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?

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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.

Early 2017 Picture Books

It feels like just a few days ago when I was compiling my best-of-2016 list. But we are now nearly one fourth of the way through 2017, so there’s already quite a lot of 2017 children’s literature out there. My reading pace has admittedly been slower than usual lately, but I still have accumulated a list of new favorites. Hopefully, I’ll later get around to blogging about some of the novel-length books I’ve loved. (For the record, The Ethan I Was Before and The Warden’s Daughter are probably my top two at the moment, with Scar Island coming in at a relatively close third) But for now, here are my remarks on some recent picture books, (and one early reader) including a couple non-fiction titles for grade-school aged kids.

 

Rivers of Sunlight: How the Sun Moves Water Around the Earth by Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm, 2017

This nonfiction picture book does a beautiful job of describing the water cycle through pictures that are visually appealing and that complement the text, making the science easier to understand. The text itself is brief and concise, and its positioning on the page helps to make it look and feel like poetry. I personally found it a little corny that the book is written in first person from the sun’s perspective, especially on the concluding page (not counting the somewhat excessive six pages of notes) when the sun makes a promise to the reader and asks the reader to commit to “find[ing] ways to use water sparingly and keep[ing] it clean”. But I am willing to concede that as a personal opinion that doesn’t necessarily reflect the book’s quality.

 

Noisy Night by Mac Barnett, pictures by Brian Biggs, 2017

pb noisy nightFor Mac Barnett, 2017 is off to a good start, as he has two new picture books that have been well received. Both of them are making my list. Noisy Night is a short and simple story with bright colors and fun noises. It starts with a boy wondering what is going LALALA above his head, and each double-page spread introduces the character(s) on the floor above. The residents of each floor are making some type of noise and wondering who is making the noise they hear from the next floor up. Finally, at the end of the book, who see an old man who yells “GO TO BED!” at all of his noisy downstairs neighbors, and finally hears the click of a light switch being turned off. It may not be an especially interesting ending from a literary perspective, but it will entertain young children. This will make a fun bedtime story for a toddler or preschooler, and it will also be a great book to use in library storytimes.

 

Triangle by Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen, 2017

This story about an anthropomorphic triangle’s “sneaky trick” on his friend Square is silly, pointless, childish, and consequently wonderful. I can imagine this book getting some giggles in a storytime for preschoolers, (although any grownups present are less likely to appreciate the humor) but I also think it’s a great choice for a young reader—perhaps around first grade—who is just barely ready for a book of this reading level. It has sentences up to twelve words long and words as challenging as “triangle”. Due to its picture book format and sparse text, this will not be an intimidating book, and the plot’s simplicity is conducive to comprehension even if the reader needs to take the story slowly in order to sound out words.

 

Pig & Goose and the First Day of Spring by Rebecca Bond, 2017

In terms of its reading level, this book does a nice job of filling the niche of literature for kids who are a bit too advanced for Henry and Mudge or Fancy Nancy, but not quite ready for Magic Tree House or Bad Kitty. It has several sentences per page, and some of those sentences are actually pretty long, but it also has color pictures on every page and quite a bit of white space. It is divided into chapters, but is considerably shorter and uses a larger font size than most picture books. It’s comparable to the popular Princess in Black series in those respects. But in my opinion, it falls a little short of Princess in Black’s quality because the writing style is stilted and a little too repetitive and because it doesn’t have strong appeal factors. The plot leaves a fair bit to be desired. On the whole, though, it’s not a bad book, and I can certainly imagine scenarios in which I’d recommend it.

 

Tugboat Bill and the River Rescue by Calista Brill, illustrated by Tad Carpenter, 2017

Ah, another picture book about a cute anthropomorphic mode of transportation! And it’s a story about an underappreciated character who does something to earn respect and sudden popularity from his peers! There may not be anything particularly creative or innovative about this particular book, but its topic and plot are tried-and-true crowd pleasers. Especially if that crowd includes preschool boys, a demographic group that is likely to be fans of a transportation theme. Tugboat Bill and his barge friend Mabel will fit nicely into a library storytime about boats or rivers. And I’m sure that somewhere out there, there will be a few parents who will find themselves accidentally memorizing this story from reading it aloud so often.

 

Grand Canyon by Jason Chin, 2017

pb Grand CanyonOkay, this book has raised a very puzzling question in my mind. Is it “Grand Canyon” or “the Grand Canyon”? I’ve been used to using the definite article, so it was a little jarring to read about “Grand Canyon” without the definite article. A Google search reveals that both phrasings are commonly used. I suppose they’re probably both grammatically correct, in which case that has absolutely no bearing on the quality of this book. In terms of its artwork, its breadth of information, and its narrative voice, this is an excellent book that will be a valuable resource for kids from about second grade to about fifth grade. It’s significantly longer than its picture book format would lead one to expect, so it will be more useful to readers towards the older side of that range. Although it conveys a lot of geological and ecological information, it reads like a work of fiction, thanks to the first-person point of view. The narrator is a girl who is exploring the canyon with her father.

 

Wolf in the Snow by Matthew Cordell, 2017

In this nearly-wordless book, a girl gets lost in the snow on her way back from school and a wolf pup falls behind the pack and likewise gets lost. When the two cross paths, the girl sympathizes with the pup. He is too small to walk through the deep snow, so she carries him all the way to the woods, following the sounds of wolves howling in the distance. Once the young wolf is safely home, she continues towards her own home, this time aided by the sound of her dog barking in the distance. But she doesn’t make it. The wolves find her huddled up in the snow, presumably unconscious. They form a circle around her and howl, alerting the dog (and thereby, the girl’s parents) to her location. The last page shows the girl inside her home, drinking hot chocolate in front of the fire with her parents and the dog. (There are a couple minor plot details that are unclear to me. Does the girl fall because she injured herself? Or was she so tired that she fell asleep on her feet? I wasn’t even entirely sure whether she was already lost before she went out of the way to take the wolf pup home, but the summary on the inside jacket says that they’re both lost.) It’s a sweet story about friendship/family/kindness, but I think my favorite thing about this book is the wolves’ faces. They’re incredibly expressive given the not-quite-realistic art style. (It’s watercolor and ink, in case you’re wondering.) When an almost wordless book can tell a story with this many essential plot points, that says a lot about the skill of the illustrator.

 

The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet! By Carmen Agra Deedy, illustrated by Eugene Yelchin, 2017

pb the rooster who would not be quietAlthough it’s an original story, the plot of this book resembles a folk tale in its tone, pace, use of repetition, and the way the end cycles back to the beginning. It tells of a village called La Paz, where everyone sings all the time. The people are fed up with the noise, so they fire the mayor and elect Don Pere to take his place. Under Don Pere, the village becomes a silent place where singing is illegal. These laws stand for seven years, until the day when a rooster shows up in town. What ensues is a battle of wills as Don Pere tries to quiet the rooster by taking away everything that makes him happy, one by one. But the rooster can always find a song to sing. Eventually, the villagers gather around the loud rooster and angry mayor. The rooster’s singing inspires them to rediscover their own songs. Don Pere leaves town and La Paz is once again a noisy place. (La Paz, by the way, means Peace) The message about not letting yourself be silenced is eventually explicitly stated, maybe even a little too thoroughly, since the book leaves a bit of a preachy aftertaste. But overall, I love this book, both for the story and the vibrant, colorful artwork.

