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Picture Book Review – The Boy Who Thought Outside the Box

THE BOY WHO THOUGHT OUTSIDE THE BOX:
The Story of Video Game Inventor Ralph Baer

Written by Marcie Wessels

Illustrated by Beatriz Castro

(Sterling Children’s Books; $16.95, Ages 5 and up)

 

TBWTOTB cover

 

I like the play on words in the title, The Boy Who Thought Outside the Box, written by Marcie Wessels and illustrated by Beatriz Castro, which you’ll understand after you read the review of this interesting and recommended nonfiction picture book.

The book’s main character, Ralph Baer, was born in Cologne Germany and enjoyed doing things other kids his age did, like riding his scooter or playing stick hockey. Wessels doesn’t mention specific dates, but adults and older readers will know the action was unfolding in the 1930s during Hitler’s rise to power, which is mentioned. Around that time, readers are told, Hitler began making life difficult for the country’s Jewish people. And, since Ralph was Jewish, “Even former friends became enemies.” He was bullied, and attacks by the Nazis were not uncommon.

 

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Interior spread from The Boy Who Thought Outside the Box written by Marcie Wessels and illustrated by Beatriz Castro, Sterling Children’s Books ©2020.

 

“With no one to play with, Ralph spent more time indoors, tinkering with his construction set.” Not only was Ralph able to complete all the models in the manual, he also came up with many clever ideas of his own.

 

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Interior spread from The Boy Who Thought Outside the Box written by Marcie Wessels and illustrated by Beatriz Castro, Sterling Children’s Books ©2020.

 

Restrictions on Jews didn’t stop Ralph from learning even despite being kicked out of school at age 14 for being Jewish. In 1938 Ralph and his family fled Germany. Once in America, his inventiveness proved invaluable. When he saw a way to speed up handiwork that he, his sister and his mother were doing to help make ends meet, Ralph created a prototype machine. Soon they doubled the amount of projects being completed, increasing their earnings. Always industrious, Ralph took a radio repair course which led to “… fixing radios for the entire neighborhood.”

In the army, since necessity is the mother of invention, Ralph constructed a radio for his barracks from whatever bits and pieces he could find. Then, after WWII he learned how to build a TV set (the box in the title I referred to earlier). The advent of television heralded in a new era in family entertainment and Ralph saw immense “possibilities.” I was impressed with how Ralph’s career anticipated or paralleled the rise of home technology.

While Ralph saw the TV as a vehicle for playing games, his ideas were initially disregarded. He eventually held jobs building equipment for the U.S. military and for NASA. In fact “he embedded a radio transmitter in the handle of the video camera that astronaut Neil Armstrong took to the moon.” As time passed Ralph still envisioned the potential of TV and imagined “using an external box to control the TV to play games.” With the blessings and funding from one of his bosses, Ralph secretly created a home gaming system and “… the Brown Box, was born!” After numerous rejections, Magnavox took on Ralph’s invention and in 1972, the first iteration of the Odyssey went on sale. As we all know, the video game industry would grow in leaps and bounds over the decades and Baer can be credited with being one of its pioneers.

Wessels has made the story of Ralph Baer’s innovations an accessible and fascinating one. She’s managed to take a lifetime of Baer’s ingenuity and whittle it down to just 48 pages. While the book may read quickly, it definitely invites revisiting to let the scope of Baer’s achievements sink in. When children read the book or have it read to them, they’ll learn about more of Baer’s inventions and can find further sources for information in the back matter. Castro’s comic-like art wonderfully complements Wessel’s words. There is just enough realism to the illustrations when detailing the technology. She also conveys the right mood with the red palate during the dark days of Hitler. I’d love to see her do a graphic novel and could easily see Wessel’s story succeed in that format, too. The Boy Who Thought Outside the Box is a motivating STEM bio that will definitely resonate with unconventional thinkers and could very well inspire kids to pursue exciting new paths in learning.

  •  Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
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Young Adult Nonfiction – Alphamaniacs

 

ALPHAMANIACS:

BUILDERS OF 26 WONDERS OF THE WORD

Written by Paul Fleischman

Art by Melissa Sweet

(Candlewick Press; $19.99, Ages 12 and up)

 

Alphamaniacs book cover

 

 

Starred Reviews – Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, Kirkus

Paul Fleischman’s Alphamaniacs: Builders of 26 Wonders of the Word is a witty YA book about people who have done crazy things with words. Organized like an ABC book, each chapter features something unique. Words can be art such as the poet Mary Ellen Solt who worked closely with typesetters to produce visual poems shaped like flowers.

 

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ALPHAMANIACS. Text copyright © 2020 by the Brown-Fleischman Family Trust. Illustrations copyright © 2020 by Melissa Sweet. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

 

At opposing ends of the “size-matters” spectrum were David Bryce and Robert Shields. Bryce, a micromaniac, produced the smallest full miniature Bible, 876 pages but only 1 13/16 by 1 ¼ inches, bound in gilt-edged leather. Whereas the diarist Shields typed the longest known diary in human history, describing his day in five-minute increments and waking every two hours at night to continue recording.

 

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ALPHAMANIACS. Text copyright © 2020 by the Brown-Fleischman Family Trust. Illustrations copyright © 2020 by Melissa Sweet. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

 

My favorite funnyman in this group of twenty-six amazing stories is Dan Nussbaum who used the letters and numbers on California’s vanity license plates to retell stories from Genesis to Shakespeare. Nussbaum’s shorthand of Romeo and Juliet: “GESSWAT! BE4 HEE SPLIT, ROMEO KISTME! HESSOQT! BYGTME! ISWEAR!

In the 1960s, David Wallace launched a new field called stylometry wherein computers applied statistical analysis to literary style to prove (or disprove) authorship. Ludwik Zamenhof created Esperanto, a universal language, in hopes of uniting the world linguistically. While Jessie Little Doe Baird brought back Wôpanâôt8âôk, the dead language of her people the Wampanoag. After a gap of seven generations, her daughter became its first native speaker!

Throughout, Melissa Sweet’s bold full-color illustrations add another level of enjoyment to the text. An ideal book to read a chapter at a time, marveling at our wonderful words and the people who’ve made magic with them.

Click here to find out more about Paul Fleischman.
Click here to find out more about Melissa Sweet.

 

•Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt (www.ChristineVanZandt.com), Write for Success (www.Write-for-Success.com), @ChristineVZ and @WFSediting, Christine@Write-for-Success.com

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Picture Book Review – Federico and the Wolf

FEDERICO AND THE WOLF

Written by Rebecca J. Gomez

Illustrated by Elisa Chavarri

(Clarion Books; $17.99, Ages 4-7)

 

 

Starred Review – School Library Journal

If you love fairy tale retellings, Federico and the Wolf is for you. Rebecca J. Gomez has taken the classic story and not only modernized it, but centered it in the Mexican American culture with great success.

The book’s appeal stems from its endearing main character Federico whose ingenuity and bravery will have young readers rooting for him as he takes on the infamous hungry wolf. And though he sports a hoodie, Federico is definitely not your grandmother’s Little Red. In fact in this version, Federico sets off to the local market “… to buy ingredients to make the perfect pico.” His plan is to get the stuff needed to bring to his abuelo (grandfather), then together the two can make a special salsa. The market art (see below), like so many other illustrations in this delightful picture book, is a razzle dazzle of glorious color and atmosphere. As a reader I wanted to jump into the scene.

 

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Interior spread from Federico and the Wolf written by Rebecca J. Gomez and illustrated by Elisa Chavarri, Clarion Books ©2020.

