Review of Elf Dog and Owl Head, by M. T. Anderson

Elf Dog & Owl Head

by M. T. Anderson
illustrated by Junyi Wu

Candlewick Press, 2023. 232 pages.
Review written February 21, 2024, from a library book.
Starred Review
2024 Newbery Honor Book

Oh, I loved this book so much! It reminded me of the Edward Eager magic-filled books I read and loved as a kid.

But this is a modern take on magic. Clay is stuck doing school at home because of a global pandemic. Everyone in his family is getting on each other’s nerves. But his house is next to the woods. He goes out walking in the woods, thinking how stupid it is to carry a Frisbee by himself, when he sees a white dog with strange red ears. The reader knows she is a dog from the hunting pack of the Kingdom Under the Mountain, who didn’t go back to her den under the mountain quickly enough. But Clay only knows that she enjoys catching the Frisbee.

Clay notices right away that something’s off about the dog. When she fetches, she seems to use some kind of teleporting magic. When she follows him home, the family puts out notices, but no one seems to be missing a white dog with red ears. She settles in and finds that she likes playing with the boy instead of working all the time, and she likes sleeping on his bed instead of in a den.

And so Clay’s magical adventures begin. It turns out that his elf dog can easily take paths between worlds and take Clay to magical places he’s never seen before — with some interesting magical consequences. He even makes a new friend from a village in a parallel world — a boy with an owl head.

Clay has two sisters — one older teen sister and one younger tag-along sister. Even his sisters get some adventures. In fact, I especially like the older sister DiRossi’s encounters with magic. When she meets a depressed giant, the author makes gentle fun of her teenage angst in a way I thought was hilarious while also being spot-on. But a scene later in the book gives even DiRossi a nice dose of magical wonder and joy.

So this is a book about magical adventures, playful and joyful. Sometimes things go wrong, and they have to fix them. And there’s quite a bit of danger at the end.

It’s also a book about family and friendship and the magical bond between a boy and his dog.

I love that the Newbery committee this year chose some books that are fully children’s books, not even “middle grade” books — though middle graders will enjoy it, too. But Clay’s concerns are a kid’s concerns, with none of that burgeoning middle grade awareness of the opposite sex. And it’s refreshing that these younger kids get such distinguished books, too.

I said that I hope the Newbery winner, The Eyes and the Impossible, will get read in classrooms across America. I wish that for this book, too. But what this book really made me think of was back in the day when my husband and I read books at bedtime to our two kids, who were six and a half years apart. We looked for books with a wide age range to appeal to them both — and this book makes me wish for those days again, because this kind of family story with magic would have exactly filled the bill.

Oh, and spoiler alert: It’s an award-winning book with a dog on the cover — Yet no animals die!

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mt-anderson.com

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Review of A Promised Land, by Barack Obama

A Promised Land

by Barack Obama
read by the Author

Random House Audio, 2020. 29 hours, 10 minutes.
Review written January 20, 2024, from a library eaudiobook.
Starred Review

Okay, when I heard about this book, I preordered my own copy — and then, with one thing and another, I never did get the big fat book read. So finally, after finishing my Morris Award reading, I placed a hold on the eaudiobook version. I enjoy listening to Barack Obama speak anyway — the president who spoke in full, articulate sentences.

There isn’t anyone out there who doesn’t have an opinion of Barack Obama. If you already hate him, you won’t want to read this book anyway. If you’re a fan, let me encourage you that it’s well worth reading. Let me tell you about what you’ll find here.

Yes, it’s long. It covers from his start in Illinois politics to the point in his first term as president when the Seal Team killed Osama bin Laden. Yes, he goes into great detail — but a lot of that is to give attention to the many people who helped along the way. He gives the stories of probably hundreds of other people he met along the way who influenced his thinking or whose stories touched his heart, as well as the stories and qualifications of many people who worked with him — from the butler at the White House to his chief of staff. He appreciates the people around him and gives them credit for all the ways they helped.

Some ways I appreciate Barack Obama anew after reading this book:

He doesn’t blame others for his mistakes. That was an attitude he tried to build into his White House from the start. He gives others credit for good things, but doesn’t blame others for bad things. Yes, he talks about many situations where he had to give up some things he wanted in order to get bills passed. But he took responsibility for the decisions he made.

