The Tea Dragon Society

Tea Dragon SocietyTitle: The Tea Dragon Society
Author/Illustrator: Katie O’Neill
Lettered by: Saida Temofonte
Designed by: Hilary Thompson
Edited by: Ari Yarwood
ISBN: 9781620104415
Pages: 72 pages
Publisher/Date: Oni Press, Inc., c2017.

“I don’t want blacksmithing to be forgotten. . .
. . . I want to keep making objects for people to love and give them a story. Maybe one day, someone’ll think about who gave it to them or where they bought it. Or who they shared it with. Or who owned it long ago.
. . . That’s a kind of magic, isn’t it?”
“I believe it is.” (56)

Greta is learning from her mother the art of blacksmithing, an old skill that made blacksmiths as important as magicians but now is a dying art. Upon encountering a dragon in the market, Greta returns her to her owners and begins to learn how to care for the unique creatures. Tea-shop owners Hesekiel and Erik have recently picked up a stray of their own, a promising prophetess named Minette who is suffering from self-protective memory problems. All these stories converge into a year long collection of vignettes exploring friendship, loyalty, and memory.

These are sweet characters occupying a world where its residents have a mixture of human and animal attributes that don’t seem to phase anyone. Pale-skinned Minette has tiny antlers, a tail, and cloven hooves, dark-skinned Greta has horns that are smaller versions of her mother’s and a squared off nose, and Hesekiel’s gray fur, elongated face, ears, and bent legs remind me of a kangaroo. The two most human characters are Greta’s dark-skinned father and wheel-chair bound Erik, also dark-skinned (but lighter then Greta and her father), with braids mimicking those of his magic wielding partner, Hesekiel. A group photo from another time shows several other types, including something resembling an abominable snowman, possibly an escaped elf from Lord of the Rings, and someone with a long bushy squirrel’s tail. The diversity is never remarked upon, and the small cast of characters makes the whole community feel very intimate and close. It’s not just diversity in physical attributes, but in relationships (same sex vs. heterosexual) and professions (mom is a blacksmith).

It’s also surprisingly tight-knit, as even in the market scenes you see no one besides the named characters. There is no supporting cast except for that one previously mentioned group photo shown during a retold story and a blink and you’ll miss it (I know I did) street vendor and no customers even though we come in contact with four business owners. The story is equally narrow in plot, as Minette’s memory loss is relayed as a matter-of-fact, and just as easily brushed off as it’s not a problem because she’s making so many good new memories with people who care about her.

The dragons uninspired names reflect the tea that they are used to create. Half have round, squat bodies like dogs, and the other half are more slender and serpentine in nature, with the narrower tails that have a puff of fur at the ends. In fact, the non-textured coloration means none of them have the scales that most people picture when the word “dragon” is used. Unique attributes are given to each dragon that make them seem more like Pokemon. More intriguing is Greta’s sidekick Brick, who seems to be an animated burning coal that does nothing but follows Greta around, although he also seems to get left out of events regularly. How did he come into existence? What is his purpose? He reminds me of the soot sprites from Spirited Away.

You can tell that this quirky society is an act of love for the author, and its quiet moments will allow readers to have a quiet moment to themselves with this book. It’s a simple meandering plot with very little tension, action, or mystery. More of a character study, it’s done so beautifully that you probably won’t mind, but instead hope to be reunited with them soon. This is the quintessence of a feel good story.

rainbow books From HB 6-2016I’m making an effort to review stories centered around gender during June, in recognition of June being LGBT Pride Month. Stay tuned for more.
Image used from Horn Book’s 2016 Pride Month Kickoff

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How to Stop Time

How to Stop TimeTitle: How to Stop Time
Author: Matt Haig
ISBN: 9780525522874
Pages: 325 pages
Publisher/Date: Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, c2017.

