CRESCENT MOONS AND POINTED MINARETS:
A MUSLIM BOOK OF SHAPES
Written by Hena Khan
Illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini
(Chronicle Books; $17.99, Ages 3-5)
Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets: A Muslim Book of Shapes written by Hena Khan and illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini is a sequel to the duo’s highly praised 2012 book Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns: A Muslim Book of Colors.
Khan’s spare, rhyming text introduces readers to various shapes, but it’s much more than a book about shapes. Every spread spotlights a different aspect of Islam. For example, we learn that a minaret (with a cone-shaped roof) is the tower in a mosque from which the call to prayer is broadcast; a daff is a large circular drum; and the Ka’aba (a word which means “cube” in Arabic) is a holy temple in the city of Mecca. A glossary at the end of the book provides definitions and an author’s note explains the important connection between Islam, shapes, and geometry.
I savored every page of Amini’s exquisite mixed media illustrations. Vibrant colors and detailed patterns, including some incredible tilework, draw the eye in and keep it lingering long after Khan’s lilting, rhythmic text has been read. As an added bonus, every spread depicts a different country (though there’s no mention of it in the main text). In an interview with Deborah Kalb, Khan indicated that Turkey, Tanzania, and Malaysia are represented. I imagine that trying to guess where each scene is set could lead to some terrific conversations.
Usually, shape books are aimed at a very young audience, but Khan and Amini have added so many additional layers to the “shape” concept, that readers of all ages will surely be drawn to this beautiful book. And given that hate crimes against and harassment of Muslims have spiked in the past several years, a book that sheds light on their traditions and family life is especially important. After all, as Khan told School Library Journal in 2013, “Educating kids about different cultures is key to building tolerance and acceptance.”
While readers who practice Islam will enjoy seeing themselves on the pages of this gorgeously illustrated book, as a non-Muslim, I relished the opportunity to learn about some of the traditions, art, architecture, and culture surrounding the world’s second largest religion.
Author website: https://www.henakhan.com/
Illustrator website: https://www.myart2c.com/
Author Hena Khan is on tour with her new chapter book, Power Forward, the first in a series. Click here to see if she’s coming to your town!
POWER FORWARD: ZAYD SALEEM CHASING THE DREAM (BOOK ONE)
Written by Hena Khan
(Salaam Reads; $16.99, paperback $6.99, Ages 7-10)
I have to admit—I don’t read a lot of books about sports. But that didn’t stop me from enjoying the first book in Hena Khan’s new chapter book series one bit. I bought a copy of Power Forward (Zayd Saleem, Chasing the Dream) for my nephew at one of Khan’s book signings (the first on her tour) then, as soon as I got home, read the entire thing in one sitting.
Fourth grader Zayd Saleem eats, sleeps, and breathes basketball. He’s on the D team (for now) but with practice he knows he can make the Gold team. Tryouts are two weeks away and he needs all the help he can get. That’s why he bails on his early morning violin practice and plays basketball instead—and he’s actually improving. But when Zayd’s mom discovers he’s been skipping violin and lying about it, the punishment is harsh: no basketball for two whole weeks. And that means no tryouts.
Zayd narrates his tale with a good dose of humor, but the humor never comes at the expense of emotions. We feel deeply for our narrator as he tries to make space for his own dreams while meeting his parent’s expectations. But something’s got to give—and Zayd will need to stand up for himself if he wants to keep those dreams alive.
Family plays a big role in this story and Khan does a terrific job of crafting real characters that we want to spend time with. Zayd’s got an annoying older sister, a fun-loving uncle, an adoring grandmother, an understanding grandfather, and parents who really want what’s best for their son—readers may find themselves wishing for an invitation to dinner.
Sports fans might open Power Forward for the basketball, but they’ll keep reading for the humor, honesty, and cozy warm feeling of being part of the Saleem family. And luckily, they won’t have to wait too long to join the fun again. The next two books in the series hit the shelves soon. Look for On Point (Zayd Saleem, Chasing the Dream, Book 2) on May 29, 2018 and Bounce Back (Zayd Saleem, Chasing the Dream, Book 3) on October 2, 2018. Let’s hope there are many more to come!
• Both books reviewed by Colleen Paeff
by Jeanette Bradley
(Roaring Brook Press/Macmillan; $16.99, Ages 2-6)
is reviewed today by Cathy Ballou Mealey.
