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Young Adult Novel Review – Something Close to Magic

 

SOMETHING CLOSE TO MAGIC

Written by Emma Mills

(Atheneum BYR; $19.99, Ages 12+ )

 

Something Close to Magic cover

 

 

 

Starred Review – School Library Journal

 

If you enjoy food and fantasy, Emma Mills’s Something Close to Magic will satisfy those cravings. In seventeen-year-old Aurelie’s world, people avoid magic because there are supposedly too many bad consequences: eating food prepared magically is said to later increase your hunger twofold. Once Aurelie seemed to have abilities and studied the supernatural at school. Now she’s alone in the world, serving unending days in an unpaid apprenticeship. Magic is far from her mind until a dashing stranger named Iliana walks into Basil’s Bakery and stirs things up. Iliana is a Finder (bounty hunter) and needs Aurelie’s abilities as a Seeker to help locate the people she’s tracking.

The teens soon set off on an adventure along with Quad (a troll who often steals the show with her clever lines delivered in a deadpan manner) and Prince Hapless (who seems to live up to his surname—assigned to royalty according to their personality traits). All four main characters are delightful in their unique ways. The story’s twists take the reader to interesting places as we peel back layers of deception. I appreciated how the budding romance with Prince Hapless plays out. Quad may be my all-time favorite troll!

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Best New Children’s Books for Father’s Day 2023

FATHER’S DAY BOOKS

~ A ROUNDUP ~

 

 

 

REVIEWS:

Dads Can Do It All Cover dads doing many activitiesDADS CAN DO IT ALL!
Written by Ted Maass
Illustrated by Ekaterina Trukhan

(Grosset & Dunlap; 8.99, Ages 0-3)

I reviewed Moms Can Do It All! last month and am happy to share its equally charming companion, Dads Can Do It All! with you.

Maass and Trukhan engage children with their easy rhyme and vibrant art in this 18-page board book. “There are dads who sing songs and write music with words, and there are dads who take care of dogs, cats, and birds.” Little ones are encouraged to believe in themselves and in what they might be one day. Dads are shown role modeling in myriad jobs from mail carriers, farmers, construction workers, chefs, and nurses to firefighters, clerks, hairstylists, astronauts, and homemakers. The variety of occupations depicted can open the door for discussing all kinds of positions people have at an age when children love to dress up and play pretend. 

Like the companion board book, here readers are treated to bold colors and simply shaped characters that will capture and hold young ones’ attention. With its convenient bookplate for personalization, this book can be gifted to new dads by anyone including baby! • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Papá’s Magical Water-Jug ClockPapas Magical Water-Jug Clock cover boy giving out water
Written by  Jesús Trejoa
Illustrated by Eliza Kinkz
(Minerva; $18.99, Ages 3-6)

If you enjoy picture books that entertain on many levels and are more than a Father’s Day book, that’s what you’ll get with this delightful debut from Jesús Trejoa, a popular Mexican American comedian. The multiple hooks of this father-son tale such as humor, gardening and equipment, animals and nature, diversity, and grown-up jobs, will pull in young readers. The family closeness and joyful illustrations will keep them reading.

Is Papá’s water-jug clock truly magical? That’s what children will find out as little Jesús joins his father on a hot and busy Saturday to help out in the family landscaping business. “Remember to drink lots of agua,” his mama reminds him with some innocent foreshadowing before her son starts loading up the van. Papá has already told Jesús that when the water runs out the work day is over meaning the water jug serves as a clock as well as a much-needed source of hydration. That is if Jesús didn’t give away so much water at each home they visited!

Jesús encounters animals every place they go. First cats, then a dog, and even peacocks. Kids should note the ever-present purple skateboard throughout that whimsically provides rides for these creatures along the way. Is the lad deliberately being mischievous by offering water to the animals because he wants to use it up and end the day early or because he genuinely is concerned about the animals’ welfare and doesn’t realize the repercussions of his actions? It’s magical, right?

Then there’s Jesús’s hard labor on such a hot day. Readers see him frequently splash water on his face to cool off. It is fun watching what Jesús gets up to because of Kinkz’s childlike, loose-lined art, created using multimedia including pencil, ink, watercolor, gouache, crayons, and queso. In addition to the magical water jug, I always find it magical when the art and prose pair so harmoniously as they do here.

When eventually Jesús tells Papá that the jug is empty, Papá explains that the jug is not really magical and there are many more stops before they can go home. Beyond surprised at this revelation, the little boy worries he’ll be fired, unaware of the simple solution – request water at the next stop. Once reality sets in, the father and son team must make tracks to finish up all the while having laughs along the way. Now Jesús can appreciate that “Time and water are precious. We don’t want to waste them.” The sweet love between father and son is palpable on every page, and the gentle life lesson conveyed makes this a “read again” story. Don’t miss the comical endpapers too! Also available in Spanish – El Barrilito Mágico de Papá. • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel.

 

Ramen for Everyone cover boy with bowl of ramenRAMEN FOR EVERYONE
Written by Patricia Tanumihardja
Illustrated by Shiho Pate
(Atheneum BYR; $18.99; Ages 4-8)

A March/April 2023 Indie Next Pick
A Junior Library Guild Selection

Another great father/son bonding book is Patricia Tanumihardja’s Ramen For Everyone with illustrations rendered in sumi ink, pencil, and digital media by Shiho Pate. The main character, Hiro, has been studying Dad’s technique of cooking the perfect bowl of ramen every Sunday night for as long as he can remember. But when his seventh birthday arrives, Hiro decides he’s ready to make ramen for the family.

With illustrations of Dad chopping the meat, seasoning the broth, and cutting the vegetables it’s hard not to want to run out and get a bowl of ramen—or better yet make it yourself. Let’s make ramen! Hiro says standing beside Dad at the cooking block. Yes, chef! Dad responds with his arms poised straight by his side. The roles have now been reversed! Hiro’s hair is pulled back in a grey cap as he Thwacks, Thumps, and Bumps his way into the kitchen attempting to make the noodles soft and springy. You got this! His dad says supporting him from the side.

Mom, sister Mia, Dad, and dog Sushi watch as the eggs slip through Hiro’s fingers and the pork falls apart. Shiho Pate perfectly depicts anger on Hiro’s face as Dinner is ruined! He throws the food in the trash. Dad sits crossed-legged on the kitchen floor with his hand on Hiro’s head. It isn’t perfect like yours, Hiro says. Ramen doesn’t have to be perfect, Dad replies.

Hiro and Dad return to the kitchen together to create a meal that both Mom and Mia will enjoy. Cheesy ramen for Mom, Asian Pears for Mia, and for Dad, who loves Hawaiian pizza, pieces of pineapple are a delight in his bowl.

The back matter tells how Ramen is a popular Japanese noodle of Chinese origin and how it has been popularized over the last few years in the United States. Tanumihardja also lists Kitchen Rules telling kids that cooking is fun but you need to wash your hands. Great cooking also takes time. Reading Ramen for Everyone together is a terrific way to get a father and son (or daughter) into the kitchen to create dishes. An Easy Miso Ramen recipe is included and introduces new dishes to add to the family menu. So, if you don’t feel like cooking, you can always bring in ramen bowls this Father’s Day.
• Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder.

