All in a Days Work: A Review of Stillwater and Koo Save the World

Stillwater and Koo Save the World (A Stillwater and Friends Book)
Jon J. Muth
Scholastic Press
Ages 4 to 8
February 7, 2023

Koo, a young giant panda, wakes up inspired to change the world and enlists his thoughtful Uncle Stillwater to help fix it all—today. As they go about their day, Koo proceeds to have giant expectations of what he would like to do, but Stillwater teaches him that making small changes in the environment, and helping the community, can be their own meaningful way to change the world.

Told using a variety of animals, humans, and anthropomorphic pandas, the diverse characters reflect the diversity of the world and all the characters that might need kindness. Pandas as symbols of peace and friendship in Asian countries, are the main character in this story as they try to bring small improvements to the world around them. The pace of the story changes from rapid excitement as Koo suddenly wakes up one day and instantly ropes his uncle into the expectations of wanting to save the whole world, then slows only when Stillwater speaks to Koo about making small differences in the world around him. As the pace changes, the tone of the story changes to one of acceptance and encouragement of his personal efforts Encouraged by his uncle, Koo begins to bring joy to those around him through small but meaningful actions, such as cleaning his room and making a cake for the neighbors. These realistic everyday chores and acts of thoughtfulness offer young readers clear examples of how their actions impact the world around them. Drawn with pencil and granulated watercolors, the airy but vivid illustrations exemplify the beauty in the world around Stillwater and Koo and why they want to help save it. Stillwater and Koo Save the World is an uplifting story about wanting to make giant differences in the world by doing something small, inspiring readers to make meaningful changes in the world regardless of age.  

 

Dreamers: A review of Of Walden Pond: Henry David Thoreau, Frederic Tudor, and the Pond Between

Of Walden Pond: Henry David Thoreau, Frederic Tudor, and the Pond Between
Lesa Cline-Ransome
Illustrated by Ashley Benham-Yazdani
Holiday House
November 15, 2022
Age 6-9

Set in the majestic winter wilderness of Concord, Massachusetts, two men with different dreams set them in motion at Walden Pond. Henry David Thoreau, “oddball, tax dodger, nature lover, dreamer,” builds a cabin and lives off the land to experience nature and write of its beauty (pg. 6). Frederic Tudor, “bankrupt, disgrace, good for nothing, dreamer,” comes to Walden as an entrepreneur to harvest the winter ice and make his fortune (pg. 7).

Lisa Cline-Ransome crafts a snapshot of their intersecting time on the pond and how it influenced their unique legacies. Mimicking the seasonal organization of Thoreau’s Walden, she follows them through a year that sees their arrival at the pond and follows their experiences, writing and harvesting and transporting ice to the other side of the world. Her study in contrasts follows the naturalist as he observes the seemingly unnatural process of sending ice to one of the hottest places on the planet. Pencil and watercolor illustrations beautifully capture the tranquility of the rural setting and the simplicity of Thoreau’s existence juxtaposed against the industrious activities of Tudor and his team. A mostly cool color palette in the Walden scenes sits in contrast to the warm, dusty scenes in Calcutta, before circling back to a last frosty winter scene on the pond. Spare text and minimal punctuation sketch a rough timeline that is enhanced by both the detailed illustrations and very specific Author’s Note full of biographical information on the men from before and after their 1846 encounter.

A poetic look at a lovely setting that inspired the legacies of two extraordinary 19th century dreamers.

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.

Intrigue and Romance: A Review of Foul Lady Fortune

Foul Lady Fortune
Chloe Gong
Simon and Schuster / Margaret K. McElderry Books
September 27, 2022
Age: 14 and up

It’s 1931 Shanghai; Imperial Japan has just invaded Manchuria. Rosalind Lang, a Chinese Nationalist assassin, must investigate a string of murders through the city before the Japanese use the terrorist actions as a pretense for invasion. Fighting against her training as a killer, and instead acting as a spy in a normal-seeming office building, she must work with the wealthy playboy and Nationalist spy Orion Hong, her new fake husband. All while keeping secret her identity of Lady Fortune and her ability to heal from almost any wound hidden. The story’s core is both an excellent spy thriller and romance between Orion and Rosalind. Author Chloe Gong sets the stage for a complicated ride through the intrigue of the time. Orion and Rosalind both have a sibling in the Communist party, with whom the Nationalists are at war. Orion’s trust in the Nationalist party is in question due to his father’s connection to Imperial Japan, and Rosalind is a notorious former gangster. While not perfect, these tensions, pulling at well-written characters, create some great dramatic moments. Gong utilizes shifting points of view in occasional chapters to build tension and fill out the identities of the secondary characters. In one instance, a chapter ends on a cliffhanger, only to build back up to that same cliffhanger in the next, as a new character learns the truth, revealing the satisfying twist. While this book can be read as a stand-alone, it does assume some familiarity with the characters, using a light hand to describe their sexual preferences, gender identity, and political ideology, which may be further developed in later installments.


