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.

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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.

Year of the Fox

I can’t take credit for declaring 2016 the year of the fox. (In terms of children’s literature, that is.) I know I’ve seen that phrase floating around on Goodreads and on various blogs, but I have no idea who said it first. Or maybe, we all noticed at the same time that there have been an awful lot of fox books this year and started commenting about it simultaneously. Really, Pax is the most noteworthy fox book of the year, and I think it’s the reason that children’s lit readers are particularly attuned to fox books this year. Nonetheless, as the year approaches its end, I think now would be a good time to take a look back at all the 2016 fox books I’ve read and enjoyed (or not).

yotf-maybe-a-foxMaybe a Fox by Kathi Appelt and Alison McGhee

I read this novel all at once late one night last spring, and it was a whirlwind of words and vicarious emotions. Twelve-year-old Sylvie and eleven-year-old Jules are sisters and best of friends. Tragedy strikes one morning when Sylvie runs off to throw a wish rock in the river and never comes back. Jules can’t believe that Sylvie is gone, and she struggles to cope with the loss. The narrative switches back and forth between Jules and a young fox who has been born a kennen, (An animal whose purpose is to help a human) and evidently either has Sylvie’s spirit or has some kind of connection to her. As a significant subplot, Jules gradually begins communicating with her friend’s older brother who fought in Afghanistan and lost his best friend. In addition to the emotion, the beautifully written prose, and the pacing that is just perfect for keeping the reader engrossed, this book can also claim a lot of literary value for its use of recurring themes and motifs. (The significance of stones, the need to run fast, etc.)

 

The Fox Who Ate Books by Franziska Biermann, translated by Shelley Tanaka

For the sake of variety, I’m including this recently published translation of a 2015 German book. But I have to admit that I don’t find it a particularly noteworthy book. The plot is complicated and feels disorganized, and the humor of the basic premise isn’t quite entertaining enough to keep the reader engaged throughout this fairly wordy story.  The bright, simple, two-dimensional illustrations seem to be targeted at a completely different age level than the text. And the end is not satisfying, surprising, or funny.

The Christmas Fox by Anik McGrory

This holiday-themed picture book may not be making headlines, but its playful take on the nativity scene and its loveable, frisky protagonist still give it some pretty significant appeal factors. The text is brief enough that the soft illustrations are the real focus of the book. My favorite page is the one where the fox is splashing in the stream. Personally, I have some theological qualms about portraying baby Jesus as the recipient of Christmas gifts rather than the gift Himself, but we’ll give this book a pass on that. Its basic message is no different than that of The Little Drummer Boy, which is widely considered a classic Christmas song and movie.

PaxPax by Sara Pennypacker

One of the most popular middle-grade novels of 2016, this book has achieved multiple starred reviews and was on the National Book Award longlist, as well as accumulating many, many glowing reviews on amazon, goodreads, and blogs. Some have speculated that it is likely to win the Newbery medal. I actually didn’t love it. At least not quite as much as I loved certain other 2016 middle-grade books. You can read my initial Pax post here. I also wrote about it in my post about the National Book Award contenders. This is a book that I will be revisiting as I compile my annual best-of-the-year list.

Fox and the Jumping Contest by Corey R. Tabor

This is another picture book that hasn’t received much attention, and is unlikely to become a beloved favorite or a time-tested classic, but it’s silly and entertaining and a good choice for the occasional preschool storytime. The title more or less sums up the plot— I suppose Fox Uses a Jetpack in the Jumping Contest would be a bit more descriptive—but if you really want to know how the story ends, let’s just say that everyone’s happy and there’s no moral. No moral, but plenty of fun.

yotf-faraway-foxFaraway Fox by Jolene Thompson, illustrated by Justin K. Thompson

I included this title in my latest list of picture books. It’s one of thirty-four picture books that I’m considering for my list of the best books of 2016, and while I don’t know whether it’ll actually make my list, it’s a book well worth reading if you or your child is interested in foxes, animal habitats, ecology, or cute woodland creatures in general. Both the almost-but-not-quite realistic artwork and the concise text are beautiful and have a surprising degree of emotional depth considering the simplicity of the story.

