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 with 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.

otto and pio

Monday, July 22, 2019 | | 0 comments
On occasion, I’ll put the picture books I’m planning to read out on a communal table by my desk at work (mostly to remind and/or guilt myself into finally reading them!). When I had Marianne Dubuc's picture book Otto and Pio out for a day, three different visitors asked me “What’s the white thing?? [referring to Pio]” That’s a recurring question in this story as well – what IS Pio, and how did he arrive outside Otto’s house? In trying to unravel the mystery, these two unlikely companions learn to value each other – and their story makes for a delightful bedtime (or anytime) read.

otto and pio by marianne dubuc book cover
Otto the squirrel is perfectly content living by himself in his treehouse in the forest, when a small creature, Pio, arrives on his doorstep, looking for his mother, and Otto invites him in. Pio eats all the hazelnuts, takes up the entire bed, and just gets bigger and bigger! Though Otto worries he may not be very good at caring for a little creature, Pio is very happy. Otto and Pio is a heartwarming tale about finding love and family when it is expected least and needed most.

One day, Otto the squirrel finds a spiky green ball outside his front door. He doesn’t worry about it, because he isn’t the curious type. But when it hatches a furry white creature who calls him “Mommy!” – well! That’s another story. In their quest to find out who Pio is, and where his Mommy is, Otto and Pio begin to value each other and learn the meaning of found family.

Dubuc’s sweet meditation on belonging and family hits some hilarious notes along the way – slapstick as Pio grows too big for Otto’s house, for one! It’s also got the slightly meandering, just-repetitive-enough style that is perfect for bedtime, and reminds me of classics like Are You My Mother? and Am I Yours? There’s the mystery element of: What is Pio?? But there are also warm, homey moments, and lots of hazelnut-munching and hammock-sleeping. In the end, Otto and Pio decide to be each other’s’ family, and that’s about a heart-warming as it gets. For the record, I did not expect to like a book about an uncurious squirrel and a maybe-a-yeti this much. It’s fun.

Now, the art! The watercolor and colored pencil drawings are done in a simple style, in a limited setting – the enormous tree where Otto lives (and his doorstep), and the inside of his home. The illustrations progress sequentially, and fairly literally – perspective does not alter much except to pan out and in. This will appeal to children during one-on-one storytime or bedtime as they can follow along frame-by-frame.

In all, Otto and Pio is a loveable, longer picture book perfect for kids with generous attention spans and for bedtime read-alouds.

Recommended for: one-on-one reading for children ages 5 and up, and readers any age who enjoy forest friends, light mysteries, and funny antics in picture book form.

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.

catwad: it’s me.

Jim Benton (he of Happy Bunny fame) has started publishing a new graphic novel series about a character named Catwad, and I’ve been trying for an hour to figure out how to describe it. In the first book, Catwad: It’s Me., Catwad reminds me of nothing so much as a book version of the Grumpy Cat meme. Or a cross between Grumpy Cat and a Garfield comic. Whichever way you slice it, the book is full of biting, physical humor, and it will be a hit with kids no matter their reading level!

catwad: it's me. by jim benton cover
From New York Times bestselling author Jim Benton, meet Catwad! He's blue, he's a bit of a grouch, and his best friend is a dim-witted cat named Blurmp who can see the bright side of anything. From pizza and computers, to love and happiness, this crabby tabby has a funny take on just about everything, and he's not afraid to share it.

Catwad is a cat (did the name give it away?), and star of a new graphic novel series featuring two cats (Catwad and Blurmp) who play off each other for laughs. It’s a bit like a modern, gross-out version of Amelia Bedelia, and sure to spark belly laughs. Catwad loves nothing (except coffee), and Blurmp loves everything – even when it doesn’t make sense. Their adventures, reluctant friendship, and jokes make for a hilariously meme-able reading experience that is sure to appeal to anyone who has searched the internet for “funny cat videos” (and who hasn’t, at this point??).

