‘A Better Man’ by Louise Penny is a lovely story about both the beauty and the bestiality that exist in the hearts of men

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In “A Better Man,” author Louise Penny shares the stories of several men, some of whom strive constantly to be better men, others who should be striving for betterment, although they are not. The main character, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is the main character in these novels, and he is a striking man. Not only does he command the respect of those he leads, he commands their affection and admiration.

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Winter and Christmas perfect picture books for the holidays

It’s the time of year for snuggling by the fire, or just on a warm bed, and reading stories about winter, about family, about the holidays. Here are books for everyone — some are just beautiful winter tales about friendship and peace, others are about the Christmas season. Some have wonderful important messages and others are just plain funny. There’s a book for everyone in this sweet collection of picture books perfect for reading aloud.

“One Snowy Morning” by Kevin Tseng is an amusing peek into a snowman from the one snowy morningpoint of view of two wild animal friends. While the two friends are never named, bright youngsters will realize that one is a chipmunk and the other a squirrel. They are joined by an adorable opossum, pink nose, feet and tail. Instead of a man made of snow with a hat, nose, buttons, arms, and a scarf, they see other things. What else could a black hat be? Consider a tall rowboat with a gold anchor. What else will they make out of the items? They use them all very creatively for a woodland animal party! And what they do after the party is a lesson for all readers. This lovely, gentle story encourages looking at things from different points of view. Teachers will love asking young students what else they might think of when they look at the snowman. (Dial)

“Roly Poly” by Mem Fox and Jane Dyer shows an adorable polar bear family with their only child, Roly Poly, happy to be the only polar bear offspring in the family. He is surprised roly polyone morning when there’s a smaller polar bear in his bed. His parents explain that he now has a young brother, Monty. Roly Poly is NOT happy to have to share his time and things with his younger brother, who is mischievous and playful. But when Monty is in danger, Roly Poly’s true feelings come out. The illustrations’ polar bears are created with wool from the author’s own sheep, using a technique called needle felting. This lovely book could kick start a class discussion or family talk about how sometimes what we say isn’t what we are really feeling, and that while our emotions and feelings can run deep, we don’t always show them. Many children can relate to that whether they have siblings or not and whether they are the oldest, the youngest or in between. (Beach Lane Books)

snowglobewishes“Snow Globe Wishes” by Erin Dealey and Claire Shorrock is a sweet winter tale of a night and the next day when the power goes out. We see a family eating dinner before a warm fire, the mom, dad, two children, and a dog and cat. We see one of the children holding a snow globe and making a wish, and everyone sleeping together in front of the fire. The next day, the family goes out in the snow to play with others in their town. And everyone in the town comes together in a circle, holding hands and wishing everyone “Peace on earth. Right now. Right here. Peace for all throughout the year!” This delightful and gentle story is told in rhyme, and the illustrations are simple and joyful. The skin colors of the family members are different as are those of the villagers who join in the celebration of peace. A perfect winter’s tale and a perfect winter’s wish. (Sleeping Bear Press)

“Swan Lake” is a picture book based on the New York City Ballet’s production of the swan lakeballet, and it’s illustrated by Valeria Docampo with an artistic use of color as well as light and dark to illustrate not only the changing scenes from the castle to the lake, but also the emotions of the Prince and Odette, the beautiful enchanted princess/swan. The story is the retelling of the beloved ballet with music by Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky. While the story itself might not fascinate young readers, playing music from the ballet while reading it will certainly enable all readers to fall in love with the beautiful melodic passages. The ballet features iconic, gorgeous melodies, and every time children hear them, many will know the story behind the music and think of the story Swan Lake. (Little Simon)

“If I Could Give You Christmas” is a book about giving experiences, instead of things, for if i could give youChristmas. Author Lynn Plourde uses the five senses to create wonderful images for readers to share: “…it would smell like wafts and whiffs of gingerbread and cocoa.” What would Christmas taste like? “The first falling snowflake.” All the senses are utilized, and the emotions the text evokes are beautiful and gentle. The illustrations by Jennifer L. Meyer are certainly worthy of note; they are stunningly beautiful. The woodland animals are the characters who share the Christmas feelings with us, and her illustrations of deer, bear, fluffy chubby-cheeked birds, foxes and more are adorable. But what makes the illustrations really brilliant is her use of color to make the pictures seem to glow. Each illustration has a light source, and Meyer uses shadows in shades of cobalt blue, lavender, and even pink to frame the light and the animals. The animals are drawn with care, lovely expressions, and fluffy, luxuriant fur (or feathers). Hidden on almost every page are other animals, penciled in, for sharp-eyed readers to discover. The drawings are as touching as the sentiment in this beautiful holiday picture book. (Disney-Hyperion)

