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Middle Grade Fiction Series – Willis Wilbur Wows the World

 

 

WILLIS WILBUR WOWS THE WORLD

Written by Lindsey Leavitt

Illustrated by Daniel Duncan

(Penguin Workshop, $13.99,  Ages 8 -12)

 

 

 

Willis Wilbur Wows the World cover

 

If the alliteration in the title was what caught my eye then it was the premise of Willis Wilbur Wows the World, the first book in a new series by Lindsey Leavitt, that made me want to read it. Mature beyond his nine-year-old years, Willis is all pumped to go to band camp for the summer with his best friend Shelley. That is until the plans change and Shelley is off to Hawaii with her family. What will Willis do instead since going to camp without her is out of the question?

A local business competition for kids seems to provide the answer and after a failed initial attempt at interior design, entrepreneurial Willis finds his niche as a life coach to the neighborhood kids. But is he really the right one for the job? And can he win the competition, especially as he needs to contend with bullies, the Rudes, and do it on his own without Shelley by his side? With supportive parents and younger sister Logan behind him, Willis learn the art of life coaching while learning a lot about himself in the process.

Daniel Duncan’s black-and-white illustrations capture the various personalities of the cast of characters throughout including Willis, the intelligent, kind protagonist who has big dreams about succeeding in life, kid sister Logan who can easily give Willis a run for his money, and possible new friend Margo whom Willis sets out to coach in the area of learning to be a kid, despite a hurtful incident that happened during first grade.

Aside from the illustrations, the text is punctuated with email exchanges between Willis and Shelley and “Pro Tips” in boxes (for example: Dress for the part.) which will draw in even the most reluctant reader to this humorous and entertaining story. Willis Wilbur earns the title in his own right and is a welcome and unique character to enter the middle-grade market. Book #2 comes out in September.

  • Reviewed by Freidele Galya Soban Biniashvili
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Nonfiction Picture Book Review – Battle of the Butts

 

 

 

BATTLE OF THE BUTTS:

THE SCIENCE BEHIND ANIMAL BEHINDS

Illustrated by David Creighton-Pester

(Running Press Kids; $17.99, Ages 5-8)

 

 

 

Battle of the Butts cover

 

 

Get ready to laugh as you learn while enjoying this funny, nonfiction picture book, Battle of the Butts by Jocelyn Rish. I thought I knew a lot of animal facts but was amazed by what this author uncovered in her research. The book is set up as a competition between ten creatures, inviting the reader to vote on each animal (rank them from Terrific Tush to Boring Backside), then choose a winner at the end.

 

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Interior spread from Battle of the Butts: The Science Behind Animal Behinds written by Jocelyn Rish and illustrated by David Creighton-Pester, Running Press Kids ©2021.

 

 

One of my favorite contenders is the bombardier beetle. Its booty blasts a scalding 212°F chemical mixture at predators. This liquid can reach a speed of 22 miles per hour and its 270-degree swiveling butt can emit 20 blasts in a row before running out. What a superpower! However, it’s hard to deny the awesome, multitasking sea cucumber: it breathes, eats, and shoots organs out of its butt—“a Swiss Army knife of abilities.” Some species have anal teeth; yet, even with that kind of protection, long, skinny pearlfish like to live in a sea cucumber’s rear.

 

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Interior spread from Battle of the Butts: The Science Behind Animal Behinds written by Jocelyn Rish and illustrated by David Creighton-Pester, Running Press Kids ©2021.

 

Bright, engaging, and hilarious illustrations by David Creighton-Pester add even more humor. For example, cutie-patootie wombats use their shield-like backsides for defense, and smiling, gassy schools of herring communicate by farting. These unusual attributes are conveyed in a kid-friendly manner making this book a hit in classrooms, libraries, and at home. Stay tuned for Battle of the Brains (fall, 2022) by this same fanny-tastic team.

 

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Picture Book Review – Big Dreams, Small Fish

 

BIG DREAMS, SMALL FISH

Written and illustrated by Paula Cohen

(Levine Querido; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

 

 

Big Dreams Small Fish cover

 

 

I love it when picture book art begins on the copyright page and continues onto the title page giving readers an early taste of what’s to come. That’s what first struck me about author-illustrator Paula Cohen’s debut, Big Fish, Small Dreams. In fact, Cohen’s charming digitally colored pencil drawings include Shirley’s right foot being lifted out of her shoe when the small girl nails the word fish on the title page just mentioned, an actual black-and-white family photo hanging on the wall, to Hebrew lettering under the sign “Gefilte Fish .40/piece.” Then there are the evocative outfits and old-fashioned food packaging helping to transport readers back in time to the small family grocery store inspired by her grandparents’ shop in Upstate New York.

Each family member in the book has a major role to play, Uncle Morris stocked the shelves and no one made a taller tower. Papa kept the store tidy and helped customers. But, it seems there was one item, a staple to the immigrant Jewish family that others in the neighborhood would not buy, gefilte fish. “No one would even Try it.” I have to say I could relate to the reluctance of the neighbors. My grandmother would serve jarred gefilte fish, and the only way I would eat it was smothered in horseradish sauce. Learning that some families made it homemade, however, did change my feelings towards this Jewish specialty.

 

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Interior spread from Big Dreams, Small Fish written and illustrated by Paula Cohen, Levine Querido ©2022.

 

 

Shirley may be young but she believes she has big ideas to sell this stuffed fish. Cohen illustrates signs near the cash register—Follow Me to Fish and This Way to Fish. And we see the smile on the brown-haired girl with orange ribbons in her braids standing near the store’s gefilte fish table. She thinks of how to make things faster, prettier, and more modern. Yet nothing would move those cans of gefilte fish.

 

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Interior spread from Big Dreams, Small Fish written and illustrated by Paula Cohen, Levine Querido ©2022.

 

Shirley’s family says they didn’t come to America for their daughter to solve problems, but then a miracle happened. The family rushes to the hospital when it’s time for Aunt Ida to have her baby leaving the store in the hands of Mrs. Gottlieb who Cohen draws snoring in the back of the store. This is when young Shirley and her precious white cat get busy. She decorates the store and offers “serve yourself pea soup.” But her biggest idea comes when Mrs. Hernandez arrives to purchase tomatoes and a pound of kugel. Shirley packs up her order nicely and places a surprise inside the bag. The drawing of Shirley innocently placing the tin of homemade gefilte fish in the brown paper bag is quite a sweet moment. More customers arrive and more gefilte fish is distributed with the sign “Buy Anything And Get A Surprise” hanging on the wall.

