Review of A Poem for Peter, by Andrea Davis Pinkney, pictures by Lou Fancher & Steve Johnson

January 14th, 2017

A Poem for Peter

The Story of EZRA JACK KEATS and the Creation of THE SNOWY DAY

by Andrea Davis Pinkney

pictures by Lou Fancher & Steve Johnson

Viking, 2016. 52 pages.
Starred Review
2016 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #3 Children’s Nonfiction

This is a picture book biography — in poetry form. And the narrative poem is written addressing Peter, the hero of the classic picture book The Snowy Day.

We’ve got all the details of Ezra Jack Keats’ life. His parents were immigrants from Poland, and he grew up in Brooklyn, knowing about poverty and discrimination. Even as a child, he wanted to be an artist, and his father found ways to get him paints. There are a couple of special pages when he discovered the Brooklyn Public Library.

It tells about the art scholarship he won and had to give up when his father died of a heart attack, then about his struggles finding work during the Depression — eventually getting to work as an artist with the Works Progress Administration. Then he served in World War II, but after the war had to change his name from Jacob Ezra Katz to sound less Jewish in order to get work.

When Ezra started writing and illustrating picture books, he’d noticed there weren’t many picture book scenes like those in his Brooklyn neighborhood, nor many children who looked like his neighbors.

I especially like the pages when Peter is created and the book is born.

Peter, child,
you brought your stick.
Yes, you did.
Smack-smacked at a tree.
Some say you were whacking
at ice-packed intolerance,
shaking it loose from narrow-
minded branches.

When prejudice fell,
you rolled it, packed it,
put its snowball in your pocket
of possibility,
where it melted away.

Peter and Ezra,
you made a great team.
Together you brought a snowstorm
of dreams.
A blizzard of imagination.
Flurries of fun!

And soon readers called for
more of where are you?
And between you two,
the one-of-a-kind snowflakes
kept falling.
Onto sweet pages
of brown-sugar good.

More neighborhood friends.
More books with kids who
answered where are you?
with here we are!

The art is lovely as well, with many images of Peter straight out of Ezra Jack Keats’ work and lovely snowflake pictures, as well as a variety of images illustrating Ezra’s life.

penguin.com/YoungReaders

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Nanette’s Baguette, by Mo Willems

January 14th, 2017

Nanette’s Baguette

by Mo Willems

Hyperion Books for Children, 2016. 36 pages.
Starred Review
2016 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #3 Picture Books

Hooray! A new Mo Willems book! With new characters!

Mo Willems recently spent significant time in Paris, so some of his recent books have a French theme. Nanette’s Baguette is a story with all the fun of any Mo Willems book about a frog who gets to go buy a baguette all by herself for the very first time.

My one quibble? Frogs with teeth able to Krack into baguettes? Okay, it’s odd, but he makes it work.

The book is full of –ette rhymes, and they are done well and add to the humor.

Here’s the beginning:

NANETTE!

Today is a day Nanette won’t soon forget.

Today,
in the kitchenette,
Mom tells Nanette
that Nanette gets
to get the baguette!

Baguettes are warm.
Baguettes smell wonderful.

Getting to get the baguette is
Nanette’s biggest responsibility yet.

Is Nanette set to get the baguette?

YOU BET!

When Nanette gets the baguette, it indeed is warm. It indeed smells wonderful. And there sure is a lot of it….

Or at least there’s a lot of it for awhile.

After much drama, here’s the scene when she gets home:

“Where is the baguette, Nanette?” asks Mom. Did you forget?”

Nanette did not forget.
Nanette is upset.
Nanette is beset with regret.
She sweats.
I ATE THE BAGUETTE!

Mom is understanding and kind. (I love that Mom’s hug is as warm and wonderful as a million baguettes.) They go back to get another baguette. But that baguette, too, is warm and smells wonderful. This time Mom is the one who’s tempted….