He genuinely wants to help people have better lives. I got the same impression from reading Elizabeth Warren’s book and Katie Porter’s book. It’s not something you can fake when you write a whole book. That was exactly why it hurt him to have to compromise to get some bills passed, but ultimately, he wanted to bring some people some help instead of bringing nobody perfect help. It struck me that Ronald Reagan did the whole country a disservice when he mocked the line “I’m from the government; I’m here to help.” Because if government isn’t here to help people, then what is government for? Obama talks about how as a community organizer, he talked with people who were struggling after a factory shut down, or people who weren’t able to pay for the healthcare that would save their lives. And he went into politics because he wanted to be able to do something about the systemic problems that caused that.

He doesn’t take human life lightly. He regularly attended soldiers’ remains being returned. He visited soldiers in the hospital. He agonized over choices as president of whether to send more troops and what steps to take — all because of the price of human lives.

He listened to people. He had his office send him a selection of letters every week. He’d answer them. Some he’d visit. And he can still tell some of those stories today.

I was also reminded just how bad the recession was that Geroge W. Bush left him with. And all the work he did to mitigate its effects. And the worry about H1N1 and how he believes working to protect the nation from that helped them when ebola threatened.
Also, how Obamacare almost didn’t get passed and how glad I am that pre-existing conditions are now covered. He knew the bill as it ended up wasn’t perfect – may we continue to improve it! – but it is so much better than what was in place before.

Okay, there’s lots in this book — 29 hours of it! If the things I like about Obama sound like criticism of his successor — well, yes, the contrast is big and I’m still sad about some of the things that got reversed, but glad for another person of integrity in the White House now. May we elect people who seek to make lives better for the many, and not just to get power for themselves. This book is an eye-opening look at the astonishing amount of work that goes into being president of the United States.

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Review of The Q, by Amy Tintera

The Q

by Amy Tintera

Crown, 2022. 343 pages.
Review written February 9, 2024, from a library book
Starred Review
2023 Cybils Finalist, Young Adult Speculative Fiction

The premise of this book set in the not-too-distant future is that the entire city of Austin, Texas, was quarantined for a deadly virus with a 40 percent mortality rate. Eventually, they built a wall around the Q to keep people from escaping. Twenty years later, there is still no vaccine because the virus mutates too quickly and antibodies don’t help, though people inside have developed artificial organs that are keeping everyone alive. The Q seceded from the United States and is ruled inside by two rival gangs, each with their own territory.

Into this scenario, Lennon Pierce falls from the sky.

It’s election year, and Lennon is the son of one of the candidates for U.S. President. His Dad has been speaking up for the Q, trying to come up with helpful solutions, while the incumbent president is talking about nuking the whole thing, including the people inside. So someone kidnaps Lennon, takes him up in a helicopter, and drops him into the Q with a parachute.

Lennon lands in the south, in Lopez territory, and unfortunately, the only exit from the Q lies in the north, in Spencer territory. Fortunately, folks in the south have developed a temporary vaccine for the virus, and they give Lennon a shot of it right away. The US government knows about the vaccine and tells Lennon he can leave if he gets out within 72 hours.

Unfortunately, Lennon arrives just in time for an attempted takeover and a power vacuum in the south. A much-needed shipment of supplies is being held up by the north, so Maisie Rojas, teen daughter of the former Lopez enforcer, decides to go with Lennon to the north. She’ll get him to the gate, and he’ll help her recover the shipment. Unfortunately, the new would-be-leader of the Lopez clan would rather just fight — and hold Lennon as a hostage. Not to mention that folks in the north aren’t exactly open to letting people walk through their territory.

What follows is a heart-racing adventure. This was a book that was hard to put down. When I almost had it finished while waiting at the doctor’s office, I absolutely had to take the book to work and finish on my lunch break. Yes, there’s plenty of violence, in a place that has a wild West vibe. There’s also a nuanced romance — though of course if all goes according to plan, they’ll never see each other again after Lennon escapes from the Q.

