Ten Beautiful Things – A Picture Book Journey to Home

Ten beautiful thingsLynn: Something has happened in young Lily’s life. Molly Beth Griffin’s Ten Beautiful Things (Charlesbridge, 2021) opens with a scene showing a young girl in a car seat. She has an Iowa map open on her lap and a backpack and stuffed animal ride beside her. The scene on the next page widens to show a small car rolling through the dark night, an older woman at the wheel. “Let’s try to find ten beautiful things along the way,” says Gram. Griffin never reveals what has happened but Lily’s chest is “hollow” and her eyes and posture are sad. “There’s nothing beautiful here,” she says. “Lily felt the complaints starting in her belly again, coming up her throat and nearly out her mouth.” But one by one, slowly the world provides a different answer for Lily.

A golden sunrise across the fields, a red-winged blackbird, a swan shaped cloud and even the earthy rich smell of mud at a rest stop, unfold before Lily’s eyes as they travel. And at journey’s end, there is number 10—Gram’s reassuring hug as they stand before Lily’s new home. “We’re ten,” Gram said.

I dare you to read THAT line and the rest of the final text without a tear in your eye and a crack in your voice! This reassuring and moving story is a gift for every child feeling uprooted, sad, and facing a new life. I especially value that Griffin leaves Lily’s particular issues unknown, allowing each child to put themselves and their own situation into the story. The book, while acknowledging the difficult and the sad things that kids experience, is sweetly reassuring. The simple suggestion of looking for those ten beautiful things is concrete and doable even for young children and something that can help with those “hollow spots” within us at least for a while.

Maribel Lechug’s digital illustrations are warm and expressive and she takes full advantage of the extra wide format. The two-page spread of the dark clouds of a thunderstorm sweeping over the Iowa farmland is particularly effective. While the small vignettes scattered across a white page, showing Lily in her car seat, sadly curled into herself, tell readers volumes without a word needed.

This journey with Gram and Lily is not to be missed.

Magicked Gingerbread & Sourdough Starter Save the Day!

Cindy: Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking by T KingfisherI’ve baked hundreds of gingerbread people in my day, but I’ve never been able to make them rise from the cookie sheet and dance or fight off invaders, like Mona does in A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking (Argyll, 2020) by T. Kingfisher. The tag line on the cover (Siege. Sorcery. Sourdough.) tells you most everything you need to know. If you aren’t intrigued by the title, the tag line, and the cover art, this book probably isn’t for you.  I’ll give you a few details, though, since I’m eager to promote this book to everyone who likes a good fluffy biscuit, whether it’s been magicked to be fluffy or got there on its own. Fourteen-year-old orphan Mona works in her aunt’s bakery and in a world where some people have magical talents, she has a way with dough. In the bakery basement lives Bob, a loyal sourdough starter that blurps and fights with the best of the kingdom’s defenders when some mages-turned-evil try a coup against the reigning out-of-touch duchess.

When Mona finds a dead body in the bakery very early one morning, her life becomes, shall we say, complicated. Initially she runs to save her own life after Bob saves her from an attack but eventually she finds herself in a fight to save the kingdom that involves twelve-foot-tall gingerbread golums under her control. As a loyal citizen, and someone who is fighting to be accepted for her differences, she takes on the battle, but Mona is rightfully resentful.  Why are a couple of kids having to get involved with something that adults in power should have paid attention to and handled? Many teens will relate to that sentiment with the non-magical issues facing us today.

This book flew under the radar for me until a friend read it and raved about it. When I read Kingfisher’s story about the long fight to bring this story to print, I wish I’d been able to send some gingerbread men of my own to help her. At any rate, I’m thrilled to have found it and read it, and dare I hope for a sequel??? Did I mention that I loved this absolutely charming book?

Lynn:  Cindy is absolutely right about this delightful book! I had it on a to-read list but it certainly wasn’t on my active radar. Thanks to an on-the-ball friend who insisted we read this!

If you are looking for something that is the perfect recipe for a summer escape, this book is the delicious answer. Having used a sourdough starter in my past and watching my daughter-in-law now giving it away to everyone, I laughed out loud at Bob—every sourdough baker’s nemesis. And who would imagine a gingerbread cookie army?

Great characters, a fairy-tale trope baked to perfection, and plenty of humor sprinkled on top—this is a satisfying treat that mustn’t be missed!

Cindy & Lynn: Readers, have YOU read anything else by T. Kingfisher? We are placing library holds as we post this; what should we read next?

