Home at Last by Vera B. Williams Book Review

Home at Last by Vera B. Williams
Illustations by Chris Raschka
Publisher: Greenwillow Books
Release Date: September 13, 2016

When Daddy Albert and Daddy Rich adopt Lester, he is so excited. But being part of a new family isn't as easy as he thought it would be. He can't sleep at night, creeping into his parent's room sure that if he could just be with them and their dog, Wincka, nothing bad will happen to him ever again. Yet, each night his new dads return him to his own empty room. Lester is happy with his new family, yet each night the fear returns. Until one day Wincka helps solve the problem.

The amount of books concerning adoption are very few. There are even less that deal with older child adoption. And even fewer concerning same sex couples and adoption. Which makes this book extremely special in its subject matter. The problem with this book is that it is so text heavy that it doesn't seem appropriate for its target age range in the picture book demographic. Which leaves the open ended question of, who is this book's audience? The illustrations are nice, the information is fairly accurate, the feelings very real, but there is a very small audience for this book I am afraid. This is a shame, because there is a definite need for picture books that explain older child adoption.

I think I could be even more nit-picky about this book since I am in the middle of adopting an older child from foster care, but I think I shall leave this as my last complaint: If you are adopting a waiting child through foster care in America (even if they are living in a group home/orphanage), they come live with you first before the adoption is finalized. There is usually a minimum period for this. In my state, 90 days.

Give it some time and perhaps I will make a book of my own. One that explains to young children why Aunt & Uncle suddenly have a teenager living with them. One of my nephews is very interested in the concept, but I don't think he understands it completely and I would love it if there was a book out there that helped. To a seven-year-old, it's all a bit grown-up and confusing.

Bring Me a Rock! by Daniel Miyares Book Review

Bring Me a Rock! by Daniel Miyares
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Release Date: July 7, 2016

One very power-hungry grasshopper demands a throne that will allow him to loom over all of his bug subjects. He summons them all and commands them all to bring him the biggest rocks they can carry. When one little bug can only contribute a small pebble, it is rejected out of hand. But what does the King grasshopper need when his perfect throne is precariously wobbly? Why, a little pebble of course.

Reminding me a lot of Pixar's A Bug's Life, this story is about one serious dictator and his underlings who manage to bring about equality by simply helping him out when he is about to get hurt. It's such a nice sentiment. And so completely contrary to real life. With kid's books, it is a tough balance to write nice little morality tales that teach things like equality and being honest about how the world actually works. I know this is the cynic in me, but I kind of wish someone had told me that even though karma is an interesting theory, it's simply not true. There are people out there that treat other people badly and they don't suddenly become nice when you treat them nice. They also don't get karmic justice either. My biggest bully as a kid lives a very good life now (yeah, I Facebook stalked him) with a good job and a family. One would think a kid who went around punching girls for no reason would end up somewhere other than a corner office, but no. The trick is to just walk away and say, screw you, if you treat me that way I'm not getting any rocks for you. Ever. Come talk to me when you feel like apologizing for being mean. It took me a few years as a kid to figure that one out. You mean I don't have to hang out with people who boss me around and treat me horribly?

Of course, as with anything that strikes a chord, I may be reading too much into this. The illustrations were quite lovely and I do like the message of equality. It's just that the morality part of the story felt as fantasy-like as the anthropomorphized insects.  

Secret Agent Man Goes Shopping for Shoes by Tim Wynne-Jones Book Review

Secret Agent Man Goes Shopping for Shoes by Tim Wynne-Jones
Illustrations by Brian Won
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Release Date: June 14, 2016

Secret Agent Man (aka S.A.M.) needs new shoes, which is how he finds himself on a dangerous mission to the shoe store. The problem with being a secret agent, particularly a young one, is that he looks a bit shifty and the mission's success hinges upon a pair of tiger-striped shoes that may grant him superpowers.