 

Antoinette by Kelly DiPucchio and Christian Robinson, 2017

I may not be appreciating this book as much as it deserves; maybe I’m missing something wonderful about it. But frankly, I don’t see that there’s anything particularly special about the plot, the artwork, or the writing. This seemed to me like a fairly generic dog story set in France. Not at all bad, but generic. Antoinette is one of four puppies who are all special—but Antoinette doesn’t know yet what it is that makes her special. After rescuing a puppy from another family, (the sister of Gaston, who is the subject of an earlier book by DiPucchio’s) Antoinette discovers that her specialty is her bravery, along with the reliability of following her heart and her nose. It’s a sweet story, and I’m not surprised that it’s somewhat popular, but I don’t think it really deserves quite the buzz it’s received.

 

The Unexpected Love Story of Alfred Fiddleduckling by Timothy Basil Ering, 2017

I can think of numerous ways to interpret the title of this picture book. Perhaps the love story is about Captain Alfred and his wife back home. Perhaps it’s about the love between the duck egg/ duckling that Captain Alfred is bringing home for his wife, and the Captain’s fiddle, which the duckling finds after a terrible storm that (evidently) destroys Captain Alfred’s boat. Maybe, it’s about the friendship that develops between the duckling and the dog who discovers him when the duckling and fiddle reach land. Or maybe, it’s about the music of the fiddle, which is responsible for reuniting the wife, her lost dog, the gift duckling, and the captain. The story is sweet, almost bordering on sappy, but the gorgeous acrylic artwork is the most noteworthy aspect of this book. It conveys a variety of moods, from the bright and happy opening scene of Captain Alfred setting out towards home, to the dark and raging storm, then the gray mist and sadness in the aftermath of the storm, and finally the colorful, magical music of the fiddle and the characters’ return home. Although Candlewick Press says that this book is for ages 2-5, I would argue that it skews a bit older than that, maybe more like 4-6, due to the complexity of the plot and the subdued color palette of the entire middle of the book.

 

Cat Knit by Jacob Grant, 2016

pb Cat KnitDo I only like this book because I know a certain other cat who is friends with a ball of yarn? Perhaps. I openly admit my bias towards cat books, particularly those that describe scenarios that regularly occur in my own catful home. But I think that this book can also be greatly enjoyed by children who have never watched my cat play with yarn. In fact, since cats’ love for yarn is such a famous trope, even children who aren’t necessarily cat lovers will be entertained by the friendship between Cat and Yarn, two of the three characters in this book. The third character is Girl. Readers as young as three years old will understand and enjoy the plot—Girl takes Yarn away and transforms Yarn into a sweater, and Cat is initially upset that his friend has changed. But by the end of the book, Cat has decided that Yarn is still his friend. On the one hand, this is a simple but beautiful story about friendship and acceptance of change. But on the other hand, it’s a goofy book that allows young readers to laugh at Cat because they know something that he doesn’t. At that age, children are still in the process of developing theory of mind, (which is essentially the understanding that different people/characters can know or believe different things) and these types of stories are therefore even funnier to preschoolers than they are to adults.

 

Egg by Kevin Henkes, 2017

Here is a picture book that I can’t wait to use in storytime. It features bright and simple illustrations, sparse text, (except for the page that says “waiting” sixteen times) and a hilarious plot. First, we see four eggs of different colors. Three of them crack open and hatch, but the green one does nothing. The birds are impatient, but when the final egg does hatch to reveal a baby alligator, they scatter. In a predictable happy ending, the three birds eventually return and befriend the baby alligator. (And yes, I’m sure it’s an alligator and not a crocodile. Since he’s a hatchling, I’ll concede that the teeth might just be too small to include in these simple pictures, but the shape of the snout makes it pretty clear.)

 

A Greyhound, A Groundhog by Emily Jenkins, illustrated by Chris Appelhans, 2017

I didn’t realize that I had any specific prior assumptions about this book until I opened it and found that it wasn’t what I was expecting at all. I guess I was anticipating it to be longer than most picture books, perhaps with a detailed plot, and I was imagining a formal tone. Actually, it is anything but wordy and serious. Essentially, it’s about two animals playing together. Short sentences, repetition, and use of rhyme and alliteration make this book just as light-hearted and playful as the animals’ chasing game. The illustrations are likewise simple, many of them set against a plain white background, but still manage to pack in enough details to make them likable and memorable. The pinks and blues, especially towards the end of the book, evoke a sunrise-like mood that makes up for anything the pictures would otherwise be lacking.

 

Watersong by Tim McCanna, illustrated by Richard Smythe, 2017

Worded entirely in onomatopoeias, this book depicts a rainfall as experienced by a fox as he searches for shelter and then joins his family when the rain is over. I love the watercolor artwork with its colors, details, and frequently-changing perspective. And the text is effective in its portrayal of the rain. But the informational page at the end struck me as being disorganized and awkward. I wouldn’t say it ruined the book for me, but it did detract from it just a little.

 

Pax and Blue by Lori Richmond, 2017

It isn’t easy being little. I’m not sure whether the protagonist Pax is small for his age, or if he’s just little in the sense that he’s very young, but at any rate, his smallness leads him to bond with a pigeon. He names the pigeon Blue and brings him a little toast every morning. But one day, Pax’s mother rushes him onto the subway too quickly for him to feed Blue first. Blue follows Pax onto the subway, leading first to chaos and then to a predictable happy ending when they find each other. The plot feels underdeveloped, even considering the brevity and simplicity of the story, but the value of friendship is aptly expressed and the characters are endearing. Although the illustrations are simple and not very colorful, the characters’ faces are very expressive. I think that’s mostly thanks to the eyebrows. I’m only just now noting the glaring inaccuracy; pigeons don’t generally have eyebrows.

 

Everybunny Dance! By Ellie Sandall, 2017

What do bunnies do when no one is watching? They dance, of course, and then they play and sing—until the fox approaches, that is, and then they run. What does a fox do when he thinks no one is watching? He waltzes and pirouettes, he somersaults and plays his clarinet, and then he sheds a tear of loneliness. But he isn’t really alone. The bunnies are watching from their hiding spot, and after the fox’s performance, they can’t help applauding. Now, the bunnies and the fox all dance and play together. The bright artwork and rhyming text will make this a fun read-aloud in a storytime or at home, but the part that I expect children to love the most is the fox’s unexpected performance.

