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The Wonderling, written and illustrated by Mira Bartók
published in 2017 by Candlewick Press

Arthur is a groundling, a curious part-animal, part-human creature whose dear fox face and lovely chestnut eyes speak volumes of the sensitive, kind heart within. 

His quiet tenderness does him no favors, however, in the dismal, dank Home for Wayward and Misbegotten Creatures where he lives along with scores of other raggedy, pitiful youngsters. Miss Carbunkle, a woman with a dreadfully pinched heart, rules there without mercy. Not a morsel of celebration, not a squidgeon of beauty, and certainly not a single drop of music is tolerated.

One day Arthur bravely protects a little bird named Trinket from some schoolyard bullies and in so doing earns a true and valiant friend. These two not only stage an epic break-out, but wend their way into extraordinarily strange places, meet a gamut of characters — some wise, some cunning, some downright villainous. What they overhear, stumble upon, and seek, turns into an adventure with vast repercussions for their world, and Arthur’s destiny as the Wonderling is at the center of it. 

Mira Bartók’s voice is sumptuous. Her fantasy gushes with richly descriptive passages, inventive cityscapes, and highly-imaginative elements, and she’s chosen to give a starring role to Music, weaving it throughout the account. That alone makes this a more thought-provoking fantasy than many others.

  Arthur himself is a bit of an antihero. He is no swarthy, swashbuckling captain figure, but a timid soul who gradually, bravely, blossoms into all he is meant to be.

The book as a whole is not as lightning-paced and action-packed as some fantasies, yet don’t let these charming fox-drawings fool you — it is similar in many ways to Oliver Twist with its settings, intensity, and sinister figures. 

All that, and the final moments take place on Christmas Eve, making it a perfect holiday read for ages 10 and up. I thoroughly enjoyed it. This story is already in the process of becoming a movie, so do yourself a big favor and Read. The. Book. First!

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I’ve been on a mission lately to find great new reads packed with action, adventure, mystery, humor, grit. Books you might hand to those who might not relish quieter, understated, or more relationship-centric stories. And I found some winners! I loved every one of these:

The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell Pitts, by Avi
published in 2017 by Algonquin Young Readers
313 pages

High adventure, derring-do, rogues a-plenty, villains, thieves, pickpockets, wretched poorhouses, Dickensian schoolmasters, and the constant threat of a hanging hovering about our dear Oliver’s head — that’s the flavor of this action-packed yarn from one of the great storytellers, Avi.

Taking place in and near London, 1724, the story is steeped in period atmosphere, told with an olde-fashioned-y English flavor, seasoned with gusto and wit. Run, hide, dodge, and escape with our 12-year-old hero as he finds himself caught up in a criminal world and searches through smoggy, mucky London for help. You won’t catch your breath until the very last page, and even then, we’re teased with one final line: To be continued in Book Two! 10 and up.

Mighty Jack and the Goblin King, by Ben Hatke
published in 2017 by First Second
207 pages

Don’t miss the final episode of Ben Hatke’s thrilling, fantasy, graphic novel trilogy! If you’ve missed the first two books in the series, do not pass go, do not collect $200 before grabbing them from your library and setting out with Jack and Lilly. You can read my review of those here.

When we left off, Jack’s little sister Maddy, a non-verbal child on the spectrum, had been captured by an ogre emerging through an other-worldly portal. The portal itself emerged courtesy of some crazily-bewitched seeds Jack and Maddy planted in their back yard. Ever-bold, audacious Lilly and fiercely-loyal, intrepid Jack charge after her.

What they encounter there, the hazards to be overcome, the enormously-surprising species, and one sweet vintage Shelby Mustang — will have you turning the pages madly, grinning, cringing, and cheering.

Also — Hatke leaves us with quite the teaser ending! A series to relish for ages 7 and up.

The Secret Sheriff of Sixth Grade, by Jordan Sonnenblick
published in 2017 by Scholastic Press
193 pages

Jordan Sonnenblick creates realistic fiction with biting wit, dry sarcasm, and a host of flawed characters who unapologetically steal our hearts. This latest title of his is no exception, an unflinching look at understanding the backstories of the glitchy people we meet and what it actually means to be a hero.

Maverick is the shrimpiest kid in sixth grade. He’s also missing a dad, and the mom he’s got is mostly out-of-commission due to severe alcoholism and a penchant to drift from one abusive relationship to the next. He attracts bullies like raw meat beckons flies, and when he tries to heroically stand up for others his efforts tend to backfire and land him in detention. Yet Maverick is determined to make his school a better place for others.

