Do Monsters Dream of Were-Sheep: A Review of Let the Monster Out

Bones is the new boy in town. With a chip on his shoulder, a hair-trigger, and a fastball that could knock you over, he’s making waves on the local baseball team. But then the adults in the sleepy small town of Langille start to act strangely. Then Bones and his new teammate Kyle save a mysterious man with a conspiracy theory-filled notebook from drowning. The duo decides it’s up to them and a group of new friends to investigate the strange happenings and free Langille from the mysterious and terrifying grip of the mega-corporation Fluxcorp. The team consists of Bones; Kyle, the neuro-atypical smart kid; Marcus, the most popular boy in town, part of the only black family besides Bones’ family, and youngest in a family of 6; and finally, Albert, the nervous one. The text alternates the point of view between primary narrators Bones and Kyle as they learn how to be each other’s best friend and how to grow out of fear. Author Chad Lucas takes on several difficult topics, like Bones’ abusive father and Kyle’s autism. Lucas presents them in an appropriate way for children without overly sanitizing. Kyle’s autism is handled particularly well, with the help of sensitivity readers, Lucas writes the condition as complex, depicting it as neutral, not good or bad.

A funny, spooky, and never subtle entry in the “kids save a small town” genre, with a few surprises along the way.

Mindfulness in Nature: A Review of Tisha and the Blossoms

Tisha and the Blossoms
Wendy Meddour
Illustrated by Daniel Egnéus
Candlewick Press
May 17, 2022
Ages 2-5

Tisha spends her day feeling rushed, as she is constantly being told to “hurry up” by those around her. She must hurry to catch the bus in the morning, hurry through her project at school, and is even told to hurry during recess so that she does not miss lunch. When Mommy comes to pick her up from school, Tisha asks if they could slow down, frustrated by the amount of hurrying she has been doing all day. Mommy agrees, and the two walk home rather than taking the bus. On their leisurely walk, Tisha and Mommy talk, connecting to each other and the nature around them, even stopping to spend some time on a bench in the park. Once they arrive home, Mommy suggests to Daddy that they have a picnic as a family rather than a typical dinner at home. This allows the whole family to slow down and genuinely enjoy each other and everything around them. 

In keeping with the story’s theme of celebrating what is around us rather than hurrying through life, the illustrations feature elaborate backgrounds with less focus on the characters themselves. Several full-page spreads highlight details that can only be appreciated through slowing down. The art style is abstract and displays a variety of visual perspectives. The text is presented in an abstract way as well, with the layout changing on each page and certain words emphasized through the use of a larger font. While the central focus is on Tisha and her parents, diversity is apparent in the background characters. The story itself, and the way it is presented alongside abstract mixed media images, truly embodies the importance of mindfulness, and of sharing small moments which become even better when surrounded by loved ones. 

Found Family in France: A Review of The Pear Affair

The Pear Affair 
Judith Eagle 
Illustrated by Jo Rioux 
Walker Books US 
May 24, 2022 
Ages 10-14 

Penelope “Nell” Magnificent generally avoids her parents, as they are neglectful and care more about their material possessions and wealth than her. The only genuine love she has felt in her life comes from her au pair, Perrine, who left her five years ago to return to her home city of Paris. Perrine, or Pear as Nell calls her, wrote Nell letters monthly, though six months ago those letters stopped. Nell accompanies  her parents on a trip to Paris, determined to find Pear. Nell memorized the layout of Paris, studying maps and guidebooks, as she trusted that someday Pear would free her from her parents. Nell first looks at Pear’s job and home but is unable to find her. Even worse, the adults she asks for information increasingly appear to have something to hide. Nell befriends Xavier, a young bellhop, who helps her and introduces her to a group of youngsters who are also quick to help as needed. As the group of children works to find clues about Pear’s whereabouts, they uncover a plot tied to the Thing, a mysterious outbreak of mold affecting traditional Parisian bakeries, forcing many family businesses to close. 

