Eyes that Kiss in the Corners: an AAPI Own Voices Picture Book

Cindy: If you are as dismayed as we are by the numerous racial attacks on members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, this new book will give you some comfort. Last week’s publisher delivery of Eyes that Kiss in the Corners (Harper, 2021) by Joanna Ho couldn’t have arrived at a better time.

When a young girl realizes that her eyes are very different from her round-eyed friends, she describes them as “eyes that kiss in the corners and glow like warm tea.” They are just like her mama’s. Her description grows with each family member as she describes her mother’s, Amah’s, and baby sister’s eyes.

My eyes crinkle into crescent moons
and sparkle like the stars.
Gold flecks dance and twirl
while stories whirl
in their oolong pools,
carrying tales of the past
and hope for the future….

The girl’s understanding of her beauty, her strength, her family, and her story grows throughout the book into a revolution and an appreciation of who she is and the worth she has. Dung Ho’s digital illustrations showcase nature and legend in addition to the females’ eyes and will delight readers young and old. This book belongs in every library collection for young people and should be read aloud to groups of children of all ethnicities. Count this as a solid addition to Own Voices literature.

Literary Wardrobes, a Cat, and Kids saying, “Whoa!”

Lynn and Cindy: We LOVE books that get kids talking and there is nothing like time travel or portal travel and ambiguous resolutions to make that happen! If you love that too we have such a treat for you. We have two new books that are wildly different from each other but who share some important connections. Yup – wardrobe portals to other times or places, lots of references to well-loved books in the genre, compulsive plots and endings that are guaranteed to make kids say, “Whoa!”

Lynn:  Da Vinci’s Cat ((Harper/Greenwillow, 2021) by Catherine Gilbert Murdock is an enchanting and intriguing story set in the 1500s and also the present, featuring a noble young hostage to the Pope, a modern young girl just moving into a new house, famous artists a mysterious cat and cabinet that connects them all. Packed with historical figures and backed with terrific research, the details of both settings are vivid and the historical and cultural background necessary for young readers is provided seamlessly. Sympathetic characters are at the heart of this story but the mindblowing aspects of time travel power the plot and enhance the tension. Readers walk with Federico and Bee as they explore the puzzle of the cabinet, sharing in the initial puzzlement, then giddy excitement, and finally in the horrifying realization of the future altering consequences.

There is plenty of humor provided by the two protagonists’ encounters with each other and with centuries of differences in culture, manners, and clothing. The introduction of the famous art and artists is one of the highlights here – who knew Michelangelo shunned baths! This fascinating item and more will certainly send many young readers to look up the artists and their works involved in the story. Juno, Da Vinci’s cat with an intriguing connection to Schrodinger’s Cat, and the time-traveling closet are such clever devices and Murdock incorporates them into a compelling story in a brilliantly effective way.

Cindy: I’m sorry that we are tempting you with a book that won’t publish until May 25th, but know that we are as eager as you are to see the finished book with “Decorations” by Caldecott Medalist Paul O. Zelinsky. Federico is based on a boy hostage of Pope Julius II, who, according to the author’s note, in the galley lived in “the papal palace for three years, befriending artists and attending countless banquets.” The story that Murdock spins from this and her research of Raphael and Michelangelo is fascinating but told well for her young audience who may need an introduction to the players and the times. Like her Newbery Medal novel, The Book of Boy, Murdock says this is “fantasy grounded in fact.” And, it’s a fact that this novel is fantastic.

The galley blurb promises that Da Vinci’s Cat is recommended for readers who loved When You Reach Me and A Wrinkle in Time. Coincidentally, David Levithan’s introduction in his new book mentions both of these titles as inspiration for writing his own middle-grade book with fantasy elements.  The Mysterious Disappearance of Aidan S. (as told to his brother)  (Knopf, 2021) is quite different from Murdock’s book, but it’s also quite different from Levithan’s previous books, and not just that it’s written for a younger audience than his previous teen titles.