How does a kid like this make it? Part of the answer lies in a couple of exceptional adults in his life who stick with him, choose to see potential in this loyal, well-meaning, hurting boy. The other part of the answer is his deep reservoir of desire, a desire to be one of the good guys.

The dysfunctional home lives of kids in your school and neighborhood are laid out here in all their non-glory, as is the difference a person can make and the real meaning of heroism. With humor and grit, it will transform perspectives of its readers, ages 11 and up.

Clementine Loves Red, written by Krystyna Boglar, illustrated by Bohdan Butenko, translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones and Zosia Krasodomska-Jones
originally published in Poland in 1970; English translation published in 2017 by Pushkin Children’s Books
192 pages

This new English translation of a classic Polish children’s book has all the verve you might expect from its racy-tomato-red cover and those slightly off-kilter drawings.

With characters ranging from a small boy called Pudding, to a grouchy artist named Phosphorus Twisk, one forlorn girl by the name of Macadamia, several frantic policeman, a German Shepard called Pickles, and a sneezing car, the story takes on a lovely quirkiness. Throw in a madcap search for the lost Clementine… in the nighttime forest…during a cracking storm…with all the bumbling and near-misses of the Keystone Cops — and you’ll arrive at its zesty, witty flavor.

Butenko’s wobbly, eccentric line drawings, all done in that same splash of red, add greatly to the book’s excellent design. It’s quite a ride from start to finish for readers ages 8 and up. Could also be read-aloud to those a bit younger. (Contains a few expletives in the heat of the chase and several references to “playing Red Indians.”)

Toto: The Dog-Gone Amazing Story of the Wizard of Oz, written by Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Emma Chichester Clark
published in 2017 by Harper Collins

Michael Morpurgo, one of  children’s literature’s godfathers you might say, has retold the classic Wizard of Oz story from Toto’s point of view. It reads with ease, doggy-friendliness, and a pleasant degree of informality. Boosting the story’s panache are Emma Chichester Clark’s flamboyantly colorful, cheery illustrations, strewn generously throughout.

Morpurgo has followed the original story to a large degree, though he digresses from both the original and the classic Judy Garland film at some points. He’s added in Toto’s predilection for sausages which works very well as a running theme and condensed the action for an evenly clipped tale.

Children ages 6 and up will enjoy this and it would make a fine read-aloud as well. If they like it enough, it could act as a gateway to L. Frank Baum’s original story with the challenge of spotting the differences (I predict some great surprises!), as well as Baum’s many other Oz stories. Several of my daughters loved that whole series when they were young. It’s a treasure trove for young, voracious readers. 

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A Boy Called Bat, written by Elana K. Arnold, illustrated by Charles Santoso
published in 2017 by Walden Pond Press, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers
192 pages

I thoroughly enjoyed this endearing story about a small boy with a huge heart, and one little, striped skunk.

Bat Tam is in third grade at Saw Whet School, chosen especially for him because the wonderful folks in charge accommodate Bat’s autism so well. In fact, Bat’s teacher, Mr. Grayson? You’ll all wish he lived next door!

Bat’s mom is a veterinarian and one day she winds up with a tiny, motherless skunk kit. Her plan is to care for it at home for about a month until the wildlife rescue center has a spot for it. Bat’s plan, within about a nanosecond of meeting this sweet little fella, is to keep it forever.

They are pretty cute, after all.

Earnestly attempting to grow into a capable skunk-owner while managing his autism plus the challenges of his parents’ separation is not an easy path for Bat, but with resourcefulness and immense heart, plus the support of some wise, empathetic adults, Bat succeeds. And wins our hearts in the process.

Excellent story, characters to love, and a great spotlight on autism. Read it aloud or hand it to ages 7 and up.

Cavern of Secrets, by Linda Sue Park, illustrated by James Madsen
published in 2017 by Harper
320 pages

This is the second page-turner in Linda Sue Park’s Wing & Claw trilogy. I reviewed the series’ opener  here.

Though it’s been a year since that first book came out, I was immediately swept back into the world of Obsidia, where a young boy named Raffa Santana has been raised to be an apothecary, scavenging the Forest of Wonders for botanicals he can pound and mix into tinctures and powders imbued with marvelous healing capabilities. Raffa has discovered one particular vine whose properties can be used for surprising good, or immense evil.