 

Bunny’s Book Club by Annie Silvestro, illustrated by Tatjana Mai-Wyss, 2017

pb bunnys book clubThis is not an ideal storytime book—it’s on the long side and the plot is too complex for most kids younger than about five—but I’d highly recommend it for a newly independent reader, for a classroom read-aloud, or for parent-child reading at home. It starts with a few clichéd remarks about how much Bunny loves books, but before the reader has time to get bored, Bunny is sneaking into the library in the dark of night. This escapade becomes a nighttime occurrence, and each time, Bunny brings back a few books. (So that’s why library books sometimes disappear right off the shelves! Mystery solved!) Then Bunny begins bringing his friends. First Porcupine, then Bear, and eventually a group of nine woodland animals are visiting the library together. Predictably, the librarian catches them… but instead of banning them from the library, she gives them library cards and allows them to check out books. As a librarian, I suppose I’m biased towards books that have a pro-library message, but besides that element, this story is humorous and features bright and cheery artwork. With the exception of a couple text-heavy pages, there are few enough sentences per page (about one to three) to make it approachable for even a reluctant reader.

 

How Do Dinosaurs Choose Their Pets? By Jane Yolen, illustrated by Mark Teague, 2017

This fun series by Jane Yolen is one that I recommend frequently to parents or caregivers of three- or four- year olds. The books are relatively short, colorful, and funny, and the rhymes are yet another appeal factor. Each book begins with a series of questions about the dinosaurs’ behaviors, all of which are silly and/or just plain wrong. The book then ends by answering those questions with a “No” and then describing what a good dinosaur actually does. This particular book, in my opinion, is a little less fun than the ones that describe everyday activities (How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight? and How Do Dinosaurs Eat Their Food? are my favorites) But this is still a book that I would recommend to a wide audience, and that I could potentially use in storytimes in the future.

History is All You Left Me

History is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera, 2017

YA novel; realistic fiction, LGBT

history-is-all-you-left-meGriffin is devastated by the death of Theo, who has been his friend since middle school, his boyfriend since one summer day two years ago, and technically, his ex-boyfriend since Theo left for college last year. As he mourns his “favorite human,” Griffin bonds with the one person who understands how he feels: Jackson, Theo’s new boyfriend and Griffin’s nemesis until now. The book tells Griffin’s story non-chronologically, alternating between “today” chapters that begin with the day of Theo’s funeral, and “history” chapters beginning with the day they decided they were dating. As the book progresses, the reader gradually learns more about the circumstances surrounding Theo’s death and who was in love with whom on that day.

Let me start by saying that overall, this is a well-written and interesting book. The characters are believable and likable, and there’s a lot of character development going on in the story. The out-of-order sequence of plot points works well and adds an element of suspense that often isn’t there in stories this realistic. And Griffin’s narrative voice, (which addresses Theo in the “today” chapters and speaks in a more traditional first person in the “history” chapters) is conversational enough to give this introspection-heavy book the same tone as a dialogue-heavy book. And, as someone who sort of has OCD, (I have been diagnosed with it in the past, but my current diagnoses is General Anxiety Disorder with OCD tendencies) I always appreciate books like this one that depict the disorder accurately.

But there were a number of things I didn’t like about this book. Part of it is personal preferences—I’m generally not a huge fan of stories with a lot of sexual content, and I don’t tend to enjoy LGBT romance novels. Besides, a book that is about grief and takes place in winter is naturally going to be on the bleak side, which is also not a favorite literary trait of mine. But I also feel that there are some themes that just weren’t thoroughly developed or adequately used. The messages about moving on, forgiveness, honesty, and finding one’s own happiness are either under-emphasized throughout the book, or over-emphasized in the last few pages. The frequent mentions of alternate universes gave me a sense that they were building up to some big philosophical point, but that never happened. The very last sentence made me wonder if it’s implying the possibility that Griffin is an unreliable narrator, but as far as I can tell, there is absolutely no hint of that until then. Although, Griffin talks to Theo and believes Theo can hear him, but that actually doesn’t seem that out-of-the-ordinary considering the grief and shock that Griffin is experiencing regarding Theo’s death. Finally, although SLJ’s review praised the book for Griffin’s gradual discovery that Theo was also a flawed human, I didn’t get that impression. It seemed to me that Griffin consistently lionized Theo except in one specific incident.

But I’ll concede that these are minor quibbles and that this book is certainly worth a read. I would recommend it for young adult readers who are specifically looking for LGBT romance, for protagonists with OCD, or with plotlines that center around death. (No judging; I recall going through a death-story phase as a teen) I feel that it gears towards the older end of YA, if only because two of the major characters and some secondary characters are college students. As a side note, Silvera has a book scheduled to be published in September that sounds very intriguing.

Remarks on 2017’s Youth Media Awards

I was rather pleased with myself for the speed with which I updated the award-winner bibliographies on my library’s website after ALA’s Youth Media Awards were announced last Monday morning. But it’s taken me a whole week to get around to commenting on the awards here.

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2017 Newbery Award Winner

For any of you who aren’t aware, the ALA Youth Media Awards include the famous Newbery and Caldecott medals, as well as some newer and somewhat less widely-known awards. You can see a full list of winners, including honor books, on this page from ALA’s website. My favorites of the Youth Media Awards (besides the Newbery and Caldecott) are the Printz for YA literature, the Geisel for beginning readers, the Sibert for nonfiction, and the Coretta Scott King for African American literature. For all of those, I wrote up a wish-list and a prediction-list ahead of time.

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2017 Caldecott Award Winner and Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award Winner

My predictions weren’t extremely accurate. The Newbery book, The Girl Who Drank the Moon was a bit of a surprise, as was the Caldecott winner, Radiant Child. Both of those were books that I had read and that I would describe as good books, but they are both books that I admittedly had basically written off as contenders for major awards. For the Printz, Geisel, and Sibert, I was so far off that most of the honor books hadn’t even been on my radar. (Although I had read both We Are Growing which won the Geisel, and March Book 3, which won both the Printz and Sibert.) My Coretta Scott King predictions were the closest. Although I didn’t correctly guess either of the winners, (March Book 3 for the author award and Radiant Child for the illustrator award) I knew that Freedom Over Me, Freedom in Congo Square, and March Book 3 would all do well. I didn’t predict, though, that they would win three honors, two honors, and three medals respectively, just out of my six favorite awards.

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2017 Coretta Scott King Author Award Winner,  Printz Award Winner, and Sibert Award Winner, as well as winning the National Book Award for books for youth last November

I would like to point out, though, that the three books that I wanted and expected to win the Printz, (The Sun is Also a Star) the Newbery, (Wolf Hollow) and the Caldecott (They All Saw a Cat) all were named honor books. And my second-favorite Newbery contender, The Inquisitor’s Tale, was also named an honor book, which I did not actually expect to happen. So, all in all, I feel like I got my way.