 

When Daddy Tucks Me In cover girl hugging father WHEN DADDY TUCKS ME IN
Written by Sacha Cotter
Illustrated by Josh Morgan
(Sourcebooks Jabberwocky; $18.99, Ages 4+)

The little girl narrator of this charming picture book rushes out of bed to greet her daddy after he returns home from his medical job that involves working late. Early on we’re clued into the important role of keys in this imaginative story when the girl notes the “jingle, jangle, jingle in the lock of our door.”

From here on in, readers are treated to a slew of fun-sounding, made-up words such as when the little girl proclaims her dad is the “… best tucker-in-er-er in the whole wide world.” On top of that, onomatopeia is peppered throughout the story adding to its read-aloud appeal. We quickly realize how Dad’s packed keychain unlocks the heart of this tale as the narrator inquires about what each key is used for. Is she stalling for time with her dad? It doesn’t matter because we are curious too!

The lumpy, bumpy key leads to Dad’s yarn about a fantastical Zippenburger that takes him zippling off to work with a “Zippeny, zappeny, zippen …” A tiny key unlocks a treasure chest that’s hidden away and only he can find using his
“pirate’s map.” Morgan has filled every spread with whimsical details that one look will not suffice. His art, created in Adobe Photoshop using digital painting and found textures, will hold your child’s attention and delight them. In this particular illustration, there’s a swinging monkey in a pearl necklace, a chest filled with gold, a spider, a snake, and even the little girl’s cat who manages to insert himself into every humorous scene. As a cookie lover, my favorite key is the curly, curvy one that opens the door at her dad’s workplace to a cookie-making machine and conveyor belt. There Dad sits stuffing his face. With each key’s purpose conjuring up wild tales such as the one to a corral where Dad’s woolly mammoth Stanley lives or the one that opens a rocket so Dad can collect space noodles, threads of your child’s dreams are being sewn.

As the story and your child wind down, Cotter brings readers back to the key that started us off, the simple metal one that opens the front door to the narrator’s house and to her! What a satisfying way to end When Daddy Tucks Me In and send your little one off to sleep. • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel.

 

Daddy Dressed Me cover girl hugging dad who sewsDADDY DRESSED ME
Written by Michael Gardner and Ava Gardner
Illustrated by Nadia Fisher
(Aladdin BYR; $18.99; Ages 4-8)

Daddy Dressed Me is co-written by thirty-nine-year-old fashion blogger, Michael Gardner, and his confident and thoughtful young daughter, Ava Gardner, who loves pink, getting manicures, and modeling her dad’s unique creations. That alone should fill your heart and give you a reason to read this book with your own child.

The digitally rendered illustrations by Nadia Fisher open to Dad and Ava back to back with Dad wearing an apron for cooking, standing next to a toolbox for building, and cans of paint on the floor for decorating. He’s good at making things.

We see him cooking and painting a mural but what Daddy was best at was sewing. He makes dresses for Ava every year for the holidays and a dress for the Daddy-Daughter dance. When Daddy drops Ava off for Kindergarten, Ava chooses to make a picture frame for Daddy during arts and crafts. But when Miss Sydney announces that everyone should dress in their best clothes for Move Up Day (saying goodbye to Kindergarten and hello to first grade) Ava begins to worry. Would they still make crafts? What about story time?

During dinner, Daddy asks Ava how school was and she tells him about Move Up Day and that she is worried about reciting a poem. Maybe I can make you a special dress, Daddy suggests to Ava who melts into his hug. We see drawings of different dress choices for Ava to choose from. Together they go to the store to find the perfect fabric and Ava finds one that a real princess would wear. She draws a picture of her dream dress. Daddy is a bit worried that it may be complicated but he agrees. Together they practice the poem while Ava helps Daddy with the dress. Ava’s words flowed with more confidence and Daddy’s sewing machine began to whir faster than ever before. When Miss Sydney called Ava’s name she recited the poem perfectly wrapped in the dress that Daddy designed.

The back matter explains the story behind the story of how Michael Gardner used creativity as a way to process his internal struggles. He says, “God turned my pain into power.” Gardner dedicates this book to the memory of his firstborn daughter, Madison-Sole, whose blessed memory he honors in all that he does. This story beautifully highlights what determination, patience, and love can do. • Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder.

 

SOON TO BE RELEASED:

The Coolest Beard cover boy helping dad shaveTHE COOLEST BEARD
Written by Betty Tekle
Illustrated by Nicholas Alexander
(Albert Whitman; $18.99; Ages 4-8, Preorder now, releasing 6/22)

Tenderness and empathy abound in storyteller Betty Tekle’s picture book The Coolest Beard, in which a boy goes with his father to the barbershop and sees the kindness that is shown between his dad and the men who talk about ‘grown folks’ business while getting haircuts and beard trims.

The adults are seated talking on a couch, a cane leaning on Mr. Williams’ knee, but when young Isaac asks, when I grow a beard, I can talk and listen to grown folks’ business? His dad responds, By the time you get a beard, you’ll be one of the grown folks. Nicolas Alexander’s colorful detailed drawings illustrate the Black cultural tradition of the barbershop as a community and family space. And his drawings of the father’s long furry beard are the envy of young Isaac. Some of my favorite illustrations are the humorous spot art pictures of Isaac imagining himself with a beard.

Isaac does not have the patience to wait for a beard to grow, so he rubs Dad’s beard oil all over his face to speed up the process. The adorable illustrations of father and son in the bathroom with Dad rubbing the oil on his beard are made sweeter when we see Isaac doing the same.

Week 1: Nothing yet; Week 2: Still nothing. His cute little dog is intently staring at him and waiting for the beard to grow. By the time he reaches Week 6, Dad’s beard oil has been used up and he wonders if olive oil may do the trick.

When Saturday morning barbershop time comes around, Isaac and his doggy see that his face is as soft and empty as the day before. Isaac feels awful about using up the beard oil and confesses to Mom and Dad. Dad says that going with him to the barbershop will make him feel better.

That’s when Cliff the barber has a plan and places Isaac in the barber chair. When Isaac opens his eyes, he sees that Cliff has rubbed shaving cream all over his cheeks and chin resembling Santa Claus. Now that he has his version of a beard, Isaac is invited over to talk with the grown folks learning that Mr. Williams has broken his hip and that Dad has offered to run errands for him. Other guys offer to help as well. I didn’t realize that grown folks’ business is just adults helping each other, Isaac thinks when Dad offers Mr. Williams money to pay his bills since he’s unable to work. Isaac now sees that it’s not just the beard that makes his dad cool, but his care and generosity toward his friends.

Though not out yet, The Coolest Beard celebrates this unique aspect of fatherhood while honoring the men in children’s lives who teach their kids about acts of loving-kindness. Preorder today. • Reviewed by Ronda Einbinder.

