Book Review: Lola Dutch: When I Grow Up

The newest Lola Dutch book, out January 15, 2019, celebrates the sincere grandeur of a child’s imagination with charming characters and lovely illustrations.

 
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Here is a summary from the publisher:

Lola Dutch is always bursting with grand plans--so of course she has many ideas for what she wants to be when she grows up!

She could be a magnificent performer . . . 
or a daring inventor . . . 
or a brilliant botanist . . . 
there are exciting ideas all around! But Lola is too excited--she wants to try EVERYTHING. How will she ever decide what she is destined to become?

The curious and creative Lola Dutch is inspired to imagine every way to explore the wonder of her world. And she doesn't have to wait until she grows up!

Just like the Wright’s first Lola book, Lola Dutch: When I Grow Up is bursting with energy and imagination. The characters readers fell in love with in book one are back, and while the enthusiasm is the same, book two avoids feeling redundant or monotonous. The Wrights manage to create a fresh adventure without losing any of their signature charm.

Much like Lola herself, Sarah Jane Wright’s illustrations don’t shy away from being colorful and grandiose. She mixes minimalism and maximalism with expert fluidity. The important parts of Lola’s imagination are highlighted with bright, eclectic patterns and fearless detail, while the backgrounds remain gracefully airy, a canvas for everything Lola can dream up.

This brings me to perhaps the best thing about both the Lola Dutch books: they provide a space to celebrate the sincerity and grandeur of a child’s imagination. Lola Dutch may be a little bit much, but the story never tries to reign her in, and her friends - Bear, Gator, Pig, and Crane - are up for whatever adventures Lola comes up with next, loving her all the while.

If this book sounds as adorable to you as it does to us, good news! Author and illustrator team Kenneth and Sarah Jane Wright will be at The Story Shop on January 16 at 6:00 p.m. for a fantastic party and book signing in honor of the release of Lola Dutch: When I Grow Up! You won’t want to miss it - join in the fun by registering here:

And as always, happy reading!

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Book Review: Small Spaces

Katherine Arden takes readers on an eerie journey full of chills and cheers -

and your garden-variety scarecrow army.

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Publisher’s Summary

After suffering a tragic loss, eleven-year-old Ollie only finds solace in books. So when she happens upon a crazed woman at the river threatening to throw a book into the water, Ollie doesn't think--she just acts, stealing the book and running away. As she begins to read the slender volume, Ollie discovers a chilling story about a girl named Beth, the two brothers who both loved her, and a peculiar deal made with "the smiling man," a sinister specter who grants your most tightly held wish, but only for the ultimate price. 

Ollie is captivated by the tale until her school trip the next day to Smoke Hollow, a local farm with a haunting history all its own. There she stumbles upon the graves of the very people she's been reading about. Could it be the story about the smiling man is true? Ollie doesn't have too long to think about the answer to that. On the way home, the school bus breaks down, sending their teacher back to the farm for help. But the strange bus driver has some advice for the kids left behind in his care: "Best get moving. At nightfall they'll come for the rest of you." Nightfall is, indeed, fast descending when Ollie's previously broken digital wristwatch, a keepsake reminder of better times, begins a startling countdown and delivers a terrifying message: RUN. 

Only Ollie and two of her classmates heed the bus driver's warning. As the trio head out into the woods--bordered by a field of scarecrows that seem to be watching them--the bus driver has just one final piece of advice for Ollie and her friends: "Avoid large places. Keep to small." 

And with that, a deliciously creepy and hair-raising adventure begins.

Review

Small Spaces is fantastically creepy. This, in part, is due to the book’s vivid atmosphere. It was 90+ degrees outside while I was reading it, and every sentence surrounded me with the chill of mid-autumn. I frequently found myself stumbling outside into the Georgia sun, only to wonder where all the Halloween costumes and apple cider were.

