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Sunday, February 28, 2021

Being Toffee, written by Sarah Crossan. Bloomsbury, Raincoast. 2020. $24.50 ages 14 and up

"I am not who I say I am,

and Marla isn't who she thinks she is.

I am a girl trying to forget.

She is a woman trying to remember."

Allison has taken enough of her father's abuse. His latest girlfriend, Kelly-Anne, has moved on. In a fit of rage, her father burns Allison's face. She no longer has anyone there to protect her. So, she runs away - she wants to find Kelly-Anne and live with her. But, Kelly-Anne is not where she is supposed to be, and Allison must find a place for herself. She finds it in a house that she thinks is empty. It is not. 

Its owner is an elderly woman who has dementia. Upon meeting her, Marla thinks that Allison is a childhood friend, Toffee. She invites Allison to stay. In the beginning, Allison pretends that she is Toffee. She doesn't want to be Allison anymore. The two get along for the most part. Marla is generally happy with the company; Allison has found food, money, and a place to stay. She hides when a negligent caregiver visits and also when Marla's mean son is there. Allison is appalled at the way they treat her new friend. That helps her make the decision to stay and make Marla's life worth living. 

Allison's memories of her previous life are presented to help readers understand what has brought her to this place, and to make understanding the connection between the two more evident. The sympathy and love that is established is mutual and will have a strong impact on teens who read their story. Telling the story in verse, with compact and powerful words, has real impact. The ability to do so, as Sarah Crossan does so well, is quite the remarkable feat. 

Though filled with excruciating pain, bawdy humor, kindness, mutual admiration, and uncertainty, its poignant ending is hopeful. I will reread it; the next time more slowly - now that I know Allison and Marla's story - to savor the brilliant words and to learn more about each of them. I know I missed much as I tore through it that first time.  

"Single Ladies

Marla and I are giggling, 
clinging to each other, 
swaying, spinning to 
Beyonce singing out 
from the radio's tinny speakers. 

Now like this! Like this! I tell her. 
I hold one hand aloft and twirl it
like any single lady would, 
and Marla copies the choreography - 
         hands in the air, 
         hands on hips, 
         fist punching forward, 
         hair flicked back.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

If Winter Comes, Tell It I'm Not Here, written and illustrated by Simona Ciraolo. Candlewick Press, Penguin Random House. 202o. $22.99 ages 3 and up


"So I look out for signs of winter. 
One by one, they come, just as my sister said they would. 

There's a chill in the air. 
The trees begin to lose 
their leaves.

The little boy who narrates this story loves EVERYTHING about summer. It's hard to get him out of the swimming pool, The offer of an ice cream cone often works. As big sisters love to do, she warns him to enjoy the warmth and sunshine while he can - summer will soon be over. What does that mean, he wonders. He asks; she explains that winter is coming. 

"Then winter comes. It will be dark all the time.
The cold rain will turn to snow. You'll be stuck 
on the sofa for days. Everything will be SO dull, 
and you'll be SO cold, you wouldn't dream of 
eating ice cream.

Sounds awful, doesn't it? The signs are there. Soon, it is winter. Trading hot chocolate for ice cream, he finds it is not nearly as bad as expected. He likes the fun it offers. While making the best of it, he expresses concern that it might not last. 

Ms. Ciraolo creates seasonal settings in pencil and watercolor, and shows the beauty of each. Our narrator's face and body language are filled with expression and anticipation as winter shows its best side. After 2 days of snowfall in British Columbia brought great delight and outdoor exhaustion to my granddaughters, they would willingly agree with his take on the changing seasons.

Friday, February 26, 2021

I Am Every Good Thing, written by Derrick Barnes and illustated by Gordon C. James. Nancy Paulsen Books, Penguin Random House. 2020. $23.99 ages 4 and up


"I am a brother, 
a son, 
a nephew, 
a favorite cousin, 
a grandson. 
I am a friend. 
I am real.

I once read a quote from the incomparable Walter Dean Myers that read: We need diversity because kids who never see themselves in a book will eventually become kids we never see with a book. I immediately printed it on a card and tacked it to the bulletin board in front of my desk. I read that observation every single day. We are doing better, but there is a long way to go yet. 

Books as wonderful as I Am Every Good Thing show that we are supporting Black writers and their amazing work. The team that celebrated Black children with Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut (2017) return with another book that honors the boundless imagination and endless joy of a young Black boy. 

