‘Our Dogs, Ourselves: How We Live with Dogs’ by Alexandra Horowitz is an informative dog book for middle grade readers

Do you love dogs? Don’t miss “Our Dogs, Ourselves: How we Live with Dogs” by Alexandra Horowitz. Often, I love reading a nonfiction book written for middle grade children because while it’s informative and filled with fascinating knowledge, I don’t have to wade through pages and pages to get the information. It’s a quick and easy version of the adult book. And if you love dogs? This engaging and informative book is all about our bond with these amazing creatures — how we love them, how they return that love, and how we can best treat them. Continue reading

‘I Hope You’re Listening’ by Tom Ryan is a thrilling YA story of abduction, guilt, and making amends

In “I Hope You’re Listening” by Tom Ryan, main character Dee Skinner has never been able to shake her guilt over being the kid who wasn’t abducted. When she was seven, she and her best friend Sibby were playing near their tree fort when Sibby was abducted. And although Dee was right there, she was left behind, helpless, watching as her best friend was carried away by two men, never to be seen again. Continue reading

‘The Dog Who Saved the World’ by Ross Welford is amazingly funny and simultaneously exciting

I must admit, this is the first novel by Ross Welford that I’ve read. It won’t be the last. Actually, the reason this book caught my eye was the “dog” in the title. And this dog, Mr. Mash, is the epitome of dogly dogs. He smells awful from nose (his rank breath) to tail (the gas he emits is constant and horrifying in its ability to spew outward). But he is also the epitome of dogs because he loves everyone, especially main character Georgie. Continue reading

‘Big Ideas for Little Philosophers’ series shares wonderful thoughts for young readers

The belief that a child is never too young to learn about big ideas like happiness, truth, equality and imagination is exemplified in a series of board books (yes, board books!) written by Duane Armitage and Maureen McQuerry and illustrated by Robin Rosenthal. The series includes “Truth with Socrates,” “Imagination with René Descartes,” “Equality with Simone de Beauvoir,” and “Happiness with Aristotle.”

Each of the books begins with a simple, child-friendly definition of “philosopher” and states in a large white font on a bright background, “A philosopher is a person who loves wisdom. Wisdom means knowing things that help you live better and be happy.”  The next page has an illustration of the philosopher, and the text shares simple information about each one. For example, “Aristotle was a philosopher who liked to think and ask questions about his life. He wondered about the purpose of his life and what made him happy.” Simone de Beauvoir “believed all people were equal.” René Descartes “used his imagination to help him understand the world.” And Socrates “….said wisdom means being truthful and honest.”

Children will understand the simple text that nevertheless carries important meanings and ideas. Parents and teachers will appreciate the chance to have important discussions with young children that might help them think about concepts like truth and happiness — things that children can’t see or touch, but that are just as real as any toy they play with.

The board books are sturdy and suitable for really young children, but because of the content, they are also suitable for older children as well. The illustrator manages to make the art engaging for young readers as there is much to see and discuss on the pages. When René is trying to use his imagination, we can see in his thought bubble a plethora of items from stars and rainbows to a paintbrush and a violin and leaves and fish.

These would be a great gift for a newborn but also for any young child with an inquiring mind (or parents who love teaching their children about worthwhile topics). They would also be a great addition to any preschool or kindergarten classroom. It’s never too early to learn about these truths.

Please note: This review is based on the final board books provided by G. P. Putnam’s Sons, the publisher, for review purposes. 

‘A Wolf for a Spell’ by Karah Sutton is an engaging fairytale for middle grade readers

“A Wolf for a Spell” by Karah Sutton is a clever story of magic, determination, unlikely alliances, and folktale figures. We first meet Zima, a wolf with a mind of her own. Instead of hating humans and killing an unprotected girl from the nearby village, she shows mercy. But the presence of magic, and the witch Baba Yaga, the wielder of the magic, have thrown the wolves into a state of discomfort. They are determined to protect themselves from the humans who seem out to destroy the forest and its inhabitants. Continue reading

Picture books for worriers, grumps, wolves and those in need of help

Sometimes, reading the right picture book can be just the right medicine for what ails your youngster. Here are four picture books that will ease worries, make that grumpy one smile, and illustrate that we all need friends in our lives to help us and play with us. So get out your shopping list and be ready to add some books that fit the empty spot on your bookshelf (metaphorically speaking).

