Queen of the Tiles: Scrabble Slays

Queen of the TilesLynn: REGICIDE is the first ominous clue in Hanna Alkaf’s unusual mystery, Queen of the Tiles (S&S/Salaam, 2022).  Trina Lowe was the reigning “Queen of the Tiles” when she suddenly keeled over the Scrabble Board and died just one year ago. Still struggling to recover from the trauma of that event, Trina’s best friend Najwa Bakri is making her first appearance at a tournament since that event. Najwa is determined to win the championship to honor Trina and figure out the mystery of her death. Was it a tragic accident or was it murder? As Najwa begins to work with her friends and fellow competitors, she is horrified to see cryptic messages appearing on Trina’s Instagram account. Each message includes a series of Scrabble tile letters as a clue. Who is sending the messages and can anyone be trusted?

Set in Kuala Lampur, Alkaf skillfully weaves Malaysian culture and the fascinating details of competitive Scrabble into the story. And, yes, there IS such a thing as competitive Scrabble. Each chapter begins with a word spelled out in Scrabble tiles, its definition and point value. Enough background is provided so that even Scrabble newbies won’t feel like they’ve drawn a terrible rack. The tension ratchets up as the competition and Najwa’s investigations move along. There is bagful of red herrings and Najwa, her friends and fellow competitors slowly begin to put together all the tiles to spell out the surprising answers.

Country Kids – City Kids

Cindy and Lynn: Moving is never easy, and it’s even harder when you are a child who loves nature and you learn you have to move to the city. We have two picture books that might help ease that move or make any big change a little easier.

Martin and the River (Groundwood, 2022) by Jon-Erik Lappano.

Martin and the River by Jon-Erik LappanoMartin has a river flowing through the fields behind his house and he spends his days catching frogs and “watching the great blue herons soar like dragons over the water.” When his mother takes a job in the city and Martin learns they will have to move, he is devastated. Promises of museum visits and subway rides do nothing to soothe him. Martin spends time at his river trying to scheme a plan but fails to come up with any good ideas. His parents wisely take him on some visits to the city before the big move. Martin’s imagination comes to his aid and he sees bits of nature and animals in the bustling city, but his heart melts when he sees the park…with a river.

Josée Bisaillon’s mixed media art contains beautiful scenes of the nature that Martin loves and is filled with small details of the plants, flowers, birds, and animals that Martin cherishes. It’s easy to see why he doesn’t want to leave.

Carmen and the House That Gaudi Built (Owl Kids, 2021) by Susan Hughes.

Carmen and the House that Gaudi BuiltLike Martin in the previous book, Carmen is a country child who loves the woods around her home. She spends hours there exploring with her invisible Salamander friend, Dragon. Carmen is devastated when she learns her father has commissioned a house in the city and that soon the family would move there. When the architect, Señor Gaudi, visits, Carmen refuses to come inside to meet him but Señor Gaudi, standing on the lawn somehow sees her AND Dragon. As the new house progresses, Carmen sees the beauty of nature reflected in the designs. After two years, the house is finished and Carmen must leave her friend behind. But the finished house has an amazing wild beauty. Most astonishing of all is the beautiful stone salamander wrapped around the roof. Carmen has found a home in the city.

Susan Hughes has created a fictional story about a very real house. The Casa Batllo was redesigned and renovated for the Batllo family in 1904. Situated on one of Barcelona’s most fashionable streets, the house featured a wavy exterior and curved interior walls. Tall windows, skylights and interior courts provided light. A mosaic made of pieces of glass decorated the front of the house and all was topped with a spiny ridge along the roof line resembling a salamander. The house was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site and its impact is just as stunning today as it was in 1906.

I have been lucky enough to visit the Casa Batllo and it remains one of my favorite buildings in the world. Hughes includes an Author’s Note that provides the historical facts about the Casa, the Batllo family, and her thoughts on the creation of this picture book. A full-color photograph of the Casa is included. My hat is off to the photographer as the image somehow avoids all the tram power lines, streetlights, and signs that marred my own photos! My hat is also off to Susan Hughes, illustrator Marianne Ferrer, and this book for bringing the remarkable Señor Gaudi to a new generation.

Graphic Novels with Girl Power

Cindy and Lynn: We love graphic novels and we especially love graphic novels with girl power! Here are three new ones that differ widely in location and time but all three discover how to find their skills and rock their worlds.