Although a bit jealous of S.A.M.'s tiger-striped shoes and crushing on the retro illustrations, I have to say that I wasn't blown away by this book. Although I certainly don't expect picture books to have strong plots, the story in this one was all over the place with only a tiny thread of cohesiveness holding it all together. I was confused by the dual identity of the character and his relationship with his mother. (aka K) Not to mention that the language and sloppy transitions. I understand it is about a little boy playing at being a secret agent while shopping, but even the character seemed to have a hard time keeping up with his own imaginative play. The illustrations are quite lovely, with a classic 1960s spy look, which paired with a lackluster story, made the book feel more like a showcase for Won's art.

The Sailweaver's Son by Jeff Minerd Book Review

The Sailweaver's Son by Jeff Minerd
Publisher: Silver Leaf Books
Release Date: September 1, 2016

Etherium is an air world, with mountain top cities and great seas of clouds transversed by great sail-driven airships. Fifteen-year-old Tak is the son of a prominent sailweaver, which grants him a good deal of freedom. Some in the royal court would say too much. Take likes to sail his small airship near the big naval ships, which often gets him into trouble with their captain. Until the day Take witnesses a giant gas bubble rise up from the depths and explode, taking a ship with it. In an act of bravery and folly, Tak rescues its captain. His actions are rewarded with suspicion though but Admiral Scud who seems hell bent on creating war with the Gublins, underground creatures that live far below the clouds within the mountains. And so Tak sets off on an adventure to discover Admiral Scud's true intentions, discovering new friends along the way and a level of bravery he didn't think he had in him.

There is a lot of work that goes into building a new world, particularly one that despite being fantasy in nature, is grounded in some science. Minerd handled this part of the story very well. Etherium is a fascinating planet, for lack of a better world. A place where the air is thick enough to allow ships to sail through the clouds, caught on the wind. The people who live above and beneath the clouds have evolved and adapted well to their environments. Long histories, wars, science, are all hinted at, but long exposition was rare. Appendices in the back of the book expand upon the world, but much of the information was scattered throughout the book and so the appendices felt more like a behind the scenes in a film.

As for the characters, Tak is a fun character who doesn't exactly change throughout the book, but rather discovers what kind of person he truly is. Is he really the kind of person who will board a burning airship to save a man? No one is watching. He could just leave. At the end of the book, I think that we know Tak so well that when he is confronted with a similar choice, we already know what he will do. I particularly liked that these characters felt so real as Tak has to address issues like PTSD and what it means to be privileged.

Luff, a young goat herder with a rather janky airship is the first of Tak's new friends, rescued from the tentacles of a jellyfish. I liked Luff although I wish there had been more to his character. He was a bit backward and fearful, not at all heroic like Tak, but I did expect more of him and was disappointed when he returned home 2/3 of the way through the book. On the other hand Brieze, the wizard's daughter, was a wonderful secondary character. In Etherium wizards are basically scientists and so Brieze has a bit more insight into the happenings of their world than either of the boys do. It makes her a great asset and a bit mysterious. I was sad to see her leave too, but for a completely different reason than Luff.

In the end, this was a solid science fiction book that dips its toes in the fantasy and steampunk genres. I look forward to reading book two.

Beard in a Box by Bill Cotter Book Review

Beard in a Box by Bill Cotter 
Publisher: Knopf
Release Date: April 19, 2016

A young boy wants a beard just like his Dad's. When he discovers a hair-growth product called Beard in a Box, he can't wait to get started. When it arrives he rips it open in anticipation, applies the beard seeds, and then long?! Eighteen years? How is he ever going to have a beard like his dad's if it takes that long?

As I have said earlier, the hipsters are having babies folks. Perhaps you are a hipster reading this. I have absolutely no problem with this either. I'm glad books are starting to recognize human parents (since so many picture books are animals) with varied looks. I'm glad there are books for kids who have dad's with big bushy beards. This is actually one of my favorite beard/mustache books of late. It was cute and funny and not at all weird, unlike Mustache Baby. Perfect for all the little boy's with bearded daddies and grandpas. A great conversation starter for talking about male puberty as well.

