Tag Archives: children’s

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

**

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

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

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

***

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

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

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Astronauts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*** 

Bees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

**** 

New Twists on Old Tales

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

And Silly Animals

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

****

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 2018 Picture Book Roundup: Science, Eating People–Or Not, and a Kitten Like Me

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Science!

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

Two Problems for Sophia by Jim Averbeck and illustrated by Yasmeen Ismail. Margaret K. McElderry-Simon & Schuster, 2018.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

There was a lot to love in this story about Sophia, her pet giraffe Noodle, and the problems that Noodle causes for Sophia’s multi-generational, interracial family, in which each character has a pretty stunningly unique voice for characters in a picture book. It opens with Sophia being “happysad” which I love because it acknowledges an oft-felt but not oft-acknowledged emotion. Noodle snores, and Noodle’s kisses with his long, blue tongue are sloppy and wet and particularly irk Grand-mamá, whom Noodle seems particularly fond of—in the way that cats will always find the one person who doesn’t want to pet them. Sophia’s Mother, whom I suspect from the language that she uses and that the authors use to describe her actions works in the courtroom either as a lawyer or judge—probably a judge—“render[s] her verdict. Noodle is guilty” and she “order[s Sophia] to find a perdurable solution.” Several times in this book the adults drop some heavy words. ‘Perdurable’ is not a word that I knew when I read this book, and I’ve near 30 years of life experience, an English degree, and a penchant for books with lofty language. Sophia tries several ways to silence Noodle’s snores or to make them more palatable, consulting the Internet for ideas, building contraptions herself, and consulting experts in the field, including an acoustic-engineer who tells Sophia that Noodle’s “neck-to-lung-capacity ratio creates a giant echo chamber.”

Noodle’s sloppy kisses are always preceded by the same phrase, which was fun to repeat but also let the anticipation build before the blech! of usually poor Grand-mamá appearing covered in giraffe spittle. “His eyelashes danced a little fuzzle, then his nose swooped in for a nuzzle.”

This is apparently a sequel to a book called One Word for Sophia that I’d not heard of previously but now want to find.

****

Click to visit the series' page for links to order, summary, audio sample, and all kinds of extras.

Cece Loves Science by Kimberly Derting and Shelli R. Johannes and illustrated by Vashti Harrison. Greenwillow-HarperCollins, 2018. Intended audience: Ages 4-8.

I was pleased to see a surprisingly honest comment from Derting on Goodreads admitting that her four-year-old grandchild struggled to make it through this book. My story time audience was a bit squirmy through this long story too—but they made it, and they made it through Two Problems for Sophia on the same sitting. Assigned to complete a research project, Cece with her friend and assigned research partner Isaac set out to experiment on Cece’s dog Einstein to see if dogs eat vegetables. They try offering Einstein vegetables in various forms, which he won’t eat, causing Cece to question her credentials as a scientist, but she persists, and eventually they do find a way to get Einstein to eat veggies. I’m not sure about the ethical implications of trying to get your family dog to eat foods outside of his normal diet without consulting a veterinarian first—I don’t recommend doing it at home—but I have known dogs who like carrots, so I’m fairly sure that this experiment won’t harm Einstein. The book ends with a glossary of science terms and scientists.

***

 

ABCs of Physics by Chris Ferrie. Jabberwocky-Sourcebooks, 2017. First published 2014.

General Relativity for Babies by Chris Ferrie. Jabberwocky-Sourcebooks, 2017. First published 2016.

Quantum Physics for Babies by Chris Ferrie. Jabberwocky-Sourcebooks, 2017. First published 2013.

My dad is a high school math and physics teacher, and I sent these along to him not long ago. The one on quantum physics, he says, peddles an already discredited model—which I sort of knew; I think Niels Bohr’s model was being phased out of classrooms when I was in high school around 2006/2007—but before it starts discussing where in rings an electron can be around a nucleus, I think it’s solid—though he would know far better than I. I particularly liked the ABCs of Physics. There was more to this book than there was to the for Babies titles. Not only is it an alphabet primer, but the words used to illustrate the letters are all related to physics, with three levels of information for growing toddlers: first the word, then a simple one sentence explanation, then a longer, more in-depth sentence or two at the bottom. I like the simplicity of these primers.  I like that Ferrie takes on such hard concepts and thinks he can impart some understanding of these topics to infants and toddlers.  They say if you can’t explain your subject in terms that a complete outsider to the field would understand, you don’t know your subject. Imagine explaining it in terms that a toddler could understand! I think general relativity was more clearly explained here than I’ve seen it elsewhere. I may not be a toddler, but I get it. Or I get the small part of it that Ferrie is discussing in these books.