With a book filled with jokes about growing up, grossout moments, immaturity, wordplay, meditations on friendship, “dumbness,” and more, Catwad's adventures are destined to be a popular series. I especially appreciated the strategic use of faulty grammar for comedic effect (I might use it as an example in my 9th grade classroom). I see this book as a natural successor to Dog Man, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and other mega-popular graphic novel series that rely on physical humor. It ups the sophistication level a bit (and it’s quite clever at times), but the reading level remains low and the focus is on the contrast between visuals and text.

Speaking of the art, Catwad: It’s Me. is full of vibrant colors, simple images, and a good mix of panel sizes. The stories within also vary in length – some sections are several pages long, and others are brief, contained spreads. Since there isn’t much in the way of background, the focus is squarely on Catwad and Blurmp, and they are easily-traced shapes – so this book may inspire some budding cartoonists as well!

In all, Catwad is a hilarious addition to the elementary and middle grade graphic novel canon, and a great choice for kids who like humor and are at lower reading levels.

Recommended for: readers ages 7+ who enjoy reading newspaper comics, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and other humorous sequential art.

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

little doctor and the fearless beast

Imagine a girl veterinarian who lives somewhere deep in the jungle. Now imagine that she treats... crocodiles! What would her clinic look like? What kinds of injuries would crocodiles have and a Little Doctor heal? What kinds of stories could crocodiles tell? Sophie Gilmore's debut picture book Little Doctor and the Fearless Beast takes that premise and those questions and spins a yarn that is engrossing and satisfying.

little doctor and the fearless beast by sophie gilmore book cover
Crocodiles come from far and wide to seek Little Doctor’s care. She treats each one with skill and kindness—even the toughest crocs with thick skins and large, powerful jaws. Little Doctor marvels at these fearless beasts, listening to their stories, while she diagnoses and cures what ails them. But when she meets Big Mean, the largest crocodile in the land with jaws clamped tightly shut, Little Doctor can’t figure out what’s wrong. And she might be just a little bit afraid.

When one creative idea lands Little Doctor right inside Big Mean’s tremendous jaws, she is sure she’ll be munched or crunched—until she sees that Big Mean isn’t so horrible, after all. As it turns out, the crocodile is only protecting her hatchlings, all tangled in plastic, inside her mouth.

Watercolor illustrations create a richly imagined world in this awe-inspiring story about how even little kids can be fearless, and even big, mean creatures sometimes need help.

Apparently when crocodiles tell tales, their legends are full of "terrible danger, dizzying escapes, and acts of great mischief." And if you treat them well, as Little Doctor does, crocodiles will share their stories as a reward. Little Doctor and her crocodile patients are part of an absolutely beautiful and patently charming picture book that always feels just one jaw snap from disaster, but full of kindness as well. As a bonus, Gilmore's storytelling is matched (or exceeded, even!) by her fantastic illustrations.

Each page spread in Little Doctor and the Fearless Beast is full of details to be examined and pored over read after reread. There are crocodiles in every corner of Little Doctor's home, and it's fun to anticipate where the next one will be. When Big Mean (the biggest, most fearsome creature of all!) comes on the scene, the spreads get even more creative. How will such a big animal (reptile??) fit in Little Doctor's house? Especially when Big Mean is feeling mean and uncooperative?

Gilmore's watercolor and pencil illustrations are a delight. She masterfully captures light, shading, texture and color, and adds whimsy and magic to boot. Both adults and children will enjoy the dangerous suspense of sharp teeth juxtaposed with fearless kindness. Little Doctor and the Fearless Beast is an unexpected (and welcome) surprise, and a soon-to-be classic.

Recommended for: storytimes and read-alouds with little ones ages 4-7 (especially with children who love animals, reptiles, and a little bit of bite), and for fans of beautifully illustrated picture books à la Where the Wild Things Are.

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