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Five Children on the Western Front

Kate Saunders. Delacorte, $16.99 (256p) ISBN 978-0-553-49793-9

Published in 2014 (the centennial of the start of WWI) in England, where it won the Costa Children’s Book Award, Saunders’s moving homage to E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It is an irresistible read for a wide range of readers. In a daring move, Saunders delivers a sequel to the classic fantasy, taking up the characters in 1914 (except for a few instances of time travel), adding a new sibling, and not just reviving the Psammead, but providing a backstory for the “senior sand fairy” that has its own suspenseful movement. Comfortably blending fantasy elements with an English period piece about a close family, Saunders (The Whizz Pop Chocolate Shop) doesn’t shy from the tragedies of WWI, but handles them with a tender sadness, eschewing any hints of sentimentality or melodrama. While readers might be slightly incredulous at the outcome of one horrific event, Saunders casts it in realistic detail. A satisfying epilogue closes the book with the mix of notes that arise from its pages: family, magic, sorrow, and joie de vivre. Ages 10–up. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Scourge

Jennifer A. Nielsen. Scholastic Press, $16.99 (368p) ISBN 978-0-545-68245-9

Best friends Ani and Weevil are part of a loyal, hardworking community of River People living under the thumb of Governor Felling of Keldan, who denies them voting rights and infringes on their borders. Though they have little, Ani, an only child, and fatherless Weevil are devoted to each other. When Ani and Della, the well-heeled daughter of a prominent Keldan family, are taken to Attic Island after testing positive for the Scourge, a deadly and incurable plague, Weevil joins them. There, Ani finds herself in trouble as she tests the boundaries of the wardens’ powers. As Ani mysteriously gets stronger while Della weakens, she and Weevil discover a band of dissidents who claim to be cured of the Scourge. The dissidents’ belief that River People are “dirty” and “cowards” is overturned as they work with Ani and Weevil to uncover a conspiracy. Nielsen’s (A Night Divided) polished fantasy smoothly combines medieval elements with hints of mystery and romance. Though the plot is conventional, it delivers a significant message about how misinformation breeds intolerance. Ages 10–14. Agent: Ammi-Joan Paquette, Erin Murphy Literary Agency. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Zoe in Wonderland

Brenda Woods. Penguin/Paulsen, $16.99 (208p) ISBN 978-0-399-17097-3

Eleven-year-old Zoe Reindeer, a “shy, perfectly plain girl-person” stuck between a popular older sister and a genius younger brother, may be “just Zoe” in real life, but she’s powerful and strong in her frequent daydreams. Zoe wishes she could be more like “Imaginary Zoe” at home and at school, but there are some good things in her real life, too, like her father’s exotic plant store, Doc Reindeer’s Exotic Plant Wonderland, and spending time with her best friend and fellow nerd Quincy. When a tall, mysterious astronomer who hails from Madagascar comes into “the Wonderland” seeking a baobab tree, then returns to give Zoe a book by Carl Sagan, he starts her on a journey toward discovering that she might be more like Imaginary Zoe than she realized. Woods (The Blossoming Universe of Violet Diamond) handles big challenges—such as Quincy’s move out of town, middle-school hierarchies, and an elderly neighbor with memory loss—with sensitivity and a light touch. Readers will find it easy to sink into Zoe’s warm family life, realistic in its squabbles, worries, and powerfully evident love. Ages 8–12. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Inspector Flytrap

Tom Angleberger, illus. by Cece Bell. Amulet/Abrams, $14.95 (112p) ISBN 978-1-4197-0948-7

