Lift Your Light a Little Higher: The Story of Stephen Bishop: Slave-Explorer


by Heather Henson
illustrated by Bryan Collier

Stephen Bishop is a slave. Assigned by his master to explore Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave in 1838, Stephen has become an expert guide for tourists visiting the natural wonder. He has searched its trails, discovered eyeless fish and albino crayfish in its streams, and made the original detailed map of the explored parts—he was the first to cross a spot called the “Bottomless Pit.” Since little is known of Bishop besides his work, Henson presents him as he might want to speak to modern readers. Her poetic words convey his pride in his expertise, his fascination with the cave, and his utter frustration at being a slave. Only underground does he feel the dignity and authority that his knowledge gives him. He has even learned to read in the cave, as a result of tourists’ graffiti written with soot from candles on long sticks. (Visitors can still see his signature—“Stephen.”) Award-winning artist Collier employs a rich palette of browns and black for excursions underground, reserving blues and greens for time in the sun, as in portraits of Bishop, his wife Charlotte, and their son in front of the small slave house; especially beautiful is a page of collage framing Bishop’s face. Speaking directly to readers, he tells them that no one knows exactly how he died, but he’s still there as a spirit of the cave. “Sometimes you just got to lift your light a little higher…go beyond what’s written down to get to what’s been left untold.” Young (and older) readers can learn more from endnotes by Henson and Collier and from Elizabeth Mitchell’s novel, Journey to the Bottomless Pit (Scholastic, 2004) or, best of all, visiting Mammoth Cave National Park.

Reviewer: Barbara L. Talcroft

The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle

by Janet Fox

To insure that the three Bateson children are safe from the Blitz in 1940’s London, their father has made arrangements for them to attend the Children’s Academy at Rookskill Castle in Scotland. A great danger awaits them at the castle, however. Lady Eleanor’s dark magic threatens to take their souls just as she has stolen the souls of other children through the centuries, using the charms on her chatelaine (“an ornamental appendage worn by ladies at the waist”). Both literally and figuratively, she loses a piece of her humanity with each soul that she takes. Before leaving for the castle, Kat Bateson, the oldest of the three children, is given a chatelaine by her great-aunt Margaret, who tells her it is magical. Kat, who is adept at math and logic, must use all her strength, knowledge, and newly-discovered magical skills to overpower Lady Eleanor before she takes Kat’s soul. Meanwhile, the children of the castle discover a Nazi spy is in their midst. They race to uncover his identity before he absconds with Lady Eleanor’s magic chatelaine. A strong sense of place, vivid characters, and spine-tingling suspense pervade this story of good versus evil. Children disappear, the wind howls, and strange noises come from the walls. Since her father works for the British government, and Kat’s human hand has been replaced with a powerful metal one, perhaps we will see a sequel. A fine mixture of historical fiction and fantasy.

Reviewer: Sharon Salluzzo

The Storyteller

by Evan Turk

The danger to a culture when its history-keepers are silenced is the foundational motif for this story of a boy who searches his city, in the kingdom of Morocco, for water to fill his cup. He encounters a wizened story-teller who begins to tell a fable to the boy about a family who always had enough water. The approach of a sand-tsunami that gathers out in the desert, and is rolling toward the city, alternates with the tale of an old woman who brings relief from drought to a village in the form of beautiful yarn that must be woven to realize the miracle. The boy repeats the story to the powerful storm. In the process, he empowers the people and together they drive off the desert spirits who threaten to destroy the land. The use of a culturally important craft (weaving) to rescue a land surrounded by desert delivers a powerful message about the importance of preserving beautiful and useful traditions in the midst of adapting to the technology of the future. The story design, of a story within a story within a story, is repetitive and circular, building from a story about a single weaver in a village to a city-wide uprising that defeats the storm, much like a carpet, woven from single threads, grows to cover an entire room. The illustrations, rich in cultural references in design and color, are framed in motifs that suggest carpet edges. The linear style blends with the weft and warp of a loom and produces a seamless visual that enhances the text. This story begs to be read over and over, each page offering new details for discovery on each encounter, like the complex patterns of a beautiful rug. Turk’s book concludes with an “Author’s Note,” that offers insights into why he wrote this story, and a list of resources labeled “Further Learning.” This book would be a good choice for story circle both as a way to introduce the culture of Morocco and as a way of initiating discussions with young children about why it is important to preserve and tell the stories of all cultures.

