The 12 Days of Christmas

by Greg Pizzoli

It may seem that this traditional rhyme has already been presented in every possible way, but Greg Pizzoli offers a fresh perspective. A page of pre-story illustration shows the famed “true love” reading a book and, presumably, getting gift ideas. The first page shows an elephant parent and child decorating their holiday tree, only to be interrupted by the “true love” with a wrapped gift that turns out to be a partridge in a pear tree. The real “story” here is not told in the over-familiar words but in the new-to-the-story pictures. Although the youngster’s joy increases with each gift, the parent shows signs of increasing dismay. Observant pre-readers and beginning readers will thrill as each lyrical addition presents a visual surprise undisclosed in the text. For example, “ten lords a leapin’” is shown to be ten frogs. While this makes sense, it is also absolute nonsense—an ingenious visual play on a strange holiday song. Readers will enjoy this story, and its happy ending.

Reviewer: Heidi Hauser Green

Flora and the Chicks

by Molly Idle

Little Flora sets out to check her chicken and maybe find some chicks. As she looks, she discovers one chick hatching after the other in this counting book that takes the reader/looker from one to ten. The fun of discovery is aided by the special layout of the book. Each spread has pages to flip open before finding a number and the chicks to count. Flora’s large blue and white dish becomes an accessory as she utilizes it to contain some of the chicks. A favorite illustration shows Flora finding a chick in the nest who is upside down with his legs sticking straight up. Chick number 5 is a brown chick, joining the other yellow and orange ones. As the chicks try to make the great escape by crawling out of Flora’s bowl, she has to do some fancy acrobatics to get them back. The delightful illustrations in this book are highly entertaining. This book is one of the “Flora” series that includes Flora and the Flaming, a Caldecott Honor Book. Preschools and families with young children will enjoy this creatively constructed board book.

Reviewer: Nancy Attebury

National Geographic Kids Beginner’s United States Atlas

by National Geographic Kids

After getting oriented to maps and their symbols, and finding out that there are two kinds of map (physical and political), readers are ready to explore the District of Columbia. Then, they move on to the rest of America, divided into five sections and the Territories. Each group begins with a spectacular spread—a color photo of a typical landscape and one of a picturesque native animal—then offers a clear, easy-to-read map and smaller photos of special interest. Essential facts are provided: date of statehood, flag, population, bird, and flower. The Northeast is New England south to Maryland; especially vivid in this presentation is Maine, with its quirky coastline and a bright red lobster. Next comes the Southeast (Atlantic and Gulf coasts to Kentucky and Tennessee), with lush foliage and water features. Here, North Carolina gets credit for the first powered flight; the featured bird is a flamingo. The Midwest, spreading from Ohio and Michigan to the Dakotas, is characterized by agriculture and wildlife, although state climates and urban (e.g., Chicago, Detroit) and rural landscapes differ greatly. While four states make up the Southwest region, they have a veritable monopoly on deserts, gorgeous rock formations, and tribal reservations. The Northwest section includes both Alaska and Hawai’i, thus offering the greatest diversity from icy slopes to tropical volcanoes and varying from wide, open spaces to sophisticated San Francisco. A final spread shows U.S. territories from Puerto Rico to the Pacific Islands, including Guam and the Marianas. This well-organized, lavishly illustrated atlas (with its moderate price) would be an asset to any classroom or a welcome gift for a geographically-minded young reader. Includes a glossary, an index, and postal codes.

Reviewer: Barbara L. Talcroft

Hocus Focus

by James Sturm, Andrew Arnold and Alexis Frederick-Frost

A magic spell goes awry in this graphic novel adventure for young readers. When the Knight is stuck peeling vegetables for the Wizard, she’s frustrated because she thought she’d be learning magic. Eventually, the Knight takes matters into her own hands, raiding the Wizard’s sanctum for a magic wand and spell book. But when she tries out a transformation spell, the whole thing backfires dramatically. The Knight’s horse ends up magically merged with a worm, and they grow to a freakishly immense size. A silly solution brings everything back to normal. An easy, quickly paced read with humorous illustrations and bold colors, this book is bound to draw and keep kids’ attention. The Knight is a very comedic character, and young readers will be amused by her reactions. The endpapers even contain step-by-step demonstrations of how to draw the Knight and other characters. Children who enjoy this story will want to pick up more books from the “Adventures in Cartooning” series, especially those that follow the escapades of the Knight.

