BE DIFFERENT, BE BRAVE, BE YOU
Written by Sonia Sotomayor
Illustrated by Rafael López
(Philomel Books; $17.99, Ages 4-8)
★STARRED REVIEW – Booklist
Feeling different, especially as a kid, can be tough. United States Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who was diagnosed with diabetes as a child, knows just how that feels. In Just Ask!, written by Sotomayor, along with art by award winning illustrator Rafael López, a group of children work together to build a community garden, asking questions of each other along the way.
The book opens with a letter from Sotomayor, the first Latina and third woman appointed to the Supreme Court. In it she explains to the reader how she felt different when kids watched as she injected insulin into her arm. But, she says, they never asked why! “If you ever wonder why someone is doing something different from other kids, Just Ask.
A beautiful assortment of colors adorn the pages as children of various ethnicities, shapes and sizes are seen holding flower pots, pulling wagons and walking through nature. The first character we are introduced to is based on the author, Sonia. She compares the differences in a garden to the differences of people. “Thousands of plants bloom together, but every flower, every berry, and every leaf is different. Each has a different smell, different color, different shape, and different purpose.” She explains to the reader that, like plants, kids are different too. “Each of us grows in our own way, so if you are curious about other kids, Just Ask!”
In one illustration Sonia is sitting inside a large red rose petal injecting the insulin into her arm. The question that is asked is “Do you ever need to take medicine to be healthy?” As the reader turns the page, Rafael, just like the book illustrator’s name says, “I have asthma, which means I sometimes have trouble breathing and use an inhaler to make breathing easier.”
While working together with smiles on their faces surrounded by rabbits, butterflies and birds each character poses a question to the readers. These in turn are answered by another child who may be feeling “different.” Sotomayor introduces us to characters with dyslexia, ADHD and autism. Anthony is seated in a wheelchair; Madison and Arturo are both blind and use canes; and a boy named Vijay demonstrates sign language because he is unable to hear.
Lopez’s art of rainbows and smiling trees welcomes the child who may also be feeling different into this imaginary place. Just Ask is a great for parents to read to a child who may be going through his or her own personal struggle. Questions such as “Do you ever feel frustrated?” give the child a chance to express emotions.
The story ends with Sonia gathered around all her new friends amidst the beautiful garden they have all created. She tells them, “when something seems different or new I just ask my parents or my teachers and they help me to understand.”
Sotomayor shares a heartwarming story, also available in Spanish, that asks the questions some children may not know how to ask. This is a great and most needed read for the child who may be dealing with something challenging, and the child who has a friend who seems different but they just aren’t quite sure how to ask. López, whose own son has high functioning autism, says “I am energized to give visual voice to Justice Sotomayor’s compelling story about seeing the world through a unique perspective and being you.” This book shows kids that differences can make us stronger and how maybe kids can use that strength and uniqueness to someday be a part of the highest United States court. I hope this book finds its way to library story times and into classrooms because it positively models respectful interaction between kids of all abilities.
- Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder
Read another book illustrated by Rafael López here.
PIRANHAS DON’T EAT BANANAS
Written and illustrated by Aaron Blabey
(Scholastic Press; $14.99, Ages 3-5)
Channel your inner Australian and read Aaron Blabey’s silly picture book Piranhas Don’t Eat Bananas with an accent so the words “piranhas” and “bananas” rhyme. It’s worth the effort for the laughs you’ll receive from your child. You see, Brian the friendly looking piranha has a taste for bananas, much to the chagrin of his carnivorous buddies. Actually, Brian’s appetite encompasses quite a variety of fruits and vegetables. When he gleefully asks, “Well, I bet you’d like some juicy plums?” The others set him right: “That’s it Brian! We eat bums!” (Americans, we’re talking about butts here.) Kids will howl over this line and the accompanying illustration.
The art throughout is humorously exaggerated and expressive with the abundance of white skillfully allowing the fish to be the focus. Happy-go-lucky Brian’s just not dissuaded from wanting to share his vegetarian tendencies, while the other piranhas make it toothily clear that they’re meat eaters.
