Sam & Dave Dig a Hole by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Jon Klassen

Mac Barnett Jon Klassen are the brilliant team that brought us Extra Yarn, winner of the Caldecott Honor Medal. With Sam & Dave Dig a Hole, Barnett and Klassen have created yet another book that readers (and little listeners) will instantly bond with. Seemingly simple, this book will satisfy adults and kids and is sure to get repeated readings wherever it lands, in part because of the wry humor of the story and illustrations as they play against each other, but also for the simple fact that KIDS LOVE TO DIG HOLES.

Sam & Dave Dig a Hole begins, "On Monday, Sam and Dave dug a hole." Dave tells Sam that they are on a mission and they will not stop digging until they find "something spectacular." The boys dig and dig, always just missing that "something spectacular" that the readers are treated to in illustrations that are cross-sections of the earth. Over and over, no matter which way they decide to dig (and they do some pretty creative digging) they come up empty while the gemstones they are just missing get bigger and bigger. Sam and Dave stop from time to time for chocolate milk and animal crackers, while their dog, along for the ride, seems to sense something. Exhausted, the boys fall asleep in their hole. Their dog, however is onto something spectacular, to him anyway. Sam & Dave Dig a Hole has a surprise ending that will have you returning to the first page of the book, pleasantly perplexed.

Be sure to take a moment to watch the excellent book trailer for Sam & Dave Dig a Hole and enjoy the Burl Ives soundtrack!

And, don't miss Jon's visit to Tales on Moon Lane, an award-winning independent bookstore in London that invited him to fill a display window with dirt . . .

Source: Review Copy


Rex Wrecks It! by Ben Clanton

I almost didn't review Rex Wrecks It! by Ben Clanton. I reviewed Tyrannosaurus Wrecks by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen, illustrated by Zachary Ohara in April of this year and the world play of "wrecks" and "rex" feels a little done. But . . . well . . . Clanton draws a mean monster, an adorable uni-rabbit and an endearing little robot. And then there are the building blocks. Clanton does amazing things with building blocks in Rex Wrecks It!. 

With the title and jacket art, you know what you are going to get with Rex Wrecks It!, and getting there is a lot of fun. Clanton's illustrations are especially engaging, but his story has some nice wordiness as well. Gizmo, Sprinkles and Wild are the victims of Rex and stand-ins for toddlers. Gizmo builds a rocket out of blocks. Sprinkles makes a magical heart using only red blocks and Wild builds a "Wooden Wonder of Wowdom."

The trio of friends decides to work together to stop Rex. Building something bigger and stronger - -a supercool fortress - doesn't work. 

Then Gizmo gets the great idea to include Rex in the building process and things seem to be going well. When the masterpiece is finished, it looks amazing and everyone is happy, "Even Rex. Mostly." Even though Rex is a simply drawn character, Clanton achieves an almost aching sense of building unease in the eyes of Rex as he and the gang admire what they have built. I won't give it away here, but what they build is really neat. The climax of Rex Wrecks It! is both satisfying and sweet and reminds me of why there IS room for another Rex/Wrecks book on the shelves. I was also reminded of why there will always be room for books like Rex Wrecks It! on the shelves while at my son's 10th birthday party on the beach last weekend as I watched the boys kick down the sandcastles made by the other kids (oh, alright, made by the girls) at the end of the party. There's a little bit of Rex in all of us . . .

Source: Review Copy


Mr. Ferris and His Wheel by Kathryn Gibbs Davis, illustrated by Gilbert Ford

Mr. Ferris and His Wheel by Kathryn Gibbs Davis and illustrated by Gilbert Ford is a revelation! I had no idea that this structure that I always thought of as a slightly sketchy carnival ride had such an interesting inception and remarkable beginning.

When, with only ten months to go before the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, a contest is announced inviting Americans to outdo the star of the 1899 World's Fair, the Eiffel Tower. George Washington Gale Ferris Jr., an "ambitious young mechanical engineer" who has already designed some of the country's biggest bridges, tunnels and roads, is inspired. Where all the other entries seem to be shooting for a bigger, better version of the Eiffel Tower, Ferris has an amazing idea - an idea for a structure that will be "both stronger and lighter" than the Eiffel Tower. Based in Pittsburgh, Ferris wants to build his marvel out of steel.