 

On his way to see Abuelo, Federico heads through the city park and deep into the woods on his bike. It’s not long before the famished wolf stops him looking for “grub.” The young boy, however, claims he has no time or food to spare. When he arrives at his grandfather’s shop, Federico notices a suspiciously furry and pawed person beckoning him inside.

 

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Interior spread from Federico and the Wolf written by Rebecca J. Gomez and illustrated by Elisa Chavarri, Clarion Books ©2020.

 

At first it might seem that Federico’s been taken in by Wolf’s disguise, providing the kind of suspense kids love. But, once he realizes what he’s up against, the clever lad resorts to clever measures. I won’t spoil the spicy ending, but suffice it to say that because of Federico’s quick thinking, the chances of Wolf ever returning are rather slim. When grandson and grandfather are finally safe from the the wolf’s conniving clutches, the pair can begin to prepare the pico as originally planned.

Chavarri’s vibrant illustrations work beautifully with the prose, helping to set the tone of this excellently executed fractured fairy tale. The pictures are light and lively when Federico is happy and they get darker whenever the wolf is present.

Gomez, with her wonderful use of rhyme, brings a spirited approach to this tale that invites multiple readings. I love how she’s incorporated Spanish words into the story. They not only feel natural, but add to the ambience of Federico’s world. Kids can figure out the words’ meaning many times just by looking at the illustrations such as silla for chair. Readers can also take turns playing the parts of Federico and Wolf for added enjoyment. A glossary in the back matter along with a recipe for the salsa tops off this read aloud treat. By all means, add this new picture book to your story time collection. And, remember to carry some chili powder in your hoodie pocket if you plan a walk in Wolf’s neck of the woods.

Find out more about Rebecca here.

Find out more about Elisa here.

•Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

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Picture Book Review – A Last Goodbye

A LAST GOODBYE

Written by Elin Kelsey

Illustrated by Soyeon Kim

(Owlkids Books; $ 18.95, Ages 4+)

 

A Last Goodbye cover

 

Starred Review – Kirkus

Today I’m reviewing A Last Goodbye. This moving picture book is recommended for PreK-3, but could be appreciated by all ages.

Humans have long believed that they are the only species to care for the ill and dying and grieve the loss of a loved one. But are we?  

Nearly two years ago, Tahlequah, a female Orca, was spotted pushing the body of her newborn calf off the waters off Puget Sound. Although the calf only survived for a few hours, the mother had bonded with her daughter. For 17 days, people  around the world watched and grieved with Tahlequah as she kept her daughter’s body close to her. After traveling for nearly 1000 miles, she finally released it into the ocean. Responding to questions about the mother Orca’s actions, researchers noted  “ … it’s common for marine mammals to show signs of grief.”

As I write this review the number of deaths in the United States from the covid-19 has exceeded 125,000 and will climb higher still. Tragically, there are many children who have faced or will face the loss of someone they love due to this deadly virus. How can we help children cope with their fears and their grief over illness, death, and loss? The calm and soothing narrative of A Last Goodbye will give children a safe space and the opportunity to discuss their anxieties by exploring how animals tend to the dying and say goodbye to those who have passed away.

Using an intimate, first person narrator, the author guides children through the difficult process of death and grief, by looking at how animals comfort the dying, care for the remains, and grieve for their loss. The evenly paced and lyrical narrative allows for many moments to pause, reflect, and encourage questions and discussion in this recommended read for families.

As children move through the book, they see the care different animals give to comfort the dying.
An elephant reassures a dying member of its herd:

“I will wrap my trunk around you 

and support you with my tusks.” 

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Interior spread from A Last Goodbye written by Elin Kelsey with art by Soyeon Kim, Owlkids Books ©2020.

 

As a family of chimpanzees minister to their failing member, they:

“… will tuck soft bedding behind your back

and carefully tend to your hair.”

Kim’s stunning and delicate dioramas convey the concern and the grief of the family for the dying, whose fragility is shown in a slumped or sleeping body, outlined in a soft,  glowing line. 

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Interior spread from A Last Goodbye written by Elin Kelsey with art by Soyeon Kim, Owlkids Books ©2020.

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And what happens when a loved one dies? How do we respond? Kelsey shows that animals, like their human counterparts, have many ways of expressing their grief: 

“And when you die

I will gently stroke your body …”

“I will cry out in sorrow … or watch in quiet sadness.”

After death, Kelsey shows children those tender actions we take to honor the dead by observing what animals do: some will gather around the body, others might cover it with leaves. Some return later to 

“… visit the place where your body rests.”

Kim’s diorama is dotted with stars ascending from the bodies of the deceased to the night sky (the book’s end pages also depict a constellation-like map of a variety of animals with their scientific and common names).

Kelsey helps children understand what happens to the body as it sinks into the earth or sea. While death is final, the body nourishes the earth and provides for future generations. She asks the children to wonder: 

“Will tiny roots take hold

and tall trees grow 

in the rich soil you nourish?

Kim’s dioramas depicting how the bodies disintegrate into new life are particularly  breathtaking and turn something painful and frightening into a beautiful and life affirming event. Throughout the book, Kim’s illustrations enhance the narrative’s comforting and soothing tone,

Finally, the author addresses the grief and sense of loss that will always be there:  

“I will miss you forever.”

Yet, she reminds children that the pain of grief is not forever, and that there will be happiness and pride in remembering: 

“ … one day soon,

 I will think of you and feel joy.”

“You, me, all of us.

Every species on Earth.

Our lives plant a long line of love …”

Kelsey and Kim have partnered before with OwlKids Books on You Are Stardust, Wild Ideas, and You are Never Alone. All have received starred reviews from Kirkus. A Last Goodbye is their fourth book together. 

RECOMMENDED RESOURCES

An eight page teacher guide can be found here. Also watch the interview with the publisher and author here. Check out this video to learn about how the illustrations were created and photographed. 

Bekoff, Marc. A Last Goodbye: a Kid’s book about Animals, Dying, and Death.” Psychology Today, March 31, 2020. 

Pierce, Jessica. “Do Animals Experience Grief?” Smithsonian Magazine, Aug 24, 2018.

Are Animals Aware of Death?

You can find many lists of children’s books about death on the internet. Here’s a few:

Children’s Books about Death, Loss and Grieving (New York Public Library),

7 Beautiful Picture Books to Help Children Understand Death

I would also add City Dog and Country Frog by Mo Willems, illustrated by Jon Muth, a simple yet moving story of friendship, loss, and new beginnings.

•Review by Dornel Cerro

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Picture Book Review – A Doll for Grandma

A DOLL FOR GRANDMA:
A Story about Alzheimer’s Disease

Written by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey

Illustrated by Samantha Woo

(Beaming Books; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

 

A Doll for Grandma cover

 

Written by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey and illustrated by Samantha Woo, A Doll for Grandma captures that unshakeable bond between a little girl and her grandmother, a bond that tenderly adapts to the changes brought on by Alzheimer’s disease.

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Interior art from A Doll for Grandma: A Story About Alzheimer’s Disease written by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey and illustrated by Samantha Woo, Beaming Books ©2020.

 

Kiera and Grandma enjoy each other’s company and have a lot of fun together. From painting nails to knitting to baking “special occasion” molasses cookies based on an old, family recipe, Kiera learns a lot from Grandma. So it is strange when, seemingly all of a sudden, Grandma starts behaving in ways outside of her usual character.

 

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Interior art from A Doll for Grandma: A Story About Alzheimer’s Disease written by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey and illustrated by Samantha Woo, Beaming Books ©2020.

