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I don’t tend to formally review picture books, but I’ve started adding more to my Goodreads tally, partly to keep track and partly because I’m having trouble reaching my reading goal for the year (well shy of my goal 200). Here are a few that I loved, sometimes just because they were my kind of quirky.

This is Not My HatThis is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen

Jon Klassen animals, what expressive eyes you have! I love the overall design of this book, the straightforward but so-funny text, the ending, and the tip of the hat (oh, I crack myself up) to I Want My Hat Back.

 

You Are StardustYou Are Stardust by Elin Kelsey

Part picture book, part science, part poetry. I can’t decide if the words or pictures are more wonderful – they coexist perfectly. It somehow manages to incorporate the big picture and the enticing details without feeling distracted. I’d recommend this to curious young minds and anyone who enjoys mesmerizing illustrations.

 

Step Gently OutStep Gently Out by Helen Frost

Gorgeous photographs and a lovely poem that complement each other nicely.

 

 

Olivia and the Fairy Princesses (Olivia)Olivia and the Fairy Princesses by Ian Falconer

Some picture book series become less inspired as they go on (I’m looking at you, Pete the Cat: Rocking in My School Shoes). Others, like Olivia, somehow manage to maintain their brilliance. Or is it just that I sympathize with Olivia a little too much? “If everyone’s a princess, then princesses aren’t special anymore! Why do they all want to be the same?” Exactly, Olivia. Exactly.

Bonus points for the inclusion of: The Little Match Girl, Martha Graham, non-sparkly princesses, matador pants, corporate malfeasance, and a warthog.

 

Big Little BrotherBig Little Brother by Kevin Kling

There are sweet, lovely, calming picture books…and then there are odd, quirky, bizarre ones. This one is definitely quirky, but also strangely sweet at the end. The pictures convey a lot of the humor here (speaking of quirky, it’s the same illustrator, Chris Monroe, as the Monkey with a Tool Belt books), but the text also cracked me up.

The narrator is a small but articulate kid who’s been outsized by his toddler brother. People are constantly assuming that the toddler is the older brother, but the younger guy also commits the usual crimes of touching his toys, following him, and dropping donut crumbs from his oversized fists.

The central action goes down at the Old Woman in the Shoe, “a place for kids to stay while moms shop.” Our narrator loves the play kitchen, where he can whip up a Thanksgiving dinner if he gets “straight to work.” When another kids tries to bully him out of his tasty plastic turkey, this affords our narrator opportunity to say things like “we are going to have Thanksgiving and we are going to enjoy it” while gritting his teeth. Fortunately, help is on the way and we’re off to our oddly endearing ending.

Recommended for preschoolers and up, especially if dry, quirky humor is your cup of tea.

 

Another BrotherAnother Brother by Matthew Cordell

If the thought of sheep in tight sweaters, suspenders, and 80s-style headbands cracks you up, or if you were ever an older sibling, this is a book for you.

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Son (The Giver, #4)Son by Lois Lowry

Perhaps it’s because this hit a more personal note than the previous companions/sequels, but I felt like this was an improvement over Gathering Blue and Messenger. I loved having a different view of the community that Jonas (and Claire) came from, especially all the little nods to things that major rereaders of The Giver would remember. When Claire felt apprehensive, I had an immediate flashback to the opening lines of The Giver, for example.

The structure is interesting – first we follow Claire as she becomes Gabe’s mother, then her life after she leaves the community, and then we switch to Gabe’s point of view as their stories come together. The three parts of the story feel distinct, and without having read the earlier companion books, the whole thing might feel disjointed and random. Actually, it does feel a little disjointed (especially the middle section, which I enjoyed anyway). I’m still not sure about the mechanics of the conclusion, although it did have a great emotional resonance. Overall, though, it was a satisfying conclusion that answered a lot of questions the earlier books left open. I’d definitely recommend it, especially to serious fans of The Giver and people who’ve read the companion books already (although you probably don’t need them fresh in your mind to enjoy this one).

Source: my public library

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I’m not quite sure what happened to the month of September…or June, July and August, for that matter. Although if you could see me right now, you might be able to figure out the answer to that question on your own. I’ve been putting a lot of my energy towards my latest from-scratch creation. Not a cake, not a pie, but a new, tiny human. He’ll need about four more months in the oven before it’s time to emerge.

Along with the effort of cooking this homemade creation come the piles and piles of books that, like a good little librarian, I want to read to keep myself informed. I thought I’d been doing well and felt on top of things until I realized that I can’t just read about childbirth and baby names, I need to keep right on with breastfeeding and baby care and general parenting because there’s no break! The baby doesn’t come out and then give you a break where you can read up on the next thing. Duh and yikes all at once. (Any book recommendations?)

