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.

the city on the other side

Fairyland has figured heavily in my pleasure reading for almost as long as I’ve been reading. First, because it is and was a staple of English-language fantasy (a favorite), and secondly because it was the sort of thing I didn’t have to hide from my mother (she never really took to fantasy, but fairies were okay because it’s classic myth!). But complicated feelings about fantasy aside, I read some really fabulous fairy stories as a young one, and I know kid me would have loved Mairghread Scott and Robin Robinson’s The City on the Other Side.

the city on the other side by mairghread scott and robin robinson book cover
In The City on the Other Side, a young girl stumbles into a pitched war between two fairy kingdoms, and the fate of San Francisco itself hangs in the balance!

Sheltered within her high-society world, Isabel plays the part of a perfectly proper little girl—she’s quiet, well-behaved, and she keeps her dresses spotlessly clean. She’s certainly not the kind of girl who goes on adventures.

But that all changes when Isabel breaches an invisible barrier and steps into another world. She discovers a city not unlike her own, but magical and dangerous. Here, war rages between the fairies of the Seelie and Unseelie Courts. Only Isabel, with the help of a magical necklace and a few new friends, stands a chance of ending the war before it destroys the fairy world, and her own.

From Mairghread Scott and Robin Robinson comes a colorful fantasy graphic novel set in early twentieth century San Francisco.

Isabel is a young girl growing up in post-1906 earthquake San Francisco. She lives a sheltered and privileged life, though not necessarily a happy one. She’s admonished not to be a bother, to be silent, and to stay clean. Meanwhile, she’s shuttled between two distracted and/or absent parents. So of course, she ends up in the middle of a fairy war!

One of the strong points in this story is Isabel’s development. Isabel finds purpose and lives through more action in the course of her adventures in fairyland than she has seen in her whole life, and it changes her. She develops her voice, decides who to trust, comes up with plans (even if they’re bad ones), and speaks up to those she loves. In the end she finds a way to live in both worlds.

Another great element of the story is the art. The art in a graphic novel tells just as much (if not more!) of the story as the words on the page, and this book has PHENOMENAL art. Robin Robinson has illustrated fairy creatures of all stripes and looks and mythological traditions. The fairy that can travel through walls and the ground? Super cool! Fairyland also has a direct counterpart in the real world, and the parts where they are overlaid with each other or set side-by-side are wonderful.

On the list of weaker story elements, I’d put the character development of Isabel’s parents and the set-up for and consequences of the fairy war (we see lots of broken down buildings, etc., but the true reason for the war wasn’t revealed until too late in the story). I would also have liked to see more historical elements (rather than just dress), since the story is set quite far in the past.

In all, The City on the Other Side is an enjoyable, beautifully-illustrated middle grade graphic novel featuring protagonists of color, a fairy war, and a race to save the world(s).

Recommended for: fans of graphic novels and fairy art, and readers ages 8 and up who are looking for a quick, fun read.

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

the color of earth

Have you ever participated in a readathon? I hadn’t before. Though I have devoted whole days to reading before (many times!), I didn’t understand how awesome or intense a 24-hour readathon would be. If you are interested in participating, this is the one I did, and the next one is scheduled for October 20, 2018. So, how does this relate to Kim Dong Hwa’s graphic novel The Color of Earth? I read it during the April readathon, of course!

the color of earth by kim dong hwa book cover
First love is never easy.

Ehwa grows up helping her widowed mother run the local tavern, watching as their customers - both neighbors and strangers - look down on her mother for her single lifestyle. Their social status isolates Ehwa and her mother from the rest of the people in their quiet country village. But as she gets older and sees her mother fall in love again, Ehwa slowly begins to open up to the possibility of love in her life.

In the tradition of My Antonia and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, from the pen of the renowned Korean manwha creator Kim Dong Hwa, comes a trilogy about a girl coming of age, set in the vibrant, beautiful landscape of pastoral Korea. 

Ehwa is the daughter of a widowed tavern-keeper in rural Korea, and though life is at times lonely due to her mother’s social status, it is also filled with unexpected beauty. As Ehwa grows up, her understanding of the world grows as well, and she relies on her mother for guidance and wisdom. But as her mother is letting romantic love back in, Ehwa discovers first attraction as well – one that may be complicated.

In this first of three connected volumes, the author writes and illustrates vignettes adapted from his mother’s life as a young girl growing up in pastoral Korea from many years past. The book is focused on Ehwa’s coming of age, and her rich inner life is the heart of the story (instead of dialogue, which most graphic novels rely on heavily).

