Baby Monkey, Private Eye

Baby Monkey Private EyeBaby Monkey, Private Eye by Brian Selznick and David Serlin, 2018

For all ages; humor and mystery

Do you want to know how to troll a children’s librarian? Create a book that doesn’t quite fit into any category. Give it a controlled vocabulary with short sentences, repetitive text, and a very large font, appropriate for a child who has just started reading. Divide it into several brief chapters, but it needs to be too short and easy to be shelved with chapter books. But make it nearly 200 pages long, so that it doesn’t fit in with the readers. (It’s fine if most of the pages don’t have any words) And you want the cover to be about 8 inches by 5 ½ inches and the illustrations to be mostly black and white. If it’s bigger or more colorful, librarians could consider it a picture book. It has to be fiction; most libraries shelve all juvenile nonfiction together, so that would pose no problem. Definitely don’t divide the page into panels, because you don’t want to let anyone think it’s a graphic novel. I think that covers all the bases. Children’s librarians will have no idea what to do.

That’s what Brian Selznick did with this book. I’ve been telling people that I think he created this book for the very purpose of befuddling librarians. Selznick has already created three middle-grade illustrated novels that blur the lines between picture book, novel, and graphic novel. But those books were at a high enough reading level that it was kind of a no-brainer to stick them in JF. (That stands for “Juvenile Fiction”, which is the name of the middle-grade chapter-book section in practically every library) But thanks to our new friend Baby Monkey, those days of simplicity are over.

The book has five chapters, each with just a few sentences. And most of those sentences, (“Baby Monkey looks for clues. Baby Monkey writes notes. Baby Monkey eats a snack. Baby Monkey puts on his pants.”) are the same in each chapter. The biggest difference is the what the stolen object is. Also, Baby Monkey’s diet includes a variety of snacks. But despite the repetition, attentive readers will find plenty of subtleties in the illustrations to keep their interest for all 191 pages. The style, described as “chiaroscuro” in Publishers Weekly, is detailed and atmospheric, and those details include references to a variety of famous works of art. As a whole, Baby Monkey, Private Eye is actually a pretty intellectual work. In fact, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this book to older readers, as long as I also suggest that they take a good look at the art in Baby Monkey’s office. They might want to refer to the bibliographical references and notes in the back of the book. Yes, there are bibliographical references in this easy reader. There’s also an index, which is probably my favorite thing about this book. Unlike the story itself, the index is long and pleonastic, with very small print. It includes not only characters and objects mentioned in the text or featured in a picture, but also minor details like “wainscoting”, because that’s a feature of Baby Monkey’s office. All this for a book that opens, “Who is Baby Monkey? He is a baby. He is a monkey.”

So, in summary, I can only say that this is an awesome book and I love it. Only Brian Selznick could pull off such a bizarre, unclassifiable book, but he does it so well that the book is exemplary in every category that it sort-of-kind-of-but-not-really falls into. (Early reader, picture book, graphic novel…) And although I still think that Selznick did this just to be complicate people’s lives, I’d love to see more of the same. Baby Monkey himself is a lovable character who transcends all age boundaries, thanks to his distinctively adorable face, intelligent problem-solving skills, and hilarious struggles to put on his pants. (I have a feeling that many young readers will especially enjoy those parts.)

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A Dash of Trouble

Love Sugar Magic: A Dash of Trouble by Anna Meriano, 2018

Children’s novel for grades 4-8; fantasy

Love Sugar MagicEleven-year-old Leo (short for Leonora) is upset that she isn’t allowed to take the day off from school to help out in her family’s bakery. Tomorrow is the Dia de los Muertos festival in her small Texas town, and there’s so much work to do that Leo’s four older sisters are all spending the day in the bakery. Leo is tired of being told she’s too young. In an act of defiance, she sneaks to the bakery and hides to spy on her mother, aunt, and sisters. That’s when she discovers that her family has a big secret. (And it’s yet another thing that she’s left out of because she’s too young)  All the women in her family are brujas, Spanish for “witches” or “magicians.” Leo is desperate to learn more. While snooping, she finds a spellbook that answers some of her questions, and she manages to coax some information out of her sisters as well. When Leo begins trying her own hand at magic, things predictably go wrong due to her lack of magical experience and knowledge.

I’m looking forward to seeing how this series continues. I feel like there’s a lot of fun stuff that Meriano can do with this premise, and the characters are likable and distinctive enough to keep readers interested in following their ongoing story. The mostly-positive family relationships and usually-good intentions of the characters sets a light-hearted, feel-good tone. (There’s some bickering, selfishness, and poor choices, but just enough to be believable) Although most of the major plot points are results of wrong things that Leo does, her thought process is presented in a way that almost makes her decisions seem natural. And her narrative voice (although the text is in third person) is very authentic. It realistically captures the thoughts and feelings of an eleven-year-old girl who feels left out and is desperate to achieve things and prove her capabilities. Despite the fantasy elements, this story also has strong appeal factors for middle-grade readers who generally prefer realistic fiction.

Another thing that makes this book noteworthy, at least to me, is the Hispanic characters and cultural backdrop. My library is in a community with a large Hispanic population, so that’s definitely a demographic niche that I want to be well-represented in our collection. But most middle-grade books featuring Hispanic characters are serious realistic fiction, and many are specifically about social issues. It’s great to have those books, but some kids would rather read a fun book about magical cookies. And I think that a lot of my library kids share Leo’s conviction that Dia de los Muertos is the best holiday, so it’s great that this book involves that celebration without portraying it as something foreign and exotic. Leo doesn’t speak Spanish fluently, but most of her family members do, and there are a lot of Spanish words and phrases in this book. I don’t just mean that the characters use a few well-known Spanish words like “hola” and “gracias”; there are entire recipes that Leo reads in Spanish and must translate in order to understand.

But maybe the best thing of all about this story is that it’s about baking. Cookies and breads are a constant motif, and the book has a good number of recipes at the end of the book. (The ones interspersed throughout the text call for magical ingredients like spiderwebs, signatures, and people’s eyelashes, in addition to actually edible things) Magic is repeatedly described as having a distinctive spice-like smell. All of the sugar and spice in the story add up to make the overall effect, well, sweet. I’d recommend this book to most middle-grade readers and to adults with a vested interest in middle-grade fiction.

Best Books of 2017

This weekend, multiple committees are deliberating about which books will win several major awards, including the Newbery and Caldecott. (In case anyone needs the link to the livestream, here it is. You’re welcome.) Maybe I take my own opinion too seriously, but I felt compelled to get my Best of 2017 list out there before the actual awards are announced. To be honest, originally the idea was that my list would be ready to go on New Year’s Day, but it’s taken me weeks to pull this list together. There’s a fair amount of re-reading that goes into choosing my favorites. Like I said, I take this stuff seriously. But I admittedly didn’t spend nearly as much time or effort on actually writing this, so bear with me and ignore any typos or poor writing. Here are the books that made my final cut. (I’ve given myself a maximum of seven favorites per category, but I’ve also included runners-up for the picture books and middle grade novels.)

 

Picture Books

Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut by Derrick Barnes, illustrated by Gordon C. James

I have far too many things to say about this book to include them all here. The simplicity of the plot, the positive messages, the tone that is somehow both vernacular and poetic… And the illustrations are fascinating. I’ve just spent quite a bit of time looking very closely at them and wondering why people’s faces look so realistic and nuanced when the brushstrokes are so visible and so wide. This book is best suited for older readers than most picture books are; it’s written at about a second or third grade reading level and has appeal factors for a middle-grade audience. Personally, I think it’s also good for teens and adults, although it’s a pretty quick read.

 

All the Way to Havana by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Mike Curato

This book paints a picture of Cuban life that celebrates the people, the family relationships, and the inventive ways that they keep old cars running. The main character’s family owns an old blue Chevy that they call “Cara Cara,” because that’s one of the sounds she makes. Because it’s been in the family for multiple generations, Cara Cara has personality, and it’s a likable one at that. This picture book would make a great next-step-up for kids who have enjoyed preschool-level books about vehicles. Of course, it also has a multicultural appeal factor, and the art is beautiful. I’d recommend it to kids around seven to nine years old to read independently, or to teachers to read aloud to classes from Kindergarten to about second grade.

 

Little Wolf’s First Howling by Laura McGee Kvasnosky and Kate Harvey McGee

Little Wolf's First HowlingHere we’re moving on to a picture book that does work as a read-aloud for preschoolers. It’s not as short as most storytime-appropriate books, but it has a simple and fun plot, pictures that can be seen clearly from several feet away, and silly noises. The humor is just right for kids who are just barely old enough to know what sound wolves are supposed to make. Little Wolf’s incorrect howling is repeated frequently throughout the book, but it’s a joke that never gets old for an audience of preschoolers. That type of humor is not unique to this book, but what does make it distinctive is the beautiful digitally-created artwork, with its juxtaposition of soft color gradients and sharply defined black parts.It’s so simple, yet so vivid.

 

Becoming Bach by Tom Leonard

This picture book biography is a quick read, but the artwork is worth experiencing slowly.It’s done in a very realistic, detailed style, especially the faces, but it also includes colorful musical notes and swirling patterns to depict the sounds in Bach’s mind. The book celebrates not only Johann Sebastian Bach himself, but music in general. It doesn’t cover Bach’s adult life; after Bach gets his first job as a church organist, the final couple pages praise Bach’s legacy. The tone is motivational, (not so much informational) although it doesn’t contain any inspirational catchphrases in second-person. In fact, the whole book is written in first person, as if Bach himself is describing his love for music to the reader.

 

Creepy Pair of Underwear! By Aaron Reynolds, illustrated by Peter Brown

Glow-in-the-dark green creepy underwear is so much cooler than plain white underwear, right? That’s what Jasper Rabbit thinks, but when he wears his new creepy underwear to bed, he realizes that they’re a little too creepy. So he switches underpants and puts the creepy ones in the laundry. But when he wakes up, he’s wearing the creepy underwear! Every day, he tries another method to get rid of the creepy underwear, and every day, they come back. This book is a sequel to Creepy Carrots from 2012, which was a Caldecott honor, and extremely popular among young readers. Jasper Rabbit’s new adventure has the added appeal factor of underwear humor. While this may not be the most poignant and meaningful literary work on this list, it’s a fun read and a huge hit with its target audience.

 

Town is By the Sea by Joanne Schwartz, illustrated Sydney Smith

On a more serious note, this sparsely-worded book comes from the perspective of a boy whose father works in the coal mine below the sea. The text is repetitive and unemotional, even at the end when the narrator thinks about the “bright days of summer and the dark tunnels underground” and acknowledges that he will someday give up those bright days for those dark tunnels. The illustrations do a beautiful job of matching the book’s tone, especially the sea’s quiet beauty and the dark, featureless coal mine. After giving the matter some consideration, I’ve decided that this book comes at the top of my Caldecott wish list.

 

Escargot by Dashka Slater, illustrated by Sydney Hanson

EscargotWhat’s your favorite animal? It’s probably not the snail. As Escargot the beautiful French snail points out, nobody’s favorite animal is the snail. In this interactive story, the reader accompanies Escargot on his journey towards the salad at the end of the book. (We are frequently reminded of the croutons and light vinaigrette) Along the way, Escargot will explain what is so great about snails, and will also let the reader know how much he dislikes carrots. (Spoiler: Escargot later changes his mind about this) The conversational, humorous tone is enough to make this book a fun read, but Escargot himself is a unique, likable, and memorable character. There is a genuine sense of friendship and affection between reader and character. At least, I felt a bond with that cartoon snail, but maybe I’m just that weird. At any rate, I highly recommend this book to anyone who ever reads books to preschoolers.  

 

More Picture Books

The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors by Drew Daywalt, illustrated by Adam Rex

In the Middle of Fall by Kevin Henkes, illustrated by Laura Dronzek

A Greyhound, a Groundhog by Emily Jenkins, illustrated by Chris Appelhans

A Different Pond by Bao Phi, illustrated by Thi Bui

Tyrannosaurus Rex vs. Edna the Very First Chicken by Douglas Rees, illustrated by Jed Henry

After the Fall: How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again by Dan Santat

Baby Loves Quantum Physics! By Ruth Spiro, illustrated by Irene Chan

 

Readers

 

It’s Shoe Time! By Bryan Collier

This book is part of the “Elephant & Piggie Like Reading!” series, and therefore is presented as a story that is being read by those characters from author/illustrator Mo Willems. Although each of these books include some dialogue from Elephant and Piggie, the books in this series are otherwise unrelated and independent; in fact, they’re written by different authors. Considering that this book bears both Willems’ and Colliers’ names on the cover, it goes without saying that it’s a good one. The story features anthropomorphic shoes who are shocked and upset when their owner chooses to wear shoes that don’t match. The dad-joke style humor includes switching homonyms (“knot” and “not”, “pair” and “pear”) as well as assigning personalities to the shoes. It’s silly, but it’s a fun read.

