Review by Megan Litwin
You Are a Reader!/You Are a Writer! by April Jones Prince and illustrated by Christine Davenier (Margaret Ferguson Books, 2021) is a book for readers and writers everywhere. Its “two-books-in-one” design cleverly shows that readers are writers and writers are readers, and the acts of reading and writing are all around. From recipes to signs, from thank you cards to songs, there are so many ways to be a reader or writer. With a bouncy beat and lively illustrations showcasing all sorts of creative endeavors, there is an infectious joy to this book. And as a former teacher who was deeply engaged in the joyful work of growing young readers and writers, this book spoke to me like an encouraging classroom mantra. You CAN. You WILL. You already ARE…
Writers of all ages would do well to read Prince’s pages on being a writer. To begin, she notes the importance of looking and listening well, no matter what you’re doing. “You’re a writer everywhere” is a beautiful (and empowering) statement. She devotes a whole page to her signature “juicy words.” And on that pesky topic of writer’s block, she has a few tricks up her sleeve.
Yes…whether a beginning or seasoned writer (or reader), there will be stumbles. But this book makes every writer-reader feel like they have the power to fly.
Find out more about April at www.apriljonesprince.com/ and browse Christine's beautiful art at www.christinedavenier.com/
BEAR'S BICYCLE, by Laura Renauld
Guest review by Kristi Mahoney
In Bear’s Bicycle, written by Laura Renauld and illustrated by Jennie Poh (Beaming Books, 2021) we are reunited with the lovable cast of characters first introduced by this author/illustrator combo in Porcupine’s Pie (Beaming Books, 2018). In this follow-up book, Bear wants to learn to ride his bike for the upcoming Summer Scoot. After multiple trips to the library to find a how-to guide, Bear discovers that doing everything by the book doesn’t always work out. Bear’s Bicycle is an endearing story about practice, perseverance, and the importance of friendship. Add in Jennie Poh’s whimsical illustrations and you have a book that will leave you feeling as warm and fuzzy as bear himself.
Laura Renauld’s writing style is delightfully consistent with her original story in this series. It’s filled with things that I personally love in a book and appreciate as a writer: orderly lists, fun-to-say onomatopoeia, distinct voice, and bonus back matter that will delight anyone teetering on whether or not to take on a two-wheeler.
And if you happen to fall in love with this woodland cast as fast as I did, you won’t have to wait long to see more of them. Cruise on over and pencil in the release date of the third book in this series, Squirrel’s Sweater (Beaming Books, anticipated September 21st, 2021).
To learn more about Laura visit here.
~Review by Amanda Smith
Go with the Flow (First Second, 2020) is written and illustrated by Lily Williams and Karen Schneemann, co-creators of the online comic series The Mean Magenta and is the book I wish I had when I was a teen.
Brit, Sasha, Christine and Abby are four sophomore friends, who share laughs, rides, cookies and quiet conversations about their struggles with their periods. These four girls could not be more different in ethnicity, body types, personalities, and menstrual experiences, which makes this book super relatable to its YA audience. (No one-note, perfect, fictional girls here!) Upbeat Abby, fierce defender of women’s rights, decides to address the lack of feminine products in their school’s bathrooms after Sasha has a period emergency. Her passion and determination to be heard leads to hurt feelings, teetering friendships, and important lessons about listening. Brit deals with excruciating cramps that forces her to miss several days of school per month. She has to face well-meaning but clueless male teachers, and experiences anxiety about what might be wrong with her. Go with the Flow also addresses other teenage topics such as boys (the nice ones and the “fart bags”), sexual identity, generational and cultural gaps, activism, and kindness, without ever being preachy.
This YA graphic novel, filled with interesting facts throughout and containing oodles of relevant backmatter, is geared towards a more mature audience. However, it is a must-read, helping teens feel more comfortable about their changing bodies, and opening their eyes to what peers might be experiencing. Readers will recognize themselves within these pages, and all the characters will inspire them to be their best selves.