There is much to love here: excellent art (black and white line work in an anime style with exquisite details in some panels), a strong mother-daughter relationship that features advice-giving, secret-telling, and teaching, an introduction to Korean culture through the meanings of flowers, among other things.

The story is also, if you read it closely, told through a male lens. The book’s blurb compares it to coming-of-age classics A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and My Ántonia. While it does share many similarities with those books, including a portrayal of Ehwa’s budding sexuality over time, it does not have some of the… how shall I say this… gentleness? or understanding? maybe the word I’m looking for is empathy? for a young girl growing up in a world designed for men. I can’t describe it any better than that, but you’ll (probably) understand what I mean.

So, who is this book for? I think it’s for fans of traditional manga or anime – folks who’ve read graphic novels before. But it is also a beautiful introduction into Korean dress, culture, art styles, and so on – and it could be used in education units. It would also be a good pick for those who like graphic novels but don’t usually read historical fiction.

In all, The Color of Earth is a quiet read with strong emotional underpinnings and gorgeous art. I’d pair it with The Undertaking of Lily Chen.

Recommended for: graphic novel fans ages 14 and up, and those who appreciate coming-of-age and historical fiction.

the things that i love about trees

I’ve mentioned this on Instagram before, but one of my local indie bookshops is just down the street from the place I get my hair done. I stop by to browse their picture books nearly every time I walk by, and thus I buy their latest selection, because I have several little ones in my life and no self-control in bookstores. I picked up Chris Butterworth and Charlotte Voake’s The Things That I Love About Trees the last time I was there, and I really adore it.

the things that i love about trees by chris butterworth, illustrated by charlotte voake book cover
In an exuberant text accompanied by gorgeous, windswept illustrations, two esteemed picture-book creators celebrate the mighty tree.

Journey through the seasons and discover how much there is to love about trees! From brand-new buds in spring to the sound of the wind whooshing through the leaves in summer, from the fall colors to the feel of winter's rough bark and the promise of spring returning again -- no matter what time of year, there's always something extraordinary to notice about the trees around your neighborhood. Chris Butterworth's text, gently sprinkled with facts, captures the wonder of a child as Charlotte Voake's busy, buoyant artwork conveys how something as simple and common as a tree can feel like magic taking root around you.

There’s just something wonderful about trees, isn’t there? I’ve always thought so, and I especially thought so growing up in the Pacific Northwest with a front yard full of trees, forts, and pine needles. Chris Butterworth’s nonfiction picture book about trees leads readers through the seasons, starting with spring, and describes how trees act and grow in the changing environment.

The Things That I Love About Trees invites engagement with the senses – Butterworth tells readers how trees react to hot days and storms, reminds them what to listen for, and describes the feel of bark and leaves. It may be printed on traditional paper, but it is a sensual buffet. It made me want to go outside on a tree-spotting walk, and I’m sure others will feel the same!

This book is perfect for a range of young readers – very little ones will love the illustrations and simplicity of the big text story that goes on a seasonal journey. Slightly older and independent readers will enjoy the brief tree facts in smaller text on each page. Adults will appreciate the book’s year-round readability, as each season in a tree’s life cycle is represented. The combination of beautiful art and interesting tree facts ensure that this book will be re-read over and over with love.

Oh, did I mention the art? Charlotte Voake’s illustrations are done in beautiful ink and watercolor, with broad, abstract strokes contrasted with precise, tiny details. The illustrations allow for generous white space on most pages, and the humans and animals included in the illustrations provide scale to trees (and keep the book from being an overwhelming smorgasbord of greenery).  The human figures are mostly fairly indistinct – trees are the focus of the book, after all! The pages depicting enormous summer-time tree trunks were perhaps my favorite – they reminded me of the great trees I’ve seen in my life.

My two personal favorite things about the book were the endpapers, which feature close-ups with different kinds of tree leaves and their identifying information, and the final page spread at the end which suggests tree-adjacent activities and guides younger readers in how to do research! The author doesn’t talk down to his young readers, and that’s always nice to see.

In all, The Things That I Love About Trees is full of facts that will delight curious kids, and perhaps prompt them to want to learn more (and see more)!