Fall 2016 Picture Books

It’s been a while since I’ve posted a list of relatively recent picture books that I’ve read lately, and for that reason, I had to limit this list to just the really, really great ones. In fact, there are a few books that have received a lot of critical acclaim that I left out because I just didn’t love them that much. (Most notably, We Found a Hat and Du Iz Tak?) I ended up including nineteen, all of which were published this year and most of which were published in the fall or late summer.

 

Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty, illustrated by David Roberts, 2016

From the author and illustrator of Iggy Peck, Architect and Rosie Revere, Engineer comes this new book celebrating girls who excel in STEM fields. The story begins in Ada’s infancy and ends in an incident when she, as a second grader, gets in trouble for experimenting on the cat. The rhyming text is catchy and appealing. This is definitely not an ideal book for library storytimes, since it’s wordy for a picture book, but I would recommend it for kindergartners or first graders, either as an educational book or as a fun, quick read for kids who like learning about science.

 

Leave Me Alone! By Vera Brosgol, 2016

What is an old woman to do when her very big family won’t let her get her knitting done? She goes out to the forest, of course. But the bears in the forest are just as much of a nuisance as her grandchildren. As it happens, so are the goats on the mountain and the little green men on the moon. At last, the old woman finds peace and quiet in the void on the other side of a wormhole. In a predictable yet satisfying ending, she finishes her knitting, gets lonely, and returns home to give newly knitted sweaters to her very big family. (I counted thirty grandchildren, by the way) Young readers will love the simple, repetitive story, all the more so for its bizarre transition from a cutesy folk-style-tale to a science fiction story. The art is great, too; it’s bright and simple enough to make for an excellent storytime book.

 

pb-freedom-over-meFreedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life by Ashley Bryan, 2016

This three-time Coretta Scott King Award winner has in his possession some documents from the early nineteenth century that concern slavery. In creating this book, he selected one such document, an appraisement of estate from 1828, and imagined the life stories, personalities, and thoughts of the eleven slaves listed to be sold. Written in free verse, this book is best suited for an elementary-school-aged reader and is best described as historical fiction. The author’s note at the end explains that the purpose of the book is to “bring the slaves alive as human beings”, an objective that, in my opinion, is well achieved. The artwork is highly stylized and uses photocopies of actual historical deeds as background. The overall effect is artistic and eye-catching, although again, more appealing to older readers than to the usual target audience for picture books. This is a book that I would consider to be a contender for a number of different major awards.

 

Up by Joe Cepeda, 2016

This book has thirteen unique words—twenty-seven words total—and none of them are more than one syllable. Yet it does tell a complete story about a boy who uses a toy pinwheel to fly out of his bedroom window one window morning. Granted, the details are in the pictures, not in the words. But still, it has an appeal factor that’s hard to achieve with such a limited vocabulary, and I would gladly recommend it to a child who is just barely ready to start reading words. I also like the pictures. The digitally-created artwork has a watercolor quality to it, but with much more vibrant colors and clearly defined borders. If that makes any sense.

 

Beauty and the Beast as retold by Mahlon F. Craft, illustrated by Kinuko Y. Craft, 2016

As is common for folk and fairy tales published in picture book format, this book has much more text and is written at a higher reading level than other picture books. I would recommend it to school-age children who can read independently. Although the title page and book jacket cite Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beamont’s 1756 version of the story, the author’s note adds that other retellings were also used as sources. But, as is often the case for retellings of popular fairy tales, the artwork is what makes this book stand out. They are oil-over-watercolor paintings, lifelike and intricate and ethereal. Children with a strong appreciation for art could spend much time enjoying the details of Craft’s illustrations.

