Currents / by Jane Petrlik Smolik. 11.1.2017

Charlesbridge ISBN 9781580896481

INT Grades 4-6 Rating: 4

On a planation in Virginia, 11-year-old Bones Brewster has spent her life a slave, serving a harsh mistress, longing for freedom. When a series of circumstances occurs that leads to hope and heartache, she discovers something that no one can take away from her, while an old bottle set adrift a river may bring its own form of freedom.

An ocean away, Lady Bess Kent longs for adventure, to explore the world as her father does far away from her manipulative step-mother. When she discovers a bottle that has washed up on her English shores, its mysterious contents provide an adventure all their own, as well as help in a time of need.

In Boston, Massachusetts, Mary Margaret Casey irons shoelaces for eight pennies a week and, in her free time, fills a journal with stories about life and the people around her. Though she would love to be a writer, few options are open to a poor Irish girl, especially when any spare funds are needed to help her sick sister. When a shiny bottle catches her eye, Mary finds a valuable treasure inside.

In Currents, author Jane Petrlik Smolik presents a historically rich tale of three young girls living miles and an ocean apart, but whose lives and stories are intertwined and impacted by one bottle set adrift in the James River. The stories flow seamlessly from one to the other, with little reoccurring details (such as Merry’s Museum Magazine and inspiring quotes from the philosopher Marcus Aurelius) that tie them further together and add historical authenticity. Black-and-white illustrations and brief descriptions signal the story shifts, and an epilogue at the end brings closure for both the characters and readers. Messages of courage, friendship, compassion, sacrifice, and forgiveness drift across the pages. Hard topics such as slavery and prejudices are presented with an age-appropriate honesty that stirs both outrage and empathy. A note of caution: there is a somewhat graphic description of a slave being beaten in the first story.

Justina McBride, CLJ

In Plain Sight / written by Richard Jackson, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney. 10.19.2017

Roaring Brook Press ISBN 9781626722552

PRI K-Grade 3 Rating: 5

Little Sophie finds missing items for her grandpa in the book, In Plain Sight. Sophie’s grandpa lives with Sophie and her parents. Every day when Sophie comes home from school, she helps grandpa find something that he “lost” during the day. Every so often he even has a treat for her, but the best treat of all is time spent with a man she loves.

Richard Jackson writes a sweet story, and Jerry Pinkney’s lovely illustrations made In Plain Sight a Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Book. With a few simple words, and a few detailed paintings, Jackson and Pinkney illustrate the love between the members of this family. Grandpa has a twinkle in his eye as he “loses” items each day, and part of the fun of reading this book is looking for the missing item that is hidden in the illustrations.

Kristina Wolcott, CLJ

Over the Ocean / written and illustrated by Taro Gomi. 10.13.2017

Chronicle Books ISBN 9781452145150

PRI PS-Grade 1 Rating: 5

A child gazes across the ocean and wonders what is on the other side in Taro Gomi’s Over the Ocean.

More ships? Big farms? Cities, small houses, and stars? Gomi’s bright illustrations show the reader all that the child can imagine: far-away people and animals, a fair with fun rides, a country made of ice, and perhaps even another boy or girl gazing back from the opposite shore.

A single boat moving across the water in the distance connects the vibrant scenes, which are rendered with clever detail and a richly-hued palette. The author/illustrator places the reader behind the child on the beach, as if sharing in his or her gentle contemplation.

This picture book was originally published in Japan in 1979 and, upon translation into English and release in the United States, received the 2017 Mildred L. Batchelder Award. With succinct text and a relatable theme, Over the Ocean is a soothing and thoroughly enjoyable read-aloud that speaks to the power of imagination and wonder.

Nina Ditmar, CLJ

They All Saw a Cat / written and illustrated by Brendan Wenzel. 10.10.2017

Chronicle Books ISBN 9781452150130

PRI PS-Grade 3 Rating: *5

A child and assorted animals show their individual perspectives in They All Saw a Cat, a Caldecott Honor Book written and illustrated by Brendan Wenzel.

As a brown and tan cat wanders “through the world” it is viewed by a young boy and 11 different animals, each seeing the cat in a distinct way. For example, the boy sees a pet, the fox sees prey, the fish (through its bowl) sees a blurry pair of eyes, the mouse sees a giant monster, and the flea sees a mass of cat hair.

