Book Reviews: October 2018 Picture Book Roundup: Celebrity Writers and Fall Fun

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

Elbow Grease by John Cena and illustrated by Howard McWilliam. Penguin Random, 2018.  Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

I was pleasantly surprised by this picture book. I know John Cena more for his philanthropic work than as a wrestler, but I still did not really expect a quality picture book from this celebrity (nor do I from most celebrities). This is the story of a family of monster trucks who each have a particular skill or trait that helps him dominate one aspect of the monster truck arena—all expect Elbow Grease, who is the smallest of his brothers and electric besides. His brothers make fun of him. He decides that he will prove them wrong and drives all night to enter a demolition derby. When he gets there, he’s already exhausted, but he goes to the starting line anyway. Despite the other trucks being bigger, having more experience, and better technique, he does not give up. In the middle of the race, his battery gives out. But when a lightning strike reenergizes his battery, Elbow Grease is able to make it across the finish line. The winner of the race declares that Elbow Grease has gumption, and the brothers’ (female) mechanic, Mel, tells them that if they only stick to what they are good at, they’ll never learn anything. The book closes with all the brothers being coached through new challenges by Elbow Grease. There are a lot of lessons and broken stereotypes crammed into this one brightly colored picture book. It was a little long, a little spasmodic, but neither excessively so.

****

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

Little Elliot, Fall Friends by Mike Curato. Henry Holt-Macmillan, 2017.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

I adore earlier Little Elliot books. This one, frankly, didn’t live up to my expectations. The illustrations were still beautiful and the story was clever and fun, but it lacked the message that I am used to seeing in this series. Perhaps if the reader was infrequently in the country, the message would be the delights of the country, but here, where everywhere we look is not too dissimilar from the landscapes depicted in the vibrant illustrations (though rarely do we get that much fall color), it’s not much of a lesson; we know the joys of pumpkin patches and watching clouds and picking apples and eating pies. In this, the two friends on their vacation decide to play hide-and-seek, but Elliot hides too well, and Mouse can’t find him—until Mouse bakes a pie and fishes Elliot out of the cornfield, Elliot following his nose to the source of the delicious aroma (which honestly feels a bit like cheating at hide-and-seek though it is clever and the reward is reunion and pie). This of the Elliot books seems to be the one aimed at the youngest audience.  There are many farm animals in the final pages, and though few if any are explicitly named in this story, those pages could easily be turned into a testing of animal names and sounds when reading to a young child.

***

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

How to Scare a Ghost by Jean Reagan and illustrated by Lee Wildish. Alfred A. Knopf-Penguin Random, 2018.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This isn’t a format that I particularly enjoy. This story was basically a series of lists, and it seemed long. It seems like the sort of book that you ought to read page-by-page, stopping to decorate for Halloween, stopping to do some Halloween activities at school. Why one wants to scare a ghost is never addressed. The only thing that scares the ghost is a vacuum. That one scene is a page long. Scaring a ghost becomes comforting a ghost and playing with a ghost and taking a ghost trick-or-treating. The book’s ideas are quite clever, but the format just doesn’t help those ideas, I don’t think. I’d rather read a story about less-generic, better characterized kids making a ghost friend and taking it trick-or-treating than listicles with a vague “you” addressee. My little story time guests wanted to know why the ghost was incorporeal when the kids were playing with it on the playground, but it was able to be corporeal enough to wear a costume, and why wearing a Halloween costume made a ghost visible to adults.  I couldn’t answer them.

**

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, video, activity kit, and authors' and illustrator's bios..

Builder Brothers: Big Plans by Drew Scott and Jonathan Scott of Property Brothers, and illustrated by Kim Smith. Harper Collins, 2018. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This was another celebrity picture book that surprised me with its quality. During a summer day the brothers, children in this story, are dreaming up plans for a tree house, which makes the grown-ups laugh, thinking their wild ideas impossible.  (“There’s a hundred and four days of summer vacation.” )  The brothers set out to prove the adults wrong. They decide to build a luxury, two-story doghouse (a bit of a step down from their castle tree house with a catapult, but perhaps more manageable on a small budget). They draw up blueprints, go to the store to purchase all that they need, and build their house—only to find that they measured incorrectly, and the scale is not right for their dogs. They are at first upset, but realize that the scale is right for a birdhouse. It’s a cute tale of trying to prove adults wrong, trying to prove that young people can succeed, that they can brings their dreams to life. It’ll be a fun one to read before setting out to build a birdhouse of your own with your little—instructions are in the back of the book.

***

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.

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Book Review: Read Timekeeper Quickly

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

I did not give Timekeeper the reading that it deserved, and I’m going to probably always regret that a little. I bought this book when it first came out, and—let’s get this out of the way—I wanted to love this book, and how much that bias colored my reading, I don’t know, but when I did read this book, I did love this book. Timekeeper is the first novel by Tara Sim. Tara Sim is the first person of my graduating class at my alma mater to get a book deal from a big name publisher (one that easily supplies Barnes & Noble). She is the first author that I’ve known personally to get such a book deal. She’s the one who made it first. (She won’t be the last.)

I don’t know what happened when I was reading this book—I honestly don’t. I bought it in November 2016. I’d actually opened it and read a few pages in November 2016; I have pictures. I started reading it in earnest in January 2018 or earlier—earlier I think, but I didn’t finish it until September 2018. Between January 2018 and September 2018 I reread three favorites, I read The Burning Maze, I started a mess of books, including several set in Wales in preparation for a trip to that country, without finishing them. I think portability made a big impact on my reading of Timekeeper this first time. Because I did read a new book called Tara Takes the Stage, a little 151-page paperback, and two of those rereads were portable paperbacks too.