Recommended for: tree-lovers and -huggers of all ages, young readers who want to know how things work, fans of Kate Messner's Over and Under the Snow, and teachers doing environmental, natural world, and season-focused units.

the prime of miss jean brodie

I’m currently in Scotland with my mother – a trip that I planned as a gift for her 70th birthday. How did I sneak a pilgrimage to the home of Hogwarts and the book capital of the world (Edinburgh) past my non-reading mother?? Well, there are ancestral ties, and history, and lots of mountains, lochs, and sea to hike, swim, and kayak in (maybe)(if we’re brave enough!). In preparation for our trip, I read a few books by Scottish authors, and my favorite by far was Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

the prime of miss jean brodie by muriel spark book cover
At the staid Marcia Blaine School for Girls in Edinburgh, Scotland, teacher extraordinaire Miss Jean Brodie is unmistakably, and outspokenly, in her prime. She is passionate in the application of her unorthodox teaching methods and strives to bring out the best in each one of her students. Determined to instill in them independence, passion, and ambition, Miss Brodie advises them, "Safety does not come first. Goodness, Truth, and Beauty come first. Follow me." And they do—but one of them will betray her.

Unconventional schoolteacher Jean Brodie is in her prime, and the group of girls she selects as her set is destined… for what, they do not yet know. But Miss Brodie has assured them she will mold them into the crème de la crème.  The school years of the Brodie set form the background of a comedic, incisive, and thoroughly enjoyable coming-of-age novel – one that never falters in excellence or execution.

At first I thought (as maybe you are thinking now), after reading that description: What is there in this book about a group of girls and their schoolteacher that is so universal, that has won so much acclaim? Also it’s a short book… what can be so enchanting about it? But by chapter two I was a convert. It’s delightfully, perfectly succinct, and it doesn’t need another word added to it at all.

What first caught my attention was the careful unspooling of the personalities of each of the girls in the set, measured by the chronological storyline, but also enhanced by semi-frequent flashbacks and flash-forwards (mostly the flash-forwards). As a reader you are figuring out a central mystery (the betrayal of Miss Brodie! *gasp*) as you go, and Spark leaves a breadcrumb trail that employs repetition, economy, and small twists to outstanding effect.

Here’s how my reading experience went: I knew I was reading a Great Book, but I still spluttered with laughter and raised my eyebrows and thought to myself, “this is FUN” at regular junctures. And mixed in with the absurd and hilarious, there was commentary about classism, religion, and morality – nothing heavy-handed, but threads to tease out and provide context to the world of the novel, the world of 1930s Edinburgh.

I ended my reading happy and refreshed, but also with the wish that this title had been paired with Jane Eyre in my school days – it might have shaken me out of my pious seriousness a bit, and given me some perspective for the stack of Great English Novels I was steadily working my way through. There’s no doubt that The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is brilliant – it is simply so in a sharply edited, comedic sort of way.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is beyond my powers of description. I adored it.

Recommended for. fans of classic literature, novels, literary fiction, historical fiction, novellas, and coming-of-age fiction. Or really anyone ages 14 and up.

izzy gizmo

Monday, May 21, 2018 | | 2 comments
For almost a decade I’ve been talking a big game about how when my friends and family have kids I fully intend to be “crazy Aunt Celia.” A defining characteristic of Aunt Celia is that she brings a new picture book with her whenever she visits. Well, the dream is now reality (and I’ll stop talking about myself in the 3rd person!). My friends have coached their little ones (parent: “What does Aunt Celia like to do?” child: “READ!!!”), picture books have become my #1 book buying category, and I couldn’t be more pleased (they’re so fun!). I’ve been really impressed by the recent crop of picture books, including Pip Jones’ Izzy Gizmo, beautifully illustrated by Sara Ogilvie.

izzy gizmo by pip jones, illustrated by sara ogilvie book cover
Izzy Gizmo just loves to invent, but her inventions never seem to work the way she wants them to. When she finds a crow with a broken wing she just has to help. Izzy tries again and again to build him a new pair of wings, but nothing is working. Can Izzy overcome her failures? Or will her new crow friend never fly again?

This wonderfully feisty new character from bestselling author Pip Jones is brought to life by acclaimed illustrator Sara Ogilvie.

Precocious young inventor Izzy lives with her supportive grandfather. She designs and builds machines of all kinds, though they don’t always seem to work as they ought. When Izzy finds an injured crow one day, she takes it home – and so begins her most ambitious project yet – to fix its wing.  However, some problems can’t be solved easily. Izzy will need to learn to try and try again before she succeeds.

Izzy Gizmo’s smart, quirky protagonist and her will to carry on despite setbacks will please plenty of children and their parents. The story is rhymed, which could annoy/delight depending on the reader. For my part, it lent the book charming, rhythmic pacing. I look forward to seeing what my nieces think about it – though I expect they’ll be focusing mainly on the vibrant illustrations (and possibly the crow sidekick).