 

 

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Interior spread from Big Dreams, Small Fish written and illustrated by Paula Cohen, Levine Querido ©2022.

 

A grey, yellow and brown illustration of the neighborhood apartment building shows neighbors from various ethnicities tasting this new treat with smiles on their faces, but when Mama and Papa return from the hospital to an empty pot and no cash in the register our little protagonist is sent upstairs to go to bed early. The next morning neighbors are lining up for this Jewish delight: gefilte fish. And Mama and Papa couldn’t be prouder. “You know Shirley, you have some pretty good ideas in that keppele after all,” said Mama. Cohen weaves some wonderful Yiddish words into her story making the characters come alive on the pages. (Keppele means little head in Yiddish).

Cohen’s back matter tells the meaning of the Yiddish words she uses. She also explains the story of gefilte fish, along with supplying the Russ Family Salmon and Whitefish Gefilte Fish recipe. I loved learning about Paula’s family story. Both her words and drawings leave the reader feeling like they knew her. Sadly, before this book had a chance to reach readers’ hands in early 2022 Paula passed away suddenly. She is a woman I would have loved to have met. She recorded a beautiful video of herself emotionally opening the box that contained the book, and I am so grateful she had that joyful moment. Sharing this book with friends and family is a great way to assure that Paula’s story will not be forgotten. May her memory be a blessing.

  • Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder

 

Read the Publishers Weekly obituary for this talented author-illustrator here and visit her website here.

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Recommended Read for Pride Month – Strong

 

NEW PICTURE BOOK FOR PRIDE MONTH

 

Pride graphic

It may be the last day of Pride Month, but here’s a book worth celebrating year round!

 

Strong coverSTRONG
Written by Rob Kearney and Eric Rosswood
Illustrated by  Nidhi Chanani 
(Little Brown BYR; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

Strong is the kind of feel-good picture book that demonstrates to children, through a real-life example, the benefits of being true to themselves and following their dreams.

In this accessible biography, readers learn how, from an early age, Rob Kearney showed an affinity for lifting heavy things whether that was milk bottles or bags filled with groceries. As he grew so did his strength. He could easily pull a tug-of-war rope or lift cheerleaders sky-high. This powerful ability made him feel good about himself as his interest in weightlifting blossomed. “But Rob’s favorite sport was weightlifting. It required him to use every muscle in his body.” Sentences like this one give readers a wonderful understanding of what it was that appealed to Rob and why he ultimately pursued weightlifting as a career.

 

 

Strong int baby
Interior spread from Strong written by Rob Kearney and Eric Rosswood with illustrations by Nidhi Chanani, Little Brown YR ©2022.

 

Rob’s life was forever changed after being introduced to the Strongman competition at age 17. He learned it was SO much more than lifting heavy weights. To qualify, he’d have to be able to pull a vehicle, flip an enormous tire, lift a log over his head, and lots more that’s described in fascinating backmatter. The art and prose depict how committed Rob became and how he trained before school by running, swimming, and lifting all sorts of things. At his fittest, he could lift over 400 pounds which is more than a refrigerator!

 

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Interior illustrations from Strong written by Rob Kearney and Eric Rosswood with illustrations by Nidhi Chanani, Little Brown YR ©2022.

 

Without ever stating the main character’s queerness outright, the authors describe how, when not in his workout garb, Rob had a truly original style with his hair cut in a Mohawk, along with a flair for dressing in bright, bold colors and patterns that were 100% him. They also show Rob coming in last place at his first competition which is realistic as well as smart to demonstrate to children. People do not automatically win. Success takes hard work. And Rob was determined. He also was in love. Chanani’s vibrant art pairs perfectly with the text and reflects Rob’s personality in all its Strongman glory.  A favorite spread of mine is below.

 

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Interior spread from Strong written by Rob Kearney and Eric Rosswood with illustrations by Nidhi Chanani, Little Brown YR ©2022.

 

While training Rob met Joey who motivated Rob to be himself. While it’s not clear how long after meeting Joey Rob went on to win the North American championship, what is clear is that Rob’s personal growth helped him overcome any challenges such as bullying and self-doubt he may have had on his journey. This picture book, full of hope and positivity is recommended for any child questioning their self-worth. Rob’s candid Author Note on how being openly gay helped “smash stereotypes” about sexual orientation and perceived strength reminds me of my former gay roommate in London who was a proud tri-athlete in the ’80s when laws still criminalized homosexuality. I believe this book does a great job of acknowledging and encouraging any children feeling unsure about themselves whether that relates to their sexuality or their self-confidence.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Also highly recommended:

The Rainbow Parade coverTHE RAINBOW PARADE
Written and illustrated by Emily Neilson
(Dial BYR; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

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Middle Grade Book Review – In the Beautiful Country

IN THE BEAUTIFUL COUNTRY

Written by Jane Kuo

(Quill Tree Books;  $16.99, Ages 8-12)

In the Beautiful Country cover

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Starred Review – School Library Journal

Novels in verse are powerful. Jane Kuo’s debut middle grade, In the Beautiful Country, is a novel in verse set in 1980 about ten-year-old Ai Shi, an American immigrant from Taiwan. What a good format choice for a novel reflecting the experience of children new to the U.S.! Especially accessible for English language learners and for reluctant or struggling readers, the short, straightforward poems are no less engaging for those who read with ease.

I love how a poem gives me broad strokes of what is happening, takes me to the correct emotional address, and then I get to fill in the details. Wait, that sounds wrong. Kuo’s book, for example, gives me many details, things I wouldn’t know to imagine myself, that help me understand Ai Shi’s experience. It’s more like a connect-the-dots puzzle. Rather than broad strokes, the poems set down carefully-placed images and details, the dots. Then readers use their imagination to get from one dot to the next and draw a complete understanding of who Ai Shi is, what she values the most, and what she goes through as she and her parents face the disappointing reality of their new life.

