1,155 posts categorized "Reviews" Feed

Be A Friend: Salina Yoon

Book: Be A Friend
Author: Salina Yoon
Pages: 40
Age Range: 3-7

Be A Friend is a new picture book from the prolific Salina Yoon. It's about being true to yourself, as well as the sense of validation that comes when you find that friend who understands you, just as you are. I think that it's lovely, and would make a great companion book to The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig and Patrice Barton or Leo: A Ghost Story, by Mac Barnett and Christian Robinson. 

Dennis is "an ordinary boy", except that he dresses himself up every day as a mime, and doesn't speak. His closet shows a picture of Marcel Marceau. He only acts, performing scenes to express himself to others. The other kids seem to leave him be, but he does find that he's sometimes lonely. Until, that is, he meets a girl appropriately named Joy, who is prepared to act things out right along with him. 

Dennis (AKA Mime Boy) is shown throughout with white-painted face and striped shift. Yoon highlights the scenes that Dennis is acting out by using a dashed red line to provide clues for the reader. So we see Dennis standing with legs bent, sweat beading his forehead, sitting atop the red dashed outline of a bicycle. The text never explains these miniature acts - it doesn't need to. I think that preschoolers will love identifying the action in each vignette. 

The minimal text in Be A Friend would make it work either as a read-aloud for preschoolers or as an independent read for new readers. There are a few more difficult words, like "extraordinary", but most of the text is quite direct. Like this (over two page spreads):

"They saw the world the SAME way.

Dennis and Joy didn't speak a WORD,
because FRIENDS don't have to."

Be A Friend is heartwarming and reassuring without being particularly sad. While it might be implausible that a kid like Dennis wouldn't be picked on in school, I read this as more of a parable than a literal tale. But the particular device of Dennis acting out scenes (and the reader being able to guess what they are) makes this book extra-fun for preschoolers. And the messages, like Dennis' acts, are mainly hinted at, left to the reader to infer. Be A Friend is going on our keep shelf, a new favorite for me. 

Publisher: Bloomsbury USA Children's (@BWKids)
Publication Date: January 5, 2016
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

© 2015 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


The Tiara on the Terrace: Kristen Kittscher

Book: The Tiara on the Terrace
Author: Kristen Kittscher
Pages: 400
Age Range: 8-12

The Tiara on the Terrace is the sequel to Kristen Kittscher's middle grade mystery The Wig in the Window. Both feature best friends and twelve-year-old sleuths Sophie Young and Grace Yang. As The Tiara on the Terrace begins, the girls' town of Luna Vista is getting ready for the 125th annual Winter Sun Festival, a tradition involving a parade and a "royal court" of teen girls. Sophie and Grace are helping with the floats. When the Festival president dies under mysterious circumstances, Grace convinces Sophie and their friend Trista to apply to be royal pages, so that they can investigate more closely. A mixture of investigation and festival preparation follows. 

Trista plays a larger role in The Tiara on the Terrace than she did in the first book, which I think is a plus. (I noted in my review of the first book that I liked her better than I did Grace.) Trista is big and awkward and unrepentantly an engineer. Trista and Sophie would have been unlikely to be selected as pages were they not "town heroes" following the events of the first book. Grace, on the other hand, fits right in with the older, more fashion-focused members of the Royal Court.

Some tension between Grace and Sophie is evident from the book's start, as the former is more ready to grow up than the latter (a great dynamic to explore in a book aimed at tweens). Sophie, on the other hand, is the one who has a (completely PG) crush. Like this:

"Hey there," a voice called out behind us. My heart skipped a beat as I turned to see Rod Zimball. He put down his flower bucket and gave a little save. White petals were caught in the crests of his dark curls like whitecaps, and his hazel eyes shone. The only way he could have looked any cuter is if he were cradling a baby panda." (Page 20, ARC)

Once there's a mystery to solve, though, all three girls, with a small amount of assistance from Rod, are all in with investigating. They come up with a secret code for identifying meeting spots, and rap out messages on the walls between their rooms. There's even a late-night escapade involving a stolen golf cart. 

