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Isaiah Dunn Is My Hero

Kelly J. Baptist. Crown, $16.99 (208p) ISBN 978-0-593-12136-8

In this heartfelt middle grade debut adapted from “The Rice and Beans Chronicles of Isaiah Dunn,” a short tale in 2017’s Flying Lessons & Other Stories, 10-year-old Isaiah Dunn’s life has been spiraling out of control since his father died four months ago. His mother struggles with alcoholism, his family is in danger of being evicted from the cheap motel they moved into after losing their apartment, and his very real frustrations—being “the only one who gets in trouble,” among others—are causing problems at school. The Black boy’s only comfort comes in his father’s notebook of stories featuring a superheroic, fictionalized version of Isaiah. Determined to earn the money needed for a new apartment, he tries his hand at selling candy to classmates and sweeping up hair at a barbershop, while quietly connecting with his father’s stories through his own emerging talents as a poet and writer. Baptist offers an age-appropriate look at burgeoning homelessness without an overly neat ending, starring an indomitable protagonist who confronts bullies and faces his own flaws. Isaiah’s optimism, drive, and loyalty to friends and family make him a hero to cheer for and lend a feeling of hope to this exploration of difficult topics. Ages 8–10. Agent: Gabrielle Barnes, Diction Media Group. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/03/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Barnabus Project

Terry, Eric, and Devin Fan. Tundra, $18.99 (72p) ISBN 978-0-7352-6326-0

The Perfect Pet store’s friendly window display offers adorable fuzzy animals, “Genetically Engineered!” But in a laboratory deep underneath it, the Failed Projects are imprisoned: small, fuzzy cast-offs with names like Quirt and Moshi. Diminutive Barnabus—half mouse, half elephant—is inspired by Pip the cockroach’s descriptions of the world outside: “mountains that reached all the way to the sky, lit with their own stars.” After the group is slated for recycling, Barnabus leads his fellow Failed Projects out through the ventilation system (the subterranean depths are revealed in all their steampunk glory), pausing to liberate one last being before, in a chilling moment, coming face-to-face with the perfected version of himself: “It was almost like looking in a mirror, except Barnaby’s eyes were bigger, and his fur was like cotton candy.” The idealized Barnaby may be perfect, Barnabus realizes (“Fully trained!” declares the box)—but he is not free. A cinematic climax caps this romp as Terry and Eric Fan (Ocean Meets Sky), collaborating with their brother Devin, step out from earlier, atmospheric works to produce an ambitious drama of rebellion, escape, and inclusivity rewarded. Barnabus and his comrades win readers over, and the plot provides thumping moments of danger before delivering its allies to a collaborative future. Ages 5–9. Agent: Kirsten Hall, Catbird Agency. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/03/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Sharko and Hippo

Elliott Kalan, illus. by Andrea Tsurumi. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, $17.99 (40p) ISBN 978-0-06-279109-2

Well-oiled comedic dialogue by Kalan (Horse Meets Dog) starts with a bang as Sharko and silent sidekick Hippo ready themselves to fish. When Sharko tells Hippo to launch the boat, Hippo reaches into a pocket and finds... a goat in a swimming costume, a plump bag of oats, and Sharko’s polka-dot coat. Sharko asks for a fishing pole, and Hippo successively hands over a banana peel, a pail, and a plow. Readers stay laughing as Hippo brings still more rapid-fire confusion to the demanding Sharko’s fishing trip. (His final grin explains why.) In amusing, heavy-lined illustrations by Tsurumi (Crab Cake), the duo’s gymnastic eyebrows express myriad emotions as Hippo rummages around in multitudinous coat pockets. Movie buffs will identify the source of Hippo’s silent humor as Harpo Marx, the contents of whose pockets often provided gags in Marx Brothers films. Kalan and Tsurumi pay homage to humor that fights bossiness with anarchy—Hippo may look foolish, but it’s Sharko’s plans that are utterly, gleefully foiled. Ages 4–8. Author’s agent: Steven Malk, Writers House. Illustrator’s agent: Stephen Barr, Writers House. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/03/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Robobaby