I also have a niggling memory of a sense of being overwhelmed by book reviews that I hadn’t had the energy or time to get to you—and a feeling that I didn’t want to add to my pile of overdue reviews by finishing anything new; I think that might have been part of why I allowed myself so many rereads this year….

All this to say that I did not read Timekeeper in one great, thirst-quenching, squealing gulp like I ought to have done—like you ought to do; learn from my mistakes.  (And I’m sorry it took me so long, Tara.)

I was squealing enough about this book in January that I had to tell Goodreads about the dopey grin that I kept developing whenever I read about Danny and Colton and their will-they-won’t-they, forbidden romance.

Every time I opened it, I was infected by the characters’ emotions, but I somehow never sat down and put nose to page until I vowed to finish the books that I’d started instead of starting more. Once I was in maybe the last quarter of the book, I was tearing through it.

I was surprised by the ending.

I love that I was surprised.

The characters are all well-crafted, the world is vividly imagined and deeply considered. (There’s a note in the back where Sim talks about the ways her mythology and the changes that she made to humanity’s timeline in Timekeeper affect the characters and society in her world as compared to the world on our unaltered timeline, absent of her mythos.)

Here are so many things to cheer: well-portrayed PTSD; several, strong, well-rounded female mechanics, including one who is half Indian; a beautiful, gay romance; respected, well-rounded black characters in a Victorian setting because (to reference Psych) black people weren’t invented after 1888.

There are moments when Sim plays with textual layout and presentation to create story in a way that is nearly unique among books that I’ve read.

I intend to do better by Book 2, Chainbreaker, when I get my hands on a copy. The series deserves my attention.  Book 3, Firestarter, is due to come out in January.

This book deserves at least four stars, probably five if I’d read it as it ought to be read.

****

Sim, Tara. Timekeeper, Book One. New York: Sky Pony-Skyhorse, 2016.

This review is not endorsed by Tara Sim, Sky Pony Press, or Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Reviews: September 2018 Picture Book Roundup: Astronauts, Bees, and Sillier Animals

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Astronauts

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

I Am Neil Armstrong by Brad Meltzer and illustrated by Chris Eliopoulos. Dial-Penguin Random, 2018. Intended audience: Ages 5-8.

My toddlers at story time are not the target audience for this book. For them is it too long—just too long. I suppose it could be best considered a graphic novel, but it’s really too short for a novel. A graphic novelette? But it’s not a picture book, despite the bright illustrations and round-faced depictions of the protagonists. I personally feel that it talks down to the middle school students that are generally the target audience for graphic novels.  So elementary students?

This biography of Neil Armstrong begins with Armstrong as a child climbing trees and ends with his space mission completed and a plug for the National Air and Space Museum in DC. There are many details about his life and his philosophy. It is intimate in a way that I did not expect. There are though too perhaps extraneous details, which I suppose sometimes add weight to Meltzer’s assertions (not a long checklist but “a 417-step checklist”), but more often added to the length of the story without really deepening my understanding of Armstrong or his mission.

Perhaps because I read so few biographies and don’t know what to expect or to want from them, I was less interested in the intimate details of Armstrong’s life. I don’t find it necessary to know that he was scared of Santa or fell out of a tree or read many books in a year. Any biographies I’ve read, I’ve read (and long ago) to be able to give a report or write a paper—a flaw in me not in the genre or in this book in particular—so I’ve never needed or particularly wanted more than the facts—just the straight up facts. What I read for pleasure—primarily fantasies but even realistic fiction that I read—are more often the span of an event—a significant event—and nonessential personal histories are left off or obliquely referenced if and only if they are effecting the character in the now.

I can tell that Meltzer wanted to include these details to illustrate the natural traits that allowed Armstrong  to succeed in his space mission, but the presentation felt extremely forced; it lacked finesse when compared to the arc of the fictions that I enjoy reading.

I frankly don’t feel qualified to rate this book, but I wanted to discuss it nonetheless because it wasn’t what I was expecting, and it might not be what you’re expecting either.

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

Mae Among the Stars by Roda Ahmed and illustrated by Stasia Burrington. HarperCollins, 2018.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

I chose this book because Brad Meltzer’s I Am Neil Armstrong was too long for my usual story time audience, but I wanted to keep to something in theme with the story I had been assigned to read. Plus, it’s the true story of an African American woman achieving her dream, written by Somali woman living in Norway! Mae Jemison’s parents support her dream to see Earth from space. They tell her she’ll have to become an astronaut. But her teacher (a white woman), says that an astronaut is no job for a woman—wouldn’t she rather be a nurse? That’s a good job “for someone like” her. Jemison is heartbroken by her teacher’s pronouncement. But her parents continue to be wonderful and tell her that this time her teacher is wrong; she shouldn’t believe her. So Jemison continues “dreaming, believing, and working hard,” and she becomes an astronaut and waves to her parents from space. There is less about Jemison’s life here and more about following your dream and achieving your dream through hard work and a firm belief. Meltzer focuses on facts; Ahmed on story. Ahmed’s was much better for my young audience.

***

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

Are You Scared, Darth Vader? by Adam Rex. Lucasfilm-Disney, 2018.  Intended audience: Ages 6-8.

