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Best Back-to-School Books 2019 Part Two

BEST BACK-TO-SCHOOL BOOKS 2019

∼ A ROUNDUP ∼

PART TWO

 

Back-to-school free clipart of backpack

 

The King of Kindergarten cvrTHE KING OF KINDERGARTEN
Written by Derrick Barnes
Illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton
(Nancy Paulsen Books; $17.99, Ages 3-6)

Starred Reviews – Kirkus, Publishers Weekly

The King of Kindergarten written by Newberry honoree Derrick Barnes and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, transforms the average day at kindergarten into an extraordinary, royal adventure.

It’s fun to read Barnes’ regal language. As Mom says, “today” her little boy is going to be the “King” and, with this encouragement, he prepares to venture out confidently. Brushing his “Royal Chiclets,” he dresses himself and “wolf[s] down a tower of pancakes.” I love the emphasis here on growth, maturity, and independence. Being “deliver[ed] … to a grand fortress” (a.k.a. school), he joins the “round table” where he cheerfully exchanges greetings with his classmates. The royal theme continues during circle time, recess, lunchtime, and beyond, each opportunity allowing him to exercise his noble code of honor by braving playground politics, sharing his royal bounty (in the form of an extra cup of chocolate pudding), and showing kindness to his friends. Vibrant colors invite us readers to participate in the little boy’s “Kindergarten Kingdom;” flowing shapes excite us with anticipation of what’s next on his adventure.

A great way to introduce the school day to budding kindergartners, The King of Kindergarten shows us how a little change of perspective can rewrite a potentially scary event into a magical tale.

See Derrick Barnes on August 31 at Little Shop of Stories, LLC in Decatur, GA

 

Truman book coverTRUMAN
Written by Jean Reidy
Illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins
(Atheneum Books for Young Readers; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

Starred Reviews – Kirkus, School Library Journal

Written by Jean Reidy and illustrated by Lucy Ruth Cummins, Truman is a heartwarming story of the loving relationship between a pet and his owner. But it can also be read as a tale about the challenges a younger sibling faces as his older sister starts school.

There is no doubt readers of all ages will fall in love with Truman. How could you not? He’s “the size of a donuta small donutand every bit as sweet.” In simple yet powerful ways, Reidy and Cummins express the affection Truman and Sarah share. Sarah isn’t merely Truman’s owner; she’s “his Sarah” (my emphasis)  who shares the same “peaceful and pensive” personality as her adorable tortoise. Humble shapes and bursts of yellow throughout paint a happy home with decor that brings back memories of my own childhood, notably, the Felix the Cat look-a-like clock on the wall.

This particular day, though, is “truly unsettling” because Sarah is acting different. She eats a “big banana” at breakfast, “clip[s] on a blue bow in her hair,” “strap[s] on a backpack SOOOOOO big thirty-two tortoises [can] ride along in it,” and leaves extra food for Truman. Most shockingly, she boards the number 11 bus, that mysterious bus he can see from his window riding in the “honking,” “growling” city below. Truman spends the day in worrisome wonder as to where Sarah could possibly be and why it’s taking her so long to return.

Through Reidy’s funny tone and Cummins’ artistic perspective, Truman’s journey out of the safety of his tank, and his determination to find his beloved owner is as endearing as it is humorous. Of all the challenges Truman faces, my favorite is his crossing of the living room rug“That glorious … ENDLESS rug” made all the more imposing by the mean looking toys along his path we see through Truman’s eyes. When he hears the number 11 bus, he’s ready to cross the threshold, but Sarah is back in time to reunite with her pet and congratulate him on his bravery.

Truman encourages all of us facing a seemingly insurmountable challenge with the message cleverly written on city bus #11:  See New Sights! Hear New Sounds! Think New Thoughts!

Pirates-Dont-Go-To-Kindergarten-cvrPIRATES DON’T GO TO KINDERGARTEN!
Written by Lisa Robinson
Illustrated by Eda Kaban
(Two Lions/Amazon Children’s Publishing; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

Can an honorable pirate be loyal to more than one captain? This is the question posed in Pirates Don’t Go to Kindergarten! written by Lisa Robinson and illustrated by Eda Kaban.

Equipped with the pirate basics (treasure map, spyglass, and cutlass), Emma storms into school, this first day of kindergarten, determined to set sail once again in last year’s ship commanded by “the roughest, toughest, awesomest preschool pirate cap’n ever”Cap’n Chu. Yet, it’s a new year and, as Ms. Chu gently reminds Emma, Cap’n Chu has “‘a new band of pirates” to lead. Despite attempts by Cap’ns Chu and Hayes (Emma’s new teacher) to interest Emma in her outer-space-themed kindergarten classroom, Emma sails back to Cap’n Chu’s ship, fiercely allegiant to her pirate roots.

When Ms. Hayes’ class pet needs feeding, Emma shows interest and discovers all the fun activities in the kindergarten class:  a nature center, an art studio, a reading nook, and science station. What’s the one thing missing? “NO CAP’N CHU!” Back in Ms. Chu’s classroom, everything blows out into a full mutiny. This is where the book provides a great opportunity for caregivers to talk about just how confusing and conflicting emotions can be. At the heart of Emma’s protest is feelings of fear and loss at having to accept this major childhood transition and perhaps, even, feelings of guilt as devotion to one person may feel like betraying another. With heartwarming affirmation from Ms. Chu, Emma is ready to “‘open the shuttle hatch’” of her new classroom, bringing her own pirate spin to the kindergarten space station.

A great picture book for talking about transitions, Pirates Don’t Go To Kindergarten! will draw in seafarers and landlubbers alike.

  • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

Read more back-to-school book reviews here.

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Children’s Book Review – Tomorrow Most Likely

TOMORROW MOST LIKELY
Written by Dave Eggers
Illustrated by Lane Smith
(Chronicle Books; $17.99, Ages 3-5)

 

Tomorrow Most Likely book cvr

 

Written by celebrated author Dave Eggers and illustrated by Caldecott honoree Lane Smith, Tomorrow Most Likely is a heartfelt (and not-so-quiet) bedtime story that brings affirmation and comfort to young audiences. By juxtaposing the small and the grand, the familiar and the odd, what is and what can be, author and illustrator provide confidence to a little boy facing the big, wide world.

 

 Tomorrow Most Likely Int1

Interior artwork from Tomorrow Most Likely written by Dave Eggers with illustrations by Lane Smith, Chronicle Books ©2019.

 

As the boy learns of all the things that will “most likely” happen tomorrow, we readers see how discoveries both big and small will help him embrace the day. “Tomorrow most likely there will be a sky. And chances are it will be blue. Tomorrow most likely there will be a squirrel. And chances are his name is Stu.” Eggers rhymes, repeats key phrases, and describes the day through the familiar, child-centered concept of color. Smith’s vibrant illustrations–rendered in oil paint, pen and ink, paper collage, and digitally–create a bustling neighborhood of towering skyscrapers and confounding traffic signs. But like Eggers, Smith quiets the big city noise with familiarity. The shapes inherent in traffic signs provide a wonderful secondary “lesson” to the story.