A mother’s temporary absence feels unfamiliar, deep and distant for young Kipling, a fuzzy penguin starring in author-illustrator Jeanette Bradley’s debut picture book Love, Mama.
Interior spread from Love, Mama by Jeanette Bradley, Roaring Brook Press ©2017
As Kipling waves goodbye to his Mama, floating toward a ship with her rolling luggage and travel satchel, she promises to come home soon. But what does “soon” mean for Kipling if Mama is not back by dinner, or bedtime, or even the next morning? Although another parent penguin has remained at home, the child-like penguin’s longing for Mama is powerful and pervasive. Kipling gets busy creating substitute but unsatisfactory Mamas from pillows, pictures and snow. Finally there is nothing left to do but wish and wait for Mama’s return.
Interior spread from Love, Mama by Jeanette Bradley, Roaring Brook Press ©2017
Then – a delivery! A special, soggy box arrives. It carries the scent of the ocean and makes a mysterious thunk-rustle noise. Mama has sent a package of thoughtful mementos and a reassuring heart-shaped note of love. Hugging the note just as Mama has done in an enclosed photo lifts the little penguin’s spirits. Soon Kipling starts to compile a similar treasure box for Mama.
Bradley’s soft illustrations depict a cool grey and blue-white landscape that warms to a gentle gold glow inside the penguin home. Pops of red on boots, belts, boats and especially Mama’s glasses add just the right note of playfulness and cheer. Bradley utilizes a variety of unique perspectives from land, sky and sea to help young readers imagine the distances stretching between Kipling and Mama. My favorite spread depicts the young penguin from above, plopped down in the snow, carefully arranging rocks in a circle. Can Kipling’s special, striped wishing stones help speed Mama’s return home?
The delicate balance of carefully chosen text and images underscore the simplicity and resonance of loving and longing from a child’s perspective. Love, Mama will reassure and reconnect parents and young readers separated by distance but not imagination. Perfect for Valentine’s Day or any day for that matter
- Reviewed by Cathy Ballou Mealey
Where obtained: I reviewed an advanced reader copy from the publisher and received no other compensation. The opinions expressed here are my own.
HOLIDAY GIFT BOOK IDEAS FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY
Every year Good Reads With Ronna selects a variety of gift books we think will make everyone in the family happy to receive. We hope you find something here or in one of our Christmas book roundups that will please a family member or friend this holiday season.
Crinkle, Crinkle, Little Star
(A Read-and-Touch Bedtime Book)
Written by Justin Krasner
Illustrated by Emma Yarlett
(Workman Publishing; $12.95, Ages 1-4)
We’ve all at one time looked up at the sky at night and wished on the first star. Maybe it brought back the memory of the childhood song, Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. Perhaps as we got a bit older, someone pointed out the Big Dipper (Ursa Major), the Little Dipper (Ursa Minor), or even Orion’s Belt, and a sense of wonderment came over us.
Crinkle, Crinkle, Little Star, A Read-and-Touch Bedtime Book will engage and delight star-gazers young and old. It takes a beloved lullaby and turns it in to an opportunity to explore the constellations with even the youngest reader. This interactive board book is visually appealing with friendly-looking animals adorning the jewel-toned night skies and twinkling silver foil accents. Tiny fingers will enjoy the tactile and auditory experience as they trace their fingers over the crinkly foil in this beautiful Read-and-Touch Bedtime book. Not only is this a terrific holiday gift and ideal stocking stuffer, it’s a unique new baby gift as well. • Reviewed by MaryAnne Locher
A Little House Picture Book Treasury:
Six Stories of Life on the Prairie
Written by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Illustrated by Renée Graef
(Harper; $24.99, Ages 4-8)
Adapted from the Little House Books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, this collection of My First Little House Books is beautifully packaged as A Little House Picture Book Treasury. What a perfect introduction to the beloved stories so many of us know from either the long running television show or from the popular book series we read as children. Christmas is a great time to share the stories with the next generation who will be enchanted by tales from Wilder’s childhood in 19th century America.
