Thursday, December 5, 2019

Death Bee Comes Her – Book Review

Death Bee Comes Her (An Oregon Honeycomb Mystery)
By Nancy Coco
Expected publication: December 31, 2019

This is definitely a series to follow! Wren is a a shop owner in a small coastal town in Oregon. She has a passion for honeybees and her shop sells all things honey-related, much of which she makes herself. Wren is also a cat owner. These two facts are crucial because it is while walking her cat along the beach (yep, you read that right), that she discovers a murdered woman clutching the label from one of Wren's honey lip balms. And it just gets better from there. When the police suspect Wren is the murderer, she and her friends decide to run their own investigation, all under the scrutiny of friendly and hostile small-town neighbors.

I am trying to put my finger on what exactly is so engrossing about Death Bee Comes Her. The mystery is woven with expertise. The characters are simultaneously relatable and enviable (anyone else out there want to own a small business on Main Street of a small town?). The investigation unfolds with just the right balance of twists and clues to keep this reader on her toes. The romantic tension is a fun subplot. The cat makes me want to have my own. And the setting is someplace I’d love to spend more time. All in all, everything about Death Bee Comes Her is inviting; once its claws are in you, you won’t want to get loose.

Why I chose this book:

Cozy mysteries are a favorite genre of mine, and I was looking to start a new series. Kensington Mystery provided a review copy in exchange for an honest review.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Brave with Beauty – Book Review

Brave with Beauty: A Story of Afghanistan
Written by Maxine Rose Schur
Illustrated by Patricia Grush, Robin Dewitt, and Golsa Yaghoobi
Published in October, 2019

Why we chose this book:
I like reading women’s biographies, the art looked beautiful, and T and I are both always happy to read about an unfamiliar time/place. Yali Books provided a review copy in exchange for an honest review.

Mom’s Review
I often ask T if he would like to be friends with the characters in his books. After reading Brave with Beauty, Queen Goharshad from Afghanistan is one woman whom I would be honored to meet. Readers learn that young Goharshad vowed to be brave with beauty, even though she wasn’t quite sure what she meant. Goharshad did not allow herself to be dismissed because of her sex, and she followed her passion for the arts. She married Shah Rukh, king of the Khorasan empire, at age 14. As queen, she was a patron of education and the arts, designing mosques, a center for learning, and an oasis-like garden. She paid for musicians to play in the city of Herat for the citizens’ benefit. She sold her jewels and even her crown to fund the building of a girls’ school. Everything she designed was to be decorated by artisans with vibrant paints made from precious gems. Although she is long-dead and her buildings are mostly in ruins, people today can still find bright tiles among the land mines. The old man T refers to is one of those people: a man who cares for the queen’s grave and collects the broken tiles. An author’s note provides further information about Goharshad and the author’s inspiration for writing.

Schur’s storytelling transports readers centuries back into the city of Herat; between the content, the captivating narration, and the magical illustrations, it is hard to believe that you are not actually there. T read the book first with his dad, and then later with me. After the first reading, T wanted to see photos of what everything looks like now; it was quite a lesson in the passage of time. When I read with T and paused to discuss different events, I felt more like I was bothering my spellbound son than engaging him. Brave with Beauty is well worth reading for anyone, and should be an excellent fit for readers with any interest in female leaders, Afghanistan, architecture, or the arts.

Son’s Review
(Age: 4 and ½)
Mom: What would you do if those brothers crumpled your drawings?
Son: I would just redraw with good remembery, like a squirrel.

How did you feel when the architect said Queen Goharshad couldn’t build a mosque because she was a woman?
Not happy.

What do you think about how Queen Goharshad treated the old woman?
That’s nice for her.

What was good about Brave with Beauty?
How like at first she was young, but then she got old, and I like how it tells you about the old man at the end.

Was there any part you didn’t like?
When her brothers crumpled her papers into a ball and threw them out the window.

Does reading this make you want to do anything?
Yes. Make tons of robots that people can ride in and go under sea so if I want to go to the bottom. I’ll make a robot that’s able to stay built forever. I’ll make robots that will be able to stay built forever, so if I die, people will still be able to use my creations.
How does that relate to Brave with Beauty?
When she builds creations. All of her designs.

What will people learn about if they read the book?
That it’s good for building-things igvice [advice].

