I knew I was going to loveJames Burks’s latest graphic novel, Agent 9: Mind Control!(book #2) from the opening sequence alone. A slick sports car races up swerving roads to the secret lab location of DiViSiON, an evil organization headed by Octopus (aka IQ). Wolf, the novel’s nemesis, emerges from the vehicle and traverses a bridge as a nasty storm unleashes its fury. The dark tones, pounding rain, and the familiar spy tropes of a James Bond film instantly assure us that, like most good spy stories, we’re in for an enjoyable but rocky ride.
After the scenes switch to a meeting at the headquarters of S4 (Super Secret Spy Service – this book’s equivalent to Bond’s MI6, British Intelligence) Agent 9 and his flying fish sidekick, Fin, learn their new covert mission from O, the big boss. They must thwart the efforts of DiViSiON to steal crucial components needed to construct a menacing Mind Control Device. The Wolf has been contracted to retrieve these items so Nine must get them first. O also informs Agent 9 that he must partner with Traps, a mouse, on this assignment. Used to only being with Fin, Agent 9 is not a happy cat. After all, he’d had visions of winning a spot as Spy of the Month. Working with Traps meant he could kiss that thrill goodbye.
Burks blends humor into both the dialogue and the art throughout this adventure all while keeping the pace going at breakneck speed. We follow Nine and Traps first to the Rail-Con event on a high-speed train to substitute the real deal with a fake electromagnet. Unfortunately, that does not go as planned. The team thing is also proving difficult despite Traps trying her hardest to help out.
Next up is a visit to Quark Labs to grab the compact-sized nanotech battery with unlimited power and infinite possibilities. But “Once again, it appears I have outsmarted you, Agent 9,” says Wolf snarkily who always manages to show up and foil things. Only this time he’s outsmarted by Nine, Traps, and Fin, who sputter away in a slow-moving vehicle in a funny sequence of panels that pit the gang of good guys and gal against the cunning canine. And though it looks like they might succeed this time …
… things go south for the trio when Nine is forced by Wolf to choose between the battery or Traps. Soon on his trail again, the spies track Wolf to DiViSiON where he pulls some outrageous moves on Octopus in an effort to wrest sole ownership of the MCD (Mind Control Device). He then turns it on Nine in an act of pure malice. What Wolf doesn’t expect is how teamwork comes through in the end with some clever plotting and a daring and satisfying rescue.
This top-secret tale takes middle-grade readers into a world of good versus evil where humor adds levity, and characters full of personality promise to keep them hooked. Keep your eyes peeled for some suspicious insect-like creatures lurking around some corners that lead us to a secret lair and a hint of book #3’s next villain. I can’t wait. And remember, there’s no I in team!
Rod Stewart’s “You Wear It Well” is the song that crossed my mind as I read So Not Ghoul, the multi-layered picture book written by Karen Yin and illustrated by Bonnie Lui where the main character Mimi learns to embrace her uniqueness and cultural identity.
Mimi is a Chinese American ghost who haunts a school but feels constrained by the outdated demands of her ancestors. “Good Chinese girl ghosts must cover their faces with their hair,” says Baba, her father. Her other ancestors say, “They must stick out their tongues,” and the list goes on, much to Mimi’s dismay. She knows she must abide by their restrictions but …
what they all add up to is one “So not ghoul” ghost girl. Her ghoulmates seem to have what it takes to scare school kids. Mimi, on the other hand, dressed in an old Chinese gown from her great-great-great-great-great-ghost grandmother is told by the others she “couldn’t scare a scaredy-cat.” In an attempt to fit in, Mimi’s idea for a new look fails miserably. At school, she is bullied by the ghoul gang and the outfit also offends her ancestors.
The next day, the biggest ghoul bully, Lisette, appropriates Mimi’s original antique gown look, hoping she’ll be told she wears it better. Readers will cheer when the bully’s plan backfires. Not only does Mimi call Lisette out, but her ancestors “glow with pride” after she speaks up. She’s found more than her voice.
