Category Archives: Review

Book Review: African Myth and an Adult Hero’s Tale in Anansi Boys

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

Reader’s confession time again: Anansi Boys is the first novel of Neil Gaiman’s that I have ever read. And I didn’t even read it, really; I listened to Lenny Henry read it and give voices to each of the characters while I drove my car back and forth across town.

While Anansi Boys is sometimes billed as a sequel to American Gods, I can attest that it works just fine as a standalone as long as one is prepared to accept that the old gods live still. And I am more than used to the idea, being a fan of Rick Riordan’s.

I’m familiar with Anansi as a trickster spider god from Africa. I think it was Reading Rainbow that first introduced me to the character (but now that I’m looking, I can’t find any reference to such an episode). Much beyond that, I didn’t know. I still don’t know much, but Anansi tales are woven into the text, making any background on the character unnecessary. Gaiman even gives some of the evolution of the tales, explanations of how some people sometimes think that Anansi is a rabbit, how Anansi’s tales became African American Br’er Rabbit tales.

Because according to the novel all stories are Anansi’s, I think of this almost as much as a story about stories and the crafting of a story as it is about the way that the characters maneuver through their complicated and twisted relationships and situations, particularly because stories and songs are given such power in the novel. As a hero’s journey, as someone who reads primarily children’s and teen’s literature, it’s nice to read a bildungsroman for an adult where the everyday complications are bosses, difficult clients, worries about money, worries about adult relationships, and future in-laws. All of that is becoming more relevant to me than worries over turning in homework on time, seeing school bullies between classes, my tier in the social hierarchy, difficult teachers, or parents being unsupportive.

In this tale, Anansi dies of a heart attack while singing karaoke and flirting with young tourists in a bar in Florida. His son, Fat Charlie, who is embarrassed by his father whom he thinks made it his mission to humiliate Charlie, flies from London for the funeral. The only other attendees are a few old women, neighbors of Anansi’s and Fat Charlie’s and his mother’s when they lived in Florida. One of the older women reveals Anansi’s godhood to Fat Charlie and also reveals that Charlie has a brother about whom he has forgotten. She tells him to tell a spider if he ever wants to contact his brother.

Back in London, Fat Charlie continues at his job as an accountant for the Grahame Coats talent agency. Charlie and his fiancée Rosie continue wedding preparations, and Rosie insists that Fat Charlie should try to reach out to his brother to invite him to the wedding.

After drunkenly whispering to a spider that it would be nice if his brother would visit, Spider shows up, moves into the house, and begins an initially perhaps well-intentioned but increasing hostile takeover of Charlie’s life, house, and girlfriend.

I wish the ending of the romantic tangle had been a little less obvious.

I was mostly entwined in the story of the mystical coexisting with the everyday—and before Spider, Fat Charlie’s life is very everyday—the way that Spider’s powers manifest, the way that Tiger manifests in the world, the spirit journeys that Charlie takes with the help of the older women.

Maybe because it’s taken me so long to read a Gaiman novel, maybe because many are saying that this is one of his least, I was not as blown away by Anansi Boys as I maybe even wanted to be. I enjoyed it. I think Lenny Henry’s voices may have done much to keep this story exciting. But I didn’t love it, though I did rave when given the opportunity the morning after I’d finished it to a willing party.

I think this would be a good read for those who want to learn a little mythology without reading mythology straight—though I’m not sure why anyone would want not to read the mythology straight. I doubt Riordan will never touch African mythology—though someone from his imprint might. I do wonder how someone from the African diaspora reacts to Gaiman’s take on their mythology. I wonder if Anansi is still a god anywhere in the world. I wonder if Gaiman should have taken on this subject, as much as I enjoy it. Most of the characters are from the Caribbean, members of the African diaspora, and to my knowledge, Gaiman is neither. He seems to have handled the mythology well, but I’m not the one to decide.

****

Gaiman, Neil. Anansi Boys. Narrated by Lenny Henry. HarperAudio-HarperCollins, 2013. Audiobook, 9 CDs. First published 2005.

This review is not endorsed by Neil Gaiman, Lenny Henry, HarperAudio, HarperCollins, or anyone involved in the production of the book or audiobook.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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Book Reviews: June 2017 Picture Book Roundup

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I have to issue an apology to several authors and illustrators that I read in June. Having broken my arm and having been knocked off my game for several months afterward, some of these books, particularly some of these toddler books I just don’t remember well enough to do much justice to the reviews and I’m afraid I’ll have to skip reviewing one in this batch, Eric Hill’s Spot Loves Bedtime. For any that I can reconstruct my impressions from even reading others’ reviews and available previews I will do that. It’s possible that all of these reviews may not be as detailed as they have been for some other months.

Toddler Time

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

Feminist Baby by Loryn Brantz. Hyperion-Disney, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 0-2.

Reading reviews on Goodreads, there is one that I think really hits the nail on the head: With the wealth of board books tackling impossibly complicated concepts, like quantum physics and government, how is it that this is one of the first I’ve seen to openly tackle the misunderstood concept of feminism? Mostly this is a book about liking what you like and not being forced to present oneself in any particular way because of one’s gender. Feminist baby likes pink and blue. She’s messy and sometimes gross. She’s a person more than she is a gender. I hadn’t realized that this board book is born of a comic series by the artist, though I’d seen the comics before shared on social media sites. That helps a little, but I still wish there had been more of a call for intersectionality in this board book, though that may well be because I’m used to hearing that critique leveled at modern, white feminism; I maybe shouldn’t expect from a board book what modern feminist movements are themselves struggling to incorporate, though I want to push our definitions and the actions of feminism towards its ideal manifestation. The feminist label is going to turn some off; it already has done, but there again is that same misunderstanding of feminism, which is by definition a call for equality for all regardless of gender (or race, class, or any other categorization ideally). I’m thinking now about the board books that I’ve read. There are many that feature animals or anthropomorphized objects as protagonists. There are many that have no protagonist, that feature many children or babies of different genders and races. The few that I’m recalling with female protagonists are pinker and more princess-oriented than naught, books like Katz’ Princess Baby or Grandma Kisses. Both Caroline Jayne Church’s and Joanna Cole’s I’m a Big Sister (the two books have the same title) feature a child with pink bows in her hair, and both children wear pink plaid; how weird is that? I like this book, and I really like that this book exists, but we can do better.

***

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

Hello, Lamb by Jane Cabrera. Little Bee-Simon & Schuster, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 2-5, Grades PreK-K.

This is an animal and animal sounds primer. It begins with the sun, but quickly moves into baby farm animals, their forms only their round faces, and their greeting paired with their sound. “Hello, piglet. Oink Oink.” It ends on the image of a baby. The round-faced illustrations are bright and eye-catching without being overwhelmingly bright.

***

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

A Letter to Daddy by Igloo Books-Bonnier-Simon & Schuster, 2016. Intended audience: Ages 4-6.

I wanted to give a quick shout-out to this Barnes & Noble bargain book, because it’s difficult to find reference to it. This is a sweet story about a little bear who misses his dad when he has to go away, so he writes letters to his dad about all the things that he and his mother are doing while Daddy is away. The story is really sweet, and I like the illustration style.

****

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

Buzzy Bee: A Slide-and-Seek Book by Emma Parrish. Little Bee-Simon & Schuster, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 2-5, Grades PreK-K.

