(Little, Brown Books for Young Readers; $17.99, Ages 4-8)
You Don’t Want a Dragon!, written by Ame Dyckman and illustrated by Liz Climo, is a follow-up to You Don’t Want a Unicorn!, which I haven’t been able to get my hands on during the pandemic. However, as an Ame Dyckman fan, I feel confident recommending both. You Don’t Want a Dragon! is a conversation between the narrator and a child who has just successfully wished for a dragon. And even if you haven’t read the first book, it is quickly clear that this same kid previously wished for a unicorn, and it didn’t go so well. Apparently, the unicorn multiplied until there were many glittery, colorful copies (who make cameo appearances in this book). There also may have been some unicorn poop, which seems to be cupcakes! Now the kid has wished an adorable dragon into his life.
Dyckman’s books are always fun to read aloud. I called the book a “conversation,” but in fact, the youngster in the book doesn’t say anything. Using second person, the narrator addresses, and engages, the main character: “NOW you’ve done it! I TOLD YOU not to wish for a dragon!,” while the boy in the illustrations answers with action. He plays with his new pet through several happy spreads until the dragon starts behaving like a troublesome canine. The narrator warns that he’s also becoming “GINORMOUS … You just don’t have the space for a dragon. In your heart, yes. But in your house … no.”
Climo is a comic artist for The Simpsons and also wrote and illustrated several books before collaborating with Dyckman on You Don’t Want a Unicorn! and You Don’t Want a Dragon!. The kid’s world is drawn in thin outlines filled with gentle colors; the dragon is a soft green with a purple tummy and wings. And don’t forget to note the child’s t-shirt in the cover art. While the illustrations show their kinship with The Simpsons, they are more comfortable than wacky, reminiscent of the Clifford the Big Red Dog books but with more attention to detail and scale.
I expected to enjoy this book and was not disappointed. There’s lots of Dyckman’s trademark humor, and it fits so well with Climo’s art. For example, Dyckman writes that stories about dragons “never mention … WHERE charcoal comes from. DON’T mention this at your next barbeque.” Climo’s drawing? The dragon sports a toilet-paper-roll bracelet and a proud grin while the kid, wide-eyed, stands next to a grill with flaming briquettes piled high.
Eventually, the narrator convinces the kid to wish the dragon away. Kids aren’t meant to have magical creatures for pets. “It’s for the best.” You might wonder what the kid will wish for next, except there’s a twist: he finds a completely ordinary pet.
Hound Won’t Go, written by Lisa Rogers and illustrated by Meg Ishihara, tells the story of a stubborn basset hound who calls all the shots during a walk with his human. When he lies down in the crosswalk, she can’t get him out of the intersection, not even with a treat or a tug on the leash. As horns blare, she is worried, while Hound is adorably— if smugly—satisfied. Finally, a storm breaks with terrifying claps of thunder. Hound changes his mind and drags his human all the way home, double-time.
I love this book, and not just because I love basset hounds. The writing is crisp, with one or two rhyming sentences per page. The diction can be understood by the youngest listeners but is still interesting and specific. “Light flashes/Hound dashes,” the text begins, as Hound and his human enter the crosswalk. Soon, though, “Traffic delay/Hound’s in the way.” Rogers conveys a lot of personality in few words:
Time to go.
Hound says no.
Hound lies down.
Anyone who has cared for a strong-willed but amiable dog recognizes the frustration and even embarrassment that the human feels. But all readers will feel calm, safe, warm, and happy by the time the contretemps resolves with, “Rain puddles./Hound cuddles.”
While the text makes a good case for how adorable this obstinate fellow is, Meg Ishihara’s art makes it impossible not to love him. She uses Hound’s eyes, mouth, and posture to show all his moods, ranging from playfully defiant to rub-my-belly relaxed. Working in Photoshop and Procreate, Ishihara paints Hound using digital brushes with lots of texture to emulate real paint strokes. He has long velvety ears, short legs, and a rich tri-color coat. Black outlines lend him a cartoony feel, although in some illustrations the definition comes from contrast between bold colors rather than actual outlines. In the first half of the story, there are vibrantly colorful cars, bicycles, and clothing, but the backdrop is gray and white. When the thunderclap sets Hound in motion, however, the background comes to life, too. Hound bolts through a park full of greenery and flowers to reach his home furnished in warm welcoming colors.
I recommend this book for all ages, and especially, but not exclusively, to dog lovers. I shared Hound Won’t Go with my favorite three-year-old, and she loved completing the rhymes, for some odd reason putting the most gusto into anticipating the word “No.” She has requested the book several times since, even over video chat. Just what the doctor … or vet? … ordered: a picture book that both the reader and the listener can enjoy, over and over.
Click herefor an activity kit. On Rogers’ website there’s also a fun hound craft for kids.
When I was the target age for a book like The Pigeon HAS to Go to School!, if I scraped my knee or bumped my head, my dad would examine the injury and say, “Oh no. We’re going to have to amputate!” It worked every time, turning my tears to belly laughs. Similarly, in this most recent addition to the popular series kicked off by Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, Mo Willems tackles first day of school fears with Pigeon’s slightly subversive wit and my dad’s effective approach: identify the worst-case scenario and demonstrate how silly and ridiculous it is.
Pigeon hints he’s worried even before the title page, ordering the reader, “WAIT! Don’t read that title!” After all, why should Pigeon have to go to school? He already knows everything. Also, he’s not a morning person. And if he learns too much — his head might pop off! Looking and feeling very small on the page, he finally admits he’s scared. “The unknown stresses me out, dude.” What is he worried about? “Why does the alphabet have so many letters … Will FINGER PAINT stick to my feathers?” Or the one that really gets me: “What if the teacher doesn’t like pigeons?”
Like other books in the series, the illustrations are spare, with large blocks of pastel colors. All the words belong to Pigeon and are delivered in prominent speech bubbles in a large hand-lettered Courier-style font. There are opportunities for interaction; I can already picture my favorite two-year-old responding to Pigeon’s command, “Go on — ask me a question. Any question!” and then giggling proudly when the next page shows Pigeon is stumped. Pigeon eventually reasons out why school will be okay, but in a fun finish, he really feels it when he realizes how he’s going to get to school: a bright yellow … bus!
