Category Archives: Review

Book Review: A Well Written, Realistic Tale in Awkward

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

I read Awkward to prep for an event for work, but it is one that has caught my eye before with its adorable leads, embarrassed it seems on the cover by the nearness of the other, and the later books, the next of which features a girl in a hijab (Akilah we learn in Awkward).

Peppi Torres manages to break Cardinal Rule #1 of surviving on the first day at her new school when she smacks into a boy in the hallway, causing a scene, and getting noticed by the bullies of the school. He shoves away the boy when he tries to help her, and almost immediately the guilt of doing so shreds her conscience. She knows that she ought to apologize to him, but she can’t seem to make herself do it; she is too embarrassed by what she has done and too afraid of his reaction to her.

Fate thrusts the two of them into an awkward alliance when he becomes her assigned science tutor. It seems for a moment that they might smooth over the awkwardness of their initial encounter, though still Peppi can’t force the apology out.

But then of course Peppi discovers that Jaime is in her art club’s rival science club, which makes talking to him outside of tutoring even more impossible.

The two clubs are competing for a table at the club fair, and the principal has said that the club that the school votes as having made the greatest contribution to the school will win the table. The rivalry, the pranks only escalate in the face of the competition.

The diversity in this novel is fantastic, not only racial diversity in Peppi Torres herself, the students in the clubs, and in the fantastically cool, African American science teacher, Miss Tobins; the diversity within the student body and clubs themselves, but also with the inclusion of Jaime’s mother, a successful artist who happens to use a wheelchair, at least one character who is differently-able. Chmakova has realistically peopled her middle school. I see many students and teachers that I have known in the ones at Berrybrook. Each character seems to have such dimension, even the ones whose names I know only from the character design gallery at the back of the book.

Peppi is a realistic role model. She may not always do the right thing, but she wants to do the right thing. She is a clever problem-solver, and that makes her a leader.

It is also really refreshing for a book to so honestly deal with a crumbling marriage and an emotionally abusive father. The book does not spend long on the situation, but it is good to see so stresses acknowledged and openly discussed on this level.

This is a book of lessons in being your best self, how to react in awkward situations: new schools, competitions that seem to prevent cooperation and stymie friendships, being asked by a friend to help them do something wrong and against the rules.

Ultimately, Peppi and Jaime, who become friends outside of school when they discover themselves to be neighbors, help the two clubs come together to complete a project that requires the talents of both groups, and their collaboration helps them face down the bullies that are the true enemy of them all.

I appreciated the absence of any romance in this novel.

This book uses a limited, pastel palette that is easy to read, soothing to look at.

This story is very well structured, using the title Awkward and the refrain situations defining “awkward” as “This.”  It encourages the exploration of several hobbies: art, cartooning, tinkering, science, and geocaching.

I enjoyed this time at Berrybrook, though here was nothing earth-shattering, no thrilling quest.  These were good characters to get to know.

****

Chmakova, Svetlana. Berrybrook Middle School, Book 1: Awkward.  JY-Yen, 2015.

Intended audience: Ages 8-12 per a comment by the author on Goodreads.

This review is not endorsed by Svetlana Chmakova, JY, or Yen Press. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Reviews: October 2019 Picture Book Roundup: Monsters, Monster Trucks, Female Icons, and Daniel Tiger

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

Elbow Grease vs. Motozilla by John Cena and illustrated by Howard McWilliam. Penguin Random, 2019. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

I didn’t enjoy this one as much as the first Elbow Grease, though I’m not sure that I could put my finger on why if you asked me to do; perhaps it just isn’t living up to my expectation now that I have a more favorable expectation for Cena’s books. In the first, Elbow Grease learned the worth of his personality and how to use his skills, and his brothers learned to respect Elbow Grease. Now Elbow Grease is craving some of the adulation that his brothers receive. He decides that they need to defeat the biggest, baddest new truck in the monster truck world, and he devises a plan for he and his brothers with the help of a contraption made by their female mechanic Mel to work together to take down the monster. I don’t know. The plot and the lessons both fell more flat in this one for me, though the length was better, shorter. I really do think that this is just a case of my expectations being too inflated from the success of the previous book.

***

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

No More Monsters Under Your Bed! by Jordan Chouteau and illustrated by Anat Even Or. JIMMY Patterson-Little, Brown-Hatchette, 2019.

This book relied too heavily on its gimmick—a patch that according to the tale turns you invisible to monsters—in much the same way that Santa’s Magic Key was an explanation of why a person was giving you a key or The Elf on the Shelf is an explanation of why someone wants to give you a creepy elf plush. It begins by introducing a boy who is scared of monsters and then describing all the different types of monsters that scare him. His parents give him a patch which when pressed turns him invisible to monsters, which erases his fear. Becoming bored without anyone to scare, the monsters move on, and the boy passes on his patch to another friend, who passes it to another, and so on, until it reaches the reader, I suppose, who gets the patch by buying the book. This isn’t really teaching a reason to not fear so much as it is preaching a belief in a token.  It is though I suppose a lesson in sharing tools that have helped you.

**

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

Juno Valentine and the Fantastic Fashion Adventure by Eva Chen and illustrated by Derek Desierto. Feiwel & Friends-Macmillan, 2019.  Intended audience: Ages 4-6.

