Sunday, July 5, 2020

Stella Endicott and the Anything-Is-Possible Poem written by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Chris Van Dusen

Stella Endicott and the Anything-Is-Possible Poem
by Kate DiCamillo, illustrated by Chris Van Dusen
Candlewick Press, 2020, 96 pages

My young readers have always loved Kate DiCamillo's Mercy Watson and her Tales from Deckawoo Drive series. And now I'm excited at the possibility of being about to share the latest Deckawoo tale with them. Stella Endicott and the Anything-Is-Possible Poem is the fifth volume in the series and I know my kids are already excited about it, thanks to Zoom meetings. I haven't read it to them (copyright laws), but this is pretty much what I have told them about it:

It's Stella's first day of second grade and it just so happens that her new teacher, Tamar Calliope Liliana, loves the same things Stella loves - 'listening closely, speaking softly, and singing loudly.' Second grade is definitely on course to be wonderful. Well, except for Horace Broom, the class know-it-all, who naturally knows the definition of metaphor when Ms. Liliana asks if the class knows what a metaphor is before assigning them homework - to write a poem with a metaphor in it. That ought to be easy, Stella thinks, especially since Ms. Liliana also agrees with Baby Lincoln - that anything is possible in stories and in poems, too.

But writing a poem that includes a metaphor AND the idea of that anything is possible isn't as easy as Stella thought it would. Needing some moral support and inspiration, Stella heads over to visit Mercy Watson and sure enough, she comes up with a lovely poem that includes Mercy.

The next day, proud of what she has written, Stella mistakenly lets Horace read her poem but when he comes to the part where Mercy is sitting on the couch, he insists that pigs do not do that, that it is not possible, that pigs live on farms. But Stella stands her ground and insists that Mercy lives in a house and sits on the couch - all the time. No longer 'speaking softly,' Ms. Liliana sends Stella and Horace to Mr. Tinwiddie, the principal, and it is a trip from classroom to principal's office like no other. But by the end of their adventure, Stella and Horace have become friends, and have learned to respect their differences, and look at things from the other's point of view. My young readers are just going to have to wait to find out what adventures Stella and Horace have on their to Mr. Tinwiddie's office. 

Stella's story, like all the Deckawoo tales, is just charming. DiCamillo has taken something a simple as a poem and a walk to the principal's office to highlight Stella and Horace's different and opposite personalities, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, and has shown us how adversaries can learn to use them to help each other and even forge a friendship. 

I've read the Mercy Watson and the Deckawoo tales to a lot of kids and one of the things they really like about them are the recurring characters, and not only that, but the characters are always consistently who the kids expect them to be, in both the action of the story and the illustrations. And kids like that - it's familiar and comfortable and feels like they are seeing old friends each time they visit and revisit Deckawoo Drive. And yet each story is refreshingly new and has a gentle lesson that even my youngest readers can grasp. And Stella Endicott and the Anything-Is-Possible Poem is no different.  

And luckily, there is a treasure trove of Tales from Deckawoo Drive. Have you read them all?
This book is recommended for readers age 6+, but 5-year-olds like it, too.
This book was an EARC gratefully received from NetGalley and the publisher, Candlewick Press.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Kat and Juju written and illustrated by Kataneh Vahdani

Kat and Juju written and illustrated by Kataneh Vahdani
Two Lions, 2020, 48 pages

Kat is a girl who like to do things her own way. Like coloring inside the lines or telling her secrets to trees instead of a friend. It's not that she doesn't want a friend, she's just too shy to talk to anyone and come out of her shell. Of course, that makes for a lonely Kat. But when her birthday rolls around, she knows it will be the best ever because that's the day Kat's best friend will arrive. And sure enough, on the birthday, a big orange bird named Juju arrives, and just as she knew it would be so, Kat and Juju are instant best friends.

But wait! Juju, it turns out, has his own way of doing things. Like coloring outside the lines and being silly and laughing loudly. Juju is fearless and, unlike Kat who is afraid of what the the other kids wonder about her,  he didn't care what anyone thinks about him. Juju likes to let go and do a happy dance, and if everyone laughed, so what? 
He tries so hard to teach Kat to be brave, but she still worries about what other people would think about her, including Juju. Then one day, something unexpected stops both Kat and Juju in their tracks. Could this helpless baby bird be just what Kat needs to help her come out of her shell, to stop thinking about herself and to care for it? 

Kat and Juju is a charming story with an important message for kids - it's okay to be different, it's okay to be an introvert, and it doesn't mean the other kids won't like you. And by taking care of the baby bird she and Juju find, Kat learns how to provide the bird with the same kind of support and confidence that Juju was trying to give her and that friends would also give. It's amazing how much personal growth Kat experiences in this sensitive picture book. 

