Review of Pax: Journey Home, by Sara Pennypacker

Pax

Journey Home

by Sara Pennypacker
illustrated by Jon Klassen

Balzer + Bray (HarperCollins), 2021. 247 pages.
Review written October 16, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review
2021 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #6 Children’s Fiction

Wonderful! A sequel to the beautiful book Pax, which is about a boy and his fox, separated by the boy’s father and trying to reach each other despite perilous obstacles — and a war.

In Journey Home, the war is over, but devastation has been left behind. Among that devastation, Peter’s father was killed in the war. And for the wildlife, rivers and streams and a reservoir were polluted. The entire town where Peter had lived when his parents were alive was abandoned.

This is a sequel, and you should read Pax first. I will try not to give away what happens in the first book, but Peter and Pax are again on quests that make them encounter each other.

Pax has a family now, but humans are encroaching too near, and he wants to find them a new den. However, in his search, his most adventurous kit comes along, and they have to take a roundabout path because of more humans.

Peter has lost his family — his father died in the war, on top of the loss of his mother before the first book started. Vola sees him as family, but Peter has learned that it’s better not to love — you’ll only lose them and get hurt again. He goes off to join the Junior Water Warriors, who are spending the summer cleaning up the polluted rivers left behind by the war. Peter does not intend to come back.

But he didn’t expect to encounter Pax.

For awhile, I thought this book a little too bleak, but Sara Pennypacker pulls off a transformation in Peter’s heart with exactly the right touch — not too sentimental and not even too predictable or unbelievable. The result is a powerful and inspirational story of healing. Pax is even more firmly rooted in my heart than he was before.

If you didn’t catch Pax when the book was first published, you now have two books you really should read!

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Review of Pony, by R. J. Palacio, read by Ian M. Hawkins

Pony

by R. J. Palacio
read by Ian M. Hawkins

Listening Library, 2021. 7 hours.
Review written November 29, 2021, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review

Wow. If you read the author’s book Wonder, you won’t be surprised that she can tell a good story, but this one is completely different from that one – but completely captivating.

We’ve got a 12-year-old narrator named Silas who lives alone with his Pa outside a small town in 1860 in the west. His Pa is a bootmaker who has figured out how to print daguerreotypes on paper. One night, some rough men come to their house and take his Pa away with them, saying they want him to help them out with a job. They bring a pony for Silas, but Pa refuses to go with them if they take Silas. He tells Silas to stay in the house and not let anyone in.

When the pony comes back a couple days later, Silas takes it as a sign that he should go find Pa. Sometime in there we discover that Silas has the ability to see ghosts. And he’s got a ghost companion, a sixteen-year-old boy he calls Mittenwool. Mittenwool tries to convince him to stay home like Pa told him, but Silas is determined to help Pa.

Fortunately, they come across a federal marshal named Enoch Farmer who is on the track of a gang of counterfeiters. They establish that the men he’s after are the ones who took Pa. The marshal helps Silas navigate the wilderness, have food to eat, and follow the track of the counterfeiters. The marshal doesn’t know how much Mittenwool helps them stay on track. But when they’ve found the counterfeiters’ lair, an accident means Silas is going to need to get help on his own.

This story had me not wanting to stop for anything. The part after the dramatic confrontation is a little long, but kids do like loose ends being tied up, so I can’t really fault the author for that. And I was happy to know how things turned out for Silas.

This is a wonderful yarn with danger and adventure and a kid you can’t help but love, a kid who’s got the smartest and best Pa in the world. And the help of a remarkable pony.

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Review of Long Road to the Circus, by Betsy Bird, illustrations by David Small

Long Road to the Circus

by Betsy Bird
illustrations by David Small

Alfred A. Knopf, 2021. 246 pages.
Review written November 27, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

What a delightful book! Set in 1920 in Burr Oak, Michigan, twelve-year-old Suzy of the legendary grip wants to find a way to escape the family farm and Burr Oak, where generations of her family always seem to come back.

When Suzy decides to follow no-good lazy Uncle Fred before dawn to find out what he’s up to, she’s surprised to discover he’s wrangling ostriches for a retired circus performer. They want to tire out the ostrich so it can be harnessed up to a surrey together with a horse for the town parade.

Then Suzy gets the bright idea that if she rides the ostrich instead of Uncle Fred, her boring summer will get a whole lot more interesting – and she can learn a skill that might get her out of town. Not every kid can ride an ostrich!

But it takes some negotiating and some clever planning to keep her parents allowing her to miss the morning chores. If they find out what she’s up to, she might even have to enlist the aid of her annoying older brother.

