The Moose of Ewenki: A Picture Book for All Ages

Lynn: One of the great joys of the children’s publishing world today is the small publishers bringing us books from other countries and cultures. This is such a gift to young readers whose understanding of the world will be enriched and expanded by these wonderful books. One of those publishers is Greystone Kids, a Canadian publisher of books by both Canadian and international authors. We have fallen in love with a new book from them, The Moose of Ewenki (Greystone, 2019) by Chinese author, Gerelchimeg Blackcrane and illustrated by Chinese artist Jiu Er.

Set in far northern forests of Mongolia, the story tells of an elder of Ewenki people, a hunter and herder of reindeer, who shoots a moose only to discover sadly that she had a young calf. The little creature follows the old hunter back to his campsite where he feeds and cares for it. Gree Shek names the calf, Xiao Han or Little Moose and raises the baby, including him in his daily life of caring for the reindeer herd, foraging for food and visiting the local village. Little Moose thrives and grows – and grows! In time he grows to adult size but thinks he should still sleep in Gree Shek’s tent, follows him everywhere and doesn’t seem to understand how big he is. After a series of mishaps and dangers, Gree Shek, who is growing older and frailer, realizes that for Little Moose’s own safety he must go into the forest. In some sad scenes that follow, he drives the young moose away and then the old man dies one night in his sleep. The hunters who find him, honor the old hunter by freeing his reindeer herd to join the moose in the forests.

This bittersweet story is full of both humor and tears, an evocative reflection of the life of the Ewenki people. Gree Shek and Little Moose stole my heart and no one who sees Jiu Er’s stunning illustrations will be able to resist this gorgeous book. But, I’ll let Cindy tell you about those!

Cindy: Animal-human bonding stories are popular in children’s literature but this one is a surprise. First, the setting…Inner Mongolia…a region we don’t see often in children’s literature. And then Xiao Han, “Little Moose,” who isn’t so little for long. I couldn’t help but get a flashback to one of my childhood favorites, The Enormous Egg by Oliver Butterworth, but it didn’t linger as this is a very different book, of course. Little Moose peeks out from a bush on the title page but when he steps out from the bush a few pages later his timid gaze will melt the reader’s heart. The illustrations enhance the powerful story beautifully. Full-page spreads are interspersed with smaller vignettes that bring the landscape and its inhabitants to life. Creamy colored paper is perfect for the muted nature palette drawings that convey the humor and the sadness in this gentle story. A Junior Library Guild Section. Don’t miss it.

Owling: Whoooo Needs This Book? You Do!

Cindy: “You might not realize it, but you need to see an owl.” That’s the opening line of Owling (Storey, 2019) and you not only need to see an owl, but you need to see this book. Starting with a glow-in-the-dark cover, this large square book holds a wealth of fascinating details and gorgeous photographs of the 19 owls species that breed and nest in the United States and Canada. Can owls really turn their heads 360 degrees? How do an owl’s uneven ears help him pinpoint prey? These and other questions are answered in engaging text. Most welcome is the author Mark Wilson’s challenge to common owl “facts” not documented by research studies and his admission when his long study of owls leaves him without sure answers. Research never ends and we rarely have all the answers. 2-4 page spreads feature a specific owl species with a selection of photos, range maps, feather detail, size, behavior, voice, nesting behavior, menu, or other interesting features. The section on Poop and Pellets is sure to be a hit with the target audience, particularly if they’ve ever dissected an owl pellet to learn about an owl’s diet. The section on how to spot an owl has helpful tips that may produce success for young (and old) birders. Lynn heard about this book and then I received a review copy and have been reluctant to hand it over, but we can’t wait any longer to hoot about its publication. Owling is a perfect identification guide for a young birder, but it is so much more, and it has a place in elementary and middle school libraries and elementary science classrooms. Whooooo needs this book? You do!

Lynn: I really appreciate how this outstanding book is organized, the wonderfully researched information presented, and how much is packed into the book. But I need to mention the sheer audience appeal of the production. Talk about a kid magnet! Put this gorgeous book on display and watch it instantly fly off the shelf. Mark Wilson’s photographs almost steal the show. Every single page has a gallery of jaw-dropping pictures that beg to be studied. The images range from small collections illustrating a particular point to full-page photographs that are works of art. The painted illustrations by Jada Fitch are amazing, too.