A tale of two brothers, one of whom disappears, is a page-turner from the very beginning. Lucas’ older brother Aidan just vanishes one day and a police search begins. Six days later he shows up and his answers to questions about where he’s been are hard to believe. The adults all think Aidan is covering, but our narrator, Lucas, is determined to get to the truth. Is there a place with fantastical beasts and green-colored skies? If there is, why does his brother want to return there so badly and leave this world behind? I don’t want to give away much more, it’s more fun to journey with Lucas through his investigation and ponderings while innocent. One thing is sure, David may have changed his target audience and paid tribute to the novels he loved as a tween, but his themes of love and acceptance shine through brightly and aren’t hidden behind any doors, be they on closets or magical wardrobes. I only wish that Levithan could jump into Da Vinci’s time-traveling wardrobe and take a copy of this book back to his 12-year-old self. I’d like that kid to tell adult David to keep writing middle grade books as well as teen and adult.

Lynn: I loved David’s book too! The voice of Lucas, the younger brother and narrator was simply terrific—a thoughtful observer of events and interactions around him, is spot on, believable and compelling. Lucas’ story is the device that raises the issues, spots the inconsistencies and then assesses the reactions. Lucas reports both what he sees and hears but what is also unsaid or remembered—beautifully increasing the feeling of uncertainty and doubt. This is both an urgent, can’t-put-it-down story and a thoughtful set of powerful observations that require a pause to consider—not an easy combination to pull off. What is truth, what is the impact of truth on the listener when what may be the truth is unimaginable? Should the truth always be told and when and why would you alter it?

David skillfully plants seeds of doubt everywhere in Lucas’ narration, leaving the reader always feeling slightly off-center. Often young readers dislike open-ended stories but those stories motivate them to have instant conversations and that is a powerful thing. Some readers of both of these books will race through them and more sophisticated readers are going to discover so much to consider. All readers are going to find that both stories linger long after the pages are finished. And one more terrific quality of both of these books is that they are absolutely perfect read-alouds for classrooms or to use as book club books. Brace yourselves for LOTS of conversations!

Overcoming Fears – New Chapter Books for the First Grade Set

Lynn: I am firmly convinced that writing well for children is extremely difficult and writing well for the K-Gr. 2 set is one of the most difficult challenges of all! My all-too-necessary-in-Michigan stocking hat is off to people that manage to be authentic, engaging, and developmentally appropriate while telling a wonderful story! One of the best is Emily Jenkins, author of one of my favorite chapter book series, The Toys Trilogy. I am delighted to report that Jenkins has a new chapter book that will be published in June, Harry Versus the First Hundred Days of School (Random/Schwartz & Wade, June 2021. I fell in love with 5-year-old Harry Bergen-Murphy on the first page.

Harry doesn’t think he is ready for first grade. He has worries. Will he get lost in the big building? Will his teacher yell? What about mean kids and scary classroom guinea pigs? Not even the new Fluff Monster keychain on his backpack makes Harry feel ready. This absolutely endearing tale chronicles Harry’s experiences with school, the ubiquitous Hundred Days lessons, and how he becomes an expert at, not one, but three things! Jenkins masterfully puts readers right inside Harry’s head as he takes on the challenges of first grade. Funny, sweet, and absolutely dead-on authentic, this book addresses the complicated whirl of a child’s fears, misunderstandings, and confusions as well as the growth, revelations, breakthroughs, and triumphs of that important early school experience.

Harry is a complete delight. Loaded with Jenkins’ signature wry humor, the book is as insightful in the ways a young child thinks as it is funny. This will be a perfect read-aloud for classrooms, for parents helping prepare a child for that first day of school, or as a solo read for kids tackling chapter books on their own. Kids will delight in finding their First Grade experiences reflected here. Adults will find a heartwarming story of a little boy discovering his strengths, aided by caring teachers and supportive adults. Jenkins includes a terrific Author’s Note that includes comments on the lessons and a list of the many stellar books referenced in the story. I’d also just like to say the “Fluff Monsters” that Harry loves and invented for the story are the next fad waiting to sweep First Grades everywhere! Emily—you need to copyright this now!