The illustrations in this book are amazing. A note at the back explains, “The images in this story are comprised of photographed handcrafted cardboard-and-paper constructions digitally integrated with photographed illustrations and additions.” On the back flap, there are some small pictures of Mo Willems creating it, so you can see the small village with the creator standing behind it.

I was going to say that the pigeon isn’t hidden in this book – and then I found him in a clever place. So that will please Mo Willems’ many fans.

Again, I’m not so sure about frogs. I wouldn’t be sure they actually are frogs except for the pictures on the wall in their house. (Teeth? Really?) But his simple cartoon characters always do work. As always, I like the way he can put so much emotion into such seemingly simple faces.

And it begs to be read aloud. So much fun as it rolls off your tongue! I’m definitely using this book for my very next storytime.

Nanette’s Baguette may be Mo’s best yet!

pigeonpresents.com
hyperionbooksforchildren.com

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of How to Bake Pi, by Eugenia Cheng

January 10th, 2017

How to Bake π

An Edible Exploration of the Mathematics of Mathematics

by Eugenia Cheng

Basic Books, 2015. 288 pages.
Starred Review
2016 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #5 Nonfiction

I have a Master’s in Math, so I love math books for a general audience. Besides, my math degree is very old by now, so a book like this taught me about a whole field of mathematics I hadn’t known about before. And it’s written by a woman!

She had me from the Prologue, where she debunks some math myths and begins with a recipe. Here are some parts I especially liked:

Cooking is about ways of putting ingredients together to make delicious food. Sometimes it’s more about the method than the ingredients, just as in the recipe for clotted cream, which only has one ingredient — the entire recipe is just a method. Math is about ways of putting ideas together to make exciting new ideas. And sometimes it’s more about the method than the “ingredients.”

Here’s about the myth that you have to be really clever to be a mathematician:

Much as I like the idea that I am very clever, the popular myth shows that people think math is hard. The little-understood truth is that the aim of math is to make things easier. Herein lies the problem — if you need to make things easier, it gives the impression that they were hard in the first place. Math is hard, but it makes hard things easier. In fact, since math is a hard thing, math also makes math easier.

Here’s talking about what it’s like to do research in math:

It’s true, you can’t just discover a new number. So what can we discover that’s new in math? In order to explain what this “new math” could possibly be about, I need to clear up some misunderstandings about what math is in the first place. Indeed, not only is math not just about numbers, but the branch of math I’m going to describe is actually not about numbers at all. It’s called Category Theory, and it can be thought of as the “mathematics of mathematics.” It’s about relationships, contexts, processes, principles, structures, cakes, custard.

Yes, even custard. Because mathematics is about drawing analogies, and I’m going to be drawing analogies with all sorts of things to explain how math works, including custard, cake, pie, pastry, donuts, bagels, mayonnaise, yogurt, lasagna, sushi.

True to her promise, she begins each chapter of her book with a recipe, and uses the recipe to illustrate the math about the recipe on the conceptual level.

Abstract Algebra was always one of my favorite fields of math, and Category Theory is a level of abstraction higher. What could be cooler than that?

But if the idea of extreme abstraction doesn’t get you as excited as it does me, think of it as math concepts explained through recipes. That conveys better how friendly this book makes the concepts.

She has analogies for almost everything. Here’s where she explains what abstraction is:

Abstraction is like preparing to cook something and putting away the equipment and ingredients that you don’t need for this recipe, so that your kitchen is less cluttered. It is the process of putting away the ideas you don’t need for the present purposes, so that your brain is less cluttered.

Here’s her explanation of proof by contradiction:

Imagine trying to “prove” that you really need to boil water to make tea. You would probably just try to make tea without boiling the water. You discover that it tastes disgusting (or has no taste at all) and conclude that yes, you do need to boil water to make tea. Or you might try to “prove” that you need gas to make your car go. You try running it on an empty tank and discover it doesn’t go anywhere. So yes, you do need gas to make your car go.