 

Pizza Mouse by Michael Garland

When it comes to readers, a lower reading level generally means a simpler, less interesting story. There’s only so much plot and character development that you can squeeze into a few dozen words, few of which are more than one syllable. So when I see a book this easy that tells a complete story with memorable characters, humor, and a satisfying ending, I consider it an excellent book. This story is about a mouse living in the city, who must hide from the many people and animals who don’t like mice. But he also needs to find food. When he is chased by a hawk, he hides in a thrown-away pizza box, which happens to have a slice of pizza in it. Then he gets on the subway to take it home. This entire story is told in twenty sentences, even if you count one-word exclamations. The longest sentence has six words and the longest few words are two-syllable. A beginning reader in kindergarten or first grade is likely to be motivated by this book, as it’s much more fun than most reading material at a comparable level.

 

The Good for Nothing Button by Charise Mericle Harper

blog picture Good for Nothing ButtonThis is another “Elephant & Piggie Like Reading!” book. I have a feeling that we’ll see this series dominating early readers for a while to come. In this one, three birds take turns pressing a little red button that does nothing. At least, Yellow Bird says the button does nothing. But the button surprises Blue Bird. (It’s so easy to press!) And it makes Red Bird sad, because it doesn’t surprise him. Yellow Bird is adamant that the button does nothing, and when his friends say otherwise, he gets mad. Blue Bird and Red Bird attribute his anger to the button, of course. In the end, (spoiler!) they all decide that the button makes them funny, and they like being funny. Because the birds are so expressive, the wide range of emotions in this story are hilarious. (But if you’re over the age of about seven or eight, you’ll have to suspend your maturity to get the most out of it.)

 

Chapter Books

 

King & Kayla and the Case of the Secret Code by Dori Hillestad Butler, illustrated by Nancy Meyers

At the moment, this brand new series has three titles, with a fourth one scheduled to come out in March. I’ve only read two of them, and this is the one I liked better. For the record, though, they’re both good, and I would highly recommend this series to kids who are in the process of transitioning to books with paragraphs and chapters. (I had actually initially intended to list this  as a reader; it’s a close call.) The books are about a girl and her dog, who solve minor mysteries. As the title implies, the mystery in this particular book is a coded message that someone leaves for Kayla. King, the dog, is the narrator, which adds an element of humor. For example, this book opens with King trying to teach Kayla a trick called “Get King Some Cheese Trick,” and King refers to every kind of food as his favorite food.

 

The Princess in Black and the Mysterious Playdate by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale, illustrated by LeUyen Pham

The newest Princess in Black book came out the day before my birthday, and I got my hands on a copy on my birthday. It was a special thing. (Even if I am about twenty years older than the target audience) Of course, this fifth book in the series did not disappoint.This time, Princess Magnolia is visiting her friend Princess Sneezewort when a monster shows up. Princess Sneezewort does not realize that Princess Magnolia is the mysterious Princess in Black. But she has heard of the Princess in Black, and decides to make up her own hero princess persona. Since she’s hiding in a closet, her disguise options are somewhat limited. She becomes the Princess in Blankets. Despite the fact that the two hero princesses don’t recognize each other, they become friends and “wage playdate” on the monster, thereby defeating it. It’s a fun book all around, and I am honored to (almost) share a birthday with it.

 

Isadora Moon Goes to School by Harriet Muncaster

2017 Isadora MoonTechnically, this book (along with the next three books in the series) came out in 2016, but Isadora didn’t show up in America until this past August. We Americans still only have the first two books, although number three comes out this month. Isadora Moon’s mother is a fairy and her father is a vampire, so these books are a comical blend of girly and spooky. Between her unique heritage and her efforts to always do the right thing, Isadora is a highly likable protagonist. Her books are perfect for Princess in Black fans who are ready for something slightly more advanced. I personally preferred this first book to the second one, Isadora Moon Goes Camping.

 

Charlie & Mouse by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Emily Hughes

This is another one that is very close to the fine line between “reader” and “chapter book”. It’s also another one that owes much of its merit to its humor. The title characters are brothers whose antics include selling rocks and demanding bedtime bananas. I was reminded of Andrew Lobel’s Frog and Toad books, and even more so, of the 1996 book My Brother Ant by Betsy Byars. As in those books, the four chapters are essentially separate short stories, but they do relate to each other. The first chapter mentions the neighborhood party that the brothers go to in the second chapter, and the fourth chapter repeats some of the humorous dialogue from the first chapter. This book already has a sequel, so I expect that it will be a continuing series.

 

Graphic Novels

 

Pigs Might Fly by Nick Abadzis and Jerel Dye

Personally, I have mixed feelings about all the pig puns and the somewhat cliche tropes. (The protagonist Lily must disobey her overprotective father and run away from home in order to save her community from invaders, which only she can do because she’s actually smarter than the grown-ups who think they have all the answers.) But the world-building alone makes this a story that stands out. Pigdom Plains is a place where magic and science are at odds, and there is tension and animosity between those with different opinions. There are elements of fantasy, and a sort of steampunk flavor, but Lily’s home is a farming community. These elements combine surprisingly well. Lily and her father are both purists who have devoted themselves to developing an aircraft that can fly without using any magic. Lily is actually very close to reaching that goal, but she has been keeping her work a secret. Her father recently dismissed his protege, Ham Trotters, for wanting to build aircraft that relies on magic. Ham Trotters turns out to be the primary antagonist. Due to the complexity of the plot and the protagonist’s apparent age, (I don’t think her age is ever specified) I would consider this graphic novel to be on the younger side of YA, but it also would make a good choice for a slightly younger reader who enjoys adventures with fantastical settings.

 

Brave by Svetlana Chmakova

Fans of Raina Telgemeier would do well to take note of Chmakova, whose realistic-fiction graphic novels portray real-world middle-school scenarios. Jensen Graham compares his middle school experience to a video game. He just has to get through each day to get to the next level… although he really wishes that the school newspaper would publish his article on sunspots. After an incident when he takes refuge in the newspaper office while running away from “game monsters,” (mean classmates) he ends up regularly helping out with the newspaper and vlog, which are run by classmates Jenny, Akilah, and Felipe. What they most want from him, though, is an interview for a social studies project on “lizard brain culture in middle school”. Jensen isn’t really sure what they mean by that, so it takes him by surprise when they describe bullying behavior as a defense mechanism and ask him about his experience as a victim of bullying. But Jensen doesn’t think he’s being bullied. That detail is the twist that makes this anti-bullying story distinctive (and more realistic) among the plethora of other anti-bullying stories. It ends on a very positive note, as Jensen starts actively challenging the “lizard brain culture” and bullying behaviors at his school.

 

Real Friends by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham

This is another one that reminds me of Raina Telgemeier, not only because of the style of art and the realistic setting, but because it’s autobiographical, like Smile (2010) and Sisters. (2014) As a side note, I think it’s completely fair to use Telgemeier’s name to describe the style and “feel” of other graphic novels because Smile was (and still is) so popular that it really did set the standard for realistic, female-aimed, middle-grade graphic novels. And to return to the matter at hand, that’s exactly what Real Friends is. It chronicles the friendships and social life of the author during her entire elementary school experience. Childhood Shannon and her long-term friend Adrienne are part of a clique referred to simply as The Group, where everyone’s social standing is constantly in flux. For example, the summer before fourth grade, Shannon spends time with ultra-popular Jen, meaning that Shannon is momentarily at the front of the lineup. But she immediately plummets in popularity when another girl, Jenny, evidently starts spreading lies about Shannon. Meanwhile, Shannon also has a tumultuous relationship with her older sister Wendy. Because this is a true story, it concludes on a short-term high note, rather than a happily-ever-after ending.That’s one of several factors that give this book an honest, straightforward feel that makes it stand out among the many middle-grade stories about friendships and cliques.

 

All’s Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson

2017 All's Faire in Middlle SchoolAfter the success of Jamieson’s debut graphic novel Roller Girl last year, I was excited when I found out that she already had a new one on the way. I made sure I read it pretty much as soon as it came out. It did not disappoint. (In fact, I liked it better than Roller Girl, but don’t tell my manager, because Roller Girl is special to her.) Jamieson’s new protagonist is Imogene, a preteen who has spent much of her childhood at the renaissance faire, where her homeschool curriculum is blended with her parents’ jobs. (Her Dad is the “bad guy” knight Sir Hugo, and her mother has an arts-and-crafts shoppe.) But now that she’s starting sixth grade, Imogene wants a taste of “normal” and decides to go to public school. She’s prepared for some degree of middle school social drama and bullying, but what she’s not prepared for is poor grades, trouble with teachers, and the repercussions of giving into seemingly minor peer pressure. (Her classmates are amused by a drawing of Imogene’s, and they encourage her to make more unkind caricatures.) The next thing Imogene knows, she’s been labeled as a bully and is in trouble for keeping her failing science grade a secret from her parents. I already was interested by the renaissance faire setting and was enjoying the contrast in Imogene’s double life, but eventually, I felt that the story became emotionally powerful as well as interesting. When Imogene feels like her world is falling apart because everyone’s angry at her, and all of her problems seem to have suddenly come up out of nowhere, it felt very true to my own preteen experience. Even though Imogene’s specific situation is out of the ordinary, I think that her emotional response will strike a chord with most readers in that general age range.

 

Middle Grade Novels

 

Tumble & Blue by Cassie Beasley

2017 Tumble and BlueBlue Montgomery is cursed to lose at any game or contest, and Tumble Wilson is a dedicated hero-in-training. Together, they aim to get rid of Blue’s family curse. They aren’t quite sure how, but it has something to do with the mysterious golden alligator in the Okefenokee Swamp. When I read this back in the beginning of December, I started writing up a review for it, which I never quite finished. I had quite a lot to say about the characterization, especially about the backstory and motivations of the girl who calls herself Tumble. I also had a lot to say about the charming Southern small-town setting (think Sheila Turnage or Natalie Lloyd) and the half-realistic, half-fantasy vibe. I wouldn’t quite call it magical realism, because it doesn’t have the understated quality typical of the magic parts in magical realism, but it’s something close to that. For the sake of brevity, I’m not going to expand on those points here, but I do want to emphasize that I loved this book. It’s about family, friendship, heroism, and destiny, but I’d say it’s mostly about friendship.

 

Forever or a Long, Long Time by Caela Carter

Siblings Flora and Julian finally have a comfortable home with loving adoptive parents, but their years in the foster care system have left them with trust issues, limited social skills, and some mistaken beliefs. Flora knows that she and her brother weren’t babies and were never born. She and Julian have many theories about where they came from, but since they didn’t have parents, they couldn’t have been born, right? When Flora and Julian find out that their mother (Flora calls her “Person”) is expecting a baby, the situation brings up a lot of questions about their own past. Eventually, the two kids and their mother go on a road trip to track down answers, one foster family at a time. Meanwhile, Flora is struggling in school and butting heads with her “sister” Elena, who is her adoptive father’s biological daughter from his previous marriage.With these types of plot points, this book obviously has themes and messages associated with family. It seems to be a brand-new trend in children’s/YA literature to address the foster care system and the lasting effects it has on children. I’ve read a few such books this year, but it’s not something that I’ve seen much in the past. I’m in favor of this trend. There are so many kids in such situations who should have the opportunity to read books that reflect their experiences, and there are so many other kids who have no idea that such situations even exist. Even aside from the fact that this book is interesting and well-written, it’s the kind of story that builds awareness and empathy in its readers.

 

See You in the Cosmos by Jack Cheng

Eleven-year-old Alex Petroski from “Rockford, Colorado, United States of America, planet earth” is a young man with big goals. In particular, he wants to build  a working rocket and launch his iPod into space. This book is a transcript of the audio files he records on his iPod, which begins as a message to hypothetical life-forms on other planets, and ends up being a sort of diary. At first, he’s documenting his trip to a rocket festival. But that event turns into an extended road trip with new friends. (And his loyal dog, named Carl Sagan after Alex’s hero) Alex is intelligent, precocious, and so self-sufficient that he is also essentially a caretaker for his mother. But he’s also naive and far too trusting of near-strangers. His narrative voice is believable and conversational. As I read this book, there was never a point where I lost sight of Alex speaking all these words into his iPod. As long as I’m playing favorites here, I’ll acknowledge that this is probably number seven out of my seven favorite middle-grade novels of the year. It’s the characterization, especially of Alex himself, that puts this book on this list.

