Flash Review: Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner, translated by Eileen Hall

By Maureen Tai, 19 September 2021

Continuing with World Kid Lit month celebrations, I decided to read the classic Emil and the Detectives, (ages 10+) a middle-grade chapter book about a highly-principled country boy turned intrepid thief-catcher. Translated from German by Eileen Hall, this entertaining story was published almost a century ago, in 1928, by Erich Kästner. The German author had the honour of seeing his books burned by the Nazis during WW2 for being “anti-German.” Thankfully, I failed to identify any “anti-anything” in this humorous and engaging detective story – save a comment by Pony, the only girl to make an appearance, that “Woman’s work is never done” (referring to housework). Yet, this didn’t make Pony any less strong or feisty, nor were any of Kästner’s characters any less interesting, nor did it distract from the central theme underpinning the entire adventure – the enduring, selfless relationship between a devoted mother and her thoughtful child. And that love, we know, always endures. Happy World Kid Lit month!

Flash Review: My Beijing – Four Stories of Everyday Wonder by Nie Jun, translated by Edward Gauvin

By Maureen Tai, 11 September 2021

As I turn the pages of Nie Jun’s whimsical graphic novel, My Beijing (ages 7+), it feels as if I’m slipping under the covers of a warm and comfy bed. The gorgeous, pastel-coloured illustrations have a nostalgic, old-world feel about them, and the charming, delightful characters are like childhood friends who’ve come to visit. Yu’er is a gentle and bright-eyed disabled girl who lives in a Beijing courtyard house with her lovable and kindly grandfather. Their close, easy relationship with each other, as well as with their friends and neighbours, is clear to see from the four heart-warming, slice-of-life stories, each of which has an unexpected, magical twist that will make you smile. Small but significant details of Chinese life embellish the pages: the decorative figures lined up at the tips of tiled roofs, the wu lou (gourds) hanging from green vines, the swinging bamboo birdcages, the tiffin carrier on the bedside table, the gauzy mosquito net that encircles Yu’er’s and her grandfather’s beds. Cartoonist Nie Jun has created an irresistible world that you’ll want to return to, time and again.

Flash Review: Piper Green and the Fairy Tree by Ellen Potter & illustrated by Qin Leng

By Maureen Tai, 5 September 2021

I discovered Piper Green and the Fairy Tree (ages 7+), a delightful chapter book for younger children, during a recent browse in the public library. The titular Piper lives with her parents and younger brother Leo on a tiny island called Peek-a-Boo Island. Eight other kids live on the island, and they all go to a school on another island by lobster boat. Piper is missing her older brother Erik, though she won’t say so out loud. Instead, she decides to wear the monkey earmuffs Erik gave her to school even though they don’t really go with her new t-shirt and shorts. Imagine Piper’s shock when she discovers her new teacher doesn’t approve of her unusual accessory either. Suddenly, second grade is looking grim. What does our headstrong heroine do? Well, you’ll need to read this charming book to find out! This series, packed with memorable and funny characters masterfully brought to life in Qin Leng’s black and white ink illustrations, will entice even the most reluctant of readers.

Flash Review: Turtle in Paradise by Jennifer L. Holm, illustrated by Savanna Ganucheau

By Maureen Tai, 30 August 2021

The opening page of Turtle in Paradise, the graphic novel (ages 8 +) sets the scene. It’s June 1935. Eleven-year-old Turtle and her cat Smokey, arrive in Key West to live with relatives whom she’s never met. Her mother’s employer can’t stand having children around, and being a live-in housekeeper, Turtle’s mother has no choice but to send Turtle away. Despite her young age, Turtle is a tough cookie. She quickly discovers that her Aunt Minnie, her ragtag gang of boy cousins and their friends, and the rest of her extended family are no shrinking violets either. There’s Beans and Pork Chop, who head up an unorthodox babysitting service called “The Diaper Gang.” There’s Kermit, with the weak heart, and Buddy, who’s always pantless. There’s Nana Philly, who’s mean to kids, and Slow Poke, who always lives up to his name. Middle-graders will love the bright, candy coloured graphics, snappy dialogue, memorable characters and engaging storyline. Based on a Newbery Honor chapter book of the same title and by the same author – which we also read and would highly recommend – this pictorial ode to a time that no longer exists, and to a way of life that is timeless, will make you laugh and warm your heart. Promise.

Flash Review: Claude in the City by Alex T. Smith

By Maureen Tai, 1 August 2021

Claude is a small, plump, beret-wearing canine who has a knighted, striped bobbly sock as a sidekick. Every day, after his owners Mr and Mrs Shinyshoes, have gone to work, Claude embarks on a new adventure. In the slender Claude in the City (ages 6+), one of 10 books in the series, the energetic little pooch and Sir Bobblysock head into the city of London for the first time. There, they discover … Skyscrapers! Honking cars! Pigeons! Restaurants that serve fancy drinks! … before ending up at an art gallery where Claude inadvertently foils the plans of a brazen art thief. Delightfully detailed and wacky illustrations make these early readers extremely appealing to emerging readers who will enjoy the rollicking, improbable yet endearing antics of dog and sock.

