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The Circus Ship
By Chris Van Dusen
Candlewick Press
ISBN: 9780763630904
Grades K-2
In Stores

*Best New Books*

You know how it goes – great story, weak illustrations. Or maybe it’s amazing artwork, slight story. This either/or inconsistency is the downfall of many a picture book. Not this time. Delightful from start to finish, The Circus Ship is fully-realized and well executed. Likely to be a go-to read aloud choice and a circulation champion.

The story is loosely based on real events that occurred in 1836, with rhyming verse that pulls the reader in from the beginning. On the way to Boston, a circus ship carrying exotic animals sinks. The circus owner, worried only about himself, jumps into a lifeboat and lets the animals fend for themselves. The assortment of fauna eventually find land – a small island off the coast of Maine. After winning over the locals, the animals begin to feel at home. It isn’t long, however, before the hot-headed circus owner reappears in the island, intent on bringing the animals back to the big top. With the help of the island residents, the animals send the blustery circus owner packing.

Bright and impressively detailed, Van Dusen’s (If I Built a Car) gouache illustrations raise this book to the next level. In the author’s note, Van Dusen explains that he “focused more on light source and texture in the artwork … This makes the book more complex and richer overall”. I agree – the richness of this artwork stands out as the best of his career thus far – and some of the best children’s book illustration of the year.

It works, and it works well. The Circus Ship is cohesive storytelling through and through. Be sure to add this to your collection.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This book is nominated for a 2009 Cybils Award.

Also reviewed by Provo City Children’s Book Review.

Find this book at your local library with WorldCat.


Guess Again!
By Mac Barnett
Illustrated by Adam Rex
Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 9781416955665
Grades K-2
In Stores

*Best New Books*

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This book is nominated for a 2009 Cybils award.

See how the cover for Guess Again! was designed on Adam Rex’s blog.

Also reviewed by Kids Lit, A Year of Reading, Pink Me, Muddy Puddle Musings.

Find this book at your local library with WorldCat.


John Brown: His Fight for Freedom
By John Hendrix
Abrams Books for Young Readers
ISBN: 9780810937987
Grades 3-6
In Stores

*Best New Books*


Christopher Columbus was a great man who overcame the odds to bravely discover North America.

How do you feel about the above sentence? Pretty simplistic, right? You and I know there’s a whole lot more to Columbus’ story. That sort of broad-brush statement-making can be dangerous. Take John Brown, for instance. Madman you say? Crazy idealist? Not so fast. In John Brown: His Fight for Freedom, author/illustrator John Hendrix offers us a profile that reveals the good and the bad of this early abolitionist. I can’t remember seeing a more nuanced picture book take on a controversial historical figure.

John Brown was an abolitionist to his core. In the 1840s and 50s, at a time when some thought slaves should be free, Brown wanted more: equality. He lived and died for the cause. After creating a reputation as a madman fighting to make Kansas a free state, he set his sights on a more dangerous plan. Brown saw the capture of weaponry at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia as key to his mission of ending slavery. Brown and his men began the raid, but things didn’t go as planned, leaving Brown trapped. Outnumbered and alone, he was captured and put on trial for insurrection, conspiracy, and high treason – crimes he was eventually hanged for.

As Hendrix explains in the Author’s Note, great care was taken to capture the complexity of Brown and his actions. Long misunderstood, recent research on the man has brought with it new attitudes on his fight. Says the author:

[Though] the United States hanged him as a traitor, I feel we must not dismiss him as a madman. Terrorists crave distruction and turmoil, and the seed of John’s rebellion was compassion.

This book is an important step in presenting these views for young readers.

Vivid, detailed, bold, memorable – Hendrix works wonders here with pen & ink and acrylic washes. Earth tones are rendered in crystal-clarity, providing a crispness that makes some other books seem out-of-focus in comparison. Hand-lettered passages pop up intermittently, highlighting important elements of the story.  The result is a book that feels like a statement. The image of a battered, resolute Brown in the gallows will stand out as one of the most memorable children’s book images of the year.


A beautifully candid take on a man who’s life has been misunderstood, John Brown: His Fight for Freedom is a picture book biography that deserves to be seen. Make room on the shelf.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Check out the Nonfiction Monday roundup at Jean Little Library.

Visit the John Hendrix website.

Also reviewed by TheHappyNappyBookseller.

Find this book at your local library with WorldCat.


Jeremy Draws a Monster
By Peter McCarty
Henry Holt
ISBN: 978080506934
Grades K-2
In Stores
Review copy provided by publisher

*Best New Books*

Although many (many) celebrities might beg to differ, writing children’s books is hard work. Limited vocabulary and limited space add to the difficulty of creating a story that (and this is the biggest challenge of all) will resonate with youngsters who are just learning how to read. There are scores of contrived, dull picture books that stand as a testament to the challenges of the medium. But occasionally, a picture book comes along that is so wonderfully pure that it makes you understand why some believe authoring a kids book is cake. Peter McCarty’s (Hondo & Fabian) Jeremy Draws a Monster is this sort of book. A simple, beautiful book that will join the well-populated ranks of Books about Imagination with gusto.