My Dad Used to Be Cool by Keith Negley Book Review

My Dad Used to Be Cool by Keith Negley
Publisher: Flying Eye Books
Release Date: July 5, 2016

A great book for both parents and kids, this is for every parent who desperately wants their kid to know that they used to be considered cool. The dad in this book is covered in tattoos. Pictures of him in a rock band and on a motorcycle hang on the wall along with an electric guitar and a skateboard. What his son sees though, is just his dad. The colors in this book are so wonderfully engaging. The little hints of the father's former life scattered throughout the pages. As parents, you know that the real reason he has "given up" some of those things is because of the child in front of him, the child who doesn't think old dad is that cool. I will say, my first thought when I started this book was, "You know the next generation are starting to have kids when we have books with tattooed daddies and a plethora of beard books." I'm happy to see those people represented in books too.

How To Eat an Airplane by Peter Pearson Book Review

How To Eat an Airplane by Peter Pearson
Illustrations by Mircea Catusanu
Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books
Release Date: May 24, 2016

If you want to eat an airplane, one is going to have to have some decent dinner etiquette and some good friends to help pull it off.

As with most books that kids obsess over, this one is absurd in the extreme. Eating airplane parts is obviously silly, but that is the book's conceit. Yet, there is a bit of truth behind the ridiculous. Between 1978 and 1980, Michel Lotito ate an entire Cessna 150 airplane, eating his way into the record books. Not something I would recommend for the average kindergartner obviously, but it does make for a fun story. Not to mention that there is a lot of information about airplanes and their many parts. The illustrations are a brilliant use of mixed media and certainly tell a story all on their own.

Whoosh! by Chris Barton Book Review

Whoosh!: Lonnie Johnson's Super-Soaking Stream of Inventions by Chris Barton
Illustrations by Don Tate
Publisher: Charlesbridge
Release Date: May 3, 2016

Everyone knows the Super Soaker. A few pumps of air and you spray down your opponent in a fun epic water battle for the ages. What most people don't know if why created this amazing toy. Lonnie Johnson  had a love for rockets, robots, and inventions. He worked for NASA. But it was the Super Soaker that ended being his most memorable contribution to society, bringing joy to millions of kids and adults.

This is exactly what I want a picture book biography to be. Informative, engaging, fascinating, and new. I love all these stories about the inventions of things and the wonderful engineers behind them. Lonnie Johnson's story will inspire young readers to invent and learn. The text is perfect for the age of its intended audience and the illustrations are perfect. I think this book has a great deal of practical application for teachers and parents, and the diversity element in the story is also incredibly important. I am so incredibly excited to see what the next generation of young people manages to invent and I hope these kinds of stories are what inspire them to keep trying.

Finding Wild by Megan Wagner Lloyd Book Review

Finding Wild by Megan Wagner Lloyd
Illustrations by Abigail Halpin
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Release Date: May 10, 2016

Two kids set off on an adventure away from their homes and discover the beauty of the natural world. Sudden storms, fire, flowers, snowflakes. As the children make their way through the woods, they find that the wild can exist even in their own backyard.

My husband always makes fun of me because I call the area behind my parents' house "the woods". In truth I am a city mouse and those "woods" are actually about 20 feet thick and you can see the backyard of the neighbor behind them. Yet, to us children, it was nature. We found moles and rabbits in there. A bird feeder hung nearby. My younger brothers would climb the trees and helped my dad build a shed tucked into the trees. A hammock is strung up in their shade. It isn't a forest, but it was out little bit of nature.

A beautifully illustrated story about the wonders of the natural world that can be found far and near, this book has boundless applications. Perfect for city kids, story times, nature unit studies, art, and class room, I love a story that encourages children to look for the beauty in the world around them.

There Is a Tribe of Kids by Lane Smith Book Review

There Is a Tribe of Kids by Lane Smith
Publisher: Roaring Brook Press
Release Date: May 3, 2016

A young goes on a journey and finds groups of things, a smack of jellyfish, a colony of penguins, until he finally discovers friends in a tribe of kids.

Authors really love naming things. This is not the first book I have come across that tries to be creative in collective nouns. And I did wonder at some of the word choices, yet can't deny the whimsy of it either. In the end, the "story" (a rather loose term for this book) is about belonging. I can see it being used for classrooms, but like other more quite and melancholy picture books, I think adults will like it more than children will.

