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 Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

By Anna, 14 July 2020

“Ladies and gentlemen, let the Seventy-fourth Hunger Games begin!” – Claudius Templesmith

IMG_2688When I started reading the Hunger Games, at first I thought it was going to be pretty boring. But soon after I got into it, I just kept wanting to find out what happened next. 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.

 

 

Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs by Tomie dePaola

By Maureen Tai, 27 April 2020

IMG_8888Tomie dePaola’s recent and unexpected demise prompted me to revisit one of his classic stories, Nana Upstairs & Nana Downstairs. First published in 1973, this softly illustrated picture book is based on the author’s life when he was a child. It is a touching memoir of the close relationship between a little boy, Tommy, and his grandmothers, and is a lovely, albeit lump-in-the-throat inducing read, in particular for young ones who are grieving the loss of a grandparent. Death is never an easy topic to discuss with children and dePaola’s simple yet heartfelt story makes talking about loss a little easier. It also reminds us to savour the moments that we spend with our loved ones as each of those moments, however trivial or fleeting, becomes a memory that we can treasure once that person is gone. Continue reading

The Frog and Toad Treasury by Arnold Lobel

By Maureen Tai, 17 April 2020

“Winter may be beautiful, but bed is much better.” – Toad

IMG_3681Anna was barely six months old when we were gifted a hard copy of The Frog and Toad Treasury by a dear friend. I confess to not having grown up with these delightful early-reader stories, written in the 70s by the award winning children’s illustrator and author, Arnold Lobel. But I had the incomparable pleasure of reading them aloud to Anna many years ago, listening to her reading them to herself and then, to her younger brother, and today in a sunny spot in the living room, reading them again and having a good chuckle. The tales are as timeless as the friendship between the two anthropomorphic amphibians, and as enjoyable as my first reading over a decade ago. Continue reading

In a Village by the Sea by Muon Van & illustrated by April Chu

By Maureen Tai, 5 April 2020

“In a fishing village by the sea, there is a small house.”

IMG_7158Growing up, I’d never lacked for books but I’d also never read any stories that reflected my Asian heritage or experiences. It was not until I was much older that I realised how greatly my worldview had been shaped by a foreign (read: British) influence and how little knowledge, pride and appreciation I had for children’s stories told by Asians. I have avowed to remedy this, not only for myself but for my own half-Malaysian children, and I am always on the look out for picture books that are proudly and unapologetically Asian. In a Village by the Sea is one such recent discovery, a gentle and sumptuously illustrated ode to fisherfolk in Vietnam.

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Every day is April Fool’s Day…

April 2020

Every day dawns with more unsettling and unbelievable news about the pandemic that has crippled the entire global community. Yet, as we grapple with voluntary self-isolation and quarantines, lockdowns and movement restriction orders, hand sanitisers and face masks, Spring cheekily sneaks up on us, tantalizing us with its warm breezes, baby animals, chocolate eggs, tender green shoots and blushing cherry blossoms. The season of rebirth and renewal is here at last.

This month, we remember a few notable picture book reads from our archives which we believe will help us get through the challenging weeks ahead. But before we get down to business, let’s wash our hands! While germs may look adorable, like the little tykes in Do not lick this book* (it’s full of germs) , their effects can be devastating, so let’s spend a protective 20 seconds at the sink.

With Spring comes the emergence of gardeners, eager to break ground in their gardens for the year. Emily Hughes’ charming picture book, The Little Gardener, tells the tale of a very small and single-minded gardener with very big ambitions. Another delightful rhyming board book bursting with fruity cheer is Janet and Allan Ahlberg’s Each Peach Pear Plum , which I enjoyed reading to the kids as much as they loved listening to it when they were babies. But for the here and now, O’Hara Hale’s BE STILL, life  is a playful exploration of the natural world and its inhabitants, rather like a fresh spring breeze whispering to us to slow down and open our senses to our surroundings. Finally, the theme of reincarnation and rebirth is philosophically contemplated by a grandchild in Shinsuke Yoshitake’s whimsical What Happens Next? There is life after death, and we are reminded of this in April as Christians commemorate their most important festival, Easter, and as the Chinese pay their respects to their departed ancestors on Tomb Sweeping Day.

