Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster

Jonathan Auxier’s Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster is my favorite book of 2018 (adult or children’s), and one of my favorite children’s novels of all time. The themes are timeless, the story is riveting, and the writing is beautiful. I believe this book will stand the test of time – a modern classic indeed.

Nan Sparrow is a chimney sweep in Victorian London. Although she is old by chimney sweep standards (not yet a teenager), she is one of the best in the business. She knows how to navigate the treacherous flues in London homes, and has managed to stay unscathed in a profession that regularly claims the lives of its young workers. Until the day she gets stuck.

When a fellow sweep uses the “Devil’s Nudge” tactic of lighting a fire in the chimney to, shall we say, encourage her to break free, Nan finds herself trapped in a chimney fire and figures death is imminent. She blacks out, and when she wakes, she is not injured … and not alone. A creature made of ash and soot, called a golem, has rescued Nan, and is, in fact, her monster.

As others have noted, Sweep has a Dickensian feel to it, highlighting the terrible and brutal conditions that children endured as chimney sweeps. I honestly had no idea that children were used in this way,  and I suspect many contemporary readers share this ignorance. I commend Auxier for not shying away from the disturbing truth, but rather mining for the glimmer of hope in a hopeless existence.

Sweep received a lot of accolades, and it deserves every one. I would have gladly bestowed all the stars and awards it could possibly earn. I highly recommend this book for ages 10 and up, though 12 and up may be more appropriate for sensitive readers.

Scranimals

Every year, my family does something to celebrate D.E.A.R. Day. (Drop Everything And Read was first mentioned in Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books, and is now observed on April 12, Cleary’s birthday.) This year, we did a Library Bingo of sorts, where we selected one book in each of 10 genres. With it also being National Poetry Month, one of our categories was poetry. While in the juvenile poetry section at our library, we stumbled on Scranimals by Jack Prelutsky, illustrated by Peter Sis.

While familiar with both Prelutsky and Sis, I had never heard of Scranimals, but it looked fun enough, and we gave it a try. It turned into a quick favorite. Each spread features a “scranimal” – an creature made of a mash up of animals, vegetables, and fruit, such as a Spinachicken, or my favorite, the Avocadodo. Scranimals reads well as a picture book as there is a hint of story arc to it, but you can certainly choose to read the poems of one or two creatures if you prefer to not read it all in one sitting.

Nothing about this book is serious or stuffy. The illustrations are fun, the poems are witty.  It’s playful poetry at its best, and of course, Prelutsky does it masterfully. I recommend this book for kids of all ages, but especially for those ages 4-8.

The Dress and The Girl

Talk about a picture book with an old soul. The Dress and The Girl, written by Camille Andros and illustrated by Julie Morstad, has a nostalgia about it, but in a way that is fresh and beautiful.

It’s the story of “an ordinary girl wearing an ordinary dress,” and their everyday comings and goings. One day, the time comes for the girl and the dress to leave home and set out for new adventures in a new land. Sadly, they are separated when the trunk holding the dress is not reunited with its owners after the long journey. The dress and trunk travel the world, unable to find the girl, until one day a woman pauses to look at a dress hanging in the window of a used clothing store.

Andros’s lyrical text rolls off the tongue, making this a beautiful book to read aloud. Morstad’s illustrations are understated but vibrant, which seems to bring the past into the present. With inviting cover and printed on thick, smooth paper, The Dress and The Girl is all around a beautiful book.

I recommend this book for ages 4 and up (though it certainly could be read to younger children as well). It could make a nice Mother’s Day gift or baby girl shower gift as well.

Hey, Kiddo

Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett J. Krosoczka is both easy and hard to read. Easy because Mr. Krosoczka’s writing and art propel the story forward in a seemingly effortless way. Hard because the content forces the reader to confront the difficult reality that many children grow up in less than ideal circumstances.

The story is autobiographical. Krosoczka’s mother was a heroin addict, and at a young age, Jarrett is taken from her custody to live with her parents. While his grandparents love him, they are somewhat gruff and jaded, so it isn’t the most cozy environment for a young child – especially one that has already experienced a fair amount of trauma. Coupled with the fact the his mother is in and out of rehab centers and prisons, it’s easy to understand how young Jarrett experiences nightmares and anxiety. What’s most amazing is how Jarrett rises above it all to become a talented artist and family man.

