Road Trip Gone Wrong: A Book Review of EXIT 13: The Whispering Pines

EXIT 13: The Whispering Pines
James Preller
Illustrated by Kevin Keele
Scholastic
February 7, 2023
Ages 8 to 12

Stopping at the EXIT 13 Motel was the worst decision the McGinns could have made. Lost in the fog, the McGinns decide to stop when the shadowy motel appears out of nowhere when they needed it most. Dealing with suspicious hotel staff, the mysterious wolf that appears and disappears just as quickly, and the haunting voice that keeps talking to Ash, the youngest McGinn, was not what they were looking for on a road trip. Ash and his sister, Willow, must solve the mystery of the motel for their family, or else they may never have the chance to check out.

Told in the third-person to gain the perspective of all characters involved, the book mainly focuses on Ash and Willow as they search for answers. Written primarily in prose, black and white comic panels are used to expose new secrets the children find out about EXIT 13 and provide an in-depth view of the emotions on the characters’ faces. Although Willow and Ash don’t get along at the beginning of the book, as they face each secret and obstacle of the motel and its creepy forest, their concern for one another and familial bond grows stronger. Humor, lighthearted moments, and a new friend balance out the sense of doom that the children and readers feel is coming. Left on a giant cliffhanger, young readers who enjoy thrilling mysteries will want to continue to explore the secrets of EXIT 13 with Ash and Willow as they try to leave.

An Everglades-inspired Fantasy Adventure: A Review of Into the Glades

Into the Glades
Laura Sebastian
Delacorte Press
October 25th, 2022
Ages 8 to 12

The Glades—a peaceful but magical swamp-like area filled with magical creatures—has been the home to best friends, Cecilia and Larkin, since they were young. But with the unexpected death of Cecilia’s father, Oziris, the leader of the village, the Glades has turned maliciously towards the townspeople like never before. Wrapped in anger and grief but determined to resurrect Oziris and break the curse on the Glades, Cecilia and Larkin, along with their two younger brothers, embark upon a journey through the Glades to find a powerful witch. But the potential price of such dark magic may be too much for the children to handle, along with the grief and fury threatening to consume them.

As the girls and their brothers’ journey through the Glades, Sebastian weaves in how each handles their grief, from simmering anger to calm acceptance. Tested throughout their journey, Cecilia and Larkin are challenged by their emotions, magical ability, and fear of losing each other. In the end, they have to accept each other for their bonds of friendship to endure. Sebastian uses the journey though the Glade as a metaphor for moving through the stages of grief. Details of Oziris’s death introduce a darker tone, but Sebastian balances it with subtle humor and lightheartedness from the brothers. She firmly places them as emotional support for Cecilia and Larkin while away from the rest of their grieving family members. The characters and location of the story are inspired by the author’s childhood, making it a personal story that still allows readers to immerse themselves in her experience. Into the Glades is a fantasy adventure encouraging social-emotional learning by bringing to life real issues surrounding loss and grief along with accepting change and enjoying each moment, providing a silver lining to even the darkest events.

Roundhouse Kick Retelling: A Review of Little Red Riding Hood and the Dragon

Little Red Riding Hood and the Dragon
Ying Chang Compestine
Illustrated by Joy Ang
Abrams Books for Young Readers
November 1st, 2022
Ages 4 to 8

Little Red Riding Hood and the Dragon depicts a refreshing Chinese twist on the age-old folk tale of Little Red Riding Hood, as told by the wolf from the original. But this Little Red knows kung fu and carries a sword, which is why her mother feels safe sending her to grandmother, or Nainai’s house, when she’s sick. Making her way to Nainai’s house, Little Red is tricked by a dragon and uses her quick wit and traditional Chinese instruments to save Nainai and herself, making her the hero of her own story.