The book's setting, in which just about every scene is associated with the festival in some way, feels fresh. The girls spend a weekend in the Festival Mansion as part of their duties as pages, which gets them away from parental supervision, and gives them plenty of opportunities to sneak about, spying. Here's Sophie on being away from home:

"I was scared, too. Scared everyone would think I was a loser, like Ms. Sparrow had though. Scared of spending every minute with all these older girls--these cooler girls who expected us to serve their every need. But it wasn't just that. I hated the idea of being away from my family for a whole weekend. No playing Uno with Grandpa after finishing my homework. No trying to do the crossword puzzle in the morning with my mom. No listening to dad's totally exaggerated stories about work crises. No Jake being Jake." (Page 128, ARC)

Sophie does make one mistake (a betrayal of Grace) that I found cringe-worthy, but I enjoyed The Tiara on the Terrace otherwise. It's good to see a middle grade mystery with real stakes (an actual dead body), but that remains buoyant overall. I think that the mix of tween angst, cosseted "royals", and murder investigation will work well for kids who are just developing an interest in mysteries (and/or just thinking about having an interest in "more than friend" relationships. There's even a bit of diversity (in Grace and Trista's backgrounds), kept mostly incidental to the story, but good to see.

I would recommend The Tiara on the Terrace for elementary or middle school libraries, or for individual purchase for middle grade mystery fans. I think it's better than the first book, and that fans of The Wig in the Window will definitely want to take a look. If you haven't read The Wig in the Window, it would be better to start with that one, as there are spoilers for the first book. 

Publisher: HarperCollins Children's Books (@HarperChildrens
Publication Date: January 5, 2016
Source of Book: Advance review copy from the publisher

© 2015 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


It's an Orange Aardvark!: Michael Hall

Book: It's an Orange Aardvark!
Author: Michael Hall
Pages: 40
Age Range: 3-6

It's an Orange Aardvark! by Michael Hall is about a group of five carpenter ants who live inside a hollow stump. One day a bold, yellow-helmeted ant decides to drill a hole in the stump, so that they "can see what's outside." Another ant, one with an orange helmet, worries that the hole maybe a problem because:

"What if there's an aardvark out there?
Aardvarks are gray and sneaky ...

and they have long tongues
that are perfect for eating carpenter ants"

When the ants glimpse something orange through the hole, a new dispute arises about whether or not aardvarks can be orange. Other holes drilled in the stump reveal other colors, but the fears about the aardvark continue and build upon one another (It's an orange aardvark "wearing blue pajamas!", etc.). Eventually, the brave, yellow-helmeted ant ventures outside, and finds a pleasant surprise (though his most fearful companion is never convinced). 

It's an Orange Aardvark is an entertaining celebration of colors as well as fears. There are holes in the pages, through which readers can glimpse the same colors that the ants do. Hall colors concentric circles around the inside of each hole, showing the color glowing right through the holes and into the darkness of the hollow stump. The colors of the helmets are used to illustrate the personalities of the ants: the yellow one is adventurous, the blue ones are easily led, and the reddish orange one is downright paranoid. 

I like It's an Orange Aardvark because it celebrates the ridiculous, both in the premise as a whole, and in the ways that the orange-helmeted ant works the various colors into his warnings ("gecko-guiding, dozer driving", etc.). Sure, one could infer a message about not jumping to conclusions in the presence of insufficient information, but this isn't necessary to enjoy the book. The peeking through holes bit lends additional visual interest to the book, and makes it, in my opinon, more a book for preschoolers than for older kids. It would make a fun storytime read-aloud. 

