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Curiosity House: The Shrunken Head

Lauren Oliver and H.C. Chester, illus. by Benjamin Lacombe. Harper, $16.99 (368p) ISBN 978-0-06-227081-8

“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls: step right up and don’t be shy. You must not—you absolutely cannot!—put this book down.” With this bit of honest advertising, so begins this captivating series opener from Oliver (The Spindlers) and Chester (a pseudonym for Oliver’s father, author Harold Schechter). A curiosity museum in financial trouble, “the only place on earth where four extraordinary children like Thomas, Sam, Pippa, and Max could fit in,” faces bigger problems after a string of accidents and murders are linked to a shrunken head in its collection. Using talents of contortion, strength, mind-reading, and knife-throwing, the four children attempt to save the only home they know, while contending with dangers lurking all over 1930s New York City, from seedy reporters to mad scientists. A quick-paced plot is bolstered by the bonds of friendship these unusual yet endearing children form as they try to solve a mystery greater—and more personal—than they ever expected. Final art not seen by PW. Ages 8–12. Author’s agent: (for Oliver) Stephen Barbara, Inkwell Management; (for Chester) David Patterson, Stuart Krichevsky Literary Agency. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/03/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Jala and the Wolves

Marti Dumas. Yes, Mam Creations/Plum Street Press (plumstreetpressbooks.com), $5.99 paper (98p) ISBN 978-1-943169-00-9

In a chapter book fantasy laced with references to fiction and food, when six-year-old spitfire Jala—who has untamed hair, dark eyes, and a preference for eating out of the dog bowl—annoys her mother after she complains about being hungry for breakfast one morning, she is promptly sent back to her room. After noticing that a strange mirror has appeared there, Jala is magically transported to a woodland world, where she has been transformed into her favorite animal, a wolf. She promptly meets a wolf named Milo, who believes that she is a legend incarnate, an alpha wolf that has been sent from the sky (“She didn’t have the heart to tell him that she was only a girl from New Orleans who got sucked into a mirror and not the Great Dog come to life at all”). Though the story is slow to get underway and relies on an overused cliché to bring Jala back home at book’s end, Jala’s independent streak and her tender relationship with her mother help smooth over the story’s rougher moments. Ages 5–10. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 07/03/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Animal Beauty

Kristin Roskifte, trans. from the Norwegian
by Jeanne Eirheim. Eerdmans, $17 (50p) ISBN 978-0-8028-5454-4

Norwegian writer Roskifte trains a laser eye on the way the fashion industry manipulates consumers—a theme more often reserved for older readers, but dealt with effectively here, aided by Eirheim’s able translation. With cheerful graphic shapes and flat colors, Roskifte portrays a zooful of animals as they pass around a visitor’s fashion magazine. “Never dress in horizontal stripes,” the zebra reads. “They’re unflattering, according to this magazine,” she explains. A panda discovers that it has dark circles under its eyes; a snake, that snakeskin is out this year. The fashion problems Roskifte creates for each animal are credible and comic (the monkey shaves in order to have “silky smooth arms and legs”), and the animals look suitably ridiculous after they’ve “fixed” their problems—especially the flamingo, who threads her long neck through the sleeve of her new gray suit, so much more grown-up and professional than childish pink. In the style of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” it’s a small boy who calls their bluff. Readers won’t fail to grasp the moral of this modern fable. Ages 5–9. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/03/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Imaginary Fred

Eoin Colfer, illus. by Oliver Jeffers. Harper, $18.99 (48p) ISBN 978-0-06-237955-9