 

Through a child-centered, gentle tone, Sharkey’s direct language addresses these changes. “Grandma’s brain is forgetting how to remember,” Kiera’s mother explains. For Kiera, the differences in who Grandma was and who she is now are painfully evident. Most touching are the small, subtle changes. Grandma’s long and “shiny” painted fingernails that once made a “rat-a-tat-tat sound on the table” are merely “bare and … short.” “No more rat-a-tat-tat.” I admire the book’s honest portrayal of the challenges in letting go and accepting the new reality of Alzheimer’s.

 

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Interior art from A Doll for Grandma: A Story About Alzheimer’s Disease written by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey and illustrated by Samantha Woo, Beaming Books ©2020.

 

Yet, despite these challenges, Kiera discovers a way to be present with her grandmother by gifting a doll to Grandma. Kiera brings her own doll during her visits, and the two connect, nurturing their dolls in pretend play. Woo’s colorful illustrations contribute to this connection by focusing on the facial expressions of the characters, driving home the point that what matters most is the emotional bond the characters share as they engage in positive sensory experiences together. A helpful discussion in the back matter by author and advocate Judy Cornish provides a wonderful tool for parents, caregivers, and teachers.

A powerful story and important resource, A Doll for Grandma brings clarity and healing to families struggling to find connection with that special person living with Alzheimer’s disease.

•Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

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Five New Children’s Books for Independence Day

INDEPENDENCE DAY 2020
RECOMMENDED READS FOR KIDS
-A ROUNDUP-

 

Clip Art Independence Day

 

The selection of books here, while not necessarily being about July 4th or the Revolutionary War, all have to do with our country, and what it means to have gained our independence and become a democracy. I hope the books inspire children to read more on the topics covered, and to think about how they can make a difference, no matter how small, in their own communities.

 

Free for You and Me cvrFREE FOR YOU AND ME:
What Our First Amendment Means
Written by Christy Mihaly
Illustrated by Manu Montoya
(Albert Whitman & Co.; $16.99, Ages 4-8)

When at last America declared itself free from British rule, the Constitution was written “with rules for every institution.” However, something more was needed to guarantee five “of the most fundamental American freedoms,” and so the First Amendment, along with nine others (and making up the Bill of Rights) was drafted.

Using verse, occasional speech bubbles, and bright, diverse, kid-centric illustrations, Free for You and Me explains in easily understandable language just what these powerful 45 words represent. Kids will enjoy seeing other kids on the pages debating the meaning of the expression, “It’s a free country” making this picture book ideal for classroom discussion or for any budding historians and legal scholars.

Mihaly explains how our First Amendment means “we the people of the United States have five important freedoms,” many of which we see at work on a daily basis. Americans are guaranteed “freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to gather in a peaceful rally or protest, and the freedom to tell our leaders what we want them to do.” If your child has recently marched with you in a protest, that’s due to our First Amendment rights.

In this book, kids learn the importance of the First Amendment through the example of a mayor who wants to shut down their playground. They organize a rally and get signatures on a petition in an effort to save it. Other good examples are presented as in the case of Freedom of Speech. Readers find out about Congressman Matthew Lyon who was arrested and spent four months in jail in 1798 for criticizing President John Adams. This would never have happened were it not for a law Adams and his Federalist government passed called the Sedition Act. Once Jefferson was elected, the Sedition Act expired. I had never heard about this before, but my 19-year-old son had so a lively conversation ensued.

The timeliness of this educational picture book will not be lost on those who support a free press, the right to free speech and to assemble peacefully, as well as the freedom of religion and freedom to petition the Government for redress of grievances. Mihaly, a former lawyer, understands the principles upon which our democracy was established. With her knowledge of the First Amendment, she succeeds in conveying the freedoms it entails in an engaging and accessible way for young readers. We can never take these hard-fought for liberties for granted. Four pages of back matter go into more detail.  •Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

VOTE FOR OUR FUTURE!
Written by Margaret McNamara
Illustrated by Micah Player
(Schwartz & Wade; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

Starred Review – Kirkus

The students of Stanton Elementary School aren’t old enough to vote when their school closes every two years on the Tuesday after the first Monday of November. That’s when it turns into a polling station. They are, however, are old enough to spread the word in Vote for Our Future!

The diverse cast of characters, energetically represented in bold and vivid illustrations, introduce a topic that is timely for all ages. McNamara’s sweet and intuitive children first ask “what’s a polling station?” The children’s eyes widen as they learn that “the reason people vote is to choose who makes the laws of the country.” LaToya with her big pink glasses raises her hand and says, “we should all vote to make the future better.” But Lizzy reminds her that they just aren’t old enough.

So what are they old enough to do? Player illustrates boys and girls from all backgrounds looking through books and “searching online to find all kinds of information. They even took a trip to their local election office and picked up forms.” The research shows that “kids have to live with adult choices. The kids of Stanton Elementary School were ready to spread the word.”

McNamara takes the reader through the small town where Cady and her mom make flyers. They pass them out to a busy dad, who didn’t even know there was an election, to Nadiya and her auntie, wearing hijabs on their heads, who go door to door telling neighbors that “voting is a right.” Player’s vibrant and colorful art of people from various ethnic groups shows the reader that all people have the right to vote.

With each excuse from adults that the children are given, an even better comeback is heard in return. “I don’t like standing in lines,” one lady tells Nadiya. Nadiya’s auntie doesn’t like standing in lines either, but Nadiya says if you can stand in line for coffee you can stand in line to vote. I love how fearless the kids are when the adults come up with excuses for why they aren’t voting and how the kids don’t take no for an answer.

Player shows “people voting for the first time, and the fiftieth time, with their sons and daughters, their nieces and nephews, their brothers and sisters, their cousins and friends.” When voting was complete and the ballots were counted, Stanton Elementary went back to being a school and “the future began to change.”

McNamara writes in the back matter titled Get Out The Vote! that when adults vote for people and causes they believe in, they speak for us and make laws that are good for everyone in the country. She lists various Acts that have been signed to prompt further discussions between adults and kids. Player’s drawings of stickers such as Yes, I Voted help to get the message across that voting does matter and that every vote really can make a difference. Have the primaries happened in your state? If not, get out and vote! • Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder

For Spacious Skies coverFOR SPACIOUS SKIES:
Katharine Lee Bates and the Inspiration
for “America the Beautiful”
Written by Nancy Churnin
Illustrated by Olga Baumert
(Albert Whitman & Co.; $16.99, Ages 4-8)

I loved getting to know the origin story for the beloved song so many people think is our national anthem, but isn’t. I also learned that not only was the poem that was later turned into a song, written by a woman, but a very independent one at that.

Katharine Lee Bates was raised by her widowed mother who “grew and sold vegetables to help Katharine go to school.” Katharine’s smarts led to higher education and her passion for the written word led to her career as an author and professor at a time when young women were encouraged to pursue marriage and homemaking. She was also a reformer. In addition to teaching, Katharine worked hard to improve the lives of those most vulnerable in society, while also using her talents to help the suffrage movement.

