Review of 1 Smile 10 Toes, by Nelleke Verhoeff

1 Smile 10 Toes

by Nelleke Verhoeff

Barefoot Books, 2021. 24 pages.
Review written December 10, 2021, from my own copy, purchased via amazon.com
Starred Review
2022 Mathical Book Prize Winner, PreK

1 Smile 10 Toes is now one of my favorite board books. As with many board books, this one is part toy. All the pages except the last one are split in two, featuring a friendly imaginary animal all the same width in the middle. So you can turn parts of pages to mix and match the tops and bottoms and create many different kinds of creatures.

But the learning part is that each half-page has something to count. The only text is a numeral with the body part being featured. Some examples on top are 8 Feathers, 7 Curls, 3 Beaks, 5 Eyelashes, 4 Ears, 10 Spikes. Some examples on the bottom are 8 Toes, 9 Claws, 4 Feathers, 10 Hooves, 2 Thighs, 9 Fingers.

You can tell from the examples, the author didn’t worry about being conventional. I imagine that adults will get tired of counting things for kids long before a child will get tired of looking at these pages. I remember as a small child being fascinated with mix-and-match books, and this one has the additional bonus of teaching counting.

There’s no order to the number of things featured – all the numbers between 1 and 10 are featured, but in random order, which works well with the mix-and-match theme. You might want to wait to use it with a kid who knows that having 4 ears is silly.

No matter what, it’s a lovely way to give a small child endless things to count.

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Review of The Genius Under the Table, by Eugene Yelchin

The Genius Under the Table

Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain

by Eugene Yelchin

Candlewick Press, 2021. 201 pages.
Review written December 2, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review
2022 Capitol Choices selection
2022 Sidney Taylor Honor Book

Eugene Yelchin tells us his story of growing up in Leningrad under the Soviet regime. The characters in his story are larger than life, whom we meet on the first page, loudly complaining about American tourists cutting in front of them in the line to get into Lenin’s mausoleum.

Yevgeny was only six years old in that incident and was somewhat overwhelmed by seeing Lenin’s mummy. Their family lived in a cramped one-bedroom apartment and the only place for Yevgeny to sleep was under his grandma’s big table. He liked the private space under the table, and used the bottom of the table to draw pictures.

His mother worked for the Vaganova Ballet Academy, and was obsessed with Mikhail Barishnikov, the academy’s most famous graduate. This obsession gets woven through the book, as his mother wishes Yevgeny had talent like Misha. And their family’s discussion of the likelihood of him defecting gets their own building’s spy appointed to accompany him on his trip to Canada.

Yevgeny’s big brother Victor has talent – he’s a champion figure skater. But what can Yevgeny do? He fakes interest in ballet to please his mother, but that’s not going to work out very well.

Then propaganda starts coming on the radio and even among their neighbors against Jews. Eugene’s child’s perspective of all these events is both funny and poignant. And all of it is illustrated with his drawings – which he tried to reproduce from what he drew under his grandma’s table.

The book ends rather abruptly, after a very sad event. He tries to make it hopeful, and I know he ended up leaving Soviet Russia, but I wish the book had given a hint of how he got there.

Overall, this book is packed with humor and insight. A fun look for kids at a different world – behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War.

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Review of Furia, by Yamile Saied Méndez

Furia

by Yamile Saied Méndez

Algonquin Young Readers, 2020. 357 pages.
Review written October 17, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review
2020 Cybils Award Winner
2021 Pura Belpré Young Adult Author Medal Winner

Furia is set in Argentina, telling the story of 17-year-old Camila, who dreams of being a soccer star. Her father played soccer until an injury stopped his career, and her older brother has recently gone professional. But her family doesn’t think that girls should play soccer, so she has to keep her play secret. However, when they win their league championship, she’s going to need her parents’ permission to play in the South American tournament.

Meanwhile, her childhood friend Diego has come back to town. Her family doesn’t know that things got romantic between them before he joined an Italian professional soccer team. That spark is still there. Diego, and apparently everyone else, thinks that she should give up her own dreams and go back with him to Italy. But even though Camila cares about him, she’s got a fire inside and wants to follow her own path.

