Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Review: Lock and Key - the Downward Spiral by Ridley Pearson


This is the second book on the Lock and Key series, a fascinating imagining of how Sherlock Homes and James Moriarty first met - and how they ended up such mortal enemies. Not just that, but a tale of how two young boys grew up to become the great detective and the criminal mastermind to begin with.

In addition to the two obvious main characters, we have Moira, James Moriarty's sister. She narrates a great deal of the story, and is every bit as intelligent and involved as the two young men, however much they try to shield her or keep her uninvolved. It's not just sexism or the innate sense of superiority both boys have: females in the Moriarty family inevitable come to bad ends. Particularly clever ones. It makes the reader a bit unsure as to how things are going to turn out - especially as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle never mentioned Holmes being involved with any women...

The series occurs in modern times, and in the US, complete with cell phones and computers; but the boarding school atmosphere brilliantly lends an overall feeling of still being in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's time period.

At the end of the first book I was definitely intrigued, and ordered the second before the publisher had a chance to send me a review copy (which they still did - score!). I had pretty much written James off as being beyond redemption at that point, but I underestimated Ridley's ability to create and maintain many-faceted characters. I mean, I know in one part of my brain that Moriarty isn't suddenly going to turn into the Pope, but the reader in me is still holding out hope, even after finishing book two!

Younger readers do not need to be familiar with the original tales to thoroughly enjoy these, but will probably want to explore those while waiting for book three. These would be an excellent choice for a book discussion group, with plenty of opportunity to share theories and sift out clues from red herrings. With that, here is one of my theories, with a good-sized spoiler, so - reader beware!

Lois is obviously trained as more than an assistant/nanny, as Moira has deduced. I think she has some sort of connection with the person they have decided is responsible for the Moriartys' father's death. Once you get to that part, you will understand the possible connection - although I do not think she is actually working for him. I also have some interesting theories about the love vs. loyalty angle, but that would give too many spoilers!

Monday, November 20, 2017

Review: You Know What? by Carol Gordon Ekster and Nynke Mare Talsma


Oliver should go to sleep. But there is so much he wants to tell his mother about: what happened that day at school, the things he read in books, everything he sees around him. 
A touching and familiar picture book about (postponing) the ritual of going to sleep.

So, basically, Ekster transcribed parts of a typical bedtime conversation at my house, and Talsma illustrated it (rather adorably). Both humorous and sweet, striking the balance we try to find each night between listening to the things they want to tell us when they still want to tell us things, and getting them to actually BE QUIET AND GO TO SLEEP at some point!

A book that makes you, the parent, laugh out loud and immediately hand it to another parent to read. But, how does it do with children? If mine are any indication, swimmingly! They caught the humor at all ages, enjoyed looking to see what the bunny was doing in each picture, and probably came up with a few new stalling ideas...

*NOTE: This title has been nominated for the Cybils Award, and I am a first round panelist. There are many nominations and six other judges. My opinions should not be construed as a sign of inclusion or exclusion on the final short list.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Review: Love, Santa by Martha Brockenbrough and Lee White


In a series of letters, a young girl writes to Santa to ask about the North Pole, Mrs. Claus, and of course, Christmas goodies. Year after year, Santa writes back, and a heartwarming relationship develops, until one year, the girl writes to her mother instead: Mom, are you Santa? Her mother responds to say that no, she is not Santa. Because Santa is bigger than any one person — we bring him out through kindness to one another and the power of imagination. This transformative tale spins a universal childhood experience into a story about love, giving, and the spirit of Christmas.

There are quite a few books out, now, (and a few "my mother's cousin's dentist did this" stories going around Facebook) with variations on the everyone-is-Santa theme. This looks to be one of the better ones!

Books with removable items...the bane of every librarian's existence, but fun for individual kids. The first page tells us, "When Lucy was five, she wrote Santa a letter." The second page in the spread has a real envelope containing the note, "Dear Santa, The North Pole is freezing! How do you stay warm? Love, Lucy" Santa writes back to tell her about the matching red coats that keep him and Mrs. Claus warm, and gives Lucy one of her very own!

Through the years, Lucy writes to Santa with different questions, and both his notes and his gifts to her show just how well he knows and cares about her. Finally, Lucy asks that inevitable question, and her mother lets her in on that little secret that opens up a whole new world of sharing.

I am going to add this book to our collection, but among the nonfiction, so it is less likely to be browsed by a young one whose parents want to believe in Santa a bit longer. Always the parents' choice! If yours are ready to take that next step into feeling like part of the adult world, or if they have grown up knowing all along, this book is a wonderful conversation starter, and one they will go back to time and again. Just make copies of the notes, so you can replace them when they inevitably get lost - or, have the kids write their own letters and responses!

So, what about you? How did you find out about Santa? Or did I just spoil it for you? I was kind of a brat. I suspected at a rather young age, and asked my parents, who turned it back on me with, "What do you think?" I hazarded a "no", and they confirmed it. I immediately ran upstairs and broke the news to my baby brother, probably ruining Christmas for him forever. Tell me your stories in the comments!

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Review: Little Blue Chair by Cary Fagan and Madeline Kloepper


Boo's favorite chair is little and blue. He sits in it, reads in it and makes a tent around it...until the day he grows too big for it. His mother puts the little blue chair out on the lawn where a truck driver picks it up. The truck driver sells it to a lady in a junk store where it sits for many years until it's sold and put to use as a plant stand. In the years that follow, the little blue chair is used in many other ways — on an elephant ride, in a contest, on a Ferris wheel, in a tree...until the day it flies away, borne aloft by balloons, and lands in a garden of daffodils where a familiar face finds it.

Kids (and adults) who delight in finding new uses for things will take similar delight in this sweet book. Young readers will be fascinated by all the adventures this simple blue chair gets to go on - from holding a plant to riding an elephant! 