For the poets among us, the spirit of Spring is elegantly encapsulated in Mary Oliver’s poem about the season, reproduced below with the greatest respect and gratitude. In closing, may your Spring be a bountiful one, and may your many reads be good.

Maureen, Ben & Anna

Spring

Somewhere
a black bear
has just risen from sleep
and is staring

down the mountain.
All night
in the brisk and shallow restlessness
of early spring

I think of her,
her four black fists
flicking the gravel,
her tongue

like a red fire
touching the grass,
the cold water.
There is only one question:

how to love this world.
I think of her
rising
like a black and leafy ledge

to sharpen her claws against
the silence
of the trees.
Whatever else

my life is
with its poems
and its music
and its glass cities,

it is also this dazzling darkness
coming
down the mountain,
breathing and tasting;

all day I think of her—
her white teeth,
her wordlessness,
her perfect love.

 

Stig & Tilde: Vanisher’s Island by Max de Radiguès

By Maureen Tai, 31 March 2020

“In our town, for as long as anyone can remember, when a kid turns 14 years old, they must leave by boat to one of the hundreds of islands around the town and survive alone, for a year. When they return, they officially step into adulthood. It’s what we call ‘kulku.’ ” – Tilde

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I adore graphic novels published by Nobrow for their large formats, rustic, unfinished paper and striking colours – in addition to their unique and captivating stories of course (see our reviews of other Nobrow publications, Hilda and The Troll  and Akissi, Tales of Mischief ). Stig & Tilde lives up to this tradition, distinguishing itself as an exciting coming-of-age adventure story about, and for, young teens.

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The Unwanted by Don Brown

By Ben, 29 March 2020

IMG_7162‘Stay strong and think
of that word … which they
call “HOPE” ‘ – Sahir Noah

Horrifying thought: the Syrian crisis is almost as old as my son, who turns 10 later this year. As Ben becomes mature enough to understand and to bear some of the more grim realities of the world around him, I turn to The Unwanted, a powerful non-fiction graphic novel, to help him learn about the civil war that continues to rage in Syria, and from which millions of Syrians – gambling with their lives – have fled and continue to flee. Better the soulful pain of open eyes than the empty bliss of wilful ignorance. Continue reading

Sitti’s Secrets by Naomi Shihab Nye & illustrated by Nancy Carpenter

By Maureen Tai, 24 March 2020

“Sometimes I think the world is a huge body tumbling in space, all curled up like a child sleeping. People are far apart, but connected.” – Mona

IMG_7342Mona is a little girl who lives in the United States of America. Her grandmother, whom she calls ‘Sitti’ (the word means “granny” in Arabic) lives far away across the seas, in a village in Palestine. Mona and Sitti inhabit different time zones, and they do not see each other often, but they think of each other a lot. This gentle and beautifully illustrated picture book tells the story of Mona’s visit to Sitti’s homeland and of what the little girl learns about her grandmother’s life, despite neither of them being able to speak the other’s language. It is a story about family, and about forging human connections across geographic, linguistic, age and political barriers. It is a story for our fractured times. Continue reading

They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott & illustrated by Harmony Becker

By Maureen Tai, 20 March 2020

“People can do great things, George. They can come up with noble, shining ideals. But people are also fallible human beings. And we know they made a terrible mistake.” – Takekuma Norman Takei

IMG_6837It is in times of crises that the true nature of a person emerges. It is during those same times when individuals in positions of leadership or power can either save or savage. We are witnessing this play out in real time as the world grapples with the novel coronavirus pandemic, and we witnessed this over half a decade ago. At the end of 1941, the surprise attack by the Japanese army of the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, marked the USA’s entry into World War II. The lives of thousands of Americans of Japanese descent were irrevocably altered by human decisions and actions based on fear, hate and at the heart of it all, racism. In They Called Us Enemy, a sobering graphic novel that is accessible to and appropriate for even slightly younger readers, we learn how one particular Japanese American family, the Takeis, lived through those challenging times. Continue reading

The Unintentional Adventures of the Bland Sisters: The Jolly Regina by Kara LaReau & illustrated by Jen Hill

By Ben, 17 March 2020

“The Bland Sisters look forward most to the evenings, when they entertain themselves by reading the dictionary to each other, then staring at the wallpaper until they fall asleep.” 