“Mootilda’s Bad Mood” by Corey Rosen Schwartz and Kirsti Call is the story of Mootilda, who is in a terrible mood. In Rosen Schwartz’s trademark meter we see that nothing seems to be going Mootilda’s way. Her popsicle falls on the floor; while jumping rope she trips and spills a bucket of milk; she falls off her bike and does a belly flop into the pond. Worse yet, her bad mood seems to be catching. The chickens tell her, “Our stuff was pecked. Our projects wrecked. We’re feeling bleak and blue.” Mootilda replies, “Oh my, what a cow-incidence! You’re in a bad mood too?” But sometimes, misery loves company ,and having others to cow-miserate with helps. Get this one for the message, but enjoy the clever word play and Claudia Ranucci’s whimsical illustrations. (Little Bee Books)

“Brenda Is a Sheep” by Morag Hood is a picture book in which the words only tell part of the story. It’s the kind of picture book that I like to read to students first without showing them the illustrations. They get pictures in their minds from the text, and those pictures are the opposite of what is really going on in the story. They can’t believe it when they finally see the illustrations and realize that everything that they’ve been imagining is completely wrong! The text says, “These are sheep.” And there is an illustration of a dozen fluffy white sheep. The next page says, “This is also a sheep. This sheep is called Brenda. Brenda has a very nice woolly sweater.” And the illustration shows a gray wolf in an orange sweater. And while the text tells us one thing, what we actually see is that Brenda does not like eating grass or doing sheep things. She really wants to eat the sheep. So how does this book end up not being a bloody mess as Brenda butchers the sheep for dinner? Read it to find out! You’ll love the sweet ending. (Random House Children’s Books)

“Way Past Worried” by Hallee Adelman and illustrated by Sandra de la Prada is just what the title says. It’s a book about a boy who is way past worried. He is going to a friend’s birthday party, and he worries about everything. Is he wearing the right costume? Is it too small? Will he arrive late? Are the kids going to laugh at him? Kids who worry about things will appreciate knowing that they are not alone, just as Brock eventually feels better when he learns that he’s not alone. This would be a great choice for a school psychologist or social worker, or just anyone who knows a child who worries too much. (Albert Whitman & Company)

And for kids who feel that they can’t ask for help, there’s “Scout the Mighty Tugboat” by Charles Beyl. Scout, as the title indicates, is a tugboat. And she pulls everything by herself, from container ships to cruise ships. She pulls them into harbor and out to sea. But when an oil tanker is in trouble near huge dangerous rocks, Scout finds that no matter how hard she tugs and pulls, the job is too big for her alone. Sometimes, we just need some help. And with a little help from her friends, they get the oil tanker to safety. Sometimes, we all need a little help –  and that’s okay. (Albert Whitman & Company)

Please note: These reviews are based on the books provided by the publishers for review purposes.

Winter picture books that celebrate freedom and tradition for all kinds of young readers

There’s no better gift for a child than the gift of a good book. And nothing gets young children more excited about reading than good picture books. Reading good picture books with toddlers can instill in them a love of reading that will last a lifetime.

What better gift could you give?

“Lilah Tov Good Night” by Ben Gundersheimer (Mister G) and illustrated by Noar Lee Naggan is not a typical holiday book. There’s no Christmas tree, but there is a menorah. And even though we don’t see the family celebrating Hannukah, it’s clear that they’ve left their homeland for a new beginning, a beginning which includes a better future for their children, and a future where life will be better. The text is simple as the small family packs up a few belongings and leaves their tiny house, where there’s only a small wood stove for warmth and bread and turnips to eat for dinner. They travel far, and cross the water (reminiscent of the ocean that the author’s family, and many of our families, crossed to get to America) before arriving at a small house tucked in the shadow of a mountain. A new home and a new tomorrow. We see the small daughter tucked warmly in her bed, sleeping soundly, with the menorah on her windowsill. It’s a perfect story to share history and tradition with children. Except for the indigenous people, we are all immigrants here, and our ancestors (or we) came here for a better life. A simple, lovely story with beautiful illustrations. The illustrations cleverly use cool blues for the backgrounds while keeping the warm colors, tans and browns, as the focus for the family and the sleeping animals tucked in tight in their winter quarters. Mister G is also the author of the lovely “Señorita Mariposa.” (Nancy Paulsen Books)

