Posted in Animal Fiction, picture books, Preschool Reads

Ready… Set… Go! The Big Race is on!

The Big Race, by David Barrow, (Sept. 2019, Kane Miller), $12.99, ISBN: 9781610678803

Ages 4-7

The Big Race is a very tough race in which only the fastest, biggest, and strongest animals participate. So when little Aardvark decides she’s going to sign up to compete, she gets laughed at. Her competitors – a lion, cheetah, buffalo, and crocodile – all laugh at her, and tell her she’ll never finish, but she will defy them all. She’s not competing to win; she’s competing to have fun. The story shows each of the bigger, stronger animals pushing themselves to get to the next level in this triathalon-type race, but Aardvark? She’s pushing herself, and giggling, laughing, and enjoying the journey. Aardvark may not be the biggest, strongest, or fastest, but she has enough heart to power her through the finish line.

Originally published in the UK in 2018, The Big Race is all about embracing the journey rather than the destination, listening to the inner voice that tells you “I can!”, and doing the thing that may be a little overwhelming. It’s about self-empowerment and self-reliance. The other animals jeer at Aardvark, but they’re the ones arguing over the grand prize while Aardvark stands, surrounded by her friends, and receives her medal for finishing. It’s a sweet story about challenging oneself, and testing one’s limits.

The mottled artwork is bright, and the contrast between tiny Aardvark and her hulking co-competitors makes for a big visual. Remind kids to be present, and to adjust expectations once in a while.


Posted in picture books, Preschool Reads

The Itty Bitty Witch proves that being small is pretty handy!

The Itty Bitty Witch by Trisha Speed Shaskan/Illustrated by Xindi Yan, (July 2019, Two Lions), $17.99, ISBN: 978-1542041232

Ages 4-7

Betty Ann Batsworth is a little witch who can’t wait to start first grade, but she ends up being teased by some of the kids for being small and still having her kinder-broom, calling her “Itty Bitty”. The nickname makes Betty feel itty bitty on the inside, but when her teacher, Ms. Fit, tells the class that they’re going to prepare for the Halloween Dash – a big broom race – Betty is determined to win, and shuck that Itty Bitty nickname!

Coming from the kid who was ALWAYS first or second in height order, I am right there with Itty Bitty Betty. Being small is something we all have to grow into. The Itty Bitty Witch is a sweet story about overcoming childhood teasing, thinking outside the box, and determination. Betty discovers, during the course of the race, that being Itty Bitty is pretty handy – we can fit into places bigger folks can’t, after all! The digital illustration is bold, with cartoony characters and vibrant color. It’s full of teachable moments we can discuss with our kids like teasing vs. encouraging, and loving ourselves in any package.

The Itty Bitty Witch is good Halloween reading, and it’s good anytime reading. Size matters not!

Visit Xindi Yan’s illustrator page for more of her adorable artwork, and author Trisha Speed Shaskan’s author page for more info about her books.


Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction, Realistic Fiction, Teen, Tween Reads

My Name is Not Friday is a younger generation’s Twelve Years a Slave

fridayMy Name is Not Friday, by Jon Walter (Jan. 2016, David Fickling Books), $18.99, ISBN: 9780545855228

Recommended for ages 12-18

Living in an orphanage in the South at the end of the Civil War, Samuel is always trying to keep his younger brother, Joshua, out of trouble. The latest prank to be laid at Joshua’s feet is a big one; Samuel takes the blame to keep his brother safe, and finds himself sold into slavery as a consequence. He’s stripped of his given name, renamed Friday, and threatened to keep his true origin – that he’s a freeborn black boy – a secret. Told in the first person through Samuel’s eyes, readers get an often brutal, heart-breaking account of slavery in the last days of the Civil War.

My Name is Not Friday is a powerful book, at times difficult to read. The characters aren’t always likable, and they’re not always loathsome – that’s part of the struggle. It’s easy to hate the mustache-twirling, top hat-wearing villain, but when it’s a child who struggles with wanting to do the right thing – even when he doesn’t really fully understand the right thing – it’s not as easy. Friday is a sympathetic character, and the frustration of his situation comes across so strongly, that I had to put the book down a few times.

An important addition to shelves, My Name is Not Friday has received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and School Library Journal. Suggested for middle school and high school readers for overall content. Put this on your shelves next to Solomon Northrup’s Twelve Years A Slave and Alex Haley’s Roots, which returns as a mini-series on History Channel at the end of May.