****     ****     ***

That is Frowned Upon in Most Civilized Societies

Click to visit the publisher's site for links to order, summary, and activity sheets.

We Don’t Eat Our Classmates by Ryan T. Higgins. Hyperion-Disney, 2018.  Intended audience: Ages 3-5.

This book came out in June, and I’ve already read it three times—twice in story times. It keeps getting better. I really enjoyed reading it aloud this most recent time. I feel like I got the inflection right on the narration and the dialogue. This competes with Be Quiet! for me as a favorite Higgins book, but this is so much more accessible to my story time audience than is Be Quiet!. This is a back-to-school book with a female dinosaur protagonist and a multiracial classroom full of children, including a hijabi sitting beside a boy who appears to wear a yarmulke. Penelope Rex is your typical T-Rex. She’s excited and nervous to go to school, but she has a big lunch packed by her dad, and a new backpack with ponies on it (ponies are her favorite because ponies are delicious). She was not expecting to be part of a classroom full of children, and upon discovering this, she eats them all whole then spits them out at the behest of her teacher. That does not endear her to her classmates, and every time she tries to be nice, her appetite betrays her. She saves a seat for her classmate, Griffin Emery—but that seat is on her now empty plate. She tries to play with them on the slide—but waits at the bottom with an open mouth. Her parents spot the problem quickly when she complains that she hasn’t made any friends, and remind her not to eat her classmates. “Children are the same as us on the inside. Just tastier.” Penelope can’t control her appetite and keeps eating kids. Because all the children are afraid and won’t be her friend, she tries to befriend the class goldfish, Walter—who bites her finger. Knowing now how terrible it feels when someone tries to eat you, Penelope learns to control her own appetite. She stops eating her classmates, and she does make friends.

*****

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

Eat Pete by Michael Rex. Nancy Paulsen-Penguin Random, 2018.  Intended audience: Ages 2-5.

When a monster comes in through Pete’s window, Pete isn’t scared; he invites the monster to play with him. And though the monster came to eat Pete and wants to do so, the games that Pete suggests look fun, so he puts off his appetite for little boy and joins Pete in his games. Though he lasts through several games, the monster’s desire to eat Pete does win, and he gobbles up Pete whole. Without Pete, though, the games just aren’t much fun, and the monster relents and spits Pete back out. Pete tells him that wasn’t very nice, the monster apologizes, and Pete suggests that they play another game—a wonderfully forgiving child is Pete. The monster though doesn’t want to play. The book gives the impression that the monster is again struggling with his desire to eat Pete, but the anticipation dissipates not with a repetition of the phrase and the monster’s slathering look of hunger, but with a hug between the two protagonists; he wants to… hug Pete.

****

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

People Don’t Bite People by Lisa Wheeler and illustrated by Molly Schaar Idle. Atheneum-Simon & Schuster, 2018.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3

In singsong fashion, this book spells out the things that it is good to eat, but admonishes against biting people. “It’s good to bite a carrot. It’s good to bite a steak. It’s BAD to bite your sister! She’s not a piece of cake.” “People don’t bite people. It’s nasty and it’s rude! A friend will never bite a friend. BITING IS FOR FOOD!” It’s a kind of judgmental book. I mean, I know you shouldn’t bite your hair or your nails, and the book acknowledges that these are lesser sins than biting another human, but… all in all, I think this book was perhaps just too didactic a story for a general story time. It would be a fun addition to Martine Agassi and Elizabeth Verdick and Marieka Heinlen’s Best Behavior books (Teeth are Not for Biting, Hands are Not for Hitting, Feet are Not for Kicking, etc.)—and it is a fun text—but just… not fun, not silly enough—not for general reading without the express purpose of imparting a needed lesson.

***

And Look! I Found Me!

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

Katie the Kitten by Kathryn and Byron Jackson and illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen. Little Golden-Penguin Random, 1976. First published 1949.  Intended audience: Ages 2-5.

