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Picture Book Review by Christine Van Zandt – If Tigers Disappeared

 

IF TIGERS DISAPPEARED
 If Animals Disappeared series, book 5

by Lily Williams

(Roaring Brook Press; $18.99, Ages 4-8) 

 

 

 

If Tigers Disappeared cover

 

 

Stand up and roar for Lily Williams’s If Tigers Disappeared, the fifth book in her award-winning series. If Tigers Disappeared follows the familiar pattern: we learn where the animals live, some history about them, and why their populations have declined. Tigers have been around for more than two million years, yet in the past 100 years, humans have nearly wiped out their population. When an animal becomes extinct, the ripple effect (also called the trophic cascade) has far-reaching effects on our ecosystem.

 

If Tigers Disappeared int1 India map
Interior spread from If Tigers Disappeared written and illustrated by Lily Williams, Roaring Brook Press ©2022.

 

Since tigers are apex predators, the animals they eat flourish when no longer hunted by the big cats. These population booms then cause changes to the forest, waterways, and landscapes. This immense concept is conveyed simply, inviting kids to think about our world’s interconnectedness and demonstrating how indigenous people should continue to be involved in tiger conservation. Though the topic is quite sad, the overall feeling is of hope, emphasizing the importance of knowledge and advocacy for these amazing animals.

 

If Tigers Disappeared int2 photos on road
Interior spread from If Tigers Disappeared written and illustrated by Lily Williams, Roaring Brook Press ©2022.

 

Williams’s tigers are magnificently drawn in many stages of action, including a couple of curious cubs. Back matter includes a glossary, recap of the tigers’ endangered status, and information on how we can help. This important book educates while charming us with lively images of six remaining subspecies of tigers.

 

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Picture Book Review – Somewhere, Right Now

 

SOMEWHERE, RIGHT NOW

Written by Kerry Docherty

Illustrated by Suzie Mason

(Flamingo Books; $17.99, Ages 3-5) 

 

Somewhere Right Now cover

 

 

If you need a moment to slow down and appreciate life, read the picture book, Somewhere, Right Now, by debut author Kerry Docherty. In this comforting story, we see members of one family each experience strong emotions such as fear, anger, and sadness. One by one, as their feelings are recognized, they take a moment to focus. By understanding that “somewhere, right now” a great thing is happening, they move away from the negativity and, instead, their imaginations transport them to uplifting thoughts about animals in nature.

 

Somewhere Right Now int1 window
Interior spread from Somewhere, Right Now written by Kerry Docherty and illustrated by Suzie Mason, Flamingo Books ©2022.

 

The realistic illustrations by Suzie Mason capture the smattering of dark moods and offset them with plenty of joyful, kind images. Kids will learn that we all feel down sometimes and how a few words can make a huge difference. This book is very much needed in today’s fast-paced, uncertain world; it provides simple instruction on how to help control our minds while also boosting the love and positivity around us if we just choose to look for it.

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Nonfiction Picture Book Review – Battle of the Butts

 

 

 

BATTLE OF THE BUTTS:

THE SCIENCE BEHIND ANIMAL BEHINDS

Illustrated by David Creighton-Pester

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

 

 

 

Battle of the Butts cover

 

 

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

 

Battle of the Butts int3 toot
Interior spread from Battle of the Butts: The Science Behind Animal Behinds written by Jocelyn Rish and illustrated by David Creighton-Pester, Running Press Kids ©2021.

 

 

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

 

Battle of the Butts int4 toot
Interior spread from Battle of the Butts: The Science Behind Animal Behinds written by Jocelyn Rish and illustrated by David Creighton-Pester, Running Press Kids ©2021.

 

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

 

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Young Adult Fantasy Book Review – Stalking Shadows

 

STALKING SHADOWS

Written by Cyla Panin

(Abrams; $18.99, Ages 12 and up)

 

 

Stalking Shadows cover

 

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

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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 – Neverwoof by Gabe Jensen

 

 

NEVERWOOF:
The Dog That Never Barked

Written and illustrated by Gabe Jensen

(Familius; $16.99, Ages 3-5)

Neverwoof cover

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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Family Cookbooks – A Roundup

 

 

 

COOKBOOKS FOR ALL!

A Roundup of Recommended Reads

 

 

 

 

Bake Make Learn to Cook coverBAKE, MAKE & LEARN TO COOK: Fun & Healthy Recipes for Young Cooks
Written by David Atherton

Illustrated by Rachel Stubbs
(Candlewick Press; $17.99, Ages 5-9)

Bake, Make & Learn to Cook: Fun & Healthy Recipes for Young Cooks by David Atherton is an enjoyable but thorough first cookbook for elementary-schoolers. The wide range of appealing recipes is explained in easy-to-follow boxes of information. Recipes include kid-friendly foods such as pancakes, pizzas, and cake. I like how some weave in animal elements. For example, Banana Bear Pancakes, Octo-Pizzas, and Hummus Lion. It doesn’t take much extra work to elevate a seemingly standard recipe to something exciting.

Kids will enjoy exploring recipes such as Edible Chia Bowls, Happy Curry, and Zingy Cake Squares (lemon adds the “zing”). I appreciate new-to-me ideas such as making your own hot dogs (Veggie Hot Dogs) and the clever concept of serving soup from a teapot (Teapot Soup). Other personal favorites include Sweet and Spicy Dip (with sweet potato, garlic, tahini, lime, and spices) and the adorably tasty Crunchy Hedgehogs (a variation of twice-cooked potatoes with tuna, cheese, and peas coated with bread crumbs).

