Review of The Puppets of Spelhorst, by Kate DiCamillo

The Puppets of Spelhorst

A Norendy Tale

by Kate DiCamillo
illustrated by Julie Morstad

Candlewick Press, 2023. 150 pages.
Review written November 8, 2023, from a library book.
Starred Review

Hooray! Kate DiCamillo has started a series of original fairy tales!

Now, mind you, I’m a fairy tale fan, and this wasn’t my favorite ever. There’s not much magic — well, except puppets that can talk — and no fairies at all. But the feel does fit fairy tales, and I definitely would like to read this book aloud to an audience of primary grade kids. There’s a musical quality to the words and the atmospheric illustrations fit perfectly.

The story itself is about five puppets — “a king and a wolf and a girl and a boy and an owl.” An old sea captain named Spelhorst buys them because the girl reminds them of someone he loved once.

But when the sea captain dies, their adventures begin. The puppets want to be in a story. The wolf keeps going on about his sharp teeth. The king is very proud of his kingly nature. The owl is full of wise sayings. The boy has a quiver full of arrows. And the girl has beautiful eyes that want to see the world.

And the puppets do indeed find a story, complete with some danger in the middle, but ending up with adventure.

To give you an idea of the flavor, here’s a section when the puppets are in a dark trunk on the cart of a rag-and-bone man who takes things that aren’t wanted:

The puppets lay together in the chest. They could hear the rag-and-bone man’s song.

“Who are we?” said the owl.

“Well, I suppose we’re something that’s not wanted,” said the girl.

“Nonsense,” said the king. “Everyone wants a king. That’s the very definition of kingliness.”

“It’s so dark in here,” said the boy.

“Darkness means nothing when your teeth are as sharp as mine,” said the wolf.

“Into the darkness, there sometimes comes a light,” intoned the owl.

I’m definitely looking forward to more idiosyncratic fairy tales from the quirky mind of Kate DiCamillo. (Honestly! How does she think of these things?) This one left me smiling.

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Review of Just a Girl, by Lia Levi

Just a Girl

A True Story of World War II

by Lia Levi
with pictures by Jess Mason
translated from Italian by Sylvia Notini

Harper, 2022. Originally published in Italy in 2020.
Review written February 24, 2023, from a library book.
Starred Review
2023 Mildred Batchelder Award Winner

The Mildred Batchelder Award is given every year to a children’s book originally published in a language other than English in a country other than the United States. It’s given to the publisher, to encourage them to find and translate such books.

Just a Girl is a gently told early chapter book about a terrible time. The author Lia Levi was a girl living in Italy in 1938, having just finished first grade. The book begins as she’s told she won’t be able to go back to school this year, but will have to go to a Jewish school.

As the war progresses in Italy, her father loses his job. They think things will get better after Mussolini is put out of power, but then the Germans come and things get worse. Lia and her sisters have to hide in a convent boarding school and use fake last names.

The author does a good job of telling about bad things, but also reassuring the reader with insertions as her older self. She does acknowledge that she was luckier than many others and does highlight the unfairness of her family being targeted for who they were. And through all of the story, the worries and troubles are punctuated with stories of kids finding ways to have a good time.

And in the last chapter (I don’t think this is a spoiler.), she wrote a letter to a radio station and began with, “I am a Jewish girl.” She was surprised when her mother tore it up.

What terrible mistake could I have made? And even if I had made a mistake, couldn’t we have fixed it?

Mama’s face isn’t serious, though.

Now she’s happily tossing all those bits and ripped-up pieces of paper everywhere as though they were confetti at Mardi Gras.

“You’re not a Jewish girl,” she says, smiling. “You’re a girl. Just a girl.

What’s this all about? For years now, they’ve been shouting and writing female student of Jewish race next to my name everywhere.

I know perfectly well that the laws against the Jews have been repealed. But what is this about not being a Jewish girl?

Mama laughs.

“You’re mixing things up. Of course you’re still Jewish,” she says. Then her face gets very serious and she tries to explain. “You’re Jewish, but that’s something personal. It doesn’t need to be a label you wear on your forehead. You’re Jewish, you have two sisters, you go to school, you like going to the movies. . . . These are all facts about you. If you want to, you can tell others, but only if you choose to. These facts are no longer of any importance to the State, to the authorities. They have to let you go to school, to the gym, to the library, to your tennis or dance lesson, without saying: she can, but she can’t; he can, but he can’t.”

