Varmint by Andy Hirsch Book Review

Varmint by Andy Hirsch
Publisher: First Second
Release Date: September 26, 2016

After Opie and Ned's mother is murdered, the two youngsters set off to look for their Pa and the man who shot her. They aren't exactly the mos dynamic duo though, with Ned being overly friendly and the two constantly bickering. Together they get themselves in a heap of trouble from horse thievery (er....borrowing) to exploding trains.

This graphic novel is a slow build chapter by chapter going from simply horse rustling to a booby trapped crime kingpin in a mountain. The pacing is even throughout, which is important since this is definitely a plot-driven story. In fact, Hirsh spent so much time creating an event plot that the characters were neglected. Opie and Ned are like funny slapstick characters, entertaining, but lack in much substance. They certainly get into a good deal of trouble, but what I wanted was more backstory and a bit more emotional depth. So that, in the end, I wasn't just happy for them, but wanted more of them. The secondary characters are even less fleshed-out and I would love for someone to explain to me the big giant bear man.

One thing that did draw me out continually were the rather adult jokes, which were completely unexpected in a graphic novel for 3-6 graders. They were mostly innuendos, but the fact that they existed was the surprising bit. To the point that when Opie meets a lady at a large hotel/saloon and the lady suggests she has a job for Opie, I seriously thought they would "go there". Finally, my biggest issue was the confusing ending. Too many people named Pa. Killers named Pa. Pa's that aren't Pa. I had to read it twice to make it make sense.

Final verdict, a rolling romp through the Old West where hijinks ensue, but you probably won't want to read another if you didn't manage to connect to one of the characters by the end.

Hank's Big Day by Evan Kuhlman Book Review

Hank's Big Day: A Story of a Bug by Evan Kuhlman
Publisher: Schwartz & Wade
Release Date: September 13, 2016

Hank is a little pill bug with a rather busy life. His daily routine includes nibbling a dead leaf, climbing a long stick, avoiding a skateboarding, and pretending with his best friend, a human girl named Amelia.

Anthropomorphizing a roly poly (it's what we called pill bugs when I was a kid) is a new type of bug perspective I haven't seen before. It's a simply story, great for little preschoolers who have a fascination with bugs. I loved Amelia's little aviator hat which felt like a hat tip (haha hat tip) to Amelia Earhart. This is a great read aloud that would work well for a story time although obviously any craft ideas should not include real pill bugs. For the parent's sakes.

Six Dots by Jen Bryant Book Review

Six Dots: A Story of Young Louis Braille by Jen Bryant
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Release Date: September 6, 2016

An inspiring biography about Louise Braille, the inventor of an alphabet for the blind. There were quite a few interesting things in this story that I had not previously been aware of. For example: The dots had originally been part of a communication system used by the French Army. He used that system to come up with his own alphabet. Also, there were books for the blind that existed before Braille invented his system, but one word often took up an entire page as they had to be large enough for the student's to run their fingers across.

My only major complaint is that the publisher did not have any raised braille in the entire book. This seems like a travesty in a book about the man who invented it. Also, as someone who works in production, I do know the cost of dotting the paper or adding spot gloss to the end pages and I feel like it was a missed opportunity that would have raised the printing cost of the book, but would have been worth it.

A Child of Books by Oliver Jeffers Book Review

A Child of Books by Oliver Jeffers
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Release Date: September 6, 2016

I am a child of books. I come form a world of stories. A little girl sails her raft across a literal sea of words and goes on an adventure into a world of stories and words.

An absolutely beautiful book that uses typography like arc, interlacing words into mountains, oceans, and trees. There is a loose plot, but this is a story mostly about the power of books on the imagination and the places that words can take you. Beautifully done, I expect to see this book earn a few accolades and I am a bit curious how young readers will respond to it.

