Posted in picture books, Preschool Reads

Spotlight on Women’s History: Alma Thomas, Artist

Ablaze with Color: A Story of Painter Alma Thomas, by Jeanne Walker Harvey/Illustrated by Loveis Wise. (Feb. 2022, HarperCollins), $18.99, ISBN: 9780063021891

Ages 4-8

Growing up in the Jim Crow-era Southern U.S., young Alma Thomas and her siblings weren’t allowed to go to the “white school” nearby; they couldn’t visit the museums or library, but they surrounded themselves with joy, art, and culture. Alma Thomas’s mother designed dresses; her aunts painted; Alma used the red clay near a stream to create bowls and cups. Her parents created a salon in their home, inviting teachers to talk about “people and places around the world, famous stories, and ways of thinking”. And when Alma and her family joined The Great Migration and left Georgia for Washington, DC, Alma was finally able to attend school, graduating from college where she studied art. While DC was still segregated, Alma was determined to bring art to the people in her neighborhood; she taught art at her local school; taught children to make marionettes and perform their own plays at her home; set up an art gallery: the city’s first gallery in a school. When she retired, she went on to create her own art, becoming the first solo show by a Black woman on display at The Whitney Museum in New York City and, posthumously, the first Black woman to have artwork on display in the White House. Ablaze with Color is a gorgeous, vibrant picture book biography of a teacher, an artist, an activist that worked to bring art to everyone. Loveis Wise’s illustrations are stunning, alive with color and movement, inspired by Alma Thomas’s bright palette. Jeanne Walker Harvey brings Alma Thomas’s story to life, describing the natural world that influenced Thomas’s work and using straightforward storytelling to educate her readers. Back matter includes a timeline of Alma Thomas’s life, sources, notes, and references.

There are a wealth of online resources for those who want to learn more about Alma Thomas. Visit The Smithsonian American Art Museum’s page on the artist; The Phillips Collection’s page on their Alma Thomas exhibit, Everything is Beautiful; and ArtNews’s article on Alma Thomas’s importance in art. TeachersPayTeachers has several good activities on the artist, including a coloring sheet from Artful Ideas; a presentation from The Creative Crayon, and an abstract mosaic activity from LessonZest. Finally, don’t forget to visit Jeanne Walker Harvey’s website for more resources!

Ablaze with Color has starred reviews from Booklist, School Library Journal, and The Horn Book.

 

Jeanne Walker Harvey has had many jobs, ranging from working as a roller coaster ride operator to an attorney for high-tech companies to a writer of magazine articles to a teacher of Language Arts and writing workshops at a public middle school. She has also been a longtime docent at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Just like Alma Thomas, Jeanne believes that art brings us joy. Her other picture books include Maya Lin: Artist-Architect of Light and Lines and My Hands Sing the BluesRomare Bearden’s Childhood Journey. Jeanne studied literature and psychology at Stanford University. She lives in Northern California. Visit her online at www.jeanneharvey.com.

Twitter: @JeanneWHarvey

Pinterest: @JeanneWalkerHarvey

 

Loveis Wise is a nonbinary illustrator and designer from Washington, DC, now based in Los Angeles. They have collaborated and imagined with clients such as the New Yorkerthe New York Times, HarperCollins, Google, Disney Hyperion, and Adobe, to name a few. Their work often speaks to themes of joy, mindfulness, and liberation. For more information visit: loveiswise.com.

Instagram: @loveiswiseillu

Posted in Fantasy, Fiction, Middle Grade, Tween Reads, Uncategorized

Anne Ursu’s The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy is brilliant!