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2017 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Book, Coretta Scott King Author Honor Book, and Newbery Honor Book

Not that that really matters, of course; there’s a reason that these awards are determined by committees rather than individuals. So what I most want to express following these awards is gratitude for the committee members, who worked so hard reading, thinking, and discussing in order to select these award winners. And now, it’s time to start speculating about 2018’s Youth Media Awards…

Best Books of 2016

This list has been a long time in coming. Not only have I spent an entire year reading a whole lot of children’s literature and keeping a running list of books that I especially liked, but it’s taken me close to three weeks to narrow that list down and to write a paragraph for each of my favorites. To be honest, I’m frustrated and disappointed that my list wasn’t finished and ready to go online right on New Year’s Day. But it’s done now, so here it is. For the picture books and the children’s novels, (aka middle-grade fiction) I’ve also included a list of runners-up. Since many of these books have shown up on my blog previously, I’ve put hyperlinks to the older post on the title. Finally, before I get to the list itself, here is a link to my 2014 list and here is a link to my 2015 list.

Picture Books

Leave Me Alone! By Vera Brosgol

This story starts with a folk-tale feel, as an old lady with lots of grandchildren struggles to get her knitting done. The titular line is what she yells as she leaves the village to go knit in the peace of the woods. And then when she leaves the forest with the annoying bears to go knit in the peace of the mountainside. And then when she leaves the mountainside with the annoying mountain goats to go knit on the moon. And then once more when she leaves the moon with the annoying little green moon-men to go knit in the peace of the void beyond the wormhole. At the end of the story, she completes all her knitting and returns home to give the new sweaters to her grandchildren. It’s a fun, funny story that’s both traditional (in format and setting) and original, (how many picture books about little old villager ladies involve wormholes) and makes for a fun read-aloud.It may not be a likely Caldecott contender like some of the books on this list, but if you’re looking for a light-hearted read-aloud, this is an especially good one.

Coyote Moon by Maria Gianferrari, pictures by Bagram Ibatoulline 

pb-coyote-moonThere are positive things I could say about the educational value of this book or about the descriptive, yet elegantly concise text. But what makes this book outstanding is the artwork. The word beautiful doesn’t even begin to cover it. It’s very realistic, it makes very effective use of shadows, (even though it mostly takes place in the dark anyway) and perhaps most importantly, the variety of the angles of perspective make each double-page spread as eye-catching and intriguing as the last.

 

Owl Sees Owl by Laura Godwin and Rob Dunlavey

This book is a palindrome! Well, not exactly, because you still have to keep the letters within the words in their original order. But the word order is the same backwards and forwards. Granted, it doesn’t use full sentences, which means that probably wasn’t an extremely difficult feat of grammatical talent. But it’s still clever, especially since the plot also comes full circle. It’s about a young owl who flies away from his nest to explore, then returns home. The three words of the title are the exact middle of the book, and the corresponding illustration shows Owl looking at his reflection in the water. This would make a great storytime book for very young children, although the illustrations are dark and subdued because it’s nighttime.

Before Morning by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Beth Krommes

pb-before-morningHere is one of the top two on my Caldecott wish list. (Don’t ask me to choose between them.) I love everything about this book: the style of the artwork, the beautiful simplicity of the text, the little details that you’ll only notice if you move through the book slowly, the calm and hopeful mood… This is not so much a book for library storytimes as it is a book to check out, (or buy) take home, and read again and again and again and again. I hope that a generation or two from now, this book will be considered a classic and will still be read and enjoyed by many.

Freedom in Congo Square by Carole Boston Weatherford and R. Gregory Christie

This book about the one exciting part of New Orleans slaves’ lives is technically nonfiction and poetry as well as a picture book. It’s a good book no matter which of those directions you approach it from, and as with any picture book, it’s the interplay of art and text that makes it a good book. But for me, the art is what pushes this book from “good” to “one of the best of the year.” I have to admit that I have a bit of a bias towards realistic-looking art, but the stylized artwork in this book is good enough that it immediately captured my attention and high regard anyway. I’m anticipating a Coretta Scott King Award in the near future for this book, and I suspect it’s a strong Caldecott contender, too.

They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel 

pb-they-all-saw-a-catThis is the other book that would like to see win the Caldecott, and I think there’s a good chance of that. As a cat encounters various other animals, the artistic style, color scheme, and even the features of the cat change to demonstrate others’ perception of the cat. For instance, on the dog’s double-page, the cat looks scrawny and a little mean, while the mouse sees the cat as a scary, ferocious monster and the flea sees an expanse of fur. The text is simple, short, and repetitive, making it the type of book that even very young children can enjoy. However, older children and adults will be able to appreciate the creativity of the art.

Nanette’s Baguette by Mo Willems

It may be a little vague and unhelpful to describe a book as “playful”, but there really isn’t any better word to describe Mo Willems’ most recent contribution to children’s literature. A young frog named Nanette has been sent out to get a baguette. She gives into temptation and eats the baguette on the way home and must woefully admit to her mom what she has done. The twist ending when (spoiler!) mom eats the replacement baguette will have preschoolers giggling, but the most fun part of this book is how Willems repeatedly uses words ending with the ‘et’ sounds. Even children who don’t yet understand rhyme will pick up on that pattern and enjoy it. In fact, this is a great book for teaching children about rhymes and sounds within words.

More Picture Books

Thunder Boy Jr. by Sherman Alexie, illustrated by Yuyi Morales

The White Cat and the Monk by Jo Ellen Bogart, illustrations by Sydney Smith

Spot, the Cat by Henry Cole

Snappsy the Alligator Did Not Ask to Be in This Book! By Julie Falatko, pictures by Tim Miller

Chicken in Space by Adam Lehrhaupt, illustrated by Shahar Kober

Shh! Bears Sleeping by David Martin, pictures by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher

Faraway Fox by Jolene Thompson, illustrated by Justin K. Thompson

Early Readers

Ralph and the Rocket Ship by Alyssa Satin Capucilli, illustrated by Henry Cole

The plot of this book is perhaps just a little cliche, but it’s one that its target audience will enjoy. Ralph loves rocket ships and wishes he had one, but his parents say that a rocket ship is too big. They’d rather he play with his toy truck and toy tractor, but those vehicles can’t fly to the stars or the moon. Ralph thinks about his problem and then comes up with a brilliant idea. He can make his own rocket ship! So he builds one out of a cardboard box, and all ends well. This book includes dialogue and sentences as long as fifteen words, but it also has a controlled vocabulary, large font, and a high picture-to-text ratio. Therefore, it’s not a particularly difficult read and is age-appropriate for some preschoolers, many kindergarteners, and most first-graders.

Up by Joe Cepeda

2016-upIt isn’t easy to put together a good story using a controlled vocabulary suitable for a beginning reader, especially when the target audience is absolute beginners who aren’t ready for words of more than four letters or sentences of more than four words. A lot of books at that level aren’t really stories with a plot, or at best, they have very simple plots. This one is an exception. Despite its brevity and controlled vocabulary, this book is a fun fantasy about a boy who uses a pinwheel to fly out of his bedroom window one windy day. Obviously, the details are in the pictures, which are also distinctive. I’ve asked Google what the term is for the stylized, sketch-like edges in these pictures, but I can’t find such a term and I’m starting to think that there’s no official name for it. So I’m calling it sketch edges. The artwork in this book is made distinctive by its use of sketch edges.