Both inspiring and sobering, Hey, Kiddo is a graphic novel that is best for ages 14 and up. It contains mature content of drug use, suggestions of Jarrett’s mother’s sexual encounters, themes of abandonment, and disturbing images pertaining to Jarrett’s nightmares. The book may be helpful and appropriate to readers younger than 14 if they are experiencing similar life circumstances themselves, but otherwise, I would say it’s best for teens and adults.

Darius the Great Is Not Okay

The title alone enticed me to read Darius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram, and I’m so glad I did. I was happy to get my hands on my library’s copy before the post-award rush, as Darius won the Morris Award and the Asian/Pacific American Award for Young Adult Literature.

Darius is a teenager growing up in Portland, Oregon. Son of a Caucasian American father and an Iranian-American mother, Darius feels like he never fits in anywhere. Too Persian to be perceived by others as all American, but too American to be considered truly Persian, Darius struggles to find his place. As if this wasn’t enough, he’s also been medically diagnosed with depression, just like his father, and Darius battles to keep his mood swings in check.

When Darius’s maternal grandfather’s health declines due to his progressing dementia, Darius’s family visits his mother’s family in Iran. Darius has only seen his extended family in video calls – he and his little sister have never met their Iranian grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. In Iran, Darius feels even more out of place than he did in Portland. He cannot speak the language (though his little sister can), he doesn’t practice the same religion as his relatives, and just like any other traveler, he isn’t always sure about cultural practices.

All this changes when Darius makes a friend. Sohrab is Darius’s first true friend, and Sohrab helps Darius gain confidence in himself. As they spend time together playing soccer, eating Iranian food, and touring local attractions, Darius learns more about his Persian heritage while also discovering the joys and trials of friendship.

There’s much to like about this book. I appreciate how Khorram integrated mental health issues into the narrative without making them the front-and-center focus of the plot. I found the relationships between Darius and other characters to be developed and complex. I also loved the setting for this story, as I didn’t have much previous experience or knowledge of Iranian culture.

Darius the Great Is Not Okay is not just okay, but is in fact, great. I highly recommend this book for readers 14 and up, though I do think readers as young as 12 might enjoy it as well.

 

The Book With No Pictures

This book makes kids laugh. Hysterically. Or maybe that’s just mine. Over the last week, the best part of my day has been reading this book to my kids before bedtime. I think multiple readings have only increased the giggles, since my kids laugh in anticipation of what they know is coming next. For me, this makes The Book With No Pictures by B. J. Novak a worthy addition to our home library.

I love how this book promotes the importance of words in the most jubilant, undidactic way. It’s a great read aloud for children of all ages, for the littlest will giggle uncontrollably and even teens will be hard pressed not to smile. TIP: An exuberant performance is sure to bring the most laughs, which makes it most fun for the reader!

Locomotive

Locomotive by Brian Floca is one of my family’s favorite non-fiction picture books. Dense with information, but told in a narrative style, it’s perfect both for a school reading and a bedtime read-aloud. The text is long (for a picture book), but my train-loving son requested we read this book over and over to him when he was just three.

The artwork is amazing, so it’s no surprise that Floca won the Caldecott Medal for this book. Made with ink, watercolor, acrylic, and gouache, the illustrations capture an old-world feel, while still coming across as fresh and contemporary. Details abound. From the expansive western scenery, to the jaw-dropping Dale Creek Bridge, to the careful replications of the locomotive itself, one could easily spend time poring over these pages without reading any of the text. And don’t overlook the endpapers! They are full of facts and diagrams, adding more hard-core nonfiction material to the book.

Locomotive is perfect for train enthusiasts and would be an excellent addition to any U.S. History study. Mr. Floca provides extra materials on his website to supplement the book, including a coloring page of the locomotive (a favorite in our house!) and teacher’s guide. I heartily recommend this book for all ages, particularly 4-12 years old.

Knuffle Bunny

I admit it. The first time I read Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale by Mo Willems, I thought the book had received too my hype. Fun? Sure. But a modern children’s classic? I wasn’t convinced.

Fast forward a few years. I decided to re-visit Knuffle Bunny, and I also read Knuffle Bunny Too: A Case of Mistaken Identity and Knuffle Bunny Free: An Unexpected Diversion . Maybe I needed the full trilogy experience. Maybe it was the way my son asked me to read all the books again and again. Maybe it was the way the final Note to Trixie gave me all the feels. This time there was no doubt in my mind: the Knuffle Bunny books are indeed modern classics.