The author studied animation and that really shows in the illustrations. From the large orange Juju to the big bow in Kat's hair, and the three diverse friends, there is whimsy and humor throughout, despite the seriousness of the message. 

I had one small problem with Kat and Juju. I just wasn't sure what Juju is supposed to be - a large stuffed toy? An imaginary playmate? Any ideas? I have to be honest about this - my younger readers didn't question this the way I did. They seemed ok with just accepting that Juju showed up at Kat's door on her birthday. And they loved the story. We read it over Zoom and I can't wait to share it with them in person.


Kataneh Vahdani is a children's book author and illustrator. Kat and Juju is her first picture book series. She is currently directing her original feature animation movie. Kataneh has been a professor for over seventeen years and she also saves fallen baby birds and rescues them. Together with her students, they have raised over 12 fallen injured baby birds and set them free once they were ready to fly away. Sometimes in her classes, birds fly from the head of one student to the other.
Visit Kataneh on Twitter: @KatanehV and on Instagram: @Katand.Juju

This book is recommended for readers age 4+
This book was gratefully received from Barbara Fisch at @Blue Slip Media

Sunday, June 28, 2020

MMGM: We Dream of Space by Erin Entrada Kelly

It's January 1986 and the nation was being geared up for the launch of the space shuttle Challenger, a more than average historical event since it would include schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe as part of the crew. It is an exciting time for Ms. Salonga, science teacher at Park Middle School in Park, Delaware and on January 2, she begins a month long unit called Space Month. This is met with varying degrees of enthusiasm by the three Nelson Thomas siblings, Cash, 13, and twins Bird and Fitch, 12, all of whom have Ms. Salonga's class, though not together. 

At home, each of the Nelson Thomas siblings have learned to navigate around and out of the dysfunction the exists there. Parents Tammy and Mike constantly bicker with each other. When not doing that, Tammy escapes into a book and Mike continuously watches television. 

Bird, who is interested in science and engineering, loves to take things apart and put them back together again, carefully writing and illustrating her own manual for each item. She is also  obsessed with Space Month and the impending launch and hopes to become an astronaut someday. 

Fitch is obsessed with playing video games at the local arcade and couldn't care less about the space launch. When an unpopular girl from his class invades his space at the arcade, he loses his temper at school and ends up suspended for a few days. 

Cash has already been dropped from the basketball team he loved because of low grades and is repeating 7th grade, a fact best friend Brant never stops reminding him about. He breaks his wrist January 1st and spends the month angry and frustrated by the limitations wearing a cast causes.   

As the lives of the Nelson Thomas siblings begin to spin out of control, and they begin to behave and think more like their parents, Kelly literally builds up the tension day by day in anticipation of the day of the space launch (January 28). Each day is told from the perspective of each sibling, so readers learn about them, their thoughts and activities first hand. Knowing what happened to the Challenger only adds to the feeling of apprehension readers may feel for Bird, Fitch, and Cash. Is their story leading to an explosive end, like the Challenger, an end to Bird's dreams of becoming an astronaut, Cash's desire to be good at something, or Fitch's ability to control his temper? Or will these three siblings discover that they could form the family they have been wanting all along by themselves? 

*Possible Spoiler Alert* I have never been disappointed with a book by Erin Entrada Kelly. She can craft a story that is compelling  from beginning to end, with characters that are realistic and relatable. In We Dream of Space, space is a wonderfully fitting metaphor for what the Nelson Thomas kids are seeking - the space for their dreams to be valued and realized. Readers are not left with a nice tidy ending, but with the ambiguity of possibility. What Bird, Fitch, and Cash will do in the future is entirely up to them and each other.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was borrowed from the Queens Public Library

Where were you at 11:39 AM on January 28, 1986? I was at the Clinique counter in Saks Fifth Avenue with a friend, where there was a television mounted on the wall and I looked up just as the Challenger exploded. I have to say, it was traumatic to see. I've thought about it so often ever since. I can only imagine how the schoolchildren who watched this tragedy happen must have felt. I don't watch space launches anymore.

Be sure to check out the other Marvelous Middle Grade Monday offerings, now being carried on by Greg at Always in the Middle.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

The Border by Steve Schafer

As usual, Pato, 16, his mother and father always seem to arrive late for get togethers, and cousin Carmen's quinceañera is no different. On their way into the house to join the happy, noisy celebration, Pato notices a suspicious car parked nearby, noticeable because it is completely painted black, even the bumpers. He briefly debates with himself about saying something, after all, there are two men in the car carefully watching the house, but in the end, he decides it is probably nothing. Soon after arriving, Carmen's older brother, Arbo, Pato's cousin and best friend, head out to their favorite spot in the desert behind the house with Marcos, 17, a ace soccer player, and his sister Gladys, 15. But the celebratory noise is suddenly interrupted - not by fireworks, but by the sound of gunshots - lots of them.