I had to read this book—and I actually bought it—because I am a catlike Kathryn who once went by the nickname Katie. The illustrations and adventures of this little kitten are fairly realistic. She sleeps, wakes up, chases a fly, hisses at a scared dog, but is scared of a mouse, chases a toad, chases a bird, hops on a table, but falls off into a pail of water, drinks milk, eats a fish, and curls up to sleep again. She’s just cute. She’s a kitten. And she’s a playful, clumsy kitten. The text uses simple words, and some rhyming but overall the text does not rhyme; it reads less like a forced singsong and more like just the account of an hour or two of a kitten’s day.  I recommend this for people who like watching cat videos.  Which I think is not-so-secretly everyone.

***

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: Be Prepared Reminisces on the Trials of Sleepaway Camp and Adolescence

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

Some spoilers.

I think it speaks very well of Vera Brosgol’s autobiographical graphic novel Be Prepared that I stayed up late to finish this ARC the same night that I brought it home from the store. I think it speaks even more highly of it that more than three months later (how did I leave it for so long?) in reminding myself of the plot for this review, I ended up pretty much rereading the whole of the text without it feeling tired, even though I knew its twists and turns.

The novel plunged me into a perspective to which I really hadn’t given much thought, that of the immigrant Russian American—though the plight of the immigrant is something I think about often—especially just now. I know only a very little about any of Russian history—and what I have learnt has been more from British and Australian period dramas and Disney’s Anastasia than from classes where truth outweighed drama. Most of what I’ve learnt has been from the point too of view of the exiled aristocracy than the average Russian citizen.

But some things are universal: the desire to fit in with peers, the desire to have the best birthday party, the drama of adolescence and the struggle of adolescent friendships, particularly as teens begin to experience romantic attraction, the fear of and longing for stay-away summer camp….

Vera is the odd one out among her more affluent peers in Albany, an immigrant to America, having been born in Russia but immigrated before she turned five. Her mother’s peers are primarily Russian immigrants, fellow parishioners of their Russian Orthodox Church. Vera tries to throw a birthday party to match her classmates’, but her mother relies on gifts and help from the Church, leaving Vera with a party that is more Russian than she’d like. Her classmates leave in the night before the sleepover ends. All of her classmates head to camp during the summer, but Vera has never been allowed to go, the cost being too great. Upon discovering a Russian camp in Connecticut, a place where she won’t be the odd one out, she convinces her mother to accept the Church’s help to get Vera and her younger brother there.

But Vera still feels like the odd one out among the other campers. She is divided from her brother, put with the older of the camp groups in a cabin with two girls, five years her seniors, who have not only been going to the camp for twelve years but have shared a cabin for the whole of that time. The camp requires them to speak Russian as much as is possible, which isn’t a problem for Vera, but she does not read the language well, and she doesn’t know the camp customs.

After two weeks, the only friends that Vera feels that she has made are the chipmunks that she’s fed despite the rules—and even one of them has betrayed her by biting her.

But a chance encounter with a runaway guinea pig wins her a friend at last in Kira, a younger girl from another group. They admire one another, help one another to grow, and encourage one another. Together the two of them set out to conquer camp, to best the boys at last in the weekly capture-the-flag game.

This is a novel about being comfortable in your own skin and in the connections that you make, and about not judging on first impressions. From Vera’s belief in the true friendship of her classmates who abandon her, to her initial exile of Kira because she is younger and always crying over her missing guinea pig, to her belief that her brother is enjoying camp, initial impressions prove wrong again and again.

I enjoyed the pacing of this novel. I think Brosgol used some great tricks to keep the story going through periods of stagnation. At one point, a couple weeks of camp activities are expressed in a letter to her mother below the text of which the panels more honestly express Vera’s experiences at the camp. Moments of quiet contemplation are overlaid once by the action of swinging on a play set to give the panel some action. At others her thoughts are related to moments in Russian history, which were informative as well as informing the character.

The graphic novel is such a popular genre right now for middle grade readers, and I think readers will find this at once a relatable and unique perspective on feelings we’ve all had and experiences many of us might have shared.

****

Brosgol, Vera. Be Prepared. Color by Alec Longstreth. New York: First Second-Roaring Brook-MacMillan-Holtzbrinck, 2018.

