Review of Lily and Dunkin, by Donna Gephart

March 6th, 2017

Lily and Dunkin

by Donna Gephart

Delacorte Press, 2016. 331 pages.
Starred Review
2016 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #10 Children’s Fiction

Neither Lily nor Dunkin is happy with the name they were given at birth. Dunkin doesn’t like his name because it’s Norbert Dorfman, after his grandfather and great-grandfather. Lily doesn’t like her name because it’s Timothy. Lily knows she’s really a girl, and is trying to be brave enough to wear girl’s clothes to school when eighth grade starts, but she doesn’t quite manage it.

Dunkin met Lily before school started, and even saw her wearing a dress, but when he asks about it, Lily backs down and says it was just on a dare. Dunkin would like to be friends with Tim at school, but when the guys on the basketball team take an interest in him because he’s so tall, he can’t stay away — even though they’re the same guys who bully Tim.

On the surface, this is an issue book. Lily is dealing with being transgender and trying to get up the courage to go public with that. She also wants to go on hormone blockers before it’s too late, but her Dad’s having a hard time with it.

Meanwhile, Dunkin has his own issues. He’s got bipolar disorder. His mother decided to trust him to take his own medication this year. But if he takes his antipsychotic pills, he doesn’t have enough energy to play basketball. So he sneaks a pill into the trash each day.

As an issues book, I enjoyed this. It’s for a slightly older reader than George but I like the way both books help you understand how it would feel to be transgender and some of the many difficulties you’d face.

But the book does have more to it. There’s navigating friendships and eighth grade, and there’s an old tree in front of the library that’s scheduled to be cut down. It’s a tree that meant a lot to Lily and her grandfather who is now deceased. As for Dunkin, he’s the new kid. He’s just moved to Florida, leaving behind some kind of family disaster involving his Dad. He knows nothing about basketball, but now he has a chance to be somebody because he got his growth early. If he can learn enough about the game before it’s time to play.

donnagephart.com
randomhousekids.com

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Review of Alphonse, That Is Not OK To Do! by Daisy Hirst

March 4th, 2017

Alphonse, That Is Not OK To Do!

by Daisy Hirst

Candlewick Press, 2016. 36 pages.
Starred Review
2016 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #12 Picture Books

This book about being a big sister of an annoying little brother charmed me with its specific details.

The drawings are simple, such as a child would do. Natalie and her little brother Alphonse are some sort of monster. Natalie is red and Alphonse is blue.

The story is also simple.

They both liked naming the pigeons, [Banana! Lorraine!]

bouncing things off the bunk beds,
and stories in the chair.

And they both loved making things.

Except that Alphonse did sometimes draw on the things that Natalie made,
or eat them, and Natalie hated that.

I like that the author doesn’t need to tell us that Alphonse is being aggravating.

One day when lunch was peas
and TV was awful
and Mom did not understand, [What a lovely dog! It is a HORSE.]
Natalie found Alphonse under the bunk beds . . .

eating her favorite book.

“ALPHONSE, THAT IS NOT OK TO DO!” said Natalie.

What follows is Alphonse trying to reconcile with Natalie, and Natalie needing some time first. She draws a picture of awful things happening to Alphonse. I especially like the touch of the “swarm of peas.” Then she shuts herself in the bathroom and takes a bath.

But while she’s in the bath, she thinks she hears things happening to Alphonse like what she drew.

When she comes out and learns that Alphonse just created disasters while trying to get the tape to fix Natalie’s book, she’s just glad that Alphonse is okay.

It’s a simple story, but it warms my heart. Sometimes little siblings are incredibly annoying – but sometimes they’re creative partners.

candlewick.com

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Review of Three Dark Crowns, by Kendare Blake

March 4th, 2017

Three Dark Crowns

by Kendare Blake

HarperTeen, 2016. 398 pages.
Starred Review
2016 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #12 Teen Fiction

I’m going to say right up front that the only bad thing about this book is that it’s apparently only Book One of a series. If I had realized that from the start, I might not have been so disappointed when the book stopped at an exciting place where the story is far from over.

This book takes place on the enchanted Island of Fennbirn, favored by the goddess. It is the queens’ 16th birthday. But there are three queens — a queen who is a Poisoner, a queen who is an Elemental, and a queen who is a Naturalist. Each queen is supported by those of her kind, who have particular powers from the goddess.

At Beltane, four months away, the queens will meet for the first time since they were children. There will be great ceremony and each queen will display her power at the Quickening. Then, in the next year, each queen will attempt to kill the other two. The last queen alive will rule over Fennbirn.