Back at Arbo's house, they discover that everyone has been shot dead execution style. To make matters worse, Marcos kills one of the shooters, whose brother recognizes him and threatens to kill all four of them. Realizing they have to get away, even before they can process what has just happened, Pato remembers an older man that he and Arbo had helped once as part of a school project. Pato, Arbo, Marcos, and Gladys head out to Señor Ortiz's house on the outskirts of town.

Señor Ortiz agrees to let them stay for a while and even goes into town to see if he can hear any news about the shooting. Returning, he tells them that the shooting was done as a warning by members of a drug cartel called La Frontera who control every aspect of life in their Mexican town. The school photos of all four teens have been posted everywhere, offering a very big reward for them. The teens decide that the only thing they can do is try to cross the desert and slip over the border into the United States. But this is a trip that proves easier said than done.

The Border, though timely, is a difficult book to read. It isn't enough that these teens have just lost their families to gun violence, but they are also trying to survive on a hot, unrelenting desert which is a struggle for anyone, but even worse if you are completely unprepared the way Pato, Arbo, Marcos, and Gladys are.

The story is told completely from Pato's point of view, and I think this is a story that would have lent  itself better to multiple viewpoints. I would have like to know what is going on for the other three teens. But despite that, each person's personality comes across distinctly, and there is even some humor to be found, as well as an attraction between Pato and Gladys, giving the unbelievable horror of their stories more of a human face. 

With everything that has been going on in this country regarding the border and immigrants from Mexico, and Central America, this is a very relevant story. While this country builds walls to keep desperate people out, or puts them into cages, and deprives them of any shred of human dignity, it is easy to see why people are willing to risk everything to escape local violence and abuse. 

The Border is a book for older, mature teens, even though Pato, Arbo, and Gladys are only 15-years-old. It is a very realistic novel and there is, as I've said, violence and some mild sex, as well as profanity. But it is really an eye-opening experience for those who do decide to read it.

This book is recommended for readers age 14+
This book was an EARC received from NetGalley 

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Snapdragon written and illustrated by Kat Leyh

When Snapdragon Bloom goes looking for her missing dog, she befriends the town witch and finds more than magic within herself. 

There's a rumor that a witch lives in a house on the outskirts of town, but when Snapdragon's dog Good Boy goes missing, she dares to look for him there. Sure enough, the dog is there, but he's been injured and is missing a front paw. When the rumored witch returns, she tells Snap that the dog was hit by a car and she patched him up. 

Snap is a fierce, fearless, precocious black middle schooler not afraid to take on bullies, often standing up for her neighbor and best friend Lu, who is also black and transgender. Living in a trailer park, Snap is the only child of a mother who must work lots of hours to support them, and who is also getting her degree at night. Good Boy belonged to an old boyfriend who was abusive but is now gone, though he does appear twice in this novel. 

When Snap finds a litter of possum joeys beside their dead mother, she brings them to the "witches" house, hoping they can be saved. The witch turns out to be an older white lady named Jacks, who is more connected to the world than first impressions would give. Jacks collects roadkill, which she buries, then after they decompose, she cleans the bones and reassembles them, selling the skeletons online. 

Creeped out, but also fascinated by Jacks' work, Snap talks her into letting her help take care of the joeys. As a friendship develops between Snap and Jacks, Snap becomes interested in learning more about the skeletons articulated. Snap is also convinced that Jacks really is a witch who uses magic to release the souls of the dead animals back to nature. And as they get to know each other even better, it turns out they have a history of family connections that go back a few generations. So maybe if Jacks can do magic, so can Snap, or at least, that's what Snapdragon hopes.

In the world of graphic novels, Snapdragon is in a class of its own, what you might call a mixed bag. There are magical elements, a mix of humor and sadness, social and social justice issues, marginalized characters, LGTBQ and gender-bending elements, domestic abuse, the roadkill creepiness factor which spikes and just as quickly falls, all wrapped up in a really unusual story.

What I really loved was the way these generally serious topics unfolded so organically throughout the novel, but without lessening any of their importance. Leyh also gives Snap a support system, family and friends who have her back, that gives her the confidence to be unique herself. I also liked the fact that with the last name Bloom family tradition is to name all the girls after flowers, a seemingly unimportant detail that ends up playing an important part in the story.

The author also did all the art work for Snapdragon. Each vivid full color cell is clear and bright, even the darker cells, and color works to add more and more layers to the story. And Leyh has also really captured her character's many moods and feelings through their facial expressions, especially Snap's.

Snapdragon is a wonderfully engaging graphic novel for middle graders who are looking for something good but different.   

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was an E-ARC received from NetGalley
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