I am old.
That is the first thing to tell you. The thing you are least likely to believe. If you saw me you would probably think I was about forty, but you would be very wrong.
I am old — old in the way that a tree, or a quahog clam, or a Renaissance painting is old.
To give you an idea: I was born well over four hundred years ago on the third of March 1581, in my parents’ room, on the third floor of a small French chateau that used to be my home. (5)

Estienne Thomas Ambroise Christophe Hazard has lived a long life under many names. Now going by the name Tin Hazard, he has earned a position teaching history at a prestigious school in London. As Tom told the head of the protective Albatross Society, a group that purportedly aids people like him who age slowly and live longer than most, he wants “an ordinary life.” But as a reluctant member of this society billed as safeguarding his existence, there is no such thing as an ordinary life. One of the rules of this society is to never fall in love, which Tom has no trouble with after loosing his first love, wife Rose, and second love, daughter Marion. The main reason he continues to hide from society is so he can continue to search for his daughter, who disappeared after her mother died while he was away trying to prevent their persecution. However, when someone new enters the picture and questions his lonely connection to this world he’s lived in, Tom wonders if he’ll be breaking this rule in order to break free. And if he does, what will happen to the person he’s finally started to care about?

I find myself more focused on the characters then the writing style, which I guess says all you need to know about the narrative. When asked to describe this book, I find myself comparing it Time Traveler’s Wife meets Tuck Everlasting, although I guess it’s more a romantic version of Tuck Everlasting. Which is to say that unexplained longevity and the challenges that come with it are not new to literature. There is definitely a romance afoot from the very first time Tom (along with readers) is introduced to French teacher Camille, as he describes himself as “momentarily mesmerised” by her laugh-lit face. Camille herself however seems to be more an impetus  for Tom to pivot his thinking around. He is resigned to his existence, however melancholy, until he meets Camille, whom we learn very little about but who’s existence forces him to reconsider his secretive brooding apathy. At one point she relates Tom how as a child with seizures “I was scared of life. […] I was always worrying I could die at any minute.” Of her time working in a grand hotel, she says that she “would be speaking to people all the time, all day, checking in, checking out, but there was never anything deep and meaningful to it” and that philosophy so closely mimics Tom’s attempts at blending in with life but for the complete opposite reason. Even though their reasons are the exact opposites — Camille afraid of a short life, Tom afraid of a long life — they face the same demons of loosing love and being afraid of opening themselves up again. (237 – 238) And slowly, eventually, they both come to accept the advice that Tom gets from an older woman finally approaching the end of her life who also suffers from Tom’s condition; “There comes a time when the only way to start living is to tell the truth. To be who you really are, even if it is a dangerous.” (265)

The book time jumps quite a bit though (hence Time Traveler’s Wife), as we see Tom’s “original” life in the late 1500s, some snippets during his employment with Shakespeare, Captain Cook, and Fitzgerald, and finally a more modern day environment. Tom’s desire to stay off the radar is understandable when we see how first his mother and then his love were persecuted by his inability to age. It’s interesting to compare the injustice done to these women (they were accused of bewitching him) and Tom’s damnation through association, rather than Tom facing the public stigma directly. As told by someone Tom later met, “She had cast a charm and killed a man to give her boy eternal life.” (156) As a final cherry on top, the one other person he trusts with his secret, a doctor exploring aging named Dr. Hutchinson, also is on the receiving end of consequences due to Tom’s condition. How does that compare today, when women’s actions are used to justify strange appearance or behavior of another guy? Maybe I’m stretching here, but I can’t deny that my brain made that connection.

Hendrich, the only other person that we actually see for most of the novel who shares Tom’s condition (there are others who pass through), is more of an enigma then Tom. Throughout the course of the novel, we receive very little background information about Hendrich, who seems to be the brains behind this organization that operates under the guise of protecting the afflicted. However, we don’t know any details regarding its establishment, Hendrich’s early life, or his ability to continue to serve as it’s defacto head. Also, Tom and everyone else’s blind acceptance of his authority is never fully explained, except that Hendrich catches Tom at a weak point in his life and seems capable of manipulating people’s emotions. He continues to promise Tom his help in Tom’s search for his missing daughter, but I wonder at what point even someone with such a long life as Tom and Hendrich would finally get tired of waiting. It’s also difficult for others who have this condition to envision anything different then this agreement because they are intentionally left isolated from each other by Hendrich. He seems to pull power from his unlimited knowledge of the others and his own unhindered activities and mystery, much like the Wizard of Oz, and his methods are never elaborated.