This book was a hit at story time. The bright illustrations are accompanied by sliding panels that extend up and sideways from the book and the backsides of the panels extend the illustrations on the following page. The book is a look and find where the bee is only on one of the last pages. The panels highlight characters in larger scenes, acting like a magnifying glass. The plot uses alliteration in describing those characters, making this a good book to work on sounds associated with letters.

*****

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

Good Night, Little Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister. NorthSouth-Simon & Schuster, 2017. First published 2012. Intended audience: Ages 1-4, Grades PreK-K.

I’m glad more books from the Rainbow Fish series are making their way to America. This is another book about a parent reassuring their little one of their eternal love, much like Nancy Tillman’s Wherever You Are, My Love Will Find You because in this the Rainbow Fish does not doubt his mother’s love because of things that he will do, but doubts that she will be there for him when bad things happen. These are all very watery things: being carried away by the tide, being caught in the tentacles of a jellyfish, but all of these are translatable enough to the world above. The story is framed as a bedtime story, with Rainbow Fish being unable to sleep for his fears. The story features the same shining scales that I loved as a child, and this being a story of Rainbow Fish as a child, he still has all his shining scales so there’s a lot of shimmer on each page. Being a toddler book, this book is much shorter than its parent story, The Rainbow Fish.

**** 

Older Audiences

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Daddy Honk Honk! by Rosalinde Bonnet. Dial-Penguin Random, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

This was introduced to me as a good book for adoptive families. A male Arctic fox, Aput, becomes parent to a goose when the egg hatches. He brings the newborn around to other families in the Arctic but none of them have room for another, though they bestow gifts and wisdom on the traveling pair. Ultimately, Aput accepts his role as “Daddy” and the Arctic shows up to throw the new family a party in celebration. It is refreshing to see a book in an infrequently used environment with names appropriate to the area. There are some similarities to be made to Ryan T. HigginsMother Bruce franchise, but this book has more in the way of useful parenting advice and focuses more on the love that the fox develops for its adopted goose than on humorous situations that arise from the adoption.

****

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

The Pout-Pout Fish by Deborah Diesen and illustrated by Dan Hanna. Farrar, Straus, Giroux-MacMillan, 2008. Intended audience: Ages 3-6.

The repetition of “I’m a pout-pout fish with a pout-pout face so I spread the dreary-wearies all over the place. Blub, Blub, Blub” gets to be a little much pretty quickly, though it’s fun to see how glum you can make the refrain sound—and oh my! does it stick in your head! The whole of the book is told in rhyming lines. Fish of the sea approach the Pout-Pout Fish and tell him that he should smile, but it takes one fish from another part coming to him and kissing his face to cheer him up and to turn him into a “kiss-kiss fish” too. The two end up kissing one another on the lips at the end, though every other kiss, including the one that first cheers him up first, seem more platonic. There is some danger in normalizing kissing as a greeting in our society. Though I hate that it is so, it seems remiss not to point out the potential danger, the ways this book and that concept could be used nefariously.  All of the kissing is likely only meant create an excuse for a parent reading to kiss their child.  Maybe because I read to children not my own, I see the danger in extending these lessons beyond family.

But I’m not sure that I can approve either of using the Pout-Pout Fish’s melancholy as a point of humor or a point of contention, a negative trait in the story, because the Pout-Pout Fish’s permanent frown and glum demeanor seem like symptoms of depression to me.  The whole book seem examples of people reacting poorly to a character with depression–until the Kiss-Kiss Fish arrives.  Her response to his depression while more understanding and compassionate, sets a precedent for believing that depression can be cured by a kiss, which is again dangerous in its inaccuracy.

Basically, I wish this book had far less kissing and far better reactions to a melancholic and likely depressed fish, that it didn’t use his depression as both the story’s problem and its humor.

**

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

The Pout-Pout Fish Far, Far from Home by Deborah Diesen and illustrated by Dan Hanna. Farrar, Straus, Giroux-MacMillan, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 2-6.

Now cheered up, the Pout-Pout Fish is going on his first vacation. There’s a new mantra in this one: “I’m a fish who loves to travel. I’m a fish who loves to roam. And I’m having an adventure on my trip away from home!” The Pout-Pout Fish encounters several bumps on his trip but is always helped by locals who know the area. Despite its hiccups because of the help that he receives, that part of the adventure is fun. But he arrives at his destination to find that he forgot the creature (part-nightlight, part-stuffy, maybe a pet? Don’t look into that too carefully, I guess) that he sleeps with, and it seems that the vacation is ruined, but he decides to hold it “in his heart” though they’re apart and ends up having a fantastic vacation. And his creature is at home, waiting for him, when he gets back. This book covers several problems that a child could encounter while traveling—though some of the problems are more likely to be problems for adults than for children (detours, specifically)—and that makes it relevant. It fills a niche—two niches with the problem too of a missing sleep-buddy, which can happen while traveling but also at home.

****

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

Great, Now We’ve Got Barbarians! by Jason Carter Eaton and illustrated by Mark Fearing. Candlewick, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, PreK-3.

Mom’s upset because of the mess that her little boy leaves in the house, particularly food mess. She complains that they will get pests. But they don’t get ants or flies or mice. They get Vlad, a hulking, Viking-like man who demands an entire cupcake. Mom quickly puts him out, but then comes Torr, “seeking glory and cheese curls.” More and more barbarians invade the house. There is a page that shames men who wear make-up, which isn’t cool, Eaton. Otherwise, this is a funny story with funny illustrations and a good message about cleaning up after oneself. I wonder if this story was born of someone mentioning a pest invasion, and Eaton thinking about what else is known for invasion. Faced with having to move to escape the infestation (perhaps calling an exterminator was a little un-cool too, Eaton; the metaphor can only extend so far, and that might’ve been a step over the line; barbarians are human, and humans shouldn’t be exterminated), the little boy cleans the house, and the barbarians sulk away.

***

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

Cinnamon by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Divya Srinivasan. HarperCollins, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

I was really excited when I saw the beautiful cover of this book, harkening to Indian art and featuring Neil Gaiman’s name, guaranteeing it more press and a wider audience. This text was previously released in 2004 as an audio of a short story as part of The Neil Gaiman Audio Collection. That the text was not originally intended for a picture book unfortunately shows; it’s longer than your average picture book and seems to have been written for an older audience, both from the syntax and the content, which is at times grim (Grimm). Its phrases do some of the work of conjuring the image which is less necessary in text intended for a picture book.  The text is beautiful though with many excellent lines. It’s a Beauty and the Beast story in the end, with the young girl, who had nothing to say so never spoke, learning to speak and to love the speaking tiger that moves like a god, and going with him to the jungle to further her education. This is a beautiful story, the illustrations are beautiful, but it is a picture book for an older audience.

****

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

Curious George Cleans Up / Jorge el curioso limpia el reguero by Stephen Krensky and adapted from the world of H. A. Rey. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007. Intended audience: Grade PreK-3.

This is another bilingual book from which I read only the English to my story time audience. George and the Man with the Yellow Hat get a new rug. George spills a glass of grape juice on the rug, and he tries to clean it up with paper towels, then many types of soap and a garden hose. He does manage to clean up the spill then most of the water too. This is mostly a silly story. You could laud George for acting responsibly and trying to clean up his mess, but there’s a lesson here too to be made about knowing when to go to grown-up for help; I know few grown-ups who would be glad to walk into a waterlogged house, even if it did take care of a juice stain on a new rug.