 

The Girl with the Ghost Machine by Lauren DeStefano

The Girl with the Ghost MachineThis book has garnered less attention and praise than most of the others on this list, and I’m not really sure why. It’s poignant and emotional, beautifully written, full of likable characters, and most importantly, it’s an interesting story. Emmaline Beaumont feels like she’s lost both her parents; her mother has died and her grief-stricken father is obsessed with building a machine that he hopes can bring her back. After two years, Emmaline has had enough. One night, she pours a cupful of tea into the machine with the intention of sabotaging it. Instead, her tea turns out to be the ingredient that makes the machine work. Fueled by the memories associated with tea, the machine brings Emmaline’s mother back just long enough for a new cup of tea. There’s just one catch. Once the machine uses a memory, that memory is gone. Emmaline keeps this all a secret, except from her best friends, twins Gully and Oliver. Eventually, the machine’s success is also discovered by Emmaline’s father and an elderly neighbor. Each of the characters is faced with decisions and questions. Which is more valuable, a memory of a loved one, or a chance for one more conversation with that loved one?

 

Family Game Night and Other Catastrophes by Mary E. Lambert

Annabelle’s mother is a hoarder. It’s a problem that’s been getting progressively worse for a while. On Annabelle’s tenth birthday, she got tired of her mother’s “collections” in her bedroom, so she dumped it all out the window. She also set the rule that her friends can’t come within five miles of her home. Now, a couple years later, (Annabelle is twelve or thirteen; she just finished seventh grade) her bedroom is the only clean room in the house and the clutter is reaching a crisis point. This book is a cross between a lighthearted preteen summertime story and a candidly honest narrative about the damage that disordered behaviors can do, and about the importance of accepting help. There’s more than a hint that Annabelle’s neat and minimalistic habits are abnormal, and that she has much more in common with her mother than she realizes. Fortunately, (spoiler alert!) the story has a hopeful ending. Annabelle’s mother admits that she’s a hoarder and needs help, the relationships in the family start to heal, and the cute boy who saw Annabelle’s house likes her anyway.

 

The Ethan I Was Before by Ali Standish

I assume it’s only a coincidence that this book, like Tumble & Blue, is set in a small town in a swampy part of Georgia. And they both are about a boy who is new to town (it’s one of his parents’ hometown, and he is staying with a grandparent) and a quirky girl who quickly befriends him. (Their covers are very similar, too.) I suppose it’s possible that I have a slight bias to particularly like this setting, but it’s already kind of funny that such similar books were published just months apart. In this case, the new boy is Ethan Truitt, whose family has moved away from their Boston home in the hopes that the change will help with Ethan’s trauma. He blames himself for a tragic accident last winter. And the quirky girl is Coralee, who is full of wild stories, but also keeps a lot of secrets. Their adventures include a mystery, terrible storms, and (sort of) a ghost story. And over time, they gradually reveal more and more of their stories to each other and to the reader.

 

The Secret of Nightingale Wood by Lucy Strange

2017 Secret of Nightingale WoodThis one wouldn’t have made the list if I had posted this shortly after New Year’s as I had intended; I only just finished reading the book a few days ago. But it’s actually probably my very favorite middle grade novel of the year. Unfortunately, it isn’t eligible for the Newbery because a) it’s not American; the author’s home and the original place of publication are the UK. b) It was originally published in 2016. The 2017 pub date is for the American edition. But Newbery eligibility aside, it’s a beautifully written narrative with plenty to say about family, grief, and identity. Set in 1919, it also discusses the aftermath of World War I and the horrors of psychiatric treatment in its early history. (Imagine Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, but from the perspective of the patient’s preteen daughter. Twelve-year-old Henrietta Abbott (who mostly goes by “Henry” or “Hen”) and her parents, baby sister, and nurse have just moved to Hope House, a country estate on the edge of the woods. They lost their previous home in a fire that killed Henry’s older brother Robert, and Mama is suffering from what is evidently (in today’s terminology) a combination of PTSD and postpartum depression. Before the Abbott family has had time to settle in, Father has suddenly gone away on a business trip and Mama’s condition has severely deteriorated under the care of a sinister Doctor Hardy, who keeps her confined and sedated. (The deleterious “rest cure” was actually standard treatment at the time, especially for upper-middle-class women) Interconnecting plot points show Henry defending (and eventually rescuing) her mother, gradually healing from the traumatic loss of her brother, and learning the mysterious backstory of Hope House and its former inhabitants. Lucy Strange’s writing deserves some special credit for a few beautifully simple lines that just won’t be as meaningful if I quote them out of context. My personal favorite is, “Perhaps that’s what grief is… Grief is just amputated love.” (Again, it’s so much more poignant in context.)

 

More Middle Grade Novels

Wishtree by Katherine Applegate

Lucky Broken Girl by Ruth Behar

The Peculiar Incident on Shady Street by Lindsay Currie

Scar Island by Dan Gemeinhart

Under Locker and Key by Allison K. Hymas

The Exact Location of Home by Kate Messner

Orphan Island by Laurel Snyder

 

Poetry and Novels in Verse

 

picture book Out of WonderOut of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets by Kwame Alexander with Chris Colderley and Marjory Wentworth, illustrated by Ekua Holmes

This 49-page picture book is a collection of original poems, each inspired by a different acclaimed poet. (Many of them are contemporary or recent poets, but it includes three pre-20th century poets) The bright collage illustrations and the poems are beautifully executed, both as homages and as new, original works. Although the picture book format makes this book look similar to books for preschoolers, it is in fact best suited to kids in the 3rd-5th grade range or older.

 

Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds

I was intrigued when I saw a plot summary of this YA novel in verse that said that it took place in the space of a minute. Technically, only three quarters of the book takes place during the sixty-seven seconds that the protagonist Will spends in an elevator. But three quarters of a book is still quite a lot, and there’s a lot that goes on in those sixty-seven seconds. Will is reeling from the death of his brother Shawn, who was shot on his way back from the corner store two days ago. Will knows all about the three all-important rules in his neighborhood, (don’t cry, don’t snitch, do get revenge) so he finds Shawn’s gun and heads out to shoot Riggs, an old friend of Shawn’s who is obviously the killer. (Spoiler: He actually isn’t) But as he takes the elevator down from his home on the eighth floor, the elevator makes several stops to pick up people who turn out to have a lot to say to Will. There are a lot of questions that the book never answers; it doesn’t even tell us what Will does when the elevator finally stops at the ground floor. But that unclarity (emphasized by the the large amount of blank space on each page) actually makes the story all the more powerful.

 

Forget Me Not by Ellie Terry

This one is actually only partly in verse. The verse portions are narrated by Calliope, (aka Calli) a seventh grade girl with Tourette’s syndrome. The parts in prose are narrated by Jinsong, who lives in Calli’s new apartment complex and goes to Calli’s new school. The two become friends, and although there are a few incidents that test or interrupt their friendship, they have a strong bond that becomes the focal point of this book. The story covers various aspects of the middle school social scene, the experiences of living with Tourette’s, and the nature of memories and loyalties within friendships and families.

 

YA Novels

 

Far From the Tree by Robin Benway

2017 Far from the TreeI read this book solely because it won the National Book Award, and I was a little sorry that it won, only because it was actually the only book on the shortlist that I hadn’t at least started prior to the announcement of the winners. But it is a very good book, fully deserving of that award. It follows three teenagers who are biological siblings, but have grown up in different families. Grace, an only child in her adoptive family, recently had a baby herself. After giving up her child for adoption, she wants to bond with her own biological family. Maya, her sassy and talkative younger bio sister, has grown up in a wealthy, picture-perfect family, but behind the scenes, her parents’ marriage is in trouble and her mother struggles with alcoholism. Joaquin, the oldest of the three, has spent his entire childhood and adolescence in foster care, and only now, at the age of seventeen, does he have foster parents who want to adopt him. Mixed in with all of this is the drama of teenage romance and break-ups; each of the three protagonists has a relationship-based subplot going on. Despite being near-strangers, they end up relying on each other for emotional support, gradually confiding in each other, and eventually, working together to learn more about their family history.

 

Caraval by Stephanie Garber

If I had to pigeonhole this series opener into a genre, I’d say fantasy, but it’s definitely not your typical YA fantasy novel. For one thing, the mentions of magic are subtle and mysterious; as the reader, you’re never quite sure what is and isn’t possible in this world. That is very fitting, since the protagonist Scarlett Dragna is in the same position. The setting is also very distinctive. Most of the book takes place at Caraval itself, which is an elaborate event something like a roleplaying game and something like a performance. After Scarlett and her younger sister Tella have spent their childhoods dreaming of going to Caraval, they finally get their chance. But the circumstances aren’t what Scarlett had in mind. Tella and her sailor friend Julian essentially force Scarlett to come along with them, which means running away from the girls’ controlling and abusive father, just days before Scarlett is scheduled to get married to a foreign count she’s never met. Once Caraval starts, Scarlett finds herself part of a bizarre scenario where she can never be sure what’s real and what’s pretend, who’s a friend and who’s a foe, or what will happen when Caraval is over. Also, as one would expect, Scarlett is falling in love with Julian, but it’s very unclear for most of the book whether he’s a good guy or a bad guy. This is a great book for teen readers who like unique settings, complicated plots, and lots of suspense.

 

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

Is there really much more to say than that John Green wrote it? It’s a more-or-less realistic fiction YA novel featuring teenagers who are all either a) fun and quirky, or b) unrealistically articulate, self-aware, and quick with the clever lines. It somehow manages to be a light read, the kind of book that you can finish in a couple days without actually trying to do so, despite the fact that most of the dialogue and internal monologues are full of metaphors and existential questions. Along the way, there’s a plethora of quotable lines. So far, all of that applies to John Green’s writing in general. This particular John Green novel also discusses mental illness (specifically, OCD) and what it means to be a person. Sixteen-year-old Aza, the protagonist, often finds herself obsessing about the fact that half the cells within the human body are microbes rather than human cells, or speculating about whether she’s just a made-up person.At the risk of parroting countless Goodreads reviews, I’d like to comment that I have OCD and found Aza’s thought process very familiar, almost uncannily so. I also appreciated that, unlike most YA novels about mental illness,  there are other things that happen in this book. Aza’s anxiety and intrusive thoughts are set against a backdrop with school, friends, a local mystery, and a crush on an old friend who happens to be connected with the mystery. It’s nice to read a book that acknowledges that people with mental illnesses have to deal with all of the challenges of “real life,” too, and that’s why it’s so tough.

 

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sanchez

2017 I am not your perfect mexican daughterFifteen-year-old Julia Reyes is independent, outspoken, and a bit of a troublemaker. Her Mexican-born mother despairs that Julia doesn’t know how to make a decent tortilla and isn’t religious. Julia hates that her family doesn’t give her more freedom and doesn’t support her plans to go away to college and become a famous writer. She isn’t at all like her sister Olga, who recently died at the age of twenty-two. Olga was domestic, unambitious, and well-behaved. She took one class a semester at community college so that she could live at home and work a dull office job. This book covers a couple years of Julia’s teenage experience, which includes many clashes with her mother, a belated quinceanera, boy drama, struggles with depression, a trip to Mexico, and some detective work that leads her to learn secrets about both her sister and her mother. Just like everybody’s real life, Julia’s story is full of overlapping problems, complicated relationships, and questions that aren’t satisfactorily answered. I’ve seen online critiques of this book that call Julia an unlikable character, but in my opinion, she’s a good character because she’s so believable. Her terse and sassy voice (both as a first-person narrator and in dialogue) are one of the things that sets her so far apart from her mother and sister, which is kind of the whole point.

 

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Near the beginning of the 2017 calendar year, this novel was probably the most talked-about new book. Because it addresses racial issues and opens with a young black man dying at a police officer’s hand, it ties in closely with controversial current events. Although the people in this book are fictional characters, and their backstories may or may not be taken from real life, the book offers a realistic context for the all-too-familiar story of thug-vs-police. The protagonist is sixteen-year-old Starr Carter, who feels like she’s living a double life because she lives in a poor black neighborhood and goes to an upper-middle-class school where virtually all of her classmates are white. On page 23, she witnesses the death of her childhood friend Khalil, who was giving her a ride when he was pulled over for a broken taillight. The police officer shoots Khalil, later explaining that he mistook Khalil’s hairbrush for a gun. For the rest of the book, Starr is simultaneously trying to evade the media, tell her story to those investigating the incident, and keep all of this a secret from her rich white friends. Meanwhile, the media has a lot to say about the shooting, and the possibility that Khalil is a drug dealer. Starr is pretty sure that he was indeed dealing drugs in order to pay family members’ medical bills, but she also knows that this had nothing to do with his death, and that he was so much more than just a lawless, faceless thug from a shady neighborhood. And by the way, the only reason I’m throwing the word “thug” around is that it shows up a lot in the book; the title is in fact a nod to rapper Tupac, who said that “thug” is an abbreviation for “The Hate U Give”.