If the music teacher, the art teacher, the school librarian, and even the principal of Maple View School didn’t change the rule to allow pets in class, who did? Author Linda Ashman answers that question in Take Your Pet to School Day, but only after chronicling the rowdy behavior of the animal visitors. The lively, easy-to-read verse can be a fun way to start a conversation about why we need rules at school.
Suzanne Kaufman depicts both the human and animal populations at Maple View in colors that feel vibrant, soft, and warm at the same time. The illustrations are full of variety and detail. Kids will find children of every skin and hair color and enjoy inspecting their clothes in pastel solids and rainbow stripes, their high tops and cowboy boots and sneakers. The pets include the expected cat, dog, and bunny, as well as the unexpected: a turtle, a hedgehog, and even an entire ant farm. It’s an adventure just to find the hamster, who rolls somewhere new in its wheel on each page. I can’t recommend taking your pet horse to school, but I heartily recommend Take Your Pet to School Day.
I’M TRYING TO LOVE MATH Written and illustrated by Bethany Barton (Viking Books for Young Readers; $17.99, Ages 4-8)
As someone who loves math and wants kids to love it, too, I approach I’m Trying to Love Math with caution. Is math going to get a bum rap in this book? The narrator starts off by saying, “If you ask me, math is not very lovable. I know I’m not alone here either. 4 in 10 Americans hate math.” Worried, I study the pie chart right beneath the dreaded “H” word. Sixty percent of the pie is a bright wash of green labeled “YAY MATH!” and adorned with hearts. Forty percent is lemon yellow with “BOO MATH!” above a broken heart. Meanwhile, an adorable purple alien pops up in the corner and asks, “Did you just use math to explain how much you don’t like it?”
What a relief! I can see we’re in good hands here. I’m Trying to Love Math provides a variety of awesome answers to the age-old question: “When will I ever use math in real life?” Baking cookies? Check. Making music? Check. Exploring Earth and other parts of the universe? Check and check. After fun illustrations of ice cream and ships and electric guitars and cash registers—and a whole page of pi—the narrator comes to the conclusion that “math is a part of so many things I already love … I guess I don’t need to try to love it at all. It turns out … I already do.” I recommend this book to all math lovers, especially the ones who think they are haters.
Kwame Alexander recently celebrated publication of his new book with Mary Rand Hess, Swing (Oct 2018, BlinkYABooks; $18.99), at a Skylight Books event that also featured his mentor, acclaimed poet and activist Nikki Giovanni. Alexander is the Newbery Award-winning, NYT-bestselling author of more than two-dozen books. Swing is a novel-in-verse about two high school juniors, Noah and Walt, trying to find their “cool.” I enjoyed the event, and later caught up with Alexander by phone to talk about the book and some of his other projects. (The transcript below is edited for clarity and length.)
MM [Mary Malhotra]: This is your third book with Mary Rand Hess, so I thought I’d start by asking, how did the two of you decide to collaborate, and how does that work for you?
KA [Kwame Alexander]: We’re in a writer’s group together, and we had critiqued each other’s work for a couple of years. It was her idea, and I thought, “Well, let’s try it.” I’m a huge fan of collaboration and we just seemed to gel. There were certain times when I took the lead and she was cool with that, and there were times when she took the lead because she had the expertise and I was cool with that. It was almost like putting a puzzle together.
MM: Obviously music is important in the book, and I was curious if Walt’s musical loves mirror yours or Mary’s?
KA: I am a jazz aficionado; Mary loves jazz. Whenever I’m writing, I listen to instrumental jazz, preferably bebop or straight-ahead jazz. Mary plays piano. Music plays a huge role in our lives, and I think that’s why we wanted to write about rock and roll in [our first novel] Solo, and really pay a tribute to jazz in Swing.
MM: I know lots of adults who are intimidated by poetry, [yet] on your website you say if you want to get a reluctant reader engaged with literature, start with poetry. How do you go about making the poetry so accessible and relatable that it’s actually easier for a reluctant reader than a prose novel?
KA: I try to write stories that have you as the reader forgetting that you’re reading poetry. I want to use all of the techniques and the strategies that poetry allows me to use — figurative language, sparse text, rhythm, sometimes rhyme — but ultimately I want to tell such a compelling story that by page ten or twenty-seven you’ve forgotten that you’re reading poetry.
MM: I’d seen a synopsis that talked about a biracial friendship at the center of the book, and it still took me awhile to identify what race different characters were. I like diversity not being handled super explicitly, but some people really feel like we should be explicit. What’s your feeling?
KA: Isn’t that the goal, for us to be less explicit about race in real life, and to really begin to look past all those superficial things, and treat each other as if we are all human beings? When I was growing up and I was in high school and I played tennis, one of my best friends was a white guy. I didn’t wake up each day and go to the tennis court and say, “Oh hey, here’s my white guy!” It’s not an authentic approach to life, so why should it be an authentic approach to literature?
MM: As a white person, I’ve tried to be sensitive to arguments I’ve read about people who feel like, if I say, “I don’t see your race,” then I’m not seeing them as a whole person.
KA: I’m definitely not saying you don’t see race. I’m saying the race is obvious and evident in all of the books that I write, in my estimation. The race is a matter of fact.
MM: When you started out [writing Swing], were you planning to write something political?
KA: Everything I write is political. I think to live in America, especially during this time, you either — what one of the characters says: “You either uphold the status quo, or you see what’s wrong and try to change it.”
MM: I read about your imprint [Versify, at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt], and saw that it’s accepting unsolicited submissions. What are you looking for?
KA: I’m looking for good books. Picture books, middle grade novels, YA novels, graphic novels. I’m looking for books that highlight the beauties, the hurdles, the woes, and the wonders of children coming of age. I’m looking for books that are going to help kids ultimately imagine a better world. I’m looking for books that are intelligent and entertaining.
MM: I also read that you’re starting a #HUGLIFE commitment in classrooms?
KA: It’s really just borrowing from Walt’s philosophy on life. Sometimes the world is not so beautiful, but you’ve got to stretch every inch of good as far as you can. I’m a big fan of saying “Yes” to what’s possible in life, and hugging life.