Starflight by Melissa Landers Book Review

Starflight by Melissa Landers
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion
Release Date: February 2, 2016

Life is hard in the outer realms, but Solara Brooks believes it is her only chance at a normal life. Just out of the orphanage and with fresh felony tattoos on her knuckles, Solara indenture's herself to the selfish prick Doran Spaulding who spent years making her life miserable. When he discovers her tattoos and wants to abandon her on a space station in the middle of nowhere, Solara does the only thing she can think of, she knocks out his memory, kidnaps him, and boards the first vessel heading towards the outer realms. Once Doran regains his memory, he is understandably angry, but it turns out he has a lot more to worry about than a tattooed runaway. In Doran's absence it seems he has been framed for conspiracy and Solara may have actually saved his life. As the months pass on the run, Solara and Doran go from enemies to friends and then something more. But neither are prepared for life as fugitives in space.

As far as plot goes, this book was fairly interesting. Two characters on the run,joining up with a run-down spaceship full of interesting characters who are willing to help for the right price. A run in with pirates that turns into all kinds of a mess. And a conspiracy that runs deeper and darker than Doran could possibly imagine.

I also like the idea that felons are tattooed with their felonies on their knuckles, making it almost impossible to go unnoticed for any period of time. Solara's felony remains a bit of a mystery until about halfway through and once you discover what it is, it seems almost unfair that she must live with these marks. The outer realms it turns out are not the wild west that Solara had been imagining and she is forced to face the reality of what life would be like on a planet. Starvation, prostitution, and slavery all beings things that would probably await a girl like her, no matter how street smart she is.

Doran's life however relies on a lot more stereotypes and Landers doesn't bother to do as much world building for him because we all know what rich assholes are like, right? Of course, it turns out that when you take a rich asshole and put him in a spaceship with unusual characters and a spunky felon, one magically transforms into an awesome lover boy. I don't buy it. In the story, they explain this switch as Doran just being hurt that his mother abandoned him when he was younger and that is why he wasn't nice. But here's the thing, this is a guy who spent years making Solara's life miserable. Absolutely miserable and he showed not a single ounce of remorse until Solara told him some of her sob story. As if his actions were justified by her being less than. And even when they got older, he continued to treat her like crap. He was going to abandon this girl on a space station knowing she was penniless and would probably have to sell herself as a prostitute to get off, and he didn't care. He didn't care! All because he was upset that she wouldn't show him her tattoo convictions. As if he deserved that somehow. The later explanation was supposed to make up for that. It didn't. Sure, Doran changes in the book, but I found the whole character arc to be completely absurd. Not that I don't think bullies can't change, but I wasn't convinced by Doran's change and that's what matters here.

Solara's character arc was a bit more believable. As someone who has been bullied though, I can promise that one of the most unattractive things in the world, no matter how handsome the guy is, is a guy who is a jerk.

Samson in the Snow by Philip C. Stead Book Review

Samson in the Snow by Philip C. Stead 
Publisher: Roaring Brook Press
Release Date: September 27, 2016

One sunny day Samson, a large and friendly woolly mammoth, encounters a little red bird who is looking for yellow flowers for her mouse friend (whose favorite color is yellow). As she flies off with the flowers, Samson wonders what it must be like to have a friend. He wonders this for so long, in fact, that he falls asleep and wakes up to a world covered in snow. In the midst of a blizzard, Samson finds and shelters the little red bird and flower-loving mouse in a tender tale of kindness and unexpected friendship. 

A gorgeous picture book with a simple story that felt a bit meandering, but the illustrations more than made up for it. The pencil animals stood out against the chalk-like backgrounds with pops of color that were integral to the plot. I am quite interested in the artistic process with this one and will be on the lookout for interviews or videos that cover this. If you follow me on Twitter, expect to see something about it if it exists.

Leave Me Alone by Vera Brosgol Book Review

Leave Me Alone by Vera Brosgol
Publisher: Roaring Brook Press
Release Date: September 13, 2016

Grandmother just wants to be left alone. And so she leaves her tiny home full of a very big family and searches for a place where she can finish her knitting. Turns out, there are a lot of places that it is unsuitable to knit.