The story begins when Ai Shi is anticipating moving to “the beautiful country” (the Chinese name for America) and follows her through a year of adjusting to life as Anna, American fifth-grader. Before moving, Ai Shi says America is her “happily ever after place,” but once she’s here, reality hits hard. She dreads going to school with her limited English:

I used to love school,

the place where I was the loudest girl in class.

Now I’m robbed of words.

Suddenly, I have nothing to say.

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In the Beautiful Country int WandererHer family struggles to keep their heads above water financially. They sold everything to buy an American fast food restaurant, depending on a fraudulent profit record the seller provided. Ai Shi thinks the items she left in Taiwan will be replaced with better California models, but that’s not how it goes.

I was particularly touched by a poem about the family’s new apartment. Ai Shi sleeps in the lone bedroom; her parents sleep on a fold-out couch in the living room. The only entertainment is watching television, and Ai Shi thinks their new set is broken. Really, it’s just black-and-white. The poem ends:

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I sit facing the flickering television.

This TV is twice as small as our old one.

Here,

in the land of more,

our world is so small.

Racism adds isolation and a sense of injustice to Ai Shi’s disappointment. She is teased at school: “It’s as if making fun of my food / has become a group lunchtime activity.” When the class is learning about alliteration, a bully waits until they are on the playground to share his example: “Ching Chong Chinaman.” At the store, her parents face customers who have no patience for their problems with English.

Last week, a man became very huffy and puffy,

as if not understanding English

was some kind of insult.

It gets worse when someone throws a brick through the store’s large front window in the middle of the night. The poem “Nothing is Missing” describes the violation, ending, “They didn’t take anything. / They took so much.”

It is painful seeing through Ai Shi’s eyes when her family is struggling. I always say that if a book makes me cry, it had better be for a good purpose. Being sad with Ai Shi is worth it, helping me develop more understanding of and empathy for immigrants, children and adults alike. But I am especially enthusiastic about recommending this book because Kuo doesn’t leave Ai Shi or the reader in insurmountable pain. When the family considers giving up and going back to Taiwan, their dynamics change. It is a pleasure to keep reading and see how their shared values put them on a path to an authentically hopeful future.

  •  Guest Review by Mary Malhotra
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Young Adult Fantasy Book Review – Stalking Shadows

 

STALKING SHADOWS

Written by Cyla Panin

(Abrams; $18.99, Ages 12 and up)

 

 

Stalking Shadows cover

 

 

 

If you’re drawn to imperfect main characters in complicated situations, seventeen-year-old Marie in Cyla Panin’s YA fantasy, Stalking Shadows, certainly has stuff to deal with. Set in a small eighteenth-century French town, Marie mixes and sells perfumes at the market to earn a little money and, hopefully, survive another winter. However, some of her concoctions are used to mark victims for her sister, Ama (who slays them when the moon changes her into a beast). Marie doesn’t want to do this, but choosing who dies dispels the suspicions a bit. Sometimes, to spare the townsfolk, she chains Ama up for the night, feeding her rabbit.

As it becomes more difficult for Marie to control the beast, she sets out to discover what happened to Ama. It happened when their drunkard father sold her into servitude at Lord Sebastian LaClaire’s mansion. Ama left as a girl and returned home a monster.

Beyond the fascinating story, the slashed cover art pulled me in with a girl peering out from beneath an intriguing-looking animal that seems to be a lion mix. Just as Ama is many things, this story is too: a fantastical fairy tale with hints of historical fiction. While it’s hard to avoid comparisons to Beauty and the Beast, Panin’s book has more depth. In addition to the expected possible romance, you’ll find fierce sisterhood and fractured families. Layers of secrets and intrigue make this a page-turner that will keep you guessing until the end. The paperback will be available this August and can be pre-ordered here now.

 

 

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Picture Book Review – The Welcome Chair

 

 

THE WELCOME CHAIR

Written by Rosemary Wells

Illustrated by Jerry Pinkney

(A Paula Wiseman Book; $17.99; Ages 4-8)

 

 

 

 

 

Starred Reviews – Booklist, Bookpage, Kirkus

 

Rosemary Wells introduces the reader to her family’s history in the telling of a rocking chair built by her great-great-grandfather. We travel with the author of more than one hundred books for children, and winner of the Christopher Award, on the road imagining where the chair may have traveled in The Welcome Chair with illustrations by the late Jerry Pinkney who has earned seven Caldecott Medals, five Coretta Scott King Awards, five Coretta Scott King Honors, five New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book Awards, and the Original Art’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

Learning about family history is so much fun, and reading the story of Sam Seigbert who was born in 1807 in Bavaria, and brought to life by Wells from a family diary, was quite fascinating. Wells’s great-great-grandfather was destined to be a carpenter, but his father insisted that he study the Torah to become a Rabbi like him and his grandfather. “It’s settled. You will not work with your hands like a country bumpkin.” But that was not what Sam wanted, so at age sixteen he cut off his sidelocks, so no one would bully the Jewish boy, and hiked north to find work as a deckhand on a freighter for three pfennigs a day. The captain noticed Sam could read and write and offered him a job logging inventory on the ship. When the ship docked, Sam “darts away across the Brooklyn docks into the screeching, shrieking, filthy, clanging, terrifying, ugly and beautiful young city of New York.”

 

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Interior illustrations from The Welcome Chair written by Rosemary Well and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, A Paula Wiseman Book ©2021.

 

 

Pinkney’s extensive experience led him to execute the illustrations with contour drawing and watercolor washes, and pictures using burnt okra Prismacolor pencils and pastels. It was a perfect choice to showcase the 19th century as Sam meets Able Hinzler, and his wife Klara, and is hired on to become the bookkeeper and apprentice carpenter for Hinzler’s Housewright shop. When Magnus Hinzler is born, Sam carves a cherrywood rocking chair for Klara to sit in comfortably with the word “Willkommen”  meaning Welcome in German across a panel. This is the start of the chair that had many lives.

As told by Wells, Sam moves to Wisconsin with the Hinzler family. “The rocking chair goes with them. One evening he meets Ruth and falls in love with her gentle laugh and green-gray eyes. When their firstborn, Henry, arrives Sam carves Baruch Haba—Hebrew for “Welcome”—right under “Willkommen,” into the chair’s panel so that Henry will know his heritage.