A lot of options for discussion direction, possibly particularly with a book group with older participants as they grapple with their own questions of longevity and loneliness. I end this blog with a final quote, almost at the very end of the book.

“Why are you the one scared of time? You’re going to live for ever. […] It’s strange.”
“What’s strange?”
“How much time you spend worrying about the future.”
“Why? It always happens. That’s the thing with the future.”
“Yes, it always happens. But it’s not always terrible.” (323)

Piecing Me Together

Piecing Me Together.jpgTitle: Piecing Me Together
Author: Renee Watson
ISBN: 9781681191058
Pages: 264 pages
Publisher/Date: Bloomsbury Children’s Books, c2017.
Awards: Newbery Honor Award (2018), Coretta Scott King Author Award Winner (2018)

The front of the folder shows a group of black women–adults and teens–smiling and embracing one another. Woman to Woman: A Mentorship Program for African American Girls. Mrs. Parker is smiling like what she’s about to tell me is that she found the cure for cancer. But really, what she has to tell me sounds more like a honking horn that’s stuck, a favorite glass shattering into countless pieces on the floor. […]
“Why was I chosen for this?”
Mrs. Parker clears her throat. “Well, uh, selection was based on, uh, gender, grade, and, well, several other things.”
“Like?”
“Well, uh, several things. Teacher nominations . . . uh, need.”
“Mrs. Parker, I don’t need a mentor,” I tell her.
“Every young person could use a caring adult in her life.”
“I have a mother.” And my uncle, and my dad. “You think I don’t have anyone who cares about me?”
“No, no. That’s not what I said.” Mrs. Parker clears her throat. (17-18)

Junior Jade has a scholarship to attend St. Francis, a mostly white, expensive private school on the other side of Portland from where she lives with her mother and uncle. When she is called down to the counselor’s office, she thinks it’s about the study abroad to trip to Spain, a trip she’s anticipated for the last two years, learning Spanish and making money for by tutoring her classmates. Instead, Jade learns she’s been nominated for Woman to Woman, a mentor program that pairs her with Maxine, a graduate of her high school. Maxine however, doesn’t seem to be the best person to mentor, showing up late to or completely forgetting about plans and being more concerned about her ex-boyfriend then Jade. Jade doesn’t want to forgo the “opportunity” to get a full-ride scholarship if she completes the program, but the things they do make her feel more out of place then ever. She’s tired of being someone who needs help, and wants to get out of town and out of her circumstances; the trick is finding someone who can listen and help in the way she needs.

I finished Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson and it’s given me some things to consider as a mentor and a librarian. There’s a lot of excellent passages that I could quote from that provide insight and an evaluation of who we feel is “in need” and what we feel they need. After much self-doubt, Jade finally gets the courage to voice her concerns about the program to her mentor Maxine. Jade tells Maxine that just because her parents aren’t around doesn’t mean she needs a mentor. (In actuality, her mother just works an nontraditional schedule and is highly involved in Jade’s life and is not like other non-existent mother characters that are cliche characters in other books.) Just because she has the opportunity to go other places doesn’t mean she wants to see what she can’t afford. Just because she lives in a “wrong side of the tracks” neighborhood doesn’t mean there aren’t still things to see and people who can help from within. Why is Jade “only seen as someone who needs and not someone who can give?” (direct quote from page 199) While it was a little preachy in places, I would recommend it for anyone who finds themselves with who we typically consider “underprivileged youth.” Sometimes even mentors need a reminder that the people they mentor are capable of contributing in their own way, and don’t need to be rescued by someone.

The material is also very relevant in relation to the Black Lives Matter conversation. Although that phrase never makes an appearance in the narrative. About two-thirds of the way in, an incident makes the news regarding a fifteen-year-old black female named Natasha Ramsey receiving a broken jaw and fractured ribs as a result of police breaking up a house party due to a noise complaint. Jade’s uncle E.J. (who is only a few years older then Jade) responds with scorn at Jade’s suggestion that they say a prayer.