Care is taken throughout to convey information in a way that’s simple to grasp. The upbeat art by Rachel Stubbs helps further explain the directions and provides a pleasant, visual element. I would recommend this cookbook without hesitation for young cooks and their adult helpers

 

The Complete Cookbook for Young Scientists THE COMPLETE COOKBOOK FOR YOUNG SCIENTISTS:
70+ Recipes and Experiments for Every Young Chef (Young Chefs Series)
by America’s Test Kitchen

(America’s Test Kitchen Kids; $19.99, Ages  8+)

For science-minded kids or anyone looking to better understand the whys of cooking and baking, The Complete Cookbook for Young Scientists has the answers! It’s beautifully laid out with full-color photos throughout and fun experiments leading into recipes that put the science into delicious use. When I saw the cover (which features an unreal-looking cake with a gelatinous black, purple, and teal icing), I knew I had to get this book and learn how to make that recipe—it’s a showstopper.

Adults will enjoy this book much as kids because there’s much to learn. I’ve made berry muffins for years and didn’t realize that the addition of yogurt creates a lighter, fluffier texture, or that adding baking soda when caramelizing onions enhances the sweetness. The Edible Spheres recipe blew my mind: using gelatin plus a flavoring (even hot sauce works!) makes tiny boba-size spheres form because of the reaction between oil and water.

If you’re looking to perfect a cookie or cake recipe, this book’s tips will surely get you there. I like the experiment where you make two batches of cookies, one using white sugar and the other using brown sugar. The results clearly show how swapping out just one ingredient makes a big difference in taste, texture, and thickness.

Questions that kids would ask start out the chapters. Some examples include: Can you tell the difference between crispy and crunchy? Why do spices have so much flavor? Why do the different parts of the chicken taste and look different? Answers are provided in a way that’s easy to understand and thorough, involving hands-on experiments where kids test their theories.

This book is the fourth in the Complete Cookbook for Young Chefs series and it does not disappoint. While marketed for a middle-grade audience, the content is also relevant for elementary-schoolers who love to be in the kitchen (or the lab!) and has enough fascinating information to hold the attention of teens and adults. My copy has been well-used in the short time I’ve had it. I’m on board for America’s Test Kitchen’s upcoming Teen Chefs book (March 2022) because this series is terrific.

 

Let's Make Dumplings coverLET’S MAKE DUMPLINGS! A Comic Book Cookbook
Written by Hugh Amano

Illustrated by Sarah Becan
(Ten Speed Press; $19.99)

Let’s Make  Dumplings! is the latest comic-style cookbook from the successful duo, Hugh Amano and Sarah Becan. If you enjoyed their ramen book, this one is just as great. What sets these books apart is that they read like a graphic novel. Full-color panels that convey each recipe’s directions in a new and creative manner, making the content accessible to a wide range of readers. Varying skill levels are accommodated and the cookbook can be enjoyed by readers of all ages.

Who doesn’t love Asian dumplings?! Gyoza, potstickers, wontons, rangoon—yum! With so many shapes and fillings, the options are endless once you master the basics. After a bit of “dumpling lore,” the book begins logically with pantry, equipment, and an explanation of the different wrappers. I was excited to see a recipe for the dough since kids may just think wrappers come from the store!

Learn to make a variety of fillings (meat, vegetarian, even dessert styles) and different methods of sealing the delicious ingredients inside the wrapper. Finish by pan-frying, steaming, or even deep-drying such as for sesame balls). A new-to-me recipe that I particularly enjoyed was the Num Kom (Sweet Cambodian Rice Dumplings) which are filled with coconut and sesame seeds, then steamed in a banana leaf-lined basket.

And don’t forget about the ever-popular baozi. A comprehensive chapter explains how to make these delightful buns. Begin with the well-known steamed pork buns but be sure to move on to also try ones filled with curried beef, kung pao chicken, different kinds of pork, or savory mushrooms.

The final chapter brings it home with a wide range of fabulous sauces that complete the dumpling experience. Some are simply two ingredients: Kewpie mayonnaise and chile sauce. Others play off the sweet-and-sour elements such as the duck sauce made with apricot jam, rice vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, ginger, and cayenne. I can think of lots of foods I’d like to dip in that!

While this book focuses on Eastern dumplings, I like how the fact that food unites us is stated. A map shows where the recipes come from but the accompanying blurb explains how dumplings span the entire globe. Dumplings “transcend any imagined borders of culture and caste” and “unite us all.” Readers are encouraged to do their own research, travel, and make the recipes their own.

 

Sourdough Baking with Kids cover

SOURDOUGH BAKING WITH KIDS:
The Science Behind Baking Bread Loaves with Your Entire Family
Written by Natalya Syanova

Photography by Haas and Haas Photography
(Fair Winds Press/Quarto; $24.99, All Ages)

Natalya Syanova’s Sourdough Baking with Kids gives everyone the ability to make this beloved bread. Start at the beginning and carefully read the instructions. Time is needed—ten days or so—to create a viable starter that will then enable you to try many recipes beyond the basic loaf. The photographs by Haas and Haas Photography showcase the many delicious recipes.

Kids will marvel at how simple it all is. The starter consists of only filtered water and flour. Amazingly, it comes to life and maybe bubbles over the side of the jar in response to being fed, or becomes weak when it’s past time to feed it. Facts add to the wonder. For example, the oldest sourdough starter on record was 122 years old; starter can be lovingly passed from generation to generation.

The first recipe is basic (and very delicious) sourdough bread. A beautiful version uses purple corn flour, which gives the loaf a lovely hue. If you’ve got a sweet tooth, the Double Chocolate Sourdough Loaf may become a favorite in your household; or perhaps it will be the Sweet S’mores Sourdough Loaf. In chocolate chip cookies, sourdough makes the cookies tender and soft. The starter can also be used in brownies, babka, doughnuts, and more.