Now, mind you, I don’t actually believe the book’s premise is possible. In the age of jet travel, I find it hard to believe that you could ever confine a virus to one city. Somebody would have left the city long before they figured out the virus existed and exactly who had been exposed. But that’s just background, and once I glossed over my disbelief in that, I was completely invested in the situation Lennon and Maisie faced.

Based on the Acknowledgments at the back, the author started this book before the Covid-19 pandemic and never thought it would get published once that pandemic hit. I think reading it today does make the setting more believable — at least that the government would try such a solution, even if I don’t think it would actually work.

Some favorite moments: Finding out why Lennon got arrested three times in the past. Maisie learning to trust in her own abilities as a leader.

I read this book because it’s a Cybils Finalist for Young Adult Speculative Fiction. And I’m happy to say that the panel did a great job picking this book. Read it for a thrill ride that’s also full of sweet moments.

amytintera.com

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Review of A Journey Under the Sea, by Craig Foster and Ross Frylinck

A Journey Under the Sea

by Craig Foster and Ross Frylinck

Clarion Books, 2022. 52 pages.
Review written March 9, 2023, from a library book
Starred Review

The stars of this picture book are the large-format undersea photographs. Every spread is filled with color and light and undersea life.

All the pictures are taken off the coast of South Africa, and the story is a loose one of what you might find if you go for a dive. We see some animals good at camouflage, like an octopus and cuttlefish, as well as some predators like a cow shark and some pyjama sharks.

This isn’t really a book full of facts for doing reports (though there are plenty of facts). It’s a book to leaf through and wonder at. The enormous pictures will make you feel like you know what it’s like to be at the bottom of the sea in the kelp forest.

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Review of The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi, by Shannon Chakraborty

The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi

by Shannon Chakraborty
read by Lameece Issaq and Amin El Gamal

HarperAudio, 2023. 17 hours.
Review written 2/4/24 from a library eaudiobook.
Starred Review

Oh, I enjoyed this book so much! First, I have to say that it was refreshing to read a book written for adults where the protagonist is fully an adult. Amina Al-Sirafi is a retired pirate captain, but now she lives in a remote location with her mother and her 10-year-old daughter.

But then a rich old lady tracks Amina down and blackmails her into finding the lady’s granddaughter who was kidnapped by a Frank (the Muslim world’s name for Christians in medieval times). Amina suspects it wasn’t exactly a kidnapping, but when she learns the teenage girl is the daughter of her former crewman who died in bad circumstances, Amina feels she should take the job for his sake.

This means rounding up her ship and her crew. And that alone requires swashbuckling adventure, as the man she left her ship with has gotten into a bit of trouble. When Amina realizes magical forces are involved, she tries to back out of the deal, but her daughter’s very life is at stake from the blackmailing schemer.

The rest of the book includes dramatic adventures on the Indian Ocean, with both natural and supernatural dangers. You can see from the cover this includes a sea monster. There are dark magical forces at work, and it turns out that Amina needs to save not only the girl but the world as well. On her team, she has a wonderfully varied crew, each with prodigious skills, and her latest husband even shows up with his own set of magical talents.

Recently a couple of my friends started reading Fourth Wing, and both told me it felt like a Young Adult novel. Both times I answered that they must not have gotten to the sex part yet. With that book, the sexy parts felt like the main reason it was marketed as a book for adults. So I appreciated that in this book, the adventurer herself is a middle-aged (well, maybe 40s) mom. Yes, there’s some mind-blowing sex, but she respects her faith and only has married sex — and she closes the door on the reader when it happens, leaving the details to our imaginations.

The book is steeped in history I’d known nothing about, told from the perspective of a faithful Muslim with a checkered past. The adventures get bigger and more magical as the story goes on. Great fun.

sachakraborty.com

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Review of Eclipse, by Andy Rash

Eclipse

by Andy Rash

Scholastic Press, 2023. 36 pages.
Review written January 30, 2024, from a library book
Starred Review

There’s still time! If you can get hold of this picture book before the April 8, 2024, total solar eclipse, do it! But be warned: Your child may want to go on a trip to see it.

If you are already planning a trip to see the total solar eclipse, or if you are lucky enough to live in the zone of totality, this book is the perfect way to introduce the ideas to your child and explain what it’s all about. Even if you’ll only see a partial eclipse, this story will help make things clear.