Someone Builds the Dream: A Tribute to the Trades

Cindy: Someone Builds the Dream by Lisa WheelerHardworking people in the trades are center stage in Someone Builds the Dream (Dial, 2021) by Lisa Wheeler and Loren Long. Architects, engineers, artists, scientists, amusement park designers, and even authors use their imagination, knowledge, and skills to dream up important and sometimes fun places, structures, or books, but the work doesn’t end there. It takes many hands to build the dream. For instance, and engineer designs a bridge but:

Someone works to mine the ore,
smelt the iron, pour the beam.
Someone needs to weld the steel.
Someone has to build the dream.

Written in jaunty rhyme, this book celebrates the many skilled laborers who often aren’t included in the ribbon-cutting ceremonies and photo opportunities for new structures and places. I expecially appreciated the inclusion of book-making as children have no idea about how a book comes to be as it isn’t something that happens out in the open like the building of homes that they might see. I’ll leave the illustrations for Lynn to rave about, but Loren Long, ahem, nailed it with these paintings. 

Lynn: I’ve long been a fan of Loren Long’s work, especially his Otis the Tractor books, but for me, this is his best work yet. There is a wonderful feeling of homage to the WPA murals of the 1930s that also celebrated the workers across the country. But there is a lot more here than just a tip of the hard hat to WPA art. Long’s extensive craftsmanship is beautifully at work in the skillful design and pacing. Each series begins with a “dreamer” at work, often alone in a quiet space and the text shown against a white background. The next spreads in contrast are busy, muscular, vividly-hued and pulsing with activity as the workers use their skills to bring each dream to life. Each scene is packed with details and demands readers to pause and explore. There is so much to look at! I love that the workers are of a wide diversity of races, are both men and women, and depicted as skillfully engaged in the work.  This is a partnership of text and illustration at its best!

Shape Shifters and Dragons for Middle Grade Readers

Cindy and Lynn: Sometimes with science fiction or fantasy, you just have to accept the concept and go with the flow of a fun or intriguing story that may be more out-of-this-world than you might even expect from these genres. We each recently read one of these.

Lynn: Trouble in the Stars by Sarah PrineasSarah Prineas’ new book, Trouble in the Stars (Penguin/Philomel, 2021) avoids the pitfalls that often beset middle grade SF by not dwelling on the mechanics of the world building. Instead she simply establishes the setting as a multi-world universe with interstellar travel as a given. But a major premise of the book, that the young protagonist is a shape-shifter created in a laboratory, is something readers need to accept as possible. That isn’t hard to do since the fast-paced plot ramps up right from the start. Readers are introduced to Trouble, floating in space as a sort of amorphous cloud of goo, realizes something dangerous is searching for him. In short order he squeezes into a space station, transforms into the form of an adorable puppy, and stows away on a battered ship heading out into space. When the puppy is discovered and “spaced,” Trouble shape shifts into a 10-year old human boy, wins a 3-week reprieve till the next destination, and is set to work as a cabin boy. The Hindsight has a wonderfully engaging alien crew and it is clear that they are not being completely open about what their mission actually is. Just as Trouble starts to win over the crew, they spot the StarLeague ship that is tracking them!

 This terrific story is a character driven tale of family, identity, and finding a home. The characters are all well drawn, intriguing. and decidedly distinct individuals. Trouble himself is instantly appealing and relatable— quite a feat for a clump of goo 😉 There’s plenty of humor as Prineas manages a conventional trope of “alien-figuring-out-human-behavior” in a way that young readers will greatly enjoy. The plot has plenty of suspense and just enough danger to keep reader’s interest high. This would make an ideal read aloud for a classroom, Chapters end with just enough suspense to make listeners beg for more and the story is packed with themes that would make great discussion topics. I’m hoping there will be more adventures for Trouble and the Hindsight