In math, this is called proof by contradiction — you do the opposite of what you’re trying to prove, and show that something would go horribly wrong in that case, so you conclude that you were right all along.

I think this book is truly beautiful. And I suspect it might provide glimmers to people who have never before seen beauty in math at all. If that’s not enough to appeal to potential readers, well, it has recipes.

basicbooks.com

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Sondy for Newbery!

January 8th, 2017

I’m standing for 2019 Newbery committee!

I’ve got a page up with all the reasons why you should vote for me at Sonderbooks.com/Newbery.

Check it out!

Review of Ms. Bixby’s Last Day, by John David Anderson

January 8th, 2017

Ms. Bixby’s Last Day

by John David Anderson

Walden Pond Press (HarperCollins), 2016. 300 pages.
Starred Review
2016 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #3 Children’s Fiction

Ms. Bixby’s Last Day is both a middle grade boys’ caper novel and a heart-warming tearjerker. How did John David Anderson manage to pull that off?

We’ve got three viewpoint characters, best friends Topher, Steve, and Brand, sixth grade students in Ms. Bixby’s class. One day, Ms. Bixby tells them she’s got to take a leave of absence a month before school’s out. She has cancer. They’re planning a class party for her last Friday, next week.

Topher has a taxonomy of teachers.

There are six kinds of teachers in the world. I know because we classified them once during indoor recess. First you have your Zombies: those are the ones who have been doing it for a few centuries, since Roosevelt was president — the first Roosevelt, with the broomy mustache from those museum movies….

Then there are the Caff-Adds. Brand calls them Zuzzers. You can spot them by their jittery hands and bloodshot eyes and the insulated NPR travel mugs they carry around with them….

Then you have your Dungeon Masters. The red-pass-wielding ogres who wish paddling was still allowed in schools. The kind who insist on no talking, whether it’s reading time, work time, sharing time, lunchtime, after school, before school, the weekend, whatever. You are supposed to just sit still and shut up….

Then you’ve got your Spielbergs. They’re not nearly as cool as Steven Spielberg. We just call them that because they show movies all the time….

My personal favorites are the Noobs. The overachievers. Fresh picked from the teacher farm. With their bright eyes and their colorful posters recently purchased from a catalog and the way they clap like circus seals when you get the right answer. They don’t stay Noobs for long. They get burned out pretty quick. A year. Maybe two. I don’t think it’s the students’ fault, though. I blame the system.

The last kind we simply call the Good Ones. The ones who make the torture otherwise known as school somewhat bearable. You know when you have one of the Good Ones because you find yourself actually paying attention in class, even if it’s not art class. They’re the teachers you actually want to go back and say hi to the next year. The ones you don’t want to disappoint.

Like Ms. B.

But then on Monday, it turns out that Ms. Bixby is already out, with a substitute in her place. Brand, Steve, and Topher make a plan to go visit her on Saturday. But then they overhear some teachers saying that Ms. Bixby is getting moved to Boston on Saturday. They are going to have to skip school to visit her on Friday.

They devise a plan to sneak off the school grounds, ride buses, pick up the specific items they need, and make it to the hospital. Everything that can possibly go wrong with their plan does go wrong. That’s the middle school boys’ caper part of the book. Sadly, I found myself laughing quite hard at their bad luck and, in a few cases, poor judgment. Though how they deal with each setback approaches brilliance in places.

As they narrate their journey, each boy also gives the readers memories of Ms. Bixby. We find out how she noticed them and saw them for who they are. We learn why they chose these specific items they need to bring to her. We also learn each boy’s back story and how they really needed someone like her in their lives.

This book made me think of my first college roommate, Colleen Jenks. Colleen was teaching high school English before she died of brain cancer. Truly, teachers get to touch lives in ways that will never be forgotten.

