my island

Right away, when you see the cover of Stéphanie Demasse-Pottier and Seng Soun Ratanavanh’s picture book My Island, you sense that it will be whimsical, and maybe a little strange. After all, there’s a girl standing on top of an enormous seashell, and there’s a bird on top of her head! What’s happening? She’s also holding kites with stitched threads in her hands. The overall feeling is that this book will require some imagination – and it does, a bit – but it also encourages flights of fancy and dreaming as well. It’s a feast for the eyes and the daydreaming part of your soul.

my island by stéphanie demasse-pottier and seng soun ratanavanh book cover
A young girl imagines a lovely island populated by thousands of birds, where she picnics with her animals, plays games, reads, and collects flowers. You too are welcome on this island, if you know how to dream. Gorgeous, colorful illustrations accompany this gentle yet impactful story that celebrates the imagination of young readers.

Do you know how to sing, how to share, and how to dream? Then you are welcome on the unnamed island and in the house found in this book! While the story itself is minimal, it includes just enough detail to go along with gorgeous page spreads full of charming, vibrant detail. Animals, flowers, sea creatures, birds, and more sail, dance, perform, and go to parties on each page. The scale changes again and again, so readers are left to imagine why and/or how certain elements and characters are growling larger or smaller, depending on the circumstance. The constant is the little girl and her chickadee bird friend – you’ll see them adventuring together on every page spread.

Seng Soun Ratanavanh’s art is meticulous, gorgeous, and worth the read alone. Her patterned illustrations create a pencil, watercolor, and stenciled wonderland full of unlikely capers and situations, à la Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Flower garden snow globes, sea snail-back islands and paper boat sailors, picnic basket parties and more are rendered in shades of yellow, teal, and red are all at once charming, inventive, quaint, and marvelously-detailed – so much so that they require long perusal (or multiple re-reads!).

In all, My Island is an ode to the imagination, and is sure to be a hit with children and adults alike.

Recommended for: curious readers ages 4-7 who enjoy magical visuals that prompt day dreaming, and picture book aficionados of any age with a penchant for gorgeous illustration.

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

be prepared

Did you go to summer camp as a child? I did, for a week-long religious camp when I was in 5th, 6th, and 7th grades. It was a summer highlight (along outdoor summer swim team!), and I have vivid recollections of camp-wide water balloon fights, arts and crafts, lakeside activities, and drinking coffee for the first time. But because the camp I went to was religion-focused, and only a week long, I always envied the girls in The Parent Trap or in books who went away to camp for months, or whole summers even, and pulled complex pranks! I wanted a taste of that freedom, independence, and mischief. Vera Brosgol’s middle grade graphic novel Be Prepared is an autobiographical take on her own summer camp experience – which wasn’t what she expected at all, and yet formative all the same. And (bonus!) it made me feel a bit better about never being sent away for a whole summer!

be prepared by vera brosgol cover
In Be Prepared, all Vera wants to do is fit in—but that’s not easy for a Russian girl in the suburbs. Her friends live in fancy houses and their parents can afford to send them to the best summer camps. Vera’s single mother can’t afford that sort of luxury, but there's one summer camp in her price range—Russian summer camp.

Vera is sure she's found the one place she can fit in, but camp is far from what she imagined. And nothing could prepare her for all the "cool girl" drama, endless Russian history lessons, and outhouses straight out of nightmares!

When young Vera’s attempts to make friends with girls from her suburban school go embarrassingly (and hilariously, in retrospect) awry, she decides that Russian summer camp is the answer to her problems. Surely there she will fit in and find people who will appreciate her! But it turns out that at camp Vera has just exchanged one miserable experience for another – and the camp doesn’t have running water!

Brosgol’s camp story chronicles experiences that will be familiar and/or recognizable to all – feeling different or excluded, wanting to fit in, and having a “thing” or experience built up so much in your head that turns out to be not-so-great after all. Brosgol treats her past self with grace and humor, drawing laughs out of her audience as she remains true to past events, hurts, and relationships.

Be Prepared is a dose of reality – the kind that will make you tear up in sympathy for young Vera’s plight and feelings, laugh at an unexpected turn of events, and at the end, sigh with contentment. It’s a story well-told, and beautifully illustrated. It’s a perfect summertime read for the tween set, and adult readers will find much to sympathize with as well. Brosgol’s art, dialogue, and pacing all combine to create a book that you won’t want to put down, and will want to put in others’ hands ASAP as soon as you’re done.

