The Lost Reviews 2017: Books and Their Hooks
Julie Danielson calls it her Ghost File, and that’s as good a name as any for the books a blogger fails to talk up sufficiently in the previous year. 2017 was a pretty nice year for me personally, all things considered, so I’d like to pay it forward a bit and offer an homage to the books that deserved more from this site.
Now, the thing about this list isn’t that it consists of ALL the books I wanted to review last year. I read hundreds of great books, all of them worthy, but the way that I write requires a “hook” of sorts. There has to be something about the book that lures the reader in. You’re not just reviewing the book, after all. You’re trying to say something about the current state of children’s literature today. So the books I’m most regret not reviewing are the ones that had the grabbiest “hooks”. Honestly, I could have done any one of these, if I just hadn’t run out of time. Here then are the books and the hooks.
All Around Us by Xelena Gonzalez, ill. Adriana M. Garcia
The Book: Here’s the description from the publisher: “Grandpa says circles are all around us. He points to the rainbow that rises high in the sky after a thundercloud has come. “Can you see? That’s only half of the circle. That rest of it is down below, in the earth.” He and his granddaughter meditate on gardens and seeds, on circles seen and unseen, inside and outside us, on where our bodies come from and where they return to. They share and create family traditions in this stunning exploration of the cycles of life and nature.”
The Hook: Oh, this is such a kick in the gut. If you know me then you know my penchant for reviewing books from small publishers. I’ve admired the works of Cinco Punto Press for years and I’ve been waiting for just the right title. It took me a little while to realize it, but this book fit the bill perfectly! Written by Xelena González (a member of the Auteca Paguame family of the Tap Pilam Coahuitecan nation) the book references her characters’ mestizo heritage even as it also talks about life and death and interconnectedness. The art by Adriana M. Garcia makes my job selling this book easy. It’s gorgeous, quite frankly. I was so looking forward to doing this title, but doggone December snuck up on me this year. *sigh*
I Give You My Heart by Pimm van Hest, ill. Sassafras De Bruyn
The Book: Description from the publisher: “Yuto receives a special gift. A gift that will change his life. A gift that moves him and brings him comfort, warmth and shelter. A gift for life. A gift to pass on. A poetic fairy tale with valuable life lessons, 56 pages of stunning artwork and magnificent laser cutouts that will enchant you. The story is about a special life-changing gift; I GIVE YOU MY HEART is an ideal gift itself, one that will change the life of all who read it.”
The Hook: I was already well into my 31 Days, 31 Lists countdown when this book arrived in my mailbox. The image you’re seeing here of the cover doesn’t really do it justice. This puppy is a large format and from the small Belgian publisher Clavis, best known here in the States for their imports. What’s remarkable about it is the art, though. I’ve seen die-cuts in books before, but the laser cutouts in this story act like songs in a good musical. Which is to say, they aren’t just there for show. They further the plot. There was also something simultaneously hopefully and mildly melancholy about the storyline that I found darned appealing. I guess that’s the problem with being an individual and not a publishing journal. You always get something too late.
The One Day House by Julia Durango, ill. Bianca Diaz
The Book: Description from the publisher: “Wilson dreams of all the ways he can help improve his friend Gigi’s house so that she’ll be warm, comfortable, and happy. One day, friends and neighbors from all over come to help make Wilson’s plans come true. Everyone volunteers to pitch in to make Gigi’s house safe, clean, and pretty. Inspired by a friend’s volunteerism, author Julia Durango tells a story of community and togetherness, showing that by helping others we help ourselves. Further information about Labor of Love, United Way, and Habitat for Humanity is included at the end of the book.”
The Hook: Since moving to the Chicago area I’ve had a radar installed in my cranium that allows me to detect any and all children’s books with a possible local connection. So imagine my delight when lo and behold this book plops in my lap. Julia Durango is a resident of Ottawa, IL and this book was inspired by various Illinois organizations. It looks good, it reads great, and it has a connection to my adopted home state. What’s not to love?
