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Aiko and the Planet of Dogs

Ainhoa Cayuso, trans. from the French by Irene Vázquez, illus. by Christoffer Ellegaard. Levine Querido, $18.99 (32p) ISBN 978-1-6461-4464-8

Aiko, portrayed with pale skin and wide round eyes, is a brave, ambitious astronaut upon whom “the whole of humanity is counting.” On a mission to find extraterrestrial life, she lands on a planet run entirely by talking dogs, where she busts her equipment taking a selfie. Toutou, the dogs’ poodle leader, explains that the inhabitants, “descendants of the valiant astro-dogs sent into space by humans,” are determined to live far from humankind so they can never again be exploited. Mixed-media illustrations by Ellegaard capture the dogs’ existence in watercolor textures that offer up a trippy vibe. When Aiko informs the canines that she intends to use news of her discovery to become famous on Earth, “the warm welcome turns icy,” and she goes from honored guest to leashed prisoner. But the plot turns once again when Aiko saves Toutou, and a deal is struck: the dogs will repair Aiko’s ship, and she’ll keep quiet about their planet. Lengthy text by Cayuso melds the dreamy with the matter-of-fact, as someone recounting a dream, making for an offbeat title that’s doggone beguiling, too. Ages 4–8. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/12/2024 | Details & Permalink

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It’s Hard to Be a Baby

Cheryl B. Klein, illus. by Juana Medina. Abrams, $18.99 (32p) ISBN 978-1-4197-6733-3

“Hey there, babies./ I hear you.// Everyone thinks your lives are easy,” begins the compassionate narrator of this picture book focused on infant experiences. As digital illustrations by Medina (Elena Rides) depict round-headed, dot-eyed infants fussing and crying, the voice breaks down the truth. Babies arrive from a “warm and dark and quiet” place into a world that’s “cold/ and bright and LOUD”; in this realm, “You have to tell these people everything.// When you’re hot./ When you’re hungry.” And if that’s not enough for infants to endure, myriad complicated outfits—shown festooned with ruffles and accessorized with elaborate headgear across a full spread—are foisted on them, too. “But hang in there, babies.// Good things are coming,” the narrator promises: smiles and laughter, a regular sleep schedule, a diet that’s both tasty and highly interactive, and all kinds of interesting milestones. But whence does this wisdom come? As Klein (Hamsters Make Terrible Roommates) reveals, from an actual former baby who is now a confident, happy kid. There’s something for everyone in these gently funny pages: warmhearted solace for new parents, support for freshly minted siblings, and tender empathy for the very newest among us. Ages 2–5. Author’s agent: Brianne Johnson, HG Literary. Illustrator’s agent: Gillian MacKenzie, Gillian MacKenzie Agency. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 07/12/2024 | Details & Permalink

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A Party for Florine: Florine Stettheimer and Me

Yevgenia Nayberg. Holiday House/Porter, $18.99 (40p) ISBN 978-0-8234-5410-5

A young artist visiting a museum feels an immediate connection upon encountering a self-portrait by modernist artist Florine Stettheimer (1871–1944) in this biographical picture book. There’s an uncanny resemblance between the two, who are both Jewish, and the child wonders if Stettheimer’s family also tended to “talk at the same time, waving hands at each other.” As the youth learns more about Stettheimer’s life and art, mixed-media images by Nayberg (I Hate Borsch!) pay homage to the artist’s distinctive aesthetic (“Everything Florine painted danced and sang on a canvas”). Festive, translucent colors, swooping shapes, and floating figures depict an individual who embodied a free creative spirit and Jazz Age style, hosting cosmopolitan salons frequented by the likes of Marcel Duchamp. Inspired by Stettheimer’s life and extensively imagining hosting a party for her (“I would serve:/ Blue pancakes./ Orange jelly beans”), the child realizes that, far from being a gloomy place, “the world around me is full of color and full of surprise.” A walk outdoors reveals that there’s even poetry and joy in a squirrel scavenging a cinnamon bagel, suggesting that this book’s witty subject is a more than worthwhile muse. Characters are portrayed with various skin tones. An author’s note concludes. Ages 4–8. Agent: Anna Olswanger, Olswanger Literary. (July)

Reviewed on 07/05/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Almost Underwear: How a Piece of Cloth Traveled from Kitty Hawk to the Moon and Mars