 

MORE RECOMMENDED READS FOR FATHER’S DAY

Daddy and Me cover multiple dads kidsDADDY AND ME
Written by Gary Urda
Illustrated by Rosie Butcher
(Little Bee Books; $8.99, Ages 0-3)

 

 

 

A Bed of Stars cover dad son in truck stargazingA BED OF STARS
Written and illustrated by Jessica Love
(Candlewick Press; $18.99, Ages 4-8)

 

 

 

How To Catch a Daddysaurus cover assorted toolsHOW TO CATCH A DADDYSAURUS
Written by Alice Walstead
Illustrated by Andy Elkerton
(Sourcebooks Wonderland; $10.99, Ages 4-8)

 

 

 

Daddy & Me Side by Side cover father son walking in woodsDADDY & ME, SIDE BY SIDE
Written by Pierce Freelon and Nadia Fisher 
Illustrated by Nadia Fisher
(Little, Brown BYR; $18.99, Ages 4-8)

 

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Picture Book Review – The Moon from Dehradun

THE MOON FROM DEHRADUN:
A Story of Partition

Written by Shirin Shamsi

Illustrated by Tarun Lak

(Atheneum BYR; $18.99; Ages 4-8)

 

 

The Moon From Dehradun cover girl baby brother and doll

 

Starred Review – School Library Journal

 

Inspired by the true-life events of the author’s mother, The Moon from Dehradun written by Shirin Shamsi and illustrated by Tarun Lak is a powerful and poignant story of the 1947 Partition of India.

 

The Moon From Dehradun int art1 girl with doll while mother cooks
Interior art from The Moon From Dehradun written by Shirin Shamsi and illustrated by Tarun Lak, Atheneum BYR ©2022.

 

Azra can hear the anger on the street just outside her home. “‘[People] are afraid,’” her Ammi says, “‘because our home has been divided ….’” Azra and her family have been living in Dehradun for generations. She tells her doll, Gurya, they will have to leave “‘in five days,’” but when Abba comes home frantic and distressed, it’s clear staying any longer will be far too dangerous. 

The book gracefully manages complex and difficult topics such as displacement and political unrest by filtering them through young Azra’s perspective. The focus is on her feelings:  feelings of fear in not knowing what’s to come, heartbrokenness for leaving Gurya behind in the rush to depart, and anger at her baby brother for “making” her forget to grab her beloved doll before leaving home forever. “My heart sinks like a stone in a well.” Azra expresses her grief in beautiful, lyrical language. The finality of the move and loss of home and place is gently emphasized by the refrain, “We cannot go back.” Lak’s use of muted colors in browns, pinks, and blues and sweeping scenes amplifies the sadness and confusion underway during the mass uprooting caused by the Partition.

 

The Moon From Dehradun int2 hurried departure for Lahore
Interior art from The Moon From Dehradun written by Shirin Shamsi and illustrated by Tarun Lak, Atheneum BYR ©2022.

 

The long train ride leads Azra and her family to Lahore where friendly neighbors, familiar spaces, and a surprise discovery provide hope for a new home and new beginnings.  

Educational and inspirational, this book is a moving story of courage, hope, and resilience. 

Back matter includes a glossary, author’s note, and information about the Partition.

Click here for a Reading Group Guide.

  • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian
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Middle Grade Book Review – New Kids & Underdogs

NEW KIDS & UNDERDOGS

Written by Margaret Finnegan

(Atheneum BYR; $17.99, Ages 8-12)

 

New Kids and Underdogs cover dog doing agility training

 

 

In Margaret Finnegan’s third middle-grade novel, New Kids & Underdogs, she once again convincingly captures the voice of the 10-year-old protagonist, in this case, fifth grader, Robyn Kellen.

Robyn, whose parents are divorced, has moved around a lot because of her mother’s university teaching positions. Now in San Luis Obispo which, according to Robyn’s mom, is going to be the last move, Robyn must yet again learn to navigate a new town, new school, and hopefully new friendships. To do so, she relies upon her handy list of rules for a new kid.

At school, Robyn has initially blended in with two classmates (rule #1 ), Marshan and Lulu, and feels thankful for that. But when Robyn decides to pursue agility training for her beloved dogs Sundae (anxious, and needy of Fudge) and Fudge (almost blind, deaf, and definitely intelligent), it ends up connecting her with kids at school who just might make her break her rules in the best possible way. However, before doing so, she must learn that life experiences do not always fit neatly into a set of rules. And to find true friends, she must stop the rules from taking over.

Early on in the book, Robyn negotiates a trade with cancer survivor, Nestor, and his cousin, Jonathan,  together with “the Grape,” passionate purple wearer and grade-four-skipping, Alejandra. Tutoring and snacks for agility training. The thing is, Robyn ends up enjoying the time she spends with these kids who Marshan and Lulu consider to be sad outsiders.

After Nestor starts successfully teaching Sundae and Fudge to handle an agility, or what he, the most experienced in the group, dubs an “ability” course, Robyn worries she is spending too much time with these kids. If Marshan and Lulu think the agility kids are all sad outsiders, the negative label could stick to her by association. So, Robyn builds an invisible wall to keep her school friends separate from the dog training group and never the twain shall meet.

Eventually this protective wall leads to the kids who meet for agility to stop pursuing a friendship with Robyn when she does not return their interest. But when she changes her mind at Halloween it proves too little too late. Clearly remaining safe behind her wall is what her list dictates. Will Robyn get another chance to befriend the pack of agility training kids and rewrite or even discard those limiting rules?

Readers see that people, like the dogs in this story, are so much more than their abilities or disabilities. They are a whole package, a whole book. And Finnegan has a gift for presenting “underdogs” and empowering them so any kid reading this story will also feel empowered. The challenges Robyn has had to deal with being a new kid time and again ultimately reach a breaking point. “What other people think is their problem, not yours,” Alejandra wisely says near the end. Pretty darn insightful, I’d say.  When Robyn realizes that the underdogs get her and she is one of them, she understands she cannot judge anyone by just one chapter.

This fantastic novel about being seen and accepting one’s worth of true friendship is my recommended read for kids who may be facing friendship issues of their own. It’s a novel I’d have felt comfortable suggesting to my own kids when they were in those often trying middle-school years.

Click here for a discussion guide.

Read my interview with Margaret about her second novel, Susie B. Won’t Back Down here.

  • Review by Ronna Mandel
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Three Middle Grade Fantasy Book Reviews

 

MIDDLE-GRADE FANTASY NOVELS

∼ A ROUNDUP ∼

 

 

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

(Chicken House; $17.99, Ages 8-12) 

Starred Review – Kirkus

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Mirrorwood coverTHE MIRRORWOOD
Written by Deva Fagan

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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Picture Book Review – Gitty and Kvetch

GITTY AND KVETCH

Written by Caroline Kusin Pritchard

Illustrated by Ariel Landy

(Atheneum BYR; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

 

 

Gitty and Kvetch cover

 

 

Take one glass-half-full girl named Gitty and add one glass-half-empty bird named Kvetch and you’ve got the makings of one unusual and entertaining pair of pals in the new picture book, Gitty and Kvetch. Although he kvetches (complains) a lot, Kvetch is more realist than pessimist which is a quality I love and appreciate.

