Tag Archives: book review

A little late to the party but still ready to dance

dactyl hill squadSometimes books just have to wait for the right moment to enter my room of the much-loved.  This one came across my desk a few times this fall and kept showing up in things I read online.  When I was looking for a holiday gift for a dear friend’s kids, though, it popped into my brain, my cart, and to the top of the TBR pile, because if you’re giving a book to a kid, it helps to be able to really sell it to his mom, so that maybe she’ll read it with him.  I know she’d love it, too, so you know, it’s kind of a sneaky way of getting her to read, too.  Maybe not so sneaky for me, but you get the picture.

And there’s a good reason for all the attention it’s getting.  It’s fun – confusing at first if you’re not used to alternative history – but fun.  Dinosaurs are the public transportation?  It’s 1863, the Civil War is on, and the kids at Colored Orphan Asylum are about dive in and change the course of at least a few bad white dudes’ histories?

Well.  Ok.  Why not?  The characters are charming, the setting is intriguing, and anyone who’s visited New York City will have some fun imagining raptors and dinos and chimney-sweeping kids racing through Brooklyn and Manhattan, and maybe tweaking history in their favor, too.

Dactyl Hill Squad by Daniel José Older

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The title says it all, people

bibliophileOddly enough, I think I first came across this book by way of some awesome note cards I found while looking for something else on line.  So when I saw the book, I was all “Um, ok, of course I’m reading this.”  While my tone here might seem very bored-cynical-sarcastic-difficult-to-impress-and-young, do not be fooled.  It’s a whimsical day here in Iowa, people.  We’re all a little goofy from the weather and using inappropriate tones and all that.

I mostly read this book while also watching TV.   And that’s not a criticism in this very specific instance.  It’s the perfect book for dipping in and out or chatting with someone about what you think the author missed or got 100% right.  The illustrations are, of course, superb, and the many book-related spreads about bookmobiles, bookstores, Little Free Libraries and the like are exceptionally groovy.

Fun!  We need some fun, right?  Also, you can find the note cards on Amazon or Target.com. AND if you want to see more of her work, check out https://www.idealbookshelf.com/

Bibliophile by Jane Mount

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Because there’s really never enough Dolly, is there?

CoverReveals_F15_Dumplin.jpgHey friends!  This is just a reminder that today, TODAY, the movie version of Dumplin’ comes out on Netflix.  This is a perfect time to read or re-read it, and maybe squeeze in the follow-up, Puddin’, too.  And because it’s Friday, and I can, I’m tacking on my post from way back when I first read the book, just because.

I love Dolly Parton. Put Dolly Parton in a book, and I will read it. Seriously. Anyone looking at me would probably not guess how much I love Dolly Parton, because I’m pretty stereotypically Midwestern and middle-aged in my appearance. The last time I tried to add anything remotely glamorous to my wardrobe was probably about 1988, after getting back from a summer in Europe trying to see the Smiths in concert. (Unfortunately, one of the band members was having a bit of a drug problem and went into treatment, meaning I saw a lot of other late 1980s European favorites, but no Smiths.) Let’s just say I wore a lot of black then. During the brief period that followed, I might have tried to add some color to my wardrobe. Crazy!

Anyway, I’m not outwardly Dolly-like in any way, but I’m a fan. Why? Because every single time I’ve heard her talk to an interviewer, she is saying something positive about people who have struggled for one reason or another, mostly because they just didn’t fit into someone else’s picture of who they should be. (Also, she’s donated a lot of money for literacy programs, and that’s pretty awesome, too.)

So it’s easy to see how Dolly has become such an inspiration to Willowdean, who’s never quite lived up to her mother’s beauty pageant fantasy of who her daughter could be. Willowdean is overweight and awkward, and aware enough of how things work in her small town in Texas to understand that she’s never going to fit into the standard box of expectations set out for her.

She’s also losing her best friend and kind of obsessed with Private School Bo, who she works with at a fast-food restaurant. Entering the beauty pageant her mother’s so caught up in might not seem like the most obvious solution to any of Willowdean’s problems, but it’ll be life-changing in one way or another. And there will be Dolly, so it’ll have to be fun.

Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy

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Memories of a life lost

sea prayer“I said to you,

‘Hold my hand.

Nothing bad will happen.’

These are only words.”

