Blending engaging, energetic illustrations with an accessible plot and appealing characters, acclaimed cartoonist Michael Fry offers a refreshing new take on some timeless issues in middle school in The Odd Squad: Bully Bait. Nick has got to be THE shortest twelve-year old on the planet. Well, at least the shortest in Emily Dickinson Middle School. Being short isn’t always bad...at least when the school bully Roy stuffs Nick in his locker, it’s a roomy fit. But then being short isn’t Nick’s only problem.
Nick’s mom and dad have split up. Roy regularly terrorizes him at school. He doesn’t really fit in anywhere, not even with the Unsociables. Worst of all, Becky, his would-be girlfriend has begun hanging out with the abominable Roy! Not everything is rotten though, like Mr. Dupree, the seriously weird janitor who quotes Shakespeare and tells strange truths disguised as lies. Then there’s his mom and Memaw who love him. Best of all, Nick has a cool virtual alter-ego, Max. Max gets to torment Roy through texts and is Becky’s virtual BFF. Nick’s school counselor, Dr. Daniels, has had enough of the bullying. She’s recruited Nick and two other misfits, Molly and Karl to join the lamest club ever - Safety Patrol. Molly, the tallest girl in school, and Karl, the weirdest, aren’t prime friend material as far as Nick is concerned. They have a common cause, though, and together the three devise a plan to stand up to Roy. In the process, Nick learns some surprising information about Roy – and about himself.
Fry takes on a potentially problematic combination of delicate issues in Bully Bait, including both physical and virtual bullying, "peer allergies", challenging family situations and more. What he delivers is a story that is humorous and light, without sacrificing realism or a powerful underlying message. Look for the second installment in The Odd Squad series in September.
In One Gorilla: A Counting Book, illustrator Anthony Browne takes the reader through a bevy of primates. A one-time Children’s Laureate of the United Kingdom, Browne draws on his lifelong fascination with gorillas and apes of all sizes. Using his signature strokes and employing the technique of varying dry and wet brushes, each page becomes a lifelike, head-on portrait of the featured creatures. Generous white space keeps the focus on the intense, breathtaking images of monkeys, chimps, and orangutans, among others. Browne reminds us of our own relationship to this group of animals with an arresting self-portrait, followed by a double-paged spread of diverse humans: “All primates. All one family.”
Two-time Caldecott medalist Chris Raschka takes a familiar childhood rite of passage and infuses it with his trademark watercolors in Everyone Can Learn to Ride a Bicycle. Raschka has said that when formulating ideas for his books, he is very influenced by events that took place in his own childhood. In this case, a young girl and her father first go to choose a bike. Then, she haltingly goes through the stages of becoming a proficient rider, helped along with words of encouragement. Readers are urged on by the fluid illustrations that mimic the forward energy of a bike in motion. A final parenthetical grace note after she has finally mastered the skill will bring a smile to every adult reader's face.
Gingersnap, by Patricia Reilly Giff, introduces Jayna and her brother, Rob, who are living in upstate New York in 1944. Their parents were killed in a car accident, and Rob, a Navy man, was able to remove Jayna from foster care to create their little family. Both are wonderful cooks, with Jayna specializing in soups, and they dream of owning a restaurant of their own one day.
But World War II is still raging in the Pacific and Rob gets called to duty, leaving Jayna in the care of their landlady, Celine. Between Celine’s falling hairpieces and constant harping on good manners, Jayna can’t imagine a worse guardian. When a telegram arrives informing her that Rob’s ship has sunk and he is missing, a distraught Jayna decides to run away. She needs to get to Brooklyn to find a woman named Elise, who may just be her grandmother. Elise operates a bakery named Gingersnap--which is coincidentally Jayna’s nickname. Jayna packs her bag, an old recipe book, and her turtle named Theresa. She is guided on the journey by the helping hand of a partially visible girl ghost who first appeared when Rob shipped out.
Jayna meets Elise and becomes part of the fabric of her Brooklyn neighborhood. As Jayna gets to know Elise, she longs for this wonderful, gentle woman to be her grandmother. The two work together and Jayna’s soups become a popular fixture at the bakery. These simple, yet yummy sounding soup recipes appear between each chapter and reflect Jayna’s mood and situation. Jayna’s voice is real and while the setting is historical, the separation of families and feelings of displacement are easily understood today. As Jayna struggles to maintain hope for her brother and find a family, readers rooting for this spirited little girl will be delighted with the last recipe in the book - Welcome Home Soup.