Check out Yali Books: Yali is a small publishing company that offers books related to South Asia. We’ve also read Mina vs. the Monsoon from them, which we loved. Our first two impressions from this publisher are all things positive!

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

The Double Helix – Book Review

Book Review
The Double Helix (Explorer Academy Book 3)
Written by Trudi Trueit
Published September 3, 2019 by National Geographic

Why I chose this book:
Because I could hardly wait to read it after The Nebula Secret and The Falcon's FeatherA review copy was provided in exchange for an honest review.

Mom's Review
As I sit down to write this, my husband says across the cafe table, "You can write that your husband is sick of hearing how much you liked this book." Apparently, I've been raving to him about it for the past several days without even realizing it. I knew I had a book hangover and that I wish Book 4 were already available, but apparently I'm worse off than I thought. I haven't gotten this wrapped up in a series of middle-grade books since The Giver and Ranger's Apprentice when I was teaching 6th grade.

The Double Helix is like if National Geographic produced a young people's version of James Bond/Mission Impossible/Indiana Jones. There are amazing gadgets, puzzles to solve, tomb robbers to thwart, artifacts to uncover, and kidnappers to catch. And Cruz, Sailor, Emmett, and Lani navigate all this at age 12 while in school. If you haven't read the first two books, then The Double Helix wouldn't make sense. The characters are on the hunt for the third cipher — in Petra! Nebula (the evil big Pharma corporation) continues to threaten Cruz's life while also trying to get the cipher from him. The ending is both satisfying and a cliffhanger. Book 4 can't come fast enough.

Explorer Academy is a series that I recommend for middle grade readers (literally, when I am asked for gift recommendations, I suggest these books). It's thrilling and inspiring. I wouldn't be surprised if we have a bunch of aspiring archeologists, conservationists, and inventors out of the Explorer Academy readers.

Friday, November 22, 2019

The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt – Book Review

"Everything that I have seen during my travels falls into place. The natural world is a living whole and a wonderful organic web where everything is connected – from the smallest fleck of moss to the tallest tree. Nature is animated by one breath – from pole to pole. One life pours into rocks, plants and animals."
Alexander von Humboldt

Book Review
The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt
Written by Andrea Wulf
Illustrated by Lillian Melcher

Why we chose this book:
T's dad and I both read Andrea Wulf's The Invention of Nature, which is a biography of Humboldt. T was super interested in what we were reading, asking frequently what Humboldt was doing, where he was going, what he was seeing, etc. As I read, I had to give him updates on Humboldt's expeditions. Then T got a little Playmobil guy who resembled an explorer, and he named him Alexander von Humboldt. This kid clearly had an interest, so when Wulf's graphic novel was announced, we could hardly wait for its publication. Pantheon Books provided a review copy in exchange for an honest review.

Mom's Review

This is even better than I had expected. Invention of Nature is one of the best books I've read recently and the cover art for the children's edition gave me high expectations. T and his dad read part of this, and T and I read part of this. It is long and took us what felt like an eternity to read, but was no less enjoyable for it. The oversized and heavy book was a great lap read, where T's dad or I could point to the speech bubble and T could follow along with the action. This is such a fun and beautiful and fascinating book; being cozy with T to read it was a delight.

Readers will learn about Alexander von Humboldt, for whom more things in the world are named than any other person (rives, towns, universities, the list goes on...).  Humboldt was an explorer in the best sense – he wanted literally to measure the world, learn from indigenous peoples, share his passion with Europeans, and promote what we now think of as environmentalist practices. The book takes the shape of a graphic novel in which are interspersed excerpts from Humboldt's journal and Bonpland's plant samples (Bonpland was the botanist who traveled with Humboldt). "Primary" sources thus abound. 

The story as it is traced in the series of comic strips is thrilling: it is filled with volcanic eruptions, storms at sea, and horrible illnesses. We all couldn't help but be amused by Humboldt's and Bonpland's reaction to tomatoes, which they called "arse blockers" because of the constipation they caused. We felt as though we were right there with Humboldt and Bonpland, and the myriad helpers and guides who accompanied them. Readers learn about his expeditions, his discoveries (he mapped and compared air currents, for example), and the interconnectedness of the whole world. 

I cannot recommend The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt highly enough, particularly for anyone who has environmental interests or loves adventure.

Son's Review
(Age: 4 and 1/2)

"They [readers] can learn about Alexander von Humboldt and his live...That he does adventures with his friends a lot. One finds plants and one explores...This is based on real life."