There’s a problem right from the start. Queen Katharine of the poisoners and Queen Arsinoe of the Naturalists have so far displayed no gift at all, unlike Queen Mirabelle of the Elementals, who is strong in her gift. But the families behind them aren’t going to lose power easily.

The author shows us each queen and her way of living, the people she loves and the plots around her — and I found myself hoping that, somehow, all the queens will survive.

Mind you, that still might happen — like I said, the book doesn’t finish the story. It takes us only up to the Quickening. Now the queens have a year to kill each other. But it’s more and more difficult to imagine how things could end so tidily.

The writing is wonderful. The author alternates between the three queens, but I never found myself impatient to skip one story — each queen has a fascinating and tension-filled story as they all progress toward Beltane. We also learn much about their friends and foster families. Arsinoe has a friend with a cougar as her familiar. Katharine has a young man teaching her how to attract the Suitors who will come to court the queens. And Mirabella, surrounded by priestesses, does have loyal servants who help her when she dreams of when she was young and still with her sisters.

The world-building is well-crafted. There’s no exposition hell, with the details of this world skillfully woven into the stories.

I will say that all three queens are still alive at the end of this book. And I desperately want to find out how long they will stay that way and what will happen next.

kendareblake.com
epicreads.com

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Review of Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story, by Caren Stilson

March 2nd, 2017

Sachiko

A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story

by Caren Stilson

Carolrhoda Books, 2016. 144 pages.
Starred Review
2016 National Book Award Longlist
2017 Sibert Honor Book
2016 Cybils Award, Middle Grade Nonfiction
2016 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #7 Children’s Nonfiction

This book is what the title says it is: The story of a survivor of the Nagasaki atom bomb.

Sachiko Yasui was six years old when the bomb fell on her city. The book first sets the stage, briefly explaining how the war was going and American attitudes toward the Japanese at the time. Throughout the book, background information is inserted with spreads on darker-colored pages, so it’s clear they are background. But we’re given a detailed, hour-by-hour account of what happened in Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.

Of course Sachiko and her family lost their home. But one by one, she also lost all her family members.

The first to die was her two-year-old brother, who had a wooden stick go through his head in the initial blast. All of the girls Sachiko was playing with at the moment the bomb went off also died. Her other two brothers took longer to die of radiation sickness.

Fortunately, Sachiko had her parents to take her out of the city and to help her survive and to put her in school. Though years later, it was cancer that took their lives, a result of the radiation from the bomb.

Sachiko herself suffered from radiation sickness and was bullied in her new school because she lost her hair and had scaly skin. I do like the way the author weaves in stories of those who inspired Sachiko: Her father revered the teachings of Gandhi; Sachiko got to see Helen Keller when she visited Japan; and she was impressed by the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

It was a long time before Sachiko was ready to tell her story, but since 1995, she has traveled around the world, especially speaking to students, and promoting peace.

Sachiko also tells young people that, as she was inspired by Helen Keller, she hopes to inspire them. “I’ll try to speak about how strong you can be as a human being when you encounter difficulties in the future.”

This book is illustrated with plenty of photographs and presents a powerful and important story, in a way that young people can understand and that will move anyone’s heart.

May her words be true: “What happened to me must never happen to you.”

hibakushastories.org
lernerbooks.com

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Review of The Cow Said Meow, by John Himmelman

March 1st, 2017

The Cow Said Meow

by John Himmelman

Henry Holt and Company, 2016. 32 pages.
Starred Review

This book makes me laugh. I think even toddlers who have learned their animal sounds will get the joke. Older kids will have fun explaining all they see happening.

The story is told through pictures – with the only words being the sounds the animals make shown in speech bubbles.

It’s raining. A cow is grazing in front of a house. We can see a warm living room inside the window. A cat stands at the door and says, “Meow.” On the next page, a little old lady with thick glasses lets the cat in as it purrs.

Then we’ve got a close-up of the cow’s face. It’s wet and its face droops, but it raises one eyebrow, clearly thinking.

On the next page, the cow goes to the door and says, “Meow.” The little old lady with thick glasses and squinty eyes lets it in, too. The cow is sure to purr as she goes in – and we see a pig in the foreground.

A close-up of the pig’s face shows the pig thinking. It mimics the cow. Followed by a chicken, a donkey, a goat, and a duck. There’s also an element of the Telephone Game, because each animal from the donkey on says Heeow instead of Meow.