 

Billions of Bricks by Kurt Cyrus, 2016

Children’s picture books about construction tend to be fairly popular. This book may be a little different in that it’s not about anthropomorphic construction vehicles, but I think it very much deserves the fan base that it’s likely to attract. It’s a counting book and a rhyming book, but mostly, it’s about building things, and kids will enjoy watching the illustrations progress from a small stack of bricks to huge, elaborate brick buildings. It’s short enough to read during a library storytime, but it’s also a book that many kids will enjoy reading over and over again at home.

 

pb-coyote-moonCoyote Moon by Maria Gianferrari, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline, 2016

This picture book features concise but descriptive text about a mother coyote prowling through a suburban neighborhood, looking for prey to feed her family. Although it is written as a story, the “coyote facts” double-page at the end, and the informational value of the simple plot make this book technically function as nonfiction. But the real selling point is the illustration. Ibatoulline’s gorgeous paintings are realistic, detailed, and masterful in their use of light, shadows, and the perspective, which is different on every page. I don’t normally like to use the word “breathtaking” to describe books, but I think I literally held my breath while reading this book. If I have anything less than celebratory to say about this book, it’s that the text seems to be geared towards a younger audience than the pictures. The text is brief and simple enough for preschoolers, but children at that age generally prefer brighter colors than what they’ll see in this nocturnal book. But I don’t necessarily see that as a problem, because even big kids and grown-ups can appreciate a short, simple book sometimes.

 

The Kraken’s Rules for Making Friends by Brittany R. Jacobs, 2016

As it so happens, Brittany R. Jacobs is my coworker. But this book was on my radar before Brittany started the job, and I didn’t happen to notice the author’s name and make the connection. The title alone struck me as something unique and interesting because I feel like there aren’t that many children’s picture books about the Kraken. (Although a quick Google search reveals that this isn’t the very first) Since then, I have of course gone and purchased the book on Amazon. (Note to self: Take it to work. Ask Brittany to sign it. Get another copy for my cousin’s kids for Christmas. Ask Brittany to sign that, too.) It’s definitely a book worth owning. It’s funny, cheerful, short enough for young children, intelligent enough for early grade-school children, and it has a shark. And a Kraken.

 

pb-chicken-in-spaceChicken in Space by Adam Lehrhaupt, illustrated by Shahar Kober, 2016

I discovered this book while searching for stories appropriate for storytime on Star Wars Day, which my library celebrates in early October. No, Chicken in Space doesn’t have anything to do with Star Wars, but it’s about space travel, so it fits the bill. And it’s an absolutely brilliant book in its own right. It tells the story of Zoey, an ambitious chicken, who dreams of flying into space. Despite all the challenges, (such as the fact that she doesn’t have a spaceship) she and her friend Sam, a pig with a penchant for pie, do manage to eventually get off the ground and brave the dangers of an asteroid (actually a baseball) and an alien attack (actually a flock of birds) before returning safely home. Yes, it’s just one more of many books about the power of imagination, but its original, likable characters and entertaining dialogue make it memorable and extra fun.

 

Tek: The Modern Cave Boy by Patrick McDonnell, 2016

I’m not typically the biggest fan of books about the evils of technology. But this one is clever enough to make me overlook the overly simplistic plot and the condescending message. The first thing a reader will notice about this book is that it looks like an iPad, complete with the little icons showing wifi signal and battery power. (The battery power progressively decreases, a fun detail that I didn’t notice the first time through.) The jokes in the text will appeal to early school-age kids, who will find it hilarious that Tek’s dad invented the internet before discovering fire. My favorite bit of humor in this book is the phrase “a Flying Idontgiveadactyl”. Although it’s technically a picture book, I would recommend this for young independent readers.

