one fox: a counting book thriller

I’ve said it before, and I’ll probably say it again – I have a lot of little humans in my life, so I’m almost always looking for new picture books to gift… for birthdays, holidays, or even just a casual visit! It’s one of my life goals to be known as the aunt or cousin who always gives books. Some years I find an across-the-board winner and it gets gifted to everyone (see: anything by Oge Mora!), and some years each kiddo gets their own pick. This year, I have a couple of excellent candidates for picture books, and Kate Read’s One Fox: A Counting Book Thriller is one of them!

one fox: a counting book thriller by kate read book cover
One hungry fox with two sly eyes is on the prowl…three plump hens had better watch out! Rich and colorful illustrations plunge the reader into a dramatic and exciting story set in a moonlit farmyard. With something different to count on each page, learning to count from one to ten has never been so thrilling!

This surprisingly simple counting book with a gripping tale, great for early education and read-alouds, has a hugely satisfying ending that’s sure to delight generations.

In this entertaining picture book, a hungry fox is determined to make dinner out of at least one of the three hens in the hen house. Everything is going as you’d expect… with tension amplified over the course of each page spread… until there’s an unexpected twist at the end! One Fox is an inventive, beautifully illustrated take on the classic counting book genre, and is sure to be a favorite with both children and the adults doing read alouds.

 

The text in One Fox is charmingly minimalist: the story is told through the counting, with each number accompanied by only a short phrase. There are no full sentences until the very last page of the book, yet author-illustrator Read imbues each page spread with a sense of growing menace and danger (kid-appropriate, of course). The stripped down text means more time for pondering the art, and an appeal to a wider age range. In addition, Read uses adjectives that may be new to young readers: famished, sly, and beady, for example. Several of the word combinations are alliterative or rhyme, making the brief text even more of a delight to read.

 

Of course, the most important part of any picture book are the PICTURES – and Read’s art is fantastic. Her painted, textured, cut-paper art is reminiscent of both recent favorite Oge Mora (Thank You, Omu! and Saturday) and celebrated, classic children’s book author Ezra Jack Keats (The Snowy Day). Of course, Read’s art is all her own: her choice to center the main character(s) – or the part of them described – in each panel and keep the background understated and restrained helps to build the sense of unease and thrill necessary to this story. Her vivid color choices also gratify, and the way the gradations in hue are layered, one on top of another, impart the sensation of fur and feathers.

 

I could go on, but it’s a short book in the end, and I don’t want to spoil it. One Fox is a lot of fun (which books should be!), and it feels clever, hilarious, and the tiniest bit subversive. An enjoyable read for all ages!

 

Recommended for: little ones ages 1-5, for librarians/teachers/parents looking for smart and short read alouds, and for anyone who enjoys their reading with unexpected twists.


Fine print: I received an unbound copy of this book for review from the publisher. I did not receive any compensation for this post.

the fire never goes out: a memoir in pictures

As someone who rarely reads nonfiction books for fun, but plenty of nonfiction articles, personal essays, and magazine features, the graphic novel memoir format has turned out to be something of a revelation. I already love reading graphic novels (see: volunteering to read 100+ nominations as a Cybils panelist this year), and graphic novel memoirs (I want to point out there’s a bit of an oxymoron right there in the genre identifier!) are just about the right length – they don’t feel endless, and I don’t lose interest. So when I heard about Noelle Stevenson’s graphic novel memoir The Fire Never Goes Out: A Memoir in Pictures, I knew I’d give it a read at some point – or at the very least buy it to add to my classroom library (and all of the 9th grade Nimona and Lumberjanes fans at school).

From Noelle Stevenson, the
New York Times bestselling author-illustrator of Nimona, comes a captivating, honest illustrated memoir that finds her turning an important corner in her creative journey—and inviting readers along for the ride. 

In a collection of essays and personal mini-comics that span eight years of her young adult life, author-illustrator Noelle Stevenson charts the highs and lows of being a creative human in the world. Whether it’s hearing the wrong name called at her art school graduation ceremony or becoming a National Book Award finalist for her debut graphic novel, Nimona, Noelle captures the little and big moments that make up a real life, with a wit, wisdom, and vulnerability that are all her own.

Noelle Stevenson, author of the fantastic graphic novel Nimona (originally a webcomic) and showrunner of the recent animated She-Ra series on Netflix, has compiled a series of vignettes, comics, and commentary about her young adult years in what is titled “a memoir in pictures.” In various mini-comics and end-of-year/birthday roundups, Stevenson details professional highs and lows and shares some physical and mental health journeys of the past several years, giving fans a close-up on not only her life, but also her changing self-perception.