 

Nonfiction

 

Robins! How They Grow Up by Eileen Christelow

blog picture RobinsThis beautiful nonfiction picture book is a quick and easy read, well-suited to be read aloud to young kids or to be read alone by older kids. (I’d recommend it to anyone over the age of about five or six, and it’s at about a third-grade reading level.) But it covers its topic very thoroughly. It specifies details such as how much a baby robin eats at various stages, how the young birds learn how to fly, and what predators they face. This information is all conveyed from the perspective of the baby robins, giving the narrative a conversational feel and a narrative voice that you would usually only find in fiction. But the real kicker is the artwork, which is so detailed and realistic that it also has educational value. Readers will gain very precise knowledge of what a baby bird looks like at different stages, from the moment it hatches until its first molting as winter approaches. In between, we watch the birds as they grow feathers, leave the nest, and learn to feed themselves.

 

Sandwiches! More than You’ve Ever Wanted to Know About Making and Eating America’s Favorite Food by Alison Deering and Bob Lentz

I never really expected a cookbook to make it onto one of my Best-of-the-Year lists. Especially not a cookbook that features such simple “recipes”. Who needs a cookbook to put together a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or to stick some meat and cheese between two slices of bread? Well, if you are interested in the origin stories of your favorite types of sandwiches, or if you appreciate some creativity in the kitchen, this cookbook is much more of a fun read than “normal” cookbooks. Each sandwich gets its own double-page spread, which makes room for plenty of fun facts and cooking tips, plus illustrations of the individual layers and of the completed sandwich. The brightly colored, cartoonish illustrations are very child-friendly, as is the language, but there’s no reason that an adult can’t enjoy this book. (and the sandwiches that it describes)

 

Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers by Deborah Heiligman

2017 Vincent and TheoI really can’t say enough about what a great book this is. Sure, it’s long, and it definitely is a bit dark. (After all, it’s largely about mental illness, and neither Vincent nor Theo had an easy life or met a peaceful end) But the writing style, the author’s attention to detail in describing setting, the honest portrayal of complicated relationships… It’s all very vivid and gripping in a way that you wouldn’t expect from a nonfiction book with tiny little print. This book has been reviewed, marketed, and cataloged as a YA book, but I think it holds just as much appeal for adults, particularly those in their twenties or early thirties who can relate to the early-adulthood struggles that Vincent and Theo face. (Jobs that don’t work out, the pursuit of purpose and meaning, failed romantic relationships, financial hardships, the frustration of relying on family members when you want to be independent, etc.) The absolute best thing about this book, though, is the constant references to art theory and technique, whether it be through metaphor, wordplay, or emphasis on “painting” the scene. Some of it is actually pretty subtle, but it all contributes to a satisfying sense of cohesiveness.

                       

 

Picture Books from late 2017

This past year, I’ve posted very little on this blog. Since I’m working on my Best-of-2017 list and will be posting it in a couple days, (I hope) it’s a little too late to write individual posts about middle-grade or YA books that I’ve read recently. But I’ve been gradually putting together a list of personal favorite picture books that I’ve seen since my last picture book list, so I want to put this one out there before I post my Best-of-2017 list.

Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets by Kwame Alexander with Chris Colderley and Marjory Wentworth, illustrated by Ekua Holmes, 2017

picture book Out of WonderKwame Alexander is quite a prolific author/poet. I had initially started this paragraph with a list of some of his most famous or particularly recent works, but I deleted that because it was long and probably no fun to read. This particular book is a collection of original poems, each inspired by a different famous poet and emulating that poet’s style. I’m counting this as a picture book because of its shape and size and,of course, because of its pictures. Those illustrations are bright collages, featuring lots of orange colors and angled shapes. Of course, like the poems, they vary in style from page to page, and each of them is just right for the poem it accompanies. It strikes me how much skill it took for these authors and illustrator to not only put together a pretty picture book of poems, but to do it in so many different styles. My one minor quibble about this book is that the six pages of biographies at the end of the book are longer than necessary and rather dry, listing awards and honors that will probably be meaningless to most child readers. The small font on those pages is not visually appealing, and I imagine that most readers will simply not read this part. But all in all, it’s a wonderful book of poetry, and I would recommend it to aspiring poets and to teachers and parents who want to introduce their children to poetry.

Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut by Derrick Barnes, illustrated by Gordon C. James, 2017

This poetic picture book shows an African American boy going to the barber to get his hair cut. As far as the plot goes, that’s about it. But the gorgeous watercolor illustrations and the narrator’s confident attitude in this book are something special. The concluding author’s note talks about self-esteem, the black community, and the humanity of these black people. Since I’m not a black boy, I can’t say much about how well this book captures that experience, but I can say that the voice is believable, and that there’s something profound about communicating such big ideas by describing a relatively small, routine experience.

The Wolf, the Duck & the Mouse by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen, 2017

I’m not sure what I’m missing, but I have to admit I don’t love Barnett’s stories or Klassen’s art as much as everyone else does. While I don’t adore this book and the colors seem awfully bland to me, it is a cute story. After a wolf swallows a mouse whole, the mouse meets a duck who also resides in the wolf’s belly. The mouse and duck become friends and give the wolf a bellyache with their partying. Later, the duck and mouse defend the wolf against a hunter. Between the goofy plot and the dramatic dialogue (“Oh woe!” is a recurring refrain) some preschool-aged kids will find it a hilarious read-aloud, even if the pictures do lack the vibrant colors typical of picture books for that audience.

Dazzle Ships: World War I and the Art of Confusion by Chris Barton, illustrated by Victor Ngai, 2017

picture book Dazzle ShipsYa gotta love nonfiction picture books. Well, you don’t have to if you don’t want to, but I do. This one is about a method of camouflaging ships by painting them in bright and wild patterns. While the so-called dazzle ships were certainly not rendered invisible, it was very difficult to tell which way they were heading, making them much harder for an enemy torpedo to hit. Considering that several thousand ships were painted in dazzle designs during World War I, it’s surprising that this historical detail isn’t more well-known. Any child who finds this book on his or her own will have much more knowledge about World War I than children who only learn about history from school. And it’s an interesting read with engaging pictures, too. My only complaint is that the illustrations are a bit stylized, with a color palette that isn’t lifelike enough to give readers a clear idea of what dazzle ships looked like. I’d recommend this to children around second or third grade.

Why am I Me? By Paige Britt, pictures by Sean Qualls and Selina Alko, 2017

This is personally not one of my favorites on this list, but it kind of needed to be included. It’s gotten a lot of starred reviews, and besides, the collage artwork and philosophical questions are interesting. It’s still a good book, even if I don’t think it’s quite as good as all those stars imply. Two characters explore the concept of identity by questioning what makes them who they are, and eventually meet each other at the end of the book. With its sparse text, this book is a quick read. Be sure to pause to look at the illustrations that depict the children’s trip home at the end of the day, thereby adding a narrative plot to the deep questions that make up the text.

When the Wind Blew by Petra Brown, 2017

Little Bear is safe with Big Bear in their den when a storm comes through and knocks down all the trees. But now, the bears must find a new home. This book follows their journey and ends when they settle happily into their new den. The bears’ observations (mostly about the storms’ effect on the birds, the lake, the meadow, etc.) make this a somewhat educational story; it would make a good classroom read-aloud for kindergarten or first grade. In case you’re wondering, it’s a little too long for a library storytime. The best thing about this book is the artwork. Even before reading the blurb about the author/illustrator on the inside back cover, I could tell that she loves landscapes. The nearly-realistic style of the illustrations captures the beauty of the bears’ habitat, from the clear, calm water of the lake to the splashes from the waterfall, from the mountain and hills in the distance to the pattern of the light on the grass at sunset. This is a book to explore slowly so that you can appreciate the beauty of the setting.

She Persisted: 13 American Women Who Changed the World by Chelsea Clinton, illustrated by Alexandra Boiger, 2017

As the subtitle states, this book features thirteen influential women from American history. (They skew towards recent history; most of them are twentieth-century figures, and the earliest is Harriet Tubman) For each woman, there is a biographic blurb highlighting the phrase “she persisted” in enlarged and colored font. For the most part, the book highlights these women’s childhoods, both in the text and in the illustrations. The list is framed with a motivational message that is cliche, but fitting. I have minor quibbles about the choices about which women were included; for example Sacagawea, who didn’t make an appearance, surely played a greater role in American history than Oprah, who did. However, it was nice to see attention given to a couple of unsung heroes. (I’d never even heard of Virginia Apgar before) Although the title is almost certainly a reference to Senator Elizabeth Warren’s role in the congressional hearings regarding Jeff Sessions’ appointment as Attorney General earlier this year, the book doesn’t directly discuss current events.

It’s Shoe Time! By Bryan Collier, 2017

Picture book Shoe TimeRemember Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie? Of course you do, their last book came out just last year and they’re still going strong in terms of popularity. This is the fourth book in their spin-off series, a bunch of stand-alone early readers that begin and end with a few lines of dialogue from Elephant and Piggie themselves. This one is about a group of shoes that all want to be worn by the girl… but she complicates everything by picking two shoes that don’t match! The humor is perfectly suited for readers in the four-to-six-year-old age range, but for me personally, it was a bit of a flashback to 2008. Y’know, when mismatched stuff was cool. What, you don’t remember that? It was all the rage at my high school. (Yes, I was homeschooled, why do you ask?) Most of the artwork is cartoonish, in typical Elephant and Piggie style, but the human characters are depicted more realistically, and look more like what you’d expect from Collier. (He’s the same guy who illustrated Trombone Shorty and several books about heroes in African American history.)

Invisible Lizard by Kurt Cyrus, illustrated by Andy Atikins, 2017

Poor Napoleon has a hard time making friends because he blends into his surroundings, and no one can see him. He tries various tricks to get the other animals’ notice. My favorite is when he weaves a wicker Welcome mat. But nothing works. Then one day, Napoleon falls. With nothing surrounding him, now he is fully visible, and a parrot and monkey help him back into the tree. Of course, by the end of the story, the three are best buddies. I love the illustrations, especially for the detail of the rainforest plants. But probably the best thing about this book is that it’s about a chameleon named Napoleon. There’s no historical reference there as far as I know; it just sounds cool.

Her Right Foot by Dave Eggers, art by Shawn Harris

After giving some historical information about the Statue of Liberty in a conversational tone, Eggers points out that her right foot is lifted; the statue is posed mid-stride. The message that Eggers infers from this is that the statue is walking out to meet and welcome the immigrants as they arrive. It’s a little strange that he includes Emma Lazarus’ poem (calling these newcomers “wretched refuse” and using several other adjectives that call unflattering images to mind) immediately after his own, much more positive, message. Surely that could have been smoothed over with a couple sentences of commentary. On an even more nitpicky note, Eggers for some reason emphasizes the statue’s direction, even though that seems to be implying that immigrants are supposed to come from Europe. That’s definitely not the intended message! A little elaboration on a few points near the end would have cleared that up. But I’m probably being over-critical, and I should acknowledge that ultimately, this is an informational book with positive messages about America, liberty, and immigration. At 108 pages, this nonfiction picture book is actually a lot thicker than your typical picture book. It’s not an ideal read-aloud and it’s not suited for preschoolers, but a child in the 7-10-year-old age range is likely to enjoy it and learn from it.

Pizza Mouse by Michael Garland, 2017

picture book Pizza MouseThis early reader, averaging about four words a page, tells the story of a mouse’s adventures looking for food in the city. When he finds a slice of pizza, he takes the subway home and feeds his family. “Pizza”, “subway”, and “Daddy” are the only multi-syllable words in the entire book, unless you count the signs on the fancy restaurant that is evidently named “Fancy.” The digitally created artwork is engaging, and the text tells a complete (and funny, and sweet) story despite its brevity. All in all, this book is about as good as it gets for this early reading level.

So Many Smarts! By Michael Genhart, illustrated by Holly Clifton-Brown, 2017

Ever heard of Howard Gardner? Maybe not, unless you’ve studied psychology, in which case you might remember him as the guy who introduced the theory of multiple intelligences in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, which points out that there are a variety of cognitive processes and skills lumped together under the word “intelligence”. Chances are, your preschooler or kindergartener doesn’t know anything about research and theories on cognition, or even what the word cognition means. But he or she probably already is used to judging or being judged based on words like “smart” or “dumb,” “intelligent” or “challenged”. This book from Magination Press (The American Psychological Association’s publishing imprint) uses cutesy anthropomorphic animals to explain Howard Gardner’s theory and to show examples. Despite the scientific concepts behind this book’s message, the language will make total sense to a child as young as four or five. It may be just a little on the corny side, but not so much so to detract from its appeal.