“There’s an Elf in Your Book” is by Tom Fletcher and illustrated by Greg Abbott, who an elf in the booktogether created “There’s a Monster in Your Book” and “There’s a Dragon in Your Book.” This entry features an elf who just looks as if he’s ready to be naughty. It starts with the elf doing a “nice test” with the reader to see if Santa should bring any gifts for Christmas. The test begins with some easy tasks, but then it gets trickier. Saying “I’m a wisenheimer sparkle butt!” is a trick, so readers are advised NOT to say it! But when readers are tricked into doing something not-so-nice, does that mean that they failed? Read the whole book to find out! (Random House Books for Young Readers)

how to trick“How to Trick a Christmas Elf” by Sue Fliess and Simona Sanfilippo is another elf book about how to convince (or trick) an elf into putting you on the “nice” list for Santa’s gift-giving. In this clever tale, if you distract the elf, you might just be able to sneak a peek at the list. And by giving the elf a wonderful distraction, a sleigh just the right size for a small elf, you are not only distracting the elf, you are being “nice” instead of “naughty.” The story emphasizes the joy of giving and being kind. There are guides for making the elf sleigh, and kids will enjoy making their own little elfin sleigh while waiting for Christmas morning. (Sky Pony Press)

“Santa’s Secret” by Denise Brennan-Nelson is the perfect book for any child who wonderssantas secret why there are Santas at every corner this time of year. They can’t all be the Santa Claus.  Are any of them real? The main character tells of her investigation in first person rhyming narrative, and like any good sleuth, she takes notes, and asks important, probing questions. Throughout the story, her cute little brown and white dog accompanies her. Adults reading this with children should be sure to discuss her investigative technique and ask what else she could do to question the different Santas. And what about the mysterious man at the coffee shop at the end of the story? Could he be the real Santa? Kids will want to read this little book at least twice to go over clues and make their own conclusions. The illustrations by Deborah Melmon are bright, and color fills the pages. Each one is a joyful celebration of the holiday season. (Sleeping Bear Press)

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

‘Call It What You Want’ by Brigid Kemmerer is a compelling story of teenagers grappling with the fallout from mistakes that may or may not be their doing

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“Call It What You Want” is another example of fine writing by Brigid Kemmerer, author of “A Curse So Dark and Lonely.” One of her talents is writing about people by using such effective dialogue and narrative style and technique that her characters become extremely realistic and worthy of compassion. Her two main characters in this novel are both flawed teenagers, but in spite of — or perhaps because of — those shortcomings, they grow insightful and compassionate, and they help right wrongs. The story is told in alternating first person narratives, a strategy which works well to make readers feel that they understand each character’s feelings and motivations.

Maegan is the daughter of a cop, and while she has been held to high expectations, she has also been caught cheating during an SAT exam. All of the other students’ exams have been voided, and she feels as if she has been branded with a huge CHEAT on her forehead. She keeps her head down in school, and the only friend she has left is Rachel. But lately, Rachel’s new boyfriend Drew has been making derogatory comments about Maegan, and Maegan is hurt that Rachel doesn’t stand up for her.

Rob had everything — money, athletics, good looks. But then his father was arrested for defrauding his clients of their money. After a failed suicide attempt, his father is now a body that must be tube-fed, cannot talk or even respond to stimuli, and lives with Rob and his mother in the now-empty mansion that they have called home for years. Many of the parents of his fellow students lost money because of Rob’s father. Even the school librarian is now still working because his retirement money had been invested with Rob’s father. And his friends and acquaintances wonder how much Rob knew about the theft. The worst loss was his best friend, Connor, who didn’t come when Rob needed him and now is openly hostile to Rob.

When Rob and Maegan are paired up for a calculus project, it’s awkward at first. But as they get to know and eventually trust each other, a wonderful thing happens. They start questioning what is going on in each of their lives, their behaviors, and what is right and wrong.

Readers, too, will be forced to think about haves and have-nots. Is it okay for someone to take something from someone who is so wealthy they won’t even know it’s gone in order to give it to someone who desperately needs it? A friend of Rob’s gets a free meal, a cheese sandwich, from the school. He’s ridiculed for it. Yet the wealthy students don’t mind splurging on cookies so that the lacrosse team can buy new sticks.

The divide between those who have a lot and those who struggle to survive will make readers pause and examine their own beliefs. Rob thinks about what he used to take for granted, and he regrets much of his old behavior. He’s torn between hating his father for what he did, but also loving his father because no matter what, he was a wonderful father.

There are good people, forgiving people, and villains in this story. But at its core, it’s about forgiveness, growing, and having compassion. Not only is this is an engrossing novel that, once begun, is difficult to put down, it would also be a great choice for a class read or a book club.

Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by Bloomsbury, the publisher, for review purposes. 