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Several years ago, the Senior Blands went to run an errand. They never returned. Their two children, Jaundice and Kale (their real names) could have gone on a tear, thrown boisterous parties or played video games all day while eating crisps. They did not. Instead, the identical twin sisters fell into a routine that included darning socks for a living, reading a dictionary for pleasure (as well as for knowledge and insider tips), watching grass grow and consuming cheese sandwiches. The Bland Sisters loved their introverted, predictable, simple and efficient lives. Until a knock sounded on their front door. Continue reading

Dear Sister by Alison McGhee & illustrated by Joe Bluhm

By Maureen Tai, 13 March 2020

“Dear Sister, Life was a lot less complicated before they brought you home. Just sayin’. From, Brother.”

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The sibling relationship is a complex one, especially in the early years. Brothers/sisters who are co-conspirators, confidantes and playmates morph at the turn of a screw into bitter enemies, competitors and annoyances. Anna and Ben, born three years apart, exemplify this dichotomy. My own sibling experience however, was quite different, mostly due to the large age gap of nearly ten years between myself and my younger sister. The paucity of overlapping years made for a more detached connection, at least in the formative years. In my forays into children’s literature, I’ve always been a little disappointed that I haven’t come across any books that feature the unique relationship of spaced-out siblings (as in years of birth, not mental state) as the main plot. Until now. Continue reading

Can I Touch Your Hair? by Irene Latham & Charles Waters & illustrated by Sean Qualls & Seline Alko

By Maureen Tai, 6 March 2020

IMG_6509“When our teacher says,
Pick a partner,
my body freezes
like a ship in ice.”    – Irene

“… Now I’m stuck with Irene?
She hardly says anything. Plus she’s white.”       – Charles

Two students who aren’t friends find themselves randomly paired up for a poetry project. Irene and Charles embark uneasily on their assignment, knowing only one thing about each other – what they look like. Irene has pale white skin and golden blonde hair. Charles has short curly black hair and skin the colour of warm cocoa. So far, so different. Will they make this work? Continue reading

Skipping Ahead to March then…

March 2020

It was a leap year February and the extra day did nothing but make the already awful month even more unbearable. Our arrival in Malaysia for the Chinese Lunar New Year coincided with the global outbreak of the now-christened Covid-19 coronavirus that soon spiralled out of control as stocks of face masks, hand sanitizers, antiseptic handwash and toilet paper were depleted in frenzied bouts of panic-buying. We spent our days and nights in self-imposed quarantine, Anna and Ben trying to keep up with distance learning while I struggled to bear burdens of a personal nature. Before we knew it, we had waded into March and we were back in our adopted home, Hong Kong, facing an anxious future in a changed place. Is this the new normal, I wonder, where we assess each person we meet – family, friend or stranger – for how “safe” they are? Is she ill? Has he washed his hands? Didn’t they just fly back from an highly infected area? Do we – can we – trust them? Do we dare trust ourselves?

In these disquieting times, we find solace in the arts – in the written word, the painted canvas, the moulded sculpture, the haunting song, the arch of the bent back, and the multicoloured chevrons of knitted yarn. May we find ourselves still afloat at March’s end, and stronger for having swum against the currents.

Be safe, and read always.

Maureen, Anna & Ben

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“Shall we escape from this island? To the other island over there?”