 

A Voyage in the Clouds: The (Mostly) True Story of the First International Flight by Balloon in 1785 by Matthew Olshan, illustrated by Sophie Blackall, 2016

On January 7, 1785, Dr. John Jeffries of England and pilot Jean-Pierre Blanchard of France, set off on a balloon ride across the English channel. As indicated in the book’s subtitle, it was to be the first flight to cross national borders. Unfortunately, the two men were bitter rivals. Closely based on historical events as described by Jeffries later that year, this book recounts the near-disaster that forced the two to work together. Like many historical picture books, this book is best suited for readers in first or second grade. (Readers of that age demographic will find this book hilarious, not only for the petty bickering between the two men, but for the important role that “pee” plays in the story.) I’d love to see it show up on readers’ choice awards for elementary-school-aged children next year.

 

Little Bot and Sparrow by Jake Parker, 2016

Although this is a picture book rather than a middle-grade novel, it reminded me quite a bit of The Wild Robot—and I think I like this one better. After being thrown away with the garbage, Little Bot meets Sparrow, who teaches him a variety of life lessons before flying away for the winter. Although the ending is anticlimactic, it’s a sweet story and beautifully illustrated. Little Bot’s face seems to be specifically designed to look cute and likable, and the flora and fauna is fairly realistic-looking. I love the colors on the page that depicts autumn. This book will fit into a variety of storytime themes; since it takes place over the course of a year, it’s a great book about the seasons, and it’s technically both a nature book and a science fiction book.

 

The Mixed-Up Truck by Stephen Savage, 2016

This fun picture book about a cement mixer’s first day on the job came to my attention in September thanks to a program that involved a cement-mixer craft. This is an excellent storytime book. It features bright, cheerful illustrations of anthropomorphized construction vehicles, (who could have imagined that a cement mixer could be so cute?) it’s relatively short with a repetitive structure, and it is humorous. After being told to get some powdery white cement, the cement mixer mistakenly goes first to a flour factory and then to a sugar factory and accidentally makes a giant cake before finally getting it right on his third trip. On an irrelevant side note, I actually messed this book up the first time I read it. I had it in my head that the cement mixer was trying to make a road, not a building, so I believed (and actually told the kids) that he was still mixed up on that third trip, thereby proving that my narrative skills are underdeveloped and I need to go back to preschool.

 

pb-before-morningBefore Morning by Joyce Sidman, illustrated by Beth Krommes, 2016

This beautiful picture book doesn’t have many words, but the brief request for a nighttime snowfall is somehow eloquent and poetic. The scratchboard and watercolor artwork likewise manages to encompass both simplicity and elaborate detail. This is fitting, considering that the appeal of the snowfall is that it makes everything “slow and delightful and white”. As much as I love this book, I’d have to say that it’s actually probably more enjoyable for adults than for young children. For an adult who loves picture books, this particular book is full of meaning and nostalgia, and has fascinating sub-themes and motifs tucked into the illustrations. (Transportation, especially airplanes! Old-fashioned vs. new! Animals! Angels!) But to most children, this is just a book about wishing for snow. However, I can imagine an adult and a child having endless fun reading this book and examining the illustrations together. (Let’s count everything that can fly! The geese are flying, the airplanes can fly, and does the falling snow count? Let’s count all the kinds of transportation! Cars, airplanes, horse-carriage, snowplows… do sleds count?)

 

Samson in the Snow by Philip C. Stead, 2016

I have mixed feelings about this book. I found the dialogue to be a little stilted, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing in books intended for very young children. The story is sweet, but not unique and noteworthy. (Although the woolly mammoth protagonist sets this apart from most other sweet books about animals being nice to each other.) The artwork is the deciding factor that made me decide that I do in fact like this book quite a bit. The shape of the snowflakes, the texture of Samson’s fur, and the colors and patterns used for the sky and snow make this book one that a child can enjoy looking at, with or without the story. I would recommend it as a read-aloud at home for a preschool-aged child, although it’s too long to be used in a library storytime.

