The Glass Sentence AND The Golden Specific by S. E. Grove, 528 pp, RL 5

The Glass Sentence by S. E. Grove is an ambitious, original novel that draws comparisons to the standard bearer of high fantasy for children's literature, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy which begins with The Golden Compass. In fact, Megan Whalen Turner, author of the superb quartet which starts with The Thief says that not since  The Golden Compass has she seen such "an original and compelling world built inside a book." And, while the compliments and comparisons are warranted, I share the "quivery receptivity" and tentative enthusiasm that Gregory Maguire expressed for this book in his review of The Glass Sentence in the New York Times on June 13, 2014. Grove brings many truly amazing concepts and creations to the table, but sometimes what she does and where she goes with them don't quite do reckon with or live up to the promising world she builds and the potentially compelling plot she sets in motion. Regardless, I am hooked. I can't get this world and these characters out of my head and eagerly await the third and final book in this trilogy.

Grove, who says she is an "historian and dedicated traveler," was raised in the United States and Central America, her parents being from both places. One of the most exciting things about The Glass Sentence is that it is set in America and South America, where most high fantasy is set in England and Europe. The Glass Sentence begins with a prologue, a first person account of the "Great Disruption" that occurred some 90 years earlier on July 16, 1799. Writing to her grandson, Shadrack, Bostonian Elizabeth Elli describes  the moment of the break in time that left her suspended over the river her young self was about to jump into. In that moment of suspension, she saw the natural world around her pass through a full year of seasons. Only later did she, and the rest of Boston and eventually the world, discover what happened. The Great Disruption, as Maguire aptly and precisely says, "shattered the normal progress of time and arrangement of nations and eras." The North Atlantic region, now called "New Occident," seems to be on the proper timeline, although Florida is called "Seminole" and the states west of Georgia are "New Akan." The rest of the country, now reverted to unsettled territory, is known as the Badlands or Indian Territory. And New Occident runs on a twenty hour day. 

When the novel begins, we get a rich glimpse of the new political system that has evolved since the world has been tipped into chaos. Young Sophia Tims sits in the sweltering heat of the Boston State House where "the eighty-eight men and two women rich enough to procure their positions" make up the parliament, which is voting to decide on the closing of the borders of New Occident. In 1832, seeking a less corrupt and violent government, it was decided that both seats in the parliament and the opportunity to speak before the parliament would become occasions that must be bought. Thanks to a benefactor, Sophia's uncle, Shadrack Elli, has paid for four minutes and thirteen seconds during which he speaks for keeping the borders open. Elli is the country's greatest cartologer and cartology, (mapmaking is no longer two dimensional) after the Great Disruption, is now a bit like Lyra's reading of the Golden Compass. It involves memories and emotions that are woven into the map itself, and maps can be made of any kind of materials. Truly reading a map is now a bit like having an out-of-body experience and seeing the world through another's eyes. Sophia is learning these skills from her uncle, who understandably does not want communications cut off from this strange new world. Also, both Shadrack and Sophia want the borders open when her parents, who disappeared eight years earlier while on an expedition to help a fellow explorer, might return.

Shortly after the vote to close the borders, Shadrack is kidnapped, his study and map collection ransacked. Sophia finds a hidden map meant for her and, joining forces with Theo, a Badlands boy who ran away from a traveling circus, the two try to make their way to the one person who can help them find Shadrack. By train, boat and wagon, the two travel to the Port of Veracruz then on to Nochtland. A lively band of pirates, captained by Calixta, who I really wanted to see more of, aid the children. A kindly trader named Mazapán who once made his living making marzipan creations for the royals, where everything on the table, from the cloth to the plates to the floral decorations, was made of sugar, also helps Sophia when Theo disappears. There is also the Lachrima, which is a creature sort of like a Dementor, that leaves you unbearably sad and weepy, a creation I am not doing justice to. There are also the Nihilismians, a group that believes that, post the Great Disruption, the world around is a false one. A scholarly group, also prone to evil (the Sandman faction of the group  wear grappling hooks on their belts and submerge people in giant hourglasses), they have archives where they collect accounts from all over the world of time slips. Employed by a veiled woman named Blanca, the Nihilismians are the bad guys in this book, but it was never really clear to me why or for what reason they were so. Sorry for the list-like nature of this paragraph, but there is just so much in The Glass Sentence worth mentioning.