***

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

Rulers of the Playground by Joseph Kuefler. Balzer + Bray-HarperCollins, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Jonah proclaims himself king of the playground. His tendency to make demands and keep an unfair portion for himself makes Lennox angry, and she declares herself queen and claims the swings. She makes demands too and is impatient for her turn on the swings. The two monarchs compete against one another for more and more land. Their friends abandon the two rulers because of their competition. Realizing that they’ve chased everyone away, they give away their power and share the playground with everyone. With a diverse cast of characters, this story provides a good lesson about sharing and about making demands on others’ time and on public places, though it seems that Augustine and Sir Humphrey Hamilton Hildebrand III don’t learn the lesson well.

***

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

Blue Sky White Stars by Sarvinder Naberhaus and illustrated by Kadir Nelson. Dial-Penguin Random, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

With little text, this is a visual stunner (as much of Kadir Nelson’s work is). The illustrations and text compare aspects of the American flag to moments in American history and places in the American imagination. The blue background and white stars become the night sky above the Statue of Liberty. The red and white stripes becomes maples in fall and lines of covered wagons heading West. Timely, needed, this book pays tribute to those who tried to make America great and the diversity and persistent striving towards equality that make America great now.

*****

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

If You Ever Want to Bring a Circus to the Library, Don’t! by Elise Parsley. Little, Brown-Hachette, 2017.

Magnolia’s back and this time she wants to hold a circus in the library, to the chagrin of the librarians. There’s a tongue and cheek reference to writing clear advertisements. A sign that says “You can do anything at the library!” doesn’t mean you can hold a circus there or cheer or clap or boo or hand out concessions; it means you can sit and read a book. This is a fun way to go over library rules.

***

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

You Can’t Win Them All, Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister. NorthSouth-Simon & Schuster, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

This book is set after the original Rainbow Fish; every fish but Red Fin, a newcomer, has one of the shiny scales that were originally Rainbow Fish’s.  Rainbow Fish and his sparkling friends are playing hide-and-seek, but Rainbow Fish isn’t winning, and he decides to quit and sulk away. Red Fin comes to him, and with her help, Rainbow Fish realizes that his sore losing has spoiled the game for his friends. He apologizes and continues the game.  This is an important lesson for young ones.

***

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

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. HarperCollins, 2012. First published 1963. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Believe it or not, this was my first time reading this story, at least that I remember. I was surprised that it went over so well with my young audience (newly three years old). It’s a short story, perfect for shorter attention spans. This is a dream (nightmare?) story. Sent to bed with no supper after causing mischief in the house and telling his mother that he’d eat her up, Max is having fun as the king of the Wild Things until he misses his mother and her love, and he goes home to find his supper waiting for him in his room. There’s some beautiful language in the prose, and while there’s some internal rhyme, it doesn’t rely on that rhyme to keep the story moving.

*****

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

Shorty & Clem by Michael Slack. HarperCollins, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Like Elephant and Piggie, this is a story of two friends who know one another very well. A package arrives for Clem while Clem is away, and Shorty has to know what’s inside of it. Knowing that he shouldn’t open Clem’s mail, Shorty shakes and jumps and beats on the box until it opens. He thinks Clem will be upset, but when Clem gets back, he explains that it was a gift for Shorty and that he knew that Shorty would be unable to resist opening it. Reviewers on Goodreads are calling Clem’s behavior manipulative–and maybe I can see that view–but I know that I too try to guess what’s in a friend’s package when I see one arrive at the door.  Mostly I was pleased that Clem wasn’t upset with Shorty, that he accepted and expected his friend’s shortcoming.

****

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 Review: The Importance of The Hate U Give

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Click to visit EpicReads for links to order, summary, video, discussion guide, reviews, and author's bio.

This review is based off of an ARC of The Hate U Give.

I’ve officially lost count of the books that have made me cry but remain fairly sure that those books could still be counted without my needing any toes—possibly without my needing two hands.  This book has earned itself a finger in the count. By page 66, there was a large tear stain on my pillow. I flew through this book in six days (admittedly, the last three days that I was reading it, I could do little but lie still, having a recently acquired broken arm).

This book is important. It’s important now. It’s going to be important later. The rise of cell phones with video capability has increased public awareness of police violence. Despite civilian videos and despite body cameras and dashboard cameras for police, police are rarely convicted of murder or even manslaughter, and most often those killed are African Americans. This disparity between known and seen violence and convictions has led to many protests in city streets across America. Several have been large enough to have captured media attention and live as bywords. Ferguson. Following the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, unarmed and fleeing an altercation with Officer Wilson when he was fatally shot, protests took place, each over the course of several days, from August 2014 to August 2016. In September 2016, North Carolina’s governor declared a state of emergency as violence escalated between police and those protesting the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott near his parked car.

The events following the shooting of the fictional Khalil Harris follow a too familiar pattern, one I recognize from having witnessed—albeit via mass and social media coverage and never directly—the aftermath of shootings like Michael Brown’s and Keith Scott’s.

I hope one day that these events become history, that each new generation, each year, every few months won’t have another name to remember, and that this book can become a reminder of a time passed. This book will be important then.

For now, though, events like those in the book are too common. This book now serves not as a reminder of how black people were treated, but a reminder of how they are treated. It stands as a document, more easily accessible than strings of news reports, more tangible perhaps because it can be kept on display on a shelf. And it’s a deeply personal story, told from the perspective of a witness to police brutality, someone in the car at the time of a shooting, a witness to the suffering and resiliency and community of a poor, primarily black neighborhood, a member of that community. The book delves more personally into the feelings behind the protests, behind the frustrations and the anger, than any news article could do, and more personally into the everyday life of someone living within an affected community than most news articles bother to try to do.

Starr Carter is both insider and outside observer of this community. She lives in a neighborhood where rival gangs rage war but travels to a private prep school, where she is one of only a very few African American students. She sees and hears the concerns of the community where she lives, and she sees firsthand the reactions of her primarily white schoolmates. Because she is privy to both reactions, the novel can confront more issues than it could do if only one side was given space. Readers see from Starr’s perspective the hurtful, blasé reaction of white classmates who walk out of classes as protest—but as much to get out of class than out of rage. Readers see from Starr’s perspective the hurt of a community that feels like the system is designed against them and the hurt caused by the effects of that system.

Importantly too, this is a story about a movement, about a system, but it shows the humanity, the everyday experiences of its characters: boyfriends, fights, friendships, Twitter, Tumblr, watching TV together with family, playing video games.  There are a wealth of–not a token (or several token)–characters who are people of color.  There are strong, three-dimensional characters with individual and interwoven histories, strengths and flaws, doubts and convictions.  That in its way is just as important as its content.

The novel is told in a very casual, modern voice. It was at first a little jarring to me. The story opens on a crowded party in Starr’s neighborhood. Some of the slang and syntax was unfamiliar to me, but within a few pages, I was inside of Starr’s head and inside of the action of the story, and once I was inside I no longer was bothered by the casual tone of the novel. I urge anyone who picks up this book to stick with the novel for at least two chapters before deciding to put it down, and preferably to give it three chapters (which brings the reader to a round 50 pages).

*****

Thomas, Angie. The Hate U Give. New York: Balzer + Bray-HarperCollins, 2017.

This review is not endorsed by Angie Thomas, Balzer + Bray, or HarperCollins Publishers.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: Pacing Keeps A Darker Shade of Magic Shy of Five Stars

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Click to visit a really cool website by the publisher with links to order, reviews, an excerpt, trailer, quiz, playlist, information about the Londons, and more.

