Monday, November 30

New Picture Books: Falling Out of a Story

I'm back! After a wee maternity leave, I'm trying to get right back on schedule. To make up for some lost time, here's two picture book reviews of recent publications that both play on the same theme: characters falling out of their own story and crashing somebody else's. 

We're in the Wrong Book
Written and illustrated by Richard Byrne

My rating: ★★★½

ISBN: 978-1627794510
Publisher: Henry Holt & Co.
Date of publication: September 29, 2015
Age: 4 - 8 years

Themes: books, genres, journey, friendship

When a potato sack race goes awry, Bella and Ben find themselves bumped from their familiar page into uncharted territory. It's a brave new world of lollipops and sphinxes―and Bella and Ben are on one page-turning adventure. How will they find their way back into their very own book?

This book is a companion to Byrne's first book, This Book Just Ate My Dog (which I first talked about in this post). Turns out, I liked that one better. This book is good, but not great. On the one hand, I appreciate that Byrne had his characters travel through all different sorts of books (fictional, nonfiction, puzzle, etc) and clearly delineated between them with different illustrative styles. However, on the other hand, this made the story drag a bit. The ending did have a stab at some humor and the friendship between Bella and Ben is pretty cute. Overall, still recommended, perhaps in conjunction with his first book.

Find it at your library or on Amazon

I Thought This Was a Bear Book
Written by Tara Lazar, illustrated by Benji Davies

My rating: ★★½

ISBN: 978-1442463073
Publisher: Aladdin
Date of publication: August 4, 2015
Age: 4 - 8 years

Themes: fractured fairy tale, aliens, books, family relationships

After an unfortunate bookcase collapse, Alien suddenly finds himself jolted out of his story and into a very strange world, complete with talking bears. Desperate to return to his book, Alien asks the Bear family for help so he can get back to his story and save his beloved Planet Zero from total destruction before it's too late. Mama Bear and Papa Bear try all kinds of zany contraptions (with some help from their nemesis, Goldilocks) without much luck. Baby Bear might have the perfect solution to get the Alien out of the woods and back to his planet...but will anyone listen to the littlest voice in the story?

While the concept behind the story is good, I don't think it was executed all that well. Alien falls into a different book, but Alien has the same illustrative style, so it's lacking clear delineation (this being especially evident to me since it's in direct contrast to We're in the Wrong Book). The text was a little hard for me to follow, as well, because it's mostly random speech bubbles. And it seemed too long of a story. It wouldn't make for a great readaloud. The ending was pretty adorable, though, and I appreciated some spots of humor. So though it is not exceptional, it makes sense to include with a fractured fairy tale collection or as a readalike to something like The Three Pigs, by David Weisner.

Find it at your library or on Amazon

Monday, November 16

Behold! A Baby

*Here's a not-so-subtle hint for why I've had sporadic posting this last week...and more sporadic postings to come. Hopefully I'll get back on track soon!*

Behold! A Baby
Written by Stephanie Watson, illustrated by Joy Ang

My rating: ★★★★

ISBN: 978-1619634527
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Date of publication: June 2, 2015
Age: 3 - 8 years

Themes: new sibling, baby, showcase, family relationships

Step right up! See one of the most stupendous wonders of the world! A loving father reveals a baby's fantastic feats (smiling, eating a banana, babbling) that cause adults to go insane with joy and wonder. The only audience member who remains unimpressed? His big brother.

Here is a positively adorable book on the ever-so-popular topic of new-sibling-hood. I'm sure many older siblings can relate to the feeling that their parents only ever "Ooo" and "Ahh" over the new baby. While this book exaggerates that feeling quite a bit, it also makes it more fun and humorous for the reader. Both parents and kids will enjoy it.

Do you know what's even more adorable? Ang's illustrations. Granted, the star baby does not have a mustache this time around, but I still love her depictions. She really captures that oh-my-gosh-it's-SO-CUTE feeling that some people get around infants. Overall, an adorable book with a cute ending and I think I'll just say it's cutely adorable one more time. Ha!