Grove clearly loves spending time in the world that she created, and her characters love to tell stories about their lives and the lives of their loved ones in this world. At a certain point, I felt like almost half of The Glass Sentence was made of characters retelling events in the past. I suppose that this makes sense in a world where time has been fractured and humanity has been altered (some humans bear the "Mark of the Vine," which means they are, in some way, part plant, where others have the "Mark of Iron," and so on) but it also makes for minimal movement among the characters. While I definitely appreciate a work of fantasy that does not rely on constant action to move a story forward, the slow pace of The Glass Sentence does not always deliver the gifts of pacing that I would hope, such as character development. This also makes the world that Grove created feel a bit limitless and without parameters which, in a Dr, Who kind of way, means she can continually introduce new characters, creatures and events to the world. Grove brings The Glass Sentence to an exciting and (knowing this is a trilogy) satisfying end, but it also left me wanting to know more.

Which is why I downloaded the audiobook for The Golden Specific the minute it was released!

The Golden Specific feels like a much stronger, coherent, specific book by Grove, and the continuing story of Sophia and Theo is richer for it. Book 2 finds Sophia and Theo on different continents, both seeking answers. Sophia is still trying to find the whereabouts of her parents. A ghostly presence leads her to a Nihilismian Archive where she is helped by a strangely (for Nihilismians) kind girl. Sophia decides to head to a foreign Age in the Papal States where her parents were last seen and where her mother's diary is being held in a Nihilismian Archive, taking mysterious cargo across the seas with her. She lands in a city devastated by the Plague, a disease with its own strange traits specific to this Age, along with a woman who bears the Mark of the Plant named Goldenrod. She can see the future and produce flowers from her palms. They team up with a Robin Hood-type hunter named Errol who lost his brother to the Plague and is still haunted by his ghost. With the help of a strange map, Sophia tries to find her way to the elusive Ausentinia, a land where you can find anything you have lost. In Sophia's story, readers learn more about the quest that her parents were on and the events that hindered them.

Meanwhile, Theo is stuck in Boston, trying to save Shadrack and his best friend Miles from charges that they murdered the Prime Minister, Cyrill Bligh, who is found stabbed in Elli's study. Theo finds two unlikely friends as he attempts to unravel this political crime. First, Theo hires Winnie, an urchin who hangs out at the State House, to deliver him information. A curious, charismatic MP named Broadgirdle has stepped in to fill the vacancy left after the murder and steer the nation towards exploration, by way of war, of the west. Theo disguises himself and gets a job working for Broadgirdle while at the same time befriending the (seemingly) simpering, spoiled Nettie Grey, daughter of the great detective, Roscoe Grey. Nettie, it turns out, uses her spoiled girl persona as a front, allowing her to sneak around town and dig up clues to for her father's cases. Then, having Grey wrapped around her little finger, she feeds him the clues, making him look like Sherlock Holmes. Together, Nettie and Theo dig up clues, which lead to a deeper mystery involving the Eerie, a spiritual, magical people from the west who number among them Weatherers, people who can reverse the effects of the Great Disruption that cause people to turn into Lachrima, or the Wailing. The two plot paths of Sophia and Theo cross in an amazing way by the end of The Golden Specific in a very fantastic way that, while still wishing that aspects of The Glass Sentence could be more unified and streamlined, makes me all the more anxious for the conclusion of this trilogy.

Source: Review Copy - The Glass Sentence 
Source: Purchased Audio books, The Glass Sentence 
and  The Golden Specific  


Felix Stands Tall by Rosemary Wells

Rosemary Wells is one of a handful of picture book author/illustrators, along with the magnificent Kevin Henkes, that I discovered more than twenty years ago when my first child was born. Wells and Henkes, both of whom are also gifted  writers of chapter books for older readers, have this remarkable insight into children and the emotional ups and downs of being a little kid. Their picture books combine empathy, compassion and intelligent humor (as well as great vocabulary) with meaningful stories that never get old. Happily, two decades later, both Wells and Henkes continue to create wonderful picture books that I am always excited to read, even if my daughter can't sit in my lap to listen anymore...