With simple rhyming and use of repetitive phrasing, They All Saw a Cat entertains with a lively, playful tone. Author/illustrator Brendan Wenzel delivers a wonderful amalgam of color, drama, and humor with each turn of the page. His drawings are a creative mix of paints, pastels, pencils, and digital art that yield a bounty of scenes from pastoral to bold. Even the inside cover pages are imaginatively conceived.

They All Saw a Cat shows that we all see the world through different eyes. At the conclusion of the book, the cat sees its own reflection in the water–a reminder that we also see ourselves from a unique point-of-view.

Nina Ditmar, CLJ

Giant Squid / by Candace Fleming; illustrated by Eric Rohmann. 9.29.2017

Roaring Brook Press ISBN 9786435995

PRI Grades 1-5 Rating: 5

A 2017 Robert F. Sibert Honor Book, Giant Squid is a picture book that will be enjoyed by readers of many ages. The text, although not rhyming, is written in a poetic manner and is both entertaining and informative. The illustrations of this elusive creature, mostly dark and mysterious, take readers right into the deep. No one had actually seen a live giant squid until 2012 so the information from this wonderful book is the latest and most up to date.

As with all good picture books covering a non-fiction subjects, Giant Squid includes a page of very informative facts along with a bibliography, sites on the internet for research, and a short list of other books about the giant squid.

Candace Fleming’s Giant Squid is highly recommended for school and public libraries.

Ceil Carey, CLJ

Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat / written and illustrated by Javoka Steptoe. 9.15.2017

Little, Brown and Company ISBN 9780316213882

PRI Grades 2-6 Rating: 4

Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat by Javoka Steptoe is a picture book introduction to the life and work of the noted modern artist.

The child of Puerto Rican and Haitian parents, Basquiat grows up in New York with early dreams of becoming a famous artist. He is inspired by the world around him and sees art in everyday objects and scenes. His drawings “are sloppy, ugly, and sometimes weird, but somehow still BEAUTIFUL.” Basquiat’s work is influenced by his surroundings as well as his mother’s mental illness.

Javoka Steptoe illustrates Radiant Child using techniques that honor the late artist’s work. His paintings on found wood feature bright and bold colors and vibrant scenes of Basquiat’s life.

Endnotes include more details about Basquiat, including his drug addiction and death at age 27. Steptoe also includes a description of motifs and symbolism found in Basquiat’s work and information about the artwork the author/illustrator created for this book.

Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat has won numerous recognitions including the Caldecott Medal and the Coretta Scott Key Award. Whether or not readers admire or understand Basquiat’s artistry, the book offers an informative look at the well-known 1980s figure.

Nina Ditmar, CLJ

Esquivel! Space-Age Sound Artist / by Susan Wood; illustrated by Duncan Tonatiuh 9.14.2017

Charlesbridge ISBN 9781580896733

PRI Grades 2-6 Rating: 5

Esquivel! Space-Age Sound Artist by Susan Wood introduces Juan Garcia Esquivel, a self-taught musician from Mexico whose innovative use of sound revolutionized “lounge music” in the 1950s and 60s.

From a young age Juan developed a style of incorporating unique sounds, tempos, and dynamics into his performances. When he came to America in the 1950s, he was exposed to new and unusual instruments, along with the advancing technology of stereo recording. Juan’s long career in the United States included writing music for television and movies.

Author Susan Wood captures Esquivel’s creativity and focus, early influences, and determination in a way that will engross young readers. By putting words to sounds–such as the “bowm-bowm” of a kettle drum–she portrays the excitement and novelty of the musician’s work. Wood provides colorful details about Esquivel’s childhood, personality, and the originality that would earn him the “!” after his name.

Varied fonts suggest the wide array of sounds that Esquival captured in his music. Artist Duncan Tonatiuh flavors the book with varied scenes from Esquival’s life and culture, from the busy streets of Mexico City to a recording studio in New York City to the Stardust Hotel in Las Vegas. Tonatiuh uses a bold and colorful uni-dimensional style of perspective that complements the creative freedom of Esquivel himself.

Notes by the author and illustrator provide further compelling material about Juan Garcia Esquivel and about the artwork in the book. A list of resources and a full-page black and white photograph of Esquivel are excellent additions.

Esquivel! Space-Age Sound Artist is a Pura Belpré Illustrator Honor Book, ALA Notable Children’s Book, and Junior Library Guild Selection. It is available in both English and Spanish and would enhance any book collection, classroom discussion, or family reading time.