There is also the search for a more spacious home – say, one with enough floor space for a baby to practice crawling without running into furniture every two feet. You can blame the hormones, but I’ve never had this much trouble finding a place to live. Fortunately, the hunt has paid off and we’re about to sign a lease on a tiny house with a yard. A yard! And a washer and dryer, hallelujah!

Oh, and in case I didn’t feel busy enough, I’m a first-round panelist for the Cybils this year! Last year’s second-round reading didn’t keep me busy enough, so obviously this year I need to go all out and sign up to read All the Books (well, all the middle grade fantasy and science fiction, at least). I’m super excited about it, and hopefully that will inspire me to post more regularly about the middle grade gems we’re reading! If you read children’s or YA books, go and nominate your favorites – you’ve got until October 15!

 

September always feels like the start of awards season – the time when people who are into children’s and YA books get serious about what they think should win awards. I haven’t read nearly as much as I’d hoped to (isn’t that always the case?) and in no way am I trying to make predictions about what will win. These are just my favorites, out of the books I’ve managed to consume so far. If you have a favorite that I don’t mention, please suggest it in the comments!

Newbery:

  • Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz. She’s already won once, but not for a novel. This one felt like a heavy hitter – tons of atmosphere, great characters, rich historical setting, and some fantastical elements. Top of my list, so far.
  • Liar and Spyby Rebecca Stead. Again, she’s already won once. Some books by previous winners don’t live up to the expectations, but I thought this had a lot of the strengths of When You Reach Me without feeling derivative.

Those are the two that feel completely deserving of a medal. A few others that have felt solid, but not quite as distinguished, are The Humming Room by Ellen Potter, See You at Harry’s by Jo Knowlesand Wonder by R.J. Palacio. These feel worth a look and some discussion.

Printz:

  • Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. That magical combination of superior writing and a story that I love, love, loved. I can’t imagine anything else this year beating this as my favorite for the award.
  • The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Yeah, it’s a tearjerker. But John Green has a way with characters and sharp dialogue.
  • Seraphina by Rachel Hartman. Fantasy! Dragons, like you’ve never seen them before! Oh, and great characters and world-building. Please give it an honor.
  • The Wicked and the Just by J. Anderson Coats. More historical fiction – characters you love to hate and a time period I was fascinated to learn about.

Any suggestions for me? You can check out the complete list of everything I’ve read this year to see what I’ve read that didn’t make the cut (so dramatic!)

Liar & SpyLiar & Spy by Rebecca Stead

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It was so easy to slip into this story. Rebecca Stead does an excellent job with world-building, which is a concept I usually think of more with fantasy novels, but I think it applies to any story where a sense of place is crucial to the story. Here, it’s an apartment building. The whole story takes place within walking distance of Georges’ new building. It’s very much about discovering a new place, a place that maybe you’d rather not be, but which turns out to have its own rewards.

The story is also layered beautifully – lots of little things that add up to something bigger. There’s a hint of mystery, developing friendships, contrasts between now and then, school bullies, family dynamics. It all ends up feeling necessary.

I might even bump up my rating after I sit on this one for a while. It didn’t blow me away, but it has all the hallmarks of excellence.

Source: ARC from NetGalley
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Splendors and GloomsSplendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The fact that this took me a while to read should in no way reflect on its quality (I have a love/hate relationship with reading books on my phone, which is currently my only way to read ebooks). In fact, each time I opened it up again, I immediately knew where I was and what was happening in the story, with the whole thing as vivid as if I’d read it over just a few days.

‘Splendors and Glooms’ is really the perfect description of the story – the gloom is easy to spot, in the downtrodden lives of Victorian orphans; in the sadness of Clara, her parents’ only living child; in the brutality of puppeteer Grisini; in the agony of a witch torn between hanging on and finally letting go.

The splendors are there, too – Parsefall’s love of the puppet theater, and Clara’s, too; and the sense of redemption that the story brings (although telling would be spoiling). There’s magic and surprising humor and a delicious Gothic feel.

Also splendid is Laura Amy Schlitz’s writing – this woman has a way with her pen, and each story she turns out is masterful yet distinct. I think I’m bumping this to the top of list of Newbery favorites for the year.

Source: ARC from NetGalley
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See You at Harry'sSee You at Harry’s by Jo Knowles

Going into this book, I knew it would be sad. It has the subject heading “grief – fiction” for crying out loud, plus I’d read several reviews before ordering it for the library and that gave me a heads up. But sometimes I’m just in the mood for a tear-jerker, so I picked it up and waited to see what would be so devastating.

The first half of the book is the story of a family dealing with the usual upsets of life, with the added hurdle of running a family restaurant. Narrator Fern feels like the invisible one, her older brother hasn’t come out but they all know he’s gay, oldest girl Sara is taking a year off before college, and three-year-old Charlie is, as always, dirty and sticky and looking for affection.