David Wiesner. Clarion, $17.99 (32p) ISBN 978-0-544-98731-9

The plot of Caldecott Medalist Wiesner’s latest gives his artistic gifts a new challenge: rendering machines as living beings. A robot family welcomes an assemble-it-yourself baby robot but can’t get it running properly until their daughter comes to the rescue with her trusty toolkit. Shapely architectural lines form the metallic family—willowy mother Diode, stout father Lugnut, small daughter Cathode, chubby baby Flange, and dog Sprocket—and an illuminated floor lights the family from below, giving the spreads a warm glow. Energy tightens as the adults try to build the malfunctioning robobaby (“Thanks, Cathy,” says Diode, screwdriver in hand, “but this is a mother’s job”). Relatives come to visit (“Aunt Gasket!”), and robotechs arrive to snag the rocket-propelled baby with a net (“He needs a complete overhaul”). As the chaos intensifies, trying to work out which parts belong to which robot becomes its own visual puzzle. Against the how-things-work mayhem, smooth fields of color, streamlined panel artwork, and fastidious speech bubble typography make every spread elegant. Ages 4–7. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/03/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Get Up, Elizabeth!

Shirin Yim Bridges, illus. by Alea Marley. Cameron Kids, $16.95 (32p) ISBN 978-1-944-90394-7

The Elizabeth of the title is none other than a very young Queen Elizabeth I (still technically a princess in these pages), and any reader who’s been thrust into a stifling party outfit will have built-in empathy as little Bess is roused from her comfy four poster bed and prepped for a big court appearance. Her outfit includes a linen smock and lace-up petticoat, impossibly dangly pinned-on sleeves, and a sewn-on ruff that’s the very definition of “get me outta here.” Told through the voice of an impatient lady’s maid (“And now for your petticoat... /Poppet, stand straight! /Really, Elizabeth, /You’re going to be late!”), Bridges’s (Ruby’s Wish) rhyming text scans coldly officious. Marley’s (The Many Colors of Harpreet Sing) wonderful illustrations, meanwhile, portray Elizabeth as relatably sleepy, stubborn, and resigned—all along sporting a comically magnificent head of completely unruly, radiantly red hair that’s as big as the girl herself. Back matter further describes likely ablutions from the era. Ages 4–7. Illustrator’s agent: James Burns, the Bright Agency. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/03/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Welcome to Bobville: City of Bobs

Jonah Winter, illus. by Bob Staake. Random House/Schwartz & Wade, $17.99 (40p) ISBN 978-0-593-12272-3

The citizens of Bobville are the epitome of conformity: all named Bob, they also look and act the same. Staake (The Book of Gold), leaning into his stylized aesthetic, draws the Bobs as black-and-white figures with rotund, striped bodies; mostly bald pates; and bulbous noses. “Life could get a little dull,” writes Winter (Mother Jones and Her Army of Mill Children), but the Bobs cherish their way of life—which also includes hating any outliers. When a renegade community member renames himself Bruce and starts wearing red striped pants and a variously patterned bright shirt, the reaction in Bobville is swift and draconian. “The Person Formerly Known as Bob” is banished, and the Bobs build a tall brick wall around the town “for keeping out other not-Bobs”; Bruce, looking not at all displeased, finds happiness in “the big, exciting world outside,” which is populated by people (plus one robot, two Martians, and a unicorn) of every color, wardrobe, and lifestyle. The creators devote so many pages to the Bobville orthodoxy that Bruce’s new life feels shortchanged, but the laudatory, relevant premise offers a clear way forward for non-Bobs everywhere. Ages 3–7. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/03/2020 | Details & Permalink

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My Pencil and Me

Sara Varon. First Second, $18.99 (48p) ISBN 978-1-596-43589-6

Varon (Hold Hands) isn’t just the author of this how-to picture book—she’s the protagonist, too, drawing herself as a character who, stumped for a story, takes the advice of her dog, Sweet Pea, and asks her pencil for help. Pencil is a worthy aide (“Aw, forget about the eraser! It doesn’t need to be perfect”), and the protagonist is soon sketching an action-packed baseball tale of friends vs. brightly colored, adorably eclectic monsters. It’s all fun and games—Varon depicts herself as a power hitter—until Pencil insists that “nobody likes a book where everybody gets along” and is accidently snapped in two. The monsters take over the narrative, turn Pencil into a magic bat, and write themselves a massive victory. “Best story ever!” the winners declare, and the powers that be seem to agree: a few pages later, the meta book has a primo spot in a real bookstore window. The creative process—its pains, its joys, and its so-crazy-it-just-might-work moments—has found a thoroughly funny chronicler in Varon. Ages 3–6. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/03/2020 | Details & Permalink

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How Do You Make a Baby?