Flash Review: Nate the Great by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat & illustrated by Marc Simont

By Maureen Tai, 31 July 2021

Each slim book in the classic Nate the Great series of early readers (ages 6+) packs a punch. Nate is a detective. He loves pancakes, as does Sludge, the stray dog he adopted. Nate makes pancakes when he is in the middle of solving cases. Like when Annie lost the key to her house and couldn’t get in to throw a birthday party for her ferocious-looking pet dog, appropriately named Fang. Or when that pesky Oliver lost the weed that he had acquired from the cat-loving and slightly strange Rosamond. Nate writes notes – in shaky cursive – to his mother when he is out doing field work (ahhh, those pre-Internet days!). The sparse prose, delightful pictures and activity pages at the end add to the appeal of these charming and clever books, perfect for emerging readers who are looking for an interesting and fun “bridge” into the wondrous new realm of chapter books. The best part? There are around 30 books in the series, enough for a whole lot of rainy days and lazy afternoons.

When We Were Alone by David A. Robertson & illustrated by Julie Flett

By Maureen Tai, 20 July 2021

When We Were Alone (ages 6+) is a gentle and beautiful picture book that introduces young readers to residential schools in Canada by focussing on the courage and resilience of its survivors.

In David A. Robertson’s story, a grandmother (kókom) works with her grandchild (nósisim) in the garden. The young girl notices how her grandmother wears brightly coloured clothes, has a long braid of hair, and speaks in Cree to a bird that has come to visit her birdhouse. “Why?” the grandchild asks, as curious children do.

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FLASH REVIEW: When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

By Maureen Tai, 18 July 2021

Newbery Medal-winning When You Reach Me (ages 11+) is Rebecca Stead’s clever, mind-bending, sci-fi-esque, mystery-whodunnit that will appeal to fans of A Wrinkle In Time. Sixth grader Miranda receives mysterious notes instructing her to write a letter – a true story – and to keep it a secret. Even more disquieting is the fact that the note-leaver seems able to predict the future, and Miranda discovers to her horror that she might be too late to prevent an imminent death. In authentic teen voices, Stead expertly weaves an intricate plot (with a gasp-inducing twist at the end), creating a thought-provoking, gripping and satisfying read for both teens and adults alike.

Flash Review: Shirley & Jamila Save Their Summer

By Maureen Tai, 4 July 2021

Looking for an engaging, middle grade graphic novel about two unlikely friends, mother-daughter relationships and solving neighbourhood mysteries? Shirley & Jamila save their summer (ages 8+) is just the ticket, with likeable, multi-dimensional characters, smart, snappy dialogue, bursts of good-natured humour and an absorbing plot. Torontonians will also appreciate the visual references to the city peppered among the pages: the CN Tower’s silhouette in the skyline, the “U of T” emblazoned on the older brother’s t-shirt, the “We [heart] the CBC” sign stuck into a grassy lawn, and the thoughtful detailing of houses and streets in the Annex, a Toronto neighbourhood that I myself frequented as a university student. Be ready for some fun sleuthing!

Orchards by Holly Thompson

By Maureen Tai, 27 June 2021

I read Orchards (ages 12+) many years ago after having had the pleasure of meeting and speaking with the author at a children’s book conference in Singapore. I’ve never forgotten the compelling story, nor Holly’s warm and calming aura, so effortlessly exuded.

Suicide is a difficult topic in any culture and for any age. Holly’s compelling verse novel about a 13 year old mixed-race girl grappling with a classmate’s self-inflicted death explores this darkness with raw honesty, careful thought, measured pacing and sparse, beautiful writing.

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Flash Review: Witches of Brooklyn by Sophie Escabasse

By Maureen Tai, 20 June 2021

Witches of Brooklyn (ages 8+) is the delightful debut graphic novel by French illustrator Sophie Escabasse. Newly orphaned Effie is unceremoniously dumped at the beautiful three-storey house belonging to her aunts, Selimene and Carlota. If living with relatives she barely knew existed wasn’t bad enough, Effie has to deal with a new school and grapple with a terrifying new reality – that like her aunts, she too is a witch! Effie’s latent magical powers and inner strength are slowly revealed in this enjoyable story, packed with a host of memorable characters who each harbour their own little secrets. The gorgeously coloured illustrations are masterfully executed, each page full of movement, interesting details and thoughtful character depictions; from little Effie’s Asian features and updated anime bun style hairdo to Aunt Selimene’s pugnacious nose and jutting chin and Aunt Carlota’s teeny tiny pince-nez and softly plump figure. A lovely read that will appeal especially to little girls (and their mums) who secretly wish for magical powers!

Flash Review: Love That Dog by Sharon Creech

By Maureen Tai, 13 June 2021

Love That Dog (ages 8+) is a delightful verse novel, written as a series of diary-like ruminations of a (likely 10-year old) boy called Jack. We learn that Jack is a reluctant poet. Through his eyes, we see his teacher Miss Stretchberry, persisting. She shares different forms and styles of poetry and encourages Jack to explore poetry as a way of connecting with his emotions and telling life stories. Through his writing, we see Jack change as he becomes more comfortable with words, as he’s able to confront the raw, poignant truth about his beloved dog, Sky and as he’s able to share his story not just with his classmates but with a bona fide, real poet and author – the incredible Walter Dean Myers (1937-2014). This beautifully written, gently humorous and deeply thoughtful middle grade story (short! coming in at 86 pages) is signature Creech and one to treasure, whether you’re a poet or not (or if you just didn’t know it).