Bravo for bravery! Lily and Karen unabashedly tackle a subject that has been dubbed as “inappropriate” and “gross” for generations. In Abby’s words “you know, the patriarchy, and all that (barf)”. They deliver a plot focused on the menstrual cycle with lots of heart and tons of humor. They give the reader relatable characters, who feel as real as flesh-and-blood friends. They sprinkle thought-provoking ideas and acts of kindness throughout, educating and arming their readers with knowledge, courage, and hope. If you are feeling hesitant about your own work in progress with “taboo” themes, study Go With the Flow for a dose of daring.
Browse the original Mean Magenta comics here: themeanmagenta.com/
Learn more about Karen at www.karenschneemann.com/
To learn more about Lily, visit lilywilliamsart.com/
WHAT IF PIG? by Linzie Hunter
~ Guest Review by Megan Litwin
In What If, Pig? by Linzie Hunter (HarperCollins, 2021), we meet Pig and Mouse, and a supporting cast of colorful, cheerful animal characters. Pig is so kind and fun and generous that one day he decides to throw a party for all his friends. But Pig is also a worrier. A tremendous worrier. He worries that the party is a terrible mistake. A series of “what if” worries follow and spiral out of control. (Sound familiar, anyone?) Fortunately, Pig has good friends…friends who, as it turns out, sometimes worry too. The vibrant, colorful art and dynamic font that mimics Pig’s growing anxiety are perfect complements to the snappy text. What If, Pig? is a thoughtful book about friendship and kindness, worry and wonder. And a timely one too. As the world keeps changing and as perennial back-to-school worries crop up, this book offers a gentle springboard for discussion.
Purposeful repetition can be a powerful tool in picture books, and Linzie Hunter does a fabulous job playing with repetition in her text. The use of “what if” as a sentence starter throughout the book, and also in the title, gives this a rhythmic hum, a predictable beat. But not too predictable. Hunter continually surprises the reader by changing the nature of the “what if” and the meaning behind it. “What if” thinking can be worrisome and negative, but it can also be wonderous, hopeful, and full of positive possibility.
What if you read a book that warmed your own sometimes-worrisome heart so much that you told everyone about it?
You can learn more about Linzie Hunter here.
MEL FELL, by Corey R. Tabor
Review by Annie Cronin Romano
MEL FELL (Balzer & Bray, 2021) is a delightful picture book about a baby kingfisher who takes a leap—much to the chagrin of her brother and sister—and learns how to fly...by falling. It’s a story about trying new things and trusting the process, and young readers take the leap with Mel as she falls down, down, down, all the while letting her instincts be her guide. Mel’s nature neighbors all try to help, but Mel can sense this is what she needs to do, and her intuition does not steer her wrong. Cheerful, engaging illustrations heighten the upbeat energy of this story.
Tabor incorporates light visual humor and tightly written text (the word count is under 300 words including speech bubbles/asides) to convey a message about trusting your instincts and learning to spread your wings. He avoids the trap of explaining or naming the message of his story. Rather, he allows Mel’s adventure to do the heavy lifting and trusts his young readers to glean their own take-away from the young bird’s experience. This picture book is a strong example of conveying a message in a completely non-didactic manner. A true mentor text for concise, subtle writing.
To learn more about Corey R. Tabor, visit his website at www.coreyrtabor.com.
~ Review by Amanda Smith
The only thing Maggie wants for her birthday is a puppy. Her twin brothers have one another to play with and her parents are busy preparing for the new baby. Maggie knows her very own dog will be her best friend. But when she finds the perfect puppy at the shelter, she also finds out she is allergic to dogs. Extremely, land-in-the-hospital allergic. To any animal with fur or feathers.
Maggie often feels excluded and jealous of friends who can have pets. She feels guilty because her classroom hamster had to move to a different class due of her allergies. Even though she is getting allergy shots, the process is long and does not offer immediate relief. Her friend Claire, who doesn’t really understand the seriousness of Maggie’s allergies, tries to help, and her solution leads to even more problems and heartache.