Enola Holmes: the Graphic Novels: Book One ( Andrews McNeal, 2022) by Serena Blasco.

Enola HolmesWe love the original Enola Holmes books by Nancy Springer! If you haven’t found them or the Netflix series, Enola is the much younger sister of the famous Sherlock and Mycroft Holmes. On her 14th birthday, Enola awakens to discover that her mother, a woman of very eccentric beliefs for her time, has disappeared. When her brothers arrive, they decide they must send Enola away to boarding school to become a proper lady. Enola has very different ideas and runs away to London where she sets shop as a private investigator while also searching for her mother.

Blasco’s graphic novel adaptations of the first three cases is absolutely terrific! These are faithful to the books for those of us who care about that and the illustrations are not only inviting but filled with delicious details that reward careful perusing. The language of flowers which plays a big part in the books is included and well explained and the inclusion of them in messages and codes is wonderfully done. Enola is a spunky, smart heroine, and a dab hand at disguise, detecting and outwitting both her brothers and villains.

Blasco captures the tone of the Springer novels perfectly and we absolutely loved reading these versions. This will be terrific both for fans of the originals and for newcomers to the series. Delightful!!!

Swim Team: Small Waves, Big Changes. (Harper Alley, 2022) by Johnnie Christmas.

Swim Team by Johnnie ChristmasWith four starred reviews, you may have already heard about this sports-themed graphic novel, but if not, you’ll need to get on your starting block and race to get a copy. Bree is starting middle school in a new state and is dismayed to learn that swimming is a big deal at her new Florida school. When the only elective that fits her schedule is not Math Games as she’d hoped, but Swim 101, she’s unnerved. Bree never learned to swim.  A neighbor at her apartment, who is an alumnus of Bree’s school and its swim team, jumps in the deep end to help Bree not only learn to swim but to be good enough to be tapped for the struggling swim team. 

Bree’s public school lacks the resources of the local private school that usually wins most of the medals and the meets, but the girls and their coach have other resources under their swim caps and the race is on.

Middle school friendships and fights and rude rivals threaten to sink some of the progress of the team until the girls learn to work together. Additional subplots with the coaches and the history of segregated swimming pools and the lack of swimming instruction and access to pools for blacks are woven into the important story. Readers will cheer for Bree as she overcomes her fears and they will learn from her perseverance and commitment as she excels in her sport. 

Squire (HarperCollins/Quill Tree, 2022) by Sara Alfageeh.

SquireAiza dreams of becoming a Squire and then a Knight in the powerful Bayt-Sajii army that controls a vast area. Aiza is poor and of a despised minority, the Ornu, and the army is her only route to citizenship. Aiza conceals her cultural tattoos with wrappings and, with the help of a motley array of allies and enemies survives the intense training, reaching her goal of becoming a Squire. But along the way, Aiza begins to understand the true nature of the country she serves and begins to question where her loyalty and her heart lie.

Set in an alternative Middle East, the illustrations are bold and gorgeously inked. Each expression is wonderfully detailed, providing a depth of understanding of each character. A sweeping tale of understanding the nature of power and true loyalty.

These Virus Picture Books Are Infectious Reading

Cindy and Lynn: we know, we know. We’re all really tired of hearing about “the virus.” But, after two years of COVID quarantines, infections, shut-downs, mask mandates, and remote work if you still don’t know how to explain what a virus is, how it works, and how scientists study them and try to defeat the bad ones, this round-up of nonfiction picture books may help you focus the microscope. If you have other virus books for a young audience to recommend, leave us a comment. 

I’m a Virus! by Bridget Heos (Crown, 2022)I'm a Virus by Bridget Heos

From a sick girl’s sneeze to her friend’s nose, a common cold virus explains how it invades, multiplies, and attacks to spread from person to person. The science, which also covers the body’s immune response, is infused with humor and illustrations that help the information go down like a spoonful of sugar! Covid-19 is mentioned, as is Smallpox and Jenner’s first vaccine. A double-page spread introduces the many types of white blood cells and their jobs in defending you from illness. A glossary, suggested reading and bibliography round out this first entry in the Science Buddies Series.

Secret Life of Viruses by Mariona Tolosa SistereThe Secret Life of Viruses: Incredible Science Facts About Germs, Vaccines, and What You Can Do to Stay Healthy by Mariona Tolosa Sisteré Ellas Educan Collective (Sourcebooks, 2021)

Vibrant and humorous illustrations complement solid information written by a women’s science collective about a wide variety of viruses. Topics include how the body defends itself, viruses in history, and the benefits of some viruses. A True/False quiz at the back reinforces important content.