All right. I found this one funny as did the friend who pulled it off the shelves to show it to me. But it’s only funny if you’re already familiar with Darth Vader and the Star Wars films; the text is littered with allusions to quotes and to plot points from the films. I tried it out on some kids who didn’t know Darth Vader. They didn’t find it funny. It’s also funnier if you can imitate Darth Vader’s deep voice, which I can only do poorly. Really, this may even be a story more for adults than for children.

The authorial voice and Darth Vader dialogue throughout this story. The book tries to scare Darth Vader with a werewolf, a ghost, a witch, but he is unimpressed by any of these despite the authorial voice’s assertion that they can bite and hex him. So the authorial voice invites a posse of children in Halloween costumes and without to swarm all over Vader, to pester him with questions, as the authorial voices continues to tease, “Are you scared now, Darth Vader?”

But Vader is not scared so much as annoyed by the posse.

The children decide that he’s no fun, and they leave.

Well, it seems Darth Vader can’t be scared, so it’s time for the book to end.

But Darth Vader will not allow the book to end. He implores the child holding the book not to turn the page, not to close the book.

He admits to his fear, but the book must end, and so he is trapped inside the book, “almost like [he’s] frozen in carbonite—or whatever.”

*** 

Bees

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample pages, video, and activity kit.

Princesses Save the World by Savannah Guthrie and Allison Oppenheim and illustrated by Eva Byrne. Abrams, 2018.

This is not the story I expected. This is a story about the importance of bees to an agrarian economy and society. Princess Penelope Pineapple receives a distress call from her neighbor across the sea whose bees have all disappeared and whose fruit harvest has suffered because of it. Princess Penelope calls an assembly of princesses from a wealth of fruit-centric nations. Princess Sabrina Strawberry is not alone in her plight. Audrey Apple is having the same problem. She’s a pretty minor character, mentioned once by name then shown as trying to help the other princesses solve the problem, but that the two princesses whose kingdoms are in trouble are both dark-skinned and dark-haired women of color gives the story an unpleasant tinge of white savior complex that this world does not need.

The princesses decide it is their duty to help, and among Princess Penelope’s many other talents, she is a beekeeper; she knows that scents lure bees. She hops into her lab and with whatever perfumes and sweet-smelling treats the princesses happen to have in their luggage creates a perfume. The princesses engineer new hives to give to Princess Sabrina, and with her perfume in hand, Princess Penelope leads the bees across the sea to the Strawberry Kingdom, where the bees settle, and their industry the next year leads to a healthy harvest for the kingdom—celebrated with a tea party by the princesses.

If only solving the problem of the disappearing bees were so easy!

But I continue to like Princess Penelope and her more modern take on being a princess with a wealth of duties and talents not generally assigned feminine or princess-like. I like that she seeks outside help and opinions from other nations when she sees a nation in trouble. That kind of collaborative foreign diplomacy and policy is forward-thinking and positive too.

I appreciate that the authors saw a current environmental problem and wanted to raise awareness among a younger audience about the problem, and that they seek to show young activists taking steps to alleviate a problem.

***

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

Bee: A Peek-Through Picture Book by Britta Teckentrup. Doubleday-Penguin Random, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 3-7. 

This is not the first of Teckentrup’s books that I’ve read. Her strength I feel is in lyrically romanticizing the ordinary—thus far her subjects have always been also natural. This like Tree is more nonfiction than fiction, depicting the day and job of a worker bee and bees as pollinators. Many animals, including a bee in a peek-hole through each page, hide among the illustrations, making a fun spot-the-critter game as you read through the book. Teckentrup uses lyrical language and specific detail to paint her text. This made for a good side book to Guthrie and co.’s Princesses Save the World. A bit more on level for my youngest listeners and certainly much shorter, there’s less—really no—problem here, certainly no talk of a global crisis, but it seemed a good way to introduce the concept of why bees are so important to an ecosystem.

**** 

New Twists on Old Tales

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

Pig the Fibber by Aaron Blabey. Scholastic, 2018. First published 2015.

I’ve reviewed others (almost all of the others) in the Pig the Pug series. It’s just not a model I love. In this addition to the series, Pig is blaming Trevor to avoid getting into trouble for things that he’s done. Having gotten Trevor out of his way, Pig concocts a scheme to get to the treats on the top shelf of the closet, but along with the treats, a bowling ball falls from the shelf, and Pig is again bandaged and laid up, again he gets his comeuppance for treating Trevor poorly, for behaving poorly. And he’s learnt another lesson—but again not well and not without serious bodily harm all portrayed in a singsong rhythm. Learning not to blame a sibling or bystander, not to scapegoat is a valuable lesson, but I’m still just not sure about this method of teaching; it’s so drastic, and the tone is at such odds with the harm caused to Pig.

***

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

Corduroy Takes a Bow by Viola Davis, based on characters by Don Freeman. Viking-Penguin Random, 2018.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

What a special opportunity I expect this is for Viola Davis! Don Freeman was one of the first picture book illustrators to create a book with African American protagonists, and now fifty years later, Davis, the first African American to win a Tony, and Emmy, and an Oscar, has returned to his characters with a new story. She takes Corduroy and Lisa to the theater—a live stage performance. Both are excited and in Lisa’s attempts to see above a tall man who sits in front of her, she loses track of Corduroy, who too seeks a better seat, ending up in the pit, backstage, and then on stage. The picture book is unfortunately heavy with lessons about the language of the theater, the people behind a production, and those pieces weighed down the story somewhat.