Publisher: Greenwillow Books (@HarperChildrens
Publication Date: April 22, 2014
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2015 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon and iBooks affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


Brimsby's Hats: Andrew Prahin

Book: Brimsby's Hats
Author: Andrew Prahin
Pages: 40
Age Range: 4-8

Brimsby's Hats by Andrew Prahin is about a little green guy (some sort of unidentifiable animal character) who makes beautiful hats. HIs best friend helps him by making "the most wonderful tea" and assisting in packing up the hats for shipping. But most importantly, the two friends have "the most wonderful conversations." When Brimsby's friend decides to move away, to fulfill a lifelong desire to be a sea captain, Brimsby is very lonely. Eventually, however, Brimsby uses his hat-making skills to help him to make some new friends. The book concludes on a happy note, with Brimsby and his new friends visiting the old sea captain friend, and all of them talking about "hats and shovels and ships and how wonderful it was that they had all been lucky enough to meet one another."

OK, when I read my own description of this book, it sounds a bit saccharine. But it doesn't read that way. I think this is because of Prahin's matter-of-fact tone. Like this:

"The hat maker worked for many quiet days after that, and had many quiet cups of tea.
(They weren't nearly as wonderful as the tea his friend used to make.)
It was quiet.
Very quiet.
Too quiet.
One day the hat maker realized he had become awfully lonely."

The above text is spread out across a series of panels, each showing Brimsby by himself at a table for two, making his lonely hats and drinking his lonely tea, as the seasons change outside his window, and winter comes. 

Prahin's Adobe Illustrator-generated pictures use the pure white backdrop of the snow to accentuate Brimsby's loneliness. But there's humor, too. Brimsby encounters a group of birds, all nesting in a tree, keeping warm with little stoves as they sweep the snow out of their nests. There's a graphic artist feel to the illustrations - they are a bit stylized - and I think this helps keep the book from feeling too sentimental, too. There's an early sequence in which Brimsby and his friend are talking, and the author shows the things that they talk about as images in text bubbles: the two friends dressed as pirates, fighting dragons and a giant purple octopus. 

Brimsby's Hats is a book that makes me happy when I read it. I think that young readers will enjoy it, too. Although it is technically about the importance of finding friends, Prahin steers well away from the didactic by focusing on the efforts and experiences of one quirky little hat maker. Recommended for home or library use. 

Publisher: Simon & Schuster (@SimonKids)
Publication Date: December 31, 2013
Source of Book: Library copy

© 2015 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon and iBooks affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


Toys Meet Snow: Emily Jenkins and Paul O. Zelinsky

Book: Toys Meet Snow: Being the Wintertime Adventures of a Curious Stuffed Buffalo, a Sensitive Plush Stingray, and a Book-loving Rubber Ball 
Author: Emily Jenkins
Illustrator: Paul O. Zelinsky
Pages: 40
Age Range: 3-7

Toys Meet Snow brings the world of Toys Go Out and sequels (chapter books by Emily Jenkins and Paul O. Zelinsky) to picture book format. The result is a treat for picture book readers of all ages. In this simple celebration of winter, three toys are left at home while Little Girl is away on vacation. Curious about the snow they see outside the window, Lumphy, StingRay, and Plastic venture out of doors. They make a snowman and snow angels and have a fun-filled day, before heading inside at sunset. 

It is not necessary to have read the Toys Go Out books to appreciate Toys Meet Snow. The personalities of the three toys are crystal clear, without any previous context. Lumphy (a stuffed buffalo) is the one asking questions like "Why does it decide to snow." StingRay (a plush stingray) "is more poetic than factual", coming up with answers like "Because the clouds are sad and happy at the same time". Plastic (a round rubber ball, inaccurately named) stays focused on the facts (most of the time).  

The events of the story strike a nice balance between being toy-specific and being universal to child readers. The snow angels that they make reflect their unique shapes (Plastic's is especially humorous, a grouping of circles where she has bounced around). And the page in which the three toys have to work together to open the outside door, shown in a series of panels, is hilarious. 

The details of the story are also well-balanced, between factual ("it's what rain becomes when the temperature is freezing" and poetic (sunset is "strawberry syrup pouring over the world to make it sweet before nightfall." In the end, the more poetic side wins out, and even pragmatic Plastic is taken by the strawberry syrup sunset. 