I did I think like this one just a bit better than the first of Eva Chen’s books. Chen has changed the rules of her magical closet. Now, Juno does not become the women whose clothing she obtains but rather interacts with famous historical women, who gift her clothing and advice on her quest to capture her brother who has trespassed in the magical closet—and it isn’t until I am writing this now that I have to wonder about the implications of a boy intruding on a woman’s private space, a space held open for interactions with other women. Does his interaction with the space change the space and how? Certainly now the conversations that Juno has with the other women have become conversations about her brother, how Juno can catch up to her brother. It does pass the Bechdel test, though the conversations with named women are either about catching Finn or about Juno’s clothes. In her wanders through the closet, Juno gains not only the means to apprehend her brother but a unique outfit for school photo day, which earns her the title “Most Likely to Be Herself and No One Else,” a little ironic since she is quite literally borrowing the fashions of the others.  Her class is a diverse group that includes children of many hues, a child in a wheelchair, and a child wearing what appears to be a patka, a head covering for Sikh boys.  Her teacher, Miss Dahlia, is a black woman, a thing that is more rare in a picture book than you would expect and than it ought to be.  I read an ARC.  The book is out now.

**

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

Peek-a-Flap: Boo by Rosa Von Federer and illustrated by Gaby Zermeño. Cottage Door, 2017.  Intended audience: Ages 2+.

I was pleasantly surprised by this little board book which has suggestions for celebrating the Halloween holiday, labels to make it a primer, and facts about the holiday—a few of which even I did not know. I still love how sturdy these Cottage Door Press board books seem. Most other flaps are cardstock, but these are the layered cardboard that make up board book covers and pages. The illustrations are bright.  This is a Halloween book that is more about how humans celebrate with costumes and candy than centering any of the monsters.

****

Daniel Tiger

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

Big Enough to Help adapted by Becky Friedman and illustrated by Jason Fruchter. Simon Spotlight-Simon & Schuster, 2015.  Intended audience: Grades PreK-1, Ages 3-6.

Daniel isn’t big enough to do everything, but there are many things that he can do, and there are some things that he has to do be small to do, like play in his new playhouse. “Everyone is big enough to do something” is the refrain of this book.  Reading this aloud, I avoided the ending catchphrase, which is unfamiliar to me, and any singing (on all three of these).

***

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

Daniel’s First Fireworks adapted by Becky Friedman and illustrated by Jason Fruchter. Simon Spotlight-Simon & Schuster, 2016.  Intended audience: Grades PreK-2, Ages 3-7.

Daniel helps his little sister overcome her fear of the fireflies, which she has never seen, by holding her hand and showing no fear himself. She holds his hand as does his dad as the fireworks start, and they are louder than Daniel thought that they would be.  This is a sweet story about encountering new things and helping others experience new things that might be frightening.

***

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

Daniel Chooses to Be Kind adapted by Rachel Kalban and illustrated by Jason Fruchter. Simon Spotlight-Simon & Schuster, 2017.  Intended audience: Grades PreK-2, Ages 3-7.

Daniel asks King Friday what it is like to be king, and Friday declares him king for the day. He gives Daniel a list of things that he needs to bring to the castle at the end of the day. It’s never quite clear what King Friday intended to do with these items. After acquiring them, Daniel gives them all away in the course of the day to cheer up or help his friends. He never acquires replacements for the items that he gives away, which seemed a little odd honestly.  Though Daniel visits shops, he doesn’t seem to pay.  There’s seems to be some economy run on trade of services.  I really don’t remember much of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood anymore, and I have never seen Daniel’s Tiger’s Neighborhood.

***

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 Utopia of Lucille in Pet

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

This is a drawing I did for 2019’s Inktober challenge.

One brief, very vague spoiler in the review, one in the content warning at the bottom of the page, both marked with a SPOILER warning.

I fell pretty deeply in love with the world created by Akwaeke Emezi and with the town of Lucille within the first few pages. “It was the angels who took apart the prisons and the police; who held councils prosecuting the former officers who’d shot children and murdered people, sentencing them to restitution and rehabilitation. […] the angels banned firearms, not just because of the school shootings but also because of the kids who shot themselves and their families at home; the civilians who thought they could shoot people who didn’t look like them, just because they got mad or scared or whatever, and nothing would happen to them because the old law liked them better than the dead. The angels took the laws and changed them, tore down those horrible statues of rich men who’d owned people and fought to keep owning people. […] Instead they put up monuments. Some were statues of the dead, mostly the children whose hashtags had been turned into battle cries during the revolution. Others were [lists of names] of people who died when the hurricanes hit and the monsters wouldn’t evacuate the prisons or send aid, people who’d died when the monsters sent drones and bombs to their countries (because, as the angels pointed out, you shouldn’t use a nation as a basis to choose which deaths you mourn; nations aren’t even real), people who died because the monsters took away their health care […]” (1-3). Are you hooked yet? I was. Really, I didn’t even need to get to pages 3! This is the world remade as I have longed to see it. And Emezi was going to show me whether or not they believe it will work. They were going to let me live there for a little while.

It only got better and more inclusive from here on out.  This is a book that might make many feel seen.

We learn that the protagonist, Jam, is a transgender girl. Her only tantrum was when she let her parents know that she was a girl, and her wonderfully supportive parents helped her transition. Sometimes she finds it easier not to voice, so her parents taught her sign language, which they and her best friend Redemption, and her best friend’s uncle Hibiscus all learned to support her.