 

Writing a memoir is a deeply vulnerable act – it exposes elements of your personal story to the light that you’ll never get back for yourself alone: those memories become public property.  I’ve read several really excellent graphic memoirs: everything/anything Lucy Knisley writes, including Relish, Tillie Walden’s Spinning, Vera Brogsol’s Be Prepared, etc. Stevenson’s memoir… is not really a memoir as such. It cannot decide what it wants to be: a “greatest hits” list, a “making of the artist” autobiography, or a therapeutic reevaluation of the past for the author’s sake. And while that does not lessen Stevenson’s bravery in baring parts of her soul, it does muddle the poignancy and purpose of her message.

 

The book is arranged in a loose timeline by year, with annual review/birthday posts that Stevenson blogs each New Year serving as the backbone, combined with previously published fan art, personal art from her sketchbook at the time, and new mini-comics. The static year-by-year progression does the narrative no favors – at times it reads very much as a “This is what I drew when, and here’s how it helped me get famous!” and other times is so sparse (looking at you 2014 and 2015…!) that it is hard to see why Stevenson and the editor did not do more… editing. Instead of a clear, unified story, I found myself asking questions like: “Is this about mental health? Or is this a fanbook for people who already love Noelle Stevenson?”

 

It’s not that there’s a dearth of material to work with: Stevenson touches on coming out to herself and others, bipolar disorder, losing her religion, self-harm, national tragedies such as the Pulse nightclub shooting, and workplace disasters (frustratingly vague for someone who is quite open about successes). She also tries to interrogate an idea she admits she internalized: that achieving things at a young age makes you better than everyone else. However, she doesn’t quite find the context or connections necessary to make the reader believe she has fully unpacked that. Instead, the book falls into a frustrating place where no metaphor is fully explored or linked to another, even the titular one.

 

If you’re looking for a bright spot (I certainly was!) the art is great. Stevenson’s style uses minimal lines and sparing color, and will be familiar to anyone who has read her books and comics or watched her shows before. She also includes the occasional personal photo to contrast against her art. I remain a fan of Stevenson’s fiction, but I cannot help feeling let down by the nagging thought that if she’d had a braver editor (or maybe felt less like she needed to prove her chops and credentials, page after page?), her memoir/journal might have had a better, and more courageous, thematic finale.

 

In all, The Fire Never Goes Out is a disappointing attempt at memoir by a celebrated young queer comics and animation pro.

 

Recommended for: die-hard Noelle Stevenson fans and readers who are LGBTQ+ graphic memoir completists.

where's halmoni?

I read Julie Kim’s picture book-slash-graphic novel Where’s Halmoni? a couple of years ago, and every now and again I’ll remember it and feel so glad (not warm and fuzzy glad, but “that was a fantastic book! UGH, so much talent!” glad). It’s a super fun, vivid journey through a portal and into a world of magic, and it’s a great bridge read during that age when picture books are still preferred by kids, but not by parents.

where's halmoni? by julie kim cover
Beautifully illustrated and told by debut author Julie Kim, this book follows a young Korean girl and boy whose search for their missing grandmother leads them into a world inspired by Korean folklore, complete with mischievous goblins (dokkebi), a greedy tiger, a clever rabbit, and a wily fox.

Two young children pay a visit to Halmoni (grandmother in Korean), only to discover she's not home. As they search for her, noticing animal tracks covering the floor, they discover a window, slightly ajar, new to their grandmother's home.  Their curiosity gets the best of them, and they crawl through and discover an unfamiliar fantastical world, and their adventure begins.  As they continue to search for their grandmother and solve the mystery of the tracks, they go deeper into a world of Korean folklore, meeting a number of characters who speak in Korean along the way, and learn more about their cultural heritage.  

In this delightful book, siblings Joon and Noona are trying to find their Halmoni (grandmother), who is missing. Halmoni may also be more than she seems! Though the concept is simple, Kim keeps the story interesting with some unexpected reveals and a journey through a magical land. Included along with the quest of finding a lost person are games of charades, rock, paper scissors, outwitting the enemy, and escaping just in time. Children and adults alike will delight in turning the page to see what Joon and Noona will come across next.