The Disappearances by Emily Bain Murphy

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By Anna, 29 February 2020

When Aila Quinn’s mother Juliet dies, Aila and her younger brother Miles are sent to her mother’s hometown, a town called Sterling. When they arrive at Sterling, they are sent to live with their mother’s childhood friend, Mrs Cliffton, and her family. But Sterling is not just a normal town. Continue reading

Sparrow Girl by Sara Pennypacker & illustrated by Yoko Tanaka

By Maureen Tai, 20 January 2020

“They’re like teardrops. The sky is crying birds.” – Ming-Li

Sparrow Girl

True-life, historical disasters rarely inspire picture books for young children. Sparrow Girl is an exception. From the long-forgotten ashes of China’s disastrous “Four Pests” campaign waged in the late 1950s, Sara Pennypacker (author of the gut-wrenching middle grade novel Pax) has plucked a sliver of hope, turning it into a redemptive fictional account of a child’s compassion and courage. Alas, we know that in reality, the ending was much,  much darker. Continue reading

There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom by Louis Sachar

By Maureen Tai, 10 January 2020

Bradley thought a moment, then said, “Give me a dollar or I’ll spit on you.”

IMG_2421Pop psychology attests that you become who you hang out with. When we meet Bradley Chalkers in There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom, he doesn’t hang out with anyone at all. He sits in his own row at the back of his fifth grade class. He is pugnacious. He lies. He does not do homework. He destroys books. His teacher has given up on him, and he is banned from the school library. He has never earned a gold star in class. He has not been to a birthday party in three years. He is unliked by everyone. His parents are distant. His older sister pokes cruel fun at him. His only companions are his battered assortment of collected miniature animals, fashioned from brass, ceramic, glass and ivory. So far, so sadly perplexing. Why is Bradley so troubled and so very unlikeable? Continue reading

Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly

By Maureen Tai, 8 January 2020

Twelve-year-old Kaori Tanaka – a proud Gemini – liked to tell people her parents were born in the high, misty mountains of a samurai village. In truth, they were both second-generation Japanese Americans from Ohio. No matter. Kaori knew in her bones that they were meant to be born in the mountains. 

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While Kaori is not the protagonist in Erin Entrada Kelly’s charming and whimsical Hello, Universe, she is without a doubt, my favourite character in this middle grade novel that Anna, Ben and I literally devoured over our recent summer in Taiwan. Not that any of the other cleverly voiced characters are any less engaging: there is the main character, Virgilio/Virgil, whose family nickname is ‘Turtle’ due to his shy, quiet nature; Valencia, who is strong, warrior-like and deaf; Chet, the school bully with a face like a pug and the disposition of a thug; and Gen, Kaori’s assistant and younger sister, whose trailing pink jump rope appears throughout the book and ends up playing a fairly critical role at the book’s conclusion. Family, friendship, Filipino folklore and fate are deftly weaved together to form an extremely enjoyable and satisfying story, making Hello, Universe one of our top reads for 2019. Continue reading

Hello, New Year

January 2020

The last few weeks of 2019 went by in a blur of family and feasting. We chose to stay home, in Hong Kong, and to house all our visitors in our flat. Freed from the frenzy of holiday planning and once-in-a-lifetime-experience administration, we took each day as it came, filling the hours with whatever activity struck our fancy, whatever favourable weather conditions rendered propitious. This allowed us to explore, for the first time, relatively far-flung tourist destinations such as the Chi Lin Nunnery and Nan Hai Gardens in Diamond Hill and to discover new attractions such as the majestic Xiqu Theatre in West Kowloon. We ate ourselves into a stupor, Anna valiantly trying, but not succeeding, in breaking her record of 16 Shanghai pork dumplings consumed in one sitting. We watched good TV (the Mandalorian), tradition TV (the Red and White show, and “White Christmas”) and nostalgia TV (Karate Kid – the original with Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita). We bought books. We tried to read. We bickered. We nagged. We rolled our eyes in frustration. We even got a little bored.

