Bookcase Bizarro Children’s Book Reviews: February 2022

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

Welcome to the February edition of Bookcase Bizarro!

I’d been planning to profile middle grade graphic novelist, Jerry Craft, for Black History Month. A member of our regular picture book panel read Craft’s New Kid and I wanted to include her in the review but we weren’t able to ‘meet’ before the February edition of Bookcase Bizarro went to press.

So I’m planning a special feature on Jerry Craft for the March issue of Bookcase Bizarro.

This month, I’d like to draw your attention to the disturbing new trend of banning any children’s books about race. The American Library Association reports that more U.S. parents are attempting to ban books about race in schools, and Jerry Craft’s books have been caught up in the ban.

Here at Bookcase Bizarro, our response to book banning is to promptly read the works of any author who’s been affected. If you feel the same way, you can read Craft’s books, New Kid and Class Act, in advance of next month’s feature. You can also check out a list of banned children’s books here. (Did I mention how much I love librarians?)

Since all of this coincides with Freedom to Read Week in Canada (February 20-26, 2022), here is a list of works that have been challenged in Canada and internationally over the past decades (thanks to

This month, we’re honouring diverse families in our board books selection. We feature the first Black poet ever to win the Pulitzer Prize as this month’s Doug and Sheila Browne Book to Grow Into, and we’ll definitely talk about race with Sarah Stewart’s picture book, The Friend. You’ll also find that a new, middle grade graphic novel now accompanies our usual middle grade novel selection.

A quick note reminder that #TPL means that a particular title is available at the Toronto Public Library.

So without further ado, let’s dig into February’s picks.

Board Books

Love Makes a Family, by Sophie Beer. (Little Hare, 2018)

Families come in all shapes, sizes, colours, genders, abilities and ages but the common thread that unites them all is love. Bright, colourful illustrations beautifully bring to life the many ways that families express love.  (#TPL)

The Fish and the Cat, by Marianne Dubuc. (Princeton Architectural Press, 2018)

A charming, wordless picture book about a very determined cat and a clever gold fish with an amazing ability to elude capture. Great for escape artists of all ages. The wordless pictures would also work well as writing prompts for older children. (#TPL)

Picture Books

A children’s writer, a literacy tutor and an early childhood educator meet up together once a month to talk about books and what makes them tick. Here are this month’s picks:

The Museum of Everything, by Lynne Rae Perkins. (Greenwillow, 2021)

The Museum of Everything offers an introspective glimpse into the mind-maps built by an imaginative child as she retreats from the busy world to look at little pieces of it, one at a time. She makes sense of the world by making a world out of everything, creating a museum in her mind for each object she encounters. A new way of looking at the world emerges:

“There is a place between the streetlights where the shadow from behind you disappears, and shadow from in front of you hasn’t started yet.

Is it a place with no shadows?

Or is it a place with 100 percent shadows?”

Perkins’ three-dimensional art displays each object like a museum artifact with exhibits and constructions.

For readers 5 and up. Adults will also love it! (#TPL)

Chaiwala! By Priti Birla Maheshwari. Illustrated by Ashley Barron. (Owl Kids Books, 2021)

In this multi-sensory ode to chai tea, glasses clink, pestles pound, tea leaves rustle, water, milk, sugar and spices boil and bubble while the air is filled with the smell of crushed ginger, cardamom, cloves and cinnamon. A little girl and her mother descend from a train and take a quick break for tea before resuming their journey.

The making of the tea is rendered in such lively detail that readers will feel as if they are standing by the tea cart, dipping biscuits into their own cup of chai. Ashley Barron’s paper collages create an almost 3-D effect of paper-on paper as readers turn the pages.

Mindfulness around food and food prep can be difficult with kids but Chaiwala! makes it joyful. Teachers could easily use this book to create a two hour classroom activity for their students. (#TPL)

The Friend, by Sarah Stewart. Illustrated by David Small. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004)

Told in rhyme, The Friend is a  story about the enduring love that Belle, a young white girl, feels for Beatrice Smith, a Black housekeeper who takes care of her. Since Belle’s parents are rarely at home, she feels grown up enough to do almost everything. Most of her days are spent ‘helping’ Bea with the household chores, shopping and baking. At the end of each day, Bea and Belle take a walk down to the sea. One day, grown-up feeling Belle sneaks off to play with her red beach ball….