The Cookie Fiasco by Dan Santat

This book is one of two that is kicking off the new Elephant & Piggie Like Reading! series. The book begins and ends with a couple pages of Gerald (the elephant) and Piggie talking about the book. The main storyline, however, is about a different group of animals. Four friends have three cookies, but they want “equal cookies for all”. Unfortunately, Hippo breaks things when he is nervous. Now there are six half-cookies for four friends. After Hippo continues breaking the cookies, there are twelve quarter-cookies, and everyone gets three pieces. This is a fun book about sharing and math, and I would especially suggest it for children who are just beginning to read full sentences. But best of all, it’s very, very funny.

The Thank You Book by Mo Willems 

The bad news is that Mo Willems’ extremely popular Elephant and Piggie series will no longer be adding new books. (At least not as we’ve known them up to now. See The Cookie Fiasco listed above.) The good news is that this final book is a particularly good one. Piggie sets out to thank everyone important to her, but Gerald is sure that she will forget someone– and she does! But, of course, since this is an Elephant and Piggie book after all, it ends on a sweet note. This book and all of the others preceding it are great for beginning readers around the age of five or six, but will also entertain children of a wide range of ages.

Chapter Books

Bad Kitty Goes to the Vet by Nick Bruel

It’s no wonder that the Bad Kitty series is wildly popular among children in the five-to-eight age range. They’re satisfyingly thick chapter books with silly plots, lots of large pictures, and a manageable amount of text. The writing is at approximately a second-grade reading level, although they’re also great for above-average readers a bit younger than that, or as a book for a parent and child to read together. In this particular book, Kitty is sick and isn’t even eating her food. Once her human has undertaken the monumental task of getting her to the vet, she is given a checkup and then given a sedative while (spoiler!) the vet removes a bad tooth. While sleeping, Kitty dreams that she has died and will only be allowed into Pussycat Paradise if she can prove that she’s capable of being nice to Puppy.

The Princess in Black and the Hungry Bunny Horde by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale, illustrated by LeUyen Pham

2016-princess-in-blackPrincess Magnolia and her unicorn Frimplepants are meeting Princess Sneezewort for brunch, but while they’re on their way, the need arises for them to switch to their secret identities to solve a monster problem. The monsters turn out to be nothing but bunnies, and the Princess in Black doesn’t believe they’re dangerous. But they turn out to be a bigger challenge than she had anticipated. This is the third book in a series that is loved my many a six- or seven- year old girl, and for good reason. Who can resist a monster-battling ninja princess? Especially when her adventures are funny, illustrated in full color, and written in easy-to-read large text? I like to recommend this series for kids who are transitioning from readers to “real” chapter books.

Balto of the Blue Dawn by Mary Pope Osborne

For slightly older kids who are comfortable with longer books, the Magic Tree House series is an excellent one to try. The series relates the adventures of siblings Jack and Annie, who can travel throughout history (and mythology) in a tree house belonging to Morgan Le Fay of Arthurian legends. They’re actually very intellectual considering how young their audience is, which is one of the things that parents, librarians, educators, and kids love so much about them. In this book, Jack and Annie travel to Alaska in 1925 and travel by dogsled to deliver medicine needed to save the people of Nome. Balto, a dog who plays a prominent role in the book, really lived and really delivered life-saving medicine to Nome in 1925.

Graphic Novels

Mighty Jack by Ben Hatke

Very loosely based on Jack and the Beanstalk, this graphic novel is about a teenage boy who ends up with a magical garden in his backyard after allowing his autistic, non-verbal sister Maddy to trade the family car for some magic beans. But that’s only the beginning of the trouble. Jack can’t tell Maddy no, which repeatedly causes problems that get Jack in trouble with his mother. The plants in the garden are alive, and Jack, Maddie, and the cute girl next door spend all their time fighting with the garden and its creatures, including a dragon and a giant snail. The book ends with the appearance of a new, especially dangerous creature, and the promise of more books to come. This is an exciting adventure for graphic novel fans whose interests fall somewhere between realistic fiction and superhero comics.

The Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks

2016-nameless-cityI think that what I like most about this book is the world-building. Even though we as readers don’t know anything initially about the history, social or political hierarchy, or ethnic groups of the world where this story takes place, we can still follow both the political aspects of the story, and the budding friendship between two young people whose lives are completely different. Despite the politics that dominate the plot, this is also a high-action adventure. The art itself also deserves some praise, especially for the architectural details that bring the nameless city alive on the page. I can see it appealing to readers as young as fourth or fifth grade, but this is also a graphic novel with appeal factors for teens.

Compass South by Hope Larson, illustrations by Rebecca Mock

It’s 1860 in New York, and twelve-year-old twins Alexander and Cleopatra have gotten involved with a gang. After getting in trouble with the police, they leave New York to start a new life. The plan is that they will go to New Orleans to respond to a newspaper ad from a man looking for his own children who happen to fit Alex and Cleo’s description. (As long as Cleo disguises herself as a boy) Things start going wrong when they run into another pair with the same idea. Alex and Cleo get separated, each accompanied by one of the other set of imposters. Over the course of their journey and their encounters with pirates, they discover that the pocket-watch and knife that they inherited from their long-lost parents are somehow the key to a treasure. I found this book to be distinctive as a graphic novel in terms of the complexity of its plot, not to mention the historical setting.

March: Book Three by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell 

The last in a trilogy about the author’s experiences in the civil rights movement, this nonfiction graphic novel is notable both in terms of its subject matter and its unusual use of the graphic novel format. But besides being unusual, it’s a fantastic example of how expressive the graphic novel format can be. Facial expressions, font, and shapes of the word bubbles can say a lot, while the use of perspective can determine the mood. With its variety of angles and distances, as well as a variety of panel shapes and sizes, this book is dramatic and visually appealing even though it’s all black and white. Recommended for teens (as well as adults) or older children with some background knowledge of the civil rights era.

Snow White by Matt Phelan

2016-snow-whiteRetellings of well-known fairy tales have been pretty popular in children’s and teen’s literature for a number of years now, but this one stands out as an especially good one. That’s partly because of the quality of the artwork. My favorite detail is the use of colors. Most of the drawings are black and white, or in some cases, sepia -toned. So the few colored objects- blood, the apple, the blue of the glass window, and the few full-colored pages depicting the happy ending– really stand out as being significant and even poignant. But the other fun thing about this book is the setting. Snow White is a story that isn’t typically moved away from its original Germanic setting, but here, it’s placed in the twenties. (1928 New York City, to be specific, just at the dawn of the Great Depression) The stepmother is a Broadway star rather than literal royalty, the woods are transformed to Hooverville, and the dwarves are replaced with a band of street urchins. This graphic novel has appeal factors both for children and teens. It has very little text and will be manageable for even a very reluctant reader.

Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier

Just by virtue of its author/artist, this is an extremely popular middle-grade book. Telgemeier’s bright art and realistic stories appeal strongly to avid readers and reluctant readers alike and are unintimidating for even young readers. This one is a bit different from her previous books in that it’s not purely realistic fiction. In the town that the protagonist Cat and her family move to, ghosts are real. Cat is confused and upset that everyone else actually likes the ghosts, but as the Day of the Dead celebration approaches, her perspective towards death and ghosts changes. I considered not putting this book on my list, because even though I enjoyed it and appreciated its candid discussion of terminal illness, it has some issues with historical and cultural accuracy. Specifically, it depicts the “ancient” ghosts at the old mission as being Mexican and speaking Spanish, even though most of the people buried in mission cemeteries were native people of the area. There would have been Spanish people buried there as well, so I think we can explain away that apparent inconsistency. But even then, the omission of any acknowledgment of the history of the missions and the mass deaths of native people that occurred as Spanish people settled the area. Really, this book is surprisingly uninformative about any California history, considering that it’s a book about ghosts and the observance of a traditional holiday. I decided to include this book on my list anyway, but I felt compelled to acknowledge that there’s a valid case to be made against it.

Children’s Novels

All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook by Leslie Connor 

perry-t-cookEleven-year-old Perry has never known any home other than the Blue River Co-Ed Correctional Facility… that is, prison. But when the new district attorney finds out about this arrangement, he removes Perry and takes him home as a foster child. Although the district attorney happens to be Perry’s best friend’s stepfather, Perry is unhappy being separated from his mother, who is in prison for accidental manslaughter. This book contains a lot of the schoolwork/ friendship/ mean kids at school themes typical of middle-grade fiction, but Perry’s personality and backstory are distinctive enough to make the book feel innovative and even informative. It also has an element of mystery, because Perry is trying to figure out the details of the event that put his mother in prison. I think that Perry’s story be a great prompt for some very interesting discussions (or internal monologues) among kids between fourth and eighth grade, not only about incarceration and unique living situations, but also about the sometimes subtle differences between right and wrong, or between good people and bad people.

Raymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo 

The writing style in DiCamillo’s newest book is unique, so much so that this book can’t be fully enjoyed until you settle into the rhythm and the tone. It has short paragraphs, dry humor, eccentric characters with distinctive mannerisms, and straight-forward, simple language that somehow manages to convey just as much detail, emotion, and commentary on the human experience as a book with a more flowery or elaborate writing style. All of those things are good things, or at worst, neutral, but I still have very mixed feelings about this book because of them. It’s making my list because the story is interesting and memorable, which obviously means that it qualifies as “good”. I’d strongly recommend this book to anyone who has enjoyed DiCamillo’s previous work, and it has appeal factors that just might be the thing to hook a reluctant reader. But frankly, this isn’t one of my Newbery hopes, even though I know that quite a lot of people are rooting for it.

The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog by Adam Gidwitz, illuminated by Hatem Aly 

inquisitors-talePart adventure, part fantasy, and part thoroughly-researched historical fiction, this middle-grade novel is one of the most entertaining and intellectual children’s books of the year. I think it would by my second Newbery wish. (After Wolf Hollow, listed in the young adult category below) It’s the year 1242, and a group of travelers who cross paths in an inn start telling what they know about the three children who are the subject of all the talk in France. The collection-of-tales format is a bit reminiscent of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, while most of the events are drawn from French legends, folklore, and historical events. I picked up pretty quickly on the fact that Jeanne, one of the three protagonists, was modeled after Joan of Arc, but before reading the author’s note, (which I found far more interesting than many author’s notes) I didn’t realize just how much this book is grounded in facts and in legends that are just as old as those facts. I don’t have time or space to enumerate all the things I love about the book, which is just one more reason that I recommend that you read it for yourselves.

The Key to Extraordinary by Natalie Lloyd 

This right here is probably the most underrated and overlooked book of 2016. (At least, it is if we’re going by my opinion, which we obviously are since this is my blog) It has received some positive attention, but I haven’t seen it on other best-of-2016 lists, and I haven’t read much discussion about what it has to say about destiny, human connection, and what it means to be extraordinary. I admit that I have a soft spot for books in which the protagonist uncovers family history, and that I find something particularly appealing about the old-fashioned small-town setting and Lloyd’s brand of magical realism. This book was written specifically for people with my specific reading preferences. So that’s certainly why I’m giving this book more credit than the general public or the children’s literature community. But I stand by my opinion that it’s a very good book, and that you absolutely need to read it if phrases like “Destiny Dream”, “Boneyard Brew”, and “Darlin’ Daisy” sound good and if you believe in hidden treasures, magic flowers, and the powers of baked goods.

The Remarkable Journey of Charlie Price by Jennifer Maschari

Twelve-year-old Charlie misses his mom and wishes he could have her back, but he knows that she’s gone forever, and that his life without her is a world where you can’t count on anything except math. But his sister Imogen claims that there is a way to reunite with their mother. But one day, Charlie discovers a portal in Imogen’s room that does indeed lead to a parallel world in which Mom is alive. But something doesn’t feel right, and Charlie gradually realizes that the time they spend with Mom is draining their energy and their memories. The book concludes with an exciting rescue mission in which Charlie and his friend Elliott must brave the sinister place that had previously seemed so comfortable in order to recover Imogen and another friend named Frank. This is a book about bravery, love, and loss, that has sad parts, heartwarming parts, scary parts, magical parts, realistic parts, and even a part that feels like science fiction. Essentially, it has something for everyone, and an awful lot for readers who like speculative fiction with real-world themes.

Pax by Sara Pennypacker, illustrated by Jon Klassen

Here’s another very popular book that leads to mixed opinions for me. It’s beautifully written and rich with meaning, metaphors, and motifs. But I just can’t talk myself into liking the way it ends. (And I don’t mean it doesn’t make me happy; I mean that it doesn’t tie up enough loose endings to have any effective message or to leave the reader with any afterthoughts other than annoyance at an unsatisfying ending.) I also don’t love the ambiguity of the setting, although I can accept that this might actually be a positive aspect for some readers. So my overall stance on this book is that it is high quality literature, but not quite my type. And I’m still not okay with that ending. As such, I’m including it on this list, but it’s not one that I would be excited to see win major awards.