SUMMER 2021: THE DEFINITIVE GRAPHIC NOVEL LIST FOR TEENS & YA (13+ YRS OLD)

By Maureen and Anna, 6 June 2021

Following on from our Definitive Graphic Novel List for Middle Graders (8-12 years old), we’ve come up with our definitive list of Graphic Novels for Teens and Young Adults (13+ years old). The list includes old favourites, but also recent releases, and some, but not all, have been reviewed on our blog. While we enjoy sci-fi and fantasy, a genre well-represented in the graphic novel/comic world, there are many non-fictional and biographical graphic novels that have captivated us. Many, out of historical interest, are about the Jewish experience during WW2.

Unlike the middle grade list, some of the graphic novels on this list cover mature or challenging topics and include the odd expletive (or two or three). Please check out online book reviews such as https://www.commonsensemedia.org/ or feel free to ask in the comment box below if you wish to know more about any particular titles.

To keep it concise, we’ve only included one graphic novel from each author/illustrator – he or she may have many others that you can also explore (for example, Tillie Walden’s Spinning is also excellent).

We hope you’ll discover some new graphic novels to try out this summer. Happy reading!

Maureen and Anna

SUMMER 2021: The Definitive Graphic Novel List for Middle Graders (8-12 yrs old)

By Maureen, Anna and Ben, 31 May 2021

Summer is just around the corner!

We’ve decided to put together some of our own definitive book lists ahead of the summer holidays with our personal recommendations for great stories that stay with us!

We’ll start with our Definitive Graphic Novel List for Middle Graders (8-12 years old). The list includes old favourites, but also recent releases, and some, but not all, have been reviewed on the blog.

To keep it concise, we’ve only included one graphic novel from each author/illustrator – he or she may have many others that you can also explore! (For example, Sara Varon has several amazing titles, so it was tough, but we’ve chosen Bake Sale to be her representative for our list). Our list for older readers will follow shortly.

We hope you’ll discover some new graphic novels to try out this summer. Happy reading!

Maureen, Anna & Ben

Flash Review: The Runaway Princess by Johan Troïanowski

By Maureen Tai, 30 May 2021

The Runaway Princess (ages 5+) is a funny, exciting and engaging romp through vividly-illustrated, fantastical lands. In this colourful graphic novel, we meet Princess Robin, a plucky, irrepressible bundle of energy. We join her on zany adventures as she sneaks away from her castle, befriends four abandoned children, attends a water carnival featuring mermaids in giant floating bubbles, falls into the clutches of the pumpkin-loving Autumn Witch and saves an entire colony of hairy Doodlers from rampaging pirates in her flying ship! Phew! The charming characters, interactive puzzles and delightful visuals will captivate and stretch even the youngest readers’ imaginations.

Flash Review: Leonardo, The Terrible Monster by Mo Willems

By Maureen Tai, 23 May 2021

In Mo Willems’ endearing and laugh-out-loud funny picture book, Leonardo, the Terrible Monster, (ages 3+ ) the titular monster is terrible – at being a monster. After much research, Leonardo finally finds the most scaredy-cat kid in the world and scares him silly! Only to discover that being scary isn’t quite as satisfying as he thought it would be… With bold text and amusing illustrations in dusty desert colours, Willems has created yet another masterpiece about being true to yourself and finding pleasure in being nice. Little ones will enjoy choosing between being a monster or being a friend. 

Flash Review: The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm

By Maureen Tai, 16 May 2021

12-year old Ellie Cruz has hardly time to mourn the demise of her best friendship. She’s too busy plotting to steal a mysterious jellyfish from her grandfather’s laboratory, surviving her healthily divorced, dramatic parents, savouring her new-found love of science and getting used to living with her tie-wearing, bathroom-hogging, Chinese-takeaway-loving teen cousin. Except he isn’t really her cousin at all, or a teen for that matter … Holm has created a multi-faceted and multi-layered middle grade contemporary novel that is, at its heart, about inevitable endings and the hopeful beginnings that come after. Imaginative, clever and funny, The Fourteenth Goldfish (ages 10+) is a thoughtful read that will linger long after the final page.

Wonder by R. J. Palacio

By Ben, 9 May 2021

I’d heard all about Wonder, a contemporary, realistic fiction middle grade novel about a boy with a disfigured face, long before the movie came out. In fact, a dog-eared, second-hand copy was buried deep within the towering stack of books in my bedroom, but for some reason, I’d never gotten round to reading it. So, as the days in 2021 rolled on interminably (as they have become accustomed to in this global pandemic), Ben and I finally dug the book out and read it together. What we discovered was one of the most moving yet enjoyable and well-written reads that we’ve shared in a while. But don’t just take my word for it …