"I like how there are all these drawings that they drew. Like, I like these kinds of drawings."
(T pointed out the comic strip/graphic novel style pages and explained that he liked how the story was told in a series of pictures – my words, not his.)

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

The Tornado Scientist – Book Review

Book Review
The Tornado Scientist: Seeing Inside Severe Storms (Scientists in the Field)
Written by Mary Kay Carson
Photographs by Tom Uhlman
Published March 19, 2019

Why I chose this book: 
I was considering including more weather books in my Spotlight on Natural America post, and reviewed this to that end. I decided not to simply because it was longer and I wanted to focus on picture books for a younger audience. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt provided a review copy in exchange for an honest review.

Mom's Review
The tagline for books in this series is "Where Science Meets Adventure," and that could not be more true. The Tornado Scientist follows Robin Tanamachi, a meteorologist who has been fascinated by extreme weather since childhood. Readers accompany Robin as she chases tornados, researches tornado paths, experiments with new technology, and travels all the way to Japan to chase typhoons on a research expedition. The personal aspect of this weather book sets it apart from other weather books I've read with T. You get all the information you'd expect: how and why tornados form, how they are tracked and predicted, and all the tech used in monitoring and warning people, but the personal dynamic makes the narrative more interesting and enjoyable to read than a fact-dumping book.

T is not ready for the text; it is a bit technical for a 4 year-old. But the photographs are great for him. If you have an older kiddo (grade school) who is interested in extreme weather, this would be a lot of fun, and if you have someone working on a school project, this would be an awesome resource. (Or if you are an adult who likes children's non-fiction as a way to learn, it's good for that too....*glances in mirror*)

Monday, November 18, 2019

Spotlight on Natural America

Spotlight on Natural America

I would love to meander through every state with T and his dad, taking in the natural treasures from the puffins in Maine to the glaciers in Alaska to the volcanoes in Hawaii (but skipping the Everglades – I'm afraid of crocodiles and alligators). Realistically, who knows when or how much we will visit. Before we go anywhere, though, let's whet our appetites with some reading material.

I have selected only three books to shine my spotlight on. I could probably find innumerable books showcasing the natural wonders of our country (T and I already reviewed Wild West Coast, for example). The magic in these three transports the reader from the Sequoias in California to frigid recess in Alaska to "hooves of ancient thunder" that pounded across the Great Plains. I find it timely to examine books that celebrate the natural glories of this country.

Ancient Thunder by Leo Yerxa brings the horses of the Great Plains to life. Yerxa's art, which gives the impression of painted leather shirts and dresses, leaps off the page as the horses leap alongside buffalo and antelope. The penultimate page shows a rider passing several tepees. The paintings and the poem from this artist of Ojibway ancestry give readers a feeling of flying freely on the back of one of those horses and an appreciation for the indigenous people who rode them. Pertinent to one's understanding of the book is Yerxa's introduction, in which he explains how his childhood idols were the native people of the Great Plains who rode horses in the movies he saw. Knowing an author's personal relationship to the subject matter makes a book more personal to me; I feel more connected to what I read than if I read a book with no context.

For most of the country, the thought of Recess at 20 Below chills us to the bone. As a SoCal kid, I never would have considered frozen eyelashes a regular recess occurrence. In Alaska, however, this is the winter norm. The first-person narrator and accompanying photographs allow children to experience the suiting up, sledding, and dark commutes almost first hand. The author, Cindy Lou Aillaud, is a teacher in Alaska and provides an authentic resource for readers to experience the largest and northernmost state. This book even includes a Q&A in the back, with questions sent in from children elsewhere in the country.

You Are Home by Evan Turk is exactly what I was hoping for when I began my search for books on natural America. My aim was to select several books that could foster a reader's appreciation for the beauty and variety of the country we claim as home. I guess I needed to look no further.

The refrain, "You are home," really drives home the message that this country, though varied in its geography, flora, and fauna, is truly home to us all. Children from many backgrounds will find themselves spoken to: "to the child whose family has just left its first footprints on new shores," "to the child whose ancestors lived on these lands before the stars and stripes took them as their own," "to the child in the city surrounded by windows, noise, and crowds," "to the child on the farm, surrounded by endless fields." All of us share a home in this country; no one person can claim it more than another. The pastel drawings depict national parks, from Sequoia to the Everglades to Hawai'i Volcanoes. If you are someone who does not normally read back matter, I urge you to read the author's note. Turk explains that although the national parks have been touted as places for all, they were created at the expense of the people already living on that land. Turk's endeavor with this book is "to speak not just to those who already love the parks, but to anyone who has felt that 'for all' didn't include them."