By the end of December, we were ready to sneak up on 2020 rather like a puppy inching its way closer and closer to an unfamiliar mound of freshly dug earth. Playfully curious, yet filled with equal parts of anticipation and dread.

Jump in, the New Year beckoned. The water’s warm in places, absolutely freezing in some parts, mostly calm – you hope! – but turbulent when you least expect it. Would you have it any other way?

May your New Year be filled with love, peace, hope and many, many stories.

With love,
Maureen, Anna & Ben

Brown by Håkon Øvreås & illustrated by Øyvind Torseter

By Ben Parsons and Maureen Tai, 12 October 2019

“Rusty tiptoed out into the bathroom to look at himself in the mirror. There he was: Brown the Superhero. His heart hammered under his brown disguise. He was no longer Rusty. He was Brown.”

IMG_6436Only twice before have I cried while reading to the kids : at the close of Charlotte’s Web (by E. B. White) and when a character meets a tragic end in Wolf Hollow (by Lauren Volk). Brown, a middle grade illustrated novel, brings the count to three. Translated from its original Norwegian, Brown tells the story of how a boy, still grieving from the death of his grandfather, finds a unique way of meting out retributive justice on a gang of bullies. The author’s poetic sensibilities are evident in the gentle yet effective text and the story’s perfect balance of childlike excitement and sombre realism. Here are Ben’s thoughts about this lovely book. Continue reading

Nicholas and the Gang by René Goscinny & Jean-Jacques Sempé, translated by Anthea Bell

 By Ben and Maureen Tai, 7 June 2019

“I like it when it rains really hard, because then I don’t go to school and I can stay at home instead and play with my electric train set.” – Nicholas.

IMG_6350As a child, I adored the Asterix series, created by the French comics writer and editor, René Goscinny (1926-1977) . I would pore over the pages, chuckle at the antics of  the rotund Obelisk and coo with delight whenever the spunky little terrier, Dogmatix, made his appearance. I wasn’t aware of Goscinny’s other children’s books until recently, when conducting a literary reconnaissance at Anna and Ben’s fabulous school library. Nicholas and the Gang (or in the native French, Le petit Nicolas et les copains) is one of a series of early/young reader children’s books about growing up in an idyllic and relatively uneventful 1950’s France. The humorous vignettes in each book, narrated from the point of view of the sensitive and kind-hearted Nicholas, are charming and old-fashioned without being anachronistic. Kudos to the translator, Anthea Bell, for imbuing the English translation with the child-like wonder and clever sarcasm – directed at adults – that Goscinny had intended. Don’t just take it from me. This is what Ben has to say.

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See You In The Cosmos by Jack Cheng

By Maureen Tai, 30 May 2019

“Do you have light brown skin like I do or smooth gray skin like a dolphin or spiky green skin like a cactus?” – Alex Petroski, posing a question to aliens.

img_5437.jpegAlex Petroski is eleven. He has a troubled mother, an absentee older brother and an adopted stray canine named after his hero, Carl Sagan. He is obsessed with rockets and he dreams of sending one into space. Inside the rocket, there will be an Ipod with his voice recordings about life on Earth, a gift to sentient beings outside of humankind’s own orbit. Alex himself is a gift. He is the infuriating yet loveable little brother you wished you had, and one of the most endearing, amusing and authentic voices in recent middle-grade realistic fiction. In See You in the Cosmos, Alex uncovers the heartbreaking truth about his past and his present, yet finds the courage, optimism and humour to face it all.  Continue reading

Katie and the Starry Night by James Mayhew

By Maureen Tai, 13 May 2019

IMG_5351A visit to a multi-sensory exhibition of Van Gogh’s works prompted a fond recollection. My oldest child, then 5 or 6, had spotted a print of The Starry Night at a shop and exclaimed excitedly that it looked just like the picture in our Katie book. Upon returning home, she insisted that we read Katie and the Starry Night again – for the umpteenth time. On a re-visit of the picture book today after several years’ hiatus, I am struck anew by the artistry of the illustrations and the marvellously imaginative story of Katie, an adventurous little girl in a red coat, bright red ribbons in her hair. Katie has an unusual and dare I say, enviable, way of interacting with the artwork she encounters …  Continue reading

