Leo: A Ghost Story: A Picture Book Review

Leo: A Ghost Story by Mac Barnett and Christian RobinsonLeo is a lonely ghosts. After years living alone in his house, Leo is thrilled when a new family moves in. Unfortunately his efforts to welcome them with mint tea and honey toast go horribly wrong.

Feeling rejected and unwelcome, Leo decides to set out and see the city. The city isn’t at all the way Leo remembered but it does lead him to Jane–a little girl looking for a  new friend. When Jane realizes that his new friend thinks he is an imaginary friend, Leo has to decide how to tell the truth without ending up alone again in Leo: A Ghost Story (2015) by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Christian Robinson.

Barnett’s matter-of-fact texts makes what could be a scary story entirely approachable and friendly for readers of all ages (even ones who might be afraid of ghosts!). Robinson’s artwork takes on a ghostly quality with blue hues dominating most pages. Leo, drawn in a blue outline, seems suitably transparent and ghostly in each frame.

After the careful build up introducing Leo and his subsequent travels through the city, the ending of Leo: A Ghost Story feels somewhat slight by comparison. The idea that friends can be found anywhere (and in all levels of solidity/visibility) will also be a familiar one for anyone who readers picture books with any regularity.

The text and illustrations work well together to capitalize on site gags including Leo trying to serve a family mint tea and honey toast which the family sees as a distressing floating tea service. Leo: A Ghost Story is a great choice to pair with spooky stories or add to an imaginary friend themed story time.

Big Bear, Little Chair: A Picture Book Review

Big Bear Little Chair by Lizi BoydWriter and illustrator Lizi Boyd delivers a fun concept book in Big Bear Little Chair (2015). High contrast illustrations done in gouache create bold contrasts between two objects on each two-page spread including a big bear, little bear, penguin, owl, zebra, and chairs of varying sizes.

Boyd uses gouache in black, white, and grey along with hints of red to keep the artwork simple and sharp. The books unusual trim size make it tall and narrow which further underscores the size contrasts in each spread and also helps draw the reader’s attention across each spread.

After going through various big and little contrasts (big bear, little chair/big owl, little branch/big meadow, little salamander, etc.) Boyd adds tiny items to the second half of the book to bring another dimension to this sleek picture book.

Big Bear Little Chair is part concept book and part hidden object with various items to locate on every page and something new to find on subsequent reads. An ideal choice for a younger story time set or a concept themed program.

Possible Pairings: Orange Bear Apple Pear by Emily Gravett,  Cockatoo, Too by Bethanie Deeney Murguia, Bears on Chairs by Shirley Parenteau and David L. Walker

The Space Between Trees: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Space Between Trees by Katie WilliamsSixteen-year-old Evie is always ready to share a good story. The problem is that sometimes those stories start to look a lot like lies. Especially when Evie tries to claim the story as her own in the telling.

That’s how things start with Jonah Luks. Before she knows it, Evie is spinning out a largely imagined relationship with the older college dropout she encounters every week on her paper route. It’s a harmless story and an even more harmless crush. Nothing else.

Until Evie sees Jonah report the dead body he found in the woods. Until Evie watches the body being pulled out of the woods in a bag.

In her efforts to write herself into this new, worse, story Evie’s lies become bigger; harder to contain and impossible to ignore. Everything changes after the body is found in the woods and people begin to wonder what sort of violence has come into their secluded community. What Evie doesn’t realize, at least not right away, is that in the wake of this story she might change too in The Space Between Trees (2010) by Katie Williams.

The Space Between Trees is an expertly told story with flawless pacing. The mystery surrounding the murder unfolds in a natural and believable way that makes for a seamless plot. Evie is a fascinating narrator. She is unreliable on a very basic level with everyone she interacts with during the story. Nothing Evie says can be taken as the exact, full, truth. Yet to readers Evie is achingly honest as she shares her observations and hopes in equal measure.

This is a deceptively short story with layers upon layers of interpretation and a nice bit of substance under the mystery elements. Williams raises interesting questions here about what it means to tell stories versus the truth as well as pondering along with Evie how experiences (both told and lived) can shape a person.

The Space Between Trees is literary and thoughtful in a way that feels effortless. Evie is a strong and utterly original narrator who is as flawed as she is insightful. Like its heroine, this mystery that will stay with readers long after the final story is told. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, Shift by Jennifer Bradbury, What I Saw and How I Lied by Judy Blundell, All Fall Down by Ally Carter, The Devil You Know by Trish Doller,The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee, Liar by Justine Larbalestier, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, All the Wind in the World by Samantha Mabry, Lock & Mori by Heather W. Petty, I am Princess X by Cherie Priest, Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone by Kat Rosenfield, A Map of the Known World by Lisa Ann Sandell, Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma, Black Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein, Wherever Nina Lies by Lynn Weingarten, Paper Valentine by Brenna Yovanoff

Blue Plate Special: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Blue Plate Special by Michelle D. Kwasney1977. Elmira, New York: All Madeline wants to do is forget her life. She’d give anything to be like the popular cheerleaders at her high school. But she isn’t. She’s fat and homely. Her mother is a drunk. Music is the only thing that keeps her sane and food is the only thing that helps her forget how how empty she feels and how starved she is for just a little bit of affection. Living on Welfare, Madeline tries to keep her head down, hide her savings and look toward graduating and getting the hell away from her mother. At least until a counter boy at McDonald’s looks at her, really looks at her, the way no one, not even her own mother, ever has.