This review is not endorsed by Vera Brosgol, Alec Longstreth, First Second, Roaring Brook Press, MacMillan Publishers, or Holtzbrinck Publishing Holding Limited Partnership.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Reviews: February 2018 Picture Book Roundup: Loving Others

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

The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage by Selina Alko and illustrated by Selina Alko and Sean Qualls.  Arthur A. Levine-Scholastic, 2015.  Intended audience: Grades 3-8.

I remembered Selina Alko from Why Am I Me? and was excited to see her explore this fairly local, historical story. She handles it with poetry and mostly with grace—though she does call Mildred’s skin “a creamy caramel” and later speaks of “people every shade from the color of chamomile tea to midnight;” I think we’re trying to move away from comparing anyone’s skin tone to food, the likening of POC to consumables.  For those who don’t know of the Lovings, this is the family that brought to the Supreme Court Virginia’s ruling that they could not be legally married because they were neither both pale- nor both dark-skinned.  The Lovings wanted to live in their home state of Virginia, but refused to give up each other, their love, their family for the sake of their state.  The Virginia law banning interracial marriage was deemed unconstitutional.

****

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

Click, Clack, Moo: I Love You by Doreen Cronin and illustrated by Betsy Lewin.  Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy-Simon & Schuster, 2017.  Intended audience: Ages 4-8, Grades PreK-3.

This is a Valentine’s book from the Click, Clack, Moo series. Farmer Brown shows his love in his care of the animals and the farm. Little Duck decorates for the Valentine’s Day party and makes Valentines for everyone. The chickens and the pigs bring potluck dishes, but the sheep bring nothing. A fox hears their party and invites herself. The farm animals are terrified. All except Little Duck. Little Duck hands the fox her last Valentine, the fox hands her one back, and they dance together “yip, quack, yip, quack, yip, quack, quack!” Their dance inspires the other farm animals to interspecies dance as well. This is a great Valentine’s story with a message that isn’t all hearts and roses and candies. It’s about finding friendship and fun among those who look different from oneself, about being welcoming to others, even when you don’t know them. Yipping like a fox is a lot of fun aloud too.

****

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

The Peace Book by Todd Parr.  LB Kids-Little, Brown-Hachette 2017.  First published 2004.

Parr’s The Peace Book is all about good stewardship of the earth and care for all humanity. Peace is keeping the water blue. It’s saying sorry when you hurt someone. It’s helping a neighbor. It’s exploring other cultures. It’s fixing societal problems like homelessness and hunger. Illustrated in Parr’s very bright, simple style, this is a book for everyone! Seriously, there’s as much if not more in here for adults than the kids. It’s a good reminder of the simple ways that we can bring peace to others and to ourselves and to the world, and also of the big things that we need to work towards fixing. “The world is a better place because of you.” Was that a hijabi too, Mr. Parr?  Not a lot of story to this one, but a lot of good, needed sentiments.

****

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

We Belong Together by Joyce Wan.  Cartwheel-Scholastic, 2011.  Intended audience: Grades PreK-K.

Mostly this is a fun exploration of pairs and wordplay. Like peanut butter & jelly, like pen & paper, like a pair of mittens, with smiling, rosy-cheeked characters illustrating each pair. There’s really not anything in the way of plot, but the wordplay is a nice addition to a sappy sentiment of perfect togetherness.

***

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

Ten Apples Up on Top by Dr. Seuss and illustrated by Roy McKie.  Penguin Random, 1961.  Intended audience: Ages 3-7.

This is a fun counting book with three characters each bragging that they can carry more apples on their head, the challenges getting more and more outlandish as the number of apples and the number of participants in the game increase. Being Seuss, of course the text rhymes. The three do get their comeuppance for breaking and entering and raiding the fridge of a mother bear. The bear chases them outside, where gulls try to take the apples from the boasting friends.  The friends’ fun, their sticky fingers, and their boasting anger the other peripheral characters, who chase them trying to knock down the apples.  An accident creates more opportunity–a wealth of apples–and provided with more apples, the game expands, the ones who were trying to stop it, finding themselves happy participants instead. What a strange economics lesson. Mostly this book is just silly, but it’s one of those that I think you can read more deeply into if you want to do so.  Hoarding toys is going to make others angry with you. Supplying enough toys for everyone is the way to peace.  A surplus of resources makes everyone boastful, wasteful, playful rather than responsible.  Am I reading too much into this?