Zelinsky's digitally rendered illustrations draw the reader completely into the story, somehow managing to give us a toy's sense of perspective on the big, snowy world. The sunset images are particularly lovely and warm. Jenkins' text is spare, leaving the pictures to convey much of the story. It could have been a tricky transition, from the more text-dense chapter book format to a picture book, but she handles it beautifully. 

Toys Meet Snow is the perfect book with which to curl up with a child on a cold winter's night. It's also a nice introduction for younger readers to this kid-friendly series. Highly recommended. This book was my nomination for the 2015 Cybils Awards in Fiction Picture Books.  

Publisher: Schwartz & Wade (@RandomHouseKids)  
Publication Date: September 22, 2015
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2015 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


Paul Meets Bernadette: Rosy Lamb

Book: Paul Meets Bernadette
Author: Rosy Lamb
Pages: 40
Age Range: 4-8

Paul Meets Bernadette by Rosy Lamb is one of those books that I didn't fully appreciate until I read it with my child. Paul is a goldfish who spends his time swimming around in circles. He doesn't have anything else to do. One day, Bernadette is dropped into his bowl, however, and changes his whole world. Instead of just swimming around the goldfish bowl, Bernadette takes note of the things she can see outside of the bowl. She identifies these things to Paul, though her knowledge proves to be somewhat lacking. Still, Paul is utterly charmed, and by the end of the book, he's not going around in circles, he's going around Bernadette, the new center of his world. 

The part that my daughter loves about this book is the way that Bernadette mis-identifies things. She sees a banana and thinks that it's a boat. She sees a pair of glasses and declares it "a lunetta butterfly". A teapot becomes an elephant. And so on. These mix-ups make my daughter peal with laughter. Identifying the objects correctly makes her feel smart. All in all, these things make this a very interactive picture book. 

What my daughter doesn't really notice, at four, is the way that Bernadette's misconceptions always expand the world in which she and Paul live. She doesn't see two fried eggs, she sees "the sun and the moon." She doesn't see milk and orange juice containers, she sees the city of "Milkwaukee." (A joke that will be over the head of most kids, but pleased me.) Bernadette takes what could be a dull, circumscribed existence and makes it ever-interesting. Paul gets this. After she identifies the sun and the moon he thinks: "And you, Bernadette, are my star." 

Lamb's use of oil paints for the illustrations is a good choice. She's able to use swirls of colors to show the movement of the goldfish in the water, and to lend a textured appearance to everything that the fish see. 

As with the objects on Paul and Bernadette's table, there's more to Paul Meets Bernadette than initially meets the eye. Paul Meets Bernadette is entertaining for kids, and gorgeous to look at, but also has a subtle, integral message about how people can make, and break free of, their own prisons. A standout picture book, recommended for home or library purchase. 

Publisher: Candlewick (@Candlewick)
Publication Date: December 10, 2013
Source of Book: Library copy, checked out for Round 1 Cybils consideration in Fiction Picture Books. All opinions are my own. 

© 2015 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon and iBooks affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


A Dance Like Starlight: One Ballerina's Dream: Kristy Dempsey & Floyd Cooper

Book: A Dance Like Starlight: One Ballerina's Dream
Author: Kristy Dempsey
Illustrator: Floyd Cooper
Pages: 32
Age Range: 5-8

A Dance Like Starlight: One Ballerina's Dream, by Kristy Dempsey and Floyd Cooper, is about a little African American girl in the 1950's who hardly dares to dream of being a ballerina. Her mother works as a seamstress for a Harlem ballet school, where the Ballet Master allows the little girl "to join lessons each day from the back of the room, even though (she) can't perform onstage with white girls." But when her mother takes her to see "Miss Janet Collins ... first colored prima ballerina" to perform at the Metropolitan Opera House, the girl feels hope that her own dream might one day come true. 

A Dance Like Starlight is a moving story that gives modern children a window into the segregation of African American children in the 1950s. The girl wonders "Could a colored girl like me ever become a prima ballerina?" This seems, until she learns of Miss Collins, more like a wish than something with any reasonable hope of occurring.