M: First of all, did you like Wonder?
B: Yeah, it was good.
M: Can you tell me what the story is about?
B: It’s about a boy called Auggie Pullman and he has a facial thing…disorder?
M: I think you mean ‘deformity.’
B: Oh yeah, right. He has a facial deformity. He used to be homeschooled all the time, but in the book, he was going to start school for the first time, in 5th grade.
M: Uh oh. There’s trouble right there. Middle school in a new school. So, how does that go?
B: Obviously, the book will have to have bullies and it does. There’s this boy called Julian and there are a few more actually, but I can’t remember their names.
M: Oh dear. But there are always good guys too, right?
B: Obviously, yeah. There is a boy called Jack Will, and a girl called Summer, and they become Auggie’s friends. Auggie also has an older sister called Via – short for Olivia – who has a best friend called Miranda. Oh yeah, and he has a nice mum and dad.
M: Are those the main characters?
B: Yeah, pretty much. And there are no numbered chapters, but different parts of the story are told from different perspectives, so the first part is told by Auggie, then Summer, then Jack and some others.
M: That’s interesting. I like different voices in a story, it makes it more interesting, and different people perceive things differently too, so you get more of a feel for the characters when you can hear their thoughts. What was your favourite part in this story? Can you say, without any spoilers?
B: Ummm, I liked the part where Auggie was saved from these bullying 8th graders by his friends, but I can’t tell you when or where because that’s a spoiler.
M: Ok. Who was your favourite character then?
B: Probably Summer because she was nice to Auggie and she always says ‘cool beans’ and also Jack Will.
M: So what lesson did you learn from this book?
B: I think, that it’s ok to be different, we’re all unique in our different ways. Even though he had this deformity, Auggie was brave and he had to be a risk taker and go to school even though he didn’t want to, and he had to be responsible not to fight back against his bullies or just try to ignore them.
M: So, on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the best score, how would you rate Wonder?
B: 10 probably, because I liked it a lot.
M: Ok. Thanks Ben.
B: You’re welcome. Now can I play Roblox?
M: … (rolls eyes and sighs)

For ages 8 and up.

Flash Review: A Big Bed for Little Snow by Grace Lin

By Maureen Tai, 25 April 2021

In Grace Lin’s fun and beautifully illustrated A Big Bed for Little Snow (ages 3+), a little boy in snowflake-dotted pajamas gets a new bed at the start of winter. His mother says it’s for sleeping, not jumping. No sooner has she disappeared from view, the impish Little Snow cannot resist jumping on his puffy, feather-filled, cloud-like bed. With each jump, feathers burst out of his bed, feathers that are curiously snow-like … Lin accompanies her modern-day fable with masterful renderings of the exuberant Asian American boy. The pictures positively pop out of a white background, inviting the littlest ones to jump along!

Flash Review: The Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee

By Maureen Tai, 18 April 2021

In her delightful wordless picture book, The Farmer and the Clown (ages 3+), Marla Frazee tells the sweet, whimsical and heart-warming tale about the unexpected meeting between a solitary, grey, Prairie farmer and a bubbly, affectionate, baby clown. Having accidentally bounced off a passing train, the baby now clings to the dour farmer’s legs. The kindly old man brings the child home to his farmhouse, and as the night and day progresses in gorgeously atmospheric pencil-and-gouache illustrations, so blooms their endearing friendship. Younger readers will cherish this visually stunning and touching ode to the connective and redemptive power of kindness.

Flash Review: The Proudest Blue by Ibtihaj Muhammad & S.K. Ali, illustrated by Hatem Aly

By Maureen Tai, 11 April 2021

Olympic medallist Ibtihaj Muhammad and S.K. Ali have created a boldly empowering picture book (ages 5+) about a Muslim girl’s unshakeable faith and her loving relationship with her older sister, Asiya, who wears an ocean-blue hijab on the first day of school. As the day progresses, Faizah becomes anxious as several children show their prejudices with hurtful words and actions. The sisters’ strength of character, tempered by their mother’s wisdom, prevails gloriously in the end. The gorgeous, lyrical text in The Proudest Blue, accompanied by Hatem Aly’s sweeping, vibrant spreads will inspire pride in everything that makes us unique, including our faiths.

Flash Review: My Friend is Sad by Mo Willems

By Maureen Tai, 4 April 2021

My Friend is Sad (ages 2 +) is another funny, engaging and endearing instalment in Mo Willems’ Elephant & Piggie series of easy-readers. Stodgy, bespectacled Elephant is sad. His best friend, quirky, quick-thinking Piggie, decides to dress up as a cowboy, then a clown and finally a robot to cheer him up. Piggie’s plans fail, but not for reasons you’d expect! Deceptively simple, comic-like pictures perfectly convey the two friends’ distinct, yet complementary, personalities and wild swings of emotions while the large-sized speech-bubbled text will encourage younger readers to try their hand at reading independently. This hilarious story will tickle readers of all ages.

Flash Review: This is Hong Kong by M. Sasek

By Maureen Tai, 28 March 2021

Turning the pages of M. Sasek’s classic This is Hong Kong (ages 5+) with its evocative, detailed illustrations, is like stepping into history, to a time when the city’s streets were teeming: with rickshaws, hawkers and labourers carrying dried fish, silks or bricks on the end of bamboo poles, stylishly-coiffed ladies in cheongsams, and tourists seeking all manner of exotic goods. While some landmarks – notably the Tiger Balm Garden and Kai Tak Airport – and some sights – floating schools, traffic controllers in gazebos – no longer exist, Sasek’s pictorial ode to Hong Kong is enchanting for readers of all ages.

Flash Review: Ocean Meets Sky by The Fan Brothers

By Maureen Tai, 21 March 2021

In The Fan Brothers’ dreamy picture book Ocean Meets Sky (ages 5+), a Chinese boy named Finn honours his late grandfather by building a boat out of scrap wood and sea junk. After a nap, he embarks on a magical journey, looking for the place his grandfather told him about, where ocean meets sky. Aided by a gargantuan, moustached golden fish, Finn visits fantastical lands, encountering mystical creatures of the sea and of the sky, all gorgeously illustrated in breath-taking, blue-toned spreads. Finn’s story gently suggests that memories can keep a person alive, and that the imagination has the power to heal. (100 words).