Reviewer: Hazel Buys

No Better Friend: Young Readers Edition: A Man, a Dog, and Their Incredible True Story of Friendship and Survival in World War II

by Robert Weintraub

“Courage is not having the strength to go on; it is going on when you don’t have the strength.” This quote by Theodore Roosevelt opens this 38-chapter middle grade edition of Robert Weintraub’s New York Times bestseller about Judy, the purebred Pointer, and her best friend, Frank Williams, a Royal Air Force radar expert. The two met in a Prisoner of War camp in Japan during World War II. In fact, it is not until 120 pages into the book that Frank and Judy meet. Judy’s life before Frank included traveling on British gunboats, being stranded on a desert island, traveling through jungles and imprisoned in Padang. She had had a litter of pups aboard a ship, and another while in a Japanese POW camp, and was essentially not only a heroic war dog but the world’s first therapy dog, bringing hope and comfort to soldiers and refugees she met along the way. The book has many photos and sidebars about the war and Judy’s story in light of these hardships is made even more remarkable. Written for a middle grade audience, the violence and desperate measures Frank had to take to keep Judy by his side for years are evenly paced throughout and the sidebars even include information on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, something not even considered following World War II. When the pair returned to London the Pointer was now known as “Gunboat Judy” or “Precious Pointer” and following her six-month quarantine (standard for all dogs entering the United Kingdom) Judy and Frank were honored in many ceremonies throughout the country for their service. Finally, the pair settled in Africa working on a food growing project for the British, where Judy had her third litter of pups and they spent two years together before Judy’s passing. The deeply touching relationship between Frank and Judy, as well as the historical details and uplifting stories of courage and survival, make this an unforgettable volume definitely worth adding to a collection.

Reviewer: Debra Lampert-Rudman

A Beetle is Shy

by Dianna Hutts Aston

illustrated by Sylvia Long

Some beetles can crawl through the eye of a needle. Some of them measure half a foot in length. Some dig and some hop. Some fly and some swim. All of them have incredible features that dazzle the eyes and ensnare the senses. Beetles come in every color of the rainbow, in incredible shapes, with astonishing abilities. Aston shares with readers’ insight about the character of these special bugs. Indeed, she skillfully explains their traits, but the narrative is not what makes this tremendous volume stand out. What truly resonates are the wonderful illustrations by Sylvia Long. With dexterity, artistry, and vision she depicts these creatures of the wild, bringing them and all their subtle nuances to the eyes of young audiences. The painted renderings make them accessible in ways that photography may not. An informational book worthy of any science teacher’s library, surely this one belongs in the hands of curious young people.

Reviewer: Remy Dou

Secret Coders

by Gene Luen Yang and Mike Holmes

Moving to a new school is always tough, especially when it looks like it might be haunted. The first day starts out badly for twelve-year-old Hopper, as she encounters a creepy janitor and a bunch of bullies. Eventually, along with her new friend Eni, Hopper gets wrapped up in the mystery of the school, which involves four-eyed birds and a leaf-blowing robot turtle. This graphic novel from the “Secret Coders” series is an engaging story and, using relatable examples, is a great introduction to binary code. Students who are intimidated by computers and coding will not have trouble digging into this story. Several times throughout the book, the reader is even invited to actively work on cracking the codes. Each of these challenges teaches a useful lesson. Even the chapter numbers are in binary code, using the birds’ eyes! There are also personal mysteries in Hopper’s life to solve, such as her family’s issues involving her father. The artwork is expressive and comical. There is plenty of humor overall, and the story is entertaining enough that readers will not realize they are also learning at the same time. There is potential for wide audience appeal to both boys and girls, and the ending will leave the reader wanting more.

Reviewer: Lisa Czirr

I Wish You More

by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

Illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld

Simple and sweet, this collection of wishes for a young listener is perfect for sharing in an adult’s lap or poring over with a friend. The anonymous narrator, “I,” can be anyone; the situations pictured will remind a child of moments experienced, like watching a caterpillar creep slowly along, tasting a snowflake, or standing under an umbrella in pouring rain. The wishes are short, but full of wordplay and contrasts, and Lichtenheld’s imaginative multi-media illustrations expand on each with an unexpected twist that will bring a smile of recognition. Lichtenheld’s use of colors is fresh, though he excels at using blues, from a snowflake-filled sky to a dark blue night scene with a child reading by flashlight under a sheet. The final, expansive wish is for warmth, love, security, “and more.” An excellent model for beginning writers, the collaboration could lead to an illustrated classroom book of wishes, an exploration of one’s own desires, or a tender gift for someone special. Readers and teachers who want to see more from Rosenthal and Lichtenheld should try the team’s Duck! Rabbit! (Chronicle, 2009), Rosenthal’s Spoon (Disney/Hyperion, 2009), or Lichtenheld’s illustrations for Stick and Stone (HMH, 2015).