A good portion of the hilarity in Be Prepared comes from Brosgol’s depiction of her younger self – especially her eyes. They’re almost as big as her face, surrounded by glasses, and intensely expressive – here you can see all of Vera’s anxiety, worry, and disappointment laid bare. Brosgol imbues her art with emotion, and the reader feels it. The page spreads illustrated in shades of olive green, black and white will appeal to fans of cartoons and animation, and though panel sizes vary, the focus is nearly always Vera and her reactions to various experiences.

Be Prepared is a summer camp memoir that’s perfect for fans of Lucy Knisley’s Relish and Shannon Hale’s Real Friends, and any graphic novel fan who is ready for a story filled with humor and heart!

Recommended for: graphic novel readers ages 8+ who enjoy the work of Shannon Hale and Raina Telgemeier, and anyone who went to camp or wanted to go – and found it different than they expected!

Fine print: I received a finished copy of this book from the publisher for Cybils Award consideration. I did not receive any compensation for this post.

the quiet crocodile goes to the beach

Your first experience with any book is with its cover, and that often makes all the difference in whether you pick it up. The proverb, “Don’t judge a book by its cover” was for budding literary snob 12-year-old me, not the adult who likes dragons and spaceships and beautiful-picture-books-that-could-double-as-permanent-coffee-table-residents. Natacha Andriamirado and Delphine Renon’s The Quiet Crocodile Goes to the Beach is firmly in the latter category, by the way. And it is funny and whimsical too – and therefore on its way to being a rare parent AND child favorite.

the quiet crocodile goes to the beach by natacha andriamirado and delphine renon book cover
Fossil the quiet crocodile loves to go to the beach with his friends. Fippo the Hippo, Sonny the Bunny, Ryan the Lion, and all the rest jump right in and splash about in the waves while Fossil watches from the shore. Could it be that Fossil is scared of the water? What happens when Fossil finally joins them? Is he really as quiet as he seems? Readers can find, name, and count all of Fossil's boisterous friends, as well as the rings, racquets, fishing nets, and shells hidden in the delightful drawings.

Fossil’s (the quiet crocodile from the book title) friends cavort and enjoy the beach in summertime, and Fossil appears to be joining in, but he’s not really – because he’s scared of the water (a funny predicament for a crocodile!). Eventually, those friends find out and encourage him to overcome his fear(s), leading to even more beach fun. This book, with its recurring characters on each page, is filled with details that will invite re-read after re-read.

While simple on its face, this story taps into two very common childhood fears – of water and/or swimming, and of what your friends will think of your fears. The fear of water is approached very straightforwardly, which has its pluses and minuses, but the anthropomorphism of the animal characters gives it a buffer from reality (I’m imagining conversations that go, “The crocodile is scared of swimming! Have you ever been scared of the water?”) that should work for most. Apprehension at what your friends will think if they know your fears/see you vulnerable is not addressed directly – an addition that I think would have strengthened the book.

A “hidden” element is that of the lineup of all of the crocodile’s friends’ names, and the type of animal they are in the endpapers. There are also, in each spread, other concealed elements for kids to find, à la Richard Scarry’s work (though not quite as busy). Reading this book aloud together could be a fun way to prompt kids to identify colors, shapes, animal types, and common beach-going equipment, and/or to go through the book trying to find a specific friend of Fossil’s on each page. It repeats the same cast as the first in this series (The Quiet Crocodile), so there is that continuity too, if you happen to have both books.

Renon’s artwork is precise, colorful, and sure to appeal to those who appreciate a perfectly executed right angle/check pattern/stippled shadow. Her illustrations feature colored pencil and pen drawings that excel in delineating texture. Added together with the fine details mentioned above, and this is a very handsome book – one that wouldn’t be out of place in the most discriminating of homes.

In all, The Quiet Crocodile Goes to the Beach is a seasonally appropriate and beautifully-illustrated and -detailed picture book for the very young (ages 2-4).

Recommended for: fans of picture books about overcoming fears, especially fear of the water (such as Lottie and Walter), families with very young children who are planning or have just returned from beach trips, and anyone with an eye for picture book design.

