Flash Review: This Small Blue Dot by Zeno Sworder

By Maureen Tai, 12 December 2022

How do you welcome a baby brother or sister into the world? What words of wisdom can you dispense? (especially if you’re not that much older yourself, even if you look like your grandmother and your mother when they were your age, and you don’t think about it yet, but your children and grandchildren will possibly look like you when they become the age you are now). How do you tell your baby sibling about the small blue dot that is your home, your entire world, your universe? How do you explain the creations of Mother Nature (broccoli notwithstanding), the wonders of the human imagination, the marvel of being alive?

I’ll tell you how (and you don’t have to keep it a secret, in fact, you absolutely HAVE TO share this precious nugget of information): you pick up a lovely illustrated picture book called This Small Blue Dot (ages 3+) and you read it out loud – by yourself or with a grown-up – while gazing at the gorgeously pencil-drawn little girl with glasses on her black-hair-fringed face and admiring the crayon scribbles that look as if you could have drawn them (seriously!). When you’re done, you’ll feel this bubbly, happy feeling, and you’ll want to explore, and love, the world around you and everything in it! After all, that’s the whole point, isn’t it?

Flash Review: Lizard’s Tale by Weng Wai Chan

By Maureen Tai, 28 October 2022

The titular Lizard in this middle grade, historical thriller and riveting page-turner is a poor, green-eyed boy of mixed parentage. Abandoned by his Chinese mother and subsequently by his beloved British uncle, Lizard survives on petty crime and odd jobs in 1940s Singapore. His life is turned upside down when a job – to steal a teak box from a hotel room in the swish Raffles Hotel – goes horribly and unexpectedly wrong. The next thing he knows, Lizard is on the run. But why? From whom? What are the secret contents of the teak box? Suddenly, everything Lizard knows is not what they seem to be. Even his best friend Lili, his neighbour and a lover of curry puffs. Could she be more than just the daughter of a Chinese tailor living in Chinatown? Lizard’s Tale (ages 8+) will have you at the edge of your seat as you follow Lizard on his perilous quest to unravel the mystery surrounding his contraband. What is just as exciting for an older, Asian reader like me, is to see authentic details of pre-war Singapore both big – like the Raffles Hotel – and small – like the Brylcreem used by a local thug to slick down his hair – in a traditionally published, middle grade novel. Unputdownable.

Flash Review: Paper Son by Julie Leung, illustrated by Chris Sasaki

By Maureen, 17 October 2022

Paper Son (ages 5+) is an atmospheric, lyrical and gorgeously illustrated non-fiction picture book about the journey of a little Chinese boy to the USA, the Gold Mountain of many immigrant dreams in the early part of the 1900s. To fulfil the American immigration requirements at the time, the boy must assume an alternative, fictitious identity, becoming a zi jai or “paper son.” After an initial hiccup at the border, the boy is ultimately reunited with his father in their new homeland. Christened Tyrus by his teachers, the boy’s new life begins…but how does it end? The grim realities of immigrant life – both what is lost and what is gained – are lightly touched upon, but at the heart of the story is Tyrus’ unremitting love for, and belief in, his own form and style of art, and how this love carried him through to the end of his days. A poignant and heartwarming introduction for younger readers to the topics of Chinese immigration and resilience.

Inkling by Kenneth Oppel & illustrated by Sydney Smith

By Ben, 10 October 2022

Ben and I recently read Inkling (ages 8+), an imaginative and emotionally satisfying middle-grade novel by the author of the dark, gripping and suspenseful The Nest. We had a chat about it after breakfast.

M: So, can you tell me, in a nutshell, what Inkling is about?
B: It’s about a boy called Ethan and an ink splotch that comes to life called Inkling that draws things.
M: It’s like a fantasy story?
B: Kinda fantasy, kinda fiction? It’s suspenseful. Also well-written and funny in parts.
M: What sort of kid is Ethan? Is he like anyone you know?
B: [Thinking] No, he isn’t. He’s very protective of Inking though, so he’s a nice kid …
M: … and he’s also protective of his younger sister too, right?
B: Yeah, he’s really good at looking after his younger sister Sarah, he’s very kind to her and plays games with her and stuff. But then Sarah’s not annoying like my sister [knowing look] …
M: Ummm, let’s not bring your sister into this [rolling eyes]. Let’s get back to the story. So, this Inkling draws things …
B: Yeah, when Inkling goes onto pages in a book, all the words and pictures get sucked up into him, like he’s an eraser but more effective, and then he starts talking like the books he eats. So if he reads an old book, he’ll start speaking in old English like an old person.
M: Hmmm. Inking doesn’t have a mouth or eyes, does he? How does he talk?
B: He speaks by writing the words on paper or on any surface, but his one weakness is glass. He slips on glass so he can’t climb up the wall of a glass or a tank which is where he gets trapped by the bad girl …
M: No, no spoilers!
B: Oh, ok.
M: But there are bad people in this story?
B: Yeah, the main bad characters are Vika and her father. Vika is Ethan’s rival at school. She’s mean and sneaky but she’s also really good at drawing …
M: But Ethan’s not that good?
B: At the start of the story he isn’t, but then he gets good at it by the end.
M: If you had Inkling, what would you get him to do for you?
B: [No hesitation] If I had Inkling, I’d get him to do my homework and school for me.
M: Well, it’s a good thing you don’t have him then!