Nell’s exploration of her world is fully engrossing, as she pores over the information she has about Paris before embarking on the family trip. Events escalate in a way that maintains suspense, with Nell initially looking for Pear alone but eventually working with a large group to unravel a greater mystery. The secondary characters are young children who roam underground tunnels beneath Paris, resulting in a unique aspect of the city being central to the story. While there are many villainous adults throughout the story, helpful ones are also present, which keeps the story from delving too far into extremes of good and evil in its realistic setting. Occasional black and white illustrations bring key moments to life. This story is sure to appeal to readers who enjoy the journey of watching a mystery become more complex as it marches towards its conclusion, which leads to Nell finding the sense of love and belonging from a found family that now extends beyond Pear. 

Brain Gain: A Review of Goodnight to Your Fantastic Elastic Brain

Goodnight to Your Fantastic Elastic Brain
JoAnn Deak, PhD and Terrence Deak, PhD
Illustrated by Neely Daggett
Sourcebooks
April 5th, 2022
Ages 4+

In Good Night to Your Fantastic Elastic Brain, we follow Brain, the pink walnut-looking organ in your head, starting with a brief and general explanation of what Brain does, and going through their nightly checklist, from development all the way through dreaming. With each task coming in the order they happen through a sleep cycle. As psychologists, the authors, Doctors JoAnn and Terrance Deak’s passion for the topic is evident. Using a tone of “isn’t the brain cool!” keeps the reader engaged and never talks down to them. Excelling when paired with a completely natural but potentially scary topic like REM paralysis that is part of dreaming. Illustrations by Neely Daggett are simple abstractions with implied details. For example, Brain has bumps along its edge letting the reader do the work of extrapolating the wrinkles in their mind without cluttering the illustrations. In diagrams, while not realistic, they show locations for different sections of the brain accurately, substituting the anthropomorphic brain for a clear cross-section in profile with colored highlights. The art and the writing use metaphors to explain brain processes to readers, using abstractions like stamping when creating memories and baths when Brain needs to clean themselves, to give children simple reasons to want to sleep. The journey through a sleep cycle wraps up with a reiteration that your brain is you, what happens if you don’t sleep well, and actionable advice on how to improve your sleep that is useful for everybody, not just children. One missing feature is a bibliography or a list of continued reading resources for those who want more.

An enthusiastic explainer made for kids who need a good reason to hit the hay.

Be Bold, Be Brave: A Review of Epically Earnest

Epically Earnest–cover art

Epically Earnest
Molly Horan
Clarion Books
June 21, 2022
Ages 12+

At one-year-old, Jane Worthing was abandoned in the back of the Poughkeepsie train station. Despite this unlucky start, Jane’s led a happy life thanks to the generous and supportive man who found, and later adopted her. Now eighteen-years-old and in the final months of her senior year, Jane finds herself with all the typical high school drama and more. Her best friend Algie secretly, and high-handedly, sent her DNA to Ancestry.com. Jane has always avoided searching for her birth parents out of fear of what she might uncover. But now there’s a familial match in the form of an acorn, staring at her from the computer screen. On top of this, Gwendolyn Fairfax—Algie’s cousin and the girl Jane’s been in love with since she was 13—is visiting over school break. Jane has some big decisions to make. Should she click the acorn? Profess her love to Gwen? When the final decision is made, will chaos ensue, or will she finally find what she’s longing for?

Inspired by Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, Epically Earnest shares character names, loves, and the protagonist’s back story—left in an oversized handbag. Horan adds a contemporary twist to these plot lines with the discovery of baby Jane becoming a viral video and Jane’s bisexual identity. Epically Earnest centers themes of acceptance, believing in yourself, and what it means to be family. Jane comes to find that searching for her birth family isn’t a betrayal to her adoptive parents. Her birth family is an addition to the family she already loves. Throughout the story, Jane becomes more confident in herself. She gains the courage to pursue Gwen, believing that she deserves to be happy and that being honest with herself and others is the best way to get what she needs. Horan includes a further nod to Wilde by prefacing each chapter with a quote from one of his plays. A sweet and romantic comedy, this coming of age novel illustrates that happiness comes to those boldly open to it.

Some things are too important to be taken seriously. — Oscar Wilde.