 

 Tomorrow Most Likely Int2

Interior artwork from Tomorrow Most Likely written by Dave Eggers with illustrations by Lane Smith, Chronicle Books ©2019.

 

Yet another layer is the hidden “lesson” of learning to be present. Watching a big plane “flying high and white and fast and far” is a treat the boy can treasure, if only he’s able to see it the moment before it vanishes into the clouds.   He can befriend a little “bright bug, green and red” and discover it’s feeling lonely (because it’s missing Stu).

Though tomorrow will “most likely” be a predictable day, it’s also “most likely” that the unlikely will happen. “Something won’t rhyme.” The little boy will “see something strange. [He’ll] hear something odd.” No doubt uncertainty will be part of his day but, this too can be approached through learning and fun. If the little boy follows his curiosity, he’ll recognize that the strange, far away figure at the end of the street is actually his eccentric and funny friend.

 

 Tomorrow Most Likely Int3

Interior artwork from Tomorrow Most Likely written by Dave Eggers with illustrations by Lane Smith, Chronicle Books ©2019.

 

What appears to be one thing can, in fact, be something entirely different. Separated friends, Stu and “bright bug,” will be reunited; a simple rock off the ground can look like a brain, and a cloud can transform into an ice cream treat. The only limit to what can be is the boy’s imagination. His contribution to the world is his interpretation and unique spin on everything he encounters. Tomorrow matters because of his presence in it.

What a loving and empowering way to send off to bed little kids dreaming of what tomorrow will (“most likely”) bring.

  • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

 

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Kids Book Review: A Thoughtful and Timeless Tale – Noah Builds an Ark by Kate Banks

NOAH BUILDS AN ARK
Written by Kate Banks
Illustrated by John Rocco
(Candlewick Press; $16.99, Ages 3-7)

 

Noah Builds an Ark book cover artwork

 

Starred Review – Kirkus Reviews

A gentle retelling of the familiar Biblical story, Noah Builds an Ark by Kate Banks with art by John Rocco illustrates the giving and receiving of tender care in the midst of a major storm.

A slight tension fills the air as dark clouds approach Noah’s house. In the backyard, restless salamanders slither “to and fro” and beetles and mice try to take shelter. Getting his tools from the yard, Noah’s father makes a thought-provoking comment: “It’s going to be a beauty.” What is? The preparation, the storm, the aftermath?

 

Interior spread by John Rocco from Noah Builds an Ark by Kate Banks

NOAH BUILDS AN ARK. Text copyright © 2019 by Kate Banks. Illustrations copyright © 2019 by John Rocco. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

 

Just as Noah’s parents work hard to prepare for the storm, Noah, similarly, takes thorough care of his garden friends’ needs. For shelter, he builds an ark out of his wagon and fills the space with all the comforts of home: food, furniture, water, and light from a flashlight. Whatever his parents provide for him and his sister, Noah, in turn, provides for his critters.

 

Noah Builds an Ark by Kate Banks int spread by John Rocco

NOAH BUILDS AN ARK. Text copyright © 2019 by Kate Banks. Illustrations copyright © 2019 by John Rocco. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

 

Rocco’s detailed pencil and watercolor illustrations emphasize this give and take motion. On the left side of the page, we readers see the actions his parents take and on the right we see Noah mimicking that action. When the storm arrives, the illustrations once again draw similarities between the two. Both groups huddle, share food, and pass the time with calming activities. One double-page spread is particularly poignant as it draws our attention to the slats of woodwood that boards Noah’s window and wood that houses in his garden friends. It’s a powerful image of protection and community despite the raging rain “splash[ing] down like silver swords thrown from heaven.” Banks’ imagery captures, too, the beauty and danger of their situation.

When the clouds suddenly retreat and the “sun turn[s] its light back on,” Noah is treated to a wide and stunning rainbow. A sign of the covenant between God and the earth in the original story, the rainbow here represents a symbol of peace and restoration. Two by two the creatures leave the ark and resume their roles in Noah’s garden.

So what was “going to be a beauty” after all? Dedication in caring for one another, the sense of community during troubled times, and the healing qualities of the natural world are all beautiful themes in this story. For animal and nature lovers, for those familiar and new to Noah’s Ark, for those needing a quiet bedtime story and a suspenseful adventure, Noah Builds an Ark is for any child who enjoys a timeless tale.

  • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian  
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What’s a Cross Cookie to do? Angry Cookie by Laura Dockrill

ANGRY COOKIE
Written by Laura Dockrill
Illustrated by Maria Karipidou
(Walker Books; $16.99, Ages 3-7)

 

Angry Cookie book cover art

 

Written by Laura Dockrill and illustrated by Maria Karipidou, Angry Cookie is a hilarious and clever way to engage young children with the topic of emotions. Ironically, the conversation begins because of Angry Cookie’s every effort to shut us out.

On the book jacket, Cookie warns us readers with an adorably menacing look, “You opened the book! You better not read it … I am very angry, and there is NOTHING you can do about it!” He calls us (silly) names, he bids us an abrupt farewell, and even tries to end the story prematurely with a curt “The end.”

 

int spread by Maria Karipidou from Angry Cookie by Laura Dockrill Walker Books

ANGRY COOKIE. Text copyright © 2018 by Laura Dockrill. Illustrations copyright © 2018 by Maria Karipidou. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA on behalf of Walker Books, London.

 

Try as he may, he knows he can’t get rid of us. In fact, our presence begins to slowly shed light on his dark mood. Though he may feel anger gives him a sense of power, we see it’s his way of protecting his hurt feelings. Dockrill’s sense of humor creates a safe space for children to approach the issue of anger and the multiple layers of emotion it masks. When you’re angry every little thing gets on your nerves—even the fact that you have to use the “grown-up spicy” toothpaste when the “delicious, yummy, strawberry-pudding” one ran out. But it’s never about the toothpaste … or the bad haircut … or the ice cream parlor running out of your favorite “most wonderful vanilla sundae.” Underneath the anger, feelings of rejection, pain, and loneliness trouble Cookie. Illustrations wonderfully balance this vulnerable side of the story. Karipidou’s soft pastels create a friendly space with Cookie being at the center of many pages, drawing our attention to his voice (and, on two occasions, his butt!).

 

int illustrations by Maria Karipidou from Angry Cookie by Laura Dockrill Walker Books

ANGRY COOKIE. Text copyright © 2018 by Laura Dockrill. Illustrations copyright © 2018 by Maria Karipidou. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA on behalf of Walker Books, London.

 

Once his anger is gone, Cookie can finally see the truth—that the person he found “annoying” is really the friend he needed to care about him and lend a listening ear. Feeling validated, Cookie can shed off his former perspective and start enjoying the things that previously bothered him. He can separate himself from his feelings and recognize that, though he was acting like a “grumpy lump,” he’s not the same cookie anymore.