Flash Review: The Weight of our Sky by Hanna Alkaf

By Maureen Tai, 3 October 2022

The place is Kuala Lumpur. The year is 1969. A Paul Newman movie is playing at the Rex cinema and the Beatles are big. Melati is a 16-year-old Malay schoolgirl whose recently-widowed mother, Salmah, works as a nurse in a hospital. To Melati, Paul McCartney is the best Paul in the world. Her best friend Safiyah begs to differ. These are the normal, comforting parts of the opening scenes in older teen/young adult novel, The Weight of our Sky (ages 12 and up). What is less usual is how Melati constantly taps her fingers and desperately counts in threes. What is more disquieting are the visions that persistently fill Melati’s head: graphic, gory, uninvited images of Salmah being killed in any number of violent ways. What is grippingly page-turning is the story of Melati’s separation from, and search for, her mother during the Chinese-Malay riots that plunged the newly-independent Malaysia into bloodshed and chaos on 13 May 1969.

The significance of Alkaf’s debut novel is not just the emergence of an exciting, compelling voice in traditional children’s publishing but the prominent feature – I think, for the first time – of Malaysian history, culture and language in a children’s book published by a large, Western publisher. Malay and Chinese words are not italicised. There is no glossary. Just as any book from the US or UK appears to readers in Asia without an explanation of what a snickerdoodle is or how snow angels are made, this unabashedly Malaysian story stands on its own. Without apology and without footnotes, the strong, convincing storytelling an authentic, important and welcome contribution to diversity in contemporary children’s literature. We look forward to hearing more from Alkaf in the years to come.

Flash Review: Varjak Paw by S. F. Said

By Maureen Tai, 26 September 2022

In S.F. Said’s imaginative, engrossing and dark-ish middle-grade novel, Varjak Paw (ages 8+), the titular cat is no ordinary feline but a Mesopotamian Blue. This exotic, ancient breed is descended from Jalal, legendary adventurer and hunter. The stories about Jalal, legends in their own right, are recounted by Varjak’s grandfather, and they intoxicate the young kitten, so much so that the venerated ancestor starts appearing to Varjak in his dreams. When a strange, malevolent Gentleman and his two murderous black cats suddenly appear on the scene, ending Varjak’s life as he knows it, our hero realises that he will need to master the long-forgotten Seven Skills in the Way of Jalal in order to save himself, his family and his newfound friends. A compelling story about loyalty, courage, finding (and believing) in yourself. And obviously, a perfect read for cat lovers.

Flash Review: Astrid the Unstoppable by Maria Parr, translated by Guy Puzey

By Maureen Tai, 19 September 2022

Nine-year old Astrid Glimmerdal has lion’s mane hair, a farmer dad, a marine scientist mother, a pet seagull and a curmudgeonly, ex-troll best friend/godfather. She is also the only child in her small, remote and fictional village of Glimmerdal (her namesake). Nestled at the foot of snow-capped mountains, the village is also home to the irritable Klaus Hagen and his adults-only Wellness Retreat, lovelorn digger-owner Peter, window-peeper-and-people-snooper Sally, and dog-owning-hair-stylist Theo. With this delightful setting and such an intriguing cast of characters, it is inevitable that a charmingly written, funny and touching story flows, as surely as the babbling waters of the River Glimmerdal, from the pages of Astrid the Unstoppable. In this middle grade novel, translated from the original Norwegian, Astrid – the self-proclaimed thunderbolt of Glimmerdal – uncovers secrets about her nearest and dearest while making new friends and leaving a trail of havoc in her wake. Irrepressible, spirited and adventurous souls aged 8 and up will adore this engaging read (I certainly did!).

Flash Review: We Belong by Cookie Hiponia

By Maureen Tai, 29 August 2022

We Belong (ages 10+) is a middle grade novel that could just as easily pass – in my opinion, more so – for an adult memoir. Elsie, the mother of two energetic girls, is the novel’s main narrator. It is bedtime and the sisters are clamouring for attention, so Elsie tells them stories, weaving two tales with lyrical, sparse verse: one is an old Filipino myth about Bathala Maykapal, the Creator God, and his half-human children, and the other is Elsie’s real childhood story about her family’s immigration from the Philippines to America in the 1980s. The playful mother-daughter dialogue, the shifting points of view, and the pretty, monochromatic line illustrations balance out some of the darker themes that are lightly explored in Elsie’s stories: the violent maiming of one heavenly sibling by another, the abusive relationship between Elsie and her own mother, and the turbulent times leading up to, and after, the 1983 assassination of Senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. in the Philippines. As a mother of similar vintage as the author and having personally experienced the immigrant life (albeit in my adolescence), We Belong was an emotional and resonant read. More importantly, the book was a springboard for sharing my life stories with my own children, making it a perfect bedtime tale to snuggle up with and experience together.

Flash Review: Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga

By Maureen Tai, 22 August 2022

Other Words for Home (ages 10+) is a lyrical, thoughtful and ultimately hopeful middle grade, verse novel about the flight of a young Syrian girl and her mother from their conflict-torn homeland. Jude is like any other teenage girl: she has a best friend with whom she does everything, she loves snacking on her favourite teatime treats (to the detriment of dinner), and she adores movies, fancying herself a doppelgänger for a glamorous American movie star. Only now, Jude is miles away from her old life and from her old home: parted from half of her immediate family, her best friend, her favourite cafe, even Arabic, her mother tongue. Anxious and bereft, the young girl must be strong for her mother and learn to adjust to her new life in America. Jude replays her older brother’s parting whisper of “Be brave“, over and over again like a mantra as she faces the uncertainties of life as a refugee in a country that slowly, but sure, becomes another place she can call home. The honest and beautiful storytelling explores difficult topics – racism, war, death – with a reverent but light touch, making this novel suitable even for younger readers who might find such topics emotionally challenging. As an adult reader, I was particularly taken with the clever and subtle way in which the author weaves in references to the protagonist’s Syrian/Muslim culture, for example the Arabic proverb: She cannot give what she does not have. I feel that I too now, like Jude, better understand what it means, and am all the better for it.