Redemption seems to live with his extended family, aunts and uncles and cousins along with his own immediate family of three parents, one of whom uses gender-neutral they/them pronouns, and a little brother. Redemption’s whole family is a rejection of the heteronormative family structure of one male and one female parent with their offspring living in a single-family house.

Jam’s father peppers his speech with Igbo, and the Igbo isn’t distinguished in any way from the English text, not italicized, not marked out as different.  The dishes that he cooks are inspired by recipes from Africa.

The local librarian uses a wheelchair and turns out to be a pretty amazing human, wonderfully fighting the good fight against censorship.

I love too that Jam and Redemption are oppositely gendered but never is there any mention of even niggling romantic feelings. Their relationship is wonderfully, beautifully platonic.

And that’s all just the human characters, the reality on this plane of existence! I haven’t even mentioned Pet, but I think maybe you should discover Pet for yourself. Pet is difficult to imagine, difficult to succinctly describe without spoilers. I have given you my attempt at a few character sketches of Pet though.

I think I might have loved Emezi’s world for itself, but Emezi’s writing is dazzling too. I have not so fallen in love with an author’s way of casting words so fast since I first discovered Maggie Stiefvater in April 2016 (and Patrick Rothfuss in May 2014 before that. Here are my new Big Three, though I probably ought to go read something else of Emezi’s before I include them in this lofty company).

This is a short little novel, only 208 pages. That was a welcome change from the 400+-page novels that I have lately been struggling to complete. It was a good feeling to finish something that was not a graphic novel or an audiobook, and something that I wasn’t reading at work’s suggestion. This is too I think a standalone novel, so there’s no commitment past those 208 pages.

I did foresee the twist—or one of the story’s twists. I did not like the story much less for having foreseen that twist though. Any other twist, I think, would have felt like a betrayal of the story’s inclusive cast or a betrayal of the rules of good fiction writing, so this was the best outcome available.

The town of Lucille is a beacon to me. It isn’t perfect. Its characters aren’t perfect; they are flawed as humans are. But it revolted against the oppressive and cruel world. It became better, and SPOILER it improves again. The cycle of systematic violence is broken in Lucille.

I want to shove this book into the hands of so many because I so enjoyed this writing and this world, but I have yet to find the right way to market it to others; I hope this longer review does better than my minute long pitches in the store. I have been describing this as an Afrofuturist fantasy that shares a great bit with magical realism. Have you read it? How would you classify it?

I read an ARC of Pet, but the book is available now in stores.

****

Emezi, Akwaeke. Pet.  New York: Make Me a World-Penguin Random, 2019.

This review is not endorsed by Akwaeke Emezi, Make Me a World, or Penguin Random House. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Content warning also a SPOILER: off-screen child abuse

LGBTQIA+ Representation in the Books That I Read in 2018

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I’m realizing now in October that I never posted about the books with LGBTQIA+ representation that I read in 2018. I posted about the books that I read in 2017 during 2018’s Pride Month, but during 2019’s Pride Month I was laid up with a sprained ankle, sad that I was missing the month’s events, and I suppose in that pain-induced haze I missed my opportunity to participate by posting a celebration of LGBTQIA+ representation in literature.

But, surprise! It turns out that there is an Ace Awareness Week (October 20-26, 2019), and I am beginning writing this post on Ace Awareness Week’s first day! (Unfortunately there are no openly ace characters in this list from 2018. Ace characters are particularly difficult to find, though I have now found several and read about one: Felicity Montague from Mackenzi Lee’s The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy; you will hear more about her in future posts.)

I read far fewer books with LGBTQIA+ characters in 2018 than I would have guessed: 8 books out of a total of 163. I don’t even know if I want to do the math to find out that dismal percentage (.05% if I round up to the nearest hundredth decimal place… which actually is higher than the percentage from 2017). I have no excuses but can report having read 15 such books as of October 20 in 2019. Here’s to hoping again that next year’s percentage is higher.

We need more LGBTQIA+ representation in books for all ages, and we are getting it, but sometimes the turning of the tide feels awfully slow.

But without further dismal ado, let’s see what books I discovered in 2018:

Picture Books, Picture Storybooks, and Board Books (Ages 0-8)

Prince & Knight by Daniel Haack and illustrated by Stevie Lewis.  Little Bee-Simon & Schuster, 2018.

A prince does not connect on a romantic level with any of the princesses that he meets, but when he and a knight join together to battle a dragon, there is an immediate spark. The two marry and the kingdom and the royal family rejoice. This is a beautifully illustrated picture book.

Middle Grade-Young Readers (Ages 8-12)

The Heroes of Olympus, Book 5: The Blood of Olympus by Rick Riordan.  Hyperion-Disney, 2014.

In the previous book in the series, one character is forced to out himself as gay before another and before Cupid. In this book he becomes a hero to both demigod camps, outs himself to his former crush, and develops another crush on a boy who likes him back. He accepts his homosexual identity in ways that he had not in the previous books.

The Trials of Apollo, Book 3: The Burning Maze by Rick Riordan.  Hyperion-Disney, 2018.

Riordan doesn’t shy away from Apollo’s bisexuality in this novel, bringing up again that one of the loves of Apollo’s many centuries was Hyacinthus. Apollo is both the protagonist and the POV character for this series.

Teen (Ages 13-19) 

Timekeeper, Book 1 by Tara Sim.  Sky Pony-Skyhorse, 2016.