The Critter Club is a newly published series for the brand new First Chapter book reader. The first in the series, Amy and the Missing Puppy, by Callie Barkley, introduces four friends (Amy, Ellie, Liz and Marion) at their weekly sleepover party just before spring break. While her three friends have cool plans over the vacation week, Amy is left to hang out in her mother’s animal clinic reading Nancy Drew books. When a neighbor’s puppy goes missing, Amy gets inspiration from the classic girl sleuth she's reading and investigates on her own. Luckily, her three friends’ plans are altered so they can assist Amy with her case. Barkley uses simple yet descriptive language to engage the reader and make the story interesting, but not too complicated. With adorable illustrations by Marsha Riti and big, simple text, (as well as charming stories about friendship and animals), The Critter Club series is a great starter series for the young reader. Ellie’s story is next in All About Ellie.
Introducing a new line of fairy books told from the human side! Disney’s Never Girls series transports four girls to Pixie Hollow. In certain circumstances, when Never Land gets too close to our world and at just the right time, "Clumsies" (as the fairies like to call humans) can visit Never Land. In a Blink, by Kiki Thorpe, is the first title in the series. Kate, Lainey and Mia are playing soccer in the backyard, when a blink-talent fairy pops into the garden. Mia’s little sister Gabby still believes in fairies, so when Prilla blinks in front of her, Gabby catches hold and all four girls are plopped into Pixie Hollow. The girls meet Tinker Bell and the other Disney fairies as they enlist their help to get back home. Fans of the Disney Fairies series will love this extension of the series, and it’s perfect for readers who devoured Daisy Meadows’ Rainbow Magic fairy books.
In Goldilocks and Just One Bear, a bear lost in the big city stumbles into the apartment of an absent human family. Confused, hungry, and tired, he samples three types of “porridge” (including a bowl of cat food – “too crunchy”), sits on three “chairs” (one of which is a cactus), and sleeps in three beds (he finds the bubble bath “too frothy”). When the family returns, the mama human and the bear are in for a big surprise – and so is every reader with the great good fortune to read this charming book. Leigh Hodgkinson’s sketchy, retro-modern illustrations pack every page with humorous detail and covetable interior design.
Not all Goldilocks stories are guaranteed to have a happy ending. In Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs, Mo Willems sets up a more ominous premise. As the book begins, Mama Dinosaur rubs her hands together in nefarious fashion: "I SURE HOPE NO INNOCENT LITTLE SUCCULENT CHILD HAPPENS BY OUR UNLOCKED HOME WHILE WE ARE… uhhh… SOMEPLACE ELSE!" she hollers, preparatory to tiptoeing out of the house to hide in the nearby bushes with toothy Papa Dinosaur and a dinosaur visiting from Norway. The reader’s brain automatically supplies the classic version of the Goldilocks tale, so that the two stories, old and new, play simultaneously like melody and harmony.
Newbery Award-winning author Karen Cushman has returned to children’s literature with an exceptionally well-crafted tale. In Will Sparrow’s Road, Cushman departs from her characteristically self-sufficient heroines, instead casting a young boy into the role of survivor/protagonist. Will’s is a story of survival, of unlikely friendships and self-discovery and what it means to find one’s place in the world. Runaway Will Sparrow wasn’t always a liar and a thief. There’d been a time when he’d been the village schoolmaster’s son, with a mother who smelled of lavender. That was before his mother abandoned him and his drunken father traded him to an innkeeper for ale. Escaping the innkeeper and his threats, Will finds himself on the road, penniless, hungry and alone. But the road, as life, is not a solitary one and Will soon finds himself in the mixed company of scoundrels and tricksters, the marginally honest and the roughly kind.
When chance brings him to the Oddities and Prodigies tent at a local fair, Will finds himself in a most peculiar company. A disgruntled dwarf, a girl with the face of a cat, a pig named Duchess, and other individuals strange to Will’s experience round out the motley band. Things are not always as they seem however, and soon Will finds himself discerning villains and friends from the most unlikely of quarters.
Devotees of Cushman’s previous historical fiction for children, such as Matilda Bone and The Midwife’s Apprentice, will not be disappointed in this spirited new coming of age story set in Elizabethan England. With her keen eye for detail and meticulous historical research, Cushman paints a realistic depiction of that world, never attempting to sugarcoat the hard-won lot of her characters. Recommended for readers who have enjoyed Avi’s Crispin series, and similar historical tales.