Finally all the animals are in the house, saying variants of Meow and Purr, with the cat behind a curtain saying Hiss. But then it all falls apart, and the animals start making their own noises. The little old lady’s eyes get opened, and they’re sent back out into the rain.

Then we see a dog say “Woof.” The lady opens the door….

You might be surprised how good wordless books are for getting little ones to use their own words. This one has the added attraction of silly animal sounds and situations.

Wonderful silly fun.

mackids.com

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Review of The Keeper of the Mist, by Rachel Neumeier

February 18th, 2017

The Keeper of the Mist

by Rachel Neumeier

Alfred A. Knopf, 2016. 391 pages.
Starred Review
2016 Cybils Finalist, Young Adult Speculative Fiction
2016 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #9 Teen Fiction

Here’s a fantasy story that warmed my heart. It had plenty of danger and suspense, but I liked these people. I enjoyed spending time with them. The fantasy world was unique and interesting.

Keri runs a bakery she inherited from her mother, and is struggling to keep it going. She’s the illegitimate daughter of the Lord of Nimmira, but she doesn’t have time to think about that, even when her best friend Tassel speculates which of the Lord’s sons will inherit his title and magic, the magic that keeps a mist around Nimmira.

Nimmira is a small country on the boundary of two countries at war with one another. On one side is Tor Carron, and on the other Eschalion, which has been ruled by a powerful sorcerer for hundreds of years and has a habit of conquering and absorbing its neighbors. But the mist around Nimmira magically makes outsiders forget that anything is there. Eschalion and Tor Carron think they have a border only with each other.

But when Lord Dorric dies, the magic of Nimmira chooses Keri to be the next Lady of Nimmira, much to her surprise. The Timekeeper comes to her door with the news, and right away her friend Tassel becomes the Bookkeeper and her friend Cort becomes the Doorkeeper.

However, immediately the Mist fails, and Keri’s ascension does not bring it back. A group of soldiers crosses the border from Tor Carron, and a sorcerer comes from Eschalion. Keri decides to pretend that she let down the Mist on purpose to get to know their neighbors and invite them to her ascension. But that can only hold off more trouble for a little while.

This story was creative. I’m not sure why the author chose the essential people of the magic to be a Lord or Lady, a Timekeeper, a Bookkeeper, and a Doorkeeper, but I like the way they worked out in the story. Though there were some questions about the magic of Nimmira and the other lands, it all did follow rules and didn’t change willy-nilly. During the course of the story, they’re threatened by a powerful sorcerer, and I like the way they used their own unique magic against him.

This book portrays a girl who’s always been underestimated who suddenly becomes the ruler of a magical kingdom when the magic may be failing. I like the part where she tries to make the representatives of the other countries think she wants a big strong man to take the burdens off her shoulders, though not so much when her half-brothers think that’s actually a good solution. I also like where Keri goes to the House kitchens and makes an exquisite cake when she’s feeling stressed.

Keri’s up against huge obstacles, and you root for her all the way.

RachelNeumeier.com
randomhouseteens.com

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Review of When the Sea Turned to Silver, by Grace Lin

February 11th, 2017

When the Sea Turned to Silver

by Grace Lin

read by Kim Mai Guest

Hachette Audio, 2016. 7.5 hours on 6 CDs. Unabridged.
Starred Review
2016 National Book Award Finalist
2016 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #7 Children’s Fiction

Like Where the Mountain Meets the Moon and Starry River of the Sky, Grace Lin weaves Chinese fairy tales throughout this story, bringing elements from the various tales into the conclusion at the end. It’s okay if you haven’t read or don’t remember the other two, as this story stands well on its own.

The audiobook includes a pdf file of the illustrations, but I chose to check out a copy of the print book so I could enjoy them as I went. Each day after my commute, I’d look at the pictures as far as I’d gotten in the audiobook. Grace Lin is an illustrator as well as a writer, and this book includes color plates at intervals, and small one-color illustrations at the start of each chapter. This book is a treat to hold in your hands, and would make a wonderful read-aloud.

At the start of the book, the evil emperor comes with his soldiers up the mountain, during a winter that has lasted far too long, and takes away Pinmei’s grandmother, the Storyteller. When the neighbor boy Yishan protests, the emperor tells him that they can have the Storyteller back if they bring the emperor the Luminous Stone that Lights Up the Night.