I read this in galley which included just a few of the promised illustrations by Pete Oswald and I’m eager to see the finished copy. I can’t think of a better book to use as a first-grade classroom read-aloud or one for a parent to read with a first-grader to be. Absolutely stellar in every way.
Cindy: I have a story about a girl who has tackled and survived first grade, but has many more fears to conquer. Maybe Maybe Marisol Rainey (Greenwillow, May 2021) by the talented Erin Entrada Kelly introduces us to 8-year-old Marisol who is afraid of everything. Small, quiet, and timid Marisol Rainey is a main character that many children will relate to, although they may need to be introduced to silent movies and their stars like Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford. Marisol is a fan of those funny movies and how the actors can say so much without saying anything.
Marisol names everything, her stuffed animals, the refrigerator (Buster for Buster Keaton), and the huge scary tree in the back yard, which she named Peppina. She names all of the important things in her life as she says she wouldn’t want to be called “human” or “girl” so why shouldn’t refrigerators and trees have names?
Marisol has a supportive family and a patient best friend, Jada, who all understand Marisol’s fears and let her tackle them when she is ready. She also has mad Claw-Machine skills that have helped to grow her stuffed animal collection, but even then, she uses them to rescue the one-eyed misfit animal in the far corner of the machine. Marisol is kind. She is the kind of friend all first to third graders should get to know.

M.B. Goffstein Fans Rejoice! Reissues Are Coming!

Cindy: I first encountered M.B. Goffstein‘s books at my first professional job as a public children’s librarian in 1984. I read Sleepy People (1966) and was hooked. I still yawn even thinking about that book with a small family living in a slipper drinking hot cocoa. I’ve wanted to purchase it, but rare copies sell in the hundreds of dollars. You can imagine the joy of finding a review package from The New York Review Children’s Collection on my doorstop with not one but TWO M.B. Goffstein reissues inside! Fish for Supper and Brookie and Her Lamb will be back in print on March 2nd.

Brookie and Her Lamb (Farrar, 1967) is the only Goffstein book I own so I am able to compare the second edition with this new NYRB release. Gone is the paper jacket and the little pink flowers surrounding the cover illustration. Gone, too, is the jacket flap information that tells readers the message of the book. The rest of the book is delightfully intact. Opening it to see Goffstein’s pen and ink spare illustrations is a joy all over again. A drawing of Brookie taking her lamb for a walk with the jaunty pair viewed from the back just makes one smile. This is a story of unconditional love and so much more. “Brookie had a little lamb and she loved him very much.” She taught him to sing and read, but he could only sing “Baa, baa, baa.” And he could only read, “Baa, baa, baa.” She loved him anyhow. I always found it magical how Goffstein could say so much with so few words and such nuanced, but seemingly simple, illustrations. According to the press release, “Goffstein once said it took nine hours to draw a vacuum cord just right.” Mary may have had a little lamb, but I’ll take Brookie and Her Lamb any day! And, here’s to more Brooke Goffstein reissues…PLEASE!

Lynn: the New York Review is also re-releasing Goffstein’s 1977 Caldecott Honor book, Fish for Supper. This was the first Goffstein book that I remember meeting. This is the charming story of the determinedly independent old lady who goes out early, fishes all day, eats her catch and prepares to happily do it all over again the next day. I fell in love with it all over again, perhaps because I’m a grandmother now myself!

These new editions are in the small trim size and the covers look much the same although the tiny flowers on the first editions have been removed for a cleaner look. Don’t miss these!

Pandemic Comfort in a Picture Book: Outside, Inside

Cindy: Adults have been struggling for the past year during our Covid-19 Pandemic, but we all wonder how the children doing who may not understand the changes around them, or who are having trouble coping with them? Awarding winning author-illustrator LeUyen Pham’s latest picture book Outside, Inside (Roaring Brook, 2021) is just the literary vaccination and we all need.

