Childrens Book Reviews

This is Belle

Review by: Michael Lambert
Published: February 14, 2019

Every parent is looking for a book to inspire their children, and this book is special in so many ways.

For starters, the entire book is presented with beautiful graphics. Graphics are a part of every childrens book, or at least they should be, but the graphics often are an after thought. These graphics actually paint the picture that the story is telling. It's easy for a child to focus on the book because of these well presented graphics. Not too "slick", not to goofy, just right to speak to your child.

To further aid in your childs development, the book is written in two languages...showing side by side. Coming from south Florida this is invaluable. But should be considered valuable by anyone interested in language skills. Exposing a child (as well as the parent) to multiple lanaguages as early as possible is a great way to help insure an open mind, for language, as well as various cultures. And obviously a primarily spanish speaking family will be thrilled to have a well written childrens book written in english and the original author!

But there is no doubt that the true value of this book is it's message. I would actually say there are two distinct messages within the book. One is showing that any child that has difficulty finding friends or mixing in should realize that they are not alone. This simple fact can put your child at ease, and allow them to feel less alone and awkward. The second message suggests that the child find things in common with others, and build relationships based on the commonality. A message that should speak to children as well as adults, but too often doesn't.

I have had the opportunity to meet this author, as well as to "fight" with her, as she is a 3rd degree black belt in Aikido, and I am a shodan (1st degree). When Isabel is not swimming, running or pursuing other physical challenges, she teaches Aikido to children and exhibits great patience training the children to be respectful and controlled, but have fun. She and her family are amazing people, and their children are a testament to her ability to speak to and inspire children.

Title:This is Belle
Paperback: 26 Pages
Author: Isabel De La Vega
Publisher: AuthorHouse
Publication Date: 13 April 2017
Format: Paperback
ISBN-10: 1524687308
ISBN-13: 978-1524687304
For ages: 5 - 12


Whitney and Britney: Chicken Divas

Review by: DimbutNice
Published: May 24, 2020

This picture book bedazzles from the get go. Explosive cover colour choices and a foiled glitter ball, (yes glitter ball!) shimmy in any light promising a fun ride ahead. 

Equally sparkly end pages in musk stick pink cement attention; you just know something wonderful and weird pulses within these pages, but what?

Two gorgeous chooks…with stunning good looks for starters! Whitney and Britney reside in a charming gypsy wagon adjacent to the flamboyantly fuchsia coloured house of Dora von Dooze, a fox with a penchant for pink. 

Unlike regular Gallus gallus Vulpes vulpes (chook fox) relationships, Dora is not all that interested in their eggs; it’s their company she craves. Their mysterious nocturnal disappearances and daily snoozefests worry Dora until one morning she notices a few odd accessories clinging to her pooped neighbours as they doze; a sparkly ring, a pink boa…glitter?

It’s enough to awaken the sly in her and she sets out to snoop on them that evening. She discovers what we already know; Britney and Whitney are glamming up in rhinestones and tiaras every night because they are the lead act at Club Sparkles.

Night after night Whitney and Britney belt out toe-tapping jazz numbers to packed crowds, wowing and dazzling as the Chicken Divas. They swoon and sing taking barnyard bling to the next level when one night a stranger in the crowd wallops with unrestrained delight after their show. But who is this famous performer and how do Whitney and Britney react to her presence in ‘their’ jazz club?

Lucinda Gifford excels at anthropomorphic tales bubbling with rhythmic cheek and mirth. Chicken Divas is a sequined-saturated mash up of Priscilla Queen of the Desert meets Chicken Runportrayed in candy-store colours guaranteed to blind you with bling and amuse the stuffing out of under fives. In fact, it’s the 2020 National Simultaneous Storytimebook and will feature in live events Wednesday 27 May around Australia giving kids the chance to do just that. To get involved, visit the NSS website.

It’s time to set your inner chook free, follow your passion and embrace your true desires just as Whitney and Britney so brilliantly do.

