián and his abuela see a few women on the subway dressed for (research tells me) the Coney Island Mermaid Parade. Julián loves mermaids, the idea of swimming in sea with the fish. On the subway, Julián is reading a book, probably about mermaids. Julián tells his grandmother that he is a mermaid too. His abuela goes to take a bath, and while she does, Julián dresses himself as a mermaid with fern fronds and flowers in his hair and curtains as a tail. When upon seeing what he has done, his abuela walks away without a word, Julián becomes momentarily uncertain of himself and of his outfit, until she gives him beads to complete his outfit, and takes him to the parade. Julián is awed by the mermaids, which his abuela comments are “like you.”  Together they join the parade. This won the Stonewall Award in 2018, an award given to books that best represent the GLBT experience. I use the he/him pronouns for Julián because even in her loving acceptance of Julián, his abuela continues to use “mijo” when referring to Julián, which I have most often heard translated to son, but Love carefully uses no pronouns in the book, so I am not 100% which pronouns Julián prefers. Julián uses the term “mermaid” for himself, but I take mermaid as more gender neutral than necessarily feminine, though at no time does anyone “correct” Julián and tell him that he is a merman. Men are not discouraged from participating in Coney Island’s Mermaid Parade as far as I can tell. Without the Stonewall Award sticker though, I’m not sure that I would have read this as a representation of the GLBT experience; its messaging to me was that subtle. I love the casual usage of Spanish in this book. The Spanish words are not italicized or marked any differently than the English. I love the body diversity and positivity in this book. There are curvy, older women in bathing suits. There are young girls in bathing suits. There are older men wearing shorts with thin legs and knobby knees. Most of the women are bare-armed, wearing spaghetti straps or strapless tops or dresses or towels. Almost all of the characters are people of color. I just love Julián’s abuela. She is so wonderfully accepting and supportive. If the A stood for Ally, I would give her an A+. She gets an A+ anyway, just not that A. The text does not describe many of the actions of the book, allowing the illustrations to speak for themselves. The text is primarily dialogue. Only reading this through a third time am I noticing the echoed pattern of the scales of the fish and his abuela’s dress as each offers Julián a necklace.

*****

Click to view the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample pages, reviews, activity guide, and author's and illustrator's bio.

Harrison Dwight, Ballerina and Knight by Rachael MacFarlane and illustrated by Spencer Laudiero. Imprint-Macmillan, 2019. Intended audience: Ages 3-6.

I read an advanced reader’s copy of this picture book about feeling and expressing what you feel without thought to convention or societal expectation. Even the adults do not conform to expectations, Harrison’s mother taking him to football games while he and his father pick wildflowers together. Harrison dances when he wants to because it makes him feel strong. He cries when he is sad or when he is moved or hurt. He implores others to explore and express themselves with confidence as he does. The text is admittedly maybe a little heavy-handed in its message, but until we start living these truths, maybe we need a little heavy-handedness.

***

These reviews are not endorsed by any of the authors or publishers or anyone else involved in the making of these books. They are independent, honest reviews by a reader.

Shelfie: June 9, 2017: Exhausted

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It has been a WEEK.  I can’t even begin to describe to you the horrors of this week (well, I can, but you all are better left in ignorance of the horrors and failures of humanity; you’re here for books—and cats, I hope!).  I have two reviews nearly done, but instead I’m drinking my second glass of Arbor Mist.  My cat here is demonstrating an approximation of my energy level.

Do you enjoy the knickknacks and artwork on our shelves?  Do you keep anything but books on your shelves?