The story opens with Gitty painting a picture and seeking out her “unflappable friend” so he can accompany her on the “perfect day to hang the perfect painting in our perfect, purple tree house.”

 

Interior illus by Ariel Landy from GITTY AND KVETCH by Caroline Kusin Pritchard 2
Interior art from Gitty and Kvetch written by Caroline Kusin Pritchard and illustrated by Ariel Landry, Atheneum BYR ©2021.

 

A great touch is how Gitty’s dialogue is colored purple throughout the book while Kevtch’s is appropriate in blue. Yiddish words are successfully infused into the story as the friends shlep off together. No matter what Gitty sees, including cow poop, her upbeat mood cannot be brought down by Kvetch’s seemingly gloom and doom.

 

 

Interior illus by Ariel Landy from GITTY AND KVETCH by Caroline Kusin Pritchard 4
Interior spread from Gitty and Kvetch written by Caroline Kusin Pritchard and illustrated by Ariel Landry, Atheneum BYR ©2021.

 

 

Even when a storm approaches, Gitty sees “the perfect cloud covering the perfect sun on the perfect day to hang the perfect painting.” Her enthusiasm for all she encounters is infectious and a stark contrast to her friend Kvetch. That is until the delightful drizzle becomes a heavy rain. When Gitty sees her perfect painting has been ruined by the rain, she is distraught. Here the roles of the BFFs suddenly shift and it’s time for Kvetch to rise to the occasion to cheer up Gitty. That’s when an idea he has convinces his friend, in the most perfect colorful way, what perfect is really all about.

Kvetch’s Glossary of Yiddish words on the endpapers is a wonderful way for him to explain all the words used in the story. I found more and more to enjoy in this story with every read. Landy’s cheerful and energetic illustrations kept my interest, inviting me back for more. Pritchard’s prose, especially the repetition, flowed easily over the fast-reading 48 pages with lovely alliteration. The story should resonate with young readers who have likely found themselves in a similar predicament at one time or another. The dynamic of Gitty and Kvetch provides the opportunity for kids to see the power of friendship and empathy at play.

  •  Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
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Middle Grade Cover Reveal – Susie B. Won’t Back Down

 

      IT’S TIME FOR ANOTHER EXCITING

            MIDDLE-GRADE COVER REVEAL

 


SUSIE B. WON’T BACK DOWN

Written by Margaret Finnegan

Publication Date:  10/5/21 From Atheneum BYR

 

SusieBWontBackDown cvr

 

 

Can you tell how excited we are to share the middle-grade cover reveal for Susie B. Won’t Back Down, Margaret Finnegan’s second middle-grade novel?

 

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THE COVER:

This upbeat middle-grade book cover shouts “I mean business!” Today readers get their first look at Susie B., Finnegan’s 10-year-old protagonist who’s determined to bring about change by running for student government. The bold, bright colors in a variety of geometric shapes convey a sense of optimism, that anything is possible. I love how artist Bev Johnson incorporated the title into a campaign poster and positioned Susie B., in a confident pose looking directly at the reader. Is she as capable as she appears? We may not know just yet how she’ll approach her candidacy, but there’s every indication her experience will be as colorful as the novel’s cover.

 

SUMMARY:

When fifth-grader Susie B. decides to run for Student Council President, she thinks she’ll finally earn herself some eternal glory, just like her hero Susan B. Anthony, the famed women’s rights activist. But winning won’t be easy, especially when everyone is already voting for Susie’s opponents, one of whom begins to make some pretty stinky choices just to get elected. And when she learns that the heroic Anthony made some pretty stinky choices of her own, it just makes everything harder.   

 

Author Margaret Finnegan
Margaret Finnegan ©2019 Skye Moorhead

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Margaret Finnegan is the author of We Could Be Heroes, a Junior Library Guild selection. Her work has appeared in FamilyFun magazine, the LA Times, Salon, and other publications. She lives in South Pasadena, California, with her family and dog Walt. She makes very good chocolate cakes, and while she ran for student council in ninth grade, she lost.

LEARN MORE ABOUT MARGARET’S WORK:

Website: http://www.margaretfinnegan.com

Follow on Twitter: @FinneganBegin

Follow in Instagram: @FinneganBegin

Add Susie B. to your TBR list on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/55768357-susie-b-won-t-back-down

 

ABOUT THE COVER ARTIST

Susie B. Won’t Back Down cover artist, Bev Johnson, is a graduate of RISD who enjoys swimming, chocolate, writing, and being inspired by music. She has designed many children’s book covers, including Best Babysitters Ever by Caroline Cala and Pippa Park Raises her Game by Erin Yun. Learn more about her work at www.bevsi.weebly.com and on Instagram @beverlylove.

 

See Margaret’s previous cover reveal for We Could Be Heroes here.

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Middle-Grade Novel Review – The Great Pet Heist

THE GREAT PET HEIST

Written by Emily Ecton

Art by Dave Mottram

(Atheneum BYR; $17.99, Ages 8-12)

 

the great pet heist cvr

 

In The Great Pet Heist, when elderly Mrs. Food slips on some dog barf and ends up too injured to return possibly ever, her pets must fend for themselves. Walt (don’t call me Lucretia) is an Oriental shorthair and the sly female lead. Her sidekick is lovable but slow at times Butterbean, a male long-haired wiener dog, whose claim to fame is his nostril-probe lick. The main crew is comprised of Oscar the smart mynah bird, and the amiable rats Marco and Polo.
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GREAT PET HEIST int
Interior art by Dave Mottram from The Great Pet Heist written by Emily Ecton and illustrated by Dave Mottram, Atheneum Books for Young Readers ©2020.

 

A girl from their building named Madison comes by to take care of the basics, but the pets know it’s hasta la vista soon. Their situation seems dire until they stumble upon a possible criminal in their building who may have enough gold coins to give the animals riches to care for themselves. Once the heist is launched, a series of funny antics will keep you wondering whether these characters will succeed, or if it’s off to the pound.

Throughout, Dave Mottram’s art is beautifully done, adding another layer of humor to Ecton’s story. Though Walt was my favorite character, I fell for Chad the octopus once I saw him rising out of toilet bowls and tripping up the villain. Take a close look at the image next to the title page of The Great Pet Heist to find Chad.

 

Click here for another humorous middle-grade novel about pets reviewed by Christine.

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New Halloween Books for Kids 2020

NEW HALLOWEEN READS

A ROUNDUP

 

pumpkin freeclipart

 

 

This seven-book roundup covers wickedly wonderful Halloween season reads. From a gentle book about the fall season to spooky ghouls, goblin-witches, ghosts, vampires, a witch’s hut, and a haunted house, we’ve got you covered.

 

The Little Kitten coverTHE LITTLE KITTEN
Written and illustrated by Nicola Killen

(Paula Wiseman Books; $16.99, Ages 3-6)

Starred Review – Kirkus

With whimsical art in blacks, whites, and grays offset with oranges and foil accents, The Little Kitten embodies the spirit of autumn. Leaves blow across the pages, bringing movement that propels Ollie on her adventure. As promised by the title, there is a little kitten, but also Ollie’s cat, Pumpkin. Nicola Killen’s art and storyline

beautifully convey the playful, loving spirit of this book. It’s a pleasure to see a gentle story that’s engaging and fulfilling—it even has a surprise ending, shh!

