hortense and the shadow

For as long as I can remember I’ve been an admirer of things whimsical and/or strange, especially when it comes to books and art. When I saw the cover for sisters Natalia and Lauren O’Hara’s picture book collaboration Hortense and the Shadow, I thought, “That looks like my kind of book.” And when I read it all these months later, I realized I was right! Love when that happens.

hortense and the shadow by natalia and lauren o'hara book cover
A haunting, original fairy tale from two dazzling debut picture book talents, in the spirit of Neil Gaiman and Carson Ellis.

Hortense is a kind and brave girl, but she is sad–even angry–that her shadow follows her everywhere she goes. She hates her shadow, and thinks her shadow must hate her too. But one cold, dark night, when bandits surprise her in the woods, Hortense discovers that her shadow is the very thing she needs most.

This stunningly illustrated story stirs the soul with its compelling, subtle exploration of self-esteem, self-identity, and finding inner strength.

Hortense lives in a large house deep in the snowy woods, but she’s sad because she hates her shadow. It follows her everywhere! One day, she becomes so upset that she cuts her shadow off. Then! Well, then she sings with happiness. Until… something terrible arrives in the night. Hortense learns that her shadow, like her sometimes sad, mad, and wild feelings, is another part of herself.

Hortense and the Shadow is a wintry sort of book, with a bit of a contrary personality. Hortense herself is a singular, stubborn figure: she’s kind and brave, and at the same time deeply unhappy with a part of herself. There are sinister forces at work, as well as magical. Hortense acts – in what adults might label a foolish way. Overall the book is a bit odd, a lot creative, with a dash of menace mixed in (like a proper fairy tale).

While the prose is lovely (“sad as an owl” is my favorite new simile), the art is, hands down, the best part of this book. The cover has rose gold foil detailing on the dust jacket and the boards themselves are a light peach. Inside, Lauren O’Hara has created beautiful, muted watercolor illustrations full of Eastern European-style buildings, gingerbread-like detailing, and woodland creatures. Eagle-eyed readers will also notice menacing men hiding in margins, adding to the juxtaposition of beauty and darkness throughout.

All in all, Hortense and the Shadow a delightfully dark fairy tale of a book in a charming package.

Recommended for: fans of fairy tales – all ages, anyone who has enjoyed Bethan Woollvin’s picture books, and those looking for magical stories no matter the time of year.

cece loves science

I’ve had a copy of Kimberly Derting, Shelli R. Johannes, and Vashti Harrison’s picture book Cece Loves Science sitting by my desk at work for a few weeks now. Whenever anyone sees the title, they smile and ask 1) if I love science, and/or 2) if I know the authors (Cece is one of my nicknames). That in turn makes *me* smile, and the circle is complete. I’ve found that the combination of cute cover and title make this book nearly irresistible for adults to page through, and I think kids will enjoy it as well.

cece loves science by kimberly derting, shelli r. johannes, illustrated by vashti harrison book cover
Cece’s parents say she was born curious. She asks: Why? How? What if? When her teacher, Ms. Curie, assigns a science project, Cece knows just what to ask—do dogs eat vegetables? She teams up with her best friend, Isaac, and her dog, Einstein, to discover the answer. They investigate, research, collect data, and analyze, using Einstein as their case study. Their final conclusion is surprising, and a lot of fun!

Illustrated by Vashti Harrison, whose Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History is a New York Times bestseller and an NAACP Image Award winner. Cece Loves Science is just right for fans of Rosie Revere, EngineerWhat Do You Do with an Idea?; and anyone who loves learning.

Cece loves to ask questions about the world, to find out how and why things work. When her teacher asks students to try an experiment and record their results, Cece and her friend Isaac brainstorm ideas. Are bears ticklish? Do pigs know that they are smelly? But eventually Cece and Isaac decide to test if animals eat vegetables, and experiment on Cece’s family dog Einstein. Through the process Cece and Isaac learn about observing, asking the right questions, thinking outside the box, and never giving up.

Cece Loves Science is a charming, informative picture book featuring a curious scientist-in-training as main character. Cece's questions, frustrations and discoveries will please teachers, librarians, parents and kids (especially those learning about the scientific method for the first time). This title is a great candidate to read aloud during science- and STEM-related classroom units. Cece’s teacher Ms. Curie assigns a project worksheet that is very similar to ones found in most science lesson plans, and the folks at HarperCollins have created a fun tie-in activity kit for download as well.

A couple of other things that stand out: Cece is biracial girl from a blended family, and it’s great to read about her and her friend Isaac carrying out their experiments creatively in a supportive family environment. I also appreciated the final page of the book, which is a glossary of terms, or “Cece’s Science Facts” – this will prompt further interest in famous scientists and branches of science. Finally, I think this would be a fun read-aloud book or even a good candidate to act out – there’s dialogue assigned to each character that would be ideal for doing voices with.

Let’s talk about Vashti Harrison’s art! Harrison’s illustrations were created in a digital medium, and the effect overall is colorful and soft (not line-heavy) – with cute human figures and the feel of a well-drawn animated short. In addition, the book design pops – I loved the endpapers and the softer crayon-drawn figures on some pages that represented Cece’s internal thoughts. Great art to match a good book, in other words!

In all, Cece Loves Science is a fun science-laden adventure that will appeal to 5-8 year olds and pair well with Izzy Gizmo and Ada Twist, Scientist.

Recommended for: parents, teachers, and librarians looking to beef up their STEAM- and STEM-related libraries for kids, and any child that likes to ask “How?” “Why?” and “What if?”