Cindy: Despite the opening pitch, my offering is less fantasy, really, and more a blend of historical fiction, adventure, survival, and environmental tale with the threatened species being…dragons! A Discovery of Dragons (Scholastic, July, 1, 2021) is a debut novel by science teacher, Lindsay Galvin. Young Discovery of Dragons by Lindsay GalvinSimon Covington is an assistant to Charles Darwin on the USS Beagle, playing fiddle and labeling specimens on the scientist’s famous voyage to the Gallapagos Islands. When he is lost at sea after helping to rescue Darwin, he winds up on an unexplored island with an active volcano. He soon learns that the volcano is not the only thing breathing fire on the island. With the help of his fiddle (from which Simon hears advice and sarcasm) and a lizard he names Farthing, Simon manages rescue and returns to London. There he continues to help Darwin with his specimens but also to deal with his own—a set of eggs he rescued and that are now starting to hatch! Simon’s character is based on a real boy of the same name who aided Darwin on this voyage and details of Darwin’s life and work are woven into the story, but it remains an adventure focused on what may be the last dragon eggs in the world. Might Darwin have found dragons in addition to finches and tortoises if he’d looked in the right place? We may never know. I was willing to let the story unfold as a possibility. Young fans of dragon stories and young naturalists are going to enjoy this science-based adventure. Maybe it’s not fantasy at all….if the dragons are/were real? Hmmmmm….

Cruella: Hello, Cruel Heart

Cindy: Hello Cruel Heart by Maureen JohnsonEveryone loves an origin story, and who better to learn about than Cruella de Vil? I mean, who makes coats out of puppy skins??? I read the Dodie Smith original The Hundred and One Dalmatians story, but I must have seen the Disney version more than a hundred and one times when my daughter was young. It was her favorite for years. I haven’t watched the new Cruella Walt Disney Studios film yet, but I couldn’t pass up Hello, Cruel Heart (Disney/Hyperion, 2021), a Maureen Johnson novel inspired by the movie. Here we find Estella squatting in a London hideout with two other waifs who had taken her in off the street when she was orphaned. Horace and Jasper taught Estella all of their pick pocket skills and over the years she learns to create the costumes and disguises for their bigger jobs, using a rescued sewing machine and fabric she lifts from all the finest shops. When fortunes finally change for Estella and she has an opportunity to leave her world of crime for one of fashion and fame, she doesn’t think twice about leaving her “family” behind. Johnson’s descriptions of late 60s London, the fashion and music scene, lunching in Soho, and the lure of Harrod’s for picking the pockets of the posh, are fabulous. Add in a dash of romance and an ending worthy of the best villian, and you have a fun romp of a read that might elicit just the tiniest bit of sympathy for the future Cruella de Vil.

Lynn: Tiniest bit of sympathy, Cindy? Oh I had a LOT of sympathy for Estella (Cruella-to-be) even with the knowledge of her as a future puppy poacher planning dastardly designs! Maureen Johnson gives us a fun romp as, Cindy says, but my heart really did ache for Estella as her dreams and heart got stomped on by those knee-high Soho boots!

The Soho scenes and Estelle’s fabulous fashions completely stole the show in this cinematic tale. I haven’t seen the new movie either but I can’t wait to see if it does ample justice to Maureen Johnson’s stylish and highly entertaining descriptions. This was a real delight to read and the perfect choice for readers looking for something diverting AND smart at the same time. In Johnson’s expert hands, Cruella becomes as three-dimensional as her fashion creations and readers may come just a bit closer to forgiving her future furry schemes.

Grief and Friendship: The Shape of Thunder

Cindy: Shape of Thunder by Jasmine WargaI know we have way too many young people who have had to deal with the aftermath of a school shooting, but that didn’t make it any easier to pick up this book. I sure am glad I did. The Shape of Thunder (Harper/Balzer + Bray, 2021) by Jasmine Warga is a powerful story about friendship and grieving and community healing that starts in two homes. Seventh graders Cora Hamed and Quinn McCauley have been friends since second grade but haven’t spoken to each other in a year. Quinn’s older brother died in a school shooting he initiated that also killed Cora’s older sister. Both girls are dealing with loss, Quinn’s compounded by anger at her brother, and a slowly revealed guilt over her belief she might have prevented the shooting. The story is presented in alternating chapters between the girls, and also in letters that Quinn writes to her brother as she struggles to balance her love for her brother with her hatred of what he did. 

What finally breaks the silence between the two friends is Quinn’s research and idea that they must travel back in time to before the shooting to prevent it. She has been studying up on worm holes and time travel and begs Cora to help her. Their desperation to fix what has gone wrong in their world is palpable and the pages turn fast as readers watch their efforts and wish for healing for them. 

Despite the grim topic, Warga spins a story that is hopeful and that will help healing in many grieving situations or even in rifts in longtime friendships that often hit the breaking point in seventh grade. Great for book clubs or lit circles, middle school counselors, teachers, and parents would do well to read this story, too.

