Book Review: Song for a Whale

Lynne Kelly’s newest release is a masterpiece that offers a glimpse of the world from a perspective we hope to see more of in kid lit!

 
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Here’s the publisher’s summary:

From fixing the class computer to repairing old radios, twelve-year-old Iris is a tech genius. But she’s the only deaf person in her school, so people often treat her like she’s not very smart. If you’ve ever felt like no one was listening to you, then you know how hard that can be.

When she learns about Blue 55, a real whale who is unable to speak to other whales, Iris understands how he must feel. Then she has an idea: she should invent a way to “sing” to him! But he’s three thousand miles away. How will she play her song for him?

Adventure, loneliness, discovery, friendship: Song for a Whale holds so much between its pages.

Iris is an amazing protagonist. I love seeing the world through her eyes and seeing how she solves the problems she faces in ways that would never occur to me as a hearing person. The way that Iris’ empathy for Blue 55 moves her to action is an excellent display of her ingenuity. Sound is something many of us hear, but for Iris, it’s something she feels. She shows the reader how we, too, can feel sound, and all that is communicated through it, on a whole new level.

Her experiences of being deaf at a hearing school open the reader to a different perspective. How do we show respect to those we communicate with? Kelly shows the difficulties in communication barriers though conflicts with Nina, who is sure she has mastered sign language, and with one of Iris’ teachers, who refuses to see past Iris’ difference. How often do we think we’ve mastered a complex topic, like a language and a culture, from reading a single book instead of learning from those embedded in them, as Nina does? Or how often do we limit our view of another and belittle their abilities, like Iris’ teacher?

Iris’ family dynamics are another intriguing element. Kelly links Iris’ relationship with her grandparents to poetry. The sign poems, poems rhyming not with words but with sign shapes, that Iris and her grandfather create are beautiful and a realm of poetry that I’d not experienced before. And the shared but distancing gulf of grief between her and her grandmother after the death of her grandfather draws the reader into the narrative in relatable ways.

Song for a Whale is excellent for those who love fixing things, for those who love adventure, for those who feel they are often misunderstood, for those who long for that special connection between kindred spirits.

Book Review: What Is Given from the Heart

Patricia C. McKissack’s final book is a harmony of thoughtfulness and feeling that speaks to the resilience of children.

 
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Here is the publisher’s summary:

This final, magnificent picture book from three-time Coretta Scott King Award winner and Newbery Honor author Patricia McKissack is a poignant and uplifting celebration of the joy of giving. 

“Misery loves company,” Mama says to James Otis. It’s been a rough couple of months for them, but Mama says as long as they have their health and strength, they’re blessed. One Sunday before Valentine’s Day, Reverend Dennis makes an announcement during the service– the Temples have lost everything in a fire, and the church is collecting anything that might be useful to them. James thinks hard about what he can add to the Temple’s “love box,” but what does he have worth giving? With her extraordinary gift for storytelling, McKissack–with stunning illustrations by Harrison–delivers a touching, powerful tale of compassion and reminds us all that what is given from the heart, reaches the heart.

I was first struck by the illustrations of this book. Harrison’s use of collage works brilliantly. Each page is filled with bittersweet texture that not only appeals to kids, but also nods to nostalgia. Fabrics, papers, and photograph snippets all serve as vehicles back in time for older readers and sources of wonder for younger readers. Harrison’s colors and patterns beg us to turn the page, if only to see what the next visual will convey. The diversity of media used in the illustrations also serves McKissack’s story - give to those in a variety of situations, with a variety of backgrounds. Give to those who are trying to piece together a world from scraps.

McKissack is unflinching from the first page. A note to parents: this book contains some heavy material, but McKissack handles it with grace and nuance while maintaining accessibility. While this is a story about some pretty painful things that happen in the life of a child, this isn’t one of those books that are about-kids-but-for-adults. No, this is a story for children, and James Otis’s intelligent, matter-of-fact voice allows it to move seamlessly from childlike curiosity to tough truths of life and back again.

The story also breaks down what it means to give “from the heart,” a phrase adults often present to children and then leave floating in their brains as a complete abstraction. The reader follows James Otis as he tries to think of anything he might give to a girl who lost her home in a fire. We see his careful choosing process and his doubling back, his excitement and his second guessing. We see him learn from Mama’s actions and explanations that to give from the heart is to give thoughtfully and sincerely.

What is Given from the Heart is a story that trusts its child readers to accompany James Otis on his quest for a heartfelt gift. It trusts kids to match its intelligence. How fantastic, to teach children that both emotion and logic exist side by side in the act of giving!

As always, happy reading!

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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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