These six pioneer stories include “A Little Prairie House,” “Going to Town,” “County Fair,” “Sugar Snow,” “Winter Days in the Big Woods,” and “Christmas in the Big Woods.” Kids will enjoy meeting and getting to know Mary, Laura, Ma, Pa, baby sister Carrie and bulldog Jack as they begin a new life on the Wisconsin prairie. Youngsters will feel Laura’s excitement visiting a nearby town and entering its general store. They’ll experience a county fair along with Almanzo (Laura’s future husband) where he enters a pumpkin competition. Children will learn what it was like to grow up in a log cabin without all the conveniences we have today, a time when getting maple syrup meant collecting it in wooden buckets from maple trees. And not a day went by without some kind of chore needing to be done, especially before winter set in. Pa would tell stories or play his fiddle as the family gathered around the fire and it seemed like Ma was always cooking something delicious that the girls could help her with. But at Christmastime, when the cousins would visit, it was time to play hard then fall fast asleep, rising early to check “what was in their stockings. In every stocking was a pair of bright red mittens and a stick of red-and-white-striped peppermint candy.” Life’s simple pleasures pop off the pages with Graef’s stunning illustrations that were inspired by the original artwork of Garth Williams. Keep this special volume to cherish year round. • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Story Time and Sound Effects App for Children’s Books
(www.noveleffect.com, Ages 0+)
As Seen on Shark Tank
What a clever and easy new way to enjoy reading together with your kids! Using the Novel Effect app adds another layer of interactiveness to enhance the story time experience. Music and sounds follow along as you read out loud from your favorite kid’s books. Getting started is easy. I know because I’ve downloaded the free app and tried several of the stories I was provided to sample as a reviewer including Dream Animals: A Bedtime Journey by Emily Winfield Martin. I found the experience quite magical. I just have to wait to be grandmother to take advantage of it.
Here’s how it works. First download the free app, watch the video and then try out the sample story included. After that you can go ahead and choose a book from Novel Effect’s library or use the search feature to find the book you want to read. “Be sure to have your own copy of the book ready to go!” Once you’ve chosen your book’s cover image, you simply tap “Read Book.” A new black box will appear at the top of your screen. You should see lines in this box squiggle, indicating the system can hear you. “Now you are ready to read your physical book out loud (you do not have to hit any buttons),” says Novel Effect CMO Carmela Orsini, Esq. “Our technology will respond to what you read with sound effects and music, based on what words/where you are in the book, so feel free to jump around in the story!” That was really the most amazing part of this technology and it worked beautifully.
For a really immersive experience, the company recommends using bluetooth speakers to help make you feel like you’re in the story. According to Orsini, the Novel Effect app works with physical or e-books, and they’ve built an impressive library of books that many families and schools already have on their shelf (as well as some fun new titles to explore). “However,” adds Orsini, “we do include three free e-books in the app so that everyone can enjoy reading with us even without a book.” Those are The Tale of Peter Rabbit , The Night Before Christmas, and The Tale of Benjamin Bunny. Novel Effect currently has plans to expand these free e-book offerings through their existing publisher partnerships and by adding additional public domain titles. Novel Effect has partnered with well known publishing companies including Hachette Book Group, and well-known authors like Todd Parr, R. L. Stine, Ame Dyckman and Jane Yolen in a library that includes over 100 titles to charm even the pickiest of readers. In addition to availability on the iPhone, use the app with iPad, and iPod Touch from the App Store.
Novel Effect’s smart voice recognition stays in sync with your reading style, if you skip ahead or read a favorite part again. Impressive, right? I don’t know how they do it, but as long as it does the job while entertaining and inspiring youngsters, what’s not to love?! Custom composed music and sounds treat each story with care to honor the spirit and tone of every cherished book. I thought it worked extremely well in Dream Animals and and Duck! Rabbit! Novel Effect offers a monthly Book Club. For $25 a month you receive two paperbacks or three board books to read along to. Give it as a gift and spark a lifetime love of reading. Visit the website here for more details. • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Rocket: A Journey Through the Pages Book
Written by Mike Vago
Illustrated by Matt Rockefeller
(Workman Publishing; $22.95, Ages 4-8)