The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy, by Anne Ursu, (Oct. 2021, Walden Pond Press), $17.99, ISBN: 9780062275127

Ages 9-13

Anne Ursu is an undisputed champion of kidlit fantasy. I’ve devoured The Real Boy and Breadcrumbs and am in awe of how she creates these incredible worlds with characters that are so realistic, so well-written, that looking up and realizing I’m still in my living room, dog across my legs, with a book in my lap, can be a little jarring. Her latest story, The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy, is kidlist feminist fantasy at its best. Taking place in a fantasy world and time, Marya Lupu is a girl living in a kingdom under attack from an army called The Dread. Her parents are straight-up awful; they dote on her brother, Luka, because in this world, the young men are sent into service as sorcerers to fight the dread while, if they’re lucky, the girls and families get to live off the sorcerer’s reputation. This sets the siblings up against each other, which never ends well: sure enough, on the day Luka is to be evaluated by the sorcerers for his skill, chaos ensues and it leads right back to Marya. The next day, a letter from a school called the Dragmoir Academy shows up for Marya: it’s a school for wayward girls, and her parents can’t pack her off quickly enough.  What she discovers at the Academy, though, are a group of young women who are far more than just a bunch of “troubled” young women, and the Dragomir Academy has a darker history than they’re owning up to.

The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy is about women, power, and fear. It’s a school story, with different personalities and the conflict that comes with putting that many personalities together under stressful circumstances; it’s also a story of hidden women, hidden messages, and who really controls the dialogue, whether it comes to today’s news or a high-fantasy novel about a land under threat from a horrific enemy that devastates everything in its path. Brilliantly written, with characters that readers will love; Marya is a smart young woman who’s been beaten down for a long time; unlike many of the other girls in the novel, though, she refuses to second-guess or question herself when it’s time to take action, and she motivates her schoolmates to own their own power, too.

Anne Ursu is an award-winning, National Book Award-nominated fantasy author. Visit her website for more information about her books and teacher guides, and upcoming events.

The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy has a starred review from Kirkus and is an Indie Next pick.

Posted in Fantasy, Fiction, Graphic Novels, Middle Grade, Middle School, Tween Reads, Uncategorized

The Unlikeliest Friends: The Ghoul Next Door

The Ghoul Next Door, by Cullen Bunn/Illustrated by Cat Farris, (July 2021, Harper Alley), $12.99, ISBN: 9780062896094

Ages 8 to 12

An 11-year-old boy named Grey takes a shortcut through a cemetery on his way to school, drops his school project down an empty grave, and discovers the unlikeliest new friend: a young ghoul named Lavinia. Lavinia leaves little gifts for Grey that are a little unsettling to the living – finger bones, teeth necklaces, that sort of thing – and Grey seeks Lavinia out, leading to the two forging a friendship that’s as sweet as it is dangerous. Ghouls are forbidden from associating with the living, and Grey’s friend, Marshall, is determined to tell all because he just knows Grey’s making a bad decision. Eventually, Grey is caught up in a struggle between ghouls and ghosts, with his friend Marshall’s – and Grey’s own – life in the balance!

A funny, creepy story for readers who love all things Neil Gaiman, Doug TenNapel’s Ghostopolis, and – naturally! – Goosebumps. It’s a story of friendship with a touch of intrigue and just enough creepiness to make paranormal fans shudder with glee. Cullen Bunn writes a lot of big-people comics that I love (including Harrow County, which makes a fun little cameo in The Ghoul Next Door), and Cat Farris’s artwork is spooktastic, with color, great shadow work, and a ghoul that is as heartwarming as she is startling.

Posted in Early Reader, Fiction, Fiction, Intermediate, picture books

Everyone wants to read The Book No One Wants to Read!

The Book No One Wants to Read, by Beth Bacon, (June 2021, Harper Collins Children’s Books), $12.99, ISBN: 9780062962546

Ages 6-10

A colorful book like this is a perfect attention-grabber to kids who think reading is boring: the book even addresses it! In the vein of books like BJ Novak’s The Book With No Pictures (2014), this book is an hilarious discourse between book and reader. The book doesn’t want to be facing the wall, all alone, and the reader obviously has to look busy, so the book makes an offer it’s impossible to refuse: “You keep turning my pages, and I’ll make it fun!” It’s interactive, inviting readers to squint, sniff, and play rock, paper, scissors. At 180 pages, it may be a bit long for a storytime (but I’m still going to try it), but it’s a perfect book for early chapter book readers that want to enjoy a fun read. Display with its companion book, I Hate Reading, for more laughs. Think of it as more of an interactive game than a reading chore, reluctant readers! It’s bright, colorful, and so much fun.  Instabuy!

