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One Amazing Elephant

Linda Oatman High. Harper, $16.99 (272p) ISBN 978-0-06-245583-3

High’s (Planet Pregnancy) well-balanced novel about love, forgiveness, and the tightrope walk of friendship and family is centered in Gibsonton, Fla., “the strangest town in the nation.” Unlike the flamboyant circus side of 12-year-old Lily Rose Pruitt’s family—including her dear Grandpa Bill, dubbed “the Giant” at more than seven feet tall, and her estranged mother, Trullia, a trapeze artist—cautious Lily bottles up her emotions and avoids risks: “Keep it inside. That’s my motto.” Lily lives with her father in West Virginia, but when her grandfather dies unexpectedly, she flies to Florida alone for the funeral. There, she confronts her fear of the Amazing Queenie Grace (her grandfather’s elephant), forms friendships and makes a few enemies, tries to protect Queenie Grace from harm, and eventually comes to terms with her mother. The chapters alternate gracefully between Lily’s and Queenie Grace’s perspectives, and High effectively sketches how Lily gradually champions the elephant and recognizes larger issues around the ways performers abuse circus animals. Ages 8–12. Agent: Rosemary Stimola, Stimola Literary Studio. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Leather Shoe Charlie

Gyeong-hwa Kim, illus. by Anna and Elena Balbusso. Eerdmans, $10 paper (36p) ISBN 978-0-8028-5473-5

Charlie is the proud owner of a pair of leather shoes made for him by his cobbler grandfather. But customers are few, and, like many other families during Britain’s 19th-century industrial revolution, Charlie’s family must leave their village for Manchester, the only place they can find work. His mother coughs, and neighbor women recommend tea, but there’s no money to buy it and nothing to sell—except Charlie’s shoes. Sell them he does, and with the proceeds he buys the tea. South Korean author Kim’s story ends there. Does Charlie’s mother recover? What will he wear on his feet now? Does he ever get to return to his village? Kim chooses to focus on Charlie’s saintly act, and his initiative and faithfulness as a son. The Balbusso sisters depict the industrial gloom of Manchester with liveliness and sensitivity, using curving, forceful strokes to emphasize the blackened factory chimneys, dark brick tenements, and Charlie’s dreams of shoemaking, which hang like ribbons in the smoggy air. Even without the satisfaction of knowing how things turn out, readers will feel as though they’ve encountered someone they care about. Ages 6–10. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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A Concert in the Sand

Tami Shem-Tov and Rachella Sandbank, illus. by Avi Ofer. Kar-Ben, $17.99 (32p) ISBN 978-1-5124-0099-1

Uri is bored hanging out in his parents’ Tel Aviv delicatessen, so he follows his grandmother on what he thinks is an idle stroll. Grandma has a purpose in mind; she just can’t tell Uri, because she speaks only German. The pair becomes part of an exuberant, ever-growing procession through the city, led by a group of people “with funny shaped cases”; when they arrive at an auditorium, Uri realizes that Grandma has brought him to an important concert. “The notes enter my ears, and go straight to my heart,” says Uri, as Grandma cries “tears of happiness.” This lightly fictionalized tale has a wonderful, true backstory: in December 1936, a group of musicians, all Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, gave the first performance of what became the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra. Ofer’s fluid watercolor-and-ink cartooning is celebratory and cinematic as the crowd makes its way through the busy metropolis. But Shem-Tov and Sandbank’s wordy text spends too much time ineffectively building suspense and not enough on giving readers any of the dramatic and poignant context; it’s not until the afterword that the event’s full significance is revealed. Ages 4–9. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Life on Mars