KA: If you look at what Tupac’s acronym stood for — The Hell You Give Little Infants F’s Everyone — if you flip that around, don’tgive them hell. Hug them. Show them love. I went to a school one day in a prison. I told my wife I was never going back, and she said “Why?” And I said, “Because it was the hardest work I ever had to do.” And she said, “Well, that’s cool. Those kids probably aren’t expecting you to come back.” And of course, I ended up going back. And it changed my life, and it changed theirs. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy. I’m suggesting that hugging life, embracing the full humanity of all of us? It’s work, but the rewards are sacred, and beautiful, and life-giving, and life-saving.
SWING Written by Kwame Alexander with Mary Rand Hess (Blink YA Books; $18.99, Ages 14-18)
★Starred Reviews – Kirkus, School Library Journal
Kwame Alexander’s Newbery Award-winning novel, The Crossover, used basketball as the backdrop for the story. His new book, written with Mary Rand Hess, is a novel-in-verse called Swing with a prologue beginning:
We were halfway through
Rounding the bases.
About to score
it’s a good bet that the title refers to baseball.However, Hess and Alexander also collaborated on the 2017 novel Solo about rock and roll, and it turns out that Swingis as much about swinging the beat as swinging the bat. Most of all, though, it’s about putting yourself out there and embracing life.
The book opens as narrator Noah and his best friend Walt (AKA “Swing”) have again failed to make their high school baseball team. Noah wants to give up, lamenting:
But the truth is
Our baseball dream
is a nightmare.
It haunts me.
Noah defines himself by what he can’t do. He can’t play baseball, and he can’t tell his longtime crush, Sam, how he feels about her. With Walt’s encouragement, Noah tries writing poetry for her, but it’s not very — well, see for yourself:
I want you
to be my symphony
two piccolo trumpets
Even Walt agrees the poem is not good enough to give to Sam, but when Noah buys a second-hand Louis Vuitton Keepall as a birthday gift for his mom, he finds old love letters stashed in the lining that inspire him to try again.
Tonight, I’m ready
To tear courage
Out of the book of dares
And make it mine.
The love letters give him a scaffold for creating art worth sharing. Noah uses them to make blackout poetry — he blacks out some words so that the ones that remain legible form a new poem — and then adds original graphic elements with his pen. The resulting mixed media art stands out, even in this book composed entirely of poems. They make me curious; I have to figure out which letter Noah uses for which piece. They make me want to try writing blackout poetry myself, and they make Noah more confident, able to express himself and impress the girl he loves.
As wonderful as Noah’s art is, my favorite creation in this book is, simply, Walt. I want to reread Swingto spend more time with him. Noah describes him and his quirks like this:
My best friend
Walt Disney Jones
is obsessed with jazz,
dead famous people,
and finding cool,
if it’s the last thing
we ever do.
But Walt’s a
on how to
never give up
until you win.
When it comes to “finding cool,” especially with regard to girls, Walt relies on his older cousin Floyd and a podcast called The Woohoo Woman. He won’t give up, whether he’s practicing baseball or finding a date for prom. He even gets a tattoo inspired by Tupac Shakur’s acronym THUG LIFE. Walt’s tattoo says HUG LIFE, exhorting everyone who sees it to embrace the world, and all its people and opportunities, wholeheartedly.
Noah’s quest to win Sam over from her boyfriend takes flight after Noah’s parents go on a trip, leaving him home alone for a few weeks. Noah’s grandmother is supposed to supervise him but doesn’t believe it’s necessary. Walt, on the other hand, moves right in, believing Noah absolutely needs supervision if he’s going to win Sam’s heart. Walt anonymously sends Sam one of Noah’s poems, but it’s still up to Noah to decide how and when to reveal himself. Will he ever convince Sam to promote him out of the friend zone?
Swing is most of all a coming-of-age story, but there is a mystery in the background throughout. People find American flags left on lawns, stuck on windshields, and painted on freeway exit signs, and the town debates whether the flags represent a show of patriotism or a sinister warning.
…no one can agree
on why the flags are here,
who’s planting them,
and whether or not
we should be
happy or offended
that they’re growing
The flag mystery leads a fairly light story into heavier territory. I believe in building empathy and understanding through books about difficult topics; however, in Swing, the social justice issues are not well developed. Because of this, I felt unprepared for a tragedy (caused by police using excessive force) at the end of the book, and I think younger, sensitive readers in particular may have the same experience. Most of us dislike spoilers, but with Swing I think it’s fair to provide readers with a little warning before reading and a lot of opportunities for discussion afterward. In that context, I recommend Swing to readers fourteen and up as both a funny coming-of-age buddy story and a serious vehicle for discussing the people we as a society forget, fear, or abuse.
BEST CHILDREN’S CHRISTMAS BOOKS A ROUNDUP – PART THREE
Here’s the third of our kids’ Christmas books roundup. There’s really something here for everyone from ages 3 to 12 (we’ve even included some board books for the littlest ones). So please take a look, buy the books at your local independent bookseller then let us know which ones ended up being your family’s favorites. Merry Christmas!
Cynthia Rylant’s Nativity combines the story of Jesus’ birth with well known passages from His ministry in beautiful text adapted from chapters of the Book of Matthew and the Book of Luke. Rendered in acrylic paints, Rylant’s colorful and straightforward illustrations allow young readers to experience the poetry of the King James translation of the Holy Bible.
The story begins on the cover flap: “A child is born…” which brings us to a pastoral setting. The animals are white and cloudy; human figures are faceless but, ironically, it’s the simplicity of their forms that communicates the scene: shepherds with staff in hand guarding their flock. As we follow their visit to the Baby Jesus, we notice familiar features, such as the star and wise men, absent from this Nativity scene. As a result, the presence of shepherds are highlighted all the more; they dominate over half the book — a fact I thought was interesting and appropriate, considering Jesus called Himself the “good shepherd” who “lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10: 11). Shepherds are spreading the news of Jesus’ birth to passers-by; in the privacy of their homes, they are wondering “at those things which were told them” by “the angel of the Lord.” Young readers may not understand the deep theological matters raised with the coming of Christ, but they can grasp its contemplative effect in the simple and humble bow of a shepherd’s head.