I learned so much! The small sections showing what each of the various owls eats, “On the Menu,” was interesting and surprising. As a life-long birder, I really valued the identification information, especially tips on what each variety might be mistaken for and how to avoid that. Also as a birder, I loved the section of how to FIND owls in nature with its additional caution of how to also respect and treat them if you do find them or their roosts. Finally, also in the concluding sections, there is information on some of the current and on-going research projects on owls. The back matter includes a glossary and an extensive list of where to find Owls in Captivity by state so that readers can follow Wilson’s advice and become familiar with the appearance of the various owls.

Finally, I am on a mission to find my slides that were taken in the back yard of our first Holland house that sat in an old deeply forested woods. We had nesting Great Horned Owls there and summer after summer, a pair of adults parked their fledged but still dependent owlets on our deck during the day, I’m guessing while they went to hunt. The owlets were almost as big as the adults and absolutely delightful to watch. The squirrels seemed to know how clumsy the owl babies were and teased them by running just out of their reach on the railing underneath them.

Here is my picture of an Eastern Screech Owl but since I am no Mark Wilson, I urge you to find this book and see some REALLY terrific pictures!

The Things She’s Seen: Thriller, Murder Mystery, Ghost Story

Cindy: Fans of We Were Liars are going to want to read The Things She’s Seen (Knopf, 2019), another novel that begs to be read again as soon as you finish. Beth is dead but she hasn’t passed on. Her father is the only one who can see and hear Beth. He is a detective, lost in grief over first losing Beth’s mother a few years earlier, and then Beth. She thinks he needs something to think about so when a new case arises about a mysterious fire at a children’s home, she encourages him to take the case. While they investigate, Beth can observe and overhear things her living father cannot, aiding his detective work. While interviewing a surly teenage witness, Isobel Catching, Beth realizes that Isobel can see her, too. Isobel knows things about the fire and the school’s history but she is not quick to share. She has stories to tell, but is she willing, and are Beth and her father willing to listen carefully? Isobel tells her stories in magical realism verse, poems, and stories based on secrets and hard truths. The Aboriginal brother and sister storytellers weave painful Aboriginal history and racism into this haunting tale, spun from threads of folklore. As the story comes to a close, readers will want to return to the beginning to see how these storytellers wove such an intriguing tale. And, they’ll be begging their friends to read it, too, so they can talk it over. All this in under 200 pages! Yes!

Lynn: As Cindy says, remarkable young writers, Ambelin and Ezekiel Kwaymullina, have packed a lot in this slim book! It somehow manages to be thriller, murder mystery, and supernatural ghost story with Palyku traditional tales all in one. Woven in are threads of dealing with grief, finding one’s voice, the powerful strengths of family bonds, the healing nature of storytelling, historical tragedies, and the monsters that lurk in our midst. This is a debut novel and the Kwaymullinas write with a powerful maturity, skillfully blending all these elements into a remarkable whole that is totally absorbing from start to finish. This is a book that is going to stay with me for a long time.

Gather some snacks, settle into your reading chair, take a deep breath, and open to the first page. You won’t want to stop ’til the book is done!

Graphic Novel Round-Up – Something for Every Reader

Lynn and Cindy: A flock of fabulous graphic novels has swept onto our doorsteps lately and we’ve been happily flying through them. There’s something here for every interest and every age and we’ve been loving them all. Here’s a quick round-up of some of what we’ve been enjoying, starting with graphic novels for high school readers and moving on through to one for our youngest readers.

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me, by Mariko Tamaki (First Second, 2019)

This is an absolutely brilliant look at love in a toxic relationship. Charismatic Laura Dean flies in and out of Freddie’s life, bewitching and beguiling her, taking complete advantage of Freddie’s adoration, stomping on her heart whenever she feels like it and leaving Freddie diminished at every turn.

We’ve all watched relationships like this. Maybe we’ve been IN a relationship like this. Tamaki nails the dynamics, the helpless attraction, the hurt that grows bigger and more destructive each time and the hope that THIS time will be different. Masterfully nuanced illustrations heighten the sense of being there and watching a dear friend walk back into the buzzsaw once again. High Schoolers exploring relationships will love and learn from this story.

Queen of the Sea, by Dylan Meconis (Walker, 2019)

A stunningly beautiful graphic story loosely based on the history of Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. While it was fun to notice the parallels, it isn’t necessary to know the history as Meconis creates her own richly immersive story full of period details, evocative characters, and vivid setting. The main protagonist, Margaret, an orphaned child who came to the island surrounded in mystery, is instantly endearing and readers experience the unfolding events along with her.