This book is, as Brand would say, frawesome (freaking awesome)!

johndavidanderson.org
harpercollinschildrens.com

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of 23 Minutes, by Vivian Vande Velde

January 6th, 2017

23 Minutes

by Vivian Vande Velde

Boyds Mills Press, 2016. 176 pages.
Starred Review
2016 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #3 Teen Fiction

I loved this book. Yes, there’s an unlikely assumption at the beginning, but since it’s the set-up and they never tried to explain it, it’s very fun to think about what you would do in that scenario.

15-year-old Zoe has the ability to turn back time for 23 minutes. She doesn’t know why she has this ability or how it works, but she’s figured out what she can do. She has to put her arms around herself, without touching anyone else, and say out loud “Playback,” and she will be put back to 23 minutes earlier.

Once she has done this, she can keep redoing those 23 minutes, keep resetting to the same time – for ten tries. But if she once lets 24 minutes go by, or if she uses up her ten tries, she’s done and can’t go back.

Zoe has found that 90% of the time, trying to redo things makes them worse.

But the book starts with a situation Zoe has to try to change. She gets caught in a downpour and goes into a bank to get out of the rain. The people in the bank look at her askance because of her blue hair and the way she’s dressed. One youngish man, though, is kind to her.

But then a bank robber starts holding up the bank, and he ends up shooting the kind man in the face. Zoe has to try to fix this.

Her first try, she borrows a cell phone from someone on the street and calls the police. (Teens who live in a group home aren’t allowed to have their own cell phones.) A lot more people end up getting shot that time.

Next she tries warning the bank guard. That doesn’t go well, either. Eventually she figures out she needs to get the kind man’s help. But what can she say to win his confidence?

This book reminded me of the movie Ground Hog Day, except that Zoe knows the number of iterations is limited. I like the way she learns things in one iteration to use in the next.

The book is dedicated “to those who try to make things better for at-risk children and teens,” and Zoe is indeed one of those teens. I like the way the book shows her trying to do what’s right, despite the reactions of people around her. I also like the way the kind man’s character is revealed to be consistently kind, even though different things happen in each go-round, and he’s tested in different ways.

Of course, totally apart from the wonderful story, it’s fun to speculate what you would do if you had that power. What moments would you be able to fix? It’s easy to understand Zoe’s perspective that it’s usually not, actually, a good idea.

She found out about her ability when she was thirteen. That was when she learned the rules. Here’s why she was somewhat slow about changing things when the bank robbery started:

But she has not had good luck with this sort of thing in the past. She spent way too long on it at thirteen – she thinks she may have spent years playing back various moments when she was thirteen, trying to fix things, despite the fact that, really, nobody can fix being thirteen.

In the two and a half years she’s had this ability, playback has cost her more than it’s gained, and Zoe has come to think of her life as being like one of those choose-your-own-adventure books – one where it’s best to read through once and settle, because the choices only go from bad to worse.

Most of all, this is a thrilling, dramatic story with a life-or-death puzzle to solve and characters you come to love.

VivianVandeVelde.com
boydsmillspress.com

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Source: This review is based on my own copy, sent to me by the publisher.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Den of Wolves, by Juliet Marillier

January 5th, 2017

Den of Wolves

A Blackthorn & Grim Novel

by Juliet Marillier

ROC (Penguin Random House), 2016. 433 pages.
Starred Review
2016 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #1 Fiction

I was saving this book up to read after I finished judging books for the Cybils Award, and was happy about having a sick day this week — because I got to spend the day reading it. So my memory of the day is lovely.

This is the third book in Juliet Marillier’s series about Blackthorn, a wise woman and healer, and Grim, her giant-sized companion. Though you wouldn’t feel lost if you started with this book, to really enjoy the nuances and character growth in these books, you should start at the beginning with Dreamer’s Pool.

At the beginning of the series, Blackthorn and Grim were locked up in a nightmarish prison. Here she’s reflecting on how they escaped.