Double Review: Bad Sister by Charise Mericle Harper & illustrated by Rory Lucey; Smaller Sister by Maggie Edkins Willis

By Ben & Maureen Tai, 15 August 2022

During our annual summer visit to Toronto – our first in three years – my kids and I stopped by Little Island Comics, our favourite independent bookshop in the city for children’s comics and graphic novels. Coming from book-starved Hong Kong, we were giddy with excitement and hardly able to restrain ourselves from carrying armfuls of new finds to the cashier’s counter. As I added Smaller Sister (ages 10+), a graphic novel by Maggie Edkins Willis to my stack, I was heartened and pleasantly surprised to see an unfamiliar title, Bad Sister (ages 8+), tucked in among my tween son’s pile (yes, boys are NOT always put off by books about girls).

Both books are about the uniquely multi-layered and complicated relationship between siblings, one told from the point of view of Lucy, the well-meaning, hapless younger sister in Smaller Sister, and the other, from the point of view of Charise, the energetic, cat-loving and inexplicably mean older sister in Bad Sister. I chat with Ben to get his take on these two engrossing sisterly reads.

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Flash Review: The Happiest Tree by Hyeon-Ju Lee

By Maureen Tai, 8 August 2022

In The Happiest Tree, a tender, quietly philosophical picture book (ages 3+) by Korean writer and illustrator, Hyeon-Ju Lee, a young gingko tree is planted next to a row of apartment buildings. As the tree grows taller, what it sees through the windows of the building changes. The ground floor apartment bustles with little children at piano class. Several years later, the tree discovers that its ramrod straight trunk and fan-like leaves are inspiration for the artist who lives on the second floor. By the time the tree reaches the third floor of the building, and is able to look into the Kong’s canine-filled apartment, it is seventeen years old and living its happiest days. But seasons change, as seasons must, and the tree now spends lonely hours as it continues to age. As the tree grows closer and closer to the top of the building, it wonders, what lies ahead? Through joy and sorrow, the gingko tree remains patiently resolute and quietly optimistic, arguably the best way to be, not only for a tree but for all sentient beings on this miraculous earth. The sparse, yet effective text and thoughtful, charming illustrations make this unusual picture book a keeper for any bookshelf.

Flash Review: Win Lose Kill Die by Cynthia Murphy

By Anna, 1 August 2022

Upper middle-grade/young adult mystery/crime thriller, Win Lose Kill Die by Cynthia Murphy (ages 13+) opens at the beginning of a new school year at Morton Academy, a school where students are selected based on academic excellence. It’s the first day back at school, and protagonist/teen student Liz and her best friend, Taylor, are at a memorial assembly for Morgan, the head girl of the Academy. The past summer, Morgan and Liz were in a boat that flipped, resulting in Morgan’s death from drowning and Liz sustaining a bad head injury that leaves her hospitalised for most of the summer break. Morgan’s death is declared an accident, until the replacement head girl Jameela receives a chilling note threatening her life. Liz and Taylor, along with their friends, Kat, Marcus, and Cole, set out to find who is behind the terrible fates that have befallen their classmates, and how to protect other students from succumbing to the same deadly end.

The dark, creepy story is told mainly from the perspective of Liz, one of Morton’s top students. In between these chapters, the narrative switches to the perspective of the person behind the mystery; chilling disclosures from the murderer, telling readers how the killing actions were planned and committed. The descriptive writing, believable characters and unpredictable plot line make Win Lose Kill Die an absorbing page-turner that will appeal to fans of the series, Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens and A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson.

Summer Giveaway!

By Maureen Tai, 5 June 2022

We’re celebrating our 200th book review by giving away two signed copies of YA verse memoir, Blue² by Luna Orchid. Find out more about this beautifully written and moving, authentic Hong Kong story by checking out the Scholastic Asia interview with the author during the book’s official launch at the Asian Festival of Children’s Content 2022.

Two winners from anywhere in the world will be sent a signed copy.

Here’s how you can enter:

👉 LIKE this post
👉 Recommend a YA book to review in the comment section
👉 SHARE the giveaway on your IG story or Twitter feed for 1 bonus entry (be sure to tag me so I see that you’ve shared it)

Winners will be randomly drawn on 30 June 2022. GOOD LUCK EVERYONE!

Flash Review: Elsa and the Night by Jöns Mellgren & translated by Anita Shenoi

By Maureen Tai, 31 May 2022

In Elsa and the Night, an art-gallery worthy picture book (4 – 8 years old) that doubles as a bedtime story, the titular Elsa is a homely looking badger who doesn’t like raisins. One early morning, as she is picking the sweet morsels out of her granola, she hears something moving underneath her sofa. Cleverly, Elsa entices the intruder with a saucer of sugar and success! She captures a cup-sized, fish-wriggly, shadowy-grey creature that turns out to be Night, somehow having carelessly wandered into Elsa’s house. Rather impulsively, the badger pops the creature into a tin and shuts it away in the basement without a second thought. Except, as the day drags on interminably without any respite or end in sight, Elsa begins to doubt the wisdom of her actions. Elsa eventually releases Night from captivity, and tells the newly-resuscitated creature the melancholic story of how she lost her ability to sleep after suffering a tragic loss …

Elsa’s tale of loss and redemption is told in simple, poetic language and with a wry humour that will resonate with fans of other similar darkish, contemplative picture books such as Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch. What makes Elsa and the Night stand out are the simply breathtaking illustrations: gorgeous scenes drawn from interesting angles and perspectives, splashed with warm, muted tones of plum, chocolate, cornmeal and sage. A delightful Swedish treat from start to finish, and a story that will most certainly stay with me.