V. E. (Victoria) Schwab is an author recommended to me by several friends in several groups, someone who has come across my radar independently as well with her intriguing blurbs, and someone whom Rick Riordan has reviewed well. Entering her worlds was nearly inevitable, but this was my first foray into her stories. In the Shades of Magic series, four parallel worlds meet in London, and Kell, one of the last Antari, can travel across the parallel worlds via blood magic. Magic in these worlds is an entity of itself, one Kell sees as a friend and partner and one that Holland, another of the last Antari and a citizen of hungry White London, sees as an entity to be subjugated.

Some spoilers. Proceed with caution.

Having unwittingly smuggled a dangerous artifact out of White London, Kell plunges out of an attack in Red London to Grey London, where he crashes into Lila, who does what she does best. I was annoyed that our two protagonists, Kell and Lila Bard, a wanted, masked thief from Grey London—our London—don’t meet until the 130th page. Each is enjoyable company individually, and I happily would have spent a full novel with either one, but I was sure (and correct) that the plot would pick up pace when the thief and the smuggler met.

There’s much to love in A Darker Shade of Magic: a unique and intriguing and well-explained magic and worlds, political strife, and several enjoyable characters—not only Kell, powerfully magical but caught between being an adopted prince and a slave to the royal family; but also Lila, who wants to be a pirate captain, who plays at being selfish but who hides a good heart that sometimes gets the better of her and gets her in trouble; Rhy, the trusting, charming, and flirtatious prince; and Holland, whose story is tragic but who is callous enough to almost erase the pity that I want to feel for him—really, in White London almost everyone is tragic and callous both.

What drags off of the five-star pedestal for me is the pacing. I’ve already said that I thought the plot was off to a slow start. While I enjoyed the world-building, and I enjoyed getting to know the protagonists individually, on the whole it reads as if Schwab was more interested in the world-building than the plot, that the plot was more of an afterthought. And when the plot came, it seemed hurried. I thought we might spend a book in each London, a trilogy transporting the artifact from Grey to Red to White to Black London. We did not. The whole of the plot that I thought was coming happened in this one book; the artifact was taken safely out of play and those who had sought to use it and sought to sew chaos with it were defeated. Because I didn’t have the buildup that I expected for it, the whole of the final battle and arguably the whole last third or so of the book where the protagonists were discovering why they had come into contact with this artifact at all seemed more anticlimactic than I expect it was meant to be; it seemed rushed and I wasn’t allowed to savor its twists and turns as I might have wanted to do.

For all that, the plot seems to have been wrapped up well. I see a few ghosts that might come back to haunt the protagonists, but I wouldn’t have given them much thought, save that I know that there are three books. I have very little idea what might be in store for the next two books, no real idea of what other big bads there might be to fight.

I am willing to give Schwab I think at least a second book. There’s enough to like, and enough I’d still like to learn about the worlds and their magic and their histories. And I want to see Lila become the pirate queen that she deserves to be—and I think that she will be.

****

Schwab, V. E. Shades of Magic, Book 1: A Darker Shade of Magic. New York: Tor-Tom Doherty-MacMillan, 2015.

This review is not endorsed by V. E. Schwab, Tor, Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, or MacMillan.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Reviews: May 2017 Picture Book Roundup

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Sequels and Series

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

The Berenstain Bears: Faith Gets Us Through by Stan, Jan, and Mike Berenstain. Zonderkidz-Zondervan, 2012. Intended audience: Grades PreK-2.

One day for story time, I had just the two kids, regulars of mine. We finished the stories that I’d picked out for them, but we still had time, and they were still interested, so I had them pick out stories. They picked two, we read those, there was still time, so I had them pick out one more. The younger sister let her older brother choose, and this is what he brought back. Reading an overtly religious story in a public setting to children that I don’t know all that well and that I’m not directly responsible for made me uncomfortable—even though I consider myself Christian and religious—but I wasn’t going to disappoint or disapprove of any story that they chose. One of the bear cubs in this story—a side character, Scout Fred, not one of the well-known Berenstain family members—quotes Bible verses about faith and fear and God’s constancy. Even though he begins his quotes with “As the Bible says,” not giving book and verse, those Bible verses were as clunky in text as they often are in real-world conversations. The story, though, is exciting. Papa Bear leads the bear cubs into a cave. It looks frightening, but Papa Bear knows all about caves and God will protect them (some of the facts about caves, about stalactites and stalagmites were also clunky). They all fall into an underground river, but are carried out a chute and safely fall into a pool outside of the cave, protected by God, of course. Honestly, if there weren’t such emphasis on the didactic aspects of this story, I think I would have really enjoyed it. Without its Biblical quotes, it’s a story of an overly confident adult who think that he knows it all and doesn’t listen to the misgivings of the children in his charge, putting everyone in danger, though ultimately it all turns out all right.

***

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

Pete the Cat and the Cool Cat Boogie by Kimberly and James Dean. HarperCollins, 2017. Intended audiences: Ages 4-8.

Poor Pete just wants to dance, but his friends don’t think that he’s doing it right, and when they try to teach him, he steps on Squirrel’s toes and hits Gus on the nose. Pete is determined to get it right, so he keeps trying. Wise Old Owl swoops in as he has been doing lately in Pete books and saves the day: “It doesn’t matter how you move, as long as you are being you.” Those words solve every problem of the book. Each friend dances however they like to move. The whole story is told in rhyme and words like “groovy” sneak into the book to give it that ‘70s flair that is fairly unique to the Pete books. There is far less to this story, though, than there was to, say, His Four Groovy Buttons or I Love My White Shoes or the more recent Missing Cupcakes, a didactic message, yes, but not an educational one, not a primer’s lesson. Even so, adding another book to the repertoire of dance-along books is always valuable for rambunctious little ones.

***

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

Be Quiet! by Ryan T. Higgins. Hyperion-Disney, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

This is one of my new favorites. I’ve spoken before several times about how much I love books that demolish the fourth wall and how much I love when anything plays with its form. This is one of those books. The business-savvy mice from Hotel Bruce return. Rupert, the most serious of the mice, is given his own book. He is going to make it a wordless picture book because they are “very artistic.” It goes all right when Rupert is alone. He can explain his premise, give the book its title, and say that it will have no words “starting NOW.” But his wordless book is quickly interrupted by his friends, Thistle then Nibbs, who want to help. Only, he has talk to explain to them why they can’t talk. They have to talk about not talking. And then Thistle and Nibbs have ideas about what type of illustrations and characters and plot this wordless book should have—and of course they have to talk to share their ideas. The illustrations change to keep up with their suggestions and their misinterpretations of each other’s ideas and Rupert’s erudite complaints, getting further and further away from Rupert’s original ideas, I’m sure. Those erudite complaints offer quick vocabulary lessons too. Poor Rupert spends a lot of this book telling the others to be quiet—until he is ultimately shushed when he complains that his book is ruined (this page reminded me very much of the clever format of Jon Scieszka’s The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales).

*****

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

Jorge el curioso huellas de dinosaurio / Curious George: Dinosaur Tracks by CGTV based on characters by H. A. Rey. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011.

