Bookcase Bizarro Children’s Book Reviews: December 2021

Table of Contents:
Board Books
Picture Books
The Doug and Sheila Browne Books to Grow Into Selection
Middle Grade Novel

Welcome to the December edition of Bookcase Bizarro! This month, we profile a couple of National Geographic Kids books, as well as board books by Ojibway artist Joseph Adair and author/illustrator Taro Gomi. We’re back with our regular picture book and middle grade spotlights, as well as the Doug and Sheila Browne Books to Grow Into Selection. So without further ado, let’s dig into December’s picks.

Board Books

We All Count, By Joseph Adair. (North West Books, Vancouver, 2013)

A stunning counting book with words in English and Ojibway. Adair introduces children to Ojibway art and the deep relationship Ojibway culture has with wildlife. He uses specific colours to represent the different powers, feelings and energy of each animal. (#TPL)

Match! (Look and Learn). (National Geographic Kids, Washington D.C. 2011)

Look Outside! By Ruth A. Musgrave. (National Geographic Kids, Washington D.C, 2017)

We got lucky this summer at a small thrift store in Eastern Ontario. (A big shoutout to Hastings County!) A quick perusal through the toy section unearthed an entire bag of board books for…wait for it…$5 bucks! Of course, we scooped them all up for our niece, along with these National Geographic treasures with bright, large photographs just right for a 1 year old. My one and only beef is that the kids profiled in these titles could be more diverse. 

What Do You Wear? By Taro Gomi. (Chronicle Books, New York, 2017)

Animals parade through the pages of this book in a colourful display of warm coats – and we pale in comparison! Funny and engaging. (#TPL)

Picture Books

Once a month, I meet up with my longtime friend, Kate McQuiggan, to discuss picture books. (It’s a tough job, we know.) Here are this month’s picks:

This is Ruby, by Sara O’Leary. Illustrated by Alea Marley. (Tundra, Toronto, 2021)

Ruby is a busy kid with wildly great ideas…many, many ideas over the course of a single day. The book chronicles a day-in-the-life of this creative kid and her trusty dog, Teddy. It’s a full roster because there are there are so many things Ruby “…wants to do and make and be.” For instance, she invents a potion that tastes like clouds, and a book with smells instead of words for animals. 

The text encourages discussion between parents and kids, and accentuates the positives of neuro-diversity, such as boundless curiosity about learning and exploring, and creativity. The illustrations have a narrative energy and flow that younger readers will pick up on, and while Ruby explores her future options, the stereotypical doctor and lawyer aren’t included on her list. Ruby’s story of her two moms meeting is depicted in matter-of-fact, sepia tones and is very much a background to her far more interesting day. (#TPL)

Last Stop on Market Street, by Matt De La Pena. Illustrated by Christian Robinson.(G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 2015)

CJ doesn’t understand why he and his Nana have to take the bus after church and asks why don’t they have a car, like his friend Colby? “Boy, what do we need a car for?” Nana replies. “We got a bus that breathes fire, and old Mr. Dennis, who always has a trick for you.”

So begins a cross-town journey that will lead CJ and his Nana through changing landscapes and passengers until they reach their stop at the soup kitchen, their usual Sunday destination. Through it all, CJ learns to see the world around him through many different pairs of eyes.

We’ve rarely seen a picture book that explores service work as an integral part of faith, and De La Pena portrays this in a matter-of-fact, unpreachy manner. The relationship between CJ and his Nana is tender and it’s clear that Nana has a special way of seeing beauty everywhere in the world, no matter what the surroundings. Nana and CJ are greeted by soup kitchen regulars like old friends, not do-gooders, which is testament to the deep, mutual respect everyone has for each other.

Christian Robinson’s stunning, colourful and geometric illustrations bring Nana’s observations to vivid life and have a faintly Ezra Jack Keats feel to them. (#TPL)

The Promise, by Nicola Davies. Illustrated by Laura Carlin. (Candlewick, Somerville MA, 2013)

A young thief snatches a bag from an old woman. Before letting go, the old woman extracts a promise from the thief…one that will change their life.

I should start out by saying that this is a gorgeously-illustrated book full of rich prose from a real wordsmith: green leaves spread out like a song, “…breathing to the sky, drawing down the rain like a blessing.”

