Monday, May 22

Reviews of the Week 5/22

I've got some extra special tidbits included with today's reviews: Shannon Hale, the author of the now bestselling and highly-acclaimed Real Friends, is local and I was able to go to her book talk just this weekend. So, not only do you get to hear my thoughts on her newest book (woo! right?), but learn some extra special background info (the fascinating tidbits she shared). Plus some other awesome book highlights, in the board book and picture book categories.

The Crayons' Book of Colors
Written by Drew Daywalt, illustrated by Oliver Jeffers

My rating: ★★★

ISBN: 978-0451534040
Publisher: Grosset & Dunlap
Date of publication: October 18, 2016
Age: 2 - 5 years
Format: self purchase

Themes: colors, crayons, humor, identification

"It's Duncan's birthday, and all the crayons want to make him a card! With their fun and quirky illustrations of firetrucks, dragons, and (dare we say?) wheat, these creative crayons each have something different to contribute. When they come together, they can make something truly spectacular to celebrate Duncan's birthday!"

It's true, I bought this book. And I could say that I bought it for my todddler...but let's be honest, it's for me. This is one of those books that, yes, is technically written for children. But it has the humor that can extend to adult readers, too. Very much in the theme of The Day the Crayons Quit, these colors are dealing with the really tough issues: just what are they allowed to color? Bringing the original drama and humor, but in a story that's simply written and educational for the youngest of readers, this is really a fine balance of a board book.

So will my toddler daughter really appreciate it? I'm sure she'll enjoy identifying colors...but it's me that will be asking to read it every night. (It'ss just. So. Funny.)

Find it at your library or on Amazon

Not Quite Narwhal
Written and illustrated by Jessie Sima

My rating: ★★½

ISBN: 978-1481469098
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Date of publication: February 14, 2017
Age: 4 - 8 years
Format: library book

Themes: identity, unicorns, narwhal, family relationships

Growing up in the ocean, Kelp has always assumed that he was a narwhal like the rest of his family. Sure, he’s always been a little bit different—his tusk isn’t as long, he’s not as good of a swimmer, and he really doesn’t enjoy the cuisine. Then one night, an extra strong current sweeps Kelp to the surface, where he spots a mysterious creature that looks just like him! Kelp discovers that he and the creature are actually unicorns. The revelation leaves him torn: is he a land narwhal or a sea unicorn? But perhaps, if Kelp is clever, he may find a way to have the best of both worlds.

Given the recent rise in popularity of unicorn books and the growing positive reviews, this book seemed like a sure winner. Indeed, the adorable illustrations, sweet story, and philosophical appeal makes it a winner with many readers...but not so much me. It was a little too adorable and a little too sweet. And tackling the philosophical topic of self-identification in such a glittery manner just didn't hit the spot. I mean, did everything have to work out so perfectly? Like I said, just a bit too sweet. I will still laud the illustrations, though, because the soft underwater scenes and cute unicorns are just the right fit for the story. It's just not quite my style of story.

This is mostly my personal preference and would not hesitate to share this in a special unicorn storytime or to recommend it to families, especially families that identify with mixed cultures and identities.

Find it at your library or on Amazon

Real Friends
Written by Shannon Hale, illustrated by LeUyen Pham

My rating: ★★★½

ISBN: 978-1626727854
Publisher: First Second
Date of publication: May 2, 2017
Age: Grades 3 - 7
Genre: Graphic Novel
Format: library book

Themes: friendship, school, anxiety, family relationships, memoir

"Shannon and Adrienne have been best friends ever since they were little. But one day, Adrienne starts hanging out with Jen, the most popular girl in class and the leader of a circle of friends called The Group. Everyone in The Group wants to be Jen's #1, and some girls would do anything to stay on top . . . even if it means bullying others. Now every day is like a roller coaster for Shannon. Will she and Adrienne stay friends? Can she stand up for herself? And is she in The Group―or out?"

What wasn't all that clear for me from the outset is that this is, quite frankly, a memoir. It's totally autobiographical. Once I learned that, the imperfect storyline made much more sense--I mean, of course the story isn't going to be perfecly told when you're telling your own history. So now you know that and you'll be prepared for a recount of life in elementary school thirty-plus years ago, and that there isn't a tidy little ending or a real climax to hurdle. It's a memoir.

Now, what I didn't expect even after learning all of that, was how totally relatable this personal memoir would be. Hale has elected to tell the story of her friends in school (as opposed to an entire autobiography) and by focusing on that, has created a story that most everyone can relate to. Who hasn't questioned their friendships? And/or been bullied? Faced anxieties and mean siblings and family pressures? It resonates with the reader and is made all the more powerful by the fact that it all really happened. I found myself totally engrossed and nodding in agreement (aided, in part, by my own growing up in Salt Lake City and in a Mormon family, but even more so by the changing dynamics of friendships that we all experience). It's funny, it's painful, it's real. And perfect for kids navigating those same waters today.

And we haven't even addressed the format. Pham does a seriously awesome job of displaying Hale's memories in an easily accessible and beautifully done graphic-novel. Reluctant and voracious readers both will be that much more tuned in to Hale's message through Pham's visual metaphors. Simply stated: I loved the art throughout this book.

So while there may be some awkward moments kids today may not understand (life in the early '80s) and the memoir storyline is different for kids, I'd still recommend to all gradeschoolers. And adults. So go check it out today.

Oh! And let's not forget, here's some interesting tidbits shared by Shannon Hale at a book talk she did here in town this weekend:

-Hale first started thinking about writing this story of her life as a graphic novel as something for her daughter to read. She's a reluctant reader who has really grabbed on to graphic novels, but especially graphic novels about real life situations (like Roller Girl and Smile). So why not share her own story? Plus, her reliance on visual metaphors worked best with this format.

-Hale reported that writing about one's memories does require some creativity (making up the dialog, for instance, because how would anyone really remember exactly what was said?). Examing a memory is like looking at a Polaroid: you have this mental image, but you have to fill in what happened before and after, especially in relation to all the other Polaroids spread across the table (metaphorically speaking)

-Hale does have an anxiety disorder, which did magnify the trauma of many of her childhood experiences. But everyone feels anxiety at some point, and this book really taps into that.

-Hale chose to make the hard, concious decision to include aspects of her Mormon upbrinding, including her relationship to Jesus. While she recognizes that there will be many people who don't like it, and that religion is rarely discussed in kids' literature, seeing Pham's illustrations of Jesus and those scenes really cemented it for her.

It's a brilliant story and hearing Hale talk about it was even better. If you ever get the chance, don't pass up the opportunity to meet her.

Find it at your library or on Amazon

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