What What What? by Arata Tendo, ill. Ryoji Arai
The Book: Description from the publisher: “He’ll talk to anyone―even total strangers―to satisfy his curiosity. But not everyone likes his questions. And because some people get annoyed with him, he asks his grandparents, “Why does everyone always get mad at me?” Still, when Pan discovers that what he mistook for Halloween makeup on a schoolmate’s face won’t come off, he knows he’s got to get to the bottom of things. His search leads him from his teacher, to his classmate’s doorstep and before long, Pan has the entire community asking the same questions he is, “What’s up? What’s happened? What’s going on?” Pan shows us all that a little bit of curiosity can go a long way, and that some things deserve more than a second glance.”
The Hook: Ahhh. Meet the most overlooked picture book of 2017. This import from Enchanted Lion Press is an outlier. Somehow, it didn’t manage to get a single professional review. I might understand that if the book wasn’t any good, but this story is so packed with information that kids both will and will not get that I’m just dumbfounded. This isn’t to say that this is an easy book. It’s a Japanese import tackling issues like abuse and how easy it is to hide in public when that public doesn’t notice or care about you. Still, I thought it was well done and important and I only wish I could have given it the review it deserved.
The Good for Nothing Button by Charise Mericle Harper
The Book: Description from the publisher: “Yellow Bird has a button. It does . . . nothing! It is a good for nothing button. Red Bird and Blue Bird are excited to try the button. But when they press it, they discover that the button makes them happy. Happy is something! A flabbergasted Yellow Bird insists the button does nothing. But it sure does seem to be making him mad. Mad is something! The hilarious debate that follows takes readers on an emotional roller coaster that pokes at the power of imaginative play.”
The Hook: It’s funny that in the midst of all these small publishers I’d be including this title that probably doesn’t need another drop of publicity. The dollars spent on its ad campaign alone would probably sustain most of this little pubs for a year. Still, there was something so appealing in the make-up of this book, that I wish I could have spent more time picking it apart. Basically, Harper confronts the idea of nothingness and what it must be. Can something be derived out of nothing? Can you ever even have nothing when by discovering that nothing you make something? Any easy book that makes me feel pensive and philosophical is, as far as I’m concerned, a rousing success. Sure, it didn’t need my help, but I would have loved to have indulged in a nice long review of being and nothingness.
Brave by Svetlana Chmakova
The Book: Description from the publisher: “In his daydreams, Jensen is the biggest hero that ever was, saving the world and his friends on a daily basis. But his middle school reality is VERY different–math is hard, getting along with friends is hard…Even finding a partner for the class project is a huge problem when you always get picked last. And the pressure’s on even more once the school newspaper’s dynamic duo, Jenny and Akilah, draw Jensen into the whirlwind of school news, social-experiment projects, and behind-the-scenes club drama. Jensen has always played the middle school game one level at a time, but suddenly, someone’s cranked up the difficulty setting. Will those daring daydreams of his finally work in his favor, or will he have to find real solutions to his real-life problems? The charming world of Berrybrook Middle School gets a little bigger in this highly anticipated follow-up to Svetlana Chmakova’s award-winning Awkward with a story about a boy who learns his own way of being brave!”
The Hook: Oh, I’m still kicking myself over this one. It was pretty much the last comic I read in 2017 and when I realized how clever Chmakova is and how much work she’s put into this book, I decided that this might be one of the best written books of the year. Her website says she “makes her home somewhere between Toronto, Canada and California” so that means she might be Newbery eligible. I’m not even joking about that. In this book she takes a very standard topic in children’s books these days: bullying. Then she proceeds to make everything harder for herself. I feel like when it comes to bullying we’ve almost been trained to look for simplicity in our children’s fare. Bullying = bad, sure but is all bullying the same? What if it’s from a friend? What if the bullied person doesn’t know they’re being bullied? Isn’t it worse to tell them? In this book Jensen isn’t the smartest or the most talented kid around, but he has a good heart and maybe some family stuff going on as well. Chmakova then picks apart his life and his options and what he learns about good old-fashioned basic human kindness. This isn’t so much a #choosekind book as it is #choosedecency. Man. You gotta read this.
