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.
For over seven decades, generations of young readers have delighted in the stories of Henry, Jessie, Violet and Benny, known collectively as The Boxcar Children. But before four orphans found their way from an abandoned boxcar to a new life with their loving grandfather, they had another life and adventures yet untold. In The Boxcar Children Beginning: The Aldens of Meadow Fair Farm, Newbery Medal-winning author Patricia MacLachlan offers a new beginning to a classic series.
The Alden family of Meadow Fair Farm is not wealthy, but they have always managed. What they lack in economy they balance with the support of strong family ties and good humor. Readers will be charmed by the gentle tone and tranquil setting of the farm life and the new friends encountered as the Alden children enjoy their last season at home before embarking on a more challenging journey. MacLachlan possesses an uncanny gift for mirroring the voice of Gertrude Chandler Warner. Her narration and characterizations strongly reflect the simple, straightforward and unassuming style of the original. Those who have read any of the nineteen volumes of The Boxcar Children will be struck by the similarity of style between the two authors.
Her ability to engage young readers without overwhelming them is particularly evident in this story. The Boxcar Children Beginning prequel serves as a wonderful introduction to the rich and bountiful series, while neatly avoiding the hazard of saddening young readers when it comes to the reason for their leaving the farm. The transition from life on the farm to life in the boxcar is made all the smoother by MacLachlan’s inclusion of a continuation teaser, borrowed from the original first volume. This prequel is recommended both for younger readers who have yet to enjoy the beloved series, and for current fans curious about the children’s life before the boxcar.
Newbery Medal winner Clare Vanderpool returns with a coming-of-age tale sprinkled with magic and adventure in Navigating Early, set at the end of World War II. Jack Baker’s mother has suddenly died, and his military dad uproots him from Kansas to an all-boys boarding school in Maine. While feeling like a fish out of the very water so prevalent on this campus, Jack does befriend Early Auden, an unusual boy who seems to have his run of the school. Early is an orphan whose brother was a superstar at the school but whom everyone (except Early) believes to have died in the war.
As the two get to know one another, it is clear that while Early may be quirky, even obsessive; he definitely has a gift for numbers. He sees colors in numbers and fashions a story about the number Pi. Early shares his story of Pi with Jack, and Jack agrees to accompany Early on his quest for his missing brother and a legendary great black bear along the Appalachian Trail. Early’s Pi story is filled with pirates, volcanoes, and extraordinary escapades. Oddly, the boys’ journey parallels Pi’s story, as they encounter similar characters and excitement along the Trail. The two travel by land and sea all while overcoming obstacles and learning more about other and themselves.
As they complete this mission together and navigate dangerous paths, each realizes the power of his personal connections and that sometimes what you are looking for isn’t always what you find. Vanderpool masterfully weaves the story of the boys’ quest with the tale of Pi into a quickly moving narrative with beautiful language and mystical overtones. This stunning novel is homage to the power of stories, the importance of personal journeys, and the power of our individual constellations.
Children’s literature is a booming business, and with good reason. As a genre, it is among the most densely populated with high quality, richly developed stories – new classics in the making. And yet, amidst this abundance of new literary treasures, have you found yourself pining for the pastoral tales of Beatrix Potter and Kenneth Grahame? Do you fear that children’s classics of a bygone era are in danger of becoming bygone themselves? Newbery Honoree Jacqueline Kelly and illustrator Clint Young put such fears to rest in a new masterpiece: Return to the Willows.
Both a sequel and homage to Grahame’s time-honored The Wind in the Willows, author Kelly has created a joyful continuance to the collective adventures of the original author’s beloved characters, Toad, Mole, Ratty, and others. Demonstrating a keen sense of Grahame’s voice and whimsical style, Kelly succeeds in deftly merging Grahame’s attractive setting and fanciful characters with her own conversational and lively style of narration. The result is a jubilant new adventure in the style of the original, rendered uniquely accessible to a 21st-century audience.
Because of its playful tone and engaging language, Kelly’s Return to the Willows shines as a read-aloud and is best enjoyed as shared reading. Some of the words may be challenging for younger readers, who may wish to follow along looking at the lush pictures as an adult reads aloud. Recommended for fans of pastoral, anthropomorphic tales, in the tradition of Beatrix Potter and Kenneth Grahame. Longing for read-alikes? Kelly is not the only author revisiting the classics. Readers who find they are craving similar titles will also enjoy Emma Thompson’s tribute to Beatrix Potter in The Further Tale of Peter Rabbit.