“Feliz New Year, Ava Gabriela!” by Alexandra Alessandri and illustrated by Addy Rivera Sonda is a picture book about New Year’s Eve celebrations that takes us on a journey to Columbia in South America, where we see Ava celebrate the holiday with her extended family. This book is not just about the holidays, though. It’s also about being shy — Ava is so shy with her extended family that she can’t bring herself to talk to them. Her cousins and aunts and uncles and even her grandmother seem like strangers. But as we learn about the Año Nuevo celebrations, we also learn about the Año Viejo, and we see Ava gradually become more comfortable with her relatives through her persistence and determination to enjoy the visit. It’s not only a story of the celebration of a different culture during a familiar holiday, it’s a touching story of overcoming painful shyness. (Albert Whitman & Co.)

“Raccoon’s Perfect Snowman” by Katia Wish is about four animal friends who are playing in the snow and building snowmen. One of the three, Raccoon, is a perfectionist. We all know someone like that — someone whose creations must be perfect, flawless. Well, Raccoon shares his rules with Rabbit, Fox and Mouse so that they, too, can build the perfect snowmen. But Raccoon has taken all the clean snow, and he’s used all the tools and the decorations, leaving his friends with less than optimal paths to build their own perfect snowman. Luckily, before it’s too late, Raccoon realizes his mistake and is able to bring the friends together on another project. This book is really about realizing what is important. A perfect snowman is not nearly as important as making friends happy, and that’s a perfectly important discussion that the reader can have with the children who need to hear this lesson. What is the author’s message? Children as young as three and four can start talking about that question and sharing their ideas. (Sleeping Bear Press)

Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover books provided by the publishers for review purposes. 

Ten nonfiction picture books for readers of all ages

Nonfiction picture books are little treasures. They are a way to expand the world around our children as we read stories to them about important people, important ideas, and important concepts about the world around us. Well written nonfiction is a way to teach without a classroom, and to inspire without preaching.

voteWith the presidential election not quite behind us yet (at least in the news), “A Vote is a Powerful Thing” by Catherine Stier and illustrated by Courtney Dawson is timely. Of course, a book on voting is always timely, especially every four years when there is a presidential election. In this fictional account of a class election about a field trip, the main character actively campaigns for a class visit to a wilderness center. But while the story is fiction, the information at the end includes the headings “All about voting,” “Who Can Vote?” “How Do Citizens Vote?” and “Voting Rights in the United States.” It’s a great introduction to voting and the importance of each and every vote.

Two books by Doe Boyle, “Heartbeat” and “Blink!” are lovely examples of captivating and informativeblink nonfiction picture books. Each book features prose written in a pleasant meter which rhymes occasionally along with clearly nonfiction informational text written in a different font and placed in a location that indicates this is the place to find hard facts. Adèle Leyris is the illustrator of “Blink!” and the watercolor techniques she uses to create the images are perfectly suited to the almost glass-like eye of the cheetah surrounded by soft, blurred fur. heartbeatThe backgrounds are mostly solid colors with silhouette shapes and facts. Daniel Long, the illustrator of “Heartbeat,” uses shapes that have definite hard edges, and his python is a marvel of pentagonal jewel shapes. Both books will ignite the imaginations of young readers, and both books would be fabulous additions to a classroom library. “Heartbeat” in particular is a wonderful tool for teaching onomatopoeia.

“Adelita: A Sea Turtle’s Journey” by Jenny Goebel and illustrated by Ana Miminoshvili is a touching account of adelitaa loggerhead sea turtle who was named Adelita and tracked across the Pacific Ocean. The story is a bit sad when we realize that a fisherman caught the young turtle in the Gulf of California and took her to researchers in Baja, California, where she lived in a cramped tank for a decade. Researchers wondered where the loggerhead turtles had nesting places because there were none on the Baja coastline. Finally, a researcher thought of a way to find out where Adelita’s real home was. He attached a satellite transmitter, a brand new technology, to Adelita’s shell. They were able to determine that she swam across the ocean to Japan. It’s heartbreaking to find out that her journey ends there. The transmitter stops sending information. We never find out what happened to Adelita, but we learn that because of her, people around the world learned about the plight of endangered turtles. Fishermen started releasing them from nets. They are still endangered, but after reading this book, we all will root for their survival. The illustrations are engaging, and Adelita’s huge black eyes will grab at your heart.