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt

By Maureen Tai, 18 March 2021

The wood was at the center, the hub of the wheel. All wheels must have a hub. A Ferris wheel has one, as the sun is the hub of the wheeling calendar. Fixed points they are, and best left undisturbed, for without them, nothing holds together. But sometimes people find this out too late.

From the Prologue, Tuck Everlasting

I have to remind myself sometimes that when I extoll the virtues of reading “the Classics,” the Great Expectations and Jane Austen that I grew up with are now texts from the mists of antiquity and of absolutely no interest to my modern tween. But we still read together, my thirteen-going-on-eighteen-year old child and I, and we read Tuck Everlasting, as close to a classic as you can get these days. And what a marvellous classic this is.

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Flash Review: Tales from the Inner City by Shaun Tan

By Maureen Tai, 12 March 2021

One animal is featured in each of the twenty-five Tales from the Inner City, (ages 12+) a collection of pleasantly surreal and hauntingly philosophical short stories by celebrated Australian artist, illustrator and writer, Shaun Tan. Complemented by stunning and evocative artwork, Tan explores the troubled relationship between humans and animals. In deeply meaningful prose, he exposes the banality and pollutive effects of urban existence and suggests that nature – whilst fragile – is infinitely wiser and more resilient than humankind will ever be. This thought-provoking book will appeal to older children seeking to understand their place on this miraculous planet.

Flash Review: Thank you, Omu! by Oge Mora

By Maureen Tai, 7 March 2021

Thank you, Omu! (pronounced “AH-moo”) (ages 5+) by Nigerian author-illustrator Oge Mora, is a heart-warming picture book about kindness, diversity and inclusion. In her apartment in North America, Omu, a kindly grandmother figure, cooks a red stew. The delicious smell wafts into the surrounding neighbourhood, enticing many hungry visitors to Omu’s door. Generous Omu graciously shares her food, but at the end of the day, will there be any left for her own dinner? The vibrant, pastel-hued, mixed-media collage illustrations and lively story will engage and entice even younger children reading with parents or with others in a group setting.

Where’s Halmoni? by Julie Kim

By Maureen Tai, 3 March 2021

It’s not often that I feel so excited after reading a book that I immediately want to write a review about it! Where’s Halmoni?, a recent purchase from Bleak House Books (our favourite independent bookstore in Hong Kong), is a masterfully-illustrated, comic-esque graphic novel about Noona and Joon, a pair of effervescent, brave and snack-guzzling siblings. The children arrive at their grandmother’s cosy home one day to discover that Halmoni (“grandmother” in Korean) has gone missing!

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Flash Review: Another by Christian Robinson

By Maureen Tai, 28 February 2021

Another is a delightful and imaginative wordless picture book (ages 5+) by illustrator Christian Robinson that explores the wonderful, carefree world that is childhood. With bold and vibrant mixed-media and collage illustrations, Robinson shows a little girl and her red-collared kitty cat climb through a portal, embarking on an adventure in a topsy-turvy, parallel universe. A diverse group of children read, walk their pets, draw or play with hula hoops, and if you look closely, you’ll notice that each child – including the little girl and her kitty – has a doppelgänger! This is enchanting, seek-and-find book for even younger readers.

Flash Review: Teacup by Rebecca Young & illustrated by Matt Ottley

By Maureen Tai, 21 February 2021

Teacup (ages 5+) is a gorgeous picture book written by Rebecca Young and sumptuously illustrated by acclaimed artist, Matt Ottley. In lyrical, almost musical, prose, Young tells the story of a young boy who bravely climbs into a boat with a book, bottle, blanket and a teacup filled with earth, leaving his home for unknown reasons, bound for unknown lands. Ottley’s stunningly painted seascapes show the boy’s long journey in grand detail – at times frightening, lonely, wistful, but always magical and hopeful – to its satisfying conclusion. This enchanting read is a gentle introduction to displacement and the yearning for home. (100 words)

Flash Review: Big Red Lollipop by Rukhsana Khan

By Maureen Tai, 14 February 2021

Pakistani-Canadian writer Rukhsana Khan’s charming picture book, Big Red Lollipop (ages 5+), tells the universally relatable story of sibling rivalry, temptation and forgiveness. Rubina is invited to a birthday party. Her Muslim mother, unfamiliar with Western birthday party etiquette, insists that Rubina take along her younger sister, Sana. The foreseeable disastrous consequences unfold, further aggravated by the theft by Sana of the titular red lollipop. When Sana later faces the same situation, Rubina must decide if she’ll save or punish her sibling. Khan’s first-person narrative is compelling, honest and direct, while Sophie Blackall’s illustrations are rich with details and expressions. (100 words).

Flash Review: The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy

By Maureen Tai, 7 February 2021

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse is a unique graphic collection of profound, bite-sized meditations on friendship and kindness by illustrator, artist and author Charlie Mackesy. Framed as heart-to-heart conversations between the four titular friends, their friendship deepens with each page of Mackesy’s exquisite ink-and-pen illustrations, composed of masterfully executed undulating lines, bold flourishes and dreamy curlicues, sometimes with splashes of brooding watercolour, always with gorgeously handwritten text. The unnumbered pages are arranged so that readers of all ages can dip in, wherever they choose, alone or in company, and find solace, inspiration, wisdom and breath-taking beauty.
For ages 5 and up. (100 words)

Grandpa’s Angel by Jutta Bauer

By Maureen Tai, 5 February 2021

All in all, it’s been a beautiful life …even if at times a little strange.”