A lovely story that gives a gentle way for young children to learn about discrimination.

harpercollinschildrens.com

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Review of A Sliver of Moon and a Shard of Truth, by Chitra Soundar

A Sliver of Moon and a Shard of Truth

by Chitra Soundar
illustrations by Uma Krishnaswamy

Candlewick Press, 2022. First published in the United Kingdom in 2021. 101 pages.
Review written April 3, 2023, from a library book.

A Sliver of Moon and a Shard of Truth is a sweet beginning chapter book with stories of two clever boys solving problems in surprising ways.

The author explains at the back that when she grew up as a child in India, her favorite stories were trickster tales. She has reimagined those stories as adventures of Prince Veera and his friend Suku, a farmer’s son. She’s done a wonderful job keeping the spirit of the folktales, with the added bonus of clever children outsmarting adults.

There’s an earlier book about Veera and Suku, Mangoes, Mischief, and Tales of Friendship, but I understood this one fine without having read the first.

At the start of this book, Veera and Suku are well-known for their prowess in solving problems, and Veera’s uncle, Raja Apoorva, has invited them to his kingdom of Peetalpur. This book covers four stories of their time there, with problems such as tricking a peahen into singing, winning against a powerful wrestler, unmasking a burglar, and arbitrating a dispute over a fig tree.

Chapter books for beginning readers are always fun when they have a reward of a clever twist in each story, and these fit that description nicely. Give this to kids ready for chapter books or use as a read aloud for everyone’s entertainment.

chitrasoundar.com
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Review of Too Small Tola Gets Tough, by Atinuke, illustrated by Onyinye Iwu

Too Small Tola Gets Tough

by Atinuke
illustrated by Onyinye Iwu

Candlewick Press, 2023. Originally published in the United Kingdom in 2022. 89 pages.
Review written May 3, 2023, from a library book.
Starred Review

When I reviewed the second book about Too Small Tola, a small girl who lives in Lagos, Nigeria, I was a little critical that it made me sad that Tola’s fifteen-year-old brother had to work to keep the family from starving. But the author does make it clear that this brother hated going to school and loves being a mechanic.

This book, too, is sad. But I’ve decided that it’s a gentle way to help kids understand poverty and have compassion for people in tough situations.

In this book, the coronavirus hits. When a lockdown threatens, brother Dapo goes to stay and sleep at the garage, and sister Moji goes to stay and sleep at her principal’s home so she can continue her studies. So Tola and Grandmommy are the only ones home. Dapo plans to continue to send them money — only work at the garage slows down during the pandemic. Tola gets hungry.

A neighbor finds Tola a place where she can work as a house girl. So she can eat. (This is the sad part, to me.) Though there’s a happy ending — Tola uses math to help the wealthy owner discover he’s being cheated — and she gets to go home back to Grandmommy, with reward money.

Yes, it’s a very tough situation. But yes, Tola gets tough.

It’s all in a beginning chapter book package with three chapters and plenty of pictures. And American beginning chapter book readers can learn about an ordinary but clever girl living on the other side of the world with people who love her.

atinuke.co.uk
onyinyeiwu.com
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Review of Odder, by Katherine Applegate

Odder

by Katherine Applegate
with illustrations by Charles Santoso

Feiwel and Friends, 2022. 274 pages.
Review written January 15, 2023, based on an advance reader copy I got at ALA Annual Conference
Starred Review
2022 Cybils Award Finalist, Novels in Verse

Katherine Applegate does it again! Like The One and Only Ivan, this novel in verse for young animal-loving chapter book readers takes the perspective of a wild animal and completely wins readers’ hearts.

Odder is a young sea otter living in a slough near Monterey Bay off the coast of California. When Odder gets a little too adventurous and ventures into the bay, she’s bitten by a shark and needs the assistance of the scientists at the Monterey Bay Aquarium — the same people who nurtured her when she was an orphaned pup — to recover and survive. This is Odder’s story.

Along the way, we learn about this endangered species and how humans are learning to care for them so their numbers can increase. Odder’s story is based on actual sea otters helped at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

The story is mostly told from Odder’s perspective. And she’s a sea otter — there’s nothing cuter! Her perspective is all about adventure and play. The accompanying illustrations are of course adorable, and this book will oh-so-easily win kids’ hearts.