Along with that story, there are undercurrents about women’s rights in Argentina, domestic violence, and expectations for women. Camila has to navigate all of this while trying to get attention for her skills. She dreams of going to America, where women can play professional soccer.

But meanwhile, how does she navigate all the secrets she’s keeping?

I love the way the book starts, setting up the framework of the setting and Camila’s people:

Lies have short legs. I learned this proverb before I could speak. I never knew exactly where it came from. Maybe the saying followed my family across the Atlantic, all the way to Rosario, the second-largest city in Argentina, at the end of the world.

My Russian great-grandmother, Isabel, embroidered it on a pillow after her first love broke her heart and married her sister. My Palestinian grandfather, Ahmed, whispered it to me every time my mom found his hidden stash of wine bottles. My Andalusian grandmother, Elena, repeated it like a mantra until her memories and regrets called her to the next life. Maybe it came from Matilde, the woman who chased freedom to Las Pampas all the way from Brazil, but of her, this Black woman whose blood roared in my veins, we hardly ever spoke. Her last name got lost, but my grandma’s grandma still showed up so many generations later in the way my brown hair curled, the shape of my nose, and my stubbornness – ay, Dios mío, my stubbornness. Like her, if family folklore was to be trusted, I had never learned to shut up or do as I was told.

yamilesmendez.com
AlgonquinYoungReaders.com

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Review of Lia & Luís: Who Has More?

Lia & Luís

Who Has More?

by Ana Crespo
illustrated by Giovana Medeiros

Charlesbridge, 2020. 32 pages.
Review written February 26, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review
2021 Mathical Book Prize Winner, ages 2-4

This picture book from Charlesbridge’s “Storytelling Math” series is a lovely way to get small children thinking about quantity, and it’s cross-cultural, too.

Luís often brags to his sister Lia. When they each choose their favorite Brazilian snack from their Papai’s store, Luis is quick to brag that he has more. His bag is bigger.

But what if you count what they have? What if you count something different?

When Lia finally comes up with the idea to measure the treats, she can make a strong case that she has more – and a way to make them equal.

This puts the simple idea of measurement and quantity into a situation that small children will find compelling. Because you always want to have more than your brother. It’s an important early math concept, and it’s a good story.

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giovanamedeiros.com
charlesbridge.com

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Review of All Thirteen, by Christina Soontornvat

All Thirteen

The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team

by Christina Soontornvat

Candlewick Press, 2020. 280 pages.
Review written March 1, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review
2021 John Newbery Honor Book
2021 Robert F. Sibert Honor Book
2021 YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Finalist
2021 Orbis Pictus Award Honor Book

Wow! I had checked this book out but had decided not to read it, because it’s long, and I thought learning about an incident faraway on the other side of the world wasn’t all that compelling. I’m so glad that watching it win Honor after Honor at the Youth Media Awards – including Newbery Honor, which is rare for nonfiction – convinced me that I was mistaken and should take another look. And author Christina Soontornvat won an incredible two Newbery Honors in the same year, also getting one for her novel A Wish in the Dark.

I was so glad I did. Christina Soontornvat tells the complete story of the thirteen boys on the Thai soccer team who got trapped in a cave and had the whole nation, even the world, rally round to save them. Having read the book, I now understand how they got trapped – the treacherous geology that brought rainwater suddenly and unexpectedly into the cave. I also understand what an incredibly difficult task it was to rescue them – the people in charge honestly thought five to eight of the boys would die.

What I remembered about the news event was that one rescuer – a Thai Navy SEAL – did die in the rescue process. I now understand why cave diving is so much more treacherous than open sea diving and how that could have happened, even to an expert diver.

The author was visiting family in Thailand when the boys got trapped, so she was able to express and understand what the people there were thinking and feeling about the rescue, and how hundreds of people pitched in to help without pay.

It was an international team that saved the boys, including American Navy SEALS and British cave divers. But the author tells about the many Thai people that were involved, including those who worked to divert streams flowing into the cave and drain water coming out of the cave, which was also crucial to making the rescue possible.