This book is a wonderful resource parents, educators, and caregivers can use to talk to young children about how anger feels as they’re going through it themselves or when they notice it in someone else. Angry Cookie will leave readers feeling anything by angry.

  • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

 

ARTWORK AND TEXT NOTE: ANGRY COOKIE. Text copyright © 2018 by Laura Dockrill. Illustrations copyright © 2018 by Maria Karipidou. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA on behalf of Walker Books, London.

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Children’s Books We Love for Valentine’s Day 2019 – A Roundup

VALENTINE’S DAY CHILDREN’S BOOKS ROUNDUP

 

clip art of hearts

 

 

A Hug is for Holding Me by Lisa Wheeler book cover artworkA HUG IS FOR HOLDING ME
Written by Lisa Wheeler
Illustrated by Lisk Feng
($14.99; Abrams Appleseed, Ages 3-5)

Written by Lisa Wheeler and illustrated by Lisk Feng, A Hug is for Holding Me highlights how the natural world quietly and profoundly speaks to us about love.

Exploring the wilderness, a father and daughter take note of  speckled eggs “nestled in a tree” and “eggs hold[ing] hatchlings warm and snug.” In plain language, the little girl also expresses the restorative and nurturing power of cocoons and seashells. It’s as if everything in nature is embraced in an eternal hug, kept safe from harm. And from this fact, she knows she too can feel the same love and protection from the simple act of giving and receiving a hug.  

I also admire the illustrator’s techniques in further drawing us into the little girl’s perspective. We readers (of all ages) are like children, looking up at the big, wide world. Each page in this 24 page book is a wide-angled, double page spread. The leaves of trees are drawn in big, sweeping shades of blue and green, objects are defined by their general shape and color, and Dad appears towering-almost giant sized. Visual details are absent but not because they’re lacking. While the world is big, creation is hard-wired to nurture and care. On land, in the sea, and in our hearts, we can rest assured of this truth, which is the one detail that really matters. We just need childlike faith to see it.

A great read especially for Valentine’s Day, A Hug is for Holding Me is a book preschoolers will love to cuddle up with.

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Duck and Hippo: The Secret Valentine book cover artDUCK AND HIPPO: THE SECRET VALENTINE
Written by Jonathan London
Illustrated by Andrew Joyner
(Two Lions; $17.99, Ages 3-7)

The best Valentine’s Day gifts are the simple pleasures of food, fun, and friendship as author Jonathan London and illustrator Andrew Joyner show in Duck and Hippo: The Secret Valentine.

It’s Valentine’s Day, and Duck is distressed she may not have a valentine. Taking a hint from her feathered friends nearby, she decides to send invitations-in secret to Hippo, Turtle, Pig, and Elephant, asking each to meet at the park at 4pm and to “bring something for [his/her] Valentine.” Every card  is decorated with a “big red heart on it,” though it’s clear Hippo holds an extra special place in Duck’s heart because his card is the only one that has a “red rose … above a big red heart.”

And so the fun begins! Every time a friend receives a card, she or he begins wondering just who that valentine might be. Each hopes for someone specific. Turtle, for example, sees the picture of the “big red heart” on the card as a pizza that’s missing a slice. This makes sense, of course, because his special friend is Pig who works at the local pizzeria, Pig’s Pizza.

As the anticipation builds, kids will no doubt love being “in” on the secret, and they will roar with laughter watching Duck stealthily drop off the cards to avoid detection. Well … while the characters may not see Duck, little wandering eyes will most definitely notice a feathery behind sticking out of a bush or two!

The onomatopoeia popular in London’s beloved “Froggy” series is thankfully present here as well, helping preschoolers and early elementary children “read” the story. And even if readers are new to the “Duck and Hippo” series, they can sense the strong friendship between the characters and learn important values of sharing and kindness. I also like the hidden “lesson” of time-telling. Whenever the time of day is mentioned in the story, Joyner cleverly includes a clock to indicate the time, with the hour and minute hands in contrasting colors. From illustrating a grandfather clock to an alarm clock to a pocket watch, Joyner invites readers to discover all the fun and different ways of telling time—there’s even a sundial in Turtle’s yard!

By 4:00 the secret is finally out, though Duck’s love for her friends is evident from the start. What better way to celebrate Valentine’s Day than to create an opportunity for everyone to gather and express their gratitude for each other.

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What is Given from the Heart book cover artworkWHAT IS GIVEN FROM THE HEART
Written by Patricia McKissack
Illustrated by April Harrison
(Schwartz & Wade Books; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

Starred Reviews – Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, Shelf Awareness

In What is Given from the Heart, celebrated author Patricia McKissack and debut picture book illustrator April Harrison define the true meaning of gift giving.

“Already poor,” little James Otis and his mother “got poorer last April” after the sudden death of his father. Having lost the family farm in June, they move into a “run-down shotgun house in the Bottoms.” Just when things seem like they can’t get any worse, more loss follows: James’ house floods and his dog Smitty disappears. Yet as long as they have their health and strength, his mother reminds him, they “‘are blessed.’”

Two weeks before Valentine’s Day, James slowly begins to understand his mother’s courageous words.  When Reverend Dennis requests the congregation to prepare love boxes for the needy, he includes on his list a mother and daughter who have “‘lost everything in a fire.’”

For the first time in a long time, James begins to change perspective. Thinking about another person’s pain makes him aware of what he does have. Tucked “warm and toasty” under Mama’s quilt, James reviews in his mind all the items he owns that might be useful to Sarah. When he sees Mama repurposing the “‘only nice thing’” she has to make a handmade gift for Mrs. Temple, he reflects on how he, too, can sacrifice a beloved belonging to the benefit of someone else’s happiness.

McKissack’s themes of compassion, kindness, and empathy are carried through Harrison’s soft color palette and endearing mixed media art. Though the items in the house are sparse, we can see the love abiding in James’ home from the family pictures hung on the walls. My favorite illustration is the close up of James and the pensive expression in his eyes, as he ponders what is in Sarah’s heart and the kinds of things she might like to receive.

Despite having very little, James comes up with a beautiful gift that Sarah gratefully accepts. Handmade and straight from the heart, James’ gift helps Sarah know that she is seen and understood. This is a priceless gift every one of us can treasure.

A wonderful read for older elementary children, “What is Given from the Heart” reaches the heart not only on Valentine’s Day but everyday of the year.

  • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

 

For more Valentine’s Day book suggestions, click here.

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Best New Christmas Books for Children Part One

OUR ANNUAL KIDS’ CHRISTMAS BOOKS ROUNDUP …

IS BACK AND BETTER THAN EVER!