Reviewer: Lisa Czirr

The Youngest Marcher: The Story of Audrey Faye Hendricks, a Young Civil Rights Activist

by Cynthia Levinson

illustrated by Vanessa Brantley Newton

Short, snappy sentences recount young Audrey’s foray into the Civil Rights Movement in 1963 Birmingham, Alabama. Fred Shuttlesworth, Jim Bevel, and Martin Luther King were often dinner guests in her home, so Audrey had heard and absorbed a lot about the efforts to end segregation when listening to dinner conversation. When the ministers’ preaching failed to rouse adults to fill the jails by marching in peaceful protest, they announced a new idea—have the children march instead. Audrey wanted to sit at Newberry’s, drink from the clean fountain, use the library, and enjoy other things afforded to white folk; she was ready to march and march she did, at the young age of nine. Jailed as expected, she was separated from the older, teen marchers, slept on a bare mattress, and was questioned by intimidating white men. In several days, the jail was overflowing with young protestors and all were released. Just two months later, Birmingham rescinded its segregation laws. Levinson maintains a folksy, storytelling voice throughout the longish text; but she does not shy away from the inequalities, the harsh jail conditions, or the loneliness Audrey felt while imprisoned. Newton’s digital collage illustrations are mostly filled with bright color and expressive faces. These illustrations convey excitement, concern, and fear. She captures the emotions of adults, teens, and, most especially, Audrey, whose bounce, enthusiasm, and hope is contagious. A gray-toned double-page spread of Audrey lying in her cell is haunting. Levinson draws from material in her 2015 title We’ve Got a Job: The 1963 Birmingham Children’s March (Peachtree) but has abbreviated and simplified the story for a younger audience. This important story proves individuals can make a difference at any age.

Reviewer: Peg Glisson

The Land of Forgotten Girls

by Erin Estrada Kelly

Soledad Elia Madrid thinks she knows how the world ticks. It’s complicated, just as her family is. Mama’s dead. So is Sol’s sister Amelia, who drowned when Sol was seven. Evil stepmother Vea married Papa only because she wanted to come to the United States, and now Papa’s gone back to the Philippines, likely for good. Magnolia Towers, in Giverny, Louisiana, where Sol and her sister Dominga (Ming) live with Vea, is a dump. There are rats in the walls and the bathroom mirror has a bad luck crack. Class lines are drawn, with Sol and her friend Manny yelling insults at the parochial school kids. Adults in the neighborhood display their own distinctive quirks. And then there’s the story world that Mama left, with tales of Auntie Jove—is she real, or did Mama make her up? Kelly (Blackbird Fly) has created an array of well-honed characters. The plucky young narrator must learn to navigate the sometimes blurry borders between truth and fantasy, reality and longing. The prose is simple, often striking. Vea “talks in thorns.” A balmy afternoon is “the kind that makes you thirsty all day.” Past and present, real and imagined, intersect in this touching middle grade novel about friendship, community, and the power of sisterhood. The book ends on a note of hope while avoiding an overly tidy resolution.

Reviewer: Uma Krishnaswami

First Light, First Life: A Worldwide Creation Story

by Paul Fleischman

illustrated by Julie Paschkis

From different religious and cultural traditions come different creation stories, and this book weaves many together in a single narrative. In China, the world begins with darkness, while in Fiji, there is only water; and in Mali there is only a drop of milk. The God of Israel speaks light into existence, while the Raven of Alaska steals a ball of light and drops some for the people. When there was only water, the Nigerian Obatala creates land from a single snail shell. Egypt’s sun god, Ra, creates the first humans from his own tears; and Arizona’s Spider Woman mixes four different kinds of soil together, wraps them in a cape, and sings a song to create humans. In accounts of creators’ judgment, the God of Gabon calls thunder to work with lightning to set fire to the earth, and the water God of Mexico—one of several flood stories—floods the earth. As the flood recedes, the good people who had been spared begin life again. This fascinating compilation of stories proves surprisingly coherent and shows the commonalities among cultures seeking answers about the origins of the world. Bright and primitive illustrations evoke the cultures depicted, and one illustration flows seamlessly into another in clever two-page spreads. The Author’s Note at the beginning offers sources for further reading about creation stories.