If you prefer savory dough, check out the pizza, English muffins, pretzels, bagels, and biscuits. If that’s not enough, there are also recipes for cheddar scones, tortillas, and naan. Once you get going, there really are no limits as to what you can make using your starter.

Each recipe has an enticing, full-color photo. In addition to the ingredients and directions, you’re given helpful notes and a sample schedule so you can plan out the time needed. I like the “fun part” sections because they speak directly to the young bakers. Even if they may not be able to follow a recipe (yet!), they certainly can mix and knead dough, divide dough, press it down, and roll it out.

For more independent baking, this book is best suited for tweens, teens, or adults who possess patience and the ability to follow recipes involving precise measurements and timetables. The investment of time and effort is worthwhile; helping something grow from almost nothing is remarkable. This book bestows a solid foundation to launch readers on their journeys of baking with sourdough.

 

Easy Vegan Home Cooking coverEASY VEGAN HOME COOKING
Written by Laura Theodore

(Hatherleigh Press; $25)

Popular host of TV’s Jazzy Vegetarian, Laura Theodore, shares delicious recipes and thoughtful advice in Easy Vegan Home Cooking: Over 125 Plant-Based and Gluten-Free Recipes for Wholesome Family Meals. In addition to recipes, you’ll find helpful tips. For example, oat flour can be quickly made from rolled oats creating fresh flour. (Use it in breads, cookies, or other baked goods.) Or, soaked, drained, and blended raw cashews add a clever creaminess.

My favorite recipes included Pecan-Crusted Zucchini Filets. Squash is a go-to in our house; this version adds loads of flavor from the quick dip in mustard and maple syrup and the yummy nut and cornflake coating. Though we love broccoli and tofu, they feel boring at times—but not with this smoky sauce that accompanies Broccoli-Tofu Szechuan Sauté. For dessert, Petite Apple Ramekins with Coconut-Oat Crunch provide a new twist using items I often have on hand. Your family will feel special digging into their individual servings that smell and taste divine.

Beyond useful advice and wonderful recipes (many with accompanying full-color photos), I appreciate Theodore’s heartfelt sentiments about how she chooses a plant-based way of eating because of her compassion for animals, desire for better health, and aim to become more environmentally responsible. She believes that “we can all help save the world—one recipe at a time!”

 

 

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Picture Book Review – Ducks Overboard!

DUCKS OVERBOARD!:
A TRUE STORY OF PLASTIC IN OUR OCEANS 

by Markus Motum

(Candlewick Press; $17.99, Ages 7-10)

 

Ducks Overboard! cover

 

We Don’t Need to Wait Until Earth Day to Pay Attention to Our Environment

 

If you’re looking for a nonfiction book that reads like a story, you’ve found it! Narrated by a rubber ducky, this picture book by author-illustrator Markus Motum, Ducks Overboard!: A True Story of Plastic in Our Oceans, explains how 28,000 ducks ended up in the middle of the ocean. The reader adventures along with the ducks in unknown territory as they encounter sea creatures and garbage. Viewing it from the duck’s perspective reinforces how animals are endangered by plastics in their environment, eating them or becoming entangled.

 

Ducks Overboard int1
DUCKS OVERBOARD! © 2021 Markus Motum. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA on behalf of Walker Books, London.

 

 

A world map clearly explains how the ducks traveled on ocean currents to various destinations. Our duck, however, becomes stuck in the swirling Great Pacific Garbage Patch—a mass of trash about twice the size of Texas—until, finally, freed. Though this duck’s story has a happy ending, much is learned in the process that gives us cause to think about how our everyday choices are hurting our planet.

 

Ducks Overboard int2
DUCKS OVERBOARD! © 2021 Markus Motum. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA on behalf of Walker Books, London.

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The mixed-media illustrations are done in beautiful ocean blues which showcase the bright yellow duck(s). Back matter includes “Lost at Sea” (about other missing shipping containers) and “Ocean Currents” (explaining ocean movement and gyres). “Plastic Facts” and “How You Can Help” reminds us that 40 percent of plastic is single-use and, because most cannot be recycled, those items break down into smaller and smaller pieces causing far-reaching damage. I appreciate how this book handles such a dire topic in a manner that feels as lightweight as your bathtub ducky.

 

 

 

 

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Young Adult Book Review – Horror Hotel

 


HORROR HOTEL

Written by Victoria Fulton and Faith McClaren

(Underlined; Trade Paperback $9.99, Ages  12+)  

 

Horror Hotel paperback cover
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Get ready to be scared from the moment you peek between the pages of Horror Hotel by the award-winning cowriting duo Victoria Fulton and Faith McClaren. What would the teen foursome who calls themselves the Ghost Gang do to reach one million YouTube subscribers? Maybe push some boundaries, maybe break some laws, and hopefully not get killed in the process!
Chase knows they need more than their usual documentary-style paranormal huntings, so he seeks something spooky but seemingly harmless. The plan he proposes involves sneaking out to spend the night at an infamous Los Angeles hotel. Once there, they’ll secretly film after dark, investigating the unsolved death of Eileen Warren. The Ghost Gang hopes to have it all covered: Chrissy sees ghosts, Kiki is TikTok famous, and Emma brings her skepticism. However, they soon discover their talent and experience may not be enough to survive the evildoings that await.
The fast-paced suspense will keep you turning pages. Told in short chapters, viewpoints alternate between all four teens. Eileen Warren’s blog posts (leading up to shortly before her body was found in the elevator shaft) are interspersed, adding another element of intrigue.
While romance surfaces throughout the story, the importance of true friendship anchors the story—captured in all of its imperfections. Chrissy can also sometimes hear people’s thoughts, which adds an interesting element when those moments of unfiltered honesty surface. Yet, as cool as her abilities seem to others, Chrissy often feels they are a curse because, “spoiler alert—there’s no otherworldly psychiatrist to help your cope with all the dead people.”
I like how the Ghost Gang comes to realize that “sometimes, it’s the dead who need our help—and the living we should fear.” So dim the lights and channel your inner sleuth to see if you can solve this gruesomely fun whodunit.
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Chapter Book Review – Dulcinea in the Forbidden Forest