seahorseOh, my. I dare you not to love the adorable “This Is a Seahorse” by Cassandra Federman. I want to reread it over and over just because it’s a combination of cute and informative. The story, as we find out on the endpapers, is that a class visited an aquarium, and now the homework is to write about an interesting animal. Cassandra Federman, the author, er – the student, writes her report on the seahorse on primary-school lined paper. She illustrates her writing, but we get to see the purple word bubbles that contain the “actual” seahorse’s responses to her ridiculous (at least to the seahorse) statements about the seahorse’s huge nose and big belly. When she compares seahorses to opossums, because both can grip things with their tails, the seahorse responds, “Those nasty creatures? You won’t catch me holding tails with one of them.” I learned that seahorses can camouflage themselves as octopuses do. While I find that information fascinating, our friend the seahorse is appalled that he is being compared to a hideous eight-armed sea monster. Kids (and adults) will enjoy the clever humor and the real seahorse facts.

“How to Grow an Apple Pie” by Beth Charles and illustrated by Katie Rewse is authored by someone who ownsapplepit an apple orchard. So she knows what it takes to grow an apple tree, and she knows what it takes to bake an apple pie. Do we know if Sophie, the main character in the story about growing the apple tree, waiting for the trees to mature (six years) and then learning how to pick the apples without damaging them (you turn them upside down), and then following the yummy recipe to bake an apple pie, is really a child in the Charles family? While we don’t know whether that is a fact or not, that doesn’t detract from the facts that we do learn about the care and treatment of apple trees and how to bake a pie. Be prepared, though. If you read this book to children, they will surely want an apple tree of their own. Maybe six of them.

tinaja“The Tinaja Tonight” by Aimée M. Bissonette and illustrated by Syd Weiler is an interesting book if only for the fact that most of the people reading this book won’t have any idea what a tinaja is. According to the facts in the book, “A tinaja is a pool formed by a natural hollow in the rock where rainwater or melting snow collects.” The text is conversational, and the transitions from one page to another and from one species of animal to another encourage continued reading. “What’s that sound? What’s that snuffling? The quail takes off running. If only they knew not to worry. It’s just…” and the reader has to turn the page to find out what is scaring away the quail, then the javelina, then the jackrabbits. Situated below the larger font narrative are the facts in a different, slightly smaller font. The broad swaths of deep colors make this a visually appealing book as well, even though the colors are deep and dark because the animals are nocturnal and are all out at night.

Like the other books in this nonfiction series of picture books, “Dragonfly” by the same author, Aimée M. dragonflyBissonette and illustrated by Catherine Pearson consists of narrative text:

“It’s a dangerous time for us. We need to hatch.”

Along with facts shown in a smaller, different font, we learn that most of a dragonfly’s life is spent underwater, growing from eggs to nymphs, which grow and change their skin as they enlarge and molt. The last time it molts, it changes and has wings. That time – between nymph and dragonfly — is a dangerous time as they don’t fly well until their bodies harden. It might take a few days for them to fly well. But once they are mature, dragonflies are masters of the sky. Their four wings can move independently, and they can fly straight up or down, even backwards. They are not only fast; they are hungry, and their favorite food is mosquitoes. They eat hundreds of bugs every day. “They can eat their own weight in insects in 30 minutes.” If you see a dragonfly, rejoice, because their presence means clean water is nearby. The illustrations are bright and bold, and while they don’t represent the true colors of nature, the rainbow hues are a feast for the eyes.

beatrix potterWhile we know Beatrix Potter as the talented author and illustrator of children’s books, in “Beatrix Potter, Scientist,” by Lindsay H. Metcalf and illustrated by Junyi Wu, we learn that she was first and foremost a scientist. From childhood on, Potter immersed herself in studying animals and plants. In fact, she learned how to germinate the spores of fungi, and shared that information with the gentlemen-only Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. But when she wrote a paper with her discovery, it was refused. She never again attempted to publish it, but shortly thereafter, she  began writing the much-beloved Tales of Peter Rabbit. As we learn in the informational text at the end, “she was later shown to be among the first British people to germinate spores from the group of fungi she worked with.” A century later, the Linnean Society, London’s group of natural history experts, apologized for how Potter was treated. There is also a timeline of her life at the end.