Despite this book being almost trope, grumpy old person who just wants to be left alone, I thought it was unique in the places she found herself. Obviously this is a spoiler, but in the end, the best place to knit is in the void. Literally, nowhere. How else are you going to knit dozens of sweaters. This book does fall into the category of will-a-kid-like-it? I'm sure there are kids who will, but this book seems to be an eye wink to adults who can't get stuff done because of the kids. Even so, it is funny and the illustrations are quit wonderful. And if the adults in a kid's life are knitters, they may get it too.

The Water Princess by Susan Verde Book Review

The Water Princess by Susan Verde
Illustrations by Peter Reynolds
Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers
Release Date: September 13, 2016

Water. A precious commodity for some. In Princess Gie Gie's kingdom, clean drinking water is scarce and she and her mother must walk hours to get it. Each morning she rises and makes the long journey, carrying a heavy pot on her head. Each day she dreams of living in a place where water is around the corner and is crystal-clear.

I love books like this. Books that show young children the realities of how other children live in other places. That introduce concepts that will make them think and perhaps even act. The tragedy of not having clean drinking water nearby, of not having clean water, affects everything in a child's life. I am assuming that the children who read this book will never know this tragedy, but there are things they can do. Many organizations exist that help to dig wells and create easier ways for people to get water in their villages. Even something as simple as a rolling barrel with a handle reduces the amount of time it takes to get the water. Although I think parents can do a lot with a book like this, I'm not entirely sure how a school or library would use it and would hope that it would be used in conjunction with some kind of fundraising effort.

Stone in the Sky by Cecil Castellucci Book Review

Stone in the Sky by Cecil Castellucci 
Publisher: Roaring Brook Press
Release Date: February 24, 2015

In this sequel to Tin Star, readers are reacquainted with Tula Bane, still stuck on the space station Yertina Feray and desperate for revenge. She now runs a small cafe and bides her time, certain that her opportunity will come to destroy Brother Blue. Things quickly turn sour though when the nearby abandoned planet that they orbit is found to have high quantities of a precious resource. Soon the government is breathing down her neck, as is Brother Blue, and she finds herself on the run. She knows that Brother Blue is a liar, but exposing him could put every human at risk. Yet, not exposing him will place every human in space in grave peril.

It is difficult to review a sequel without giving too much away if you have not read the first. I will try though. Tula Bane is a great character. Strong, smart, and brave. She has learned how to be "street smart" and careful, but even so, there is only so much one can do and Tula does make some mistakes. I loved seeing her off the space station and out in this magnificent universe that Castellucci has created. The aliens are alien. The intrigue is dangerous. And the peril is real. This has to be one of my favorite YA sci-fi series. The romance, which most of my readers know usually drives me nuts, was believable and dare I say, good. Tula struggles with what it means to be a human and what it means to listen to your heart. You definitely need to read book one first, but readers won't regret delving back into this world with the second book. My only regret? That it took me so long to read it.

Warning: Book Trailer contains *SPOILERS* from Book 1

How This Book Was Made by Mac Barnett Book Review

How This Book Was Made by Mac Barnett
Illustrations by Adam Rex
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion
Release Date: September 6, 2016

Ever wondered about the process of making a book? Well, this picture book covers the process from the initial idea to being printed on a printing press to being read by a reader. As someone who works in publishing, I am always trying to explain my part in the process of bookmaking. It should be no surprise then that I absolutely adore this book. Yet another fun and absurd book from Barnett and Rex that succinctly explains the book making process to kids. It also answers many of the questions I hear kids ask at book events like Where do you get you ideas from? and How many drafts did you write? It also addresses some of the "secrets" behind publishing like where books are printed and how they are transported. Of course, it is a picture book so it can't include every little step, but it is a nice overview. It also a book that I think I will be adding to my bookshelf so the next time someone asks how a book is made, I can hand them this book with a smile.