She Wanted to be Haunted cvrSHE WANTED TO BE HAUNTED
Written by Marcus Ewert
Illustrated by Susie Ghahremani

(Bloomsbury; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

I’m a sucker for a great book title and just had to read Marcus Ewert’s She Wanted to Be Haunted—plus, what a great idea! As promised, Clarissa, an “adorable and pink” cottage finds herself disappointed with her appearance. Her father is a castle and her mother a witch’s hut, but Clarissa got the short end of the broomstick with her undeniable cuteness. “Daisies grew around her, / squirrels scampered on her lawn. / Life was just delightful! / —and it made Clarissa yawn.”

What kid hasn’t felt bored when things were mellow and nice? Susie Ghahremani’s hand-painted artwork brings Clarissa to life in (dreaded!) upbeat colors. Inside, on Clarissa’s fuchsia, wallpapered walls, we sneak a peek at her family’s photos and, yes, she’s surely the oddball of the bunch. My favorite scenes involve the surprise ending. If you want to know if Clarissa’s attempts to gloom-down her appearance work, you’ll have to read the book. Trust me, the ending is awesome! Click here for a coloring page.

Scritch Scratch coverSCRITCH SCRATCH
Written by Lindsay Currie
(Sourcebooks; $16.99, Ages 9-12)

Scritch Scratch—the title of this middle-grade novel by Lindsay Currie will get under your skin as all good spooky books should. Because, of course, this sound is made by the ghost haunting Claire. Prior to this, science-minded Claire absolutely did not believe in ghosts and found her Dad’s ghost-themed bus tour and book embarrassing. So why did this ghost choose her? Claire’s too afraid to sleep and should have plenty of time to solve this mystery. However, since her BFF’s hanging around with the new girl, Claire may need to figure it out alone.

I’ve never been on a haunted bus tour, but, after reading this book I want to if they’re all as interesting as the one in this story. “Forgotten” facts about Chicago are cleverly woven in—what a great way to sneak in a history lesson! Click here for a discussion guide.

Embassy of the Dead cvrEMBASSY OF THE DEAD
Written by Will Mabbitt

Illustrated by Taryn Knight
(Walker Books US; $16.99, Ages 8-12)

This book opens with a warning from the Embassy that “[b]y signing, you hereby accept all responsibility for any death, dismemberment, or condemnation to the Eternal Void that results from reading.” How irresistible! When Jake Green receives a kind of creepy package in error, a fun adventure ensues dodging bonewulfs and their master Mawkins (a grim reaper). Accompanied by ghosts Stiffkey, Cora, and, an adorable fox named Zorro, the unlikely group tries to avoid being sent into the Eternal Void—a fate worse than death.

Will Mabbitt’s well-developed characters are very likable and Taryn Knight’s art plays up the humor. I appreciate the Embassy of the Dead’s new ideas about ghosts and their companions such as Undoers (someone who helps a ghost trapped on the Earthly Plane move on to the Afterworld). Mabbitt nails a perfectly written ending. I’ll gladly follow Jake and his friends onto the next book in the series. Click here to read a sample chapter.

Ghostology coverGHOSTOLOGY: A True Revelation of Spirits, Ghouls, and Hauntings
Written by Dugald A. Steer; Lucinda Curtle
Illustrated by Anne Yvonne Gilbert; Garry Walton; Doug Sirois
(Candlewick Press; $27.99, Ages 10+)

Fans of the beautifully made Ologies series won’t be disappointed in the latest addition, Ghostology. Packed full of stories, this book will keep you haunting its pages because there’s so much information from psychics and mediums, to fakes and frauds. Want to know what’s in a ghostologist’s field kit (sketchbook, accurate timepiece, and, of course, a ghost-detecting device, just to name a few items), or how to hunt ghosts? You’ve come to the right place. Pay attention to the “Types of Ghosts” chapters.

Beyond reading, the book is a sensory experience with its sealed pages, official documents envelope, flaps, and textures. If there’s such a thing as a coffee table kid’s book, this is it. The icy blue color scheme of the cover is offset by a large faceted red “gem.” Raised letters just beg you to run your hand over them and invite you to look inside. The thought and detail in this book are phantom-astic!

beetleandthehollowbone cvrBEETLE & THE HOLLOWBONES
Written and illustrated by Aliza Layne
Coloring by Natalie Riess and Kristen Acampora
(Atheneum BYR; $21.99, Ages 8-12)

Starred Reviews – Booklist, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal

In Aliza Layne’s middle-grade graphic novel, Beetle & the Hollowbones, Beetle is a twelve-year-old goblin-witch being homeschooled by her gran. Beetle, however, would rather hang out with her current BFF Blob Ghost at the old mall (where they are inexplicably trapped). When Beetle’s previous BFF, Kat Hollowbones, returns home after completing her sorcery apprenticeship at a fast-track school, their friendship isn’t the same. Kat’s aunt Marla is the wonderfully drawn skeletal antagonist.

With well-developed characters and plenty of action, this fast-paced book will bewitch you. The struggles of moving through school and friendships falling apart are accurately depicted. The panels, grouped into chapters, capture your attention with their fantastic illustrations, engaging colors, and lively text. I like how Layne includes some concept art at the end, inspiring other artists with a behind-the-scenes peek.

vampiresnevergetold cvrVAMPIRES NEVER GET OLD: Tales With Fresh Bite
Editrixes: Zoraida Córdova and Natalie C. Parker
Other authors include Tessa Gratton, Rebecca Roanhorse, Julie Murphy, Heidi Heilig, Samira Ahmed, Kayla Whaley, Laura Ruby, Mark Oshiro, Dhonielle Clayton, and Victoria “V.E.” Schwab
(Imprint/Macmillan; $17.99, Ages 12 and up)

Starred Review – Publishers Weekly

Vampires Never Get Old: Tales with Fresh Bite is a YA short story anthology with the goal to “expand on and reinvent traditional tellings.” How awesome is that?? Editrixes Zoraida Córdova and Natalie C. Porter’s story, “Vampires Never Say Die,” is a suspenseful, modern tale about a teen and vampire who meet online. They also provide the introduction and insightful commentary after each piece, delving into the many areas of the vampire myth. There are so many wonderful things in this collection; I’ll give you a few nibbles to whet your appetite.

“Bestiary” by Laura Ruby is set in a near dystopian future; Jude works at the zoo and has a special connection with animals. This story stood out for me because the reader must piece together the truth. It’s quite a different twist on thirst and the theft of blood and humanity.

“Seven Nights for Dying” by Tessa Gratton opens with the line, “Esmael told me that teenage girls make the best vampires” (because they’re “both highly pissed and highly adaptable, and that’s what it takes to survive the centuries”). We follow Esmael’s chosen girl through a week of uncertainty as she considers joining the undead. This cleverly layered story demands to be reread to truly appreciate Gratton’s well-crafted words.