– PART ONE –

Wreath free Christmas clip art image

 

Mrs. Claus Takes the Reins cover illustrationMRS. CLAUS TAKES THE REINS
Written by Sue Fliess
Illustrated by Mark Chambers
(Two Lions; $17.99, Ages 3-7)

For anyone interested in a holiday book with a strong female character, I recommend Mrs. Claus Takes the Reins written by Sue Fliess and illustrated by Mark Chambers. When Santa wakes up “stuffy” and “sneezy” on the morning of Christmas Eve, Mrs. Claus fearlessly steps in to save the day. She is a proactive problem solver. “‘I may not have magic,’” she says, “‘but I’ve got a brain!’” As she and the reindeer encounter challenges along the way, Mrs. Claus’s resourcefulness helps her stay in control and on task. “[S]tuff[ing] some ribbon to plug up the hole” in the leaky fuel tank, she keeps calm and carries on.

In addition to Mrs. Claus’s gumption, I love the endearing and homey touches in the illustrations:  Santa’s headboard and footboard with their Christmas tree cutouts, his bedspread with complementary tree designs, his reindeer-patterned socks resting on his footboard, and Mrs. Claus’s updated green plaid skirt. Modern day details also make the story relatable to young readers. Holding a Starbucks look-alike cup in her hand, Mrs. Claus starts off her journey waving goodbye to her elves. Her strong organizational skills can be seen as she maps out “her route” (perhaps using Waze?) on what looks like an iPhone. And on what looks like an iPad, she makes “a supply list and check[s] on the weather.” Even her sleigh has an attachment for her tablet that she uses to check off deliveries!

Through rhyme and clever illustrations, children will love to get to know Mrs. Claus’s spunky, can-do spirit.

 

Coming Home book cover artworkCOMING HOME
Written by Michael Morpurgo
Illustrated by Kerry Hyndman
(Candlewick Press; $17.99, Ages 3-7)

Starred Review – Kirkus Reviews

Written by Michael Morpurgo and illustrated by Kerry Hyndman, Coming Home, is a touching tale about a robin’s harrowing journey home to his mate-just in time for Christmas. Before the story begins, readers are given information about the Scandinavian red robin’s migration to find refuge in Britain from the harsher winters up north. In steady rhythm and repetitive language, Morpurgo narrates the robin’s struggles with snow, sleet, predators, fatigue, and fear. “Beat, my wings, beat faster. Easy, my heart, go steady. Steady.” The story’s underlying themes of perseverance and determination are evident in the robin’s journey—a journey, in fact, symbolic of life’s storms and struggles and the ways we can cope with them. We can find community with others who are on a similar path (as the robin does when he joins a flock of thrushes) and seek cycles of rest and rejuvenation. When the unexpected happens, we can also, like the robin, surrender to the mercy of another’s tenderhearted care.

If you’re looking for a quiet holiday book that highlights the winter season, I highly recommend this story. Double page, bird’s eye view spreads of a dark and deep blue forest as well as close ups of the bird seeking shelter from the rough winter weather complement each other nicely. A great bedtime story to end the day (and the winter season), Coming Home is a hopeful and soothing tale both adults and children will come home to again and again.

 

Tough Cookie by Edward Hemingway book cover illustrationTOUGH COOKIE: A CHRISTMAS STORY
Written and illustrated by Edward Hemingway
(Henry Holt BYR; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

A hilarious fractured fairy tale, Tough Cookie is the story of a cookie with an identity crisis. In a town called the “Land of Holiday Treats” where everything is sugary and sweet, our hero feels like the odd cookie out.

Shaped like a classic gingerbread man, he jumps fresh out of the oven and runs out the door with the familiar “run, run, as fast as you can! You can’t catch me-I’m the….” He  soon discovers, though, that this same old script isn’t true for every cookie. When a curious passerby, Fox, takes up on the cookie’s challenge, the cookie realizes that he’s not only sluggish, but also positively unpalatable. Shocked and dismayed, the cookie tries to fit the mold, but, alas, to no avail. At his breaking point, “Cookie crumble[s]” but then is introduced to a special group of cookies. They have been following him all day eager to share with him his true identity. Proud of his unique role in the community, the cookie joyfully joins his cohorts, singing a new tune: “‘Look, look, look at me! You can’t reach me-I’m a….” (You’ll have to get the book to find out!)

Written and illustrated by the youngest grandson of Ernest Hemingway, Edward Hemingway brings much fun to the story, especially for younger audiences. Just about everything in his illustrations of Christmastown beams with a happy face. Large text, colorful pastels, and traditional holiday colors create a warm, festive, and inviting atmosphere. Hemingway’s humorous play on words through baking references keeps the pace energetic. Added touches are cookie recipes at the end of the story as well as front and back matter illustrations of adorable cookie characters.  I found myself playing a “Where’s Waldo” kind of game by trying to locate each character in the pages of the story (they are there!). I’m certain little ones will find many more creative ways to engage with Cookie’s quest of self-discovery.

  • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

 

 

 

 

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Inspired by a True Tale – The Dam by David Almond

THE DAM
Written by David Almond
Illustrated by Levi Pinfold
(Candlewick Studio; $17.99, Ages: 5-9)

Starred Review – Kirkus, Publishers Weekly

 

cover illustration from The Dam by David Almond with art by Levi Pinfold


Poignant words and haunting illustrations tell this tale based on a true story of love, loss, and rebirth in The Dam written by David Almond and illustrated by Levi Pinfold.

“He woke her early. ‘Bring your fiddle,’” a father tells his daughter. Through these sparse words, the book opens with an immediate sense of urgency. A dam under construction will soon flood a valley cherished by Kathryn and her father. Once home to beloved musician friends, this valley will forever “be gone” and “washed away.” Pinfold’s illustrations echo the somber tone in a palette of gray, green, and white. While his “snapshot” pictures highlight samples of the delicate flora and fauna that will be lost, his double page spreads bring a bigger perspective to the vastness of the English countryside—the vastness of the loss and of the task at hand.

 

interior spread by Levi Pinfold from The Dam by David Almond

THE DAM. Text copyright © 2018 by David Almond. Illustrations copyright © 2018 by Levi Pinfold. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA on behalf of Walker Books, London.

 

“‘Take no notice. There’s no danger,’” Kathryn’s father tells her. Tearing off boards on the abandoned houses they once gathered in to dance and sing, Kathryn’s father asks her to enter the rooms and play her fiddle. I couldn’t help but pause after reading these lines in the book. No danger? Had this story taken place in America, such an area would be visibly marked off with miles of flourescent yellow “CAUTION” tape and multiple “NO TRESPASSING” signs. Though the illustrations in the book show no such signage, it’s quite possible the characters’ presence in the valley was to some degree illegal. Though whatever physical danger there may have been, they faced an even greater one: the danger of the grieving process.