This boy shows readers that he is full of confidence and energy. His first-person voice makes his story ring with truth and bravery. He tells the audience that he is a product of his ancestors' dreams for him, and that he is worthy of all those same things that every child in the world deserves. 

"I am good to the core, like the center
of a cinnamon roll. 

Yeah, that good." '

He shows the world around him that he is the same as other boys his age. He has the same hopes, feels the same pain, loves learning, and treats people with respect and kindness. Despite all this truth, he will face obstacles in our world. That sometimes makes him feel afraid of what people might call him, what they might think of him without knowing him at all. It is a sad truth. 

Still, he says: 

"I am brave. I am hope. 
I am my ancestors' wildest dream.
I am worthy of success, 
of respect, of safety, of kindness, of happiness.

Mr. Barnes uses remarkable, uplifting language to share this welcome and needed look at the experience of Black boys. His words are definitive and empowering. Mr. James provides exceptional images in textured oil paints of many young Black boys who deserve the same love, admration, and honor that all children do. They are, for certain, Every Good Thing. It is a beautiful book to read aloud in any K-5 classroom and beyond.

Dedicated by the author to Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, EJ Bradford, Jordan Edwards, Michael Brown, Jordan Davis and Julian Mallory, and by the artist to his son Gabriel, this book deserves a place in every school, family and public library. 

I would like to end with another wise observation from the same interview with Walter Dean Myers quoted above -

Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in these books?                                                                     

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Maggie's Treasure, written by Jon-Erik Lappano and illustrated by Kellen Hatanaka. Groundwood, 2020. $19.95 ages 5 and up


"Maggie stomped to her bedroom where she 
sat and stewed like an emperor surrounded 
by great piles of riches. 

But looking around, even Maggie could see
that something had to be done. 

     What do people do with treasure, she wondered."

Four years ago, this team created Tokyo Digs a Garden. It was a book I read a number of times, and it won the Governor General's Award for illustrated books for young people. Well deserved ... so I was very interested to see that they have once again collaborated on a new picture book. 

The focus for this story is a young girl who loves collecting treasure. Well, she calls it treasure; others would call it junk. Her travels within her neighborhood find her making new and exciting discoveries at every turn. She loves sparkle, and sees something sparkly wherever she looks. It's only a small collection in the beginning. Anyone who finds joy in treasure hunting will know exactly where Maggie's story is headed. First a box, then a drawer, then a chest. Will nothing stop her? 

Her neighbors and city workers are impressed with her willingness to rid the streets of trash. Her parents are not so enamoured of what happens in their home. Maggie realizes that there is a problem, but she is not sure what should be done with her treasure. Then, a bird provides inspiration. 

"For days, a symphony of sounds
rang out from Maggie's garden. 
The neighborhood buzzed with 
curiosity. Ms. Pimms peered between 
her rosebushes but couldn't get a 
decent look.

With her work completed, Maggie is able to offer a new use for the many treasures she has collected. An invitation to her neighbors results in great demand for her re-purposed cache of special objects, all gathered together by a young girl with a love for found things. 

The digital artwork is filled with brilliant color and a sense of wonder for Maggie's imagination. Her collection is as different as the community she lives in, and its evolution from junk to art is brilliant. 

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

So You Want to Be an Owl, written by Jane Porter and illustrated by Maddie Frost. Candlewick Press, Penguin Random House. 2021.$22.99 ages 4 and up

"Owl feathers aren't 
waterproof, so we don't 
like to go out in the rain
(except for our cousins the 
Little Owls - they don't 
mind getting wet).

Can YOU fly silently? 
Go on - give it a try. 
Oh dear, that's just 
embarrassing. Well, 
if you can't fly, let's see
if you can at least blend in ...

Do you know a child who might want to know what it takes to be an owl? Neither do I! That fact will not diminish their attention to this most enjoyable and humorous book. It provides a professor's guidance through a list of the nine rules for taking up membership on Team Owl.  There is a checklist before starting with the instructions. It is a bit unnerving: stealthy movement, willing to try many new foods, hidden ears, see in the dark, invisibility, swivel toes, carry heavy objects, amazing hearing. That seems a lot to ask, right? 