Ah, Conmael; my mentor, who was one of the fey. A mysterious stranger, or so I’d thought at the time, who had saved me from execution and released me and Grim from vile imprisonment, but only after I’d promised to adhere to his rules for seven years, gods help me. Those rules were three: I must live here in Dalriada and not go south to seek vengeance against my enemy, Mathuin of Laios; I must say yes to every request for help; and I must use my abilities only for good. To someone who did not know the angry, bitter creature I had become, that might not have sounded so hard. But it was hard. Making Mathuin pay for his crimes, not only against me but against a whole host of wronged innocents, had become the only thing that mattered to me; even more so after a year’s incarceration in his cesspit of a lockup. I had struggled to keep my promise. Twice, I had come within a hairsbreadth of breaking it, even in the knowledge of the punishment Conmael had threatened. As for saying yes when folk asked me for help, that was not always as simple as it sounded.

In each book, Blackthorn and Grim have a large case to solve for someone else, involving something uncanny. But at the same time, in each book, things come up regarding Mathuin. By now, he’s found out where Blackthorn lives and wants to eliminate her.

It turns out that this third book brings the larger story to a satisfying conclusion, but I hope this won’t be the last we see of Blackthorn and Grim. After all, Juliet Marillier continued the Sevenwaters series after the first trilogy.

But the more immediate issue in this book involves a wild man who returns to Wolf Glen after being in the Otherworld for 15 years. The landlord at Wolf Glen wants Bardan, the wild man, to finish the heartwood house that he began 15 years ago. He hires Grim to help build it, but sends his daughter away to Winterfalls. At Winterfalls, she comes under Blackthorn’s wing. Between the two of them, Blackthorn and Grim realize something is not as it seems at Wolf Glen.

I think what I love most about this series is the gradual growth and healing we get to watch happen in Blackthorn. Yes, they were both traumatized, and both still have nightmares and flashbacks. (I like that the author doesn’t pretend that just goes away.) But as Blackthorn helps people, we watch her innate kindness shine. And slowly, slowly, she learns to trust. Slowly, slowly, her heart opens again.

Grim, for his part, also shines as someone who’s kind and will give himself to help others, but especially Blackthorn. His growth is mainly in learning to value himself, and offer his common sense and great strength.

The resulting romance is exquisite.

julietmarillier.com
penguin.com

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Source: This review is based on my own copy, pre-ordered via Amazon.com.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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2016 Sonderbooks Stand-outs!

January 5th, 2017

I’m ready to announce the 2016 Sonderbooks Stand-outs!

I always have to wait until the year is completely over. This year, as so often happens, I read some of the best books of the year in the last week.

And I’m far, far behind in posting reviews! So my next priority will be to get all the reviews posted of these Sonderbooks Stand-outs. These last three months, I was working as a judge for the Cybils first round panel in the category of Young Adult Speculative Fiction. We announced our list on New Year’s Day! Anyway, the last three months I was spending so much time reading, I got out of the habit of posting reviews.

Here are my stats for 2016. I didn’t read as many books as last year, but maybe the Young Adult books were longer?

In 2016, I read:
5 rereads
49 novels for Teens
47 novels for Children
12 novels for Adults
25 nonfiction books for Adults
107 nonfiction books for Children (most, but not all, picture books)
477 picture books
For a grand total of 722 books (but most picture books).

So — this makes it hard to choose my favorites! But I have done my best to choose them and rank them. This ranking is extremely subjective. It’s not intended to be a measure of literary merit. It represents how much I loved these books.

Please remember also that I don’t review books I don’t like. I didn’t review nearly all the books I read this year. But all of my Sonderbooks Stand-outs are books I enjoyed greatly and highly recommend.

Now go take a look at my 2016 Sonderbooks Stand-outs!

Review of Stowaway in a Sleigh, by C. Roger Madder

December 25th, 2016

stowaway_in_a_sleigh_largeStowaway in a Sleigh

by C. Roger Madder

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016. 32 pages.
Starred Review

Here’s another new Christmas picture book that passed the hurdle of my approval. This one’s appropriate for very young kids, because there aren’t many words on each page, and the story is simple. The paintings are lovely, and bring you to a cat’s viewpoint.