Danny’s love for Colton is forbidden not just because the two of them are boys. These two are the series’ OTP, but there is at least one other gay or bisexual character who kisses Danny.

The Raven Cycle, Book 3: Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater.  Scholastic, 2015. First published 2014.

The Raven Cycle, Book 4: The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater.  Scholastic, 2016.

In these books, two of the protagonists fall for one another, two protagonists who happen to both be boys. One of the boys is bisexual, earlier dating a third protagonist in the series.

Adult (Ages 20+)

Santa’s Husband by Daniel Kibblesmith and illustrated by A. P. Quach.  Harper Design-HarperCollins, 2017.

This was shelved in the adult humor section of Barnes & Noble, the writer having credits in late night comedy show script writing. Santa is helped by his loving husband in his stressful business. The gooey eyes that these two make at one another are adorable.

A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo by Jill Twiss and illustrated by EG Keller.  Chronicle, 2018.

This was published by the crew of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver in response to the first of a series of picture books released by Charlotte Pence and her mother Karen Pence, the family of Vice President Mike Pence, who has pushed anti-LGBTQ laws in his home state of Indiana. The first book of the Pences’ uses the Pences’ rabbit, Marlon Bundo, to explore the White House and the president’s role. In this parody, Marlon Bundo meets the bunny of his dreams, a boy rabbit. Their love is cheered by their friends, but a Stink Bug that looks a bit like Mike Pence himself shouts that they can’t be married. Their friends suggest that differences should be celebrated. The friends vote the Stink Bug not in charge, and the bunnies are married by a cat who brings her wife to the ceremony. This too is shelved in the adult humor section of Barnes & Noble, but I know it ended up in several middle school classrooms. “Stink Bugs are temporary, but love is forever.”

And I’m realizing too that I never actually wrote a review for this book.  So, we’ll count this as a review space for it too.  This was a good book for what it was, a pointed jab at the Vice President and his anti-LGBTQ policies and a reminder of the power of democracy.  Was it a great book when compared to other picture books?  Not really.  The story is a bit too heavy-handed to be enjoyable apart from its political message.  But I like that this book exists.  It’s a flare of hope in a dark world and its publication was a petty, successful attempt to overtake the sales of Charlotte and Karen Pence’s book with profits benefiting The Trevor Project and AIDS United, though it was well-received by the two Pences, which was almost a flare of hope in itself.  Almost.  The publication of this book probably boosted sales of the Pences’ book too, and the proceeds for their book went too to charities, Tracy’s Kids and The A21 Campaign, so really, everyone won when this book was published.  The two bunnies and their friends are wonderfully cute, Marlon in his bow tie and Wesley in his glasses, the badger with his shirt cuffs.

***

Do you know or think that I misrepresented or misinterpreted any of these?  Please comment below.  Let me know.

Book Review: More Depth Than Expected in Emily Windsnap

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

Spoilers are in white. Highlight to reveal. 

I had always dismissed this book and this series as too fluffy to try, one of those that I would find too juvenile to be enjoyable, being well past the age of Kessler’s intended audience—or too girly, too concerned with the little dramas of middle school and flirtation, but a recent event for work sent me scurrying to quickly read it to be prepared to lead a discussion. I didn’t find any available copies of the printed book at my local libraries, but I came home with a copy of the audiobook, read by the appropriately named Finty Williams.

This is not a fluff read. This was a good mystery, which I failed to solve entirely (I did solve pieces of it).

This was a story of the power of love: familial, romantic, and platonic.

Romance is a thing in this first novel left to the adults, which was refreshing.  I don’t hardly remember any mention of school-aged boys, human or merperson.

This was a call against making non-traditional marriages illegal. I read this at first as a metaphor for interracial marriages, but its lessons could just as easily be applied to homosexual marriages (as I write this, the US Supreme Court is hearing arguments for and against allowing employment discriminating based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity); in the story, of course, it is a merperson and a human SPOILER ALERT (in this case, a woman and a merman, twisting Hans Christian Anderson’s “Little Mermaid” tale type).

This is a story about friendship and finding friends and the promises of friendship. Emily has just started at a new school, Brightport High (she’s in Year Seven, approximately America’s 6th grade), but she has been struggling to make friends, one of the more influential girls at the school leading others away from Emily because Emily accidentally got Mandy in trouble with her parents.  Emily finds a friend outside of school in Shona, a mermaid who likewise feels isolated from her classmates, who resent the teacher’s appreciation of Shona that Shona wins through her dedication to her classes.  Emily and Shona wrestle with what is owed to a friend and with what their friendship means to each other.

This is a book in which a girl is bullied and ultimately decides that she is comfortable and proud of herself as she is and stands up (or swims up) proudly before her bully.

This is a delightfully British setting (enhanced in my reading probably by Williams’ accent, but Kessler too is British and hers is the dialogue). Emily and her mother live on a moored boat in their seaside town, her mother working in the nearby bookshop. The lighthouse keeper comes over ever Sunday for tea. All this sounds like a life about which I could daydream, and I could have probably happily read about life in Brightport even without the added drama and excitement of merpeople.

I think Finty Williams improved my experience of this book with her personable representation of the first-person narration by Emily and the memorable voices that she gives each other character.

All of this to say: Don’t let the pastel covers, shine, and swishy tails mislead you. This book is worth your time, with just enough meat and just enough innocence.