****

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

I Wish That I Had Duck Feet by Dr. Seuss and illustrated by B. Tobey.  Penguin Random, 1965.  Intended audience: Ages 6-9.

A little blond boy wishes for various animal body parts. He has creative uses for each, but each of them gets him in trouble in some way or another. What he has against Big Bill Brown I don’t know, though it seems he might bully the protagonist–certainly the protagonist imagines that Bill would do so if the protagonist were to possess a long tail.  Still the vindictiveness of the protagonist’s references to Bill were somewhat unsettling to me, even if I can understand a bullied individual’s fixation, born of fear and constant threat, with his bully. The protagonist learns a lesson about being disliked and dehumanized for looking different. As a Which-What-Who with all the different animal parts on his body, he thinks that the townspeople would turn against him, be so scared that they’d call the policemen, who would catch him in a net and bring him to the zoo, where he’d be forced to eat hay in a cage. It’s a lesson too in self-love. The boy ultimately decides that since each new feature, each change that he could make to his body brings him grief in some fashion or another, the best thing to be is himself, just the way that he is already.

I was excited to read this one at this year’s celebration of Dr. Seuss’ birthday, because I remembered really enjoying it as a child, but I have to admit that it fell a bit flat as an adult, maybe because I failed to pick up as a child on the darkness of humanity that these characters display.

***

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.

LGBTQIA+ Representation in the Books That I Read in 2017

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It’s Pride Month, and I’m feeling prideful. I wrote this post ages ago and stuck it in a drawer because, frankly, I am still embarrassed for myself and for the industry by how few books including LGBTQIA+ characters I had read in 2017, but those books still deserve recognition. So:

This year I want to start something new: Already I’ve started the list on Goodreads, but I want to highlight here too the books that either include characters from the LGBTQIA+ community or which offer support to the LGBTQIA+ community (because some are more explicit than others).

I read 237 books in 2017. Of those I’m counting only 10 that include characters who are explicitly or implicitly part of the LGBTQIA+ community. Those are pretty abysmal numbers (.04%), but I’m aware of the lack now, and I’m openly seeking and celebrating books that I find that include more diverse gender identities or sexual orientations because representation matters.

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

Not Quite Narwhal by Jessie Sima. Simon & Schuster, 2017.

Sima’s book is not explicitly about gender identity or sexual orientation. It’s about a unicorn born under the sea with a diving helmet who thinks that he is a narwhal, though he never entirely fit in. He meets unicorns later in life and realizes that he is actually a unicorn. When he returns to his narwhal friends, he takes “a deep breath” and tells his friends “the news: It turns out… I’m not a narwhal.” “Of course you aren’t.” “I’m a unicorn.” “We all knew that.” His friends take “it quite well.” This conversation is coded like a coming-out. The book later makes possibly an argument for not having to choose to be one or another, neither land-narwhal with the unicorns or sea-unicorn with the narwhals. This might be about gender-fluidity or transgender identity or nonbinary identity. Possibly it’s an argument against the segregation of groups by identity, for diversity among friends. Whatever message the takeaway, whomever finds meaning it in, it’s an absolutely adorable story about finding yourself inside of community—and making your own community.

Quackers by Liz Wong. Alfred A. Knopf-Penguin Random, 2016.

Wong’s book has a pretty similar message to Sima’s. Quackers thinks that he is a duck because he’s grown up among ducks by the pond—until he meets cats, and they show him the ways of cats. Quackers decides that he is both duck and cat, sometimes doing duck things, and sometimes doing cat things.

Middle Grade-Young Readers (Ages 8-12)

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

Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard, Book 3: The Ship of the Dead by Rick Riordan. Hyperion-Disney, 2017. 

Alex Fierro is gender-fluid. He/She becomes Magnus’ love interest, and the two share a kiss in the final book. Loki is also gender-fluid and bisexual, having children with men and women. In the third book, Alex brings to life a gender-fluid clay figure, Pottery Barn, who uses they/them/their pronouns. The einherjar in Valhalla are not entirely comfortable with Alex’s gender-fluidity, but that there is a Norse word for gender-fluidity undercuts the argument that gender-fluidity is a new phenomenon, and by book 3, floor 19 has pretty much accepted Alex.

The Trials of Apollo, Book 1: The Hidden Oracle by Rick Riordan. Hyperion-Disney, 2016.