Here are some words from Suzy as she’s planning to follow Uncle Fred in the morning:

It takes true skill to delay doing your chores. And my impatient brother Bill simply had no idea how to do it right. He usually tried to skip out after breakfast to run and play with the baby lambs or the goats or whatever it was he wasn’t supposed to be doing. But if Bill had taken pointers from Uncle Fred, like I did, he would have realized that the first rule of chore skipping is to skip breakfast too. ‘Cause once they’ve seen your face and weighed you down with food, you’re less fleet of foot. They’ll catch you before you can take two steps outdoors.

The second rule is to offer complete and utter bafflement when confronted. When Bill got collared in an attempted escape, he always just lied outright. I’d shake my head in wonder as he constructed some fabulous falsehood to cover up his crime, making it far worse for himself the further in he went. Uncle Fred took a much smarter tack. Whenever he’d return from wherever it was he’d been and my daddy started asking where he’d gone, Uncle Fred would have this look of complete bafflement on his face. Like he’d never even grown up on a farm or known how it worked. He’d offer some bland apologies to Daddy for inconveniencing him, then join everyone for lunch. Usually after that he’d go to work with the rest of the crew, working longer than the rest of them to make up his lost time, but next morning it would start all over again. He’d be gone before breakfast, Daddy swearing under his breath, the rest of us pretending not to notice, most of all Uncle Fred’s wife and baby.

Suzy’s irrepressible spirit and determination come through on every page, and it doesn’t take us long to be sure she’ll figure out how to ride an ostrich and also how to use that to ride away from Burr Oak some day.

David Small’s illustration style is perfect for gangly ostriches and add wonderfully to the spirit of the book. The page where Suzy first tries to ride an ostrich is especially delightful.

The back story of this book – appropriately told at the back – is also rather wonderful. Betsy Bird had a family story about her grandmother’s no-good uncle who skipped out on farm chores in Burr Oak, Michigan to visit a retired circus performer and learn tricks to teach the farm horses. That circus performer, Madame Marantette – who shows up in this book – really did set a world record by driving a surrey pulled by an ostrich and a horse together.

But the really crazy part of the back story is that illustrator David Small currently lives in the very same house where Madame Marantette lived and kept her horses and ostriches. When Betsy told him about her project, he thought it wasn’t so much a picture book as a novel, and we are all in his debt.

This book reads as a wonderful yarn about a girl looking to do outrageous things to make a name for herself. The fact that there’s a kernel of truth at its core makes it all the more fun.

Fuse Eight blog
davidsmallbooks.com

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Review of Dragonfell, by Sarah Prineas

Dragonfell

by Sarah Prineas

Harper, 2019. 261 pages.
Review written December 24, 2019, from my own copy purchased via amazon.com

People in Rafi’s village are afraid of him. He’s different. He’s got fire-red hair, he likes to hang out up high on the fell where a dragon used to hoard teacups, there’s a spark in his eyes, he isn’t bothered by heat or cold, and most alarming of all, he has been seen to start fires by looking at something.

But when people come from the factory owner from the big city and they notice Rafi, that’s when trouble starts up. They threaten his Da and threaten his village if he doesn’t come with them.

With one thing and another, Rafi sets out on a quest to find and save the dragons. But he’s being followed. The factory owner Mr. Flitch wants something from Rafi, and he’ll take it from Rafi’s village if Rafi won’t give it up.

I like the dragons in this book. They’re varying ages, abilities, and sizes, and they all hoard something distinctive, things like knitted items, or pieces of glass, or spiders. Rafi has to travel far to talk to the different dragons. Mr. Flitch is after the dragons, and they’re in danger. Is there anything Rafi can do about that?

I also especially like Maud, the companion Rafi meets along the way. She says she’s a dragon scientist, and she’s interested in dragons for the love of them. She’s not bothered or scared by the ways Rafi is different, and she helps him along the way.

Despite being chased, this book comes across as a gentle story of a kind-hearted boy who’s dragon-touched and is trying to figure out what that means.

sarah-prineas.com
harpercollinschildrens.com

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Review of Here in the Real World, by Sara Pennypacker

Here in the Real World

by Sara Pennypacker

Balzer + Bray, 2020. 308 pages.
Starred Review
Review written February 19, 2020, from a library book

I love Sara Pennypacker’s books. Her kid characters have agency. They don’t always ask permission, but they make their own choices – some choices better than others – and live with the results.

In this book, eleven-year-old Ware is planning to spend his summer at his grandmother’s house, when she has a fall and goes to the hospital with rehab to follow. But his parents are working extra that summer, so they need Ware to be in a safe place. They sign him up for all summer at the Rec Center, despite his objections.