For the Right to Learn by Rebecca Langston-George Book Review

For the Right to Learn by Rebecca Langston-George
Illustrations by Janna Bock
Publisher: Capstone Press
Release Date: September 1, 2015

She grew up in a world where women were supposed to be quiet. But Malala Yousafzai refused to be silent. She defied the Taliban's rules, spoke out for education for every girl, and was almost killed for her beliefs. This powerful true story of how one brave girl named Malala changed the world proves that one person really can make a difference.

You have to have been living under a rock not to know who Malala Yousafzai is. Her story is inspirational and powerful and will hopefully have ramifications for many girls throughout the world. The beginnings of her story are hard, but important. The problem with this particular version of her story is that, despite some lovely illustrations, this picture book is extremely text heavy. Picture book biographies are strange in that their audience pushes out from the normal 3-6 year old age range and can go all the way up to middle school. Yet, the illustrations almost always speak to a much younger audience and so the text and pictures become incongruous. Not to mention that the content of this story about a child being shot is way too intense for younger children. And so we are left with a picture book that is intended for older children and one can't help but wonder if there was a better format to present this story? And there is. A quick search shows numerous other formats of biographies and even an autobiography that will work far better for bringing Malala's story to its intended audience.

Princeless by Jeremy Whitley Book Review

Princeless by Jeremy Whitley
Illustrations by M. Goodwin; Contributors Jung-Ha Kim and Dave Dwonch 
Publisher: Action Lab
Release Date: May 23, 2012

In this girl-power comic books series, Princess Adrienne is tired of waiting for rescue. So she befriends the dragon who is guarding her tower, stages her own death, and sets out to save her other sisters from a similar fate. They soon meet up with a plucky half-dwarf girl named Bedelia and are soon running toward and away from danger. 

I really wanted to like this series. After all, one of my favorite book series ever (The Lioness Quartet by Tamora Pierce) is about a girl who pretends to be a boy so she can become a knight. We have a plucky, funny heroine along with some fantastic one liners. Huge bonus points for Princess Adrienne and her entire family being black. I would say African-American, but this is a fantasy world so there isn't really an Africa or America. I didn't just read this first graphic novel compilation either, but rather five, although I have no idea if I read them in order since that was one of the most confusing parts for me. Sadly, the premise of the story couldn't withstand the clunky dialogue and didactic nature. 

My biggest issue was in the feminism, which I wouldn't mind if I didn't feel like I was being hit over the head with it repeatedly. And just when you think they can't possibly be anymore heavy-handed, the writer squeezes in one more just to make sure that you know, this girl don't need anybody rescuing her. Now, I am not against a princess rescuing herself, in fact that was the best part of the book. The problem was the six pages dedicated to complaining about the skimpiness of women's armor historically. Or the many times that the Princess' father talks about how boys need to be strong and the only use for girls is to be ruled over and rescued. Of course, there are some role reversal moments too where the Prince likes theater and sewing rather than swordfighting, which also felt ridiculous mostly because it was lazy writing. This is just strict role reversal and rather than creating nuanced characters who could like both sword fighting AND theater. 

I did wonder if this really was for children too since there were numerous references to things that I don't think kids will get. Like the Xena costume or the Skyrim reference. 

The biggest issue with this series though is that it takes forever for anything to happen. In the first book the only Princess saved is Adrienne herself. A few books in and we get to meet two more sisters. They are so busy trying to tear down female-stereotypes that they sometimes forget to keep the plot going. 

As I said, I would like to like this series. It has fantasy and girl power and a hammer-wielding half-dwarf, but the story was trying just a little too hard to effective. 

Beard Boy by John Flannery Book Review

Beard Boy by John Flannery
Illustrations by Steven Weinberg
Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons Book for Young Readers
Release Date: May 10, 2016

Ben wants a beard. All the coolest people he knows have one. The baker, the barbers, the butcher, and most importantly--his dad. He has tried and tried, but nothing seems to work. Even when his dad says that this is something that is just going to have to wait for him to grow up, Ben is not satisfied. He wants a beard now!

We are now in the era where beard wearing hipster dads are having kids, so it isn't any surprise that there are a number of beard and mustache picture books that have begun appearing. After all, hipsters need picture books too. Which does make me wonder though, were there a plethora of children's books coming out in the sixties and seventies for children of hippies? No matter, this book had a special sort of charm in that of a child wanting to be like his dad. If for no other reason than he looks up to his father and considers him to be "boss". The illustrations are done in child-like cartoons that felt as if Ben himself was illustrating the story. Also, let's not forget that Ben's mother has tattoos, which is also a rarity in picture books and something that made this book stand out all the more.