“Something strange happened on an unremarkable day just before the season changed. Everybody who was OUTSIDE…went INSIDE.”

So begins this story about empty streets, learning from home, drive-by birthday parties, and people who did what they needed to do because, well, it was the right thing to do. Pham shows people all over the world responding to the virus and pandemic, neither ever named, and highlights how we have changed and grown and reached out to those in need. The book is quiet, just as the outside world quieted a bit from fewer vehicles. As tired as the phrase might be, “We are all in this together,” and this story gives us hope that we’ll come out the other side of this pandemic improved in some ways, despite our significant losses.

Lynn: How do you explain the past year to a small child? How do we adults help them to understand, to cope with the changes, the sacrifices and the fear? I don’t know the answer to that question and I suspect it is going to be several years before all of us completely heal from the many ways this virus has afflicted us. A wonderful starting point though is this incredibly skillful and moving book.

LeUyen Pham speaks directly to small children here. She writes in simple sentences, with simple vocabulary and pairs her text with images that children everywhere will recognize. Pham’s illustrations are warmly comforting, showing everyday people and families, the world inside and the world outside. Vignettes include scenes of health care and front line workers in their important jobs and also scenes of families trying to live as normally as possible. The virus is never actually mentioned, instead Pham reflects the abrupt change in lives of people everywhere and the hope we all have of being outside once again.

How do you explain COVID shutdown to children? I don’t know that there is any other answer than the one found here.

“So why did we all go inside? Well…

there were lots of reasons. But mostly because everyone knew

it was the right thing to do.”

There is a wonderful Author’s Note that mustn’t be missed! In it Pham reflects on the past year. She says that her “career has been devoted to drawing the world as I would like to see it….This is the first time I have cataloged the world as it is.” I love the simplicity of this book and the way that it offers children a reflection of their often baffling experiences as well as the important message that we are in this together. I was so moved by this book! It is a quiet gem and one that our children need to experience. I think the biggest challenge when it comes to sharing this will be for adult readers to make it through without weeping! But that too is part of what we all need to acknowledge as we move forward together.

And Baby Makes Three – With Free Shipping! Picture Book Stories of New Families

Lynn and Cindy: Babies sometimes join families in unusual ways. We love these two recent picture books with stories about two very different babies bringing joy to their new families. One is a sweet story sure to melt reader’s hearts and one is a hilarious look at a truly out-of-this-world family. Both are stories that young readers are sure to love and both present a reassuring of love and acceptance, no matter the method of arrival. Enjoy!

Cindy: First up is a nonfiction adoption story told by father to son.   On the way home from work as he is leaving the NY subway, Danny spots a bundle in the corner and discovers a baby just a few hours old wrapped in a sweatshirt. The police were called, the newspapers covered the story, but Danny wasn’t allowed to visit the baby to check on him because he wasn’t family. Our Subway Baby (Dial, 2020) by Peter Mercurio tells the story of his partner Danny’s first encounter with the baby, a special judge, and the path to their adoption of Kevin so he could have a loving home. These two young fathers experience all the emotions of first-time parents, nervousness, excitement, and love for their new son. The author’s note has family photos including one of college-age Kevin who is studying mathematics and computer science. It also tells of another special event they had with Judge Cooper in addition to their adoption process. It’s a heartwarming story that will make you smile and a nice addition to the dearth of adoption stories for young children considering the adoption numbers in our country.

Lynn: Our second story is about a baby who gets delivered—right to the front porch! The robot family introduces little Cathode (Cathy) to her new baby brother. All he needs is a little assembly since he arrived in a box. Robobaby (Clarion, 2020) by David Wiesner is a 278 lb. bouncing baby robot, but Houston, we have a problem! Apparently, robots don’t read directions any better than we humans, so increasingly disastrous attempts to assemble the new member of the family are hilarious failures. Little Cathy knows just what to do but the grown-ups just won’t listen! This family truly needs a Dr. Spock! Happily, Cathy knows just what to do and little Flange is finally “Brmmming” happily in his crib. But wait! What’s that package on the porch?