Beauty and the Beak: How Science, Technology, and a 3D-Printed Beak Rescued a Bald Eagle by Deborah Lee Rose and Jane Veltkamp
The Book: Description from the publisher: “BEAUTY AND THE BEAK is a new, nonfiction picture book about Beauty, the wild bald eagle that made world news when she was illegally shot, rescued, and received a pioneering, 3D-printed prosthetic beak. BEAUTY AND THE BEAK follows Beauty close up from the moment she uses her baby beak to emerge from her egg, through her hunt when she uses her powerful adult beak to feed herself, to the day her beak is shot off leaving her helpless. This brave and heartlifting story continues through her rescue, into the months of engineering her 3D-printed prosthetic beak and intense hours of her beak surgery, to the moment she takes the first drink of water by herself with her new beak.”
The Hook: ERG! I was this close to reviewing this book several times. Unfortunately, every time it was ready for its review I’d either lent the book to someone else to read or I’d left it at work. In the end this incredibly cool idea for a title was forgotten in my various piles o’ books. This is particularly disappointing when you consider the fact that the publisher is Persnickety Press, a small but clever little company. Now the story itself is good, no doubt. Honestly, I’m just fascinated whenever anyone puts 3D printers to good use. But when you get to the backmatter at the end your jaw will surely drop. I think it may be fair to say that I’ve never seen this much backmatter in a book before. Hope you like bald eagles, because you are about to learn every last stinking thing about them.
Before She Was Harriet by Lesa Cline-Ransome, ill. James E. Ransome
The Book: Description from publisher: “A lush and lyrical biography of Harriet Tubman, written in verse and illustrated by an award-winning artist. We know her today as Harriet Tubman, but in her lifetime she was called by many names. As General Tubman she was a Union spy. As Moses she led hundreds to freedom on the Underground Railroad. As Minty she was a slave whose spirit could not be broken. An evocative poem and opulent watercolors come together to honor a woman of humble origins whose courage and compassion make her larger than life.”
The Hook: If there were any justice in this world, the book would win a Newbery. I say this not because of the subject matter (though Harriet Tubman is always a good get) but because this book may well be Lesa Cline-Ransome’s greatest masterpiece to date. Who else would have thought of defining the life of Harriet Tubman in terms of her occupations, moving backwards through her life? You know what this book pairs well with? Nathan Hale’s The Underground Abductor, that’s what. Of all the Harriet Tubman picture books I’ve seen over the years, this is the strongest out there. Please read the Seven Impossible Things examination of the book, if you’d be so kind. If you don’t believe me when I tell you it’s magnificent, believe her.
Fred Korematsu Speaks Up by Laura Atkins and Stan Yogi, ill. Yutaka Houlette
The Book: Description from the publisher: “Fred Korematsu liked listening to music on the radio, playing tennis, and hanging around with his friends—just like lots of other Americans. But everything changed when the United States went to war with Japan in 1941 and the government forced all people of Japanese ancestry to leave their homes on the West Coast and move to distant prison camps. This included Fred, whose parents had immigrated to the United States from Japan many years before. But Fred refused to go. He knew that what the government was doing was unfair. And when he got put in jail for resisting, he knew he couldn’t give up. Inspired by the award-winning book for adults Wherever There’s a Fight, the Fighting for Justice series introduces young readers to real-life heroes and heroines of social progress. The story of Fred Korematsu’s fight against discrimination explores the life of one courageous person who made the United States a fairer place for all Americans, and it encourages all of us to speak up for justice.”
The Hook: Once in a while I’ll make an easy but abominable mistake: I’ll judge a book by its cover. And generally when I do this I don’t regret the mistake later. I’d seen this book early in the year from a positive Kirkus review, sure I did. But after staring at that cover I wasn’t so sure I actually wanted to read it. It wasn’t until the book started showing up on various libraries’ best of the year lists that I realized my mistake. Fortunately the book is a nice tight length so it wasn’t hard to buckle down and read it in one sitting. When I was done I was shocked. I’ve read Japanese internment camp histories for kids before, but nothing compared to this. Fred Korematsu really and truly is one of the unsung heroes of American history, but it took a children’s book for me to realize it. This book deserves to be placed alongside all the other freedom fighter titles we place into children’s hands. An honest, unflinching look at a historical injustice, nearly forgotten.
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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