Throughout Allergic (Graphix, 2021), Maggie learns the challenges and limitations of living with allergies. But she also learns to be a better big sister, and that she is very much needed, wanted, and loved as part of her family.
Allergic gives a voice to children dealing with allergies, or help them understand friends with allergies. Many allergy sufferers feel, like Maggie, helpless, and are sometimes left out because of something completely outside their control. Without being didactic, Allergic explores these emotional challenges, along with themes of friendship, family, and what it means to belong.
The graphic novel format is the perfect vehicle for this story. Intertwining visual and written storytelling, Lloyd and Nutter delivers the scientific and medical information in bite-size pieces that are interesting and relatable to young readers. Through a combination of art and text, reoccurring themes are strengthened. ALLERGIC is a great study of the dance between illustration and words, even in books for older readers, and how both these aspects enhance story-telling.
To learn more about Megan Wagner Lloyd visit meganwagnerlloyd.com/.
You can find more of Michelle's fabulous art at michellemee.com/.
Review by Annie Cronin Romano
FROM THE DESK OF ZOE WASHINGTON (Katherine Tegen Books, 2020) is a delightful mix of mystery and cupcakes! When Zoe, who dreams of becoming a famous baker, receives a letter from her incarcerated father on her 12th birthday, she finds herself determined to prove the innocence of this man she's never met. Her mother, however, wants Zoe to have nothing to do with her dad, so Zoe must sneak around in her efforts to correspond with her father and uncover the truth. A novel about the power of hope, forgiveness, and believing in others.
Janae Marks takes a difficult subject (isolation from a parent) and makes it accessible to young readers in a gentle yet direct manner. Her handling of the father’s incarceration is presented thoughtfully, and the novel address faults and injustices in the legal system using an approach middle grade readers will understand. FROM THE DESK OF ZOE WASHINGTON is a solid mentor text for presenting social issues in an accessible, skillful way. The parallel plot of Zoe’s love of baking is seamlessly woven in with her pursuit to prove her father’s innocence, making this novel a prime example of how two strong parallel plots can work together to add dimension to the novel while simultaneously moving the main character’s story forward.
To learn more about Janae Marks’ work, visit her website at www.janaemarks.com.
JUST LIKE THAT by Gary Schmidt
Review by Amanda Smith
Gary Schmidt did it again! As in Ok For Now, Just Like That (HMH, 2021) takes place directly after The Wednesday Wars and follows a minor character from the Newbury Honor novel in their own coming of age story.
Meryl Lee Kowalski, Holling Hoodhood’s best friend, is sent to a Maine boarding school after a devastating personal loss. Surrounded by shallow, spoiled girls, strict teachers blinded by tradition and decorum, and disturbing news from the war in Vietnam, Meryl Lee battles to keep the Blank at bay.
But she also makes friends: Heidi with her hockey sticks; Mousy Marian (who learns to roar); and Bettey, a local girl employed by the school as serving staff. And Matt Coffin, the boy whose eyes tell Meryl Lee that he knows the Blank too.
And then there is Dr. Nora MacKnockater, headmistress of St. Elene Preparatory Academy for Girls, who inspires Meryl Lee with her assembly speech on the first day of school. There will be Obstacles, Dr MacKnockater said, but the girls should have Resolve. And then they will grow Accomplished. Dr. MacKnockater who can focus her searchlight eyes on Meryl Lee as if she can spot the Blank when it attempts to overcome Meryl Lee. Dr. MacKnockater who takes Matt Coffin in from the streets and helps him face his own dark past when he cannot run from it anymore.
Individually and together, under the protection and wisdom of Dr. MacKnockater, Meryl Lee and Matt resolve to overcome obstacles and challenge the status quo. The reader is swept along on their captivating journey to becoming increasingly Accomplished as they banish the Blank.
