Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction, Intermediate, picture books

Blacksmith’s Song: An entry into African-American folklore

Blacksmith’s Song, by Elizabeth Van Steenwyk/Illustrated by Anna Rich, (Feb. 2018, Peachtree Publishers), $17.95, ISBN: 978-1-56145-580-5

Recommended for readers 6-10

An enslaved boy realizes that the rhythm of his blacksmith father’s “song” – the hammer striking the anvil as he works – changes when he sends word to other slaves that it’s time to escape. He waits for it to be his family’s turn, but when his father falls ill, he takes matters into his own hands: for himself, his family, and the slaves who rely on his father’s message.

Inspired by stories from the Underground Railroad, Blacksmith’s Song gives readers a new entry into African-American folklore: some may have heard of the quilts and the messages they provided; some may know that dances and songs like “Wade in the Water” provided coded messages; now, we have the rhythm of the smith’s hammer. Anna Rich paints stunning portraits in oils: the forge’s flame and sparks; the grim slave catchers riding out in search of escaped slaves; the watchful eyes of the boy and his family, and the warm glow of the firelight as the boy takes up his father’s hammer for the first time. A good addition to historical fiction picture book collections and to readers interested in American folktales, particularly surrounding the Civil War-era South.

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Posted in Fiction, Intermediate, picture books, Realistic Fiction

Baseball is the great uniter in The Hometown All Stars series

A New Kid in School: Amira Can Catch! (The Hometown All Stars #4), by Kevin Christofora/Illustrated by Dale Tangeman, (March 2018, Clarens), $12.99, ISBN: 9780986349331

Recommended for readers 5-8

Amira is a new student in a Woodstock, New York classroom. She and her family are Syrian refugees, looking to start a new life in the States, and she’s a little shy and nervous. Luckily, Nick, the narrator of the story and the student Amira’s seated next to, is on it. He asks her if she needs help, and the two become fast friends. As the school day progresses, Nick learns about Amira’s life in the refugee camp; she tells him that three kids at the camp would have to share what amounts to one student’s lunch serving in the States, and that a refugee camp is where “families who have lost their homes and have nowhere else to go” live. At the end of the school day, Nick invites Amira to baseball practice and draws her a map, showing her how to get to the field, and Amira arrives to find even more friendly faces waiting for her. From here, the narrative shifts into a teamwork and baseball-focused story, with the Coach a positive, encouraging figure who keeps the kids motivated and learning. A floating baseball with game tips and thought-provoking questions appears throughout the book, and realistic but cartoony provide helpful illustrations for kids looking to improve their ballgame. A note at the end about what it means to be American emphasizes the diversity of American culture and there’s a list of new words learned in the book; mostly baseball-related. With detailed, yet easy-to-read text and appealing illustrations, this is a positive look at friendship, diversity, and teamwork, all connected by the love of baseball.

This is the fourth book in the Hometown All Stars series, and I think I’ll look into the others for my collection here at the library. It’s nice to see an upbeat, positive book where kids are open to meeting new people and learning about different cultures. The Hometown All Stars books are available in 13 languages, and you can check out other books in the series at the Hometown All Stars webpage.

Posted in Fiction, Fiction, Intermediate, Middle Grade

Fables from the Stables: Murray the Race Horse

Murray the Race Horse, by Gavin Puckett/Illustrated by Tor Freeman, (May 2018, Faber & Faber), $8.95, ISBN: 9780571334681

Recommended for readers 6-10

Murray is a sweet horse with big dreams: he wants to race, he wants a trophy, he wants the adulation of the fans, but there’s a big problem: Murray just can’t run that fast. He’s used as a service horse, and the other sleek, fast racing horses poke fun at him, but Murray gets his chance at greatness when Ned, one of the racing horses, is injured at the big Speed Saddle Cup race and Murray is pulled out of the crowd to compete in his place! Murray’s handed off to a stable boy for shoeing – but the stable boy puts the shoes on the wrong way, leaving Murray to run the race backwards! Is seeing things differently the key to Murray’s success?