Based on the new world of Curious George as established in the television series, while out in the country, George takes his camera and photographs wild animals and their tracks for his collection. While searching for a fawn seen by his friend Bill, he finds a strange set of tracks and decides that they were made by a dinosaur with big feet with pointed toes and a dragging tail. Though at first excited, he does some research and realizes that some dinosaurs are dangerous. It’s near Bill’s house. Bill could be in trouble! There’s a nice bit of information here too, some of which is delivered dryly in the form of an info dump but most of which is conveyed gently through the illustrations. There’s also a well-constructed story with foreshadowing and a mystery with clues that a careful reader could follow. For a level 1 reader, this is a fabulous story. I read only the English in this book. English and Spanish text were on the same page.

****

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

Dragons Love Taco 2: The Sequel by Adam Rubin and illustrated by Daniel Salmieri. Dial-Penguin Random, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

This sequel to Dragons Love Tacos opens on the same white, male protagonist and his dog surrounded by weeping dragons. Why? Because The New York Times declares NO MORE TACOS.   And dragons love tacos. So the boy fires up the time machine in his garage and with his dog and a few dragon friends travels back in time to the taco party of the previous book—but before the dragons ate the tacos with the spicy salsa. Unfortunately the first few times, they are too late, and the time machine keeps getting burnt in the inferno resulting from the dragons’ encounter with spicy tacos. When trying to tune up the machine, the protagonist mistakes extra spicy salsa for engine oil because he still hasn’t learnt to read the label first. Time machines have a bit of different reaction than do dragons but equally negative reaction to salsa. The past gets strange. But finally, the boy and his dragons escape from the past with some tacos, and they are able to plant one to grow into a tree and replenish the world’s taco stores. This is a fun story: ridiculous but with a problem big enough to drive the plot with some force. This book relies on its prequel more so than most sequels. I can see that as negative in that it requires prior knowledge or access to the prequel; this book doesn’t work well as a standalone. My initial thought though was that this book could be used in a classroom setting to explain book series versus books in a series; fewer picture books are book in a series. In fact, I’m almost not sure that I can think of another example. Particularly in the first few pages, the illustrations are particularly clever. Be sure to read especially the The New York Times article “Congress Deadlocked on Taco Issue;” as an adult, that one I found particularly funny.

****

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

Ellie in Concert by Mike Wu. Hyperion-Disney, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

The cacophony of the other animals’ noises is keeping Lucy the giraffe from being able to sleep. Ellie is concerned for her friend. Inspired by the bird’s lullaby to her chicks, Ellie conducts the animals’ noises so that they become a lullaby too. This is a great way to incorporate an animal primer into a book with plot, and like the first book celebrates art, this celebrates music. Included are two tunes, proving Mike Wu to be a talented Renaissance man.

***

New Friends

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Samson: The Piranha Who Went to Dinner by Tadgh Bentley. Balzer + Bray-HaperCollins, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Tadgh Bentley won my heart with his book, Little Penguin Gets the Hiccups, and won another piece of it when a couple told me that he is a lovely man to talk to as well as having written a wonderful book. Samson is his second. Samson is a piranha with a refined palate. He may even be a foodie. He wants to go to fancy restaurants and try exquisite dishes, but the other piranhas are not interested, and the patrons and employees of those fine restaurants are off-put by his being a piranha with sharp teeth and a cannibalistic reputation. Samson’s disguises aren’t enough to get him service at any of those fine restaurants because they always slip enough to reveal him to be a piranha. At the last restaurant though, not every fish leaves; some are there in disguise too. Samson opens his own restaurant, to cater to those excluded from other establishments based on their appearance—and those with privilege who begin to come in disguise to his restaurant. Where Little Penguin Gets the Hiccups was a truly funny story, made more funny because the reader should fake hiccups through the whole of the text, this is a serious social commentary—masked in a funny tale of a fish. But a fish from whom others run and whom they stereotype, and who can’t get service at a restaurant because of his appearance is not a funny tale; this is a good introduction to how it feels to be discriminated against, how one shouldn’t judge a person—or fish—on their appearance or on the stories told about a group of which that individual is a part. Seeing it as social commentary, I’m not sure how I feel about the privileged fish masking themselves as underprivileged fish, but I’m choosing to perhaps not carry the metaphor as far as it could be taken; it probably isn’t meant to be taken that far, but I recognize where the metaphor could become problematic.

****

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, sample audio, book trailer, pancake recipe and activity kit, and author's and illustrator's bios.

Little Ree by Ree Drummond and illustrated by Jacqueline Rogers. HarperCollins, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

In what I assume is an autobiographical story, Little Ree moves with her family from the city to her grandparents’ farm. She’s really excited, but country life isn’t what she is expecting. She has to get up early. Her bedroom is plain. The night is dark, and there are scary sounds outside. She is given a horse, but the horse doesn’t do what she wants. The illustrations are precious, and the story is told with a very realistic child’s voice. The whole of her story is told from her monologue addressed both to the audience and to the characters without any dialogue tags or narration. Little Ree is talkative enough that the story remains even apart from the illustrations. Little Ree reminds me a bit of Fancy Nancy and Eloise with her precociousness and clothes horse-ish-ness.

****

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

A Trip to Busy Town by Sally Hopgood and illustrated by Steph Hinton. Pull-the-Tab-Top That, 2014. Intended audience: Ages 3+.

This board book has some very fun, sturdy pull-tabs that creatively make use of the space with illustrations on both sides of the tab and answers to the text’s questions on the tab, revealed only when its extended. Be sure not to push the tab back in before turning the page as both sides are illustrated and the illustration on the back side of the tab extends the next page’s illustration. Told all in a rhyme, with text that asks questions of the reader, animal friends journey from the country, past various transport vehicles and machines, to arrive at the airport to pick up one more friend on the tarmac. I was really quite pleasantly surprised by the quality of this board book, the complexity of the text and illustrations. It can be found in Barnes & Noble’s bargain section.

****

Click to visit the author's page for links to order, summary, sample illustrations, reviews, trailer, teachers' resources, and activity kit.

Green Pants by Kenneth Kraegal. Candlewick, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 3-7, Grades PreK-2. 

Jameson feels invincible in his green pants. He can do anything in them. He is excited to be in his cousin’s wedding, but there is one caveat: He must wear a tuxedo—with black pants. It’s a wonderfully universal childhood problem: having to dress a certain way, to give up wearing what you want, to give up wearing your favorite piece of clothing to be able to do something that you want to do (arguably that’s an adult problem too). He has to choose between being in his cousin’s wedding and wearing his green pants. Ultimately, he decides to choose his cousin, but the moment that his duties are through, off come the black pants, and beneath he wears his green pants—so much better for cutting loose on the dance floor. The entirety of the cast is Black in a story that has nothing to do with race and everything to do with childhood, family, and societal expectations and mores.

****

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

Moo Moo in a Tutu by Tim Miller. Balzer + Bray-HarperCollins, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Moo Moo has a lot of ideas, but this is the best idea in the whole world! She’s going to be a ballerina. Moo Moo is ever optimistic and Mr. Quackers is forever supportive. They’re a wonderfully fun new set of friends. The whole of the story is told entirely in speech bubbles and illustrations. After a rocky start, Moo Moo quickly decides that she is ready to share her talent with the world, and she gets onto stage at the ballet. Her reception is not very warm from anyone but Mr. Quackers, and she as quickly as she decided to become a ballerina decides to retire while at the top of her game.

****

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

Danny McGee Drinks the Sea by Andy Stanton and illustrated by Neal Layton. Schwartz & Wade-Penguin Random, 2017.