Flash Review: Ariol by Emmanuel Guibert, illustrated by Marc Boutavant & translated by Joe Johnson

By Maureen Tai, 2 May 2022

Ariol is a small, bespectacled blue donkey who lives with his parents. He goes to school where he has a best friend (the irrepressible piglet, Ramono), a crush (the lovely heifer, Petula), a secret admirer (the long-suffering fly, Bizzbilla) and a class chock full of interesting characters (Pharmafluff, the hypochondriac lamb and Kwax, the music-loving duckling, to name just a couple). In short, Ariol is just an ordinary donkey, except that his suburban life with his family and friends is chronicled in the most delightful, charming and distinctly French style in this middle grade, graphic novel series named after its titular character. Young readers will love the funny, resonant stories and the brightly-coloured illustrations while older readers – including adults – will enjoy the off-beat humour and accurate depictions of the brutal honesty and staggering self-centredness of young children. The best thing? There are several books in the series, so extremely binge worthy!

For ages 8 and up.

Flash Review: Are You An Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko, narrated & translated by David Jacobson, Sally Ito & Michiko Tsuboi & illustrated by Toshikado Hajiri

By Maureen Tai, 24 April 2022

Lost, but then found: the tender, luminous poetry of Misuzu Kaneko (1903 – 1929) and the story of her short, tragic life, unearthed through the obsessive, dogged determination of children’s writer, Setsuo Yazaki.

Are You An Echo? (ages 8+) is a beautifully rendered, picture book biography, the first English language publication of the Japanese poet’s works. Kaneko, the daughter of bookstore owners, stayed in school until her late teens, highly unusual for girls of that time. A reader and keen observer of every day life – from fish in the sea and pictures in a book to a flower seller and a pile of snow – Kaneko became a published writer of stories and poems for children by her early twenties, fading into obscurity after her premature death by her own hand. It would be many decades before Kaneko’s poems would be found by Yazaki (after a 16-year search!) and her voice rediscovered.

Kaneko’s poems, exquisite in their simplicity, sense of wonder and child-like playfulness, are now well-known and well-loved in Japan, in particular in the wake of the devastating 2011 tsunami. Despite her own dark troubles, Kaneko composed words of hope and joy that continue to touch and heal to this day, and this picture book – truly a labour of love – is a gentle, poignant and thought-provoking homage to the poet’s beautiful soul and her legacy. It is tempting to think that Kaneko herself would have heartily approved.

Flash Review: Ordinary Hazards by Nikki Grimes

By Maureen Tai, 17 April 2022

In Ordinary Hazards (ages 14+), Nikki Grimes’ eye-and-heart-opening verse memoir for young adults, she recounts her trauma-filled childhood and tumultuous teenage years with unflinching honesty, breathtaking courage and luminous prose. Despite being born to a mother bedevilled by mental illness and alcoholism, forcibly separated from her only sibling, seemingly abandoned by her musician father and sexually assaulted by her mother’s lover (this list of harrowing life circumstances being, by no means, exhaustive), the author not only survives but thrives, sustained primarily by her unbridled passion for reading and writing. As the words of Kahlil Gibran gave the author solace and inspiration, so do her words – never self-pitying but always strong and hopeful and resilient – give solace and inspiration to her readers. Ordinary Hazards is a powerful, anything-but-ordinary, coming-of-age story of glorious triumph over heartbreaking adversity. A note for parents: the novel deals with mature themes and includes (appropriately) strong language.

Flash Review: The Legend of Auntie Po by Shing Yin Khor

By Maureen Tai, 10 April 2022

The Legend of Auntie Po (ages 11+) is a brilliantly imaginative, sweet and tenderly hopeful graphic novel about a 13-year-old cook and her coming-of-age in a Sierra Nevada logging camp. The year is 1885. Despite being born in America, Mei’s Chinese ancestry guarantees that she is doomed to be an outsider and to suffer the same hardships in life as her principled, hard-working and ancestor-worshipping father. At least, that’s what Mei herself believes until the day Auntie Po Pan Yin, the god of her made-up stories appears before her for real! Accompanied by Pei Pei, her trusty, adorable blue buffalo, Auntie Po is the infamous mother of all loggers, taller than the tallest trees in the forest, a gigantic god with her grey hair in a grandmotherly bun. As Mei grapples with fledgling romantic feelings for her best friend Bee, witnesses racist abuse meted out to her fellow countrymen, and endures a tragedy that befalls her logging crew, will Auntie Po and Pei Pei come to their rescue? This multi-layered and multi-faceted read marries myth with legend, historical fact with fiction, and acceptance with racism, showing that in the end, love always triumphs as do our gods whom we can’t always see. P.S. You don’t have to know about Paul Bunyan to appreciate this book. I didn’t, and still don’t.

Flash Review: The Year of the Dog by Grace Lin

By Maureen Tai, 3 April 2022

In the charming, semi-autobiographical, middle grade novel, The Year of the Dog (ages 8+), the Taiwanese American narrator has a whole year – the animal year she was born in – to find out who she is. Pacy starts the year lucky, making a new best friend at school and welcoming a new baby cousin to her loving, close-knit family. However, a series of disappointments leaves her questioning if her luck has finally run out … Pacy’s endearingly honest, first-person narrative is masterfully interspersed with stories recounted by Pacy’s mother of her own childhood in Taiwan and early immigrant experience in America. While the multi-generational and cross-continental setting, richly coloured with Chinese beliefs and traditions, will resonate with readers of Chinese descent, Lin’s metaphorical and often humorous prose (not to mention her cute line drawings) makes The Year of the Dog a universally appealing and timeless read.