Ford's illustrations, done mostly in twilight blues and purples, are full of motion and details, perfectly evocative of the era. Davis's writing is engaging, and she uses sidebars to share additional facts outside of the narrative that give context to the time period and the challenges Ferris faced. Like the fact that, while the judges, after much dilly-dallying and in desperation, finally name Ferris the winner of the contest, the refuse to give him any money to fund his project. 

What surprised me most of all as I read Mr. Ferris and His Wheel was the wheel itself that he built for the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago - it looked more like the London Eye than the two-seater, swinging bucket type Ferris Wheels that are so common today. Ferris's first wheel had living room sized passenger cars that held forty red velvet chairs for passengers. Another amazing fact, Ferris's wheel had 3,000 electric lightbulbs that lit it up at night. This was at a time when most homes were still lit by kerosene lamps and candles. And, by the end of the nineteen week long fair, Ferris's wheel had revolved more than 10,000 times and carried more than 1.5 million passengers!

Source: Review Copy


Ivan: The Remarkable Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla by Katherine Applegate, illustrated by G. Brian Karas

Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla by Katherine ApplegateG. Brian Karas is an invaluable addition to the shelves and ideal companion to Applegate's 2013 Newbery Gold Medal winner, The One and Only Ivan. Written in free verse, The One and Only Ivan is one of a handful of Newbery winners that can be read and understood by younger readers, which is especially nice. Now, with the picture book companion, even younger readers (and listeners) can learn the story of this amazing creature and, hopefully, be inspired to read The One and Only Ivan one day.

What Applegate, with her carefully chosen words and Karas, with his earth-toned illustrations with occasional bursts of red (Ivan's favorite color, as we learn in a note from his main keeper at the Zoo Atlanta) do in this book is present an act of human brutality, followed by inhumane treatment that went on for decades in a way that young audiences can begin to grasp. While I was in tears reading The One and Only Ivan, then again as I read Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla, I have to remind myself that children aren't affected in the same way by sad stories. What they take away from Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla will be forward-looking and hopefully proactive. 

Applegate's retelling of Ivan's life takes the reader up to his integration into a troop of gorillas at Zoo Atlanta. "In leafy calm, in gentle arms, a gorilla's life began again," are the final words in Ivan: The Remarkable True Story of the Shopping Mall Gorilla, accompanied by a photograph of Ivan, which is the perfect ending to this book, leaving the details of his death at age fifty-two (old for a gorilla in captivity) for the author's notes. Two pages of Applegate's notes, along with more photographs, provide more detailed information about Ivan, his twenty-seven years alone in a cage in the mall and the eighteen years he lived at Zoo Atlanta, followed by Jodi Carrigan's remembrances, which are especially moving.

For a rare glimpse into the mind of an illustrator, be sure to visit G. Brian Karas's http://gbriank.wordpress.com/"target="_blank">blog where he talks about the process of deciding how to illustrate Ivan's story - and under a tight deadline. Karas notes that, where Applegate told Ivan's story in his own words in 
The One and Only Ivan, Karas's job with this book was to tell the story through Ivan's eyes.