BE STILL, life by Ohara Hale

By Maureen Tai, 4 May 2019

Be still, life, be still
Like fruit in a bowl.
And you might hear the hum
Of a crisp summer’s apple,
Or a pear joining in with a
     Pear kind of babble!
– Ohara Hale

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BE STILL, life 
is a jolt of joyful exuberance.  Seemingly random text, sometimes rhyming, sometimes not. Alphabets of different sizes, sometimes block, sometimes cursive. What unifies the playful and carefree words and the bold and whimsical drawings is the celebration of the simple pleasures of life. Isn’t it fun to look around, to really listen, to really feel, and to just be? Why, now that you mention it, it is!
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enormous SMALLNESS – A Story of E.E. Cummings by Matthew Burgess & illustrated by Kris Di Giacomo

By Maureen Tai, 28 April 2019

love is a place
& through this place of
love move
(with brightness of peace)
all places                             – e.e. cummings

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American poet Edward Estlin (e.e.) Cumming’s (1894 – 1962) life art was in seeing and creating wonderful world-words from the ordinary and small everyday. This inspired and beautifully illustrated non-fiction picture book tells his story in an engaging and relatable way while introducing e.e.’s unconventional, distinctive and refreshingly modernist style of poetry to younger readers. A word of warning: you might be compelled to drop your upper case letters after this encounter. Continue reading

My Milk Toof – The Adventures of ickle and Lardee by Inhae Lee

By Maureen Tai, 25 April 2019

“Milk Toof: n. One of two adventurous little baby teeth belonging to the author, named ickle and Lardee.”

IMG_1966My Milk Toof is not a traditional, or even contemporary, children’s picture book. It’s not really a novelty book either, because it isn’t cheesy or offensive or twee, neither does it pop out or unfold in an unusual way.

What it is, is a brilliantly conceived, adorably charming and ingeniously funny, photographic journal of the adventures of two milk teef who return to their owner’s home to stay.   Continue reading

Justin Case – School, Drool and Other Daily Disasters by Rachel Vail & illustrated by Matthew Cordell

By Ben, 21 April 2019

IMG_4236Ben and I have just finished reading the first book in the Justin Case series, and we think it’s pretty good. Don’t just take my word for it.

B: Ugh, another book review?
M:  But you like this book!
B: OK, yeah, I do.
M: What is the book about?
B: It’s about Justin Case and what problems he has at school. Mostly school, but sometimes there are disasters at home. Continue reading

The Best Man by Richard Peck

By Maureen Tai, 18 April 2019

That’s the end of school for you. You wait and wait. Then it’s over before you’re ready.” – Archer Magill

IMG_4201The Best Man is an unapologetically American middle-grade novel set in Chicago, Illinois. It begins with a wedding and ends with a wedding, and in between are six years of Archer Magill’s young life, narrated by the big-hearted and endearingly clueless schoolboy. His story has some highs, some lows, and some in-betweens, but what makes it memorable is how deeply he and his family – his grandparents, parents and uncle, in particular – care for each other. Not in a saccharine, idealised, Leave it to Beaver* sort of way, but in the way families love each other in real life. Some goods, some bads, and some in-betweens. But always, a whole lotta love. Even same-sex love. But I get ahead of myself.

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Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce

By Maureen Tai, 7 April 2019

“He saw the garden at many times of its day, and at different seasons – its favourite season was summer, with perfect weather.” 

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With just two upturned dinner chairs and a few blankets, my kids can create a cosy hideout, away from prying adult eyes, in which to hold secret readings and from which to execute dastardly plans. This desire for a lair is universal. So it is with Tom Long, the pajamaed hero in Tom’s Midnight Garden, who longs for company and a place to play.  In this classic fantasy tale, Tom finds not only an garden hideout and an exciting new playmate, but an intriguing and secret existence in a parallel past-universe. Continue reading

big Nate: Thunka, Thunka, Thunka by Lincoln Peirce

By Ben, 24 March 2019

IMG_2999“Oh, yeah! I was shocked! Stunned! Flabbergasted! Hornwoggled! Gobsmacked!” – Nate Wright.