***

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

Goodnight Goon: A Petrifying Parody by Michael Rex.  G. P. Putnam-Penguin Random, 2008.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

This is yet another Goodnight Moon parody, this time with a spooky, B-horror, monster theme. The little goon spends the second half of the book avoiding bed and partying and playing with the creatures that infest his bedroom, perhaps trying to tire everyone out so that his bedroom will be quiet enough to sleep; everyone is sleeping or out of the bedroom when the happy goon is at last in his bed by the last page (“Goodnight monsters everywhere.”)—that’s a fun twist on the story.

***

And Silly Animals

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

The Wonky Donkey by Craig Smith and illustrated by Katz Cowley. Scholastic, 2010. First published 2009.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

Sometimes British picture books in particular, I’ve found, are just wonderfully weird. This one is wonderfully weird. It resurfaced in America because of a YouTube video of a Scottish grandmother reading the book aloud. The story reads like a camp song, a wonderful camp song where each verse adds another adjective to a long list of to remember, all rhyming, all silly. I remember the days (20 years ago) when Scholastic didn’t believe we would understand “Mum” in a middle grade novel. Now look at them! throwing our picture books readers words like “wonky” and making no changes to the British English “spunky” though it doesn’t seem to mean the same thing as it does in American English; from this picture book in British English it seems to be a synonym for “good looking.” I really enjoyed this. I enjoyed the silliness of the plethora of adjectives attached to this donkey, and I enjoy saying it as fast as I can: “a spunky, hanky-panky, cranky, stinky dinky, lanky, honky-tonky, winky, wonky donkey.” I like the victory of being able to say it all really fast. I guess I’m still a camper at heart. If any Scottish grandmothers out there want to read Evil Weasel and make that something I can find in my country, I’d much appreciate it; I remember really enjoying that one when I read it while staying with a family in Edinburgh.

****

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

Chomp Goes the Alligator by Matthew Van Fleet. Paula Wiseman-Simon & Schuster, 2018. Intended audience: Ages 2-99.

With lots of interactive elements—touch and feel, a pull-tab to make the alligator chomp up and down, and even a pop-up—this is a counting book and animal and color primer—all set in a swamp, which is not the most oft used of settings for a picture book. On the final pop-up page the animals not featured in the text are labeled in smaller print and the bugs in a bubble of dialogue ask to be counted in a later reading. The page spreads are labeled 1-10 in big text. Every animal miraculously lives though the text’s pretext is the alligator eating them and seems on the last page even to have enjoyed its experience on the alligator thrill ride. The illustrations are of cute, happy critters in pastel colors. There’s a burp to make the kids laugh, and a polite “excuse me” to appease the parents. This book has everything! Educational and fun and unusual.

*****

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: January 15, 2017: ReReading Blue Lily, Lily Blue

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Oops.  In planning for another adventure and just the day-to-day I never did get around to finishing a blog post (though I’m close on at least one).  I didn’t want to leave you without anything for the next two weeks, so enjoy some of these favorite lines of mine from Maggie Stiefvater’s Blue Lily, Lily Blue, the third book in The Raven Cycle.

Needless to say, if you read the full pages, you might find some spoilers, but the quotes I’ve highlighted are all I think pretty safe.

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“She drifted toward the bedroom, on her way to have a bath or take a nap or start a war.”

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“Violence was a disease Gansey didn’t think he could catch.”

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“Blue was perfectly aware that is was possible to have a friendship that wasn’t all-encompassing, that wasn’t blinding, deafening, maddening, quickening.  It was just that now that she’d had this kind, she didn’t want the other.”

Book Reviews: May 2018 Picture Book Roundup: Schooling, Mothers’ Love, Unicorns, and a Wedding

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

Llama Llama Misses Mama by Anna Dewdney. Viking-Penguin Random, 2009. Intended audience: Ages 2-5.

Llama Llama is going to school for the first time today, and he’s nervous after he gets there and meets all the new faces, after he is left by his mama. He spends the morning moping and refusing to play, but after he cries at lunch and is reassured by both his teacher and his classmates, his day takes a turn. He plays with his new friends till the end of the day when his mama returns. The he shows his mama around the school, and they play together. He decides that he loves school. This is an all-too-familiar feeling and scenario for parents and young students, teachers and students-to-be. For that, this is an important book, and Dewdney’s illustrations are as always endearing.

****

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

Llama Llama Loves to Read by Anna Dewdney and Reed Duncan and illustrated by J. T. Morrow. Viking-Penguin Random, 2018. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

Published posthumously and completed in her style by her long time partner Reed Duncan, this school time story teaches lessons about the alphabet and the words that they can spell and the sentences that are made by words, the songs, the books. This seemed a little longer, a little more didactic than some of the other Llama Llama books with its vocabulary words and its recitation of the alphabet. It’s more picture book than a primer though. Llama Llama is growing up, and he’s less in need of reassurance of his mother’s love. Now there are other lessons to be learned. The text still has the rhythm and rhyme of Dewdney’s earlier works. The illustrations seem somehow a little more cartoonish, though it is clear that J. T. Morrow tried to stay true to the character of Dewdney’s earlier works.