Details make this book stand out in my mind. The front and end papers’ factual information about piranhas and bananas come with a twist. For example, the list of what piranhas eat includes “old ladies who were just in the wrong place at the wrong time” and “little children who’ve actually been pretty good”—unless they get lucky and run into Brian instead.
Aaron Blabey is the award-winning and New York Times best-selling author of the Pig and Pug picture-book series, and The Bad Guys middle-grade series (movie adaptation in development with Dream Works Animation).
Perfect for fans of Dungeons and Dragons and Stranger Things, THE LAST DRAGON went on sale this past Monday, Oct. 8. This is the second novel, which can be read as a standalone, in New York Times bestselling author James Riley’s thrilling new series The Revenge of Magic.
When I read that this particular installment was “packed with mystery, magic, and mayhem sure to keep readers guessing until the very end,” I was intrigued and couldn’t wait to get started. In doing so I was rewarded with an action-packed story that introduced me to likeable and not-so-likeable characters, the Oppenheimer School for magical training, and an assortment of creatures and adventures that kept me turning the pages of this new middle grade fantasy. I don’t often read the second book in a series without having read the first, but was immediately swept into the main character Fort’s quest to rescue his father who had been taken by evil beings called the Old Ones in an attack on the National Mall in D.C.
Once I was eager to know what would happen to Fort and his friends Jia, Rachel, Cyrus and Sierra, I also became invested in the dangerous and risky journey being planned. When a new student, Gabriel, was introduced, I also had to know how he fit into the picture. Would he be a help or hindrance to his roommate, Fort? What did it mean that he too was haunted by nightmares similar to those that Fort kept having?
The novel has some clever scenes where telepathy plays a big role. If I say too much more it will spoil things. Teleporting also features largely in The Last Dragon and the descriptions are fantastic. I almost felt I could do it. And in some scenes, like those in London or New York, I could easily picture everything because of Riley’s deft writing. The way magic is used in this novel not only advances the plot, but feels believable and that matters when myriad novels include magic. There’s humor that tweens will appreciate too. I love how, for example, before Fort sets off to find his father, he makes sure to take a pee stop. A lot of the banter, sometimes sarcastic, sometimes funny, but mostly important, between the friends also feels real.
If your child is interested in an entertaining and super satisfying fantasy that delivers on all fronts, I’d recommend the The Last Dragon, book #2 in the The Revenge of Magic series. Now I just have to go back and read the first book!
Fort Fitzgerald can’t stop having nightmares about the day his father was taken from him in an attack on Washington, DC. In these dreams, an Old One, an evil beyond comprehension, demands the location of the last dragon. But other than some dragon skeletons dug up with the books of magic on Discovery Day, Fort has never seen a dragon before. Could there still be one left alive?
And weirdly, Fort’s not the only one at the Oppenheimer School having these nightmares. His new roommate, Gabriel, seems to know more than he’s letting on about this dragon as well. And why does everyone at the school seem to do whatever Gabriel says? What’s his secret?
Fort’s going to need the help of his friends Cyrus, Jia, and Rachel, if he’s going to have any chance of keeping the Old Ones from returning to Earth. Unless, the Old Ones offer something Fort could never turn down …
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Buy the book from Indie Bound here.
Find out more about The Last Dragon here.
WHERE IS MY BALLOON?
Written by Ariel Bernstein
Illustrated by Scott Magoon
(Paula Wiseman Books; $17.99, Ages 4-8)
I became an Owl and Monkey fan after reading the hilarious I Have a Balloon so I was eager to read the second picture book featuring this adorable pair. In Where is My Balloon? by Ariel Bernstein with illustrations by Scott Magoon, Monkey’s looking after Owl’s adored red balloon and accidentally pops it while playing with it. Ooops!