 

DULCINEA IN THE FORBIDDEN FOREST

Written and illustrated by Ole Könnecke

Translated from German by Shelley Tanaka

(Gecko Press; $14.24, Ages 5-9)

 

Dulcinea in the Forbidden Forest

 

 

In Ole Könnecke’s modern fairy tale, Dulcinea in the Forbidden Forest, Dulcinea’s father goes missing on her birthday. Though she’s promised to never enter the forest (because of the witch), Dulcinea follows her father’s footprints into this forbidden place and soon discovers he’s been turned into a tree. “Dulcinea wasn’t going to let an old witch spoil her birthday,” so she sets off to find the witch and reverse the spell even though “nobody enjoys walking through an enchanted forest.”

 

Dulcinea int1
Interior illustration from Dulcinea in the Forbidden Forest written and illustrated by Ole Könnecke, Gecko Press ©2021.

 

This chapter book is full of laughs, from the absentminded witch who carries her book of magic because she can’t remember her spells, to the comical depiction of Father as a tree. The determined expression on Dulcinea’s face contrasts with the silly-looking witch and monsters in her moat.

 

Dulcinea int2
Interior spread from Dulcinea in the Forbidden Forest written and illustrated by Ole Könnecke, Gecko Press ©2021.

 

I like how this fairy tale is both a new story yet resonates with a classic feel. The limited earthy palate contributes a homey feel because, as we know, we’ve all been lost in the forest in a previous tale or two. Overall, this is a well-made, timeless book.

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YA Novel Review – Like Other Girls

 

 

LIKE OTHER GIRLS

Written by Britta Lundin

(Disney-Hyperion; $17.99, Ages 14-18)

 

Like Other Girls cover

 

I don’t like sports books. At all. But I read the first few pages of Britta Lundin’s Like Other Girls and was hooked. We meet Mara as her angry outburst gets her kicked off the basketball team. Mara’s world has a lot of imperfections, but those flaws make it real.

The cast of characters has strong voices and distinct personalities. While the story is about a girl on the high school football team, this coming-of-age story is about so much more. We see the challenges and obstacles females face. Best friends part ways and new relationships are tested out. Families fight. There are no easy answers.

Though Mara knows she’s gay, she’s waiting until college to come out. Strong female role model, Jupiter, is yet another well-developed, likable character. Throughout, there are many funny moments as well as heartbreaking ones.

I may know a bit more about football after reading this (or maybe not) but I certainly know that I’ll be looking for Lundin’s book. She tells a difficult story with compassion, bringing in problems that need our attention while also showing the everyday issues that teens today struggle with.

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Young Adult Book Review – #noescape

#noescape
(Volume 3, a #murdertrending novel)

Written by Gretchen McNeil

(Disney-Hyperion; Paperback $9.99, Ages 14-18)

 

 

Fans of Gretchen McNeil’s #murdertrending series will enjoy her new YA, #noescape. Set twenty years before the first book, this companion novel is a wild Las Vegas ride. Seventeen-year-old Persey’s incredible win at an escape room grants her a spot at the All-Stars and the promise of a ten-million-dollar prize. The money would be a much-needed boon for Persey who, after years of surviving with her verbally abusive father and alcoholic mother, will be kicked out as soon as she graduates from high school.

Persey and the seven other All-Stars contestants soon find that the escape rooms are more than just a game—and maybe the killer is one of them. Trapped in a series of rooms, the teens must solve the puzzles or die while trying. There truly is no escape from this fast-paced, whodunnit plot.

In the Acknowledgments section, McNeil says she wondered if this was the greatest book she had ever written or completely unreadable. It’s my favorite in the #murdertrending series. Persey’s life before the All-Stars (told in flashback chapters) is emotionally engaging. I liked the asides when we’re in Persey’s viewpoint: “Persey had never paid much (any) attention to business matters,” or, “Persey usually (always) disliked strangers.” While there are romantic connections in the group, Persey maybe finds a friend in the aptly named Neela Chatterjee whose stream-of-consciousness style of communicating contrasts with her sharp intellect.

There’s plenty of gruesome bloodshed but it’s exacting, focused on the All-Stars rather than deaths by the dozens. While McNeil’s stories are complex, this one is A+ amazing for its spiderweb of a story. The payoff comes at the end as fans finally realize how the books connect.

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Young Adult Book Review – Curse of the Specter Queen

CURSE OF THE SPECTER QUEEN
(Book 1 of 2: A Samantha Knox Novel)

Written by Jenny Elder Moke

(Hyperion; $17.99, Ages 12 and up)

  

 

Set in the 1920s, Jenny Elder Moke’s Curse of the Specter Queen is high-stakes historical fiction fantasy with a female-driven plot. Samantha (“Sam”) Knox isn’t the same after her father is killed in the Great War. She turns away from her lifelong friends (brother and sister Bennett and Joana Steeling) and resigns herself to living a small life in their nowhere US town. She escapes the fate of being a laundress like her mother and, instead, uses her tenacious puzzle-solving skills to work at book restoration in the Steeling’s store.