Parents, this sturdy, imaginative and interactive new board book is great for gifting to your little space enthusiast. They’ll find it hard to resist helping the three dimensional plastic rocket zoom “on an internal track from front to back, up and over the pages.” Not only is it easily detachable and attachable, it’s able to function on its own to explore our solar system and travel through wormholes as an added bonus. The illustrated spreads are colored in vibrant hues and the text is rhyming and upbeat. However, I do recommend Rocket for the 4-6 year old age group because 7-8 year olds can appreciate a more sophisticated story. That said, it doesn’t mean any older child won’t enthusiastically join in play when a younger sibling takes out the book because I have a strong feeling they will. Visit the Workman website to see sample pages from this engaging book that I’m hoping will be the first of many more Journey Through the Pages books. • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
50 Cities of the U.S.A.:
Explore America’s cities with 50 fact-filled maps
Written and researched by Gabrielle Balkan
Illustrated by Sol Linero
(Wide Eyed Editions; $30, Ages 7-10)
From Anchorage to Washington, D.C. and lots more in-between, 50 Cities of the U.S.A. is a feast for the eyes and intellect of any map and facts fan. This delightful book is a terrific new addition from the team that created the best-seller, The 50 States. In 112 colorful pages packed with over 2,000 facts, Balkan takes us across the country in alphabetical rather than geographical order. Not a page from the end papers onwards is wasted when there is so much info to impart. Starting with the helpful two page introduction which explains how to use the book, it’s easy to see why young readers will be inspired to return again and again to discover more interesting details about these cities. The book is unique in that it focuses on many different aspects of a city, from streets, neighborhoods, inspiring people, industries, experiences and nature spots. “We want this book to be the key that unlocks the door of your imagination, and makes you curious to travel further.” I particularly like the brief Welcome box provided for each city and love that it offers names of books to read that were written by city natives or take place there. The back matter features several pages of additional cities to visit, an index, a resource guide and a cool Can You Find spread to test your observation skills. While 50 Cities of the U.S.A. is a children’s book, adults will no doubt find it fun to get lost in the pages as well.
• Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Bet You Didn’t Know!: Fascinating, Far-out,
(National Geographic Kids; $19.99, Ages 8-12)
The best thing about National Geographic Kids books is that they are consistently top quality, full of entertaining and enlightening info for children, and the photography is fabulous. This volume just begs to be taken on the road with families this holiday so no one ever runs out of conversation material. Whether you seek Bizarre Facts About the Human Body or Mind Bending Facts About the Brain, Cool Facts About Castles or Ultracool Facts About the Unseen World, the NatGeo editors know just what weird, wild and wacky info satisfies tween reader. From an outhouse race in Anchorage, Alaska to an English Breakfast Hat at Ascot in England, no far-out fact has been overlooked. Our family has been reading these types of books for years and I am constantly amazed how much new material can be found and how learning all this seemingly silly stuff just never gets old. I imagine books like this one can help future Jeopardy players increase their overall knowledge. See sample pages here. • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
The Faerie Handbook: An Enchanting Compendium
of Literature, Lore, Art, Recipes, and Projects
by the Editors of Faerie Magazine
(Harper Design; $35.00, Ages 14+)
This stunning anthology appropriately covered in purple with silver accents will appeal to long time faerie lovers as well as anyone seeking to connect for the first time with their inner faerie. The 240 silver-edged pages are divided up into four parts: Flora & Fauna, Fashion & Beauty, Arts & Culture, and Home, Food & Entertaining. User friendly, The Faerie Handbook can be read in order, section by section, or according to one’s fancy. The artwork alone makes this book gift worthy so that when coupled with the captivating content, it’s a treasure to truly cherish! Be sure to put a bookplate in your copy if you plan to lend it to a friend. Its very presence is enticing and you want to be sure it gets returned.
Curious about fairy clothing, fairy houses, or how to make a fairy terrarium, fairy dust, fairy crown, or fairy tea cakes and tarts? It’s all in here. Wondering how and where to find faeries? That’s in here, too. In fact A Gardener’s Guide to Fairy Husbandry and also Fairy Portals and Pathways were two of my favorite chapters. When we lived in London, my daughter would leave notes for the faeries in our garden and on many occasions she would receive notes back from them, written in a golden script on gossamer-like paper. Maybe woodland creatures who interact with faeries intrigue you or perhaps you want to learn more about various fairy legends? Well, the editors of Faerie Magazine will not let you down.
I definitely could have used this book when planning my wedding, especially since all kinds of edible flowers were explained and that’s something unique I wanted to serve to guests. As a Cicely Mary Barker Flower Fairy devotee, I chose to have nasturtium appetizers at my reception. The centerpieces were Victorian-style topiaries, suitable accommodations for even the most discriminating of faeries.