White readers (like myself) must be careful not to be lulled into viewing the story through rose-coloured glasses. Systemic racial and economic inequality exists between Belle and Bea, and Stewart and Small portray it – albeit in subtle ways. Although Belle lives in a mansion, Bea is given the smallest rooms at the top of the house and must use the back stairs to get there, a daily reminder that no matter what her feelings are towards Belle, she will never be considered as part of the family.

Belle makes a mess helping out with the chores, adding to Bea’s heavy workload but Bea never corrects her. Part of the reason is that Bea loves Belle but adult readers will also realize that as a Black woman in America, Bea can only go so far without endangering herself.

Illustrator David Small clues readers into the discrepancies between Belle’s view of Bea as her friend, and Bea’s actual experiences. In an interior of Bea’s apartment, our attention is immediately drawn to framed photos of Bea’s family, including a young woman (Daughter? Sister? Niece?) wearing a graduation cap and a big smile on her face. It’s clear that this young woman – whoever she is – will never have to work as a live-in maid and caretaker. With an education, she’s got options – options that weren’t available to Bea. While Belle is entranced by the rarely-seen view from Bea’s window, readers are aware that caring for Belle has come at the expense of Bea’s own family.

Bea’s loneliness is made achingly palpable in a striking double fold illustration that shows Bea sitting on the beach, gazing out to sea with an attitude of heavy stillness while Belle happily builds a sandcastle beside her. Both of these experiences are true. The love that children like Belle feel for their caregivers is deep and real. While the story is told from Belle’s point of view, it’s clear that something more than simple choice brought Belle and Bea together. Small’s illustrations create layers of meaning that offer a sideways entrance into difficult discussions about socioeconomic inequality and systemic racism.

One of our book club members thought that the story led in a direction that didn’t fit well with the ending, while another member thought there was a clear link between the beginning and the end. It just shows how subjective different interpretations can be, which provides a nice, real life coda to the book.

While being situated in an American (possibly southern) past, this book resonates strongly in the present, as Filipina women raise a new generation of white children. Black history month is an important time to learn about the diverse experiences of Black people and to take on systemic racism. It’s also a good time to take stock of the ways that systemic white privilege plays out. The Friend is a a layered and touching story that does exactly that. (#TPL)

The Doug and Sheila Browne Books to Grow Into Selection

Exquisite: The Poetry and Life of Gwendolyn Brooks, by Suzanne Slade. Illustrated by Cozbi A. Cabrera. (Abrams, 2020)

Exquisite is a picture book biography of the renowned poet, Gwendolyn Brooks – the first Black person * to win the Pulitzer Prize. Slade’s text captures the joy of writing throughout Gwendolyn’s life, whether it’s listening to her father recite poetry for his extensive collection, to writing a school history report in verse, to writing poems as an adult through the ever-present threat of a power shut-off due to unpaid bills. While chronicling Brooks’ shyness and unpopularity at school and the difficulties of living through the Great Depression, Slade emphasizes Brooks’ perseverance – one of the most important qualities for any artist to cultivate.

Cabrera’s acrylic illustrations are joyful and vibrant, bringing Brooks’ Chicago neighbourhood of Bronzeville to life and accentuating the clouds that Brooks loved so much. A copy of ‘Clouds,’ a poem that Brooks wrote when she was fifteen years old, is included as well as a timeline, a source list of quotes and a select bibliography for further reading.

The book functions equally well as a read-aloud story or a beginning reader, with a special appeal for burgeoning writers. (#TPL)

* Brooks preferred to describe herself as Black rather than African American.

Middle Grade Graphic Novel

Enola Holmes: The Graphic Novels: The Case of the Missing Marquess, The Case of the Left-Handed Lady,and The Case of the Bizarre Bouquets, by Serena Blasco. Translated by Tanya Gold. (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2022)

An an original spin on Nancy Springer’s Enola Holmes’ novels.

Enola, the youngest Holmes sibling, gets more than she bargains for on
the morning of her fourteenth birthday when she wakes up to find her mother missing. The Holmes brothers, Sherlock and Mycroft, are sent for and immediately decide to place Enola in a boarding school for ladies – a place that will re-make bright, adventurous Enola into a passive, ornamental society wife. Remembering her mother’s love of ciphers, Enola looks more closely at her birthday presents: a book on the language of flowers and one on coded messages – and discovers a hidden message from her mother inside. Following the clues, Enola finds a secret stash of  money stockpiled by her mother (from funds that Mycroft sent to pay for stable hands, gardeners and governesses she never hired). Enola uses her mother’s gift to escape and sets herself up as a detective in London. Her first cases bring home the many ways that women are disenfranchised in society. Enola begins to understand the deeper reasons why Mother left her controlled and cloistered life as a society lady, and begins to see her mother’s messages as poignant clues for how she, Enola, might control her own future.