Jon Agee. Dial, $17.99 (32p) ISBN 978-0-399-53852-0

Dramatic irony rules this expedition to Mars, in which a young human roams the rocky environment, unaware that he is not alone. The sky is black, the landscape the color of dust. The frowning boy astronaut, who carries an incongruous white box tied with red string, delivers a dejected monologue: “It’s dark. It’s cold. I’ve brought this gift of chocolate cupcakes. I don’t think I’ll find anybody to eat them.” He fails to notice the pear-shaped, cantaloupe-orange creature—20 times his size—who is following and observing him. Agee’s (Lion Lessons) quirky humor manifests in absurd elements such as the cupcake box, which the boy temporarily misplaces, and the anxious Martian, who pretends to be a hill when the astronaut loses sight of his rocket: “I bet I’ll get a good view from the top of that mountain!” says the boy, unwittingly climbing the creature. The boy’s discovery of a yellow flower confirms his speculation about “life on Mars,” though he never notices the elephant in the room. It’s satisfying silliness from start to finish, with a gotcha ending that will prompt requests for repeat readings. Ages 4–8. Agent: Holly McGhee, Pippin Properties. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Under the Sabbath Lamp

Michael Herman, illus. by Alida Massari. Kar-Ben, $17.99 (32p) ISBN 978-1-5124-0841-6

Izzy and Olivia Bloom, a charming older couple, are welcomed into their new neighbors’ homes for Shabbat dinners, and then host a Friday night dinner of their own. But when the guests arrive, they’re puzzled to find that the Blooms don’t own a pair of Shabbat candlesticks; instead the Blooms have an old and beautiful star-shaped Shabbat lamp, which hangs from ceiling and burns olive oil. The story behind the lamp, shared by Izzy, encompasses shtetl life, the Jewish immigrant experience, and one family’s determination “to be whole again” after a long separation; it also prompts the Blooms’ guests to appreciate anew their own cherished Shabbat artifacts. “We’ve all inherited treasures,” Izzy observes. Herman, making his debut, builds a lovely tale around an unusual piece of Judaica (further explained in an afterword) and a close-knit community of Jewish families where Shabbat is an essential part of the week, joyfully observed and shared. The golden hues of Massari’s images reflect both the light of the Shabbat lamp and the generous emotional warmth radiating from her characters and their inviting homes. Ages 3–8. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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This & That

Mem Fox, illus. by Judy Horacek. Scholastic Press, $17.99 (32p) ISBN 978-1-338-03780-7

For times when a single bedtime story just isn’t enough, the duo behind Where Is the Green Sheep? and Good Night, Sleep Tight tease several at once in this chirpy, repetition-driven tale that hopscotches from one adventure to the next. “I’ll tell you a story of this,/ and I’ll tell you a story of that,” Fox begins. “I’ll tell you a story of cavernous caves/ and a chimp with a magic hat.” In Horacek’s accompanying scenes, watery washes of color and jittery black lines follow two mice—one large, one small—as they float down a river in a bright green box, past bat-filled caves and the magic-making chimpanzee, before tumbling over a waterfall. From there, the mice ride an elephant through a busy marketplace and steal away in a carriage to a palace where royals from around the world cavort. Fox knows how to structure a lively readaloud, and she builds gentle suspense between each bouncy stanza with a repeated “And then...” The cozy ending, sealed with a good night kiss, might be just enough to convince kids that it is indeed bedtime. Ages 3–5. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 01/13/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Trees on Mars: Our Obsession with the Future

Hal Niedzviecki. Seven Stories, $18.95 trade paper (320p) ISBN 978-1-60980-637-8

Niedzviecki (The Peep Diaries) takes a deep look at the prevailing 21st-century technological ideology, showing that it may be too late to hit the brakes on a “race to the future” in which individuals and institutions chase constant innovation. He converses with technofuturists, Mars colony hopefuls, life extenders, and SXSWi idea promoters who want to change the world through web apps. Niedzviecki brings educators, psychologists, Walmart shipping workers, survivalist preppers, and nervous new college graduates into the discussion. He follows the implications of a future vision that puts its faith in the individual and promises emancipation while simultaneously making that individual a piece of manipulable data. Similarly, he looks into the rise of IT-based productivity growth that comes without significant creation of new jobs. He deftly pulls together the cultural strands that have woven the future-first rhetoric of improvement though permanent, competitive, systematic disruption and its effects on both people who expect to be on the leading edge and those who expect to be left behind. Niedzviecki may leave his readers somewhat disillusioned, but they will not be despairing; he urges them to “maintain humanity” and make meaning in the present even as the hope of the future inevitably falls short. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 12/09/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Donald Judd Writings