***

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

Are You My Mother? by P. D. Eastman. Penguin Random, 1988. First published 1960. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

This is not the first time that I read this story. I don’t think it’ll be the last. But somehow I’ve never read and reviewed it or rated it on Goodreads. A baby bird hatches while his mother is away, and he knows that his mother should be there when he hatches, so he goes off to look for her—falling right out of the nest. He goes to a number of animals and objects, questioning each about being his mother, but always getting the negative answer, getting more and more desperate with each negative. He visits a kitten, a dog, a cow, a boat, a plane, and finally a Snort. The Snort is the only one to help him find his mother—although the baby bird finds the Snort very scary. The Snort picks him up in its claw and puts him back into his nest, where his mother is waiting, wondering where he has been. The story is told in rhyme with a lot of repetition.

You could probably read into this one; I’m sure it has been done. (Actually there are fewer scholarly articles readily available on Google Scholar than I would have expected, and most of those seem to be about adoption law and children’s rights and possibly only obscurely reference the book; I didn’t buy access to the articles to check.) The baby bird seeks family in all kinds of critters but cannot find it; none of them look like him. He doesn’t seem to believe that family necessarily needs to look alike, but the animals are all against interspecies families and the objects—except the Snort—all reject him with their silence. The only one that the baby bird does not believe can be his mother is a wheel-less, broken, junked car, seeming to suggest that he believes that what is necessary in a mother is locomotion, a certain spark of life—perhaps this is because his mother did leave so he knows that she was capable of self-transportation, but perhaps there is a comment there on the necessity of a mother to be alive. That the baby bird refuses to entertain the idea that his mother could be inanimate, no longer capable of locomotion, no longer possessing a lifespark is just heartrending—because some must accept that, and he is too young to even entertain the idea.

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

Stack the Cats by Susie Ghahremani. Abrams Appleseed-Harry N. Abrams, 2018.

I really enjoyed this story about cats and math. It’s counting, addition, division, and subtraction. Three cats stack, but four and five cats endanger the pile, so six cats become two stacks of three each. After ten cats become just too many, the cats begin to go away. The illustrated cats are delightfully round fluffs with small mouths and a wide variety of colors and patterns. There’s a sort of singsong rhythm to the simple text. The story ends with an invitation stack the cats creatively, to invent your own math solutions with the cats—of which by the last page there are more than ten—I count 21!

*****

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

My Mom is Magical by Hello!Lucky and Sabrina Moyle and illustrated by Eunice Moyle. Harry N. Abrams, 2018.

“Mom,” portrayed here as a rainbow-maned and –tailed and rainbow-speckled unicorn, is described in a set of creative comparisons that rely on alliteration: “sillier than a band of bananas,” “sweeter than a cloud of cotton candy.” There’s not a lot of story to it. Pages alternate between pages of text that pops from the page between a frame of illustrations like an affirmation poster and pages of the unicorn illustrated in silly poses and fun costumes. It would make a sweet gift, an alternate to a card for a mother.

***

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

I’ve Loved You Since Forever by Hoda Kotb and illustrated by Suzie Mason. HarperCollins, 2018.

The illustrations are the star of this short picture book about a parent’s and child’s love. “Before the moon lit up the night and elephants roamed free, there was you and there was me.” Via a bunch of nature-related forevers, Kotb implies the eternity of souls and suggests that a parent and a child await the time when their two “stars” become not separate “you and I” but “we.” I don’t know if she intended to put that much philosophy in the book, but it’s there. It’s a fine sentiment and statement, but there are many variations on this same theme out there, and frankly it’s a drop in a big puddle of sentiment. It takes a lot to stand out from that puddle.

***

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample, activities, and a teacher's guide.

Fancy Nancy and the Wedding of the Century by Jane O’Connor and illustrated Robin Preiss Glasser. HarperCollins, 2014. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Bree has been to lots of weddings before, but Nancy has not. Bree and Nancy imagine and dream that the wedding will be very fancy, but Uncle Cal wants everything kept secret from the girls until right before the event, so even as the family packs up to go to meet Cal and Dawn, his bride-to-be, Nancy knows nothing of what they have planned for the wedding—not even whether or not she will be the flower girl, though she is almost certain that she will be. Nancy wakes up from her dream of a fancy hotel wedding to find that the family has arrived at a humble cabin the wilderness. Nancy is at first very disappointed, though no one else seems to be, but there’s a party beforehand, and Dawn is kind to Nancy and even borrows a crown from her for the wedding so that she will have something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue. In the end, even Nancy agrees that this nontraditional wedding, without any of the frills that she expected, is the most “glorious.” As with most Nancy stories, this was a little long for a story time, but I enjoyed the story nonetheless, and it was a nice change to have a wedding tale about a wedding free from the traditional trappings. I had a group this week for story time too that could sit through the longer stories, so it worked out.

****

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

Today I’ll Be a Unicorn by Dana Simpson. Andrews McMeel, 2018. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

This book uses characters from Dana Simpson’s graphic novel series, Heavenly Nostrils, but the story and the characters are fairly universal, really. A young girl wants to be a unicorn. She dons a tail and a headband with horse ears, a horn, and a crown of flowers. With her unicorn friend, she prances through the meadow and sits atop a rainbow. But unicorns don’t eat pizza. So maybe tomorrow she will be a unicorn. There’s perhaps not much original about this story; it’s been done before with other animals—and I think even with pizza. I’m not sure how much I care about the originality. The story remains cute, and Simpson’s illustrations are delightfully whimsical.

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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.

