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Star-Crossed

Barbara Dee. Aladdin, $16.99 (288p) ISBN 978-1-4814-7848-9

A star student falls for the lead actress of her school play in this welcome addition to the middle grade LGBTQ bookshelf. Mattie Monaghan is looking forward to her eighth grade production of Romeo and Juliet—as well as getting to know her new crush, Gemma. Mattie’s friend Tessa has been to theater camp and bandies Shakespearean insults with gusto (“vile worm,” “scurvy knaves”), while beautiful, British Gemma is a shoo-in for Juliet. Mattie revels in the Bard’s words but is less confident in performing. When a classmate struggles as Romeo, Mattie is asked to step into the role, bringing her dizzyingly close to Gemma. Dee (Truth or Dare) thoughtfully dramatizes the intricate social performance of middle school, with its secret crushes and fierce rivalries. The book benefits from a memorable cast, though some of the students’ analysis of the play feels forced. Mattie’s narration is intimate and believable, and readers will be pleased to watch her grow from spectator to star. And although the ending is predictable, the tension holds. After all, even Romeo and Juliet’s fates are sealed in the play’s prologue. Ages 9–13. Agent: Jill Grinberg, Jill Grinberg Literary Management. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 04/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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A Whisper of Horses

Zillah Bethell. Feiwel and Friends, $16.99 (352p) ISBN 978-1-250-09394-3

In this densely plotted dystopian novel, Welsh author Bethell’s debut, newly orphaned 12-year-old Serendipity sets out in search of supposedly extinct horses. Bethell divides her story into three distinct sections, the first of which reveals the dreary, sparsely populated Lahn Dan (once London), now characterized by a strict class system (Serendipity, a storyteller’s apprentice, belongs to the Pb worker class) and authoritarian regulations. An encounter with Miss Caritas, a high-caste Au, unearths a map in Serendipity’s locket that purports the existence of horses. The lure of these creatures and an injunction against orphans thrust Serendipity out of the claustrophobic city with an orphan boy, Tab, and his dog; tension mounts as sinister police forces pursue them. The tweaked locations (Bucknam Place, Gray Britain) and other words (“jeans” instead of “genes”) strongly establish this world but can be distracting. And while the cast is varied and engaging, there are also some familiar types, such as an all-knowing wizard operating a mechanical façade in the book’s final section. Even so, Bethell’s inventive heroine propels an action-packed adventure. Ages 9–12. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Daddy Cuddle

Kate Mayes, illus. by Sara Acton. Amicus Ink (Chronicle, dist.), $17.99 (32p) ISBN 978-1-68152-193-0

“Early in the morning, when it’s quiet and dark, Bunny’s eyes go ping!” But Bunny’s father is sound asleep. With spare text and subtle ink-and-watercolor art, Mayes and Acton follow the young bunny’s efforts to awaken his father, riding a bike into the bedroom (“Daddy bike?”), dragging in a kite (“Daddy kite?”), and offering him a toothbrush (“Daddy brush?”). After getting fed up, the small rabbit deploys a loud “Wake up Daddy!” followed by cuddles and snuggles. Originally published in Australia, this is a graceful dance of words and pictures, tenderly conveying the familiar mismatch between exhausted parents and their eager-eyed children. Ages 4–8. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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You and Me, Me and You

Miguel Tanco. Chronicle, $12.99 (36p) ISBN 978-1-4521-4486-3

In a pensive reflection on father-son communication, a boy contemplates his effect on his father. “I ask you the most difficult questions,” says the child as the two pass a stray dog. At bedtime, the child offers his father “the chance to tell stories,” and when they’re navigating a thorny traffic situation on a bike, the boy reminds his elder to “choose words with care.” Tanco captures each scene in minimalistic pen-and-ink artwork accented with yellow, and the father and child’s meaningful interactions delicately suggest that, in parenting, listening and learning go both ways. Ages 3–5. Agent: Debbie Bibo. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Play?

Linda Olafsdottir. Cameron Kids (PGW, dist.), $16.95 (32p) ISBN 978-1-944903-06-0

Having a blast with a treasured stuffed pal is one thing; doing so with another living, breathing kid can be another. That’s the situation facing two toddlers in this understated story from Icelandic illustrator Olafsdottir, her first book as author. The pared-down text introduces each child and his or her stuffed animal: Phil and his puffin, Puff, are shown jumping, dancing, crawling, and enjoying each other’s company in a series of joyful vignettes, and a girl named Frida and her Fox do the same in a parallel sequence. The two are having so much fun independently that playing together seems like the logical next step, but Phil isn’t quite ready to make that leap. “Play?” Frida offers, crawling toward him. He clutches Puff and turns away, and she erupts in tears. The rift is short-lived, though; Phil just needs a little time to warm up to the idea. Olafsdottir sensitively portrays the children’s thawing relationship in beautifully observed images, and her soft, careful pencil details draw substantial emotion out of their body language and expressions. Ages 1–5. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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