Even if we never make to half of the places in person, we've enjoyed a cozy armchair tour around the country.

Ancient Thunder
By Leo Yerxa
House of Anansi Press, February 1, 2012
T's favorite part:
"I like how calm it is."
(The first time I read it to T, I read it softly and slowly.)

Recess at 20 Below
By Cindy Lou Aillaud
West Margin Press, January 29, 2019
T's favorite part:
"How she wrote it, how the the teacher wrote it like a child would write it, so it sounded like a child wrote it."

You Are Home
By Evan Turk
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, June 4, 2019
T's favorite part:
"How it tells you what it means, when it doesn't have the names of the animals or people. That's the part where I like, where it has a lot of words...this."
"...home is a memory of footsteps and wingbeats, of sunrise and sunset..."

Review copies were provided by the publishers in exchange for honest reviews.

Friday, November 15, 2019

On the Playground – Book Review

Book Review
On the Playground: Our First Talk About Prejudice (The World Around Us Series)
Written by Dr. Jillian Roberts
Illustrated by Jane Heinrichs
Published February 19, 2019

Mom's Comments:
On the Playground is very gentle in its treatment of harassment and prejudice. The narrator strikes a tone that makes it clear that these are wrong, but that there may be an understandable (though wrong) reason behind them. Likely, these are learned behaviors that the perpetrators have never even considered to be bad. Children are encouraged to learn about differences and reflect on prejudices of their own. People are given the benefit of the doubt, but the author explicitly states, "Let's be clear: It is always wrong to intentionally hurt someone." The message is clear, but without attacking the wrongdoers, which I think is a healthy way to handle this without perpetuating hate and anger and prejudice. After reading, children will understand what prejudice is, why people may have prejudices, that prejudice and harassment are not okay, and how to respond when one is confronted with harassment/bullying.

Sidebars are present on almost every page. They include anecdotal evidence explaining the effect of bullying (track star Sophie Kamlish was a victim), how bystanders can support victims (Pink Shirt Day is one example), and what different terms mean (inclusivity, types of prejudice). Photographs of children appear alongside illustrations. The overall effect is one of reassurance that although prejudice and bullying/harassment exist, we can combat them. I especially like the specific examples of how readers can respond to harassment. Back matter includes more resources for caregivers.

I did not read everything in On the Playground with T. Some of it was pertinent to him, some was not. Before this school started this year, T mentioned apprehension about some kids who were not always nice last year. He expressed concern about being called names that he didn't like. Although we talked with him about to how he can address the situation, I thought On the Playground could be a useful tool. Sometimes, seeing characters in book makes the difference – it's not just Mom and Dad telling you what to do; people in books set examples to follow. Two other books from this series, also written by child psychologist Dr. Roberts, have been helpful resources for us. T had been asking about the different people we see on street corners with signs, and On Our Street helped me answer his questions. T also has overheard his dad and me discussing disasters and tragedies, and On the News helped with the questions he had.

T's dad and I have both been relieved that T's fears were not realized. He has told us that pretty much everyone plays nicely, and that people don't call each other mean names or exclude anyone from play. In fact, T is always excited to go to school and has told me to turn the car around after pickup so that he can play even longer with his friends! The messages in On the Playground are therefore a reinforcement for T: Don't hurt others with your words, and if someone is doing that, tell an adult and check on the victim.

I must praise the way that prejudice and harassment are handled in On the Playground. This would be valuable for a grade-school audience.

Son's Comments
(Age: 4 and 1/2)
Mom: What does the book On the Playground help us remember?

Son: No hurting. And no bullying.

Mom: What could you do for the kid who people were being mean to?

Son: I could help him get away from them. And I could tell them [the bullies] to don't do that, and I could also call a grown-up.

Mom: What did you think of the book?

Son: I liked it because reminds us "no hurting or bullying."

A review copy was provided by Orca Book Publishers in exchange for an honest review.

The Little Shop of Found Things

The Little Shop of Found Things By Paula Brackston Published October 2, 2018 Why I chose this book: I like mysteries. I lik...