Source: Review Copy


Egg & Spoon by Gregory Maguire, 479 pp, RL 5

Many of you probably know Gregory Maguire as the author of Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. I discovered it a year or so after it was published in 1995 in the bargain section of the bookstore where I worked and remember how thrilling it was to read back then. Long a fan of fairy tales, I was amazed to learn that a meal could be made of a behind the scenes, adult visit to these stories and worlds. Since then, many authors have tried their hands at this new genre and Maguire has made a career of it. He set Snow White in Renaissance Italy with the Borgias as characters in Mirror, Mirror, took a sideways look at Cinderella in Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister and added a new character to Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Match Girl" in Matchless. Maguire started his career writing children's books and, post the phenomenal success of Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West and the three other books in this series, he has written a few more books for children, drawing on fairy tales (mixing them up, really) and mythical creatures like the Tooth Fairy. Now, with Egg & Spoon, Maguire has a new book for children (and adults) that draws on the rich and  enchanting fairy tales of Russia. Egg & Spoon has been called a Scheherezade-ian, which is apt, as it reads like a Russian version of Adam Gidwitz's spectacular A Tale Dark and Grimm trilogy in which Hansel and Gretel travel though a meticulously stitched-together quilt of Grimm's fairy tales. With Egg & Spoon, Maguire's story travels by rail, tornado and on chicken foot over the vast Russian landscape, threading characters and events from Russian fairy tales into the plot and creating a world and story that will linger in your memory long after closing the book.

Egg & Spoon begins with the narrator, who we eventually learn is an imprisoned monk, once an advisor to the tsar who was  researching this question: Would the Firebird, "flying across Russia in the strength of the noonday sun" cast a shadow?" It may seen arcane and possibly insane, but that adds both to the fairy-tale and Russian-nes of the story. Set in a Russia that is beset by floods and waiting for snow that never comes, the narrator tells the story of Elena, an impoverished thirteen-year-old living in the wasted village of Miersk, which has suffered devastating losses of fairy-tale proportions. Elena is almost helpless, watching her ailing mother slip closer to death, her older brothers having been conscripted into the tsar's army and moved to Moscow for work, respectively. Her fate changes when a lightning strike takes out a trestle bridge and the train carrying Ekaterina, who goes by Cat, a privileged thirteen-year-old who has left her boarding school in London to travel with her great-aunt to St. Petersberg for a grand party celebrating the godson of the tsar, Prince Anton. While the bridge is being rebuilt, the two begin a wary friendship over a book of fairy tales, Cat standing in the doorway of her train car, Elena on the platform. However, when Cat shows Elena the Fabergé egg that has been commissioned especially as a gift for Prince Anton (a musical, egg-shaped diorama of characters from Russian fairy tales) at the very moment that the train begins moving again, an amazing thing occurs.

Cat goes tumbling backwards off the train and into the wooded countryside and Elena, in an effort to save her and the priceless egg, lunges after her, leaving her on the train and, for a time, mistaken for Cat. What happens to Cat and Elena over the course of the novel, how the travel alone and eventually together and who they end up traveling with, is amazing and marvelous. Baba Yaga, the wicked witch from Russian folktales who lives in a house that stands on enormous chicken legs and eats children, is a wonderful, often curious character, along with her talking cat Mewster, in Egg & Spoon. She serves as a sort of comic relief, taking the reader out of the story at times with her references to contemporary things like playing bingo in Brooklyn and cat's eyes glasses and only occasionally takes the familiar role of guiding adult in the story. The Firebird makes a dazzling appearance in the story and the egg that the bird leaves behind becomes a companion to the bejeweled egg. There is also an Ice Dragon that cannot sleep because of the constant, loud wants of the human race. This anxiety drives him to chew on the icebergs that surround him, causing the flooding that is dampening Russia. There are giant matryoshka nesting dolls, another gift for Prince Anton, that are seen near the end of the novel floating down the river, soldiers, who were once the teeth of the Ice Dragon, happily traveling inside them.