Ware has spent lots of time at the Rec Center. He knows the drill. And he is not happy about being there again. When the leader has them march around the Rec Center, faster and faster each time, Ware realizes he won’t be noticed if he climbs the tree overlooking the parking lot. He can watch them go around several times and join them at the end.

But instead, once up in the tree, Ware notices that the church next door to the Rec Center has been demolished. In his new rebellious state, he gets down on the church side of the fence to look more closely.

But in the lot with the demolished church, there’s a girl named Jolene. She says the wrecked parking area is now her garden. She’s planting things in cans full of dirt. Ware says the lot can be her garden if the church can be his castle.

And that’s how Ware’s summer gets off to a much more interesting start than what his parents planned for him.

But how long can Ware and Jolene stay on the lot with the ruined church, planting things and turning the ruins into a castle? What will happen when Ware’s parents find out he’s not going to the Rec Center? Surely they’ll find out? And can Ware change himself into a Normal Kid – the kind of kid his parents want?

The title comes because when Ware says something isn’t fair, Jolene accuses him of living in Magic Fairness Land. But “here in the real world,” bad things happen. Can Ware, perhaps, even in the real world, find ways to fight injustice and unfairness?

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harpercollinschildrens.com

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Review of Sweeping Up the Heart, by Kevin Henkes

Sweeping Up the Heart

by Kevin Henkes

Greenwillow Books, 2019. 183 pages.
Review written January 9, 2020, from a library book

Amelia Albright wanted to go on vacation during Spring Break like other families do, but her father, an English professor, didn’t want to, even though this year of 1999 his college was having a break at the same time. So Amelia ends up going to the clay studio every day to make objects with clay. This time, the objects she makes turn out to be rabbits.

But there’s someone new at the clay studio this year, a boy named Casey. Casey’s staying with his aunt, who owns the studio, while his parents are making a last effort to keep from getting divorced.

Casey is twelve years old, the same age as Amelia, and he has some fun ideas, like inventing names and stories for people who pass the shop where they are having lunch. But when Casey gets the idea that a strange lady looks like she could be Amelia’s mother – when Amelia’s real mother died when she was a baby – Amelia can’t get that idea out of her head.

This book tells about a week in the life of a lonely girl who finds that art and new friends can bring pleasant surprises, even in familiar places.

kevinhenkes.com
harpercollinschildrens.com

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Review of Da Vinci’s Cat, by Catherine Gilbert Murdock

Da Vinci’s Cat

by Catherine Gilbert Murdock
decorations by Paul O. Zelinsky

Greenwillow Books (HarperCollins), May 2021. 278 pages.
Review written March 6, 2021, from an advance reader copy sent by the author
Starred Review

I’ll admit it – time-slip novels aren’t really my thing. My logical mind gets caught up in the contradictions inherent in changing the past, so that I can’t properly enjoy them. However, because this one was written by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, who won Newbery Honor the year I was on the committee with The Book of Boy, I was able to squelch my logical objections and enjoy this book. I suspect most kids will enjoy it, too.

In this book, we meet Federico II Gonzaga, eleven years old in 1511, in Rome as a hostage of Pope Julius II for his family’s good behavior. But he was treated well in Rome, became friends with his Holiness, and got to pose for the painter Raphael, as well as maybe see some of what Michelangelo was doing while painting the Sistine Chapel.

Then one day, there’s a strange large box, a sort of closet, in a deserted hallway, made by Leonardo da Vinci. A kitten comes out of it.

Federico has fun with the kitten, but it dashes back into the box – and disappears. The next night, it comes out of the box again – but now it is a fully grown cat.

Federico’s adventures really begin after the cat disappears again – and comes back with a stranger, wearing strange clothes. This man is terribly interested in Raphael’s and Michelangelo’s sketches, as well as seeing the paintings in the Vatican Palace “when they are new,” whatever that means. The man promises Federico a wonderful sweet called “chocolate” in exchange for more sketches.

But after a couple of adventures with this man, Part II of the book begins in the present day with a girl named Bee, who is house-sitting with her moms at a place in Brooklyn. When Bee finds a cat outside killing birds, she takes the cat to the house next door. The old lady there stares at her in wonder – and shows Bee a drawing of herself – drawn by Raphael. So later, when Bee sees a large box in that house in a hidden study, the reader is not surprised when she follows the cat into the box that looks like a wardrobe and finds herself in Federico’s time. And she’s got a quest – some things to set right.