Boastful Danny McGee says that he can drink the sea, and in the way that siblings will, his sister disagrees, and Danny sets out to prove her wrong. And he does. And then he proceeds to eat everything in a stampede of quick rhymes in a Seussian lilt. At the end of the book, there’s nothing but himself and his sister on a blank, white page, and Danny McGee thinks that he’s proved his sister wrong, but there’s one thing that Danny hasn’t eaten—and she eats him. The combination of rhyme and rhythm and the sibling interaction that I think will seem very familiar to most siblings might make this a book popular with the children. Frankly, I was a little off-put by the lack of comeuppance for Frannie and that she seems to scheme to let Danny eat everything only so that she can show him up and eat him. I know I’m reading too deeply into the story that is meant probably just to make kids laugh, but it seems like her gluttony, her violence against her brother is pardoned because he’s a younger brother and because she is patient and because he did wrong first. I don’t know why her patience seems so conniving to me—maybe it’s the violence described in a singsong rhyme—but it does.

***

Books That Aren’t So Much About a Character

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

Books That Drive Kids CRAZY!: Did You Take the B from My _ook? by Beck and Matt Stanton. Little, Brown-Hachette, 2017.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

This was an excellent book for those beginning to read. It was good for a small story time audience (I had only 2 children). The book’s text puts underscores in place of Bs and so the kids had the chance to sound out the words with the simple illustrations to prompt them. The mystery (and it was really only a mystery to the younger of my two audience members) of what the text said was more intriguing than the plot—the plot, such as it was. There was silliness, but maybe not much of a story. The plot is that the reader has caught some malady that prevents her from saying the letter B, so the reader comes up with a tongue twister filled with Bs to see if she can say the letter. And she can’t until the very end. That’s where the interaction with my story time audience came in: “It sounds wrong when I read this page. Can you still read this page like it should be read? Can you tell me what’s happening in the picture?”

****

Click to visit the illustrator's page for links to order and sample illustrations.

Baby’s Big World: Music by Rob Delgaudio and illustrated by Hilli Kushnir. BoriBoricha, 2017. 

This book is more a concept book than a story. It’s an informational board book that asks what music is and describes the way that notes stand for particular sounds that help to make music, and it asks what music you (the child listening to or reading the book) will make. The characters are all round-faced children and toddlers but those characters are of every gender and race, each handled with attention to detail, and each character unique.

***

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 Review: The Search: One Long-Awaited Answer Tangled in Many Threads

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This link will take you to the hardcover collection of all three parts of this trilogy.

Some minor spoilers ahead.

After the close of the television show, the team responsible for Avatar: The Last Airbender and a few fans (Gene Luen Yang of American Born Chinese among them) began a series of comics that follow Team Avatar beyond the television show and help to bridge the 70 year gap between Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra. There are currently five trilogies: The Promise, The Search, The Rift, Smoke and Shadow, and North and South. The television series ends with Zuko’s agonized and angry question “Where is my mother?” This second trilogy sets out to answer that question.

Finding graphic novels that appeal to and are appropriate for younger audiences can be difficult (though hopefully getting easier as we booksellers realize the demand and make concerted efforts to point out and to stock graphic novels for children). These are shelved with the adult graphic novels in Barnes & Noble, but there is nothing in these first two trilogies at least that is any more adult than what is in the television series, even though in The Search there are family dramas, madness, and politics. Often, I don’t think we give kids enough credit.  Really I think these stories have more appeal for the 7-17 age range than they do for most adults—at least than for those adults not already familiar with the television series and invested in the characters and the world.

This particular trilogy deals more with the personal stories of the characters than the larger world-building of The Promise.

Four years back now, I read the first part of this trilogy and was apparently impressed. It’s only now that I’ve gone back and read the three parts together (over the course of eight days).

The Search does quite a bit of bouncing backwards and forwards in time. The past plotlines are done in more of a monochrome (red for those that happen within the Fire Nation and blue for those that happen among the Water Tribe). Still, bouncing between the past and the present was distracting.

I see why doing so was if not necessary then certainly expedient, but I would have preferred I think to have one or several longer periods of backstory (some scenes in the present were 4 or so pages) than so many often abruptly interrupted storylines. I would have been quite happy spending two parts of this trilogy learning Ursa’s story and only one part having Zuko discover it and reconnect with his mother. I wonder if the creators underestimated the level of investment that fans would have in Ursa’s story separate from that of Team Avatar—which would frankly surprise me; they set us up for this level of interest, and surely this story was told partially in answer to scads of fans asking the same question that Zuko had done because Zuko had done.

I actually think that this story may suffer from too many storylines. Exciting as they all are individually, especially with the jumps between times, it was a lot to keep track of: Zuko’s quest with Team Avatar plus his sister, Azula’s madness, the letter given to Azula by Ozai that raises questions about the Fire Lord line of succession, then Ursa’s first lover and childhood home, her marriage and subterfuge and exile, her second marriage and new life, plus the story of Water Tribe siblings living in a haunted forest in the Fire Nation to try to find a spirit who can give new faces but tangling with its massive Wolf Spirit pet instead. The theme of reuniting families and restoring old lives runs through all, but in 228 pages of comic it’s all too much. In a 500 page novel, absolutely, but this isn’t a 500 page novel.

Now, all that said, I do want it noted that I read these online, and the format was a scrolling one rather than a facing page layout. That perhaps made some difference.

***

Yang, Gene Luen and Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Search: Parts 1-3. Ed. Dave Marshall. Illus. Gurihiru. Dark Horse, 2013.

This review is not endorsed by Gene Luen Yang, Michael Dante DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko, Gurihiru, Dark Horse Comics, or anyone involved with the graphic novel series or the television series. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: We Need to Talk About Alex Fierro and Magnus Chase

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

We need to talk about Alex. And we need to talk about the Magnus Chase fandom.

Having enjoyed the first audiobook in this series, I found the second too. This second book is narrated by Kieran Culkin. I didn’t love the voices that Culkin did for these characters as much as I loved Guetig’s, but I found his Magnus more palatable, so I was not displeased. Of the voices that Culkin does for the characters, Blitz’s is most memorable. He has a strong accent that actually sounded more like a Brooklyn accent than a Boston accent to me, but Boston is a diverse city, and Blitz is from Nidavellir, so really he can have any accent that the narrator fancies and who can tell him that he’s wrong.

I went running to find the audiobook after the announcement that this book had won a Stonewall for 2017. The Stonewall Book Award is given to books that best relate the LGBT experience. Usually this award ends up going to books that could be qualified as issue books, books that set out with the primary intention of relating the LGBT experience. I would argue that that is not The Hammer of Thor’s primary intention. This book remains—as all of Rick Riordan’s middle grade novels have been—an action/adventure story, a quest, and a fantasy adventure, but Alex Fierro is gender-fluid, sometimes using he/him/his and sometimes she/her/hers. Alex’s experience as a central and primary character in the novel is highly visible, but the story is not wholly his/hers nor is his/her story the focus; preventing Loki from starting Ragnarok is the focus. I was impressed that any book that isn’t an issue book could win a Stonewall. I was going to probably eventually read this story anyway because I do very much enjoy Riordan’s adventures and they are perennial bestsellers that are easier to discuss with customers after I’ve read them, but my pleasure at this surprising win did push me to search harder for a copy to listen to.