Another chapter delves into the infamous The Cottingley Fairy Hoax That’s when two young girls claiming to have photographed faeries in Cottingley, England managed to get even the great Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wondering about their authenticity. The book ends with acknowledgements, resources, a bibliography, plus photo and illustration credits. Comprehensive and engrossing, The Faerie Handbook might just make a believer of the most hardened skeptic in your life. Enjoy! Click here to read a sample. • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Christmas Books for Children Roundup – Part One
Christmas Books for Children Roundup – Part Two
Christmas Books for Children Roundup – Part Three
THE BEST NEW
CHILDREN’S BOOKS FOR HANUKKAH
The Itsy Bitsy Dreidel
Written by Jeffrey Burton & Chani Tornow
Illustrated by Sanja Rešček
(Little Simon; $5.99, Ages 2-4)
The Itsy Bitsy Dreidel, a glossyl, sturdy 16 page board book, illustrated with lush jewel tones and cheerful winter scenes, stars a charming yellow dreidel little ones will love. As the story opens the dreidel is out “for a little spin” and then heads inside as sundown arrives. Anyone familiar with the Itsy Bitsy Spider nursery rhyme (and who isn’t?) will be ready to sing along as this happy dreidel gets ready to celebrate with his family. From watching Dad cooking jelly donuts and latkes in oil to feeling awe as Mom lights the menorah, this excited itsy bitsy dreidel experiences the joy of the Jewish Festival of Lights just like young readers do every year.
Way Too Many Latkes: A Hanukkah in Chelm
Written by Linda Glaser
Illustrated by Aleksandar Zolotic
(Kar-Ben; $17.99 Hardcover, $7.99 Paperback, Ages 3-8)
I love the zany tales that take place in the Jewish folkloric town of fools known as Chelm and Way Too Many Latkes is no exception. This picture book will have kids grinning from ear to ear at the humorous over-the-top antics that Faigel and her husband Shmuel get up to when she realizes that this year she has forgotten the recipe to make her delicious latkes. So what chaos ensues when Faigel hasn’t got a clue how many potatoes she needs to cook? Shmuel suggests he visit the wisest man in Chelm, the rabbi. And when the rabbi recommends using them all, the couple follow his advice. Naturally Faigel then wonders how many eggs to use and how much onion and again and again, Shmuel asks the rabbi. Soon the couple have hundreds of Faigel’s famous cooked latkes and not enough mouths to eat them. Surely the learned rabbi must know what to do with so many. While older readers and adults may know the outcome, little ones might not, only adding to the comical spirit of this satisfying story. Glaser has created a tale that is filled with fun and latke love. Zolotic’s artwork of muted browns, blues, greens and grays transports readers back in time to an early 20th century Eastern European village that many of our grandparents or great grandparents would find familiar. A great Hanukkah read!
Little Red Ruthie: A Hanukkah Tale
Written by Gloria Koster
Illustrated by Sue Eastland
(Albert Whitman & Company; $16.99, Ages 4-8)
I really like Little Red Ruthie, a clever new take on the fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood. Reimagining it from a Jewish holiday perspective only makes it that much more enjoyable. Now snuggle up with a warm cozy blanket and get ready for a cold Hanukkah day in the woods as Ruthie makes her way to Bubbe Basha’s house. It’s time for their annual latke cooking. Soon she is confronted by a menacing and hungry wolf and is forced to summon up her Maccabee courage. She spins a tale about being too skinny to eat and suggests he wait until after the holiday when she’ll be plumper. The wolf buys it, but his growling stomach gets the better of him so after she has gone, he reneges his promise. Perhaps, he thinks, a nosh of Bubbe Basha will stave his hunger off before dining on Little Red! While I would never have entered the cottage having spied the wolf inside, Ruthie does. She once again fights her fear and stalls the wolf by cooking up a batch of latkes while recounting “the tale of the Maccabees’ victory.” As we all know, latkes can be very filling and sleep inducing. Before long the intruder has reached latke capacity and yearns for some “fresh forest air.” After the wolf’s departure, both Little Red Ruthie and Bubbe Basha can at last relax while relishing the first night of Hanukkah and all the remaining latkes. Sure to be a hit with the 4-8 crowd, Koster’s fractured fairy tale delivers all the treats of the original story and includes some fun new tricks, too! Eastland’s illustrations are charming and capture Little Red’s plucky personality to a laTke!