Originally released in the UK in 2017, Murray is the first in author Gavin Puckett’s Fables from the Stables series, and is a short story, written in verse, and illustrated in full color. Murray is a sweet horse that kids will root for, and the storyline about seeing things differently, or trying a different strategy to change your luck, will appeal to parents, educators, and caregivers that may need some help explaining the concept. This can easily be a read-aloud or independent reading book. Give this to your horse story fans (get those Horse Diaries books on display) and your humor readers.

Posted in Fantasy, Fiction, Fiction, Humor, Intermediate, Middle Grade

Vivian French creates fun fairy tales!

The Cherry Pie Princess, by Vivian French/Illustrated by Marta Kissi, (March 2018, Kane Miller), $5.99, ISBN: 9781610677332

Recommended for readers 7-11

Peony is the youngest of her princess sisters. She’s also the one with manners, and who loves to read. When a baby brother is born, her parents are thrilled and demand a huge celebration, but Peony’s father – who may be a tyrant – only wants people who will give good gifts and who are the “right” kind of people at the party, which leaves out The Hag, a powerful witch who doesn’t take kindly to being ignored. It’s up to Peony to use her brains to save the town librarian and an aspiring court jester that her father locked in the dungeon, her baby brother, and the entire kingdom. No pressure!

Vivian French’s fairy tales are so much fun to read. They’ve got wonderful heroines and heroes, and a dramatis personae of dramatic foils that are generally (comically) awful people. In this case, Peony, who loves the library, borrows a cookbook and learns how to bake while her father has the librarian thrown in the dungeon for daring to speak directly to Peony. Who discovers this years later, when her own father locks her up for daring to talk back to him. It’s Peony’s book smarts and sense of decency that combine to help her take charge of the situation when The Hag shows up to cause trouble, and save the day. There’s humor, fun and diverse characters – the three good fairy godmothers appear to be African-American – and Marta Kissi’s entertaining black and white artwork make this a fun read for fantasy fans, princess fans, and readers who love a book with a message. Plus, there’s a talking cat and a librarian. So, bonus.

Props to Marta Kissi for nailing a picture of me at the end of a day at the library, without even knowing me:

 

The Adventures of Alfie Onion, by Vivian French/Illustrated by Marta Kissi, (March 2018, Kane Miller), $5.99, ISBN: 9781610677325

Recommended for readers 7-11

Alfie Onion could really have had a chip on his shoulder, and no one would blame him. He’s the eighth son of a seventh son, an inconvenience to his mother, who lavishes all her attentions on her seventh son of a seventh son, Magnifico. You see, his mother grew up obsessed with fairy tales, and was convinced that the seventh son of a seventh son was destined for greatness; Magnifico is his mother’s long-tail get-rich scheme. The thing is, Magnifico is a spoiled brat who pretty much knows how to eat. And that’s that. So when his mother pushes him off to start his great adventures, Magnifico takes Alfie (and his dog, Bowser) along to carry his luggage. Guess who the real hero is going to be?

I am so happy to read that these two books are the beginning of a new stand-alone series; they are so much fun to read and address modern-day problems in a fairy tale setting. Like The Cherry Pie Princess, Alfie Onion has a positive hero with overwrought, melodramatic antagonist foils. Alfie is always respectful and kind, where Magnifico is selfish and rude; when danger lurks, Magnifico expects Alfie to protect him: some hero! The humor is light and fun, with all the fantasy dressing: forests, trolls, talking birds and mice, a lovelorn ogress, a faithful dog, and a hero’s quest. Marta Kissi’s illustrations just add to the fun here, especially when the adventure takes a turn into an ogrish rubbish pit.

Do you have readers who love Whatever After? Grimmtastic Girls? Hand them these, and tell them to enjoy. Have boys who think fairy tales are for girls? First, tell them they’re clearly not reading the right fairy tales, and hand them these, too.

 

Posted in Fiction, Intermediate, picture books, Preschool Reads

June Picture Book Roundup

There are so many good books for Summer Reading hitting shelves in June! Let younger readers explore new worlds and meet new friends with some of these picture books.