Posted in Animal Fiction, Fiction, Graphic Novels, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

The Way of the Hive tells the story of Clan Apis

The Way of the Hive: A Honeybee’s Story, by Jay Hosler, (Apr. 2021, HarperAlley), $12.99, ISBN: 9780063007352

Ages 8-12

Nyuki is an inquisitive honeybee larva who has a lot of questions for Dvorah, an older bee who ends up being her mentor. Why does her cell have to be capped off? Why does she have to go through metamorphosis? Why are some of the bees getting ready to leave the hive? Can she go? Should she go? Is Dvorah going to go? Dvorah patiently answers Nyuki’s questions, and helps Nyuki develop into an independent member of her colony. The story follows the life journey of one honeybee and the members of her hive. Nyuki is childlike in her interactions, and never loses her sense of wonder and curiosity, making her a wonderful character. She struggles with anxiety about the unknown and adapts, always puzzling over the “inner voice” that spurs her on to adventure. The story is sweet, funny, and moved me to tears. Illustrations are realistic, but Jay Hosler manages to make these realistic depictions of bees simply adorable; readers will want to cherish them and care for them. The science is solid, but never, ever feels like a lecture or a textbook. It’s simply a great story. An absolute must for your graphic novel collections, and perfect for Science Comics readers. Back matter includes even more information about bees.

Did you know World Bee Day is May 20th this year? Visit the Bee Culture website for some resources on bees and celebrating them on their special day. The National Parks Service has a great middle school curriculum for Bee Week available. Author Jay Hosler’s website is a treasure trove of information on using comic books in the classroom (yes!!) and links to more science comics.

The Way of the Hive has a starred review from Kirkus. It was originally published under the title, Clan Apis, in 1998.

Posted in Non-Fiction, picture books, Uncategorized

A future President’s best friend: Honey, the Dog Who Saved Abe Lincoln

Honey, the Dog Who Saved Abe Lincoln, by Shari Swanson/Illustrated by Chuck Groenink, (Jan. 2020, Katherine Tegen Books), $17.99, ISBN: 978-0-06269900-8

Ages 5-8

Based on a story remembered by President Abraham Lincoln’s childhood friend, Honey, The Dog Who Saved Abe Lincoln is a nonfiction picture book story of the 16th President and the dog he rescued and named Honey; and how Honey repaid the favor by rescuing Abe Lincoln. One day, while picking his family’s corn up from the mill, Lincoln discovered and cared for an injured dog, who followed him home. He convinces his parents to let him keep the dog – who he names Honey – and she joins him everywhere he goes. While exploring a cavern one day, Abe gets jammed between two boulders and Honey sets out to find help, finding Abe’s mother and Mr. John from the corn mill, and leading them to the cavern, where they are able to rescue young Mr. Lincoln.

A sweet story about our animal companions and the special relationship we have with our dogs, Honey, the Dog Who Saved Abraham Lincoln is an uplifting nonfiction story about an early chapter in the life of one of our most popular Presidents. There’s a timeline of Abraham Lincoln, who famously loved animals, and his “Animal Encounters”, chronicling key points in the former President’s life, including his many pets and moments of caring for animals. An author’s note goes into more detail about the origin of the story behind Honey, The Dog Who Saved Abraham Lincoln, and the many pets Lincolns populating the Lincoln White House. The digital artwork is kid-friendly, with gentle-faced, softly realistic characters and muted greens and browns. The endpapers display a map of the area of Hodgen’s Mill, where Abe Lincoln grew up, circa 1816, when Lincoln found Honey.

A nice addition to picture book nonfiction collections. Think about reading this one on April 11, National Pet Day!

Posted in Fantasy, Fiction, Humor, Intermediate, Middle School

Odd Gods – Mythic Middle School can be Heck!