“My Name Is Helen Keller” by Myron Uhlberg and illustrated by Jenn Kocsmiersky is a fictional account ofhelen keller Helen Keller’s life. Because it’s a picture book, Uhlberg chooses certain events to exemplify how Helen lived and the difference Anne Sullivan made in Helen’s life. In the Author’s Note, he explains that this is a biographical fiction. “The scenes in this book are based on real events in Helen’s life, as detailed in many excellent biographies about Hellen Keller.” He also provides a timeline of her life and the manual sign alphabet that Helen and Anne used. Both this book and “Beatrix Potter, Scientist” are perfect first biographies for young readers.

Please note: These reviews are based on the uncorrected proofs provided by Albert Whitman & Co. for review purposes.

‘Wreck this Picture Book: How to make a book come to life’ by Keri Smith takes a book on an adventure

“Wreck This Picture Book: How to make a book come to life” by Keri Smith is a different kind of picture book. We just watched the movie, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” and it was fabulous. I was reminded that Abbie Hoffman wrote the book titled, “Steal this Book.” I think he might have liked this book.

Smith explains that books that aren’t read are lonely and bored. They wait for someone to read them and take them on adventures. She encourages children to explore this book, to ruffle its pages and smell the unique book smell it has. Readers will rub the book, touch the pages with fingers, noses, elbows, and perhaps even toes (yuck). They might (horrors!) fold the pages. What they will never do again is take a book for granted.

The illustrations are bold and eye-catching. Bright colors against white space; Smith cleverly uses recycled materials like cardboard, old magazines, fabric, nails, cork, old lids, newspapers and more to create a collage of color. Even the book jacket opens to instruct readers on how they can build their own cork people (It’s assumed that the adults in their life can supply the corks.)

This is a unique and joyful picture book that will delight readers. It encourages kids to be involved, active participants in reading. It’s main point is that a book has no meaning or use unless somebody reads it, so you, the reader, make the book whole.

Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by Dial Books for Young Readers, the publisher, for review purposes.

‘Fireborne’ by Rosaria Munda is a splendid combination of fantasy, friendship, political intrigue, and bloodshed

“FIreborne” by Rosaria Munda is a young adult fantasy with two main characters who alternately share their narrative. The story takes place nine years after a revolution that is very reminiscent of the Russian revolution, wherein the Czar and his family were executed. In a like manner, the “royalty” of Callipolis were murdered. These rulers were called dragonlords, and had their own dragons that served to terrorize their people, including their serfs, basically slaves, the lowest of the classes. Now, post-revolution, instead of being born into being a dragonrider because of your royal family, children of any class can be chosen by a young dragon to be a rider.

We meet Annie and Lee, two teenagers who met as children at an orphanage, and are now Guardians who ride dragons for Callipolis. We know from Lee’s narrative that he was Leo, and the child of one of the ruling dragonlords, Leon Stormscourge. During the bloody uprising, when the dragonlords and their families were murdered in a bloody coup, Leo was spared at the last minute. He ended up in an orphanage with Annie, who was left an orphan when her family was brutally murdered by Leon Stormscourge during a famine, when they couldn’t pay their share of taxes. Her family was barricaded inside their home and the home was set on fire by Stormscourge’s dragon. Annie was forced to watch.

How then, can Annie and Lee, as he is now known, be best friends? The novel reflects Munda’s ability to demonstrate the development of the relationship between those two rather than just telling us about it. We feel for both children as they depend on each other for moral support and affection. Lee ensures that the cruelest of the other orphans can’t take away Annie’s food or beat her. And when Annie depends on Lee, he feels a connection with another human, and he feels that he’s important to someone. Connections are important — especially since he has no family left. When both Lee and Annie are chosen by dragons to be dragonriders, they both eventually yearn to be the top rider, called the Firstrider. Of course, Lee had wanted that title since he was a young child, as it’s one of the few titles that carried over from pre-revolutionary times. But Annie wants it, too, and for a former serf to be declared Firstrider would be revolutionary.

Many of the other characters are complex and not all they appear to be. We meet Atreus, the First Protector, an intriguing character who seems to have the best of intentions when he foments the uprising and, in the name of justice, kills those who were his friends. He appears kind and noble at the start of the story when he saves the young Leo, but as we learn more about him, we wonder just what motivates him now, after the revolution is over. The other young Guardians who have been chosen by dragons to be riders are also multifaceted characters. The most negative and violent of them, a bully and a snob, turns out to be not quite what he seemed to be at first. Perhaps. As “Fireborne” is just the first in a series, there is much that remains to be determined regarding all the characters.

