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

Elf Dog & Owl Head

by M. T. Anderson
illustrated by Junyi Wu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

candlewick.com
mt-anderson.com

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Review of The Eyes and the Impossible, by Dave Eggers

The Eyes and the Impossible

by Dave Eggers
illustrations of Johannes by Shawn Harris

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, Johannes is delightful company.

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

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

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

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

daveeggers.net
rhcbooks.com

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Review of All the Fighting Parts, by Hannah V. Sawyerr

All the Fighting Parts

by Hannah V. Sawyerr

Amulet Books, 2023. 387 pages.
Review written October 2, 2023, from a library book.
Starred Review
2024 William C. Morris Award Finalist
2024 Waler Award Honors
2023 Cybils Novels in Verse Finalist
2023 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #8 More Teen Fiction

[Note: This review was written after my first reading. I read it again, and saw even more on rereading. A marvelous novel and one of our Morris Finalists!]

All the Fighting Parts is a novel in verse about a teen dealing with the aftermath of sexual assault.

Amina’s mother died when she was five years old, and she’s been told that her mother was an activist and a fighter, and that Mina inherited all the fighting parts from her. Her father doesn’t really know how to relate to her, and has taken refuge in the church. When Mina’s teacher calls after she fought back in class, his suggestion is to do some volunteer work at the church as a penalty.

The book interweaves what led up to the assault with the police report about the assault and dealing with it afterward. At first, Mina pushes her friends away and won’t talk to anyone. That felt authentic and realistic. But I also like the way Mina is portrayed grappling with healing. Her boyfriend is almost too good to be true in his understanding – but as a reader, I definitely wanted that for her.

There’s another person abused by the same perpetrator, a respected member of the community, and she has a different way of dealing with it. But this is a sensitive and powerful portrayal of a teen trying to do what’s right and getting her trust betrayed. Then having to figure out it wasn’t her fault what happened.

hannahsawyerr.com
abramsbooks.com

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Review of Saints of the Household, by Ari Tison

Saints of the Household

by Ari Tison

Farrar Straus Giroux, 2023. 312 pages.
Review written May 14, 2023, from my own copy, sent by the publisher.
Starred Review
2024 Walter Dean Myers Award Young Adult Winner
2024 Pura Belpré Award Young Adult Author Winner
2024 William C. Morris Debut Award Finalist
2023 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #4 More Teen Fiction

[Note: This review was written after I read the book the first time, before I discussed it with the Morris committee and before two more readings. I was blown away by this book from the first time I read it.]

Saints of the Household opens when two brothers, Jay and Max, are going to back to school after being suspended for beating up the school soccer star. They’re both seniors in high school, eleven months apart, and have to meet with a counselor, who is also requiring them to meet with their victim for reconciliation.

Jay is trying to figure out how things went so far, but we gradually learn that they saw the soccer star being rough with his girlfriend Nicole, Jay and Max’s cousin. Jay, Max, and Nicole are the only indigenous people at their Minnesota rural high school. Jay’s worried she won’t speak to them again, but also worries that the boy isn’t treating Nicole the way she deserves to be treated. And we find out that the boys’ dad isn’t treating their mother the way she deserves to be treated, either. In fact, Jay and Max have plenty of personal experience with abuse.

The story is told in short vignettes from Jay and poetry from Max, who is an artist. Jay worries that if Max doesn’t take the reconciliation process seriously, he won’t get into art school. But he has to learn that they each have their own burdens to carry.

As the book goes on, we grow to understand how each boy is coping. The book deals with abuse, trauma, depression, and protecting others – but also art, healing, strength and survival. The beautiful writing draws you in and makes you care about these boys.

Here’s one of Jay’s vignettes toward the end (not giving anything away), when he’s helping his grandpa get his home ready after an absence in the Minnesota winter:

First, we warm the house, and then we pull off the panels nailed to the windows that protected them in the cold. We have hammers, and we tug to undress this house.

I feel like this house.