Of course the pictures matter as much (or more!) than the story in some cases, and the art of Izzy Gizmo is eclectic, funny, and possibly inspiring for junior inventors in the wild. Beyond the bright colors themselves, I loved the small details in Ogilvie’s art, like a flying pig lamp, the grandfather’s recognizable Ikea armchair, a picture of an animal with a whole pot stuffed in its mouth at the vet’s office. These subtleties will make rereads a pleasure for both children and adults.

The single thing I loved most about the book? Izzy is a black girl with natural hair and glasses. Though the book has a light tone, Izzy learns serious lessons about coming up with original ideas, getting frustrated, researching to come up with a better solution… and in the end, going back to fix any messes you’ve made along the way. It’s positive picture book representation for smart little girls, and that’s important.

On a personal note, I may have been predisposed to like Izzy because I read this book the day I found out that I have a new niece with that name. This will (of course) be one of her gifts in the coming years.

In all, Izzy Gizmo is a smart, fun picture book with verve. It’ll pair excellently with Rosie Revere, Engineer and other Andrea Beaty books.

Recommended for: readers aged 4-8 and their adults, and especially young ones interested in how things work and/or inventing.

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

scarlett hart: monster hunter

I have the United Kingdom on the brain these days. First, there’s the royal wedding this Saturday (I’ve been invited to an early-morning watch party, and I’m making a Victoria Sponge). Second, next Saturday I’m headed to Scotland with my mom for a 12-day tour/adventure (!!!). And thirdly, I recently read and thoroughly enjoyed Marcus Sedgwick and Thomas Taylor’s England-set middle grade graphic novel Scarlett Hart: Monster Hunter.

scarlett hart: monster hunter by marcus sedgwick and thomas taylor book cover
Scarlett Hart, orphaned daughter of two legendary monster hunters, is determined to carry on in her parents’ footsteps—even if the Royal Academy for the Pursuit and Eradication of Zoological Eccentricities says she’s too young to fight perilous horrors. But whether it's creepy mummies or a horrid hound, Scarlett won’t back down, and with the help of her loyal butler and a lot of monster-mashing gadgets, she’s on the case.

With her parent’s archrival, Count Stankovic, ratting her out to T.R.A.P.E.Z.E. and taking all the monster-catching rewards for himself, it’s getting hard for Scarlett to do what she was born to do. And when more monsters start mysteriously manifesting than ever before, Scarlett knows she has to get to the bottom of it and save the city... whatever the danger!

In his first adventure for middle-grade readers, acclaimed YA author Marcus Sedgwick teams up with Thomas Taylor (illustrator of the original edition of 
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone) to create a rip-roaring romp full of hairy horrors, villainous villains, and introducing the world’s toughest monster hunter—Scarlett Hart! 

As you can tell from the title, this is the story of Scarlett Hart, the orphaned heir to a monster-fighting legacy. She has a trusty butler and housekeeper on her side and an old mansion filled with cool gadgets to her name, but not much else. She’s too young to officially fight monsters, and her fellow monster-fighting bounty hunters don’t respect either her age or her family name.

In Sedgwick’s first foray into graphic novel territory, the action is pretty much non-stop, there are plenty of fight sequences, and cool gadgets, discoveries, and mysteries make their way into the narrative as well. It’s basically Sherlock Holmes crossed with Batman, with fantastical monsters and a preteen protagonist. In other words, reliable fun. The first page features a sea monster chomping down on a sailor, so it’s pretty clear from the get-go what you’re getting into.

Young readers will identify with wanting to fight their own battles and make a difference, and the frustration of not being taken seriously by adults. Adults will want to take it at face value as a fantasy, and not murmur too much at the irresponsible parenting. All readers will enjoy the transitions from one monster emergency to the next, with some extra big-picture mysteries and a possible open door left at the end for further adventures.

Now, the art! It was my favorite part of this book. The monsters were by far the best part – everything from zombies to ghostly dogs to sea monsters and more. It’s a field day for the imagination, but nothing gets so gory that a younger crowd can’t enjoy it. The color palette also enhance the story – darker, muted tones set a serious mood that complimented some of the lighter moments and contributed to the background scenery.

In all, Scarlett Hart: Monster Hunter is a graphic novel with rousing adventure art that will appeal to monster-obsessed kids.

Recommended for: graphic novel aficionados ages 10 and up, those who think a girl-powered Batman/Sherlock Holmes mashup sounds like fun, and fans of Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co. and Maryrose Wood's The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series.