Odd Gods: Misfit Myths from Mount Olympus Middle School, by David Slavin & Daniel Weitzman/Illustrated by Adam J.B. Lane, (May 2019, HarperCollins), $13.99, ISBN: 9780062839534

Ages 7-11

This mythological mashup is straight-up hilarious. Oddonis is the son of Zeus and Freya, the Nordic goddess of love. You’d think he was set, right? NOPE. He’s got a weird chin, messy hair, a third nipple, and he’s nothing like his twin brother… Adonis. Yup, THAT Adonis. Adonis, who had six-pack abs as a baby! How does that even happen? Narrated by Oddonis, Odd Gods is the story of the Odds – the not-quite godly gods – as they navigate the halls of Mount Olympus Middle School, and of Oddonis’ attempt to wrest respect from his brother and his father when he runs against Adonis for class president.

Odd Gods has a snarky bent to the narration – think Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid – with a strong undercurrent of frustration. These are the kids that have been discounted from the very beginning. We have Mathena, goddess of math and… poultry. She loves math; she breathes it, lives it, loves it, to her classmate’s ridicule. There’s also the duck and chicken following her around; that can’t help. There’s Germes, god of sniffling and snot, who can often be found hanging out in a dumpster. Don’t forget Puneous, the smallest god of them all, and Oddonis’s best friend… Gaseous. Gaseous, who can clear a room or send a group of gods flying. Together, this group of misfits will take on the established group of Mean Gods and prove, for once and for all, that there’s room on Olympus for everyone.

Absolute fun, with black and white drawings throughout that directly contribute to the story’s flow. Hand this to your Jedi Academy readers and see how they think the two schools would do in a match-up. Heroes in Training and Goddess Girls readers will love this one, too.

Posted in Fiction, Fiction, Intermediate, Middle Grade, Realistic Fiction

Saving Winslow is another hit for Sharon Creech

Saving Winslow, by Sharon Creech, (Sept. 2018, Harper Collins Children’s Books), $16.99, ISBN: 978-0-06-257073-4

Ages 7-12

Louie is a gentle 10-year-old boy with a horrible history of caring for animals: worms, lightning bugs, goldfish, and several bigger animals have all perished or escaped under his care, but when his father brings home a baby donkey, orphaned at birth, from Louie’s uncle’s farm – to care for it until, “you know – until it dies”, Louie accepts the mission. He’s going to save this donkey. You see, Louie was a preemie at birth, and his parents weren’t sure he’d make it, either. Love and determination kept Louie going, and he’s sure that it will keep Winslow – the name he gives the donkey – going. And it does. Winslow struggles, but thrives under Louie’s care, to everyone’s surprise. His new neighbor, Nora, a girl grieving the losses of both her premature baby brother and her dog, is amazed, but pessimistic, warning Louie that Winslow is going to die, and not to get too attached. Louie puts everything into saving Winslow, wishing he could speak to his older brother, Gus, who’s serving in the military, about Winslow, but letters from Gus come few and far between these days, and are always signed “remember me”. As Louie saves Winslow, Winslow may save everyone around him.

Full disclosure: this is my first Sharon Creech novel. Now I get it. I get why she’s a force in kidlit, a multiple award winner, and why her books are always on my library kids’ summer reading lists. She masters feeling and emotion through eloquent, brief prose. I was hers from the opening lines in the book, and I was with her until the last phrase closed the story. I told a friend of mine that Saving Winslow broke me apart and put me back together in the way that Charlotte’s Web did when I read it the first time as a child. Sharon Creech invests readers in every single character in this book, from the baby donkey, to the pessimistic neighbor kid, to the crabby next door neighbor, but we are always focused on Louie and his story. Saving Winslow is a story of hope and perseverance, and it’s a story about the need to believe in the positive. Every library needs a copy of this book – let’s get this one on the summer reading lists, please! – and kids with gentle hearts and sad souls alike will find comfort in it. An absolute must-have, must-read.