Title: Whitney and Britney: Chicken Divas
Author: Lucinda Gifford
Illustrator: Lucinda Gifford
Publisher: Scholastic Australia, $17.99
Publication Date: October 2019
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 9781760666507
For ages: 3 – 5
Type: Picture Book

Parenting Made Simple

Review by: Anastasia Gonis
Published: May 23, 2020

In Parenting Made Simple, Dr Sarah Hughes offers up straightforward, practical strategies for common childhood challenges. It is a book full of valuable tools and skills needed for all ages and stages of childhood growth and development. 

A wealth of knowledge is to be found in this handbook that delivers effective techniques for raising well-adjusted children.

The key areas focused on are: challenging behaviour, emotions and tantrums, confidence, social skills and friendships, anxiety and parenting well through divorce.

Correct communication, negotiation, mindfulness practice and how to simplify things when addressing challenging issues are important factors addressed.

Behaviour management plans and consistency between parents plus any care giver towards the same child, are defined.

Comprehensive, detailed helpful strategies fill the pages. The summary at the end of each chapter under the heading The Important Bits, allows the reader to get a clear brief overview of what has been presented. Several pages of Endnotes are included.

Chapters also include Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD).

What I have referred to are the bare bones of the meaty source that is contained in this instructive and invaluable book for parents.

Dr Hughes imparts her knowledge in simple language with step-by-step advances on each of the six categories. She looks at both sides of problems to be solved – the parents’ emotions and the attitude of the child, in a compassionate and positive way which encourages perseverance and repetition.

Dr Hughes holds a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology and a PhD in child and adolescent child disorders.

Title: Parenting Made Simple
Author:Dr Sarah Hughes
Publisher: Exisle, $29.99
Publication Date: 7 April 2020
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 9781925820324
For ages: Adults
Type: Non Fiction

The Dark Matter of Mona Starr by Laura Lee Gulledge, 192 pp, RL: Middle School

Review by: Tanya
Published: May 22, 2020

The Dark Matter of Mona Starr 
Review copy from Abrams Kids
As Mona, Gulledge's main character/alter-go says toward the end of The Dark Matter of Mona Starr, "I'm a writer. I can speak story." Not only is Gulledge a writer who can speak story (see below for links to my reviews of her previous graphic novels), she is an artist who can communicate abstract emotions in concrete ways. The Dark Matter of Mona Starr joins a growing shelf of superb graphic novels for young readers addressing emotional health, as well as physical, mental and emotional challenges, spearheaded by Raina Telgemeier. And, like many of these excellent works, Gulledge's book draws on her personal experiences, adding a layer of depth and authenticity. Unlike many of these, Gulledge's graphic novel is best suited toward middle grade and teen readers, not for content appropriateness, but for the reader's ability to understand and most benefit from the experience and wisdom shared herein.

The Dark Matter of Mona Starr is a graphic novel and a self-care manual, starting with a note to readers where she discusses her own depression and how she came to write about it, as well as her desire to, "contribute to the bigger conversation about our collective health, happiness, purpose, and the vital role of creativity in these areas." As someone who has come up to the edge of depression and spent decades reading self-help books, in therapy and mediating (all on and off...) Gulledge's book was at once uplifting, inspirational, painful and hard to read at times, both for how it tapped into my own experience as well as tapping into the empathy I felt for Mona. In her note to readers, Gulledge shares that being asked to write a book about her own depression was intimidating ("Who am I to talk about mental health?") with the potential to pull her into depression, which is also a challenge for readers. I loved reading The Dark Matter of Mona Starr, but it was also hard to read and there were moments of connection in the story where I had to take a break from reading. But, Gulledge "speaks story," and, as she intended with both the character of Mona herself and her journey of self discovery and evolution, the story she speaks here is one of darkness, pain and struggle that ends with growth, self-care and the courage to be vulnerable and love yourself and others.