The story is told in verse, so it’s a much quicker read than it might appear at first. I think the final version may have more cute drawings than my advance reader copy does, but my hold was taking a long time to fill, so I’ve needed to order the library more copies. This book will bring smiles wherever it goes.

katherineapplegate.com
montereybayaquarium.org
mackids.com

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Review of The Princess in Black and the Prince in Pink, by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale, illustrated by LeUyen Pham

The Princess in Black and the Prince in Pink

by Shannon Hale & Dean Hale
illustrated by LeUyen Pham

Candlewick Press, 2023. 90 pages.
Review written May 4, 2023, from a library book.
Starred Review

I love the Princess in Black series! This is the tenth book in the series. By now, Princess Magnolia, a frilly princess who wears lots of pink, has gathered many other princess friends who also have secret identities. Magnolia’s secret identity is the Princess in Black, who fights monsters.

In this book, the princesses run into a problem at the Flower Festival Fair where a knight in shining armor named Prince Valerian helps banish a giant grumpy emu. But when the emu smashes Princess Magnolia’s decoration for the fancy ball at the end of the day — it turns out that Prince Valerian’s secret identity is exactly what they need.

The reader learns that Prince Valerian is secretly the Prince in Pink.

“Champion of celebrations! Paladin of parties! Darling of discos! Wherever there is a festival in distress, there I will be with a helping hand.” He shook a tasseled glove.

It’s great fun. Mind you, Prince Valerian is not a girl. But he’s a prince who enjoys a nontypical prince activity, decorating with glitter and sparkles, just as the Princess in Black enjoys a nontypical princess activity, fighting monsters.

And it’s all done with so much fun. I love the way the characters wink at each other’s secret identities:

The Princess in Black looked around. To her surprise — and delight — she saw the ballroom was now full of her hero friends. Her princess friends had mysteriously disappeared. And there! The Prince in Pink had returned!

So yes, this book is delightful fun. But I got even more enthusiastic about it after reading a twitter thread from Shannon Hale. A mom had given a 1-star review to this book. Shannon beautifully explains how not allowing boys to ever express “feminine” traits is a result of devaluing women. Okay, she says it much more beautifully than that quick summary. But, yes, both the Princess in Black and the Prince in Pink are going against gender stereotypes. If you think the first is okay, but not the second, step back and question why that would be so. (And read Shannon’s thoughts on it in the Twitter thread.

This is a delightful story that shakes up gender stereotypes in beautiful ways.

shannonhale.com
candlewick.com

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Review of Too Small Tola and the Three Fine Girls, by Atinuke, illustrated by Onyinye Iwu

Too Small Tola and the Three Fine Girls

by Atinuke
illustrated by Onyinye Iwu

Candlewick Press, 2022. 96 pages.
Review written March 10, 2023, from a library book
Starred Review

You can’t help but love Too Small Tola. This is the second early chapter book about her, and the author quickly brings you up to speed:

Tola lives in a run-down block of apartments in the megacity of Lagos, in the country of Nigeria. Tola’s sister, Moji, is much cleverer than Tola. Tola’s brother, Dapo, is much faster than Tola. And even short-short Grandmommy is taller than Tola. Which makes Tola feel so small-o!

There are three stories in this book. I loved the first one. On a Saturday, when Grandmommy is out selling groundnuts by the road, the kids are supposed to clean stones out of the rice, but Tola’s stuck doing it herself. I love the way she tricks her siblings into doing all the work instead. It’s essentially their own fault, too.

The second story made me sad. Grandmommy is very sick with malaria. The kids have to get into her secret stash of cash for medicine, and then they have to go sell groundnuts at Grandmommy’s station for two weeks while she’s still sick, instead of going to school. The punchline to all that is that Dapo gets a good job as an auto mechanic, but it was hard for me to be happy for him, since he’s now a kid working and providing for his family instead of going to school. It’s not presented as a sad story, and it opens American kids’ eyes to another world, but it made me sad.

The final story has Tola envying three fine girls — and by the end those same three girls are envying her. It definitely ends the story on a happy note and reminds the reader that you can have a happy life even if you’re poor.

The chapters are short, with plenty of illustrations. The stories reflect kid concerns — but this kid lives in Nigeria, which immediately makes the stories all the more interesting.

atinuke.co.uk
candlewick.com

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Review of The Princess in Black and the Bathtime Battle

The Princess in Black and the Bathtime Battle

by Shannon Hale & Dean Hale

illustrated by LeUyen Pham

Candlewick Press, 2019. 90 pages.
Starred Review
Review written December 9, 2019, from a library book

I love the Princess in Black! These are simple chapter books with lots of pictures. They include fun stories about princesses who disguise themselves as heroes who fight monsters – and one goat boy who disguises himself as the Goat Avenger. They are rewarding for beginning readers and a whole lot of fun.