In this uproariously funny illustrated chapter book, the husband-and-wife team of Angleberger and Bell (Crankee Doodle) highlight the outrageous investigations of a Venus flytrap detective—think Inspector Clouseau as carnivorous plant. Inspector Flytrap won’t take just any mystery: it needs to be a “big deal” mystery. Luckily, he gets a few: Lulu Emu at the art museum is curious about a mysterious blob on a da Vinci painting; Koko Dodo’s bakery suddenly stinks; and a rose has been kidnapped from Mimi Kiwi at Snooty la Tooty Gardens. When Inspector Flytrap’s grouchy assistant, Nina the Goat, isn’t eating everything in sight (including evidence) she pushes his flowerpot on a skateboard to the scene of each investigation, however dangerous that may be (“She just shoves me out into the street, right in front of speeding traffic!”). Abundant punning and absurdity, Bell’s equally raucous cartooning, and the trail of destruction that Nina and the inspector leave in their wake make this series opener a “big deal” winner. Book two, Inspector Flytrap in the President’s Mane Is Missing, is available simultaneously. Ages 6–9. Agent: Caryn Wiseman, Andrea Brown Literary. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Lucy

Randy Cecil. Candlewick, $19.99 (144p) ISBN 978-0-7636-6808-2

In Cecil’s (Evermore Dragon) town of Bloomville, people flock to vaudeville shows, apartment buildings have stoops, and the neighborhood butcher sports a handlebar moustache. Set over four acts, the story—which could either be considered a very long picture book or a large-format chapter book—follows the lives of three city inhabitants. There’s Lucy, a small stray dog who romps through Bloomville, always on the lookout for food: “She takes a big sniff. These are questionable scraps. Very questionable. She eats them anyway.” Sam, a grocery clerk, is a gifted juggler with stage fright. Eleanor, Sam’s daughter, slips Lucy tidbits when she can. Cozy, repeated sequences, like Lucy’s daily morning dash through the city, “Past Bertolt’s Butcher Shop.... Past the diner with the questionable scraps,” counterbalance the story’s mysteries: How did Lucy lose the luxurious home she often remembers? Why is Sam so terrified? Cecil’s stylized black-and-white oil paintings are framed in circles, focusing each scene as if through a lens. The conclusion unfolds naturally, while Cecil’s understated writing and careful pacing contribute substantially to this sweetly satisfying story. Ages 5–8. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Wake Up, City!

Erica Silverman, illus. by Laure Fournier. Bonnier/Little Bee, $16.99 (32p) ISBN 978-1-4998-0173-6

At daybreak, a father and daughter leave their house, walk through the city, and arrive at school, taking a familiar route and noticing small things along the way. Fournier’s (The Merchant and the Thief) softly colored spreads pay attention to the way the light changes, from streetlights shining on the steps of brownstones to the rays from the rising sun reaching down an avenue. Readers who have spent time in the city will recognize the street-sweeping machine (“Here comes a beast on hairy feet,/ whooshing, swooshing down the street”), pretzel stand, and dog-walker with his charges. Silverman’s (The Hanukkah Hop!) verse falters occasionally as she sacrifices natural vocabulary to fit the rhymes (“I stop to watch the drill machine,/ but then the traffic light turns green,” she writes, describing a jackhammer) and sometimes slips into sugary sentiment. “I’m ready to work and learn and play,” the girl announces on the last page. Still, the vision of a slow, human-paced walk to school offers a hopeful contrast to the car and bus trips common for many. Ages 4–8. Author’s agent: Karen Grencik, Red Fox Literary. Illustrator’s agency: The Organisation. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Sound of Silence

Katrina Goldsaito, illus. by Julia Kuo. Little, Brown, $16.99 (40p) ISBN 978-0-316-20337-1

On his way to school in noisy Tokyo, Yoshio asks a street musician what her favorite sound is. “The most beautiful sound is the sound of ma, of silence,” she replies. Yoshio spends the rest of the book trying to listen for silence in his city—a tall order—and finds it early the next morning when he’s lost in a book: “Suddenly, in the middle of a page, he heard it. No sounds of footsteps, no people chattering, no radios, no bamboo.... It was between and underneath every sound.” Kuo (Daisy and Josephine) draws with an architect’s precise line, alternating gallery-worthy spreads of Tokyo’s crowds and buildings with domestic scenes of Yoshio and his family. Debut author Goldsaito’s final passages about ma successfully illuminate the term and could be used to teach children to meditate, the way Goldsaito’s father taught her, as she explains in an afterword. Young readers, however, may be more impressed by the way Yoshio wanders freely and safely alone through the world’s most populous city. Ages 4–8. Illustrator’s agent: Emily van Beek, Folio Literary Management. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Snurtch

