Life is Far from Fair for Odette Zyskowski in Elana K. Arnold’s new novel. If it had been put to a vote, Odette would not have elected to sell her family home, move into an ugly RV and share one cell phone with her quarreling parents and volatile younger brother. But her father didn’t ask for Odette’s opinion before quitting his job and uprooting the family, and the list of unfair occurrences in her life has begun to pile up at a rapid pace as they travel to Grandma Sissy’s home. However, none of the problems and predicaments along the way compares to the unfairness Odette discovers when they arrive.
When Odette and Grandma Sissy are discussing how powerless Odette feels during this time of upheaval, Grandma Sissy reveals what Odette calls a “grownup truth” — those things grownups know to be true, but don’t typically share: Sometimes you are powerless. Sometimes, bad things happen and we can't stop them. This book contains many such grownup truths, but Arnold does not preach to or talk down to her readers. Hard subjects are confronted gently but directly.
The settings, all the way from suburban California to Washington’s Orcas Island, as well as the difficulties of living in an RV, are so superbly described it may leave you wondering if the author herself ever embarked on such a road trip. The book does indeed have true life beginnings: After Arnold’s husband was laid off, they sold their home and belongings and hit the open road. Meanwhile, Arnold pursued her dream of being a writer. Far from Fair is her sixth novel for teen and young readers.
For more well-written children’s fiction that confronts issues of family life and illness, check out So B. It by Sarah Weeks and Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata.
Was Ramona Quimby one of your best friends? Did you want a mouse on a motorcycle? Then you enjoyed the imaginative and timeless worlds created by Beverly Cleary. Cleary’s wonderful books have impacted generations of readers and, today, as she celebrates her 100th birthday, we pay homage to a standard bearer of children’s literature.
Cleary noted that when she a child in the 1920s and as a young librarian, almost all of the children’s books she came across were about kids in England. Determined to offer children something more relatable, she put pen to paper with a simple writing style infused with humor and a story based on common human experiences. Her first book, Henry Huggins, published in 1950, was about a boy, his dog and their friends, all of whom lived on Klickitat Street in Portland, a street in Cleary’s childhood neighborhood. According to Cleary, Henry Huggins and the other child characters in the book were based on children she grew up with and those who attended story time at her library. She would go on to write several more books about Henry Huggins and his friends, including the Quimby sisters, who would be featured in their own books, the first of which, Beezus and Ramona, was published in 1955.
Popular with children, she was also a favorite with critics who recognized her skill and talent with numerous awards, including the National Book Award, the Newbery Medal and the National Medal of Arts. Cleary's books have been published in 20 different languages, and 91 million copies of her books have been sold worldwide since 1950. Indeed, her popularity is just as strong in Baltimore County with all of her titles in all formats circulating almost 4,000 times this year alone! A few weeks ago, Cleary sat with The Today Show for an interview where she was asked about this milestone and her career and she said she’s proudest of the simple fact that "children love my books."
A rhythmically written biography with read-to-me value, Dr. Seuss: The Great Doodler by Kate Klimo is a fantastic little journey that will help parents and children explore the inspiration and the legend of the iconic man known as Dr. Seuss. The book imitates the format that so many of his own did with large easy-to-read words and lush illustrations on every page. This playful format makes it a wonderful introduction to Ted Geisel’s journey, narrating his growth from whimsically doodling child to an advertising illustrator for hire to his first, then second, then eventually 44 published books for children.
Dr. Seuss: The Great Doodler is quick to read but easy to linger on every page thanks to the detailed illustration and wonderfully inspirational story. It would be an ideal read-to-me story time book for younger children, or a good starting point for school-age children to use as a base for further research into Seuss, his process, his life’s history or bookmaking and creating children’s literature in general. Stories like The Cat in the Hat and How the Grinch Stole Christmas are not only iconic pieces of modern pop culture but they were, at their inception, a transformative force that created a new movement of teaching children how to read in the United States. Celebrate a creative man’s life and learn a new thing or two with your children, and most importantly, have fun! It’s what Dr. Seuss would want you to do.
Chances are you've never heard of the Punk Skunks. Despite their unique sound and emphasis on positive themes such as friendship, they remain largely ignored by the music industry, perhaps because they are skunks. But all of that’s about to change thanks to the new picture book Punk Skunks by the husband and wife team of Trisha Speed Shaskan and Stephen Shaskan.