Kloepper's illustrations are a bit reminiscent of Ruth Krauss, and fit the story perfectly. I only wish Fagan had not felt the need to spell out who the familiar face at the end was - as an adult reader I pretty much knew that was coming, and I am certain children reading it would have understood it. I felt a bit let down at that point, as the prose until then had been excellent. Still, a great addition to a shared or private library, and sure to inspire some sifting through junk piles!

***Edited to say that Logan absolutely fell in love with the story, clutching the book to his chest and falling asleep with it! The overstating that bothered me did not bother him in the least. He and Sheridan have been taking turns reading it out loud.

*NOTE: This title has been nominated for the Cybils Award, and I am a first round panelist. There are many nominations and six other judges. My opinions should not be construed as a sign of inclusion or exclusion on the final short list.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Review: The Lost Frost Girl by Amy Wilson


With a name like hers, Owl never expected her life to be normal, at home or at school. But when Owl finds out that she is Jack Frost’s daughter, her world shifts beyond what she could ever imagine.
Determined to meet him, Owl delves into Jack’s wonderful world of winter and magic—the kind of place she thought only existed in fairy tales. And as she notices frost patterns appearing on her skin and her tears turning to ice, Owl starts to wonder if being Jack Frost’s daughter means that she has powers of her very own.

I picked this book up for my lunchtime read, and was pulled in from the first lines:

"When you have a kid, don't call it something stupid.
Don't call it Apple, or Pear, or Mung Bean.
Don't call it Owl.
This advice is a bit late for me. Because she did. She did call me Owl. Twelve years ago she looked down at a tiny little baby - me - and decided that Owl would be a good way to go."

'She', in this case, would be Isolde, Owl's free-spirited, artistic, sometimes distracted but always loving mother. And her father? Well, you read the blurb, so you won't be quite as surprised as Owl is. What is pleasantly surprising is that Wilson is able to avoid so many common tropes, even with what is, on surface, a common plot line; child discovers he/she has some secret ancestry that imbues special powers, child must learn how to use said powers, often with help of friends who may or may not also have special powers.

Friends! Everyone should have a friend like Mallory, bless that girl. She does not exist merely as a foil for our heroine, but is a fleshed-out character in her own right. Avery has his own issues, which we won't spoil here. Jack Frost is not what one might expect from the stories, and is allowed to be a bit more complicated than even he thinks he is. 

Owl's journey to understand what is happening to her, as well as her new and changing relationships, are as believable as they can be when half the characters are fay. The prose is at once down to earth (see opening lines) and lyrical:

"I'm standing on the riverbank, watching Jack's bare feet dance across the ice as though it were a ballroom floor, patterns curling out around him, and I don't know whether the world is shrinking or growing, but there's an exploding sort of feeling in my chest because nothing is ever going to be the same after today."

Isn't that second part a great way to describe adolescence?

The world building happens quickly, given some depth in short passages that tell how Owl's mother first met Jack. I have a clear mental picture of Jack's domain, but not so much some of the others. I am hoping for a sequel that will flesh those out, as well as the very interesting characters Wilson has introduced.

In short, I liked Owl, I liked this world (both worlds) and their characters, and I hope to get to know them all better. An excellent debut!

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Review: A Bedtime Yarn, by Nicola Winstanley and Olivia Chin Mueller


Adults and children will find it easy to relate to Frankie, a little bear who is afraid of the dark. A familiar topic through the generations, parents have tried monster spray, checking the closets, special bedtime prayers, night lights, musical toys, and a myriad of other solutions. 

Frankie's mother offers him a ball of yarn, with one end leading out to where she sits, knitting. A tangible thread to safety, each ball slowly dwindles as she pulls out more yarn, to be replaced by a new color. As Frankie drifts off to sleep, the colors influence his dreams, taking him on wonderful adventures.

Just as Frankie declares himself maybe ready to sleep without the ball of yarn, his mother shows him what she has been making: as adults have probably guessed, a colorful blanket, there to remind him of all his dreams as well as of the security he feels with his mother nearby.

While it isn't QUITE Christmas season, whatever Walmart may think, there is an obvious gift pairing here: gift this very sweet book with its dreamlike illustrations to a little one in your life, along with colorful balls of yarn and a pair of knitting needles. Let the child select the colors he wants for his blanket, or teach him to knit and start working on the blanket together!

*NOTE: This title has been nominated for the Cybils Award, and I am a first round panelist. There are many nominations and six other judges. My opinions should not be construed as a sign of inclusion or exclusion on the final short list.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Review: Let's Explore Countries series from Lerner


There are lots of different places to visit in the world! Have you ever been on an island? What would it be like to live on one? Take a trip to tropical Cuba and learn about the history and culture of this Caribbean country. Full-color photographs and carefully leveled text bring Cuba to life, while age-appropriate critical thinking questions introduce readers to nonfiction. It's almost like being on the beach yourself!

It's getting a bit difficult to find up-to-date nonfiction country books these days. I was happy to see Lerner has a new set out, because their text and illustrations are usually high quality, with components such as index, glossary, and additional resources.

This series is part of their "Bumba Books" line, created especially for younger readers. They wouldn't do for a report, but are perfect for introducing younger children to a country they have heard about, or may be visiting (as a military town, this comes up more often than it might other places!) I have looked at Cuba and China so far, and they seem to be a good mix of environment, foods, and basic geography. 

There is much more that could be included - holidays, politics, history - but these are meant to be short easy readers. Since the push is for more nonfiction in the early grades, it is good to have some selections that are bright and interesting. Most pages include a question to engage your reader in a little more critical thinking. I would highly recommend them for a school or classroom library, and will be getting the rest of the series for our public library shelves.