Grandpa

Ageing is an inevitable part of life. One of the hardest tasks for a parent is talking to young children about old age, in particular as it relates to beloved grandparents or other elderly friends and relatives. In her whimsical and imaginative illustrated story, Grandpa’s Angel, German author and illustrator Jutta Bauer manages to cover all the bases of this difficult conversation without plunging readers into the depths of depression. The book we read was also a delightfully compact A5 size, adding a subtle hint of playfulness to the experience.

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Flash Review: Stargazing by Jen Wang

By Maureen Tai, 31 January 2021

Stargazing is Jen Wang’s sweet, engaging and heart-warming graphic novel about friendship, fitting in and forgiveness. Christine finds herself blossoming, thanks to her friendship with the gregarious, fun-loving and artistic Moon, even as Moon struggles to meet the expectations of their tightly knit Asian American community. When Moon becomes more popular at school however, their friendship is put to the test. After tragedy strikes, Christine must decide if she can rise above her guilt and insecurities and become the friend that Moon needs. Wang’s gorgeous illustrations, beautifully colored by Lark Pien, make Stargazing a visual treat even for younger readers (100 words).

Flash Review: Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk

By Maureen Tai, 24 January 2021

The year I turned twelve, I learned that what I said and what I did mattered. So much, sometimes, that I wasn’t sure I wanted such a burden. But I took it anyway, and I carried it as best I could.

Annabelle

Set in rural Pennsylvania before the end of World War II, Wolf Hollow is a gripping and emotionally intense coming-of-age novel by Newbery Honor-winner Lauren Wolk. Twelve-year-old Annabelle’s idyllic, rustic life is upended by the arrival of the sadistic and duplicitous Betty Glengarry. To protect herself and a reclusive, war-scarred veteran from Betty’s escalating malice, Annabelle must trust her own instincts and act courageously – even by telling untruths – to fight for a justice that she alone believes in. Although the stark brutality is tempered by Wolk’s sparse, beautiful prose, Wolf Hollow is better suited to older middle graders. (100 words)

Flash Review: Last Stop on Market Street by Matt de la Pēna & illustrated by Christian Robinson

By Maureen Tai, 17 January 2021

He wondered how his nana always found beautiful where he never even thought to look.

CJ muses in Last Stop on Market Street

Matt de la Peña’s Last Stop on Market Street is a beautifully written picture book about appreciating diversity, finding happiness and helping those in need. On one of their weekly bus rides to the soup kitchen, CJ asks his nana questions about what he sees around him. His patient grandmother’s wise, kind responses help CJ come to appreciate differences and see joy and beauty in the everyday. De la Peña’s lyrical prose is a delight to read aloud, and Christian Robinson’s bold and bright collage-like illustrations will make younger readers itch to create drawings of their own lives and families. (100 words)

Flash Review: The Last Garden by Rachel Ip & illustrated by Anneli Bray

By Maureen Tai, 10 January 2021

Is it possible to write a book review in 100 words or less? Absolutely!

For 2021, we’re challenging ourselves to publish every week, bite-sized reviews of big, heartfelt stories that stay with us and that we hope will stay with you too. Kicking off with The Last Garden, a charming debut picture book for both its author and illustrator.

The Last Garden is local author, Rachel Ip’s gently thought-provoking picture book about wartime gardens and the enduring power of nature. Younger readers will be charmed by Anneli Bray’s sumptuous illustrations and the story of a city’s last garden, lovingly tended to by a little girl even as blackened buildings and smoke-filled skies surround it. As the fighting intensifies, the city’s residents are forced to flee, and the garden is abandoned. When peace, and the girl, finally return to the garden, a delightful surprise awaits! This poignant, yet hopeful story will spark discussions about courage and resilience during challenging times. (100 words)

New Year Resolutions

January 2021

Call me old-fashioned, or a die-hard optimist, or a dreamer, but I believe in new year resolutions. The end of a year, the beginning of a new one, the stick-drawn line in the sand, the restart button, the brand new Hobonichi Techo, the newly inked pen, the endless possibilities, the hope, always, the hope.

So we begin 2021 with a resolve to write and share more regularly the book reviews of the more books that we will read. My own personal resolution, as I press ahead on my journey to become a writer, is to write and to publish, to finally earn that “writer” title for myself and to make stories that will stay with us, and with many others.

May 2021 herald new beginnings and brilliant hopes for all of you!

Anna, Ben & Maureen

Dog Man: Grime and Punishment by Dav Pilkey

By Maureen Tai and Ben, 31 December 2020

It’s YOUR story, kid. You can color it any way you want.

