Juvenile Literature Reviews, August 2013

Posted on October 29, 2013 by

The volunteers have been reading and critiquing new books.

Alvin Ho: Allergic to Babies, Burglars, and Other Bumps in the Night Written by Lenore Look with Illustrations by Le Uyen Pham

Alvin Ho jacket

 Lenore Look succeeds at the kind of crack-up humor that helps entertain a certain kind of young reader yet doesn’t alienate readers less enchanted by   snot, fungus or earwax. In fact, even as a reader of advancing years is likely to find it hard not to find some laugh out loud moments in this story.

Alvin Ho’s anxiety over the impending doom of a new sibling may be more exaggerated than what most kids experience. He even has a false pregnancy, but it’s just this side of believable. More important, it’s likely to provide some comfort and reassurance to kids with pregnant moms or who recall their own pre-baby concerns. Likewise, his fears over reports of a burglar are exaggerated. But in the hands of this skilled writer young readers can identify their own fears, but it is not too realistic to be painful. Instead, they can see that after all, they aren’t as silly as all that. At the same time as creating a warm family and engaging characters and kid-friendly humor, Look also use descriptive, colorful language, as when Alvin in his anxious state about his mother’s pregnancy has to come home from school and says, “And I’ve been feeling like a ferry tipping to one side and taking on water ever since.”

The clever illustrations by LeUyen Pham add just the right touch.  ALVIN HO: ALLERGIC TO BABIES, BURGLARS AND OTHER BUMPS IN THE NIGHT is altogether a pleasure.


The Apple Orchard Riddle   Written by Margaret McNamara and G. Brian Karas  Apple Orchard jacket

In Margaret McNamara and G Brian Karas’ THE APPLE ORCHARD RIDDLE, a fluid storytelling style delivers lots of information about apple growing with a sweet, unstated but delivered message about dreamers. Adults will likely quickly solve the riddle the farmer poses the school children who have come to learn about apple farming, but children, especially young ones, may enjoy trying to figure it out along with the students in the class. The dialogue is natural, the illustrations charming and gentle, and there is nothing pedantic about the way the information is delivered. This is a lovely book. Perhaps a nice classroom companion to HOW TO BAKE AN APPLE PIE.


Belle Epoque   Written by Elizabeth Ross

Belle jacket

Maude runs away from her rural home to Paris, looking for freedom and a better life. Faced with hardship, she takes a job as a “beauty foil,” her plainness supposedly making another wealthier, lovelier young woman’s beauty stand out more by comparison. When Maude befriends her aristocratic client, her world begins to crumble.

The story, set during the “Belle Epoque” period, is rich with details of Paris and its society. During a period where women were valued for their beauty, the characters here find ways to resist measuring their lives this way. Maude by intending true friendship risks her precarious survival but finds herself with a beauty not visible on the surface.

Layered with issues of class, love and friendship and filled with interesting, lively characters (even though some are rather one-dimensional) Belle Epoque is an engaging read and an exploration of coming of age that is relevant in any time period.


Brush of the Gods     Written by Lenore Look with illustrations by Meilo So                        Brush Gods jacket

This story of the famous Chinese artist Wu Daozi was very cleverly told with humor and information of the difficulty Daozi had in conforming to the standard calligraphy. The author explains, “Each day something new and surprising dropped out of Daozi’s brush.”

He drew everything, dancing peonies, flying Buddha’s, and everyone was amazed. He “painted so fast his sleeves looked like wings.” Admirers soon began leaving food and money for him which he took to the monastery to feed the poor. He became so good that his paintings came to life. Soon waterfalls would spill from his imagined mountain sides. Then someone said, “This man holds the brush of the gods.”

What a fantastic book! The story is brilliant and the illustrations are magical.


Burning   Written by Elana K. Arnold

Burning jacket

Ben and Lala tell this story in alternating voices – two people from vastly different worlds. Benn lives in Gypsum, Nevada, a mining town about to close its doors forever. Lala is part of a gypsy family, camped out near the entrance to Burning Man Festival, in the desert near Gypsum. When Ben’s friends drag him into the desert to have his fortune read, the two are drawn to each other.

The story shares an interesting view of gypsy culture and traditions with Lala risking all to escape an approaching arranged marriage and Ben ready to risk his scholarship and ticket out of the family situation.

As Lala tastes freedom, the two struggle in different ways. She is wise enough to know her leaving her family and culture is about finding herself more than about Ben. It takes Ben much longer to see this. Both of them struggle with issues of belonging, guilt and that strong need to step out on their own.

The desert is nearly another character in the story which the heat and emptiness while the Burning Man gathering provides a fascinating backdrop for self-exploration. It comes as a great relief that this story does not become just a romance that the characters are wise enough to know that they need to explore their own lives rather than find security in staying together.

The Case of the Piggy Bank Thief  Written by Martha Freeman        Peggy Bank Thief jacket

In THE CASE OF THE PIGGY BANK THIEF, like other in the series, the detectives are children of the president of the U.S. who is a woman. Second grader Tessa’s piggy bank has been stolen, and someone has been digging holes in the White House lawn, someone besides the authorized archeological dig. Older sister Cam wonders if the two are connected.