Meconis’ illustrations are gorgeous but they are also a brilliant part of the storytelling. Each panel has its own part to play in carrying the tale forward, providing important details and developing the characters. This is a visual treat but it is also masterful graphic storytelling. Readers ranging from high school to upper elementary will love the characters, the warmly human touches of humor, the historical feel, the fascinating political intrigue and the feel of an illuminated manuscript. Outstanding book design adds to all these masterfully done elements to make this an imaginative and immersive reading experience.

Sunny Rolls the Dice, by Jennifer L. and Matthew Holm (Graphix, 2019)

Middle school is fraught with changing friendships as tweens shift interests, alliances, and struggle to be “cool.” Some mature more quickly than others, some don’t care what others think, and some long for acceptance by a popular group, or are distraught when good friends leave them by the wayside. As a middle school librarian, I’ve watched these friendship struggles for decades. The Holms have captured the essence of this passage in this newest book in the series that started with Sunny Side Up. Sunny’s best friend has discovered boys, fashion, and makeup while Sunny doesn’t understand why they can’t pursue those interests while still playing Dungeons & Dragons with boys they are only trying to slay in the game. 70s memories of the perils of hot rollers and smelly rental roller skates bring the setting alive for those of us who lived through it…and it’s fun historical fiction with a timeless look at friendship for the intended audience.

Guts, by Raina Telgemeier (Graphix, 2019)

Does this book need promotion? Probably not, but given the reception it’s received in my middle school, not because it is Raina’s new book, but due to the subject matter, it’s worth highlighting to be sure you don’t miss it. Telgemeier continues her graphic memoir series with this new entry about what anxiety can do physically and mentally to a child (or an adult). Scholastic published an initial print run of 1 million copies, according to this Forbes! article about the release. Grab your copies quickly, they are already thinking of a second run to meet demand.

The Singing Rock & Other Brand-New Fairy Tales, by Nathaniel Lachenmeyer (First Second, 2019)

Here’s a graphic novel that is great for the Gr. 2-6 set. Bright, funny and also gorgeously illustrated stories tell four slightly twisted fairy tales that are joyful hoot.

Perfect for the young child who will appreciate the humor and I think middle school kids would love it if they’d be brave enough to look past the young appearance of the book. Besides being wonderful fun, this would make a GREAT writing prompt.

 

Book of Dust: The Secret Commonwealth – Masterful Storytelling

Lynn:  Ask a reader what they are looking for in a book and you will get a myriad of answers. Some want to be informed, others seek to be uplifted, diverted, or entertained. Some readers want a thriller, or a mystery, while others want romance, a good laugh, or a satisfying cry. But I am convinced that what is basic to all readers is the love of story. There are few writers working today who tell a better story than Philip Pullman. Since The Golden Compass (Random/Knopf, 1995) burst into the children’s book world, Pullman has enthralled readers. He has also challenged, enraged, confused, and astonished readers at times but his richly inventive books have never failed to weave a story like no other.

His latest, The Secret Commonwealth (Random/Knopf, 2019) has just published and I dropped everything else to read it. I will admit to groaning when I first got it and discovered that it was 633 pages long! As a book reviewer with towering stacks of books waiting to be read, that 633 pages meant that 3 other books got pushed way back in the queue! But Pullman worked his magic again and I was snared from the first word, sinking with exquisite pleasure back into Lyra’s world. I speak from the heart here when I say that I was immediately deeply immersed in the story. 633 pages flew by. I hated having to put the book down, thought about it when I wasn’t reading it, and found every reason to return to it. I’m thinking about it still. Philip Pullman is a master storyteller and this book should not be missed.

Plot??? I can’t begin to do it justice. Let’s just say that this is 8 years after The Amber Spyglass (Random/Knopf, 2000) and 20 after the events of La Belle Sauvage (Random/Knopf, 2017). Lyra is now 20, a student at St. Sophia’s College, and deeply miserable because she and her daemon Pantalaimon have quarreled seriously and are barely speaking to each other. Can you hate your own soul? Authoritarianism is rising, there are desperate immigrants fleeing horrors in their homeland, once benign governments shaping information to manipulate their citizens, brutal terrorists, and cynicism and scorn rule. There are journeys and mysteries, love and sacrifice, hope and despair, good people and bad, and of course, the question of the secret commonwealth. This is a magnificent sweeping story and I loved every word. There is also a whopping cliff-hanger that has left me bereft as I try to calculate how long I have to wait till the next book. This reader cannot wait.