So much is communicated in this beautiful book.  Though it is short, the text is powerful and it’s full of dramatic illustrations.  It reminds us of the lives refugees leave behind, lives once peaceful and made up  of small moments, just like ours.

Sea Prayer also speaks to the tragedy of what people experience when war arrives.   Does anyone really deserve this?  Do we all bear some responsibility to help?  What can be done?  How can this change?  Will we ever find peace?

Beautiful.  Just beautiful.  Powerful for readers of all ages, although you might want to preview it for the very young.

Sea Prayer by Khaled Hosseini

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Potatoes and their pants

potato pantsAnd eggplants and their pants, too.

This is a silly story about a potato that desperately wants some fancy pants.  As you may already know, potatoes don’t often have access to stylish pants. So when a fashion guru decides to create them, you had better find a way to get your spuddy derriere down to the pants store.  You might come across an eggplant with questionable motives – don’t they all have questionable motives, really? – but if you perservere, those pants might just be yours.  And you might learn a thing or two about forgiveness, too.

Ah, Laurie Keller.  Another fun one!

Potato Pants! by Laurie Keller

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Travel the world with a stick wearing rose-colored glasses and a cuddly toy in a bad mood

huggie and stickPerhaps the word “hate” is too strong for how Huggie feels about Stick?

Not to Huggie.  Stick gallivants through life, happily thinking he’s making friends with pirates and sharks, getting knighted by the Queen, and loving his buddy Huggie the whole way.  Is that annoying?  Really?

Huggie is a special kind of angry stuffed animal, full of annoyed pronouncements about Stick’s idiotic tendencies.

It’s a funny book, and with the right kid, it would be a hoot.  Not sure every parent would love Huggie’s attitude, but it’s funny, especially if you’ve ever actually been on a trip with a relentlessly happy person who greets disaster with rainbows and glitter while you are just hoping to find a clean-ish bathroom and something to eat that isn’t fried.

The Epic Adventures of Huggie and Stick by Drew Daywalt and David Spencer

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Big feelings, big heart

dariusthegreatisnotokaySoulless minions of orthodoxy.  Ah, high school.  Middle school.  Incredibly toxic workplaces. We have them everywhere, even if we are supposed to be in bully-free zones.

Darius is really just trying to live life, doing his after school job with the corporate-mandated greetings, watching Star Trek with a dad who doesn’t understand him, being a Fractional Persian, taking his meds.  He doesn’t think going to Iran to see his dying grandfather will help with any of that, although he suspects there will be some good food and tea there.

There is that and so much more.  He makes a friend, a true friend, a best friend.  Watching him live his life in the new space, we see a whole different Darius unfurl, be tested, doubt himself, love, let go.  Sohrab is one of those friends of the soul we’re lucky to have maybe once or twice in life, and Darius sees that and knows, even in his worst moments, how much that matters.

Reading this book on a gloomy day, I was transported, not just to Iran with Darius and his family, but also through the tricky, painful edges of the way his brain works, back to friends of my youth whose laughter and support helped me through my own tough moments.  Though I can hardly watch the news without feeling despair these days, this sad, joyous, tender, beautiful book manages to end on a note of hope, and that is a gift indeed.

Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram

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Does it matter that they’re cheerleaders?

cheerleadersPopularity means so many different things.  Does being “popular” mean you are loved?  In high school, it might mean the opposite.  On social media, it can mean a whole range of things – you could be liked, loved, loathed, observed.

So when the people who have died are cheerleaders, who are often considered “popular” but just as often are stereotyped as mean girls… well, popularity can be a bad thing.  Being popular, beautiful, cheery– that might just get you some unwanted attention.

That’s really neither here nor there in this book, though.  the fact that the victims are cheerleaders adds layers to a twisty teen mystery – sometimes those layers are red herrings and sometimes they all tie beautifully into a bigger picture.

You might not want to relive high school, but I think adult mystery and thriller fans would enjoy this one just as much as teens.  Take a look.

The Cheerleaders by Kara Thomas

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When fluorescent yellow-orange is exactly what you need

the-honeybee-9781481469975_lgI am all for any book about bees.  Bees are awesome.  Looking out across the wildflowers in my back yard a few weeks ago, I counted more than ten busy bees working away.  It made me so happy I had to go in and tell everyone in my house.

This book, like the bees, is awesome.  There is a nice, lilting, flowy kind of text – a poem! – and cheery illustrations that follow a bee’s life and work.  Super!  And there is a masterful use of fluorescent yellow-orange in these drawings, perfectly highlighting all the important stuff you want to follow.