This book is fairly text-heavy, and more suited to older children than preschoolers. Here's a snippet (all from one page):

"It takes
three
different
buses
to get where we're going.
I keep checking Mama's watch
and straining my neck to see how far we've gone.
But in this crowded bus from our place in the back
all I can see are sidewalks and storefronts.
It makes it hard to see the tops of high-rises,
landmarks that would let me know we're close,
ones I would recognize
from wishing on a skyline every single night."

Cooper's mixed media illustrations have a sepia tone that reflects both the dark skin of the main characters and what may be a nod to old-fashioned photos from 60+ years ago. The people and settings are depicted realistically. One image, of the girl's anguished face in the hands of the Ballet Master, makes her so real that I felt like I knew her. 

A Dance Like Starlight is not going to be for everyone - there's a lot of text, and the illustrations, while lovely, have a serious feel. But for kids who love dance, or who scarcely dare to dream that they can become something big, A Dance Like Starlight will really hit home. And it's of course nice to see a picture book on the new books shelf that shows a brown-skinned girl lost in the joy of dance. Recommended, especially for library purchase. 

Publisher: Philomel Books (@PenguinKids) 
Publication Date: January 2, 2014
Source of Book: Library copy, checked out for Round 1 Cybils consideration in Fiction Picture Books. All opinions are my own. 

© 2015 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon and iBooks affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


The Big Ideas of Buster Bickles: Dave Wasson

Book: The Big Ideas of Buster Bickles
Author: Dave Wasson
Pages: 40
Age Range: 4-8

The Big Ideas of Buster Bickles by Dave Wasson is an over-the-top picture book that celebrates creativity and following your own path. Buster Bickles is a kid who is full of ideas, like making robots out of cardboard and making "EGGS-ray" vision goggles out of bacon and eggs. But when he takes his inventions to school for show and tell, the other kids laugh at him. 

Fortunately, Buster just happens to have an uncle who is an inventor (bearing a strong resemblance to Doc Brown from the Back to the Future movies). Uncle Roswell (heh) just happens to have invented a "What-If Machine", but he's lacking in big ideas to use to test it out. Needless to say, Buster is up for the challenge. He starts small, imagining "What if I had a giant mustache?", but then his ideas get bigger and bigger, until near-disaster. In the end, the What-If Machine makes a cameo at school for show and tell, and Buster is utterly vindicated.

So, not the most realistic book about invention that one might run across. (At one point the entire planet turns into ice cream). Despite the science-fiction nature of the story, however, Buster himself is relatable for any kid who has ever wanted to build things or felt like other people didn't understand. When he is initially laughed at during show and tell, the reader can see Buster droop, even though he is inside his robot costume. When he sadly says: "No one seems to like my ideas, Mom", the reader's heart hurts for him. And when his uncle asks if he has any big ideas for the machine, his joy positively radiates from the page. Although the what-ifs are entertaining (raining guinea pigs!), it's this realistic emotion that made The Big Ideas of Buster Bickles stand out for me.  

The Big Ideas of Buster Bickles is a fun romp that is sure to make kids giggle. Wasson's digitally-generated illustrations are quirky and detailed. The use of varied fonts adds points for read-aloud emphasis. But The Big Ideas of Buster Bickles also has heart, and delivers a subtle encouragement to dream big. That makes it a keeper in my book. Recommended for home or classroom settings.  

Publisher: HarperCollins (@HarperChildrens
Publication Date: April 28, 2015
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2015 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


Death by Toilet Paper: Donna Gephart

Book: Death by Toilet Paper
Author: Donna Gephart
Pages: 272
Age Range: 9-12

Death by Toilet Paper by Donna Gephart is a quick and humorous read that manages to cover quite a bit of ground. 7th grader Benjamin and his mother are suffering financially following the death of Benjamin's father the previous year. Although his mother is close to completing her CPA certification (and thus improving their fortunes), they are at risk of being evicted from their apartment in the meantime.