Alex says openly to Magnus that he/she does not want his/her story to be taken as the story of every trans, queer, or gender-fluid person. I highlight that because I think it important to recognize that there are different experiences within the LGBTQIA+ community. Riordan explicitly uses Alex to represent but not to define the LGBTQIA+ experience.

The primary characters of the novel are all fairly accepting of Alex’s gender fluidity. The einherjar at large and several of the gods are less so. Alex like Magnus comes from a well-off family but has spent time on the streets.

The more time I spend on Pinterest and the more pins about Magnus Chase that I find the more that I fall in love with Magnus. Other fans (particularly I credit Tumblr user magnusglows for these revelations) have noticed some of his more loveable quirks, like his tendency to refer to friends as “his.”  The series has made a point of discussing found family. Magnus is wonderfully supportive and respectful of his friends’ choices and feelings, and its wonderfully heartwarming to have a hero who is no less heroic for being so and no less heroic for being associated with healing and sunlight.

The more time I spend with this series the more disappointed I am by the first two Percy Jackson movies and particularly Riordan’s reaction to those movies. The representation in this series is so important, and I want this story to reach as many people as possible, but I know that Riordan will probably never allow another film to be made. He seems more supportive of the Percy Jackson musical, though, so maybe there’s hope for a filmed staged version.

*****

Riordan, Rick. Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, Book 2: The Hammer of Thor. New York: Hyperion-Disney, 2016.

Riordan, Rick.  Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, Book 2: The Hammer of Thor.  2016.  Narr.  Kieran Culkin. Listening Library-Penguin Random, 2016.

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

Book Reviews: April 2017 Picture Book Roundup: Lessons, Playtime, and Older Stories Made New

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The Lessons Learnt

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

Raisin, the Littlest Cow by Miriam Busch and illustrated by Larry Day. Balzer + Bray-HarperCollins, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Raisin is the littlest cow in the herd and is nuzzled and cooed over by the other cows. She likes the color brown and movies and especially dislikes change. But change always comes. Her mother has another little cow, a little brother for Raisin, and Raisin does not like her little brother or that her little brother is now the one being cooed over and nuzzled and that the attention that he is garnering means that no one but Raisin remembers movie night, so no one is there to help her see over the fence. She helps herself, but the day keeps getting worse. There’s rain. There’s thunder. The movie is canceled, and her brother is wailing almost as loud as the thunder. Raisin and her brother bond over their mutual dislike of thunder and over his brown eyes, which are her favorite color. She makes him giggle by dripping on him then by showering him with a shaking her coat, calming him when no one else can do. I imagine this book would be helpful for a child dealing with jealousy of the attention given to a newborn sibling, to see their feelings validated, reflected. With humor snuck into the text and illustrations, the message, the promise that a new sibling can be a friend and not a reason to run away to Jupiter nevertheless seemed a little too prominent, a little heavy-handed. I’m not sure what made the message seem so heavy-handed, since Busch never stated her intention outright. Perhaps it’s simply that I’m not Busch’s target audience.

****

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

Dad and the Dinosaur by Gennifer Choldenko and illustrated by Dan Santat. G. P. Putnam & Son’s-Penguin Random, 2017.  Intended audience: Ages 5-8.

Gennifer Choldenko is probably best known for her middle-grade historical fiction novels, most notably perhaps her series that begins with Al Capone Does My Shirts. This picture book is about an active, sports-involved boy who is bolder in the presence of his toy dinosaur—the dinosaur very wonderfully illustrated by Santat, his translucent image truly imposing. Overall I liked the writing, but I disliked that the husband brushes off his wife by saying they are going out for “guy stuff” as the book nears its end. As a woman I felt like I was being cut out of the story. It was something I didn’t and don’t expect from another woman—though I know we can be as guilty of sexism against women as men can be. This seems particularly jarring after the mother has been so physically present throughout the book and the boy’s father so obviously absent, hearing about his activities after the fact from the mom. That too is why, though, the dad’s compassion, his acceptance of his son’s coping mechanism is so particularly touching. The lesson could have been far more heavy-handed than it is. The father could have chosen to be the “adult” and deny the boy’s need for his dinosaur. I’m glad that he did not, even as I’m glad that he does state baldly that it’s okay to be scared and that he too gets scared sometimes. Normalizing fear and normalizing coping mechanisms for fear are needed. Normalizing sexism and strict adherence to gender roles and stereotypes are some things that I would like to see less.

***

Interactive Books

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

Don’t Touch This Book! by Bill Cotter. Jabberwocky-Sourcebooks, 2016.

I had the great pleasure of having this book read to me during one of my twice-weekly story times. It’s a wonderfully interactive book—and I like it so much more than the previous book by Cotter, Don’t Touch the Button! Don’t Touch the Button! and Hervé Tullet’s books too ask the reader to interact with the page of the book. Don’t Touch This Book! begins that way. Larry (the protagonist) tells the reader not to touch the book, then allows the reader to use just one finger, then to use all their fingers when he appreciates the reaction of the book to the reader’s action. Quickly though this book asks the reader to do all manner of ridiculous things that many readers at story times ask of their listeners anyways that are more physical than merely pressing a particular spot on a page or shaking the book: flap your arms like the wings of a flying bird, roar like a dinosaur, spin around…. The readers’ acts precipitate the responses of the book. Roaring like a dinosaur causes a T-rex to appear on the following page. Flapping your arms causes the monster protagonist to sprout wings to be able to escape the T-rex. This will almost certainly join the repertoire of story time books that I keep in mind when I need to wear out my too rowdy crowd. It may supersede some of the others. I’m very glad my story time visitor chose this book to read to me.

*****

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

Dinosaur Dance! by Sandra Boynton. Little Simon-Simon & Schuster, 2016.  Intended audience: Ages 1-5.

This book is a simple dance-along book featuring dinosaurs. Each dinosaur—named primarily by species—does a particular step of a dance. T-rex goes STOMP STOMP STOMP, The red Brontosaurus goes QUIVERY QUAKE. There’s a little dinosaur no one can identify who both cha-chas and goes DEEDLY DEE. I appreciate that there is an animal that no one can identify, especially in what could be considered a primer; too infrequently are toddlers told that it’s okay not to know. Of course all of the text rhymes. I was reminded of Van Fleet’s recent book Dance, which sets itself apart with its pull tabs, though I think that I prefer the text here. There’s more sense in this that the reader is a caller than there is in Tony Mitton’s Dinosaurumpus! but not as much as can be found in Boynton’s better-known Barnyard Dance; Barnyard Dance has very much a square dance rhythm to it. For its more imaginative and open-ended dance moves, I may like this one even better than Barnyard Dance. Plus, dinosaur primers are harder to find than a barnyard primers, and this book is able to do more with color than does Barnyard Dance.

****

Retellings

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

We Are the Dinosaurs by Laurie Berkner and illustrated by Ben Clanton. Simon & Schuster 2017.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This book takes the text of Laurie Berkner’s song and adds more of a story to it with its illustrations and asides. I read the story before finding the song. The song talks about dinosaurs broadly. The picture book narrows the story a group of friends—different types of dinosaurs—who adventure towards the top of a volcano—and run away from the rumbling mountain and back to their parents to revel in their bravery and adventure. Ben Clanton’s bright, cartoony dinosaurs are memorable but I didn’t discern much personality from any of the dinosaurs, which was a bit disappointing.