When Wells was ten, her grandmother showed her the diary that was written in spidery old German by Wells’ great-great-grandmother Ruth Seigbert and read it to her. She decided to write a memoir of the diary in the first half of The Welcome Chair that ends in 1918 and brought to life the rest of the story through stories she was told.

 

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Interior illustrations from The Welcome Chair written by Rosemary Well and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, A Paula Wiseman Book ©2021.

 

 

In 1863, Henry was killed in Gettysburg and his younger sister Helen eventually married Harry Leopold. They moved to New York, and you guessed it, the chair travels east by railway. When Helen hires Irish girl Lucy as the family seamstress, she gives Lucy the chair as a wedding present and the word “Failte”—Irish for “Welcome” is spelled out with brass letters.

We watch the clothing and people change, showing Pinkney’s research, along with the timeline. Years have now passed and the chair moves from trash on the sidewalk picked up by a junkman, to Santo Domingo nuns living in Newark, New Jersey who carve “Bienvenido” in Spanish into the wood. When the nuns pass away, the chair is placed in a rummage sale in 2010 where Pearl Basquet’s mother grabs it. “’Our Welcome Chair needs a new word,’” says Pearl.” Her father chisels “Byenvini”—the Haitian word for Welcome.

This is a beautifully told story tracing the history of what was, to the present of what could have been. If these walls could talk what would we know about old family heirlooms? Wells and Pinkney give readers a beautiful glimpse into the “what-if.” Grandparents can read this meaningful story to their grandchildren, and tell their family history to be shared from generation to generation.

  •  Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder

 

 

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New Father’s Day Books for 2022

 

FATHER’S DAY BOOKS

∼ A ROUNDUP ∼

 

happy-father-s-day-handwritten-lettering-text-design-blue-circle-brush-stroke-background-holiday-card-vector-illustration-happy-117116369

 

 

Daddy Speaks Love coverDADDY SPEAKS LOVE
Written by Leah Henderson
Illustrated by
 E. B. Lewis 
(Nancy Paulsen Books; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

“Inspired by six-year-old Gianna Floyd’s words about her father, George Floyd, in the wake of his murder, this picture book centers the loving relationship between fathers and children.” – Publishers Weekly

This picture book resonated with me having just recently lost my dad making it my first Father’s Day without him. The lyrical stanzas describing love, truth, comfort, learning, heroes, trust, and pride unfold at a perfect pace as we glimpse special moments and lessons learned passed down from father to child.

Peopled by a diverse group of fathers and children and narrated from a child’s point of view, this picture book beautifully explores the importance and influence of fatherhood, especially for those of color. Using the powerful refrain “Daddy speaks” throughout, the text addresses simple activities (bedtime stories) to impactful insights only elders who’ve been there can share. “Daddy speaks LEARNING when he says, “’Listen up. This world isn’t always fair. This world isn’t always kind. And this you’ll need to know.’” Lewis’s moving watercolor illustrations present a realistic portrait of the characters in a warm palette that complements Henderson’s meaningful prose. The book includes a must-read author note at the end.

MY HERO
Written and illustrated by Brian Biggs
(Dial BYR; $18.99, Ages 4-8)

I love how author-illustrator Brian Biggs has taken the “dad as superhero” story and turned it on its head. They’ll also see a father very active in caring for his daughter. Despite that, it’s obvious to little Abigail (aka Awesome Girl) that her father is not really listening to her or believing her amazing adventures. His priority is getting her bathed, while Awesome Girl’s goal is to serve mankind, rescue her cat from a tree (even though it doesn’t need rescuing), and “Save the day!”

When Abigail remains in the tub and her father goes to make dinner, her need to fight for truth and justice is once again spurred into action. A purple octopus monster abducts Abigail’s dad and is threatening him for not believing in his daughter. Awesome Girl, with her fab feline sidekick, must rid the city of this menace.  And she does so in a cool, comic-book-style action sequence! In an adorable show of solidarity, Awesome Dad emerges safe and impressed following his daughter’s show of strength. Seeing is believing in this delightful story. The mixed-media art along with the hand lettering in My Hero brings energy and entertainment to this thoroughly satisfying read. Don’t miss the bonus treat hiding under the dust jacket!

Some Daddies coverSOME DADDIES
Written by Carol Gordon Ekster
Illustrated by Javiera Mac-lean Alvarez
(Beaming Books; $17.99, Ages 5-8)

Meet a variety of daddies doing all sorts of daddy things with and for their children. The premise of Ekster’s picture book is simple: Dads are all different and approach their lives and childrearing in their own unique way. And just as no two dads are alike, no two kids are either.

For little ones, the fun part will be both the read-aloud aspect and hopefully seeing a father (or father-figure) between the pages they can relate to whether it’s a dad who goes to work dressed in a suit, in a uniform, or in pajamas working from bed. Some dads are sporty while others like to read (and ultimately nap!). I also enjoyed Mac-lean Alvarez’s vivid artwork depicting these same fathers throughout the story often interacting in scenes where the older reader or caregiver can point out details included such as a dad who missed catching his daughter and ends up in the doctor’s office. More a concept story than one with a plot, Some Daddies delivers in demonstrating that there is no one type of daddy, but since there is no one type of kid, that’s just fine.

Click here to find more Father’s Day book reviews.

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Picture Book Review – Until the Blueberries Grow

 

UNTIL THE BLUEBERRIES GROW

Written by Jennifer Wolf Kam

Illustrated by Sally Walker

(PJ Publishing; $8.99; Ages 5-8)

 

Until the Blueberries Grow cover

 

 

In the sweet picture book, Until the Blueberries Grow, it’s time for Ben’s great-grandpa to move—into a home he can care for on his own. But Ben is not ready to say goodbye. Maybe Zayde (Yiddish for grandpa) can stay until the blueberries grow . . . or the grapes are ripe . . . or the snow falls . . . or the flowers bloom.

 

Until the Blueberries Grow int1
Interior spread from Until the Blueberries Grow written by Jennifer Wolf Kam and illustrated by Sally Walker, PJ Publishing ©2022.