There is some White House history, some information about coins, a glimpse of living in the White House for the first family, complete with Secret Service agents. Although the child characters are believable and likable, the book fails to lift off. There’s a formulaic feeling to it and the dialogue lacks the freshness of series like the Alvin Ho or Nathaniel Fludd books for similar ages. In part, the test may suffer from too many characters to fit the very short chapter format. For a brief chapter book of this type, Illustrations would probably have livened things up.


Help Me LeHelp Subractionarn Subtraction   Written by Jean Marzollo with photographs by Chad Phillips

This is a colorful abstract book aimed at the new Common Core standards for elementary schools. The photographs are accompanied by descriptions in words and symbols to cover “subtraction as taking apart, the relationship between addition and subtraction, subtraction with 20, and subtraction equations.” The words are set in rhyme (which may help children to say the right answer.) The author suggests that the book is for toddlers and preschoolers as well as kindergarteners.

The book seems to me to be an attempt to cover some mighty big concepts. I am a believer in tangible items for the whole age group. The idea that a printed book can produce behavior such as competent subtraction with equations in several formats seems absurd. One double page spread seems particularly odd: a static display of subtraction so that there are actually more individual penguins shown than are in the minuend of the equations.


The Laura Line     Written by Crystal Allen

This is a superb novel about middle school. Laura copes with a crisis with the mean girl clique, gets to know the boy she has a crush on better, discovers how difficult true friendship can be, and discovers some family history that helps her claim her own skills and talents.

Marvelous as her public speaking and the decision to follow her own talent are, these plot points are subordinated to an image of Laura today, taking her place in the line of persistent and loving Lauras. There is plenty happening inside her head and the author gives us Laura’s thoughts, gritty and worrie

d as the girl is. There are lists and excuses and rants. One appealing idea is how she thinks she is doing on the best friend meter or “my good grand-daughter meter.” Much of the family history is slowly revealed through letters. This part of the novel was well-paced, like a mystery. Oh, and there’s some great baseball lore included too. Is this book good to read? I’d echo Laura Eboni and say, “Heck yes to the tenth!”


The Lost Sun            Written by Tessa GrattonLost Sun

The United States of Asgard Book 1 is steeped in Norse mythology. The author’s obvious knowledge of all the legends is impressive almost to tediousness at first but her excellent writing finally runs with the story.

Every year the beautiful Baldur must “die” and be reborn to keep the normal life of Asgard flowing. But this time Baldur disappears. The berserker Soren Bearskin and the teen seer Astrid Glyn decide that they must find him.

After Soren’s father went berserk and killed a throng of people for no reason Soren’s cheek was tattooed with a sword so all the world would know he too was a berserker and to be feared. The seer Astrid is seeking her mother who disappeared during a séance. Astrid has used every talent she possesses to find her.

Astrid and Soren find Baldur who has lost his memory so they decide to escort him back to Oden who can give him the apples of Idun to restore his memory. This book was full of mythology and the gods but very compelling.


Mustache Baby               Written by Bridget Heos with illustrations by Joy Ang

Mustache Baby

Bridget Heos and Joy Ang deliver Mustache Baby at a time when mustaches are certainly in vogue in everything from tee shirts to duct tape. Like Angela’s Wings or Imogene’s Antlers there is definitely humor to a child with an unusual feature and certainly the first illustrations when the mustached baby is shown to his family show great humor in the illustrations: the humor doesn’t carry through. Perhaps in part it is that the baby is immediately active—a cowboy, a sheriff. The books in which a strange feature develops post-babyhood make for a more “believable” story, so to speak. Some of the illustrations are laugh-out-loud funny, but the story itself is a good idea not fully realized.



My Chemical Mountain            Written by Corina Vaccochemical mountain

This is a survival story in a present-day American toxic town. The eighth grade boy who tells the story is coping with horrible situations, learning about fear. His friend Charlie has a hard-drinking father. His friend Cornpup’s health is compromised. They live in a neighborhood bordered by abandoned and working factories with junk and pollution. For them, growing up means confronting the corporation and finding how they can use their talents to keep their friendship strong. Physical dangers, temptations of revenge, and the monsters that Jason draws and tells about are reflections of the messy environment. The plot concludes satisfactorily: “We are banked in creativity and insomnia.”

This story is an adventure in an unfriendly place, which will appeal to readers willing to see heroes who are not fortunate nor motion-picture handsome.


Nothing but Blue    Written by Lisa Jahn-Clough

Blue jacket

 This is a contemporary survival novel in which our heroine copes with a nervous breakdown and a journey of several hundred miles. The teenaged girl has a goal and her mind is clearing as the story starts. She is determined and finds allies as she struggles. The world she travels in is a lot like ours. At first she is scrounging, then she is found by a dog, then she makes friend so the practical details are matched by her return from her terrified isolation to a social life. Her geographical and social return is accompanied by the return of her memory, which gives the reader a mystery to unravel.