In addition to being transportive, the book features a cast of likable and interesting characters. Too often, stories that begin in a school setting lean too far into social tropes. (Don’t get me wrong - this is not exclusively a middle-grades problem.) While this can provide writers of fantastical books room to move quickly through more “mundane” bits of plot, it can also unnecessarily flatten characters.

Arden doesn’t do this. From the very beginning, her characters defy the tropes I expected them to fit. Fierce Ollie stands up for new girl Coco, who has an eccentric and dainty reputation. Brian, the handsome athlete who accompanies Ollie and Coco into the woods, is kind and helpful throughout the journey. We see three kids who run in very different circles develop a deep understanding for one another.

And this is just the main trio. There are many exciting twists regarding good guys and bad guys. Some characters, perhaps more interestingly, turn out to be neutral.

The world Arden builds around this story is high-stakes and eerie, just unexplored enough to keep a grasp on readers’ interests. Spooky cornfields, old farms, and journals of those long dead all pitch in to create Arden’s masterpiece of an atmosphere.

Naturally, scarecrow armies come next.

The brilliance of the scarecrows is that they’re not just spooky space-fillers. Small Spaces deals with pretty heavy ideas like death, grief, and family, ideas that call into question what it means to be a human interacting with other humans, ideas that might seem scary and monstrous to kids (and really, everyone). When themes like this are set against strange, humanoid, inanimate-but-animate monsters, well . . . no spoilers, but it goes to interesting places.

And ultimately, those places are optimistic. Small Spaces is about adventure and fantasy and creepy autumn ambiance, but it’s also about the role we can play in our own grief. We don’t have to remain imprisoned by our emotions, so long as we are determined to love, in the same way that our diverse protagonists insist on loving each other. Love can bring us out of grief, and maybe - just maybe - save us from armies of super-spooky, semi-sentient scarecrows.

Get your copy from our online store here:

Happy reading!

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Book Review: The Green Ember

My place beside you
My blood for yours
Till the Green Ember rises
or the end of the world

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Where are the all books about heroic acts and brave deeds? Why have we stopped feeding our children stories of brave knights and daring princesses? Few tales have been produced since the days of Tolkien, Lewis, & MacDonald that reveal the endurance of the human (or rabbit) spirit, tales that demonstrate the strength that always arises from a fallen people and a broken nation.

In S.D. Smith’s The Green Ember, I am shown a world that is broken and in need of mending. A world where many are fighting for a freedom which only their parents once knew. The book opens with brother and sister, Heather and Picket, playing a sweet game in the meadow, but events quickly unfold, and Heather and Picket are entangled in a fight for a world - a warren - that they barely knew existed. Their bravery is tested and their loyalties questioned.

Author S.D. Smith takes Watership Down and The Lord of the Rings, two enthralling tales of bravery and triumph, and weaves them into a single masterpiece that is an entity all its own. Smith has given us a tale that will make us cry, cheer, and fist pump when events turn and battles are won. The Green Ember is such a refreshing story where the outcome is not straightforward. The story constantly tugs between good and evil and who will triumph. Your heart will soar one moment and shatter the next. Though there are times when darkness seems to envelop the world, no matter how much light is snuffed out, there is always a faint ember glowing in the depths.

For those who have not yet ventured into the marvelous world of S.D. Smith, you are missing a tale, a community, and a practice that isn’t appreciated anymore in this world . . . chivalry, bravery, acts of mercy and of love.

Read, marvel, and most importantly . . . hope.

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Book Review: Adrian Simcox Does NOT Have a Horse

Marcy Campbell's first picture book is fun, touching, and energetic.

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Adrian Simcox Does NOT Have a Horse is the picture-book-debut of dreams. Campbell's writing is artful, vivid, and poignant, and Corinna Luyken's illustrations capture the swirling tenderness of the story.  

Here is a description from the publisher:

Adrian Simcox tells anyone who will listen that he has a horse--the best and most beautiful horse anywhere.