Boxed up for a season of survival. I have survived well like this house. My muscles are as strong as ever as I tear off each panel. It’s a good strength, one I don’t need to use to hurt. A useful strength, and it has me crying. I start tearing off the wood faster and faster because I can’t help but think of each of these boards as a thick skin I had put up. I don’t even know what’s inside there.

The writing is stunningly beautiful, and I was amazed this is a debut author.

aritison.com
fiercereads.com

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Singing the Praises of Good Books

It’s Book Award Season!

Monday was the American Library Association’s Youth Media Awards, and it’s a time to celebrate Book Joy!

What’s more, yesterday I spent five hours online deliberating with the committee to select this year’s Mathical Book Prize winners (announced February 21), and I’m also in charge of getting some annotations in for the zero to five reading group of Capitol Choices and overseeing the Young Adult Speculative Fiction judges choosing a Cybils Award winner (announced February 14). So awards are on my mind!

Now, I put a huge number of books on hold Monday. And was feeling smug that I already have several honorees checked out. But I wanted to take a moment to celebrate some of the books I’ve already read and already love.

First, I was on the Morris Award committee this year and am super happy that now I can post the reviews I wrote of our winner and finalists. (I will try to get them posted within the next week or so.) Almost all of them won other awards, and I was so proud! So I have to celebrate them first:

Rez Ball, by Byron Graves
Our William C. Morris Award Winner!
American Indian Youth Literature Award Winner, Young Adults
CYBILS Young Adult Fiction Finalist
Sonderbooks Stand-out: #5 More Teen Fiction

Saints of the Household, by Ari Tison
William C. Morris Award Finalist
Walter Award Winner, Teen Category
Pura Belpré Award Winner, Young Adult Author
Sonderbooks Stand-out: #4 More Teen Fiction

Once There Was, by Kiyash Monsef
William C. Morris Award Finalist
Odyssey Award Honor (for the audiobook)
Sonderbooks Stand-out: #3 Children’s Speculative Fiction

All the Fighting Parts, by Hannah V. Sawyerr
William C. Morris Award Finalist
Walter Award Honor, Teen Category
CYBILS Finalist, Novels in Verse
Sonderbooks Stand-out: #8 More Teen Fiction

She Is a Haunting, by Trang Thanh Tran
William C. Morris Award Finalist
Sonderbooks Stand-out: #9 Teen Speculative Fiction

For the other awards, the one that simply filled me with joy was the beautiful book Big, by Vashti Harrison, winning the Randolph Caldecott Medal for most distinguished picture book of the year. Everyone, read this wonderful book! Read it to your children!

Big, by Vashti Harrison
Randolph Caldecott Medal Winner
Coretta Scott King Honor, both for Author and Illustrator
National Book Award for Young People’s Literature Finalist
Sonderbooks Stand-out: #2 Picture Books
(Number one was my personal favorite for quirky reasons, but this was the book I wanted to win the Caldecott — and it did!)

Another super joyful moment with recognition for a book of my heart was this one:

Simon Sort of Says
John Newbery Medal Honor
National Book Award for Young People’s Literature Longlist
Schneider Family Book Award Honor, Middle Grades
CYBILS Middle Grade Fiction Finalist
Sonderbooks Stand-out: #1 More Children’s Fiction

And more favorites that picked up wins:

Mexikid, by Pedro Martin
John Newbery Medal Honor
Odyssey Award Honor (for the audiobook)
Pura Belpré Award Winner, for both Illustrator and Children’s Author
CYBILS Elementary/Middle Grade Graphic Novels Finalist
Sonderbooks Stand-out: #8 Children’s Nonfiction

A First Time for Everything, by Dan Santat
National Book Award for Young People’s Literature Winner
CYBILS Elementary/Middle Grade Graphic Novels Finalist
Sonderbooks Stand-out: #1 Children’s Nonfiction