Kit and Buzz were two BSFs (best skunks forever) who loved skateboarding, riding bikes, spray painting (literally spraying smelly pictures with their tails) and hanging out at their favorite club, ABCDs. But what they liked to do most of all was rock out. They bonded over their love of great punk bands such as the Ratmoans, the DescendAnts and Shrewsie Shrew, and gained a cult following thanks to their catchy songs “We’re Buzz and Kit” and “BSF.” But all of that was about to change.
One day while jamming at their practice space, the two musical geniuses clashed. Kit wanted to sing a song about skating and Buzz wanted to sing a song about painting. The creative differences were irreconcilable, and the Punk Skunks were no more. But was this really the end? Will this dynamic duo go the way of Lennon and McCartney, Jones and Strummer, Adam and his Ants? You’ll have to read to find out!
Even if you aren’t familiar with the Punk Skunks, this playful homage to the days of Chuck Taylors and safety pins has enough charm to make superfans of even the most jaded punks. And you can get to know these creative critters even better through this article at The Little Crooked Cottage where they were recently interviewed by a pig.
Pax, a new book by award-winning author Sara Pennypacker, will linger with readers long after they finish the final page. The story is told alternately by a young orphaned fox named Pax, and Peter, the boy who saved him. Peter found Pax shortly after his own mother died, and his father grudgingly let him keep the fox “for now.”
“For now” turned into five years. Pax becomes Peter’s family since his father is usually gone and is emotionally distant even when he is home. Now war threatens their home, and Peter’s father announces he is leaving to join the fight. Peter must stay with his formidable grandfather, a man who doesn’t approve of tame foxes. Peter is forced to abandon the now-domesticated Pax who lives off kibble, in the wilderness. The moment the boy leaves his fox behind, he knows he has made a terrible mistake.
While stories about lost pets are familiar to us, this one is unique. The journey that Pax and Peter take in order to find each other tests both, and they meet new characters who change them and us forever. As they come to understand difficult truths about the world, so do readers.
Pennypacker doesn’t offer a specific setting, just a land being destroyed by war. The conflict, which is never really clearly explained to readers either, affects not only the people, but also the land and the creatures. The story isn’t a simple protest against war, but a plea for people to be honest about the real price of conflict.
Pennypacker’s writing is beautiful. With clarity and compassion one doesn’t often find in children’s books, she addresses complicated themes like loneliness, love and the cost of war.
The art for this book is created by Caldecott award-winning illustrator Jon Klassen and perfectly matches the story in its simple, poignant style.
Pax is great for readers who enjoyed Sheila Burnford’s classic The Incredible Journey. Fans of these great animal stories will also enjoy Maybe a Fox by Kathi Appelt.
Simon Thorn is dreading the beginning of school. Each passing year, his enemies grow in number while his friends and fellow outcasts shrink from a few, to one, to finally zero. His loving uncle supports him as much as he can while he’s home, but outside of their little New York City apartment he feels alone and exposed.
You see, Simon, the titular character of Simon Thorn and the Wolf’s Den by Aimée Carter, can talk to animals, and they can talk to him. Birds, mostly, although he’s on good terms with many of the neighborhood rats, raccoons, squirrels and Felix, a mouse that lives in his bedroom. His habit of talking to nonhuman species has separated him from his peers until he has none left. On the first day back at school, attempting to face the new challenges awaiting him, he meets a strangely high number of new faces, starting with a gold eagle outside his window that insists catastrophe is around the corner, to a new classmate, Winter Rivera, who is more than she seems. Before Simon can even begin to deal with the difficulty of school itself and just being a kid under pressure, his mother suddenly returns, and secrets that have been kept from him his whole life start to unravel — a secret society of animal shapeshifters that have existed since the dawn of humanity, an academy of the animals hidden beneath the Central Park Zoo and the untold depths of his own family history and future.
Simon Thorn and the Wolf’s Den is a delight for animal and fantasy lovers alike, something for the young reader who can’t get enough of classic fantasy. Be sure to supplement your reading with research into the animal kingdoms and the multitudes of species explored in the book!
Edward Carey’s Iremonger trilogy is a rare children’s fantasy that, like the His Dark Materials trilogy or The Chronicles of Narnia series, can transport adults as well. The books take place in an alternate 1875, where Clod Iremonger lives with his family in a borough of London called Foulsham amongst a sea of discarded items called the Heaps. The strange and prosperous Iremonger family have a mysterious relationship with the trash surrounding them, and each family member carries a “birth object” that must never leave their side. Meanwhile, an illness is spreading, the poor are disappearing and a new servant girl named Lucy Pennant seems to be “upsetting” objects in the house. Clod, who has the unnatural ability to hear certain objects speak, begins to learn that the members of his family are more sinister than they appear.