In addition to such quiet gestures, bold colors also help children connect with Scripture. As the angels proclaim peace on earth and “good will toward men” the sky is illuminated with a rainbow of warm, exciting colors-the colors of pure joy. My personal favorite is the way purple is used to illustrate the most poignant points of the story. Against a backdrop of rich purple, Mother Mary “kept these things” she witnessed “and pondered them in her heart.” The color appears once more when the story shifts to show Jesus as a grown man preaching His famous words (taken from the Sermon on the Mount): “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” Both these scenes express powerful and profound principles that invite reflection and meditation. The depth of the color calls readers to pause and wonder about the mystery of God and the peace of His Presence. If you’re looking for a traditional Christmas story, this is a book I’d highly recommend. • Reviewed by Armineh Manookian
Every child hopes to catch a glimpse of Santa Claus placing presents under the Christmas tree or filling their stockings with candies and trinkets on Christmas Eve. Most share the tradition of putting out cookies and milk for the jolly old fellow. There are however, probably a lot fewer who, like Maxwell, a mischievous young ninja, in Ninja Claus!, set traps in an attempt to capture Santa. Utilizing nets, a fishing pole, ropes, hula hoops, and his best ninja tricks, Maxwell manages to capture his dog and his father nibbling the cookies, but he’s swept off to bed by his mother before he can capture Santa.
Arree Chung has written and illustrated yet another Ninja picture book, his third in the series, that is bound to be a hit. With his deft use of acrylic paint and Adobe Photoshop, Chung sets the tone of the night before Christmas, with only the lights from the tree illuminating the pages. And his writing? He had me holding my breath and praying that Christmas wouldn’t be ruined for little Maxwell. And then came the big exhale. The greatest ninja of all, Santa Claus, came and went unnoticed. Hands down, this book is a delight. • Reviewed by MaryAnne Locher
In The Nutcracker in Harlem, Tchaikovsky’s ballet comes to life in the dreams of a Marie growing up in a musical family during the Harlem Renaissance. I love the illustrations, by multiple award-winner James Ransome, most of all. In the opening pages, author McMorrow and illustrator Ransome invite us into a bright and boisterous living room, crowded with happy people enjoying music and each other. The clothing and hats in bold blues, greens, and reds transport us to the 1920s. A Christmas party is underway. Marie’s uncle is playing the piano, her parents are dancing, and Miss Addie is singing. Everyone encourages Marie to participate, but she hangs back, shyly watching and listening. The atmosphere is so real and wonderful it makes me feel nostalgic for a party I never attended. When the story shifts to the world of Marie’s dream, the deep, vibrant watercolor illustrations keep the mood warm and happy even when what could be more frightening elements — such as an army of mice — dance into view. By the end, the dream, combined with the magic of Christmas, gives Marie the courage to join in the jazzy celebration. • Reviewed by Mary Malhotra
Thank you, Matt Tavares! As a former New Yorker who experienced the majesty of the Norway Spruce at Rockefeller Center most years of my childhood, I was transported by Red and Luluto Manhattan, not unlike the tree in this simple yet very moving story about love lost then found again during Christmastime. Red and Lulu, cardinals inspired by those in Tavares’ own backyard, make a massive evergreen their home. It’s there the pair see the seasons change in all their glory while always remaining close to the shelter that nature has so kindly provided. “Once a year the people who live nearby string lights on their tree and sing a special song: ‘O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree.'” Then, while Red is away, the tree is cut down and Lulu clings to it not understanding what is happening. Written with few words that speak volumes and powerful and poignant illustrations, the story follows Red as he tracks the tree on its journey. Unlike adult readers sharing the story with their children, Red doesn’t realize the significance of his home being transported to New York City. He searches high and low to find Lulu amidst the twinkling lights, falling snow, skyscrapers and crowds. As carolers sing their special song, O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree, Red’s determination is rewarded as the magic of the song, the holiday season and the Yuletide spirit in this famous city help reunite the cardinal couple and fill young (and old) readers’ hearts with joy. Don’t skip the back matter which includes facts about the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree tradition and an author’s note. Visit the Candlewick website to see a book trailer, some interior artwork and order the book for a 25% discount using the code CANDLEWICK at checkout. • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Here’s another great stocking stuffer for fans of outrageous facts. There are dozens of paper back books in the Weird but True!series and it’s no surprise since they are so entertaining. This one is no exception. Just when they think they’ve read all the facts, they’ll want to dive back in to share them and spread the holiday cheer. Included are some whammies such as “One family passed down the same fruitcake since 1878,” or “A whole sheep’s head is considered a holiday delicacy in Norway.” Do your children know that “In India people decorate banana trees for Christmas,” or that “During the Australian gold rush, people baked gold nuggets into their Christmas pudding for good luck?” As can be expected from any National Geographic book, the photographs included are fantastic as are the added illustrations. The 208 page count should not put off any child since the info is written in large font and the graphics are bold and bright.Weird but True! Christmas can be read quickly to get a general overview then returned to when specific facts require further study. If your tweens cannot get enough of all these fun facts, they can download the National Geographic Kids Weird but True app for iPhone, iPod touch and iPad! • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Other Recommended Christmas Books This Year Include:
This Little Reindeer Written by Aly Fronis Illustrated by Luke Flowers (Little Bee Books; $5.99, Ages 2-5)
Christmas Eve Annie Auerbach (Barron’s Children’s Books; $6.99, Ages 1-4)
Don’t Push The Button!: A Christmas Adventure Written and illustrated by Bill Cotter (Jabberwocky Kids; $8.99, Ages 2+ )
BEST CHILDREN’S CHRISTMAS BOOKS A ROUNDUP – PART TWO
As promised, Good Reads With Ronna continues this year’s roundups of great Christmas books and activities to share with your children before and during the holiday. There are so many terrific new books to choose from that we felt it was important to review as many as possible so you could find some special ones that appeal to everyone in the family.