The Honeybee by Kirsten Hall and Isabelle Arsenault


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Good thing, bad thing

loneliestgirlintheuniverse_01Romy Silvers is either the luckiest or unluckiest person in space.  She’s managed to survive for years on her own on a ship that was supposed to be full of space settlers going off to what NASA thinks will be a habitable planet.  She thinks she’ll be in her forties by the time she gets there until NASA launches another ship – a newer, faster one, full of updated tech – which just might change her whole future.

What starts off your basic sci-fi thing morphs into maybe something else – a romance?  A mystery?  A thriller?  However you want to look at it, it’s a whole lot of fun.  Just when you think you’ve figured one thing out, some new twist appears.  Romy is super smart and oh-so-clever when she needs to be, and she was just the character I needed to jolt me out of my reading slump.  Woo hoo!

The Loneliest Girl in the Universe by Lauren James

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An orphan, a suffragette, some taxidermy

stitch in timeSometimes you have to take a chance on a book.  Maybe two of your favorite authors have written blurbs for it.  (Hello, Kathi Appelt and Rita Williams-Garcia!)  Maybe it’s not 400 pages long.  Maybe you just like the cover.

But there were still some barriers to buy-in for me.

Of course, both of Dorothy’s parents have died.   Of course, her idyllic life is about to be shattered by an aunt who wants to get back to her own world.  Of course, Dorothy has a very tall friend called Tiny.  Oh, and Dorothy’s nickname is Donut.  And she likes taxidermy.

I kept reading, though.  There wasn’t anything in particular happening, but the details were interesting, and I connected with the characters. There’s some adventure, some humor, developing relationships–all that stuff.  It didn’t shatter me or leave me laughing so hard my sides hurt.

It still might have been just what I needed.

A Stitch in Time by Daphne Kalmar

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So much there there

there thereIf you were fortunate enough to be born into a family whose ancestors directly benefited from genocide and/or slavery, maybe you think the more you don’t know, the more innocent you can stay, which is a good incentive not to find out, to not look too deep, to walk carefully around the sleeping tiger.  (p. 138-139)

I’m not a big one for direct quoting from books, mostly because it means I have to hunt down the quote.  This time I wisely bookmarked it right after I read it.  I kept going back to it and re-reading it as I finished the book.

Earlier on, Tommy Orange’s prologue points out the many ways American history has been revised to fit a benign image white people want to look back on fondly.  And while there is more history and more commentary on the state of American society, this book is also a fascinating human story about a group of urban Native Americans gathering for a powwow.

If you are white, it might make you rethink a few of your easy privileges, which is never a bad thing.  I could hope that people in power would read it, but given the state of our political world these days, I suspect the people who need to read it most would never read it – both because they seem to not be readers at all and because they are unlikely to seek out any criticism of a world where they are on top and feel like they deserve to be there.

But don’t miss it if you have a chance to pick it up.  The writing is beautiful, powerful, intense, and challenging, and the time you’ll spend on it will make you think differently about the world we live in and your place in it.

There There by Tommy Orange

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Beyond words

drawn togetherSome years ago, I took my then infant son with me to visit a friend and her mother for coffee.  They were both from Bosnia, and my friend’s mom spoke some English, but did not get much of a chance to practice it.  We all chatted for a while, and then my son woke up, happy and ready for attention.  My friend’s mom picked him up and toured him around the house, happily describing everything to him in Bosnian.  Did he care?  No.  Was he suddenly in love with my friend’s mom?  Yes.  She tickled his belly.  She made faces.  She was a dream.  Little ones really don’t care what language you speak as long as you are speaking to them.  Being the center of attention works in any language.

Once you’re a little older, having a relationship with someone who doesn’t speak the same language can be a little more challenging until you find the ways you can communicate beyond words.  And that’s pretty much this book.

It is a perfect and wonderful book.  The words are perfect; the art is perfect.  And there is so much love in it.  What a joyful reminder of the special relationships grandparents can have with their grandchildren, no matter what lives they’ve left behind.

Drawn Together by Minh Lê and Dan Santat

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Striped pants not required

almaAlma has one of those names that goes on and on.  Or maybe some of the names are not her favorites.  In any case, she is bopping around in awesome striped pants, not feeling like her name fits her.