Although Little Red Riding Hood knows how to defend herself, she doesn’t use much force when trying to escape the dragon’s belly, just cleverness. This provides deeper character depth than the original tale. More in line with the original tale, many other characters in this picture book aren’t focused on besides Little Red Riding Hood. As the big bad wolf is looked at as an antagonist in other folktales, his perspective as narrator is a unique element that refocuses the story now on a Chinese dragon as the antagonist. The digital art and vivid colors in Ang’s illustrations lend a modern sensibility to the ancient setting and traditional tale, and add a further twist to the retelling. Detailed backmatter contains Compestine’s author note on her inspiration for this twisted tale, her motivation to include certain Chinese elements, and a deeper look into Chinese culture and heritage. Young readers will enjoy this “real” version of the story, and grown up readers will get a chuckle out of the wolf’s audience in the final spread. Messages of empowerment, problem-solving, and not waiting for a huntsman savior are the real beauty of this twisted tale.

The Circle of Life: A Review of This Is the Sun

This Is the Sun

This Is the Sun
Elizabeth Everett
Illustrated by Evelline Andrya
Science Naturally
October 2022
Ages 4-7

A vibrant geometric sun shines its rays on the undulating earth below. Thus begins this brilliant and bouncy circle of life story told as a cumulative tale to the rhythm of “The House That Jack Built.” Moving from the sun, to the tree, to the flower, and so on Everett walks readers though the tale with simple text, easily digestible by preschool story times or early independent readers. Lush, full-color, digital collage illustrations complement the spare text. With text to the left of the spread and full-page illustrations to the right, Andrya layers in each new element of the story and introduces a seek-and-find component. Can you find the bug, on the leaf, on the tree? The text and art are both reminiscent of Eric Carle’s Very Hungry Caterpillar. This familiar format, combined with the cadence of a well-known nursery rhyme, lends the nonfiction text to story time in a way most NF does not. Adding to its utility, the book will be available in both English and Spanish, with teacher resources available on the publisher’s website after publication.

This deceptively simple story elegantly introduces the complex topic of our interdependent ecosystem and helps young readers see their place in it.

Just the Start of Spooky Season: A Review of The Whispering Dark

The Whispering Dark
Kelly Andrew
Scholastic Press
October 18, 2022
Ages 14 and up

Being Deaf, Delaney Meyers-Petrov has always been seen as fragile, but when she gets accepted into the mysterious Godbole School, with its history of teaching students how to roam between worlds, she jumps on the chance to prove herself. Meeting Colton Price again at the school was not part of the plan. Colton Price’s life has orbited around one person ever since he woke up from death at her feet – Delaney’s. Forced together on campus, but forbidden from interacting, Colton struggles to keep away from her. They form an uneasy alliance to discover why students are dying gruesome deaths and brace themselves for an age-old enemy that has risen from the shadows of the school’s dark history.

Described by the publisher as a romantic fantasy, it reads more as a mystery thriller, with its strange murders and supernatural entities, with only subtle themes of romance. Andrew skillfully builds tension that makes readers need to find out the cause of the deaths and the secrets of the school to be appeased. The story could have been more effectively told in the first-person, by the alternating narrators, to provide in-depth understanding of each character. Its third-person narration waters down the emotion and hinders evolving character arcs. Delaney sees herself as fragile in the beginning and doesn’t tell friends or professors that she’s Deaf, which hurts her relationships and grades. Even in the end, she doesn’t tell people around her. Elements like the frequently changing narrators and elaborate language are disorienting and add to the mystery. The puzzling secrets of the school that only Colton seems to know but are hidden outside the grasp of the reader until the rushed resolution are an additional element of suspense. This perplexing story will make young adult/new adult readers ponder what they would come back to life as after a deathly experience: a better version of themselves or something possessed by evil.

More Than “Goode” Enough: A Review of The Glass Witch

The Glass Witch cover art

The Glass Witch
Lindsay Puckett
Scholastic Press
October 18, 2022
Age 8-12

Adelaide Goode is the youngest in a family of cursed and complicated witches, doomed to feel she is not magic enough, thin enough, or “Goode enough.” About to be left with her grandma for the summer, Addie clings to her mother in a snap decision that unleashes the curse, turns her bones to glass, and makes her the target of a witch-hunting spirit. Only by accepting herself and connecting with her family’s magic, or kindred, can she save herself, her family, and her town from shattering.