I compare tearing off boards from house to house to tearing off the bandage on a deep wound, acknowledging its pain, and being present with the discomfort. Kathryn plays and “Daddy sing[s],” lifting spirits “gone and … still to come” up and out of the houses and setting them free to become part of the landscape—the earth, the sky, the animals, and people. What a profound mystery of the human spirit, that we can find the safety of healing only by taking the risk to be vulnerable. Father teaches daughter there really is no danger when we grieve fully and wholeheartedly.

 

interior spread from The Dam by David Almond with art by Levi Pinfold

THE DAM. Text copyright © 2018 by David Almond. Illustrations copyright © 2018 by Levi Pinfold. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA on behalf of Walker Books, London.

 

“The lake is beautiful” the author tells us, reflecting on how Kathryn and her father embrace the new creation. And just as before, Pinfold’s illustrations give us both detailed and wide-angled views of the landscape. Peaceful blues, gentle greens, and flowy whites restore what was once lost. Even the movement of the little fish mimic the dance of the spirits. Though the valley is gone, music continues to be celebrated.

Both multi-award winners, Almond and Pinfold complement each other beautifully. I strongly recommend the book to caregivers and educators alike, especially as an introduction to issues of change and loss for younger elementary-age children and to issues of death and bereavement for older ones.

  • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

Read a review of another David Almond book here.
Read another review by Armineh here.

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Flashback Friday Featuring The Day I Ran Away by Holly L. Niner

 

 

THE DAY I RAN AWAY
Written by Holly L. Niner
Illustrated by Isabella Ongaro
(Flashlight Press; $17.95, Ages 2-6)

cover illustration from The Day I Ran Away

 

Written by Holly L. Niner and illustrated by Isabella Ongaro, The Day I Ran Away shows loving parents creatively assuaging little Grace’s frustration during a challenging day.  

It’s bedtime and Grace begins sharing her day with her father who gently reflects her feelings: disappointment at not being able to wear her purple shirt, anger at finding out her favorite cereal is “all gone,” repentance for having lashed out at Mom, and betrayal for not being recognized for her creativity (in using a purple marker to transform her white shirt into her favorite color). As spunky Grace narrates her day, it’s clear to us readers she’s more concerned about telling a good story than disobeying her parents. “No, Silly, you can’t run away to your room,” she tells her dad after he incorrectly assumes the bedroom is her go-to runaway hideout. I like how Dad playfully adds to the drama of her story: “Like a princess in a tower,” he compares her to after Grace explains she was “Banished to [her] bedroom.”

 

int artwork by Isabella Ongaro from The Day I Ran Away written by Holly L. Niner

Interior illustration from The Day I Ran Away written by Holly L. Niner and illustrated by Isabella Ongaro, Flashlight Press ©2017.

 

These endearing exchanges between father and daughter are enhanced by Ongaro’s colorful illustrations. Double page spreads guide the story. On the left side of the page we see the written words (Dad’s words are in orange and Grace’s are in purple-of course!) and the day’s events are illustrated on the right. This technique makes reading the story, for even very little ones, easy and fun to follow. Hand sketched and digitally colored, the illustrations feel warm and safe, especially in details like the scalloped fringes on Mom’s sleeves and kitchen tablecloth.

 

int artwork by Isabella Ongaro from The Day I Ran Away written by Holly L. Niner

Interior illustration from The Day I Ran Away written by Holly L. Niner and illustrated by Isabella Ongaro, Flashlight Press ©2017.

 

While the subject matter of running away can be controversial, the lighthearted interaction between parent and child encourages respect and space for children’s emotions. After all, when Grace finally decides to run away, she remembers and obeys a fundamental house rule. “I’m not allowed to cross the street!” she tells her father and solves her predicament by following her mother’s suggestion. Camped out in the yard, Grace is in her pop up tent, steps away from the kitchen and Mom’s cookies. In fact, this presence of food (and the comfort it connotes) I felt was a quiet nod to Where the Wild Things Are. Max returns from his adventure to find dinner on the table, piping hot–as if he never really ran away from home in the first place.

While our darker emotions can make us feel miles away, our parents’ love and validation always bring us back home.

  • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

    Read another review by Armineh here.

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A Cooked-Up Fairy Tale by Penny Parker Klostermann

A COOKED-UP FAIRY TALE
Written by Penny Parker Klostermann
Illustrated by Ben Mantle
(Random House BYR; $17.99, Ages 5-8)

Cover image from A Cooked-Up Fairy Tale

 

Author Penny Parker Klostermann and illustrator Ben Mantle add just the right ingredients to A Cooked-Up Fairy Tale, a fractured fairy tale that spices up some of our favorite classics.

The story takes place in “the magical land of fairy tales” where our hero, William, resides. Though it may seem like the perfect place to live, something is missing for William: an outlet to express his culinary artistry. In his endeavor to make his dream come true, he works as a chef in local restaurants, The Brick House and The Bears Bistro; but when the work proves far too dangerous and painstaking, respectively, he decides to cook from his own kitchen.  With just a few coins left in his cookie jar, he heads out to the marketplace and purchases what he thinks are ordinary ingredients: raw apples, beans, and a pumpkin—items central to the plot of three specific fairy tales. These items are intended for delivery to Fairy Tale Headquarters. Convinced that Fairy Tale Headquarters simply “needs a good chef to spice things up,” William transforms each item into an exquisite dish and heads off to deliver them to their intended destination.

 

Interior illustrations from A Cooked-Up Fairy Tale

Interior spread from A Cooked-Up Fairy Tale by Penny Parker Klostermann with illustrations by Ben Mantle, Random House BYR ©2017.

 

But William soon discovers his creations pose a possible threat to the children’s bedtime tales. His delicious creations are recreating the endings. Fortunately and most pleasantly, his creative flare produces an even more “happily ever after” than the original story lines.  

A Cooked-Up Fairy Tale isn’t the usual fractured fairy tale in which a single tale is twisted, altered, or updated in some way. William is a unique character living in the land of familiar fairy tales. Klostermann’s frame technique draws us into the story of our hero who unintentionally disrupts the familiar, immerses himself into these stories, and ultimately becomes part of one. Children will get a kick out of the creative and comical changes that take place in the plot. I can imagine them laughing out loud about what “should” have happened.  

 

Interior illustration from A Cooked-Up Fairy Tale

Interior spread from A Cooked-Up Fairy Tale by Penny Parker Klostermann with illustrations by Ben Mantle, Random House BYR ©2017.

 

Mantle’s illustrations delightfully blend the familiar and unfamiliar as well. Vertical lines move the plot along in an energetic and steady direction. At the same time, Mantle’s soft color palette creates a comfortable, safe and calm tone, and his curved drawings sprinkle in the fun.  

I would recommend this book to children who enjoy lighthearted, wacky tales and to parents/caregivers who enjoy reading stories that celebrate creativity and individuality. The book’s underlying message of how our creative endeavors give us agency to write our own stories is something I truly appreciate and admire.

  • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

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Best Children’s Books for Christmas and the Holiday Season – Part Three

BEST CHILDREN’S CHRISTMAS BOOKS
A ROUNDUP – PART THREE

 

Here’s the third of our kids’ Christmas books roundup. There’s really something here for everyone from ages 3 to 12 (we’ve even included some board books for the littlest ones). So please take a look, buy the books at your local independent bookseller then let us know which ones ended up being your family’s favorites. Merry Christmas!

 

Nativity by Cynthia Rylant Cover ImageNativity
Written and illustrated by Cynthia Rylant
(Beach Lane Books; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

Cynthia Rylant’s Nativity combines the story of Jesus’ birth with well known passages from His ministry in beautiful text adapted from chapters of the Book of Matthew and the Book of Luke. Rendered in acrylic paints, Rylant’s colorful and straightforward illustrations allow young readers to experience the poetry of the King James translation of the Holy Bible.  

The story begins on the cover flap:  “A child is born…” which brings us to a pastoral setting. The animals are white and cloudy; human figures are faceless but, ironically, it’s the simplicity of their forms that communicates the scene: shepherds with staff in hand guarding their flock. As we follow their visit to the Baby Jesus, we notice familiar features, such as the star and wise men, absent from this Nativity scene. As a result,  the presence of shepherds are highlighted all the more; they dominate over half the book — a fact I thought was interesting and appropriate, considering Jesus called Himself the “good shepherd” who “lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10: 11). Shepherds are spreading the news of Jesus’ birth to passers-by; in the privacy of their homes, they are wondering “at those things which were told them” by “the angel of the Lord.” Young readers may not understand the deep theological matters raised with the coming of Christ, but they can grasp its contemplative effect in the simple and humble bow of a shepherd’s head.

In addition to such quiet gestures, bold colors also help children connect with Scripture. As the angels proclaim peace on earth and “good will toward men” the sky is illuminated with a rainbow of warm, exciting colors-the colors of pure joy. My personal favorite is the way purple is used to illustrate the most poignant points of the story. Against a backdrop of rich purple, Mother Mary “kept these things” she witnessed “and pondered them in her heart.” The color appears once more when the story shifts to show Jesus as a grown man preaching His famous words (taken from the Sermon on the Mount): “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” Both these scenes express powerful and profound principles that invite reflection and meditation. The depth of the color calls readers to pause and wonder about the mystery of God and the peace of His Presence. If you’re looking for a traditional Christmas story, this is a book I’d highly recommend.  • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

Ninja Claus book cover imageNinja Claus!
Written and illustrated by Arree Chung
(Henry Holt and Company, $17.99, ages 4-7)

Every child hopes to catch a glimpse of Santa Claus placing presents under the Christmas tree or filling their stockings with candies and trinkets on Christmas Eve. Most share the tradition of putting out cookies and milk for the jolly old fellow. There are however, probably a lot fewer who, like Maxwell, a mischievous young ninja, in Ninja Claus!, set traps in an attempt to capture Santa. Utilizing nets, a fishing pole, ropes, hula hoops, and his best ninja tricks, Maxwell manages to capture his dog and his father nibbling the cookies, but he’s swept off to bed by his mother before he can capture Santa.

Arree Chung has written and illustrated yet another Ninja picture book, his third in the series, that is bound to be a hit. With his deft use of acrylic paint and Adobe Photoshop, Chung sets the tone of the night before Christmas, with only the lights from the tree illuminating the pages. And his writing? He had me holding my breath and praying that Christmas wouldn’t be ruined for little Maxwell. And then came the big exhale. The greatest ninja of all, Santa Claus, came and went unnoticed. Hands down, this book is a delight.  • Reviewed by MaryAnne Locher

The Nutcracker in Harlem book cover imageThe Nutcracker in Harlem
Written by T.E. McMorrow
Illustrated by James Ransome
(HarperCollins; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

In The Nutcracker in Harlem, Tchaikovsky’s ballet comes to life in the dreams of a Marie growing up in a musical family during the Harlem Renaissance. I love the illustrations, by multiple award-winner James Ransome, most of all. In the opening pages, author McMorrow and illustrator Ransome invite us into a bright and boisterous living room, crowded with happy people enjoying music and each other. The clothing and hats in bold blues, greens, and reds transport us to the 1920s. A Christmas party is underway. Marie’s uncle is playing the piano, her parents are dancing, and Miss Addie is singing. Everyone encourages Marie to participate, but she hangs back, shyly watching and listening. The atmosphere is so real and wonderful it makes me feel nostalgic for a party I never attended. When the story shifts to the world of Marie’s dream, the deep, vibrant watercolor illustrations keep the mood warm and happy even when what could be more frightening elements — such as an army of mice — dance into view. By the end, the dream, combined with the magic of Christmas, gives Marie the courage to join in the jazzy celebration.  • Reviewed by Mary Malhotra

Red and Lulu by Matt Tavares book cover imageRed and Lulu
Written and illustrated by Matt Tavares
(Candlewick Press; $17.99, Ages 3-7)

Thank you, Matt Tavares! As a former New Yorker who experienced the majesty of the Norway Spruce at Rockefeller Center most years of my childhood, I was transported by Red and Lulu to Manhattan, not unlike the tree in this simple yet very moving story about love lost then found again during Christmastime. Red and Lulu, cardinals inspired by those in Tavares’ own backyard, make a massive evergreen their home. It’s there the pair see the seasons change in all their glory while always remaining close to the shelter that nature has so kindly provided.  “Once a year the people who live nearby string lights on their tree and sing a special song: ‘O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree.'” Then, while Red is away, the tree is cut down and Lulu clings to it not understanding what is happening. Written with few words that speak volumes and powerful and poignant illustrations, the story follows Red as he tracks the tree on its journey. Unlike adult readers sharing the story with their children, Red doesn’t realize the significance of his home being transported to New York City. He searches high and low to find Lulu amidst the twinkling lights, falling snow, skyscrapers and crowds. As carolers sing their special song, O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree, Red’s determination is rewarded as the magic of the song, the holiday season and the Yuletide spirit in this famous city help reunite the cardinal couple and fill young (and old) readers’ hearts with joy. Don’t skip the back matter which includes facts about the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree tradition and an author’s note. Visit the Candlewick website to see a book trailer, some interior artwork and order the book for a 25% discount using the code CANDLEWICK at checkout.   • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

Weird but True Christmas from NatGeoKids cover imageWeird but True! Christmas: 300 Festive Facts 
to Light Up The Holiday
(National Geographic Kids; $8.99, Ages 8-12 )