Without spoiling too much, the narrative switches between Clod and Lucy as they discover that the Iremongers have managed to secure their status by literally objectifying the poor. But how? And can it be reversed? Learning the rules of this world is half the fun, and each revelation suggests exciting possibilities.
Each book in the trilogy focuses on a different location, beginning with Heap House, the Iremongers’ secluded mansion, then moving outward into the surrounding borough of Foulsham and concluding in the greater city of Lungdon. As the locations expand, the excitement builds.
Fans of Edward Gorey and Lemony Snicket will enjoy the trilogy’s playfully gothic tone, which leavens even its darkest moments with quirky turns of phrase, and the author’s detailed and ink-heavy illustrations will set you firmly in a world so strange and specific you’ll never want to leave.
Young sleuths looking for a case to solve can have their pick with the latest selection of new titles. Each of these books holds secret lessons on science and math that will help burgeoning detectives spot clues and decode puzzles.
Captain Coconut and the Case of the Missing Bananas by Anushka Ravishankar introduces a new “First Chapter” series from India, led by the crazy and entertaining Captain Coconut, detective extraordinaire. When he’s not inventing booby traps and reading pulpy detective stories, the Captain has readers using simple arithmetic to solve crimes. Chapters are interjected with Bollywood-esque songs praising Captain Coconut’s numerous talents while the accompanying illustrations belie many jokes at the Captain’s expense.
The Queen’s Shadow, by acclaimed picture book author Cybèle Young, uses the framework of a mystery in an animal kingdom to study the special kinds of vision different animals have — from the trinocular vision of the mantis shrimp to the panoramic eyesight of goats. Young interjects her narrative with sidebars detailing these feats and uses her illustrations to demonstrate the ways animals’ vision differs from our own. Readers will be impressed by the creatures she features, some of whom are strange and exotic, but many of which are fairly common and all the more interesting when seen in this new light.
Fans of Gravity Falls and Roald Dahl will want to check out Warren the 13th and the All Seeing Eye, an action-packed story about an orphan who cares for the hotel his ancestors built. Minded by his devious aunt and dim-witted uncle, Warren’s days of riding dumbwaiters and exploring hedge mazes are interrupted when he takes up the task of thwarting his scheming relatives’ plans for treasure hunting. To prevent the mysterious “All Seeing Eye” from falling into the wrong hands, Warren must uncover the secrets of the Warren Hotel with some creative thinking and the help of his friends. With a cast as kooky as the Addams family, Warren the 13th is a fast paced, art-driven story first conceived by its illustrator, Will Staehle, and further developed by writer Tania Del Rio, who has promised a sequel this fall.
If I could award a book for best cover design, Brian Selznick's The Marvels would be the winner. One of the reasons why I selected The Marvels is because the book cover had me at “Hello!” It is a large, navy blue and gold book with gold trimmed pages. Do not let the page count intimidate you, even though it's nearly 700 pages (Yikes!). It's part pictures and part words (Yay!).
The first half of The Marvels is in illustration. The drawings tell a story set in 1766 about a 12-year-old boy named Billy Marvel, who becomes the lone survivor of a horrid shipwreck caused by a storm. After an English ship saves him, he settles in London and works at the Royal Theatre. This theatre becomes the place where several generations of Billy’s family perform and become well-known actors.
The second half of The Marvels is in prose. This story takes place in London and is set in 1990. It focuses on another young boy named Joseph Jervis, who runs away from boarding school to track down his best bud, Blink. Unable to find him, Joseph seeks help from his long time, no-see estranged uncle, Albert Nightingale, to assist him with locating his friend. While searching for his uncle’s address, Joseph meets a new acquaintance, Frankie, who helps him find his uncle’s home. At first, Albert is reluctant to have Joseph stay at his home, but he gives in once he sees that his nephew is unwell. After experiencing the presence of ghosts, hearing weird noises and seeing enchanting portraits throughout the home, Joseph quickly notices that his uncle and his house are very mysterious. He and Frankie gather that it may have something to do with the Marvels and the Royal Theatre. They both go on a mission to discover Albert’s connection to the theatre and the Marvels.
My favorite part about The Marvels is the wonderful job the author has done telling the story through the amazing illustrations. Although this is a children’s book, I want to point out that it has LGBT themes and it brings up the topic of AIDS. The story has some heart-breaking moments and an unexpected twist. Overall, this was a good read.
Fans of Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck will relish his latest release The Marvels.