The Chancellor of Obsidia is secretly engaged in using it for evil. It’s up to Raffa, his cousin Garith, best friend Kuma, and a handful of trustworthy others to stop her. The stakes are high and the obstacles daunting. Assisting them is an amiable, immensely-charming bat named Echo. Who talks.

The adventure and tension are definitely ratcheted up in this volume which has a cliffhanger ending. How will we wait until next year for the conclusion?! Excellent fantasy for middle graders and up and a choice candidate for reading aloud as well.

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war-diaries-1939-1945-cover-imageWar Diaries, 1939-1945, written by Astrid Lindgren, illustrated with family photos
first published in Sweden, 2015; first U.S. edition published in 2016 by Yale University Press

When I first heard late last year that Astrid Lindgren’s diaries from the World War II years were being published in the U.S., all my must-read buttons began flashing at once! Now I’ve read it, I want to pass on to you this remarkable piece of adult non-fiction.

Lindgren is Sweden’s most famous children’s author. Many

Astrid Lindgren Foto: Jacob Forsell Kod: 14 COPYRIGHT PRESSENS BILD

Astrid Lindgren Foto: Jacob Forsell Kod: 14
COPYRIGHT PRESSENS BILD

Americans are sadly limited in their familiarity with her books, Pippi Longstocking being the only title immediately connected with her. Lindgren, though, has written dozens of wonderful stories, many of which have been translated. In fact, almost 100 different languages host at least one of her works.  In addition, the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award is among the most prestigious awards in children’s literature worldwide. You can read all about it here.

So, of course, as a lover of children’s literature, I am fond beyond words of Lindgren. Our family has immensely enjoyed reading aloud many of her books and we treasure our common memories of feisty Lotta, daring Bill Bergson, those darling children of Noisy Village, intrepid Ronia, and other equally vivid characters.

Christmas in Noisy Village

Christmas in Noisy Village

That’s what initially drew me to this compilation of her diary entries from 1939-1945, but what I read there goes far, far beyond children’s literature. Honestly, one gets only a glimmer of the beginnings of Lindgren’s illustrious, unexpected career in children’s literature. A glimpse of the publication of her first book, passing mentions of Pippi being written, and her surprise at Pippi’s reception are all tantalizing to come across.

Finnish victory, WWII

Finnish victory, WWII

What took me by surprise was how engrossing it is to read about World War II from a Swedish perspective. Lindgren was deeply thoughtful about the politics and maneuverings of the Scandinavian countries throughout the war. The plight of Finland, in particular, is largely overlooked in American histories, and as a person with Swede-Finn heritage, I was grateful to read about Finland’s intense and heroic plight, squeezed as they were between Stalin and Hitler. Norwegian resistance, Danish resistance, her unease over neutrality and unique perspective on what she believed was gained by that, the massive numbers of refugees welcomed by Sweden during the war — all of this captivated me.

Lindgren’s heart ached when confronted with the immense human toll of the war on populations across Europe. Her entries lament over the vast numbers of hungry and starving civilians, communities ravaged by both Russian and German armies, Jews who were harassed out of their homelands (though she was long unaware of the full extent of the Holocaust), Norwegians executed for their resistance, and German soldiers as well, fighting a war she guessed many of them did not believe in, an extraordinary perspective for someone in the midst of this carnage.

Astrid's war diary

Astrid’s war diary

Because she was employed by the Swedish government as a censor, Lindgren’s work involved reading personal letters written from all areas of Europe by ordinary people struggling to cope with war, loss, and simply putting food on the table. This gave Lindgren a much broader understanding of the impact of the war.  Given the global humanitarian crisis in our world just now, this is a timely read.

Whether you pick it up as a children’s literature aficionado, a fellow Scandinavian, or a history buff, then, you’ll find a great deal to love about this remarkable, personal narrative of those strenuous years.

I decided to re-read Pippi Longstocking in light of this new, fuller understanding of both Lindgren and the context in which she wrote the book. My copy is this wildly colorful edition illustrated by Lauren Child, published by Viking in 2007.

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I love the effervescent spunk Child introduces to the text through her explosive, personality-laden collages, and the clever manipulation of type to highlight particular shenanigans.

What I discovered was that knowing the circumstances of Lindgren’s life when she wrote Pippi, and the origins of it as bedtime stories for her daughter, made all the difference in how it reads!

What jumps off the page is the obvious appeal of what began as story-spinning for her young daughter, then for many more neighborhood children. Certainly these fantastical adventures and silly stories brought fresh vision and happy thoughts into the hearts of children, some of whom were terribly burdened with anxiety.