Cindy: A few weeks ago, before even realizing that The Book of Dust, book 2, was imminent, I showed the HBO His Dark Materials book trailer to my 8th graders before book talks. Every copy of The Golden Compass circulated, something I hadn’t achieved through my booktalks. The first episode of the HBO series airs November 3rd. Then Lynn alerted me to her reserved library copy of The Secret Commonwealth and I ordered the audiobook immediately. I am happily immersed in the story, about halfway through, and can’t wait to get back in my car each day. Lyra and Pantalaimon’s arguments are fierce and heartbreaking and the narration makes them come painfully to life. Michael Sheen did such a beautiful job narrating La Belle Sauvage that I knew I wanted to listen again. It will take me longer to read it, but as Lynn said, we don’t want this story to end.

Games of Deception – Basketball and History on the Brink of War

Lynn: Did you know the championship game of the first Olympic Basketball game was played on a converted tennis court and so much rain fell, the court looked like a “kiddie swimming pool?” Or that the inventor of the game, James Naismith, came to the Olympics but was refused admission to the first game? Or that while the male athletes had luxurious quarters with fantastic plentiful food, the female athletes were housed in a dormitory and fed on a sparse diet of boiled cabbage and sausage?

Andrew Maraniss packs Games of Deception: The True Story of the First U.S. Olympic Basketball Team at the 1936 Olympics in Hitler’s Germany (Penguin/Philomel 2019) with fascinating sports tidbits like this and provides a breathless sense of being an eye-witness at these pivotal games. While the sports information is terrific, Maraniss is doing a lot more than historical play-by-play. The modern Olympics have always given us a window on the social and political events of their time but the 1936 games especially so. A crippling economic depression still gripped the world, Germany was preparing for war, the forces of racial, religious and gender prejudices and systemic discrimination afflicted people everywhere and the growing fanaticism of nationalistic hatred was intensifying. The Germans deliberately used the games to create a benign image of Nazism and while many were fooled, the truth was seen by a worried minority.

Maraniss does an excellent job of providing the complicated background of this intense and fraught period of history for young people, including information on the political, social, and economic situation as well as the origins of the game of basketball, the state of the game, and its inclusion in the Olympic games as a medal sport. And in a subject that will stand out to teen readers, he paints a horrifying picture of a state deliberately manipulating the truth to deceive the entire world.

With a broad array of primary sources, Maraniss includes the recollections of the team members, coaches, other athletes, and sportswriters of the day and their stories add a lively personal touch to the book. Often humorous, sometimes rueful, these accounts do a wonderful job of giving readers a sense of the attitudes and experiences of the moment. And in important concluding chapters, Maraniss also includes the stories of what happened to the athletes when they returned home. I especially enjoyed the Afterword chapter where the author writes about the origins of the book and his extensive research. Back matter includes excellent documentation and statistics.

This fascinating book will interest a wide range of readers, celebrating the first Olympic basketball competition, and placing it vividly in a critical moment of history.

A Book for All Those Square Pegs: Sweety by Andrea Zuill

Cindy: Sweety is an awkward retainer-wearing naked mole rat and I have the biggest soft spot in my heart for her. Andrea Zuill, thank you for creating Sweety (Schwartz & Wade, 2019) with the *best* illustrations to bring Sweety to life! When her friends share their dolls’ names, Sweety’s response (delivered with great enthusiasm), is:

This is Warrior Princess Zorna! Friend fo the friendless, destroyer of evil, lover of chocolate-beet cake with cream cheese frosting! Her favorite color is aubergine* and my mom made her for me!

*Grammarly didn’t know this color. You will be more worldly, or you can look it up!

Sweety sometimes wishes she were more like her friends, or even is jealous (For instance, Deb’s hair, and I do mean singular—ONE hair). Other times, she is content to be herself enjoying her hobby of fungi identification. The illustrations make me giggle and laugh…but always with Sweety, not at Sweety.

It’s Aunt Ruth who helps Sweety to understand that being a “square peg” is not a bad thing. She advises her niece to stay true to herself and promises that one day she’ll find her people. Zuill dedicates the book to “all those who have accepted their inner oddball.” We all know a Sweety or two…and perhaps some of us have our own inner oddball. Here’s to Square Pegs everywhere!

Lynn: I fell hard for Sweety too. The illustrations just crack me up! Don’t miss Sweety’s family album or vignettes of Sweety trying a different hobby. Even a “normal” hobby like knitting gets its own Sweety style.

But as much as I love the illustrations here, I love Andrea Zuill’s message to kids even more. We’ve said the same thing to the Sweety kids seeking refuge in the library over the years! Be true to yourself and hang in there. You will find your people. Happily in this charming book, Sweety doesn’t have to wait too long before she finds a kindred fungi-loving friend. Queue the secret handshake and make sure to share Sweety and her message to kids everywhere!