Red Panda's Candy Apples by Ruth Paul

New Zealander Ruth Paul's first two books to be published in the US just happen to feature my two favorite animals! Last year I reviewed Hedgehog's Magic Tricks and, aside from the presence of a winsome hedgehog, I was charmed by Paul's gentle sense of humor,  sunny palette and sweet story. Red Panda's Candy Apples delivers all of these wonderful qualities and more!

When Red Panda decides to sell candy apples there are a few ups and downs. The candy apples are so yummy and everyone - including Red Panda - wants one. Or two. Mouse buys a small apple for her whole family and carts it off in a wheelbarrow made from a teacup on wheels. Bushbaby and Duckling get into a bit of a sticky spot over the last candy apple, but Paul ends Red Panda's Candy Apples on a happy note and with a hilarious final illustration.  There is third book featuring Paul's adorable animals coming soon, and I hope that there are many more to come!

Be sure to check out Julie Danielson's interview with Ruth Paul, 7 Questions Over Breakfast, where I learned that she lives in a an off-grid straw bale house, among other interesting facts!

Coming soon . . .

Source: Review Copy


A Perfect Place for Ted by Leila Rudge

A Perfect Place for Ted is Leila Rudge's delightfuldebut as a picture book author and illustrator. She has worked, wonderfully, with Meg McKinlay on the fantastic No Bears and two illustrated chapter books (see below for links to my reviews.)On her own, Rudge's book exhibits a sense of humor and illustration style that reminds me of a favorite, Emily Gravett.

Ted is a "smart dog with his own sweater," who does his best to make a good impression, but he has a hard time being noticed. The other dogs in the pet store where he has lived for so long all outshine him. Ted decides to try a different tack and or two, but nothing seems to work. From circus performer to pageant contestant . . . 

. . . to guard dog. But burglars don't even notice Ted.

When Ted answers a "Wanted: Furry Friend" sign, it seems like his wish has come true. A page turn reveals a great moment that makes this already charming book even better. Rudge's illustrations are superb, filled with patterns, details and muted colors that add to the charm. 

Books by Meg McKinlay, illustrated by Leila Rudge with links to my reviews:

Source: Review Copy


Sleep Tight, Anna Banana! by Dominique Roques, illustrated by Alexis Dormal

Sleep Tight, Anna Banana! by Dominique Roques illustrated by Alexis Dormal marks the debut picture book from the premier publisher of graphic novels for readers of all ages, FirstSecond and it is a gem! Both the wry storytelling and the energetic illustrations call to mind one of my favorite picture book author and illustrators, Jules Feiffer, who has written his own bedtime story, which has a similar sense of urgency and importance.

It's late and Anna's parents have said, "Lights out," but Anna just can't put her book down. It's "fascinating . . . frightening . . . hilarious . . . gripping!" Unfortunately, her stuffed friends would really like her to turn off the light.

But Anna will not oblige. In fact, she is enjoying her book so much and so loudly that she makes her pals a little cranky.

Then the tables are turned on Anna and in a very funny way. Anna's stuffed animals, who get character introductions on the endpapers, are portrayed perfectly in Sleep Tight, Anna Banana!, something that is hard to do without being overly sweet or sentimental, and I think that the comic/graphic novel influence in this picture book is responsible for that. Roques and Dormal bring a superb sense of humor to the story, which is filled with emotional range and expressive details. I am so excited with FirstSecond's foray into the world of picture books and can't wait to see the next book from Roques and Dormal - Anna Banana and the Chocolate Explosion!

Source: Review Copy


The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman, 255 pp, RL 5

The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman combines time-travel fantasy and historical fiction in an different way that makes for an interesting read. Sherman begins her novel introducing us to the thirteen-year-old Sophie Martineau and the very different world of 1960s Louisiana. Sophie's mama is a Fairchild of Oak River, which was once a great sugar cane plantation. Now, the remains of the Fairchilds, Sophie's aunt and grandmother, live in Oak Cottage, a small house  that resides on a small portion of the land that the family still owns. Sophie's mama is a beauty, with shiny chestnut hair, smooth and creamy skin and a waist that was "not much bigger than twenty inches around, even without a girdle." With her "puppy fat, frizzy, dishwater hair, imperfect skin and thick glasses," Sophie is a great trial to her mama, especially since her father divorced her and moved to New York City where he married a woman who is an artist and probably Jewish. Sherman does a fine job describing the South of the 1960s and the social mores that go with it, painting a vivid picture of the time. And the heat. I was sweating along with Sophie as her mama drove made the long drive to Oak Cottage in the steamy heat of May, windows of the 1954 Ford station wagon rolled up tight and Sophie wearing her new best outfit - a blue seersucker suit, nylons and a garter belt and her first ever pair of high-heeled pumps. 