Saving Winslow has starred reviews from School Library Journal, Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus, and Horn Book. Sharon Creech has a Newbery Medal for Walk Two Moons (1995), and received Newbery Honors for The Wanderer (2001). Her book, Ruby Holler (2002), is a Carnegie Medal winner. Her author website offers information and links to her social media, and downloadable reading guides for most of her books.

Posted in Fantasy, Fiction, Humor, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

The Problim Children: Seven kids, seven days of the week, and an age-old mystery

The Problim Children, by Natalie Lloyd/Illustrated by Julia Sarda, (Jan. 2018, Katherine Tegen Books), $16.99, ISBN: 9780062428202

Recommended for readers 8-12

The Problim Children is the first in a new middle grade series about seven… different siblings, each born on a different day of the week, and their adventures. We have Mona, Monday’s child, who may be fair of face, but she’s a bit macabre… Toot, Tuesday’s toddler, who has a catalog of farts for all occasions; Wendell and Thea, twins born on Wednesday and Thursday, who spend all of their time together; Friday’s child, Frida, speaks in rhyme; Sal, Saturday’s child, loves to work in his garden; and Sundae is the eternal optimist. Their parents are away, and the Problims manage to blow up their bungalow in the Swampy Woods, necessitating a move to their Grandpa Problim’s abandoned mansion in Lost Cove. The only problem? The Problims have a history with Lost Cove, and neighborhood busybody Desdemona O’pinion is determined to keep them out at all costs.

Are the Problims magic? Maybe. Are they a family with secrets? Definitely! There’s a history between the O’pinions and the Problims, and the kids get caught up in the shenanigans – while planning plenty of their own. The Problim Children is funny enough – Toot’s ability to communicate solely by fart will make this a home-run with some readers – and readers will love the idea of being left to their own devices as their parents travel the world for work. There are circus spiders, a pet pig, an intriguing mystery, and a villainess who’s right up there with the best of the mustache-twirlers. It’s a little over the top at times, but it’s fun and silly and readers who like a lighter Lemony Snicket will like this one. The Problim Children received a starred review from Booklist.

Posted in Animal Fiction, Fantasy, Fiction, Middle Grade, Tween Reads

Rainforest, magic, and mystery: The Lost Rainforest – Mez’s Magic

The Lost Rainforest: Mez’s Magic, by Eliot Schrefer/Illustrated by Emilia Dziubak, (Feb. 2018, HarperCollins), $16.99, ISBN: 9780062491077

Recommended for readers 8-13

Mez is an orphaned young panther living with her sister, under the care of their aunt in the rainforest of Caldera. Panthers are nightwalkers – primarily nocturnal, they prowl in the evenings and sleep during the day. Except for Mez. Born during the eclipse, she can cross the Veil – the sleep that overcomes the animals during the day hours – and explore the daytime world. She meets a snake who tells her that she and he are gifted, eclipse-born, and they must discover other animals like them in order to save the world. Banished by her aunt after discovering Mez’s secret, she joins the search for other shadowwalkers in their quest to defeat the Ant Queen. But the Queen isn’t the only one they have to defend themselves against. They’ll encounter animals that mistrust the shadowwalkers, and cope with betrayal and mistrust even among one another.

 

Mez’s Magic is the first book in what looks like an exciting new animal adventure. There’s plenty for readers to love here: intrigue, adventure, and ancient magic are just a few of the ingredients. It’s a satisfying standalone, yet leaves readers waiting for more answers. There’s an animal friend for everyone here; Mez, the star of the show, is burdened with responsibility and largely naïve to the rainforest at large; Rumi is a lovable, nerdy tree frog and Lima is a talkative, sweet bat; Gogi is a capuchin monkey with an inferiority complex; Auriel is a wily snake who seems to have all the answers. The book weaves a story that addresses racism, intolerance and ignorance through the individual animal species and the concept of the shadowwalker. Black and white chapter illustrations give the reader an idea of what’s coming up, and an author’s note at the end discusses the beauty and importance of the rainforest.

Mez’s Magic received a starred review from Kirkus.