Gulledge begins Mona's story with two significant events: a best friend moving away and a session with a therapist. Gulledge has Mona refer to her depression as "the Matter," because it can make her feel like a "cloud of dark matter" or a black hole where she is collapsing in on herself. This metaphor works stunningly with both text and illustrations in this black and white graphic novel with bright yellow accents. The Matter appears across the pages most often as a dark, human like shadow or a swirling, menacing presence, sometimes with words inside to represent the negative self-talk we all engage in, in varying degrees. My therapist introduced this to me as a "negative tape loop" that plays in my head, which became a powerful tool for recognizing and, with more therapy and hard work, evolving my own self-talk "tape loop" from negative and destructive to positive, uplifting, and nurturing. I am so grateful to Gulledge for introducing this to readers at an early age! Chapter headings, like "Implode or Evolve," "Notice Your Patterns," "Break Your Cycles," and "Replace What You Can't Erase," double as positive self-talk, reminders of how to move forward skillfully.

Mona's growth, her evolution, comes as she recognizes her instinct to live in her head and self-isolate. As she leans in toward friendship, she also has moments where she implodes and pushes people away. Discovery (and removal) of a blockage in Mona's intestine is is a turning point, allowing Mona to begin unblocking herself in other ways as she makes the connection between her abstract, emotional "Matter" and the literal mass in her body that was causing her physical pain. The chapter "Turn Emotion into Action" shows Mona making positive, creative connections with her friends, taking her first steps toward combatting the negative voice in her head that emerges when she is creating, and, with her friends, orchestrating a shared experience and art installation that opens her classmates to each other, each other's experiences and "artnership." Gulledge's portmanteau, "artner," a mash-up of partner and art, coined by Mona's friend Hailey, is a word for "creative intimacy," which happens when you, "make stuff together" and "support each other's crazy ideas." Gulledge begins her book inviting readers to be inspired to "connect with Artners, and perhaps even make your own self-care plan," and she ends her book by sharing her own self-care plan, generously giving readers space on the opposite page where, using her visual tools, they can create a self-care plan of their own!

More by Laura Lee!

Dandelion's Dream by Yoko Tanaka

Review by: Tanya
Published: May 21, 2020

Dandelion's Dream by Yoko Tanaka
Review Copy from Candlewick Press
Dandelion's Dream is a wordless, wondrous, magical journey that is challenge capture with words. In the dark of night, in a meadow dotted with flowers, Tanaka transforms a dandelion into a "dandy lion." There are very few picture books that employ predominately black negative space (Jon Klassen's superb This Is Not My Hat comes to mind) and the experience of turning the dark pages, entering a night aglow with the expressive, ebullient lion, is completely transformative. 

A dandelion, one large bud and a smaller one near the roots, curved like a tail, along with three spiky leaves, blooms with a page turn. Another page turn, and this cheerful weed becomes a lion with a boisterous grin, looking ready to play. The view across the dreamlike meadow, dotted with dandelions, some of which look realistic, some of which look like, (surprisingly, considering it is the dark of night) floating sunshine, shows a train in the distance. Hopping aboard, the dandy lion's mane/petals blow in the wind as a bump and a jump send the lion tumbling off the train and onto a fluffy white cloud. Occasionally, Tanaka employs graphic novel-style panels to move her story forward and add elements of surprise, like a fluffy cloud that is actually a sheep. A boat ride, and a kind bird offering a wing that shelters the dandy lion from the rain (kindness and generosity abound in Dandelion's Dream, yet another reason to fall in love with this book) move the story from the country to the city. Each event effortlessly morphs to a new experience, the darkness of a movie theater where, on the screen, children are flying toy airplanes, becomes a mustard yellow biplane, piloted by the dandy lion, soaring over the sleeping city, into the clouds, clouds that evoke the floating sunshine of the dandelions in the field and a dandelion flower that has transformed into a white ball of fluff. A fuzzy full moon hangs in the distance like a beacon and a mirror and, with a final page turn, our dandy lion is  thousands of future dandelions, the tiny florets, seeds attached, floating as if a gust of breath sent them scattered across the page. Tanaka ends her marvelous picture book with these tiny seeds gathered for one final moment of magic, looking like a pouncing lion reaching for the moon.