August 8: A Gray Line Through Wicklow

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All photos are mine.  Click to view them in more detail and to read captions where applicable.

Today’s tour is courtesy of Gray Line Tours. We booked through a site, wicklowmountainstour.ie, which offered even more of a discount than did booking through the Gray Line site, but it was confusing because none of the email addresses were what I would have expected.  Gray Line was helpful and quick to respond when I wrote fearing that our purchase had been illegitimate.

Another of the bucket list items that we sought to check off was a walk through the Sally Gap in the Wicklow Mountains. My sister was long in love with the film P.S. I Love You and wanted to recreate the scene where the American woman is wandering lost along the road.

No tour that we could find and no public transit will get you near the Sally Gap, a crossroads in the middle of the Wicklow Mountains National Park, nor could I even find a way to hire a cab to drop us there, though I did my research only online and didn’t actually call any companies to ask if it was a possibility, international rates for phone calls being what they are.

There were many different sites and tours offering to go through the Sally Gap and the Wicklow Mountains National Park, and several offering photo opportunities at a bridge in the Park where the two main characters of the film kiss, but when I started tracking the tours back, they all seemed to boil down to three or four different companies. The one walking tour ran only once or twice a month and not during the time that we needed it to be.

I contacted one company and was told that a walk such as what my sister wanted would be impossible. Because I was running short on time, I did not email ahead to ask Gray Line if they thought that such a walk was possible. Sometimes it is better to have fewer expectations.

When we arrived at Gray Line’s office, the Dublin Visitor Center on Grafton Street, there was already a long line out of the door, and none of the people in the line were there for the tour that we were. But my sister wound her way to the front to pick up our tickets while I watched for the bus, not really sure what I was looking for but hoping that I’d know our tour bus when I saw it. Ultimately, from the office a guide emerged and called forth groups for different tours and led them to the correct bus around the corner in front of the Bank of Ireland, another tour before ours but then ours.

My sister managed to pick up our tickets from the desk inside and have them in time to be called forward, but the tour did leave a few minutes later than was advertised.

Once on the bus, things went more smoothly.

The tour is supposed to visit Glencree German Cemetery, but the day of our tour the company had learnt that the roads to get there were impassable so we got more time at Glendalough (the “lough” is pronounced like “lock”) instead.

Since we weren’t there to go to Glencree and I’d forgotten that we were with this tour supposed to stop there (I did look at a lot of tour itineraries), I didn’t much mind, but I hope no one on the tour was particularly upset.

Our bus pulled out, heading south this time, where we saw St. Stephen’s Green and more sites important to the Easter Rising.

We were driven along some narrow mountain roads past a hut-like construction that from our guide’s story I suspect may have been a set piece for Vikings, past Lough Tay to the bridge called the P.S. I Love You Bridge, though it’s real name, I think, had something to do with sheep (our guide mentioned it, but now I can’t find it online anywhere). While our driver went on to turn the bus around, we were given 15 or so minutes to climb around the stream and photograph the hills and the heather—our guide said it wasn’t heather, but everything else I’ve read, and my own instincts, think that it is—perhaps a specific kind of heather or heather locally known by another name, but I think heather nonetheless.

 

Turned around, we headed just a bit farther back the way we had come to an overlook point that looked down on Lough Tay or Guinness Lake and the valley that it occupies, and were given another ten or fifteen minutes to go explore the area, to take photographs, and enjoy the scenery. On this tour, I learned a lot about the Guinness Family and their legacy not only of world-renown beer but also of philanthropy.

 

It started raining just as it was coming time to get us back on the bus.

The views out the window were obscured by trails of water across the glass.

Thankfully the rain had all but stopped by the time we arrived at Glendalough, and the sky cleared as we wandered the ground of the monastic settlement.

We were pretty much set loose on the grounds. We wandered first through the cemetery, a blend of old plots with illegible headstones and newer markers.  We did a lot of careful tiptoeing and stepping and apologized often to the dead as we unavoidably trod on gravesites.  Between the headstones are the ruins of the settlement: a nearly in tact chapel, a ruined cathedral, a priest’s house, and a tower also nearly in tact.  An archeological group was doing some excavation just outside of the graveyard, cordoned off and too far away to be disturbed the tourists.

 

Most of the buildings on the site are from the 10th-12th century, the settlement having been destroyed by Norman invaders in 1214.  Visit Wicklow has a lot of good information about the individual structures around Glendalough.

We walked out from there towards the Lower Lake.  The way through the woods is fairly broad and flat.  I think it was even paved.  There were occasional benches to sit and trash bins.

 

We didn’t go much past the edge of that first lake, but went back towards the modern village, such as it is, ducked into a few shops, two of which were permanent structures but more of which were pop up tents, and saw a sign for a sheep dog demonstration. We tried several routes to find the entrance to the event without success, though over the wall that bordered the road we could catch glimpses of the sheep and the young Border collies, one of which was definitely a pup. Unfortunately, we eventually found out, we’d missed the beginning, and the next demonstration wouldn’t begin until after we were supposed to be on the bus back.

We sat for a little while, having nowhere else to go in the time that we had, on the hill beneath the trees just a short ways inside the monastic settlement’s stone gate, overlooking the road.  Sitting beneath the trees on the hill was peaceful with the cemetery behind and a sheep pasture beside and more pasture across the road below.