When an unexpected package shows up bearing a damaged diary, Sam becomes embroiled in the mysteries surrounding this book. Before she knows it, she’s in Ireland trying to stop an occult ritual from resurrecting the Specter Queen, the Celtic goddess of vengeance and death. To do this, she must find an ancient bowl carved from the tree of life. Along the way, there are plenty of red herrings and a blossoming romance.

Because Sam evolves enormously over the course of the book, this is also a coming-of-age story. Complexities of Sam’s relationships with her friends unfold as Sam realizes she’s shut others out and now hopes it’s not too late to mend tattered ties with her previous BFF, Jo—truly a well-written character for how she snubs (with humor and levity) the constraints placed on women during that time.

I like how fantasy and historical fiction are blended into an apocalyptic story that pulls you back in time. In the end notes, the author states there were truly excavations carried out at Montpelier Hill in South County Dublin and that she utilized the research and findings of the Hellfire Club Archaeological Project and Abarta Heritage.

While perfectly suitable for a YA audience, the book would also appeal to readers of New Adult because of the independence of the characters and the lack of parental involvement. Book two in the Samantha Knox series continues on with another 1920’s adventure, this time on the island of Crete. Rise of the Snake Goddess comes out in June 2022. Sign me up for more nonstop thrills with this likable trio!

 

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Best New Children’s Christmas Books for 2021

 

A ROUNDUP OF
THE BEST NEW CHRISTMAS BOOKS FOR 2021

 

 

All of us at GoodReadsWithRonna.com wish you a warm and wonderful Christmas!

 

REVIEWS:

Jingle Bells Navidad coverJINGLE BELLS / NAVIDAD:
Bilingual Nursery Rhymes
(English & Spanish)
Written and illustrated by Susie Jaramillo
(Canticos; $10.99, Ages 0-6)

This 16 page bilingual, lift-the-flaps board book is not only beautiful to look at (its cover features foil accents), it stars the sweet little chickies from the Emmy-nominated series. What a delightful way to celebrate the holidays than by sharing the “Jingle Bells” song with children in both English and Spanish. There are cute characters in vibrant colors to enjoy including Mama Hen, a purple spider, an adorable elephant, a frog, and a bunny. Kids can have fun lifting the assorted flaps to find additional words such as warmth/calor, joy/alegria and others all while improving their bilingual language skills. A larger formatted board book ($14.99) with an accordion design offers the opportunity to read “Jingle Bells” on one side entirely in English and the other in Spanish. Visit canticosworld.com for free resources, activities, and more. For a limited time, the Encantos app is available for free.

  •  Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Merry Christmas Gus coverMERRY CHRISTMAS, GUS
Written and illustrated by Chris Chatterton
(Penguin Workshop; $17.99, Ages 3-5)

Merry Christmas, Gus, is Chris Chatterton’s second book featuring the adorable grumpy hound dog, Gus. It seems there’s not much of anything that Gus likes about the holiday season until a puppy enters the picture, then, . . . maybe.

As in the first book, the art is LOL funny because of Gus’s gloomy expressions. My favorite part is the ending—sorry, you’ll have to read it yourself! The perfect gift for the not-really-into-it person on your holiday shopping list.

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

 

The Toys' ChristmasTHE TOYS’ CHRISTMAS
Written by Claire Clément
Illustrated by Geneviève Godbout
(Frances Lincoln Children’s Books; $17.99, Ages 3-7)

Let the cozy feeling of this sweet bedtime Christmas tale envelope your little ones as they drift contentedly off to sleep. I was enchanted by the premise of The Toys’ Christmas in which little Noah cannot fall asleep because his favorite stuffed animal FanFan is nowhere to be found. Enchanted by his going missing you might ask? No. I was enchanted by his devotion to Noah. FanFan, it seems, is on a secret mission along with all the other soft toys he meets up with on his long and special journey. Once a year the beloved toys travel to the North Pole. There they can “tell Santa what their child wants for Christmas. After all, they know their child best of all.” Well,  this just warmed my heart and I hope it does the same for your child. Rest assured FanFan returns to delight Noah who also is thrilled to have his Christmas wish come true. Coupled with Godbout’s gorgeous pastel and colored pencil illustrations in faded tones not unlike many of the much-loved toys after years of cuddling and washes, Clément’s gentle prose are sure to charm.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Christmas Here I Come coverCHRISTMAS, HERE I COME!
Written by D. J. Steinberg
Illustrated by Laurie Stansfield
(Grosset & Dunlap; $5.99, Ages 4-6)

If you’re looking for a gift to bring to family, friends or neighbors before Christmas or on the day itself, look no further than Christmas, Here I Come!, one of the multiple books in the best-selling series. This paperback is packed with humorous and sentimental poems revolving around the holiday from choosing trees to jokes about fruitcake, from the joyful mess of wrapping paper to Santas around the world. There are even stickers at the end for further entertainment. One of my favorites is called “Peace on Earth” about two neighbors competing for the most lights on their homes until circuits blew. Another is “My Christmas Sweater” about the hilarity and comfiness of the traditional ugly sweater. There’s also a recurring Dear Santa Claus letter from a character called Bobby which many youngsters will find relatable. Stansfield’s art evokes the holiday spirit, capturing the abundant experiences detailed in Steinberg’s poetry.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Joy to the World coverJOY TO THE WORLD!:
Christmas Around the Globe
Written by Kate DePalma
Illustrated by Sophie Fatus
(Barefoot Books; $17.99, Ages 4-10)

Joy to the World!, with its gold embossed lettering and accents on the cover, makes a great Christmas gift for families, friends, and anyone curious about the holiday traditions in 13 countries spanning from Argentina to Serbia. Peopled with diverse children and their families celebrating in special ways, this colorful picture book not only entertains but educates too.