“And what is prayer going to do?” E.J. asks. “Prayer ain’t nothing but the poor man’s drug.”
“What?”
“Poor people are the ones who pray. People who don’t have what they need, who can’t pay their rent, who can’t buy healthy food, who can’t save any of their paycheck because every dollar is already accounted for. Those are the people who pray. They pray for miracles, they pray for signs, they pray for good health. Rich people don’t do that,” he tells me. […]
“Be careful today, Jade. For real.” (182-183)

Jade is hyper-aware of her classmates’ response to the event, which seems nonexistent as there is no talk in the hallways, no discussion in the classroom, and from her perspective everyone is acting oblivious, except for her Spanish teacher whom she finds watching new coverage during his break. There are small instances of racism that keep frustrating Jade, especially because the only other person she talks to at school, a white classmate named Sam who also comes from her neighborhood, doesn’t seem them as racism. When Jade is the only one who gets in trouble for laughing at another student’s disrespectful comments about a staff member, Sam blames it on wealth disparity. “Her parents donate a bunch of money to the school every year. She can say and do whatever she wants,” Sam says. “That had nothing to do with her being white and your being black.” Jade responds “You know that’s what people are going to say about Natasha Ramsey. That it had nothing to do with her being black.” and Sam asks “Who?” Another time, Jade questions why she is always the one given these opportunities instead of Sam, who lives in the same area, is also lacking parents, and sees Jade as being ungrateful at having these opportunities to go places like the symphony. This is definitely a perfect scene to spark discussion for students and adults. When have their been times where two people have been in similar situations and the outcomes have been treated differently, and what factors played a role in the resulting outcomes?

We as readers will never know the real reason why her classmate doesn’t get punished for saying the comment but Jade gets in trouble for laughing at it. I think both reasons could be validated, as money and race both talk, but I also fear that as a white female I’d be accused of implicit bias if I brought up this possibility, just as Sam does. I can’t claim to understand what African Americans have to face in terms of racism, both overt and obvious, but I do understand that if you face enough situations with racial overtones, everything starts getting colored and about color. And there was at least one instance in the book of overt racism that Sam also discounts when faced with the account, that could be contributing to Jade’s mounting frustrations. Jade instead seeks out people who understand her feelings on the issue, and readers in turn gain an understanding of just how much the case has affected Jade and her friend from the neighborhood, Lee Lee. These girls are scared it could have been them or will be them, and the other white girls in Jade’s school don’t have that fear because they are insulated by their racial identity. Jade and Lee Lee feel a powerlessness that they are hesitant to admit, because then they fear it means they are, and they don’t want to see themselves or have others see them in that light. In studying Lewis and Clark and their slave York, which she finds out about from Lee Lee’s talking about her history teacher, Jade wonders if he ever “existing in a world where no one thought him strange” and I think Jade feels that otherness herself. Going to an all white school where she can’t relate her family life with that of other students, and then coming home where she can’t relate her options and experiences at school to her family, Jade and Sam share that feeling of isolation and being stuck in the middle.

I keep coming back to the previously quoted passage, “Why am I only seen as someone who needs and not someone who can give?” Jade and Lee Lee are scared, but they don’t want to be seen as someone who needs protection, reassurances, or special treatment. They are women of action, and by the end, it’s inspiring that they found a way to tie resources from their community into a proactive attempt at change. Jade responds to a question that she has learned from the mentor program she doesn’t “have to wait to be given an opportunity” and I think that’s really the most important thing that we can teach the people we mentor. This book is placed in the teen collection at my local library, but I feel it would be appropriate for middle school reading.

It’s making me consider how I can reach out more professionally and personally to fulfill the needs and the desires of the kid I mentor through Big Brothers Big Sisters and the public I serve. What are we pressing on others versus providing others? How can we identify what patrons need but also what they can give, and how do we tie the two together? I welcome your thoughts in the comments, and also recommendations for further reading on either enacting these goals, or working with populations that are traditionally seen as underprivileged, but should never be seen as uninformed or unable to contribute.