I’ve been listening these past few weeks to Finty Williams’ reading of the second book in the series, Emily Windsnap and the Monster from the Deep, and though quite different from the first book, it too is proving fun while still tackling more challenging ideas.  More on that book when I have finished it.

****

Kessler, Liz. Tail of Emily Windsnap, Book 1.  Narr. Finty Williams.  Listening Library, 2009.

The book was originally published in 2004.  The audio CDs are no longer in print, but Penguin Random House has a digital version of the audiobook available.  The link attached to the cover photo will take you to that version.

This review is not endorsed by Liz Kessler, Finty Williams, Listening Library, or Penguin Random House. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Intended audience: Ages 8-12.

The cover photo is one that I took for the header for the Facebook event for the event that I led.

Book Reviews: September 2019 Picture Book Roundup: A Few Good Books

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

Where Are You From? by Yamile Saied Méndez and illustrated by Jamie Kim. HarperCollins, 2019. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

The text and the illustrations in this picture book are both beautiful! This sentiment is beautiful! A little girl, frustrated by repeated questions that imply that she and her family are not from “here,” asks her abuelo’s advice on how to answer them. Her abuelo gives her a beautifully lyrical answer: She is from each of the strong and brave ancestors before her, she is from the beautiful land that they came from, and she is from the love of her family, “my love,” her abuelo says, “and the love of all those before us.” I assume that the girl like the author is Argentine American, but there is no specific reference to the country. There is mention of the Pampas, but the lowlands stretch across several countries in South America. This is a book about feeling proud of one’s heritage and provides a comfort and an answer to the too often asked question. I don’t share Méndez’s heritage, but I was still stirred by Méndez’s words and sentiment and Kim’s illustrations. I think I would be even if I had never met the first generation of my family to immigrate to this country. I think this book will stir something in everyone. I do think, though, that more than the text, I will remember the sentiment and the illustrations.

*****

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

How I Met My Monster by Amanda Noll and illustrated by Howard McWilliam. Flashlight, 2019. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

This is the third in a series of books but the first one that I have read thoroughly enough to write a review for this blog. The illustrations in this are so wonderfully saturated and detailed and fun. This book reminds me somewhat of Monsters, Inc with its concept of monsters learning the rules for haunting a child at night. These monsters don’t seek the child’s terror, though. Instead their goal is to keep the child in bed until they are asleep, an aid not a trial for parents. A class of small monsters and their teacher emerge from beneath a boy’s bed and try to frighten him into bed, but the boy doesn’t find them particularly scary, mostly funny, though one, Gabe, is kind of awesome and just a little scary with his long claws, gurgling stomach, and feigned penchant for human toes. The boy enjoys being just a little scared though. The book ends with Gabe proclaiming that this seems like “the beginning of a beautiful friendship” and an illustration of Gabe curled up beneath the boy’s bed, looking like an overlarge canine or feline. This was just the right length for my group of three littles at story time. Anything longer would have been too much. They enjoyed counting the eyes under the bed and shouting out the colors of the monsters. They wanted the monsters names sooner than the story supplied them though.

****

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

A Busy Creature’s Day Eating! by Mo Willems. Hyperion-Disney, 2019. Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

Here’s an unusual alphabet book, which begins with breakfast food and, the creature running out of food, devolves into eating all sort of unusual things like Furniture, Gravy, a Hoagie, Ice cream, and a Jacket. And then at O, the creature begins to feel sick from its unusual diet and runs to the Potty. It is cared for, given basic foods to calm its stomach, Vomits anyway, is kissed by its guardian (XO-XO-XO), and sleeps away the ache: Zonked. The story is completely gender-neutral, which is a nice change, with no actual indication that the guardian is a biological parent. I liked that this included unusual words beside those more typically used in alphabet primers. I liked that this has a storyline. So many alphabet books are list books without a story. I have read clever alphabet primers before: Animal Homes ZXA: an Out of Order Alphabet Book, Animalphabet, and even A is for Awful: A Grumpy Cat ABC Book and Arctic Bears Chase. This is still perhaps the only one that really tells a story, though, a story that makes sense (Arctic Bears tries to build a story from one sentence, but it is a fairly nonsensical story). For what this is, this is a very good, a very unique book. I am surprised that no one that I know of has done this before, but no one that I know has done it. Willems does it with characters’ exaggerated expressions and humor in the text.

*****

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

Book Reviews: August 2019 Picture Book Roundup: A Month of Inspirational Reads

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Out of work for almost the entirety of June and July, I didn’t read any picture books during those two months to review, so we’re leaping from May to August.

Be Kind

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

We’re All Wonders by R. J. Palacio. Alfred A. Knopf-Penguin Random, 2017.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

I have yet to read Palacio’s Wonder, so I can’t speak to how similar or dissimilar this picture book is to the novel. This picture book left me a bit unimpressed. It introduces us to an unnamed character depicted as having one eye and his dog, Daisy. He narrates from the first person, saying that he does things that other kids do but doesn’t look like other kids. I am pleased to see that the other kids are depicted in a range of colors and gender presentations including one wearing a hijab. When his and Daisy’s feelings are hurt by the mean things said by other kids, he puts space helmets on them both and imagines them traversing the galaxy and visiting Pluto where there is a race of one-eyed aliens. The narrator hopes that people will change the way that they see, since he can’t change the way that he looks, and that they will come to see him and themselves as wonders. This book offers one coping mechanism for kids who are bullied—imagining themselves away and the world different—and may help kids who are bullied to feel understood.