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

how to trick the tooth fairy

When did you lose your first tooth? I think I was in first or second grade, and it happened on a camping trip (or was it at an outdoor swim meet? my memory is fuzzy). Like many children, after the shock and pain of losing a tooth had worn off I got super excited for a visit from the Tooth Fairy – I’d heard all about it from older friends. Erin Danielle Russell’s adorable How to Trick the Tooth Fairy combines the legend of the Tooth Fairy, pranks, and Jennifer Hansen Rolli’s charming art in one gorgeous picture book package.

how to trick the tooth fairy by erin danielle russell, illustrated by jennifer hansel rolli book cover
Kaylee loves pulling pranks: from dropping water balloons on passers by to even tricking Santa Claus, she’s a prize-winning prankster!

But is she the Princess of Pranks? No! That title is held by none other than the Tooth Fairy. But when Kaylee loses a tooth and the Tooth Fairy goes about her usual tooth-taking business, Kaylee pranks her with a fake frog. As Kaylee and the Tooth Fairy try to out-prank one another, things get way out of hand, until the two finally see eye and eye and decide to share the crown!

Kaylee loves to play pranks – she has a twinkle of mischief in her eye, her favorite holiday is April Fool’s Day, and she’s a prank princess in training. The only person who might be better than her at pranking is the Tooth Fairy herself!  When the Tooth Fairy arrives to collect one of Kaylee’s teeth, a truly epic prank battle begins. But how will it end? Will Kaylee be named reigning prank princess?

How to Trick the Tooth Fairy will tickle kids’ funny bones and (possibly) inspire future prank wars. There’s a mounting sense of competition throughout the story as both Kaylee and the Tooth Fairy try to one-up each other – though of course the Tooth Fairy has the ultimate advantage as a magical being. After some truly disastrous pranks, Kaylee and the Tooth Fairy join forces, which should cause readers to speculate long after finishing the book – which pranks would they pull next?

Young readers will love the flood of frogs, ice cream food fight, and thunderstorms that rain actual cats and dogs. Adults will appreciate the way that each page invites interaction – and that the story can be tweaked with every read through. There’s also a good lesson by the end – that cooperation and friendship can be better than even a prank war. The book invites year-round reading as kids lose teeth, but would be perfect in the lead up to April Fool’s Day as well.

I haven’t even mentioned one of the best parts yet – the art! Illustrator Hansen Rolli’s painted pages include lots of pink, frills, and trimmings and embellishments galore. The Tooth Fairy has pink hair and a handbag full of tricks, and Kaylee is a black girl with natural hair who is smart and cute and wears pink pajamas covered in crowns (truly, a princess). I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the dust jacket is also delightfully glittery. How to Trick the Tooth Fairy is the whole package – it’s so cute that you can’t help but be drawn to it, and the insides won’t disappoint.

In all, this fantastical picture book is full to the brim of hijinks, fun, and beautiful illustrations.

Recommended for: spirited 5-8 year old kids (especially girls!) everywhere, and their designated adult readers.

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

girl power graphic novels for all ages

I began reading graphic novels in adulthood – partially because I was very committed as a kid and tween to “reading up” (graphic novels would have been too easy!)(silly me), and partially because the kids’ graphic novel publishing explosion hadn’t yet hit. There weren’t that many gorgeous graphic novels for kids and teens about everything under the sun when I was young (or at least I didn’t know about them). If I read comics, I was reading the Sunday paper, the occasional Calvin & Hobbes compendium, and supermarket Archie comics second-hand.

To put together a list like this, and really feel proud of it, I had to do some research. It was a good excuse to dive in. I checked out 30+ books from my local library, and read some others that had been waiting in the wings. Conclusion? Graphic novels are alive and well! And there are fantastic girl power graphic novels for all ages.

Ages 8 & up

The City on the Other Side – The setting, stakes, and various fairy characters are the stars in this story about a girl in post 1906 earthquake-ravaged San Francisco who stumbles into the middle of a fairy war.

Cucumber Quest: The Doughnut Kingdom – Bright, beautiful art will draw in readers of all ages, and the magical story of siblings who may or may not be the Legendary Hero their kingdom needs will keep readers entertained.

El Deafo – Cece Bell’s funny, creatively-styled graphic memoir of growing up deaf, and having a superhero alter ego (as you do) is a delight. And I don’t just say that because we share a first name.