Reviewer: Michele Hughes

Salt to the Sea

by Ruta Sepetys

World War II is nearly over but thousands of refugees have nowhere to go. Alternating voices from four perspectives tells their converging stories when three of their paths cross as they trek through eastern Prussia toward the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that might take them to freedom. Each of the narrators has something to hide: Joana, a Lithuanian nurse believes herself to be a murderer; Emelia, a Polish fifteen-year-old secretive, is pregnant girl; Florian, a young Prussian soldier has deserted the Army and is carrying a mysterious parcel; and Alfred, a German sailor assigned to the Wilhelm is delusional, full of himself, and devoted to Hitler. With the exception of Alfred, the characters are warmly human and likable. Alfred, on the other hand, is not but his story helps tell the German role in the late war and sets up events on the ship. Sepetys has crafted another meticulously researched historical fiction story. Her poetic prose moderates the harsh realities of war and the setting but does not mask them. The short chapters gradually disclose each refugee’s heart-rending story, as well as that of an older cobbler poet, a runaway boy, and a large, negative woman. By the time the refugees reach the ship, the reader should sense they are heading for disaster as Alfred has provided details on the ship’s capacity and actual load. The ending is, of course, inevitable but the connection to the characters will keep readers quickly turning pages to reach the book’s heartbreaking conclusion that does include loss of a character. Sepetys tells a beautifully written, little known, and important moment of history, while helping young adults experience the best and worst of humanity and the strong will to persevere and survive. Back matter includes an informative Author’s Note and a map.

Reviewer: Peg Glisson

Jazz Day: The Making of a Famous Photograph

by Roxanne Orgill

illustrated by Francis Vallejo

In 1958, a graphic designer named Art Kane had an idea: gather as many jazz players as possible in Harlem and take a photograph of them—for free. He put out the word and waited to see what would happen. The result is an iconic photograph published by “Esquire” magazine, now famous around the world. Jazz Day uses poems to tell the story of how the photograph was taken. These poems focus on particular aspects of the famous jazz musicians and of the not-so-famous kids living in the blocks of Harlem. Most of the jazz greats are represented here, including Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, and Maxine Sullivan. The poems are mainly in free verse, and their rhythms echo the tempo of jazz. So do the illustrations, which are realistic and richly hued (do not forget to take off the dust jacket and admire the artwork on the hard cover). The book includes an “Author’s Note,” explaining the inspiration for the poems, biographies of some of the musicians, the legacy of the photograph in books and film, source notes, and a bibliography. A copy of the original photograph is included. The author and illustrator have managed to combine a great, true story with the poetic and visual arts to produce a book that will become a collector’s item for readers young and old.

Reviewer: Leona Illig

The Sun is also a Star

by Nicola Yoon

Natasha Kingsley and her family are about to be deported from New York City to Jamaica, but she has lived most of her life in the United States and doesn’t want to go back. Daniel Jae Ho Bae was born in the U.S., as was his older brother, Charles Jae Won Bae. Their parents are here legally; Natasha’s are not. The likelihood of Natasha and Daniel ever meeting seems very unlikely, but meet they do as Natasha makes one last ditch effort to turn the tide on her family’s deportation. Daniel is in Manhattan to be interviewed for admittance into Yale, not that he wants to go to Yale or become a doctor. He’d rather learn more about writing poetry. But they do meet and end up spending most of the day together. Daniel is open to falling in love with Natasha, but she keeps resisting. What’s the use she thinks, but she can’t help herself. In the end, Daniel takes her to the plane and watches her fly away. For a while they keep in touch, but time and distance finally take their toll on the relationship—until ten years later. The story is complex and, at first, it is difficult to follow who belongs in which family; but soon the reader figures out who belongs where and starts rooting for the star-crossed lovers. Like Ms. Yoon’s first book, Everything, Everything, this story will pull readers in. This book discusses some tough issues, such as the U.S. immigration laws, ethnic/culture differences, and “coincidences.”

Reviewer: Sarah Maury Swan