***

Be Loud, Be Proud, Be You

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

I Am Enough by Grace Byers and illustrated by Keturah A. Bobo. Balzer + Bray-HarperCollins, 2018.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

There has recently been a wealth of picture books about particularly the worth of girls and the worth of girls of color. This one’s text does not particularly stand out among that crowd. It’s not a story so much as a series of affirmations, well intentioned and sweet but forgettable. I listened to a woman reading the book on YouTube, and it definitely rings better if read like a poem. But I would have to turn the pages so quickly to read it as she did that I feel I wouldn’t be appreciating enough the illustrations, which I find far more memorable than the text. The illustrations feature very realistically rendered girls of all colors and shapes, and include a girl in a wheelchair playing with a jump rope and a girl in a hijab. From the cover a young black girl with natural hair stares directly out at the world with a fairly neutral expression, wearing only a hint of a smile, and hers is certainly a memorable and eye-catching face amid the shelves. The characters mostly float in a white environment, the horizons and a few trees and pieces of playground and gym equipment sketched in with chalky lines.

***

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

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, audio excerpt, trailer, reviews, and activity.Dear Girl, by Amy Krouse and Paris Rosenthal and illustrated by Holly Hatam. HarperCollins, 2017.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

Dear Boy, by Paris and Jason Rosenthal and illustrated by Holly Hatam. HarperCollins, 2019.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

These are written in the form of letters and advice on how to interact with oneself and with the larger world in more healthy and affirming ways. Hatam’s characters are simple, most without noses or any shading to the faces, but the settings when she decides to include them are detailed, including some mixed media art. The format and even some of the text is echoed between books. Occasionally these books take a moment to combat toxic masculinity. Reading aloud, I skipped some of the greetings, the “Dear Girl”s and “Dear Boy”s. The final lines of each read “Dear Boy/Girl whom I love,” but I did not find this as awkward to read to strangers in a story time environment as I do, say, Nancy Tillman’s books about parental love. These are a good length. I like the books’ suggestion to “whenever you need an encouraging boost, […] turn to any page in this book.”

***     ***

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

Isabella: Artist Extraordinaire by Jennifer Fosberry and illustrated by Mike Litwin. Jabberwocky-Sourcebooks, 2018.

This is a book for artists and art-lovers more even I think than it is for kids. The text is full of allusions to and puns related to famous art pieces like Van Gogh’s Starry Night and Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans framed in a narrative about her family deciding what to do with a day off. All of the puns are marked in a different font style. In the end, Isabella proposes that they use the house as a museum to her artwork. This must have been a very fun book for Litwin to illustrate, incorporating Isabella and her family into famous pieces done in famous styles. The original art pieces are included with their attributions in the back. I don’t like that the characters are referred to as “the father,” “the mother,” and “the little girl”; that reads very awkwardly to me, but that is a very small critique. The educational value and the fun illustrations bump this story up a star. It’s a good classroom addition.

****

Click to visit the publisher's page for links to order, summary, and other titles in the series.

Elle the Entrepreneur by Andrea B. Newman. Petite, 2016.  Intended audience: Grades 1-3.

I found this story heartwarming. Elle makes centerpieces for the family dinner table with flowers that she picks from the garden during the summertime. Her dad suggests making centerpieces for the neighbors, and with her parents’ help, Elle makes flyers and sets prices. She traverses the neighborhood with her flyers and is rebuffed at the first few houses but at the third house meets her first client. Her success leads to a dream of one day owning and decorating elegant restaurants. Her family is wonderfully supportive. Elle is very sweet towards her brother, deciding early on that she will save her earnings to buy him a new baseball for his birthday, and gently deflecting him when he wants to play and asking him to color with her instead. She’s the sort of businesswoman that I as a 30-year-old woman experimenting myself with business ideas can look up to. I don’t know that I would have found this a particularly exciting or engaging read though as a child—unless perhaps an adult had paired it with a business-like endeavor that I had initiated, a lemonade stand or yard sale or some such. I would remind writers that ending a story with “the end” is often awkward.

****

Search Your Feelings

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

Grumpy Monkey by Suzanne Lang and illustrated by Max Lang. Random, 2018. Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

There are a lot of good lessons here: the physical manifestations of grumpiness and of happiness as Jim Panzee tries to mask his grumpiness so that his friends will stop calling him grumpy and stop trying to cheer him but also the vital lesson that sometimes grumpiness has no definite cause, sometimes it must be felt, but it will pass like the sting from a boo-boo. Jim Panzee’s friends’ prodding questions about his well-being just make him grumpier because he can’t answer them. They suggest things that make them happy, but Jim doesn’t want to do any of those things. I am reminded reading this story of a favorite that I have not seen for a while: Grumpy Pants. Grumpy Pants had a similar lesson about grumpiness not always having a reasonable cause and not always having an easy cure. I like that Grumpy Monkey proposes so many things to try to alleviate grumpiness even if none of them help Jim Panzee. The suggestions made by Jim’s friends are certainly more socially acceptable than the one used by the penguin in Grumpy Pants (at least to try in a public setting) and also more fun to act out during a story time. The bright red cover of grumpy monkey while certainly making it stand out among other books actually is too red and too glaring for me, inciting feelings of anger and danger, but the inside is hardly red at all and far more palatable to me; don’t let the cover turn you away.

