Heroes We Need: Here in the Real World by Sara Pennypacker

Cindy: Children who embrace time alone, time to think, and time for their own pursuits are going to quietly embrace Sara Pennypacker’s new middle-grade novel, Here in the Real World (Harper/Balzer + Bray, 2020). Ware’s summer plans with his grandmother get sidetracked when she falls and breaks a hip landing her in rehab. His parents immediately sign him up for another summer of “Meaningful Social Interaction” with a side of humiliation that is the local Rec camp. He offers to pay them twice as much as the camp fees to let him stay home alone, he’s eleven, after all. They refuse. He skips out of Rec on the first day during a morning run and takes refuge at a crumbling church nearby. There he meets Jolene, who is using the church’s lot to grow a garden in coffee cans. Battle lines are initially drawn as the two stake their claims and go about their projects. Ware, fascinated by the Middle Ages, is turning the church into a medieval castle. Soon their refuge is threatened by a bird welfare organization and the potential sale of the church. Jolene and Ware must join forces and fight for the land that is so important to them.

Both kids have personal issues. Ware is different and he has overheard his mother wish that they just had a normal kid. Jolene’s situation slowly comes to light, although experienced readers will understand her issues of abandonment and abuse sooner rather than later. Both kids inspire the reader to champion their cause and to enjoy watching the transformations that ensue. Being quiet and being different is okay.

Lynn: One of the things I admire most about Sara Pennypacker’s writing is the way she gets how kids think and then puts readers right there in that experience too. That aspect is a highlight of Here in the Real World. Introverted Ware with his rich inner life, is vividly and authentically portrayed here. We feel Ware’s acute anxiety over the prospect of daily immersion in the summer rec program and we also feel his misery at how he thinks he disappoints his mother by being who he is. Watching Ware grow throughout the story and become confident in himself is the real joy of the book. I was a kid like Ware. I remember still my deep unhappiness at the prospect of the noisy horror of things like birthday parties and I still shudder at the thought of games like Musical Chairs!

One of the great gifts of reading is the ability to see through someone else’s eyes and this thoughtful book provides children unlike Ware to experience his feelings and those like him to be reassured. And seriously – what kid could resist the idea of that medieval castle complete with moat? Don’t miss this quiet and wonderfully crafted book.

Mama Needs a Minute: A Board Book for Overwhelmed Moms

Cindy: My daughter-from-another-mother, a young mother named Alicia, is doing a beautiful job parenting two infant twins and a 2-year-old. Three busy little girls who keep her going night and day. Following her schedule online and in-person is exhausting just to observe! Did I mention she also works part-time outside the home, too, in adult probation and parole? When Nicole Sloan’s new board book, Mama Needs a Minute (Andrews McMeel, 2020), arrived in my review books, I knew who my test reader needed to be. I gifted the book to Alicia with some pampering lotions and waited to hear. She loved this story so much she ordered a copy immediately for her friend, Laura, another mom of twins and two other children. They are both reading it daily to remind themselves that it’s okay to take a minute for themselves.

The mamas in this book might have purple hair or green skin, but they all have one thing in common: they are there to help their child learn, eat, play, etc. but sometimes “Mama needs a minute” to shower, dress, have coffee, or rest. After multiple page turns of mama’s declaration that she needs a minute, the book comfortingly closes with a twist. With the baby quietly nestled in her arms, she proclaims, “This mama just needs a minute…with you.”

Here’s to Alicia and Laura and all mamas who need a minute!

Alicia and her girls.
Laura and her children.

Dragon Hoops: Gene Luen Yang and Basketball

Cindy:  March Madness may be canceled, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have basketball in your life! Regular readers know they can count on a basketball book from Bookends each March. Have we got a champion for you this year! Dragon Hoops (First Second, 2020) by Gene Luen Yang puts a new finger roll, er…spin, on graphic novel memoirs. Yang needs a story idea and wonders if a comic nerd can get his head in the game by following his high school basketball team’s run for the state championship. Yang teaches math and computer science at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, CA. He steps out of his comfort zone and talks to Coach Lou Richie about his idea, even though he’s unsure that it’s a good one. In superhero stories, you know who the good guys and bad guys are and who will win in the end. That’s not the case in sports.

Dragon Hoops is an interesting blend of an O’Dowd basketball season, player backstories (including their ethnic, racial, or religious identities and the challenges they’ve overcome related to those), basketball history, and Yang’s pull between teaching, comics, and his family life. The recurring theme of taking a “step”—across a threshold, onto a court, or into a life-changing decision—is beautifully played. Once again, Yang takes not just a step, but a giant leap in his graphic novel mastery…I can’t wait to see the finished book with its shiny gold foil cover accents. (It published yesterday so we no longer have to wait!)