Not Your Ordinary Fantasy – Oddity

Lynn: Oddity by Eli BrownAre the fantasies being cranked out right now all blending together for you? Not sure exactly which one you read last? Me too! Somehow so many of them look exactly alike and I’m having a hard time figuring out which girl-with-a-sword book I read.  Happily, I have something for you that really stands apart. Hugely enjoyable and something of an oddity itself, Oddity (Walker, 2021) by Eli Brown  is very different from what has been crossing my desk lately. Eli  Brown has created a richly imagined alternate world in which the Louisiana Purchase never happened and the “Louisiana War” has reached an uneasy peace, dividing the lands between Bonaparte, the eastern colony states, and a strong confederation of Native American tribes.

In this land a type of magic exists in which enormously powerful objects are determining the balance of power. Such things as time-traveling matches, a rag doll with unstoppable power, and a pistol that always hits the target create a fascinating scenario although the magical systems are never explained. A cast of characters equally as unusual and engaging continue the intrigue.

Clover Elkin has long been fascinated by Oddities and longs to become a collector just like her mother was. Clover and her doctor father live on the border of French Louisiana and there are frightening signs that the uneasy peace may be ending. Clover’s father hates Oddities and blames his wife’s death on them, forbidding Clover from pursuing her dream. One day as Clover and her father are returning from a call to a patient, they are accosted by a band of strangers who shoot and kill the doctor. As he dies, he urges Clover to take his medical bag, protect the Oddity inside and take it to the Society of Anomalogists. On her journey, Clover meets and gathers some unusual allies including a general who is a talking rooster, a young medicine show con artist, and a hat that steals people’s deepest secrets. The unique world building and wildly eccentric cast of endearing characters make this a stand out book. Best for a good reader willing to follow a complex plot, this is also a door opener for kids to the alternate universe genre.

The book also features outstanding design and production including eye-catching illustrations by Karin Rytter that add to the overall appeal. The door is definitely open for a sequel and that is something I would love to see!

Things That Go Bump…at The Crossroads at Midnight

Cindy: Crossroads at Midnight by Abby HowardTeens who love horror and graphic novels are going to devour Abby Howard’s newest comic, The Crossroads at Midnight (Iron Circus Comics, 2020). This eerie collection of five graphic (in the best way) short stories focus on late night encounters with the macabre. The ages of the characters vary, from a story about young kids at the beach, to a college student studying for exams, and to an aging woman, but all focus on the feelings of lonliness and longing for connection and understanding. In this book, those connections all come at a price. 

The grossest story for me, starts with the college girl, poor and tired of sleeping on the floor, finds a discarded mattress on the street, and decides that the thought of comfort outweighs the the risks of bedbugs or filth on the stained mattress. Her roommate is not amused, but the disgusting scary options that they are worried about are the least of their worries after the girl sleeps on this mattress for a few nights…

As in all short story collections, readers will have a personal favorite. Mine? The final story about an old woman, living alone in a remote area at the edge of a bog who gets a late night visitor. The woman at the door doesn’t speak, but rather than be frightened, the homeowner invites her in and finally has someone to talk to and begins to spin her life’s stories during each visit. Intrigued by her strange guest, she heads to the local library and to a local historian, and digs up an old mystery. 

Last Halloween, Children by Abby HowardI chose to read these stories slowly, one each day, lingering over the art and thinking about the stories. Lynn found this book, but now that I’ve finished, I just placed Howard’s other 2020 horror graphic novel on hold at my library. I can’t wait to read The Last Halloween: Children soon.

Lynn: I had to pace myself with these to keep from gobbling them up in one sitting. Talk about scary, creepy, and eerie! Each and every one made me shiver and they made me want to instantly start the next one to see what weirdly wonderful idea Abby Howard was playing with next.

Howard wisely stuck to a palette of black and white which resulted in intensifying the impact of the artwork. She also brilliantly uses suggestion, corner-of-the-eye glimpses and perspectives with partial views in her panels in ways that encourage a reader’s imagination to mentally draw the rest of the scene. And boy oh boy, did my brain accept the challenge! The drawings of the characters’ expressions convey SO much with just a few lines.

I loved all these stories and choosing a favorite was hard. I trembled on the edge of choosing the first one about a heartbroken teen, angry and hurt over the announcement that her parents are sending her to a camp to “cure” her, who discovers an unseen friend through the fence into the forbidden field of the farmer next door. That one almost won out but I too came down, too, on the last story that struck me to the bone. I’m with Cindy here!

Howard concludes each tale with an ending that allows readers minds to fly away on their own nightmare path and isn’t that the scariest thing of all?