Giants Beware – Main character Claudette is set on slaying a giant – so of course she must go on a quest! With her best friends, of course. Suitable for even a slightly younger crowd – a six- or seven-year old advanced reader would love this adventure!

Roller Girl – This sweet Newbery Honor book focuses on friendship and surviving the trials of middle school through the power of roller derby.

Star Scouts – A space romp featuring a Hindi-speaking protagonist who goes off-planet for camp. Detailed art and robots galore.

Zita the Spacegirl – Heroism and friendship shine in this sci-fi tale, the first of a trilogy. Ben Hatke’s art is *kisses fingers.*

Ages 10 & up

The Adventures of Superhero Girl – Hicks writes and illustrates in classic comic strip style, detailing a-day-in-the-life of a young superhero. Will appeal to those who like traditional superhero comics & slice of life storytelling. There’s also a bear fight.

Lumberjanes – Female friendship is the real hero in this story of girls unraveling summer camp mysteries, fighting supernatural wildlife, and completing a magical quest.

Scarlett Hart: Monster Hunter – Titular heroine Scarlett Hart wants to continue in the family business (monster hunting) despite her youth. With a tragic backstory analogous to Batman’s (up to and including a devoted butler), she’ll get her dangerous wish. My favorite part? The art.

Ages 12 & up

As the Crow Flies – When queer black teen Charlie must spend a week at an all-girls Christian backpacking camp, she feels like a true outsider. Gilman’s story tackles racism, feminism, and religion – a complex mix – with sincere, heartfelt grace. Also the art is awesome. LOVED this.

Nimona – Noelle Stevenson’s subversive, funny, fantasy comic turns chivalry upside down. Nimona is a character with power who turns her story (or is it her villain boss’ story?) into something no one expected. I loved it.

Ms. Marvel – By turns hilarious and heartwarming, this is a novel take on coming of age and discovering superhero powers – with Muslim-American family pressure and the Marvel universe tied in.

Spill Zone – Horror, sci-fi, gorgeous art – there’s a lot here, but at its heart Spill Zone is a story about sisters surviving and taking care of each other in the midst of a weird world. It’s the sort of tale to make you shiver, but leave you with a gorgeous visuals you can’t forget.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl – A superhero you’ve never heard of (from the Marvel universe) goes off to college, fights crime, and saves the world, all while trying to keep her identity a secret. Not my jam, but solid girl power.

Ages 14 & up

Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World – Possibly the most enjoyable way to absorb history and “her”story – the lives and accomplishments of women too often left out of textbooks and off of lists. Feisty fun.

The Color of Earth – This quieter graphic novel by Kim Dong Hwa features the bonds between mother and daughter and the awakening of self-identity amidst rural Korea. A gem.

I focused on graphic novels that had a strong “girl power” feel, but there were plenty of wonderful, girl-centric books that didn’t make the cut because for one reason or another. If you want a personalized recommendation, just drop me a note in the comments!

Also check out the remainder of the tour stops for the Girl Power Graphic Novel blog tour!

Fine print: I received copies of the First Second graphic novels for review. I did not receive any compensation for this post.

groundhug day

I like to send my friends valentines every year (friend love is love!), but I almost missed doing it this year because Valentine’s Day falls right in the middle of Olympics season! I’m a fan of sports, and I especially love to watch the Olympics for women’s sports excellence. Today’s featured picture book doesn’t feature sports, but it does have spring holidays, friends, and overcoming fears with help from those friends. Let’s talk about the adorable Groundhug Day by Anne Marie Pace, illustrated by Christopher Denise.

groundhug day by anna marie pace cover
Moose is having a Valentine’s Day party, and all his friends are so excited! Everyone except Groundhog, that is. If Groundhog sees his shadow outside, he’ll hide in his hole for six more weeks and miss the party! Determined to help their friend join them, Moose, Squirrel, Bunny, and Porcupine put their heads together and come up with a plan. But will it be enough to get Groundhog out to play? This heartwarming picture book by the author of Vampirina Ballerina, with adorable illustrations by Christopher Denise, is sure to be a hit, whether readers are bursting for spring or snuggling up for six more weeks of winter. 

Moose, Squirrel, Bunny, Porcupine, and Groundhog are all fast friends, and Moose is planning a Valentine’s Day party. Moose wants all his friends to come. Squirrel wants to have Valentine balloons. Bunny wants Valentine cards. Porcupine offers Valentine hugs (ouch!). But while the animals are planning, their friend Groundhog comes out of his hole on Groundhog Day and sees his shadow! How will they get him to join the party? Following some helpful demonstrations, Groundhog overcomes his fears, hugs are offered all around, and he reappears six weeks later in time for a St. Patrick’s Day party.