The Secret Keepers by Trenton Lee Stewart

2016-secret-keepersWhen I heard that Stewart (author of The Mysterious Benedict Society) was coming out with a new book this year, I knew it was one I didn’t want to miss. The Secret Keepers did not disappoint. It’s a complex mystery as well as an exciting adventure with science fiction/ fantasy aspects, featuring a boy who finds a special watch, which is being sought by the sinister and mysterious authorities of his sort-of-but-not-really dystopian city. (It’s 501 pages, by the way, and not a line of that is unnecessary or redundant. I did say it’s complex.) It is worth acknowledging that this is a book with a very specific and narrow target audience. It’s a good book for those kinds of precocious kids who can spend hours on end completely engrossed in a book, who are such avid and skilled readers that nothing is really a challenge for them, and who prefer the fantastical to the realistic.

More Children’s Novels

Ms. Bixby’s Last Day by John David Anderson

The Nine Lives of Jacob Tibbs by Cylin Busby 

Summerlost by Ally Condie

Counting Thyme by Melanie Conklin

Ruby Lee & Me by Shannon Hitchcock

The Door by the Staircase by Katherine Marsh 

The Seventh Wish by Kate Messner

Novels in Verse

Booked by Kwame Alexander 

Fans of Alexander’s Newbery winner Crossover from two years ago will also like Alexander’s more recent book about Nick Hall, an eighth grade boy who loves soccer, knows way too many obscure words thanks to his linguist father, and has a crush on a girl named April. Nick and his best friend Coby are on different soccer teams, but both teams have been invited to compete in the Dallas Cup. But before then, Nick’s life falls apart when his parents announce that they’re separating. The variety of subplots (bullies, school assignments, a medical emergency, etc.) gives this book appeal factors for readers who aren’t particularly interested in sports stories. This book ideal for kids close to Nick’s age or a little younger, but some readers outside of that age range will also like it.

Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life  by Ashley Bryan 

This book could fall into multiple categories; it’s a picture book, it’s poetry, and it’s sort of both historical fiction and nonfiction. It’s short enough that I suppose it’s a stretch to call it a novel in verse, but I really do think that it deserves credit for its verse. Inspired by an 1828 document listing eleven slaves for sale, Bryan hypothesizes about their relationships to each other, their skills and duties, and their dreams for the future.

Unbound by Ann E. Burg

2016-unboundThis is another one about slavery, set a few decades later. Grace has been summoned to work in the big house, which brings a whole new set of responsibilities and dangers. Grace struggles to keep her mouth shut about the injustices and cruelty that the slaves face, and after she gets in trouble for vocalizing her “rightiness voice”, she and her family must run away into the swamp. The Great Dismal Swamp is a real place in Virginia and North Carolina where some (perhaps many) runaway slaves did hide. This book is about the hardships of slavery and the moral dilemmas that arise when one doesn’t have the freedom to do what they know is right, but it’s also a look into a historical facet that isn’t often discussed.

Moo by Sharon Creech

I have to admit that I actually haven’t been much of a fan of Creech’s works in the past. There’s something I used to  find unappealing in her writing style and the way the format of her verse varies. But I didn’t mind it in this book. In fact, I really enjoyed immersing myself in the story of a friendship developing between the city kids who have just moved to rural Maine, the scary Mrs. Falala, and her belligerent cow Zora. The plot is pretty predictable, but it’s a sweet story with excellent characterization, so it’s worth a read.

YA Novels

Maybe a Fox by Kathi Appelt and Alison McGhee 

Like several of my favorite YA books of 2016, this one is geared towards the younger side of that demographic. I initially considered it a children’s book because the protagonist is eleven and it’s not a very long book. But the emotional depth and the intellectual aspect of the themes and motifs put it more in the realm of middle-school books. Don’t get me wrong, a nine- or ten-year-old could certainly handle this book and enjoy it, (as long as he or she is okay with tear-jerkers) but I can’t quite bring myself to call it children’s literature. It’s about death, grief, love, and connections. And although it’s almost realistic fiction, it has speculative and spiritual elements, which gives it a magic touch that’s more poignant than actual fantasy stories.

Hour of the Bees by Lindsay Eager 

This is another one with a preteen protagonist, and it’s another one that’s almost but not quite realistic fiction. (I would describe it as magical realism, a subgenre that has lately become very common in YA novels.) Carol is not at all happy to be spending her summer on an isolated ranch, helping her parents move her cantankerous grandfather into assisted living against his will. But she does come to enjoy her grandfather’s stories about a magic tree, the bees who keep it alive, and the adventurous young woman who brought it all to an end. Over the course of the book, Carol learns a lot about the history of her family, which is largely defined by an ongoing conflict between the need to honor and rely upon one’s roots and the need to branch out and see what else is out there. It’s fitting and clever that the tree is a significant “character” in the plot.

The Gallery by Laura Marx Fitzgerald

2016-the-galleryWhen it comes to YA literature, most of the books that I love most are books that have intellectual or philosophical themes, books that keep the reader thinking about the point of the story long after they’ve finished it. This isn’t one of those. I certainly could find things to say about The Gallery’s discussion of social issues, about power and how dangerous it is in the wrong hands, or about the theme of secrecy, lies, and cover-ups. I also love that it is set in the 1920’s, a time period that I think is under-represented in literature for young people. But the real reason I like this book is simply that it’s exciting and fascinating. It tells the story of a spunky twelve-year old named Martha O’Doyle as she begins working alongside her mother as an employee of J. Archer Sewell. The wealthy newspaper magnate’s mysterious wife is an invalid, suffering from an illness of the mind. But Martha begins to suspect that Mrs. Sewell is being confined against her will and is attempting to convey secret messages. When Martha resolves to help her, mystery and adventure lies in store.

Up to this Pointe by Jennifer Longo 

Of the books I’m listing here, this is one of the few that hasn’t really attracted a lot of attention and critical acclaim. The reviews were positive and it has good ratings on amazon and goodreads, but it hasn’t shown up on review journals’ Best of the Year lists, and only one of the six review journals that matter most gave it a starred review. (I spent way too much time verifying that.) But I found it interesting, meaningful, and well-written enough that it stuck in my mind as a best-of-the-year contender from when it came out in January until now. I might be biased because I relate so much to Harper, the main character– not just because she loves ballet, and not just because she feels like a failure for not being a better dancer, but because of personality traits and emotions. Although, unlike Harper, I didn’t cope with life’s disappointments by running away to Antarctica. The novel alternates between “before” chapters in San Francisco and “after” chapters in Antarctica, describing Harper’s literal and metaphorical journey to find a sense of identity and purpose after falling short of her uncompromisable Plan-with-a-capital-P. (Note: I also tend to be biased towards books with Star Wars references. Not gonna lie, this book had me wrapped around its finger as soon as I saw that it involved both ballet and Star Wars.)

Burn Baby Burn by Meg Medina

It’s 1977 in New York, and Nora is a senior in high school. But school isn’t one of the first things on her mind, not when there’s a serial killer out there somewhere and a cute new guy at work and family problems at home. Nora’s brother Hector is aggressive and cruel, (not to mention that he’s probably caught up in illegal activities) and their mother is powerless to control either her son or her family’s finances. Nora is looking forward to moving out on her own, but first she has to navigate through this hot, violent summer. This novel is realistic fiction, and it uses a real time and place and real events to discuss the uncertainties, dangers, and emotions of real life, but it also has suspense and intrigue characteristic of a mystery or adventure. Serial killers and borderline-criminal siblings can do that to a story. (By the way, no, the serial killer and the brother do not turn out to be the same person.) Already having been put on the National Book Award longlist, this book also might be a major contender for the Printz and/or Pura Belpre.