There is always so much to learn from a Gary Schmidt novel. One can get all wrapped up in his beautiful language use and unique turn of phrase. But more than anything else, Schmidt is a master at creating a rich and layered reading experience.
In this novel, he adds layers through different devices: Just as in The Wednesday Wars and OK for Now, he uses classic literary works to emphasize character traits and showcase character development. For example, Meryl Lee draws parallels from The Wizard of Oz to her own life, while Matt dubs Dr. MacKnockater Bagheera after she reads The Jungle Book to him.
As another layer, Schmidt solidifies setting by weaving paraphrased song lyrics from the sixties through the novel in a delightfully sweet and original way.
Clever repetition, both in close proximity to emphasize emotion or heighten tension, as well as throughout the novel to bring deeper understanding, adds to the layers.
He also uses capitalization of abstract concepts, such as resolve, to make them concrete and real, and give them presence.
And he sprinkles in unexpected moments of laugh-out-loud humor to lighten the heaviness in both Meryl Lee and Matt’s stories.
All of these layers lead to a tight narrative and a truly satisfying read.
Learn more about Gary Schmidt and his books here.
MALAMANDER, by Thomas Taylor
Review by Annie Cronin Romano
Who wants to go swimming inside a shipwreck in the middle of winter with a sea monster that lays a glowing ruby egg that can grant wishes? I do! I do! Sign me up! This book is a delight and swept me up from page one! With zingy humor and a fanciful cast of characters, MALAMANDER (Candlewick/Walker Books 2019) is a mystery/fantasy about two young orphans: one a worker at a hotel's "lost & foundery," the other a newcomer to town searching for the truth about what happened to her parents. Together, the go on a fantastically daring adventure, discovering along the way that all people are not as they seem and that some creatures are best left alone. Quick-moving, funny, engaging read!
Thomas Taylor creates a strong, atmospheric setting with his creation of the ocean side town of Eerie-on-Sea. The reader shudders at the whip of the icy wind off the water and tastes the salty fog hanging in the air. Taylor also excels at creating a sense of whimsy and magic that isn’t forced but rather is interwoven seamlessly into the plot. The pacing of this middle grade would keep even an antsy reader engaged, as Taylor hooks the reader from the get-go with questions of how and why a young boy, Herbert Lemon, would be employed in the “lost and foundery” of a hotel, then efficiently and smoothly slides into the appearance of a mysterious character, Violet Parma, outside the boy's window. Strong setting, intriguing charaters, curious unknowns...and you're off on an imaginative adventure!
To learn more about Thomas Taylor, visit his website at http://www.thomastaylor-author.com/. And check out the second in the Eerie-On-Sea series, Gargantis, released in paperback on April 6, 2021.
~Review by Amanda Smith
Red, White, and Whole by Rajani LaRocca is a touching novel in verse about Reha, a first-generation Indian American girl who comes to terms with living in two worlds. As an immigrant and mother of first-generation American children, this novel truly resonated with me. Even though our countries of origin are different, LaRocca touches on universal immigrant experiences such as missing extended family and always feeling a little different or other. But Red, White, and Whole isn’t just about the immigrant experience. It is a tender look at mother-daughter relationships, and it is a beautiful coming of age story as Reha faces the unimaginable: her mother's battle with Leukemia. LaRocca entwines Indian folklore into the narrative to add another layer to her poignant storytelling and character development. Subtle repetition of key phrases and the calculating use of “red” and “white” throughout the novel bind the individual poems together – and the result is synergy: a WHOLE that is greater than the sum of its parts.
LaRocca supports the main theme of "two worlds" with recurring images of the colors red and white, and how they relate to the parts of blood, as well as virtue and grief in Indian culture. Red, White and Whole is a study in repetition within a verse novel. LaRocca weaves threads and themes seamlessly throughout, often when the meaning of the phrases are altered by context or circumstances. The similarity of the words paired with the difference in context delivers a forceful emotional punch.
To learn more about Rajani, visit her website at www.rajanilarocca.com/
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