With Felix Stands Tall, Wells revisits Felix the guinea pig. When Fiona asks if she can be Felix's best friend and he agrees,  she tells him it's settled - the will be in the talent show at the Guinea Pig Jubilee and they will win first prize! She goes on to tell Felix that they will sing, "There's a Pixie in My Garden." When Felix asks if they have to, she assures him that best friends do everything together. Feeling reassured, Felix has his mother make him a boy pixie costume to go with Fiona's girl pixie costume (hand drawn patterns for the costumes make charming front pieces) and he learns the song and dance. And they do win!

Sadly, this is where things start to get bad for Felix. Minkie, Bucky and Dimples begin to tease Felix , at first just with words, but eventually with pranks like putting a Slime Creeper down his shirt and a chirping plastic cricket in his egg-salad sandwich. At lunch, Fiona notices something is up and tells Felix he is a "hot mess." While this may seem out of place for the tone Wells creates in Felix Stands Tall, it is delivered with such matter-of-factness from Fiona that it is downright hilarious. Wells has a distinct gift for comedic delivery in her characters - Ruby, the long suffering big sister to Max, comes to mind - and it comes through in the bold Fiona. Fiona shares the secret to her bravery with Felix (in a very sweet way that I could see kids trying out themselves) and it works for him! He even has the courage to  counter Fiona's suggestion that they wear twin cupcake costumes for Halloween with an idea of his own - fire breathing dragons, the pattern for which appears on the endpapers!

Yet another hit out of the park for Rosemary Wells! You can read my reviews of other books by Wells - picture and chapter - here.

More Felix books!

And just a few of my favorite 
Rosemary Wells picture books:

Source: Review Copy


Animal Planet Animals: A Visual Encyclopedia, 304 pp, RL 3

My older son, now eighteen, grew up with DK books and videos about everything from trees and volcanoes to planets, the human body and death. As a bookseller who got to see the whole range of encyclopedic books being published for kids, nothing every came close to the crisp visual style of DK and the engaging way text is presented on the page. The best part of DK books for children is that they are the perfect segue to the DK books for adults, which provide a more in depth examination of subjects. With this prejudice, it takes a lot for me to look at, let alone recommend, an encyclopedia by any other publisher. However, Animal Planet, in partnership with Time Inc. Books, has put together Animal Planet Animals: A Visual Encyclopedia, a visually attractive, fact filled book that is worth the price and sure to make kids smile - and read.

At 304 pages, Animal Planet Animals: A Visual Encyclopedia is packed with information on over 2,500 animals and over 1,000 color photographs. Animal Planet Animals: A Visual Encyclopedia is divided into eight chapters with detailed profiles of the seven animal classes, which are also color coded. One feature that I find especially interesting is the green "Surprisingly Human" content box that appears from time to time, sharing facts about animals that our species shares, like the fact that female vampire bats are nice to each other, sharing food with friends who did not feed sufficiently. Another feature, the R.O.A.R. (Reach Out And Act) box, highlights Animal Planet's partnerships with "leading animal and wildlife organizations to help make the world a better place for animals" and ways that people are helping animals in our communities and in the wild.

Great photos aside, there are definitely enough features in Animal Planet Animals: A Visual Encyclopedia to make it a worthwhile investment. And, as a parent, former bookseller and school librarian, I can tell you that almost all kids are happy to sit down with a book like this and pore over the pages.

Source: Review Copy


The Princess in Black and the Perfect Princess Party by Shannon Hale & Dean Hale, illustrated by LeUyen Pham, 89 pp, RL 2

Last year I reviewed and loved Princess in Black by Shannon and Dean Hale and superbly illustrated by LeUeyn Pham and I am so excited to be reviewing the second book in the series a year later, The Princess in Black and the Perfect Princess PartyThe way I see it, with Princess Magnolia, the Hales and Pham have created a character and series that hits all my literary sweet spots: a high interest chapter book that is a perfect bridge between leveled readers and chapter books, a character who is all things - a princess with her own unicorn and a secret double life fighting monsters. Magnolia can go from wearing a pouffy pink gown and tiara while having tea with the Duchess Wigtower to a black booted, masked and caped crusader with a scepter that turns into a staff for battle and Pham brings her to life with vivid, action filled panache. Best of all, the Princess in Black books are sweet and playful and not the least bit saccharine. 