Nina Ditmar, CLJ

As Time Went By / translated by Audrey Hall; illustrated by José Sanabria. 9.13.2017

NorthSouth Books ISBN 9780735842489

PRI K-Grade 3 Rating: 4

As Time Went By tells a three-part story of a ship and a community as they both flourish, deteriorate, and rebuild.

Originally published in Switzerland as Wie die Zeit vergeht and translated into English by Audrey Hall, the tale shows how both the ship and a village go through periods of prosperity and decline, ultimately coming together for the good of both. Though parts one and two end on somber notes, part three is filled with hope and optimism.

The reading level is fairly simple and the story provides the opportunity to share with young children how difficulties can sometimes be overcome with cooperation and fortitude. As Time Went By also imparts the significance of caring for each other and for what we have.

Though somewhat dark and flat, the watercolor Illustrations by Colombian artist José Sanabria have a compelling energy that complements the tone of the book.

As Time Went By is a 2017 Batchelder Honor Book and ALA Notable Book that delivers an important message and inspires thoughtful reflection.

Nina Ditmar, CLJ

The Infamous Ratsos / The Infamous Ratsos Are Not Afraid / written by Kara LaReau, illustrated by Matt Myers. 9.12.2017

The Infamous Ratsos / written by Kara LaReau, illustrated by Matt Myers.

Candlewick Press ISBN 9780763676360

The Infamous Ratsos Are Not Afraid / written by Kara LaReau, illustrated by Matt Myers.

Candlewick Press ISBN 9780763676377

PRI K-Grade 3 Rating: 5

Louie and Ralphie Ratsos want to be tough like their dad, Big Lou, in The Infamous Ratsos. Louie, the older brother who “considers himself the smart one” (p.7), devises several schemes intending to prove that he and his brother Ralphie are tough. The comical outcomes of his schemes have unexpected results. This short chapter book is most deserving of the Theodor Seuss Geisel Honor Book award it received.

Louie and Ralphie Ratsos continue to emulate their dad in The Infamous Ratsos are not Afraid. And Big Lou is not afraid of anything. So when Louie and Ralphie decide to start their very own carnival next to the local “Haunted House” inhabited by a “ghost,” they must be very brave. They enlist friends to help in their endeavor and work hard to clean up the empty lot. Unfortunately, they run into a few problems. At school, Ralphie gets teased for kissing “Stinky Stanko,” a girl in his class. At the carnival a bell flies off a game they created and through the window of the haunted house. Louie knows if he wants to get the bell back, he’ll have to face the ghost. Will they really be able to face their fears?

Kara LaReau’s animal characters are sweet and relatable in these entertaining stories. The plot moves quickly, the language is simple, and the great dialogue keep the story moving. Plentiful illustrations by Matt Myers add even more interest to these tales. Many wonderful lessons seamlessly weave their way through both books–no preaching needed. The importance of helping others and of admitting when you’ve done wrong are just two of those lessons. Big Lou offers wise advice in both books. “Life is tough enough,” says Big Lou. “We might as well make it easier for one another, whenever we can.” (The Infamous Ratsos, pg. 55) Also: “I just tell myself it’s OK to be afraid…and I try to be brave…I’m the boss of me, not my fears.” (The Infamous Ratsos are not Afraid, pp. 36-37)

Kristina Wolcott, CLJ

Freedom in Congo Square / by Carol Boston Weatherford and R. Gregory Christie. 9.8.2017

Little Bee Books ISBN 9781499801033

PRI Grades 1-5 Rating: 5

Freedom in Congo Square is both a Caldecott Honor Book and a Coretta Scott King Honor Book, each of these awards being very well-deserved for the unique artwork and the telling of the story of an enslaved people in New Orleans.

This is a little-known account of slaves in Louisiana whose weeks were spent toiling relentlessly yet counting down the days until Sunday when they could spend a half day in Congo Square holding a market, visiting with friends, and singing and dancing–in other words, experiencing a brief respite from their difficult lives.

Authors Carol Boston Weatherford and R. Gregory Christie have done a superb job of putting readers right in the middle of slave life and allowing them to experience, in a small way, what these New Orleans slaves’ lives were like.

The Forward and the author’s note both provide much interesting background information, and a glossary gives understanding to the vernacular and difficult words. But the artwork and the poetic form of writing are what will long stay with the reader, both child and adult.

Freedom in Congo Square is highly recommended for school and public libraries.

Ceil Carey, CLJ