In this smart collaboration, Colfer and Jeffers introduce Fred, a seasoned imaginary friend. Fred knows the drill: he keeps lonely children company until a human friend appears, then clears out (“Usually by lunchtime on the second day, Fred would be mostly invisible”). Jeffers’s spidery vignettes are perfectly synced to Colfer’s bubbly, confiding narrative, and he underscores Fred’s evanescent nature by giving him a body of half-tone aqua dots that deepen and fade. Secretly, Fred pines for a forever friend; his current human assignee, Sam, shares all of his interests—reading, music, playacting. When Sam meets a girl named Sammi, Fred is downcast, especially when Sam leaves a note that says he and Sammi are working on a comic book. “Comic book? thought Fred. That was our idea. Me and Sam.” But Sammi has her own imaginary friend, Frieda (her half-tone mesh is yellow), and the four thrive. There’s always anguish when a close friend finds someone new, but Colfer and Jeffers show that shuffling allegiances can sometimes multiply the fun. Ages 4–8. Author’s agent: Sophie Hicks, Sophie Hicks Agency. Illustrator’s agent: Paul Moreton, Bell, Lomax, Moreton Agency. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/03/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Hiawatha and the Peacemaker

Robbie Robertson, illus. by David Shannon. Abrams, $19.95 (48p) ISBN 978-1-4197-1220-3

Robertson, best known for his work with musical group The Band, collaborates with Shannon on a sadly relevant story about choosing peace over violence, recounting the story of how Mohawk warrior Hiawatha joined forces with a spiritual leader known as the Peacemaker to unite five warring tribes. It’s no easy task, as Hiawatha must overcome his own anger and desire for revenge—Tadodaho, chief of the Onondaga tribe, destroyed his home and killed his family. A departure from the playfulness of books like No, David and How I Became a Pirate, Shannon’s penetrating oil paintings expressively capture the initial tension and uncertainty with which these messengers of peace are met, and the tranquility that replaces it. As the unified nations finally approach the murderous Tadodaho, they find a man “Hunched over, withered, and twisted,” snakes coursing through his hair—yet not beyond the healing power of forgiveness. Extensive endnotes and a CD that includes a song written and performed by Robertson underscore the author’s evident emotional connection to this story and passion for passing it on. Ages 4–8. Author’s agent: Ryan Harbage, Fischer-Harbage Agency. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/03/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Full Moon at the Napping House

Audrey Wood, illus. by Don Wood. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $17.99 (32p) ISBN 978-0-544-30832-9

The Napping House is anything but in this companion to the Woods’ evergreen 1984 picture book. Nearly all of the familiar players return—the granny, curly-haired boy, fuzzy dog, and tawny cat—but under the diaphanous light of an enormous moon, “everyone is restless.” Audrey Wood again uses a cumulative structure, but while a tiny flea started a chain reaction that awakened everyone in The Napping House, this time a cricket has the opposite effect as it chirps “A full-moon song/ that soothes the mouse,/ who calms the cat,/ who gentles the dog,/ who snuggles the boy,/ who hugs the granny,/ in the dreamy bed,/ in the full-moon house,/ where no one now is restless.” The pale white glow of the moon gives Don Wood’s scenes a jittery midnight energy as the boy plays catch with the dog and the beleaguered granny tries to get comfortable. Concluding in a state of cozy restfulness, the Woods’ story serves as a pleasing inversion of the previous book and works even better as a bedtime read. Ages 4–8. Agent: Rosalie Grace Heacock Thompson, Heacock Literary Agency. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/03/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Bear and Squirrel Are Friends... Yes, Really!

Deb Pilutti. S&S/Wiseman, $17.99 (40p) ISBN 978-1-4814-2913-9

Given the title, there’s no chance Bear would ever want to eat Squirrel, right? Just look at the way that Bear shakes acorns out of trees for Squirrel, and how Squirrel lets Bear use his bushy tail for a dust mop. Their friends, however, remain unconvinced. Squirrel’s fellow squirrels are horrified, while Bear’s pals savor fantasies of eating Squirrel in popcorn, in soup, or even in a sundae. Then comes the ultimate test: Bear goes into hibernation (Squirrel patiently knits a scarf that gets longer and longer) and wakes up feeling as hungry as, well, a bear. Can the friendship—and Squirrel—survive? With toylike drawings, sophisticated characterizations, and sly visual jokes, this very funny story tests and tickles readers’ faith in unlikely friendships before ending up right where it should, thanks to a little narrative misdirection and a Squirrel who knows his friend all too well. Yes, Pilutti (Ten Rules of Being a Superhero) is messing with her audience’s minds, but they won’t mind one bit. Ages 4–8. Agent: Jennifer Rofé, Andrea Brown Literary Agency. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/03/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Naughty Mabel