Deb Caletti: One Great Lie – Historical Fiction

Lynn: One Great Lie by Deb CalettiThe cover and the initial plot of Deb Caletti’s newest, One Great Lie (S&S/Atheneum, 2021) could lead readers to think this is a light sweet story of a summer spent in beautiful Venice. A college-bound aspiring writer wins a scholarship to a writing program being held in Venice, Italy. For Charlotte, the biggest thrill is that it is being taught by her favorite author, Luca Bruni.  Readers will be in for a surprise but really, shouldn’t we know that Deb Caletti always offers a lot to think about?

There is a smoldering anger in Caletti’s writing here as she builds a fire made of historical evidence of how women were treated in the Italy of the 1500’s. Outspoken women, women of intellect or artistic ability or simply young women who were inconvenient to their fathers, brothers, or spouses were casually disposed of to convents or prisons. Along side these embers, Caletti adds the fuel of a modern story of casual dismissal, appropriation, and shaming for young women at the hands of a powerful man. It is a scorching story of historical injustice that continues today and no one reading this story will miss the heat or fail to build their own fire of anger.

There is a lot happening here. A compelling family mystery, a first deep love, a story of sisterhood, coming of age, and taking a stand. All this is set in the watery ancient beauty of the city of Venice. I am a long-time fan of Deb Caletti’s books and and this is one that demands much of the reader. I needed time to process the story when I finished it and I know it is one that is going to stay with readers for a long time.

Scipio Jones – a Hero to Meet for Our Time

race-against-timeLynn:  I have a new hero and it saddens me to say that this extraordinary person, Scipio Jones, was unknown to me before reading Sandra Neil and Rich Wallace’s latest book, Race Against Time: The Untold Story of Scipio Jones and the Battle to Save Twelve Innocent Men (Boyds Mills/Calkins Creek, 2021). Scipio Jones was a singularly courageous and inspiring man whose name should be known to every American and I hope this outstanding book helps make that a fact.

Race Against Time is a story of Scipio Jones but it is also about another buried but important event—the Elaine Massacre—and the twelve men wrongfully condemned to execution. The time was 1919. In Elaine, Arkansas, returning Black soldiers came home to find that oppression, discrimination, and fear were still the prevailing conditions. Sharecroppers, they struggled with unfair prices for their cotton and a system that looked the other way at not just inequality but at blatant terrorizing of the Black community. After risking their lives to fight for their country, many of these Black veterans refused to accept the situation and in Elaine, a union was organized to fight for fair prices. While meeting one night in a local church, carloads of white vigilantes attacked, shooting and killing more than 200 men, women, and children. During the melee, 5 white men were killed, some by their own bullets in the confusion. Almost immediately, 12 Black men were arrested for murder, tried, and convicted.

Enter Scipio Jones, who risked his life, spent five years of intensive work, and expending most of his personal wealth, desperately striving to save the twelve. Eventually the case made it to the Supreme Court and became the first time African Americans won a Supreme Court decision. As always, the Wallaces write with admirable clarity, making this complex legal story understandable for a teen audience. This is also a heart-stopping story of suspense. Fascinating and deeply relevant in our time, this is a story that should be read and remembered.

Cindy: Like Lynn, and the Wallaces before they unearthed the story while researching a later court case, I’d never heard of this courageous and brilliant lawyer or the story of this important legal battle to not only save lives, but to move justice forward for persecuted African Americans. We still have a long way to go for legal justice for all, but Scipio Jones certainly provided a push in that progress, and at great personal sacrifice and risk to his own safety.

I also don’t know as much as I should about the history of the NAACP, so it was surprising to me how little faith the leadership had in having a black lawyer represent the case that he had worked so hard to prepare. In some states, especially in the segregated south, it was also a legal mandate for a white lawyer to present the cases. Of course, in 1919, Scipio Jones couldn’t even ride in the same train car as his white colleague or sleep in the same hotel. For his own safety, after a long day in court he had to find a local family willing to host him for the night, changing his location daily for his protection, and that of the people willing to help him.

This horrifying and fascinating story also includes famed Ida B. Wells-Barnett, who visited the incarcerated men and wrote about them, and held a protest to raise funds for their defense. Jones also had a young attorney working with him on a final case against the Little Rock school district, who he was suing for equal pay for Black teachers and administrators. Scipio died before the case was finished but that young attorney, Thurgood Marshall, continued on and won the case.

Scipio Jones, born enslaved and self-taught, and his heroic and brilliant work need to be known, and honored. Start by reading this powerful book.