Sharing Nature Through Seasons: A Review of Emile and the Field

Emile and the Field 
Kevin Young 
Illustrated by Chioma Ebinama 
Make Me a World 
March 15, 2022 
Ages 4-8 

Young Emile loves the field close to his home, spending time alone in the field where he appreciates all the animals. He sees the field as a living being itself, thoughtfully wondering about things the field cannot experience that are far away from it, such as the sea. He also contemplates how the field changes during the seasons. He is upset that in the winter he must share his field with others who come to loudly play in the snow. When Emile shares this thought with his father, his father explains that no one owns the field and that sharing it ensures that it will continue to exist. The book closes with an illustration of Emile playing in the field with someone else in the spring. 

This is Young’s first book for children, though his experience with poetry and essays comes through in the lyrical writing style. The book is written in rhythmic verse, with many rhyming lines. The text on each page is sparse and appears in a variety of placements. This highlights the watercolor illustrations which bring the vibrant field to life through the usage of a wide color palette. The textured look of watercolor further brings the field to life. The initial textual description of Emile’s field even takes pause early on to allow for a full two-page illustration which depicts the lush field. The illustrations are key to storytelling as at the end of the book we see that Emile has learned to share the field only through illustration. This ending highlights the theme of thoughtfully enjoying nature while sharing it with others. The eye-catching illustrations and rhythmic writing make this book a great option for story time and new readers. 

A New Take on An Old Story: A Review of Travelers Along the Way

Travelers Along the Way: A Robin Hood Remix 
Aminah Mae Safi 
March 1, 2022 
Feiwel and Friends 
Ages 13-18 

The third entry of the Remixed Classics series, this young adult novel reimagines Robin Hood as a Muslim teen girl amid the Third Crusade. Rahma followed her older sister Zeena into the war, though really all she wants to do is make sure her sister stays safe. As the sisters travel towards Jerusalem, Rahma continually produces schemes to get them out of trouble. She initially steals a horse that she sees is being abused, only to find out it is the invading Queen Isabella’s horse. This and further thefts lead to her gaining a reputation as the Green Hood. Through their travels, Rahma sees how much the people themselves are affected by the war, and she repeatedly redistributes the spoils of her thefts to the common people who help her. The two sisters meet a variety of like-minded individuals who join them as the group’s schemes escalate. They eventually steal wealth the queen is bringing to negotiate with King Richard. They find a peace treaty with the treasure, learning that Isabella is planning to manipulate Richard into peace on her terms. This leads to a final plan, with the goal being to end the war in a way that is beneficial to the citizens of the land. 

The story is told primarily in the first person, from Rahma’s point of view. Occasional chapters are written in the third person and from the perspective of the invaders, such as Queen Isabella and King Richard. Large bold text indicates the location is shifting, which helps to ease the possible confusion when the point of view changes. The band of protagonists is diverse. While the main character is Muslim, supporting characters include Jewish and Christian representation. There is also an LGBT romance among the members of the group. The pace is quick, with Rahma’s group eventually reaching six members. They bond while the action itself occurs, allowing the story to move forward quickly. Back matter includes a brief timeline of the Third Crusade and an author’s note that encourages the reader to further research the time period on their own, rather than providing extensive notes of Safi’s own research. This novel is sure to appeal to teens interested in historical fiction, especially those looking for representation outside of what tends to exist in this genre. 

Bedtime Q&A: A Review of Goodnight, Butterfly

Goodnight, Butterfly 
Ross Burach 
Scholastic Press 
March 3, 2022 
Pre-k to 3rd grade 

In the third installment of Ross Burach’s Butterfly series, the titular Butterfly is awakened in the middle of the night by Porcupine as they are eating their breakfast. Initially, Butterfly is ecstatic at the new experience of being awake at night, learning about what it means to be nocturnal through word play and asking more questions than poor Porcupine can handle. The art shows this through an abundance of brightly colored images in Burach’s signature naïve style of mixed media art. However, as Butterfly tires, the fast pace of the early pages slows down significantly. The puns and traditional wordy jokes of the front half are replaced by sight gags, like Butterfly accidentally mistaking Porcupine for a pinecone. Questions from Butterfly peter out, even if Butterfly is still trying to make night time adventures for the pair to get into, and Porcupine is able to give some advice about falling to sleep. Burach shows the switch in tone using the color of the space between illustrations from a white to the more calm colors of lavender and indigo towards the end of the book. Burach’s use of framing and pace in service of comedy is impeccable. In early jokes, he uses cluttered dialogue and page turns to build tension while releasing it through punchlines. These are given room to breathe by the switch to a single, simpler composition for a spread. While the jokes are less set up later in the story, to aid in winding down, the page turns are still used to hide silly fun, like Butterfly using a book as a bed. In the last few pages, Butterfly finally decides to stop fighting sleep and Porcupine encourages them to think about calming ideas, teaching readers that if you want to go to sleep, it’s better to focus on calm ideas instead of questions you cannot answer. A colorful and funny addition to any bedtime book collection, just be careful, it might be too much fun to fall asleep to.