Restart by Gordon Korman

By Ben, 27 March 2022

I first heard of Restart (ages 10+) a middle grade, realistic fiction novel about second chances, from my daughter while she was still in middle school and a keen participant for her school in the Battle of the Books competition. It was the only book she had willingly read several times, and enjoyed each time. So when I found a copy among the piles of donated books in our local secondhand bookshop for kids, Rebooked, I took that as a sign. I had to read it too.

And as usual, Ben came along for the ride.

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J-Boys: Kazuo’s World, Tokyo, 1965 by Shogo Oketani, translated by Avery Fischer Udagawa

By Maureen Tai, 20 March 2022

Some months ago, I had the pleasure of hearing literary translator, Avery Fischer Udagawa, read an excerpt from J-Boys (ages 10 and up), a refreshingly unique, memoir-style middle grade novel set in post-war Tokyo. I was so taken by the reading that I vowed to track down the book to share with my 11-year-old son, a feat I accomplished only several months later, but it could not have been more timely. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had just begun and anxiety-inducing pronouncements of World War III were being shared and reshared on his school chat rooms like a nasty piece of schoolyard gossip. The time had come to talk about the reality of war, not as a vaguely discomforting series of grim facts from an unconnected past, but as a terrible ever-present violence that humans are capable of inflicting upon one another. What I didn’t expect was how J-Boys would help me frame that conversation.

J-Boys chronicles, in a series of linked, short stories, the life of a fourth-grade Japanese schoolboy, Kazuo, spanning 8 months in 1965. World War II ended two decades ago but its long shadow lingers, in particular for those who lived through those turbulent times. The effects of the war – nothing gory or grisly – are referred to fairly frequently throughout the book. Fortunately, Kazuo’s world, compared to that of his parents’, is infinitely more idyllic. He lives with his mum, dad and dog-obsessed younger brother in small but comfortable company housing. He does his homework in front of their black-and-white TV. He has a posse of friends who become the titular J-Boys: Nobuo, the butcher’s son, Minoru, a Korean boy, and Akira, a professor’s son. After school, they play in an empty lot before heading home for family dinners where fresh tofu – which Nobuo dislikes – features prominently. Kazuo loves curry rice, but hates miruku, a foul-tasting skimmed milk beverage that is forced on school children. He loves watching TV, but hates studying. He longs to try an American-style hanbaagaa (hamburger) but has to settle for a wafu (Japanese-style) hanburuguru steak instead (inexplicably, the word hanburuguru becomes my son’s new favourite word). While the events in Kazuo’s life are semi-fictional, the non-fictional elements of the setting are – or were – real, as explained in small shaded text boxes, unobtrusively interspersed with the narrative.

In these hyper-fast, instant-gratification times that we live in, we forget that what nourishes the body most is a long, warm soak in the bath, not constant jolts to the senses. J-Boys is not an irreverent graphic novel, page-turning adventure, nail-biting mystery or inspirational story of triumph-over-adversity, which are the narrow categories that most popular middle-grade books seem to fall into these days (to my chagrin). What it is, is an authentic, gentle, amusing yet poignant meander through the memories of a young boy growing up in a post-war world. It is a boat trip on a river, not a roller coaster ride. It is a comfort, not a distraction. Particularly for me, a child of Kazuo’s generation, it is a reminder that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, however long and devastating that tunnel might be, and that is a reminder worth sharing with future generations.

For ages 10 and up.

Blue² by Luna Orchid

By Maureen Tai, 12 March 2022

One of the aspirations of this blog has been to champion authentic, memorable stories set in Asia, about Asian children and young adults, and written by Asian – not Asian diaspora – writers. It is fitting that our 200th review should be of such a book. Blue² (ages 13+) by Hong Kong artist and writer, Luna Orchid,* is one of the most unique and authentic, upper middle grade/young adult, verse novels I’ve ever read. That the author also happens to be a dear friend of mine is, rest assured, not the reason for this review. It is because the honest, oft-times gut-wrenching yet compelling depiction of a teenage girl’s coming-of-age in working class Hong Kong stayed with me like a haunting memory, long after I turned the last page.

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Flash Review: Moo by Sharon Creech

By Maureen Tai, 20 February 2022

Moo (ages 8+) is a whimsical, heartfelt middle-grade, mixed prose/verse novel about twelve-year old Reena, her little brother Luke, the eccentric, irascible Mrs Falala, and Mrs Falala’s coterie of pets: Paulie the pig, China the cat, Edna the snake, Crockett the parrot, and last but not least, Zora, the ornery, ill-tempered Belted Galloway heifer (phew, that was a long sentence!).

On a whim, Reena’s family relocates from a bright, bustling city to a small, rural town in Maine, near the ocean and mountains. Equally on a whim, Reena and her brother are volunteered by their parents to help Mrs Falala with her chores, three days a week. Initially reluctant, the children soon discover that there is more to Mrs Falala than meets the eye, and that there is a simple cure to Zora’s obstinance, a cure that Reena is determined to administer …

This charming and light-hearted contemporary novel with its text playfully spaced and sometimes, in different fonts, will appeal to young, emerging readers and animal lovers. Parents be forewarned though: this book might very well turn your child into a vegetarian!

Colorful by Eto Mori & translated by Jocelyne Allen

By Maureen Tai, 16 February 2022

Sometimes you encounter a story of such ingenuity, warmth and wit that you decide, on the spot, to expand the categories on your book review blog to include “Young Adult” books so that you can rave about it. Colorful by Eto Mori (ages 14 +), translated from the Japanese by Jocelyne Allen and originally published in 1998, is, figuratively speaking, the straw that broke the camel’s back for me, and the first young adult book to be reviewed on our blog.