They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel Book Review

They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel
Publisher: Chronicle Books
Release Date: August 30, 2016

The cat walked through the world, with its whiskers, ears, and paws . . .as he walks he runs across many different animals who see him in a multitude of perspectives. 

Although a bit heavy-handed I loved this book's message that everyone and everything sees life differently. This may be because we have different kinds of eyes, or the thing we see is scary, or it looks different depending on your size. Young children are constantly trying to make sense of the world and understand it from their limited perspectives. For example: Children may be scared of someone who is rather tall, because to them someone who is 6'4 is a giant. The illustrations were lovely impressionist examples of the different looks that a cat could have. I especially love the spread from the mouse's vantage point. A lovely book for toddlers and one that would lend itself well to storytimes.

The Uncorker of Ocean Bottle by Michelle Cuevas Book Review

The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles by Michelle Cuevas
Illustrations by Erin E. Stead
Publisher: Dial Books
Release Date: August 23, 2016

The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles lives atop a hill, alone but with a very important job, to deliver the messages that arrive on his shore. He loves this job, although is a bit sad that he will never receive a message of his own. Then one day a message arrives without an address or a name. It is undeliverable and yet it is this message that allows him to make new friends. In essence, the message become his.

I have a hard time with books illustrated by Erin E. Stead. On the one hand, they are absolutely beautiful with soft colors that lend themselves well to the content. On the other, it seems that the kinds of books she writes and/or illustrates have a tendency to be these rather esoteric picture books that are sure to appeal to more adults than children. They'll be recognized for how pretty they are and the story, or lack thereof, falls to the wayside. This story was, in essence boring. Not a good thing for a short picture book to be. The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles is a rather boring grown man who has no name, is unrelateable, and for reasons unknown has the very unimportant job of getting messages from bottles to their recipients. I love the idea of messages in a bottle, but I'm not sure that I care at all weather it gets to the intended person as those messages feel more like tying a note to a balloon. The intended recipient is the one who picks it up. The only children in the story show up halfway through, which is another reason why I think this book is not for children. And I think a lot of gatekeepers (aka the adults publishing and distributing this book) forget that sometimes. As it stands, it will probably win some kind of award and end up on many bookshelves, because beautiful picture books about boring people play to adult sensibilities rather than farting ponies or cakes that talk.

Ghosts by Raina Telgemeir Book Review

Ghosts by Raina Telgemeir
Publisher: Graphix
Release Date: September 13, 2016

Catrina is not particularly happy about moving to North California, to a town that only sees sunlight 63 days out of the year. Even though she knows it is to help her sister Maya who has cystic fibrosis and needs the good ocean air to help her breathe better, Catrina just can't work up any excitement about her new home. To make matters worse, everyone in this town is obsessed with ghosts. The reason she discovers, is because Bahía de la Luna is peppered with ghosts. Maya is determined to meet one, but Catrina is worried about the ghost's intentions and what they might think of her little sister who always seem to have one foot in death's door. As the Day of the Dead approaches Cat must figure out how to deal with her fears and allow her sister to face hers too. 

Raina Telgemeir certainly knows how to write sisters. All of her books have always had such great familial bonds, making for some wonderful characters. Something unique in this book is the supernatural element. Telgemeir's other books have been either autobiographical (Sisters, Smile) or at least felt that way (Drama), so it was a bit surprising that the ghosts in this story turned out to be real. At first, this felt a bit jarring, but as the reader becomes more and more emotionally invested in the characters, it becomes an important aspect of the book. I loved that the ghosts are not just a means to discuss death and the possibility of it happening to Maya, but also about familial connections and alleviating fear. This was not my favorite of Telgemeir's books though. Although Cat is the main character in the book, her surliness and complete rudeness to the boy next door really made me dislike her. I loved her little sister and some of the secondary characters, but could never fully connect with Cat. This probably has more to do with my own personal relateability though and I think there are a number of young readers out there who would relate to her. 