Daddy can bring to life all the people whose names she shares, though, including a woman in really awesome striped pants.  (Nice touch.  Where can I get these pants?) There is more to us than our names, but it’s sure interesting to know how they came about, isn’t it?

The illustrations are light and sweet, and it’s perfect for any kid questioning their Edith or Jaquarian or Huong in a Jennifer and Sophie world.  Perfect for a quiet moment with a special little one who likes their name, too.  Maybe even the perfect way to talk about naming and how it works in different cultures.  Keep looking!  There might be more.

Alma and How She Got Her Name by Juana Martinez-Neal

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Future Batgirl wins the day

library on wheelsMary Lemist Titcomb – Miss Titcomb – was a fierce advocate of libraries, pushing aside those people who said working people and children weren’t interested in reading, charging forward to provide more varied library services to people who didn’t live close to physical libraries.  AND she thought up a plan which she put into action to get the first bookmobiles out into parts of the community that did not have access.  What a gem!

The pictures and documents are fascinating, and though Miss Titcomb is not a well-known figure today, learning about her is sure a treat.

Library on Wheels:  Mary Lemist Titcomb and America’s First Bookmobile by Sharlee Glenn


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Where’s my cowboy bus?

bus stop

Who knew that catching a bus was this complicated?  You miss your bus, but then the buses that follow include options for cowboys riding horses, bouncing clowns, sailors, and balloon fans?  Man, what neighborhood does this guy live in?

A seriously silly flight of fancy and a lot of fantastic fun.

Bus!  Stop! by James Yang

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This book is all over the place

theysayblue.jpgAnd that’s ok.

It all hangs together, the thoughts about colors and where you see them and how you see them and what you might do if you could float on a color or become a tree.  It doesn’t really even make sense if you’re looking for traditional story progression, but it’s beautiful, anyway — full of movement, full of imagination.  It stretches your brain a little and makes you wonder, “What else could I see or hear or touch or feel if I were looking closely?”

Roll with it.  You’ll be glad you did.

They Say Blue by Jillian Tamaki

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Hello, it’s hot dog I’m waiting for

hello hot dogAgain with the dated song lyrics?  I imagine that’s what all of my five or six readers are thinking right about now, since I’ve lately been wandering deep into my sketchy pop music past.   Are you tired of it?  Well, join the club, people.  I’m blaming it on this ridiculous weather.

I’m telling you, if this freakish spring doesn’t give us at least a few days of decent weather and soon, you’re probably going to find me in the garden singing A Flock of Seagulls and Haircut One Hundred tunes while I’m planting the carrots and cucumbers.

However, while I’m scaring the rabbits away with I Ran or Love Plus One, you will have done your work and found this book and maybe paired it with The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog to read to some fun little one you like.  I can’t wait to get it in front of some kindergartners, but that’s just how I roll.  Like a hot dog.  (You’ll get that joke after you read the book.)

Hello, Hot Dog by Lily Murray and Jarvis

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See what’s become of me

forever or a dayIt’s not often that a picture book makes me think of a Bangles song and a guided meditation on the life of a prophet, but when you are talking about time, time, time, all bets are off.  Let’s all take a moment to be grateful for the mysterious and wonderful connections our brains make.

Sarah Jacoby’s Forever or a Day is a meditation on time and its passing.  It is perhaps not a book for the hyperaware and deep-thinking kid who gets stressed out by the days passing, but it’s otherwise a great read for kids, parents, and grandparents.  And its last page sums the joys of life up simply and perfectly: “I love the time I have with you.”  So true in so many situations.

Forever or a Day by Sarah Jacoby

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A memory of a life left behind

islandbornHow do we remember the places we leave behind?  How do we create our history when we can’t remember it?

Lola has a class assignment to draw the place she (and her family) came from.  In a class of immigrants, there are all kinds of places to draw and imagine – pyramids, jungles, cities, canals.  Lola can’t remember much about her own Island, but by talking to her community, she collects images and ideas she can combine into something she can understand and share.

Islandborn’s art and text illustrate both the good and the bad of the past, which is the most powerful part of this amazing whole.  It’s easy to think that children won’t understand the destruction of a hurricane or something like political corruption, but they see bad things every day on some level, just as adults do.  Being honest about the beauty and the horror – without dwelling on particulars – creates a more complete picture of who we are and where we’ve come from.  Superb.

Islandborn by Junot Díaz and Leo Espinoza

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