Weaving in old superstitions, “The Boy and the Bell” by Heidi Heilig expands upon the Victorian tradition of burying their loved ones with a bell (allowing them to call for help if mistakenly buried alive). Set at the turn of the century, Will is a graverobber for all the right reasons—he wants to become a doctor, and “acquiring” freshly buried bodies allows him to trade for a spot at the back of the amphitheater where dissections take place. With only a few glimpses at Will’s thoughts, we find out volumes about his struggles.

This anthology breathes life into the short story and lets readers appreciate the many perspectives and styles from a very talented array of writers. My favorites tend to have unexpected endings. There’s something for everyone. Just read it already!

 

  •  ADDITIONAL RECOMMENDED READS FROM RONNA
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    IT’S HALLOWEEN, LITTLE MONSTERIts Halloween Little Monster cvr

    Written by Helen Ketteman
    Illustrated by Bonnie Leick
    (Two Lions; $17.99, Ages 3-7)
    e
    When I began reading It’s Halloween, Little Monster, one of the Little Monster series of picture books, I thought I was reading about the first time I took my son out trick-or-treating 15 years ago. All he had to do was see one or two kids in scary costumes and he hightailed it home before anyone could say boo! I’m so glad Helen Ketteman wrote this picture book because I’m sure it’s going to help make the first Halloween experience for reluctant little ones a lot easier.

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    In this gentle rhyming story, Little Monster heads out for Halloween accompanied by his dad. The reassuring presence of a parent sets the tone. Dad will be right there to calm Little Monster’s fears no matter who or what they encounter. “Don’t fret Little Monster. / See there in the street? / That’s not really a ghost / it’s a kid in a sheet!”
    e
    Together the pair see all kinds of spooky creatures while trick-or-treating, but the dad anticipates what might frighten his child and is always one step ahead. I like how the papa monster not only comments on assorted pirates, witches, and vampires but scary sounds, too. Leick’s muted blue and purple toned palette of the detailed illustrations will only add to the enjoyment of this charming Halloween read. It’s an enjoyable pairing of prose and art. By the time the surprise ending happens, Little Monster’s smiling just like the children having this story read to them.
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  •  OTHER RECOMMENDED HALLOWEEN SEASON READS:
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    CHRISTOPHER PUMPKIN by Sue Hendra and Paul Linnet with art by Nick East
    (Board Book for Ages 0-3, Little Brown BYR)
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    THAT MONSTER ON THE BLOCK by Sue Ganz-Schmitt with art by Luke Flowers
    (Picture Book Ages 4-8, Two Lions)
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    THE REVENGE OF THE WEREPENGUIN by Allan Woodrow with art by Scott Brown
    (Middle Grade illustrated novel for Ages 8-12, Viking BYR)
  • Disclosure: Good Reads With Ronna is now a Bookshop.org affiliate and will make a small commission from the books sold via this site at no extra cost to you. If you’d like to help support this blog, its team of kidlit reviewers as well as independent bookshops nationwide, please consider purchasing your books from Bookshop.org using our affiliate links above (or below). Thanks!
    e
    Recommended Reads for the Week of 10/26/20

 

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Middle Grade Books – An Interview With Margaret Finnegan About Happy Endings

ON HAPPY ENDINGS

AN INTERVIEW WITH MARGARET FINNEGAN

AUTHOR OF DEBUT MIDDLE GRADE NOVEL

WE COULD BE HEROES

 

 

For Autism Awareness Day 2020, I’m delighted to share this interview with author Margaret Finnegan about her debut middle grade novel We Could Be Heroes and her take on happy endings. At the end Margaret’s also included some helpful resources for readers.

INTERVIEW

GOODREADSWITHRONNA: Can you tell us a little bit about We Could be Heroes?

MARGARET FINNEGAN: We Could be Heroes is about Hank Hudson and Maisie Huang, two very different kids. They become friends as they try to help a dog with epilepsy—Booler—who is tied day and night to a tree. Their friendship is complicated by the fact that Hank has autism, and so he can’t always tell if Maisie is really trying to be his friend or if she is manipulating him for her own reasons.

GRWR: Your book deals with some very serious issues, but it is always funny and it ends on an adorably happy note. These days, a lot of middle-grade fiction is embracing more complicated and ambivalent endings, what made you decide to go full on happy?

MF: I wrote this book for my daughter, Elizabeth. Elizabeth is not Hank, but she did inspire a few of his qualities, such as his painful aversion to really sad stories. She feels so connected to the characters she reads about—and she feels their heartbreaks and pain so personally—that for a number of years she refused to read new novels. The uncertainty was too much for her. So she read her favorite books over and over. Hank is like that too. When We Could be Heroes opens, Hank is trying to destroy a tragic book his teacher has been reading to the class. He can’t take how sad it makes him.

Since I set out trying to write a book that Elizabeth would read, I knew from the start that it would have to have a big, sloppy happy ending. But Hank needed a happy ending too, and I think he earned it. Like any hero, he is tested and found worthy of reward. But more than that, in a meta sort of way, the story needed a happy ending that would contrast the terrible ending of the story within the story—the one Hank’s teacher is reading the class.

GRWR: Do you think Hank and Maisie’s happy ending can last?

MF: I’m not sure. Maisie’s mom definitely has her doubts. And although Hank and Maisie are “rewarded” something amazing, I think that reward will present Hank—who struggles with change and unpredictability—with challenges. But challenges can help us grow, so I guess that isn’t a bad thing.

GRWR: There are so many challenges that young readers face today—like climate change. How does that factor into thinking about happy endings? Don’t we need books that go to those dark places so kids can see their reality reflected and then face that reality with resiliency? Or is there still a needat least sometimesfor “big, sloppy, happy endings”?

MF: We need all kinds of stories with all kinds of endings—and there are many wonderful middle-grade novels that go dark and yet are filled with transcendent beauty. Those books actually win lots of awards. But unabashedly happy endings also have something important to offer readers. Our kids are not growing up in bubbles. They have a whole world of experiences and entertainments that teach them the complexities and hardships of the world. And it is exactly when things are going horribly that some readers need stories that make them laugh and that instill hope.

I have been very open about the challenges Elizabeth has had with autism and epilepsy. There was a long stretch of years where she was being bullied, experiencing lots of seizures, and dealing with horrible medication side effects. And what were the books she turned to repeatedly during this time? The Fudge books by Judy Blume. They made her feel good. They made her believe that better was possible. She knows about the pain of the world. She lives it. She—like many others—longs for stories that remind her that there is joy and fun in the world and that sometimes—just sometimes—everything turns out great. 

Read a review in Publishers Weekly about We Could Be Heroes here.

Click here for a link to the Epilepsy Foundation.

Click here for autism information from the National Institutes of Health.
Click here for autism information from the Autistic Self Advocacy network.

ABOUT MARGARET

Author Margaret FinneganMargaret Finnegan is the author of We Could Be Heroes.
Her work has appeared in FamilyFun magazine, the LA Times, Salon,
and other publications. She lives in Southern California, where she enjoys
spending time with her family, walking her dog, and baking really
good chocolate cakes. Connect with her @margaretfinnegan.com
or on Twitter @FinneganBegin.