A happy ending ensues when at last Lisette looks inward (is that possible for a ghost?) and apologizes for her ghoulish behavior. Mimi and Lisette call a truce and now the new friends can focus their attention on the school’s open haunted house. Yin has filled the story with engaging wordplay and with conversation starters at many different levels. So Not Ghoul can be approached for bullying and prejudice, culture appropriation, diversity and bicultural pride as well as multigenerational families or simply a rewarding girl-power ghost story. Lui’s jewel-toned and textured art colorfully conveys Mimi’s moods, ideal for this spirited story!
Aaron Reynolds delights us with book three of the Creepy Tales! series featuring his beloved Jasper Rabbit. In Creepy Crayon! Jasper’s not-great day gets a boost when he finds a bright purple crayon—with a crazy grin on its face! Soon, the crayon is helping Jasper zoom his grades up to straight As. Cool, right? Maybe . . . until the crayon takes BFF to the next level.
As in the first two books, Peter Brown’s art is a perfect blend of funny and spooky: Crayon’s glowing antics contrast with the lurking shadows. Kids will love the hilarious expressions on Jasper’s face.
Flawless interplay between text and high-contrast art make this author and illustrator duo New York Times best-sellers. Fans will appreciate the can-you-spot-them references to Creepy Carrots! and Creepy Pair of Underwear! We own this outstanding three-book series and do not tire of them; they’re a fit for Halloween or any day you need some funny bunny in your life.
The chapter-book series opener, Crimson Twill: Witch in the City, by Kallie George will bewitch you with its main character, spunky little Crimson Twill. True to her name, Crimson rocks a big bow on her red witch’s hat—no standard black for this girl! Her clothes and actions also set her apart. But, the various ways she’s different from others don’t bother her at first.
With Mom just a wave of her wand away, Crimson sets off to explore the big Broomingdale’s department store where the elevator’s buttons are shaped like what’s sold on that floor. Crimson hopes to get a glimpse of those things called puppies. Instead, she immediately encounters disdain for her unique attire, creating a crack of doubt in her self-assurance.
The clever puns, humor, and heart make this book a standout. Illustrations by Birgitta Sif add an array of fun, diverse witches. Kids new to reading will appreciate the short, simple chapters that are engaging and fast-paced. For this age audience, navigating a large store truly is an adventure. And any place with a cat floor is alright by me! Crimson ultimately finds that Broomingdale’s does have “everything a witch could itch for” but what she end up with may surprise you!
THE LOST COAST Written by A. R. Capetta (Candlewick Press; Paperback $10.99, Ages 14 and up)
The beautifully written YA, The Lost Coast, by A. R. Capetta grabbed hold of me with its opening lines describing Danny’s first glimpse of ancient redwoods. She and her mom move to this specific coastal northern California town because Danny has been mysteriously drawn there. Danny quickly finds herself in deep with a group of queer high school witches who call themselves the Grays. They’re awesome, but their most powerful member is missing and they expect Danny to find her.
Nonlinear narration and alternating viewpoint chapters heighten the suspense as we try to understand what’s really going on. The foggy forest gives nature a presence on the page and sets the mood for magic, secrets, and discovery. This book is an A+ for me because of its realistically complex and interwoven friendships and love, plus the group’s frank discussions about identity. Ideal for fans of The Graces novels. I highly recommend The Lost Coast to YA readers who enjoy clever, twisted tales that are atmospheric gorgeously crafted. Available in hardcover, paperback and Ebook.
This sweet, intergenerational picture book,Old Friends, from debut author,Margaret Aitken, and illustrator,Lenny Wen, will have readers longing for their own group of “old friends.”
Marjorie’s “old soul” refuses to be bound by the conventions of “child’s play.” She longs for someone who understands her love of baking, crafting, and gardening. Taking cues from her late grandmother’s indomitable spirit, Marjorie goes undercover …
and finds an unlikely set of friends at her local senior citizens’ group.
But when her disguise falls apart in the midst of the cha-cha, Marjorie worries her new friends won’t want her around. Thankfully, her “old friends” are really young at heart. They welcome her wholeheartedly, but will they welcome another “old soul” into the group? Will Marjorie?
This charming intergenerational picture book will have readers longing for their own group of “old friends.” A wonderful pick for Grandparent’s Day, Aitken’s heartwarming story is not to be missed. Wen’s vibrant artwork, only adds to its appeal. Her bright, fun style complements Aitken’s storyline truly making Old Friends an ideal book for both the young and young-at-heart.