A summer teaching job took her across the country by train from Boston to Colorado where she first glimpsed America’s boundless beauty. On July 4, 1893 Katharine’s mind was flooded with “memories of the ocean” as she set eyes on amber stalks of wheat swaying in the Kansas fields. A trip up to Pike’s Peak and its majestic views clearly inspired her to compose the poem we know and love. It was first published on July 4, 1895 and, with each additional publication, underwent several revisions. In 1910 it was paired with the famous melody by composer Samuel A. Ward we still sing today. This terrific and inspiring biography with its glorious Grandma Moses-esque illustrations perfectly blends the story of Katharine Lee Bates’s life and career, and country with the poem that celebrates its expansive splendor. Back matter and a timeline round out this recommended read.
•Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

We the People coverWE THE PEOPLE:
The United States Constitution
Explored and Explained
Written by Aura Lewis and Evan Sargent
Illustrated by Aura Lewis
(Wide Eyed Editions; $24.99, Ages 10-14)

Even adults can take advantage of this comprehensive look at our Constitution because of the colorful and inviting picture book format designed with middle grade readers in mind. Plus it’s the kind of book you’ll want to keep on hand to refer to, especially when kids ask questions you may be unable to answer.

This quote from the authors on the intro page speaks volumes about what you can expect when you pick up a copy of We the People: “… we believe that having a deeper understanding of our Constitution can inspire change. Anyone can understand how the government works, and every single person has the power to get involved and make a difference.”

The 128 pages of the book are divided up into brief, digestible chapters, with plenty of white space so that your eye can travel to the most important parts quickly. The authors have included excerpts from the Constitution which have been paraphrased in kid-friendly English so they’re easily understood especially when presented as they relate to our daily lives.

One of my favorite sections was about the 19th Amendment, ratified in 1920, intended to guarantee that “no one can be denied the right to vote because of their gender.” The chapter features a bottom border illustration of both the suffragettes on the left holding signs and modern day protestors on the right also carrying signs. The spread (like those throughout the book) has interesting factoids such as the one about young conservative Tennessee politician, Harry Burns, whose mother influenced his decision “that tipped the scales in favor of the 19th Amendment.” On the four pages devoted to this amendment there are also thought provoking questions that a teacher or librarian can pose to their students.

There is so much wonderful information to absorb that I recommend readers take in a few chapters at a time to let the facts sink in. One particular chapter that, leading up to this year’s presidential election, might prompt discussion is about the 12th Amendment and the electoral college. Everyone who reads We the People will likely find something covered that will resonate with them whether it’s about the rights of the accused, term limits, or D.C.’s residents (now looking for statehood) being given the right to vote for president. Get this book today and you’ll get the picture!
•Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

STAR-SPANGLED:
The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and
the American Anthem
Written by Tim Grove
(Abrams BYR; $19.99, Ages 10-14)

Starred Review – Kirkus

Okay, I’m going to embarrass myself here and admit I did not know the “Star-Spangled Banner,” our national anthem, was about a battle against the British over a fort in Baltimore. I mean I knew it was about a battle based on the lyrics and I knew the battle fought was with the British, and that’s it. I’m not even sure I was taught the anthem’s history in school. Now, thanks to Tim Grove’s well-researched historical nonfiction novel, I’ve been educated and kids can be, too. Oh and by the way, this occurred during the War of 1812 (which incidentally lasted until 1815).

Told from various perspectives, because what better way to convey the complexity of history than from more than one angle, Grove’s book introduces readers to a host of British and American characters. We meet Mary Pickersgill, (a sewing business owner specializing in flags or colors), Thomas Kemp (a Baltimore shipyard owner), Francis Scott Key, (a thirty-five-year-old lawyer with six children), Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn (a top British military officer in the Chesapeake Bay region), and 10 others whose stories are woven together to bring the full picture of the intense battle to light. Star-Spangled also addresses the background of the war and events leading up to battle to help put its significance in context. If America lost Baltimore, our young country’s independence could be at stake. Grove notes that Pickersgill, Kemp, and Key were all slave owners and that Key, was a “tireless opponent of the slave trade” yet in his role as a U.S. attorney for Washington, D.C., opposed abolitionists. He was also “a leading proponent” of the colonization movement, something I definitely did not know about.

As we meet each person, we learn the role they played in the the book’s subheading, The Story of a Flag, a Battle, and the American Anthem. In fact, Star-Spangled reads like an Erik Larson novel where all the events are building up to the major one so anticipation is high despite knowing the outcome. And don’t be surprised if you become so engrossed that you finish the book in one go!

I had an advance review copy so I was unable to see the full-color photographs from the final edition, but my copy did contain the fascinating archival material interspersed throughout the book. There’s actually a photo of the “flag that Key saw. Over the years, before the flag came to the Smithsonian Institution, people cut various pieces off for souvenirs.” There’s also a photo of Francis Key’s “original draft of his poem.” This contains four verses and is preserved at the Maryland Historical Society.

Back matter includes an author’s note, a timeline, a glossary, endnotes, a bibliography, and an index. Don’t miss your chance to get a copy of this enlightening book. I hope it finds its way onto bookshelves in classrooms and libraries around the country so our rich history can be better understood and discussed. •Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

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Early Chapter Book Review – Stella Endicott and the Anything-Is-Possible Poem

STELLA ENDICOTT AND THE ANYTHING-IS-POSSIBLE POEM:

TALES FROM DECKAWOO DRIVE

Written by Kate DiCamillo

Illustrated by Chris Van Dusen

(Candlewick Press; $14.99, Ages 6-9)

 

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Starred Review – Kirkus

“I like the idea that anything is possible, don’t you?” (Stella to her teacher, p. 7)

In Stella Endicott and the Anything-Is-Possible Poem, Stella Suzanne Endicott, is one of those glorious young children who finds the whole world and all of life absolutely amazing. A wonderfully engaged, curious and imaginative child, she lives in the same neighborhood as that awesome pig, Mercy Watson, and other characters on Deckawoo Drive. On the first day of school, she meets her new teacher, Tamar Calliope Liliana, and thinks the teacher’s name “… sounded like the name of a good fairy in a deeply satisfying story … “ Her “arch nemesis” is Horace Broom, a big know-it-all, whom she finds most annoying.

 

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STELLA ENDICOTT AND THE ANYTHING-IS-POSSIBLE POEM. Text copyright © 2020 by Kate DiCamillo. Illustrations copyright © 2020 by Chris Van Dusen. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

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When Miss Liliana asks the students to write a poem using a metaphor, “Stella had a feeling that she was going to be very, very good at coming up with metaphors.” Unable to work at home, due to her brother’s hovering (he sometimes reminds her of Horace), she goes to visit Mercy Watson and curls up beside her on the couch.  As everyone knows it is

 “… a very comforting thing to lean up against a warm pig.”
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STELLA ENDICOTT AND THE ANYTHING-IS-POSSIBLE POEM. Text copyright © 2020 by Kate DiCamillo. Illustrations copyright © 2020 by Chris Van Dusen. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

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The next day she and Horace have a disagreement over Mercy Watson. Horace, a literal type, refuses to believe a pig could live in a house and sleep on the couch! Stella angrily assures him that Mercy Watson does! Miss Liliana sends the arguing pair to Principal Tinwiddie’s office (“the toughest sheriff in town”). Horace, greatly frightened of the principal and of a blemish on his academic record, flees from the office and hides in the janitor’s storage closet. Stella races after him and, as she steps inside the closet, the door closes and the two are locked in. Did I mention that poor Horace is also claustrophobic? While they wait to be rescued, Stella comforts him. A glow in the dark map of the solar system gives Horace the opportunity to help Stella learn the names of the planets, and keeps his mind off of his fears. They share the things they love best: Horace, who wants to be an astronaut, loves telescopes, Stella loves metaphors. By the time they are rescued, both are fast friends.