The soldiers set fire to the hut and leave, but Yishan rescues Pinmei from her hiding place, and the two travel together to try to find a Luminous Stone and save Pinmei’s Amah. Their adventures take them to the City of Bright Moonlight and the kingdom of Sea Bottom. Along the way, Pinmei tells stories she’s learned from her Amah – and those stories provide clues to what the emperor is looking for and how to thwart him and get Amah back.

This book has a theme of immortality, the importance of stories, and finding your voice. At the start, Pinmei is too shy to even speak in the presence of others, but by the end, she can speak truth even in front of the emperor.

This book would make a wonderful family or classroom read-aloud. The fairy tales woven throughout give it a timeless appeal for a wide age range.

gracelin.com
HachetteAudio.com

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Review of Horrible Bear, by Ame Dyckman and Zachariah OHora

February 10th, 2017

Horrible Bear!

by Ame Dyckman
illustrated by Zachariah OHora

Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2016. 36 pages.
Starred Review
2016 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #10 Picture Books

I confess: I’m a big fan of Zachariah OHora’s exuberant illustrations. They’re just right for this book.

A little girl with a wild mop of curly red hair is flying a kite. (I like the way the front end papers are filled with her hair and the back end papers are filled with the furry top of the bear’s head.) The kite flying is shown silently on the title page. If you look closely, you notice the string has just snapped. The kite is next to a mountain with an open doorway near the top and a welcome mat.

On the next page, the text just reads, “A girl peeked into bear’s cave.” The pictures show us that the kite has entered the cave and is sitting on top of a sleeping bear lying in the middle of the floor with a pillow.

The next page says, “She reached – but he rolled.” And we see the kite go “Crunch!” beneath the bear.

That’s when the drama begins.

HORRIBLE BEAR! the girl shouted.

She goes stomping off, continuing to shout about the horrible bear.

Then the bear gets angry in his turn. After all, SHE barged in! SHE made a ruckus! SHE woke him up!

Then he gets a horrible bear idea to show her what it feels like.

Meanwhile, in her house, the girl, still angry, accidentally tears the ear off of her stuffy. She didn’t mean to! And that’s when she realizes maybe the bear didn’t mean to be horrible.

But the bear is practicing to show the girl how it feels. He comes stomping down the mountain.

When the girl meets him with an apology and tears, the situation takes a whole new flavor.

This book is a child-sized look at anger and apology and accidental wrongs. That it involves a bear wearing a “Froggy Hollow Summer Camp” t-shirt and sneakers makes it all the more accessible. I love the way the two come up with Sweet Bear ideas at the end, with an acknowledgement that the Sweetness may not last forever. There are lots of points of discussion with small readers in this book.

And those exuberant Zachariah OHora illustrations! The Horrible Bear has as much giant-sized gentleness combined with ferocity as Nilson in No Fits, Nilson!

I also love some clever details in the illustrations – a copy of Wolfie the Bunny in the girl’s room, and then a book called Goldilocks that she kicks. In the bear’s cave, we see a stack of books with titles, Blueberries, The Goldilocks Myth, and 1000 Ways to Cook Porridge.

And I just noticed for the first time that the back cover of the book shows the bear riding happily on the little girl’s purple bike with his friend the bat (animal, not baseball) in the basket.

@AmeDyckman
zohora.com
lb-kids.com

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Review of Games Wizards Play, by Diane Duane

February 9th, 2017

Games Wizards Play

by Diane Duane

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016. 620 pages.
Starred Review
2016 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #8 Teen Fiction

Games Wizards Play is the tenth book in the brilliant Young Wizards series by Diane Duane. I’m very sorry to report that I didn’t get the ninth book read – but I was still able to follow this one.

However, this is a series that you will appreciate more if you start from the beginning. The way magic works in these books is very well-worked-out by the author and all follows definite rules – but it will be easier to understand those rules if you’ve been coming along on the journey from the start.

And things do get complicated and esoteric. Somewhere around Book Five, the characters started dealing with alternate universes. In Book Three, they dealt with other galaxies and planets and sentient computers.

The books have gotten longer and longer, too, which I confess is probably why I never got around to reading Book Nine, A Wizard of Mars. It’s also why I hadn’t gotten around to reading this book until I had a whole weekend where I was planning to spend as much time as possible reading.

This book was actually perfect for a Reading Interlude. I had a nice chunk of time set aside for reading – and how lovely to get to spend that time with these characters I’ve enjoyed so long. I think if I tried to read this book a little bit at a time, I might have got lost in the technical details of wizardry, which do fill a lot of the book. As it was, this was delightful weekend reading, and I put off going to my gaming group until I got the last chapter read.