Believe it or not, I was so taken up with this story, I dreamed about it one night when I was in the middle of the book!

This book is long, with lots of text, but the text is broken up with photographs or charts or sidebars on almost every spread. This is more for middle school or high school readers than younger kids, but whoever picks it up, once you start reading, you’re going to be drawn in.

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Review of Everything Sad Is Untrue, by Daniel Nayeri

Everything Sad Is Untrue

(a true story)

by Daniel Nayeri

Levine Querido (Chronicle Books), 2020. 356 pages.
Review written February 16, 2021, from a library book
Starred Review
2021 Michael L. Printz Award Winner

I felt like I scored when this won the Printz Award. A friend had recently recommended it highly, so I had it checked out already, and didn’t have to wait to get it on hold. Even with that strong recommendation and winning the top award for Young Adult books, I was not disappointed when I read this book, and I agree with the acclaim.

The subtitle says this is a true story, but it’s presented as fiction. We learn at the back that the author told the story of his life as a refugee from his own perspective when he was twelve. Since he wasn’t able to verify facts, he went with his memories and changed some details – and called it fiction.

The style makes this book memorable and delightful. He writes it, telling the reader the story, as his younger self told stories to his class when he was twelve. To give you the idea, I’ll show you the beginning:

All Persians are liars and lying is a sin.

That’s what the kids in Mrs. Miller’s class think, but I’m the only Persian they’ve ever met, so I don’t know where they got that idea.

My mom says it’s true, but only because everyone has sinned and needs God to save them. My dad says it isn’t. Persians aren’t liars. They’re poets, which is worse.

Poets don’t even know when they’re lying. They’re just trying to remember their dreams. They’re trying to remember six thousand years of history and all the versions of all the stories ever told.

In one version, maybe I’m not the refugee kid in the back of Mrs. Miller’s class. I’m a prince in disguise.

If you catch me, I will say what they say in the 1,001 Nights. “Let me go, and I will tell you a tale passing strange.”

That’s how they all begin.

With a promise. If you listen, I’ll tell you a story. We can know and be known to each other, and then we’re not enemies anymore.

I’m not making this up. This is a rule that even genies follow.

In the 1,001 Nights, Scheherazade – the rememberer of all the world’s dreams – told stories every night to the king, so he would spare her life.

But in here, it’s just me, counting my own memories.

And you, reader, whoever you are. You’re the king.

I’m not sucking up, by the way. The king was evil and made a bloody massacre of a thousand lives before he got to Scheherazade.

It’s a responsibility to be the king.

You’ve got my whole life in your hands.

And I’m just warning you that if I’m going to be honest, I have to begin the story with my Baba Haji, even if the blood might shock you.

But don’t worry, dear reader and Mrs. Miller.

Of all the tales of marvel that I could tell you, none surpass in wonder and coolness the one I am about to tell.

That gives you an idea of the style, which continues the entire book. In a somewhat rambling but completely charming way, Khosrou, who was renamed Daniel so Americans could pronounce it, tells the story of his Persian forebears and life in Iran, how his mother became a Christian and they had to flee, and how things are completely different now in Oklahoma.

But that summary doesn’t convey the power and poignancy of this story.

His mother is portrayed as the hero of the book – utterly unstoppable. The stories inside the book range from tragic and frightening, including their time as refugees before they got permission to come to America, to more garden-variety encounters with unkind kids in Oklahoma, to mythic tales of Daniel’s ancestors. He was a small child when he had to leave his home country and extended family behind, and he conveys that child’s perspective.

He also weaves themes through the narrative so that I want to read it again to see what I didn’t catch the first time. I think next time, I’ll listen to an audiobook, because that will suit the style perfectly.

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Review of Can You Crack the Code? by Ella Schwartz, illustrated by Lily Williams

Can You Crack the Code?

A Fascinating History of Ciphers and Cryptography

by Ella Schwartz
illustrated by Lily Williams

Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2019. 118 pages.
Review written December 14, 2020, from a library book
Starred Review
2020 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#6 General Children’s Nonfiction
2021 Mathical Honor Book, Grades 6-8

I’ve always thought codes and ciphers are fascinating, from the time I was a kid right up to the present when I made some videos showing how to make interesting ciphers using mathematical concepts.