Leigh Bardugo, author of the Grisha Trilogy (my reviews here), brilliant YA fantasy novels set in an imagined, tsarist Russia that also incorporate mythical characters from Russian folklore, appropriately reviewed Egg & Spoon in the New York Times Book Review. I have to be honest and admit that, while I really did enjoy this book, I struggled with Egg & Spoon because, while Maguire uses traditional folktales and mythology, the pace of his story and the path of the main characters is less traditional. As Bardugo says of the book, "Though the story bears some marks of a heroic quest, it is really a series of dreamy, expertly painted vignettes, set pieces both absurd and spectacular."
Cat and Elena don't behave in ways that we have come to expect from strong, smart heroines in fantasy novels. There is no central, dark evil force working against the heroines other than the poverty and privilege, along with the harsh country, that they have been born into. I am curious to see what kind of reader picks up Egg & Spoon and whether she or he sticks with it. I think it would make a perfect bedtime read aloud, slowly unfolding over many, many nights. As a side note, whether I actually get to read at work or not, I always have the book that I am currently reading with me when I am at work in the school library so that my students might see me reading and know that I am a reader, too. The eye-catching cover of Egg & Spoon lead me to tell a group of third graders a bit about the story, Baba Yaga and the Firebird. Intrigued, one little girl borrowed my copy and is making her way through it. To help give her context, I brought in a few books my my collection of fairy tales, several of which are illustrated by Gennady Spirin. For more, see below.

Gregory Maguire's other fairy tale retellings for children:

If you are interested in Russian Fairy Tales, don't miss the picture books illustrated by Gennady Spirin.

For a great version of one of the many Baba Yaga (and Vasilisa) stories, don't miss Marianna Mayer and K.Y. Craft's picture book:

Source: Review Copy


Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer, 272 pp, RL: YA

Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer is just flat out brilliant, both for the subject matter and how the author chooses to tell the story.  And in this, Belzhar is ideally pitched to its audience, in tone and content. Even the cover image is perfect! Wolitzer is an award winning writer of books for adults, most recently The Interestings, as well as The Ten Year Nap, which I read and enjoyed immensely. Wolitzer is also the author of a middle grade novel, The Fingertips of Duncan Dorfman (review to come). I was immediately intrigued as I read Amber Dermont's review of Belzhar in the New York Times, having been a devotee of Sylvia Plath myself during my teenage years and into college. But I'm getting ahead of myself. 

We first meet narrator Jam (short for Jamaica, she was named after the place where she was conceived) Gallahue as she is being driven to the Wooden Barn, a private school for "emotionally fragile, highly intelligent" teens that eschews medication over education and strict rules prohibiting television and the internet. Jam is headed there, at the advice of her therapist, because, after the loss of her first love, British exchange student, Reeve Maxfield, she took to her bed, recalling the forty-one days she had with him over and over. Jam has been chosen for the Special Topics in English taught by Mrs. Quenell. The class, and the students in it, have a long-running reputation for creating a secretive, tight-knit group of students who sometimes exhibit curious behaviors like making up their own language. Mrs. Quenell tells her five students that they will be studying the poetry of Sylvia Plath in this, her last semester before retirement. Mrs. Quenell also gives each student a red leather journal, telling them to write in it at least twice a week and turn it in at the end of the term. She also tells them, somewhat ominously, to watch out for each other.

After writing in their journals for the first time, the class realizes that the journals transport them to the time just before their lives were permanently altered by the traumas that brought them to the Wooden Barn, allowing them to live, as long as they are writing, in the moment of normalcy and happiness before everything changed. When the experience ends, they return to reality to find they have written exactly five pages in their journals that they have no memory of actually writing. Soon, the five are meeting in a darkened classroom after curfew to talk about the journals and what happens when they write in them. They also, one by one, grudgingly and painfully, share the worst thing that has ever happened to them and where they go when they write in their journals. The traumas that Wolitzer creates for her five characters and how she reveals them over the course of the story are astute, insightful and ultimately believable - and, in some instances, breathtakingly sad.

Jam suggests that they call this place that they go when they write, "Belzhar," a sort of Europeanized way of saying, "bell jar," a nod to Plath's semi-autobiographical novel, although, while there is a very nice little moment of connection near the end of the novel, there really is very little of Plath and her work in Belzhar. The story belongs to the well-crafted characters and the way that Wolitzer balances the intense draw of the worlds these five have lost and the new world that they are taking steps toward as they heal and form tenuous friendships with each other. Without being overly dramatic or sensational, Wolitzer's novel presents her teenaged characters in heightened emotional states and with an integrity that will resonate with teen readers. She also, with gentleness and kindness, writes about unrequited love and the bewildering things that we will do while suffering through it.