Sean Ferrell, illus. by Charles Santoso. S&S/Atheneum, $17.99 (40p) ISBN 978-1-4814-5656-2

Everyone has his or her demons. Ruthie’s is called the Snurtch, and he’s orange, scrawly like a crayon drawing, and resembles a cross between a lion, raccoon, and dinosaur. “The Snurtch is grabby and burpy and rude,” writes Ferrell, who, along with Santoso, explored another less-than-healthy relationship in I Don’t Like Koala (2015). The Snurtch also has little respect for authority figures (“When Teacher calls on Ruthie, the Snurtch threw her pencils”), but after Ruthie shares a portrait of her nemesis in class, the exercise triggers an epiphany: yes, the Snurtch is part of her, but it doesn’t control her. The Snurtch isn’t vanquished (nobody’s perfect), but with Ruthie’s new sense of self, it becomes a little more empathic, which vastly improves her feelings toward school. It’s beautifully true to life, and Santoso’s quick-tempered heroine, with her eloquent grimaces and pigtails that festoon her head like architectural detailing, is fully deserving of readers’ sympathies. And as the final pages make clear, Ruthie is hardly alone in having an attitude that can get a little beastly. Ages 4–8. Author’s agent: Janet Reid, FinePrint Literary Management. Illustrator’s agent: Justin Rucker, Shannon Associates. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Pros and Cons of Being a Frog

Sue deGennaro. S&S/Wiseman, $17.99 (32p) ISBN 978-1-4814-7130-5

The boy who narrates this picture book, originally published in Australia in 2012, says that his friend Camille loves math so much that “some days she only talks in numbers.” He also knows that when she starts reciting her six times tables, “it’s time for a snack.” Camille knows him well, too—she’s the one who suggested he trade in his cat costume (which attracted unwelcome canine attention) for a frog costume. He wants to make one for Camille, too, but their measuring session grows tense—“Stop wriggling!” the boy shouts—and she walks out. The boy makes a thoughtful list of the relevant facts (“Not everyone loves wearing a frog costume as much as I do”) before finding Camille to apologize. DeGennaro’s softly tinted drawings render the children as bashful figures surrounded by the things they think most about. The boy’s costume-making and Camille’s fondness for math defy gender stereotypes, while Camille’s quirks are typical of children whose intellectual abilities outstrip their social skills. Their mutual recognition of each other’s gifts and habits should be a welcome example for children forging their own friendships. Ages 4–8. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Norbert’s Big Dream

Lori Degman, illus. by Marco Bucci. Sleeping Bear, $16.99 (32p) ISBN 978-1-58536-959-1

While most pigs are satisfied with lolling around in the mud and sucking down slop, Norbert has other ambitions: “Since he was a wee piglet, Norbert dreamed of swimming the English Channel,” writes Degman (Cock-a-Doodle-Oops!). Norbert “practice[s] his flutter kick” in the mud, “munche[s] muscle-building foods,” and endures the taunts of his fellow pigs, who think his idea is ridiculous. But when the time finally comes to put his plans into action, there’s just one problem: where exactly is the English Channel, again? Using bright, thick, painterly swaths of color, Bucci brings Degman’s underpig hero to vibrant life, capturing the gleam of determination in his eye as he does pushups and his happy exhaustion after collapsing into a haystack after a day of training. After Norbert nearly gives up, unable to locate his destination, Degman supplies a happy ending, though it’s an unearned one—there’s no indication of why the other pigs go from snickering and snorting at Norbert to celebrating him with a channel that lets him live out his dream right there on the farm. Ages 4–8. Author’s agent: Karen Grencik, Red Fox Literary. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/20/2016 | Details & Permalink

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