 

Faraway Fox by Jolene Thompson, illustrated by Justin K. Thompson, 2016

Fox is separated from his family. While the beautifully sad illustrations show poor, dejected Fox wandering through a residential neighborhood, the text describes his forest life in a stream-of-consciousness manner. In the end, Fox stumbles across a tunnel that leads him back to his forest and his family. The final illustration, showing seven bright-eyed, perky-eared foxes happy to see one another, will change the minds of anyone who might previously have felt that this story was “too sad”. The author’s note on the final page makes it clear that this book was written largely to promote the construction of wildlife crossings, including tunnels under highways like the one that brought Fox home. But somehow, this book doesn’t feel as preachy as most books about wildlife conservation do. I found Fox to be such a likable character that, for me, this was still an enjoyable fictional picture book as well as a message about preserving animal habitats.

 

The Storyteller by Evan Turk, 2016

I was a little unclear as to whether this story is a Moroccan folk tale or an original story by Turk, and for me, that ambiguity detracted a little from the value of the book. Although the author’s note doesn’t answer my question, a little background research reveals that the story is in fact original, but was inspired by what the author saw in trips to Morocco, and makes use of local artistic techniques and styles. The artwork in this book is definitely beautiful and unique. I would not at all be disappointed to see this book win the Caldecott. My one complaint is that the plot seemed very complex and a little hard to follow. If the text was a little less concise, that would have helped. But I loved the emphasis on the art of storytelling and the implied parallel between water and oral tradition. This is not a preschool storytime book, but it’s a great picture book for school-aged independent readers.

 

pb-they-all-saw-a-catThey All Saw a Cat by Brenden Wenzel, 2016

I knew I had to get my hands on this book because it’s been getting a lot of positive attention. The fact that I’m a crazy cat lady played a very small role in my anticipation of reading this book. Really. At a first glance, I admit I was actually a little disappointed. The text’s brevity and repetitive nature make it a great book for reading aloud to toddlers, but nothing about it struck me as unique and distinctive. But the more I think about it, the more appreciation I can muster for the use of perspective in the artwork. (Which is really the whole point of the book) Not only does every character view the cat from a different vantage point, but the artistic style and medium changes from page to page. The publisher’s summary includes the phrase “rhythmic prose and stylized pictures”, and that’s probably the best way to describe this book. It’s definitely a good book and worthy of a place in library storytimes and the homes of young children. As a side note, I’m just now noticing the dedication. I do not in fact know Brenden Wenzel, so I am not the Magdalena to whom this book is dedicated, but we’ll call it my book anyway, okay?

 

Nanette’s Baguette by Mo Willems, 2016

Rounding out this list, we have the newest book by Mo Willems, who probably couldn’t write a less-than-wonderful children’s book if he tried. (Okay, I personally didn’t love the Knuffle Bunny books – but a lot of people did.) This picture book plays with rhyme in a way that is both humorous and educational. (For toddlers and preschoolers, playing with rhyming words can help to build a lot of skills that will serve them well when they are learning to read.) Although the repetition of the –et word ending is probably the most memorable element of the book, the plot itself is both humorous and emotive. Even the artwork is distinctive. The backgrounds of the illustrations are photographs of cardboard constructions, giving a sense of depth to the otherwise cartoonish, two-dimensional images. All in all, this is a great book that I can’t wait to use in a storytime.

Opinions on the National Book Award Nominees

Back in September, when the National Book Foundation released the longlists for the 2016 National Book Awards, I tasked myself with the lofty goal of reading all ten nominees for the Young People’s Literature award before the shortlist was announced. At this, I failed dismally. It didn’t help that The Sun is Also a Star wasn’t even released until November 1. I really need to work on setting more realistic goals. Even now, just a few hours before the winner is to be announced, I have only read eight of the ten. (Plus the first few chapters of a ninth) But this will not stop me from inflicting my opinions on you.