The Witch Boy

Witch BoyTitle: The Witch Boy
Author/Illustrator: Molly Knox Ostertag
ISBN: 9781338089516
Pages: 217 pages
Publisher/Date: Graphix, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., c2017.

“I don’t understand why Juniper and Hazel and them can all learn how to talk to trees and make potions and do spells and I can’t. It’s not fair.”
“But, Aster, that magic isn’t for you. How many times do I have to explain that?”
“But I want to learn it!”
“Women and men have different types of magic, and witches pass down their knowledge from mother to daughter. That’s how it is and how it’s always been, my son.
But it’s not like there’s nothing for you! Soon your shapeshifting will begin, and with it, the ability to see demons and to fight them. You’ll be one of the men.” (7-8)

In an insular community in the woods, a family of witches and shapeshifters pass along their skills to their daughters and sons, respectively. All except for Aster, who is more interested in learning magic and spells then shape shifting. When first one, and then multiple, young shapeshifters go missing, the family rallies to find them, but they still don’t stop to listen to Aster’s findings. Past problems come back to haunt them, and Aster might be the only one who can figure out what’s going on in time to stop it.

I find myself evaluating my views about this book. I originally felt that this is a relatively heavy-handed, thinly-veiled allegory of coming out as transgender, which a number of reviewers and bloggers have mentioned. However, I am reminded of Tamora Pierce, who wrote the Alanna series about a girl becoming a knight and assuming the disguise and role of a boy in order to accomplish her goal. Upon reading that series when I was younger, and even today, it never dawned on me to make those same assumptions about Alanna. Alanna was simply a tomboy, much like myself at that age, who enjoyed pursuing hobbies that were typically deemed masculine. Aster, in the same way, doesn’t want to be a woman, he just wants to do things that are identified in his society as feminine. That’s not transgender, but instead it’s fighting societal stereotypes of gendered activities.

I think the difference between my perception of Alanna and Aster is not only the modern day awareness of non-gender conforming actions, but also the use of this characteristic in the stories. Alanna’s story, while dependent upon keeping her identity a secret, has other traits that appear throughout the story, such as her impulsiveness, reluctance to ask for or accept help, her fears and hopes and dreams and motivations. Aster wants to do what “girls” do and has the magic of a witch inside of him, even though everyone else perceives him as a shapeshifter and expects him to be a shapeshifter. He seems quiet, but he is dedicated to his family, even though they continue to deny him his desires. That’s the entirety of our knowledge about his personality. The story is dependent upon the “I want to do what I’m not allowed to do” troupe with very little backstory or explanation of how or why events proceed as they do. His entire purpose is to be recognized as someone who can perform feminine tasks, which doesn’t yield itself to much engagement from readers.

There are a number of additional questions regarding the background of the characters. They all seem to be related, but there is no information about where the in-laws came from and how people who married into the family acquired their powers. What prompts these disappearances to begin now, after all these years? Even after the cause of the disappearances is discovered, the culprit’s consequences are left unresolved. As already discussed, the transgender analogy is not quite the appropriate term, but if you insist on using it that label also falls apart at the end, where one of the characters claims to have a little bit of both witch and shapeshifter. Is that a nod to individuals who identify as pansexual or intersex? Instead, I think it’s meant on commentary that men and women can pursue tasks regardless of if they are seen as masculine or feminine in nature.

The artwork is similar to a lot of the graphic novels produced by Graphix, with solid, digital illustrations. I’m beginning to hope that in the future we see more variety in the artwork of graphic novels done by that company. They have good stories, but there is a sameness that is starting to make their work distinguishable from other publishers. The scenes where we discover the cause of the boys disappearances are appropriately scary and thematically colored in a wash of red, definitely distinguishing it from the more cheerful and vibrantly colored outdoor daily scenes.