Here’s another great stocking stuffer for fans of outrageous facts. There are dozens of paper back books in the Weird but True! series and it’s no surprise since they are so entertaining. This one is no exception. Just when they think they’ve read all the facts, they’ll want to dive back in to share them and spread the holiday cheer. Included are some whammies such as “One family passed down the same fruitcake since 1878,” or “A whole sheep’s head is considered a  holiday delicacy in Norway.” Do your children know that “In India people decorate banana trees for Christmas,” or that “During the Australian gold rush, people baked gold nuggets into their Christmas pudding for good luck?” As can be expected from any National Geographic book, the photographs included are fantastic as are the added illustrations. The 208 page count should not put off any child since the info is written in large font and the graphics are bold and bright.Weird but True! Christmas can be read quickly to get a general overview then returned to when specific facts require further study. If your tweens cannot get enough of all these fun facts, they can download the National Geographic Kids Weird but True app for iPhone, iPod touch and iPad!    • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

Other Recommended Christmas Books This Year Include:

This Little Reindeer
Written by Aly Fronis
Illustrated by Luke Flowers
(Little Bee Books; $5.99, Ages 2-5)

 

 

Christmas Eve
Annie Auerbach
(Barron’s Children’s Books; $6.99, Ages 1-4)

 

 

Don’t Push The Button!: A Christmas Adventure
Written and illustrated by Bill Cotter
(Jabberwocky Kids; $8.99, Ages 2+ )

 

 

 

Christmas Books for Children Roundup – Part One

Christmas Books for Children Roundup – Part Two

Holiday Gift Books Guide

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The Most Wonderful Thing in the World by Vivian French

The Most Wonderful Thing in the World
Written by Vivian French
Illustrated by Angela Barrett
(Candlewick Press; $18.99, Ages 4-8)

 

TheMostWonderfulThinginTheWorld
Starred Reviews: Publishers Weekly, Booklist, Kirkus Reviews

Sometimes the very thing we are searching for is right before our eyes. And sometimes, if we’re fortunate, we get the opportunity to discover this truth through beautiful picture book stories like The Most Wonderful Thing in the World.

A retelling of illustrator Angela Barrett’s favorite childhood story, The Most Wonderful Thing in the World starts with a royal problem. An over-protective king and queen of a picturesque kingdom with “sky-blue water and golden bridges” must find a proper husband for their only child, Lucia. Unsure of how to find the right man, they write to “Wise Old Angelo” for advice on what to do. In response, Angelo advises them to find the man who can show them the most wonderful thing in the world. And, alas, the parade of suitors who visits the king and queen bring one bizarre item after another: “mysterious magical beasts and a piece of frozen sky,” a “mammoth tusk” and “wind machine”—“even [a] mermaid in a tank.”

In the meantime, clever Lucia finds a way to avoid the madness. Her quiet defiance enriches the storyline as do the illustrations of the city, done in soft colors and lush detail. Lucia’s parents intend on sheltering their daughter. Ironically, their decision to send her away while they choose her future husband provides Lucia the independence she needs to choose for herself.

Away from her parents’ watchful eyes, she befriends Angelo’s grandson, Salvatore, who gladly fulfills her request to show her the city, ancient and romantic—like Venice with an Edwardian twist. Through piazzas, busy markets, and “marble arches” they visit the central spaces but also the hidden gems of the city “where the grand never [think] to go.”

This middle section is my favorite part for the tone feels modern and old at the same time. The story comes alive, as if what we are reading may have actually taken place. In pictures, we see the classic architecture of the buildings juxtaposed with the fairly modern attire of the characters. While Lucia and Salvatore roam the city, the items the suitors bring, too, showcase modern technology. As a side note, I like how some of the illustrations are done in a film reel kind of lay out which may help younger readers follow along more easily.

In words, Vivian French also balances this magical space of old and new. Most powerful for me is the opening line, “Once, in the time of your grandmother’s grandmother.” While fairy tales tend to take place in a time and place centuries old, often foreign and unreal, French’s language gives readers the feeling this tale might be true—or at least the possibility of being real, like it’s just within our reach. After all, as French reminds us, “[Our] grandmother’s grandmother would remember it.”

In the end, it’s Salvatore who reveals the most wonderful thing in the world to the king and queen who realize the answer they’ve been searching for has been in plain view all along. Married, Salvatore and Lucia gracefully rule their kingdom with a deep love for their people. And while the historical details of the story are debatable, one fact is certain: love is the most wonderful thing in the world.

  • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

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Little Critter: Just a Special Thanksgiving by Mercer Mayer

LITTLE CRITTER: JUST A SPECIAL THANKSGIVING
Written and Illustrated by Mercer Mayer
(Harper Festival$4.99, Ages 4-7)

LittleCritter_JustaSpecialThanksgiving

One of the very first picture books I ever bought for my son was by Mercer Mayer. I love Little Critter’s character:  rambunctious, sweet, and fun-loving – someone who kids of all ages can relate to. Much like other series books I enjoy (The  Berenstain Bears and the Froggy series), Little Critter’s books give us an opportunity to see the central character in different snippets of life. In Just a Special Thanksgiving, we celebrate the holiday alongside Little Critter and learn that, though Thanksgiving activities and events may not go as planned, realizing the spirit of the holiday is what matters.

From the get-go we feel that exciting sense of “Thanksgiving is in the air.” In the classroom, Little Critter and his friends are drawing pilgrims and turkeys. When school is out, he must rush home to change into his turkey costume for the Thanksgiving play. While you can probably guess what his lines are, poor Little Critter forgets them and opts to sing a song.

At the “big Thanksgiving Day Parade” early next morning more surprises from Little Critter are in store for all participants.  Tired from marching, our hero hops on a float proudly waving to his parents who, along with law enforcement and other parade goers, have become quite irate by his actions.

I love how Little Critter’s innocence tugs on our heartstrings and how blissfully unaware he is of the commotion his actions cause. What’s even more touching is the way he tries to “right” his wrongs (particularly in the scenes at the grocery store) which lead to even more disaster. Kids will enjoy the humor implicit in Little Critter’s goof-ups. At the same time, parents will be reminded that, no matter how bad things may seem, our children’s intentions are good; their hearts are in the right place. Little Critter’s excitement with helping cook and serve the meal at the community center reminds us what’s at the heart of the Thanksgiving holiday.

A great book to curl up with your little one-perhaps while the turkey is roasting in the oven! (Includes 20 stickers).

  • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

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Good Reads With Ronna is proud to be an IndieBookstores Affiliate. Doing so provides a means for sites like ours to occasionally earn modest fees that help pay for our time, mailing expenses, giveaway costs and other blog related expenses. If you click on an IndieBound link in a post and buy anything, we may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Your purchase supports our efforts and tells us you like the service we’re providing with our reviews, and for that we sincerely thank you.

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Maple & Willow Apart by Lori Nichols

MAPLE & WILLOW APART
Written & illustrated by Lori Nichols
(Nancy Paulsen Books; $16.99; Ages 3-5)

Starred Review – Kirkus Reviews

 

Maple & Will Apart by Lori Nichols

Maple & Willow Apart, the follow up to author/illustrator Lori Nichols’ Maple and Maple & Willow Together, will draw in fans new and old alike as they witness Maple and Willow’s growing sisterly bond.