Lynn: I’ve loved all of Gene Yang’s previous books but this one takes the game into overtime! It is highly entertaining and completely engaging while at the same time doing so much. Yes, it is about a championship basketball season but it is also about family, commitment, the craft of writing, courage, fidelity to the truth in story, friendship, work ethic, love and more. It is important to remember that while Yang is a superb storyteller, he is also a superb artist. He is masterful at conveying emotions through his deceptively simple drawings and in this book he also manages to create the intense action of a championship basketball season. Dragon Hoops leaves a reader feeling both satisfied and deeply thoughtful. This book is a winner!

Cindy and Lynn: Follow Gene Luen Yang on Facebook or Instagram to see some of the great promos accompanying this social-distanced book launch. He’s working hard to make up for the canceled book tour.

Two New Picture Books Stroll NYC’s Central Park

Cindy: A Green Place to Be: the Creation of Central Park (Candlewick, 2019), a debut picture book by Ashley Benham Yazdani, is not just for New Yorkers. Many readers will enjoy the stroll through the pages of watercolor scenes highlighting the history and the building and the enjoyment of New York City’s famous park. As the city grew, green space was quickly disappearing. A design contest was held and the winners, architect Calvert Vaux and landscaper Frederick Law Olmsted submitted a design built to scale on a scroll two feet three inches wide and ten feet two inches long! Then the hard work of clearing and shaping the land began. Ice skating on the lake began in the winter of 1858 and slowly other sections were completed and open to the public after careful attention to details, future vision, and the philosophy that the park should be for everyone, no matter their social class or status. One double-page spread shows and names the thirty-four unique bridges and archways in the park that will have park visitors looking at the structures in a new way. More details and some interactive elements are included in the backmatter. Can you find all twenty-two gray squirrels in the pages of this book?

Lynn: Frederick Olmstead and Calvert Vaux’s extensive planning, hard work, and attention to every detail resulted in a spectacular garden. But Madelyn Rosenberg imagines a denizen of the park that never showed up in those original plans in a delightful picture book titled, Cyclops of Central Park (Penguin/Putnam, 2020). Did any of you New Yorkers realize there is a Cyclops nestled into a cave in the midst of Central Park and of course he takes care of a flock of sheep? Cyclops is content to stay safely in his cave in Central Park, protecting his sheep and he worries about the dangers of venturing out of the park. But Eugene (it would be Eugene!) goes missing out in the dangerous world and Cyclops has to be brave and go looking. But no luck! Cyclops has to call in the troops—I mean flock—to join the search.

What a fresh, imaginative, funny, gorgeous, and downright adorable book this is! As Cyclops searches New York and its attractions, he and sheep discover a whole city full of fun. He visits an art museum, the Statue of Liberty, and best of all, Coney Island! Victoria Tentler-Krylov’s brightly detailed illustrations are packed with funny details that made me laugh out loud. Bright splashes of color make each page a joy. I’d love some of these originals for my house! With the lost Eugene safely in tow, they all retire back home. “There’s no place like cave,” Cyclops says but it is clear he is now ready to have more adventures.

The List of Things that Will Not Change – Rebecca Stead Can Craft a Fine Story

Cindy: I could make a list of things I admire about Rebecca Stead’s writing, but instead, let me tell you about her latest book, The List of Things that Will Not Change (Random/Wendy Lamb, April 2020). Things are changing in Bea’s family. Divorce, two houses from which she can see the same moon, and the news that her father is gay. Along with the news comes a notebook started by her parents with a list of things that will not change:

  1. Mom loves you more than anything, always.
  2. Dad loves you more than anything, always.
  3. Mom and Dad love each other, but in a different way
  4. You will always have a home with each of us.
  5. Your homes will never be far apart.
  6. We are still a family, but in a different way.

Throughout the story, as Bea looks back at those early days while her father now prepares to marry Jesse, the man he loves, she adds to her list. The heart of this book is a look at Bea’s anxiety and how she learns to cope with it, her longing for a sister that she is sure Jesse’s daughter will fulfill, and a secret from the previous summer that is haunting her conscious. The everyday interactions in this blended family are full of wonderful details. For instance, Bea’s father owns a restaurant and is a chef but her mother can’t cook anything. Bea and her mom yell “Box” when they come home and find a dinner treat left in their fridge by the dad. Stead understands children and gets them right on the page. Bea’s insecurities, delights, interactions, etc. are all authentic and readers will each recognize at least a piece of themselves in her. The characters all grow throughout the story, and while there are some hurtful events, they add a realistic note to family dynamics. The list of things that will not change includes my admiration for Rebecca Stead’s novels.