The Bad Seed by Jory John, illustrations by Pete Oswald, 2017

As this seed introduces himself to the reader, he wants to make it quite clear that he’s a bad seed. He wants you to notice how the other seeds talk about him, and he tells about all the bad things he does, like cutting in line and telling long jokes with no punch lines. But then he tells his tragic backstory, and we realize how unhappy he is. In the end, he reveals that he’s made a big decision, and he’s not such a bad seed anymore. This one will make a fun read-aloud and is good for a few laughs.

The Wooden Camel by Wanuri Kahiu, illustrated by Manuela Adreani, 2017

The copy of this book that I read was published by an American publishing company, but it was first published in the United Kingdom, the illustrator lives in Italy, and the author was born in Kenya, where this story is set. (In case you’re curious, the book was printed and bound in Hong Kong) It tells the story of a boy named Etabo, who wants to race camels. But before he is old enough to ride camels, his family has to sell them in order to buy water. Etabo prays to Akuj the Sky God, who tells him, “Your dreams are enough.” His older sister makes him some toy wooden camels, and he’s pretty happy with them; they are the happy ending to this story. In my opinion, the plot leaves something to be desired, and frankly, it’s not very believable that the toy camels are a better substitute for real camels than the other live animals shown in the book. Sure, it’s a nice message about picture book Google mapimagination and about being satisfied with what you have, but seriously, there are horses, and he’s awful quick to give up on the idea of horseback riding. But on a more positive note, the illustrations are absolutely beautiful, especially in the colors used to depict the sky and sand of the desert setting. One double-page also shows water in the distance, presumably Lake Turkana. Yes, I did look at several maps in order to pinpoint the area where this book takes place. I also spent way too much time on Google maps. Y’all, Nairobi looks way more like an American city than most Americans think.

Stay: A Girl, a Dog, a Bucket List by Kate Klise, illustrated by M. Sarah Klise, 2017

All right, as sweet as this book is, it probably has a bit more appeal for a grownup than for a child. But it would be a great book to share with a child who (like 8-year-old me) is upset at the realization that a beloved pet is growing old and will die eventually. Astrid and her family’s dog Eli have been best friends since the day baby Astrid came home from the hospital. (Like me and my family’s cat Lysander.) But dogs age more quickly than humans, so by the time Astrid is six years old, Eli has grown old. So Astrid makes a bucket list and takes Eli on a series of fun trips that she wants to share with him before he gets too old. The good news is that (spoiler!) Eli is still alive when the book ends. But the last four-ish pages are almost as bittersweet. Astrid asks Eli if there’s anything left on his bucket list. But there isn’t, because he’s with his person and that’s the only thing he ever wanted. (Like Lysander. Except he actually had multiple favorite people.)

Over and Under the Pond by Kate Messner, with art by Christopher Silas Neal, 2017

Although it’s in picture format and is told in a narrative style, I’d classify this as a nonfiction book. It shows a mother and son in a boat on the pond, observing the wildlife. An author’s note and several pages with the heading “About the Animals” offers more detailed information in a more academic manner. The illustrations are attractive and relatively detailed, although probably more appealing for an older reader (K-2nd grade perhaps) rather than a preschooler.

We’re All Wonders by R.J. Palacio, 2017

Palacio’s 2012 middle grade book Wonder is immensely popular among kids and adults alike, especially now that the movie adaptation has recently come out. The main character Auggie has a facial deformity, and the book describes Auggie’s struggles interacting with “ordinary” people who have a hard time seeing past his appearance. Ultimately, it’s a story about being nice, having empathy, and noticing the positive things that make people special. If you haven’t read it yourself, I can promise you that it’s not nearly as sappy and preachy as that moral makes it sound. Not surprisingly, this picture book has generated a lot of interest. It is obviously much shorter, and depicts Auggie at a younger age, but the basic message is the same. Just like fifth-grade Auggie, little Auggie is hurt by people’s reactions to his face. He and his dog take a pretend trip to Pluto, and he comes back feeling confident and declaring that he is a wonder, and, as an afterthought, so is everyone else. This one is about as sappy and preachy as it sounds. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a good book. But I really don’t think it lives up to the standards of the original book.

Tyrannosaurus Rex Vs. Edna the Very First Chicken by Douglas Rees, illustrated by Jed Henry, 2017

picture book EdnaAll of the dinosaurs are terrified of Tyrannosaurus Rex, but not Edna. In fact, she thinks that Tyrannosaurus Rex should be scared of her. He may have mighty claws and terrible jaws, but she has a mighty beak and terrible flapping wings. After some back-and-forth dialogue to that effect, Tyrannosaurus Rex gobbles Edna up in one bite. Predictably, Edna survives and escapes. Then she chases Tyrannosaurus Rex out of the forest. This book will make a fun read-aloud, especially the bit where Tyrannosaurus Rex can’t pronounce words because he has a chicken on his tongue. The story might be just a tiny bit long for a preschool storytime, but the humor and bright illustrations might make it work. At any rate, it’ll be a good one for parents to read with their kids at home.   

The Antlered Ship by Dashka Slater, illustrated by the Fan Brothers, 2017

Marco is a curious fox, but the other foxes don’t have answers to his questions. So when the deer ship with its antlered figurehead shows up at the harbor, he joins them in hopes of finding other foxes who can answer him. A flock of pigeons also joins for the adventure. On their voyages, Marco doesn’t find the answers he seeks, but he does find friends to ask questions with him. The best thing about this book is the artwork. I like the detail of the ship and the landscapes, the texture of the of the water and the animals’ fur, and the variety in perspective and lighting. But I especially like Marco the fox. He’s a very good-looking fox.

In Your Hands by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Brian Pinkney, 2017

This one has gotten some attention and some very favorable reviews, so I’m interested to see if it has awards coming its way. That would kind of surprise me because it’s about religion. The narrator is a mother speaking to her son. She tells him that, as he gets too old and independent for her to shelter him, she prays for him. Meanwhile, Pinkney’s artwork is stylized and sketch-like, very different from his familiar fairy tale books. Personally, it isn’t going to be very high on my Youth Media Awards wishlist this winter, but we’ll wait and see what happens. It’s certainly a beautiful book.

Ghost Stories for Post-Halloween-Time

I feel like there have been a lot of ghost stories published this year. I’d been hoping to read all of the ones that were on my radar and then to post the list here by Halloween. Obviously, I failed. Not only am I a few days late, but I didn’t get around to doing all that reading. Of the titles I’ve listed below, only one of them is something that I’ve read within the past couple months. But I figured that at this point, I might as well go ahead and post what I’d put together so far. In all fairness, I should also make a mention of The Peculiar Incident on Shady Street by Lindsay Currie, which I’m currently reading and enjoying after having been looking forward to it for months. Other books that I’ll be returning to the library unread are A Properly Unhaunted Place by William Alexander, Teen Hyde by Chandler Baker, and Beyond the Doors by David Neilsen. I also never got around to checking out Ghost Attack by David Lubar or Spirit Hunters by Ellen Oh, both of which are the first book in a new series that looks promising. And it sounds like The Secret of Nightingle Wood by Lucy Strange, just published earlier this week, (on Halloween in fact) is also a ghost story, and one that I’ll want to read. With all that said, here are the ghost books I actually have read recently.

 

Nightlights by Lorena Alvarez, 2017

In this short graphic novel, an artistically talented girl named Sandy befriends a new girl at school who turns out to be a ghost. The ghost is fascinated by Sandy’s skills, but what she really wants is to feed off of Sandy’s creativity. At least the beginning is reminiscent of Vera Brogol’s 2011 graphic novel Anya’s Ghost. However, Nightlights is for a younger target audience and is much more colorful. The artwork is beautiful and scary enough to satisfy a horror fan, but there are so many plot details that are left ambiguous. I expect that Alvarez intentionally designed it that way. Reading this book is like waking up from a dream that was extremely vivid but made no sense. I guess that’s just not a literary style I like, but I can appreciate that it was done effectively here.

 

The Doll’s Eye by Marina Cohen, 2017

This creepy middle-grade novel, full of dolls and insects and the color puce, is ultimately a “be careful what you wish for” story. Hadley, the protagonist, is miserable in her new home with her new stepfather and new stepbrother. She was happier when it was just her and her mom, although she also would have liked to have known her dad. The dollhouse and doll family she finds in the attic look like her idea of what family life should be like. Another item she finds in the attic is a glass eye, which has a disturbing connection to previous residents of the house. The reader will get an idea of the horrors that await Hadley long before she herself does. In my opinion, the writing isn’t stellar, but if you’re more interested in dark and spooky plots than in writing style, this is a great choice. Best read within the space of a couple days.

 

The Girl with the Ghost Machine by Lauren DeStefano, 2017

The Girl with the Ghost MachineTwelve-year-old Emmaline wishes her father would unplug the machine in the basement, which he’s been working on for two years almost nonstop. He started it a month after his wife died, and he hopes it can bring her back, but he spends so much time alone with the machine that Emmaline feels she’s lost both her parents. Finally, Emmaline loses patience. In an attempt to destroy it, she tosses her tea into the machine. But the memories associated with that tea turn out to be the missing ingredient, and Emmaline’s mother shows up for long enough to make more tea. Emmaline tells no one except her best friends, Oliver and Gully. When the three of them experiment by bringing back first a fish and then a dog, Emmaline’s father and an elderly neighbor both find out, and both naturally want to use the machine. But there’s a high cost to use it; the memories used to activate the machine are gone forever. (The basic premise is very similar to that of The Remarkable Journey of Charlie Price by Jennifer Maschari, published in 2016) Much of this book is about the conflict that Emmaline and her father feel. Is a visit with a loved one worth the loss of precious memories? Emmaline and Gully don’t think so, but Emmaline’s father, Oliver, and the neighbors all think it’s fine to use the machine for one final goodbye. That winter, a new tragedy raises the question all over again. The book never specifies where or when it’s set, but all of the main characters have French last names, and since it makes reference to telephones but not computers, I’m guessing it’s set somewhere in the middle of the last century. I finished this book just a few days ago, and it’s among my favorites of the year so far. But as far as ghost stories go, it’s not scary.

 

One For Sorrow by Mary Downing Hahn, 2017

On Goodreads, I gave this book four stars and a rather lengthy review. Much of it was plot summary, and then I made a few critiques that basically boiled down to shallow characterization and unnecessary repetition. But even though it wasn’t quite a five-star book for me, I still enjoyed it. The story is set in 1918 against the backdrop of World War I and the Spanish flu epidemic. Twelve-year-old Annie Browne is new at her school and has just worked her way into the popular crowd when the epidemic is at its worst.  While attending random visitations for the free food, Annie and her friends discover that their classmate Elsie Schneider has died. All the girls at school, Annie included, disliked Elsie and bullied her. After a sledding accident later that winter, in which Annie hits her head on Elsie’s tombstone, Elsie’s ghost starts following Annie around, threatening and taunting her, and sometimes taking control and causing Annie to misbehave. I loved the setting, largely because the 1910’s are underrepresented in children’s literature, and perhaps also partly because there’s something cozy about wintertime stories. Add on to that the moderate scariness, and the overall effect is comfortable spooky. Not Hahn’s best work, but it’s worth a read if you’ve liked her other middle grade ghost stories.

 

Isadora Moon Goes to School and Isadora Moon Goes Camping by Harriet Muncaster, 2017 (First published in the UK in 2016)

If you’re British, consider yourself lucky, because there are already six books in this series on your side of the pond. Also, if you’re an American who can read Spanish, you already have access to four Isadora Moon books. I suppose I could turn to Amazon and get my Isadora Moon fix via imported paperbacks. But I digress. The point here is that this is an excellent new chapter book series that I highly recommend. I’m a little disappointed that my library kids haven’t taken much notice of these books yet. The protagonist is half-fairy and half-vampire, which is such an interesting premise that I don’t think I need to say much more to make my point. The books rank pretty low on spookiness, but the bats and nocturnal adventures are enough for me to justify putting them on this list. They aren’t technically ghost stories, but vampires are almost the same thing, right?

Picture Books from Mid-2017

This list has been a long time in coming. I say that by way of justifying what a long list it is; there are just too many great new picture books out there to pick out just a few to write about. Everything on this list was published in 2017, and although a few of them came from early in the year, these are all books that I only just discovered since the last time I posted a list of picture books. And most importantly, everything on this list is something that I like and would recommend.