Challenged by low self-esteem and fear of abandonment, Addie uses tween snark and extraordinary baking skills as a shield against her fears. Puckett weaves heavy themes of body image, bullying, and family tension with more whimsical notes of a Halloween Pageant, delicious food imagery, and brave rescue rabbits to keep the tone light and the pace lively. And the addition of a fearless and monster-obsessed new friend, Fatima, makes for the perfect foil for Addie and her ideal companion in a magical crisis. Secondary adult characters begin in a less-defined manner but shine in a conclusion that sees Addie find her self-worth while learning about her family and her place in it.

Friendship, family, and magic combine in this lighthearted story of self-discovery and acceptance.

Paving the Way For Future Generations: A Review of Bessie the Motorcycle Queen

Bessie the Motorcycle Queen
Charles R. Smith, Jr.
Illustrated by Charlot Kristensen
Scholastic Inc. / Orchard Books
September 20, 2022
Ages 6 to 8

Through rhyming verse, Bessie the Motorcycle Queen tells the story of little-known adventurer, Bessie Stringfield. A Black motorcyclist, she was known for her spontaneous, cross-country motorcycle rides, flair for the dramatic, and ability to cruise easily past her white, male competitors. Fighting against conditions in the Jim Crow-era South, Bessie was often forced to sleep under the stars when motels rejected her, was chased by Klan members, and cheated out of her race winnings. The impulsive, determined, and highly skilled Bessie gives author Charles Smith, Jr. plenty of tales for an action-packed ride. His verse maintains a quick pace and fun tone, despite some heavy content, even if some lines are a bit clunky. The sherbet-flavored color palette, laid over the modern digital paintings, immediately places the story in the 1920s. Elements like her wheat penny, which she flipped to decide her next location, add to the period details and her legend. The rough, lineless illustrations feel cartoon-like and energetic, with Bessie and her motorcycle significantly more detailed than everything else, keeping the reader’s eyes always on her. The backmatter includes an author’s note explaining his discovery of Bessie’s story, and the inspiration he found in her bravery, as well as a bibliography with books and online articles for additional reading on Bessie.

With races, car chases, and daring motorcycle stunts, this tall tale of an overlooked historical figure shines a spotlight on her bravery and spirit in a story of empowerment.

A Review of Bibbidi Bobbidy Academy: Rory and the Magical Mix-Ups

Bibbidi Bobbidi Academy: Rory and the Magical Mix-Ups
Kallie George
Illustrated by Lorena Alvarez Gómez
Disney Hyperion
October 11,2022
Ages 5-8

Living as a non-magical being her whole life, Rory Spellington enrolls in Bibbidi Bobbidi Academy so she can achieve her dream of becoming a fairy godmother. Her excitement about finally attending the Academy fades when all of her spells turn into disasters. Only with the help of her new friend, Mai, and her experience living in the non-magical world does Rory learn that having magic doesn’t make all wishes come true; listening and being there for someone is the best way to grant any wish.

This imaginative and magical tale starts by providing a map of Bibbidi Bobbidi Academy so readers can visually follow along on Rory’s adventures. Including a map of the academy encourages readers creativity as they delve into the story and adds to the adventure. Bright, vivid colors and attention to detail in the illustrations make each chapter a magical tale on its own*. Although the academy name and characters within the story have references to Disney movies, familiarity isn’t necessary to follow along. To adjust to the age-appropriate reading level, George spells out complex words, using word play to complement Rory’s magical spell-casting challenges, and normalizes learning differences for the reader. George’s tone follows Rory’s time at the academy from excited and animated in the beginning, then slowly dwindles to discouraged as Rory’s spells end in disaster, and back to festive as Rory completes her first magical assignment with flying colors, helping a child with his first wish. With an overtmoral, the author makes it clear to young readers that nobody can be a perfect fairy or non-magical person, but if you are motivated to fulfill your dream, then try your hardest, even when there might be magical disasters.

* Review based on ARC

Favorites: 2022 Back to School Picture Books

New shoes, new school supplies, and maybe new anxieties—back to school season is here! Whether you’re sending off the kids from your home, home library, or welcoming them into your classrooms, these 2022 picture books are full of reassurance (and sometimes silliness) to help with a smooth transition into the norms and routines of the school year.