Over the Ocean by Taro Gomi Book Review

Over the Ocean by Taro Gomi
Publisher: Chronicle Books
Release Date: May 17, 2016

A young girl looks out to sea and wonders what lies beyond. Perhaps there are boats filled with toys, skyscrapers filled with people, home with families. Perhaps there is another little girl standing on the shore of another ocean, thinking the same thoughts.

An old book reprinted for a new audience, Over the Ocean is the timeless story of imagination and wonder. I think we have all wondered what it is like somewhere else, knowing full well that our experiences limit our imaginations and yet we search for that knowledge anyway. For children, that imagining begins with a question. Every page of this book is filled with colorful depictions that try to answer those questions. Despite these rich themes, I admit that I was a bit bored by the book. The child's imagination never goes beyond the practical and this felt so unlike the true thoughts of a child. That issue is vastly outweighed by the wonderful illustrations though.

Three Magic Balloons by Julianna Marguiles Book Review

Three Magic Balloons by Julianna Margulies
Illustrations by Grant Shaffer
Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers
Release Date: May 10, 2016

Three little girls. Three magic balloons. Tie the to the bedposts and they take the girls on a magical journey.

Let me summarize another way: Three angelic girls unselfishly feed animals at the zoo, because feeding animals at the zoo is such a hardship for children. (that was sarcasm) After being given three balloons as a reward for their altruism, the balloons then take the child up to a pseudo-heaven where they meet angels and animals that are fed by the kind thoughts of children.

This book is a hot mess. The story, if we can call it that is illogical and all over the place. It made more sense when I read that this was a story that Julianna Marguiles' dad told his children growing up. Now, no offense to dad's everywhere as some are probably brilliant storytellers, but not all bedtime stories should be made into books no matter how fondly you remember them. My dad used to tell us a story about rings and a jewel and I later figured out that he was regurgitating The Lord of the Rings. I loved his stories, but none of them deserve a print run.

The illustrations are beautiful, but seem wasted because of the weak story. The story itself was a bit too wordy for a picture book and for the age level that would probably enjoy such a story. I think this story needed a bit more tightening up and a stronger focus.

Painting Pepette by Linda Lodding Book Review

Painting Pepette by Linda Lodding
Illustrations by Claire Fletcher
Publisher: little bee books
Release Date: June 7, 2016

In Josette's home, there are portraits for everyone in her home. All except Pepette, Josette's stuffed rabbit. So Josette sets out into 1920s Paris to find an artist who will paint her precious companion. Together they set off for Mantmartre, the art center of Paris, where Josette meets painters like Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Marc Chagall, and Henri Marisse. Each tries their hand at painting Petette, but none look quite right. That is, until Josette paints her and learns that sometimes if you want the job done right, you have to do it yourself.

A cute little book that highlights art, artistic styles, and the art mecca that was 1920s Paris. Lodding captures the different personalities of the famous artists while also introducing readers to a child they can relate to. Fletcher captures the different artistic styles of these famous artists, with a classical whimsy that really draws the eye in. It's a quiet book, but perfect for introducing certain concepts of time and art. Additionally, there is an almost built-in craft idea for home or storytime.

Ada's Violin by Susan Hood Book Review

Ada's Violin: The Story of the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay by Susan Hood
Illustrations by Sally Wern Comport
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Release Date: May 3, 2016

Ada RĂ­os grew up in Cateura, a small town in Paraguay built on a landfill. When a new music teacher arrives, the students begin to dream of a wonderful orchestra. The problem is that musical instruments are hard to find and very expensive. Even if the students do get some of the few coveted instruments, they would probably be stolen. Still wanting the children to have something special, the teacher decides to make instruments out of materials found in the trash. The recycled instruments change the lives of the children and the town forever, playing in venues around the world.