Wiesner is the master of space, panels, and subtle visual jokes and each colorful page is a joy to explore carefully. Speech bubbles and lots of sound effects make the book a fun read-aloud but this is best suited as a lap book where the many clever details can be discovered. Kids will love this and their caregivers will too.

I Talk Like a River – A Perfect Pairing of Text and Illustration

Cindy:  It mystifies me that people can still be mean to others for their looks, their disabilities, and other things out of their control. Little is more isolating or heartbreaking than the loneliness of being singled out or mocked or bullied for something that is just a part of who you are. No matter how many “Kindness Matters” or “Be Kind” movements there are, we still have work to do to spread compassion. I Talk Like a River (Holiday/Neal Porter Books, 2020) by Jordan Scott and illustrated beautifully by Sydney Smith, shines a light on one such effort. The young boy in this book stutters. With poetic metaphor, Scott writes of words that take root and stick and turn to dust in his mouth. Speaking aloud in front of a class often makes for a “bad speech day.” His father can tell and offers to “go somewhere quiet.” They head to the river, a favorite place, where his father one day points out the movement in the river, the bubbling, churning, whirling, crashing. But after the rapids are calm places where the river flows smoothly and he tells his son, “You Talk Like a River.” That line comes from Scott’s own father, who helped him with his own stuttering. This will make a beautiful read aloud in a classroom and would pair well with Jacqueline Woodson’s Each Kindness.

Lynn: We were lucky enough to see this book in galley at a Midwinter preview a year ago and it has been on my to-read list ever since. The finished copy is even more outstanding than I remembered. Sometimes the text of a picture book and the illustrations aren’t always equal in quality but that is not the case here. Rarely have I seen a case of the two coming together so perfectly. The text is deeply moving with writing that is ideal for a young audience and metaphors that every child can grasp.

“The P in pine tree grows roots in my mouth and tangles my tongue.

The C is a crow that sticks in the back of my throat.”

The illustrations are perfectly partnered with the text. Some are luminously beautiful, especially the scenes of the river. Some are ominous and threatening such as when the class has turned to stare when the boy is called on to answer in the classroom. Using watercolor, ink, and gouache, illustrator Sydney Smith’s art doesn’t just extend the text, it amplifies each emotion and experience. There is a gatefold center spread that opens to a shimmering image of the boy standing in the river backlit by the sun that is stunning! There are no words here but the images refract the overall healing sense of the place, the experience, and the father’s love and support.

Readers will come away from this book with a clear sense of the struggles the child experiences with his stutter and that is valuable. Perhaps more valuable is the underlying knowledge that the child is loved, supported, and understood and the strength that provides.

Update: We had this post in the queue and missed getting it published before the book was honored at ALA Midwinter with a 2021 Schneider Family Book Award for Younger Children. Congratulations!

 

A Pura Belpre Honor – An “Army Kid” and the Vieja

Lynn: Nestor’s dad is deployed to Afghanistan and Nestor and his mom have moved AGAIN. This time they’ve moved in with Nestor’s abuela instead of to another army base. Nestor loves his abuela (and she is a great cook!) but this is the 10th time he’s been the new kid in school. How long before he has to move again? In The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez (Farrar, 2020), debut author Adrianna Cuevas explores the worries and struggles of kids with an active-duty military parent but also spices her story with a nail-biting supernatural adventure.

Nestor misses his dad deeply and worries about him, writing him letters that he keeps bright and positive but he also resists getting too comfortable in this new school, knowing he will have to move again. But this time might be different. Nestor quickly makes some friends and just as quickly gets drawn into a scary situation. Animals in town are disappearing, there is something terrifying in the woods and the townspeople are suspecting Nestor’s abuela of being a witch. Nestor and his friends set out to rescue the animals and solve the mystery. And, oh yes, Nestor has a secret gift – he can talk to animals and that just might be the key to everything.