From Penguin Random House: “The Mapmaker loves maps—he loves to collect them, to study them, and most of all, to make them. But when a girl asks for a map of a perfect place, the Mapmaker is perplexed. She wants a map to a toes-in-the-sand-warm, X-marks-the-spot-place filled with treasures, where it smells like her birthday and she can zip around like a dragonfly. Surely, a place that is all of these things can’t exist … can it?”
This story is perfect for the quiet adventurers among us and would make an excellent classroom edition for map-making and map-reading units. From the endpapers to the map-themed backmatter and built-in activities, this book covers features like the compass rose, map legends/keys, and topographical and political map differences.
I especially love the subtle message of home that both the adventure-loving and adventure-avoiding can appreciate. When the young girl challenges her map-making friend to create the “perfect” map, it takes an afternoon of exploring before he finally understands that home is the best place of all.
For the last day of Fat Bear Week, I’m delighted, (or should I say overjoyed?) to share my thoughts on Julie Hedlund’suproarious read-aloud picture book, Over, Bear! Under, Where?with humorous art by Michael Slack.
Now don’t get me wrong, the titular Bear may be on the big side, but he’s actually a kind soul simply looking for pals to play with. But when you’re a bird (Over), a mole (Under), or a hot-dog dog (Dog) and that much smaller, a bear can be scary. That scenario is what unfolds to hilarious results as Over and Under hang out at the park.
With wordplay galore, a relatable premise, and high marks for its readability, Hedlund’s book manages to entertain in just under 100 carefully chosen words. Young readers will adore the interplay of art and text as they see Over and Under’s punny back-and-forth banter on the see-saw and at their BBQ. They even invite a hot-dog dog called Dog to join them but run for their lives after spotting Bear in what is clearly a massive misunderstanding.
Bear, we soon learn, wants to play, too, but Over, Under and Dog do not realize this right away. It’s only when Under points out a dejected-looking Bear … down that the trio makes amends and in doing so, makes a new friend.
Hedlund’s spare text may make adult readers think, “Oh hey, I could do that.” When in fact, to be able to convey the emotional heart of this story with so few words, is no easy task and takes a pro. It also takes terrific illustrations that bring the story to life, my favorite illustrations being those below.
There’s even a page of helpful backmatter providing examples of the compound words that were essential to inspiring this story’s humor when they were presented as separate words helped by just a comma in many places. Parents, teachers, librarians, and caregivers will not tire of sharing this whimsical, original tale with its clever take, “You can’t judge a bear by its behind.” So Fat Bear Week or not, this book’ll keep you from hibernating.
Stand up and roar for Lily Williams’sIf Tigers Disappeared, the fifth book in her award-winning series. If Tigers Disappeared follows the familiar pattern: we learn where the animals live, some history about them, and why their populations have declined. Tigers have been around for more than two million years, yet in the past 100 years, humans have nearly wiped out their population. When an animal becomes extinct, the ripple effect (also called the trophic cascade) has far-reaching effects on our ecosystem.
Since tigers are apex predators, the animals they eat flourish when no longer hunted by the big cats. These population booms then cause changes to the forest, waterways, and landscapes. This immense concept is conveyed simply, inviting kids to think about our world’s interconnectedness and demonstrating how indigenous people should continue to be involved in tiger conservation. Though the topic is quite sad, the overall feeling is of hope, emphasizing the importance of knowledge and advocacy for these amazing animals.
Williams’s tigers are magnificently drawn in many stages of action, including a couple of curious cubs. Back matter includes a glossary, recap of the tigers’ endangered status, and information on how we can help. This important book educates while charming us with lively images of six remaining subspecies of tigers.
“As a trio of tired tots settles into bed for the night, the sheep who should be helping them count down to slumber kick up their hooves in an energetic dance performance. Starting with one little lamb … [the] sheep tap, waltz, tango, and boogie … [until] finally, after their energy is danced out, nap sheep lull everyone to sleep.”
Kenda Henthorn’s lively, rhyming text borrows the rhythm of “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” to create a delightful read-aloud perfect for getting out the wiggles before bedtime. Lauren Gallegos’ cute art in soothing blues and energetic purples perfectly complements the energy of Henthorn’s words.