With an almost lyrical narrative, a gently humorous, but thoughtful story, and delightfully quirky characters, this early chapter book is pure DiCamillo. Van Dusen’s gouache illustrations humorously enhance the narrative. DiCamillo helps children see the value of imagination and creativity and that trying to understand that annoying person could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. As Stella always says: “anything can happen …”

Kate DiCamillo
Chris Van Dusen

  •  Reviewed by Dornel Cerro

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Picture Book Review – Just Like Me

JUST LIKE ME

Written and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton

(Knopf BFYR; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

 

Just Like Me cover

 

 

Beautifully written and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, Just like Me is a book of poems honoring, encouraging, and shining a light on little girls everywhere.

The poems celebrate diversity, not only in terms of race and ethnicity, but in experience. Brantley-Newton welcomes all kinds of girls with differing hobbies, interests, likes, and dislikes. Girls can be an “Explorer,” a “Negotiator,” “Shy,” or just plain “Weird.” Each type of girl is recognized and validated.

Biblical principles weave throughout the poems. They call for making change in the world through kindness, grace, and “fight[ing] the good fight of love.” As “The Day I Decided to Become Sunshine,” “Warrior,” and “Girl Fight” emphasize, participating in this change is a willful decision girls can make. “I decided to be a light/ by holding a door/ open for others to come through.” “Respectfully/ with humanity/ and lovingly,” girls can empower the world by “fighting for … what [they] believe.”

 

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Interior spread from Just Like Me written and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, Knopf BYR ©2020.

 

Just as important, girls can empower themselves. Poems such as “I Love My Body,” “Gumbo Me,” and  “My Crown” send positive body messages and celebrate the uniqueness of each girl. Each one is enough just for being herself.  ”[T]o be the me/that I’m supposed to be” is one of the most life-giving statements a little girl can hear.

Framing Brantley-Newton’s reassuring words are her captivating illustrations. Layers of pattern, color, and texture overlap to energize and uplift, placing each girl in center stage so that every reader can see herself in these pages.

This book is like a blanket of love. It would make a wonderful gift for that upcoming (virtual?) baby shower, birthday party, first day of school, or any occasion caregivers want to send a clear message of appreciation to the little girl in their life.

  •Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

 

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Picture Book Review – Ronan the Librarian

RONAN THE LIBRARIAN

Written by Tara Luebbe & Becky Cattie

Illustrated by Victoria Maderna

(Roaring Brook Press; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

 

Ronan the Librarian cover

 

A Junior Library Guild Selection

 

What do you get when you mix books with a barbarian? You get the delightfully disarming Ronan the Librarian by Tara Luebbe and Becky Cattie with art by Victoria Maderna.

When we first meet Ronan, the barbarian leader, he’s a typical marauder, pillaging with his cohorts and pretty much content. His usual raids involve bringing back jewels and gold, that is until his latest plundering reveals a chest full of books. Not exactly what was in the cards. While at first Ronan considers the haul useless“Kindling? Origami? Toilet paper?”it doesn’t take long for him to get pulled in by a picture and hooked on the book. He reads late into the night, oversleeping in fact. From that moment on, Ronan was a changed marauder.

 

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Interior spread from Ronan the Librarian written by Tara Luebbe and Becky Cattie with illustrations by Victoria Maderna, Roaring Brook Press ©2020.

 

Wherever Ronan travels to invade, raid and then trade, his mind is always focused on the current book he was devouring, eager to return home to it at day’s end. As the leader, Ronan shifts the pillaging priority from taking baubles to books and his collection grows and grows. It becomes so huge he needs a library to contain it. Much to Ronan’s disappointment, his partners in pillage show no interest in reading. “Barbarians do not read books.”

Determined to whet their literary appetites, Ronan decides to read a mythical tale aloud to his community. Yet everyone appears to carry on with their work, leaving the barbarian bibliophile convinced his story has not made an impact. However, when he later discovers the library has been invaded, not by pillagers, but by curious villagers, Ronan could not be happier. “It turns out, barbarians do read books.” Ronan lives happily ever after only now he can add librarian to his skill set. With stories filling their minds, everyone’s lives grow richer because we all know what treasures can be found inside the pages of a book.

 

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Interior spread from Ronan the Librarian written by Tara Luebbe and Becky Cattie with illustrations by Victoria Maderna, Roaring Brook Press ©2020.

 

I love how Luebbe and Cattie have taken the most unlikely of characters to ever want to read and turned that on its head. Who can’t fall for a big bearded barbarian smitten by the love of reading? Kids will love saying some of the goofy barbarian expressions like “Uff da!” They’ll also find adorable characters (I like Helgi), wonderful rhythm, and repetition that will make this a much requested read. In addition to enjoying every page, kids should make sure to revisit the art. Maderna’s added some fun details in her lively illustrations like a goat eating the paper from the book haul and again in the library munching on a book, a dinosaur skeleton under the floorboards in Ronan’s home, a library sandwich board that reads “Come Read! Free Mead,” and a library bulletin board with some very funny “Rules and Advice” notices. Parents, teachers and librarians will enjoy sharing Ronan the Librarian, a book that subtly and cleverly extols the virtues of reading. This witty picture book begs to be read at library story times and will make even the most reluctant of readers root for Ronan, even if you may think he could use a shave.

Learn more about the authors at www.becktyarabooks.com

•Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

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Five New Books for Father’s Day 2020

BOOKS TO READ WITH DAD OR GRANDPA

ON FATHER’S DAY OR ANY DAY

∼A ROUNDUP∼

 

Happy Father's Day clip art

 

Lion Needs a Haircut cvrLION NEEDS A HAIRCUT
Written and illustrated by Hyewon Yum
(Abrams BYR; $16.99, Ages 3-7)

Starred Review – Booklist

Hyewon Yum’s adorable picture book, Lion Needs a Haircut, reminds me of how much my son disliked getting his haircut when he was little. What I especially like is how Yum’s chosen to use lions, a dad and his cub, as the main characters since their manes are such powerful symbols.

The lion father lets his son know he needs a haircut, but the cub does not agree. When the big lion shows compassion, saying he understands his son’s fear, is he perhaps putting words into his son’s mouth or hitting the nail right on its head? Regardless, the cub continues to resist. When at last the little one says, “I just wanted my hair to look like yours,” the story presents a clever new twist that is so satisfying and entertaining. Suffice it to say that parents, caregivers and kids will get a kick out of some fun role reversal in this charming and sweetly illustrated story.  •Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

When Grandpa Gives You a Toolbox cvrWHEN GRANDPA GIVES YOU A TOOLBOX
Written by Jamie L.B. Deenihan
Illustrated by Lorraine Rocha
(Sterling Children’s Books; $16.95, Ages 3-7)

The birthday boy, with the golden crown on his head, is anxious to receive a special house for his dolls when Grandpa stops by. Lo and behold, he comes bearing a … TOOLBOX! When Grandpa Gives You a Toolbox, written by Jamie L.B. Deenihan and illustrated by Lorraine Rocha shows how an unexpected gift can actually become the one you will always remember.

Lorraine Rocha paints colorful illustrations of the grandpa, the boy and his little brown dog who remains by his side throughout the story. The reader is taken on a journey of love via bright illustrations depicting the boy patiently listening to grandpa’s stories. Deenihan’s prose are written as steps on how to handle a situation that you really don’t have much interest in, but you do out of love—a great lesson for young kids to learn. “Next, compliment Grandpa as he shows photos of all the projects he’s built since he was a kid.”

The boy listens to his grandpa until he runs out of stories, but the reader learns that the stories stay in his memory. We see the boy and his dog playing with his doll as a sad looking yellow bird sits at the bottom of a big tree. “It’ll be easy to forget about Grandpa’s toolbox. Until you meet someone in need and have an idea.” That’s when the boy realizes that maybe the toolbox can be useful. Then the reader is taken on a whole new journey showing the beautiful bond between grandfather and grandson.