I wanted to like this book more than I did. For sure, the subject material is quite interesting with numerous news stories having been made about the Recycled Orchestra. There is a great deal of pathos within the story and one that would help young children to understand things like extreme poverty, ingenuity, and the importance of music in a society. Yet, it is hard to capture any of those, let alone all three, in a single 32-page picture book. When one writes about music, a very specific form of art, I don't think that there is a way to fully capture the essence of the musicality. With this book in particular, I had a hard time connecting with any of the characters. Despite the title, I never felt a connection to Ada and found myself being pulled out of the story with each page turn. The illustrations are vibrant and paralleled the text with mixed media, but it wasn't enough to carry the story. Despite my love for the picture book biography and picture book non-fiction books, I think that this is one that would have been better served with a bit more length, more details, and a stronger main character or characters for the reader to feel real empathy towards. 

Space Dumplins by Craig Thompson Book Review

Space Dumplins by Craig Thompson
Publisher: GRAPHIX
Release Date: August 25, 2015

Violet Marlocke has the most amazing family in the whole galaxy. Sure, they aren't rich and her dad works a rather hazardous job, but things seem fine until her school is eaten by space whales. Her mom manages to get a job as a fashion designer at the space station, bringing Violet along until they can get her into another school. Then her dad disappears after a huge explosion of corrosive whale poop. Setting off on a rescue missions, Violet collects a menagerie of friends to help her on her quest to bring her family back together again. 

We need to talk about how amazing this book is. Unlike most graphic novels where I can read and quickly glance at the frames, I had to slow down and carefully analyze each frame and spread. I have no idea how long it took for Thompson to complete this novel, but it must have been quite a process. The attention to detail is fantastic. 

I know the story itself seems bizarre. Talking chickens? Space whales? Lumpkins? Here's the thing. One of my favorite things about the science fiction and fantasy genres is that one can use absurd things to delve into deeper topics in a way that won't feel like you are beating home some point. For example: This book deals pretty directly with class-ism. Violet and her family are not wealthy. Her dad has a bit a criminal record. And when her mom gets a job on a space station it is a tentative work relationship. The minute something goes wrong, her mother is among the first to be rounded up and kicked out. And when she tries to protest her treatment and demand someone look for her daughter, she is thrown in jail. Yet, this doesn't feel heavy-handed in the slightest, just another part of the story. There are also absent fathers, loneliness, feelings of betrayal, friendship, family, and even showing understanding to other species no matter if they eat planets or not. Such a wonderful book with a great heroine. I liked it so much that I kind of wish there was a sequel. 

Explorers of the Wild by Cale Atkinson Book Review

Explorers of the Wild by Cale Atkinson
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion
Release Date: April 26, 2016

Two explorers, one a boy and one a bear love the outdoors. There are so many wonderful things to see. They are prepared for anything, except an encounter with each other. As one would expect, at first they are frightened, but they soon learn that they have a lot in common and exploring is a lot more fun when you have a friend with you.

Cale Atkinson has created another wonderfully illustrated and adorable book about friendship. Of course, like To The Sea the premise is a bit absurd, but all the best picture books are really. The boy and the bear parallel each other so nicely and I quite enjoyed their little adventure. So much subtle humor and I a shout out to the diversity aspect in the illustrations.

Secret Tree Fort by Brianne Farley Book Review

Secret Tree Fort by Brianne Farley
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Release Date; April 12, 2016

Two sisters are sent outside to play, but one is far more interested in her book than playing. Her sister regales her with long descriptions of a cool fort that they could build, making it more and more fantastical with every turn of the page. Nothing seems to phase her sister though. Nothing that is, until the promise of a secret.

We never had a tree fort growing up. Instead we had planks of wood that we would wedge between two branches that allowed for a place to sit. But in our imaginations we had the entire Swiss Family Robinson treehouse. It was one of our favorite games and we often freaked our neighbors out as we climbed higher and higher. Which is why this book really captured my imagination. I found myself pausing on each page, imagining how one would make a trap door to look at the stars. How cool it would have been to have a lookout. What I would have done if I had a tree house like that when I was little. What I would do if I had a tree house like that now. Yes, I did start imagining what my grown-up tree house would look like. The illustrations were lovely, but simplistic enough that the reader can imagine this tree house as their own.