In The Princess in Black and the Perfect Princess Party, Magnolia is preparing for her birthday party and the eleven princesses (and their steeds) who will be attending the party. Just as they begin to arrive, Magnolia's "glitter-stone ring rang." Monsters are leaving Monster Land, Duff the goat boy's flock is in danger and the Princess in Black needs to perform her signature moves, like the Tiara Trip and the Tentacle Tangle, on them to make everything right with the world again.
Just when Magnolia thinks she can get back to her guests, the party games, the cake and the presents, her glitter-stone ring goes off again. And again. Magnolia juggles her responsibilities admirably. Until she doesn't. My favorite part of The Princess in Black and the Perfect Princess Party are the princesses themselves. Pham's illustrations of Princess Sneezewort, Princess Zinnia, Princess Honeysuckle, Princess Hyacinth, Princess Apple Blossom, Princess Bluebell, Princess Euphoria, Princess Tulip, Princess Crocus, Princess Snapdragon, and Princess Jasmine bring to mind an updated rendering of the singing dolls from the It's a Small World ride at Disneyland, in the best way possible, without the singing. I couldn't stop poring over the pages, taking in all the details. Now, I need to get this books onto the shelves of my library because students have been asking for it for weeks!
Coming February 2016!!!

Source: Review Copy


I Am Henry Finch by Alexis Deacon, illustrated by Viviane Schwarz

I AM HENRY FINCH is the latest picture book from Alexis Deacon Viviane Schwarz, a duo known for creating thoughtful, slightly off-kilter, deep but silly picture books. And thinking about all three of these books in conjunction, A Place to Call HomeCheese Belongs to You and now I AM HENRY FINCH are all, in some ways, about communal living, or participating in a community, which is an uncommon for picture books.

 Henry Finch lived in a great flock of finches that "made such a racket all day long, they really could not hear themselves think." Unfortunately for the finches, sometimes, like when the Beast comes, they need to be able to think, to focus and to act. But this is the way it always was.

Until one night when Henry Finch wakes up in teh quiet of the night. He has a though AND he actually hears it! This is the thought that he has: I AM HENRY FINCH. I THINK. AM I THE FIRST FINCH EVER TO HAVE A THOUGHT?In the silence, Henry hears his thoughts and thinks more thoughts, one of which is, I COULD BE GREAT.

Henry's thoughts lead him to a dark place, literally. When the Beast arrives Henry zooms in for the attack and ends up inside the belly of the Beast where he has more thoughts, many of them dark, which lead to some truly amazing illustrations. Inside the Beast, Henry realizes he can hear the thoughts of the Beast that lead him to empathy and a new thought. Henry Finch returns to the flock and, a transformed finch, he transforms the other finches. I AM HENRY FINCH got me thinking a lot as I read it and, writing about it here, I realize how much more there is to it and how much can be taken away from it. I AM HENRY FINCH is a truly amazing book, even more so because it is a really fun book to read and have read to you.

I have read I AM HENRY FINCH out loud several times now to varying grade levels. I am the librarian at a school where more than 75% of the population is socioeconomically disadvantaged and also English language learners. In many ways, the lives of my students are loud, noisy, and chaotic like the lives of the finches in the flock. At any time the Beast can strike their flock, in the form of job loss, illness, legal issues, mental illness and more. At school, my students are loud and chaotic when in a group and difficult to quiet down - especially on Mondays and after vacations when they have been outside of the disciplined school environment. All of them listened to I AM HENRY FINCH attentively. I hope that they all took away from it what Henry takes from his adventure.