With added learning layers such as counting to ten, dance moves/vocabulary, and a few cultural Easter eggs in the art, this picture book works for the young and young-at-heart. Highly recommended for naptime in the early childhood classroom!
If you need a moment to slow down and appreciate life, read the picture book,Somewhere, Right Now, by debut author Kerry Docherty. In this comforting story, we see members of one family each experience strong emotions such as fear, anger, and sadness. One by one, as their feelings are recognized, they take a moment to focus. By understanding that “somewhere, right now” a great thing is happening, they move away from the negativity and, instead, their imaginations transport them to uplifting thoughts about animals in nature.
The realistic illustrations by Suzie Mason capture the smattering of dark moods and offset them with plenty of joyful, kind images. Kids will learn that we all feel down sometimes and how a few words can make a huge difference. This book is very much needed in today’s fast-paced, uncertain world; it provides simple instruction on how to help control our minds while also boosting the love and positivity around us if we just choose to look for it.
What struck me the most about this rhyming picture book was what a terrific conversation starter it is for families and how, per the back matter, other opportunities are indicated where the book can be used including “the secular, Lunar, Islamic, and Hindu New Years, birthdays, and the start of each school year. And, of course, the start of each new day.”
I like how the many ways to approach introspection or measuring a year are presented. A year gone by can literally be measured by how much a child has grown. It can also be measured by friends made, a new skill learned, places visited, and special occasions such as weddings and bar mitvahs celebrated. The book doesn’t shy away from addressing how measuring a year should include thinking back on times a child did something they regret, times they were sad, or even scared. So much can happen in a year.
Hoang’s inclusive, diverse illustrations, were rendered using “watercolor, colored pencils, and a bit of Photoshop magic” and are rich with children of all abilities. In terms of Jewish symbols, I spotted a Menorah, a Sukkah, a dreidel, a Jewish Star, and people wearing yarmulkes. During this high holy day when we have the chance to start anew, many Jews eat honey cake and dip apples in honey for a sweet new year. The delicious-looking endpapers were designed with this tradition in mind. Between the joyful art and the gentle tone, Measuring a Yearis a thoughtful and easy way for kids to understand and appreciate the significance of Rosh Hashanah and welcome addition to any Jewish holiday book collection.
From the Publisher: “Hot off the printing press, Penny feels like a million bucks. But as other coins and bills are spent while she sits forgotten, she begins to doubt her value … Refusing to be short-changed, she sets out to find her purpose at any cost.”
From Kirkus Reviews: “Combining a dash of math with buckets of good humor, this book is certainly like money in the bank.”
Kimberly Wilson’s debut shines like a new penny under the expert care of Mark Hoffman’s humorous art that will entice children to spend time searching out each detail on the page.
And the silliness continues in Wilson’s pun-filled backmatter that not only offers fun facts about pennies, but illustrates the value of each coin and bill featured in the text. I expect this book will become a favorite in elementary classrooms around the country.
If Your Babysitter Is a Bruja starts as a spooky Halloween tale and then develops layers as it goes on. Written in second person, If Your Babysitter Is a Brujachronicles how a child is scared of her babysitter. Clever illustrations by Irena Freitas show how a terrifying “bubbling cauldron” is actually a bathtub, a magic broomstick is a bicycle, and a slide is a magic castle. A clever scene showing the babysitter’s hat in a pile of water worries the child that her babysitter has melted, but the babysitter lives on … with delicious Pan de Muerto to ease the relationship.
From there, the babysitter and child become BFFs (or perhaps best brujas), and the night ends with the child looking out the window, sad the babysitter has left. This book will be perfect for kids anxious about being left with a babysitter or for those who are shy about making friends with new people. Certainly, that is something many families will struggle with following lengthy Covid lockdowns.
Ana Siqueira’s rhythmic text smoothly incorporates Spanish words and intertwines cultures with tasty treats from Dia de Los Muertos combined with Halloween decorations. The illustrations are quirky and sweet.
Walking into a community garden on a crisp spring morning, a little girl and her elderly friend plant seeds, “each little dot full of hope and promise.” Elderly friends join in to help and share each other’s company as they pass the time together, waiting patiently until the plants finally “burst into life” and the garden is “a riot of color.” Swaney’s soothing palette of olive greens, mustard yellows, peachy reds, and poppy-pumpkin oranges provides spaces filled with warmth and comfort.