The Trials of Apollo, Book 2: The Dark Prophecy by Rick Riordan. Hyperion-Disney, 2017. 

Apollo, the protagonist and POV character in this first person narrative is openly bisexual. In the second story, the heroes stay with two older, strong, well-rounded women who left the Hunters of Artemis and immortality to pursue their love for one another. They are raising an adopted daughter together. In the first, we also get to see Nico and Will together, and the camp seems quite accepting of their romance, though that Nico will pull out some creepy Underworld magic if separated from Will probably does help to keep people from complaining. 

Teen (Ages 13-19) 

The Raven Cycle, Book 2: Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater. Scholastic, 2014. First published 2013.

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. 

Ronan Lynch and Adam Parrish are in love, and by the final book, the two are comfortable enough to come together openly, sharing a kiss at a party. I think they may already be in love with another when we meet them, though their growth as individuals certainly deepens their attraction to one another. Joseph Kavinsky, who lusts after Ronan Lynch (I wouldn’t call it love), helps Ronan come to terms with his own sexuality.

Adult (Ages 20+)

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

This historical fiction is in part the story of Bobby Banks, a pastor’s son from Georgia, whose father turns him out when he discovers Bobby in bed with another boy. Bobby grows up in exile from his family, living with his gentler grandmother. He later escapes Georgia and moves to New York City. His time in New York coincides with the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, and Bobby loses his partner to the disease. His friends lose partners and friends to the disease.

Do you know or think that I misrepresented or misinterpreted any of these?  Please comment below.  Let me know. I’m hoping the list of books that I read in 2018 that include LGBTQIA+ characters grows far longer than this.

Book Review: The Raven King Refuses Expectation and Surprises Despite Prophecy

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

Pretty much spoiler-free.

This is an odd review, because I’ve now read the book twice. I generally try to write my reviews while the story is still fresh in my mind but missed that pass when I first borrowed the hardback from the library not long after its release in April 2017. The paperback I read in late April 2018.

The Raven King wasn’t what I was expecting—and I don’t know why I thought it would be; no book in the series has been what I expected. But I guess I thought that by the fourth book, the only one that I couldn’t read immediately when I wanted to because I had to wait for its publication, I would have come to a point where at the very least the tropes of the genre would steer the book in a direction that I could anticipate. The tropes did not. Stiefvater ruthlessly undercuts expectations and genre clichés. And ordinarily I’m 100% down with that, but this time… it was a little bit of a let down, to read 4 books about a quest that ultimately falls a little flat.

But hold that phone.

I love how writing reviews can solidify my views of a book. Now that I’m thinking about the book less as a reading experience and more as an undercutting of every built-up expectation, I’m becoming more and more on board. And I guess I’ll just have to read it a third time and revel in its unmaking of the tropes (yeah, I said it).

What a fine, fine line to toe though, between failing to fulfill a reader’s expectations and desire and surprising them. There are lessons to be learnt here.

That ability to surprise me despite how many books I’ve read in the genre, despite both the first in the series and this last beginning with the characters musing about their foretold destinies, is astounding.

And I know I’m an easy mark, but still.

The second time, knowing the conclusion, I was more on board. I was more on board with an unconventional conclusion, with an unexpected resolution, with an improvised solution.

And of course I was here for the prose, the beautiful, beautiful prose that had me rereading passages and reading passages out loud to anyone who would listen to hope that they would revel with me in the language, in the thing so beautifully captured and expressed, in the pointed description that is at once perfectly succinct and poetic.

One of my favorite lines from the prologue is this:

“A Gansey reached bravely into the night-blind water, fate uncertain until the hilt of a sword was pressed into a hopeful palm.”

And of course I was here for the characters. Tumblr user h-abibti once described this series like “long road trips and the sound of laughter in a car full of people you love and its singing on the top of your lungs to lame music” (the quote continues beautifully; follow the link and read the full quote), and that’s so accurate. I think the intimacy with which the characters treat one another invites the reader into that intimacy and refuses to let the reader not care. I care deeply. These are friends. A stew of psychoses, yes, but friends. There are new friends here too. I want to give a shout-out to Henry Cheng, the unexpected, late addition to the court, Chinese/Korean American who though he has an extensive vocabulary and sharp wit struggles to communicate how he’d like to do out loud in English or any other language.