Also by Deacon & Schwarz:

Source: Review Copy


The Stratford Zoo Midnight Review Presents: Macbeth AND The Stratford Zoo Midnight Review Presents: Romeo and Juliet written by Ian Lendler, art by Zack Giallongo, colors by Alisa Harris

The Stratford Zoo Midnight Review series by Ian Lendler and Zack Giallongo is going to do for Shakespeare what George O'Connor has done for Greek mythology with his Olympians series. Last year they debuted, The Stratford Zoo Midnight Review Presents: Macbeth, and now, as promised by the peacock at the end of Macbeth, The Stratford Zoo Midnight Review: Romeo and Juliet has arrived!

The Stratford Zoo Midnight Review Presents: Macbeth takes a pretty intense, adult play about a thirst for power, a prophecy and more than a few murders and, miraculously, makes it kid appropriate. As The Stratford Zoo Midnight Review Presents: Macbeth begins, there is a quick set up where readers see a pink, tentacle-y arm unlocking cages all over the zoo and the audience taking their seats while seagulls hawk "Peanuts! Earthworms! Ice cold bananas!" and, "Carrion, rotting carrion!" Panels, sometimes strategically placed, allow glimpses of the audience and their reactions as the play unfolds.

Macbeth, as played by the lion, is adored by all, plied with food and hungry for something new. He realizes that if he eats the king he will become the new king. It's not food Macbeth wants, it's power! Loads of ketchup and an elephant getting up out of his seat disguise the murders that Macbeth commits to become and stay king. Lady Macbeth, as played by a cheetah, realizes, most dramatically, that her spots just will NOT come out (and a key word in her famous speech about them is changed to "dumb.") MacDuff, as played by a stork, defeats Macbeth, fulfilling the prophecy because he wasn't born from a mother, but "delivered," and, happily, everyone that he has eaten in his quest for power pops out of his mouth! The actors take a bow, the audience leaves and, as the zoo opens we see kids wondering what the animals do all night, since they seem to sleep all day...

In The Stratford Zoo Midnight Review: Romeo and Juliet the animal actors return with another of Shakespeare's tragedies and a rooster and a bear in the titular roles. The same family of monkeys return for the play, and the little one quips and complains and tussles with a lamb, Lydia, but ultimately enjoy the play and find friendship after the curtain closes, echoing that action on the stage.  The writing and casting of The Stratford Zoo Midnight Review: Romeo and Juliet is brilliant. Romeo and the Montagues are roosters (and chickens) and part of the Verona Petting Zoo and known as "Petters." The Capulets are Wilders, bears living in the wilderness. The two meet at a costume party where Romeo is wearing a bandit mask and Juliet is dressed as (a very cute) Abraham Lincoln. Lendler gets around the love, marriage and death aspects of the story by having Romeo and Juliet want to be best friends and Juliet deciding to enter into early hibernation.

Giallongo's illustrations are bright and colorful and hilarious. The plans for Juliet's party include juice boxes and a blow-up bounce house. The Stratford Zoo Midnight Review: Romeo and Juliet is a more brightly colored book, perhaps because of the roosters. Once again, the violence and death is tactfully handled by having an elephant in the audience - this time with a date in tow - stand up and block the stage. The story and art work together perfectly, once again, in this totally entertaining graphic novel. Kids don't need to know that they are reading a Shakespeare play to enjoy or understand the story - it works on its own. The bonus is, maybe 5 years down the road when they read the play in high school, they will already know the story! Once again, the zookeepers clean up after the play, baffled by a bottle of "Hibernation Juice" they discover amongst the trash. The next play/graphic novel promises to be a comedy and I can't wait to read it.

Source: Purchased (Macbeth) and Review Copy (Romeo & Juliet)


Boo! by Leslie Patricelli

I discovered Lelise Patricelli and her amazing board books about 10 years ago when my youngest was a year or so old. I have reviewed many of her books since then and wanted to revisit her unique sense of humor and illustration style, and her irrepressibly spazzy little baby-in-diapers character with her newest board book, BOO!