At first, Oak Cottage seems to be only marginally better for Sophie than spending time with her critical, self-involved mother who is prone to giving the silent treatment. Aunt Enid's housekeeping feels borderline hoarder, despite the presence of Ofelia, the housekeeper. And Grandmama spends her days in bed in a room that is crammed with the elegant antiques that are the remains of of the once grand Big House. But, Aunt Enid has a green thumb and a well stocked library, which is perfect because Sophie is a reader, especially of two favorites of mine, E. Nesbit and Edward Eager. In fact, it is the adventures had by the children in Eager's book The Time Garden and the strange looking Psammead from Nesbit's The Story of the Amulet that are fresh in Sophie's imagination when she wanders into the overgrown hedge maze on the edge of the property and hears a voice. Soon, she has made a wish that is not exactly what she was hoping for and sent back in time 100 years by a creature who insists that she has to stay until she has done what she went there to do.

At this point, The Freedom Maze shifts from fantasy to historical fiction, with Sophie being mistaken for a slave sent to work on the Fairchild's Oak River Plantation by Mr. Robert Fairchild, formerly of New Orleans. Sophie's appearance leads the Fairchilds to assume that she is the offspring of Mr. Fairchild himself and one of his slaves. As the novel unfolds, Sophie and readers learn that the masters of plantations often produced children with their slaves, children who were their property. Despite an early infraction and illness that keeps Sophie from working for several days, she eventually is given the position of lady's maid to Old Missy, Mrs. Fairchild herself, because she can read and, presumably, because she is fair skinned for a slave. When Sophie's resemblance to Miss Charlotte, the youngest, most spoiled Fairchild who could give Scarlett O'Hara a run for her money, is noted by a cousin during a family gathering, Sophie is sent to the yard to find work there. Her time cleaning pots in the kitchen and then working in the sugar refinery are all described in depth and in a way that made it easy to imagine. Sophie makes a few attempts to contact the creature and return to her own time period, but as time passes on the plantation she gradually forgets her old life in the future.

Sherman introduces conflict into the plot - beyond the daily threat of beatings or worse that the slaves faced, despite the fact that Mrs. Fairchild was said to be a kind master who rarely beat her slaves - comes in the form of Mr. Beaufort Waters, a visitor at a nearby plantation who begins to court Miss Charlotte. Mr. Waters also begins to take what he chooses from the slaves at Oak River, giving Sophie's thigh a squeeze as she serves at dinner one night, causing her to drop her tray. It is soon revealed that Mr. Beau is also taking what he wants from Antigua, a slave whose family has taken in Sophie like one of their own. Antigua keeps her mouth shut, even when Sophie walks in on Mr. Beau as he is about to rape her. The danger that this puts both slaves into forces Antigua's family to plan a daring escape that will hopefully end with her freedom in the North. With her fair skin and Fairchild nose, Sophie finds herself taking a huge risk and posing as Miss Charlotte in an effort to keep the slave hunters off Antigua's trail.

Sherman brings her story full circle and allows Sophie, after she returns to 1960 to both confront her mother and stand up for herself as well as research the history of Oak River and the surrounding plantations in an effort to find out what became of Antigua. While I found the historical aspects of The Freedom Maze deeply satisfying to read, I felt like the fantasy elements of the story languished and could have been made better use of.  I loved that Sherman used brilliant fantasy writers like Nesbit and Eager as her way into the time travel, wish granting aspects of the story, but I felt like she abandoned this realm of magic for the magical practices and herbal medicine of the slaves. I appreciated how exhausting and grueling working as a slave was for a soft-handed girl like Sophie, but I would have like to see her use her smarts along with her knowledge of future history to have a more powerful role in her own story. I feel like The Freedom Maze would have been better served if it was written solely as a work of historical fiction, perhaps with Sophie learning that she was in fact descended from slaves, or if there was a stronger role for fantasy in the novel. I mention this only because The Freedom Maze is a good novel that is very much worth reading, but it is a good novel that could have been even better.