 

Booked by Kwame Alexander, 2016

I read this and blogged about it long before I was thinking about the National Book Award. You can see my original blog post here. Admittedly, I have not revisited the book to compare it to the other nominees, but I’m sticking with my original opinion that it’s good, but not quite award material. The judges evidently agree with me, because this book did not make the shortlist and is therefore no longer in the running for the award.

 

Raymie NightingaleRaymie Nightingale by Kate DiCamillo, 2016

This is another one that I had already read, and I blogged about it here. It’s a good book. It has memorable characters, an interesting plot, an appealing writing style, and enough nuances to stand up to quite a bit of analysis and discussion. Although I’ve come across a few 2016 books that I think are more significant contributions to young people’s literature by an infinitesimal margin, this is my top pick for the National Book Award.

 

march-book-threeMarch: Book Three by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell, 2016

This graphic novel completes a nonfiction trilogy about the Civil Rights Movement as experienced by the author, an activist who played a major role in several different events of the movement. I love the fact that someone who is so historically significant (and still working for the people of our country as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives) decided to tell his story in the form of graphic novels. Over the past generation or so, graphic novels have branched out into a variety of genres and topics and have proved that they aren’t necessarily inferior to “normal” books, but the March books still deserve attention as an especially informative graphic novel series. Not only do they manage to include quite a lot of facts and dates and numbers, but they do an excellent job of conveying the emotions and personalities of the people they portray. My main reasons for cheering for Raymie Nightingale over March are that 1) this book does strike me as being a little dry when compared to middle-grade novels, and 2) I feel that it’s much more meaningful as part of the series than as a standalone book, and the award is just for the individual book. This would be my second choice.

 

when-the-sea-turned-to-silverWhen the Sea Turned to Silver by Grace Lin, 2016

I can’t quite explain why this book just didn’t do a good job of keeping my interest. The basic plot was interesting, there was nothing lacking in the characterization, and there was a twist near the ending that brought together several elements from earlier in the book, which is something that I always like in a novel. I asked myself whether maybe the aspect that I didn’t quite like was the fragmentation. (The book includes many folk stories interspersed throughout the text, which do break up the flow of the story just a little, even though it’s the main characters who are telling the shorter stories.) But I’ve liked fragmentation in other books. The best explanation I can give is that the writing style and the plot didn’t quite seem to work well together. According to my reading preferences, a historical-fantasy-adventure like this would be more interesting if it were told in a more dramatic fashion, but this tale is told in a calm, even-paced manner. That was probably done intentionally to reflect the folklore tradition from which many of the motifs and subplots come. So I can accept that my ambivalence towards this book is a matter of personal opinion, and that it may very well be an excellent, award-worthy book from a more objective or collective viewpoint. It is one of the five finalists, so it could be the winner of the National Book Award.

 

When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore, 2016

This is the one that I’m reading now, and I’m not far along enough to give an accurate plot description or to have formed an opinion about it. It’s clear from the very beginning that it’s magical realism; that is, it’s set in the real world, but it has elements of fantasy that are presented as if they’re believable, even normal. The main characters are Sam and Miel, also known as Moon and Honey. They have been best friends since childhood, when Miel mysteriously appeared in the water that spilled out of an old water tower. Miel is an unusual girl who has roses growing from her wrists and who has a phobia of pumpkins, but she’s not quite as odd as the four Bonner girls, believed to be witches. The plot summary on the book jacket suggests that the main conflict in the book is that the Bonner sisters want Miel’s roses. I’m enjoying this book so far, but it didn’t make the shortlist for the National Book Award.