 

Fly Guy Presents: Castles by Tedd Arnold, 2017

Fly Guy and his human friend Buzz are the main characters in a popular series of fictional early readers, but since 2013, the duo have also been starring in nonfiction companion books. Somewhat more advanced than their fictional counterparts, the Fly Guy Presents series is nonetheless a good choice for the K-2nd grade audience, as the books are short enough to read in a single sitting, with large text and colorful, full-page illustrations. This particular title includes thumbnail-sized photos of various castles across Europe, plus a couple from other parts of the world. The text does an impressively thorough job (considering that it’s only 32 pages long) of covering the history of European castles, typical castle architecture, weapons and defenses involved in sieges, and various aspects of the castle lifestyle.

SPLATypus by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen, illustrated by Jackie Urbanovic, 2017

The platypus is a bizarre animal, breaking rules that apply to most mammals and bearing ducklike bills and venomous ankles. (The venomous ankles don’t play a role in this book, but it’s a weird and random fact that I couldn’t resist mentioning.) As such, it makes a humorous and potentially educational character in a picture book. This book is silly and brief, with rhyming and repetitive text and bright illustrations, so it’s perfect for kids as young as three-ish… young enough that they may have never heard of a platypus and will be learning along with the platypus on his journey of self-discovery. Platypus learns that he can’t jump like a kangaroo, run like dingoes, play in the trees like possums, or fly like bats. Only at that point does he start to get discouraged. That doesn’t last for long, though, before he tries swimming, the thing that he does best. Whether you think of this as a book about lesser-discussed animals or a story about persistence and self-esteem, it’s a positive and humorous read.

Jabari Jumps by Gaia Cornwall, 2017

I feel that it’s become a cliché to describe that first jump off of a diving board as a rite of passage, as if it’s always every child’s first experience with bravery. But it’s a convenient and child-friendly way of discussing fear and courage. It’s a scenario that doesn’t involve much legitimate danger and generally ends with the child feeling confident and accomplished. There’s a lot of character development that can be fit into a very short time frame. And besides, a family trip to a swimming pool is such a happy, summery, heartwarming setting. Cornwall’s artwork perfectly complements the story: the pale background colors keep the mood light-hearted while the variety of perspectives capture the experience of the scary lead-up to the jump. Jabari’s bright orange swim trunks and Cornwall’s subtle use of collage (buildings and parts of the ground appear to be made of bits of newspaper) keeps the illustrations interesting.

Little Excavator by Anna Dewdney, 2017

Fans of Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site and other books about anthropomorphic construction vehicles will likewise enjoy this new title about “Little E”, an excavator who is too small to be of  much use at any of the jobs that the other construction vehicles are doing. Rhyming text and textured illustrations (It looks like the original was drawn on canvas) tell the tale, concluding with the clichéd but satisfying ending, in which Little E finds a job that’s just right for him. As cute as it is, this isn’t one that will be making my “Best of 2017” list, but I’m sure there will be a significant number of preschoolers out there who will feel differently.

Baby Dolphin’s First Swim by Neil Duncan, 2017

This nonfiction picture book describes dolphin life in text simple enough that children as young as six or seven will be able to read it independently. (The font is nice and large, perfect for young eyes that are still getting used to reading) Yet the book is very informative, covering topics such as dolphin communication, dolphin diet, and how dolphins stay safe from sharks. Readers will learn that a baby dolphin is called a calf, that dolphins are mammals, and that a group of dolphins is called a pod. But best of all, these facts are accompanied by gorgeous photographs, most of which take up most of the page. For teachers and librarians working with kids in the kindergarten-2nd grade age range, I highly recommend this book. For parents of budding marine biologists, I recommend it even more highly.  

All the Way to Havana by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Mike Curato, 2017

All the Way to HavanaThis cheerful picture book tells the story of a family’s drive from their small Cuban village to Havana and back. They are visiting family to celebrate the “zero-year birthday” of the narrator’s cousin. Perhaps the real main character of the story is the family’s blue car, affectionately called Cara Cara for the noise she makes when she’s running properly. (The story begins with the boy and his father working together to fix the car; it’s a 1954 Chevy that has needed a lot of amateur repairs over the years) Although the family is clearly not wealthy, this story depicts their lifestyle as a happy one, full of family and friends and laughter and celebration. An author’s note and an illustrator’s note at the end both reiterate this image of the Cuban people, praising their sense of hope, “everyday ingenuity”,(Engle’s words) “perseverance, and family loyalty.” (from Curato’s note) Although the positive mood and use of onomatopoeias make this book a fun read, the things I liked most about this book are the lively and realistic illustrations of architecture and vehicles. The endpapers alone are engaging and appealing with their array of vintage cars still common in Cuba, and all labeled with their year, make, and model.

Lucia the Luchadora by Cynthia Leonor Garza, illustrated by Alyssa Bermudez, 2017

Little confession: This book reminded me so much of Nino Wrestles the World that I initially thought it was essentially a companion book from the same author. I don’t know why I forget that Nino Wrestles the World was by Yuyi Morales, but I somehow did. However, Lucia is a brand new character, and her story is a debut picture book for both the author and the illustrator. The similarity between the two books lies only in that they are both about lucha libre, described as “the acrobatic and theatrical style of wrestling popularized in Mexico” in the note at the end of this book. (Luchadores and luchadoras are the wrestlers/ characters/ superheroes of lucha libre) The plot is relatively simple: Lucia is tired of being told that girls can’t be superheroes, so her Abuela cheers her up by giving her a luchador costume. For a while, the mysterious hero in silver is the talk of the playground, but Lucia reveals her secret identity to prove that girls can, in fact, be superheroes. The book has a positive message that isn’t preachy and a feel-good resolution that isn’t sappy. Also, if I can assume that its portrayal is accurate, this story does a beautiful job of representing Hispanic culture without being about ethnic differences.

In the Middle of Fall by Kevin Henkes, illustrated by Laura Dronzek, 2017

The same author and illustrator who brought us When Spring Comes last year are following it up with this new book, using the same bright and vivid style of acrylic-paint illustrations to capture some of those quintessential fall moments. Reading this book is like being in just the right place to experience a chilly gust of wind that carries brightly colored leaves and turns the world into an autumn kaleidoscope for just a moment. Sorry if that’s a little overly corny. (I would like to make it clear, though, that the phrase “autumn kaleidoscope” is not from the book, that’s mine and I kinda like it.) The point here is that it’s a seasonally atmospheric book with beautiful illustrations. The brevity of the text makes it a great read-aloud for even the youngest audiences. In particular, it would make the perfect book to use as the last one in a library storytime about fall.

The Little Red Cat Who Ran Away and Learned His ABC’s (the Hard Way) by Patrick McDonnell, 2017

For a book with such a long title, this story has hardly any text. It’s literally just the alphabet, although the last page lists the 26 words that play significant roles in the plot. Each page adds one character or element to the story to represent that page’s letter. On the A page, the red cat meets an alligator, who chases him to the B page, where they encounter a bear. On the C page, a chicken joins the chase, but when they meet a dragon on the D page, the chicken is so surprised that he lays an egg on the E page. I think you get the idea. This book is best suited for kids who already know the alphabet well enough to know what words start with what letters, even without seeing the word spelled out.

Little Wolf's First HowlingLittle Wolf’s First Howling by Laura McGee Kvansnosky and Kate Harvey McGee, 2017

This book has it all: animals, a simple plot perfect for preschoolers, distinct character personalities, beautiful illustrations featuring light/dark contrast, the exact right amount of repetition, and silly noises. As soon as I saw the title page, I loved this book for its gorgeous scenery, and it only took me a couple pages to notice what a fun read-aloud it is. Big Wolf’s didactic tone (“First, let me demonstrate proper howling form”) and Little Wolf’s eagerness add up to a conversational and vaguely humorous pattern. But what makes this book most wonderful is when Little Wolf’s excitement gets the better of him and messes up his howling form. I don’t care whether you’re a toddler or a grandparent or anywhere in between, it’s hilarious when a wolf goes “dibbity dobbity skibbity skobbity,” and if you don’t think so, then you don’t have a proper appreciation for fine literature.

7 Ate 9: The Untold Story by Tara Lazar, illustrated by Ross MacDonald, 2017

Do you know why 6 is afraid of 7? Because 7 ate 9… and 7 is after 6! (Get it? Get it?) This colorful picture book is full of number puns that are somehow just as funny as they are corny. Despite its brevity, this is not a preschool storytime book; it’s best suited for children old enough to recognize that words such as “positive”, “negative”, “root”, and “pi” are references to math. But as a quick classroom read-aloud, or perhaps as a gift for a budding mathematical genius, this is a brilliant book.    

Masterpiece Mix by Roxie Munro, 2017

I experienced this book almost as if it was two separate books. The first half is a short and concisely worded story in which the narrator sets up her canvas and thinks about what to paint, while looking at her favorite works of art for inspiration. The second part, headed “Key to the Art in This Book” lists the paintings (plus one sculpture) shown previously, with a blurb about the artist. This part has much more text with much smaller font, so I feel justified in calling it “half” the book even though it actually only takes up six pages. I’d recommend this book for young artists with an interest in art technique and history.

A Different Pond by Bao Phi, illustrated by Thi Bui, 2017

Both the author and the illustrator of this sentimental picture book are Vietnamese Americans who grew up without a lot of money, and who aim to share a snapshot of their childhood experiences in this book. The story is about an ordinary fishing trip between a boy and his father early one chilly morning. Although both of the boy’s parents work hard, (in fact, the father just got a second job) they can only afford to eat well if they catch their own fish. With its everyday setting, the book discusses numerous aspects of the Asian American experience, from other kids’ comments about the dad’s accent to sad stories about the Vietnam war. The titular phrase refers to the pond where the father fished when he was a boy.

Nothing Rhymes with Orange by Adam Rex, 2017

Poor orange. As he watches the rhyming text introduce his fruity friends, he inserts his remarks, first politely volunteering to participate, and gradually becoming more irate as the fruit rhymes become more and more forced. Even the quiche, kumquat, and lychee get to make their appearances, as does Friedrich Nietzsche. (He’s not a fruit, of course, but his name does rhyme with “lychee” and “peachy”) But since nothing rhymes with orange, he’s left out… until the very end, when his friends invent the word “smorange” in order to include him. “Smorange” means “totally awesome in every way”, apple informs him. With its colors, silliness, and range of emotions, this book will appeal to preschoolers. As a bonus, its discussion of rhyme makes it a great example to use when introducing the concept of phonological awareness to parents.

The Music of Life: Bartolomeo Cristofori and the Invention of the Piano by Elizabeth Rusch, illustrated by Marjorie Priceman, 2017

As I read this picture book biography, I kept on thinking about Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin, a 1996 Caldecott Honor book of which I have fond childhood memories. It took me a while to realize that these two books actually were illustrated by the same person. The other commonality, of course, is the musical topic. Aside from that, the two books are very different; this one is much longer and geared towards an older target audience. And although it’s an interesting read, I think it has greater educational value than entertainment value. Readers will learn a few musical terms, get a snapshot view of late-seventeenth century upper-class Italy, and come to an understanding of what’s inside a piano and why it’s such a versatile and important instrument. The final pages include a summarizing timeline, remarks on the evolution of the piano since Cristofori’s lifetime, titles of music for recommended listening, and fairly extensive notes on the author’s research. Despite its picture book format, it’s best suited for students in about 3rd-5th grade.

Not Quite Narwhal by Jessie Sima, 2017

Considering how many preschool-aged unicorn lovers there are out there, it’s surprising just how few good preschool-storytime books there are about unicorns. I have learned this from experience when taking requests for storytime themes. This book fits the bill. Kelp has grown up underwater in a narwhal community. He knows there’s something a little different about him, but he doesn’t realize that he actually isn’t a narwhal at all… At least not until he starts exploring on land and encounters other unicorns. Kelp’s dilemma (he feels a need to choose between his narwhal family and his unicorn family) seems a little cliche, as does the implied message about individuality. But overall it’s a sweet book with a plot and illustrations that will have a strong appeal for preschoolers.

Escargot by Dashka Slater, illustrated by Sydney Hanson, 2017

EscargotEscargot is the riveting tale of a young French snail’s journey towards a beautiful salad with croutons and a light vinaigrette. In his quest to become the reader’s favorite animal, he learns valuable lessons about friendship, courage, self-acceptance, and carrots. Also, he’s super cute. This is probably my favorite picture book of 2017 so far. Admittedly, that’s largely because I have a soft spot for snails, (there are some stories behind that) but still, this book deserves a lot of credit for its appealing and conversational tone, its bright artwork, and its sense of humor that shows respect for the intelligence of the young reader. I’d recommend it as a read-aloud for four- and five-year-olds, but it also holds appeal for a slightly older independent reader and for anyone with a fondness for cute snails.