It's Halloween and our fearless diaper-baby is excited and busy! Picking pumpkins, getting covered in pumpkin goop, picking a costume and trick-or-treating with Dad are all on the agenda in BOO! Patricelli works wonderful images of all things Halloween into the story. There are fantastic two-page spreads of different Jack-O'-Lantern carvings and costumes to consider. In the end, baby and Dad go as ghosts, making for some very cute cuddling (or clinging in fear) scenes as the two head out into the night. Of course, the night ends happily with a candy bonanza and a happy baby!

Souce: Review Copy


The Dead Family Diaz: A Story of Family, Fiestas, and Friendship by P. J. Bracegirdle, illustrated by Poly Bernatene

The Dead Family Diaz: A Story of Family, Fiestas, and Friendship by P.J. Bracegirdle with illustrations by Poly Bernatene is a fantastic and fun addition to the woefully small selection of kid's books about El Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, a holiday celebrated throughout Mexico on November 1. For Mexicans, and many Americans, the Day of the Dead is a time to remember and appreciate friends and family who have died. At the graves of loved ones, altars laden with favorite foods and other items, especially the bright orange marigold flowers, are made to welcome the souls of the dead. There is singing and dancing and celebrating. Colorful skeletons,  delicately gorgeous tissue paper banners called Papel Picados and special candies make the day vibrantly festive rather than frightening.

The Dead Family Diaz: A Story of Family, Fiestas, and Friendship weaves the worlds of the dead and the living together in a story told from the perspective of Angelito (also the name for those who died in childhood), the youngest member in the Dead Family Diaz. In the Land of the Dead, spirits were high as morning came and the "dead sun chased off the dead moon." Angelito is scared by the possibility of encountering a living human during the Day of the Dead, the one day of the year when the dead walked among the living. Before his Huevos Muertos can even get cold, his big sister Estrellita, is teasing him mercilessly. She tells him that the living have "big red tongues and bulging eyes" and if you touch one they feel "hot and squishy!"

The family piles into their car and heads downtown to the elevator that will take them to the Land of the Living.

The family manages to squeeze into the elevator and emerges in the Land of the Living, smack in the middle of a central square where celebrations are under way. In the Land of the Living, every one seems to be wearing skeleton masks! Angelito runs and hides, getting separated from his family, and makes a new friend, Pablo. Assuming that Pablo is also from the Land of the Dead, Angelito befriends him and they prepare for an attack that turns out to be a parade. When the two boys realize that one of them is dead and one of them is alive, mayhem ensues. 

Both run off in opposite directions, but meet up again at the cemetery where their families, and the rest of the village, are celebrating. The boys reunite to give Estrellita a good scare.

The plot of The Dead Family Diaz: A Story of Family, Fiestas, and Friendship is simple and tidy, but that's just fine. There is SO MUCH to see in Bernatene's raucous illustrations. This is a book that all readers will enjoy, even those unfamiliar with Mexican culture.

Source: Review Copy


Tacky and the Haunted Igloo by Helen Lester, illustrated by Lynn Munsinger

I don't know WHY I've never reviewed one of the many, fantastic Tacky the Penguin books here before now. I guess Tacky just seems like the kind of character that everyone already knows about, like Skippyjon Jones or Fancy Nancy. But a Halloween book from the perfect pair of Helen Lester and Lynn Munsinger, authors of many other superb picture books, is reason to review Tacky and the Haunted Igloo!

Halloween is approaching and the residents of Nice Icy Land have decided to turn their igloo into a HAUNTED igloo! Goodly and Lovely handled the decorations and Angel, Neatly and Perfect worked on the treats. Tacky's contribution? Sampling the treats. When time came to choose costumes for the Big Halloween Night they all dressed up as things they were afraid of.

Except Tacky. Tacky could not think of anything he was afraid of. He headed off to a thinking place to consider his options. Tacky misses out on all the fun - and the frights when three big ghosts show up to the party. When the costumes come off the penguins discover that they hunters have returned and the treats filling their bags are the penguins.

Just when things look darkest, Tacky shows up with his costume on and, as always, he is unwittingly hilarious - and helpful. I don't want to give away the ending to Tacky and the Haunted Igloo, but it really is excellent and completely in the spirit of Tacky!

Source: Review Copy