1993. Johnson City, New York: Desiree doesn’t really have plans for her future. She’ll probably graduate high school and then maybe she’ll move in with her boyfriend Jeremy. They can live next door to Carol Ann and Eric and everything will be chill. Beyond that the future is hazy. Except for one thing: Desiree knows she’ll be the best mom ever. She won’t be an asshole like her own mother. She won’t have a boyfriend like her mom’s  who keeps leering at her and trying to get her alone. Des won’t let anything happen to her little girl. Not like what happened to her.

2009. Poughkeepsie, New York: Ariel is pretty ordinary. Good grades, lots of AP classes and getting ready for the college crunch in her senior year. Sure her dad is in prison for murder and her mom works really hard. But those aren’t things she talks about. Still, none of that matters because Shane didn’t notice any of the other, prettier, girls at school. He noticed her. And yes it’s a lot of work remembering to wear clothes he’ll like and make time for him and keep him happy. But he’s worth it, isn’t he? At least, Ariel thinks he is. When her mother announces a sudden trip to see the sick grandmother Ariel has never met things suddenly start to seem a lot different not just with Shane but with her whole family in Blue Plate Special (2009) by Michelle D. Kwasney.

Blue Plate Special alternates each chapter between the three narrators (Madeline, Desiree and Ariel). Each heroine has her own unique voice and the characters all really stand out as individual people. Madeline and Ariel have their own distinct style of narration while Desiree’s sections are written in verse. All of the girls’ stories are compelling and poignant. The entire book is very well-written and Kwasney is clearly a very talented writer with a bright future.

That said, Blue Plate Special was a very hard book to read. It was extremely depressing partly because these are characters with hard, painful lives but also because a lot of their tragedies cannot be undone and, by the time the story is being told, redemption might be too far off to grab. The air of desperation that hangs around all of the characters was also a little hard to take. Parts of the story felt heavy handed, especially in Ariel’s sections, but the whole book was hard to take because it was so sad which may have played a part there as well.

Blue Plate Special is a good, literary book. It’s well-written and has a strong plot with context, subtext, emotion and a lot of substance. It’s the kind of young adult book one might easily recommend to a person who looks down their nose at young adult literature for being somehow less than when compared to “adult” literature.

Possible Pairings: Sleepless by Cyn Balog, How to (un)Cage a Girl by Francesca Lia Block, The Secret Life of Prince Charming by Deb Caletti, How to Love by Katie Cotugno, Stealing Henry by Carolyn MacCullough, Confessions of the Sullivan Sisters by Natalie Standiford, Ariel by Sylvia Plath, The Mystery of Hollow Places by Rebecca Podos, Absolutely Maybe by Lisa Yee

Exclusive Bonus Content: Although it totally belies the crazy depressing story in some ways, I really like the cover design for this book because it speaks well to the upheaval and chaos so many of the characters experience. Amy E. Achaibou designed the jacket and it’s really quite clever. While the dust jacket shows a broken plate, the front of the actual book beneath the dust jacket (and the back flap beneath the author bio) show the plate intact. I could explain the elaborate metaphor this might be . . . but I won’t because catching that is part of the fun of reading this one.

Ivy and Bean: A (younger) Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Ivy and Bean by Annie Barrows, illustrated by Sophie BlackallBean does not want to be friends with Ivy. Her mother keeps telling her that Ivy seems like a very nice girl, but Bean knows what that means. Nice means prim and proper and sitting quietly reading big books. Nice means boring.

At least, Bean thought Ivy was boring. When she plays a trick on her big sister and Ivy offers a quick hiding place, Bean isn’t so sure. Nice is supposed to be boring. And Ivy does seem nice. But she’s also training to be a witch. Besides, how nice can anyone be who has a vast supply of face paint, her own wand, and a spell that involves lots of worms?

Bean and Ivy didn’t plan to be friends, but they might be a perfect match in Ivy and Bean (2006) by Annie Barrows and Sophie Blackall (illustrator).

Ivy and Bean is the first book in the series which is very popular with younger readers. The text is not as advanced as the Clementine or Ramona books but the characters all have similar qualities that will appeal to readers looking for girls with spunk. This story was not as compelling, for me, as the Clementine series but it was a fun fast read that will work for young readers and reluctant readers. Blackall’s illustrations add a lot of appeal with her delightfully horrifying pictures of Bean’s horrible older sister and Ivy’s wonderfully scary witch attire.

There are some surprisingly vocal negative reviews (seen on Amazon) accusing the book of promoting everything from bad behavior to witchcraft. To such concerns all I can say is books don’t make ill-behaved children anymore than guns kill people all on their own. At its core Ivy and Bean is nothing more and nothing less than a sharp book about two singularly creative girls who are ready and willing to make their own fun be it with pranks or a new friendship.