****

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

The Color Monster: A Pop-Up Book of Feelings by Anna Llenas. Sterling, 2015.  Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

This monster’s friend helps him sort out his confused feelings. She lays out jars for the monster’s feelings, and helps him identify each feeling. Each is a different color: happiness is yellow, blue is sadness, red is anger, black is fear, and green is calm. And there’s one more: an unnamed, pink feeling that surrounds the monster with hearts. There is a flat version of this book, but because the pop-up was available to me, I read that. One of the last pages in this pop up, allows the reader to put the sorted feeling into the bottles, a white bottle-shape covering and uncovering the colorful feelings with pull-tabs. I was reminded of Inside Out reading this book, with its emotions depicted as colors: yellow Joy, blue Sadness, red Anger, purple Fear, and green Disgust. The book was I think originally published in Spanish in 2012. This English pop-up version was published the same year that the film was released, 2015. The pop-ups were the great draw of this book. They are fairly delicate pop-ups, not suited for toddlers without adult supervision. My little at story time did well with I and his father there. We let him play with the tabs and run his fingertips along the blue, taut twine used for rain, the twine used to hang the hammock in the calm illustration.

**** 

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: Japanese Fairy Tales for the Casual Western Reader

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Click to visit the WorldCat listing for the book for a summary.

This Dover edition has only five of the stories that Yei Theodora Ozaki published in 1903, selected and edited by Philip Smith in 1992.

I got a distinct sense that these were Japanese tales written up for a Western audience. The tongue-cut sparrow for example is described here as a fairy, but fairies are British; the fairy has no directly correlating Japanese equivalent. So what type of creature is the sparrow? Yōsei is the Japanese word that I can find most closely related to British fairies, but this doesn’t seem the right word for the sparrows of this tale any more than does fairy. Without the proper terminology, digging deeper into the folklore was difficult, though I tried to supplement my reading of this skinny paperback several times. The Westernization at once made this translation more accessible but also less complete, somehow lacking. I don’t know a lot of Japanese folklore. After reading this, I feel a little more informed but skeptical too about how much this textbook was altered for a Western audience and of how much I might be missing.

A few words were translated either in parentheses or via footnotes, sometimes smoothly within the text as “Momotaro, or Son of a Peach,” but the choices of which words to translate seemed odd. Sake, for example, was translated as a rice wine. Several titles and names were within the same story translated only sometimes (O Jii San as old man, daimios as lords, Suzume San as Miss Sparrow, Murasaki as Violet, Ojisan as Uncle). These were rarely names that needed translation for the story to have meaning. Particularly Murasaki only lived for the span of two pages, and violets played no part in the whole of the story (“Princess Hase”). “Princess Hase” itself is an odd phrase to have translated and oddly translated besides. Within the story, she is known primarily as Hase-Hime meaning Princess of Hase. Tamtate-Bako is translated as the Box of the Jewel Hand. The translation here lends no more to my understanding of Tamtate-Bako than would a good description. O kage sama de was not translated at all, which was an odd choice (that phrase I was able to look up). Dokoisho was translated with a footnote, and this I liked because knowing that this is an exclamation used primarily by the lower classes helped me to better grasp Urashima Taro’s character.

In these five stories there are many themes and characters that are familiar from Western/European stories. In “Momotaro” there is the child born already overly mature of a piece of fruit to a kindly old couple (Thumbelina-type but also Disney’s interpretation of Hercules). This child, like Hercules, is excessively strong and defeats monsters. There’s a nagging wife in “The Tongue-cut Sparrow.” In “Princess Hase” there’s a jealous stepmother who tries to kill her stepdaughter (that’s “Snow White”). In “Urashima Taro” there’s a creature saved from harm that turns out to be royalty and who offers itself to its rescuer in marriage (I recognize that actually most from Yep’s The Dragon Prince, which calls itself a Chinese Beauty and the Beast story). Several of these stories, “Urashima Taro” and “Tongue-cut Sparrow”, feature boxes that the characters are warned never to open like that given to Pandora. The “Ogre of Rashoman” reminds me of Tailypo, “The Headless Horseman,” and other nightmare creatures that come through campfire stories searching for their severed body parts.

Though of course it is difficult and probably inaccurate to generalize Western heroes too much—and certainly my sampling here of Japanese fairy tales is not broad enough to do so—these five bear as much similarity to the Grecian mythologies as Western fairy tales.  In Western fairy tales, most masculine heroes seem to be tricksters who outwit villains. The women—no, the girls—are gentle and kind; grown women are more often villains—or die. Here the masculine heroes seem either to be strongmen and warriors, or they are kind and compassionate. “Princess Hase” offers the only feminine heroine in this group.

Ozaki was uniquely qualified to bring these stories to a Western audience. Her parents were Baron Saburō Ozaki, one of the first Japanese men to study in the West, and an Englishwoman, the daughter of one of Ozaki’s teachers. Yei Theodora was raised in England but went to live with her father in Japan as a teenager. As an adult she split her time between the Japan and Europe, and eventually married a Japanese politician who shared her last name and who kept receiving her mail accidentally prior to their marriage.

So she was uniquely familiar with both cultures.

In all, I was glad for this introduction to Japanese fairy tales—I enjoy fairy tales—but I wish mostly that Ozaki had more sparingly translated names and phrases and particularly creatures into English.