In this latest installment, the foe is a horrible stinky smell. How do you fight a smell?

As the Princess in Black and the Goat Avenger manage to blow the stink away, it goes into other kingdoms, so other heroes come and investigate. But that’s a good thing. When they discover that the source of all the trouble is a super-stinky monster, the stink is so bad, it takes all the heroes working together to clean up the stink.

I like the way Shannon Hale and Dean Hale use some of the same elements in each book – but add something new every time. In this book, the battle is about bathtime. And I love that all the heroes get to take part.

This book encourages the reader to think what kind of hero they can be.

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Review of The Chupacabras of the Río Grande

The Unicorn Rescue Society

The Chupacabras of the Río Grande

by Adam Gidwitz and David Bowles
illustrated by Hatem Aly

Dutton Children’s Books, 2019. 202 pages.
Review written November 13, 2019, from a library book

This is the fourth book in The Unicorn Rescue Society series about some kids and a very eccentric professor helping out mythical creatures. I have read the first book, but not any others before this one, and I don’t think that hurt my understanding of this one any, so it is the sort of series that you can jump in where you are.

In this case, there’s a chupacabras on the loose – a mythical creature that sucks blood from goats. Usually, they don’t kill their victims, simply taking a drink while the victim sleeps, but a small calf has been killed, with all its blood drained, and Professor Fauna wants to take a look, bringing Uchenna and Elliot along, of course.

The adventure is light-hearted and has some silly jokes, with the inevitable bad guy trying to beat them to the magical creature adding some tension. It’s not designed to be a child’s first chapter book, but neither is it far advanced, and has short chapters and plenty of pictures.

I did like the way this light-hearted fantasy adventure ended up overlapping with a serious political issue. The creation of a border wall and border fences disrupt territories for wildlife – and that turns out to be a problem for mythical wildlife, too.

I also like that the publisher took the issue seriously and treated the people of the region so respectfully that they put David Bowles on the authorial team. I loved what David Bowles said at the back of the book about that, so I’m going to include it here:

Writing about the border brings me a lot of joy, but also some worry. This is my community, full of my people – relatives and friends on both sides of the river. Our lives overflow with two cultures, two languages, two national identities. Trust me. You’d love it here.

But it’s easy for people to misunderstand what they’re not familiar with, so this book had to be not just about an amazing adventure in South Texas, but also about how easy it is for outsiders to get the wrong impression of my community. Heck, even those of us living down here don’t always agree about how this side of the border and that one fit together.

We couldn’t just pretend that some people aren’t nervous about the border. We also couldn’t ignore the fact that many border folks don’t like the choices the government is making.

So Adam and I decided to include that disagreement in the book. We know people who feel both ways about the barrier that’s been going up along the border in bits and pieces for years now. It was important to get a good look at those two sides without assuming that either group wants to hurt anyone.

As a Mexican American, I also wanted to make sure that the bilingual and bicultural nature of my people came through loud and clear. I am proud of my heritage, my roots along either bank of the Río Grande. And that also meant taking the chupacabras — pretty recent cryptids in the long history of creepy creatures in South Texas – and finding where they fit into the larger indigenous mythology of our ancestors.

I can only hope that the low whistling I hear drifting over the water as I write these words is a sign of their approval.

I, for one, approve of the care taken in a light-hearted fantasy chapter book. All the more reason for me to recommend this series.

UnicornRescueSociety.com
penguinrandomhouse.com

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Review of Hooray for Lolo, by Niki Daly

Hooray for Lolo

by Niki Daly

Catalyst Press, 2020. 86 pages.
Review written July 23, 2020, from a library book

Hooray for Lolo is a beginning chapter book set in South Africa with four stories about a little girl and her family, doing life.

There’s a story about a show-off friend and her birthday party, a really fun story about a library book that all Lolo’s friends love, a story about Lolo dealing with appendicitis, and finally a story of Lolo and her family taking care of a baby.

This is a joyful book about simple things important to a child’s world with plenty of pictures and simple sentences. I like the window into another culture, which also shows that day-to-day life is much the same.

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