Seven Pablos, by Jorge Luján/Illustrated by Chiara Carrer, Translated by Mara Lethem, (June 2018, Enchanted Lion Books), $17.95, ISBN: 9781592702534

Seven boys share the same name. Seven short vignettes share the stories of seven lives, taking readers from the copper mines in Chile to a refugee family living in Mexico, from a garbage dump in Peru to a streets of the Bronx, New York. Seven Pablos sheds light on the living conditions of children around the world in sparse, quietly powerful text. Graphite pencil art creates a dreamlike atmosphere for this lyrical story by Poet Jorge Luján.

Seven Pablos is deeply moving and continues to call attention to the plight of migrant and refugee families around the world. One scene expresses the rage these kids hold within them, as one Pablo tells a visiting poet that he wants to be a “big guy in a uniform” so he can “beat people up and get away with it”. A refugee Pablo recites a poem – in actuality, written by a 9-year-old Argentine child – where he imagines soldiers crushing roofs with their boots. Luján ends his story with the beautiful reminder that there are many Pablos in the world, and each one has a heart that beats with the rhythm of our world.

The Turtle Ship, by Helena Ku Rhee/Illustrated by Colleen Kong-Savage, (June 2018, Lee and Low Books), $17.95, ISBN: 9781885008909
Recommended for readers 6-12
This folk tale is based on Korean history. A boy named Sun-sin dreams of seeing the world with his pet turtle, Gobugi, and discovers his chance when the king announces a contest: design the best battleship to defend the land. The winner will receive ten bags of copper coins and the chance to travel with the royal navy. After a few failed attempts at a design, Sun-sin notices that his turtle is strong, slow, and steady, and decides that the best design will be based on Gobugi. At first, he’s laughed at in the king’s court, but when a cat tries to attack the turtle, the king and his court all see that there is something to the boy’s idea. Thus, the Korean Turtle Ships were created, and the boy grew to be famed Admiral Yi Sun-sin.
The story is best served by the incredible paper collage artwork, created using paper from all over the world. The art gives the story drama, color, and texture, and the story itself is as good for read-alouds as it is for independent reading. This is a nice addition to historical collections and cultural folktales. An author note on the Korean Turtle Ships provides some background on the legend of Yi Sun-sin and the Turtle Ship design.

Johnny, by Guido van Genechten, (June 2018, Clavis Publishing), $17.95, ISBN: 9781605373775

Recommended for readers 3-5

Johnny is an adorable spider with a secret to share, but everyone’s afraid of him! Wanna know his secret? It’s his birthday, and he wants to share his cake! This adorable book by Guido van Genechten is a good story to read when talking to kids about judging others based solely on appearances.

I have to admit, I needed to read this one a couple of times because I felt so bad for Johnny! It’s his birthday, and he’s all alone because everyone’s afraid of him! And then I figured it out: that’s the point. I mean, I know it was the point to begin with, but having Johnny celebrate with only the reader by the story’s end leaves a reader feeling badly – and that’s the time to talk about empathy. Ask kids how they would feel if people didn’t want to be near them because someone didn’t like the way they looked. Ask how they would feel if they had a birthday party and no one came! And then, for heaven’s sake, throw Johnny a birthday party: have some cupcakes and fruit punch, and sing Happy Birthday to the poor guy. He deserves it. Guido van Genechten’s cute, expressive, boldly outlined artwork is instantly recognizable and appealing to younger readers.

 

Swim Bark Run, by Brian & Pamela Boyle/Illustrated by Beth Hughes, (June 2018, Sky Pony Press), $16.99, ISBN: 9781510726963

Recommended for readers 3-7

Daisy the Bulldog is so proud of her humans, Brian and Pam, when they compete in triathlons. She wonders if she could train and compete like they do, and decides to enlist the help of her fellow doggie buddies, Rascal, Atticus, and Hobie, to hold their own Dog-Athlon! Daisy is full of energy at first, but when she starts getting tired, a familiar face at the finish line gives her the boost she needs!