Kids will see how in the Philippines Simbang Gabi lasts for nine days including daily worship. “We come every day, and they say if you do/Whatever you wish on day nine will come true.” Stars shimmer across this particular two-page spread, and beautifully bordered art (throughout the book and unique to that country) in a cheerful jewel-toned palette emanates joy and community. In Ethiopia, where people celebrate Genna on January 7, families gather around the mesob (a basket-like table) and feed one another “a large bit of food by hand.” I love that so many celebrations revolve around food in addition to family and faith rituals. Older readers will find even more helpful information in the back matter which expands on the brief rhyming info for each country that was depicted in earlier pages. This welcoming, upbeat picture book full of happy families brings world celebrations to your fingertips in a most delightful way.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

The Star Tree coverTHE STAR TREE
Written and  illustrated by Gisela Cölle

Translated by Rosemary Lanning (first published in Switzerland)
(NorthSouth Books; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

For a quiet story this busy holiday season, consider Gisela Cölle’s, The Star Tree. A mustachioed old man missed days of yore, far from sprawling urban life. No one even glances at the sky above anymore as they hurry through their busy days.

Cölle’s illustrations echo the rustic simplicity of the text. This timeless classic demonstrates that sometimes less can be more, and by taking that first step, a community can be brought together. You’ll feel inspired to cut out some stars too!

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

 

Carla and the Christmas Cornbread coverCARLA AND THE CHRISTMAS CORNBREAD
Written by Carla Hall with Kristen Hartke
Illustrated by Cherise Harris
(Denene Millner Books/Simon & Schuster BYR; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

I find food-themed picture books hard to resist. Do you? Carla and the Christmas Cornbread happily took me back to the ’70s for a story based on author, chef, and TV food personality Carla Hall’s early childhood memories.

Heading to her grandparents, with Mom driving, her older sister Kim sitting in the passenger seat, and Carla in the back seat beside a slew of gifts, she enjoyed the ride “watching the lights twinkle on the houses as we whiz by.” Carla was excited to see her grandparents and eat the scrumptious cornbread her grandma made. Spending time over Christmas at their home was clearly a highlight for her. From cooking cornbread together with Granny, hearing her grandpa “Doc” share stories about his time in France when he once ate snails, to searching the Christmas tree for the Black Santa ornament that looks just like her, these tender moments convey the warmth of family that meant so much to this young girl. Harris’s joyful art, full of attention to detail and a feeling for the era, complements this lovely story.

But when just before bedtime she bit into the cookie that was meant for Santa, Carla worried that she’d get in trouble. Certain that Santa would put her on his naughty list, Carla was relieved when Grandma, who heard Carla confess, suggested they make Santa “a special Christmas cornbread.” Despite caring reassurance from Doc that Santa probably got tired of all the cookies, Carla still felt sad. But all ends well when Christmas morning brings more than cheer for her and readers invested in seeing a happy outcome for Carla. Make sure to read to the very last page where a surprise illustration shows Santa nibbling on a tasty treat! Bonus: A cornbread recipe is included.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Just Be Claus coverJUST BE CLAUS: A Christmas Story
Written by Barbara Joosse
Illustrated by Kim Barnes
(Sleeping Bear Press; $16.99; Ages 4-8)

This adorably illustrated picture book answers the question, what was Santa Claus like as a little boy? With a “round little belly that shakes when he laughs like a bowl full of jelly,” Clausie is different and “unusual” from the very start. His hearty “ho ho ho” laugh, creative flair for making “thingamajigs” with Grannie in his super secret workshop, and tendency to help the rival hockey team score make him stand out and “feel out of place.” He expresses his desire to be like the other kids, but Grannie assures him:  “You’re creative, thoughtful, and generous … Don’t try to be like anyone else. Just be YOU.” A snowstorm shuts the whole town down, blocking the train from delivering its large load of gifts. Clausie’s clever act of kindness not only saves Christmas Day but also helps him embrace his own unique, tender-heartedness. Wrapping this sweet holiday book are themes of empathy, love, and self-acceptance that can be explored any time of the year. 

  •  Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

 

The Christmas Owl coverTHE CHRISTMAS OWL: Based on the True Story
of a Little Owl Named Rockefeller 

Written by Ellen Kalish and Gideon Sterer
Illustrated by Ramona Kaulitzki
(Little, Brown BYR; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

Animal lovers will enjoy this heartwarming picture book, The Christmas Owl, by Ellen Kalish and Gideon Sterer. Based on a true story of a tiny owl trapped in a tree cut down and brought to the city, the story is seen through the eyes of Little Owl who wonders what happened and where she’s been taken. Throughout, she asks herself, Is this Christmas? By the end, she’s able to explain to her forest friends what the holiday’s all about.

While the illustrations by Ramona Kaulitzki bring the story to life, be sure to look in the back matter too. Actual photos of the owl are beyond cute and its release is so joyful. Peek under the dust jacket for a different cover image!

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

 

Merry Witchmas CoverMERRY WITCHMAS
Written by Petrell Marie Özbay and Tess La Bella
Illustrated by Sonya Abby
(Boyds Mill Press; $17.99, Ages 3-7)

Don’t let the word witch in the title fool you. Merry Witchmas isn’t about Halloween although you could start sharing it in October. It’s actually about a sweet witch named Ginger who adores all things Christmas. Whether that’s “a flying sleigh, a red-nosed reindeer” or the toys. But most importantly Ginger wishes for a visit from Santa. You see she lives in the “Invisible Forest” that wasn’t on Santa’s radar. Regardless, she always behaved thoughtfully to make it onto Santa’s “Nice List.” This year she’s decided to take things one step further and write to Santa so perhaps he’d believe she existed. She’d even include a map!