Quit Calling Me a Monster! by Jory John Book Review

Quit Calling Me a Monster! by Jory John
Illustrations by Bob Shea
Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers
Release Date: August 23, 2016

Floyd Peterson is so much more than shaggy purple fur and pointy monster teeth — why can’t people just see him for him?

This book had so much potential. Labels and names are things that we often deal with in our society. It sucks to be called or lumped into a group that you don't like or don't want to be a part of. It is also a normal human reaction to want to categorize people. Children are doing this almost subconsciously, trying to make sense of this strange world they are a part of. 

When first introduced, this monster insists that he is not, in fact, a monster. That label doesn't fit him. Except it does. The illustrations quickly show you that this is a rather unreliable narrator who, despite his protestations, really is a monster. He is the standard definition of a monster and fully deserves the label. This did make the book funny, but I so desperately wanted there to be a twist in the end. Where we discover that despite meeting almost all the definitions he doesn't actually scare children, only eats other monsters, or has a propensity towards giving candy to the kids he scares. Instead, this is a story about a monster, who claims he isn't, but actually is. It is a cute Halloween book, but it could have been so much more. 

The real problem is that the book promised to be more and wasn't. If you want to talk about stereotyping and bucking stereotypes then the "monster" has to actually buck those stereotypes. He can't just have a normal-ish name and dislike being labeled, he needs to actually change the stereotype. Imagine if this story was about a person who didn't like being called ghetto or white trash, but then perfectly defined all of your expectations of those terms. No one would be okay with that. Just because it is a monster does not give it a pass. 

NanoBots by Chris Gall Book Review

NanoBots by Chris Gall
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Release Date: August 23, 2016

A boy inventor creates the ultimate in high-tech superheroes that could one day save the world. These NanoBots are super tiny. They're almost too small to see and each one does something different, from medicine to carpet munchers and everything in-between. They are high-tech friends of the future that would make life so much easier for humans.

I don't understand this book. Is it a story about fantastical robots or is it trying to be a bit science-y and introduce the basic concepts of nanobots? Since some of the robots are quite ridiculous, one imagines the first, but is written more like non-fiction. This is the book's primarily problem. The illustrations and subject matter would appeal to the usual preschool audience, but due to the amount of text, it felt rather long. Even I, a grown adult, grew bored. That said, this book does have some practical applications and would certainly work well for any kind of introduction to robots and making your own robots. Obviously, one would need to supplement greatly and explain that these kinds of robots are cool, but don't exist, but it may work to open up the imagination to the many different robotic possibilities.

Ned the Knitting Pirate by Diana Murray Book Review

Ned the Knitting Pirate by Diana Murray
Illustrations by Leslie Lammle
Publisher: Roaring Brook Press
Release Date: August 23, 2016

The crew of the pirate ship the Rusty Heap are a fearsome bunch! They're tougher than gristle and barnacle grit. They heave and they ho and they swab and they . . . knit? Well, one of them does, at least! Unfortunately for Ned, his knitting doesn't go over well with the captain and crew. They urge him to hide his hobby and strive to be scurvier, like pirates should be. But when the briny ocean beast shows up to feast on the Rusty Heap and its crew, maybe Ned's knitting is just the ticket to save the day!

I like pirates. I like books about pirates who do absurd things that are un-piratelike. But I didn't like this book. Firstly, pirates/sailors were actually fairly good at sewing as they were expected, with no women on board, to darn their own socks, wash their clothes, sew up holes, fix hammocks, repair sails, etc. It wouldn't have been such a leap to think there were seamen who knew how to knit and crochet. Second, the rhyming schema felt a bit clunky to me. I read it once to myself and then out loud and found myself stumbling over the text. The illustrations were quite lovely, but couldn't carry the entire book.

