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Sweeping Up the Heart

Kevin Henkes. Greenwillow, $16.99 (192p) ISBN 978-0-06-285254-0

Henkes’s profound understanding of the adolescent heart and mind is evident as always in this story of two 12-year-olds frustrated by their parents. Amelia wanted to go to Florida for spring break, but her father, who hates to travel, has refused. Stuck at home in Madison, Wis., with her melancholy dad and their housekeeper, Mrs. O’Brien, her only respite is sessions at the nearby clay studio, where she’s been sculpting since she was six. The first day of break, she’s surprised to see a stranger there: the owner’s nephew, Casey, who is staying with his aunt while his parents work on their failing marriage. Finding a kindred spirit in each other is the first of many unexpected events that occur that week. While the two are in a coffee shop, Casey has an “eerie” sensation about a woman outside the window. He’s convinced that she’s Amelia’s long-dead mother (“Sort of like a ghost, but she’s real”), and Amelia determines to discover who she is. In economic prose, Henkes (The Year of Billy Miller) evokes the complexity of his characters’ emotions and relationships, and offers a feel-good resolution. Ages 8–12. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 12/07/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Song for a Whale

Lynne Kelly. Delacorte, $16.99 (304p) ISBN 978-1-5247-7023-5

Twelve-year-old Iris was named for the whale that her grandparents had witnessed being beached on the same day the girl was born, presumably because the mammal wasn’t able to navigate her way due to a hearing loss—though, as Grandpa explains in ASL translated into text, “She wasn’t born Deaf like we were.” Iris zealously collects and repairs vintage radios, feeling vibrations on the speakers to discern “if a radio was playing music or crackling with static or sitting there like a box of rocks.” Iris discovers a new passion after watching a documentary about Blue 55, a baleen whale who swims alone rather than in pods and sings at a frequency that renders his song unintelligible to other whales. She vows to use her electronics acumen to communicate with Blue 55 by creating a song that will “let him know he [isn’t] alone.” Subtly and poignantly drawing a parallel between the girl and whale, Kelly (Chained), who has worked as a sign language interpreter, relays Iris’s venture with credibility and urgency. The emotional current deepens as Iris mourns the sudden death of her grandfather—her kindred spirit—and witnesses the increasing aloofness of her once vibrant grandmother, who’s also deaf. Kelly effectively interjects Blue 55’s perspective into the narrative and adds an engrossing final note about the real-life whale who inspired the story. This finely crafted novel affectingly illuminates issues of loneliness, belonging, and the power of communication. Ages 8–12. Agent: Molly O’Neill, Waxman Leavell Literary. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/07/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Pay Attention, Carter Jones

Gary D. Schmidt. Clarion, $16.99 (224p) ISBN 978-0-544-79085-8

Schmidt (Orbiting Jupiter) fuses pathos and humor in this adroitly layered novel that opens as Carter answers the doorbell to find a dapper British “gentleman’s gentleman,” a former employee of the boy’s grandfather, whose will bequeathed his service to Carter’s family. And they do need some sorting out: the sixth grader’s father has been deployed to Germany, and his emotionally fraught mother is struggling to parent her four children alone in New York State. Endearingly devoted to his younger sisters, Carter is reeling from his beloved brother’s sudden death, his alienation from his uncommunicative father (hauntingly underscored in flashbacks to an angst-riddled camping trip), and the sickening realization that his father isn’t coming home. The butler’s strict adherence to decorum and the Queen’s English triggers amusing repartee with slang-loving Carter; he also recognizes and assuages the boy’s pain by introducing him—and his schoolmates—to cricket, which gives them all a sense of purpose and pride. Opening each chapter with a definition of a cricket term, Schmidt weaves the sport’s jargon into the narrative, further enriching the verbal badinage and reinforcing the affecting bond between a hurting boy and a compassionate man. Ages 10–12. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/07/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Didi Dodo, Future Spy: Recipe for Disaster

Tom Angleberger, illus. by Jared Chapman. Amulet, $12.99 (112p) ISBN 978-1-4197-3370-3

In this lighthearted start to a new chapter book series by Angleberger (the Origami Yoda series), Koko Dodo, who sports a chef’s toque on his feathered head, is in crisis. His supersecret fudge sauce has been stolen right before the Queen’s Royal Cookie Contest, which he has won for the past 20 years. Without the sauce, he’ll never get this year’s trophy, but luckily, Didi Dodo, Future Spy roller-skates into Koko’s cookie shop, ready to track down the thief. Didi concocts a “daring plan,” leading to many adventures, including a mad skate through town to find DJ Funkyfoot, a Chihuahua butler with an excellent sense of smell, and a wild ride to Cousin Yuk Yuk, a yak whose pickled rhubarb relish is the secret ingredient to Koko’s sauce. After escaping the yak’s wrath in penguin Penguini’s food truck, Koko arrives at the contest to present a single cookie, complete with sauce, to the queen. But another twist awaits when the contest ends and the duo still hasn’t found the sauce thief. Lively illustrations by Chapman (Vegetables in Underwear) contribute to the exuberance of this Inspector Flytrap spin-off. Ages 6–9. (Mar.) 