Benjamin tries to help raise money by entering a variety of contests, including one involving toilet paper. He also sets up a small business selling candy at school. This stressful time becomes more complicated when Benjamin's grandfather arrives unexpectedly on their doorstep, and appears to be having memory problems.  

Although there's a lot going on in this book, and some of it is serious stuff, the overall tone of Death by Toilet Paper is, as you would expect from the title and the cover, reasonably light. Definitely middle grade friendly. There's a series of letters included throughout the story between Benjamin and an executive from the Royal-T Toilet Paper Company. And there are toilet-related facts included at the start of each chapter. Like:

"Toilet paper for the average person was invented by an American, Joseph Gayetty, in 1857 but didn't catch on for a while. In those days, housewives had to ask the grocer for every item, and many were too embarrassed to ask for toilet paper." (Page 35)

One thing that particularly stands out in Death by Toilet Paper is the direct way that Gephart addresses money. Benjamin knows exactly what the rent is each month, and what his mother makes in her temporary waitressing job, and how much his mother gets for Benjamin from social security (following the death of his father). There are little math examples where he adds and subtracts these numbers to understand how much they owe vs. how much they have. His mother is, of necessity, completely open with him about their situation. I find that young readers are rarely exposed to this level of detail about finances, and I think that this makes a real contribution. [Only once of twice did the dialog regarding the finances feel forced to me - by and large it worked well.] 

In addition to socioeconomic diversity, Death by Toilet Paper also incorporates religious diversity. Benjamin and his family are Jewish. His grandfather, Zeyde, drops Yiddish expressions regularly - not so much as to make the book impenetrable, but enough to give readers a flavor for the Jewish culture. There are references to Jewish holiday, mourning and burial traditions, included quite organically within the text (see an example below). There is a brief glossary of Yiddish terms included at the end of the book. 

Benjamin's best friend, Toothpick, lives with his divorced father and only sees his mother occasionally. The relationship between the two boys is nicely-done, with realistic degrees of conflict, but ultimate loyalty. Toothpick's passion is shooting his own horror movies, and especially working on the makeup for these movies, which I found quirky and interesting. The relationships between Benjamin and Toothpick's dad, and between Toothpick and Benjamin's mom are believable, too. Even though both boys come from fractured families, they are also functional families with caring parents (and one grandparent, flawed but loving). 

Here are a couple of snippets, to give you a feel for Benjamin's voice:

"I grab a few crackers and chow down, pretending they're hot, gooey slices of Kirk's Pizza--my favorite kind. Unfortunately, when it comes to pretending food is something it isn't, my imagination is weak. 

And my imagination is apparenty weak when it comes to creating grand-prize-winning ideas, too. Royal-T, from the finest tree, makes you clean and happy. Awful. Use Royal-T and you'll see it's the best there can be. Hopeless." (Page 21)

and:

"I know he's joking, because every time Zeyde visits, he always goes into my room to say hello to Barkley. And last Chanukah, he bought Barkley a castle to go inside his tank. Dad died shortly before Chanukah. I remember feeling miserable that Dad didn't get to see Barkley's new castle. Or light the candles with us. Or eat latkes with applesauce--his favorite dish." Page 67)

Benjamin is moody, sometimes sad, and frequently self-doubting. But he's hopeful and determined, too. I enjoyed reading about him. Death by Toilet Paper is more serious than one would expect based on the title and cover. But the presence of toilet humor, zombie makeup, and an over-the-top grandfather help to keep things light. It's rare to see family finances addressed so directly in a middle grade book, particularly in a book that is so multi-dimensional overall. For this reason, and because of the mix of humor and heart, I think that Death by Toilet Paper would be an excellent choice for elementary and middle school libraries. Recommended for readers of all ages. 

Publisher: Yearling Books (@RandomHouseKids
Publication Date: July 28, 2015 (paperback edition)
Source of Book: Personal copy (purchased). The author does read my blog. I have emailed with her on many occasions, though we have not met in person. She did not ask me to review the book, nor did we have any discussions specific to the book. 