Source: Review Copy


My Pet Book by Bob Staake

I am a big fan of the work of Bob Staake and I hope you'll take time at the end of this review to explore his other books, many of which I have reviewed here. His newest picture book, My Pet BOOK, perfectly presents Staake's wacky sensibilities and his colorfully crowded world while expressing the joys of books and reading at the same time.

Set in Smartytown, we meet a boy who wants a pet that is easy to take care of and has the power to transport you to other worlds. Of course, this kind of pet can only be found at the Loyal Neighborhood Bookopolis (thanks for the shout-out to independent bookstores, too, Mr. Staake!)

Our hero has a hard time choosing just the right book - I mean pet - but he does find a "frisky red hardcover" that doesn't have fleas, never needs bathing and, best of all, doesn't poop.


The boy takes his book home and all is well for a while, until his beloved pet disappears. My Pet BOOK is told in verse and, as picture book prove time and time again (except for the extremely talented author and illustrator Chris Van Dusen) it is very difficult to sustain a rhyming story over the course of a meaty picture book. Staake takes a few wrong turns and a makes few awkward rhymes over the course of the story, but his premise and illustrations make these easy to over look - especially because you can spend so much time poring over the little details and gags tucked into every illustration. This may not be Staake's best book yet, but it is definitely the best book about a boy with a biblio-based pet I've ever read!

Books by Bob Staake with links to my reviews:

 Look! A Book!                                Look! Another Book!

Cars Galore                                Bugs Galore                            Toys Galore

More books by Bob Staake:

Preview image
I'm a Monster Truck

Source: A Bookstore!


I Am So Brave by Stephen Krensky, illustrated by Sara Gillingham

I Am So Brave! is the newest book from Stephen Krensky and Sara Gillingham and the fourth in their series of board books celebrating the milestones along from toddlerhood to preschooler. I Can Do It Myself! and Now I Am Big! and I Can Do It Myself!. Rather than teaching facts to toddlers like most board books, Krensky's books focus on the things the accomplishments they have already achieved.

In I Am So Brave!, Krensky hones in on the seemingly small, everyday happenings that can be monumental for little ones, from being scared of dogs, swimming, the dark, loud horns and good-byes. Each fear is expressed, then countered. Our narrator tells us he was sacred of the dark, then, "I saw the stars shine." My favorite illustration of all of Gillingham's wonderful artwork is the final spread where we see our narrator gleefully jumping into a ball pit declaring, "Now I am brave!"

Source: Review Copy

Montessori Map Work by Bobby and June George, illustrated by Alyssa Nassner

Montessori Map Work is the fourth and my favorite of the Montessori series of board books Abrams Appleseed began publishing in 2012. All of the books by Bobby and June George, founder of the Baan Dek Montessori School in Sioux Falls, North Dakota, are invaluable and Alyssa Nassner's crisp illustrations. As they note in their letter to parents that introduces each book in the series, the Motessori way of teaching focuses on the concrete before the abstract. Before introducing the continents and their names, we learn that the earth is round and made of land and water. Like the other books in the series, these books have textures and shapes to trace, also central teaching methods in Montessori. Best of all, and wisely, the Georges include illustrations of native animals with each country which is guaranteed to get and hold reader's attention. Best of all, the final page has a gatefold spread that shows the world with the animals in their native habitats. As with all the books in this series, the Georges evoke the elegant simplicity of the Montessori aesthetic in an appealing and accessible way.

Source: Review Copy


Thank You, Octopus by Darren Farrell

There are SO MANY things I love about Thank You, Octopus by Darren Farrell, but it's clear that the best place to start is with the octopus - a rare but very welcome character in a picture book and not seen with this level of earnest, smart humor since the dynamic duo of Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith brought us Cowboy and Octopus. Farrell's laugh-filled story is exactly the kind that little listeners love - a pattern is established, anticipation builds with every page turn and there is a spontaneous shout-it-out kind of audience participation that adds to the fun. Like Cowboy and OctopusThank You, Octopus is the kind of book that you will be asked to read over and over and, along with the listeners, never tire of.