Find it at your library or on Amazon

Thursday, November 12

The Odds of Getting Even

The Odds of Getting Even
(Tupelo Landing #3)
Sheila Turnage

My rating: ★★★★

ISBN: 978-0803739611
Publisher: Kathy Dawson Books
Date of publication: October 6, 2015
Age: Grades 5 and up
Genre: Mystery

Themes: judicial system, fugitive, framing, family, friendship

The trial of the century has come to Tupelo Landing, NC. Mo and Dale, aka Desperado Detectives, head to court as star witnesses against Dale's daddy—confessed kidnapper Macon Johnson. Dale's nerves are jangled, but Mo, who doesn't mind getting even with Mr. Macon for hurting her loved ones, looks forward to a slam dunk conviction—if everything goes as expected. Of course nothing goes as expected. In no time flat, Macon's on the run, Tupelo Landing's in lockdown, and Dale's brother's life hangs in the balance. With Harm Crenshaw, newly appointed intern, Desperado Detectives are on the case. But it means they have to take on a tough client—one they'd never want in a million years.

I love these books and these characters. This one might not have reached the level of the earlier books, however. It's still quick-witted and funny, but I'm confused about Macon Johnson's character. Throughout the story, he's admitted to be a no-good drunk of a dad by everyone, but the whole underlying drive behind plot is how protective he is of his kids. Why is he protective now? I'm just not sure Turnage did a good job with him. Also, the suspect was a bit too obvious from the beginning (here comes a stranger to town!) but I still love how the kids go about figuring it out.

I still love these books. They're great mysteries with plenty of light-hearted humor. I'd still recommend the series.

Find it at your library or on Amazon

Tuesday, November 10

The Story of Diva and Flea

The Story of Diva and Flea
Written by Mo Willems, illustrated by Tony DiTerlizzi

My rating: ★★★

ISBN: 978-1484722848
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion
Date of publication: October 13, 2015
Age: Grades 1 - 3

Themes: friendship, courage, Paris, dogs & cats

For as long as she could remember, Diva lived at 11 avenue Le Play in Paris, France. For as long as he could remember, Flea also lived in Paris, France-but at no fixed address. When Flea flâneurs passed Diva's courtyard one day, their lives were forever changed. Together, Diva and Flea explore and share their very different worlds, as only true friends can do.

There's some cute aspects, a valuable lesson, and some spots of humor, but this is not my favorite Mo Willems book. In the story, both animals have their own fears to face. They help each other face them with courage and become better friends while doing so. But MAN, it was a tedious and somewhat boring process. I love Mo Willems, especially Elephant and Piggie, but I'm wondering if he should stick to books of that length. This one is longer and it drags. I actually had to take a break from reading it. Yes, a break from a beginning chapter book! Still, I appreciate the French vocabulary (perhaps a pronunciation guide would be helpful, though) and culture lesson, and the note at the end from Mo makes it touching—it's a personal story.

But you know what really makes it? The illustrations are gorgeous. DiTerlizzi does a really great job with the emotions of the characters, the beauty of Paris, and keeps it true to the story. It just adds to the charming, romantic, Parisian feel of the book.

Overall, I might not rush to recommend this book, but it definitely deserves a perusal.

Find it at your library or on Amazon

Monday, November 9

Imaginary Fred

Imaginary Fred
Written by Eoin Colfer, illustrated by Oliver Jeffers

My rating: ★★½

ISBN: 978-0062379559
Publisher: HarperCollins
Date of publication: September 29, 2015
Age: 4 - 8 years

Themes: imaginary friends, friendship,

Did you know that sometimes, with a little electricity, or luck, or even magic, an imaginary friend might appear when you need one? An imaginary friend like Fred. Fred floated like a feather in the wind until Sam, a lonely little boy, wished for him and, together, they found a friendship like no other. But Fred knows what happens when Sam grows up and is no longer lonely. How long will their friendship last?

This is Eoin Colfer's first picture book and it is super long. Cute, but long. Perhaps he's just a bit too used to making chapter books? Because this just goes on and on. The story could have been trimmed down a bit; the length would make for a tough readaloud. So, while not a storytime pick, it'd still be fun for kids to read on their own. Sam and Fred are adorable, and the friendship(s) they build do teach a good lesson. Some dashes of humor also keeps it light. Good story, just...long.