The last stop on the tour was Avoca, a small village known for its hand-weaving center but also as the filming location for the BBC show Ballykissangel (1996-2001).  We ate in the pub, Fitzgerald’s, which frequently appeared in the show. I got the sense that visiting this pub was like visiting the Cheers bar in Boston. But the food was good, the service quick, and fairly inexpensive.  There were only a few people there besides our tour.  One of the televisions inside the airy pub was playing episodes of the show, but I was more interested in the airing commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Amiens on the other television behind the bar.

We didn’t have much time to explore Avoca itself.  We crossed over Main Street to a small park overlooking the river that gives the town its name , and we went up the road a little ways past the lot in which our bus was parked to see what was over the hill’s crest.  Looking down the road we could see the Avoca Handweavers, but we didn’t go down the hill towards the museum and factory because we didn’t want to be late for the bus back.

This tour wasn’t necessarily what we were hoping for, but the places that we did visit were beautiful.  I just wish we’d had more time to wander in the mountains.

To the best of my ability to track our travels through GoogleMaps, my photos, and my recollection, this might’ve been our route, but I’m much less certain on on our route out of or into Dublin.

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Which would mean in all that this is what we managed to see of Ireland, only really a third of the country and a fourth of the island.

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We got off the bus around 6 PM on O’Connell Street. We spent the evening ducking into bookstores—on my sister’s suggestion not mine, though you know that I happily acquiesced. We visited larger more corporate bookstores like Eason and little used shops too. We wandered and found St. Stephen’s Green, and ended up—by my own faulty sense of direction, I’ll admit—down by the Grand Canal.  The canal was pretty, but I didn’t take any pictures; I was too busy consulting maps.

Again, thank God for GPS! When our map failed us—we’d wandered too far south and were off the edge of one of the maps that we had, and I don’t think that I consulted the other, though I should have done—we pulled out my phone, and turned north. We passed the Bleeding Horse Tavern, a tavern that’s been at that site since 1649 (I didn’t realize at the time that it was any point of historical interest, but I remember commenting on the name; I found it on that second map after I had got home and was researching these blog posts), and continued north around the side of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

We ate our wrapped, convenience store sandwiches (purchased the night before in case the pub on the tour offered nothing that my sister could eat) in the park beside the cathedral before heading back to the dorm to pack and sleep for an early morning.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral was the most prominent tourist site near our dorm; it seemed like a place that we should spend some time.  We were never there when the doors to the cathedral were open, but we were able to say hello to the building this way.

 

 

August 7: Coast to Coast in a Big Green Bus

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Click on the photos to embiggen and to read captions where available.  All photos are mine.  Trying to decide on pictures for this post was so hard, and I have so many more that I want to share.

This day’s travel was courtesy of Paddywagon Tours.

At Destiny Student – New Mill, we were about a 20 to 25 minute brisk walk from the meeting place on College Green. I’d asked the front desk for better instructions to our meeting place the night before and been supplied with a map and a route. The route we were given took us up a residential street, New Row South, then up past St. Patrick’s Cathedral, turning at Christ Church right along Dame Street.

We found the green Paddywagon Tours bus easily on Dame Street and confirmed with the driver that we were in the right place. He welcomed us convivially and sent us off to pick up coffees and breakfast since we were a few minutes early.

Fortified with caffeine and sugar, we climbed back on the bus. Once we were all assembled and the bus took off, our guide talked us through some of the sights out the window, the Bank of Ireland with its bricked in windows to avoid the light tax and Phoenix Park with its herd of deer. And the tour continued as we got out into the country, our guide talking us through Ireland’s history from the four kings of Ireland, to Strongbow’s arrival at the behest of Mac Murchada, the former king of Leinster (mid-1100s), to the Burren, and the penal laws when being Catholic was outlawed (mid- to late-1600s). He explained the importance of peat and the importance of the potato. He talked about the Potato Famine, better called the Great Hunger (mid-1800s), and about the tension between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, including what he has witnessed himself as a tour guide (ongoing but finally, thank God, cooled after the late 1990s).

He was a fabulous tour guide, and I wish I could remember his name to commend him personally!

I learnt more on this tour than I did on any other, from my history classes, from stumbling upon Tumblr posts, or from guidebooks. I laughed at some of the bad puns, and just had to smile at his enthusiasm, while my heart sank with his sadder stories.

Between stories, he played us a mix of more modern Irish bands like the High Kings singing primarily more traditional pub songs.

Meanwhile, out the window, the Irish countryside rolled past. It’s green. Everyone says it, but it is true—and we were in Ireland during a drought, so I imagine I have seen the country less green than it might usually be. There were far more cows than I ever imagined. On earlier train rides through England, I marveled at the number of sheep. Here I marveled at the absence of the sheep and the abundance of cows.

We passed a great diversity of landscapes: fairly flat fields with far off rises, a peat bog, and then rocky mountains like I’ve never seen before: rocky but not in the way that, say, Croatia’s or Montenegro’s mountains are rocky. From a distance they looked like mounds of gray stone rising from green fields. Nearer, you could see the tracery of green breaking through the rocks. And the mountains were crisscrossed by low stone walls: stone walls to nowhere, fencing nothing, built by a starving people to whom the government refused charity and refused “handouts,” making them work for rationed food even if the work accomplished nothing meaningful. That sentiment stung. It rang too familiarly in my ears. I don’t like the idea. And I think those walls will haunt me.  I think we are not far at all from repetition of that same government refusal, though the work left behind by our starving people may be more ephemeral.  In some ways I think we are already there.