At the end, the boy is not only able to get that special doll house, but he gets it by building it with Grandpa by his side. “You and Grandpa will work together measuring and sawing, drilling and hammering, gluing and painting, until finally, you’ve built exactly what you wanted.” This heartwarming story melts your heart deeper when Deenihan not only dedicates the story to her own father, but explains how her husband Ricky was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2015. In honor of Ricky, along with brain cancer patients and childhood cancer patients, a gray ribbon and gold ribbon have been included in the illustrations to raise awareness and show support for all those affected by cancer. •Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder

PAPA BRINGS ME THE WORLDPapa Brings Me the World cvr
Written and illustrated by Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw
(Henry Holt BYR/Christy Ottaviano Books; $18.99, Ages 4-8)

Junior Library Guild Selection

There is so much to enjoy when reading Papa Brings Me the World. It’s first and foremost a daughter’s love letter to her dad who is often gone for long periods of time due to his job as a photojournalist. “His pictures and stories are windows into magical worlds.” In addition to being about the parent/child relationship, it’s also a travel story with great glimpses into foreign countries and their cultures that the father in his career, and ultimately together with his daughter Lu, visit. I’ve also never read a picture book about a photojournalist so I think it’s wonderful and enriching to expose children to the world this way.

This book resonated with me not because one of my parents was a photojournalist, but because they loved to travel and instilled that love in me. I eventually studied abroad and then worked in the travel industry for nine years sharing my passion for world travel via educational seminars. The influence this story’s father had on his daughter was what hooked me from the start. “I was born to explore. Just like Papa.” I love how Kostecki-Shaw incorporated all the different places the father visited into journal entries and items collected along the way. Her art, a beautiful blend of acrylic, watercolors, salt, pencil, rubber stamps and collage made me want to linger on every page.

The biracial family in Papa Brings the World to Me is a loving, compassionate one. While the little girl’s thoughts revolve around her father’s often exotic trips and his anticipated return home from each one, Mama holds down the fort and provides support in a frequently one parent household. Any child who has a parent that is often away from home will relate to Lu’s dreams of spending time together with her papa either at home or on the road. The book will likely also spark wanderlust in even the youngest child when learning in the back matter about the variety of places Papa visits. This beautiful picture book is a celebration of the unique father daughter bond and one I recommend for all girl dads to read with their daughters.
•Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

Big Papa and the Time Machine cvrBIG PAPA AND THE TIME MACHINE
Written by Daniel Bernstrom
Illustrated by Shane W. Evans
(HarperCollins; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

Starred Review – Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal

Soft pastel colors adorn the pages of this warm-hearted story of bravery throughout time as Big Papa takes his beloved grandson in a time machine (1950s automobile) telling him about times long ago in Big Papa and the Time Machine.

The beautiful artwork was the first thing to capture my attention, but it did not take long for the words to wrap around me as well. Bernstrom tells the story of his African American grandfather who fought through hardship only to come out brave, while reassuring the boy who is fearful about going off to school for the first time.

“Do I have to go to school?” “Yes,” Big Papa said. “I just wanna go home and watch TV.” “You scared,” Big Papa said. “I’m scared I’ll miss you.”

The kind grandfather with the long gray beard, orange hat, red bow tie and blue overalls kicks off the time travel going back first to Little Rock, Arkansas circa 1952. Here he is a young man hugging his own Mama ever so tightly. The grandson believes his grandfather is never scared. “No been scared lots of times,” Big Papa said. “But sometimes you gotta lose the life you have if you ever gonna find the love you want. That’s called being brave.”

Bernstrom takes readers through a series of experiences in the past: meeting Nana at a dance; his own daughter walking away from raising the boy and working hard labor, but he always ends with the same beautiful words “that’s called being brave.”

This is a story that I could reread over and over, and what a poignant story at this time in history. We are educated on the hardships this family overcame, but in the end they survived it all through love, perseverance and, of course, being brave. Bravo to Bernstrom for his words that transported me to Arkansas 1941 and 1952; Chicago 1955, 1957, and the year the grandson was placed in the grandfather’s care in 1986.

In the Author’s Note, Bernstrom explains the background to this story and how he wasn’t raised knowing his biological grandfather, but when they met his grandfather had stories upon stories to tell. Evans asks, “what is courage?” and explains that with every line of art there is a story just like there is a story in every word. I felt it in both the words and the art. A beautiful story definitely worth sharing with young readers.
•Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder.

Dadskills coverDADSKILLS: How to Be an Awesome Father and Impress
All the Other Parents – From Baby Wrangling – to Taming Teenagers
Written by Chris Peterson
(Cool Springs Press; $17.99, Paperback)

Billed as a manual for new fathers, Dadskills‘ subtitle immediately clues you in to the light-hearted read covering child rearing, from their arrival at home to their eventual departure. The six chapters (which include spot illustrations) include “Baby Wrangling,” “Dealing With Toddlers,” “The Single Digit Challenge,” “Managing the Tweens,” “Taming Teens,” and “Empty Nesting (or Not).”

Does father really know best? That’s what author Peterson is aiming for with his “We got this” fix-it guy approach to equipping men with the important skills they’ll need to be a first-rate and rad dad. “You’ll find here a breakdown on all the essentials so that you can feel a little more like ‘I’m witnessing a miracle’ and a little less like ‘What the hell is happening?'”

In the first chapter I was pleasantly surprised to find colic was addressed because, while it’s awfully uncomfortable for baby, it can also be exhausting and trying for parents who feel helpless to make their little one feel better. When our daughter had colic, it was my husband with his secure football hold that I could count on to quell her pain. In Chapter 3 dads are reminded to “enjoy this prehormonal phase of life.” And, as a book reviewer, how could I not love a section that emphasizes encouraging a young reader with tips such as “Make it a nightly habit,” integrate books into your home life, and read beyond books, for example, by playing games that require game card reading in order to practice skills and pronunciation.

Every chapter is full of invaluable information that will give dads the tools they need to solo or co-parent and make them smile while getting the inside scoop in a book created with their needs in mind. Peterson’s voice throughout the book is like that of a close friend’s. Dadskills will leave new dads feeling prepared for and less stressed about fatherhood. With its perfectly balanced blend of advice and wit, this fathering book for a new generation of dads will make a great gift for Father’s Day.
•Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

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Early Chapter Book Review – Fergus and Zeke and the Field Day Challenge

FERGUS AND ZEKE AND THE FIELD DAY CHALLENGE
Written by Kate Messner
Illustrated by Heather Ross
(Candlewick Press; $14.99, Ages 5-8)

 

FergusandZeke and the Field Day Challenge cvr

 

 

Fergus and Zeke and the Field Day Challenge is the third in Kate Messner’s series of two beloved class pets in Miss Maxwell’s class. As fans of the earlier volumes know, these two mice enthusiastically join their human counterparts in all school activities from science experiments to sculpting with clay with humorous and adorable results.

When Miss Maxwell announces the upcoming, school-wide Field Day, the excitement is electric and captured in both Messner’s narrative and the diverse faces in Ross’s expressive illustrations. Who will jump the highest and run the fastest? Who will win the limbo contest or the sack race? The children-and the mice-excitedly prep for the event.