The fractured memories and intense feelings need to be analyzed to find what is real. The story is one of a hopeful quest, but does not come with an overly sweet ending. This is a satisfactory read and a gentle look at how minds react to circumstances.



One Year in Coal Harbor             Written by Polly Horvath

coal harbor jacket

This sequel to Everything on a Waffle brings the irrepressible Primrose Squarp back into our lives, as she continues her life in Coal Harbor with its eccentric characters and lovely setting. Only in this book part of that lovely setting is threatened by development. Primrose has a new friend, Ked, whose past threatens to undo him. Sometimes the return of a parent is not cause for joy. Primrose’s frustrated attempts at matchmaking for her uncle and her beloved friend Miss Bowzer, her passionate defense of her friends, her inherent sense of justice, make for a warm, gentle read with enough tension to keep readers interested. The book works fine as a stand-alone selection, but those who loved Everything on a Waffle will welcome the return of this entertaining character. Recipes, many of which feature the marshmellows Evie so loves are included. I found the recipes placed as they are at the ends of chapters, an unnecessary distraction, particularly at the end of the first chapter.



radio girlRadio Girl              Written by Carol Brendler

This historical story of a spunky high school freshman thrilled with radio gives readers a glimpse of early 20th century America. Cecilia Maloney is eager to join the world her father works in. He is a sound effects man for the Mutual radio station in New York City, so after coaxing him to sign her work papers, she goes to CBS and talks her way into the station. Her eagerness and particular skills are rewarded. The descriptions of radio shows from 1938 are detailed. This is the story Cece is living, but the rest of the family intrudes. She is uneasy as she hides what she is doing, reads a secret notebook her aunt is scribbling in, finds that her friend’s fortunetelling mom is making it up, discovers some of her parent’s secrets, and learns which adults at the station are trustworthy. The grand resolution of the book involves Orson Welles’ The War of the World. The author has taken care to use slang, history and pop culture appropriately. For this reader, the story was slow and the plot somewhat complex.


Raven Flight             Written by Juliet Marillier

Raven Flight

This second book in the Shadowfell trilogy has Neryn traveling from “Shadowfell” to “The Isles” to learn how to be a “Caller” from the Hag. The lessons are physically and emotionally punishing. She perseveres and is rewarded with one night with her beloved, Flint. Then she must travel to the Lord of the North to awaken him so that he will lead his forces to aid the rebels.

The characters both human and The Good Folk, are varied and believable. I found myself caring for all those on the rebel side and frightened by the enemies.


jacketThe Secret Ingredient    Written by Stewart Lewis     

While Lewis writes engaging stories with likeable characters, this story (as with his first book – You Have Seven Messages) relies so heavily on coincidence that the plot becomes nearly unbelievable. Olivia, adopted and being raised by two dads, within the span of this short novel, runs into a psychic who changes her thinking about her life, finds an old cookbook with notes written by its former owner that lead Olivia to not only have an internal dialogue with the previous owner, but find the living relatives of this person. She also conveniently finds a key to a safe deposit box that her best friend’s connections allow her to open illegally, gets a summer job with a woman who – imagine this – happens to know Olivia’s mother. And lo and behold the mother is a chef, just as Olivia plans to be.

Putting the onslaughts of coincidence and easy answers aside, Olivia is a character easy to care about. As she struggles (but not very hard) to find herself, we root for her and are a bit smitten with her love of cooking and the great tips about secret ingredients that “make a dish.”


Toys in Space              Written and illustrated by Mini Greyspace toys jacket

The peculiar charm of Mini Grey’s Toys in Space is that it reads just like a story being told on the spot, as if guided by comments from a child listener. It has the flavor of the movie Toy Story with its interactions between toys left behind, but there is something enchantingly real about the way the toys are soothed by the “wonder doll” as she weaves a story, how their comments shift the direction of the story, and how they become invested in the outcome. It is very childlike. It’s too bad an editor didn’t delete the early “They’re the stars, stupid.” Comment by the cowboy doll early on. It wasn’t necessary and doesn’t add anything or even fit very well into this comforting, easy to read tale. The busy-ness and brightness of the illustrations, the expressiveness on the toys’ faces, and the storytelling voices all add up to a very child friendly story.


water park jacket

Water in the Park             Written by Emily Jenkins with illustrations by Stephanie Graegin

I think this picture book is brilliant—except the subtitle, which makes it sound like it’s going to be a deadly dull “educational experience.” Instead it is a charming exposition of all the ways of getting wet in one day at the park. The author takes a child’s perspective: focuses on animals, babies, kids, moods, games, and brings the experience full circle by the end of the day. Charming illustrations that are accessible for the read aloud but lend themselves to hours of perusal. A must read to believe book!.


The Wing Wing Brothers: Carnival de Math             Written by Ethan Long

This colorful, humorous book aims at the new Common Core standards for elementary schools. It seems too cluttered and confusing. Maybe this reflects my bias for physical manipulation, followed by clear and simple equations in teaching of arithmetic.

Wing Wing brothers