The highlight, of course, is Kim’s art: lush, vivid, detailed, symmetrical, and aesthetically pleasing. The illustrations and text are tightly interwoven – and the stylized landscapes on each page will be familiar to anyone who has seen an example of Asian art or handicrafts. And as the journey the children take introduces them to creatures from Korean folktales (including deals, trickster creatures, the mandate to feed those you come across, and mystical old ladies!), the setting fits. It’s a beautifully produced book, with no dust jacket but an embossed cover, and it’ll be a title to keep in collections for many re-reads.


The story begins on the endpapers and ends on the endpapers – with lots of hidden details that will delight readers of all ages upon re-reads. It’s picture heavy, with fewer words – somewhere halfway between being a picture book and graphic novel. Where’s Halmoni? would fit in teaching units on mythology, with its lovingly-detailed illustrations and connections to traditional legends.


Where’s Halmoni? will be a favorite with anyone who likes animals and unexpected twists, and independent readers ages 6 and up.


Recommended for: young readers who like their books with pictures in, and anyone interested in fairy tale and mythology retellings in illustrated formats.

snapdragon

This past March, a week before the world shut down, I went to my local public library to pick up my holds. One of those holds was Kat Leyh’s middle grade graphic novel Snapdragon… and if you can believe it, it sat unread in my room (and then packed in a moving box)(and THEN unpacked in a pile in my new room) until… September. I don’t know how you felt these past several months, but my reading pace ground to almost a halt… until it didn’t. I picked up this witchy middle grade book at just the right time – and I am so glad I read it because it is not only a fantastic story, but an excellently spooky one for Halloween!
 
snapdragon by kat leyh book cover
Snap's town had a witch.


At least, that’s how the rumor goes. But in reality, Jacks is just a crocks-wearing, internet-savvy old lady who sells roadkill skeletons online—after doing a little ritual to put their spirits to rest. It’s creepy, sure , but Snap thinks it’s kind of cool, too.

They make a deal: Jacks will teach Snap how to take care of the baby opossums that Snap rescued, and Snap will help Jacks with her work. But as Snap starts to get to know Jacks, she realizes that Jacks may in fact have real  magic—and a connection with Snap’s family’s past.


Snapdragon, or Snap for short, is a little weird, and she’ll admit it, too. But you know who’s even weirder? The witch who lives in the woods in Snap’s town, who picks roadkill off the side of the road and keeps a graveyard next to her house! Snap thought the witch might eat her dog after a car accident, but instead she bandaged him up and let Snap leave, safe and sound. When Snap finds orphaned possum babies one day, she’s forced to ask the witch (or is she a witch??) for help, and thus begins a partnership that will reveal the truth behind creepy family stories, and see good triumphing over evil.


This book is ADORABLE. That might not be the first word that springs to mind for some (especially since it’s a morbid story about a witch who collects roadkill and sells the bones online??), but it works for me. This book has: gender- and sexuality-affirmation, a majority Black cast of characters, quirky family history, a great mother-daughter bond, standing up to bullies, making friends who appreciate your specific brand of weird, and finding something to be passionate about (even if that is putting together skeletons in your free time).


ALSO: ghosts, baby possums, useful magic, and multigenerational storytelling! I know I might not be selling the “adorable” vibe with some of these things, but trust me when I say this book is wholesome as heck, and it needs to be on your shelf or in your hands ASAP. I need a follow up immediately, so Lu (side character, I don’t want to spoil much but you’re going to fall for them!) can have their own story.


I also love how unpredictable the storytelling in Snapdragon is – it takes you to unexpected and wonderful places and ties everything together (I don’t know how – Leyh is a master!) in the end. It puts the fantastic (as in unbelievable) in fantasy in places, but in the best way – with tight storytelling, loveable characters, lots of animals, and families of all shapes, sizes, colors, and configurations.


And what about the ART?? Well, that’s really what ties a weirdly wonderful storyline together with my pronouncement of “adorable!” Not surprising, I suppose? Leyh’s style includes heavy-ish line work, big eyes, and lots of vibrant color. It is 100% part of the storytelling, so much so that I’m having a hard time separating it from the words on the page – you get a lot of the emotion in the story from the unspoken, the scenery, the panels without words. Leyh seamlessly tells Snapdragon’s story in a visual medium.


In all, Snapdragon is a sweet, entertaining, and mildly morbid middle grade graphic novel with nuanced LGBTQ+ characters and spooky Halloween night activities (that do NOT include trick or treat!). I liked it a whole lot and I think you will too.


Recommended for: fans of Raina Telgemeier and Molly Ostertag’s graphic novels, anyone who likes their reading with magic and/or weirdness mixed in, and anyone looking for queer-affirming stories for young people.

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