It’s a nice story, but I feel like the commentary on it’s merits might be misguided. A sequel arrives on shelves later this fall, so we’ll have to see if more character development occurs. Aster’s new friend Charlie takes center stage alongside Aster on the cover, so maybe more interplay between their two lives and worlds will give us more interest and insight in their personalities then the one-dimensional portrayal provided.

rainbow books From HB 6-2016I’m making an effort to review stories centered around gender during June, in recognition of June being LGBT Pride Month. Stay tuned for more.
Image used from Horn Book’s 2016 Pride Month Kickoff

The Hawk of the Castle

Hawk of the CastleTitle: The Hawk of the Castle: A Story of Medieval Falconry
Author: Danna Smith
Illustrator: Bagram Ibatoulline
ISBN: 9780763679927
Pages: 40 pages
Publisher/Date: Candlewick Press, c2017.

This is our hawk: a sight to behold,
a master of flight, graceful and bold.
My father trains this bird of prey
who lives with us at the castle. (8)

*Note: I have no idea what this rhyming scheme is called. The whole story is written as a set of quatrains, each consisting of a couplet, a non-rhyming line, and then the fourth line always ends with the word “castle”. If any of my readers can find a word for a poem written in this AABC manner, please let me know. It’s driving a friend and I crazy!

First, I DESPERATELY NEED to talk about these pictures. Because seriously! They are amazing. It’s not often I gush over illustrations in this way (I think the last time was in 2015 with The Gentleman Bat) but they are awe inspiring. You can see the individual feathers in the wings and tail, the texture in the leather glove, and the lead work assembling the windows. As the story progresses so does the shadows and sunlight, starting with early morning, transitioning to full sun in the afternoon, and proceeding to a dusky, candle lit evening. Simply stunning.

My one quibble is that occasionally the featured hawk is portrayed large and grand, and other times it is sized for the panoramic pictures, which means it’s too small for children to immediately notice. In sharing this with a crowd at an event, there was a little confusion of which bird was which on pages 24-25, as we see grouse flushed out of the brush by a dog, and the hawk on the opposite page riding high and waiting for it’s opportunity to strike. When we see the hawk’s successful catch, the eye is drawn to the falconer and his daughter (the narrator) and not the hawk in the foreground, who almost blends in with the grasses. I do appreciate that the artist withholds the bloody details that such a catch would cause, and instead only shows enough for readers to see that he caught his prey.

The writing is lyrical, although as noted above I can’t identify if this exact rhyming scheme has a name. It has a “This is the House That Jack Built” quality to it, as the last word of each quatrain is “castle” and they all start with a referential “This is” or “These are”. The rhyming couplets that begin each quatrain give it a cadence that is easily read. The book is appreciatively leveled. You can read the more plot based rhymes to a group of young children (as I did) or you can share a more in-depth study of the practice of falconry with an older child or adult through the well placed paragraphs that share the pages. An author’s note, bibliography, and index are also geared for older audiences and is much appreciated.

Overall, this often overlooked aspect of medieval culture is well detailed, both in art and authorship and begs a thorough read. Contact your local wildlife refuge or conservancy and see if they’d be willing to pair with you for a special guest reading featuring one of these birds.

nonfiction mondayThis review is posted in honor of Nonfiction Monday. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.

Caldecott Awards 2018

WINNER

Wolf in the SnowTitle: Wolf in the Snow
See previous post (Man was I wrong about this one’s chances!)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

HONOR BOOKS

Big Cat Little CatTitle: Big Cat, Little Cat
Author/Illustrator: Elisha Cooper
ISBN: 9781626723719
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Roaring Brook Press, a division of Holtzbrinck Publishing Holdings Limited Partnership, c2017.

Endearing, minimalist black and white illustrations portray the circle of life and passage of time through a feline friendship. A newcomer is shown the ropes by the older, established resident cat. Eventually, the original cat “got older and one day he had to go… and he didn’t come back.” Roles are karmically reversed the day a new younger cat arrives, with the previous newcomer now taking the lead. A book that might help explain the death of a pet or sharing experiences with any new addition, whether at school or in the family. Short sentences place the emphasis on the ideas and pictures, and it ends with a sweet dedication to presumably all the cats the author ever had.

