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.
Take a peek inside the mysterious and mischievous world of twins in three books for children with appeal for multiples and singletons alike. The nineteenth century counting rhyme “Over in the Meadow” inspired Ken Geist’s Who’s Who which puts the spotlight on twin animals. These six pairs of twins include calves, bunnies, monkeys, and fish and are featured in their natural habitats. Illustrator Henry Cole vividly depicts these landscapes in acrylic and colored pencil and moves from farmyard to jungle to bat cave. The memorable rhymes highlight the twins’ activities through the day and match the warm, detailed illustrations.
The Twins’ Blanket, written and illustrated by Hyewon Yum, shares the story of identical twin sisters who at age five are growing up and a little apart. The girls’ favorite blanket is no longer big enough for sharing, so Mom creates new blankets for each girl with pieces from the old. Yum does a fabulous job of differentiating between these twins, by giving each girl her own side of the book. It isn’t until the girls reach out to comfort each other that they cross over the center of the book. Yum, a twin herself, uses prints, colored pencil, watercolor, and other media in her bright illustrations, and makes great use of white space to complement the quiet, narrative text.
In Take Two: a Celebration of Twins, J. Patrick Lewis, the current Children's Poet Laureate teams with Jane Yolen to present more than forty poems about life as a twin. Sophie Blackall’s watercolor, pencil, and collage illustrations complement the varied poems which are divided into sections representing stages and milestones, and a final section features famous twins. Lewis is a twin himself and Yolen is the grandmother of twins, so the two are quite familiar with the world of doubles. Readers will also enjoy the “Twin Fact” feature found throughout, such as the Russian woman who was mother to sixteen sets of twins, seven sets of triplets, and four sets of quadruplets!
When was the day? Most grownups can hardly remember. There is a day for each of us when playing with dolls becomes babyish; when windwhooshing down a hill on your bike – your faithful steed! – can’t offer the mad thrill it used to do; a day when, inexplicably, you seem to outgrow your best friends. For Jack, that day is today.
Newbery Award winner Jerry Spinelli has written an unusual love story. Not a tale of boy and girl, but a tale of Kid and Kid-dom; of Jack and Hokey Pokey. In Hokey Pokey, there are no adults and there are no babies – there are only Kids and all the delicious experiences of being a Kid. For the littlest Newbies and Snotsippers all the way up to Groundhog Chasers and Big Kids, Hokey Pokey brims with the best that childhood has to offer. There, bikes roam wild until caught and tamed by a daring Kid. Boys and girls are mortal enemies, but mortality only extends as far as playing dead. Cartoons can be watched at any time of day and Jack and his amigos share the stuckfast bond of brotherhood. And until today, until things were different, Jack has relished it all.
Bittersweet and oddly restorative, Hokey Pokey will have fully as much as appeal for adults as for its intended middle grade audience. The thoughtful, almost metaphysical chapters will selectively draw in readers who are ready – those readers who are just reaching the outer limits of Kid-dom and those who have traveled far enough beyond to enjoy looking backward. It is a story of remembering what it was all about. It is a story about embracing what comes next.
The Theodore Seuss Geisel Award, named for beloved children's author/illustrator Dr. Seuss, is given by the American Library Association to the author and illustrator of the “most distinguished American book for beginning readers.” The 2013 medal winner is Up, Tall and High, written and illustrated by Ethan Long. Silly, brightly colored cartoon birds are the stars of this trio of brief stories that use broad humor to get across the meanings of the words up, down, tall, small, and high. Fold-out pages and flaps to lift make this a fun book for brand new readers, who will gain confidence as they quickly master basic sight words deftly illustrated with visual cues.
Three honor books have also been named. Well known author/illustrator Mo Willems was given the accolade for Let’s Go For a Drive!, starring his wildly popular characters Elephant and Piggie. Simple yet expressive cartoon drawings, color-coded speech bubbles, and an imaginative, laugh-out-loud storyline make this honor book a perfect choice for emerging readers. “Buttons come, and buttons go” in Pete the Cat and His Four Groovy Buttons, by illustrator James Dean, and author Eric Litwin, allowing for a counting down opportunity and a reminder to look on the bright side. Repetition, rhyme, bold colors, and a familiar feline character add to the appeal of this picture book.
Rounding out the list is Rabbit & Robot: The Sleepover, written and illustrated by Cece Bell. Following in the grand tradition of comically mismatched friends, this duo must find a way to compromise and give-and-take to get through their get-together. Bell’s humorous cartoon illustrations will engage new readers as they make their way through this dialogue-driven book, a great choice for children who have mastered the basics but are not yet ready for easy chapter books.