But Chloe does NOT believe him. Adrian Simcox lives in a tiny house. Where would he keep a horse? He has holes in his shoes. How would he pay for a horse?

The more Adrian talks about his horse, the angrier Chloe gets. But when she calls him out at school and even complains about him to her mom, Chloe doesn't get the vindication she craves. She gets something far more important.
 

Right away, the title and premise were enough to intrigue me. But the most interesting (and my favorite) thing about Adrian Simcox is that it's a picture book told in the first person. And that person is NOT Adrian Simcox. 

Chloe, who is skeptical of Adrian's horse stories, is our narrator. Chloe herself is another highlight of this book. She is impatient with Adrian, and impulsive. She is a little harsher than she means to be when she feels the truth is at stake. This sort of imperfect protagonist, like Campbell's first-person narration, is unusually complex for a picture book, and even more impressive is that it works. Chloe's story teaches kids that it's okay to make mistakes, as long as you work to better understand those around you. 

This book would be great for reading aloud, not only because of the beautiful cadence, but because its humor manages to be both matter-of-fact and whimsical. Campbell's dialogue feels natural and rhythmic, and every character's lines practically pop off the page. The story contains a variety of emotions that would make for a lively and entertaining story time. 

Corinna Luyken's illustrations are stunning and organic with pops of color. Her wild lines and earthy tones provide an energetic and free-feeling setting for the story. She perfectly captures the world as it looks to us when we are children, imagining, learning, reacting, and trying to understand.  

So basically, I love this book, and I think you will, too. We have a small supply of signed copies available at The Story Shop, so come by and grab them before they're gone! 

As always, happy reading. 

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Book Review: Willa of the Wood

The author of the Serafina series returns! Robert Beatty's Willa of the Wood is fierce, fantastical, and captivating.

How beautiful is this cover? 

How beautiful is this cover? 

Here is the publisher's summary:

Move without a sound. Steal without a trace.

To Willa, a young night-spirit, humans are the murderers of trees. She's been taught to despise them and steal from them. She's her clan's best thief, creeping into the log cabins of the day-folk under cover of darkness and taking what they won't miss. It's dangerous work, but Willa will do anything to win the approval of the padaran, the charismatic leader of the Faeran people.

When Willa's curiosity leaves her hurt and stranded in the day-folk world, she calls upon the old powers of her beloved grandmother, and the unbreakable bonds of her forest allies, to survive. Only then does she begin to discover the shocking truth: that not all of her human enemies are the same, and that the foundations of her own Faeran society are crumbling. What do you do when you realize that the society you were born and raised in is rife with evil? Do you raise your voice? Do you stand up against it?

As forces of unfathomable destruction attack her forest home, Willa must decide who she truly is--facing deadly force with warm compassion, sinister corruption with trusted alliance, and finding a home for her longing heart.

Sound awesome? It is. Willa gets more enthralling and mysterious the deeper the reader ventures into the story.

The book is lengthy, but middle readers will remain glued to Willa's story. Her adventure is full of high energy bursts with breaks just short enough for readers to gather themselves before Beatty throws us into even more vine-like twists and turns. 

The cast of characters is diverse, ranging from quaint to flashy to threatening to kind. Willa herself is a brilliant mixture of feistiness and compassion, fiercely gentle towards all living things she encounters. (Not to mention how super-awesome her magic is.)

Her companions include Luthien, the female head of the wolves, who aids Willa through a life-threatening chase, and Nathaniel, a homesteader man, who takes Willa under his wing.

Willa is also set during an interesting historical moment - the construction of the Great Smoky Mountain railroad in the early 1900s. Willa's clan is at odds with several other groups: the homesteaders, the Cherokee, and the railroad workers. 

Beatty is right on point when it comes to getting middle readers interested not only in the magic of reading, but also in American and regional history. (You can get me interested in anything historical if you add in forest spirits.)

Willa will make page-turners of middle readers and parents, alike. 

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