This picture book is a fictional story about a boy and his dad going to see the total solar eclipse of 2017, based on the author’s own trip with his son. In the book, the boy does the planning — figuring out where to go camping to see the eclipse, getting eclipse glasses, and the wonder and joy of experiencing the eclipse. It talks about the crickets chirping and the crescent-shaped shadows before and after totality. It even mentions the traffic on the way home.

There are maps on the endpapers. The one in front shows the path of totality for the 2017 eclipse, and then the back shows paths for many upcoming eclipses. But it looks like if you miss the 2024 eclipse, the next ones in the continental U.S. are in the 2040s. Still, the book talks about how they made memories with this trip, so it still works as a book about a special father-son outing.

For a child-friendly explanation of what an eclipse is all about, heavy on the experience, light on the science, this book is perfect.

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Review of The Eyes and the Impossible, by Dave Eggers

The Eyes and the Impossible

by Dave Eggers
illustrations of Johannes by Shawn Harris

Alfred A. Knopf, 2023. 256 pages.
Review written 2/4/24 from a library book.
Starred Review
2024 John Newbery Medal Winner

This book is told by a dog who lives in a park. He introduces himself:

I am a dog called Johannes and I have seen you. I have seen you in this park, my home. If you have come to this park, my vast green and windblown park by the sea, I have seen you. I have seen everyone who has been here, the walkers and runners and bikers and horse-riders and the Bison-seekers and the picnickers and the archers in their cloaks. When you have come here you have come to my home, where I am the Eyes.

Three Bison live in an enclosure in the park. They rule over the park, but can’t leave their enclosure, so they appointed Johannes to be their Eyes. He has Assistants who help, and together the Bison keep the Equilibrium.

But as the Equilibrium gets upset, the animals devise a plan to do the Impossible.

Meanwhile, Johannes is delightful company.

I have seen all of you here. The big and small and tall and odorous. The travelers and tourists and locals and roller-skating humans and those who play their brass under the mossy bridge and the jitterbug people who dance over that other bridge, and bearded humans who try to send flying discs into cages but usually fail. I see all in this park because I am the Eyes and have been entrusted with seeing and reporting all. Ask the turtles about me. Ask the squirrels. Don’t ask the ducks. The ducks know nothing.

I run like a rocket. I run like a laser. You have never seen speed like mine. When I run I pull at the earth and make it turn. Have you seen me? You have not seen me. Not possible. You are mistaken. No one has seen me running because when I run human eyes are blind to me. I run like light. Have you seen the movement of light? Have you?

But some new things come into the park that Johannes has not seen before. Mysterious rectangles with things inside that are Impossible. And new animals that eat even the prickly grass that took over the tulip field. And thus new adventures and plans begin.

I like it that the Newbery this year went to a book that is truly for children — not even a middle-grades book. Now, like most great books, everyone in a wide age range will enjoy it, including this old person, but this would make a fabulous read-aloud even for young elementary school children. In fact, I hope that winning this award will make The Eyes and the Impossible the read-aloud choice for classrooms across the country.

daveeggers.net
rhcbooks.com

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Review of No Cure for Being Human, by Kate Bowler

No Cure for Being Human

(And Other Truths I Need to Hear)

by Kate Bowler

Random House, 2021. 202 pages.
Review written January 16, 2024, from my own copy, purchased via Amazon.com
Starred Review

I ordered this book because of how much I loved the author’s book of meditations, The Lives We Actually Have, and that after reading it, I realized she was the author of Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved. Since I loved that book, I clearly needed to read this follow-up.

This book is a memoir about the author getting experimental treatment for her terminal cancer at thirty-five years old. Spoiler alert: She survives. But many other people in the same experimental trials did not. And the outcome was by no means certain when she lived it. In fact, she was told she had a 14% chance of survival.

Kate Bowler is a professor who’s studied the prosperity gospel in America. And she found as she was going through this that she had strong feelings about self-help books promising “Your Best Life Now” and bucket lists and other mantras that rang hollow when she was facing high chances of dying before she saw her small son grow up.

This book is her story of that journey. I love her short chart at the back of “Clich├ęs we Hear and Truths We Need.” A couple of examples:

Carpe diem! –> I mean, yes, unless you need a nap.