 

From Kirkus: “Ben tries to convince his great-grandfather to stay in his house just a little longer as the two celebrate a yearly cycle of Jewish holidays together. This sweet story of family abounds with food, flowers, and quality time with loved ones.”

Until the Blueberries Grow int2
Interior illustrations from Until the Blueberries Grow written by Jennifer Wolf Kam and illustrated by Sally Walker, PJ Publishing ©2022

 

As a loving great-grandfather, Zayde always seems to find a reason to spend a little more time at home with his great-grandchild.

Until he can’t.

 

Until the Blueberries Grow int3
Interior spread from Until the Blueberries Grow written by Jennifer Wolf Kam and illustrated by Sally Walker, PJ Publishing ©2022

 

Sally Walker’s expressive art pairs perfectly with Jennifer Wolf Kam’s dialogue-driven storyline to depict a beautiful, multigenerational relationship between Ben and Zayde. This charming story would make an excellent introduction to Jewish terms and holidays, yet it’s the universal challenge of dealing with change that makes this story relatable to any child, regardless of religious affiliation.

  • Reviewed by Roxanne Troup

 

Click here for a reading guide.

 

 

 

 

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Three Middle Grade Fantasy Book Reviews

 

MIDDLE-GRADE FANTASY NOVELS

∼ A ROUNDUP ∼

 

 

The Ghost of Midnight Lake coverTHE GHOST OF MIDNIGHT LAKE
Written by Lucy Strange

(Chicken House; $17.99, Ages 8-12) 

Starred Review – Kirkus

The spooky middle-grade novel, The Ghost of Midnight Lake by best-selling author Lucy Strange, stands out because of its interesting and unpredictable riches-to-rags plot. Set in 1899, the story opens with twelve-year-old Lady Agatha Asquith’s world falling apart after her father, the Earl of Gosswater, dies. Cruel cousin Clarence (who inherited everything) states that since Agatha’s not really an Asquith she must get out. Shocked, Agatha struggles to come to terms with this news as she’s abruptly moved in with her possible biological father, a poor goose farmer, and (maybe) thief. Though Agatha yearns to hear the truth from him, he’s closed-lipped.

At the Earl’s funeral on Skelter Island, Lady Agatha realizes there is no going back and decides to try embracing her new life, renaming herself Aggie. She soon makes her first-ever friend—Bryn, a boy who works on this cemetery island—but cannot find the words to tell him her real identity.

As Aggie tries unraveling her history, she begins seeing a female spirit. Is this her past self? The ingenious plot shows Aggie’s growth from pampered to strong-willed where she bravely takes charge, seeking answers and forging her path forward. Gosswater’s a place with harsh contrasts between the aristocrats and the peasants. In this small community, the paths people live (determined mainly by their social status) differ dramatically.

Aggie and Bryn are very likable characters and their bumpy road as friends feels truthful. Some of my favorite elements include the presence of geese throughout and the contradicting information that Gosswater is either named after the geese there or after the ghosts! Susan the goose is quite a character, playing a significant role in this thrilling story.

Whether it’s a real ghost haunting Aggie or merely her past, this fascinating story about family, friendship, and self-discovery is one that will keep you enthralled as you follow Aggie into the uncertain future filled with lies, secrets, and one charming goose!

 

Secret of the Storm coverSECRET OF THE STORM
Written by Beth McMullen
(Aladdin BYR; $17.99, Ages 9-13))

In Beth McMullen’s middle-grade fantasy, Secret of the Storm, twelve-year-old Cassie King has lost everything lately: her father’s sudden death turned her mother into a shell of herself, and Cassie’s BFF now hangs with the cool girls. The future seems hopeless until some freaky weather, a scraggly kitten, and the school outcast, Joe Robinson, set Cassie on a new trajectory.

A mystery begins to unfold as the kitten, Albert, shows some decidedly un-catlike traits. During Cassie and Joe’s after-school volunteer duties at the town library, they suspect their beloved librarian may be hiding information related to recent, unusual activities. (Take a peek at the cover image for a clue about Albert’s secret!)

Beth McMullen accurately captures Cassie’s pain as well as the relief in her developing friendship with an unlikely classmate—depicting how a person’s perceptions can change. Still, Cassie struggles with whether to be a bystander or to do something when popular kids pick on individuals who don’t fit in. Woven in with the fantastic upheaval brought on by her unusual kitten are realistic friendship and family problems.

Short chapters with lots of action make this an ideal book for young middle-grade readers. Older kids will enjoy this story as well; even if they clue into the “secret of the storm” early on, the book is heartfelt and unpredictable enough to provide engagement throughout.

 

The Mirrorwood coverTHE MIRRORWOOD
Written by Deva Fagan

(Atheneum BYR; $17.99, Ages 10-12)

I had to read Deva Fagan’s middle-grade fantasy, The Mirrorwood, because of the back-jacket blurb: “I was wearing my sister’s face on the night the hunters came to our cottage.” Awesome, right?! The Mirrorwood is an enchanted land sealed in with a wall of thorns where the inhabitants are locked in time under the rule of a demon-prince—kind of a twisted Sleeping Beauty. The main character, twelve-year-old Fable, has been cursed by magic that leaked from the Mirrorwood and does not have a face of her own; to stay alive, she needs to take faces from others.

Luckily, her loving family hides and helps her but there’s only so much they can do before hunters arrive to eradicate people like Fable (who are called “blighted”). Vycorax, an apprentice near Fable’s age is charged with destroying Fable, however, circumstances set these adversaries on a path where they seem to share the goal of freeing the Mirrorwood from its curse. The dynamics between these two girls are tensely portrayed.

One of my favorite characters is Fable’s fearless cat, Moth, who accompanies her into any situation, able to communicate with her telepathically. Cat people will appreciate Moth’s perfectly catty lines as he adventures along with Fable and Vycorax.

Strong female lead characters, friendship, family, coming-of-age, and adventure make this a well-rounded book that will keep you guessing who’s the bad guy and whether Fable’s wish to have her own face will ever come true. Fagan does an excellent job portraying realistic, dimensional characters in a familiar yet modern fairy tale. I would happily follow Fable onto more stories. This book may be better for older middle-grade readers because of the plot turns and creepiness of face-stealing.