The traditional Christmas song about a partridge in a pear tree can get to feeling a bit cluttered by the time seven lords are leaping around, but in The Twelve Days of Christmas, Emma Randall’s illustrations are a breath of fresh winter air, clear and colorful throughout. For example, each leaf and pear in the partridge’s tree is separate, forming a lovely mosaic that could be Swedish or Ukrainian. The characters are drawn in a homey style that reminds me of Jessie from Pixar’s “Toy Story,” with old-fashioned winter afternoon-wear replacing cowgirl duds. There are plenty of visual details to search for and enjoy, and of course you can sing the song while searching if caroling is your jam. • Reviewed by Mary Malhotra
Susan Jeffers offers a new interpretation of another classic holiday song, Jingle Bells. Her cover illustration gives us the main characters: a boy carrying a gift, a girl snuggling a dog, a beautiful horse, and lots of snow, including raised sparkling snowflakes just asking to be touched by little fingers. Open the book and the front endpaper lays out the path the sled will follow, from the children’s barn, over a river, through a forest and on to a little house. Working with such a familiar song, Jeffers takes the opportunity to include new things for readers to ponder. The children would like to stay bundled up in the sled, but their dog is determined to discover every winter animal playing or hiding in the white world outside the sleigh. Readers can look for the animals, too; the last two pages identify them for reference. Near the end, we find out where the children are going and who will receive their gift. In a surprise, the story shares some insight about what it might be like to have a famous neighbor. Add this one to your songbook collection. • Reviewed by Mary Malhotra
I tried to share my favorite holiday television special with my own kids twenty years ago — and it didn’t really work. Maybe the animation techniques or sound quality didn’t hold up, or maybe I had loved it partly because I could only see it once a year, whenever CBS decided to air it. At any rate, my kids couldn’t relate to my anticipation. I opened A Charlie Brown Christmas: Deluxe Edition(Peanuts) hoping this book might be a way to share the Peanuts magic more successfully with my grandchildren. I’ll know for sure when I see them before the holidays, but I’m thinking this version is a “yes!” • Reviewed by Mary Malhotra
This deluxe edition, by Maggie Testa (Adapter), Charles M. Schulz (Author), and Vicki Scott (Illustrator), is big, with an almost-velvet red cover framing a smiling Charlie Brown holding his special little Christmas tree. The endpapers are sheet music of the Christmas carols “Jingle Bells” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” The art throughout pops with bold colors and stylized shading. In case you’re unfamiliar with the characters or story, Charlie Brown is a kid who has few friends and can’t do anything right. He is correspondingly depressed, yet embodies optimism, always coming back to try again. In the Christmas story, his true friend Linus thinks he knows how to cheer up Charlie Brown. “You need to get involved. How would you like to be the director of our Christmas play?” Charlie Brown takes charge, but after he gets a straggly little tree to decorate the stage, the other kids convince him he’s ruined everything again. Later, led by Linus, everyone comes together to decorate the tree. It shapes up like only a cartoon tree could, and the true spirit of Christmas shines. This adaptation hits the important notes I remember from the animated special, including my favorite scene: Linus reciting Luke 2:8-14 after assuring Charlie Brown, “I can tell you what Christmas is all about.” • Reviewed by Mary Malhotra
With a title like Christmas Paper Crafting: Holiday Cards, Gift Tags, and More! it’s no surprise that this book contains cards, envelope templates, and gift tags. The “more” includes bookmarks, mini cards, full-page images called frameables, and scrapbook paper (which makes nice two-sided gift wrap). Most pages are perforated and easy for a child to use on their own. Kids can choose an item, then draw or write on the mostly blank second side—some have short quotations. The envelope templates are straightforward as are the instructions for bookmark tassels or fridge magnets.
The artwork is that of best-selling artists Thaneeya McArdle, Robin Pickens, Angelea Van Dam, Valentina Harper, and Valerie McKeehan. A variety of styles showcases the holiday sentiments. Images are produced on thick paper and in full color—except for a few in black and white for self-coloring. While most pictures are appropriate for a range of holidays, in keeping with the book’s title, many of the quotes on the back of the cards refer to Christmas and some are of a religious nature. If the quotes aren’t suitable, the card’s second page can be omitted and used as postcard-size instead.
If you’re strapped for time, Christmas Paper Crafting can give your cards a more homemade feel. It may also be less costly than buying individual greeting cards or boxed card sets. Kids who enjoy making their own choices and crafting will appreciate the freedom to pick what they like then to embellish a bit, adding their special seasonal touch. • Reviewed by Christine Van Zandt
I picked up Mary Engelbreit’sColor ME Christmas Book of Postcards because it looked like a fun, creative project to do with my granddaughter, coloring in holiday postcards, gift tags, and ornaments illustrated with designs in Engelbreit’s signature vintage style. I love that at Christmastime, every arts and crafts project is also an opportunity for young kids to make presents for the people they care about. The book is printed on thick card stock, so after coloring, the items will be ready to mail, tie onto gifts, or hang on the Christmas tree. Paired with a package of colored pencils or markers, these postcards make a wonderful gift for any young visitors you may be expecting. Recommended for ages 4 and up, in other words, for anyone who’s a kid at heart like me. • Reviewed by Mary Malhotra
ENTER TITLE HERE Written by Rahul Kanakia (Hyperion; $17.99, Ages 14 and up)
Just in time for back-to-school comes ENTER TITLE HERE from Hyperion. Rahul Kanakia’s debut YA novel examines the fierce competition for college admissions in a fresh, surprising, and funny package, with a bonus meta element for those of us readers who are also writing our own novels. The main character is Reshma Kapoor, a Silicon Valley high school senior who employs unhealthy and unsavory means to achieve her all-consuming end: admission to Stanford.
Reshma is convinced that her application — with its stellar grades but average-after-several-tries SAT scores — needs a hook in order to stand out in the admissions slush pile. She thinks she’s found her “in” when an essay she published in the Huffington Post earns her an email from a literary agent: “If you were to someday write a novel, I’d love to read it.” Boom, goal-oriented Reshma has a new aim: secure a contract with this agent, and write a novel to be under submission (or maybe even sold) in time for Stanford’s Early Action deadline.
And that novel is ENTER TITLE HERE. Or is it? I enjoyed the argument in my head as I read: is this really happening, or is this just for the novel? Reshma the narrator certainly encourages the confusion. She scopes out a brief synopsis in her head, epiphany and all, and then writes a “SEPTEMBER TO-DO LIST” of the experiences she needs to have to write the novel convincingly: make a friend, go on a date, attend a party, get a boyfriend, have sex. In the pages that follow, she sets about checking off each item. Oh, and this isn’t on her list, but no way is she going to loosen her grasp on her school’s valedictorian spot. She won it by hook and by crook, and keeping it is as essential to her plans (and her self-image) as writing the novel is.