From SLJ: An author’s note references historical documents, including Harriet Jacobs’s classic Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

Posted in Fantasy, Science Fiction, Teen, Young Adult/New Adult

Beyond the Red: Intergalactic politics and species war with a dash of romance

beyond the redBeyond the Red, by Ava Jae (March 2016, Sky Pony Press), $17.99, ISBN: 9781634506441

Recommended for ages 16+

Kora is a reigning queen of an alien race that’s seen its share of violence: her parents were killed during a terrorist attack during her birthday; her people are locked in a race war with human settlers, known as red-bloods, that exist on her planet, and she’s been the target of assassination attempts. Her twin brother, Dima, holds a grudge against her – he and their deceased father felt Dima should have ascended the throne – not a woman – but birth order is destiny.

Eros is a half-blood soldier, raised by humans and yet, held at arm’s length because of his half-alien blood. His adopted parents and brother are killed during one of Kora’s army raids, and he’s taken prisoner, where Kora decides to make him her personal guard. She has some questions about his true identity, and decides he’d be a valuable asset to keep close to her.

Despite being wildly attracted to one another, they play it safe, knowing that Eros’ half-blood status could get him killed at any time, and would certainly be a death sentence for any children they’d have if they married. Kora accepts the proposal of a high-ranking diplomat, but an assassination attempt leaves her and Eros running for their lives. Now, they have to work together to save the human rebels and keep Eros’ secret on a much larger scale.

There’s a lot of storytelling and world-building in this debut from Ava Jae. The entire story provides the groundwork for a series, and the ending leaves no question about a sequel being in the picture. It just wasn’t my book, alas: it never hooked me. The story seemed to focus on a few points that were emphasized again and again: Eros’ physical attraction to Kora; Dima’s simmering rage toward Eros, his jealousy toward Kora; Kora’s vacillating on her attraction to Eros. We don’t know anything about the human encampment on this world, only that they seem to have been left there generations ago. I’m hoping more about the schism between the two races will emerge in future books, because that has potential for a huge story.

The novel is more young adult than teen for sensual content, violence, and mild language. Space opera fans and fantasy fans should give this one a look.

Posted in Toddler Reads

Book Review: Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, by Bill Martin Jr. & John Archambault, illus. by Lois Ehlert (Simon & Schuster, 1989)

Chicka_Chicka_Boom_BoomRecommended for ages 0-5

This award-winning classic sees the lowercase letters of the alphabet racing up a coconut tree, with a consequence that preschoolers can relate to. Upper-case parents and guardians come to the rescue.

The story is an enduring classic, told in a rhyme that children will be able to pick up and repeat in no time. They can repeat the phrase, “Chicka chicka boom, boom, will there be enough room?” throughout a reading, and will enjoy the story’s rhythm as it proceeds, sympathizing with the lower case letters when they tumble to the ground and are comforted by their upper-case parents, aunts, and uncles. It is a playground collision put to paper!

Lois Ehlert’s bright and eye-catching illustrations use hot pink and orange polka-dotted borders to decorate each page; the coconut tree is a bright green and brown, and the letters are brightly colored, set against a stark white background so that they truly pop from the page. The letters slant to and fro as they climb the tree, giving the impression of movement. The plain black font employs the use of bolding for emphasis; this is a book meant to be read out loud.  Ehlert’s trademark collage artwork is here, with layered coconuts on trees, alternating shades of green on the tree’s leaves, and the layering of the letters on one another as they climb and fall. The endpapers offer a brightly colored alphabet, with upper- and lower-case letters situated together.

The Alphabet Song is a good companion song to a reading, and, space permitting, a round of “Pin the letter on the Coconut Tree” is a fun activity. The Crafting Chicks website suggests an interesting coconut tree craft using toilet paper rolls that children can stick pre-printed letters to.

There is a Chicka Chicka Boom Boom board book, but the story ends when the coconut tree falls to the ground. Toddlers may enjoy the abbreviated story, but you really need the book to enjoy the full story.

Chicka Chicka Boom Boom has received numerous accoldates, including designation as an ALA Notable Children’s Book and a Boston Globe/Horn Book Award Honor Book. Chicka Chicka 1, 2, 3 teaches readers to count.