 

 

 

 

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Middle Grade Book Review – Singing with Elephants

SINGING WITH ELEPHANTS

Written by Margarita Engle

(Viking BYR; $16.99, Ages 8-12)

 

Singing With Elephants cover

 

 

Starred reviews – KirkusPublishers Weekly

 

Struggling to belong, Cuban-born eleven-year-old Oriol discovers her voice in Singing with Elephants, a beautifully moving middle-grade novel in verse written by Newbery honoree and Pura Belpré Award-winning author, Margarita Engle.  

The story takes place in 1947 in Santa Barbara where Oriol lives with her family. She helps take care of injured animals in her parents’ veterinary clinic, located near a “wildlife zoo ranch” that has connections to Hollywood (6). Grieving the recent death of her grandmother and facing hardships at a school that is unwelcoming to immigrants, she struggles with loneliness–until she befriends “la poeta” Gabriela Mistral who has moved near Oriol’s home (12). While the meeting (and subsequent story) is fictional, the poet is a real person, the first Latin American winner of a Nobel Prize in Literature. Oriol is relieved to have found someone who speaks her native tongue, but little does she know the unexpected gift she’ll be receiving from her new friend: learning the language of poetry. 

These lessons are for all of us. “There is no better home for emotions than a poem,” la poeta advises, “which can easily be transformed into a song” (27). The book is rich with simple yet profound expressions of love, loss, heartache, and wholeness. As we learn along with Oriol, poetry is the soul’s way of singing, whether that soul is human or animal. This lesson becomes more apparent as Oriol’s connection to the animals she cares for grows stronger and stronger, in particular her relationship with a pregnant elephant named Chandra whose rhythmic sways and sounds remind her of poetry.

Through her mentor’s gentle encouragement and guidance, Oriol’s writing blossoms–from using it as a source of healing to using it as a force for change. Bit by bit, she “no longer yearn[s]” for Cuba and Abuelita “every moment of every day” (106). And when a famous movie star takes special interest in Chandra, Oriol drafts “poetry-petition[s],” eventually organizing a protest against animal abuse (188). Fighting for her beloved elephants, Oriol finds a sense of belonging. 

Singing with Elephants is the kind of book readers will want to read again and again, catching the pieces of poetry missed from the previous read. An author’s note at the end details Cuban cultural traditions as well as Gabriela Mistral’s life. A list of further readings about and by the poet is also included.

  • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian
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Picture Book Review – Wake, Sleepy One

 

 

WAKE, SLEEPY ONE:

California Poppies and the Super Bloom

by Lisa Kerr

Illustrated by Lisa Powell Braun

(West Margin Press; $17.99; Ages 4-8)

 

 

 

From seed to “super bloom,” debut author, Lisa Kerr, introduces readers to the California desert poppy in a combination of lyrical and expository nonfiction text. From the publisher: “A lyrical ode to California’s most treasured wildflower, Wake, Sleepy One gently captures the quiet strength of the poppy in all its breathtaking wonder.”

 

Wake Sleepy One int1 desert
Interior spread from Wake, Sleepy One written by Lisa Kerr and illustrated by Lisa Powell Braun, West Margin Press ©2022.

 

As the sleepy poppy wakes, it “rises” from the ground “reaching” for the sun and “waiting” for her time to shine. This “tiny dancer” swirls and twirls in the breeze as it is joined by hundreds of other waking seeds in a rare natural phenomenon of the desert super bloom.

 

Wake Sleepy One int2 poppies wake
Interior spread from Wake, Sleepy One written by Lisa Kerr and illustrated by Lisa Powell Braun, West Margin Press ©2022.

 

Lisa Powell Braun’s charming artwork supports Kerr’s spare text and offers a variety of reading options for this book. The youngest of listeners will be able to grasp the story’s concept and watch the poppy “wake…rise…reach…wait…unfold…dance” and “shimmer” with a simple reading of each page’s single italicized line. Preschool and kindergarten listeners will delight in the added emotional tension of the entire main text, while older readers will appreciate the facts in Kerr’s nonfiction sidebars.

 

Wake Sleepy One int3 backmatter
Interior art from Wake, Sleepy One written by Lisa Kerr and illustrated by Lisa Powell Braun, West Margin Press ©2022.

 

Two full spreads of stellar backmatter add to its usability in the classroom, and make this a perfect resource for learning about desert landscapes!

  •  Reviewed by Roxanne Troup
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Picture Book Review – The Path

THE PATH

Written and illustrated by Bob Staake

(mineditionUS; $18.99, Ages 4-8)

The Path cover

 

This is the time of year when many people attend graduations. And not just high school and college graduations. They go to all kinds of graduations from kindergarten to massage school and lots more in between. But the road taken may have been long and winding with obstacles and indecisiveness. And what of the road ahead? That’s why it’s so lovely to have a book such as The Path by Bob Staake that celebrates the journey as much as the accomplishment. In other words, this book is ideal not just for the graduate, but for celebrating individuality as well.

 

The Path int1
Interior spread from The Path written and illustrated by Bob Staake, mineditionUS/Astra Publishing ©2022.

 

Acclaimed New Yorker cover artist and author and/or illustrator of more than 50 books, Bob Staake brings readers both young and old a picture book that simply and gorgeously addresses the highs and lows of life’s pathways. They are not always straightforward.

 

The Path int2
Interior spread from The Path written and illustrated by Bob Staake, mineditionUS/Astra Publishing ©2022.

 

Written in second person, the prose does not always promise that things will be easy and that’s the honesty that appeals to me. It’s also how Staake’s stunning illustrations and color palette convey this message. The path doesn’t always lead to ribbons and rainbows. But as things begin looking up for the traveler, the colors begin to lighten up, too.

 

The Path int3
Interior spread from The Path written and illustrated by Bob Staake, mineditionUS/Astra Publishing ©2022.

 

This is a picture book about possibilities. It’s not just about the path we choose but about our outlook, and our perspective. I think reading The Path together with kids can help them not only look at what choices exist but it can also help them understand what taking each one will mean, and how to forge their own unique way in the world. What a super conversation starter for parents, caregivers, and teachers about self-reliance at an age when children are beginning to assert their independence.