Fine print: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration. I did not receive any compensation for this post.

tiny, perfect things

I love to escape into books at any time, but when there’s a lot going on in the world and in my day-to-day life, that escape becomes more precious and important. Or, if an escape isn’t going to cut it, a book reminding me to savor beautiful everyday moments is even better. M.H. Clark and Madeline Kloepper’s picture book Tiny, Perfect Things encourages readers young and old to take a walk outside with a loved one, pay attention, and celebrate the act of discovery.

tiny perfect things by m.h. clark illustrated by madeline kloepper cover
The whole world is a treasure waiting to be found. Open your eyes and see the wonderful things all around. This is the story of a child and a grandfather whose walk around the neighborhood leads to a day of shared wonder as they discover all sorts of tiny, perfect things together. With rhythmic storytelling and detailed and intricate illustrations, this is a book about how childlike curiosity can transform ordinary days into extraordinary adventures.

A girl and her grandfather take a walk along a nature trail and through their neighborhood. Along the way they take turns pointing out the tiny, perfect things they see – a spider web, a bottle cap, a group of crows, and so on. As the sun begins to go down, they head home to celebrate their discoveries with family, and to plan another adventure.

Tiny, Perfect Things is a quiet, contemplative picture book that revels in the wonder of the commonplace. It urges readers of all ages (but especially very young ones) to become everyday observers as they move through the world, and to look for so-called “hidden” marvels. On each page there are unexpected or partially concealed details for readers to find. Uncovering these elements one by one will prompt interaction beyond the text.

For children too young to read, this book will be a good one to page through by themselves – with its pages full of treasures it invites telling a story to oneself. It is also a good candidate for a bedtime story – the rhyming text ends as the day ends, and the characters muse about what the next day may hold. I’d put the ideal reading age at 2-5.

Let’s talk about the art! Kloepper’s art is exceptional, warm, and unaffected. The colored pencil-filled pages are full of delightful details, and yet the lines and strokes are visible enough to prompt kids to mimic them. It’s art, but it’s also artful – the whole book is a feast for the eyes. I include in that the gorgeous production (there’s a yellow cloth binding and embossing on the cover), beautiful endpapers, and a fold-out page spread at the end. It’s pretty enough to be a gift book and practical enough to be a kid-favorite, and that’s the best of both worlds, as far as I’m concerned.


Other (good) things to mention: the family in the story is blended, there isn’t a dust jacket, and while it isn’t nonfiction, this would be a good book to pair with other nonfiction nature-filled picture books, such as The Things That I Love About Trees and Over and Under the Snow, and as a precursor to STEM-friendly titles like Ada Twist, Scientist.

In all, Tiny, Perfect Things is a delightful, tranquil picture book, and should be a hit with most of the preschool set.

Recommended for: children ages 2-5 and their respective adults, and especially any kids whose favorite/first question is “What’s that?”

Fine print: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration. I did not receive any compensation for this post.

as the crow flies

When I was researching my all-ages guide to girl power graphic novels, I expected to come across some amazing books. I could not have predicted how much I would love Melanie Gillman’s young adult graphic novel As the Crow Flies, though. It’s beautiful in so many ways: from art, to story, to emotional honesty, to tackling tough subjects. I LOVED it, and I think you will too.

as the crow flies by melanie gillman book cover
Charlie Lamonte is thirteen years old, queer, black, and questioning what was once a firm belief in God. So naturally, she's spending a week of her summer vacation stuck at an all-white Christian youth backpacking camp. As the journey wears on and the rhetoric wears thin, she can't help but poke holes in the pious obliviousness of this storied sanctuary with little regard for people like herself… or her fellow camper, Sydney.

Queer black teen Charlie’s parents have signed her up for a week at an all-girls Christian backpacking camp. Charlie has misgivings, but when she arrives and sees a room full of white girls she feels even more like an outsider. Charlie determines to stick it out – but along the way she questions her faith, her presence in the group, and whether she’s truly alone. How will the week end?

One of the strengths of this book is that it is truly Charlie’s story. She’s at the intersection of a couple of marginalized identities, and very aware of that fact. Add in to the mix what is sometimes a hostile (or seemingly hostile) environment and faith into the mix, and the result could have been a muddle. But Gillman’s careful storytelling avoids that. Charlie’s internal dialogues are key to the story, and her honesty (both with herself and with others) is the key to moving forward and finding something positive to carry with her.

A thread throughout the book is questioning the narratives that are being taught by society and the authorities in our lives – and in Charlie’s case, this means the camp story of the women who have gone before and been transformed by the journey (as told by the hike leader Bee). Charlie – sometimes openly and sometimes not – asks important questions that reveal racism and a limited version of feminism. Those around her react in a variety of ways that reflect reality: sometimes people learn and change, and sometimes they stick to their comfort zones. Meanwhile, Charlie’s struggling with her faith through prayer. I found those panels heartbreakingly earnest and honest.

If it’s not clear already, I believe Gillman tells Charlie’s story with sincere, heartfelt grace. Readers will see that and respond to it. As the Crow Flies is quietly magnificent.

And the art! I haven’t even covered it yet. The art is colored pencil and lovely – done in a warm color palette that works with the setting. The beauty of the art elevates the story. Gillman chose to illustrate some key scenes in creative ways – from overhead shots, to emphasizing tiny details, to grand panoramas. Seriously, the book is worth reading for the art alone.

In all, As the Crow Flies is notable for its gorgeous illustration, unusual story in a usual setting (summer camp!), and the kind, open, and unaffected way it tackles important topics.

Recommended for: all readers ages 12 and up, and especially anyone interested in seeing religion, LGBTQ+ representation, and black teens navigating white spaces together in a graphic novel format.
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