Dr. Fauci by Kate MessnerDr. Fauci: How a Boy from Brooklyn Became America’s Doctor by Kate Messner (Simon & Schuster, 2021)

This picture book biography of the current director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, begins in his childhood as a curious child of parents who owned a pharmacy and continues through his medical education and his work under seven U.S. presidents. Backmatter includes: How Do Vaccines Work?, Are Vaccines Safe?, and Dr. Fauci’s Five Tips for Future Scientists, a Time Line, Recommended Reading, and Fauci family photos.

Tu Youyou's Discovery by Songju Ma DaemickeTu Youyou’s Discovery: Finding a Cure for Malaria by Songju Ma Daemicke (Albert Whitman, 2021)

Like Dr. Fauci, Tu Youyou was interested in medicine and research from a young age, partially due to her own struggle with tuberculosis as a teen. In 1969, an illness called Malaria, spread by mosquitoes, was killing people worldwide and became the focus of her research and experiments. This nonfiction biography picture book emphasizes the persistence needed in medical research as doctors search for answers and cures, and highlights the scientific process as well as gender discrimination. For her work, Youyou was honored with a Nobel Prize in 2015, the first Chinese woman to receive one.

Planting a Love for Nature: Park and Garden Picture Books

Lynn and Cindy: We have gardens and parks on our minds! Who doesn’t in these sweet early days of summer when the world is green and inviting? A lovely bouquet of picture books has landed on our doorsteps that will delight any budding gardener. Enjoy and share!

Uncle John's city gardenUncle John’s City Garden (Holiday House, 2022) by Bernette G. Ford

Little Sissie and her brothers work with their Uncle John to plant a garden in the middle of the city. Each child chooses seeds and carefully tends the plants with the goal of a glorious succotash at the season’s end. A bounty crop means a neighborhood celebration and lots of sharing. Frank Morrison’s vibrant oil illustrations make every page delicious. Succotash recipe included!

Celia Planted a Garden: the Story of Celia Thaxter and HerCelia planted a garden Island Garden (Candlewick, 2022) by Phyllis Root and Gary D. Schmidt.

Celia Thaxter loved flowers from the time she was a young child. She especially loved the color they brought to her gray, white, and black life on the island where her father tended a lighthouse. Her love for gardening bloomed as gloriously as the flowers she tended and the nature writing she nurtured. Melissa Sweet’s colorful illustrations are perfect for this picture book biography, and you’ll be inspired to plant some seeds of your own.

Park connects usA Park Connects Us (Owl Kids, 2022) by Sarah Nelson.

This lovely picture book celebrates all the ways parks benefit us. Simple sentences and charming illustrations by Ellen Rooney make this a joyous choice for a summer read aloud. Back matter provides information on the history and creation of Central Park in New York City.

Cress Watercress: A Perfect Read-Aloud–Make Note!

Lynn: I Cress watercressam a skeptical audience for animal fantasies. Some I love and some I dislike intensely. I may be the only person on the planet to loathe Watership Down but I adored the Brian Jacques books. I also am a fan of Gregory Maguire’s adult fantasies and was unsure how his sharp clever style would translate into a middle-grade book. After a bit of a slow start in his new book, Cress Watercress (Candlewick, 2022), Maguire settles into a masterful style and pace that brings something new to the genre and is perfectly attuned to the young audience.

Cress Watercress and her hardworking mother and baby brother must leave their home for new quarters after her Papa fails to come home from a honey-gathering trip. The Broken Arms apartment is small and crowded and Cress grieves her father and misses her home and friends. Her contrary feelings are exacerbated by a leap into adolescence and her mood is as if she “ate thorns for breakfast.” Real dangers, a very sick little brother, and a mix of new friends— both good and bad—add to Cress’s struggles and her path forward is skillfully woven into the adventure. Cress yearns to solve the mystery of her father’s disappearance and as she learns to handle her grief, she also begins to discover what home and family are. She also learns a lot about her own strength. Never saccharine, this rabbit’s tale is beautifully told.

The book is illuminated by David Litchfield’s glowing digital illustrations that make the book a visual treat. The book production by this Candlewick team is absolutely outstanding!!

This is a perfect choice for a bedtime or a classroom read-aloud!! Make note!