Find an exclusive bonus print from Bob Staake inside the jacket.

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On Celiac Strong Day – An Interview with Violet and the Crumbs Illustrator Molly Ruttan

AN INTERVIEW WITH  MOLLY RUTTAN,

ILLUSTRATOR OF

VIOLET AND THE CRUMBS:
A Gluten-Free Adventure

Written by Abigail Rayner

(North/South Books;  $17.99, Ages 4-8)

 

 

VioletandtheCrumbs Cover Reveal interview cover

 

PUBLISHER’S SUMMARY

Success has never tasted so good!

The dynamic duo of I Am a Thief by Abigail Rayner (author) and Molly Ruttan (illustrator) have created a new picture book sure to spark conversations about this timely issue.

Violet used to love birthday parties, but now that she has celiac disease, she’s not allowed to eat pizza, cake, or anything else with gluten. Violet feels alone until she discovers that some animals have dietary restrictions as well. While standing up for her animal friends, she realizes she can do the same for herself. And when it’s time to celebrate Violet’s birthday, there isn’t a single gluten-containing crumb in sight!

Filled with pluck and humor, this informative story provides a great opportunity to discuss this increasingly common condition with children who have celiac disease and gluten intolerance as well as those who know people who have it and are seeking to learn more about it.

This book has been approved by the Celiac Disease Foundation.

Watch the trailer and hear about illustrator Molly Ruttan’s experiences working on Violet on the North/South blog

Click here to find Violet teacher resources including activities and coloring pages.

 

INTERVIEW WITH MOLLY RUTTAN

Molly Ruttan: Before I start, I want to thank you for featuring me on your amazing blog, Ronna! Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to share my new book!

GoodReadsWithRonna: I’m happy to be able to showcase you and your artwork here today and I appreciate that, in the midst of all your promotion, you made time to answer these questions.

 

GRWR: What would you say, as an author-illustrator with several books under your belt, is the biggest challenge when illustrating someone else’s manuscript as compared to your own? Is the approach the same?

MR: As an author-illustrator, the process of working with the text and the pictures at the same time feels very natural to me. When I work with a manuscript someone else has written, I shift my process a bit. Jumping into a manuscript that someone else has written is like diving into the deep water, as opposed to wading out there. But the deep dive is part of the joy, and as I work on mapping out the book and making the little dummies I begin to develop a solid connection to it. The connection becomes even stronger as I go through the process of finding the characters. By the time I have all the characters and their setting, and I have begun the full-size book dummy, I have become so familiar with the story that the process feels very much the same from that point forward. Of course, not being able to touch the words can sometimes be frustrating, but I have found that often it will push me to dig for visual solutions that are extremely satisfying to find.

 

GRWR: Was there much research involved about celiac disease before you could begin your sketches?

MR: I didn’t have to do a lot of research about celiac disease beforehand because, being somewhat gluten-intolerant myself, I knew enough about it to get started. Abigail Rayner, being the author and celiac-disease expert, reviewed my drawings along the way and made helpful suggestions. Our editor worked closely with the Celiac Disease Foundation, including sending the final draft of the book to them for review. And since NorthSouth Books is an international publisher and a German version of the book is also being released in DACH (Germany, Austria & Switzerland,) European gluten-free guidelines were also verified. For my own part, the end pages required the most research ahead of time, as I wanted to depict the grains and different plants as accurately & specifically as possible.

 

Ruttan Violet and the Crumbs COVER German & English 2-up
English and German covers, Violet and the Crumbs: A Gluten-Free Adventure written by Abigail Rayner and illustrated by Molly Ruttan, NorthSouth Books ©2022.

 

GRWR: How would you describe the particular technique that you use for illustrating? Please tell us how you achieved the look of the gluten clouds that accompany the crumbs!

MR: I would describe my technique as a wonderfully messy collaboration between traditional and digital media! I work with charcoal and pastel on watercolor and other papers. I use a charcoal pencil for the drawings, pastels for the color, and charcoal stencils for the gradation, shading and textures. Naturally, charcoal and pastel dust gets everywhere as I scan (I don’t spray my drawings because of a slight allergy to the fixative). Then the less-messy part of the process starts as I wipe down my scanner and paint digitally in Photoshop. I love the blend of charcoal linework and texture with the pastel color & texture I can create this way. Sometimes I also add liquid acrylic washes and texture as well. I love working traditionally but I also love all the options working digitally provides.

To create the gluten clouds that accompany the crumbs throughout the book, I used a slightly advanced photoshop technique. I scanned in all the stenciled swirly shapes I had created with charcoal-like I usually do, but then I colorized them using the channels. I love this technique – it gives me incredible flexibility because I can make the charcoal any color I want! And I love how the pastel and charcoal textures merge.

 

GRWR: What gave you the idea to make the evil gluten crumbs into characters?

MR: What—do you mean to tell me crumbs aren’t really alive?? Haha, seriously though… the idea to make the crumbs into characters was a collaboration. There was an art note in the manuscript suggesting “evil crumbs moving between food items via hands”, and my wonderful editor, (who I had worked with before on my first book with Abigail Rayner, I am a Thief!) remembered how I had animated the jewel I had done for that book and suggested I could do something similar with the crumbs in this book. What the crumbs looked like was obviously up to me, and I decided it would be more fun to make them grumpy, argumentative and disgruntled rather than straight up evil– I wanted to have more variety of expression, and I didn’t want them to be too scary.

 

Ruttan Crumbs close-up
Interior page from Violet and the Crumbs: A Gluten-Free Adventure written by Abigail Rayner and illustrated by Molly Ruttan, NorthSouth Books ©2022.

 

GRWR: Did you always imagine Violet in a super-hero type outfit?

MR: In the text, Violet “takes desperate measures to defy the crumbs at school”, and there was an art note suggesting that she makes some sort of ridiculous protective suit. Since I had the idea to make crumb “clouds”, I gave her a suit based on rain gear, including an umbrella. But I felt something was still missing—so in my doodles, I spontaneously added a cape, and Violet’s superhero avatar sprung into being! I loved this solution because it freed me to play with her as that identity as she helps her animal friends. It also perfectly emphasized her heroic journey. I often find that the spontaneous solutions that come to me through drawing are the most fun and rewarding!