Jonathan Roth. Little, Brown/Ottaviano, $18.99 (40p) ISBN 978-0-3165-2554-1

The unassuming roll of unbleached muslin for sale in 1903 at a store in Dayton, Ohio, might have been turned into ladies’ underwear. “Not that underwear is bad,” notes Roth (the Rover and Speck series). “It just isn’t destined for greatness.” But the Wright brothers saw something more in it: a “light, flexible, and especially strong” fabric ideal for covering the wings of the world’s first airplane. After sitting in storage and being displayed in a museum, a swatch of this cloth—anthropomorphized with dot eyes and a small, expressive mouth—again and again soars into history as other aviation pioneers carry it as a kind of talisman. It accompanies Neil Armstrong to the moon in 1969 and is affixed to the Ingenuity Mars helicopter, in 2021 making “the very first flight on another planet.” A blend of cartooning and archival photos from NASA and the National Air and Space Museum evokes an informative comic book feel, adding in mechanical detail that’s just right for budding aeronautical gearheads. But it’s the work’s narrative voice, which alternates between droll humor and geeky enthusiasm, that makes this textile yarn a delight from takeoff to landing. An author’s note and instrument glossary conclude. Ages 5–9. Agent: Natalie Lakosil, Irene Goodman Agency. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/05/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Our Beautiful Darkness

Ondjaki, trans. from the Portuguese by Lyn Miller-Lachmann, illus. by António Jorge Gonçalves. Unruly, $16.95 (126p) ISBN 978-1-59270-410-1

Two teenage paramours navigate a metropolitan blackout’s full duration in this arresting graphic novel by Angola author Ondjaki (Transparent City), illustrated by Portuguese creator Gonçalves as a series of white, chalk-like images on a black background. Via the first-person POV of one of two unnamed characters, the teen reflects on the vastness of the universe and the people within it while pining for their crush’s affection. Rarely interrupted void-like blank space neatly juxtaposes the author’s spare storytelling, which focuses intensely on feelings and specific sensory experiences such as touch and limited sight. The reader is provided only enough visual information to ground them in the moment: a canopy of stars above a darkened skyline, the starlit silhouette of an owl in a tree, a vague interpretation of the eyes of the person the protagonist longs to kiss. Ondjaki’s prose is imbued with a touching sense of existential whimsy: “My eyes closed. I think hers did too. In that riddle of darkness, a kiss had room to happen.” This artful romanticism carries the characters through the darkness—which is sometimes lit by candles or the headlights of passing vehicles—in which they experience laughter, a light show, and at last, an end to their yearning. A translator’s note by Miller-Lachmann (Eyes Open) concludes. Ages 12–up. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/05/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Full Shift

Jennifer Dugan, illus. by Kit Seaton. Putnam, $24.99 (256p) ISBN 978-0-5935-2984-3; $17.99 paper ISBN 978-0-593-52985-0

Ever since her father’s death, teenage Tessa has felt increasingly alienated from her family of werewolves. It doesn’t help that she still can’t shift into full wolf form (“The number one reason my sister drives me up the wall is... she’s also a better werewolf than me”). Upon hearing rumor of a group of hunters with the ability to make werewolves human, she risks her life, and the safety of her family and friends, to learn more. She enlists the help of Madeline, her crush since fourth grade, to whom Tessa recently (and awkwardly) revealed her werewolf identity. But when Tessa inadvertently leads the hunters to believe that Maddie is a werewolf, Tessa must rally her pack for assistance in protecting Maddie. Tessa’s werewolf family nurtures and supports her even when she acts against their wishes in this refreshingly subversive graphic novel by collaborators Dugan and Seaton (Coven). Seaton’s noir-like illustrations and detailed backdrops blend realistic and stylized elements to evoke an appropriately spine-chilling creature feature atmosphere. Emotive facial expressions similarly elevate Dugan’s rapid-fire dialogue and character interactions, which add heft and heart that brings the protagonists to life in this story of loss and transformation. Characters are portrayed with varying skin tones. Ages 12–up. Author’s agent: Sara Crowe, Sara Crowe Literary. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/05/2024 | Details & Permalink

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When Wishes Were Horses

Cynthia Voigt. Greenwillow, $18.99 (224p) ISBN 978-0-06-299692-3

In this gentle, thoughtful tale, four children are unexpectedly granted two wishes each. Notice arrives in the form of an envelope containing two sheets of gray tissue paper and a note reading “ONE WISH AT A TIME. WHISPER IT TO ME. BE WISE.” Bug wishes for a skateboard but soon discovers that it doesn’t afford him the happiness he expected. Zoe, tired and frustrated by her parents’ constant arguing and their inability to see how it affects her, wishes for an end to the “Ugly Fights.” Though her wish seemingly comes true, her family continues to fall apart in other ways. Casey chafes against her hardworking mother’s prickly nature and impulsively wishes for a dog she knows she won’t be allowed to keep. And Billy uses his wish to summon a unicorn to be his friend. Though the entries briefly overlap, Newbery Medalist Voigt (Toaff’s Way) presents each child’s story as a self-contained narrative. The all-knowing narration creates distance from the reader and adds mystique to the wishes and their origins, making for a modern fairy tale that capitalizes on ambiguity and mystery. Characters are depicted on the cover with varying skin tones. Ages 8–12. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/05/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Welcome to Nowhere