It was the darkest hour of night when Slipper heard strange footsteps in the house.

When she goes to investigate, she finds Mr. Furry Boots! Kids will know this is Santa Claus.

My favorite part is when Slipper does “exactly what any curious cat would do” — she climbs into Santa’s bag.

Santa unwittingly brings the cat back to the North Pole, where Mrs. Furry Boots lets the cat out of the bag.

Slipper has a good time exploring Santa’s workshop, but when she starts longing for home, Santa makes a special trip to deliver her.

The story is one kids can understand and empathize with, and much of it is told through the beautiful illustrations. I plan to remember this book for December story times next year.

hmhco.com

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of The Christmas Boot, by Lisa Wheeler, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney

December 18th, 2016

christmas_boot_largeThe Christmas Boot

by Lisa Wheeler
illustrated by Jerry Pinkney

Dial Books for Young Readers, 2016. 32 pages.
Starred Review

Here’s a wonderful new Christmas story. As the book opens, we see an older lady out in the snow. She has a hat, coat, and scarf, but her hands are bare.

Deep in the forest on Christmas morning, Hannah Greyweather gathered bundles of kindling wood. For her, this day was no different from any other. As she went about her chores, she chatted to the forest, she talked to the mountains, but mostly she spoke to herself.

“Brrrrr,” she said to the mountain. “Will this winter ever be over? It chills my bones.”

The mountain didn’t answer.

Then Hannah sees a boot in the snow.

“Glory be!” Hannah exclaimed to the forest. “Who could’ve lost this?”

The forest remained silent.

And since her feet were fully freezing, and since it looked to be such a nice boot, she slipped her rag-wrapped left foot deep within it.

“Ahhh,” Hannah said. “That does feel nice.”

It surely must have, for when she slid her tiny foot into the very large boot, it suddenly took on the shape and size of Hannah’s own foot. The boot fit perfectly.

That night, as she goes to sleep, Hannah says, “I only wish I had your mate.”

In the morning, a second boot is standing next to the first one.

Hannah’s so happy, when she goes to gather wood, she makes snow angels.

That night, Hannah placed her boots next to her bed and marveled at her good fortune.

“Such a magnificent find,” she said to the left boot. “Who could have lost such a treasure as you?”

The boot stood silent.

“No matter,” said Hannah. “I’ve made good use of you. If I had mittens as toasty warm, I would be the happiest woman in the world.”

And in the morning, there are bright red mittens tucked inside the boots.

“If the boot is magic,” Hannah said to the mittens, “will it give me more? Will it give me a fluffy feather bed? A fabulous feast? A big fancy house?”

The mittens stayed mute.

“I suppose that is too much to ask,” said Hannah. “I best get about my chores.”

Well, after her chores are finished, Hannah finds her wishes have indeed been granted, though these new ones don’t “fit” quite as well as the first wishes.

But then a man in a red hat and red suit knocks on the door. He is wearing one black boot. Hannah knows where the boot came from now, and she gives it back. When she does, all her wished-for items disappear.

When the man apologizes as the wishes disappear, Hannah says, “It is as it should be. The boot didn’t belong to me, but I enjoyed it while it was here.”

But Santa knows how to make it right.

This is such a lovely book, with very large pages and Jerry Pinkney’s colorful paintings. I especially like about it that Hannah isn’t greedy, and she has such a joyful spirit. She delights in the lovely warm things, but isn’t sad to give them up. And they help her realize that she doesn’t need much to be happy.

So the reader leaves smiling when Santa makes her very modest wishes come true.

With lots of words on each page, it’s appropriate for preschoolers who are good listeners and elementary school kids.

Just a warm and wonderful new holiday story.

LisaWheelerBooks.com
JerryPinkneyStudio.com
Penguin.com/youngreaders

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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

What did you think of this book?