Done in pencil and digitally colored, the illustrations emphasize the two central characters. The background is simply white with just enough detail to hint at the setting.  At center stage of the book is the sisters’ relationship.

When a major change in their routine takes place, both girls feel this relationship may be in jeopardy. Maple, now old enough to attend “big-girl school,” will be away from home, and her younger sister Willow, for most of the day. While the two pretend this fact doesn’t bother them, their actions speak louder than words.

From Monday through Wednesday, Maple returns home sharing the thrill of her new school life–perhaps a bit too forcefully. Speaking in what seems like a mile a minute, she narrates with open arms, expressive eyes, and a dazzling smile. In true sibling rivalry fashion, Willow subtly strikes back with her own tale of adventures with an imaginary forest friend. In this game of one-upmanship,or rather one-upgirlship, each sibling creates a more fantastic story than the other.  

Though underneath the theatrics lie real emotions:  the fear of separation and the longing to express it. By Thursday morning, the siblings have toned down their contest of words allowing for the natural bonds of sisterhood to take over and heal their friendship. First in pig Latin, then in more candid conversation, Maple shares how she “miss[es] playing at home” with Willow who admits to sharing the same feelings. While younger, Willow finds a way to stay connected with her sister even when Maple is away at school.  

For families who are experiencing a similar change or for parents looking to open a more general discussion of separation, I highly recommend Maple & Willow Apart. The inherent presence of love between family members ensures that no change is too scary to face.

  • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

 

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In a Village by the Sea by Muon Van

In a Village by the Sea
Written by Muon Van
Illustrated by April Chu
(Creston Books; $16.95, Ages 4-8)

Starred Reviews – Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly
Junior Library Guild
selection

InaVillage1

 

Inspired by the author’s own life as the daughter of a fishing family in Vietnam, In a Village by the Sea is the story of yearning for the safety and security of home. Told in a circular fashion, Van uses few but poignant words to guide us from the open ocean, to a home atop a hill, and back to the ocean once more. Chu’s beautiful illustrations elicit powerful, conflicting emotions.  

VillageInterior

Interior artwork from In a Village by the Sea by Muon Van with illustrations by April Chu, Creston Books ©2015.

We see fishermen casting their nets amidst choppy waves.  Dark storm clouds gather in the distance; solemn expressions foreshadow the dangers to come.  Details like these are lush in each spread.  In a Village by the Sea is the  kind of book a child would spread out on the floor slowly studying and absorbing each image, like the gentle mist above the mountains where a family dog guides our eyes to a home, the home belonging to one of the fishermen.

Colors here are warm. Reds, yellows, and oranges from the lanterns hanging on the front porch and in the fire roaring beneath the “steaming noodle soup,” as well as the tender eyes of the faithful dog remind us of the things home symbolize. Though the contemplative stare of the central character of the home (the fisherman’s wife) jars our sense of security. Juxtaposed to her serene surroundings, the wife’s gaze is heavy with worry as she awaits the return of her husband.

A particularly breathtaking spread is on pages 16-17 in which we get an aerial view of an orderly and organized home where there’s a place for everything and everything has a place for itself. Every detail is intriguing: the sandals neatly placed right outside the door, prepped vegetables in baskets ready for cooking, a sleepy baby in a bassinet. Even the cricket that lives in the home is appropriately placed-in a “dusty hole” underneath a mat.

VillageInterio

Interior artwork from In a Village by the Sea by Muon Van with illustrations by April Chu, Creston Books ©2015.

Through this extraordinary cricket, we are privy to another layer of Chu’s artistic skills (fully revealed on the last page of the story). “Humming and painting,” the cricket, we come to find out, is the master creator of this story. He is drawing the scene of a “sudden storm,/ roaring and flashing” where the fisherman’s “white boat,” helplessly “crash[es] and roll[s].” As one of the cricket’s hands draws the stormy gray clouds, you can see the pressure point of his brush. It’s as if the story itself is happening in the moment we are reading it, as if we’re experiencing the moment of creation itself. Chu reminds us that, like the fisherman’s dangerous journey, reading involves risk. We readers, too, are at the mercy of fate, unaware of what’s to come next.

Open skies, calm waters, and cheerful yellows at the final pages tell us the end is hopeful.  The fisherman will arrive safely back to his home.  In fact, the cricket’s final creation on the last page ensures it’s just so.

Readers of all ages will undoubtedly connect with In a Village by the Sea. In a world of certain uncertainty, the reassurance of family and love bring all of us home.

  • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

 

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Mr. Happy & Miss Grimm by Antonie Schneider

Mr. Happy & Miss Grimm
Written by Antonie Schneider
Illustrated by Susanne Strasser
(Holiday House; $16.95, ages 4-8)

 

MrHappyMissGrimm-cvr.jpg

 

First published in Germany as Herr Glück & Frau Unglück, Mr. Happy & Miss Grimm shows us how kindness, unstoppable and contagious in its nature, can soften even the hardest of hearts.  

As his name suggests, Mr. Happy is happy. All the time. Morning to night time. Rain or shine. His belongings, too, have an air of cheerfulness and comfort to them. On the day he moves to his new home, Mr. Happy brings with him a big cushy chair, lots of books, a teapot, friendly pets, plants, and a ladder we come to find out he uses to climb up to light the moon’s lantern. As we read the stickers on his luggage of the countries he has visited, we know Mr. Happy has spread his cheerfulness to all corners of the earth.

Moving next to neighbor Miss Grimm, however, proves to be a challenge and a nuisance-that is, for Miss Grimm. From her “bleak little” unit #13 home to her drab clothing and suspicious disposition, Miss Grimm seems to take morbid curiosity in Mr. Happy’s everyday tasks. Mr. Happy plants flowers and trees. He “greet[s] the rain when it rain[s], the snow when it snow[s], and the wind when it bl[ows].”  The more annoyed Miss Grimm is with her neighbor, the more lush Mr. Happy’s garden grows and the more friendly her and Mr. Happy’s pets become with each other. Like children innocent of adult prejudices, the animals take an immediate liking to each other, thus beginning the slow transformation of Miss Grimm’s home.  

It first starts with the small plant on Miss Grimm’s windowsill, lifeless at first, but after Mr. Happy arrives it springs to life almost overnight. Soon enough, too, the neighbors’ roofs share a wire. Strasser’s mixed media, monoprint, crayons, and digital collage produce an Alice in Wonderland effect for Mr. Happy’s side of the spread, while, on Miss Grimm’s side, sudden bursts of color and texture highlight her gradual change. Readers will enjoy flipping the pages back and forth to mark how and when these changes take place.

Despite her every effort to remain her mean old self, even slamming the door in Mr. Happy’s face, Miss Grimm is not the same person.  Like the way the wind carries Mr. Happy’s seeds or the way his garden thrives, love grows simply because it’s there–simply because it has its own set of rules that change us to become a better version of ourselves.  

– Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

 

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