Lynn: Cindy and I are both list-makers and there are so many items on my list of what I admire about Rebecca Stead’s writing. One of them is the way she puts readers into the minds of middle grade kids. Bea’s voice is wonderfully crafted in this story and for the space of 224 pages I was this anxious 12-year-old, dealing with a deeply felt guilt, trying not to scratch at my eczema, balancing my life between two households, and yearning for a sister. Stead writes characters with such authenticity and clarity, beautifully conveying the cares and worries of a youngster. There is a theme too in the story that doing something wrong doesn’t make you a bad person—a message that will resonate with so many kids.

Another thing I admire in Stead’s books is the way all the plot elements come together seamlessly without a single dropped stitch and that is the case here as well. Stead keeps the plot always under control and that stands out here. It was a real pleasure also to have a story that included so many caring adults, especially her divorced parents who had worked so hard at maintaining a caring relationship and arrangement for their child. Included also was a therapist who helped Bea with her anxiety. It was lovely to have this reassuring picture. Be sure to put this thoughtful, sensitive book on your list!

Cover Trends: Candy Conversation Hearts

Cindy: The controversy surrounding the Sweethearts Conversation Candy Hearts continues. Last year, Spangler couldn’t get them to market after buying bankrupt Necco. This year, they have a limited supply released, but you will probably find many lacking in “conversation.” Maybe next year, eh? Fortunately, there are plenty of children and teen book covers to fill in the blanks. These sweet books will make a nice display for Valentine’s Day and will leave patrons saying, “BE MINE.”

After the Kiss, by Terra Elan McVoy (Simon Pulse, 2010)

Boy Meets Boy, by David Levithan (Knopf, 2003)

Candy Smash, by Jacqueline Davies (HMH, 2013)

Heartbreak Messenger, by Alexander Vance (Feiwel & Friends, 2013)

Love? Maybe, by Heather Hepler (Dial, 2012)

Thwonk, by Joan Bauer, (Speak, 2005)

Studio Tour with Children’s Author/Illustrator Greg Pizzoli

Cindy: While we were in Philadelphia for the 2020 American Library Association Midwinter Meetings last weekend we were fortunate to get to tour author/illustrator Greg Pizzoli’s new studio. After several stand-alone children’s books, he is launching a new beginner reader graphic novel series called Baloney and Friends (Disney, April 2020). Baloney, a pig, is joined by three friends: Peanut, a blue horse, bumblebee Bizz, and Krabbit, a crabby rabbit. The four friends are featured in four graphic stories and three mini-comics. There’s even a graphic table of contents to help young readers. While in Greg’s studio he showed us a framed piece of art that Ed Emberley drew for him. Greg said Emberley was an inspiration and he showed us his collection of Ed’s books near where he works. He practiced his drawing with those books as a child and decided to include similar step-by-step lessons in the back of this book so that his readers can draw Baloney and his friends and create their own stories. He has a beautiful space to work and his wife has her studio up a circular staircase so they can share the dog while they work. There’s a lot of talent under this one roof.

Lynn: What a treat to meet Greg and his wife, Kay Healy, at ALA! Greg’s new book about Baloney and friends is perfectly designed for newly independent readers. There are plenty of visual assists, color-coded speech bubbles, and simple decode-able vocabulary. The short stories included are wonderfully silly and guaranteed to gather giggles. It is hard to choose a favorite among them.  The Magic Trick took me right back to the many “Magic Shows” put on at my house by little boys. A sweet and thoughtful story, Feeling Blue, is a real standout and addresses emotions of sadness in a wonderfully accessible way for young readers. I am so happy this is a series and that there will be more stories to come.

Greg and Kay were incredibly kind to open their studios to a bunch of librarians and to give us a peek at their creative processes. Check out Kay’s drawn, screen printed, and stuffed fabric installations which are brilliantly created. I loved her work too and was trying to figure out if any of them would fit in my suitcase. Fortunately, I regained control! Thank you to the wonderful people at Disney/Hyperion and to Greg and Kay for a memorable event.

Cindy: While you wait for Baloney and Friends you’ll want to reread Book Hog, winner of a 2020 Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor. Congratulations, Greg! You may have to get that other Geisel medal out of its box and on the wall now that you have a pair to hang!