The first, Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale, introduces us to Trixie, her parents, and of course, her beloved Knuffle Bunny. Trixie’s toddler antics ensue when she accidentally leaves Knuffle Bunny in the laundromat, but lacks the verbal skills to tell her parents. The second, Knuffle Bunny Too: A Case of Mistaken Identity, introduces us to Trixie’s classmate and fellow toy bunny lover, Sonja. Trixie and Sonja fight over who has the best bunny, but after an inadvertent switch leaves each with the wrong bunny, they have to come together in order to be reunited with their own Knuffle Bunnies. The third and final installment, Knuffle Bunny Free: An Unexpected Diversion, takes Trixie, her parents, and Knuffle Bunny on a trip to Holland. Trixie is excited to see her grandparents, but devastated when she realizes she left Knuffle Bunny on the airplane.

The Knuffle Bunny books are funny yet poignant. I intend to gift them to newly expecting parents, as I think they belong in that special class of children’s books that are equally meaningful to parents as they are entertaining to kids. I enthusiastically recommend these books for kids ages 3-6, though don’t be surprised if the older kids still laugh and the adults fight back nostalgic tears.

The Eye That Never Sleeps

I’m a big fan of narrative nonfiction. For picture books, I particularly like historical nonfiction that highlights lesser known stories from the past. The Eye That Never Sleeps: How Detective Pinkerton Saved President Lincoln by Marissa Moss, illustrated by Jeremy Holmes tells the story of the assassination attempt on Lincoln before he was inaugurated as president in 1861. I think this story is particularly effective because it takes a well-known figure (Lincoln) and tells how a lesser known figure (Pinkerton) was important in shaping the course of history through behind-the-scenes action. Lincoln serves as the entry point for the story, drawing readers in and giving them context, but Pinkerton is the true agent of change in this book.

The book begins with a little back story on Pinkerton: how he came to the United States from Scotland with his wife, how he grew a successful barreling business, and how he eventually became involved in detective work. The story then moves quickly ahead to Pinkerton’s protection of Lincoln in the days before Lincoln’s presidential inauguration. Both text and illustrations do an excellent job of showing the tension between the northern and southern states so that readers feel Lincoln’s peril at every turn.

Holmes’ illustrations are detailed and precise, in red, orange, brown, and purple palettes. Multiple fonts are used throughout, from newspaper headlines to speech and thought bubbles, and this variation brings extra life into the illustrations. Holmes has an Artist’s Note at the end that describes how he created his work in digital scratchboard style, and this is a worthwhile read for those who are curious in artistic methods.

Even the formatting of this book is worth a mention. The pages are thick, and the book is in landscape orientation, which add to the richness of the illustrations. It’s longer than traditional picture books, coming in at 48 pages instead of the default 32, but even so, each page is utilized to the max. There are five pages of back-matter, including a timeline of Pinkerton’s life, Artist’s and Author’s Notes, bibliography, and index.

I recommend this book for ages eight and up, which differs from the publisher’s recommendation of ages 6-9. I do think that readers ages 6-7 could enjoy it as well, but due to the high word count and extra length, I think it more suitable for older elementary aged kids. The interesting story and amazing illustrations may very well tempt tweens and teens into reading it as well.

The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees

The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees by Don Brown is an excellent book for teens who want to know more about the refugee plight. Brown uses the graphic novel format to provide historical context and address current issues involving Syria and its people.

The book opens with a brief history of how the political situation escalated in Syria, which led to the outpouring of refugees. After setting the scene, Brown then follows various refugees trying to escape the war-torn country. We follow them on foot to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and we follow them on sea, across the Mediterranean into Greece and other European nations. We see the whole spectrum of young and old, male and female.

Brown does justice to his subjects by not avoiding difficult material. We’re faced with cold facts: some will not survive. They will die from starvation, exposure, and drowning. Although a graphic novel, Unwanted is not explicitly graphic, though scary scenes certainly are depicted in the illustrations. Due to this difficult content, I recommend The Unwanted for ages twelve and up. I believe it would be a compelling read to build empathy and compassion for those enduring this nightmare.