Rather than immediately owning up to what he did, Monkey first brings Owl a pillow and claims it’s the red balloon. The humor is in how long the charade will go on and what wild items Monkey will present to his friend in an effort to placate him. The ultimate goal—avoid telling the truth about what happened. As in the previous story, Magoon’s artful expressions conveyed on the faces and in the two characters’ body language adds to the enjoyment. The generous use of white space keeps our eyes glued to the two animals’ antics. We watch closely as Monkey seeks out silly substitutes for the balloon. After a chair, a fire engine and a parachute don’t do the trick, Monkey, wracked with guilt, breaks down and confesses. Then he apologizes.
The illustrations of Owl’s reactions to his popped balloon are some of my favorites. As his despairing and frenzied mood heightens, Owl tears up the sock, also accidentally. The scene when the bird realizes what he’s done cracks me up as he subtly tries to kick the ruined sock off the tree top, out of Monkey’s sight. With the shoe now on the other foot (or in this case perhaps sock is more appropriate), Owl attempts the same subterfuge that had been done to him. Only this time the significance of Owl’s sporting a yellow hat with a red star is not lost on Monkey whose resigned response is classic.
Where is My Balloon? is a super story to share with children when you’re looking for a tale that tackles the topic of being honest and asking for forgiveness in a light and lively way. Bernstein’s tight turn of phrase and Magoon’s playful art will keep kids engaged with every page turn. While youngsters may be well aware of what’s going on after the pillow is offered, they’ll be delighted to read along or be read to in order to find out how the dilemmas get resolved. Even adult readers will be charmed by this clever circular story making it a fun go-to read for story time or anytime!
- Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Read my review for I Have a Balloon here.
By Joy Bauer
Photographs by Bonnie Stephens
(Abrams Books for Young Readers; $14.99, Ages 3-5)
Fall is an ideal time to feed your body and calm your mind while also introducing yoga poses and nutrition to kids. Joy Bauer’s debut children’s book, Yummy Yoga: Playful Poses and Tasty Treats, does just that. The New York Times bestselling author and professional nutritionist shares eight easy and accessible yoga poses and eight kid-friendly recipes with readers. Photographer Bonnie Stephens presents lively and adorable photos of kids demonstrating these easy-to-learn yoga poses while fruits and veggies practice the same poses!
“Welcome to Yummy Yoga!” is the title of a note from Bauer to adult readers. As “one of the nation’s leading health authorities,” Bauer explains how healthy foods can be delicious and how practicing yoga poses can be super fun. She encourages children to copy the yoga sculptures made out of tasty food created by Stephens. Parent and child can mix and match ingredients and are reminded that it may take a few tastes before starting to fall in love with a new food. “And now it’s time to stretch your body and your taste buds for a happier, healthier you!”
Bauer inserts messages throughout the book such as “always ask an adult for help, especially if you need to use a knife or the stove!” Each page is designed with a gatefold as in the one showing a young boy in green demonstrating Triangle Pose with the opposite page showing an avocado with a lime head and broccoli body doing the same. With “Lift the flap to stretch your taste buds with a creamy treat,” the green arrow points as parent or child find a recipe with how to make instructions for Broccomole Dip in the center.
Turning the page we find a recipe for Heart-y Artichokes, Green Beans and Leeks along side of Lotus Pose; Warrior II Pose, which “helps stretch out your legs and hips” is demonstrated by corn on the cob, with a twist to the corn on the cob recipe. The book closes with photos of the same diverse group of boys and girls performing yoga poses such as Plank Pose, Downward Facing Dog and Tree Pose with a more extensive explanation of how to properly perform each pose.
Yummy Yoga was a terrific read! As a yoga instructor myself, my spirits are always lifted when I find books that introduce the physical practice of yoga to children in an engaging way. Parents will enjoy practicing the poses alongside their children, and working together in the kitchen to create healthy foods. The ingredients for the scrumptious sounding strawberry and kiwi frozen snack Power Pops are on my shopping list, and that reminds me, it’s time to warm-up my spine with the Power Pops partner cat pose!
- Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder
Written by Jamie Sumner
(Atheneum BYR; $17.99, Ages 10 and up)
★Starred Reviews – Booklist, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly
Roll With It was an easy choice for my to-read list because it deals with disability. As a disabled author myself, I feel disability representation in books for children is so important and I’m thrilled to see the number of books featuring this element of diversity growing. Author Jamie Sumner has a son with cerebral palsy—the same disability as her main character, Ellie—so I was confident that aspect of the book would be handled with authority and authenticity. What I wasn’t necessarily expecting is a story that packed such an emotional punch on so many different levels.
Ellie and her mom move in with Ellie’s grandparents to help out since her grandfather’s memory issues are getting worse. Life in her grandparents’ trailer park is not exactly ideal for Ellie physically and she dreads starting at a new school as not only “the new kid” but “the new kid in a wheelchair.” Before long though, she connects with two other classmates from the trailer park, the hilarious Coralee and ultra blunt Bert, and Ellie begins to love her new home. She must then convince her mom that they should stay put.
Ellie is relatable and plucky, with a touch of snarky sarcasm, all of which endeared her to me immediately. Her growth as a character had much less to do with the traditional “overcoming her limitations due to her disability” trope and much more to do with making friends, asserting herself, navigating the complex relationship between a tween kid and her mother, and handling her emotions related to her grandfather’s illness. She’s a regular kid with dreams of being a celebrity chef, who experiences the same feelings and challenges as lots of kids her age. The fact that she has CP and is a wheelchair user is neither the main focus of the story nor downplayed. Sumner strikes a perfect balance of making that aspect of Ellie’s life an integral part of the story without it be her only story. Similarly, Ellie’s Grandpa’s Alzheimer’s is treated deftly and not sugarcoated.
Roll With It is not only a fun and interesting read—it’s a great representation for middle grade readers who are wheelchair users themselves and for any reader interested in a moving story which provides insight into a POV not often seen in children’s books.
- Guest Review by Karol Ruth Silverstein
Karol Ruth Silverstein writes all genres of children’s books and screenplays. Her debut novel Cursed (Charlesbridge Teen, 2019) is loosely drawn from her experience of being diagnosed with a painful chronic illness at 13. Originally from Philadelphia, she now lives with her two exceptionally fluffy cats, Ninja and Boo. You can read a review of her novel here.
AMY WU AND THE PERFECT BAO
Written by Kat Zhang,
Illustrated by Charlene Chua
(Aladdin; $17.99, Ages 4 and up)
As all budding young chefs and their parents know, it’s not easy getting a recipe just right. In the new picture book, Amy Wu and the Perfect Bao by Kat Zhang, these delicious dumplings are Amy’s nemesis. There are a lot of things that can go wrong; luckily, Amy’s Chinese-American family has got it down and will teach her step by step.
High-spirited Amy will appeal to kids who like expressive, relatable, and funny main characters (à la Fancy Nancy). Amy is skillful at many tasks—including eating bao all day—but it’s frustrating that her bao just don’t turn out right.
Charlena Chua captures Amy’s personality in the lively illustrations, from silly expressions (trying to tie her shoes while brushing her teeth) to earnest ones (focused on pinching the dough just right). Throughout, a cute white cat follows Amy’s escapades.
Kat Zhang’s uplifting story shows that imperfection tastes just as good and, with a little bit of ingenuity, kids can solve their problems by trying something new. Amy’s resourcefulness left me smiling; kids are amazing.
The book concludes with a time-consuming (3+ hours) but mouth-watering, in other words worth it, recipe for bao that I tested with my daughter. We appreciated the tip about cooking a spoonful of filling before making the dumplings—great advice which allowed us to adjust the flavors. Enjoy!
- Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt (www.ChristineVanZandt.com), Write for Success (www.Write-for-Success.com), @ChristineVZ and @WFSediting, Christine@Write-for-Success.com
Read another review by Christine here.