 

Burn Baby Burn by Meg Medina, 2016

This was one of the first YA books of 2016 to attract my attention as A Book that I Have to Read. Somehow, though, I didn’t get around to reading it until this fall when it showed up on the National Book Award longlist. It didn’t make its way onto the shortlist, which means it’s no longer in the running, but I’m glad I read it and I’m expecting it to be a contender for the Printz when the ALA awards come around in January. It’s set in the spring and summer of 1977 in New York, a time and place characterized by arson, serial killings, and a blackout that led to massive looting. These events are described from the perspective of Nora Lopez, an almost-eighteen-year-old girl who has her own problems at home, mostly centering around her younger brother Hector. Meanwhile, Nora is finishing up high school, falling in love with the cute new guy at work, and trying to maintain her relationship with her long-time best friend Kathleen. The best trait of this book is the thorough and vivid description of the setting. It would be cliché to say that I could really see the peeling paint in Nora’s shabby apartment or feel the stifling heat that tormented New York that summer, but I can’t think of any better way to explain how this book draws the reader in. The serial killer element adds an element of suspense and mystery. Not gonna lie, after finishing this book, I stayed up quite late researching that true historical story online.

 

Pax by Sara Pennypacker, illustrated by Jon Klassen, 2016

You can read my initial review here. This is definitely a good book, but to be honest, I don’t feel that it deserves quite the degree of accolades that it has received, and I’m not disappointed that it didn’t make the National Book Award shortlist. In fact, I probably will be disappointed if it does win a major award such as the Newbery, not because I actually dislike it, but just because there are a number of contenders that I think are more interesting, more memorable, and more significant as contributions to children’s literature. Besides, Pax has a very unsatisfying ending. But I suppose that it’s a matter of opinion whether an unsatisfying ending is actually a negative trait in a book.

 

ghostGhost by Jason Reynolds, 2016

This book, intended as the first in a series, describes the experiences of a middle-school boy who has been recruited to join an elite track team. Even before receiving any training, he is an incredibly fast sprinter, which he attributes to his early childhood experience of running away from his violent father. Since then, Castle (known by the nickname Ghost) has been dealing with all of his problems by running away from them, at least figuratively. His new coach is determined not only to teach Ghost how to be the best sprinter he can be, but to teach him some life lessons. While this book does have the positive messages, complex characters, and down-to-earth tone that we’ve come to expect from author Jason Reynolds, it didn’t quite strike me as a unique or exceptional book. As much as I liked it, this would not be one of my top National Book Award picks. I’m undecided as to whether I’d rank it third or fourth of the four finalists that I have read.

 

Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story by Carol Stelson, 2016

The National Book Award nominees sometimes do include books that hadn’t gotten a lot of attention prior to their appearance on that longlist, and Sachiko is an example of this. I still haven’t been aware of it getting much notice from anyone besides the National Book Foundation. As the title implies, it’s the biography of a woman who experienced the atomic bomb that the U.S. military dropped on Nagasaki at the end of World War II. Although Sachiko (six years old when the bomb fell) and most of her family survived the initial blast, nearly everyone in her family eventually succumbed to radiation sickness or cancer caused by the radiation. Sachiko herself developed thyroid cancer as a young adult, but she survived thanks to a throat operation that led to a slow, frustrating recovery. In addition to describing Sachiko’s own experiences, the book includes contextual historical information about World War II, the atomic bomb, the aftermath of the war in Japan, and the backstories of Gandhi and Hellen Keller, figures that had a profound influence on Sachiko. The book is interesting, informative, and well-researched, so I would recommend it to readers who have an interest in any of the topics it touches, but I wouldn’t have really expected it to win a major award, so I am neither surprised nor disappointed that it wasn’t one of the five finalists.

 

the-sun-is-also-a-starThe Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon, 2016

Rounding out the Young People’s Literature longlist, we have the one that I haven’t even started yet, and since it also made the shortlist, I’m disappointed in myself for not getting to it yet. In my defense, I’ve had it on hold for a while and it just came in for me yesterday evening as I had already clocked out and was on my way out of the library. Obviously, I don’t have much of anything to say about it, although I know it’s a YA romance. I look forward to reading it and finding out what makes it special among other YA romance novels published this year.