Cindy: There are at least two people who aren’t fans of Watership Down. You’re not alone, Lynn. What I am a fan of is intelligent stories that are as fun for the adult reading them aloud as for the child listening to them. This one has great characters, like a skunk named Lady Agatha Cabbage dressed for the opera peering through a lorgnette and uttering phrases like “Oh, my pearls and pistols.” Independent readers ready for interesting vocabulary and humor will enjoy reading this story, too. For instance, when Cress and Finny are headed over a waterfall on their raft, Cress hangs on by “strength of will and overbite.” Many unexpected little gems had me chuckling aloud. At other times, as when Cress’s mother uses the waxing and waning of the moon as an analogy for grief that comes and goes but is always there, the storytelling left me brushing away some tears.

Room for Everyone: A Wild Inclusive Ride

Lynn:room for everyone In Zanzibar on a day “hotter than peppers”, Musa and his sister get aboard the daladala for an excursion to the beach. In the delightful Room for Everyone (S&S/Atheneum, 2021) by Naaz Khan, the bus keeps stopping and each stop adds more and more hilarious passengers. Musa is sure they will be squished.  First, there is a boy and his goats, then an old man and his bicycle, and a diving team and all their equipment! With each addition, Musa gets more and more worried but his sister assures him there always room for everyone. And of course, she is right. By the time they arrive at the beach, Musa, too, is joining the bouncy refrain that there is always room for everyone.

Joyful and buoyant repeating verse makes this cumulative tale a delight to read aloud. Merce Lopez’s vibrant illustrations are brightly colored and exuberant with lots of humorous touches that will delight young readers. Giggles abound!

Always Room for One More by Sorche Nic LeodhasCindy: This story is a fun twist on the Scottish folktale, Always Room for One More, perhaps best remembered in the version by Sorche Nic Leodhas, which won the 1966 Caldecott Medal for Nonny Hogrogrian’s wonderful illustrations.

In this East African spin on the motif, each additional set of riders (from one to ten) adds an element of culture, arts, sports, food, or occupation to the bus painting a community as colorful and energetic as the mixed-media illustrations. The theme of including all is especially appreciated. A short glossary of Swahili and Arabic terms is included as well as an author’s note about her own book-inspiring fun ride on a daladala. Don’t miss this literary ride!

True Courage and a New Leica – YA Nonfiction – Close-up On War

Lynn: close up on warDid you ever wonder where the term “snapshot” comes from? Mary Cronk Farrell includes this tidbit (from the sound made as a picture was taken and the film advanced) in her outstanding new book, Close-Up on War: the Story of Pioneering Photojournalist Catherine Leroy in Vietnam (Abrams/Amulet, 2022). This fascinating book is also a snapshot – a captured picture of a pivotal time and the determined woman who recorded it on film for the world to see.

French woman Catherine Leroy was just 21 years old when she arrived in Vietnam in early 1966. She spoke limited English, carried a new Leica camera she was still learning to use, and she was determined to make her way in what was then a man’s world of photojournalism. Barely 5 feet tall, slim and blonde, Catherine’s appearance belied her fierce ambition, persistence, initiative, and courage.

Farrell begins the book with an excellent and succinct overview of the history of Vietnam and the decades of conflict that had beset the area giving young readers a necessary background for a war that, while still painfully present for many of us, is ancient history to teens. Into this chaotic stew, Catherine Leroy arrived and the book then follows her from her early months struggling to win respect, get jobs, and make her way to the action. Farrell uses a wealth of primary sources including Catherine’s own letters to her mother, accounts from people who knew and worked with her, her articles, and a treasure trove of photographs.

Catherine was extremely humble and always gave credit to others but through these many sources, Farrell creates a sharp image of a remarkable woman, her struggles, obstacles, battle experiences, and the price she paid for her achievements. In her groundbreaking work, Catherine Leroy put an up-close and personal face on the distant war in Vietnam. She brilliantly caught the suffering and the human impact in her photography and brought it into the living rooms of America. Her work helped to align public understanding with the reality of that horrible war.

Wonderfully written and documented, Farrell has brought this important story to today’s young readers in an account that feels as if it is happening before our eyes. The included back matter is excellent. It includes an Author’s Note, lengthy glossary, timeline, and source notes. There is also a remarkably clear explanation titled “How a Camera Worked in 1960s” that will be eye-opening to teens accustomed to digital photography.