Storytelling Through Pictures: A Review of Isla to Island

Isla to Island 
Alexis Castellanos 
March 15, 2022 
Atheneum Books for Young Readers 
Ages 10 and up 

This wordless graphic novel follows Marisol, a young girl sent alone to the US when her homeland of Cuba becomes increasingly unsafe. When she first arrives in New York, she is miserable. The winter weather is nothing like what she is used to, and she does not understand anyone around her. As time passes, she comes to realize that home does not have to be restricted to one place. Marisol loves plants and teaches herself English by checking out books about nature from her school’s library. Her foster parents notice this interest and show her areas of New York that are reminiscent of home, even in the winter, like a botanical garden. As time passes and the seasons change, Marisol comes to see the same vibrant nature she loved in Cuba come to life in her new home. The story ends as she finally works up the courage to introduce herself to her peers at school, closing with an epilogue shown through photos the depicts her parents arriving in the US and Marisol herself eventually starting a family in the US. 

The book is primarily wordless, with text being used at the start and ending to label photos that set the scene. As art is the primary storytelling vehicle, movement through the story occurs with varying paneling formats. The style of the art itself is simply with uncomplicated backgrounds making the story easy to follow. When Marisol first arrives in New York, the art becomes black and white, with occasional splashes of color when she sees things that remind her of home. Through this initial lack of color, the visuals embody how terrible Marisol feels. Over time, the color returns to the illustrations, initially through the plants that Marisol sees and books she reads that make her feel at home again. By the end, the illustrations are once again in full color. Back matter provides additional context to the wordless story. This includes an explanation of Operation Peter Pan, the real-life program that brought Cuban children to the US, along with an author’s note and list of historical sources for those who want to do further reading on the topic. Isla to Island presents a touching narrative about the immigrant experience without the use of text, which allows it to have appeal to young readers who may be overwhelmed by lengthy books about this important topic. 

Monsters Among Us: A Review of Only a Monster

Only a Monster
Vanessa Len
February 22, 2022
HarperTeen
Ages 13-17 

In this first installment of a planned trilogy, debut author Vanessa Len lays down the foundations of a world where monsters live among humans, appearing no different from their human counterparts. Monsters’ primary ability involves travelling through time, though in order to do so they must “steal time” from humans, shortening the lifespans of their victims. Beyond this ability that is shared by all monsters, each also has an additional ability shared by their family line. The story’s protagonist, Joan, is half-monster, half-human, and the monster half of her family has intentionally hidden the full extent of their abilities from her. Shortly after accidentally using her powers for the first time and learning the truth about them, Joan also learns that her crush, Nick, has sworn to destroy all monsters. Joan escapes a massacre, where the victims include most of her own family. As Joan teams up with another survivor of the massacre, she must quickly learn how to navigate not only her powers, but the entire society and hierarchy of monsters living hidden throughout London. 

Despite being the first in a series, Only a Monster can stand on its own as the primary conflict is solved by the end of the book, with greater unresolved questions looming for those who will wait for its sequels. Its primary theme relates to morality, and the ambiguity of good versus evil, with the ever-present question being whether monsters are always evil, and heroes are always good. Another central theme is that of adapting to a new society. In the monster world, Joan feels out of place as she is half-human. Since her family hid the truth about monsters from her, Joan is not aware of monster society which has its own rules about what can and cannot be done regarding time travel, as well as urban legends which end up having truth to them as Joan learns more.  She also alludes to feeling out of place in the human world as well due to being of mixed race. The supporting cast is also diverse, featuring characters of various ethnicities and sexualities. While the story gets dark, and features depictions of death, it is not overly graphic. Fantasy readers who enjoy time travel and related themes, such as alternate timelines, are sure to enjoy this fast-paced read.