Let go and let God. –> God loves you, but won’t do your taxes.

Make every minute count. –> Life is unpredictable. You’re a person, not a certified accountant.

You are invincible. –> There’s no cure for being human.

I hope that gives you the idea what you’ll find here: No trite formulas for happiness in hard times. But at the same time, encouragement that being human and being alive is a good thing.

katebowler.com
randomhousebooks.com

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Review of Ruthless Vows, by Rebecca Ross

Ruthless Vows

by Rebecca Ross
read by Alex Wingfield and Rebecca Norfolk

Macmillan Young Listeners, 2023. 14 hours, 7 minutes.
Review written January 9, 2024, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review

Ruthless Vows is the second half of the duology begun with Divine Rivals, and finishes up the story. If you’ve read Divine Rivals, you’re absolutely going to want to read the next book, so I don’t have to say a whole lot, and don’t want to spoil anything. I will say that Rebecca Ross pulls off a satisfying ending, with the second book bringing us to an even deeper understanding of that world and the two gods who are fighting the war that’s decimating this world.

The biggest thing I loved about the first book was the romance begun in letters between the two main characters with one of them not knowing the other’s identity. I thought unfortunately that couldn’t continue now they’re fully in love. But ha! One of the characters suffers memory loss, so their letter-writing can begin again, still a beautiful romantic connection.

In fact, I was uncomfortable for most of this book because that character with memory loss is being held by the god Dacre. As their memory returns, aided by the letters, I was terrified that they would be caught. So yes, the author keeps the tension strong.

And the war gets close to “home” in this book, with soldiers and bombs closing in on Oath, the city where the story began. As the story progresses, all the characters we’ve come to love begin to figure out what they can do to help innocents and save the city and the people from destruction.

Is that vague enough? I highly recommend this wonderful duology, full of suspense, romance, and heroism. I also recommend listening, because the wonderful British accents of the narrators transport you to this wartime world. Yes, at the library I keep having to order more copies to help our Holds ratio, but I can’t begrudge them because this book is simply that good.

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Review of Finding Home: Words from Kids Seeking Sanctuary, by Gwen Agna and Shelley Rotner, photographs by Shelley Rotner

Finding Home

Words from Kids Seeking Sanctuary

by Gwen Agna and Shelley Rotner
photographs by Shelley Rotner

Clarion Books, 2024. 32 pages.
Review written January 29, 2024, from a library book.
Starred Review

Oh, this beautiful book! I’ve long been a fan of Shelley Rotner’s bright, beautiful photo illustrations focusing on children. In this one she shows us smiling faces of children from all over the world who are refugees. As a mom, the pictures of these sweet children wrenched my heart, but the book is completely kid-friendly, showing kids photos of other children who are just like them in important ways.

There’s simple text tying the pages together, and then most of the book is quotations from children, with speech bubbles coming from their photographs.

First, the book explains in simple language this concept:

Kids from all over the world have to leave their homes and countries.

They have to escape —
fleeing fires, floods, drought, or war —
because it’s not safe for them to stay anymore.

Many families leave hoping to find freedom,
a better life — a new home.

Quotations from kids, with photographs, illustrate each part. After the basic definition of refugees, it talks about the difficulty of moving. But the bulk of the book is positive things about their new lives. Here’s the text of that part without the quotations:

It takes a lot of courage —
you have to be brave to move somewhere new.

All kids need a safe place to learn . . .

… explore. . .

. . . play. . .

. . . celebrate good times together. . .

. . . and make new friends.

That section shows kids doing exactly those things.

Here are some of the quotations from kids:

We left in a hurry. We could hardly bring anything. I could only take what fit in my backpack.

I miss my home and I miss my comfortable bed, but I’m glad I’m not in a country that’s having a war.

It was hard to make friends at first when you speak a different language. I couldn’t understand them, and they couldn’t understand me.

My new school has art class. We didn’t have that in my country. I love to draw. This is my happy home.

There are more details of some of the children’s stories at the back, a glossary, and author’s notes. This will help give kids empathy for other kids in the world, who may show up in their own classrooms.

shelleyrotner.com
harpercollinschildrens.com

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