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FERGUS AND ZEKE AND THE FIELD DAY CHALLENGE. Text copyright © 2020 by Kate Messner. Illustrations copyright © 2020 by Heather Ross. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

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On the morning of the competition, the two mice secretly hitch a ride in a student’s backpack as the children eagerly set out to the field. The first content is the limbo. “How low can you go?” the students ask each other. Well, it turns out mice can go pretty low and Fergus and Zeke handily win that contest. However, as they join the other competitions, Fergus and Zeke quickly realize they have a much bigger challenge on their hands … um paws … they’re too small to compete with the much bigger students! The hula hoops are too big, they fear being trampled in the 50 yard dash, water balloons are too heavy to toss, and let’s not even consider kickball. However, soon they figure out how to bring  kids size sports down to mouse size players.

Readers will be delighted (and relieved) to see how Fergus and Zeke rise to this field day challenge and find substitutes for equipment that’s much too big for them: acorns instead of water balloons, a high jump bar constructed from twigs, a discarded plastic bag for the parachute games, and a lost bracelet for the hula hoop contest.  The two have so much fun that they fail to notice the class has returned to school without them. How will they get back to their second story classroom? And what will happen if the students notice they’re gone? Well, the pair demonstrate their ingenuity once again, finding that a plastic bag may be useful for more than just a parachute game.

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FERGUS AND ZEKE AND THE FIELD DAY CHALLENGE. Text copyright © 2020 by Kate Messner. Illustrations copyright © 2020 by Heather Ross. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

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Messner, winner of the 2012 Golden Kite Award (and many others), has written an upbeat, straightforward, and engaging story. The vocabulary is action packed and accessible. The books’ themes of friendship, school days, sports, and pets are appealing for 5-8 year-old readers who are done with early readers but not yet ready for chapter books. Caregivers and teachers may want to point out the story’s positive images of friendly competition and how the two mice problem solve and collaborate to overcome challenges.

Ross’s digitally-created and cheerful illustrations support the light-hearted narrative and provide visual clues for young readers transitioning to chapter books. Fergus and Zeke and the Field Day Challenge is a charming addition for families and libraries looking for more offerings in a transitional chapter book format.

  •  Reviewed by Dornel Cerro

 

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Middle Grade and Young Adult Books Featuring LGBTQ+ Characters

PRIDE MONTH PICKS

 

The Derby DaredevilsTHE DERBY DAREDEVILS: Kenzie Kickstarts a Team
Written by Kit Rosewater
Illustrated by Sophie Escabasse
(Amulet Books; $14.99, Ages 8-12)

In Kit Rosewater’s middle grade book, The Derby Daredevils: Kenzie Kickstarts a Team, fifth grader Kenzie Ellington has spent the past three years watching her mom skate in Austin’s roller derby league wanting to join in too. Fortunately, her BFF, Shelly, finds a junior league being formed. The girls eagerly prepare for tryouts, ready to show off their signature Dynamic Duo moves. However, to keep from possibly being split up, they must form a five-person team in only one week.

Finding other skaters proves harder than expected; the girls they’re asking can’t even skate. Shelly wants to recruit Bree, Kenzie’s skateboarding neighbor, but Kenzie struggles with her complicated secret-crush feelings toward Bree. Then, as the team comes together, Kenzie worries when Shelly welcomes new members and seemingly replaces Kenzie.

Sophie Escabasse’s art brings to life the story’s emotions as well as the humor and camaraderie. Even readers who know nothing about roller derby will feel comfortable with this book’s easy explanations of the sport and accompanying illustrations—just take a glimpse at the dynamic cover.

Fans of the graphic novel Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson will enjoy this tale which also focuses on friendship and girl power. The six girls depicted in this book are realistic representations of the fifth graders I know. I applaud Rosewater for showing us a diverse group of girls who sword fight and play basketball. Girls can be any combination of things. I look forward to book 2, out in September. Starred Reviews – Booklist, School Library Journal

 

Burn book coverBURN
Written by by Patrick Ness
(Quill Tree Books; $18.99, Ages 14 and up)

In 1957 rural Washington state, Eisenhower’s being sworn in for his second term in office, the Russians ready to launch a satellite into space, and dragons are hired for farmwork having forged a no-kill policy with humans. Against her father’s wishes, fifteen-year-old Sarah Dewhurst begins to interact with their laborer dragon, Kazimir. However, Kazimir has his own agenda, needing Sarah for prophecy fulfillment.

Nearby, FBI agents chase teen assassin Malcolm as he rushes to complete his secret mission for a radical pro-dragon group called the Believers. Nothing sways Malcolm’s devotion to leader Mitera Thea and his probably suicidal mission until his path crosses Nelson’s (who has been thrown out by his mother). Against his training, Malcolm envelops Nelson into the folds of his dangerous world. Yet his ghastly tasks threaten their blossoming relationship.

Best-selling author Patrick Ness once again delivers a complex, action-filled story in Burn. We can relate to Sarah who still aches from her mother’s death and the ongoing prejudice because of their skin color. Sarah’s boyfriend, Jason Inagawa—the only other nonwhite kid in their area—lost his mother to pneumonia during their three-year forced stay in an internment camp. Ness seamlessly blends historical elements with fantasy.

This fast-paced story, told in alternating viewpoint, takes you on a wild journey that includes an alternate universe. Cleverly crafted text amplifies the suspense, allowing for successful verbal sleight of hand. Burn wraps up dramatically, while leaving room to expand into a series. I couldn’t put this book down and look forward to the tale’s continuation in whatever world(s) where I hope to meet more wonderful—and wonderfully awful—dragons.
Starred Reviews Booklist, Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, Publishers Weekly

 

Witches of Ash and Ruin cvrWITCHES OF ASH & RUIN
Written by E. Lattimer
(Little, Brown BYR; $18.99, Ages 14 and up)

When seventeen-year-old Dayna Walsh isn’t struggling with OCD, she wants nothing more than to ascend from witchling to full witch. Dayna has strong familial bonds with her coven yet her biological family is disjointed: a religious father and a mother who was mysteriously sent away thirteen years ago to Camp Blood of the Lamb. Mix in witches from another coven plus a nearby serial killer and you’ll get an idea of this fantastic brew of a book.

Latimer’s Witches of Ash & Ruin unfolds in multiple viewpoints providing glimpses inside the heads of others (witchlings, Dayna’s ex-boyfriend, and a witch-hunter named Dubh). I found it interesting that the book opens with Dubh stating his evil intentions—that seemed to solve the puzzle from the start—but knowing the bad guy in no way slows the suspense.

Speaking of tension, the heat between Dayna and a witchling from the other coven is palpable. You’ll root for them to be alive and together at the end.

If you like complex stories without tidy endings, you’ll enjoy this sweeping tale. Some parts are bloody, but that’s expected with a murderer on the loose and a witch or two dabbling with the dark side. Unless you’re fluent in ancient Celtic mythology, pay attention when gods and their histories are mentioned.

 

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Picture Book Review – Boats Will Float by Andria Warmflash Rosenbaum

BOATS WILL FLOAT

Written by Andria Warmflash Rosenbaum

Illustrated by Brett Curzon

(Sleeping Bear Press; $16.99, Ages 4-8)

 

Boats Will Float cvr

 

After a third and fourth reading of Boats Will Float by Andria Warmflash Rosenbaum with illustrations by Brett Curzon, I still found myself smiling as if I were reading it for the first time. There is so much to enjoy in this picture book highlighting a bevy of brightly colored boats both big and small.

Rosenbaum’s descriptive rhyme invites reading aloud and the full page spreads beg to be explored in order to find humorous details that Curzon’s included (hint: check out the front of the cruise ship). Readers learn about a variety of vessels that travel on bays, rivers, and oceans as they’re presented at work and play from early morning until night.