Nathan Lane and Devlin Elliott, illus. by
Dan Krall. Simon & Schuster, $17.99 (48p) ISBN 978-1-4814-3022-7

Lane and Elliott’s first picture book begins with Mabel, a French bulldog with huge batlike ears, floating in a palatial Hamptons swimming pool. It ends with Mabel unleashing a fart so powerful that it sends her owners’ guests fleeing in their formalwear. In between, Mabel tosses off bon mots (“I’m five! Oh, I know I don’t look it. Besides, five is the new three!”) and denies—and then impishly affirms—that she is indeed a bad dog. “Of course, I play by my own rules,” she says while wreaking havoc on a miniature golf course. “I’m a maverick, what can I say?” Krall (Sick Simon) gives Mabel a visual personality that’s part diva and part Auntie Mame, but it feels like he’s pedaling awfully hard to achieve a champagne bubbliness. As for the text, if Lane could come to every home and read this book aloud in his inimitable cadence, readers would be thoroughly charmed. But on its own, it’s a rambling monologue without any narrative cohesion beyond an arch attitude. Ages 4–8. Authors’ agent: Brenda Bowen, Sanford J. Greenburger Associates. Illustrator’s agent: Abigail Samoun, Red Fox Literary. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/03/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Wonder

Faye Hanson. Candlewick/Templar, $16.99 (40p) ISBN 978-0-7636-7957-6

It’s a dull, hard world out there, one with little patience for daydreamers like the boy at the center of this first picture book from British author-illustrator Hanson. Whether he “wonders where the birds are flying to” while walking through a park or “what the best playground in the world might be like” as he enters school, the boy is met with scolding from teachers, crossing guards, and more. “Wake up, daydreamer!” grumbles a bus driver when the boy bumps another passenger. Luckily, there is art class. In a dazzling sequence of five wordless spreads, the boy’s earlier musings explode into full-color images, faded sepia scenes of everyday life replaced by intricately rendered fantasy scenarios. Expressively feathered and jewel-bedecked birds fly above a vast, twisty subterranean landscape full of steampunk machinery and dozens of cozy fire-lit nooks. The “best playground” resembles a surging wave of red-white-and-blue tents, Ferris wheels, and slides, while an army of animal musicians, clowns, and entertainers tumbles across the page. A stirring visual celebration of a child’s creative potential. Ages 3–7. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/03/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Toys Meet Snow: Being the Wintertime Adventures of a Curious Stuffed Buffalo, a Sensitive Plush Stingray, and a Book-Loving Rubber Ball

Emily Jenkins, illus. by Paul O. Zelinsky. Random/Schwartz & Wade, $17.99 (40p) ISBN 978-0-385-37330-2

The buffalo, stingray, and rubber ball from the chapter book trilogy that began with Toys Go Out make their first appearance in a picture book, and they couldn’t be more at home. As the toys watch snow fall from the house, ever-curious toy buffalo Lumphy asks why it snows. “Because the clouds are sad and happy at the same time,” says StingRay (“She is more poetic than factual,” Jenkins writes), while pragmatic Plastic, the red ball, explains that it is simply frozen rain: “I read about it in a book.” The toys’ personalities—inquisitive, romantic, matter-of-fact—seed the story with quiet humor as the toys venture outdoors (StingRay, who is “dry-clean only,” slides into a plastic baggie first). Zelinsky’s digitally created illustrations have a gauzy, painterly richness, and he divides several spreads into panels to show how the toys work together to open the front door (it takes “no small amount of effort...”) or build a snowman. Just as the snowfall casts a spell over all three friends, this wonderfully understated story enchants from the first page. Ages 3–7. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/03/2015 | Details & Permalink

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