The illustrations? Normally I love Jeffers' work, but this time, it didn't quite float my boat. It's composed of simple pen-line drawings with some digitally added dots of blue and yellow for the imaginary friends. It's a bit too simple and the dots actually made it a bit hard on the eyes. I appreciate that he did something different for the imaginary characters, to help delineate, but he's done better work on other books.

So do I recommend it? With how much I love The Adventures of Beekle, this will not be topping my list of great imaginary friends books. But with such a well-known, popular author and illustrator, I'm sure many people will still enjoy it. Not so much my taste, but you can try it out if you want.

Find it at your library or on Amazon

Friday, November 6

Six of Crows

Six of Crows
Leigh Bardugo

My rating: ★★★★★

ISBN: 978-1627792127
Publisher: Henry Holt
Date of publication: September 29, 2015
Age: Grades 8 and up
Genre: Fantasy

Themes: thievery, camaraderie, revenge, science/magic

Ketterdam: a bustling hub of international trade where anything can be had for the right price—and no one knows that better than criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker. Kaz is offered a chance at a deadly heist that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. But he can't pull it off alone. His recruits his crew carefully: a convict with a thirst for revenge; a sharpshooter who can't walk away from a wager; a runaway with a privileged past; a spy known as the Wraith; a Heartrender using her magic to survive the slums; and a thief with a gift for unlikely escapes. Six dangerous outcasts. One impossible heist. Kaz's crew is the only thing that might stand between the world and destruction—if they don't kill each other first.

It's like Ocean's Eleven in a kick-butt fantasy world. But SO MUCH better. This may all come as a surprise, given my less-than-stellar review for Bardugo's other series, The Grisha Trilogy. Technically, I liked her writing, just not the story. And I was a little skeptical of this, because it's technically a companion novel. So imagine my happiness at discovering a down-right fantastic story.

First, the format: Bardugo tells the story through alternating points-of-view each chapter—switching between five of the crew members. Five different POVs could get confusing, but in this case, it works wonders. Not only does this narrative provide intimate depth and detail for each character, but actually moves the plot along quite rapidly, making it hard to put down.

Speaking of characters, they're EXCELLENT. Each have their history recalled through various flashbacks during the story, providing needed depth and understanding without detracting/distracting from the story in the least. Kaz Brekker is my favorite hands down because he is simply fascinating. Multi-layered, talented, scarred, cruel, broken, and just believable. I don't want to say too much because it will give stuff away, but man, he is a beast.

Also, can I just say that the romance in the story was spot on. Which is to say, there are hints of it, due to shared pasts between characters, but none of the insta-romances or random love scenes that seem to pop up in other YA books. It acts as a motivator in a believable way, not a reader pleaser.

Finally, and what I probably appreciate the most: the ending wraps up enough but leaves the reader wanting the sequel. It's not a total drop-off cliffhanger (which seems to be the trend nowadays, UGH), but not a perfectly tied up package either.

It's just brilliant.

There, it's all summed up in three words. Go and read; it is extremely well done. I can't even think of a good readalike. So you'll just have to read this and understand.

Warning: Explicit Content
Language (once)

Find it at your library or on Amazon

Thursday, November 5

The Thing About Jellyfish

The Thing About Jellyfish
Ali Benjamin

My rating: ★★★½

ISBN: 978-0316380867
Publisher: Little, Brown
Date of publication: September 22, 2015
Age: Grades 5 - 8
Genre: Realistic Fiction

Themes: death & grief, friendship, jellyfish,

After her best friend dies in a drowning accident, Suzy is convinced that the true cause of the tragedy must have been a rare jellyfish sting—things don't just happen for no reason. Retreating into a silent world of imagination, she crafts a plan to prove her theory—even if it means traveling the globe, alone.

I do want to express that this book is well-written and the format was really well done, but all I can think is why do these acclaimed middle-grade books have to be SO DEPRESSING. And I'm not saying that MG authors should avoid the difficult topics. I can appreciate novels dealing with death of a loved one, disability, or whatever the case may be. But my goodness, inject a little bit of humor, give the reader some hope already! This book didn't have the pick-me-up I needed. It's more my personal reaction and feeling, so take it with a grain of salt.