Anna Fiske. Gecko, $18.99 (80p) ISBN 978-1-77657-285-4

A frank, conversational narrative and playful illustrations convey information about conception, gestation, and birth in this limited introduction to an often-taboo topic: babies’ provenance. Fiske dives right in, inviting reader interaction: one spread asks readers to identify “who is having sex here” among loving couples rendered in energetic cartoon line drawings. Fiske doesn’t shy away from showing genitals and coitus, and includes descriptions of in vitro fertilization (for couples who “can’t make babies when they have sex”) as well as adoption (parents who “have been waiting a very, very, very long time”) alongside humorous depictions of smooching duos and swimming sperm. For all its apparent straightforwardness, however, the volume misses myriad opportunities: while vaginal and cesarean births are plainly presented (albeit sans fluids), ovaries aren’t clearly shown until well after their first reference; the text also confuses sex and gender (“The sperm determines whether it will be a girl or a boy”). Gay and straight couples are featured, as is an individual wearing heels and earrings with a suit and tie, but heterosexual duos dominate the framing, and the book lacks references to nonbinary and trans people in its descriptions of fertilization and pregnancy (“Pregnant mothers all look different”). More irreverent than inclusive, this effort is restricted in its applicability. Ages 4–7. (Aug.) Update: The age range in this review has been changed for accuracy.■

Reviewed on 06/26/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Birrarung Wilam: A Story from Aboriginal Australia

Aunty Joy Murphy and Andrew Kelly, illus. by Lisa Kennedy. Candlewick, $17.99 (40p) ISBN 978-1-5362-0942-6

Woiwurrung is a language spoken by the Wurundjeri people of Australia’s Yarra River valley, around present-day Melbourne. Wurundjeri elder Murphy and Yarra riverkeeper Kelly offer readers a door into the Woiwurrung language, which, the back matter tells readers, “does not translate directly into English.” The authors work mostly with nouns, and readers work out meanings using context, the illustrations, and the glossary: “Where Birrarung begins to run through farmland,/ marram, resting on soft forepaws,/ neatly clips buath.” (Birrarung is the Yarra River; Marram is a gray kangaroo; buath is grass.) In Tasmanian Trawlwoolway Kennedy’s handsome acrylic paintings, the river flows slowly, and the marsupials and birds that live beside it are shown feeding and burrowing, swimming and flying. The animals are painted naturalistically, framed by tapestries of texture and pattern that contain aboriginal elements. As the river approaches the city, buildings appear, but always in the background. It’s a lovely, immersive introduction to a language, and a closely observed view of the Australian natural world. Ages 6–9. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/26/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Butterflies Belong Here: A Story of One Idea, Thirty Kids, and a World of Butterflies

Deborah Hopkinson, illus. by Meilo So. Chronicle, $18.99 (68p) ISBN 978-1-4521-7680-2

Following an earlier, similarly structured collaboration by this team (Follow the Moon Home) about a child gaining self-assurance while working on an environmental project, Hopkinson and So introduce a brown-skinned girl whose confidence grows as she organizes her class to start a milkweed garden for migrating monarchs. “That’s me in the back,” the girl says, holding up her class picture; “I was a little like a caterpillar then:/ quiet and almost invisible.” A librarian gives her illustrated books about monarchs whose imagined pages interleave with the girl’s own story, and the butterflies’ migration path mirrors her own (“I wondered if monarch butterflies belonged here. Sometimes I wondered if we did, too”). A research poster she makes about monarchs inspires her classmates, and—with input from experts, a budget, and presentations to the school and beyond—a school monarch way station takes shape. So’s delicate mixed-media drawings capture the girl’s classmates and portrays the protagonist as she journeys from lonely newcomer to poised leader. An author’s note and bibliography tell readers how to make their own gardens. Ages 5–8. Author’s agent: Steven Malk, Writers House. Illustrator’s agent: Sally Heflin, Heflinreps. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 06/26/2020 | Details & Permalink

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