The novel opens with the narrator – a nameless, shapeless soul with no memory of his prior life – discovering that he has just won the lottery.

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Flash Review: Bungee Cord Hair by Ching Yeung Russell

By Maureen Tai, 13 February 2022

Disarmingly titled Bungee Cord Hair (ages 8+) is the middle-grade, verse novel sequel to Tofu Quilt, one of a rare handful of children’s novels set in Hong Kong. Our protagonist, Yeung Ying, is still an aspiring writer, but she is now a tween. She has left her beloved grandmother and extended family behind in Mainland China and rejoined her parents and siblings in 1960s Hong Kong. She was brought over under false pretences, and it is not an easy coming-of-age. Yeung Ying must learn how to live with her immediate family again after being apart for so many years. Being a girl, she has to fight for her education, a right traditionally reserved for boys and for those who can afford school fees. Above all, Yeung Ying discovers that she must shed her Mainland Chinese, “Communist” style of looking and speaking, and look and speak like a Hong Konger in order to escape ridicule and bullying, and to be accepted in her new home. Racism is, sadly, just as prevalent in Asian countries as it is in Western societies. Bungee Cord Hair is the first middle-grade novel I’ve read that candidly depicts how Chinese from the Mainland were historically looked down upon and derided by their (superior) Chinese counterparts in Hong Kong.

The author deftly and thoughtfully weaves into the narrative, elements of Chinese traditions, culture and folklore, creating a charming and compelling read. Yeung Ying’s lyrical account of triumph over adversity is as much an inspirational story for children, in particular girls of Chinese descent, to be resilient even in the most dire of circumstances, as it is an important and authentic first-hand account of life in colonial Hong Kong.

The Wonderful Adventures of Nils by Selma Lagerlöf, adapted by Kochka & Olivier Latyk

By Maureen Tai, 10 February 2022

During a recent trip to my hometown in Malaysia, I visited the shamelessly Instagrammable BookXcess @ Kong Heng and my browsing was rewarded with a gorgeous picture book, The Wonderful Adventures of Nils (ages 6+). I confess to not knowing at the time that the fable-like story was over a century old, and that its author, Selma Lagerlöf (1858 – 1940), is legendary in her native Sweden, being the first woman to ever win the Nobel Prize in Literature (as she did in 1909). I had been attracted primarily to the book’s exquisite paper-cut pages and how cleverly they overlaid the whimsical illustrations on the cover and inside of the book. A blatant case of judging a book by its cover.

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Flash Review: Dog by Daniel Pennac, translated by Sarah Adams

By Maureen Tai, 16 January 2022

Published almost two decades ago, Dog (ages 10+) is a funny, charming and absorbing coming-of-age, middle-grade novel about an unattractive mongrel dog’s search for a human owner he can train. After surviving death by drowning as an infant and the tragic loss of Black Nose, his adoptive mother, heartbroken Dog leaves the rubbish tip that has been his puppyhood home and heads into town for the first time. Dog is so intoxicated by the new sights, sounds and smells that he forgets to be cautious and ends up in the dog pound. All seems lost until a tiny, strong-willed, red-headed girl sweeps into Dog’s life with the force of a hurricane. Plum, as the little girl is christened by Dog, is the owner of his dreams. Little does Dog know that his adventures are just beginning …

Dog is a well-paced, whimsical tale peppered with colourful characters that will keep younger and older readers alike – and in particular, animal lovers – riveted from start to finish. Proving that, with a little bit of canine (and feline) ingenuity, even the hardest of human hearts can be trained to love.

Flash Review: Where The Watermelons Grow by Cindy Baldwin

By Maureen Tai, 9 January 2022

In the middle-grade realistic fiction novel, Where the Watermelons Grow (ages 10+), twelve-year-old Della bears the weight of the world on her shoulders. Pest infestations and an unseasonal, prolonged drought are causing the crops on her father’s farm – including their legendary watermelons – to wither and die. Della’s baby sister, Mylie – aptly christened “a pistol” by Miss Lorena, a kindly newcomer to the family’s small North Carolina town – is a handful, and then some. But by far, the young girl’s biggest worry is that her beloved Mama’s schizophrenia is back, and boy, is it back with a vengence.

With evocative and unflinchingly honest prose, Baldwin tells the heart-rending story of a girl desperate to find a solution to a very grown-up problem, all by herself. None of the complicated emotions – sadness, frustration, fear, anxiety – that come from having a parent with a mental illness are downplayed, none of the challenges sugar-coated. Ultimately, our charming and likeable heroine learns how to better carry her burdens, realising that there are times when you need a little help from family and friends, some poetry from Emily Dickinson, and perhaps, just perhaps, a touch of bee-honey magic.

Unusual for this genre, but similar to some other middle-grade books we have previously reviewed such as the breathtaking Wolf Hollow, the story doesn’t end in tidy, magical, Disney-esque fashion. For me, this is where the real strength of the storytelling lies: in the ability to paint a vivid, realistic and compelling picture for younger readers that is hopeful as it is bleak, and healing as it is heartbreaking.