In reading these stories, Westerners will find familiarity among that which is unfamiliar, new names for characters whom they recognize or whose situations bear resemblance to their own childhood tales.  In that familiarity, there’s a call, a reminder that we—humanity—are more alike than we are different.

***

Ozaki, Yei Theodora. Japanese Fairy Tales. Ed. Philip Smith. Illus. Kakuzo Fujiyama. Mineola, NY: Dover, 1992.

This review is not endorsed by Yei Theodora Ozaki, her estate, Philip Smith, Kakuzo Fujiyama, or Dover Publishing. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: What Again, but Better Needed to Do Better (and Why it Wasn’t for Me)

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book cover

Spoilers have been whited-out.  Highlight to read.

I was the wrong person to read this book, but this was another that work required.

I wasn’t aware of Christine Riccio as a booktuber, so I could not be blinded by stardom.

I read an ARC that, thankfully, was line-edited once more before being published because there were some spellings errors in my copy that grated on me particularly as someone once hired to edit to match Rowling’s canon (Horcrux was misspelled several times, but the misspellings were fixed in the final printed edition).

I don’t read many books that would be shelved as romances. I’m ace; romance tends not to interest me; it’s not my lived experience and not the constant, humanity-defining story that most think that it is. I don’t like that romance is so especially pervasive in teen literature—in any and every genre. I can, for example, read an adult or middle-grade fantasy and escape a romantic subplot, but I’m hard-pressed to name a book marketed as for teens without such a subplot. I am especially bored by white, cishet romances, which Riccio’s is here.

I too studied abroad in London—and only a year before the protagonist Shane does in this story. I’ve been to Rome. I’ve been to Edinburgh (though I haven’t gotten to climb Arthur’s Seat). Riccio had to convince me that she had been to all these places too. And and the first British person with whom Shane interacted (on the plane on her way to London) acted so aggressively against the British code of conduct that I was thrown out of the book, my disbelief animated, and Riccio struggled to draw me back. (This woman later is revealed to be an important, recurring character, which at least explains to some degree her trashing of cultural norms, but I think Riccio could have waited to introduce this character until Shane had at least interacted with one other British person—or had this woman not be British—and I would have been better able to suspend my disbelief for her.)

For all that Shane describes herself in the beginning as painfully socially inept and awkward, she makes friends quickly, she takes more initiative to travel than I did while abroad, she drinks more often than I did with friends, she dances in clubs, she makes up excuses to see friends. She rarely studies. She is not socially inept. She is a social butterfly and party creature compared to me when I was her age and studying abroad in London. I did my homework, went on trips with my classes, and I explored the parks and the museums on my own—and I enjoyed myself. (Admittedly, travel and engagement with London and with England was far more a part of our international program curriculum than it seems to have been for Shane—or for most international students studying in London.)

I never found Shane or her friends particularly relatable though Riccio tries painfully hard to make Shane so through popular culture references (not all of which I could catch), making her a Lost fanatic, a Potterhead, and a voracious reader as presumably is the person reading the book or following Riccio as a booktuber. I also didn’t find Shane particularly likeable. Though I can understand her desire to escape her parents’ expectations, her solution is so extreme that I don’t find her parents’ reactions entirely unjustified. [SPOILER] Certainly by showing up unannounced in London [END] her parents demonstrate a certain lack of thought for Shane’s plans, but their hearts seem to be in the right place. To justify Shane’s lie to her parents perhaps I needed to meet them prior to her betrayal of their trust. Or perhaps I am showing signs of adulthood, relating more to the adults than the child heroes, to Triton more than Ariel.  Pilot, her love interest, I was ambivalent towards too at best.  He seemed supportive, and he and Shane seemed at times very well matched, but he lacked emotional maturity and avoided his problems to such an unhealthy degree that I couldn’t consider him a healthy romantic partner for anyone.

The writing style (a close first person present)—especially in the first half of the novel—is somewhat juvenile. It’s possible that in the first half of the book especially this immaturity is intentional as the second half of the story revolves around the question of returning to old circumstances with new wisdom, but this makes the writing no more enjoyable to read—especially not knowing that maturity (or lack thereof) is going to become such a key part of the books’ plot.

Riccio did something a little different by adding an element of fantasy to this otherwise realistic, contemporary romance (set in 2011 and briefly 2017), but it wasn’t nearly enough to win me back. What it seemed to do was allow Riccio to play out two sets of mistakes for Shane and for Pilot.

Shane when the magic occurred didn’t react in a way that I found believable. [SPOILER] With her mind, soul, person thrown into the body and circumstances of her self from six years earlier, she didn’t seem to realize it, to realize that her body felt different, didn’t hurt as much, she was less tired, that her hair was probably different. These are the cues I think that I would recognize if someone were to shove me back to my college-aged self. Mostly I think I would notice that my body hurt less. [END]

A younger me might have enjoyed this story more, but present-me did not.  And really, what was the lesson?  You can’t have both career success and love without magic and more time than is available to anyone without magic?  That’s not what I want to hear, true though it might be.  Few I think read fantasy or romance books to lose hope; it’s certainly not what I seek in my escapism.

**

Riccio, Christine. Again, but Better. Wednesday-St. Martin’s-Macmillan, 2019.

Intended audience: Ages 12-18.

This review is not endorsed by Christine Riccio, Wednesday Books, St. Martin’s Press, or Macmillan Publishers. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.