Will Annie and Lee ever act on their love for each other? As Guardians, they forsake ever having a family, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t fall in love. What will the future bring in terms of those of Lee’s extended family who escaped the country, but who are plotting to retake what they believe is rightfully theirs. This story provides the backdrop and the backstory of the two main characters and their country. And while Munda is a debut author, she has shown with the first book that she is capable of creating not only a fantastic world populated with dragons, but also a world in which all-too-human foibles torment its inhabitants just as happens in our world. And the next book in the series will build on what we’ve learned. I’m personally hoping for more about the dragons and their connection to their riders. We know that Annie has an especially strong connection to her dragon; I want to learn more about it.

Munda ends the first book in a satisfactory manner. There is an ending that gives us closure, but also much to wonder about, all of which will keep us waiting anxiously for the next book. We like Annie and Lee, and we want to know what the next step in their lives will bring. I would love to see this book used in high school or middle school and examined to compare this fictional world with the Russian Revolution and the reasons behind the latter. Obviously, no dragons were involved, but did Munda use details from history to make “her” revolution more real? It would be a fascinating study for readers of “Fireborne,” and they might enjoy the research.

Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, the publisher, for review purposes.

Perfectly diverse picture books: One for a boy and one for a girl

It’s that time of year when we are thinking of holiday gifts. But these two 2020 picture books are perfect books for any time of year and any occasion. Both celebrate possibility – the possibility inherent in every child no matter the gender, no matter the color of their skin, no matter their religion. Each book celebrates the fact that we are all unique and we all have unique and unlimited possibilities.

“I Am Every Good Thing” is by celebrated author Derrick Barnes and illustrator Gordon C. James. The combination of metaphor and brilliant colors and powerful brush strokes make this a book that calls for reading and rereading again and again. Each reading of the prose and examination of the illustrations will elicit new observations and new discussion. This is definitely a book aimed at boys, and most of the illustrations are of Black boys, adorable boys, with bright colorful backgrounds. They are swimming and hugging little sisters and peering through microscopes and in space suits exploring the deep blue. The constant metaphor will cause teachers to salivate at the perfect text for teaching students what poetic language can be. “I am good to the core, like the center of a cinnamon roll. Yeah, that good.”

This book is sweet and beautiful, but there is one page that drew my attention. It’s the page that illustrates that sometimes, the first person narrator is afraid. He says, “I am not what they might call me, and I will not answer to any name that is not my own. I am what I say I am.” The first time I read the book, I simply looked at the illustration of a Black boy in a polo shirt with a star radiating from his head. I didn’t really stop to reflect on the background, behind the star. I certainly didn’t connect it with the text. And that’s my fault for reading it too quickly and missing the deeper meaning of that page. For behind the star, there are white faces that look angry. We don’t see much of it, and the emphasis is on the beautiful portrait of the boy who is looking forward, not towards the leering faces behind him. But upon reflection, I understand what the author communicates when the boy refuses to answer to any name that is not his own.

And that is something that many of us can relate to. While my own status as someone who is reviled by bigots and haters is less apparent because of my white skin, I have seen those chanting “Jews will not replace us” and other hateful words so recently that it still horrifies me. There are daily accounts of people of color enduring not just names, as the narrator denounces in the text, but dangerous, too often deadly, actions by the haters. This is a page that, unlike the positivity that characterizes the rest of the book, addresses the darker side of growing up as a male African American.

This is a book for those of us who want to share books with our children, grandchildren, and students, books  that vividly and powerfully declare that we are all the same. We all are unique. We all have desires and dreams and plans. We all deserved to be loved and cherished. We are all equal in these truths, and our children must be educated in this reality. (Nancy Paulsen Books)

“A Girl Like You” by Frank and Carla Murphy and illustrated by Kayla Harren is unabashedly aimed at girls. (There is a previous book, “A Boy Like You.”) In this book, the message is that every girl is unique, and every girl’s desires and looks and clothes and talents are unique, too. It’s about having empathy and friendship, and working hard whether it’s at fixing things, lifting weights, or studying the moon. It’s about following your dreams and picking yourself up when things go wrong. The illustrations are of diverse children with diverse skin colors, including some girls who are disabled and some who wear hijabs. The message is:

“And remember, the world needs a girl…
a caring and strong girl,
a bold and brave girl,
an unstoppable girl.
A girl like you.

This is a perfect choice for any girl who deserves a message about determination and spunk. In short, every girl. (Sleeping Bear Press)

Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover books provided by the publishers for review purposes.