You may have guessed by now that Reshma is not a very likable person. When she writes, for school assignments, newspaper articles, or her novel, she maintains two versions: an honest one and a pretty one. But when she meets people face-to-face, “…they start to hate me. That’s because when I speak, I find it hard to create a pretty version.” But even as we dislike much of what Reshma thinks, says, and does, we keep reading. Why?
For one thing, I was curious to find out which of her many enemies deserved the title. There’s her mother, who thinks Reshma should lower her sights from Stanford. There’s her “perfect” classmate Chelsea, who couldn’t possibly be as nice as she pretends to be. And then there’s Alex, Reshma’s Adderall supplier. Reshma blackmails Alex into being her friend (item number one on the TO-DO LIST) and then wonders if she can trust Alex to have her back. Meanwhile, will Reshma ever notice that George, whom her parents allow to live in the basement so he can go to a good school, consistently behaves like a real friend?
Kanakia keeps us rooting for Reshma, in spite of all her faults. We want her to figure out how to stop the train before the wreck. Her mother tries to help her, sending her to a therapist. As a writer, I found some of the funniest moments of the book occurring in Dr. Wasserman’s office. He’s not just a therapist; he’s also an unpublished novelist, and his line of questioning is familiar to any fellow striver: “…you’ve mentioned your agent…Who is she, if you don’t mind me…?” He has lots of advice for Reshma, but it’s never clear. Are the ideas for the novel, or for her life? Does Reshma imagine Dr. Wasserman’s decline into obsession with her plot line and character arcs? Or is he a horrible therapist but a pretty good editor?
I enjoyed ENTER TITLE HERE and recommend it as a work of evil genius that will be especially appreciated by students currently competing in the college admissions rat race. Their parents will like the novel too — though it may send some of them searching their kids’ backpacks for stray Adderalls.
OUTRUN THE MOON Written by Stacey Lee (G.P. Putnam’s Sons; $17.99, Ages 12 and up)
Ever since I finished reading Stacey Lee’s debut Under a Painted Sky, a YA novel following two girls escaping along the Oregon Trail, I’ve been hankering for more of Lee’s historical fiction, especially her lively and likable characters. In Outrun The Moon, out on May 24, Lee delivers, giving us Mercy Wong, a fifteen-year-old growing up in San Francisco’s Chinatown. It’s 1906, and the Chinese are restricted to a crowded corner of the city, but Mercy is determined to break out for the sake of her family, especially her overworked father and weak-lunged little brother. Mercy wants to change their destiny, but her mother warns that destiny is “like the moon. We can see it differently by climbing a mountain, but we cannot outrun it.” Or can they?
The story takes off — literally — as Mercy helps her lifelong friend and marriage prospect, Tom, with his hot-air balloon. Mercy’s mother is a revered fortune-teller who uses facial characteristics in her character assessments and predictions. You can imagine what happens when the daughter she calls “bossy cheeks” is left alone in the balloon for a moment, with the simple instructions, “Don’t touch anything.” The balloon seems to be collapsing, and Mercy will never sit still doing nothing if she thinks she can fix a problem.
And lots of problems are coming. If she can survive the hot air balloon, Mercy has a plan to win herself a scholarship to the best girls’ school in the city, but she may not understand the depth and breadth of prejudice against the Chinese. Dependable Tom is acting aloof. Ma has a chilling premonition — of her own death. Worst of all, it’s springtime in San Francisco. In 1906, that means the earth is about to crack open.
I love how Lee places many intermediate points of suspense along the story’s path, and I don’t want to spoil that suspense by telling any more about the book’s plot. But I can tell you that you will meet interesting young people of different backgrounds and prospects — and some crotchety older people, too. There will be leeches, and a mystical cow. There will be wisdom from Mercy’s fortune-telling mother, and from Mrs. Lowry, a Texan with a big ranch and a big personality. Food plays an important role, too, especially once disaster strikes; you may want to have some pasta available for the cravings you’ll get as you read. Chocolate, too.
I recommend this novel wholeheartedly. YA readers looking for strong, independent female characters will enjoy it. The book is also an excellent diverse read, giving an intimate perspective on the attitudes, injustices, and practical difficulties associated with the Chinese Exclusion Act. Finally, I recommend Outrun The Moon to my fellow historical fiction fans, and to anyone who’s ever left their heart in San Francisco.
Click here to see Lee’s book tour dates. Visit Lee’s website to learn more about her here.
Madeline Whittier has read more books than you, but she hasn’t been outside her house for as long as she can remember. The protagonist in Nicola Yoon’s #1 New York Times Bestseller, Everything, Everything, lives an air-locked, filtered existence, with no outings and virtually no visitors, because she’s “basically allergic to the world.” She has Severe Combined Immunodeficiency, or “bubble baby disease.” While she could have grown to be a weird or bitter eighteen-year-old, it’s clear from the funny drawings and comments with which she annotates her life that she has remained sweet, optimistic and thoughtful.
Since Madeline’s father and brother were killed in an accident when she was a baby, Madeline and her mom are almost everything to each other. Then Olly moves in next door, with his all-black wardrobe, his parkour litheness, and his off-the-wall sense of humor. Madeline realizes she won’t really have everything unless she can leave her germ-free house and be Outside with Olly.
I enjoyed the unusual format of the book, its short chapters that don’t necessarily follow each other, the hand-written notes and drawings. Appropriate as well as charming, the format reinforces how Madeline feels about herself: “If my life were a book and you read it backward, nothing would change.” Before Olly, her “life was a palindrome — the same forward and backward.”
That being said, eventually sequence matters, and the real “Book of Maddy” — Everything, Everything — is different if read backward. In the interest of not giving away too much, I won’t tell you the questions the book made me ask beyond “What would it be like to be a bubble-baby?” But rest assured Yoon’s novel provokes other thoughts as well, about the nature of love, and risk, and life itself.