Queen of the Hanukkah Dosas
Written by Pamela Ehrenberg
Illustrated by Anjan Sarkar
(Farrar, Straus Giroux BYR; $16.99, Ages 4-7)
Author Pamela Ehrenberg’s engaging new picture book called Queen of the Hanukkah Dosas celebrates siblings, diversity and the joyous role traditional food plays in different cultures, in this case Indian. With Hanukkah approaching as the story opens, an older brother narrator describes his younger sister Sadie’s penchant for climbing, even in the Indian supermarket. Fortunately, his version of the dreidel song succeeds in getting her to climb down. “I had a little dosa; I made it out of dal.” By page three readers learn the family is a blended one with an Indian mom and Caucasian dad. Rather than making latkes together, this family prepares dosas, a crispy pancake popular in South India that’s cooked in coconut oil. When everyone except a napping grandmother gets locked out as cousins arrive, Sadie’s climbing capability comes in handy. Colorful artwork complements this entertaining story and readers will easily smell the food cooking with each page turn. Recipes for dosas and the sambar served with it are also included. Read my interview with author Pamela Ehrenberg on page 28 in December’s JLife magazine by clicking here.
(www.themenschonabench.com; $19.99, Ages 3 and up)
Meet Dreidel Dog, the newest member of the Hanukkah family. Find him happily at home beside The Mensch on a Bench. Mensch’s best friend makes a perfect plush companion when giving The Itsy Bitsy Dreidel or any of the other terrific Hanukkah books reviewed here. Whether it’s for Hanukkah or for a Bark Mitzvah, this cuddly, dreidel-spotted Dalmatian is the perfect gift on its own or paired with a book. Plus, this cute canine’s bandana even has a secret pocket to hold your dreidel! Adopt your own Mensch pet today. Find more info at www.themenschonabench.com.
Click here to see reviews of Hanukkah books from 2016.
THE STARS BENEATH OUR FEET
Written by David Barclay Moore
(Random House BYR; $16.99, Ages 10 and up)
★Starred Reviews: Bulletin, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, Shelf Awareness, VOYA
The Stars Beneath Our Feet by David Barclay Moore introduces us to Wallace “Lolly” Rachpaul, a twelve-year-old boy reeling from his older brother’s recent murder. Lolly almost thinks it’s a joke, that Jermaine will reappear and everything will be fine. However, the heaviness in Lolly’s chest makes him realize life is unfair: “it’s all about borders. And territories. And crews.”
For years, Lolly built Legos per the box’s instructions because they provided relief from the real world. When Lolly’s mother’s girlfriend begins giving him garbage bags full of Legos, it unleashes his imagination but their apartment isn’t big enough for his artistic endeavor. At his community center after-school program, Lolly finds the storage room a peaceful retreat where he can build alone, forgetting about everything else until he must share his space and blocks with a quiet girl the kids call Big Rose.
When Rose does speak, she repeats comforting words to herself: “Your mama, your daddy—they were buried under the ground, but they’re stars now, girl, stars beneath our feet.” Her seemingly obscure statements affect Lolly. Their unlikely friendship evolves to include an understanding of shared pain. In the Harlem projects, death is too commonplace.
Throughout the book, Lolly and his best friend, Vega, feel pressure to join a gang for protection; yet, that’s what led to Jermaine’s death. Lolly wavers between fear, anger, and acceptance of what seems to be his only path. The question of how to fit in pulls Vega away as they search for their own answers, boys on their way to becoming men.
Moore’s book reveals our world’s imperfections and complications. Yet, hope shines through. We relate to Lolly’s conflicting emotions and understand his worries about the future. We all must decide how to best live our lives. The Stars Beneath Our Feet shares a glimpse of one boy’s journey.
- Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt
Writer, editor, and owner of Write for Success www.Write-for-Success.com
MEET DANIELLE DAVIS,
ZINNIA AND THE BEES
Written by Danielle Davis
Illustrated by Laura K. Horton
(Capstone Young Readers; $14.95, Ages 9-12)
Yesterday, August 1st, was the debut of local L.A. author Danielle Davis’s new middle grade novel, Zinnia and the Bees. Today I’m totally tickled (but not stung mind you!) to share my recent interview with Davis as she weighs in on the who, what, when, where and why of her delightful magical realism story. But first I’d like to share some of my own thoughts. If you’re eager to get to the Q&A with Danielle, please feel free to scroll down. Below that you’ll also find a trailer for the novel.
Zinnia, the main character in Danielle Davis’s Zinnia and the Bees, struggles with several relationships throughout this introspective, humorous, and totally absorbing book. It’s filled with many of those confusing, sometimes immobilizing emotions that I recall experiencing in middle school (which was called junior high back then). Added to that are accounts of several uncomfortable situations Zinnia finds herself immersed in which will surely resonate with today’s tweens. And though she may seem to avoid friendships, she ultimately realizes that those connections are what she really needs. Her mom, a widow, dentist and community activist, always seems otherwise occupied. She practically lives at her practice, leaves impersonal post-it notes and is more into her rescue dog than her daughter. Then there’s Zinnia’s brother Adam. The book opens with a wacky and wonderful yarn bomb episode that pulls readers into the story and demonstrates the siblings’ close relationship, despite the six years age gap.