***

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

The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors by Drew Daywalt and illustrated by Adam Rex. Balzer + Bray-HarperCollins, 2017. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Drew Daywalt gained his fame with The Day the Crayons Quit and The Day the Crayons Came Home, both done in conjunction with Oliver Jeffers. His latest book continues to focus on art supplies and children’s play. He invents a story behind the popular Rock, Paper, Scissors game. There are three great warriors from three different kingdoms around a home. Each has fought the warriors that exist in their own kingdoms, and none are satisfied with their competition or their victories. They each go on a quest for fulfillment and a meaningful victory—and discover joy in fighting one another. This story wasn’t beloved, it didn’t seem, of my audience for story time (in the interest of full-disclosure, my audience was three girls, and they were older, maybe 6-9; I suspect this book would go over better with the boys who come in looking for books on WWE and the ones who build guns out of Legos at our events; the whole plot of the book is battles and fighting and the dialogue is primarily traded boasts of one’s own prowess and colorful insults). I perhaps could have hammed up the text a little more than I did, but I did ham it up some. It’s hard not to do so when I’m provided lines like

rovlta9

and pages like

Paper became my favorite warrior for his bemused reactions to the aggressions of the other two in their first three-way battle and his frightful “fighting words”: “Hi there.” I greatly enjoyed that Daywalt chose to make Scissors a master swordswoman with painted-red lips. This could easily and in another decade likely would have been a book without any female representation. I enjoyed the dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets particularly too. What a nod to children’s play. But ultimately that I enjoyed it more than girls in the target age-range makes me like the book less.

***

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

Beauty and the Beast adapted by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Meg Park. Hyperion-Disney, 2017.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

I thought because this was marketed (at least by Barnes & Noble) with all of the books and merchandise for the new live-action Disney remake of its animated film by the same name that this story would follow the Disney story, but instead Rylant stayed nearer the Perrault version of the story and devoid of any talking furniture. Beauty (not Belle) is the youngest of three sisters and her father is a merchant whose fortune is lost at sea. Her older sisters when the father’s ships are recovered want emerald necklaces, but Beauty wants only a rose. On the way back to home from port, the father is caught in a storm and shelters in a castle that seems deserted except that a feast is laid out for him. On his way from the castle, he spots a rose in the garden and remembers his youngest’s wish. As payment for the rose, the Beast, master of the castle, demands the father’s enslavement but allows him to return first to his family to say goodbye. Beauty demands to go to the Beast in her father’s stead. The Beast gives Beauty endless days of leisure, fine clothes, wonderful food. He reads poetry to her by the fire at night. And every day he asks if she is happy. One day he asks her to marry him, and she refuses. The Beast accepts her answer. She returns to her father to care for him in illness, then returns when she dreams that the Beast is dying. Her realization that she loved the Beast restores him to his human form: a man with darker skin than Belle’s.

IMG_1107

Meg Park, who I’ve admired from a distance for some time for her softness, bright, jewel-like colors, and expressive characters, makes nods to the Disney cartoon in her illustrations: The Beast has the same basic shape, though he is perhaps more wolfish, Beauty’s design is close to Belle’s, though her hair is more auburn and her outfit more seafoam green than sky blue. Beauty’s horse is a palomino but not a Belgian Draft. In these ways and more she deliberately strays from the Disney retelling but harkens to it enough to highlight that both stories use Perrault as the basis for their tale.

I really enjoyed introducing young enthusiasts to a retelling nearer the Disney version.

*****

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.

Photos of the books’ interiors are all mine.  I borrowed the meme.

Book Review: Family is Central to A Place at the Table

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Click to visit the author's page for links to order, summary, excerpts, and reading guide.

This review includes a fairly detailed summary of the plot.  I leave the plot twist out though.

I’ve had an ARC of Susan Rebecca White’s book for years now. Sorry, Susan. But I’m glad that I waited this long to read it, because maybe I wouldn’t have appreciated it as much before I’d matured some more.

This is a heartbreaking story of pain and trauma, of otherness, of love and marriage and ultimately of survival, finding oneself, forgiveness, family, and accepting one’s roots and backstory.

This story follows three primary characters, whose lives all intersect over a cookbook and a shared love of food and a bright and cozy kitchen. It begins in 1929 in Emancipation Township, a black community in the rural, Jim Crow South. There we’re introduced to young siblings Alice and James Stone, close enough to believe that they are able to read one another’s thoughts. After refusing to play the meek black man, James is forced to flee North Carolina.

Leaving the Stones, we join Bobby Banks, a pastor’s son, white, probably upper-middle class, in 1970 Decatur, Georgia. His Meemaw lives in a neighborhood that is now mostly African American. He tries to befriend one of the neighborhood girls, but his brother’s racist language thwarts that. Later in 1977, he finds himself friends with a displaced Yankee, his equal on the track team. The two of them find themselves more than friends when alcohol, a late night, and a sleepover coincide, and Bobby begins a life in exile from his family, first with his Meemaw and later, in 1981, in New York City, where we stay with him through 1991. Bobby during his early years in New York finds himself working at the restaurant, a once-renowned haunt of writers and bohemians, where Alice Stone was once the well-known and –loved chef. He returns the restaurant to its gentrified-Southern roots and gains fame for himself. His time in New York coincides with the AIDS epidemic of the ‘80s, and he loses his lover and partner to the disease.

Alice’s editor and friend has a niece, Amelia, living in upper-middle class Connecticut. She marries a Southerner from Georgia, who as they begin their life as empty-nesters in 1990, turns emotionally abusive towards her. She struggles with her desire to make her marriage successful and the fear for her own safety.

Individually, each character’s story of hardship and survival is fascinating.

If I was not necessarily eager to return to this book between minutes I was able to read, neither did I want to stay away, with which as much heartache as was in the book and knowing that I tend to avoid reading about characters in deep pain, I think must mean that these characters were well-developed and compelling.

For all that Alice is the glue that holds these stories together (it’s Alice’s restaurant that takes in Bobby, and Alice’s editor’s niece), it’s Bobby with whom we spend the most time, and whose story is explored most fully. As the true tale unwinds, Bobby, though, seems the outside observer, and the story seems more fully Alice’s and Amelia’s and James’. That was a little jarring, but Alice, Amelia, and James’ story makes up in emotional wallop what it lacks in page count.

What all these characters share—apart from a love of good food and cooking—is an exile from family, a crumbling of the idyllic family, and a longing for the return to home (Alice’s cookbook is Homegrown). Alice’s family is broken when James is forced to flee, and James’ worldview is shattered when he realizes himself to be part-white before being forced to flee his home. Bobby is kicked out of his family home after he is discovered kissing a boy. On his grandmother’s advice, he like James before him, leaves the hostile South altogether for the rumored, liberal paradise of New York City. Amelia has never spent time in New York—her family never visited, though they were nearby—but when her own marriage falls apart and with her children out of the house, she finds herself seeking comfort from her aunt, who lives there. Alice and Bobby both cling to their Southern roots through the food that they eat and prepare for others, even as they make new lives for themselves in New York. Amelia discovers her own Southern roots.

None of the characters return to the South but each of them is awarded some measure of reconciliation with their families. So it seems that family is the root to which White argues that one should return and with which one must reconcile to be fully known to oneself.

***1/2

White, Susan Rebecca. A Place at the Table. New York: Touchstone-Simon & Schuster, 2013.

This review is not endorsed by Susan Rebecca White, Touchstone, or Simon & Schuster, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review of an ARC by a reader.

In the interest of full disclosure, Miss White is an alumna of the graduate program at my alma mater.