Too shy to go outside and make friends, Jeremy decides to create some company in the safety of his bedroom. Using a blue pen, he sketches a giant, horned monster. It isn’t long before the rude beast begins to get demanding. Food, music, board games – Jeremy has trouble keeping up with the requests. When the monster comes home late and commandeers Jeremy’s bed, the boy decides that it is time for his guest to hit the road. He hands the monster a ticket and a suitcase and shows him to the bus stop. After the bus speeds off Jeremy is by himself in a place he never has had the courage to go – outside. When a group of neighbors ask him to play, Jeremy decides to take them up on the offer.

Although it includes a monster, noise and bluster don’t dominate the book. The plot has a wonderful pacing that slowly builds, with a conclusion that young readers might expect, yet not see coming. While it won’t slay readers with action or huge laffs (as we librarians are so often drawn to during story time), this one should work well in a read-aloud setting. I can see kids putting themselves in Jeremy’s tiny, tiny shoes (well, socks actually) pretty easily.

Against the pure white backdrops that help to express Jeremy’s self-imposed isolation, McCarty’s pen & ink and watercolor illustrations vibrantly assert themselves.

I’m guessing this will be one of those books that critics, parents and kids will all like – it’s a big-tenter to be sure. Here’s hoping plenty of people crowd in.

Find this book at your local library with WorldCat.


The Lion & the Mouse
By Jerry Pinkney
Little, Brown
ISBN: 9780316013567
Grades K-2
In Stores
Review copy provided by publisher

*Best New Books*




Also reviewed by Bookends, A Fuse #8 Production, Pink Me.

Find this book at your local library with WorldCat.


The Secret Science Alliance and the Copycat Crook
By Eleanor Davis
ISBN: 9781599901428
Grades 4-7
In Stores Sept. 1, 2009
Review copy borrowed

best new books

A humble suggestion:

If you see this book, open it up, flip through it. The sheer amount of creativity and inventiveness is stunning. Eleanor Davis (creator of last year’s Geisel Honor-winning easy reader graphic novel Stinky) takes ideas that have been done before, adds elements that are brand new, churns it all through her imagination, and creates an highly detailed graphic novel that makes most others look half-baked. In doing so Davis proves herself as a talent to watch. The result is a wildly entertaining book full of humor and action, sure to go down as one of the best graphic novels of ’09.

The short, geeky Julian Calendar has trouble fitting in. When his family moves to a new town, Julian sees it as his opportunity to finally find friends. His intelligence gets in the way however, as Julian overthinks things and exposes his inner nerd. The situation looks bleak until our hero receives a coded message, leading him to tough-girl Greta Hughes and basketball star Ben Garza. The three become fast friends, practicing their scientific endeavors in a secret underground lab. When scientist Dr. Wilhelm Stringer steals the group’s invention notebook, with plans to pull a museum heist, The Secret Science Alliance use all their know-how (and gadgets) to stop the theft.

Every element of The Secret Science Alliance, down to the use of word bubbles and panels, has been carefully considered and fully realized. The amount of detail makes the mind reel. Cut-aways and diagrams are liberally used, encouraging readers to pore over pages at close range. Not a spread goes by without some sort of unique way of moving the story ahead. Panels that are the shape of arrows, pointing you in the right direction. Panels in the form of clouds when Julian is daydreaming. Panels waived altogether, allowing objects to lay on the page as if they were sitting on a table. It’s a joy to see what comes next.

Funny, yes. Entertaining, no doubt. Magnificently illustrated, to be sure. But it’s more than that. The Secret Science Alliance may be capable of a difficult feat – drawing in readers who have never been interested in graphic novels before. A must add.

Read an interview with Eleanor Davis at What Adrienne Thinks About That.

Visit Eleanor Davis’ website.

Also reviewed by Mrs. Wojahn Reads, Of Books and Boys.

Find this book at your local library with WorldCat.


The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate
By Jacqueline Kelly
Henry Holt
ISBN: 9780805088410
Grades 5-8
In Stores
Review copy borrowed

*Best New Books*

Coming-of-age will never get old. Well, sometimes it seems like this type of story shows it’s age when another heavy-handed, contrived, or otherwise inauthentic attempt hits shelves. The fact that the coming-of-age tale is possibly the most common in all of children’s/YA lit, means that only a truly impressive work will stand out – The Evolution of Calpernia Tate is this sort of book. Vivid description, memorable characters, humor, and history all channeled through the crystal clear voice of a girl who is just beginning to learn what the future holds. An impressively confident and satisfying first novel by Jacqueline Kelly.