Crown an Ode to the Fresh CutTitle: Crown, an Ode to the Fresh Cut
Author: Derrick Barnes
Illustrator: Gordon C. James
ISBN: 9781572842243
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Bolden Books, an imprint of Agate Publishing, c2017.
Awards: John Newbery Honor (2018), Coretta Scott King Author Honor (2018), Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor (2018)

An author’s note explains that he “wanted to capture that moment when black and brown boys all over America visit “the shop” and hop out of the chair filled with a higher self-esteem, with self-pride, with confidence, and an overall elevated view of who they are.” That feeling I don’t think is limited to just the black and brown boys, but to anyone who needs some pampering, a boost of self-worth, or simply needs to be seen by others. Every picture exudes confidence, with the primary focus being on the people’s faces, upturned on almost every page. Regardless of if they are anchored in the barber shop setting or surrounded by swirling bright-colored backgrounds, they are striking a pose and a personality that pops from the pages.

The writing also sizzles, with descriptive, adjective laden verse that reads as if you’re having a conversation with someone. “He looks like he owns a few acres of land on Saturn. Maybe there’s a river named after him on Mars. He looks that important.” It’s an awe-laden but still matter-of-fact narration of a boy who has lost his idealized view of adults and still looks up to becoming a man one day who also has the air about him that he feels from others.

I had this idea that most hair books are geared towards girls (hair styling, dos and don’ts, etc.) but as I look at my local library’s offerings, I might be mistaken in that impression. While hair styling seems to be gender based, there are books featuring bad hair days and hair cuts with both genders represented almost equally.  The illustrations for this title are unabashedly African American, portraying everything from “butterscotch complexion” to darker skin tones, from do-rags to dreadlocks, fades to faux-hawks. I feel like those reviewers who point out how few white people were in the Black Panther movie. I’m pointing this out only to speak upon the realism of the portrayal, as most hair places are very segregated but is still a place where we can find (again to quote from the author’s note) “hardworking black men from all walks of life […] discussing politics, women, sports, our community, and our future.” It’s a slice of life without the social issues, and should be included in hair themed and African American history month story times.

A Different PondTitle: A Different Pond
Author: Bao Phi
Illustrator: Thi Bui
ISBN: 9781623708030
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: Capstone Young Readers, a Capstone Press imprint, c2017.

Author Bao Phi combines two infrequently portrayed topics, fishing and immigration, in this quiet slice of life story. There is no tension, no conflict, no real problem to solve unless you count the fact that the boy and his dad (all characters remain unnamed) are attempting to catch fish, an effort that ultimately proves successful. There are subtle references to the state of the narrator’s family, for instance the fact that they have to catch fish even though his parents have jobs because “Everything in American costs a lot of money.” However, the universal themes and feelings are also there, and identifiable with most readers, including the contentment of spending time with a loved one, the pride in accomplishing a task, the mystery of a parent’s past, and a desire to be of service, have a role, and contribute to a group, in this case the family.

The backgrounds of the illustrations had the look of water colors, but the crisp lines and uniform coloring of the characters had a digital feel, so I went looking for information about her technique. I found an interview with Let’s Talk Picture Books where Thi Bui elaborates on her process. I highly recommend taking a look at her photos of the work in progress. The finished product conveys the calm of the early morning trip and the quiet connection and contentment that the characters feel for one another. She states in the interview that she wanted the focus on the boy, and visually she succeeds, centering him in almost every spread and dressing him in a red shirt that frequently peeks out beneath his jacket, a subtle nod to his inability to blend in with this new life. Use for Father’s Day, multicultural, or fishing themed story times with slightly older audiences, as some passages may be too wordy for the preschool crowd.