In Every Life, by Marla Frazee
Randolph Caldecott Medal Honor

Remember, by Joy Harjo, illustrated by Michaela Goode
American Indian Youth Literature Award Honor, Picture Books
Sonderbooks Stand-out: #3 Picture Books

The Lost Year, by Katherine Marsh
National Book Award for Young People’s Literature Finalist
Sonderbooks Stand-out: #4 Children’s Fiction

Warrior Girl Unearthed, by Angeline Boulley
American Indian Youth Literature Award Honor
Sonderbooks Stand-out: #3 More Teen Fiction

Hidden Systems, by Dan Nott
National Book Award for Young People’s Literature Longlist
Sonderbooks Stand-out: #3 Teen Nonfiction

America Redux, by Ariel Aberg-Riger
YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award Finalist
Sonderbooks Stand-out: #7 Teen Nonfiction

Now, because of reading for the Morris Award in 2023, I did not read widely this year. So this is a small sampling of award winners, but I am very sure that many more will show up on my 2024 Sonderbooks Stand-outs list.

Happy reading!

Review of Once There Was, by Kiyash Monsef

Once There Was

by Kiyash Monsef
read by Nikki Massoud

Simon & Schuster Audio, 2023. 11 hours, 28 minutes.
Review written July 3, 2023, from a library eaudiobook.
Starred Review
2024 William C. Morris Award Finalist
2024 Odyssey Award Honor Book
2023 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #3 Children’s Speculative Fiction

Once There Was is a contemporary fantasy tale interwoven with Persian stories that begin, “Once there was, once there wasn’t…”

Marjan is 15 and owns a veterinary clinic after the violent death of her father a few weeks ago. The police don’t have any clue who did it, and Marjan feels detached from it all, trying to keep the clinic running.

Then a mysterious woman sends her plane tickets to London to visit a griffin. When Marjan places her hands on the griffin, she senses everything the griffin is feeling, and he is very sick. And that is how she learns that one of the stories her father told her is true – and she inherited a gift from her father going back to an ancestor who was pierced by a unicorn’s horn. Oh, and besides that – griffins and other magical creatures are real.

But then Marjan gets entangled with more than one powerful group who wants to control who has access to these amazing creatures, and she wants to be on the side of the creatures, but which side is that? In her efforts to help, she has some amazing adventures, while trying to understand her place in all this, keep the clinic afloat, and figure out who killed her father – all while trying to keep her friends from worrying about her.

She gains some allies along the way, including a rich boy from London whose family has hosted the griffin for centuries and a teenage witch whose familiar is ill – and needs a place to stay. It’s good she has help, because it turns out that everything is riding on the fate of these magical creatures, and Marjan and her friends are going to need to save the world.

My one little complaint about the book is that the big climactic world-saving action happens with still more than an hour left in the audiobook. But the things that follow are pretty crucial to Marjan’s story, too, so I don’t think I’d want it changed – or put off and resolved in another volume.

The publisher is marketing this for children (ages 10 to 14), but Marjan is 15, in high school, and dealing with adult things like running a business, and has a friend who drives. So I think teens will enjoy the book, too.

I didn’t begin this eaudiobook until it was almost due to expire, so on the last day, I pulled out a jigsaw puzzle and listened to the last 4 hours (sped up a tiny bit), and thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself in this book. I love the way the interspersed Persian tales illuminate the story and keep the feeling of magic strong.

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Selection Adventures – The William C. Morris Award

This year, I’ve had the privilege of serving on the committee to select the William C. Morris YA Debut Award. This award is given to the best YA debut book of the year, published between November 1, 2022, and October 31, 2023.

I’m happy to say that at least two committee members read (or read the beginning of) every one of the over two hundred eligible books. When I say “read the beginning of” — we were allowed to stop when we were sure the book would not be a finalist, usually at least fifty pages in. We have chosen our five Finalists, and they will be announced soon. The one winner will be chosen from among those and announced at the Youth Media Awards on January 22, 2024.