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The life of Pippi is not only chock-full of giggleworthy episodes, it is one with no stultifying rules during a period of annoying rationing and ham-fisted Nazi demands. Free as a bird, she is. Despite having no parents, Pippi is a strong, hopeful, self-sufficient girl. No need to worry about her! In one telling incident, Pippi attends the circus and accepts the ringmaster’s challenge to defeat the strongest man in the world, a fellow not-coincidentally named Strong Adolf. Pippi neatly pins him to the mat in one blink of an eye. Immensely satisfying. European children during WWII had to rise above their circumstances in heroic proportions, and Pippi was certainly a plucky role model.

pippi-longstocking-illustration-lauren-child

Bits and pieces from the Lindgren’s Swedish household are scattered throughout the story, too. Wouldn’t you do that, if you were spinning stories for your child? Coffee is drunk  commodiously! Heart-shaped gingersnaps, August pears, sugared pancakes — lots of delicious food comes to play in this story. Household chores, pippi-longstocking-illustration-detail-lauren-childoutdoor play, making music by blowing on a comb (a trick my Swedish grandfather taught me once upon a time) — choice elements of ordinary life are effortlessly woven into the fantasy.

If you’ve never read Pippi, you really should consider it. It’s a delightful read-aloud for children ages 4 and up. If it has been awhile since you read it, I think you’d enjoy giving it another read keeping in mind the world in which Pippi was born.

Here are Amazon links for both books. I keep forgetting to put these in! I am an Amazon Associate meaning you can do me a favor by clicking through a link on my blog before purchasing something from Amazon. I get a little dab from them each time that happens. Thanks!

Astrid Lindgren’s War Diaries 1939-1945

Pippi Longstocking

 

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mighty-jack-cover-imageMighty Jack, written and illustrated by Ben Hatke, color by Alex Campbell and Hilary Sycamore
published in 2016 by First Second

Turning Ben Hatke loose with Jack and his magical beans is like, I don’t know, giving J.K. Rowling the keys to Oz? Letting Lewis Carroll slip into Narnia? Suddenly even the ordinarily-magical gets cranked up into neon, technicolor heights! And at the same time, a vein of tenderness wends its way through the whole account. Seriously magical.

Jack is a nice kid with a single mom working two jobs over the summer to make ends meet, and a younger, autistic sister who needs watching. Maddy clearly loves Jack, and just as clearly has intense ideas and tastes, but she doesn’t talk. At all. Which makes caring for her a tricky business.

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One day at the flea market Maddy wanders off and bumbles into a mysterious sort of fellow with some peculiar seed packets for sale. Jack doesn’t have the money to pay for them but when the craziest thing happens — when Maddy suddenly does talk and begs him to buy the seeds — Jack gets tipped off balance and recklessly pays the fellow off with…No, I won’t tell you but his mom is furious!

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When Jack and Maddy set to work planting those curious seeds, stranger, far more malevolent things sprout up than simply a sky-high beanstalk! It takes all Jack’s wits plus the help of a new, sizzlingly-spunky, homeschooled neighbor girl, Lilly, and her rad swordsmanship, to confront the menacing jungle.

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Hatke’s characters knit their way into my heart with magical speed — wait’ll you meet those Onion Babies! — and the pace and electric energy of his story make this a wild page-turner. And then — cliffhanger ending! For this is Book One. The conclusion comes out later in 2017.

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Turn folks ages 8 and up loose with this for a wild ride!

 

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beetle-boy-cover-imageBeetle Boy, by M.G. Leonard, illustrations by Júlia Sardà
published in 2016 by Chicken House, Scholastic
270 pages

It all starts with the mysterious disappearance of Dr. Bartholomew Cuttle, an enigmatic, punctilious scientist who enters the collection vaults in the Natural History Museum one ordinary day, and *poof* disappears.

12-year-old Darkus Cuttle, his son, is taken in by his uncle, Professor Maximilian Cuttle, a kind, honest, if slightly distracted archaeologist. All well and good BUT! what can have happened to his father? Despite what the detectives and journalists insinuate, Darkus is certain foul play is involved. His father would never abandon him. So where is he?