★Starred Review – Publishers Weekly -A New York Times bestseller -Kids’ Indie Next List Pick (Summer 2015)
Sarah Dessen’s many fans won’t need to be cajoled past the slow start of her new YA novel, SAINT ANYTHING (May 2015, Viking; $19.99). New Dessen readers, however, should know that the beginning is there to provide contrast, like the black-and-white opening of the Wizard of Oz movie. The detached vibe reflects how main character Sydney Stanford’s home life feels until she meets the Chatham family. The Chathams and their restaurant Seaside Pizza are full of warmth, acceptance, and music, and the pace of the book picks up as soon as the family appears. Layla Chatham becomes Sydney’s new best friend. Since she has a big sister who is a skating-star-turned-drug-addict, Layla understands what it’s like for Sydney now that her brother Peyton is in prison. Peyton was the Stanford family’s “Golden Child” before he drove drunk and crashed into a pedestrian.
Layla invites Sydney to join her group of friends, which includes her brother Mac. They all hang out at Seaside after school, eating pizza and practicing retro pop covers for an upcoming band showcase. Sydney feels herself falling for Mac, despite Layla’s warning that she can’t abide her friends dating her brother. But how can you draw a line between friendship and romance when you meet the right guy? The times Sydney and Mac find to be alone — usually while delivering pizza in Mac’s not-so-reliable old truck — are some of my favorite moments in the book. I enjoyed reliving the sweet excitement of a potential new relationship. I also related to Sydney’s discomfort when her brother’s friend keeps popping up to hang out with her, especially when her parents aren’t around. It’s hard to ask for help when an older guy creeps you out for reasons you can’t name and therefore can’t report.
The heart of the book for me centers on Sydney’s feeling of guilt about the young teen, David Ibarra, her brother Peyton injured. Sydney learns everything she can about David’s life before and after the accident. A friendly, caring guy nicknamed “Brother,” he’s going to be in a wheelchair for life, and Sydney feels like she’s the only person in the family wanting to make amends. Her mother, Julie, only thinks about Peyton and how the aftermath of the accident affects him. As a parent, I laughed out loud as Julie, stuck in helicopter-parent mode, tries to organize families of Peyton’s fellow prisoners as if she were the president of a prison PTA. I was touched, though, when Sydney and Peyton start talking on the phone, finally getting to know each other as individuals outside of their family roles, ready to take responsibility for their own lives.
SAINT ANYTHING is peopled with teens who feel real, none of them perfect and all of them passionate about something, whether music, school, or French fries. The book is a comfortable place to hang out even while facing uncomfortable situations with the more caricature-like adults. I recommend this book to fellow fans of quiet YA, those of us who’d like to peek inside a house when delivering a pizza, trying to figure out what life’s like behind that half-open door.
If you’re a YA reader and haven’t read Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith yet (in trade paperback as of February 2015, Speak; $10.99) — in spite of all the buzz, like a 2015 Michael L. Printz honor and news of an Edgar Wright movie adaptation — get to it! Maybe you don’t like science fiction. No problem; the six-foot tall man-eating praying mantises come off as campy rather than horrific. Maybe you don’t like troubled narrators who use expletives every other word. Well, if Holden Caulfield didn’t help you get over that, maybe Austin Szerba will do it for you. Austin’s horny all the time, smokes most of the time, and often breaks rules just for the heck of it. But in spite of the trouble he gets into and the bad decisions he makes, he’s likable and sincere, and his adolescent mistakes provide a thought-provoking contrast to the nightmares the full-grown adults in his world engender — in their personal lives, in politics, and in ethics-impaired science.
Austin’s story takes place in small-town Ealing, Iowa in the early twenty-first century U.S. His brother is fighting in Afghanistan, and the economy is failing. The Ealing Mall, along with the neighboring field that Austin and his best friend Robby named Grasshopper Jungle when they played there as younger kids, has turned mostly into a junkyard. When Austin and Robby sneak into a locked office in one of the few remaining stores, they discover specimens from a 1960’s era Department of Defense research project. The specimens, accidentally unleashed by Austin (or, one could argue, by the bullies who steal the specimens after Austin finds them), develop into Unstoppable Soldiers, the aforementioned monstrous bugs that do indeed look more like praying mantises than grasshoppers, in spite of their provenance in Grasshopper Jungle.
Keeping notebooks with drawings and text about everything he experiences, Austin defines himself as a historian. His voice is fresh and humorous but also full of pain and sadness for his own hurts and those of generations past. Although he frequently uses an Anglo-Saxon term for “excrement” and drops a few f-bombs, Austin enjoys speaking eruditely and notices when anyone else uses even slightly elevated language, too. “She used words like moment,” he says about his girlfriend Shann. “The way she talked made me horny.”
That’s Austin in a nutshell. Almost everything makes him horny, but the way he reports this feels natural, not uncomfortable. Austin doesn’t consciously focus on sex. It’s just there, all the time, whether it’s convenient for him to be thinking about it or not. And he’s dealing with the fact that he’s overflowing with sexual feelings not just for Shann, but also for Robby, who is gay. Austin is confused, “…wondering how it was possible to be sexually attracted and in love with my best friend, a boy, and my other best friend, a girl…. There had to be something wrong with me. I envied Shann and Robby both so much for being confident in who they were and what they felt.”
Readers who identify with Austin’s confusion — whether over sexuality or one of the many other dilemmas he deals with — will enjoy this book. Readers who love the outrageous visuals of low-budget sci-fi horror will relish the scenes with huge bugs hatching out of human beings and feasting on what’s left of them, alongside destroyed cop cars and exploding bridges; there’s also a really cool underground bunker. Readers looking for a philosophical take-away will think about science, and responsibility, and history.
Author Andrew Smith is a social studies teacher, and for me the biggest growth in Austin and the biggest takeaway from Grasshopper Jungle is a developing understanding about the purpose of recording history. Austin tells us history has “to be an abbreviation. Even those first men…who painted on cave walls in Lascaux and Altamira, only put the important details down. We killed this big hairy thing and that big hairy thing. And that was our day. You know what I mean.” The novel circles back to this idea again and again, asking the questions: which details are the important ones? And what should we do about them if we ever figure that out? These are important questions, and Smith’s book is a satisfying way to explore them.
Half-Life by Tina Ferraro Leap Books, 2015 (March 24), 108 pp., Kindle Edition $1.99 & Rafflecopter Giveaway
Probably not a good idea to take advice from your dead twin sister.