One note: When we say “debut book,” it has to be the author’s (and illustrator’s, if there is one) very first book published. If it’s their “YA debut” but not their actual debut, it’s not eligible. So that eliminated some books we got sent.

When I was on the 2019 Newbery Committee, I blogged a lot about the process. I haven’t done that as much for the Morris Award. Maybe I’m getting used to award committees?

It was a different experience from the Newbery. That year, I had really set aside much of my life to focus on the Newbery reading. This year, not as much. But although the Newbery books were shorter, about three times as many books were eligible, so that was necessary.

My stats for the Morris year:
Publishers sent me 136 books.
I read 126 books (or parts of books).
That added up to 20,843 pages read plus 150 hours of listening.

Of course, I can never tell how close some books came that ended up not getting chosen as Finalists. After our Finalists get announced, I plan to start posting reviews of many of the other lovely debut books I got to read this year. As always, I want to commend the authors, whether they won an award or not. And start spreading the word about these great books!

And when you find out which ones are our Finalists, get your hands on them and read them — you’re in for a treat!

Review of Wildoak, by C. C. Harrington

Wildoak

by C. C. Harrington

Scholastic Press, 2022. 324 pages.
Review written February 21, 2023, from a library book
Starred Review
2023 Schneider Family Award Winner, Middle Grades

Wildoak is set in 1963 in England, featuring Maggie, a girl who stutters. Maggie goes to drastic measures to avoid speaking aloud in class, and three schools have told her parents her disruption isn’t welcome. Her father seems ashamed of her. But in a last-ditch effort before sending her to an institution, her mother sends Maggie to her grandfather in Cornwall for two weeks.

Maggie has always been able to talk to animals without stuttering and has a small menagerie of animals she loves, but the only ones she can bring with her are two snails. Her grandfather encourages her to explore the woods, though the local landowner is planning to bulldoze one of the oldest forests remaining in England. But meanwhile, a wealthy society lady has released into that very forest a snow leopard cub she was given as an exotic pet.

Maggie sees the snow leopard, and later rescues him from a cruel trap. But her grandfather doesn’t believe her, because of course there aren’t leopards in Cornwall. It’s up to Maggie to help the cub recover from his wound and then defend him when the townsfolk start sighting a “monster” in the woods.

The book tells a gentle story about the small standing up to the powerful and about Maggie learning to use her voice, even if it won’t always do what she wants it to.

ccharrington.com

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Review of Maizy Chen’s Last Chance, by Lisa Yee

Maizy Chen’s Last Chance

by Lisa Yee

Random House, 2022. 276 pages.
Review written February 17, 2023, from a library book.
Starred Review
2023 Asian/Pacific American Literature Award Winner, Children’s Literature
2023 Newbery Honor Book
2022 National Book Award Finalist

Maizy Chen’s Last Chance is about a girl who’s spending the summer with her mother at her grandparents’ place in Last Chance, Minnesota. She didn’t know her grandparents before this summer, but her grandfather is very sick, so her mother came to make peace.

In Last Chance, her grandparents run a Chinese restaurant, which has been in the family for more than one hundred years. As Maizy spends time with her Opa, he begins telling her the story of his grandfather, Lucky, and how he came to America and started running this very restaurant. Maizy also does her own research about some pictures up in the restaurant. They turn out to be pictures of “paper sons” who immigrated to America under fake papers, but got help getting on their feet with Lucky in the Golden Palace restaurant.

In the present, Maizy needs to get her bearings and make some summer friends. And then the giant wooden bear that’s been standing in front of the restaurant gets stolen, with a nasty note with racial slurs left in its place. Can Maizy get the bear back and figure out who did it? Maizy also spends time getting to know her grandparents — and writing better fortunes for the fortune cookies that everyone expects in a Chinese restaurant.

This book has a nice weaving together of the past and the present. Lucky’s story is told by Maizy’s Opa in short bits that keep you — and Maizy — wanting more. And she ends up proud of her family and their place in America.

LisaYee.com
rhcbooks.com

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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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