Groundhug Day is a celebration of friendship featuring incredibly cute animals against the backdrop of spring holidays. It’s the sort of picture book that will be a big hit with parents, teachers, and librarians as well as kids – there’s subtle humor, a good message, and it’s seasonally appropriate for several months of the year. Will it appeal to ALL kids? I can see how the cover could prompt some adults to hand it to girls especially, but it’s a picture book about animals for small children – it’s meant to be read aloud, and it’s appropriate for everyone. As for the animals, a couple use male pronouns, and another is coded as male (Moose wears a cozy sweater and reading glasses), so there’s inclusion baked in.

Let’s talk about the art! Christopher Denise has nailed cute and cozy in this book, and it’s charming. Also, fun. Bunny and Squirrel are especially delightful with their big, liquid eyes and general fluff. But the book is not just animals – the pages are populated with home interiors meticulously decorated and filled, and landscapes depicting mountains, meadows, and trees. No detail is left untended (including the endpapers!), so the overall feel of the book is lived-in, and loving. It’s a treat.

In all, Groundhug Day is an appealing, enjoyable picture book with potential staying power due to its themes and exceptional art.

Recommended for: kids ages 4-8 and their adult readers (if the kids are on the younger side), and anyone looking for a spring holiday-themed read.

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

lady bird, the future, and what’s happening now

Friday, February 9, 2018 | | 1 comments
Most years, I try to see a majority of Oscar-nominated films. Why? Because 1) I like going to the theater, 2) I took a course on film history in college and it ignited a lifelong interest in the medium, and 3) sometimes they break and mend my heart the way that a good book does. So, here are some thoughts from the night I saw Lady Bird, and some from a week later.

Last Friday
I just saw Greta Gerwig’s Academy Award-nominated film Lady Bird, and the whole way home my senses were heightened, my feelings were feeling, if you will, and I couldn’t quite decide how to address it all. I texted the wise friend from grad school who urged me to see the film a couple of months ago. But still, words were brimming up and spilling up outside of thought and oh yeah, I totally talked to myself on the bus. Oops. Well, I have this beautiful blog that has been sitting, unloved and un-updated for months! The perfect place to park for a bit, unburden, and unwind. I hope you’ll indulge me.

Gerwig captured so beautifully many of the contradictions of being a teenager – especially an American teenager in a world post-9/11 and on the cusp of embracing the internet with open arms. I cringed and laughed and nodded along at so many moments. The music was just right. The being a lower middle class kid at a private school atmosphere was just right. The thrift shopping! Any time Lady Bird fought or interacted with her mother.

The whole thing was poignant as heck, but maybe the best/worst bit was one this: when Lady Bird asked her mother, “What if this is the best version of myself?” and her mother looked back silently, meaningfully, as if to say, “Are you serious?!”

The best films and books (stories in general, really) take you out of yourself, and make you look at and experience the world in a deeper way. I may have squirmed and cringed and laughed and wished myself away from the theater during awkward moments in the Lady Bird screening, but I came out ready to *experience* everything. I watched the world around me with unnerving intensity for a couple of days, trying to drink it in and capture some of the magic that Gerwig infused her film with. I felt in the moment, and I kept on feeling, and I kept thinking of new ways to engage, to be a better person. In that way, the film was incredibly inspiring.

And yet, after sitting with the film for a week, and telling people about it, and how I felt about it, I would no longer call it only “inspiring.” My favorite descriptor now is “authentic.” I told various friends that it felt like a thinly veiled biography of my own teen experience – down to the stubborn, know-it-all, lying-to-your-“friends”-to-make-them-like-you-and-hide-your-ignorance truth of those years. It reminded me of the vague hopes and dreams of teenaged Cecelia.

What did I want in 2002? I wanted to be independent, to get away from family and Seattle, to have true privacy (I used to drive to the public library some weeknights in high school just to have space to think), and to have friends who got me. Sixteen years later, and I have different (more specific!) goals and dreams. I often feel as though I’m not meeting them, and that I am letting people down. Taking a moment like the one provided by Lady Bird, though, I realize that I have done it. I’ve met those 2002 goals and dreams. Eighteen year old me would be so proud. And while present-me knows I can’t take that as any measure of success, that I have plenty of growing and learning to do, it was a happy, reassuring thought.