© 2015 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


The Way Back from Broken: Amber J. Keyser

Book: The Way Back from Broken
Author: Amber J. Keyser
Pages: 216
Age Range: 13 and up

The Way Back from Broken by Amber J. Keyser is a young adult novel about recovering from grief, with generous helpings of interpersonal relationships, diversity, and outdoor adventure. 15-year-old Rakmen, a city kid from North Portland (OR) is struggling 10 months after the death of his baby sister. He's not doing well in school, doesn't care about playing basketball with his friends anymore, and fears that his parents' marriage is breaking up. As things deteriorate further, Rakmen's parents end up sending him to the Canadian wilderness for the summer with Leah, who has recently lost a baby, and her 9-year-old daughter Jacey. There, the three mis-matched lost souls have an adventure, and also start to form a new sort of family. 

The Way Back from Broken is most suitable to young adults (and adults), with a bit of language and references to suicide. The grief of the characters is often searing, and I think it would be a bit much for younger kids. At the start of the book I wondered "why would I put myself through reading this?". But Rakmen's voice (limited third person perspective) pulled me in. And I'm glad that it did. The Way Back from Broken is powerful and unflinching but ultimately hopeful. 

Keyser does a nice job of incorporating diversity organically in The Way Back from Broken. Rakmen's dad is (apparently) black, his mother is Mexican. The grief counseling center that Rakmen and his mom visit groups them together with black and white families from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds, their shared grief building bridges that would otherwise be unlikely. The tentatively developing friendship between Rakmen and a white girl named Molly is handled in a way that felt realistic to me. There's awkwardness when Rakmen's friend teases him about Molly, and even more awkwardness when she and her parents attend a cookout at Rakmen's home. None of this diversity is what the book is about - but it renders the interpersonal relationships more layered and interesting. 

Keyser's prose is descriptive, using all of the senses, yet without slowing the pace of the book. Here are a couple of the passages that I flagged:

"Rakmen breathed in the summer evening--the bite of diesel in the air, garden dirt, and burgers cooking next door. This was what he knew, but it no longer felt like home. He was a runaway truck with burned out brakes. The ache that filled Rakmen pulsed in his bones, white-cold and penetratingly deep. With leaden arms, he hoisted his duffel into the trunk." (Page 60)

"As he picked up the paddle and thrust the canoe into deeper water, his open blister burned against the wooden shaft, and every muscle in his arms and torso screamed in protest. Au large was the perfect torture, he though. When you can't walk anymore, you paddle. When your hands are about to fall off, you hike. And every single part of your body ends up hurting." (Page 123)

The later part of the book is suspenseful. I read The Way Back from Broken in just about one sitting, engaged because of the action that takes place, but also because I cared about the characters. The relationship between Rakmen and Jacey is particularly well-done, built slowly and steadily over the course of the book. The Way Back from Broken is a book that will stay with me. Highly recommended for teen and adult readers. 

Publisher: Carolrhoda Lab 
Publication Date: October 1, 2015
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2015 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


Tulip and Rex Write a Story: Alyssa Satin Capucilli and Sarah Massini

Book: Tulip and Rex Write a Story
Author: Alyssa Satin Capucilli
Illustrator: Sarah Massini
Pages: 32
Age Range: 4-8

Tulip and Rex Write a Story is the sequel to Tulip Loves Rex, written by Alyssa Satin Capucilli and illustrated by Sarah Massini. In Tulip and Rex Write a Story, young Tulip plans to spend the day with her beloved and unusual dog Rex. When a package arrives from Grandma containing a pretty notebook for Tulip and a new leash for Rex, they decide to head out for a walk / neighborhood exploration. As Tulip and Rex notice the "wonderful" words that mark their experiences, Tulip starts jotting the words down in her notebook. Eventually, she realizes that she can transform the words, and her experiences, into a story. Readers get a glimpse into Tulip and Rex's story before the book ends with a cheerful family picnic. 