Ginger’s magic delivers the letter directly to Santa who checked his lists, then double-checked them. No witch named Ginger appeared. Since he didn’t believe in witches, he’d actually never sought them out. Yet if children could believe in Santa, why couldn’t witches exist too he wonders. That’s when the magic happens. Using Ginger’s map, Santa heads to the young witch’s magical land and at last, the two finally meet bringing Christmas joy to both. Kids will want to look at the fun details Abby’s included in her pleasing artwork that exudes warmth and humor. My favorite touch is Jingles the kitty cat reaching for Christmas cookies along with the holiday decorations in her home. With all the Christmas feels, this picture book is a fresh new take on the holiday and not giving up on your dreams.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Santa in the City coverSANTA IN THE CITY
Written by Tiffany D. Jackson
Illustrated by Reggie Brown
(Dial BYR; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

Starred Reviews –Booklist, School Library Journal

Deja is super excited for Christmas but her classmates’ distrust about Santa ever visiting them in the city sends her on a downward spiral of doubt. “‘How does Santa get inside our house if we don’t have a chimney? …where [will Santa] park his sleigh?’” Deja asks question after question to her mom who, along with extended family and neighborhood friends, patiently answers each one. Answers provide a little relief, as evidenced through her refrain “‘Oh’ … Makes sense,” but Deja needs more proof. Cheerful illustrations of a diverse, vibrant urban setting full of the Christmas spirit emphasize the point: the very thing Deja is looking for is already around her beautiful neighborhood. A surprise on Christmas morning secures her heart that “magic really does find a way,” just like Mom has said all along. 

  • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

 

Grumpy Monkey OhNo Christmas coverGRUMPY MONKEY OH, NO! CHRISTMAS
Written by Suzanne Lang
Illustrated by Max Lang
(Random House Studio; $18.99, Ages 3-7)

Beloved character Jim Panzee is back again, this time for the holidays, grumpier than ever. The weather has been “grizzly, drizzly” all week, his morning banana green, plus he accidentally stumbles into a puddle of mud. On top of everything else, his jungle friends insist he absolutely must be excited about the upcoming Christmas season. One by one, they take turns telling him how he “should” do one thing or another in order to properly celebrate:  write a card for Mom, wrap presents, “reflect quietly.” But to grumpy, miserable Jim “EVERYTHING STINKS!”–that is, until his gentle gorilla friend, Norman, helps Jim see things in a different perspective. Conversations about kindness and gratitude ease his burden and give strong reason to celebrate. Readers young and old will fall in love once more with Jim Panzee’s crankiness, expressed so perfectly by Lang’s fun and hilarious illustrations. 

  •  Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

 

A Simple Christmas on the Farm coverA SIMPLE CHRISTMAS ON THE FARM 
Written by Phyllis Alsdurf
Illustrated by Lisa Hunt
(Beaming Books; $17.99, Ages 3-8)

For those looking for a traditional, Christian-themed Christmas story, A Simple Christmas on the Farm is a great choice. Eager to start the festivities, a little girl living on the farm is reminded by her parents that they’re going to celebrate by “keeping things simple this year” with a focus on modest decorations, homemade gifts, and giving more than receiving. This spirit of simplicity is heightened all the more when the girl is inspired to host Christmas in their little red barn. Traveling into town with a tray of homemade cookies, she and her mother spread the word about their party, inviting everyone in the community. In the meantime, they prepare gifts and crafts for their guests. Step-by-step directions for these crafts are included in the backmatter. When everyone joins in on the special day, laughter, cheer, and a wonderful feast surround their large table, making this simple but big-hearted Christmas the best one ever.

  • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian

 

The Christmas Mitzvah coverTHE CHRISTMAS MITZVAH
Written by Jeff Gottesfeld
Illustrated by Michelle Laurentia Agatha
(Creston Books; $18.99, Ages 4-9)

If you’re looking for a feel-good story that hits all the right notes, The Christmas Mitzvah is it. Inspired by a true story, this touching picture book opens with “Al Rosen was a Jewish man who loved Christmas. It wasn’t his holiday. He had Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. But what could be bad about peace on earth and goodwill to humanity?” I immediately cared about this man with the great attitude and big personality. Then I read on to learn that Al Rosen decided to use the Christmas holiday as a chance to deliver mitzvahs (good deeds) for people in his community. From that evening in 1969 Rosen offered to help out so workers could leave their jobs to be home with their families. No matter what the task, he took it on, doing so for over three decades. What a big heart he had! At first, it was Rosen, sometimes with his son, Jonathan. Then when Jonathan finished medical school, married, and had children of his own, everyone pitched in when possible, performing mitzvahs every Christmas.

What’s most impressive is the variety of work Al Rosen did, though he didn’t necessarily excel at it. He started by stepping in at Shorty’s local newsstand. After that word spread of Rosen’s good deeds. Requests came in and soon he was pumping gas and parking cars, tending bar, and taking tolls. Al Rosen’s mitzvahs saw no bounds. He and Jonathan even inspired Christian and Muslim friends who “did their jobs on the Jewish High Holidays.” In fact Rosen’s kind spirit led to people of various faiths helping others out on their holidays, paying it forward in the best possible way. When Al grew too old and finally had to call it quits, his mitzvahs left lasting memories and goodwill in his city. Agatha’s bold artwork adds vibrancy and humorous touches to the story. Rosen’s diverse community is celebrated in scene after scene conveying the camaraderie created by his mitzvahs. Gottesfeld’s included back matter so readers can learn more about the man behind the good deeds as well as the Hanukkah holiday. I hope young readers’ biggest takeaway from The Christmas Mitzvah is that you don’t have to be Jewish to do good deeds and spread kindness.

