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The League of Beastly Dreadfuls

Holly Grant, illus. by Josie Portillo. Random, $16.99 (320p) ISBN 978-0-385-37007-3

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Peculiarities abound inside Saint Agony’s Asylum, where “completely average almost-eleven-year-old” Anastasia McCrumpet is doomed to spend her days after her parents are allegedly hospitalized in a “freak vacuum-cleaning accident.” To escape her strange (and heretofore unknown) great-aunts Primrose and Prudence, who gnash their metal choppers at breakfast and lock her inside a musty old room at sundown, Anastasia explores the asylum’s cavernous halls seeking a way back to her hometown of Mooselick. First-time author Grant is gifted at immersing readers in her fantastical world, infused with comically absurd details like Anastasia’s grudge-holding “revenge-pooper” guinea pig and descriptions of her inhospitable new home, “as cold and clammy as an octopus hug.” As the first book in a planned series, this fanciful introduction to shapeshifters and shadow dwellers sets the tone for oddities to come while leaving some key questions unanswered. It’s clear that Anastasia is anything but average, and her adventures are just beginning as the book comes to a close. Finished art not seen by PW. Ages 8–12. Author’s agent: Brianne Johnson, Writers House. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Girl with the Glass Bird

Esme Kerr. Scholastic/Chicken House, $16.99 (272p) ISBN 978-0-545-69984-6

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Kerr’s suspenseful British-boarding-school mystery is full of secrets, murky characters, and psychological intrigue. Ever since 11-year-old Edie’s blind grandmother, who has cared for her following her parents’ death, was forced into a nursing home, Edie has been living miserably at Folly Farm with her nasty cousins. This changes when her unpleasant uncle, godfather to Russian princess Anastasia Stolonov, plants Edie at an old-fashioned, excessively strict boarding school for girls as an undercover spy to discover who is tormenting the princess. Is Anastasia paranoid? Or simply careless? It’s sharp-eyed Edie’s assignment to find out. Despite her uncle’s warning to avoid growing close to the princess, the girls quickly bond. With several fellow students and a trio of adults as plausible suspects, an ambiance of growing mistrust permeates the novel; it’s deepened by mounting questions about the nature of the headmistress’s connection to Edie’s late mother. Set among skirmishes on the lacrosse field, forbidden midnight feasts in dormitory rooms, play rehearsals, and tea outings, the story keeps readers puzzling past its riveting climax, all the way to its gratifying conclusion. Ages 8–12. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Work and More Work

Linda Little, illus. by Óscar T. Pérez. Groundwood (PGW, dist.), $18.95 (32p) ISBN 978-1-55498-383-4

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The icy silvers and grays of Pérez’s artwork give the pages of Little’s first picture book a chilly look, but readers—like Tom, the story’s hero—should forge ahead regardless. Tom’s family has nothing but discouraging words for him when he asks about life in town: “It’s the same everywhere,” his mother snaps. “Work and more work.” But he sets off anyway, and finds that strangers order him about (“You boy.... Help me stack these crates on my barge!”), he doesn’t mind obeying, and his willingness to work can take him anywhere he wants to go. He ventures to sea, reaching China, India, and Ceylon, where he discovers tea, indigo, and cinnamon, respectively. The tacked-on information about the products of these countries seems unnecessary—the heart of the story is Tom’s mastery of his own fate. Pérez’s three-masted ships and visions of far-off lands (the only place he uses flashes of saturated color) provide plenty of visual sustenance. Readers will be surprised to find that some 19th-century children (well, some boys, anyway) may have had more freedom than they do. Ages 6–9. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Edmund Unravels

Andrew Kolb. Penguin/Paulsen, $16.99 (40p) ISBN 978-0-399-16914-4

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Edmund Loom is an anthropomorphized ball of turquoise yarn with wanderlust. While his parents are always “reeling him in and rolling him back up,” writes newcomer Kolb, they never try to quash his explorations. One day, Edmund rolls far away and encounters a (mostly) friendly world filled with new places and friends; even being chased by kittens is “part of the adventure.” But Edmund eventually misses “familiar places and friendly faces,” and when he feels the literal tug of family and friends, he’s happy to return home—at least for a little while. Kolb has a bright, clean drawing style that will remind readers of their favorite contemporary animation, and his panoramas (sometimes stacked three to a page) make it fun to follow Edmund’s travels and the trail of yarn he leaves in his wake. But while Kolb’s first book is impressive for its visual playfulness and its astute take on child development, literal-minded readers may wonder why no matter how much Edmund unravels, he never seems to get any smaller. Ages 5–8. Agent: Laurie Abkemeier, DeFiore and Company. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Thank You, Jackson: How One Little Boy Makes a Big Difference

Niki and Jude Daly. Frances Lincoln/Otter-Barry (Quarto, dist.), $17.99 (32p) ISBN 978-1-84780-484-6