As an adult reader, I found this book to be a bit too contrived, as Tulip putters about putting words like "butterfly" into her journal. But I think that kids who are just learning to read themselves will enjoy it, and might even be inspired to think about making up their own stories. Here's a snippet of the word-finding:

"Just then, a butterfly landed atop Rex's nose!
"Butterflies flutter, Rex. Flutter, flutter.
Flutter is a lovely word, don't you think?

Rex wagged his tail. Flutter
was a lovely word; it tickled, too!
Into the notebook it went!

And butterfly, too."

Here "Flutter" and "butterfly" are shown in a large, orange font (not quite the same color shown here), clearly standing out from the rest of the text. Later, when some of the words from the notebook make their way into Tulip's story, they are colored also. Sort of a vocabulary recap. Like this:

"But wait! There came a 
feather floating from the sky.
It was no ordinary feature; why,
it seemed to dance! King Rex
grasped the magical feather and
held it aloft and, as if he had the
wings of a butterfly, Kind Rex
sailed across the moat and--"

The story within the story isn't finished - leaving kids to imagine for themselves how it might end. 

I also do quite like Massini's illustrations. The joy of both Tulip and Rex comes through, with the dog a large, benign presence on every page. I also like how, in both text and illustrations, the authors make the parents recede to the background. If you were just reading the text, you might think that Tulip and Rex are out exploring on their own for most of the book. But Massini shows the parents periodically, always in the background, barely visible, but present. Adults reading this book to children can reassure anxious kids that yes, Mommy and Daddy are nearby. 

Fans of Tulip Loves Rex will certainly want to give Tulip and Rex Write a Story a look. While it doesn't have the same emphasis that the first book does on dance, it does convey the same joyful exuberance of the characters. I think this book will also work for kids just on the cusp of being readers and writers, who are intrigued by words. It would pair well with Rocket Writes a Story by Tad Hills, and could make an interesting (if slightly lengthy) classroom read-aloud. 

Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books (@HarperChildrens
Publication Date: September 1, 2015
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2015 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).


Austin, Lost in America: Jef Czekaj

Book: Austin, Lost in America: A Geography Adventure
Author: Jef Czekaj
Pages: 40
Age Range: 6-9 (picture book for older kids)

Austin, Lost in America: A Geography Adventure is a picture book that seems best suited to first through third-graders. Austin is a dog in search of a home. He breaks out of his pet shop and embarks up on a criss-cross country journey through all 50 states, looking for the one that feels best. As he visits each state (usually over less than a page), author Jef Czekaj shares tidbits about that state. Each spread also includes a small map of the state with the capitol labeled. 

The tidbits about each state are quirky things that kids are likely to find amusing or interesting, like: "Every year, Brattleboro, Vermont hosts the Strolling of the Heifers, a parade of cows down its main street." Austin is displayed in some scene that matches the tidbit (e.g marching down the street ahead of a pack of cows, waving a baton). 

There's also an over-the-top narrative tying together the facts about each state and indicating why that state isn't the right one for Austin. Like this:

"Florida had to be it! It was warm. It was sunny. Austin ate oranges. He sunbathed. He swam with manatees. This would be the perfect place to live. (Image of Austin with sunglasses on a beach)

He even got invite to a dinner party. (Image of an alligator opening the door for Austin)

But when he discovered that he was to be the main course, he knew it was time to go." (Image of Austin lying on a dining room table, surrounded by alligators and crocodiles)

Austin, Lost in America is vividly illustrated and full of unusual and or amusing facts. It is, however, rather lengthy for a picture book. I can't imagine that preschoolers would have the patience for it. I myself was a bit daunted at the idea of reading about each and every state, with only a minimal thread tying the different sections together. But I do think that for first to third graders who are interested in learning more about the United States, Austin, Lost in America offers a plethora of facts in a non-intimidating context. It's probably more a book to dip into occasionally than a book to read through, cover to cover. But it is a fun and informative ride across the country. 

Publisher: Balzer + Bray (@HarperChildrens
Publication Date: September 1, 2015
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

© 2015 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook. This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through affiliate links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).