When things go wrong for the family, Knowles writing felt like it tightened up. Each person blames themselves for what happened, and they have to figure out how to go on. The sadness never felt maudlin – it was always sharp and painful and vivid. Although the sadness in the story is specific to this particular incident, I always think that good tear-jerkers evoke a universal sort of grief. This may not be your tragedy, but if the emotions ring true, you are put in the character’s shoes. Their grief and any grief you hold get mixed together.

This isn’t an easy book to read, but I think it fits well into that canon of children’s books that do this sort of thing well. It made me think of both Bridge to Terabithia and A Summer to Die – books with very different plots but a similar ability to call up emotion.

Source: my public library

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The ApothecaryThe Apothecary by Maile Meloy

I almost wish I’d read this one in print instead of listening to it – the narration is competent, but it never quite added anything to the story. I suspect the illustrations in the print version might have added more. My only quibble with the narration was that her accents occasionally crept over into the narration.

The story itself is a promising blend of historical fiction and fantasy, with the potential to explore larger political themes. I loved the bits of the book that set the stage – the shift from California to London, the weather and food and cultural differences. The fantastic elements were nicely done, explained within the context of the story and with a bit of fun to balance out the serious parts.

I think the primary thing that stopped me from loving the book more was a disconnect between the age of the characters and the tone of the story. I was so surprised to find that Janie was in high school – my first impression of her was that she was much younger, maybe 10 or 11 or 12, tops. She never rang true as a high schooler – and the whole story just felt younger. Perhaps Meloy did that to make her independence more plausible, but I either wanted the characters to be younger or the tone to be more sophisticated.

At any rate, I enjoyed this and would recommend it to kids who enjoy stories that are a mix of reality and fantasy.

Source: my public library

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Howl's Moving Castle (Castle, #1)Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What is there to say about Sophie and Howl and Calcifer? What is there to say about Diana Wynne Jones, except that she had some spark of genius, some way of writing books that don’t feel like they could have been written by anyone else? Books, and characters, and marvelous little bits and pieces – objects and places that are infused with the best kind of magic.

Before this, I’d only read Fire and Hemlock, which is completely unlike this book in some ways, but also clearly from the same pen. Somehow, that book convinced me that I would enjoy anything she’d written, but for whatever reason I didn’t rush out to read them, knowing I had a nice large body of work waiting for me.

My kids’ bookgroup chose this as their April selection, based on the recommendation of one girl who’s recently become a DWJ convert. I owe her a debt of gratitude, because it jump-started me.

Sophie had me hooked from the beginning – she believes herself to be completely subject to fairy tale conventions, based on her birth order. As the oldest of three girls, she’s bound to fail at any quest or pursuit, and it’s best for her to just stay home and work at the hat shop and leave it to her youngest sister to successfully make her way in the world. Of course, that’s not how it goes at all, and Sophie turns out to be possessed of a marvelous kind of magic, the kind where she can persuade or harass others (people and things) into doing as she asks. I do love a good stubborn heroine.

Added to the cast of fabulous characters (hilariously vain Howl, grouchy Calcifer) is the moving castle itself. I suppose you can’t quite separate Calcifer from the castle, but it does feel like a another character, and its ability to be in four places at once is the kind of thing I love in fantasy novels. In fact, Jones manages a perfect balance between seriousness and humor in the whole book – I cared deeply about the characters at the same time that I was laughing and enjoying the ride.

Source: my public library

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Shortly after finishing the book, I watched the movie adaptation. While I was a bit distracted by analyzing differences between book and movie, I still thoroughly enjoyed the movie. They’re completely different animals in some ways, but they still have a core similarity in tone and feel. I recommend both, but maybe not back to back.

Mr. and Mrs. Bunny—Detectives Extraordinaire!Mr. and Mrs. Bunny—Detectives Extraordinaire! by Polly Horvath

This is the sort of comedy that is either side-splittingly funny or falls flat, depending on the reader. I found it completely hilarious – the whole bunny world, Mr. and Mrs. Bunny’s marriage, the hippy world of Madeline’s parents, the general dry humor, and of course Sophie Blackall’s illustrations.

 

As a mystery, it doesn’t quite succeed – this is really the only flaw. Nothing much happens for a long time, the bunny detectives sort things out completely by accident, and the reader knows the answers all along while the characters remain in the dark. I’d recommend it more to fans of funny talking animal stories than I would to young mystery fans – I also think it would make a fun read-aloud for sharp young listeners.

Source: my public library

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Dinner success - the rare occasion when we eat exactly the same thing (except no hot salsa on his rice & beans).

Trucks, always trucks (and the water tables).

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