 

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Halloween Picture Books 2019 – A Roundup

BEST NEW PICTURE BOOKS FOR HALLOWEEN

A ROUNDUP

PART 3

free clip art pumpkin

 

 

Skulls book coverSKULLS!
Written by Blair Thornburgh
Illustrated by Scott Campbell
(Atheneum BYR; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

For Halloween or any day for that matter, Skulls! will entertain young readers with its eye-opening facts and fun watercolor illustrations featuring oblong faces and childlike representation.

Blair Thornburgh’s hit the nail on the head with this unique picture book that introduces kids to an important part of the human body via an adorable young narrator. Made up of twenty-two different smaller bones, the skull accounts for “about 10 percent of our body weight” but we often don’t think about it. When we do, as Thornburgh points out so perfectly, it’s absolutely amazing, kind of gross and thoroughly entertaining.

We tend to take for granted how a skull is “like a car seat for your brain,” keeping it safe and in place. It’s also actually full of holes otherwise it would be so much heavier. “But most important of all: skulls are not trying to be scary.” Once kids learn about all the cool skull-related things shared in Skulls!, they’ll probably want to share them with you, especially the jaw and mouth ones. And when they do, they’ll probably ask for a grilled cheese sandwich which means they’ve learned something. After they’ve eaten they’ll probably thank you for helping their “skull grow hard and strong.” In turn, you can use your mandible bone and connecting muscles to smile.

Happy Halloween Pirates book coverHAPPY HALLOWEEN, PIRATES!
Written by W. Harry Kirn
Illustrated by Inna Chernyak
(Clever Publishing; $12.99, Ages 3 and up)

Happy Halloween, Pirates! is a large-sized, kid-friendly, 18-page lift-the-flap board book that’s a rollicking, rhyming read aloud for Halloween. Toddlers will love hearing the story then peeking under the flaps to see what treasures the illustrator has buried beneath.

Shiver me timbers! A pirate crew receives an invitation via crow to a Halloween party. The action starts immediately as they and assorted pirate ship creatures (a cat, some mice) plan their costumes.

Next the pirates go ashore to have some fun with friends galore. They find the haunted party house and join in the festivities. Whoa! The kids who invited their sea-faring pirate pals surprise them by dressing up as pirates themselves on board a mini pirate ship! Between the flowing rhyme, the interactivity of the flaps and the vibrant artwork, children will stay entertained this Halloween as they play with and say Happy Halloween, Pirates! And who doesn’t enjoy a pirate party?

Ghastly Ghosts Book CoverGHASTLY GHOSTS
Written by Teresa Bateman
Illustrated by Ken Lamug
(Albert Whitman & Co.; $16.99, Ages 4-8)

My level of manageable frightening can be found in Ghastly Ghosts. This pleasing and well paced rhyming picture book starts off by setting a Halloweenish mood, but the main character, Old Dave, refuses to be scared by the moaning noises emanating from coal shed. The rhyme works wonderfully in moving the story forward with a subtle upbeat vibe so as not to make little ones’ (or my) hair stand on end. The art style is appealing with a lovely palette that also keeps the fright level slight.

Old Dave wishes for some company as it gets lonely up in the middle of nowhere which is exactly where he lives. But alas, no one goes out on a night so dark and freezing, and if they do it’s not to the place where a ghostly choir can be heard loudly saying, “Ghastly ghosts in the old coal shed!” Oh how I admire Old Dave’s guts. Rather than cower at the scary sounds, our hero faces off with the spirits who he reckons might also enjoy the warmth of his cottage once he replenishes his coal supply. Still more of the “Ghastly ghosts …” chorus erupts, but they’re interrupted by brave Old Dave. “I know. I do. I’d like to bet you’re cold ghosts too.” Together with the ghosts, Old Dave’s coal pail gets filled and everyone is welcome in his now warm and cozy place. “In fact, they’re quite good company. His friendless nights are history.”

clever little witch book coverCLEVER LITTLE WITCH
Written by Muon Thi Van
Illustrated by Hyewon Yum
(Margaret K. McElderry Books; $17.99, Ages 4-6)

Clever Little Witch is more of a sibling tale than a Halloween one, but since witches abound during this season, it still feels appropriate to share. Plus Thi Van has written a story that will definitely resonate with older kids who’d like nothing more to get rid of their younger siblings.

In this charming picture book narrated by Little Linh, we learn instantly from her that she’s “the cleverest little witch on Mãi Mãi Island” if she does say so herself! She tells us what she needs which are a broomstick, a book of spells and a rare and magical pet. What she doesn’t need is an annoying baby brother who does things like ride her broom without asking, chew pages from her spell book or use her magical mouse “as a flashlight.” Yup, the little guy’s gotta go!

Baby Phu is offered around by his older sister, but no one on the island has any desire to take her little bro off her hands. Nope, not the troll, not the forest fairy queen and not the Orphanage for Lost and Magical Creatures. Youngsters will get a huge kick out of these scenes when the reasons why Baby Phu is rejected are explained. The troll, for instance, got hiccups from the last baby brother he ate.

When Little Linh turns to her magical book of spells she sees that “Baby Phu had eaten half the spell.” Clever as she was, she could certainly figure out what the rest was and transform her brother into a goldfish. When the spells go awry and she creates first a frog, then a seal and finally a dragon that steals her wand, things are not looking good. The story’s heroine chases the dragon on her broom. But when the dragon’s tail accidentally knocks down the broom and Little Linh begins falling, guess who comes to her rescue before she crashes to the ground? YESthe dragon, much to her surprise! Does the dragon stay a dragon or does he turn back into Baby Phu who becomes more appreciated? Ahh, you’ll have to visit Mãi Mãi Island to see for yourself! Hyewon Yum’s illustrations of acrylic gouache and color pencil are full of energy. The variety of colors she uses exudes a warm and happy feeling with every page turn. What a sweet, humorous and imaginative sibling story to share with kids!

Ginny Goblin Cannot Have a Monster cvrGINNY GOBLIN CANNOT HAVE A MONSTER FOR A PET
Written by David Goodner
Illustrated by Louis Thomas
(HMH BYR; $17.99, Ages 4-7)

Starred Review – Kirkus Reviews

Ginny is a force of nature and, though perhaps not the best role model for children, will definitely make them laugh and maybe even answer back to the narrator speaking right to them, and that’s just what an ideal read aloud like Ginny Goblin Cannot Have a Monster for a Pet should do.

As I read this picture book, the follow-up to Ginny Goblin is Not Allowed to Open This Box, I thought about a little girl some 22 years ago. No matter what her parents told her, she’d do the opposite. I always worried about her, but she’s actually doing great now that she got all those wild escapades out of her system … and a horse as a pet.

What’s so fabulous about this story is that Ginny’s crazy antics ultimately get her just what she wanted in the first place which is a goat, a non-monsterish pet unlike all the unbelievable others she goes in search of page after riotous page to drive her point home. Whether it’s on a beach where the narrator hopes “she’ll find a tropical fish, or a cute little hermit crab,” Ginny always has something else in mind and goes for it. In one case that means going into the deep, dark sea in a submarine seeking a kraken. We’re reminded that krakens “are unfathomable monsters, and Ginny Goblin cannot have a monster for a pet.” I can just hear the kids at story time repeating that phrase and loving it.