How to Unleash Your Most Amazing Self
By Elizabeth Svoboda
Illustrated by Chris Hajny
(Zest Books; $16.99, Ages 10 and up)
Heroes come in all shapes and sizes, and so do heroic actions. The Life Heroic by Elizabeth Svoboda is her first children’s book and follows her adult novel, What Makes a Hero? An award winning science writer, Svoboda weaves what she has learned into stories and books to help kids and adults tap into their highest potential to become everyday heroes.
The colorful emoji like art created by Chris Hajny is woven into each page with bold print highlighting the sentences meant to leave the reader with the most impact. Chapter 1, “What it Means to be a Hero,” includes the story of Captain Chesley Sullenberger. He successfully landed Flight 1549 after a power loss to the aircraft’s engines forced a Hudson River landing. Sullenberger then worked with his crew to help the passengers get out safely through the cabin’s emergency exits.
Landing a plane in the river is not the only way to be considered a hero, Svoboda explains. Ten-year-old Ethan had traveled to Mozambique with his father. One day, while kicking a soccer ball, Ethan discovered kids in the village lived on less than a dollar a day. Those children had to create makeshift soccer balls out of things like trash bags wrapped in twine. “I thought to myself, I have six or seven soccer balls just sitting in my garage,” so he decided to give his ball as a parting gift. This one gesture gave Ethan the idea to donate soccer balls to the village. Others had a need that he could help fix. Eventually he created the non-profit Charity Ball, which now donates soccer balls to countries in need around the world.
Each engaging chapter provides ideas on how to find your own heroism. Chapter 4 is called “Seek Mentors and Role Models.” In it readers are recommended to “always be on the lookout for people whose lives are examples of the way we would like to conduct our own lives, interact with the world, savor joys and overcome challenges.” Svoboda suggests putting a portrait up in your room, or somewhere else you’ll see it often, of your role model so on tough or frustrating days it will help remind you of the heroic qualities you want to demonstrate no matter what challenges you face.
Stories go back and forth from everyday people to heroes from history such as Frederick Douglass. The follow-up section, “Questions for Discussion,” highlights the main talking points of each chapter. For example Chapter 8 talks about how helping others sometimes forces us to face our own pain and hard times. It asks the reader to think about some tough or difficult situations they’ve been through and what advice they would give others going through the same thing.
“Aimed at kids, this book is also fascinating for adults. With thorough research and drawing on her expertise writing about science, Svoboda offers some remarkable takeaways about heroism”:
- Most heroes are ordinary people
- There is a hero inside everyone
- The ability to be courageous can be strengthened, just like a muscle
- Going through tough times can sharpen heroic instincts
- Being a hero doesn’t have to involve tackling an intruder or fishing someone from an icy lake—and in fact, most often doesn’t!
This thought provoking guide can be read chapter by chapter or by skimming through the bolded font. Svoboda’s book is a powerful read for tweens and teens interested in the big questions in their minds about what kind of life to lead and what actually creates meaning.
I’d also recommend it for teachers who’d like to develop talking points from the book to ask questions to students. Parents can also use this book as a tool to discuss heroism with their children. The Life Heroic reminds us that wearing a mask and cape is not necessary to be a hero, and encourages us to rethink the assumption about heroism; people who make the biggest impact aren’t always the ones who make headlines, in fact, all of us can embark on heroic quests to make a difference on issues that matter. I know The Life Heroic will resonate with young readers and hope it finds its way onto bookshelves in libraries as well as homes.
- Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder
Click here for another review by Ronda.
TWO TOUGH TRUCKS
by Corey Rosen Schwartz + Rebecca J. Gomez
Illustrated by Hilary Leung
(Orchard Books; $17.99, Ages 3-5)
In Two Tough Trucks by Corey Rosen Schwartz and Rebecca J. Gomez with art by Hilary Leung, Mack and Rig, two vehicles with very different personalities, are heading off for their first day of Truck School. Red Mack is confident and bold. Blue Rig is reluctant and nervous. This sentence describes them to a T: “Two trucks off to school for their first day of class. One riding the brakes. One hitting the gas.”