Books about shy children often fail to hit the mark. They treat shyness as something to be overcome, or as a reaction to stress. Eileen Spinelli’s When No One is Watching takes an opposite, celebratory position – a funky little girl tells us how she acts when she is alone “I sing like a bird and I swing to the sky,” and when she’s not: “I hide like the cat alongside the big chair” in rhyming text that swings along with her. Her family and friends don’t appear to be pressuring her to interact, and while she is subdued in the middle of a crowd, she is certainly a happy child. Her “best friend Loretta’s shy, too” and she describes the ways that they have fun together.
If this were merely an affirming, positive book about a shy child, it would be a nice find. However, illustrator David A. Johnson’s pen and ink and watercolor art makes each two-page spread a dance of mood and expressive gesture. His elegant lines describe movement with economy and grace, and show off every exuberant contortion of our shy little girl’s active inner life.
The renowned author of African literature, Chinua Achebe, has died in Boston at the age of 82. He is best-known for his seminal 1958 novel Things Fall Apart, read by millions worldwide, and featured in the curriculum and reading lists of countless high schools and universities. This novel follows the life of Okonkwo, a proud Igbo man living in turn of the 19th century Nigeria, and the cultural changes that he must face and accept as British colonialism takes hold of the area and the only life he knows. Achebe also wrote a number of follow-up novels to this groundbreaking story. Confined to a wheelchair for the past twenty years following a car accident, he lived in the United States for the last two decades of his life, and was a professor of African Studies at Brown University in Providence.
Achebe also was a strong proponent of the rights of the people living in the once-breakaway Nigerian state of Biafra. His book There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra was published last year. Explaining the Nigerian civil war that took place in the late 1960s, this mélange of memoir and history reminded the world of an oft-forgotten war. Achebe also wrote an allegorical folktale which was republished last year with Mary GrandPré's illustrations. How the Leopard Got His Claws tells the story of a short-lived coup and the resulting return of the original power players, in terms that are understandable for all ages.
Two new picture books celebrate our interaction with waterfowl. In the engaging, wordless Flora and the Flamingo, written and illustrated by Molly Idle, a young girl tries to emulate a balletic flamingo. Each beautifully illustrated spread shows the ease with which the bird poses, leaps, and dances. Meanwhile, Flora does her best to mimic the flamingo’s every move, some efforts more successful than others. The retro style of the illustration works well, and the generous use of white space on each page, some of which have extra flaps and fold-outs, make for an enjoyable read. A final splashdown between the two new friends embodies joy.
Lucky Ducklings, written by Eva Moore and illustrated by Nancy Carpenter, is based on a true event that occurred on Long Island. A mother duck has inadvertently lost her ducklings down a storm drain, and townsfolk must come to their rescue. Thankfully, onlookers to the scene recognize the ducklings’ peril (and the mother duck’s panic), and take action. Notably similar in some ways to Robert McCloskey’s classic Make Way for Ducklings, this title even gives a knowing nod to the earlier title in a scene near the book’s close. Carpenter’s warm illustrations capture the pastoral nature of the setting against the fluster and alarm of the situation.
While most picture books tell a story, few cover the expanse of time of Building Our House, written and illustrated by Jonathan Bean. Based on Bean’s own childhood experiences, the book details, step-by-step, the process his family embarked upon to build their home in the countryside. There are no shortcuts here – this is not a book about moving where boxes are suddenly unpacked and the finished home unveiled in a final two-page spread. Instead, the toil and trouble of moving and living in a temporary shelter is detailed. Similarly, the arduous progression of leveling the earth, creating a foundation, constructing a framework, and finishing the outside of the structure are all included. It is all worth it, of course, and the helping hands described bring a smile to the reader.
This is a joyful, fast-paced book, celebrating immediate and external family and the community at large. The subtle passing and order of the seasons is an added learning benefit for readers. The excitement of the large machinery, warm feelings of being able to pitch in (even as a small boy) and the sense of accomplishment at the finished product, is all palpable. An author’s note at the end describes his memories of the eighteen-month process. It also outlines how he received recollection assistance from his family and their photos of the worksite as it went from empty site to the family’s new home. Construction-, tool-, and machinery-loving kids will enjoy Building Our House, and demand many rereads as they find additional objects and activities in each illustration.