Flash Review: Tofu Quilt by Ching Yeung Russell

By Maureen Tai, 31 December 2021

It seems fitting that the last book review for the year is Tofu Quilt (ages 8+), a thoughtfully written and heartfelt autobiographical verse novel about a young girl growing up in 1960’s Hong Kong. Yeung Yeung dreams of becoming a writer, despite the discouraging societal norms of the time and the disapproval of her wider family. Bolstered by the unwavering support of her headstrong mother, Yeung Yeung perseveres with her education and with her writing, her ambition also fuelled by her love for “dan lai“, a mouthwatering, steamed milk-egg-dessert still enjoyed by many in Hong Kong today. Yeung Yeung’s empowering story is one of hope and resilience, and refreshingly, is about a Chinese girl finding her own way in her Asian home rather than discovering herself by escaping from it. Tofu Quilt is an authentic, gorgeously written story that will resonate deeply, in particular with young readers of Chinese descent.

Flash Review: Jane, the fox & me by Fanny Britt & illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault

By Maureen, 20 December 2021

In Fanny Britt’s tender and poignant debut graphic novel, Jane, the fox & me (ages 9+), a Quebecois schoolgirl called Hélène is silently buckling under the merciless taunting of classmates who were once her friends. Made to feel fat and unwanted, outcasted Hélène buries herself in the pages of Jane Eyre, and in reading, finds solace and comfort. But will Charlotte Brontë’s wise, slender and resilient heroine be enough to save Hélène from a four-night school camp in the forest and a chance encounter with a fox? The unadorned, poetic and honest text is complemented by Isabelle Arsenault’s gorgeously rendered illustrations of mostly moody greys and smudgy shadows. A thought-provoking and emotional, yet ultimately satisfying read that will prompt important discussions about self-confidence, body image and bullying.

Flash Review: Glass Town by Isabel Greenberg

By Maureen, 13 December 2021

Glass Town (ages 13+) is the compelling, wildly imaginative and haunting oversized graphic novel about the childhood writings of English novelist and poet, Charlotte Brontë (1816 – 1855). Based on the actual juvenilia of Charlotte and her three siblings, this work of creative historical fiction is – by her own admission – infused with liberal embellishments by Greenberg, and is as much a heartfelt homage to Brontë as it is to the colourful world and fascinating characters that Brontë created for herself when she was a child. Glass Town, while better suited for older children, is an engrossing and satisfying must-read for Brontë fans and will hopefully whet the appetite of readers unfamiliar with Brontë’s published works (such as Jane Eyre) to explore these much-loved classics.

Flash Review: Snail Crossing by Corey R. Tabor

By Maureen, 6 December 2021

In Corey Tabor’s delightful picture book, Snail Crossing (ages 4+), an energetic and cheerful snail spies a bountiful field of cabbages on the other side of a dark, grey road. Our heroic – or overly optimistic? foolhardy? naive? – gastropod immediately decides he must get to those cabbages, and sets off resolutely to cross the road. He is oblivious to the dangers , but we, the mildly-stressed readers, are not. We resist the urge to cover our eyes as we turn the pages … The surprising and satisfying conclusion proves that luck and kindness go a long way, even if our lovely snail ultimately does not.

Flash Review: The Wild Book by Margarita Engle

By Maureen, 29 November 2021

The Wild Book (ages 8+) is Cuban American poet, Margarita Engle’s, fictional verse novel inspired by her grandmother’s life in Trinidad, Cuba. Set in the early 1900s, Fefa is an eleven-year-old guajira (country girl). She’s the only child in her large family who has word-blindness, the term used then for what we know today as dyslexia. Her mother, who could have been a poetess if her circumstances had been different, gives Fefa a book of blank pages, and encourages the girl to be patient and to persevere with her reading and writing. Engle’s evocative verse pulls us hypnotically into Fefa’s colourful, lush life of too many siblings, lurking dangers and hidden fears, until we too are dreaming of riddles and towers, caimans and esperanzas (crickets), and lines made of beautiful, haunting words.

Flash Review: Wabi Sabi by Mark Reibstein & illustrated by Ed Young

By Maureen, 21 November 2021

As with most Japanese concepts, wabi sabi is not translatable into words. It is a way of being that must be lived.

Imagine then, my delight to discover Wabi Sabi, a brilliantly conceived picture book (ages 8+) that embodies all of the key elements of this illusive idea: from the inclusion of sparsely-worded haiku and the use of natural materials in the imaginative, earth-toned, mixed-media collage illustrations, to the unusual orientation of the book’s pages and its mud-splattered end papers. To younger readers, it is a story of a cat named Wabi Sabi, seeking the meaning of her name, and with it, discovering herself. To older readers, it is a loving and elegant homage to a very Japanese way of life, one that continues to endure to this day. Subarashi (wonderful).

A Maze Me: Poems for Girls by Naomi Shihab Nye

By Maureen, 14 November 2021

I love books that are compact enough to slip into my jacket pocket, that I can touch and be reassured by as I walk to the bus stop, and that I can whip out and fall into as the bus lurches forward – swaying, stopping, swaying again – taking me towards my destination, wherever that may be. A Maze Me is one of those books, a rich, delicious collection of timeless poems by the award-winning poet, Naomi Shihab Nye.

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Temple Alley Summer by Sachiko Kashiwaba & translated by Avery Fischer Udagawa

By Ben & Maureen, 7 November 2021

When the children were younger, they’d play a game using Google Translate to translate a piece of text from say, English to Chinese, and then translate the resulting Chinese text back into English again. The ultimate translation was usually so different from the original version that it would illicit hoots of laughter and we’d shake our heads at the limitations of Google Translate. I’m reminded of these limitations whenever I read a translated work of literature where I have working knowledge of the original language in which it was written, like Sachiko Kashiwaba’s Temple Alley Summer, a middle-grade, fantasy-mystery novel that I recently shared with my non-Japanese speaking son. Even though I have never set eyes on the original, as we read the English version, I could imagine hearing the words of the original work, like lilting musical notes in the background. The feel, the “imi” (meaning) of the work, was distinctly Japanese, and I attribute this accomplishment to the masterful translation by Avery Fischer Udagawa, who is no stranger to Kashiwaba’s writings. Thanks to her, my 11-year-old is also no longer a stranger to Kashiwaba’s imaginative stories either.