Reviewer: Barbara L. Talcroft

Mama Seeton’s Whistle

Jerry Spinelli

Illustrated by LeUyen Pham

The enduring bond between a mother and her four children is delightfully demonstrated through a simple act—the mother’s “simple, two-note whistle” to call her children home. Whether the children are young or grown, whether they are in their own backyard or scattered through the world, their mother’s whistle beckons them. Though plain and sparing, Spinelli’s words capture the affections of a close-knit family and the joys of its members through rituals of family dinners and homemade chocolate cake. They conjure a simpler time when children roamed and played at each other’s’ homes for all hours, and were only called away from friends at dinnertime by their parents. Based on Spinelli’s childhood neighbor, Mama Seeton’s character and life from a bygone era are captured perfectly by the charming illustrations, from Mama Seeton’s clothing and hair style to the cars, bicycles, and a neighbor’s black-and-white television. Rendered in ink and watercolor, the artwork effectively conveys the children’s escapades and their growth and development through the years. One scene beautifully portrays the passage of time by capturing the neighborhood during the four seasons across the page, while others show the children’s exploits through the town and then all over the world as adults. A ribbon of pink twirls through the air in the pages, showing the connection between mother and children. The words and gorgeous pictures complement each other flawlessly, sure to resonate with adult readers with its sense of nostalgia while giving its young readers a sense of comfort, safety, and love.

Reviewer: Ann L. Kreske

Goodbye Stranger

by Rebecca Stead

Newbery winner Stead masterfully avoids all the pitfalls common in tales of friendships between middle school girls. Her three main characters include Em (who has suddenly developed real curves and the attention they bring), Tab (whose focus has turned to feminism and social justice), and Bridge (an introspective survivor of a near-fatal accident who wonders if there is a special reason for her life). These three swore several years ago—over a Twinkie—to be friends forever, to never fight, and to work through the changes in their friendship over the years. As they navigate seventh grade, they are determined to follow through on that pledge. Three narrators, one of whom is Bridge, flush out the story from different viewpoints. Readers will meet Sherm, the second narrator, and read his unmailed letters to the grandfather he misses terribly. After fifty years of marriage, Sherm’s grandfather has left their home. A third narrator, using a second-person voice, is an unnamed high school student needing to hide in plain sight for a day—who is she and how is she connected to the others? Of course some bad choices are made, including texting risqué photos that go viral; but Em is insistent that the boy to whom she sent them didn’t do it. Finding the culprit is one of the “mysteries” Stead has worked in. This examination of love, loyalty, and friendship explores the differences between each girl’s self-perception and what the world—parents, teachers, and classmates—know of them. Clearly aimed at middle school readers, it should not be added to elementary book lists. It has a special, limited audience for a reason.

Reviewer: Peg Glisson

Baba Yaga’s Assistant

Marika McCoola

Illustrated by Emily Carroll

Baba Yaga is an iconic figure in Russian folklore, a fearsome witch who intimidates others with various degrees of terrifying magic. Masha, on the other hand, is a modern-day teenager with problems. Her mother has died, and her father, a scientist, has just proposed to another woman and seems eager to move on. When Masha sees a help-wanted ad from Baba Yaga for an assistant, she decides to apply. Her father does not seem to care about her anymore, so what does she have to lose—except, perhaps, her life? The reader is taken on a wild and enchanted journey as Masha matches wits with a witch and does battle with fantastic woodland creatures. Can she win the job? And if she does, will her father even care if Masha leaves her family to live with a witch? There are no easy answers as fiction and reality collide in this inventive, imaginative graphic novel. Despite its unusual subject matter, however, at the heart of this tale is the universal theme of loss, death, and abandonment. Readers who have lost a loved one will recognize themselves in Masha as she tries to cope with grief and survive in a universe in which everything has changed. The illustrations are rich in color and content; and, equally important, are easy to follow and understand. An unconventional myth with a very human theme, this book will reward and touch readers who willing to suspend belief and enter into a blended world of fact and fancy.

Reviewer: Leona Illig