I often find myself thinking about what the lines that differentiate YA and adult novels and the overlap that sometimes occurs. With Belzhar, I feel like Wolitzer has written a novel that is quintessentially YA. Narrator Jam reads like a true teen and her emotions and desires, and flaws, are those of a true teen. It never seems as though bits of adult wisdom and hindsight slip into her thoughts, actions and words, as sometimes happens with YA novels. Add to this Sylvia Plath, referred to by Dorfman in her review as the "poet laureate of teenage angst," and her infamous bell jar, and moments of profound self-discovery and you have a book that, for me, shows how the novel can truly be an art form.

Source: Purchased Audio Book

Construction by Sally Sutton, illustrated by Brian Lovelock

Sally Sutton and Brian Lovelock are the creators of fantastic books about all the things that gigantic, hardworking vehicles specialize in. The illustrations provide all the details little listeners love and the texts are packed with onomatopoetic words that make these books fun to read and especially entertaining. Their newest book, CONSTRUCTION, begins, Dig the ground. Dig the ground. Bore down in the mud. Shove the piles in one by one. Slip! Slap! THUD!" In CONSTRUCTION we witness a building being built from the ground up. The reader gets glimpses here and there, but it isn't until the penultimate page of the book that we learn what the workers have been building - a library! The final page of CONSTRUCTION, as in the final pages of DEMOLITION and ROADWORK, shares Machine Facts for readers who need all the details!

I could only find the one interior illustration from CONSTRUCTION, so here are some from DEMOLITION (and a link to my review) and ROADWORK, both of which are available as board books!

Source: Review Copy


I'm Brave! by Kate & Jim McMullan

I'm Brave is Kate & Jim McMullan's fifth book about things that go. When I was a book seller, these were my "go to" books for toddlers into all things that go. The McMullan's happen to be among the rare creators of picture books featuring garbage trucks. Considering the fervor with which many toddlers adore garbage trucks, I am always surprised by how few picture books about them are on the shelves. I guess it's not easy to come up with a good story about these vehicles, though. This is what makes the McMullan's books so brilliant! Told in the first person, these things that go tell little listeners all about themselves. Illustrations, and text, are packed with the kind of details that toddlers soak up like sponges.

Using all the appropriate lingo, the firetruck narrates a 911 call from start to finish. As with all the books in this series, the humans are absent, which works for me. It leaves streamlines the story and illustrations and allows the focus to stay on the vehicle/narrator. This story moves fast, like a fire engine should, as he heads toward the Pine Street Warehouse. Once the fire is out and the fire truck has returned to the firehouse, it gets cleaned up and put to bed, just like little listeners. . .

More books in this series!


And dinosaur books!

 Source: Review Copy


Frances Dean Who Loved to Dance and Dance by Birgitta Sif

In her debut picture book, OliverBirgitta Sif explored the experience of an introvert with sensitivity and creativity that resulted in a memorable and worthwhile book. With Frances Dean Who Loved to Dance Sif visits similar, well worn terrain with the same fresh perspective that makes for another memorable picture book.

Frances Dean loves to dance, but only when she is all alone. When people are around she can "feel their eyes on her" and she forgets how to dance. One day, she discovers a little girl sitting on a park bench and singing the most beautiful song to herself. That night, she can't stop thinking about that little girl and "how she shared her beautiful song." The next morning, Frances Dean "felt the wind and heard the singing of the birds" and something shifted inside her. 

Frances Dean starts her dance alone, but soon she is dancing for the birds, then the neighbor's dog and even an old lady in the park! Happily, she dances past the little girl with the beautiful song. She taps Frances Dean on the shoulder and asks, "Can you show me how to dance, too?"  Frances Dean Who Loved to Dance is illustrated in the same, somewhat somber, muddy palette as Oliver that sets the tone for the story and with bursts of warm pinks and yellows add a hopeful, happy tone. Sif shares the same level of detail and parallel story telling in words and pictures as she did in Oliver as well, which is especially nice.

Source: Review Copy