In Thank You, OctopusFarrell's eight-armed cephalopod is a well-intentioned parental type (the New York Times review brilliantly referred to Octopus as an "eight-tentacled au pair") making his home on a cozy tug boat in New York Harbor with his young friend. Farrell's illustrations are filled with little details and foreshadowing that add to consecutive readings and his characters are the perfect combination of cartoonish and childish. The color palette Farrell employs is perfectly nautical and pleasantly muted with bursts of bright yellows and reds.

Octopus knows just what needs to be done, but doesn't always know how to do it. I don't want to give away every unexpected, Amelia-Bedelia-type-misinterpretation made by the well meaning Octopus because the surprise of the page turn is priceless, even after you've read Thank You, Octopus a handful of times. But . . .

. . . it's very hard not to share a couple of my favorites here. A cry of "Bedtime ahoy" from Octopus kicks of the nighttime ritual with a bath - in a tub filled with egg salad. Brushing teeth, being rocked to bed, clearing the monsters out from under the bed (and relocating them to the closet...) are also up for misunderstandings and laughs in Thank You, OctopusThe boy politely, but firmly declines each time until he just can't take it anymore and has a bit of an understandable tantrum.

But nothing comes between these two pals, as the very clever back of the dust jacket shows us!

While doing a little research to write this review, I discovered that I had read and loved Darren Farrell's picture book debut, Doug-Denis and the Flyaway Fib, while perusing the Queen Anne Book Company in Seattle in 2011. I'm not sure why I never reviewed Doug-Denis and the Flyaway Fib, but I'm going to give it another read and am very happy that Darren Farrell's return to the shelves of picture books is a strong one!

Source: A Bookstore!


The Midnight Library by Kazuno Kohara

I was instantly drawn to the illustrations of Kazuno Kohara when I was working as a bookseller and discovered the paperback edition of Ghosts in the House! back in 2010. Ghosts in the House! is the rare Halloween-themed picture book - one that captures the spirit of the holiday while also offering just the right amount of spooky for little listeners. Kohara's book was a joy to read at story time that year and made it onto my list of Halloween books worth buying, which you can read here.

Kohara's linocut illustrations offer bold, black, textured prints accentuated with one or two colors and ver very visually appealing, as are her characters, who have a childlike resourcefulness that shines through in every book. In Ghosts in the House!, a little witch and her cat solve the problem of a haunted house by washing the ghosts and hanging them out to dry like sheets, then turning them into all sorts of domestic delights, from tablecloths to quilts. In Here Comes Jack Frost, a mopey little boy discovers the joys of winter when he finds a new friend. 

Kohara has a way of perfectly pairing her illustrations and story and it is exciting to see her work her magic in her third picture book and her first non-holiday themed work.

Being a book lover and a newly minted elementary school librarian, The Midnight Library is an absolute joy to read, over and over. But, you don't have to be a book lover to enjoy The Midnight Library. Kohara fills the library with wonderful animal characters, each with different quirks, tastes and habits when it comes to books...

The Midnight Library begins with the librarian and her three owl assistants preparing to open the doors to the Midnight Library. As the patrons come rolling in, the little librarian and her assistants help each and every one find just the right book.

However, not all visitors to the Midnight Library seem to understand the way a library works . . . There are musical squirrels who disrupt the quiet and a wolf who weeps uncontrollably over the sad part of her book. Finally, there is a slow-reading tortoise who refuses to leave the library until he finishes reading his 500 page book.

Flustered at first, the little librarian and her assistants find the perfect solution to this (and every) dilemma! The Midnight Library ends on the perfect note with the librarian and owls retiring (up a circular staircase) to their cozy home where they prepare for bed (as the sun rises) by reading a book of bedtime stories!

Once again, Kazuno Kohara delivers a beautifully illustrated sweet story that has the feel of a classic. The Midnight Library is sure to have a place on the shelves for years to come!

Source: A Bookstore!