The story has a parable-like feel to it but we never settle into a sense of place long enough to feel it’s impact as the thief sets off on their mission to fulfill their promise to the old woman. The city where the thief lives is stereotyped as a grim grid-lock of streets and buildings, whose inhabitants never smile. There is nary a plant in sight, not even a weed. We found the thief’s change-of-heart too abrupt, written as a statement with no context to show what had caused the changes. Challenging the thief’s viewpoint through events and actions would have conveyed the changes much more powerfully to the reader. This misstep is odd, considering the book’s resonant, satisfying wrap-up. It is the illustrations that convey a physical experience of transformation that the story can’t match.

The book is very much worth reading for it’s beautiful language and illustrations but it felt to us like it was written to convey a message rather than to tell a story of change and transformation. (#TPL)

The Newbies, by Peter Catalanotto. (Atheneum, New York, 2015)

A young boy feels deserted when his expectant parents no longer have time to play with him like they used to. When he sees a pamphlet with instructions for new parents, a very literal misreading of the words, ‘new parents,’ sends him off on an internal adventure with a brand new set of parents, ones who have all the time in the world for him. But without a shared family history, how well can they really know him?

We loved the idea of a kid getting new parents – an almost universal wish at some point in the life of every older sibling. The anger and grief of being displaced is very real, as is the fear of being unwanted. The boy’s feelings are addressed during a genuine and sensitive reconciliation with his real parents that firmly re-establishes his position in the family. We loved that the father and mother both provide comfort and reassurance to their child. (#TPL)

The Doug and Sheila Browne Books to Grow Into Selection

Alphabet Street, by Jonathan Emmett. Illustrated by Ingela P. Arrhenius. (Nosy Crow, Somerville MA, 2019)

“A is for Aardvark asleep in her bed.”

So begins the story of a busy street full of fold-out, flip-the flap windows – complete with animal occupants – to illustrate every letter in the alphabet. (My favourite is: “I is for for Insect, who’s icing a bun.”) If that isn’t enough, the entire book folds out into an eight-foot playset, featuring the town with it’s shops and houses on one side and a colourful road scape on the other. A book that can be both read and played with will appeal to curious, active and imaginative children, especially ones who already love flip-the-flap books.

My niece is too young for this book but I’ve chosen it for her as a Book to Grow Into. The TPL doesn’t have this book yet (hint, hint). It may be partly due to the somewhat flimsy flaps, which could have been made from more kid-friendly, heavier stock. 

A beautiful book that will provide hours of fun. 

Middle Grade Novel

The Parker Inheritance, by Varian Johnson. (Arthur A. Levine Books, New York, 2018)

The Parker Inheritance is one of those rare books that layers in complexity, texture and depth the more the story unfolds, yet avoids getting bogged down in it’s own details. 

12-year old Candice Miller is having a horrible summer. Not only has she been uprooted from her home in Atlanta because of her parents’ divorce, but she and her mother land in Lambert, South Carolina, a city where she has no friends, and everything is unfamiliar. Money is tight and living in a house that once belonged to Candice’s grandmother will allow the Millers to save some money. Will it be enough to get them back to Atlanta? Candice doesn’t know. She misses her grandmother, and remembers the way she encouraged Candice’s love of puzzles.

A real-life puzzle falls into Candice’s lap when she finds an old letter addressed to her grandmother, with clues to an unfinished scavenger hunt. The letter tells of a terrible injustice that occurred in Lambert and offers a fortune to the city if those reading the letter can solve the puzzle. To complicate matters, Candice’s grandmother, the first African-American city manager, lost her job and ruined her reputation by trying to solve the puzzle. With the help of Brandon Jones, a bookish neighbour, Candice is determined to finish the scavenger hunt her grandmother started, claim the prize for Lambert and restore her grandmother’s reputation.

The cover of this book provides the first clue to how the story will unfold, namely in two, alternating narratives, one set in the past and the other in the present. (All four primary characters are featured on the front cover.) Johnson cleverly tells the historical part of the story through the eyes of high schoolers, giving the middle grade characters – and readers – a glimpse into what their own lives might one day look like. It also explores the impact the incident outlined in the mysterious letter had on the lives various characters, and shows how how systemic racism funnels down through the generations to the present day. The harrowing racial hatred faced by characters in 1950s Lambert are echoed in the micro aggressions Candice and Brandon face from a white school principal, and in present day realities like police brutality, homophobia and passing. All of the characters, whether primary or secondary, are fully realized, contributing to the depth and richness of the story. 

The book also pays homage to Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game, a book I’m ashamed to admit I never read, mostly because I greatly preferred fantasy over ‘puzzle books’ as a middle grade reader. If I’d read The Parker Inheritance when I was a kid, I would most definitely have changed my mind. 

Winner of the 2019 Coretta Scott King Book Award. (#TPL)

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