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All the Answers

Kate Messner. Bloomsbury, $16.99 (256p) ISBN 978-1-61963-374-2

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Ava Anderson, a 12-year-old chronic worrier, comes across a pencil that appears to be able to talk, telling her the answers to her questions about everything from mathematical formulas for a quiz to concerns over family members' health problems. Messner (Manhunt) has created a relatable, sympathetic character in anxious Ava, and her story is at its best when Ava's life remains centered around the norms of her school, friends, and multigenerational family, as well as the lighter dilemmas and possibilities the magic pencil raises, such as whether it's cheating to use it on homework, or which boy likes her best friend. However, despite the potential of the premise, it flounders a bit when too many worries are piled onto Ava's plate, overloading the story with serious concerns over dementia, breast cancer, gambling addictions, and the death of a loved one. Ava eventually comes to learn that "life isn't about knowing all the answers," but she must bear some heavy burdens in order to come to that knowledge. Ages 8–12. Agent: Jennifer Laughran, Andrea Brown Literary Agency. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Angels on My Tree

Lu Ann Schnable Kaldor, illus. by Eve S. Gendron. Four Directions Press (www.theangelsonmytree.com), $17.99 (40p) ISBN 978-0-9627659-4-0

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In a melancholy but hopeful holiday story, a girl's Christmas is shadowed by the recent death of her father. Familiar traditions only deepen the awareness of his absence: "We stood side by side looking at our tree and cried. After a while, my mother said, ‘Let's go surround ourselves with beauty; it always makes us feel better.' " A visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City inspires the two of them to spend the season helping others. For each act of kindness—such as cooking for neighbors or arranging for musicians to play at a nursing home—they place another angel on their Christmas tree. The spare line drawings, permeated with a sense of loneliness, become less so as mother and daughter discover cheer through their generosity; gradually, the images acquire subtle warmth and splashes of pale color. Kaldor wisely keeps the story away from overt sentimentality, instead letting the quiet prose and airy artwork carry the message about letting go and moving forward. Ages 4–up. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Stanley the Sock Monster Goes to the Moon

Jedda Robaard. Bonnier/Little Bee, $16.99 (40p) ISBN 978-1-4998-0012-8

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Australian author/artist Robaard (Milo and Millie) introduces a bearlike sock monster who dreams of traveling to the moon, but while her sweet-tempered watercolor illustrations are long on charm, the story itself doesn't hold up. Stanley's first efforts involve creating a giant "moonboot" and trying to "hitch a ride on a shooting star," which Robaard depicts in four adorable vignettes of a butterfly net–wielding Stanley pursuing a tiny, smiling star. These and other ideas prove unsuccessful, but after Stanley's father suggests that he "look at it another way" (Stanley is shown doing a handstand), he finally decides to build a rocket. Given Stanley's passion for space travel (and considering that the story opens with Stanley and his father reading a book called To the Moon and Back: Tips for Young Astronauts) it seems unlikely that it would take him so long to hit on the most obvious method of reaching the moon, and the ease with which Stanley knits together a soft, fuzzy rocket and completes his journey don't add up to a satisfying story arc. Ages 4–7. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Sweetest Kulu

Celina Kalluk, illus. by Alexandria Neonakis. Inhabit Media (IPG/Trafalgar Sq., dist.), $16.95 (32p) ISBN 978-1-927095-77-5

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Debut author Kalluk presents a series of warm affirmations for a newborn (the name "Kulu" is an Inuktitut term of endearment). Neonakis's artwork, while indebted in some places to conventional animation (the baby's button nose and rosebud mouth have a distinctly Disney feel), offers a genuinely folklike sensibility and strong, dynamic compositions. "Sweetest Kulu," Kalluk begins, "on the day you were born, all of the Arctic Summer was there to greet you." Neonakis paints baby Kulu (whose gender is indeterminate) nestled against its mother, whose long brown hair swirls around the baby like waves in the ocean. One by one, several Arctic animals offer Kulu their virtues: "Arctic Hare, with rock willow and roots,/ came to show you love so easily./ You became a best friend, baby Kulu, loving to give." Set in the world of the first peoples of the Arctic, the book hints at the idea of treating the Earth, its plants, and animals as a single living entity and suggests that a family's wishes for its children gain power from being spoken out loud. Up to age 3. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Hands Say Love

George Shannon, illus. by Taeeun Yoo. Little, Brown, $17 (32p) ISBN 978-0-316-08479-6

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Shannon's sturdy verse pairs with Yoo's warm, reassuring mixed-media images of family life to create a soothing readaloud. "Hands that do all they can do/ are also saying ‘I love you,' " writes Shannon (A Very Witchy Spelling Bee), a stanza that repeats as he follows a family that lives by the beach and is preparing to celebrate a birthday—which gives Yoo (Here Is the Baby) a chance to draw hands doing all kinds of things. After the birthday cake is made, two daughters help frost it, and then it's time to eat. As the father sits at the table holding the family's baby, the older daughter holds out whipped cream for him to taste, and while the parents string up lights on the porch, the older daughter wraps a stuffed rabbit for her younger sister: "Make a gift./ Help you lift./ Fold a hat./ Pet the cat." Strong rhythms, simple words, and clear pictures make this the kind of picture book that might end up being memorized. Up to age 3. Author's agent: Mary Cummings, Betsy Amster Literary Enterprises. Illustrator's agent: Holly McGhee, Pippin Properties. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Porter Searches for Santa

Jonathan I. Gonzales. N.B. 498 Press (www.porterpenguin.com), $16.95 (36p) ISBN 978-0-9960610-0-1

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In a Christmas story whose modeled clay artwork gives the scenes the feel of stills from a Claymation film, a penguin named Porter receives a letter from a child that was meant for Santa Claus. Porter is determined to discover who Santa is; the "penguin encyclopedia" is no help, but the grumpy yet wise penguin Old Rockhopper might know. Porter and his friend Franklin travel to Snowman Mountain, where Old Rockhopper, who looks rather like a gray tombstone wearing an eye patch, tells boring stories that cause the penguins to sleep through his descriptions of Santa. Finally, Porter's mother tells him about Santa, but as a flightless bird, Porter can't make it to the North Pole on his own. First-time author/illustrator Gonzales accents his images with charming details (such as the pearls Porter's mother wears and the silvery "fishsicles" Porter has for lunch), but the long-winded narrative proceeds slowly, and while much is made of the dangers of Porter's journey to Snowman Mountain and Old Rockhopper's temper, the artwork never gives a sense of significant peril. All ages. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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