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Flash Review: My Footprints by Bao Phi & illustrated by Basia Tran

By Maureen, 31 October 2021

In poet Bao Phi’s diverse picture book, My Footprints (ages 5+), a little gap-toothed girl with dark hair and dark eyes imagines herself as different animals as she walks across a snow-covered landscape. Looking at the footprints she’s made, Thuy is, in turns, sad, gleeful, and angry. She’s fed up with being bullied and laughed at in school. With the help of her two moms, Thuy regains her confidence, creating an imaginary alter-ego embodying all that is dear to her. Basia Tran’s gorgeous colour- pencilled illustrations complement this gentle story about coming to terms with your own identity and drawing strength from it.     



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Flash Review: Guji Guji by Chih-Yuan Chen

By Maureen Tai, 24 October 2021

Guji Guji (ages 4+) is a delightful picture book about love, family, and acceptance. And the perils of being too engrossed in your reading. Mother Duck doesn’t notice that she’s warming an oversized egg that has mysteriously rolled into her nest. When the eggs eventually hatch, she isn’t at all concerned that among her brood of multi-coloured ducklings, is a creature with distinctly crocodilian features. She names him Guji Guji and loves and cares for him as if he were like his other ducking siblings. Will this all change when Guji Guji meets others of his kind, and they turn out to have a ravenous appetite for duck meat? You’ll have to read to find out! Taiwanese author/illustrator Chih-Yuan Chen’s lovely tale will charm readers of all ages.

Flash Review: On My Way to Buy Eggs by Chih-Yuan Chen

By Maureen Tai, 17 October 2021

In Chih-Yuan Chen’s charming and gentle picture book, On My Way to Buy Eggs (ages 4+), we follow Shau-yu (“Little Fish”) as she threads her way through her sleepy Taiwanese neighbourhood to buy eggs for her father. Carefree Shau-yu toddles along in her flip flops: playing with shadows on the ground, peeking at a slumbering dog, finding all sorts of treasure: a blue marble, a line of crunchy leaves, a pair of spectacles. She is playful, imagining herself in a watery world, or pretending to be her mother, and curious, which came first, the chicken or the egg? Paired with textured, earth-toned illustrations, Chih-Yan’s masterful depiction of the little girl’s errand is a reminder of simple joys and everyday beauty, seen through the eyes of a child. What a wonderful world this is!

Flash Review: The Barnabus Project by the Fan Brothers

By Maureen Tai, 13 October 2021

The Barnabus Project (ages 4+) is larger and longer than your typical picture book, and all the better to enjoy the luminous, detailed and wondrous illustrations that bear the hallmarks of the Fan Brothers’ gorgeous and singular creative style. We meet the titular Barnabus, half-mouse, half-elephant, in his home under a glass bell jar. As with his other friends – an assortment of peculiar-looking, yet oddly endearing creatures – Barnabus has lived nowhere else. Instead, he relies on his cockroach friend, Pip, to tell him what the outside world looks like. Listening to Pip’s account, he too yearns to sit on grass and look up at the stars. When Barnabus’s dream becomes too big for his jar, so does his frustration and his resolve. Our hero begins to plot a daring escape where not one creature is left behind … The Barnabus Project is the first collaboration involving all three Fan Brothers: Terry, Eric and Devin. A sumptuous treat for inquisitive eyes, this tale of friendship and having the courage to rewrite your destiny will continue to warm your heart long after you’ve turned the final page.

Flash Review: The Widow’s Broom by Chris Van Allsburg

By Maureen Tai, 10 October 2021

In Chris Van Allsburg’s charming picture book, The Widow’s Broom (ages 6+), an old, tired, and seemingly powerless witches’ broom is abandoned by its witch owner in Widow Shaw’s home. To the old lady’s surprise, she discovers the broom has life in it yet. So do the neighbouring child-bullies who get a well-deserved thrashing from the broom when they try to attack it. Widow Shaw must now protect her new friend from her ignorant neighbours who see the broom as a threat. Will she succeed? This whimsical fairytale about second chances, friendship, and courage is accompanied by Van Allsburg’s hauntingly beautiful, black-and-white charcoal illustrations.      

Skellig by David Almond

By Ben and Maureen, 3 October 2021

As the summer winds down, Ben and I read a thought-provoking, middle-grade novel that neither of us have read before. Skellig, by the prolific British author, David Almond, has been on my To Be Read list for some time now. I ask Ben – now a newly-minted 11-year-old – what he thinks of it.

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Flash Review: Redwoods by Jason Chin

By Maureen Tai, 26 September 2021

In non-fiction picture book Redwoods (ages 8+), talented author-illustrator Jason Chin ingeniously combines fascinating facts about the history, biology and ecology of redwood forests with an intriguing fantasy story that unfolds, wordlessly and in parallel, in gorgeous watercolour illustrations. A little boy discovers an abandoned book about the titular trees in a subway station, and as he learns more about them, he is magically transported deeper and deeper into a lush, dense redwood forest. Accompanied by an adorable flying squirrel, the boy explores the underbrush, finally becoming brave enough to ascend high into the canopy after discovering some strategically placed instructions and tree-climbing equipment. Chin’s clever fusion of fact and fiction makes this an appealing and enticing read for all ages, and guarantees Redwoods a place on the timeless classics shelf.

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.