Ghost by Jason Reynolds Book Review

Ghost by Jason Reynolds
Publisher: Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books
Release Date: August 30, 2016

Ghost is fast. After fleeing with his mother in the middle of the night from his dad and a loaded gun, Ghost never stopped running. But he isn't a runner. Ghost is basketball player, not that he has ever been on a team or even worked up the courage to join the guys at the local park. In his head though, he has convinced himself that if he ever did play, he would be really good. One day, when Ghost comes across a private track team on their first day of practice, he is fascinated. Why would anyone need to practice running? On a whim, he walks out of the stands and down on the track, ignoring the angry coach and the annoyed kids. He races one of the kids, wins, and suddenly finds himself on a track team. But he isn't a runner. Yet he is drawn to this world and to the coach. His mom agrees, if he can stay out of trouble, he can be on the track team. Staying out of trouble is not something Ghost is very good at though.  

Book one of a series, Ghost is one of the few sports focused books I have read that I really enjoyed. The story is mostly character-driven and somehow, even though I certainly can't relate to all of his experiences, there were aspects of him that I did understand. Like growing up poor. The temptation (one that he gives into) to steal something in order to fit in and have what someone else haves that you would never be able to afford. What I didn't relate to, I just found fascinating. I loved the running element not because of the sport aspect, but because it symbolized how Ghost had never stopped running after the night his father chased him and his mother out onto the street. Ghost has an interesting character flaw in that he has fairly high self-esteem, but in things that are unsubstantiated. He has never played basketball on a team, but is convinced that not only would he be good, but he would be better than the other players. I have met people like this. People who have never played an instrument, but are sure that if they just tried, they would be a really good guitarist. I knew a guy who would tell people he was really good with languages even though he only spoke English. He liked to study the etymology of words, but had never bothered to learn other languages because he said that wasn't as important as knowing the history of the languages themselves. It's an interesting mindset.

I want to also mention two of the secondary characters who, rumor has it, will have their own books moving forward. Lu is albino, a disability that is mentioned in passing and not one that Ghost knows anything about, but one that I rarely see in a book. I am hoping there is a book about him. Then there is  Patina. Patina is the one who explains albinism to Ghost after pointing out how Lu's parents are black and so is Lu, but because he has albinism he doesn't quite "match". Then she clarifies about her own parents right after, pointing out that her parents did not have reverse albinism. That she is in fact adopted and her parents are white. Later she tells the track team that she knows and visits with her biological mother who has a lot of health problems which is why Patina can't live with her. Older child adoption with a multi-ethnic family and a kid who knows her birth mom?! Is this real life?! I can't believe someone else is writing about this. I am very excited to see what Reynolds does with her character. 

I think this is fantastic beginning to a series and I am very excited for Jason Reynolds as this book was longlisted for the National Book Award. A quick read that is bound to appeal to a large audience. 

Weekend with Max and His Dad by Linda Urban Book Review

Weekend with Max and His Dad by Linda Urban 
Illustrations by Katie Kath
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers
Release Date: April 5, 2016

Max spends his weekends with his dad. Weekends mean pancakes and pizza, spy games, school projects, and dog-walking. As Max gets to know his dad's new neighborhood and neighbors, he begins to think of his dad's home as his home.

In a world where there is nothing new under the sun, this book felt unique. I have never read for this age group that so succinctly captures the feelings and reality of shared custody without dwelling on the actual divorce. The story is set with three different weekends with his dad. Each weekend Max deals with something that is the reality of living with one parent on the weekend. For example, when Max first comes to live with his dad, he doesn't like his new bedroom that is decorated with football curtains. He's not really that into football. But he doesn't want to tell his dad this because it is his new house and his dad seemed so proud. Now, the story for this weekend is really about playing spys, but in the end, through their spy play, Max finds his voice and tells his dad he would like a little less football in his room. This is a much needed book, because it is the reality for some children and they too need books that they can relate to.