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Pictures and poetry

Four recent picture books

The Horse’s Haiku

Michael J. Rosen

Luminous watercolor and pencil illustrations complement this wonderful collection of horse haiku. Young poets and horse lovers will appreciate how the haiku capture fleeting moments: “snowfall whitens all / but two darks: unfrozen stream / and horses huddled.” The poems show the value of close observation: “the wither’s quick twitch / flicks off the biting horsefly / but just this instant.” Some capture the feel of riding: “that sweet instant when / trotting’s bounce and rumble smooths / into canter’s glide.” Others focus on sensory detail: “above the muffled / clip-clop of dry hooves, the rain’s / first pitter-patter.” (Ages 6-12)

Friends Stick Together

Hannah Harrison

In this story illustrating “symbiosis,” Rupert, a sweater-vest and bow-tie-wearing rhinoceros, loves reading, classical music, and cucumber sandwiches (crust removed). Levi the tickbird loves making armpit farts and popping wheelies. He’s also the new kid at school who immediately latches on to Rupert. Delightful pictures depict noisy Levi driving poor Rupert crazy. Finally the rhino complains, “Making friends was hard before. But now, it’s pretty much impossible.” He just wants to be alone. He soon discovers that life without Levi is quiet but boring—and what he really wants is a friend. (Ages 4-6)

Hello, Baby Animals

Lorinda Bryan Cauley

“Who has tall, spotted legs, and a long, curvy tongue?” With those words this guessing book begins. The illustrations show two legs and a partial head of the mystery critter. On the next page: “Hello, baby giraffe.” Very young children will enjoy guessing the identities of baby hedgehog, tiger, rabbit, duck, and elephant. Author and illustrator Cauley uses a pastel palette and dresses her baby animals in assorted tops, with flowers or caps on their heads. The snuggly animals, sweet clothing, flowers and butterflies, and abundance of pink give the book a girly feel. (Ages 2-4)

Copy Cat

Ali Pye

Bella loves to copy Anna. It doesn’t matter if they are playing ballerina, pirate, or princess. One day Anna has had enough: Off she goes, “all huffy-puffy, to play princess by herself.” For a while Bella doesn’t know what to do. Then she finds a jump-rope. She practices and becomes good at it. Another friend, Chloe, sees Bella jumping. She wants to learn, so she practices and becomes good at it. Finally, Anna gets tired of playing alone. She sees her friends jumping and joins in the fun. This simple story teaches children about friendship and weathering disagreements. (Ages 4-6)

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Children's Books

Worlds unseen

Middle-grade fiction reviewed


Remy Wilkins

Rodney feels abandoned when his parents divorce and his mother leaves him with “weird” Uncle Ray for the summer as she attempts to start their new life. But the summer takes an unexpected turn when Rodney encounters a demon named “Birthless” and discovers that Uncle Ray has a secret connection to a demonic underworld. Evoking C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, Wilkins’ debut novel portrays cleverly named demonic characters who converse, plot, and war against angels, earthly beings, and even critters who are subject to “The Name.” Chapter titles include words from the hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” and questions about the unseen realm abound. (Ages 9-12)

The Crooked Castle 

Sarah Jean Horwitz

Magician’s apprentice Carmer and his faerie princess companion Grit detect mysterious magic at work when they discover a connection between a popular aerial circus show and a string of recent airship disasters. The thrilling quest that ensues involves unexpected allies, magical snowstorms, and an under-the-sea evil kingdom. This fantasy follow-up to Horwitz’s 2017 The Wingsnatchers goes deeper into faerie factions and introduces new friends and villains while maturing a timid Carmer and a fiery Grit. But it still delivers the same clever combination of a magical underworld and steampunk machinery, conveying that—at the height of human inventions and achievement—a battle for the mind exists. (Ages 9-12)

Hello, Universe 

Erin Entrada Kelly

A recluse Virgil Salinas, nicknamed “turtle” by his boisterous family, longs for the courage to talk to a confident and deaf classmate, Valencia Somerset. The two share incessant taunting from bully Chet Bullens and a budding friendship with self-proclaimed middle-school psychic Kaori. One summer day the lives of these four sixth-graders converge when a heartless act leaves Virgil stranded and helpless. Told from each character’s perspective, the story gives insight into diverse families, worldviews, and the common longing for worth and friendship. Kelly’s 2018 Newbery winner will hook readers immediately, but it credits vague spiritualism—a “big, mysterious, fickle” universe—instead of an all-knowing God. (Ages 8-12)

The School Story 

Andrew Clements

Natalie Nelson’s first novel is good. So good her best friend Zoe Reisman believes she can get it published at the company where Natalie’s mom works. But how can two sixth-graders navigate the adult world of publishing while keeping Natalie’s manuscript out of the slush pile … and her mother oblivious? With the help of some trustworthy adults, Zoe orchestrates a plan that will carry them both on a wild ride to publication. Although the outcome for this golden oldie (published in 2001) is far-fetched, The School Story portrays clever characters with lots of determination and creativity. (Ages 8-12)

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Children's Books

Surviving middle school

Four middle-grade graphic novels 

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Getaway

Jeff Kinney

Greg Heffley’s parents have always been strict, frugal, and unconcerned with appearances. Their decision to take the whole family to a packed and pricey beach resort for Christmas seems a little out of character, as does much of the storyline in this best-selling series’ latest book. Instead of stressing over how to survive middle school, the main character complains about late flights, overcrowded swimming pools, and tropical insects. Though The Getaway has a few laugh-out-loud pages, it forgoes the teachable moments that have made the stories funny and endearing. “Diary of a Whiny Kid” might be a more appropriate title for this installment. (Ages 8-12)


Svetlana Chmakova

In the follow-up to her best-selling graphic novel Awkward, Svetlana Chmakova explores how a bullying victim learns to be a better friend to himself and others. Chmakova’s drawings capture the frenetic atmosphere of middle-school hallways and the aching disappointment of young Jensen Graham as he realizes the students he calls friends are anything but. The relativistic morals of the story create confusing scenarios, such as when a Muslim youth who wears hijab advocates for a friend’s “civil liberty” to wear a short skirt. While Jensen’s peers come together to support him, it’s concerning that he faces the rest of his academic career without a moral compass. (Ages 8-12)

Swing it, Sunny

Jennifer L. Holm

Sunny Lewin feels isolated as her family recovers from the wounds of her brother’s drug use and abusive behavior. With brother Dale now at military school, the crisis has passed, but grief and uncertainty still haunt the family. Sunny hopes for an easy solution to make everything better, but healing comes one small step at a time in the form of support from her grandfather, mother, and a new friend. The story, told with age-appropriate dialogue and drawings, paints a realistic but hopeful picture of a family dealing with a prodigal child. (Ages 8-12)

Sherlock Holmes and the Disappearing Diamond

Sam Hearn

In this adaptation, Sherlock Holmes is a precocious middle schooler who drags his pals, John Watson and Martha Hudson, on an adventure to solve a mystery that unfolds during a field trip to the local museum. Author Sam Hearn, who previously wrote and illustrated picture books, tells the story from Watson’s perspective using a mix of comic strips, news-style articles, and plain text narration. The format might be slightly hard to follow for readers who aren’t familiar with all of those media, but those who are will have fun trying with Watson to stay a step ahead of Sherlock. (Ages 8-12)

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