We stopped to stretch our legs in the small fishing village Kinvara. Just briefly. We walked along the park-edged harbor and turned up the hill along a road called The Quay to catch a quick glimpse of the town farther inland, peering up and down Main Street, before returning to the waterside and walking around the corner from the park. Across the water we could see Dunguaire Castle. True to form, I only took pictures of the boats and the water.

Our tour continued along the Galway Coast, but we had chosen seats on the wrong side of the bus for there to be photos; sorry.  Driving along the coast we learned about another export of the country, though: seaweed.

We stopped a little while later at an area the tour called “the baby cliffs” near Bothar nA hAillite. I’m not actually sure what Bothar nA hAillite is (it might be the road’s name?), but it was the nearest marker I found on GoogleMaps to the place where we stopped, which I was able to identify in part because one of the photos uploaded onto GoogleMaps showed a Paddywagon bus.  We climbed about on the rocks a little, getting as near as we dared to the sea. I’d done enough research to know that the Burren is home to all kinds of unique plant life, so I was peering into the mossy, grassy, crevices in the rocks too, though I don’t know enough to identify any of the wildflowers.

I have no pictures from Doolin, the next place we stopped to stretch and to search out lunch. I thought I did, but I don’t. It was a tiny place. We stopped along Fitz’s Cross, a few shops side by side along the street, two hostels, a pub, a café, a welcome center with a courtyard behind the lot with benches and fire rings and picnic tables. It looked like someone had set up a corner for a celebration when we were there. We grabbed sandwiches for lunch, ate in the courtyard, and hopped back on the bus, finally arriving not long afterward at the Cliffs of Moher.

I was unprepared for how beautiful and rugged and wonderful these cliffs are! I know everyone says that you must see them, but I’d sort of dismissed the hype. Believe the hype. Go see the cliffs. You can’t get anywhere near the water. If you get near the water… I doubt anyone will see you again, but just looking out over these rock faces topped with green grass and lines of people who seem dust specks in comparison with these monstrous heights in photographs—! It’s beautiful.

Our tour guide had told us to walk out towards the right for a better view of the cliffs, towards O’Brien’s Tower. We’d been fiercely warned not to climb over the rock walls or get too near the edge. I’m glad we followed the advice.

Past the Tower too, the stone walls and paved walkway abruptly ended, and a well-worn dirt track along the height of the cliffs replaced them. There was a less-trodden trail below this. Perhaps the trail we took for most of our journey out was meant to be the top of an earthworks divider between a tourist and the cliff, but everyone else was walking it too, and it was still some distance from the edge. It took a steady foot, though; not for the fainthearted and not for the wobbly. We came back along the lower trail when we’d felt that we’d gone far enough, letting those unacquainted with the views stay up higher to gawk.

We ducked into the museum, but frankly, it wasn’t much, though the structure of the museum within a hill is in itself intriguing. We sat to watch a digital animation of the fauna of the cliffs, in the air and in the sea, but it wasn’t very impressive, frankly. And we didn’t stay to read plaques for the exhibits; outside the museum was too pretty.

So we struck back out along the left side of the cliffs, climbing up the top of the iconic view. We didn’t go far that way, though, because we were coming close to our deadline to be back on the bus. We perused the stalls set up by the museum’s exit, and overheard a couple from our tour group admitting to their friends that they’d become engaged on the cliffs.

Our tour guide found out too, and every song remotely about a man and woman in love was dedicated to the couple from there on out.

Clambering back on the bus, we struck back east again, passing Dough Castle, a heartbreaking monument to all those but particularly the children who died in the Great Hunger, Bridge Street in Ennistimon, and the ruins of Clare Abbey. We stopped again to stretch across the street from Bunratty Castle, though there was not much time to explore the area around the castle—or any time to enter the castle itself.

Though we were still a good ways away from Dublin, I haven’t any more pictures from that day until after getting off the bus that evening. Maybe I slept. I know we listened to more Irish music. I was awake long enough to hear the story of one man’s discovery of his link to President Barack Obama. We passed the town, Moneygall, that was home to Barack Obama’s great-great-great grandfather, where now a rest stop is named for the former president, owned by a distant relation.

At any rate around 8 PM, we got off the bus on the north side of the Liffey near O’Connell Street in Dublin after stopping one last time at a rest area for toilets—I think that a requested stop of one of the other travelers, to which I’m glad our tour guide acquiesced, not because I needed another stop, but because it’s nice that a stop can be added because of a need.

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I can’t swear that this was our route, but this was our route, the best I can figure using GoogleMaps and my photos.

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We ended up shopping at some of the tourist shops on the northside that evening, meeting a man in one of the shops and having a long conversation. We crossed over the pedestrian Ha’penny Bridge (built 1816) around sunset though, where I snagged this stunning photo looking west, crossed through the beautiful pedestrian streets of the Temple Bar area, and found our way back to Dame Street, ate some delicious, fancy, branded burgers (Greek-flavored lamb for me, Cajun-flavored chicken for my sister) at BóBós Burgers and sat long into the night after a bit of confusion about whether or not we asked for the check, but it was pleasant to sit, pleasant to talk, and no one seemed fussed about us sitting.

*I want it noted that it IS possible that I am misremembering which tour guide gave us which information, but I do remember that this was the more eloquent of the tour guides, particularly about more ancient history. Both talked a good deal about their own experiences in Ireland and recommended places to visit. More on the second tour guide in the next Travel Notes post.