An unforgettable, unique story without words!

The Boy Who Thought Outside the Box: The Story of Video Game Inventor Ralph Baer by Marcie Wessels, illustrated by Beatriz Castro

Review by: Tanya
Published: May 18, 2020

The Boy Who Thought Outside the Box: The Story of Video Game Inventor Ralph Baer
by Marcie Wessels
illustrated by Beatriz Castro

With The Boy Who Thought Outside the Box, Wessels introduces readers to the amazing life and inventions of the unstoppable Ralph Baer, the man widely acknowledged as the "Father of Home Video Games." The task of taking the events of a life as rich with accomplishments and as long as Baer's (Baer died in 2014 at the age of ninety-two) and refining it into a thirty-two page picture book is an ominous one, but Wessels' creative use of the "think outside of the box" metaphor works perfectly to streamline events and remind readers of Baer's perseverance and imagination.

Born in Germany in 1922, Baer became an autodidact when was kicked out of school at the age of fourteen because he was Jewish. He taught himself English and helped his family secure the visas that allowed them to immigrate to New York. As a teen, Baer learned to repair radios, and, after being drafted into the Army during WWII, he enrolled in the American Television Institute of Technology and was able to build a TV set from scratch after just one semester. Working in a lab designing televisions after graduating, Ralph first conceived of the idea to use the TV to play games on in 1951. It would be another twenty years (and work for NASA that included spy equipment, a display console for the Saturn V rocket and a radio transmitter that Neil Armstrong took to the moon) before Baer saw his Brown Box hit the market as the Odyssey, the world's first gaming system! With every obstacle he had to overcome, to every new idea and innovation he brought to life, the theme of thinking outside the box, and literal boxes, abound. As Baer learned to "put electronics into smaller and smaller spaces," he was able to fully realize, or, as Wessels writes, "unbox his original gaming idea" using an external box to control the TV to play games.
Wessels includes an author's note that expands on Baer's many accomplishments as well as a list of additional reading, which is good because her book left me wanting to know more! If are like me and left wanting to know more about the Father of Home Video Games (also the inventor of one of my childhood favorites -SIMON!) this NPR obituary, which is where I learned that, in the 20 years after the Odyssey debuted, maker Magnavox won over $100 million in patent lawsuits, including $700,000 from Atari, who debuted Pong mere months after Baer's version hit the market. Baer held more than 150 U.S. and foreign patents and a prototype of the Brown Box and his workbench can be found in the Smithsonian Museum.

Witchlight by Jessi Zabarsky, color by Geov Chouteau, 208 pp, RL 4

Review by: Tanya
Published: May 15, 2020

Witchlight by Jessi Zabarsky 
color by Geov Chouteau
Published by RH Graphic
Purchased from Barnes & Noble

With Witchlight, Zabarsky creates a compelling world where matriarchal communities thrive and nature is an integral part of life for humans and witches, with prejudice and ignorance hovering at the edges. There is much to love about Witchlight, but it is the immersive landscape that Zabarsky created that stands out and stays with you. Nature is everything in this world, from the open air market where we first meet Sanja, selling tubers at her family's stall, to the woods where Lelek takes (kidnaps...) Sanja to hideout. As their bond forms, Sanja and Lelek travel on foot from town to town. Panels are dedicated to scenes of walking through meadows, peering through tall reeds, rain falling on leaves and hands picking fruit and flowers. The world of Witchlight is lush and bountiful, accepting. Even the magic practiced by Lelek flows through nature. Hoping to make a living by challenging other witches to battle, Lelek meets her match in Dhana, who wins the match by burying Lelek in the earth, only her head sticking out. The palette of Witchlight, while pale and mutes, is expansive and help tell the story. As Lelek and Sanja make their way from town to town, colors change. Lemon yellow, coral and teal give way to the warm golden glow of a campfire at night, black borders framing the pages. Cool blues and greens are reserved for dreams and memories and the arrival of winter. The colors are enhanced by the details and patterns throughout the novel, from individual blades of grass and leaves on trees, to the designs on woven baskets, pottery, and clothes that fill the markets in the villages Sanja and Lelek visit.