In this volume, initially neither the universe nor the planet is even at stake. There’s an Invitational competition for young wizards to present new spells they’ve worked out. These Invitationals happen once every eleven years, and our heroes – Nita and Kit and Nita’s sister Dairine – are being asked to act as mentors.

Their mentees are interesting but talented characters. Penn, mentored by Nita and Kit, has a spell designed to protect earth from sunspots (as far as I can translate the technical language, anyway). Dairine’s mentee Mehrnaz lives in Mumbai and is from a large family of wizards, but has oppressive family dynamics.

Penn behaves like a jerk, especially toward Nita, but his wizardry is good – and there seems to be more going on there than meets the eye.

Meanwhile, Nita and Kit have decided to become boyfriend and girlfriend – and are bothered by how much that changes things between them. And everyone around them seems to be talking about sex. But they’re too busy being wizards.

The pace of the book is leisurely. There is tension and they’re in a hurry to get ready for the competition – but the author puts in more scenes than are absolutely essential and takes some time exploring subtleties and thoughts and feelings. You often read the point-of-view character’s thoughts in this book. And yet, in this case, I didn’t find that annoying. Maybe because I already know and love these characters? Maybe because I’m already interested in all the different relationships and the various subtleties of life as a Wizard. Anyway, that was partly why it was nice to have a long, concentrated span of time set aside to read this book. I wasn’t impatient to get to the end, and I enjoyed the journey.

I wasn’t surprised that a fairly significant earth-changing situation did come up at the end. Though mostly this book was about relationships between wizards when there was not an earth-shaking crisis.

If you haven’t started with this series and if you like science fiction at all, I highly recommend it! Go back to the first book, So You Want to Be a Wizard? It turns out that all over our world Wizards, dedicated to reducing Entropy, are helping the Powers That Be and fighting the good fight against the Lone Power. These books tell that story and take the reader all over the universe.

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hmhco.com

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Review of The Singing Bones, by Shaun Tan

February 8th, 2017

The Singing Bones

by Shaun Tan

Foreword by Neil Gaiman
Introduced by Jack Zipes

Arthur A. Levine Books, 2016. 185 pages.
Starred Review
2016 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #4 Children’s Nonfiction

This is a book of art. But all the art is based on fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm. Shaun Tan has created sculptures based on the tales. On each spread, there’s a short excerpt from the featured fairy tale on one page, and a photograph of the sculpture on the other page.

In the Afterword, Shaun Tan tells us about the sculptures:

The main materials I’ve used are papier-maché and air-drying clay, carved back and painted with acrylics, oxidized metal powder, wax, and shoe polish. The resistance of clay in particular at a small scale encourages simplicity, especially where the key tools are blunt fingers and thumbs: Faces and gestures are abbreviated, just like characters in the tales themselves. The concept of a thing also becomes more important than a detailed likeness: A fox need only be a few red triangles, a sleeping man requires no body, and a queen’s face can be eroded away by the force of a single, elemental feeling: jealousy. What matters above all else are the hard bones of the story, and I wanted many of these objects to appear as if they’ve emerged from an imaginary archaeological dig, and then been sparingly illuminated as so many museum objects are, as if a flashlight beam has passed momentarily over some odd objects resting in the dark galleries of our collective subconscious. Like the tales themselves, they might brighten in our imagination without surrendering any of their original enigma.

He achieves this feeling of simple forms, of the bare bones of the stories. As Neil Gaiman says,

Shaun Tan does something else here: something profound. His sculptures suggest, they do not describe. They imply, they do not delineate. They are, in themselves, stories: not the frozen moments in time that a classical illustration needs to be. These are something new, something deeper. They do not look like moments of the stories: instead, they feel like the stories themselves….

Here they gather for you, timeless and perfect, a mixture of darkness and light that manages to capture Grimms’ stories in a way that nobody, to my knowledge, has done before.

Shaun Tan makes me want to hold these tales close, to rub them with my fingers, to feel the cracks and the creases and the edges of them. He makes me want to pick them up, inspect them from unusual angles, feel the heft and the weight of them. He makes me wonder what damage I could do with them, how badly I could hurt someone if I hit them with a story.

All of Shaun Tan’s work is eerie, abstract, and creepy. But combining his images with timeless folk tales gives them whole new power.

In short, you really need to see these images. Check out this book and take a look!

shauntan.net
arthuralevinebooks.com

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