Goldfish Ghost by Lemony Snicket, illustrations by Lisa Brown, 2017

This is a bizarre one, but I say that with the acknowledgement that sometimes, a bizarre book is just what a reader wants. The story follows Goldfish Ghost as he floats out of his bowl and flies around a seaside town looking for some good company. After rejecting a number of characters including other ghost fish and a live goldfish, Goldfish Ghost eventually befriends the ghost of a lighthouse keeper. And there, the story abruptly ends. The story is subtly humorous—Goldfish Ghost is depicted as an upside-down flying white fish—and has an overly simplistic tone that feels as if perhaps it’s a deliberate parody of preschool fiction in general. It probably holds the strongest appeal as a quick-and-easy read for a child in first or second grade with a quirky sense of humor.

Pick a Pine Tree by Patricia Toht, illustrated by Jarvis, 2017

I preordered this book so long ago that I’d almost forgotten to expect it in the mail. I would have forgotten if I hadn’t seen posts from Facebook friends who got it a day or two earlier. (At one time not very long ago, the author and I worked together.) The story, told in verse, follows a family as they purchase a pine tree, take it home, and decorate it for Christmas. I’d recommend it for any family (or preschool, daycare, etc.) who use picture books as part of their Christmas countdown. And by the way, I recommend that. When I was a child, my family had quite the collection of Christmas books, which would be packed up for most of the year, but would come out as one of the first steps in the Christmas decoration/preparation process. There were so many beautiful, magical, and memorable books in there. Pick a Pine Tree would have fit right in; both the text and the illustrations convey the sense of that “Christmas feeling” that was so important and so tangible to my little-kid self.

Danza! Amalia Hernandez and El Ballet Folklorico de Mexico by Duncan Tonatiuth, 2017

When I found out about this book, I knew that I needed to get it for my library. It’s by an award-winning author/illustrator with a distinctive style, it’s associated with Hispanic heritage, (the community includes a lot of Mexican American people) and I’ll admit it, I’m kind of biased towards books about dance because of my own ballet background. This book is a biography of a dancer who started a now-famous company that performs choreography based on Mexican folk dances. The book says much more about her career as a choreographer and company director than about her training and her performing career, but I think it will still appeal greatly to young aspiring dancers, especially but not only those of Hispanic heritage. While the illustrations aren’t exactly my personal favorite aesthetic, I love its resemblance to classical Mayan artwork. I would highly recommend this book to fans of Tonatiuth’s previous books.

Sam, the Most Scaredy-Cat Kid in the World by Mo Willems, 2017

I owe a shout-out to the six-year-old young man who asked me about this book that I had somehow not known about. This particular patron is in the library frequently and is quite a Mo Willems fan. He once read Edwina, the Dinosaur Who Didn’t Know She Was Extinct in its entirety to me. At any rate, this new book is a sequel to Willems’ Leonardo, the Terrible Monster, and it shows what happens when the most scaredy-cat kid in the world and the second most scaredy-cat kid in the world (accompanied by their respective monster friends) meet each other. Spoiler: first they’re scared of each other, and then they end up becoming friends. I wouldn’t consider this one of Willems’ best books, but it’s a fun story that’s worth a read.

Wishtree

WishtreeWishtree by Katherine Applegate, 2017

Childrens’ novel for grades 4 and up; fantasy, animal story

For a while, I’ve been getting the impression that this book is one of the most important middle grade books of 2017. It’s a likely Newbery contender, it will probably be showing up on a lot of recommended reading lists and readers’ choice award lists over the next few years, and it’s a safe bet that it’ll sell relatively well in bookstores and circulate well in libraries for at least a year or two. After all, Katherine Applegate is enough of a big-name author that anything she writes is something we need to take note of… at least, those of us who have any kind of vested interest in youth literature. Now that I’ve read it, it practically goes without saying that Wishtree is indeed a good book. But in my personal opinion, it’s not quite worthy of being considered the best of the year. Then again, I’m admittedly not particularly fond of the anthropomorphized-plants-and-animals genre.

Told from the perspective of Red, a 216-year-old northern red oak tree, this book describes two communities: the group of animals who live in Red’s hollows and branches, and the people of the neighborhood, who have a longstanding tradition of using Red as a wishtree. They write down their wishes and tie them onto Red’s branches, usually on the first of May. Aside from Red, the other link between these two communities is Samar, a girl described as being about ten years old, whose family has recently moved into one of the houses sheltered by Red. But Samar’s family is Muslim, and some people don’t like having them in the neighborhood. One teenage boy expresses his animosity by carving the word “Leave” into Red’s trunk. Meanwhile, Red and the animals are facing another crisis: the owner of the property wants to cut Red down. This imminent death motivates Red to search for ways to grant Samar’s wish for a friend. (Specifically, a friendship with her neighbor Stephen) This project involves enlisting the help of the animals, resulting in some humorous dialogue between quirky characters such as Bongo the Crow, FreshBakedBread the Skunk, a family of racoons all named You, and HairySpiders the opossum. But eventually, Red also has to break the all-important rule about not talking to humans. In a fairly predictable ending, Red is not cut down, mainly because the wishtree tradition and the animals’ love for their home make the tree too valuable to be destroyed. And Samar’s family also stays in the neighborhood, after countless neighbors show their support by writing the word “stay” as their wish to tie onto Red’s branches.

I feel that using the narrative voice of a tree is a rather risky approach. It’s neither realistic nor particularly creative and original. Especially given the fact that  it opens the opportunity for lots of bad jokes, it could make the whole story quite sappy. (Get it? Get it? Sappy like tree sap? Never mind.) The fact that the narrative acknowledges these bad jokes helps; Bongo’s criticism of Red’s tree humor is an ongoing motif. And many of the animals provide genuinely funny elements to the story. Also, the conversational and expositional tone of the opening few chapters does a lot to give Red personality and to provide effective worldbuilding, similar to what you’d see in other speculative settings. In the end, all of the plot points tie together so nicely and neatly that the overall effect is satisfying and maybe even a little emotional. I have to say, though, that the final few chapters move much too quickly for my tastes. Since the introductory chapters are so leisurely-paced and the book is a relatively quick read with lots of white space, the whirlwind conclusion struck me as being jarring. In particular, I would have enjoyed more mystery, suspense, and details surrounding the old journal that is only mentioned briefly, despite being a pretty significant part of the plot.

With all of that being said, though, I want to finish by reiterating that this is a book worth reading, full of personality, atmosphere, beautiful prose, memorable characters, and a few sketch illustrations that are pretty enough to merit a mention. I certainly recommend this book, especially for readers who have enjoyed Applegate’s last couple middle-grade novels.

Forget Me Not

Forget Me Not by Ellie Terry, 2017

Children’s novel for grades 4 and up; realistic fiction

fmnTwelve-year-old Calliope Snow (aka Calli) has Tourette Syndrome, a neurological condition that causes tics (involuntary and repetitive movements or noises) and is associated with anxiety and compulsive behaviors. It makes it difficult for Calli to fit in when starting at a new school, and she moves frequently—every time her widowed mother breaks up with another boyfriend. But here at her tenth home, Calli finds a friend in her neighbor and classmate Jinsong. Because other students make fun of her tics, Jinsong is embarrassed and avoids Calli at school, even though he has a crush on her. But they always walk home together. And when Jinsong finally publicly acknowledges that he likes Calli, some of the girls in her class show interest in becoming friend. Just when Calli is finally happy at school, her Mom has a hasty Las Vegas wedding and Calli finds out that they’re moving yet again.

The point of view alternates between Calli, whose sections are in verse, and Jinsong, whose narrative voice is in prose. Frequent astronomy references and passages about poppies add a poetic flavor that makes the writing beautiful, even if the significance of the poppy is weak. Both main characters are believable, if not exactly “normal” kids, and both are generally likable. Despite Jinsong’s embarrassment over Calli, he is very empathetic; this is perhaps most clear in his relationship with Beatriz, a girl who initially seems like the stereotypical middle-school mean-girl. But Jinsong knows (and Calli comes to realize) that her behavior is a response to grief. It’s a significant subplot because Beatriz has much more in common with Calli than the reader expects. The drama of middle school social life is an extremely common topic for realistic fiction, but thanks to its characterization and this book has a few extra twists that make it especially interesting, meaningful, and believable.

An author’s note explains that this book aims to increase awareness of Tourette Syndrome. Like her protagonist, Ellie Terry has the syndrome, and like Calli, she was advised to keep it a secret because of common misconceptions. (Although some people with Tourette Syndrome do have verbal tics, such as involuntarily yelling out swear words, this is not a general rule or an accurate definition of TS) I always appreciate seeing a fictional book that portrays an unusual or misunderstood condition accurately. And as far as I know, there aren’t other middle-grade protagonists out there with the same diagnosis and symptoms as Calli. So, in addition to being well above moderate in its plot and writing style, this book is also informative and will help its readers to better understand the difficulties that others may face.

Another List of 2017 Picture Books

We’re just a few days short of the halfway point of 2017, so it’s time for another list of relatively recent picture books that I personally thought were particularly noteworthy. In most cases, that’s because I really liked them, although I’ve also included a few just because they’ve been well-received in general. As in my previous posts of this type, I’ve included pictures of the ones I consider to be the best of the best. (But I didn’t put a lot of thought into that selection, so I reserve the right to completely change my mind.)

Robins! How They Grow Up by Eileen Christelow, 2017

blog picture RobinsI think it’s a natural instinct for people to find young animals cute and interesting. (At least if the animal in question is a mammal or a bird and not, say, an insect or arachnid) The subject matter of this book gives it a few bonus points in terms of appeal factors, but it’s especially attention-worthy in that it’s more informative than most children’s books of comparable length. Even better yet,  it features absolutely gorgeous artwork with multiple panels on most pages. The text comes from the perspective of two juvenile robins, and although the book has far more words than most picture books, it’s broken up and spread out in such a way that will make the book approachable to even beginning readers. In general, I’d recommend it for children ages 7-10  who are reading independently or ages 5-7 reading with a grownup.

A Time to Act: John F. Kennedy’s Big Speech by Shana Corey, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie, 2017

I tried really hard to love this book. For a significant portion of my childhood, I loved reading about presidents, and about John F. Kennedy in particular. Although this book is much shorter than the types of books I generally read at that age, it is certainly one that would have caught my eye. And considering the historical importance of the Civil Rights movement, (and its current popularity as a topic for children’s nonfiction and historical fiction) I like the fact that there’s a children’s book about JFK that specifically focuses on his connection to those issues. But this book didn’t meet my expectations. The writing style is choppy and the transitions are awkward. Perhaps because of that, the praise and criticisms of Kennedy come across as self-contradictory rather than as a balanced, honest, and relatively unbiased account. As a side note, I question the effectiveness of the stylized illustrations. They’re artistically good, but more realistic pictures or even photographs might have been preferable for this particular book.

The Legend of Rock Paper Scissors by Drew Daywalt, illustrated by Adam Rex, 2017

I’d recommend this book to independent readers in elementary school rather than to preschoolers for several reasons. It has more text than most picture books, it assumes that the reader is familiar with the game of Rock Paper Scissors, and its humor will go over the heads of younger readers. But for readers of a specific maturity level, it’s absolutely hilarious to use phrases such as “Over by the Tire Swing” and “the Pit of Office Trash Bin” as formal place names, and Rock’s interpretation of battle pants (“If by ‘battle pants’ you mean ‘no pants, but I’m willing to fight you,’ then yes, I am wearing my battle pants”) is downright hysterical. The various different insults and threats, ranging from “I will leave you beaten and confused with my adhesive and tangling powers” to “You look like a butt”, will also elicit laughs from that demographic. Like any good picture book, the artwork complements the text. In this case, it’s brightly colored and plays with perspective. Much of the text is incorporated into the illustrations, i.e. with word bubbles and the like.

Little Fox in the Forest by Stephanie Graegin, 2017

This almost-wordless picture book tells the story of a girl who brings her beloved stuffed fox to school for show and tell. When she sets it down, a real fox grabs it and runs away. Along with a classmate, she goes in search of her stuffed fox, which brings her to a colorful animal community deep in the forest. With the help of a bear, she finds and retrieves her stuffed fox. But the young fox who took it is so sad that (spoiler!) the girl decides to let him keep it. He gives her his own toy unicorn, and both protagonists are happy. There are lots of things I like about this story, such as the heartwarming friendship between the two main human characters, and the surprisingly emotional scene where girl and fox meet and the toy fox changes hands twice. I think my favorite aspect of the book is the contrast between the gray-tone realistic human world and the colorful and fantastical setting in the forest. But the different messages and themes don’t quite mesh. The human friendship doesn’t play any role in the basic plot, but quite a bit of space is dedicated to it. The use of color implies some sort of social commentary, but if there is a point, it isn’t clearly made.