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The husband-and-wife Daly team (Seb and Hamish) presents a straightforward parable about the value of gratitude, starring a South African family of farmers. The farmer, his wife, and their son rely on their donkey, Jackson, to transport their produce on market day. One day, as the farmer and donkey trudge uphill, Jackson stops and refuses to move: “The poor animal had had enough of his thankless task, carrying heavy loads year after year uphill to the market.” At wit’s end, the farmer prepares to beat the donkey with a stick, and as he counts to 10 before hitting the animal (a process that stretches over several pages), the son, named Goodwill, races to stop his father. A whispered “thank you” from the boy is all it takes for Jackson to continue the journey. Outlined in soft pencil, Jude Daly’s warm, folkloric paintings reduce the story to its simplest elements while effectively conjuring a rural South African setting. The story would make a fine readaloud alongside other “man and donkey” tales from Aesop, Nasruddin, and others. Ages 4–8. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Roger Is Reading a Book

Koen Van Biesen, trans. from the Dutch by Laura Watkinson. Eerdmans, $16 (42p) ISBN 978-0-8028-5442-1

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Belgian artist Van Biesen’s fluid line, witty typography, and bits of photographic collage give this story an abundance of style. “Shhhh! Quiet. Roger is reading. Roger is reading a book,” Van Biesen begins while a studious fellow in a bow tie and a tweed cap sits on a stool in his apartment, perusing a small volume. The next page reveals his neighbor, a small girl in a violet dress with a butterfly perched on her head; the gutter of the book serves as the intervening wall between their apartments. “Boing Boing. Emily is playing. Emily is playing a game.” Emily bounces a basketball, whose multiple images convey the barrage of noise. He knocks on the wall grumpily, and the arms race continues as Emily switches to singing, drumming, juggling, ballet, and boxing. Roger’s frustration grows until he arrives at a tidy solution—a book for Emily. The comic escalation of Emily’s noisy pursuits, combined with delightfully unexpected details (Emily’s toy giraffe becomes a lamp as she reads into the night), add up to a beautifully crafted piece of work. Ages 4–8. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Marilyn’s Monster

Michelle Knudsen, illus. by Matt Phelan. Candlewick, $15.99 (40p) ISBN 978-0-7636-6011-6

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A girl named Marilyn watches with increasing frustration as monsters of every shape, size, and cryptozoological origin pair up with her peers to serve as playmates, companions, and protectors. Her snarky older brother has a pink-and-green blob that he wears on his head, and “Timmy’s monster chose him right in the middle of a history test” (Phelan shows an enormous furry hand thrusting into her classroom through a window, pointing at the boy next to her). In Marilyn, Knudsen (Big Mean Mike) creates a highly sympathetic everychild experiencing a full spectrum of emotions: doubt, uncertainty, anger, confidence, and boldness. Meanwhile, Phelan (Druthers), working in watercolor and pencil, creates a wild cast of monsters, from pond-dwelling tentacles to cat-stegosaur hybrids and the fuzzy winged creature Marilyn eventually finds trapped up in a tree (“I got lost,” it explains. “And then I got scared. And then I got stuck”). Rich with feeling, it’s a warm, gently funny reminder to chase down one’s dreams, rather than waiting for them to appear on the doorstep. Ages 4–8. Author’s agent: Jodi Reamer, Writers House. Illustrator’s agent: Rebecca Sherman, Writers House. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Party Croc! A Folktale from Zimbabwe

Margaret Read MacDonald, illus. by Derek Sullivan. Albert Whitman, $16.99 (32p) ISBN 978-0-8075-6320-5

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A girl strikes an impulsive bargain with a crocodile in MacDonald’s (The Boy from the Dragon Palace) retelling of a folktale attributed to the Shona people in Zimbabwe. Fetching water from a pool swarming with fish, Zuva wishes aloud that she could catch some. When a crocodile asks what Zuva will give him if he helps her out, she invites him to a party on Saturday, figuring he couldn’t get into town and wouldn’t know when it was Saturday, anyway. All week, Croc exuberantly asks passersby what day it is, shouting, “Party! Party! Going to a party! Party! Party! I’m a PARTY CROC!” Newcomer Sullivan’s vivid cartoons capture Croc’s enthusiasm but aren’t enough to offset the repetitive story’s lack of momentum. It takes far too long for Croc to reach the party (after Saturday finally arrives, Zuva spends several pages feeding Croc before they get to the festivities), and he’s promptly ejected by the townspeople when he does arrive. The closing message, delivered by Zuva’s father (“Never invite a crocodile to a party! And never make a promise you cannot keep”) gets lost in a muddled conclusion. Ages 4–7. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The First Slodge

Jeanne Willis, illus. by Jenni Desmond. Tiger Tales, $16.99 (32p) ISBN 978-1-58925-169-4

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Part quirky creation myth, part friendship fable, Willis’s (Chicken Clicking) story features two creatures who think they are singular in the world—until they find each other. After the “first Slodge in the universe” emerges (Desmond envisions the creature as a sort of primordial sea-green cousin to a gummy bear), she embraces all that she sees as her own: “She saw the first star. And the first moon. ‘My star, my moon,’ she said.” But when she discovers that a second Slodge has taken a bite of her fruit, a turf war begins (“And they fought the first fight”), and the two Slodges have a scare that pushes them to realize they are even better as a team. Desmond’s (Eric, the Boy Who Lost His Gravity) lumpy Slodges and other whimsical creations (a blue palmlike tree, a yellow serpentine Snawk) conjure a strange bygone world in its infancy—an inviting setting for readers to explore themes of friendship, sharing, and stewardship. “The world didn’t belong to anyone,” writes Willis. “It was there to share.” Ages 3–7. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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