Swim Bark Run is a cute book about physical activity, competition and cooperation, and determination. The digital artwork is bright and cute, giving the dogs happy, friendly faces and includes a nice amount of action as the pups train for their big day. There are positive messages about working together and encouraging one another. This is a cute additional add for readers who like animal books and books about physical fitness.

Seven Bad Cats, by Moe Bonneau, (June 2018, Sourcebooks Jabberwocky), $17.99, ISBN: 9781492657101

Recommended for readers 4-7

A child gets ready to go out on a fishing boat, but seven bad cats make progress very difficult. I love this rhyming, counting tale of seven cats who do what cats do best: get in the way! They eat from the traps, take naps on the oars and steal the child’s gloves, and generally make themselves a nuisance until the boat flips over, and the cats band together to save the day. The book counts up from one to seven until the boat flips everything over, including the story, and the countdown from seven back to one ends the fun. The watercolor artwork adds a nice, watery feel to this seafaring tale, and the cats are hilarious, using their whole bodies to get up to all sorts of no good; even appearing in mug shots on one page. They sprawl, they curl, they stretch, and they swim – they may not like it, but a cat’s gotta do what a cat’s gotta do! This one is a thoroughly enjoyable add to storytime and concept collections. Give this to your cat loving kids! (Also good for a readaloud with flannels or beanie babies.)

 

Finn’s Feather, by Rachel Noble/Illustrated by Zoey Abbot, (June 2018, Enchanted Lion), $17.95, ISBN: 9781592702398

Recommended for readers 4-8

In this touching story about grief, loss, and remembrance, a young boy named Finn finds a feather at his doorstep. It’s white, amazing, perfect. It has to be from his brother, Hamish, and Finn tells his mother and his teacher, who take a deep breath and smile; Finn doesn’t understand why they aren’t as excited as he is. His friend Lucas is, though: it’s got to be an angel’s feather, it’s so perfect, and the two friends take Hamish with them on the playground, running with the feather as if it were an additional friend. Finn uses the feather as a quill to write a note to Hamish that evening, and sets the envelope holding the letter in a tree, so the wind will carry it to Hamish.

Inspired by author Rachel Noble’s loss, this moving story about a sibling grieving and remembering is gentle, understanding, and an excellent book to have available for children moving through grief. The soft pencil artwork and gentle colors provide a calming, soothing feel to the story.

 

Ready to Ride, by Sébastien Pelon, (June 2018, words & pictures), $17.95, ISBN: 9781910277737

Recommended for readers 3-7

A young boy finds himself bored on a day home, until his mother sends him out to play. An imaginary friend joins him, and together, they learn to ride a bike! This is a fun, light story about imagination and getting outdoors to play. The imaginary friend is a big, white, two-legged figure – think yeti without the shag – wearing a pointy pink hat and protectively towers over the boy, helping him learn to ride the bike. When the boy heads home after a day of play, his new friend disappears, which is a bit of a letdown. Maybe he’ll show up again. There’s a “Certificate for a Super Cyclist” at the end of the book; a cute prize for kids who learn to ride. This one is an additional add if you’ve got kids who like bike-riding.

Posted in Fantasy, Fiction, Intermediate, picture books

Grab your passport! These picture books will take your imagination on an adventure!

An Atlas of Imaginary Places, by Mia Cassany/Illustrated by Ana de Lima, (March 2018, Prestel), $19.95, ISBN: 9783791373478

Recommended for readers 5-10

How do you not love a book that came together over coffee and carrot cake? An Atlas of Imaginary Places came together when author Mia Cassany and Ana de Lima did just that; talking about the places they pictured in their minds and dreams, they came up with “colors and languages for an atlas that would never exist… Or would it?” Bursting with color, islands, and mountains; with animals that change their coats every time someone sneezes, and volcanoes that spit lava made of bubble gum, the places in this atlas provide something new and exciting with each turn of the page.