It is well-written. It starts off after the death has occurred, so the whole focus is on Suzy dealing with the grief. And that grief is very multi-layered, with the author going deeper and deeper into the two friends' history as time goes on. The process of revealing bit by bit makes the story more gripping. It also helps the reader understand just why Suzy goes to such lengths to study jellyfish—the characters are believable and well done. I did question the ending a bit; Suzy flipped her grief switch off a bit too easily, in my opinion. But overall, excellently written.

So yes, it's got the technical elements down pat. But I was just SO depressed/disgusted by the end, that I forgot to love it. I feel mixed. I'm not telling you not to read it...just be prepared.

My preferred friend-died-and-I-don't-know-how-to-grieve book would be Lost in the Sun. Other readalikes are All the Answers and Secret Hum of a Daisy. If you want more of the girl-drama aspect and changing friends, there's How to Outrun an Alligator With Your Shoes Untied or Roller Girl or A Year Without Autumn.

Find it at your library or on Amazon

Wednesday, November 4

Picture Book Month

Guess what? It's the most wonderful time of the year!

...Yes, Christmas is coming and the holiday season is wonderful, but I'm talking about:

Yay! Picture book month!

I could go on and on about why picture books really do deserve a whole month of celebration and why they're so important for kids and how everyone should run to their libraries and read and the whole shebang (stop for a breath) but for now, I'm just going to point out some different sites and old posts that do just that.

Tuesday, November 3

Hoot, Owl!

Hoot, Owl!
(National Geographic Readers)
Shelby Alinsky

My rating: ★★★★

ISBN: 978-1426321252
Publisher: National Geographic Children's Books
Date of publication: July 14, 2015
Age: 4 - 6 years
Genre: Nonfiction

Themes: snowy owls, habitat, behavior,

Information all about snowy owls! Flying, swooping, gliding, they hunt for food—usually an unsuspecting mouse. They live in the snow where their color helps them blend in. Hoot!

National Geographic lists this book as a pre-reader—"just right for kids who are ready to read"—but there are some pretty long sentences that could be difficult for a beginner. The vocabulary is pretty basic, but some words like "doesn't" and "listen" might be troublesome, too. I'm not sure if I agree with their ranking.

But if we ignore that (mentally, you can put it at a bit higher of a level) then, really, there's a lot to appreciate about this book. To have a nonfiction book—truly informational and educational—for beginning readers is really empowering. At the beginning, Alinsky lists key vocabulary to look for when discussing "where they live" and "what they do." There's also follow up activities. But the best part? They somehow managed to capture the cutest/coolest photographs for the book. This is my favorite:

Is that not so adorable?? I know, I know, it's a powerful bird of prey—but it's just so CUTE. Yes, my four stars is in part due to my love of owls. As well as the technical details. So give it a try; if not owls, remember that National Geographic has all sorts of nonfiction early readers.

Find it at your library or on Amazon

Monday, November 2

McToad Mows Tiny Island

McToad Mows Tiny Island
Written by Tom Angleberger, illustrated by John Hendrix

My rating: ★★★★

ISBN: 978-1419716508
Publisher: Harry N. Abrams
Date of publication: September 1, 2015
Age: 3 - 6 years

Themes: transportation, vehicles, lawn care, toad

McToad likes Thursdays. Why? Because on every other day of the week, McToad mows Big Island, but on Thursdays, McToad mows Tiny Island. To do so, he puts his mower on the back of a truck, which drives to a train, which goes to a helicopter, which flies to a boat, which uses a crane to put the lawn mower onto Tiny Island. There McToad mows and drinks some lemonade, and before you know it, it’s time to turn around and go back home.

It's complete and utter nonsense in the silliest way possible—but what else would you expect from Tom Angleberger? Basically, it's hilarious, and storytimes everywhere are going to love it. For me, the lack of a real story made it four stars instead of five, but don't let that stop you from enjoying it. It still has a great pattern in text (perfect for a readaloud) and a thorough rundown of transportation vehicles. But what's even better? The illustrations. Hendrix made sure each page was rich with detail and some hidden jokes--and, I might add, some mighty fine hand-lettering. Even the end pages are fantastic.

For the vehicle-loving tot or for the librarian looking for another fun storytime readaloud, this is a definite must. Really, just everyone should at least give it a read-over.

Find it at your library or on Amazon