I have to give this book 4 stars because I was still not on board totally this second read, but I suspect that a third reading might raise my rating of the book.

****

Stiefvater, Maggie. The Raven Cycle, Book 4: The Raven King. New York: Scholastic, 2018. First published 2017.

This review is not endorsed by Maggie Stiefvater or Scholastic, Inc.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

Book Review: SPOILERS: The Burning Maze Wrecked Me, and I Loved It

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

This whole review is a spoiler. The spoilers are what I want to talk about.

 

I think I had a few days’ time at least of understanding certain friends’ reactions to Sirius Black’s death—and I’m sorry I didn’t understand then. We had Sirius for 1625 pages. We had Jason for 3029 pages. And I’m being maybe generous to Sirius and stingy to Jason, starting from the verbal revelation that Peter Pettigrew is alive and including all of The Goblet of Fire, for most of which Sirius is off-screen, and starting with The Lost Hero, including all of The Heroes of Olympus, but excluding the first two books of The Trials of Apollo and any of the books taking place simultaneously to or between the end of The Blood of Olympus and The Burning Maze (so none of the Magnus Chase books or Percy’s explanations of mythology). I’m guessing this is why this death was so much worse for me. And social media and fan culture has only got stronger and more pervasive since Sirius’ death (though I was on discussion boards before Order of the Phoenix, and I’m on none for Riordan). For a few days Pinterest was painful to visit because there was all of this fan art and discussions of future conversations between the seven, and I just kept thinking, “The poor dears. They don’t know.”

I was messed up for a few days (that reading that scene and finding out about a real-world personal tragedy coincided admittedly did not help, but the fact remains that I was messed up about Jason for a few hours before I found out about the personal tragedy). I frantically searched for anyone who had already read the story or who wouldn’t read the story so that I could spew my feelings, even going so far as to query a professional Facebook group of which I am a part (and finding my solace there in mutual feels).

Now eleven days on (six days since I finished the novel), I am ready to fully admit that I am so proud­­ of—but also angry with upset with—Rick Riordan, ready to forgive and accept. I am horribly, terribly scared that this is his Eddard Stark, that this is his declaration that no one is safe, that all rules of rewards or punishments for desert are out the window. I am as proud now as I was of George Martin—albeit really belated because I only read The Game of Thrones in 2016, and it was first published in 1996—before he started bringing his protags back as zombies.

I was so excited and proud that Riordan had decided to break up Piper and Jason. I thought that was a bold step. I didn’t realize then that it was a precursor to a bigger step away from the fandom wish-fulfillment. I really should recognize this pattern now, of distancing the character beneath the ax blade’s shadow from the others so that their death hurts just that infinitesimal bit less (to write about as much as to read about, I think). Martin remains the only author in this genre that I’ve found that does not to do this when killing off a main protagonist. Rowling certainly does. But Martin don’t care. He’ll crush us. I’m potentially comparing apples and oranges though. Martin has no pretense about writing for adults alone; Rowling and Riordan both began these series as for children.

I’m going to need to read this book again. I’m going to need to read this book knowing what’s coming. I’m going to need to reread the scenes following Jason’s death, which were raw and real, especially for Piper. I’m going to need to appreciate those more later.

There’s little else I want to talk about except for the impact of that one character and that one scene. I do want to point out that the scenes of war council at the bottom of the cistern, fueled by take-out enchiladas, were wonderfully raw too, I particularly enjoyed the first. I want to point out how much I enjoyed the idea of Incitatus playing Caligula for his own agenda, to create a world dominated by horses, how much I enjoyed him as a villain (and I’m a little upset that he won’t be our main antagonist going forward).

Everyone was less annoying, more grounded, more heroic here. Everyone.  Everyone came into their own: Grover as a Lord of the Wild and protector but also as a staple of the Percy Jackson world since page 1 as if Riordan too was remembering how much Grover has seen with us, Apollo as a hero, Meg as a daughter of Demeter and friend of the Nature.  The pacing seemed better here too than in the previous two of this series, the whole of the story more solid, more weighty. I feel like this book is where this series, these characters finally hit their stride for me, and now I’m looking forward eagerly and apprehensively to the next—especially if Reyna and/or Hylla will be there (Piper says Reyna, but I’m kind of hoping the twist will be that we really need Hylla and the Amazons); Reyna seems too obvious.

*****

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

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