There are so many extraordinary photographs included in the book. Some are of Leroy, many are taken by her, and others are taken by others at the time. Abrams/Amulet has done an excellent job of book design and reproduction and this collection adds extraordinary interest and value to the book.

I am long-time admirer of Catherine Leroy and her work and of photography and photojournalism in general. For teens interested in these subjects, or in history or women’s history this is highly recommended. It will be an excellent resource for high school and college history classes as well.

Healer & Witch: Nancy Werlin steps into Middle Grade Books

Lynn: Healer & Witch If you think of Nancy Werlin as a YA author, think again. Werlin has just released her first middle grade book, Healer & Witch (Candlewick, 2022) and it is a winner! Her compelling story is a mesmerizing blend of adventure and magic with a medieval France setting and appealing characters. Almost fifteen-year-old Sylvie has grown up in a small French village with her healer grandmother and mother. Sylvie has been especially close to her namesake grandmother and shares her extraordinary gifts. Sylvie’s mother, Jeanne, is a competent caring healer but lacks the others’ powers. When Sylvie’s grandmother dies, the two women struggle with their grief.

Despite her grandmother’s warnings about the use of her power, Sylvie misuses her gift in a misguided attempt to heal. Horrified, Sylvie realizes she desperately needs guidance and sets out to find a teacher who can help. A little boy from her village, Martin, attaches himself to the journey in order to see the world and becomes an ally. In a world where healers and witches are in mortal danger, Sylvie must learn who to trust and how to be herself.

There is lovely writing here with a wonderful storytelling cadence that kept me turning the pages—no small feat in my current lack-of-reading-focus state. The characters are layered and engaging and the adventure kept me captivated. Sylvie’s internal journey is as compelling as her physical one as she grapples with questions about the use and misuse of power and her own place in the world. An outstanding choice for young readers looking for something with a classic feel and modern thoughtful themes.

Cindy: This is hands down my favorite Nancy Werlin book. Sylvie and Martin are both characters that young readers will worry over, laugh with, and root for as they set off on their quest. Sylvie is not seeking her fortune, just the knowledge that she needs to control her out-of-the-ordinary healing powers, and then she just wants to return to her humble home in her very small village. Martin, while young and small, fears little, having endured a lot in his few years. He is ready to seek adventure and new sights. Together, they make a formidable duo. They also both grow and change over the course of the novel. Sylvie’s struggles over the ethics of her magic, her feelings for Monsieur Chouinard, and her definition of her true self will give readers much to ponder and debate. I can’t wait to hear members of our middle school book club discuss this one.

Learning that Werlin wrote the first draft of this book in 1996 was a shock. I’m grateful that she opened that file cabinet and revisited that rejected manuscript. You can read the full story about the genesis of this story at this John Scalzi blog post. I sure hope we see more of Sylvie, Robert, and Martin and their world….and I wouldn’t mind some more relived memories of Grand-mère Sylvie. She has more wisdom to impart, I’m sure.

Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award 2022 Winners Announced!

Lynn: Drumroll please! The winners of the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award for 2022 have been announced! Administered by The Pennsylvania Center for the Book, the award is named in honor of Lee Bennett Hopkins, an internationally renowned poet, educator, and anthologist. The award is presented annually to an American poet or anthologist for the most outstanding book of poetry published for children in the previous calendar year. The award is sponsored by Pennsylvania State University Libraries and the Lee Bennett Hopkins Trust.

It has been my honor to serve as the chairman of the award jury this year. The jury was a joy to work with as we read and pondered the many outstanding poetry books for children published this year. This year we have a winner and an honor book.

born on the waterOur Winners are Nikole Hannah-Jones and Renee Watson for their stellar picture book, The 1619 Project: Born on the Water published by Penguin Random/Kokila and illustrated by Nikkolas Smith. “Stymied by her unfinished family tree assignment for school, a young girl seeks Grandma’s counsel and learns about her ancestors, the consequences of slavery, and the history of Black resistance in the United States.”

Our One thing you'd saveHonor winner is Linda Sue Park for her verse novel, The One Thing You’d Save published by Clarion Books and illustrated by Robert Sae-Heng. “When a teacher asks her class what one thing they would save in an emergency, some students know the answer right away. Others come to their decisions more slowly. And some change their minds when they hear their classmates’ responses.” Park uses a Korean poetic form, sijo in this inviting story.

Be sure to look for these outstanding books and continue to enjoy poetry!