Like I said, if you don’t let your mind get hung up on how this would actually work, but just accept that of course Leonardo da Vinci could have invented a time machine, the story is a whole lot of fun. I love the details of life in Rome in 1511 and what Federico thinks is normal, and how Bee can slip into that and pass for a page. Did you know that Michelangelo smelled terrible because he didn’t bathe? And that he and Raphael had a rivalry going? And that they hadn’t tasted chocolate in Rome in 1511?

A fun story of a cat moving through time and bringing two kids together across centuries.

catherinemurdock.com
greenwillowbooks.com

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Review of Flight of the Puffin, by Ann Braden

Flight of the Puffin

by Ann Braden

Nancy Paulsen Books (Penguin Random House), 2021. 229 pages.
Review written July 8, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

Flight of the Puffin follows four different kids, each of them a bit of a misfit. We’re only given the locations of two of the four, and they’re on opposite sides of the country, so we’re interested in finding out how the stories will connect.

I love the beginning. Libby is painting the best sunrise ever. And as she works on it, making it colorful and beautiful, the principal steps around the corner, and we discover she’s painting on a wall of the school.

Then there’s Jack, who goes to a small two-room school in Vermont. He’s good with the younger kids, and misses his brother, who was six when he died. Next we meet T. T has a shorter chapter, sleeping on a sidewalk with their dog. The fourth person we meet is Vincent, who’s decided he wants to be like a puffin. Instead of the t-shirts his mother buys for him, he finds an old button-down white shirt with a small puffin, and that represents him. But it doesn’t make him fit in at school.

The kids are all seventh graders. They’re on opposite ends of the country. Libby’s up against her parents not appreciating her need to make art and spread joy with it. Jack is up against the school board that wants to close their school. Vincent is up against bullies. And T is up against survival.

And Flora’s art – and puffins – end up connecting them. It’s a lovely book with some threads about trans kids without that taking up the whole book. Mostly, these four kids are deeply nuanced characters it’s a delight to spend time with.

annbradenbooks.com
penguin.com/kids

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Review of Allergic, by Megan Wagner Lloyd and Michelle Mee Nutter

Allergic

by Megan Wagner Lloyd and Michelle Mee Nutter

Graphix (Scholastic), 2021. 238 pages.
Review written June 25, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review

Allergic is a sweet graphic novel about a girl who’s planning to get a dog for her tenth birthday – and breaks out in a rash after she’s given her heart to one. It turns out that she’s allergic to anything with fur or feathers.

This has repercussions. Maggie’s class can’t have a class pet. When her new friend who moved in next door gets a puppy, that means Maggie can’t come over any more.

She tries to cope in ways that turn out to be both bad and good. The idea of trying to secretly keep a mouse in her closet turns out to be not so great. Meanwhile, Maggie’s mom is expecting a baby soon, and Maggie’s feeling a little left out.

The pictures in this graphic novel are adorable, and the reader will love Maggie and her family. Her plight will capture the sympathy of readers, helping them see a perspective maybe different from their own. All while reading and viewing a great story with plenty of conflict in a popular format. This book will fly off the shelves, and deservedly so.

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scholastic.com

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Review of Red, White, and Whole, by Rajani LaRocca

Red, White, and Whole

by Rajani LaRocca

Quill Tree Books (HarperCollins), 2021. 217 pages.
Review written April 28, 2021, from a library book

This is a novel in verse, so it goes quickly. Reha is telling her story and this is how she introduces herself:

I have two lives.
One that is Indian,
one that is not.
I have two best friends.
One who is Indian,
one who is not.

At school I swim in a river of white skin
and blond hair and brown hair
and blue eyes and green eyes and hazel,
school subjects and giggles about boys,
salad and sandwiches.

And on weekends,
I float in a sea of brown skin and black hair and dark eyes,
MTV music videos and giggles about boys,
samosas and sabjis.

In both places I have
gossip and laughter
music and silence
friendship.
But only in one place do I have
my parents.

I’ve read quite a few books set in middle school lately. As always, there’s plenty to navigate. Reha’s got her two lives, and at school is assigned to work on a project in English with a boy and wonders what that means. And she wants to go to the school dance, but will her parents let her?

Then her mother gets sick with leukemia, and all other concerns fade in comparison. This book is set in 1983 and reflects the treatments available then.

It’s a tough story, but I like the way Reha’s friends rally round. I also enjoyed the Indian folk tale Reha tells us about, regarding a princess who charmed Lord Death and won the life of her husband.

Reha’s mother’s red blood cells and white blood cells need to work together. She’s a hematologist, so she knows what’s going on with leukemia. Just as those blood cells need to work together, Reha wants the parts of her life to work together.

This novel is poignant and insightful, a quick read that doesn’t feel trivial.

rajanilarocca.com
harpercollinschildrens.com

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