On that very same day, Adam skips out on Zinnia and her mom, no warning, no note, nothing to let her know where he’s gone. That, after all they’ve shared, hurts more than also losing her group of friends NML, Nikki, Margot and Lupita. When they were pals they were NMLZ, but now Z was on her own. That is until a clever and curious neighbor’s nephew comes to town for summer. Far from perfect, yet not easy to push away, Birch demonstrates to Zinnia the magic of nature and the transformative quality of a good friend. His timing couldn’t have been better because after a visit to the local ice cream parlor, where some ice cream got in her hair, Zinnia has attracted a colony of crazed and kooky honeybees who find what they hope will be temporary accommodations in her long curly hair.
As Zinnia tries to make sense of her brother-less world, she’s also trying to figure out a way to get the bees off her head. We get vivid glimpses of a close relationship Zinnia has with her aunt, without which would make her mom’s indifference more intolerable than it already is. After all, it was her mom who pushed Adam away.
The humor shines through when reading the perspective of the hiveless bees hanging out in Zinnia’s hair. They get a chance, every several chapters or so, to share their thoughts on being homeless. This gives readers a chance to get into the bee narrator’s head and think about bees in a whole, hysterical new way. I now bravely scoop dive-bombing bees out of my pool instead of letting them drown thanks to Zinnia and the Bees! (No bees were hurt in the making of this novel, but do not attempt a rescue if you are allergic to bees!)
Davis has crafted a quirky and creative story where the presence of yarn in many ways can be seen as a connector of people, as well as something safe and comforting. The bees represent a longing for home, and Zinnia’s need to be heard and loved unconditionally, like her brother. There are truly many layers to the story of Zinnia and the Bees making this debut novel from Danielle Davis such a sweet, satisfying and thoughtful read.
Author of Zinnia and the Bees, Danielle Davis
Good Reads With Ronna: What was the genesis for Zinnia and the Bees?
Danielle Davis 🐝: The idea for this book came from an image my husband passed along to me that had come to mind of someone with bees on and around their head. I was interested in fairy tales and stories that contained an element of the bizarre and even wacky, so the idea appealed to me immensely. With his permission, I ran with it (this is one of many reasons the book is dedicated to him). I wanted to know more about the way the bees might be a stand in for anxiety and navigating difficulties. And I wanted to know more about the person who found themselves in this predicament.
GRWR: Zinnia struggles with several relationships throughout the book and, after her brother Adam’s abrupt departure, she feels completely abandoned and alone. Then a swarm of hiveless honeybees takes up residence in her curly hair. Since the bees feature prominently in your story, can you talk about the significance of this magical realism element and how you decided to have two different perspectives recount the story?
DD 🐝: I was curious about Zinnia, but I was also curious about those insects. Disappearing bees were in the news quite a bit when I was first writing this story, and I’d heard about agricultural bees who traveled around with beekeepers to pollinate fruits and vegetables for humans (it’s a real thing!). So, I dreamed up a colony of bees who, while happy enough in their existence, felt like something was missing and yearned for freedom. I wanted to hear from them, and hoped readers would too. Writing the bee sections was really fun for me—they’re communal and existential and, I hope, hilarious (they always made me laugh!).
GRWR: A yarn bombing episode propels the plot line forward. Zinnia finds comfort in knitting and it feels like there is some symbolism with yarn. Was that intentional? Also, Zinnia has practically yarn bombed every item in her bedroom. As a child, were you a knitter like Zinnia? Is there any particular reason you chose knitting versus another craft since I know you share a lot of crafts on your picture book blog, This Picture Book Life?
DD 🐝: While the yarn symbolism was, admittedly, unintentional, it’s certainly there since yarn can provide comfort and so relates to the concept of home, which is at the heart of the novel. For me, I’d made Zinnia a knitter in the vein of any artist or maker (or writer) who experiences that sensation of flow when immersed in their preferred activity (plus, I’d recently learned about yarn bombing). For Zinnia, knitting is a way she soothes her anxiety, helps make sense of her world, and takes her mind off, well, everything. It’s a way for her to both focus and escape.I was certainly not a knitter—Zinnia is way more talented than I am! But for me, reading was similar to what knitting is for her. As a child, books were a way to soothe my anxiety, focus, and escape. Stories also, subconsciously I imagine, helped me make sense of the world.