The conflict in this world, the danger that bookends the story, comes from men. When we first meet Lelek, she is being physically threatened by a man she sold a phony amulet to. Near the end of the novel, Sanja's brother thinks he is saving her and pleasing his father by giving in to his prejudice when he pulls his sword. Winter falls on the world of Witchlight and Sanja is left alone. However, the novel ends with a verdant spring. Rich purples, blues and viridian are accented with the lemon yellow and the coral that has been constant throughout. This bounty of color is matched in the story, which closes with a scene of family and friends, gathered in the kitchen for a beautiful feast.

Witchlight is an unforgettable graphic novel that I will read over and over. I can't wait to see what worlds Zabarsky (and Chouteau) conjure next.

Kaia and the Bees by Maribeth Boelts, illustrated by Angela Dominguez

Review by: Tanya
Published: May 13, 2020

Kaia and the Bees by Maribeth Boelts
illustrated by Angela Dominguez
Review Copy from Candlewick Press

Kaia and the Bees does something really wonderful - it manages to be a book that shows readers how to face your fears while also educating them about the importance of bees and the work that they do. And Boelts, who has been a beekeeper and written picture books that capture, with authenticity and clarity, the emotional lives of children, is perfectly positioned to create a book like this. Best of all, this story is not set on a farm or even in the country. It is set in a city, letting readers know that beekeeping can happen (almost) anywhere!

Kaia is brave, "hottest-hot-pepper brave" and "furry-spider-in-the-basement brave." There is only one thing that "SUPER scares" her - bees. Unfortunately for Kaia (but fortunately for bees and the rest of humanity) her father is a beekeeper! He has two hives on the roof of their apartment and he "reads bee books and talks about bees nonstop," telling Kaia, "The world needs bees, and that's why we're beekeepers." Except, Kaia is not a beekeeper, although she does share all the knowledge her father passes on to her with her friends and neighbors. When a bee lands on her arm and she screams and waves her arms in front of her friends, Kaia decides it's time to learn to overcome her fear of bees.

Here is where Boelts's gift with getting emotions on the page shines. Kaia narrates her experience, from trying to keep her hands still and not swat at the bees to the sweat that soaks her head under her beekeeper's helmet. Just as Kaia's interest in the bees eclipses her fears, she is stung, Boelts writing, "That bee was alive. It vibrated. And its stinger stuck in my skin!" I love how Boelts focuses on the immediacy of the moment, diffusing the fear and pain of the experience. And, while being stung puts an end to Kaia helping care for the bees, she agrees to help with the honey harvest. Working all day with her mom and dad, filling jars and mopping up the spills, Kaia is happy "laughing about the magic happening right in our kitchen," and loving the "smell of warm, sweet honey filling our apartment." When Kaia finds two bees on the windowsill where she is lining up the newly filled jars of honey, she reacts, grabbing a swatter and wrapping up in a protective towel. Pausing, she realizes, "maybe they don't want to sting me. Maybe they want a way out. That's all." Remembering what she learned from her father, Kaia tells herself, "bees are amazing and scary and mysterious. And we need them." Saying this, nothing inside her feels "twisty," because it has been replaced with a new feeling - the feeling of being brave.

A fantastic book that will encourage bravery in the face of fear and maybe even inspire future beekeepers!