This is the kind of book that begs for multiple readings. Every spread offers a new place with new wonders, and you’ll notice something new each time. There are cities, oceans, jungles, and islands waiting to be explored by readers who can get lost in their pages. Send your little ones to bed with a page or two, setting the stage for wonderful dreams, or ask your readers to add to the landscape and come up with their own exciting places and inhabitants. This is the kind of book that makes readers love reading; this is the kind of storytelling that sets the stage for creativity. Give this to your explorers and dreamers, and display with books like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, Adele in Sandland, or Wallpaper. An Atlas of Imaginary Places was originally released in Spain in 2016.

 

The Dangerous Journey, by Tove Jansson, (Apr. 2018, Drawn & Quarterly), $16.95, ISBN: 9781770463202

Recommended for readers 6+

Originally published in 1977 in Finland and translated to English in 2010, this Moomin adventure was the last picture book completed by beloved artist and author Tove Jansson. A young girl named Susanna is bored and irritable; her cat, being a cat, is curled up on the grass, enjoying the beautiful day, which seems to annoy Susanna even more. When a new pair of glasses just appears next to her, she tries them on and is transported to a fantastic land, where, though frightened, she sets off on a new adventure. She meets a group of fellow travelers who seem to know who she is: Hemulen (who readers familiar with Moomin will recognize), and friends from Moomin Valley:  Bob and Thingummy, Sniff, and Snufkin. Together, the group treads through surreal, creepy landscapes, braving volcanoes, storms, and monsters, until they reach Moomin Valley and safety.

The Dangerous Journey is a surreal adventure fit for kids and adults alike. The Dangerous Journey‘s rhyming text begs for a read-aloud, and Tove Jansson’s watercolor artwork appeals to the eyes and the imagination. The book’s final message also makes this a good graduation gift á la  Dr. Seuss’ Oh, The Places You’ll Go!: “Whether things turned out okay/She’s never going to know./When adventure comes your way/Enjoy it. Let it go.” This is a picture book classic to add to your collections; introduce it to readers of all ages who haven’t yet met the Moomins. You can meet the characters in Moomin, and see which character you’d be at the Moomin website.

 

Posted in Fiction, Intermediate, picture books

Art inspires storytelling in Anna and Johanna

Anna and Johanna, by Géraldine Elschner/Illustrated by Florence Koenig, (Apr. 2018, Prestel-Penguin/Random House), $14.95, ISBN: 9783791373454

Recommended for readers 5-10

Inspired by two of Dutch artist Jan Vermeer’s paintings, this story of two friends who discover a secret on their shared birthday spins a creative imagining and appreciation of art. Anna and Johanna are two girls, living in the 17th century, and celebrating their shared 12th birthday. Anna, the daughter of the master of the house, makes a lace collar for Johanna, the daughter of the housemaid. Johanna is making a lovely breakfast for Anna, complete with handmade chocolate. As the two prepare to spend their birthday together, Anna spies a note from her father, unveiling a secret about the two girls that brings them even closer together.

Vermeer’s paintings, “The Milkmaid” and “The Lacemaker“, inspired this story, as explained in the back matter, along with a discussion about Vermeer. The artwork is Vermeer-inspired, with beautiful blues, yellows throughout the story; the art looks hand-painted, with visible brushstrokes. I love how the text and artwork take Vermeer’s artwork and weave a story around it; while the story itself is inspired by “The Milkmaid” and “The Lacemaker”, guide readers to notice details from Vermeer’s Delft paintings, like “The Little Street” and “View of Delft“. The author and illustrator even draw an actual figure from Vermeer’s lifetime into the story, a painter named Carel Fabritius, and his work, “The Goldfinch“.

This isn’t a read-aloud book; there’s a nice amount of story to be told here. It is a wonderful addition to art history programs, where you can invite readers to create their own stories based on works of art. You can make it fun by bringing fandom into it! Show kids one of the many Star Wars mockups of Van Gogh’s Starry Night, for instance:

Source: MJTIllustrationLLC on Etsy

Or maybe a Sesame Street-style Great Wave Off Kanagawa is more your style:

 Source: Laughing Squid

The point is, art and imagination go hand-in-hand. Show kids that they can create a story from someone else’s story!