Half-Life, Tina Ferraro’s new YA novella from Leap Books, is my favorite kind of ghost story: one in which the ghost is someone you are happy to see and wish would stick around. I’ve read several of Ferraro’s teen romances — she’s been a finalist for the Romance Writers of America RITA award twice — and while the supernatural twist is new, the elements I enjoy most in her books are all here: a main character who is frank, funny, and a bit clumsy; family dynamics that are real and give the story depth; and a sweet, good-hearted love interest. Thankfully, the love interest is not the ghost in question (that could get awkward!). Rather, the ghost is main character Trisha Traynor’s identical twin sister Chessie, who died from a virus when the twins were just five. Soon after Chessie died, Abby Lowe became Trisha’s best friend, helping fill the void Chessie left in Trisha’s life.
Now that Trisha and Abby are sophomores in high school, Abby is obsessing over a new boyfriend, and Trisha feels like she’s been dumped. Who can you turn to when your best friend turns away? Trisha’s mom is always super busy, determined to live exclusively in the present so she doesn’t have to address her grief and guilt over the death of her child. Since Mom’s no help, Trisha finds support in a very unexpected place. On Halloween night, Chessie appears as a reflection in a mirror with a plan to help Trisha fix her friendship with Abby. The first action item: get Trisha a boyfriend of her own, pronto.
Sensing a supernatural time limit (Chessie keeps consulting an invisible wrist watch), Trisha sets her sights on attainable Chadwick O’Reilly instead of her longtime crush, drop-dead gorgeous Kirk Maxwell. But Trisha’s choices aren’t all working out so well. The more she sees of Chadwick, the creepier he looks. She assumes Kirk is out of her league, but maybe he’s actually interested? And not even Chessie can understand why Trisha is willing to risk everything to get on the good side of her mean-spirited next-door neighbor, Dawn Dupree.
Author Bio: Tina Ferraro been writing since she learned to hold a pencil, and sold upwards of a hundred short stories to national magazines before turning to novels. She is the author of three Random House novels, The ABC’s of Kissing Boys, How to Hook a Hottie and Top Ten Uses for an Unworn Prom Dress, which have received distinctions such as the ABA Book Sense Award and two RITA nominations.
Her fourth YA, The Starter Boyfriend, has spent time on Amazon’s Top 100 Lists. She lives in Los Angeles with her rocket scientist husband, two cats and whichever of their three young adult children is in town. When not writing, she enjoys playing Facebook Scrabble, swimming, and chasing coyotes out of her neighborhood.
Author Mary Amato is also a songwriter, just like the protagonist of her new YA novel, Get Happy (Egmont USA, October 28, 2014, $16.99, Ages 12+ ). This fact provides a fresh hook: readers who get curious about the songs soon-to-be seventeen year-old Minerva writes when she’s working through her feelings can go to thrumsociety.com and listen to performances of the actual songs.
A funny moment in the book rings true and reflects Amato’s musical background: Minerva wants a ukulele for her birthday. She thinks she’s made this clear to her mother, but the two are rarely on the same page. So when Mom doesn’t come through, what does the uke-less Minerva do? She spends so much time practicing on the instruments at the music store that the store manager bans her!
The friendships in Get Happy also feel very real. Finnegan is a real BFF whom Minerva can count on when she’s down. He also pushes her to do things that are good for her. Notably, he gets Minerva to audition for a job with a company called Get Happy. The job entails, well, a tail! Minerva has to dress up as a mermaid, following a script to entertain at birthday parties. The job generates some funny and poignant moments and also turns out to be a place to meet new friends. Fin and Min meet Hayes on the way to the audition, and convince him to try out, too. Hayes is tall and friendly, and a cowboy — at least when he’s dressed for work. Cassie is the perfect princess, so perfect that her clients love her. Minerva notices every moment Cassie shares with Hayes, and finds herself feeling jealous. She even stalks Cassie on-line, leaving nasty comments on her blog.
The main conflict in the book feels less completely realized, but definitely adds suspense, and a sense of commonality for readers dealing with separated or divorced parents. Minerva’s father left when she was just a baby, but now he’s trying to get back in touch. If he’s as bad as Mom says, he’s not worth knowing, but Minerva can’t help wondering about him. Who is he, really? Should she try to contact him? Will Mom find out about the package he sent Minerva on her birthday?
Reading Get Happy is a good way to discover different paths for self-discovery — art, work, friendship — and will be especially enjoyed by younger YA readers.
Learn more about Amato’s books for younger children and educational resources for her books at www.maryamato.com.
✩Starred Reviews – Publishers Weekly, School LibraryJournal & Booklist
From the very first page of Complicit(St. Martin’s Griffin, 2014, $19.99, Ages, 14 and up), author Stephanie Kuehn keeps readers off-balance, trying to figure out what’s true and what’s right. The YA psychological thriller opens at 3:29 a.m. with the narrator’s phone ringing. “I like to be prepared,” Jamie says, “so I sleep with my phone beneath my pillow just in case someone calls. No one ever does of course.” But the phone is ringing, and already something doesn’t add up.
At breakfast, Jamie figures out the call was probably from his sister Cate, who has just been released from prison, much to the family’s dismay. Another problem for the reader: how could a teen do something so awful that even her parents and brother completely give up on her? On hearing that Cate is free, Jamie’s hands go numb, which is inconvenient because he has all sorts of routine high school activities planned for the day, including playing piano in the school jazz band. There’s nothing routine about the condition that occasionally makes his hands limp and useless, though: “even the big-shot doctors down at Stanford can’t figure [it] out”.
In other words, before the first chapter is over, it’s easy to like Jamie and empathize with him, but there are also already lots of questions about the past he shares with his troubled sister. It’s the beginning of a wild ride that forces the reader to consider the repercussions of shielding people from painful truths. Also, does hiding someone else’s bad behavior make you complicit in the crime?
I recommend this book to all teens and adults who like a thriller and can handle Hitchcockian violence — there are some horrors to imagine in Complicit, but the violence occurs off-stage. This is author Kuehn’s second novel. Her first, Charm & Strange, won the 2014 William C. Morris Award for outstanding YA debut.