‘Stay’ by Bobbie Pyron is a middle grade story about how dogs make us human and how a dog can — almost — save a person’s sanity

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In “Stay,” author Bobbie Pyron creates a story that will grab readers by the heartstrings as they root for practically everyone in this tale of homelessness, pride, friendship, mental illness, and above all — dogs. For in this middle grade novel, the dogs are important parts of the story and important — vitally — to those with whom they live.

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7 Picture books with surprisingly sweet messages

 

Read to children, as much as possible, and repeat. Often. The secret to raising book- loving youngsters is to read fabulous books to them from infanthood and never stop until they go to college. Or maybe high school. But even older children often love reading with parents. Here are some clever and humorous picture books that also have clever and important messages for young readers. Continue reading

‘I Can Make this Promise’ by Christine Day is touching and diverse middle grade realistic fiction

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“I Can Make this Promise” by Christine Day explores the emotional impact of finding out about one’s own heritage and culture, and at the same time shares a part of our history that is both shocking and horrifying. This book would be an excellent companion choice to Joseph Bruchac’s “Two Roads,” about Native Americans sent to “Indian School” and the discrimination suffered by Native Americans a century ago.

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‘The Paris Project’ by Donna Gephart is wonderful middle grade fiction about love and loss and betrayal

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“The Paris Project” by Donna Gephart is an impactful story about the fact that children are not their parents, and that no one should be ashamed of their family because our families do not define who we are.  Gephart’s novels, including “Lily and Dunkin,” and “In Your Shoes,” are about kids who are different and who may be imperfect on the outside, but are perfectly wonderful on the inside. Continue reading

Five diverse picture books for older readers

Children often learn about the world around them through the books they read or the books that are read to them. The books that parents and educators choose to share can have a huge impact on a child’s view of the world and the diverse people in it. By exposing young readers to diverse literature, children learn that not all children have the same experiences that they do, and they learn that others are worthy of our compassion, our friendship, and our support. Continue reading

‘Survivor Girl’ by Erin Teagan is a middle grade story which proves that survival is not just about staying alive; a student review

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“Survivor Girl” by Erin Teagan is so good you will not stop reading it, and when you are done, you will want a sequel. Alison, the main character, has mixed feelings about her dad. She learns things about him that disappoint her, but she also learns aspects of herself that help her in life-threatening situations. If you want a good and intriguing page-turner, flip to the first page of “Survivor Girl.” Be prepared for adventure! Continue reading

‘Winterwood’ by Shea Ernshaw is a bewitching young adult fantasy

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“Winterwood” by Shea Ernshaw is about witches. Specifically it’s about Nora — daughter, granddaughter, great-granddaughter, and more — descended from a long line of witches who live and practice their magic along the shore of Jackjaw Lake and in the shadow of the forest outside the town of Fir Haven.

The Walker women came out of the forest back in the days when Fir Haven was a small gold mining town, and ever since, they have lived in a log cabin between the summer cabins and the dark forest. Nora lives there with her mother, now that her grandmother has died, leaving Nora with her moonstone ring. But Nora’s mother has left to sell her honey (charming bees is her particular magic), and Nora is alone in the cabin with only her wolf, Fin, to protect her when a blizzard envelopes the town and cuts off electricity and the roads.

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‘An Elephant in My Kitchen: What the Herd Taught Me About Love, Courage and Survival’ by Françoise Malby-Anthony

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While this memoir, “An Elephant in My Kitchen: What the Herd Taught Me About Love, Courage and Survival” is, in a way, a sequel to “The Elephant Whisperer,” it’s a different story with a different writer. Françoise Malby-Anthony is a fabulous narrator, and her story brings readers to tears at times, but her strength and her determination shine through, as do her compassion and her inner goodness.

Both books are about Thula Thula, the game reserve that Françoise and her late husband, Lawrence, built together. He was the animal guy, and she took care of the lodges, booking guests and running the marketing. He was out in the field, solving elephant problems and issues with poachers, while she dealt with bad Tripadvisor reviews.

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‘The Beast: A Darkdeep Novel’ by Ally Condie and Brendan Reichs is the second in this middle grade horror novel

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The series began with “The Darkdeep,” a horror story by Ally Condie and Brendan Reichs, and now the stories of the monsters and the mystery behind the appearance of “The Beast” might just be solved. In the first book, we learn about the quiet town of Timber in the Pacific Northwest, and about several of its teenage residents.

Nico is the son of an environmentalist, and with his friends Opal, Emma, and Tyler, and another teen, Logan, the son of the richest businessman in town, all happen upon a houseboat in the middle of an unnamed island. Strange things happen both in the houseboat and in the waters around it, but in this second book, they learn that the fate of the world may be on their teenage shoulders.

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