A well-crafted romantic spy thriller with a great lead into future stories.

Should Revenge Be Served at All?: A Review of Sweet and Sour

Sweet and Sour cover art

Sweet and Sour
Debbi Michiko Florence
Scholastic
July 26, 2022
Age: 8-12

Mai, budding birder and BTS stan, and her parents have always spent idyllic summers with family friends in small-town Mystic, Connecticut. Until two summers ago, when their son and Mai’s BFF, Zach, betrayed her and the friends suddenly moved to Japan. Now the trip is back on and Mai is unhappily headed from west coast to east with a new BFF, Lila, and years of built up anger. When Zach, so changed from two years away, wants to pick up their friendship right where he thinks they left it, Mai must decide how to handle her hurt feelings (not well), whether to hang onto a grudge she may have outgrown (not fun), and how to be a better friend to new friends and old.

Told from Mai’s point of view, Debbi Michiko Florence perfectly captures the 13-year-old voice with swings from light to moody, petulant to kind. The text is sprinkled with good and bad memory flashbacks, labeled sweet or sour, providing the backstory of Mai and Zach’s childhood and the racist incident that fractured their bond. Mai’s journey from sadness to anger to letting go is choppy and full of tween uncertainty. But her moments of introspection and insistence on standing up for yourself and your friends, whether it be from anti-Asian hate, bullying, or on matters of consent, keep her character from verging into the self-centered and vengeful. With wise words from friends, she learns to process her feelings rather than bury them and how to both forgive and ask for forgiveness. The relationships between Mai and Lila, Zach, and a new friend Celeste provide powerful examples of different types of friendships and illustrate the value of each. A secondary storyline, featuring Mai’s parents and their perceived inability to handle her big emotions, could have been better developed, but lends import to the central theme of communicating one’s feelings. Mai’s complicated emotions add both sweet and sour notes to the narrative of this summer adventure exploring the complexities of friendship, memory, growing up.

Down to Earth: A Review of Keepunumuk: Weeâchumun’s Thanksgiving Story

Keepunumuk: Weeâchumun’s Thanksgiving Story
Danielle Greendeer, Anthony Perry, and Alexis Bunten. Illustrated by Gaary Meeches Sr.
Charlesbridge
August 2nd, 2022
Ages 3 – 7

Keepunumuk is an embedded narrative about the harvest feasts that became known as the first Thanksgiving, composed in the style of Wampanoag oral storytelling tradition. When Maple and Quill ask their grandmother to tell them a story about the three sisters, the personifications of Corn, Beans, and Squash, she tells them about Keepunumuk, the first Thanksgiving. Weeâchumun (Corn), the eldest of the three sisters, is told of the arrival of newcomers to Turtle Island (North American continent). When Fox asks if they should trust the newcomers, Weeâchumun cautions them to watch them over the winter. These newcomers, the pilgrims, are seen struggling until spring. Weeâchumun and her two sisters decide, along with Fox and the other animals, to help these new people and send the First People, the Wampanoag, to teach them how to live with the land. With the help of the Wampanoag, the Pilgrims are saved and can survive the year. With the harvest that saved their lives, they had the first Thanksgiving. Meeches’ art, based on the Plains art style, excels at the depictions of Weeâchumun and her two sisters. Her form flowing out of corn stalks reinforces this connection between the personification and the crop she represents. The choice of detailing Weeâchumun and Fox more than the various humans in the narrative also supports the idea that the flora and fauna of Turtle Island are of primary importance in this story. Compared to the simple depictions of the pilgrims, they are important to the story only as beings to be cared for and the first people as willing helpers to the other residents of the land. The front and back of the book include additional materials for the readers about the Wampanoag, the first people of Massachusetts. The backmatter contains sections on Wampanoag storytelling tradition, traditions of giving thanks, a brief historical overview of the land and its inhabitants before the Pilgrim arrival, the basics of the aftermath of that arrival, a glossary of Wampanoag language (Wôpanâak) terms, as well as a recipe for Nasamp, a cornmeal-based dish.

A reimagined indigenous folktale about giving thanks to the world that provides for us.

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.