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

this was our pact

One of the lovely side benefits of being a Cybils Literary Award judge last autumn was that I tuned into the world of graphic novels in a big way. I got on the email lists of several publishers I wasn’t even aware of before, I started paying attention to upcoming lists, and I’ve upped my graphic novel reading ever since. It’s lovely, because a novel-length graphic novel is easy for me to digest in one sitting – and super useful for recommending books in my future classroom (did I mention over here that I’m changing careers to be a high school English teacher this fall??). That said, I’ve been a fan of Macmillan’s First Second graphic novel imprint for years, and I always have a couple of books each season on my to-read list. Ryan Andrews’ This Was Our Pact made my wishlist right out of the gate for its gorgeous artwork and magical premise.

this was our pact by ryan andrews book cover
It's the night of the annual Autumn Equinox Festival, when the town gathers to float paper lanterns down the river. Legend has it that after drifting out of sight, they'll soar off to the Milky Way and turn into brilliant stars, but could that actually be true? This year, Ben and his classmates are determined to find out where those lanterns really go, and to ensure success in their mission, they've made a pact with two simple rules: No one turns for home. No one looks back.

The plan is to follow the river on their bikes for as long as it takes to learn the truth, but it isn't long before the pact is broken by all except for Ben and (much to Ben's disappointment) Nathaniel, the one kid who just doesn't seem to fit in.

Together, Nathaniel and Ben will travel farther than anyone has ever gone, down a winding road full of magic, wonder, and unexpected friendship*.

*And a talking bear.

Ben and his crew of friends decide to make a pact before their town’s Autumn Equinox festival – they will finally follow the lanterns all the way down the river to find out where they end up. No one has seen or followed the lanterns’ path for generations – so they assume the old songs are myth or legend. But before they get too far down the road, Ben’s friends begin to peel off, one by one, breaking the pact. Soon the only companion left is Nathaniel, who wasn’t even part of the original pact, and who Ben has been avoiding because everyone else thinks he’s a nerd. What will Ben and Nathaniel find on their quest? Well, the first thing is a talking fisherbear. Yeah, and it only gets weirder and more whimsical from there!

This Was Our Pact seems to fit a contemporary mold at the start – after all, who didn’t imagine that they’d be the first to uncover some mystery when they were an intrepid kid explorer/investigator/spy?? But as the boys race along on their bikes and the last few stop and decide to turn back (and only Ben and Nathaniel are left), fantastical elements begin to intrude. But the question is – are they real, or is it a metaphor or a manifestation of their fears? Well, when they meet a talking, walking bear… it seems as though the story is taking a turn into fantasy territory. Andrews has written (and illustrated) an adventure story that reminds me of nothing so much as a Miyazaki film – with twists and turns (literally, even!), magical and/or uncanny creatures, unlikely problem-solving, and learning how to act like a true friend.

This is a book about the stars, and astronomy, and the autumn sky, and magic… and pushing beyond your fears and your worst instincts to do something special. And it is full of epic art to match that grandiose purpose. Andrews’ art of pencils on watercolor pressed paper is mostly done in shades of blue, but it varies as the boys encounter new situations and light sources. It’s gorgeously and lovingly detailed, and focuses a lot on the scenery, unique angles/viewpoints/perspectives of the downriver journey, and the fantastical elements that they cross in their paths. There’s a nice mix of panel sizes, though Andrews definitely prefers several small panels per page (giving you an edited clips feeling, like a film or animation) interspersed with larger, full page spreads every now and again for scope and/or wonder’s sake. I felt like I was INSIDE the book in several spots, as the art is just that good at pulling you into the story.

However, that brings me to my one gripe with the book, as it pulled me out of the story in spots: there weren’t any female main characters, aside from [begin spoiler] one old, somewhat-evil witch-type [end spoiler], which is obviously a stereotype. Andrews actually does a decent job with diversity otherwise, but this is definitely a boys-only adventure and there’s no deviation, even with mentor figures and all of the fantastical encounters between the covers. Maybe it won’t be noticeable to others, but I have my eyes peeled these days, and combined with the traditional gender roles/stereotypes throughout (through tiny mentions/inferences, mind you!), it reads as very traditional, even with the fantastical story. And that’s a bit disappointing.

Still, if you remain unbothered by that nit, and are interested in a really beautiful graphic novel that feels like it could fit inside the Miyazaki canon, then I do recommend This Was Our Pact. I admire its art and whimsy, and I’ll be thinking about Ben and Nathaniel and their journey and the super cool things they came across in their quest for a long time. This story is made of weird dreams and superior visual art, and it definitely made my imagination soar.

Recommended for: fans of Miyazaki animation, readers ages 8+ who like graphic novels and fantastical (magical!) adventures, and anyone interested in stories that tie in to the Autumn Equinox or astronomy.
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