So what do you suppose happens next? You guessed it, as will young readers. Down she goes into a cave in search of a dragon. That sized pet won’t fit in a house will it? So of course Ginny’s taken to a forest where birds who make great pets live. Ha! Instead Ginny catches a basilik, but a magical pet isn’t the answer either. If you think she’s done thinking about getting a monster for a pet because she’s distracted by a visit to a space museum, think again. Ginny commandeers a rocket to outer space where an acid-spitting alien is on her agenda but not the narrator’s.

Goodner skillfully brings the readers and Ginny back to Earth where the idea of a pet like a goat is suddenly looking a lot better than it originally did! Paired with Thomas’s whimsical gouache and pen-and-ink artwork, Goodner’s prose take youngsters on an amusing and mischievous  journey that will delight them and anyone lucky enough to read the story to them.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Read another Halloween Books Roundup here.

 

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Boo! New Halloween Books for Kids 2019 – A Roundup

BEST NEW HALLOWEEN BOOKS FOR KIDS

∼ A Roundup ∼

Part 1

 

Free Halloween clip art Pumpkin

 

 

Halloween Kitty Book CoverHALLOWEEN KITTY (A Wag My Tail Book)
Written and illustrated by Salina Yoon

(Little Simon; $7.99, Ages 3 and up)

Award-winning creator Salina Yoon captures your little one’s attention with this adorable children’s board book, Halloween Kitty (A Wag My Tail Book). The orange and white tabby has a sturdy orange felt tail that little hands can easily move by pulling a tab or touching the tail itself. The cute kitty wants to find a friend but the animals she encounters are all too busy. Luckily, her persistence pays off. This 12-page book is suitable for preschoolers on up. Even adults will feel drawn to zen-like pleasure of wagging the tail. Makes a great party gift!

 

Give Me Back My Bones coverGIVE ME BACK MY BONES!
Written by Kim Norman
Illustrated by Bob Kolar
(Candlewick Press; $16.99, Ages 4-8)

Give Me Back My Bones! reminds me of a modern version of the “Dem Bones” song—you know, “the toe bone’s connected to the heel bone.” However, Kim Norman’s picture book changes the story from a spiritual to a fun romp at the ocean bottom where a stormy night has scattered a skeleton’s bones. Her smart rhyme summons the reader to “Help me find my head bone, / my pillowed-on-the-bed bone, / the pirate’s flag-of-dread bone— / I’m scouting for my skull.”

Kids will unwittingly learn a bone’s name and function as they seek the bones—some are being absconded by various creatures. The lively beat of the lines is fun to read aloud as the skeleton is pieced back together until, once again, ready to set sail.

Bob Kolar’s art expands the playfulness of the book; bones seem to glow against a muted backdrop of ocean water. Sea critters lend a friendly fin, tail, or tentacle. I like how the skeleton, true to pirate fashion, has a peg leg in place of one of its tibia bones.

Don’t forget to peek under the jacket for a full-length “bone-rattling” poster. This extra detail elevates the book from a great read to one you’ll want to buy.

 

Bunnicula 40th Anniversary Edition coverBUNNICULA: 40TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION
Written by Deborah Howe and James Howe

Illustrated by Alan Daniel
(Atheneum Books for Young Readers; $10.99, Ages 8-12)

As much as I love Halloween, the classic story of Bunnicula had somehow eluded me. But, a pet rabbit who may be a vampire sounded irresistible and I was not disappointed. The book pulls you right in from the Editor’s Note (explaining how the manuscript was delivered to her door by a “sad-eyed, droopy-eared dog”) to first-person narration by Harold, the Monroe’s family dog. We soon discover that the problem is a new edition to the family: a black and white bunny found in the movie theater showing a Dracula movie.

Harold already shares the household with Chester the cat. Adding another animal takes some adjusting but weird things start happening to vegetables. For example, a tomato turns white and seemingly has teeth marks! As Harold and Chester try to solve this mystery, we discover the true charm of this book is crafty elusion. Is Bunnicula a vampire rabbit? What do you think?

This 40th anniversary pocket-sized edition has a plush red velvet cover and an Introduction by James Howe about the story’s origins and various renditions over the past four decades. Throughout, Alan Daniels’s art enlivens the story with humor and detail. At the end, best-selling authors Max Brallier, Holly Black, and Dav Pilkey share their personal experiences about this book. Bunnicula has six popular sequels and a spin-off series Tales from the House of Bunnicula and Bunnicula and Friends.

Click here for a link to last year’s Halloween Books Roundup.

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Middle Grade Book Review – Roll With It by Jamie Sumner

ROLL WITH IT

Written by Jamie Sumner

(Atheneum BYR; $17.99, Ages 10 and up)

Roll With It book cover

 

 

Starred Reviews – Booklist, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly

Roll With It was an easy choice for my to-read list because it deals with disability. As a disabled author myself, I feel disability representation in books for children is so important and I’m thrilled to see the number of books featuring this element of diversity growing. Author Jamie Sumner has a son with cerebral palsy—the same disability as her main character, Ellie—so I was confident that aspect of the book would be handled with authority and authenticity. What I wasn’t necessarily expecting is a story that packed such an emotional punch on so many different levels.

Ellie and her mom move in with Ellie’s grandparents to help out since her grandfather’s memory issues are getting worse. Life in her grandparents’ trailer park is not exactly ideal for Ellie physically and she dreads starting at a new school as not only “the new kid” but “the new kid in a wheelchair.” Before long though, she connects with two other classmates from the trailer park, the hilarious Coralee and ultra blunt Bert, and Ellie begins to love her new home. She must then convince her mom that they should stay put.

Ellie is relatable and plucky, with a touch of snarky sarcasm, all of which endeared her to me immediately. Her growth as a character had much less to do with the traditional “overcoming her limitations due to her disability” trope and much more to do with making friends, asserting herself, navigating the complex relationship between a tween kid and her mother, and handling her emotions related to her grandfather’s illness. She’s a regular kid with dreams of being a celebrity chef, who experiences the same feelings and challenges as lots of kids her age. The fact that she has CP and is a wheelchair user is neither the main focus of the story nor downplayed. Sumner strikes a perfect balance of making that aspect of Ellie’s life an integral part of the story without it be her only story. Similarly, Ellie’s Grandpa’s Alzheimer’s is treated deftly and not sugarcoated.

Roll With It is not only a fun and interesting read—it’s a great representation for middle grade readers who are wheelchair users themselves and for any reader interested in a moving story which provides insight into a POV not often seen in children’s books.

  • Guest Review by Karol Ruth Silverstein

Karol Ruth Silverstein writes all genres of children’s books and screenplays. Her debut novel Cursed (Charlesbridge Teen, 2019) is loosely drawn from her experience of being diagnosed with a painful chronic illness at 13. Originally from Philadelphia, she now lives with her two exceptionally fluffy cats, Ninja and Boo. You can read a review of her novel here.

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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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