‘The Downstairs Girl’ by Stacey Lee is the kind of historical fiction that teachers love because it opens eyes and hearts

‘The Downstairs Girl” by Stacey Lee is not what I expected. I was looking forward to an historical fiction novel about class differences, but I wasn’t expecting a book so riveting that I would stay up all night to finish it. With tears in my eyes. 

There is so much that is magnificent about Lee’s writing that I’m almost at a loss regarding where to begin: the historical information that is so important and not something we are taught in school? The intertwining of racism from almost 150 years ago that is depicted so movingly — and so heartbreakingly? The story of a girl searching for her roots, and searching for a place in the world where she can use her talents?

When Jo Kuan loses her job at the millinery shop, a job in which she excelled, she can’t find work. In Atlanta twenty-five years after the Civil War, no one wants help that looks different from a red-blooded Southerner. Kuan’s Chinese ancestry means that she fits in with neither the whites nor the “colored” categories. She and Old Gip, her guardian since she was abandoned as an infant, are somewhere in between.

We learn that Old Gip has worked on the estate of the wealthy, blue-blooded Payne family since he came to America. Jo started working there also as a child, beginning in the stables and working her way up to housemaid, when suddenly one day, Mrs. Payne ordered her out of the house. For no reason. But now Old Gip says that she can go back to the Payne house as a day maid to Caroline, the Payne’s spoiled daughter, who is back from finishing school. Jo and Caroline have a tortured past, and while they grew up together, Caroline was cruel to Jo in countless ways. Caroline does not seem to have changed even after all these years. We follow the relationship between Jo and Caroline and Mrs. Payne as the relationships develop and long-kept secrets come to light.

We also learn about Old Gip and Jo’s living situation. It’s against the law for Chinese to own land or rent, but Old Gip had learned about a hidden basement that had been created by abolitionists, complete with hidden entrances and situated  under the house of the Bell family, owners of one of the Atlanta newspapers, the Focus. While Old Gip has taught Jo mathematics and other subjects, she learned about English through a speaking tube that led to the printing press part of the Bell home. Jo would pull out the sound-dampening wool and listen as the family discussed events, language, words, and stories. Jo feels she knows them all, especially their son Nathan, who is just two years older than she. But they have no idea that others live hidden below them.

When the Bells’ paper is in danger because of flagging subscriptions, they bemoan that the other Atlanta paper has an advice column that draws subscribers. They brainstorm about how they might create a similar attention-grabber. That sets off a spark in Jo’s mind. One of the reasons that she was fired from her job at the hat store was because of her opinions. She was a “saucebox,” as they termed outspoken women back then. Perhaps she could — anonymously, of course — be their advice giver, an agony aunt as it were. She delivers a few columns into their mailbox and is thrilled when they use her writing. At the same time, Jo realizes that if she were ever discovered, she could end up in jail because impersonating a white person is a crime.

Aside from the history lessons, the page-turning plot, and the fabulous depiction of the characters, Lee consistently demonstrates her ability to turn a phrase, to imbue her writing with lovely metaphors, and to make it all seem natural — because the first person narrator is a writer, a person of high intellect, and a person who is extremely perspicacious. In a different narrator, we might not find the narration believable, but because of Jo and her quick understanding, we don’t question it. And some of the writing is so delightful, we must smile and enjoy it.

“My, you are assiduous.”
I frown with the effort of remembering what that particular word means.
Assiduous meaning ‘hardworking.'”
“Yes, I know, young man,” I snap, wondering how I got caught in the same trap twice. “I’ve just never been fond of words that are led by an ass.”
His face tightens, as if with the effort of trying to hold something back. “Ah. Then I shall assay not to assault your ears.”

Throughout the book, the details and the description are magnificent. The writing is engaging, and the plot is intricately woven together with twists that are certainly unexpected but implied effectively with precise foreshadowing. Turning the pages and coming across a lovely metaphor is just one reason that we can’t stop reading, yet we don’t want the beautiful story to end. I smiled as I read and then reread, “Saturday arrives wearing a cloud shawl over her damp shoulders.”

While “The Downstairs Girl” is published as a young adult novel, it boasts enough depth and maturity that readers of all ages will enjoy it. It’s also a fabulous choice for a book club. I can’t wait to see what Stacey Lee writes next.

Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, the publisher, for review purposes.