 

Boats Will Float int1
Interior illustration from Boats Will Float written by Andria Warmflash Rosenbaum and illustrated by Brett Curzon, Sleeping Bear Press ©2020.

 

The timeless appeal of watercraft for kids cannot be denied and Boats Will Float celebrates that by introducing over a dozen kinds. There are fishing boats, motor boats, tug boats, submarines, freighters, sailboats and canoes. There’s even a welcoming houseboat that bookends the story. First, a child and her dad greet the new day, watching the boat activity from their deck, “Boats are bobbing in the bay/Waiting to be on their way.” Then at the end, the entire family settles down for the night, “Safely moored in dreams all night-/Boats will float … toward morning light.”

I love how there are even nautical flags cleverly incorporated into the book. At story time youngsters can spell out their own name using the alphabet provided. Be on the lookout for a special treat in the mast art of the sailboat spread to point out to curious children. I won’t say anymore than that.

 

Boats Will Float int2
Interior illustration from Boats Will Float written by Andria Warmflash Rosenbaum and illustrated by Brett Curzon, Sleeping Bear Press ©2020.

 

The structure of this picture book, with its vibrant scenes moving to more tranquil ones, makes it ideal for a bedtime read. The art, beautifully complementing the prose, shifts from bolder colors to calmer ones as nighttime approaches. A glossary in the back matter with pictures pulled from the pages that children will recognize provides additional info for your things-that-float fans. What a fun way to have them drift off to sleep!

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
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Early Chapter Book Review – Houndsley and Catina at the Library

HOUNDSLEY AND CATINA AT THE LIBRARY

Written by James Howe

Illustrated by Marie-Louise Gay

(Candlewick Press; $15.99, Ages 5-8)

 

Houndsley and Catina atthelibrary cvr

 

Today school librarian Dornel Cerro reviews Houndsley and Catina at the Library by James Howe with art by Marie-Louise Gay.

On Saturday mornings the beloved characters of this series, Houndsley the dog, Catina the cat, and Bert the big white bird, meet and walk to the library together. At the library, Houndsley assists students learning to read, Catina participates in a yoga class, and Bert is a library volunteer who helps reshelve books. After their visit, they return to Houndsley’s house for tea and fresh baked muffins.

On this occasion, they notice that Trixie, the librarian, seems unlike her usual upbeat self and the friends become concerned. Soon they find out that Trixie plans to retire to pursue her dream of performing in a circus. “it is never too late to try something new,” she tells the friends. However, since there is no one able to replace her, the library will have to close. The trio are shocked and saddened, but quickly busy themselves with creating a “special” gift for Trixie’s retirement party. Houndsley and Catina have no problem coming up with an idea for Trixie’s gift. Gay’s homey watercolors depict Houndsley pouring over a recipe book with a steaming cup of tea and Catina strolling through a quaint small town to pick up supplies. However, Bert is unable to think of anything and wonders what he could bring Trixie “… for all the happy Saturday mornings she had given him.”

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HOUNDSLEY AND CATINA AT THE LIBRARY. Text copyright © 2020 by James Howe. Illustrations copyright © 2020 by Marie-Louise Gay. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

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On the day of the party, the three friends meet at Houndsley’s house. He has baked delicious muffins: pumpkin chocolate chip, blueberry buttermilk, cranberry orange, and more. Oh what a feast! Catrina brings a special circus outfit that she has made for Trixie’s next career. Poor Bert still has not thought of a gift. However, just as he leaves his house, he suddenly realizes what he can bring. What special gift could he get at the last minute? Why himself, of course! Inspired by Trixie’s belief that anyone can learn something new, Bert decides to attend library school so he can take Trixie’s spot and keep the library open. Everyone gives a big cheer (perhaps even bigger than the cheers for Houndsley and Catina’s gifts). Soon the closing sign on the library door is changed to read: “This library will not be closing.”

This is the sixth in a series of touching friendship stories with gentle life lessons woven in. I love how this story draws on library values of bringing people together and creating a community while weaving in concepts of caring and supporting people. Howe’s story also introduces retirement, new careers, and adult education, life changes even young children are likely to see in their families.

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HOUNDSLEY AND CATINA AT THE LIBRARY. Text copyright © 2020 by James Howe. Illustrations copyright © 2020 by Marie-Louise Gay. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

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The three short chapters listed in the table of contents give this transitional reader the feel of a chapter book. Vocabulary and concepts are more advanced, but appropriate and accessible for children who are almost ready for full length chapter books.

Adding to the book’s appeal are Gay’s whimsical and endearing illustrations. The bright and homey watercolors, packed with intricate details, perfectly fit the story’s quiet and charming tone. Children will be so busy pouring over the details in Houndsley’s messy kitchen, the visit to Trixie’s backyard, or Catina’s adorable red-trimmed house, that they might forget to read the story! But, no matter, they’ll want to return to this lovely neighborhood again and again.

As a librarian I was touched by Howe’s dedication. He writes: “in memory of Winnifred Genung, my first librarian – and to all librarians past, present, and future. Where would we be without you?”

Thanks James and Marie! Authors and illustrators like you make our job of promoting reading and literature to children so easy!

Starred Review – Booklist

 

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Middle Grade Nonfiction – Can You Hear the Trees Talking?

CAN YOU HEAR THE TREES TALKING?:

DISCOVERING THE HIDDEN LIFE OF THE FOREST

by Peter Wohlleben

Translated by Shelley Tanaka

(Greystone Kids; $17.95, Ages 8-12)

 

 

 

Starred Reviews – Kirkus, School Library Journal

Peter Wohlleben has adapted his New York Times adult best seller, The Hidden Life of Trees, into a young readers’ edition, Can You Hear the Trees Talking?: Discovering the Hidden Life of the Forest. Wohlleben brings his passion to the page and surprises us with interesting facts about trees. This beautifully laid out book is sure to please.

 

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Interior spread from Can You Hear the Trees Talking: Discovering the Hidden Life of the Forest by Peter Wohlleben, Greystone Kids ©2019.

 

Every two-page spread offers a question. In “Can Forests Make It Rain?” we realize that, indeed, some trees do just that. “Do Trees Sleep at Night?” intrigued me; with no sun, trees take a break and let their branches droop until daylight. Kids will get a kick out of “Is There a Forest Internet?” discovering that fungi help trees relay messages to each other through liquid in the roots. I couldn’t put this book down, enjoying unique information including the more typical topics such as respiration, hydration, and reproduction.

 

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Interior spread from Can You Hear the Trees Talking: Discovering the Hidden Life of the Forest by Peter Wohlleben, Greystone Kids ©2019.

 

Subjects are grouped for easy reference while full-color photos, sidebars, and short quizzes keep readers interested. This fun, gorgeous book is nonfiction at its best because it doesn’t feel like learning at all. The “Try This” sections are some of my favorites. I definitely want to blow bubbles out of a birch log!

 

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Interior spread from Can You Hear the Trees Talking: Discovering the Hidden Life of the Forest by Peter Wohlleben, Greystone Kids ©2019.

 

Wohlleben’s decades in the forest service and love of nature enlivens this topic. Showcasing trees allows us to appreciate their amazing abilities and care about their conservation. Grab your kid and explore nature, finding an educational adventure as close as your own backyard. A free Companion Guide for Teachers and Parents is available here.

• Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt (www.ChristineVanZandt.com), Write for Success (www.Write-for-Success.com), @ChristineVZ and @WFSediting, Christine@Write-for-Success.com

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