The Good for Nothing Button by Charise Mericle Harper, 2017

blog picture Good for Nothing ButtonMo Willems’ beloved characters Elephant and Piggie are back to recommend this story about nothing. Or rather, it’s about a button that does nothing. As three birds repeatedly press the button and argue about its effect or lack thereof, readers will be entertained by their over-the-top emotional reactions to nothing at all. Like the original Elephant and Piggie books and the previous two books in this spin-off series, this new story is a great choice for young readers who are just beginning to read in full sentences. It proves that a controlled vocabulary and simple sentence structures are still capable of telling an actual story with a plot. (And effective humor)

Maya Lin: Artist-Architect of Light and Lines by Jeanne Walker Harvey, illustrated by Dow Phumiruk, 2017

This is another nonfiction one. It’s a biography of the student who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1981, when she was just 21 years old. As one would expect, it focuses mainly on that one particularly famous work, but it also dedicates some space to her childhood as well as to her more recent projects. I’m surprised that this book hasn’t gotten more attention than it has, because it hits quite a few of the major buzzwords in today’s education/children’s nonfiction trends. It’s about a female who has been successful in a STEM field and it discusses technology while making a connection between artistry and the use of technology. Another thing that I would consider to be an appeal factor is the fact that it portrays a very young woman doing very important professional things. In my personal opinion, though, the artwork deserves as much attention as the text. The digitally-created illustrations have the softness of watercolor but the cleanly defined lines of ink. The overall effect seems to me to parallel the simple but artistic architectural style that we’re told is characteristic of Lin.

Who Wants to Be a Princess? What It Was Really Like to Be a Medieval Princess by Bridget Heos, illustrated by Migy, 2017

blog picture Who Wants to be a PrincessDo you dream of twirly pink gowns, royal balls, and knights to guard your castle from dragons? Well, Princess Beatrice is here to tell you that royal life was a little different in the Middle Ages than what the fairy tells tell you. Most double-pages have a couple sentences and a picture about a fairy tale princess’s world followed by a couple of sentences and a picture about Princess Beatrice’s everyday life. Beatrice is a fictional character, (the author’s note specifies that her castle is depicted as one from 12th-14th century Britain) and the illustrations and writing style in this book are pretty standard for a picture book aimed at kids around kindergarten-age. But it’s very informative and will give readers a much more nuanced view of its historical setting. In fact, I think it’s likely to spark an interest in “real” history among a demographic that doesn’t often read much nonfiction.

Charlie and Mouse by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Emily Hughes, 2017

Remember My Brother Ant from 1996? Or The Stories Julian Tells from 1981? Then you already have a pretty good sense of what this book is like. It’s an early reader about two brothers, divided into four brief stories that tie closely together. But if the basic premise isn’t especially unique, the humor is memorable enough to make up for that. My personal favorite bit was the bedtime banana. Although I wasn’t as amused by the repetition of the question “How can you be sleeping? You are talking,” I think that most 6-8 year-olds will enjoy that line much more. But yet I do think this is a children’s book with a strong adult appeal; anyone who misses the good ol’ days before iPhone apps and video games will take a nostalgic pleasure in reading about Charlie and Mouse spending their time trying to sell rocks and having a neighborhood party at the playground.

All Ears, All Eyes by Richard Jackson, illustrated by Katherine Tillotson, 2017

I’ll admit, as far as the text goes, this book isn’t really my type. It’s full of onomatopoeias and phrases that aren’t full sentences. It doesn’t exactly have a plot, although it does have a sequence of events in that it’s set at different times of night, starting at twilight and ending at dawn. And the print is arranged on the page in such a way that sometimes, it’s hard to tell what order they come in. But even though I don’t typically like this kind of book so much, this one is well done. If you’re paying more attention to the flow of sounds than to the meaning of the words, it’s pretty, and the artwork is definitely beautiful. The color combinations vary from page to page, but many of them are eye-catching. This isn’t necessarily one of my favorites on the list, but it has received multiple starred reviews. (Five out of the six most relevant review journals, if I recall correctly)

Becoming Bach by Tom Leonard, 2017

blog picture Becoming BachAs a brief biography, this book is somewhere between mediocre and good, but as a picture book, it’s exceptionally beautiful. The inside of the book jacket describes the illustrations as “gorgeous, almost magical acrylic paintings,” and I can’t disagree with that. Young Johann Sebastian Bach’s face is emotive and realistically detailed, and the use of musical notes in the illustrations expresses Bach’s devotion to music much more effectively than a picture-book’s-worth of text possibly could. I found it artsy that music is also portrayed as colorful, abstract patterns in some pictures, especially where it depicts Bach’s own compositions. I’d recommend this book to readers of all ages with a fondness for the artistic style, and for parents or teachers who are teaching music history or instilling music appreciation to kids in the five- to eight- year- old age range.

The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist by Cynthia Levinson, 2017

The events of 1963 Birmingham are pretty well represented in children’s literature, (historical fiction perhaps even more than nonfiction) but somehow Audrey Faye Hendricks wasn’t a figure I’d heard much about until I saw this book. At the age of nine, she was the youngest activist known to have participated in the Children’s March, in which over three thousand juvenile protesters were arrested. This nonfiction picture book presents the Civil Rights movement from the perspective of the plucky girl who wanted to do anything she could, even go to jail, to fight for racial equality. Although the discussion of the movement is fairly superficial and the artwork a little cheery for the subject matter, I think that this book will make a great introduction to the topic and that it holds a strong appeal for children around the ages of 5-8.

The Three Billy Goats Gruff by Jerry Pinkney, 2017

If you’re familiar with Jerry Pinkney, you are probably pleased every time he comes out with a new folk/fairy tale. Like usual, the illustrations are gorgeous, full-page watercolor paintings, (be sure not to skip over the endpapers) and the book as a whole is an enjoyable reading experience and likely a Caldecott contender. I’m sure that most reviewers, librarians, and booksellers will classify this as a book for younger readers since it’s a picture book, but I’d recommend it for all ages, and in fact, I think that older kids and adults will have a greater appreciation for Pinkney’s artistic style than younger kids will. One thing I want to note about this book is that Pinkney took some liberties and gave it a new ending. I’ll withhold an opinion on whether that’s a good or a bad thing, but it certainly doesn’t detract from the aesthetic value of the book.

If My Love Were a Fire Truck: A Daddy’s Love Song by Luke Reynolds, illustrated by Jeff Mack, 2017

For me, this book instantly brought to mind the 1994 book (now considered a classic) Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney. But the listing of metaphors for love is a common theme in children’s literature, as well as songs and poems for all ages. This book rephrases the idea by using more masculine imagery than what is usually included in such books. The father’s love for his son is depicted as a knight’s shield, a marching band, and a lion’s roar, among other things. These metaphors aren’t actually explained, but I chalk that up to poetic license. In this book, it doesn’t matter what it means for love to stomp from tree to tree; (that’s from the page where love is an elephant) the point is that it sounds good and the picture is sweet.

Town is by the Sea by Joanne Schwartz, illustrated by Sydney Smith, 2017

blog picture Town is By the SeaTo be honest, I’m having a hard time putting into words what makes this book so beautiful and so powerful. It has something to do with the ink and watercolor illustrations with thick black outlines and something to do with the repetition in the text. (The events of the protagonist’s day are punctuated with the phrase “it goes like this”, and we are periodically reminded that his father is “under the sea” “digging for coal”.) It has something to do with the little details, such as the description of the swingset with only two swings left; one is broken and one “is wound so high around the top post it will never come down.” It has something to do with the contrast between the carefree, picturesque life above-ground and the dark, difficult job of a coal-miner. And it has something to do with the boy’s matter-of-fact acceptance that he will one day give up his idyllic childhood for the gloom of the coal mines. The understated social commentary is actually much more thought-provoking than an inflammatory tone could be. Maybe that’s as good a way as any to describe this picture book, because I’m just now looking at the inside of the book jacket, and it uses many of the same words as I have here.

Grace Hopper: Queen of Computer Code by Laurie Wallmark, illustrated by Katy Wu, 2017

For all of the attention that Bill Gates and Steve Jobs get for their computer-related innovations, we don’t hear much about earlier figures in the history of computer technology. Grace Hopper was one such early programmer, and evidently an especially significant one. This book credits her with finding ways to simplify coding, making it possible for people to use computers without learning “computer language.” Much of the book focuses on young Grace’s academic achievements, (and one academic failure) which makes this book very child-friendly. Wallmark also does an exceptional job of explaining Grace Hopper’s technical accomplishments in simple, understandable terms. Add to that the bright and cartoonish artwork, and the end result is a picture book biography that takes the best of both worlds. It’s also worth mentioning that this book falls into the highly desired category of books about females in STEM.

If Sharks Disappeared by Lily Williams, 2017

I’ve really been looking forward to this nonfiction picture book because, y’know, sharks are cool. And although this book isn’t likely to make it onto my best-of-2017 list, it doesn’t disappoint. The cartoon-style illustrations of marine life are bright and eye-catching, with a couple satisfyingly detailed sharks. As far as the text goes, it’s both concise and informative, appropriate either as a read-aloud for kids as young as Kindergarten or as independent reading for students around 2nd-3rd grade. (Independent readers will easily finish the book in a single sitting) One thing I’d like to point out for the benefit of any grownups interested in this book is that it’s specifically about wildlife conservation and marine ecosystems rather than the broad topic of shark facts in general.

Some 2017 Middle Grade Books

I’ve really been letting this blog slide, and consequently, I’ve really fallen behind on telling the internet about my favorite new books. In an attempt to catch up, I’d like to give a few very quick shout-outs to the middle-grade novels of 2017 (so far) that I personally feel are most significant. Runners-up would include Scar Island, The Siren Sisters, and Rick Riordan’s latest book, The Dark Prophecy. Also, the fantasy YA novel Caraval deserves a shout-out as well.

 

Forever or a Long Long Time by Caela Carter, 2017

Eleven-year-old Flora and her brother Julian were adopted almost two years ago, but they’re still struggling with the trauma of a childhood spent in multiple foster homes. When the various adults in their lives realize that Flora and Julian don’t believe that they were born, the family sets off on a mission to trace the children’s backstory. The main appeal of this book is the sense of mystery, but I love the fact that it discusses borderline-taboo (but very real and sadly common) issues such as childhood trauma and the imperfections of the foster care system. As a side note, there’s no need to worry about the possibility of disturbing content. The trauma that Flora experienced was not abuse or violence, but rather the absence of parental interaction and affection in early childhood.

2017 Family Game NightFamily Game Night and Other Catastrophes by Mary E. Lambert, 2017

Annabelle’s mother is a hoarder. So far, Annabelle has kept her life under control by keeping her own room absolutely clutter-free and not letting her friends within five miles of the house. But when a pile of newspapers falls, it’s the last straw. Annabelle comes to realize that her parents’ marriage is in jeopardy, her younger sister is an emotional wreck, her older brother is becoming increasingly distant, and even she doesn’t have her life quite as nice and neat as she thinks. This is a sympathetic depiction not only of a specific mental disorder and its effect on family relationships, but also of a few perfectly normal hardships of preteen life.

The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters: The Jolly Regina by Kara LaReau, 2017

This book is essentially the opposite of Pippi Longstocking. Pippi is a wacky and wild character who leaves her adventurous life on the sea to move into a relatively normal community. But Jaundice and Kale Bland are absurdly dull characters who leave their incredibly boring life when they are forced to join a wacky and wild pirate crew. A lot of the jokes will go over the heads of young readers (such as references to Gilligan’s Island and the name of Captain Ann Tennille) but overall, it’s a fun and silly read that I would recommend to kids looking for light-hearted humor.

2017 The Warden's DaughterThe Warden’s Daughter by Jerry Spinelli, 2017

Set in the summer of 1959, this book relates the various experiences of Cammie O’Reilly, a troubled preteen who lives in an apartment adjacent to the local prison where her father is warden. Subplots include Cammie’s struggles with grief over the long-ago death of her mother, a strained relationship with a friend who is overly hungry for fame, and relationships with two of the inmates in particular. Personally, I enjoyed the beginning of the book much more than the later chapters, when Cammie’s behavior spirals out of control and it becomes increasingly difficult to relate to her. But the setting and the characterization are both huge appeal factors for this story. This one gears older; it’s arguably more of a YA book than a middle-grade book.

The Ethan I Was Before by Ali Standish, 2017

After an accident that changes his life forever, twelve-year-old Ethan Truitt moves to his mother’s hometown and becomes friends with a girl who is bubbly and eccentric, but full of secrets. This is a pretty emotional book that explores themes of grief, guilt, and trust. The south Georgia setting is very atmospheric, and there’s enough mystery and suspense to give it a tone that you don’t often see in realistic fiction.