When I made the videos last Spring when the library was closed for the pandemic, I didn’t find too many current books on making codes, but that situation has been remedied. This book is a nice solid selection to fill in that gap. Written for elementary to middle school kids, it gives a history of encoded messages along with explanations of ciphers and codes the reader can use.

Each chapter has a message to decrypt, and the book ends with a message for the reader to solve and email the author if they figure it out. A few clues are given, and it’s a nicely appropriate historical code used.

The book starts with steganography – hiding a message in some way – and the Caesar cipher and continues with things like Benedict Arnold’s book cipher and Thomas Jefferson’s wheel cipher up through a puzzle encoded in a statue in front of CIA headquarters and the use of prime numbers in computer security.

Even when they get deep into the history of clandestine messages, they do give the readers chances to crack the codes.

There’s plenty here to get kids intrigued, and one thing I love about code-making is there are lots of jumping-off points from this book.

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lilywilliamsart.com
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Review of Before the Ever After, by Jacqueline Woodson, read by Guy Lockard

Before the Ever After

by Jacqueline Woodson
read by Guy Lockard

Listening Library, 2020. 2 hours, 15 minutes on eaudio
Review written January 4, 2021, from a library eaudiobook
Starred Review
2021 Capitol Choices selection
2021 Coretta Scott King Author Award Winner
2020 Sonderbooks Stand-out:
#8 Children’s Fiction

This is a novel in verse written from the perspective of twelve-year-old ZJ, talking about his Dad, a professional football player.

His Dad is a star, with a Super Bowl ring. Or at least he was – before. When ZJ goes through his memories, we learn that his Dad was also a wonderful, active, loving father. He did lots of things with ZJ and ZJ’s friends.

But then one day, he didn’t play a game they expected him to play. He started getting awful headaches, forgetting their names, and acting strangely. And they didn’t know what was going on. Different doctors had different ideas, but nothing was working.

The way the book covers “Before,” your heart breaks with ZJ when his Daddy starts to change.

Normally, I think I enjoy novels in verse more by seeing the poetry with my own eyes. It’s easier to catch what the author’s doing. In this case, I did enjoy listening to the warm voice of the narrator, and I did figure out it was a novel in verse before I looked at the book.

This is a heartbreaking tribute from a kid to his dad.

jacquelinewoodson.com
penguin.com/middle-grade

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Review of Julián Is a Mermaid, by Jessica Love

Julián Is a Mermaid

by Jessica Love

Candlewick Press, 2018. 36 pages.
Starred Review
Review written May 24, 2018, from a library book
2019 Stonewall Children’s Literature Award Winner
2018 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #6 Other Picture Books

Julián Is a Mermaid is a wonderful story told with magnificent illustrations. On the front end papers we see a young boy swimming underwater while his abuela looks on. Abuela and her four friends – all approximately Abuela’s age and body type – are in the pool, too, wearing swim caps and holding onto the edge.

The book still hasn’t started. On the title spread, we see Julián and Abuela walking to the train station, with three tall, beautiful women flamboyantly dressed as mermaids walking behind them.

The book officially begins on the train. The mermaids get on the train, too. The text reads:

This is a boy named Julián. And this is his abuela.
And those are some mermaids.

Julián LOVES mermaids.

One of the mermaids waves to Julián. We can tell that the big book he’s reading has a picture of a mermaid inside.

The next spreads show Julián’s imagination. He’s in the water. He kicks off all his clothes but his underwear. A swarm of fish sweeps past – and Julián has a tail! He’s a mermaid! Another big fish gives him a necklace.

But he’s pulled out of the dream when the train reaches their stop. The mermaids wave good-by.

At home, while Abuela is taking a bath, Julián wants to live in his imagination a little longer. He takes off his clothes except his underwear, makes a mermaid crown with plants and flowers (this part is all shown with pictures), puts on lipstick – and uses the fluffy lace curtain from the window to make a beautiful tail. Julián stands triumphant in the same pose as in the picture on the cover.