KINDergarten cover art

KINDergarten: where kindness matters every day
Written by Vera Ahiyya
Illustrated by Joey Chou
Penguin/Random House Studio
June 2022
Age 4-8Leo is nervous about kindergarten, especially his new teacher’s request that the class contribute ideas to kindness pledge. Leo prefers quiet. What if he can’t figure out what to say? As Leo meets his classmates, and hears their ideas about kindness, he realizes his actions can speak just as loudly as their words. Vibrant colors and geometric illustrations lend a joyful tone to this reminder about all the ways we can show kindness to others.

Purple School cover art

The World Needs More Purple Schools
Written by Kristen Bell and Benjamin Hart
Illustrated by Daniel Wiseman
Penguin/Random House Children’s Books
June 2022
Age 3-7

Penny Purple and her friends are back and bringing their plans for a more curious, respectful, and cooperative world to their classroom—and yours. Bright and joyful illustrations combine with silliness galore to explore Penny’s school community and everything the students and teachers do as good citizens and friends. 

Everything in Its Place cover art

Everything in Its Place: A Story of Books and Belonging
Witten by Pauline David-Sax
Illustrated by Charnelle Pinkney Barlow
Penguin/Doubleday
July 2022
Age 3-7

An introverted young book-lover finds solace (and an escape from recess) by volunteering in the school library. Forced to face a week of recess on her own, an all-female motorcycle group inspires her to take a risk on opening up in order to find a like-minded friend. A mix of blue pencil drawings, watercolor, and collage are brilliantly combined to bring the girl’s interests, experiences, and imagination together in one cohesive and lovely ode to books and belonging.

Hurry, Little Tortoise cover art

Hurry, Little Tortoise, Time for School!
Written by Carrie Finison
Illustrated by Erin Kraan
Penguin/Random House Studio
July 2022
Age 3-7

Little Tortoise is determined to be on time for her first day of school. Passed by classmate after classmate, her dedication turns to despair when she’s knocked on her shell. A rescue by her teacher, Mr. Sloth, gives just the pick me up she needs to build confidence and get to class right on time. A sweet tale of perseverance to illustrate that moving at your own pace doesn’t diminish your place in the crowd.

This is a School cover art

This is a School
Written by John Schu
Illustrated by Veronica Miller Jamison
Candlewick
March 2022
Age 3-7

Through simple text and lively art, this diverse and vibrant school community comes to life and introduces young students to the rhythms and learning within. Identifying locations, experiences, and emotions tied to the school day and beyond, Schu gently welcomes readers to the world of school. Differences in culture, ability, skill, and social-emotional experience are celebrated in vignettes exploring all the school building and school community might offer and what community members have to offer in return.

Bedtime for Creatures Great and Small: A Review of Sleep

Sleep cover art

Sleep
Barbara Herkert
Illustrated by Daniel Long
Albert Whitman & Co.
October 1, 2022
Ages 4-8

Humans require less sleep as they grow older. Grey whales float on the water’s surface to breathe while they sleep. Most mammals and birds exhibit signs of REM sleep, which means they may dream like humans. All living things with a nervous system need sleep, from dogs to insects to sharks to us; sleep specifics just depend on the type of animal and its habitat. Sleep, written by Barbara Herkert and illustrated by Daniel Long, dives deep into the world of slumber with detailed facts about sleep patterns, cycles, and the differences between sleep needs and experiences in humans and animals.

Filled with a lush color scheme and vivid images, the book resonates calm, perfect for this topic of sleep and making it a relaxing bedtime read. Each image is digitally illustrated, in a similar style to mixed media collages, but shaded to bring out depth and textures, which brings each animal to life. Long’s images are vibrant, but simply detailed, keeping them from distracting from the information provided on each page. Sedate pacing prevents the fact-heavy text from overwhelming readers. With a background in biology and fine arts, Barbara Herkert provides facts in a tone filled with admiration for the natural world that complements the extraordinary details she provides. The author also includes a glossary and additional resources as backmatter for those who would like to continue researching the world of sleep. Working through interesting information on humans and animals, the book takes young readers on a mind-opening adventure into the world of sleep and the extraordinary world we live in.