  •  Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

Christmas is Coming Cover CHRISTMAS IS COMING: Traditions from Around the World
Written by Monika Utnik-Strugala 
Illustrated by Ewa Poklewska-Koziello
Translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
(NorthSouth Books; $25, Ages 4 and up)

An international collection of legends and traditions can be found in Monika Utnik-Strugala’s nonfiction book, Christmas Is Coming!: Traditions from Around the World. This book satisfies many of your holiday questions. Of course, you’ll find info about Santa, but there’s much more. Such as how Swedish towns have candlelit processions on December 13, or how the Japanese have adopted Christmas but celebrate it with reindeer and pandas! In Mexico, Spain, and Columbia, the Day of the Holy Innocents (on December 28) is like our April Fool’s Day. Favorite sections of mine include food, decorations, plants, and finding good luck for the new year.

Full-color art by the talented Ewa Poklewska-Koziello adorns each page, enlivening people and their celebrations. While suitable for elementary-age kids who want to learn about more than just the US December 25 Santa Claus, older kids will have plenty to read. Overall, this lovely book promotes inclusivity and is one you’ll refer to repeatedly as a remembrance or to learn something new.

  • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt

Good Dogs in Bad Sweaters coverGOOD DOGS IN BAD SWEATERS
Written by Rachel Wenitsky and David Sidorov
Illustrated by Tor Freeman
(G.P. Putnam’s Sons BYR; $13.99, Ages 7-10)

I am so glad I stuck with this energy-filled illustrated middle-grade book despite the introduction of multiple dog names making it hard at first to keep track. However, after the initial few pages, there was no denying the humor and personality of all the doggy characters, and I was pulled right in. The primary ones in this, the third book in the series revolving around Good Dogs daycare, are Hugo and his younger sister Waffles, King and his older sister Cleo, Lulu, and her new teacup pig pal, Buttercup. Another dog, Napoleon, seems to have matured in this book according to comments from the other dogs, but while appearing in various chapters and bringing a funny therapist’s perspective to various situations, he doesn’t have a chapter devoted to his p.o.v. Secondary characters who may have had heftier roles in the previous two books are Nuts the squirrel and Pickle the cat. Kids may note that each dog has a different font which is a nice touch. Not having read the previous books, I never once felt like that mattered since the storyline was pretty straightforward and engaging.

In addition to the dog pals knowing each other, we also get to know their human owners which adds more opportunity for amusing dialogue and antics. There are tons of butt sniffing, ball throwing, and peeing jokes that feel appropriate for this age group. The main plot point is that sweet puppy Waffles, about to celebrate her first Christmas, is hoping that Santadoodle will bring her something special except Hugo knows that won’t happen. What’s a loving big bro supposed to do? Make baby sister’s wish come true, of course! And if that means getting all the Good Dogs involved in his quest, so be it.

The shenanigans the crew get up to as they try to get their paws on Waffles’ gift had me smiling throughout. That’s on top of the bits about the ugly (but comfy) Christmas sweaters, Lulu being an Instagram influencer, and how the dogs deal with their families—the dynamics of which should resonate with readers. Several sub-plots concerning agility competitions to career choices are at once comical and heartwarming, reflecting the zany sensibilities of the book’s authors Wenitsky and Sidorov. A bonus for me is that the book includes many references to Hanukkah since several of the dogs come from Jewish or mixed-faith families. Mix that up with Tor Freeman’s fabulous, whimsical, and extremely satisfying illustrations and you’ll see why this marriage of talents works so well. Add this middle-grade book (some may call it an older chapter book) to your TBR lists for some charming canine comedy this holiday season.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

 

See last year’s roundup here.

Additional recommended Christmas reads this year include:

The Little Owl & The Big Tree: A Christmas Story by Jonah Winter & Jeanette Winter
Jan Brett’s The Nutcracker 
Santa Jaws by Bridget Heos
What the Dinosaurs Did the Night Before Christmas by Refe & Susan Tuma

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Young Adult Book Review – Words Composed of Sea and Sky

WORDS COMPOSED OF SEA AND SKY

by Erica George

(Running Press Teens; $17.99, Ages 13 and up) 

 

 

WordsComposedofSeaandSky cover

 

 

Two love triangles unfold in Erica George’s YA romance, Words Composed of Sea and Sky. Michaela (Mack) Dunn’s stepfather won’t pay for her to attend a poetry workshop. However, a local contest is giving away that retreat as a prize for whoever writes the best dedication plaque for the new statue honoring the Highland Whaler, Captain Benjamin Churchill. The problem is, not much is known about Churchill even though his name is plastered all over Mack’s Cape Cod town. Looking for inspiration, she explores the historical Whaler’s Watch Inn. There, she finds an amazing link to the past and the artistically aloof Caleb Abernathy. A college kid, Caleb seems like so much more than the high-school boys like the nice Finn Pearce, star pitcher at their school. For a girl who loves words, a baseball player can’t compare to the poetry-writing Caleb who attends Mack’s dream school.

As Mack’s present-day story unfolds, alternating viewpoint chapters bring us into the summer of 1862 where Leta Townsend publishes poems as Captain Benjamin Churchill; borrowing his name seems simple enough until the handsome lost-at-sea captain returns and harpoons her heart. Yet Leta’s imagination has created a persona that may not have much to do with the real captain. Disruption ripples through Leta’s writing plans and the blossoming romance with her best friend, Elijah, the poor boy from the lighthouse.

Erica George’s atmospheric setting works just as well for modern-day romance dilemmas as it does for those in the 1800s. I appreciate how the parallel stories about getting your voice heard are deftly woven to form a complete tale across years and relationships. With its elements of mystery and historical fiction, this well-crafted book shows romance novels can be much more.

 

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