The nine lessons provided for membership are then presented on double-page spreads that emphasize the many attributes and skills of this wise bird. Facts are presented concerning flight, sight, hearing, regurgitation, homes, eating, sounds and babies. Meant for young readers, it appeals because of its nonfiction features - clear presentation of information, captioned illustrations, food list, diagram of an owl pellet, and an index to take readers back to what they find most interesting and pertinent. The illustrations add context, humor and appeal.  

 “Be alert! Be watchful! Be silent!”                                                                                 

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Hold On to Your Music: The Inspiring Story of the Children of Willesden Lane, by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen. Adapted by Emil Sher and illustrated by Sonia Possentini. Little, Brown and Company, Hachette. 2021. 23.99 ages 6 and up


"The train station was filled with a 
symphony of sobs. Children with 
numbers strung around their neck
clung to their parents. Lisa could 
see her papa struggling not to cry.

"Remember to" - her mother started
to say through her tears. 
"I won't forget, Mama. I'll hold on to 
my music and never let go."

This warm picture book is written to tell the story of concert pianist Mona Golabek's mother, Lisa Jura. That story has been shared by her daughter in an acclaimed one-woman show, performed throughout the world, and also told in the novel called The Children of Willesden Lane. That novel for adults has been adapted by Emil Sher for a much younger audience, and is presented in illustrations created by Sonia Possentini. 

Lisa's story begins in Vienna in 1938, with her dreams of becoming a famed pianist playing works by both Mozart and Beethoven. Those dreams are shattered one day, upon arrival at her music teacher's door. He is sad to tell he can no longer teach Jewish children. Wanting an explanation, Lisa returns home. Her heart hurts. Her parents explain that things for Jewish families are tenuous in the face of new laws and the threat of a war. Her mother is adamant that Lisa always remembers 'to hold on to your music'. 

It isn't long until Lisa must leave her parents, and board a train bound for England where she will be safe ... and without family.  

"All day and all night, Lisa heard the clickety-clack
of the wheels as young children called out for their 
parents in their sleep. Lisa gazed through the window, 
pretending to play for the moonlit windmills. As she 
imagined the music, she felt less alone.

Her arrival in London has her placed on Willesden Lane, where she finds a warm reception, 32 new friends, and a chance to share her music. It provides hope for all who live there (even when the piano must be housed in the basement to keep it safe from the many bombings), and leads to a lifetime of musical performances.

Ms. Possentini’s pastel and gouache artwork brings the story to life in scenes of realism and hope. An author's letter to her readers offers family history, while an explanation of the events of Lisa's childhood are presented as well. Endpapers at the back of the book offer archival photographs from Lisa's life.  

Monday, February 22, 2021

Ways to Make Sunshine, written by Renee Watson. Bloomsbury, Raincoast. 2020. $22.99 ages 8 and up

"'Baby girl, you are beautiful. Not just your hair or your
 But who you are. Your kindness makes you
beautiful and the way you’re always willing to offer help
makes you beautiful,’ Grandma tells me. ‘And how
creative you are with your recipes. That’s what makes
you a beautiful girl.'

Ryan Hart is an African American fourth grader: feisty, brave, thoughtful, funny, and blessed with an amazing family and good friends. Her family is forced to move when the house they are renting is sold. Her father has a new, less profitable job. Their new home is old, small, and offers up a treasure in old hairpins - or so Ryan believes. Her older, often annoying, brother tries to convince her that the hairpins may just be haunted. Oh, Ray! 

Ryan knows that her name, meaning "king', is meant to make her feel powerful in all situations. Her parents know she can be a leader. Ryan works hard to live up to their expectations with help from her friends, and her family. Disappointment and opportunities result in Ryan creating an alternate parade for the one cancelled, finding sunshine in her own room, being a sous chef for her mother's work, and speaking up and out when the talent show needs someone to take over the announcer's duties. It's a lot for one girl, even if she is full of spunk and optimism. 

Many middle grade readers will recognize the Black experiences of Ryan's life, her responses to them, and will find much to admire about her in this fine novel. The cliffhanger ending leads me to believe this won't be the last time we read about Ryan Hart. Let's hope not! 

"I wonder if my little sister will like chocolate cake
and chocolate ice cream. I wonder if she'll have 
adventurous taste buds and if she'll like playing chef
with me and be taste tester for all the concoctions I 
cook up. Will she like having make-believe parades?
Will she know how to make the sun shine even on
the rainiest of days?