The setting is as complete and vibrant as you could ask for. A pecan farm in the small Texas town of Fentress on the cusp of the 20th century. Indeed this threshold in time lays the foundation for the overarching theme of the book – the role of women (and, specifically, our heroine) as progress continues it’s relentless march.

Calpurnia Virginia Tate is squarely in the middle of a large, chaotic family. With six brothers (three older and three younger) Callie Vee is an island, the lone girl. When her questions about the natural world lead to a relationship with her grandfather, it appears that through science, Calpernia has found her place in the world. The two even find what they believe to be a new species of plant. This perfect union soon becomes strained, however, as Callie’s mother, nonplussed with her daughter’s naturalist tendencies, sets her mind to teaching the youngster the more feminine skills of the day: cooking and sewing. Calpurnia struggles with what lies ahead, as her love of scientific endeavors conflicts with what is expected of her.

It’s almost worth the price of admission just to witness the authentic voice of Calpurnia. Her interactions and thoughts are always believable, full of wit, and give the reader a glimpse of what life is like for an 11 year old girl who often disagrees with the customs and conventions of this period of history.

There were a couple plot points that I wish had been dealt with more thoroughly. The abrupt departure of Harry’s (Calpurnia’s oldest brother) love interest after a private conversation with Grandpa, and the mysterious trading of the Thanksgiving turkeys fall into this category.

I’ve heard many people mention Richard Peck when discussing this book, and in terms of mood and approach, that comparison is entirely appropriate. The humor (which often arises from the clash of “proper society etiquette” and, well, the opposite) will surely invoke Peck’s most acclaimed works, A Year Down Yonder and A Long Way From Chicago.

All things considered, you’ll  be hard pressed to find a warmer, more charming title this year. Sure to be among the best of ’09.

Also reviewed by Bookends, A Fuse #8 Production, Literate Lives, Jen Robinson’s Book Page, Kids Lit.

Find this book at your local library with WorldCat.


Stitches: A Memoir
By David Small
W. W. Norton & Company
ISBN: 9780393068573
In Stores Sept. 8, 2009

*Best New Books*

Note: This isn’t a book for kids. Then why is it here, you ask? It was created by children’s lit legend David Small, making it sort of fall within the parameters of 100 Scope Notes. Just a heads up to the children’s librarians/booksellers/parents out there.




Watch the outstanding book trailer for Stitches (caution: it contains spoilers):

Visit the Stitches website.

Find this book at your local library with WorldCat.

(Comics created using Bitstrips)


The Dunderheads
By Paul Fleischman
Illustrated by David Roberts
Candlewick Press
ISBN: 9780763624989
Grades 1-3
In Stores

*Best New Books*




Also reviewed by books4yourkids.

Find this book at your local library with WorldCat.

(Comics created using Bitstrips)


When You Reach Me
By Rebecca Stead
Wendy Lamb Books (Random House)
ISBN: 978385747425
Grades 6-8
In Stores July 14, 2009

*Best New Books*

Do you enjoy getting chills? Are you a fan of thoughtful, engrossing, surprising storytelling? How do you feel about books that stick with you long after you’ve finished reading? I’m asking because these are the things you are going to find in When You Reach Me, Rebecca Stead’s outstanding second novel. A combination of science fiction and realistic fiction, this unique, well-crafted, and mysterious book will likely grace as many Best of ’09 lists as you can get your hands on, including mine.

The year is 1978. The place is New York City. 12 year old Miranda is in sixth grade and her life is about to get strange. Miranda’s mom is practicing daily in preparation for her upcoming appearance on the $20,000 Pyramid. Her best fried Sal won’t talk to her anymore, and Miranda thinks it has something to do with a random act of violence he experienced while they were walking home from school. Soon, mysterious messages begin to appear in unexpected places. Written to Miranda, the notes contain information that make them impossible to ignore. As Miranda begins to make new friends, the mystery of who is authoring the messages continues to simmer. When the surprising, exhilarating conclusion comes, it takes each individual plot thread and ties a satisfying bow.

The mood here is subtly ominous, the pacing perfect. The unease slowly builds until the moment it all breaks loose. Small storyline seeds get planted every so often and then left, but are always returned to – often when you don’t expect it.

Now I’m going to be frank with you (we’re pals, right?). There is an element of time travel in this book. I hate when books get all “try to understand this” when it comes to time travel. It just seems to slow things down more than it adds to the story. In the case of When You Reach Me, I’m happy to say that the how isn’t really all that important. You don’t need to dissect the how to enjoy the story. If confusion begins to set in, forge ahead – you won’t be putting  yourself at a disadvantage to enjoy what follows.

A book this outstanding is a pleasure to recommend. Add this to your shelf as soon as possible.

Also reviewed by A Fuse #8 Production, Educating Alice, Becky’s Book Reviews, Library Voice.

Find this book at your local library with WorldCat.

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