When the aptly named teacher, Miss Rhodes, pairs the two trucks for a circuit on the track, Mack takes off and doesn’t look back. Rig on the other hand finds the course daunting, facing what seems like one insurmountable challenge after the other. The next drill takes the class to a hill, one which Mack knows he can easily climb. Rig doesn’t feel so sure and comes in “dead last.” The two trucks don’t really connect, each one thinking little of the other. “My partner’s a drag,” is Mack’s take. “That hotshot,” said Rig, “He sure loves to brag.” What will your children think of the characters? It’s a great opportunity to seek their input. The repetition of VROOM! ZOOM! throughout invites sound effects and participation by the littlest readers
It’s not looking hopeful for these two six-wheelers. If there’s a way forward towards friendship, it’s eluding them. But then there’s light on the horizon for Rig when the class is tasked with learning how to go backward while hauling cargo. That’s when Rig excels at last! Hold on! Was that a look of doubt creeping onto blundering Mack’s face? Exasperated, the big, red truck is ready to give up. VROOM! DOOM?
With this shift in ability, Rig’s gained confidence but not a big head. He kindly helps his partner tackle the task until Mack masters it, too. Schwartz and Gomez get youngsters engaged with the colorful characters and the pace of this story. Kids’ll cheer as the vehicles bond after accomplishing what they needed to as a team. It’s wonderful to see how working together with positive attitudes yields mutual success.
Leung’s lively illustrations emphasize the individual vehicles. Rig wears a camouflage design bandana and Mack, a baseball cap to match his trim. I like the movement the illustrations convey and how the southwestern style art palate bleeds off the page. Of note and adorable is how, in the end, after a friendship has developed, the two pals have exchanged head ware. Have your kids also keep an eye out for the cute turtle and roadrunner who appear in multiple spreads.
Two Tough Trucks is clearly more than a first day of school picture book. It’s a super rhyming story about learning to get along, having each other’s back and being a good sport. The title works too. Each vehicle has its strengths and weaknesses, true. It’s not letting those areas that need improvement immobilize them that makes them tough, especially together as a team. Rev up your engines and make tracks to your nearest bookstore for a copy of Two Tough Trucks today!
- Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Written by Julie Berry
(Viking BYR; $18.99, Ages 14 and up)
Julie Berry’s epic older-YA/new-adult book, Lovely War, cleverly employs a trial orchestrated by Hephaestus after he catches his wife, Aphrodite, with her lover—his brother, Ares. From there, the gods Aphrodite, Apollo, Ares, and Hades narrate the tale of four mortals during World Wars I and II. Eighteen-year-old Hazel Windicott and nineteen-year-old James Alderidge meet at a parish dance in 1917 London—with a little push from Aphrodite. Alas, James leaves to report for duty in France and fears the reserved British girl, an accomplished pianist, has stolen his heart. Much to her parents’ mortification Hazel throws caution to the wind; determined to go where there is need (and be closer to James), Hazel submits an application to be an entertainment secretary in a YMCA relief hut in France.
Aphrodite also imbibes Colette Fournier, a Belgian girl whose childhood ended at age sixteen when everything and everyone she knew were destroyed. Colette gets by as a YMCA volunteer in the south of France, until, four years later, she ends up at the same camp as twenty-one-year-old musician extraordinaire, Aubrey Edwards. There she awakens emotionally. The passion and pain of love ensues within their war-stricken world resounding with the harsh reality of prejudice that Aubrey and his troop of black servicemen must endure.
Lovely War is a monumental, layered accomplishment pared down to a comprehensible size. This 480-page tome looks daunting but has short, fast-paced chapters with changing viewpoints. The outer framework of the gods felt as realistic as the stories of the four mortals that they reflect upon. I’d recommend this book to older teens, young adults, and adults who enjoy historical fiction, romance, or mythology. I’ll want to read it again someday because I appreciated the craft Berry employs while still maintaining sincere characters. Her historical end notes further explain how the Great War shifted the roles of women and affected the plight of the black servicemen.