Blasco’s art is a blend of many different graphic styles. Enola is drawn with hints of anime, which highlights her role as the main protagonist and creates a kind of superhero aura about her. Other characters are drawn just as distinctly. Sherlock’s nose is so high in the air that he often fails to see Enola, who’s hiding right under it.

The love between mother and daughter, although constant, is difficult for Enola to understand and accept. Everything’s a cipher. Desertion is revealed as a bid for freedom, not only for Enola’s mother but for Enola herself. Mother gives Enola something much stronger than comfort: a trust in Enola’s abilities to solve her coded messages – a trust that Enola will need to develop in herself if she’s to have any sort of a meaningful life. Enola’s loneliness, while she struggles to solve Mother’s puzzles and tries to outwit her sexist brothers, is both poignant and necessary.

I’m partial to well-executed, ambiguous endings and this first volume of Enola Holmes: The Graphic Novels, delivers. Enola’s adventures leave her stronger and more resolved, with enough mystery to intrigue us for later books. (Individual titles in the series are available at TPL)

I received this book in exchange for an honest review from NetGalley and Andrews McMeel Publishers.

Middle Grade Novel

Here in the Real World, by Sara Pennypacker. (Balzer + Bray, 2020

Ware is enjoying summer at his grandmother Big Deal’s apartment in Florida. Away from his mother (who’s always pushing him to have Meaningful Social Interactions), Ware finally has some time to himself. He’s a great admirer of the knight’s code of chivalry, but he’s unable to save Big Deal when she falls and breaks her hip. He is forced to return home, where his parents enrol him in dreaded Rec Camp. The introverted and socially awkward Ware knows he will stick out like a sore thumb. So on the first day of Rec Camp, he sneaks away to the abandoned church next door and meets Jolene, who warns Ware away from the garden she’s planting.

In the following days, Ware and Jolene negotiate a truce: Ware claims the church for his castle and Jolene keeps the yard for her papaya plants. The church becomes a refuge for them in different ways. For Ware, it’s a way to escape from Rec Camp, become the lord of his own castle and control his own life. Jolene, who scoffs at Ware’s retreat into fantasy, needs to sell the papayas she’s raising in order to cover rent.

Fantasy and reality collide when their refuge is threatened. Jolene and Ware must step out of their own worlds and learn how to work together if they’re to have any chance at all of saving their sanctuary.

This is a strong, lyrical story that’s not afraid to show the struggles children face with their families. Ware, who is creative, introverted (and possibly neurodiverse). is deeply wounded when he overhears his mother wishing for a ‘normal’ child. Jolene’s living situation is downright dangerous. Several of the neighbourhood’s adults have rallied around her to provide her with the love she doesn’t get from her aunt. I love that Pennypacker’s families live in the real world and chosen family is shown as a way for a child to survive a neglectful and abusive home.

Class differences between Ware and Jolene are sensitively explored with no hint of patronization. Partly, that’s because most of the people in the book are struggling, one way or another. Partly, it’s because of Jolene: her grit and determination build a strong sense of empathy in the reader. Like Ware, we like and admire Jolene and want to be her friend, too.

I don’t know if Pennypacker intended to present Ware as neurodiverse or not but I could see myself in his very literal mind and constant social bewilderment. With the support of a loving uncle, Ware experiences a growing appreciation of himself as an introvert and strives to protect his new identity.

This is not a book about ‘issues.’ Rather, it’s a book that integrates the real world issues that children face into an unforgettable story about resilience, the difficulties of fighting for change and the risks people must take in order to understand one another and be understood themselves. While Ware and Jolene struggle to become friends amidst real differences, the genuine empathy they show for one another is made possible by those very differences. (#TPL)

#IMWAYR is a weekly blog hop hosted by Unleashing Readers and Teach Mentor Texts. Its focus is to share the love of KIDLIT and recommend KIDLIT books to readers of all ages.

Check it out every Monday and get your reading fix on!

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