Petey, the Bad Guy who turns good

Chastened and changed: what a fitting way to end what has been a sobering, eye-opening and challenging year. I’d always assumed that the wildly popular Dog Man books were commercially successful yet held scant literary value, a bit like mass produced fast food which gave you a satisfied tummy for an afternoon, but zero long term nourishment. In one of the long hours of being a housebound, responsible, non-Covid spreading citizen, I begrudgingly read and, to my surprise, enjoyed Dog Man: Grime and Punishment, the latest Dog Man adventure that I had gotten Ben for Christmas (at his insistence). It had all the hallmarks of an unforgettable read: clever and punchy dialogue, an outlandish yet compelling storyline, unusual yet loveable characters, bold and brightly coloured pictures, and most importantly (for me anyway), emotional depth and wisdom. I stood corrected, Ben was triumphant, and the last blog post for 2020 was decided.

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War is Over by David Almond & illustrated by David Litchfield

30 November 2020, by Maureen Tai

“They tried to be good children. John tried to be a good boy. He knelt by the bed and said his prayers each night…But each morning he woke and there seemed to be no end to come. The war continued.”

We have regaled in the victory story of World War I for so long that we have forgotten, not so much how horrific the events were, but how tenuous its ending was for those who lived in those times. Back then, there was no certainty of triumph, no guarantee of freedom. No one knew when the war would end. War is Over is a powerful reminder of the anxiety, fear, confusion and desperation of the war years, embodied in a gentle, young Northern English boy called John. John’s father is away in France, fighting the enemy. His mam works long, wearying shifts at a nearby munitions factory that John’s class visits one day on a school outing. On that same day, John meets Jan, a German boy.

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The Garden of Inside-Outside by Chiara Mezzalama & illustrated by Régis Lejonc, translated by Sarah Ardizzone

By Maureen Tai, 2 November 2020

Inside-outside, inside-outside … These words were going round and round inside my head, until they gave me a headache.

Chiara Mezzalama

It is the end of 1980. Iraq is under the power of Saddam Hussein and a bitter enemy of Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s Supreme Leader. A war breaks out between the two nations that will end, unresolved, eight years later.

It is during this time of turmoil that Chiara, her younger brother, and her parents move to Tehran. Chiara’s father is the Italian ambassador to Iran, and the family take up residence in an opulent house surrounded by a vast, verdant and glorious garden, bordered by a wall that keeps the “city-monster” of war at bay. Or does it?

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Silent Days, Silent Dreams by Allen Say

By Maureen Tai, 8 September 2020

James opened his eyes to the world and saw things that moved and things that were still. … For him the world would always be silent.

I had the good fortune to hear the publisher Arthur A. Levine speak as a panellist on a Zoom video conference recently and he talked about how he was always on the hunt for “beautiful books.” That term stuck with me, and it was almost serendipitous to see Arthur’s name on the inside front flap of the achingly beautiful and hauntingly melancholic picture book, Silent Days, Silent Dreams. I am a big fan of the Japanese-American author and illustrator, Allen Say (see my earlier review of his autobiographical picture book, Grandfather’s Journey) and I am glad to have had his – and Arthur’s – guiding hands in my quest to seek out picture books about lesser known artists. James Castle was one such artist.

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Save Me A Seat by Sarah Weekes & Gita Varadarajan

By Maureen Tai, 27 August 2020

“Most people in America cannot pronounce my name.” – Ravi
” My name is Joe, but that’s not what most people call me.” – Joe

In a world that desperately needs to hear diverse voices, especially those that have been traditionally silenced by louder, more strident ones, Save Me A Seat serves up not one but two extremely likeable and authentic voices. This heartwarming middle grade book, a unique and masterfully executed collaboration between two accomplished authors, recounts the events of the first week at Albert Einstein Elementary School, New Jersey, as experienced by two very different fifth graders. Ravi, bespectacled and small-built, “shrimpy” by some accounts, recently arrived with his family from India, and Joe, earbuds in his ears and toweringly tall, “big footed” by other accounts. How will our two main protagonists survive their first week of American cafeteria food, let alone the predations of the hateful class bully?

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The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste

By Ben, 13 August 2020

the-jumbies-cover-530x796When I was in primary school in Malaysia, my best friend and I would scare ourselves silly by reading the Dark Forces series of teen horror story books. The cover art alone was spine-chilling, and woe betide if you read too late into the night. I swear that I saw the long-haired blond girl with the Ouija board in our bathroom a couple of times. Recently, I decided it was time for Ben and I to make our foray into much less scary middle grade chapter books. The Jumbies had been on my reading list for ages. This is what Ben thought of the ghost-infested fast-paced thriller. Continue reading

A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park

By Maureen Tai, 21 July 2020

“Tree-ear was so called after the mushroom that grew in wrinkled half-circles on dead or fallen tree trunks, emerging from the rotten wood without benefit of parent seed. A good name for an orphan, Crane-man said.” 

IMG_2379 I love fictional middle-grade stories set in an unfamiliar time and place, be it in the past, present or distant imagined future, which also retain a link to people or things that are real or once tangible. In addition to the satisfaction of having read a good yarn, it is exciting to discover something new about the world. It’s a little like finally finding out the use for that doohickey that’s sat in the kitchen drawer for years. Linda Sue Park’s engrossing A Single Shard hits both notes. It tells the story of a possibly 12 year old boy called Tree-ear, and is set in a little village in Korea in the 12th century during a period when Korean celadon pottery was at its zenith. The exquisite jade green colour of this pottery, which also featured delicate inlay work, was achieved through the confluence of skilled artisanship, unwavering dedication, purity of materials and creative innovation. In Tree-ear’s case, he has some helping hands along the way. Continue reading

The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes & illustrated by Louis Slobodkin

By Ben, 30 June 2020

Wanda lived way up on Boggins Heights, and Boggins Heights was no place to live.