The answers to Darkus’s questions come from the most extraordinary sources beginning with a large-ish black beetle, eyes glistening like blackberries, sporting a pointy horn and capable of some downright terrifying hissing. Oh, and it understands human language. Comes when called. Darkus names him Baxter.

beetle-boy-illustration-julia-sarda

Baxter turns out to be just one of a whole collection of intelligent super-beetles, genetically altered in a sinister plot by the Cruella DeVille-esque Lucretia Cutter. Truly someone worth hissing about! Darkus and Baxter team up with a pair of new friends and a veritable army of phenomenal insects, but the clock is ticking. Can they find his father, plus defeat Lucretia, her sinister staff, and a pair of odious, ghoulish neighbors, in time to prevent her diabolical scheme? 

beetle-boy-illustration2-julia-sarda

This is the fast-paced first novel in a new trilogy with loud echoes of Dr. Who and Roald Dahl and a pinch of Suzanne Collins’ Gregor the Overlander series. With its fiendish, outlandish characters, crisp, polished prose, and relentless tension, it’s a sterling beginning. I know — super-beetles sound unpalatable to you. Believe me, though — you will love these guys!  Their jeweled beauty and extraordinary abilities will make you not only cheer for their valor, but turn a newly-appreciative eye on their counterparts in the real, marvelous, curious world of beetles.

beetle-boy-illustration3-julia-sarda

My U.S. copy did not have any of Júlia Sardà’s great illustrations, which is too bad. But an added Entomologist’s Dictionary helps readers understand terms used, from Coloeptera to transgenic. I thoroughly enjoyed this and recommend it for ages 10 and up.

Here’s the Amazon link: Beetle Boy

And consider this…

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A fantastic pairing would be Dianna Hutts Aston and Sylvia Long’s gorgeous nonfiction book, A Beetle Is Shy. After reading about these amazing creatures’ sci-fi adventures in Beetle Boy, gazing at their true beauty and learning some amazing facts from this book will certainly appeal. 

Here’s the Amazon link: A Beetle is Shy

 

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missy-piggle-wiggle-cover-imageMissy Piggle-Wiggle and the Whatever Cure, written by Ann M. Martin with Annie Parnell, illustrated by Ben Hatke
published in 2016 by Feiwel and Friends
242 pages

How many of you have read Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle? If you have, I’m guessing a warm wave of happiness just washed over you!

For those of you unacquainted with her, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle is the short, plumpish little woman who lives in an upside-down house full of marvels, fresh baked cookies, and magical cures for ill-behaved children. She’s one of the most beloved characters in children’s literature, having made her first appearance in 1947, in Betty MacDonald’s collection of chapter books about her.

mrs-piggle-wiggle-original-cover

With her wise notions and secret potions Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle is always the right person to call on whether children suffer from resisting baths, tattling, or downright selfishness. Her clever cures work like a charm every time! You can read more about her in my earlier review of that book here.

Now, almost 70 years later, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s grand-niece has arrived on the scene to welcome a whole new batch of children into that magical home. It seems that Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle has finally decided to find out what happened to her mysterious pirate-husband who’s been missing ever-so-long, and has left the house in charge of Missy.

missy-piggle-wiggle-illustration-ben-hatke

Sequels written by others can be touchy things. Putting such a beloved person as Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle into another’s hand for potential mistreatment — that raises the hackles on any bonafide booklover, right? Well, rest easy. The skillful Ann M. Martin has beautifully handed over the keys of the house to this newcomer and written an excellent first entry into what I’m hoping will be several episodes.

As a matter-of-fact, I think Martin anticipates the trepidation of long-time fans. The House itself is decidedly mistrustful of Missy upon her arrival, employing all the underhanded tricks a House might have up its sleeve in order to propel her right back where she came from. As our hearts warm towards Missy, so does the House, and we all wind up happily, comfortably, nestled in together.

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Missy has her own set of ill behaviors to cure in the children she meets, including greediness, gum-smacking, the ol’ just-one-more-minute-itis, and a know-it-all who needs setting straight. She tackles them with the same mix of gravity and kindness as her great-aunt, winning the trust of the townful of children and their parents. There’s also a blush of romance between Missy and the awkward young bookseller in town, Harold Spectacle, just to sweeten the deal.

Ben Hatke brings these characters into the 21st century beautifully as well, with his knack for infusing personality into his figures. He mixes the freshness needed by a new generation of readers with a lovely old-fashioned sensibility that respects the atmosphere of both the original stories and this new batch. Just look at that enticing cover!

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I heartily recommend you read the original story first. No need to read all five of those previous books, but do read Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. Then dip into this new installment for a delightful treat. Great read-alouds for a wide age-range, or trusted staples for independent readers ages 7 and up.

Here’s the Amazon link: Missy Piggle Wiggle and the Whatever Cure

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