Grand CanyonTitle: Grand Canyon
Author/Illustrator: Jason Chin
ISBN: 9781596439504
Pages: unpaged
Publisher/Date: A Neal Porter Book, published by Roaring Brook Press, a division of Hotzbrinck Publishing Holdings Limited Partnership, c2017.
Awards: Robert Sibert Honor (2018), Caldecott Honor (2018)

“Rivers carve canyons. When they cut down into the ear, canyons grow deeper. As weathering and erosion break apart their walls, canyons grow wider. Over time, rivers wash all of the eroded material away. These processes have been at work for millions of year, relentlessly excavating the mighty gorge known as Grand Canyon.”

Sandwiched between equally informative opening (featuring a map of the area and some general facts) and closing (elaborating on its history, ecology and geology, along with a cross section and bibliography) spreads, Chin’s book is full of elaborate illustrations and factual tidbits. In an outline reminiscent of Jan Brett, species of plants and animals are identified in the mattes surrounding pictures of a child and adult traveling through all the levels of the canyon. These characters are never identified by name, and the narration uses “you”, inviting readers to travel along and assume a role in the journey, stylistically similar to the Choose Your Own Adventure series. Alternating between these more informational spreads are full page flashbacks where you glimpse what the canyon could have looked like as the character travels through the timeline of formation. If that’s not enough, there are little cutouts incorporated that you sometimes don’t notice until you turn the page. The climatic finish of the “narration” is a four page wide fold-out panoramic view of the canyon, inspiring the awe that can be found and felt when visiting the real deal. Having visited a small portion of the Canyon last year, I was blown away when I first looked at it. This is the closest you are going to get if searching for a travel guide for children, with science seamlessly incorporated into the mix.

The Marvelwood Magicians

Marvelwood Magicians.jpgTitle: The Marvelwood Magicians
Author: Diane Zahler
ISBN: 9781629797243
Pages: 188 pages
Publisher/Date: Boyd Mills Press, an imprint of Highlights, c2017.

“Stand there, and look at the pendulum,” Master Morogh ordered Bell. Bell planted himself in front of the metronome, and Master Morogh started it up. Click-clack, click-clack it went, back and forth. Mattie watched Bell fearfully. It took only a couple of moments for the light to leave his eyes. Like the frat guy and the woman before him, his expression went slack and lifeless.
“No!” Mattie said again. She started for the stage, her heart pounding. “Bell, come back here!” But Bell couldn’t hear her. […]
“Bell, wake up!” Mattie cried. There was something wrong here, something very wrong. (90-91)

Mattie Marvelwood’s big mouth and mind-reading have gotten her in trouble again, resulting in her gifted family being fired from the traveling carnival where they worked.  They think themselves lucky when they stumble across a circus, with ringleader Master Morogh instantly adding their acts. The circus has two tigers, an elephant, and another family, with a daughter who instantly becomes Mattie’s friend. But something isn’t right, as one entertainer after another begin to lose their talents. Some are more ordinary, like singing and tumbling, but the Marvelwood’s abilities are more magical in nature. Suspicious that Master Morogh might be the mystery manipulator, it’s up to Mattie to save the day, without losing her own abilities in the process.

With the recent popularity of The Greatest Showman, I wonder if there will be an influx of people looking for circus themed books.If they are young enough, you can give this title to them.  The cover reminds me of the classic cover of The Great Gatsby mixed with Kehret’s Danger at the Fair for some reason, but it’s tamer than both of those books. Mattie is understandably weary of strangers due to her talent of mind-reading and predictably frustrated that her life and family aren’t normal. There is some diversity, with Mattie’s dad being Scottish and her mom being “India Indian.” The mystery is not a “who done it” but more of a “will they get away with it” as about half way through the story you know who is to blame for the missing abilities. Besides Mattie, most of the characters are one dimensional, acting to emphasize aspects of plot or Mattie’s personality rather then develop their own attributes, only being identifiable by their act or relationships to each other. Mattie’s own feelings of her mind-reading talent changes drastically, from exasperation to acceptance in very little time, but the conclusion is solid and ties up all the loose ends. A fast read, entertaining but not very memorable, emphasizing that no matter the circumstances the show must go on and you can trust your family, even when they aren’t related by blood.

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