Reviewed on 12/07/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Wings

Cheryl B. Klein, illus. by Tomie dePaola. Atheneum, $17.99 (40p) ISBN 978-1-5344-0510-3 

Using a series of single words that rhyme with the title, Klein’s picture book debut tells a story about a little bird’s first flight. In a nest are four pink, plump baby birds. (Sharp-eyed readers will spot their parents on the title page, watching the goings-on from another tree.) Only one baby has that unmistakable look of a confident first-mover; the bird “clings” precariously to the nest’s edge with its wings extended, then “flings” itself off, and tumbles to the ground (“stings”). But all is not lost—the bird discovers a mother lode of worms (“things”), and the prospect of providing its nestmates with a snack (“brings?”) inspires it to gather its strength and go airborne (“springs... sings!”) DePaola (Quiet) captures the milestone moments with collages made from press-on labels, decorated with exuberant marker work, and animated with his customary wit. Beautifully extending the words’ clever minimalism, the simple, subtly dimensional shapes and lush, translucent colorations (the nest itself is a panoply of purples, blues, and browns) make this simple story soar. Ages 4–8. Author’s agent: Brianne Johnson, Writers House. Illustrator’s agent: Doug Whiteman, Whiteman Agency. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 12/07/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Tiny T. Rex and the Impossible Hug

Jonathan Stutzman, illus. by Jay Fleck. Chronicle, $15.99 (48p) ISBN 978-1-4521-7033-6

In this series opener, tyrannosaur Tiny has a problem: his best friend, stegosaurus Pointy, is sad, and Tiny’s wee arms make it difficult to offer solace through a hug. His father suggests that math might be the solution (“Rexes are thinkers, not huggers”); his aunt, mid-yoga-pose, recommends “balance and freshly squeezed cucumber juice”; and his mother assures him that he’s good at other things. His siblings, thankfully, offer some sensible advice: “To do the impossible you must plan and practice.” Tiny embraces their approach, mapping out an elaborate strategy, training, and hugging everything from a flower to an ice cream cone to a cactus (“I will not practice on that anymore,” Tiny declares about the latter). Finally, mistaking a pterodactyl leg for a tree, Tiny ends up flying through the sky and discovers that “tiny” is all a matter of perspective. Debut author Stutzman includes plenty of dry humor in his simple sentences, which Fleck extends to great effect in comic retro scenes that recall the illustrator’s work in Tilly & Tank. Readers will root for bighearted, small-armed Tiny, making his final, “biggest” hug all the more satisfying. Ages 3–5. Author’s agent: Elena Giovinazzo, Pippin Properties. Illustrator’s agent: Kirsten Hall, Catbird Productions. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 12/07/2018 | Details & Permalink

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Not Your Nest!

Gideon Sterer, illus. by Andrea Tsurumi. Dial, $17.99 (40p) ISBN 978-0-7352-2827-6

“If you build it, they will come” is not what an industrious little yellow bird has in mind when it constructs a cozy nest in a big tree on the savanna. Yet each time the bird diligently, proudly completes a nest, another species—a giraffe, an elephant, an entire meerkat family—stakes an improbable claim to it. “The ground is too far away and I have no wings,” says an unrepentant, interloping zebra, omitting any explanation of how it got to the nest in the first place. Absurd humor and frantic frustration fit Tsurumi (Crab Cake) like a glove, and as much as readers will sympathize with the bird, it’s also great fun to see how this exuberantly talented illustrator stuffs a tree full of surprising denizens. All dialogue-balloon text by Sterer (The Night Knights) nails how infuriating it can feel to be on the receiving end of unabashed selfishness (“It fits me better. You must understand,” the implacable elephant says). And both creators give the protagonist just enough mettle to foreshadow a happy outcome—one in which the bird gets the highly satisfying last word. Ages 3–7. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 12/07/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The Golden Bell

Tamar Sachs, illus. by Yossi Abolafia, trans. from the Hebrew by Nancy Wellins. Kar-Ben, $17.99 (24p) ISBN 978-1-5415-2612-9

In 2011, an archeologist found a small gold bell near the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City. Archeologists believe it could have once adorned the hem of the High Priest, who wore an elaborate garment described in the Book of Exodus. Debut author Sachs and Abolafia (A Fish for Mrs. Gardenia) have created a backstory for the discovery, centering on Itamar, the young son of a tailor in biblical-era Jerusalem. Having fetched the robe of the High Priest so that his father can mend it, Itamar discovers that one of the tiny bells is missing. Guessing that it fell off in transit, he frantically searches the roads and hills and visits the Claiming Stone, ancient Jerusalem’s version of a lost and found. The story’s uneven pacing makes for a less-than-satisfying read, but Abolafia’s straightforward cartooning strikes the right tone of earnestness, and anyone who’s lost something special will have sympathy for Itamar—while the final scene, at an archaeological site, raises the interesting idea that nothing is ever really lost. Ages 4–9. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 12/07/2018 | Details & Permalink

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The Chickens Are Coming!

Barbara Samuels. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $17.99 (40p) ISBN 978-0-374-30097-5

Inspired by chicken-owning families in Brooklyn, Samuels (Fred’s Beds) offers a genial domestic cartooned comedy with an underlying lesson about appreciating living creatures. “You don’t need to live in the country to raise chickens!” Mommy declares brightly after spotting a lamppost ad by someone wanting to unload five hens. And just like that, Winston and Sophie’s city-dwelling family builds a backyard coop and becomes the proud owners of Dawn (a Cochin), Desirée (Cuckoo Marans), Divina (Rhode Island Red), Delilah (Cream Legbar), and Daphne (an exotically coiffed Polish). The hens generate a lot of poop, but the fresh eggs the family so eagerly anticipates? Fuhgeddaboudit. Samuels gets excellent comic mileage by drawing her hens as unblinkingly unflappable, even in the face of the children’s gambits to get them to lay eggs. But the family’s frustration melts as they grow to understand the chickens as not just egg generators, but also as vivid individuals: “Desirée was the best flier. Delilah was the most curious. Divina was bossy. Dawn was shy. And Daphne bumped into things.” The smidgen of dramatic tension near the end is almost beside the point—this one is really about two species finding common ground. Ages 4–8. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 12/07/2018 | Details & Permalink

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