 

Ruttan Violet Feels Safe
Interior spread from Violet and the Crumbs: A Gluten-Free Adventure written by Abigail Rayner and illustrated by Molly Ruttan, NorthSouth Books ©2022.

 

GRWR: You capture the expressions on Violet’s face and her body language so well. Does this process take a long time until you feel you get it right?

MR: Some drawings fall into place and others take a long time, but I usually get the gist of what I want right away in sketches, and then refine the expressions & poses when I make final drawings. When I’m drawing, I catch myself unconsciously making faces that match the expressions I’m drawing – this is when I’m grateful that I work alone, haha! I like getting into the position and acting out what I’m trying to draw too. It helps me feel what the characters are experiencing and helps the drawing of it.

 

GRWR: Were the beautiful and info-filled illustrated endpapers your idea? It’s great how in the front you depict foods containing gluten and in the back, you show which grains, starches, or flours can be part of a gluten-free diet.

MR: Thank you! I really enjoyed illustrating the end pages! I knew from the beginning that there would be back-matter on the back end pages – originally it was one page for the “About Celiac disease”, and a spread for a recipe and the rest of the information. When my editor saw my sketches, she suggested we would drop the recipe and spread out all the information across the two end-page spreads. I loved this idea, and we decided it would be fun to separate the gluten and gluten-free information to the front and back spreads, just the way the kids separated the food on the picnic table!

 

Ruttan Front end-pages
Endpapers from Violet and the Crumbs: A Gluten-Free Adventure written by Abigail Rayner and illustrated by Molly Ruttan, NorthSouth Books ©2022.

 

 

GRWR: Can you share with us any new projects you are working on?

MR: I recently submitted all the final art for my next author/illustrated book, Something Wild, published by Nancy Paulsen Books. It’s about stage fright—something I have battled my entire life. The book tells the story of a girl who loves to play her violin but is terrified of the upcoming recital. She imagines all kinds of wild things she wishes would happen to keep her from having to perform. It’s a subject very close to my heart and I’m excited about it! It comes out in a year—April 2023.

I’m currently illustrating another book which I’m also very excited about, written by Stacy Lynn Carroll, called The Yowlers, also published by Nancy Paulsen Books. It’s about a grumpy family who transforms as they experience the joys of goodwill and graciousness under the influence of new, happy neighbors. This book is slated for April 2024.

I also have a very active critique group that keeps me busy with sharing new ideas. I have one book almost ready to go back out on submission. My list of things to work on is always very long!

 

GRWR: And finally, can you offer aspiring illustrators any word of advice that you got as a beginning illustrator that has stayed with you over the years?

MR: I love the Oscar Wilde quote: “Be yourself, everyone else is already taken.” As a twin, this quote has been particularly helpful for me in all aspects of life! But thinking of this as it applies to my own art has been—and continues to be—also very helpful. It goes along with what my wonderful teacher and mentor Marla Frazee once told our class—that often we tend to think that what comes easy for us isn’t valuable or legitimate because it’s easy. It is just the opposite! Not everyone finds doing whatever that is that you do, easy. Lean into what flows out of you, inspires you, and gives you joy.

 

GRWR: Thanks so much for all your great answers, Molly. It’s so fascinating to get inside the head of creators!

MR: You are so welcome!! And thank you so much, Ronna, for having me on your fantastic blog! I know you have been through a lot lately, and I really appreciate your taking the time to support me and my new book.

BUY THE BOOK

Below is a link to order a signed copy from Molly’s local independent bookstore, Once Upon a Time. When ordering, be sure to write in the comments section that you want a signed copy. And if you’d like the book to be personalized, please include the name. The book also comes with a bookmark!

Here is the link to Simon & Schuster (which includes other links for purchasing as well)

ABOUT THE ILLUSTRATOR

Molly Ruttan grew up in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. She holds a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts from the Cooper Union School of Art, New York. She currently lives, works, and creates art in the diverse and historic neighborhood of Echo Park in Los Angeles.

Her titles include her author/illustrator debut, The Stray, from Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin Random House, and I Am A Thief! along with Violet and the Crumbs by Abigail Rayner for NorthSouth Books. Molly has two additional titles forthcoming with Nancy Paulsen Books. She is represented by Rachel Orr at Prospect Agency.

http://www.prospectagency.com/  

FIND MOLLY RUTTAN ONLINE

Website: www.mollyruttan.com

Facebook: Molly Ruttan

Instagram: mollyillo

Twitter: @molly_ruttan

See the cover reveal post here.

 

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Picture Book Review – Neverwoof by Gabe Jensen

 

 

NEVERWOOF:
The Dog That Never Barked

Written and illustrated by Gabe Jensen

(Familius; $16.99, Ages 3-5)

Neverwoof cover

 

 

The picture book, Neverwoof: The Dog that Never Barked, by author-illustrator Gabe Jensen is a delight. No matter how often I read this story, it still makes me laugh. Neverwoof, a charming orange mutt, has an interesting life, going through his days without a sound: “He chased a siren—woo woo woo. / He saved a baby—boo hoo hoo. / He got high-fives from the fire crew. / But never did he woof.” Until the day he seemingly must bark. Does he? I won’t tell beyond saying to expect a plot twist!

 

Neverwoof_int1_pugs_by
Interior spread from Neverwoof: The Dog That Never Barked written and illustrated by Gabe Jensen, Familius ©2021.

 

Coupled with the spare, rhyming text is Jensen’s fantastic art. The limited color palette effectively uses what he calls “two clashing colors.” Neverwoof’s personality shines through as does his love for his family. My favorite spread comes toward the end when Neverwoof faces his ultimate challenge with a thief known as Stinky Sue—giggling is guaranteed.

 

Neverwoof int14 bite
Interior spread from Neverwoof: The Dog That Never Barked written and illustrated by Gabe Jensen, Familius ©2021.

 

The art, like the text, is deceptively simple. Yet, each time I delve into it, I find something new in the background. It may just be the headline on a discarded newspaper or the cat that makes an appearance throughout, however, these details add depth and humor. The book’s smaller size (7 x 10 inches, hardback) fits well in young hands, the debossed cover is fun to touch, and there’s no dust jacket to lose.

 

 

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