So, here we are. I plan to keep asking how I can be a better version of myself, and to continue working on the answer. God bless Gerwig and the whole crew behind Lady Bird. They created art, and it was authentic, inspiring, and good. If you haven’t seen it yet, GO!

the prince and the dressmaker blog tour - my favorite panel!

Today’s post is part of the blog tour for Jen Wang’s new graphic novel, The Prince and the Dressmaker. Wang plays with prince/princess stereotypes, identity, and fashion in this gorgeous standalone. Read on for a sneak preview of my favorite panel from the book and a brief review!

the prince and the dressmaker blog tour

The thing is, the thing is... if you tell me about a beautifully-illustrated young adult graphic novel with the formula "The [insert royal title] and the [insert profession]" for a title, I am sold right out of the gate. There's a part of me that will always love the promise of a fairy tale romance, and somehow that title tells me that it IS a fairy tale romance. For the record, I was not wrong!

the prince and the dressmaker by jen wang cover
Paris, at the dawn of the modern age:

Prince Sebastian is looking for a bride—or rather, his parents are looking for one for him. Sebastian is too busy hiding his secret life from everyone. At night he puts on daring dresses and takes Paris by storm as the fabulous Lady Crystallia—the hottest fashion icon in the world capital of fashion!

Sebastian’s secret weapon (and best friend) is the brilliant dressmaker Frances—one of only two people who know the truth: sometimes this boy wears dresses. But Frances dreams of greatness, and being someone’s secret weapon means being a secret. Forever. How long can Frances defer her dreams to protect a friend? Jen Wang weaves an exuberantly romantic tale of identity, young love, art, and family. A fairy tale for any age, 
The Prince and the Dressmaker will steal your heart.

Prince Sebastian of Belgium is visiting Paris for the summer with his family, to meet eligible matches. Frances is a creative dressmaker stuck in a shop, helping to meet the demand that the prince's visit (and the ball in his honor) has caused. The two would never have met, but Sebastian has a secret. He likes to wear dresses, and he wants to do so in public. After one of Frances' creations reaches an unwelcome level of notoriety, Sebastian recruits her to help him realize his dream. Along with keeping each other's secrets, they vow to help each other succeed, and thus a partnership and friendship is born. But secrets and ambition will not play nicely together forever...

Oh dear, this is the cutest story! First, love the storyline, the coming to terms with identity and finding people who you can trust and who will hold your secrets and best interests at heart, all while trying to satisfy familial duty and professional ambition. Of course there's tension, accompanied by big reveals, angst, and some running away... but in the end this is a love story and it has a happy ending. Wang also tucked in hilarious lines here and there so I was always wondering what character was going to make me laugh out loud next.

On top of the story, Wang is goshdarn talented, and this book is so *pretty* it kind of hurts? Like I want almost every page in poster form, on my wall. And I want all of the dresses, too! The fashion, the architecture, the colors and the vision! It's a feast for the eyes, and one that will draw in readers who might not typically pick up a graphic novel. Truly, it is beautiful, and it is art.

A brief note on Sebastian's identity: the assumption of this reader (from the context of the story) is that Sebastian is gender nonconforming.

And now, I'd like to introduce you to my favorite page spread (I liked the whole thing too much to pick just a panel!). Yes, there were more colorful panels, pages that showed bigger realizations and prettier dresses. BUT. This is the first time Sebastian and Frances have a moment of relationship tension, where it changes tangibly from friendship to... romantic potential?! The eye contact! The hand holding! Proximity alarms going off all over the place!!! (that's a good thing) And all over a "good night." I think you get the idea from the images alone, without even needing dialogue, and that speaks to Wang's storytelling. Just, SWOON.

In all, The Prince and the Dressmaker is a delightful, subtly funny, and beautiful story that highlights themes of coming-of-age, acceptance, friendship, and following your dreams. I adored it.

Recommended for: anyone who enjoys animated princess film classics, fans of young adult historical fiction, and readers ready for fairy tales and art updated for the modern world.

jen wang author photo
Jen Wang is a cartoonist and illustrator currently living in Los Angeles. Her works have appeared in the Adventure Time comics and LA Magazine. She recently illustrated Tom Angleberger's Fake Mustache.  Her graphic novels Koko Be Good and In Real Life (with author Cory Doctorow) were published by First Second. 

Interested in checking out other bloggers’ favorite panels from The Prince and the Dressmaker? Check out the tour schedule, or click any of the links below!

The Prince and the Dressmaker will publish from First Second on February 13, 2018.

Fine print: I received copy of this title for review consideration. I did not receive any compensation for this post.
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