Sometimes relaxing under the sun and sometimes busy with garden work, the little girl and her friend take their treasures into the kitchen, processing the beautiful bounty they’ve collected–all of which culminates into a jubilant feast for the whole community.
As the season grows cold, petals “fall, and colors fade,” the little girl’s special friend is sadly “gone.” All she’s left with are the seeds of last season’s crops. But as the spring season returns anew, those “tiny dots” she plants spring up “big memories” of patience, stewardship, and fellowship.
With quiet and calming overtones, The Garden We Share invites gentle conversations about death while lovingly cultivating a spirit of hope.
NOTE FROM RONNA: As a grammar fanatic,I’m thrilled to be able to share this fun and informative interview by Moni Ritchie Hadley with Rebecca Kraft Rector and Shanda McCloseky, author and illustrator respectively of the new picture book LITTLE RED AND THE BIG BAD EDITOR. Celebrate its book birthday with us by reading on because I know you’re going to devour this chat!
Moni Ritchie Hadley: Welcome, Rebecca Kraft Rector and Shanda McCloskey! Thank you for taking the time to chat about your new book and writing and illustration processes. Rebecca, this story creatively spins a popular fairytale with a new narrative. What was the original pitch for LITTLE RED AND THE BIG BAD EDITOR?
Rebecca Kraft Rector: In this fractured fairytale, the Big Bad Wolf is so distracted by Little Red’s poorly written thank you note to her grandmother that he keeps missing the chance to eat her.
MRH:Based on the educational subject matter and the structure of a fractured fairytale, this story seems to be the type of book a kid would love, and a parent or teacher would want to purchase. How did you come up with the concept?
RKR: I like to play with words and came up with Little Red WRITING Hood. The idea that Little Red’s poorly-written thank you note to Granny would distract the Big Bad Wolf grew from there.
MRH:Do you begin your stories with pencil and paper or on the computer?
RKR: I mostly use the computer, but I also jot down phrases and ideas in a notebook that I keep beside my bed. Some of my best ideas come when I’m only half awake.
MRH:Today, kids primarily use technology to communicate. Do you feel that kids will relate to a thank-you note written with pencil and paper?
RKR: I hope so! Kids still use pencil and paper in the early grades, and the Common Core Standards include things like using capital letters and punctuation. I’ve heard from teachers that there’s even a letter-writing unit in most first-grade classes.
MRH:Shanda, as the illustrator, what attracted you to this manuscript?
Shanda McCloskey: The happiness I felt when I read it for the very first time! Rebecca definitely knows how to have fun with words :)
MRH:Can you tell us about your process?
SM: I spent a few days drawing/redrawing character look possibilities for this book. When I saw something good in a character sketch, I would just “follow the light” and then tried drawing the character again, leaving in the good and stripping the bad, over and over until the characters felt “right-ish.”
LITTLE RED AND THE BIG BAD EDITOR was drawn digitally, printed onto paper, and painted with watercolors.
Little Red’s cape had to be red (obviously), so I started there. I found that Little Red popped best when her colors were warm in contrast to a cooler background. Wolf needed to blend into the background sometimes, so he is cool-toned as well. Then, I stuck in some of my favorite colors for fun, like Little Red’s pink and purple outfit.
The first dummy took me two months or so. Then it went through a couple of versions with feedback from the publishing team over several months. Things like character consistency, spread variation (ex., full bleeds, vignettes, panels), hair and skin color, etc., were tinkered with.
MRH:Were you able to collaborate?
MRH:Shanda, when illustrating a book based on an existing story, how do you separate the images of the past and make them fresh?
SM:It happens automatically when you are working with new characters in a new world. But it’s also cool when my “style” shows through in all my books, at least a little bit. Also, every book is a leveling-up experience for me. There may be a new technique I’m using or a mood I’m trying to achieve. There’s always something in my craft to tinker with or improve upon with each book.
MRH: You are an author of children’s books as well as an illustrator. Is it easier to illustrate someone else’s words or to illustrate your own? How is the process different?
SM:They both have various perks! When illustrating my own stories, I can add a speech bubble with a joke if the notion hits me. But it’s not really my place to do that when I’m illustrating someone else’s words. But on the flip side, having limitations can sometimes be nice and clean, and it sure is nice to launch a book with a partner. If it flops, it’s not just on you!