Elizabeth Laird, illus. by Lucy Eldridge. Macmillan, $8.99 paper (352p) ISBN 978-1-03503-473-4

This far-reaching novel by Laird (The Misunderstandings of Charity Brown) follows one family through the early years of the Syrian civil war, beginning in March 2011. Narrated in an emotionally honest voice by Omar—the middle child of five—the story opens when he is 12 and living in comfort in Bosra, where his father is a government employee. When war breaks out, life grows increasingly perilous. The family decamps to relatives’ homes—first a flat in Daara, then a farm in the countryside—before making a terrifying border crossing into Jordan, where they settle in the Za’atari refugee camp. Each character is imbued with individuality, particularly Omar’s oldest sister Eman, an aspiring teacher, and older brother Musa, who refuses to let bullying surrounding his cerebral palsy affect his intellectual acuity or education—or keep him from becoming involved in dangerous underground politics. Personal dynamics amid steadily deteriorating conditions, especially the thorny yet loving sibling relations, are strongly depicted. While the final events that move the narrative toward its optimistic closing feel somewhat cursory, thorough depictions of each phase of the family’s saga are immersive. Moody gray toned drawings by Eldridge (If a Horse Had Words) enhance the story’s grim ambiance; Laird’s opening and closing notes provide historical and personal context. Ages 9–11. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/05/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Read at Your Own Risk

Remy Lai. Holt, $13.99 (160p) ISBN 978-1-250-32335-4

Seventh grader Hannah Lee finds herself cursed after sneaking out of an assembly to the school’s supposedly haunted attic with her friends. Constructed as Hannah’s illustrated sketch diary, which is filled with drawings by Lai (Ghost Book) rendered in b&w with blood-red accents, Hannah notes all the strange things that begin happening to her following the game. In biology class, a knife slips out of her hand and lands “smack-dab in the middle of my forehead,” while further investigation of an itch in her gums reveals centipedes “scratching my jawbone tingly and torturous.” When the sinister force at play starts communicating with her via her journal, Hannah must find a way to expunge the evil presence or face dire consequences. But even as Hannah investigates, the curse taunts her: “You ungrateful brat.... Without the villain, there would be no obstacles, no opportunities for the hero to become a hero.” Lai’s fast-paced, body-horror-centric tale sets up an accessible and eerie mystery through which the protagonist grapples with spine-tingling terrors, uncovers previously hidden personal potential, and forms stronger connections. Character skin tones reflect the white of the page. Ages 8–12. Agent: Jim McCarthy, Dystel, Goderich & Bourret. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/05/2024 | Details & Permalink

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Prince of the Palisades

Julian Winters. Viking, $12.99 paper (352p) ISBN 978-0-593-62442-5

Following a friend’s betrayal, a public breakup with a model, and a scandal in which he was recorded criticizing the prime minister, 17-year-old “Prince Un-charming” Jadon of Îles de la Rêverie vows to be “as normal and unproblematic as possible.” Livid over Jadon’s actions, his father threatens to cut him off if he doesn’t shape up. What the king doesn’t know is that Jadon was defending his California-born mother from the prime minister’s xenophobic comments. To repair his reputation, Jadon is sent to Los Angeles to complete a carefully curated media tour. Despite swearing off romance, however, Jadon immediately falls for pink-haired film enthusiast Reiss, a student at his prestigious new school Willow Wood Academy. The teens bond over shared feelings of being an outcast, and Reiss plays tour guide, introducing Jadon to all of L.A.’s best spots, but when Jadon’s ex-boyfriend shows up, his arrival jeopardizes everything Jadon and Reiss have built. Online celebrity journalist posts open each chapter, highlighting the media and monarchy’s often damaging effects on Jadon’s life. Winters (As You Walk On By) meshes fun-in-the-sun antics with perceptive examinations on new experiences, changing identities, and rebuilding trust in this rollicking romance. Ages 12–up. Agent: Thao Le, Sandra Dijkstra Literary. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/05/2024 | Details & Permalink

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