GRWR: Your sense of place, your characters, voice, dialogue and plot all come together seamlessly to create, like the knitted lens covers for Birch’s binoculars, a cleverly crafted story. What was the easiest part for you to write and which is the hardest?
DD 🐝: Thank you, and what a neat question! Once I crafted this for a middle grade audience (I started it as something for adults—what was I thinking?), the first draft was pretty easy to write. I was emerging from a very challenging period in my own life, so writing the first draft of Zinnia and the Bees felt sort of effortless and full of joy as an extension of that unburdening. The interactions between Zinnia and Birch were natural and fun to write, as were the bee sections, where I could be as wacky and dramatic as I wanted. But all the revisions that followed, which were numerous and spanned years, were probably harder in general. And then working with my editor, Ali Deering at Capstone, was a little of both. She had brilliant ideas for making the story better in important ways and I got to prove to myself that I could create under her amazing direction and necessary deadline. The harder part was that having an editor meant I also had the pressure of knowing this was going to be a real, published book and that someone might actually read it someday.
GRWR: Though I really like Zinnia and her aunt Mildred, I’m especially fond of Birch who is visiting his Uncle Lou, the neighbor, for the summer. The friendship that slowly grows between Birch and Zinnia is so satisfying. Is there one character you relate to the most or is there a little bit of you in each one?
DD 🐝: I’m super fond of Birch as well—such a patient, loyal friend. While I’m confident there are parts of me in Zinnia, she feels to me like her own person (yes, these characters totally feel like real people to me!). I have a real soft spot for Birch’s Uncle Lou and both he and Zinnia’s Aunt Mildred are examples of the positive, caring adults every kid deserves to have in their lives.
GRWR: Dr. Flossdrop, Zinnia’s mom, is a memorable character. She’s distant, domineering and definitely not warm and fuzzy like the wool Zinnia knits with or her brother Adam whom she adores. How did you develop this dentist who relates better to her rescue dog than her own daughter?
DD 🐝: I knew I wanted Zinnia and her mom to start out feeling as different as possible and then learn that, emotionally, they have a lot in common even if it’s hard to tell from the outside. As for a neighborhood activist dentist who adopts a terrier and brings it to her office? I guess I was going for zany, and someone who would be as infuriating as possible to Zinnia.
GRWR: Do you have a preference when it comes to picture books and middle grade novels and which one do you read more of yourself?
DD 🐝: As in childhood, in adulthood I first fell in love with picture books, and then found middle grade novels. I read and enjoy both consistently, but I’m a bit more immersed in picture books in terms of quantity because of my blog.
And The Red Tree by Shaun Tan is my very favorite book.
GRWR: Where is your favorite place to write?
DD 🐝: I usually write in my apartment. I like the ease and comforts of home (like having neverending cups of tea when working), but I can still hear the sounds of the city and know it’s there. I like to revise out somewhere, preferably a coffee shop.
GRWR: How long did Zinnia and The Beestake you from concept to completion?
DD 🐝: I began the story in 2008, wrote the first middle grade draft in 2010, I believe, and sold it to and edited it for Capstone in 2016, and now it’s out in 2017.
GRWR: Can you talk about your passion for literacy and your volunteer work?
DD 🐝: I’ve been lucky enough to have the ability to volunteer with both WriteGirl and Reading to Kids respectively here in Los Angeles. The former is an organization that mentors teen girls through weekly one-on-one meetups to write together. Plus, the monthly workshops are epic and full of working writers sharing strategies and stories with teens. (And, an amazing WriteGirl who’s headed to college this fall is interning with me over the summer!)
The latter holds reading and crafting events at L.A. area elementary schools one Saturday a month. It is a total joy to participate and each child gets a free book to take home as well. That’s around 800 books given to 800 kids each month! It’s a privilege to be a small part of what the organization is doing to serve kids in my city. I wrote about the experience a couple of years ago here.
GRWR: Can you think of anything else I haven’t asked about that you’d like to share with readers about either Zinnia and the Bees or you?
DD 🐝: Thank you so much for having me. It’s a huge treat to be featured on Good Reads With Ronna!
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Visit illustrator Laura K. Horton’s website here.