Fast-paced and quickly immersive, this is a real treat to read. Well developed characters and an intriguing plot will keep kids racing through the pages. Nestor’s voice is immediate and authentic. South American folklore adds a terrific element to the tale. Readers from military families will appreciate Nestor’s struggles as will kids from so many families across the US who change schools often. A great addition to library collections, this will make a great book talk! Congratulations to Adrianna Cuevas for winning a Pura Belpré Author Honor Award!

See the Cat – Metafiction as a Primer

Lynn: I learned to read from the Dick and Jane primers and I remember Dick, Jane, Sally, and Spot to this day! We have come a long way since then, folks! I know that most of you out there came along after Dick and Jane but I know that David Rochelle’s new book, See the Cat (Candlewick, 2020), a delightful spoof of the classic primers will please all generations, most importantly the current crop of beginning readers.

This three-chapter book opens with our hero, Max the dog, responding to the text, “See the Cat.” “I am not a cat,” responds Max, indignantly. Each page juxtaposes a Dick and Jane type statement and an illustration of  Max, reacting to the statements which get progressively sillier. As in any good beginning reader, there is ample repetition of the words and illustrations to assist in understanding. What sets this excellent book apart is the clever humor that works so well for the audience. Mike Wohnoutka takes the joke and extends it wonderfully. Readers will be giggling through the entire book as each page-turn offers another riff on the on-going joke.

Kids will read this adorable book over and over and start on the path to being happy lifelong readers. “Hurray for David, Mike, and Max,” said Lynn.

Cindy: With Covid quarantining and social distancing, it has become harder for Lynn and me to exchange books to review so we’ve had more solo posts than usual (my committee reading and birding obsession may have contributed to those increased solos as well) but we recently risked infection to share this delightful book. I need funny books right now and this beginner reader made me laugh out loud. I can sympathize with Max in the third story as he is denied a nap, but it is a new grandpuppy that is keeping me from my naps.  At any rate, Mike Wohnoutka’s comic illustrations add to the fun text and will delight the adults who are helping the young readers who are finding their way to the magic of reading. Great job, guys. You deserve treats…but I’ve run out while trying to keep my shoes from being chewed.

 

2020 Just Won’t Let Up…Grim Books

Cindy and Lynn: You’ve got to be kidding? We’re in the middle of a pandemic, economic depression, and an unprecedented post-presidential election transition and you should see the books the publishers are sending us to read! We understand that reading builds empathy and provides survival and coping strategies, but we need cuddly puppies, comfort food, and beach reads since we can’t travel to beaches. Instead, take a look at the depressing topics the authors and publishers are offering up:

Guantanamo Voices: True Accounts from the World’s Most Infamous Prison (Amulet, 2020)

“You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!” Yes, it’s a graphic novel, but that just makes it all the more depressing to think about reading since it illustrates in words AND pictures the horrors that happened at this prison. Important stories, to be sure, and about a subject most of us know little about, but hardly the beach read that the picture postcard-inspired cover promises.

The Snow Fell Three Graves Deep: Voices from the Donner Party by Allan Wolf (Candlewick, 2020)

Narrated by Hunger, the tragic story of the men and women and children who end up stranded in the Sierra Nevada Mountains with nothing to eat but their dead does make our toilet paper shortages of 2020 seem lame, but really? Is this the book you want to read NOW?

Flooded: Requiem for Johnstown by Ann E. Burg (Scholastic, 2020)

As if the natural disasters the world has been facing all year aren’t enough, let’s revisit one of the most horrific manmade disasters, which at its root was due to class divides and social injustice.

The Candy Mafia by Lavie Tidhar (Peachtree, 2020)

You know things are bad in the reading world when even the promise of sweet candy leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Welcome to the world of black market candy rings…

Good grief! This list looks like the Goodreads account for Count Olaf! What books have you seen that you just can’t pick up right now? Or, please….tell us what you are reading that is bringing you comfort!!!