MRH:Rebecca, this is your second picture book. Where do you usually get stuck in the writing process, and how do you get out of it?
RKR: Ha! I get stuck all over the place—the beginning, the middle, the end—everywhere! Sometimes I’ll print out what I have, and seeing it on paper makes it easier to figure out what to do next. If I can let myself play and have fun with the story, I find my writing goes more smoothly. My critique groups are big help with both brainstorming and pointing out where I’ve gone astray.
MRH:Are you more like Little Red or the Big Bad Editor? How so?
RKR:Hmm, I guess I’m more like the Big Bad Editor because, like him, I’m frequently frustrated by bad grammar and punctuation.
SM: Hmmm. I identified with both of them! I can definitely be a stickler for what I think is “the right way” to do something. But I can also appreciate how Red didn’t wait until she had a perfect letter to say thank you to her granny. She just went for it and improved along the way! #amwriting #amillustrating
MRH: Are there any other secret insights that you can share about this book?
RKR:Unlike all the other stories I’ve written, I wrote the last line first. Also, the entire time I was writing and revising the story, I thought I was filling the story with fun metaphors. Nope! Every single one was really a simile. I still can’t write metaphors.
SM: I put my own real kids’ artwork on the refrigerator in Granny’s kitchen :) And there’s usually some nod to a book I’ve previously worked on. Such as the fire truck (FIRE TRUCK VS. DRAGON) and the snuggle bunny (BEDTIME BALLET) on Little Red’s shelf in her room on the first spread.
LITTLE RED AND THE BIG BAD EDITOR releases today! Thank you both for chatting with us.
GoodReadsWithRonna.com has the pleasure of participating in the blog tour for My Pet Feet. I made sure not to read any advance buzz about the book (easy ‘coz I’ve been on vacation) so that I’d come to it with no expectations which, to be honest, is a hard feat (ha!) knowing how terrific all Josh’s previous picture books are.
When the letter R disappears from the main character’s alphabet wall covering, chaos and hilarity ensue in My Pet Feet, the wacky, wonderful new picture book from Josh Funk with illustrations by Billy Yong.
It doesn’t take long for the little girl narrator of this zany 48-page tale to discover that her pet ferret, Doodles, has become her pet feet since all Rs have mysteriously gone missing in her town. Yong’s whimsical spreads where the main character first encounters the absence of Rs are (ha!) so funny and clever, that readers will have to slow down to study every delightful detail he has depicted. The images of a policewoman on the back of a galloping hose or the little girl’s pal Lucas behaving like a fiend and especially the flying cows are sure to make kids LOL. In fact, I actually noticed even more things on my second read (e.g. the man on the motorcycle with ties as tires) so I intend to go back a few more times to make sure I caught everything. Children will likely do the same. And, despite being a rollicking fast-paced read, the idea of taking time to appreciate all the clever wordplay and creativity of the story’s concept is recommended.
As the search to find the reason behind the missing letter R continues, the girl accidentally hurts the feelings of Doodles who runs away. She looks low and eventually high—way, way, way up high—where a subtle clue for the savvy reader can be spotted anchored out at sea. But still no sign of the 18th letter of the alphabet and now Doodles. Could the pet actually know the Rs’ whereabouts? Will this determined child ever find her beloved pet? And will he forgive her? I wanted to find out, but yet I didn’t want the story to end.
In Funk’s satisfying and humorous resolution, the main character’s luck and mood change. She locates her pet feet which leads her to the culprits behind the stolen letter R. Young readers will love seeing ferret and owner reunited while getting the chance to pronounce a plethora of words incorporating Rs that Funk has mustered up. But just when this happy child thinks she can relax and catch some zzzzs, an oh-so-unexpected alphabet ending presents a potential new dilemma or possible premise for a second book.
There are myriad ways to enjoy this entertaining picture book: from the mystery of the missing Rs, to the superb silliness of the pet feet, from the zaniness of the town inhabitants oblivious to the absent Rs to the engaging art that keeps us glued to the page. I’m thrilled I had this opportunity to read and review My Pet Feet and help spread the word about this fun new story. And while a pet ferret is probably pleasing, I think there are times when having pet feet could come in handy (pun intended) too!