Wolf Hollow  by Lauren Wolk 

Wolf HollowThis is a story about lies and secrets, about hiding and being trapped, about blame and trust, about right and wrong. It’s a story where every seemingly random scene or anecdote is important, where every character is a major character, and where the action doesn’t have to slow down to make room for beautiful writing. It’s a book where the heroine is brave, kind-hearted, and innocent (but yet very realistic and believable) and faces difficult and dangerous dilemmas. In short, this novel is literature at its finest. If I had to choose just one book to name as the best of 2016, this would be it. It’s 1943, and Annabelle is a twelve-year-old in a small, rural Pennsylvania town. Her quiet life is turned upside down when Betty Glenberry comes to town. Betty bullies Annabelle and demonstrates such callous cruelty that, after a thrown rock injures a classmate, Annabelle immediately suspects Betty. But Betty accuses Toby, an eccentric World War I veteran who is friends with Annabelle’s family. Annabelle knows that Toby is innocent, but evidence is stacking up against him, and she can only defend and protect him by breaking rules and keeping dangerous secrets. I would strongly recommend this book to preteens, teens, and adults.

The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon 

This teen romance is one of the most popular young adult books of the year; I think it’s safe to say that it’s the most popular contemporary realistic fiction young adult book of the year. Even if you, like me, feel that contemporary realistic fiction teen romances are usually more or less the same, this one is worth a little more attention. Jamaican-born Natasha is about to be deported, and Daniel, a Korean American boy born and raised in New York, is about to interview for a recommendation for admission to Yale. For her, it’s the worst day ever. For him, it’s just another episode in the ongoing family drama of high expectations. But when they cross paths, it becomes a very important moment in both of their lives. Daniel is immediately smitten while Natasha takes some convincing, but by the end of the day, they are officially in love. The voice and perspective jumps between Natasha, Daniel, and an omniscient narrator who offers background information about secondary characters, relevant historical or scientific trivia, and details about the series of events that made this particular day turn out the way it did. Most plot summaries I’ve seen make this book sound like a fairly stereotypical pairing of Natasha’s scientific and factual mindset and Daniel’s romanticized ideals. That’s definitely a major aspect of the plot, but there’s so much more to this book. It’s also about family dynamics, race relations, and the costs and benefits of following your dreams. Perhaps most of all, it’s a creative reminder that there are an infinite number of possible futures, and every small choice or minor event plays a role in determining which one will happen.

Non-Fiction

Just a Lucky So and So: The Story of Louis Armstrong by Lesa Cline- Ransome, illustrated by James Ransome 

pb just a lucky so and soThis beautiful picture-book biography describes the childhood and early career of the iconic jazz musician Louis Armstrong. Although the book acknowledges the poverty and petty crimes that played such a large role in Armstrong’s early life, it focuses on his lifelong love for music and has a cheerful tone. The text is just stylized enough to have a musical quality; Booklist describes it as snappy and The Horn Book compares the “short bursts of text” to jazz riffs. And then there are the illustrations. Colorful, bright, and happy, they complement the text and set the mood. I recommend this book for elementary-school-aged children, although it will be a light read for children at the older side of that range.

The Darkest Dark by Chris Hadfield and Kate Fillion, illustrated by Terry and Eric Fan

Astronaut Chris Hadfield looks back at one historic weekend in his childhood. At first, this looks like a fairly typical picture book about a boy who likes to play astronaut, but who is afraid of the dark. But then he watches the first moon landing on television and gets to see actual astronauts in outer space, and after this, his dreams overcome his fears. I enjoyed the playful and humorous tone of the beginning of the book, as well as the lovely ink and graphite illustrations, but what really sold me on this book is that it’s a true story. Chris isn’t just a protagonist created to teach kids a feel-good message; he’s an actual person who actually achieved his dreams.

March: Book Three by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell 

march-book-threeYes, this is a Best Book of 2016 in two different categories. In addition to being a great graphic novel, it’s a quality nonfiction book about historically significant events. There are lots of wonderful historical fiction books about the Civil Rights movement, but this book gives a different– and 100 % factual– perspective, since the primary author was involved in organizing significant events in the movement. One benefit of the graphic novel format is that this book is accessible to a wide range of ages. My library actually has it in the adult collection, but this book has usually been classified as a YA book and even won the National Book Award for Young People’s literature. Many middle-graders could also read and appreciate this book. Regardless of age, most readers will learn a lot about the famous Freedom Summer of 1964, and about the politics and disagreements within the Civil Rights movement.

The First Step: How One Girl Put Segregation on Trial by Susan E. Goodman, illustrated by E. B. Lewis 

Most of us are familiar with the controversy and animosity surrounding the desegregation of schools in the 1950’s and 1960’s. We’ve heard about Brown vs. Board of Education and the Little Rock Nine, and we understand that segregation was a widespread issue. But this book begins before all of that. This book starts with the story of Sarah Roberts, a girl who started school in Boston in 1847, years before the Civil War. Sarah initially attended a school that wasn’t supposed to teach black students, and it didn’t take long before she was forced to switch to a school much farther away, with an inferior curriculum and only one book. That wasn’t what her parents wanted for her. It took two years for the case to go to court, and the Roberts’ and their lawyers lost in the end. The last few pages skip ahead to Linda Brown, an eight-year-old girl in the same situation a century later, who won her case and effectively ended segregation in schools. This may be a picture book, (a beautifully illustrated one, by the way) and it may be relatively short, but it’s an excellent way to introduce these topics to children in first through third grade.

Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story by Carol Stelson 

This National Book Award semi-finalist wasn’t on my radar until then and hasn’t received a lot of attention aside from that, but it is an excellent book. In fact, I would go as far as to say that it’s an essential read for anyone with a particular interest in WWII Japan and a beneficial read for everyone. Sachiko Yasui, the central figure and primary informant for this book, was only six years old when she experienced the explosion that demolished her home and killed the four children that she’d been playing with moments before. Her story isn’t so much about the military events of WWII as it is about growing up in a country, community, and family that is rebuilding itself and looking for hope while still struggling with the long-term effects of the war. The atomic bomb continued to kill people long after the day it fell on Nagasaki; effects of radiation such as many types of cancer continued to show up years after the war was over. Sachiko lost most of her family to the atomic bombing, and she herself experienced emotional hardships and later, thyroid cancer that wasn’t resolved until she was an adult. But this book isn’t all about radiation sickness and loss; it’s also about people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Helen Keller who inspired Sachiko, and about hope and regrowth. This book can be appreciated by preteens, teens, and adults alike.