IMG_2234I read The Hundred Dresses some years ago, when Anna was still in lower school. Back then, she was grappling with playground politics for the first time – best friends who made unreasonable requests and cliques that excluded her because she didn’t have the latest trendy toy – and fumbling miserably. I listened to her woes, soothed and counselled but decided ultimately, to allow her to find her own solutions and to make her own way. “Little girls can be so mean,” was a common refrain from other parents, and I urged Anna to try as best she could but in every circumstance to be kind, regardless of how others were treating her. She didn’t always succeed, but then again, neither did I when I was her age, nor did Maddie and Peggy, the two main characters in Eleanor Estes’ classic story about a little girl who is ostracised and bullied by her unkind classmates. Continue reading

Sweep by Louise Greig & illustrated by Julia Sardà

By Maureen Tai, 16 June 2020

Ed was in a bad mood.

IMG_1492Books about big emotions are popular in our household. One of my favourites is Sweep, a gorgeously illustrated picture book that tells the charming cautionary tale of what happens when a sandy haired boy called Ed allows his bad mood to sweep him off his feet. We open with Ed, all bundled up in a heavy coat, a woolly hat on his head and a long scarf twirled around his neck, pulled up to cover almost all of his face. He’s dressed for Covid-19, and he’s very, very angry. Continue reading

Hattie by Frida Nilsson & illustrated by Stina Wirsén

By Maureen Tai, 9 June 2020

Hattie doesn’t even live in the middle of nowhere. She lives outside it.

IMG_1194I love growing-up stories (fictional or otherwise) as they allow me to relive my own rather idyllic childhood spent in a small town in Malaysia. Hattie is a charming, not-quite-middle grade chapter book, translated from Swedish, that follows the irrepressibly mischievous yet irresistibly loveable six-year old from her first day of her first year of school to the summer holidays. Each chapter is a short, self-contained story of an event in Hattie’s life and while each event is actually pretty “normal”, they are very, very funny to read about. Ben points out when we read together that he is reminded of Nicholas and the Gang and I agree very much with his observation. Continue reading

Beetle Boy by M.G. Leonard

By Ben, 17 May 2020

“Tracing the constellations his father had taught him to recognize, he wondered if somewhere under this night sky his father was looking up and thinking of him.”

IMG_8847My paperback edition of Beetle Boy has colourful and intricately designed beetles printed on one of its edges. If I must be honest, that is what drew me to the book when I picked it up at a Waterstones in London several years ago. What drew me to it this time around was my desire to introduce my 9 year old to more challenging adventure-driven middle grade stories. This is what Ben thought.

M: Can you tell me what Beetle Boy is about without spoiling it?
B: It’s about a boy called Darkus whose dad goes missing. Darkus, his Uncle Max, and his friends, Virginia and Bertolt, are trying to find out where he went. Did he get kidnapped? And how did he go missing?
M: I see. So this is a Missing Person mystery. What is the protagonist like?
B: You mean the main person? Well, Darkus is a nice boy because he really wants to find his dad, and he’s smart because he comes up with all sorts of plans.
M: Is he your favourite character in the book?
B: Err, no, I don’t actually have a favourite character. I don’t know why.
M: OK then, why don’t you name me some characters that you remember and why they are particularly memorable to you?
B: There’s Bertolt, a nerdy kid, and Virginia, who is really sporty.
M: These are the good guys, right?
B: Yeah. Should we tell people about the bad guys?
M: That might be helpful.
B: Well, the main villain is Lucretia Cutter who used to be a scientist but is now a rich fashion person. She always wears dark glasses and a laboratory coat and wears gold lipstick. She has walking sticks, but they’re not really walking sticks, they are …
M: Hmmm, I don’t think we should give too much away. No spoilers, right?
B: Oh yeah. Well, she’s the main evil person. There are two other bad people, Humphrey and Pickering, but they don’t really work for Lucretia Cutter. They’re Darkus’ neighbours and they are rude and they always fight with each other.
M: So what about the beetles, like in the title of the book? Are there beetles in this story?
B: Yeah, because Darkus finds a beetle who can understand humans. For example, if Darkus tells the beetle to do a loop-de-loop, the beetle does it, so it can follow human instructions. Basically, the beetle becomes Darkus’ pet and he gets called Baxter after like, a soup box or something.
M: I see. Is Baxter the only human-like, intelligent beetle?
B: No, there are some other clever beetles that they find that become pets of Bertolt and Virginia, and they all end up working together to try to find Darkus’ dad, which …
M: Ah ah ah! No giving away the end now.
B: Oh yeah. It’s hard not to give away the ending!
M: Did you learn anything about beetles after reading this book?
B: Umm, well. Maybe that there are lots of types of beetles? My favourite was the Goliath beetle because it is very big and it has a cool name. But it is really sad because in the end …
M: OK, I think we can wrap this up now. So, would you recommend this book and why?
B: Yes, I would because it’s a scary book, but still pretty interesting and you keep wanting to turn the pages to read it.
M: Lastly, three words to describe the story.
B: Ummmmm. Intriguing. Worrying. Funny, but only sometimes. Can I play with my Switch now?
M: [Eye-roll]

For ages 8 and up.