Donald Judd, edited by Flavin Judd. Judd Foundation and David Zwirner, $39.95 trade paper (1056p) ISBN 978-1-94170-135-5

An editor’s note to this vital and powerful compendium of the late contemporary artist Judd’s written work states that any categorization would run “counter to his insistence on maintaining openness.” Thus the collection of essays, reviews, letters, statements, notes, and diary entries is ordered only chronologically, a structure that reveals Judd’s development as an artist. Judd quickly moves from reviewing exhibitions of other artists to complaining about the system of museums, dealers, and galleries that wields so much power. In a 1977 essay, Judd explains why he wants to establish a foundation so that his work will have a permanent home. Consideration of the buildings and installations he constructs in Marfa, Tex., occupies a large part of his writings after 1985. Throughout his writing, Judd champions other artists he admires, including Dan Flavin, Josef Albers, and Richard Paul Lohse. Judd also returns to political concerns again and again, searching for an equilibrium between the artist and society. The book itself is a beautiful tactile object and any Judd fan will surely want to pick it up. Color photos. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 12/09/2016 | Details & Permalink

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A Jar of Wild Flowers: Essays in Celebrati n of John Berger

Edited by Yasmin Gunaratnam and Amarjit Chandan. Zed (Univ. of Chicago, dist.), $19.95 trade paper (300p) ISBN 978-1-78360-879-9

Celebrating the 90th birthday of John Berger, a Booker Prize–winning novelist, art critic, painter, and poet, editors Gunaratnam (Death and the Migrant) and Chandan (The Parrot, the Horse, and the Man) bring together work from 30 contributors—including actress Julie Christie, director Sally Potter, novelist Ali Smith and journalist Nick Thorpe—in a lively collection that spurs further conversation. Through the wide range of responses to Berger’s expansive oeuvre, readers see admiration of Berger’s genius and the life of the mind, and get a glimpse into how artistic and intellectual communities cross boundaries, challenge injustices, and inspire new ways of seeing and, consequently, being. “John Berger is our conscience keeper,” says Chandan, making the case that Berger’s work calls readers into greater awareness of the world beyond the self and into appreciation of our collective humanity. The book brings together a choir of artistic collaborators, fans, and friends, which is a fitting tribute to someone whose talents run the gamut of intellectual and artistic. Here is a bricolage to celebrate the consummate bricoleur, a collection that—even with its contributors’ significant differences—still coheres in celebration and gratitude. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 12/09/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Prison Food in America

Erika Camplin. Rowman & Littlefield, $38 (140p) ISBN 978-1-4422-5347-6

Camplin, a food studies scholar, zeroes in on a key factor of life for the incarcerated: prison fare. In the federal, state, and local systems, the United States regularly houses approximately 2 million inmates, which results in the need to provide 13 billion meals annually, according to Camplin. She investigates what prisoners eat, who is providing and preparing the food, and the quality of the meals. She provides a short history of prison food dating back to medieval England, where prisoners provided their own food or starved; prison reform in the 18th century began to acknowledge the need to feed prisoners decently. She also covers the business of food service in prison, exploring links between cost and corrupt business practices of food distributors. Getting quality food for prisoners is a continuous uphill struggle as shown by scandals like the many grievances filed against Aramark, a private food contractor, who was said to be pocketing millions of dollars for serving substandard food. The search for good food has even resulted in prisoners converting to Judaism to be eligible for kosher meals. Five pages of menus are included, as are recipes for infamous food such as “Nutraloaf,” which is served to misbehaving inmates as a form of punishment. The food preferences of famous prisoners such as Bernie Madoff and Lil Wayne provide amusing moments. This succinct and academic overview of a quirky subject is very readable and comes with lengthy notes. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 12/09/2016 | Details & Permalink

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