When Abuela comes out, she doesn’t exactly look happy. We can see Julián considering what he has done.

And then, Abuela, all dressed now, gives Julián a bead necklace to complete his outfit. They go out the door together.

We aren’t sure where they’re going – but as they walk, we see many people, all dressed as sea creatures.

“Mermaids,” whispers Julián.

“Like you, mijo. Let’s join them.

And Julián and Abuela end up walking along the beach as part of a long ocean parade, all sorts of people in wonderful costumes – and the mermaids from the train right in front of them.

On the back endpapers, we’ve got Abuela’s swim group again, but this time they’re all underwater and they have all grown tails. Julián the mermaid is swimming beneath them.

The first lovely thing about this book is the illustrations. They are exquisitely and beautifully done. (In fact, I would be so happy if this book won the Caldecott.) All the people are distinct characters, and the art carries the story in most of the book.

But what’s especially lovely is that nowhere at all is Julián told that a little boy shouldn’t imagine being a mermaid. Abuela looks askance at him for taking down her lovely lace curtain – but even that she goes with.

And I love, love, love the way she encourages his imagination by letting him join the parade of others dressed as he is.

And nobody puts any restrictions on this boy’s imagination.

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Review of Reawakening Our Ancestors’ Lines, gathered and compiled by Angela Hovak Johnston

Reawakening Our Ancestors’ Lines

Revitalizing Inuit Traditional Tattoing

gathered and compiled by Angela Hovak Johnston
with photography by Cora De Vos

Inhabit Media, Ontario, Canada, 2017. 70 pages.
Review written May 11, 2020, from a library book
2020 American Indian Youth Literature Young Adult Honor
Starred Review

I read this book because it won a 2020 American Indian Youth Literature Award Honor in the Young Adult category, and I’m glad I did.

This book tells the story of the Inuit Tattoo Revitalization Project, an effort begun by Angela Hovak Johnston to revive the traditional tattooing of the Inuit people. Here’s a small part of her explanation in the Introduction:

This eight-year project began with my personal journey to permanently ink myself with the ancient symbols that were worn by my Inuit ancestors. The last known Inuk woman in the Nunavut area with tattoos done the traditional way passed away in 2005; that is when my passion grew. Knowing she was the last inked Inuk woman, I strongly believed tattoos couldn’t become just another part of history that we only read about in books, so I pushed forward with my dream of having tattoos. I knew I had a role to play. It took me years of hard research and finding the right tattoo artist to do these markings on my face. Not giving up, in 2008, I finally had my first facial tattoos. Inuit traditional tattoos, almost lost as a result of missionaries and residential schools, have come back. While tattoos skip three generations in some families, through this project, we thankfully had the pleasure of inking a family of women who carried three generations of new tattoos.

This book documents a part of the project where Angela and her team met for five days in April 2016 at the Kugluktuk Heritage Visitor Centre in Kugluktuk, Nunavut, and gave traditional tattoos to the Inuit women who came.

The photographs by Cora De Vos, an Inuk photographer, make this book exceptional. Each participant gets a spread. On one side the woman explains the significance to her of the tattoos she received along with various pictures of receiving the tattoos or modeling the tattoos. On the opposite side, there’s a portrait of the woman with the finished tattoos, often in traditional Inuit clothing, and always looking beautiful and strong.

Each woman speaks for herself, which makes the text a little bit repetitive, since receiving the tattoos meant similar things to many of the women. But I did appreciate that all were given a voice and a moment to shine. All the women are truly beautiful and this project brings that out in such a lovely way.

The photos are so gorgeous, readers might be tempted to try to get similar tattoos for themselves, so there is an Author’s Note about cultural appropriation at the back – this project is going to focus on giving Inuit women the opportunity to receive the traditional tattoos first.

The book is full of hope and joy about Inuit women reclaiming their history and traditions. You can see their emotion in the photographs and hear the pride in their voices. This is a lovely thing for anyone of any ethnicity to witness, and I’m very glad I discovered this beautiful book.

inhabitmedia.com

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