Sunday afternoons are for loafing around and reading comics.  At least that’s my idea of the perfect Sunday.

Ben’s recommendation for the lazy weekend is a volume from the extensive Big Nate series of comic strip compilations. Ben and I discuss why Big Nate is such a hit with him, as well as with boys and girls in Grades 3 and 4. Continue reading

Grandma and the Things that Stay the Same by Eve Aw & illustrated by Yunroo

By Maureen Tai, 18 March 2019

“… you can count on some things like love, family and tradition to stay the same.” – Mum

IMG_2598Most picture books about the Lunar New Year focus on explaining the cultural traditions and practices of the biggest celebration in the Chinese calendar – the red lai see packets, the new year’s eve family reunion dinner, the auspicious dishes, the exploding firecrackers and the deafening lion dances. Grandma and the Things that Stay the Same chooses instead to focus on what is central not only the Chinese during the Lunar New Year, but to people all over the world during their major festivals.

And that core is Family.   Continue reading

Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson & illustrated by E. B. Lewis

By Maureen Tai, 3 March 2019

“Each little thing we do goes out, like a ripple, into the world.” – Ms. Albert

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Each Kindness is a thoughtful and nuanced picture book about a trait that seems to be in short supply these days. The story is told in the first person, unusually from the point of view of a protagonist who is complicit in the unkindness shown to a new girl at school. However, the “heroine” (if we can call her that) is uncharitable yet not unthinking. In fact, she is relatable.  What she sees in her reflection in the pond is an uncomfortable truth that resonates with all of us. We’ve all been her at some point in our lives.

 
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The White Cat and the Monk by Jo Ellen Bogart & illustrated by Sydney Smith

By Maureen Tai, 18 February 2019

“So it goes. To each his own.” – from Pangur Bán by Anonymous.

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A solitary white cat approaches a brick building. All is shrouded in darkness. But the cat knows its way, as it sure-footedly climbs through an open window, then gently pads along a corridor with vaulted ceilings. Soft moonlight illuminates the interior of the monastery. The columns are strong and solemn, the floors well-swept, the wooden barrels in neat rows. The animal makes its way purposefully to a closed door from under which leaks a golden light. A feline paw reaches into the room, and the door opens.

 

 

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Keeper of Lost Cities by Shannon Messenger

By Anna, 16 February 2019

Keeper of Lost CitiesSophie Foster has never fit in with her classmates and family. One day, she meets Fitz, a mysterious boy who tells her that the reason she never felt at home was because she has never been at her real home. Fitz reveals the shocking truth to Sophie: she’s not actually human.  Continue reading

Still Stuck by Shinsuke Yoshitake

By Maureen Tai, 14 February 2019

“It all started when Mom said it was time for a bath.”

IMG_1843Some picture books are little doses of “pick-me-up,” enchantment and whimsy in less than 1000 words, skilfully packaged within 32 pages of illustrations.  Still Stuck is such a book.

An endearing, yet mildly infuriating little boy is commanded to the bath by his no-nonsense mother.  You can just tell she means business by the way she stands with arms akimbo, her clenched fists on her hips. Mom pulls her child’s t-shirt over his head, literally lifting the little boy off the ground. His short legs thrash furiously as she struggles to get the garment off.

Uh oh. He’s stuck. Continue reading

The Night Diary by Veera Hiranandani

By Maureen Tai, 27 January 2019

“All that suffering, all that death, for nothing. I will never understand, as long as I live, how a country could change overnight from only a line drawn.” – Nisha

img_0103The year Nisha turns 12 is the year that newly independent India is rent in two.  A line is hastily drawn by the governing British, separating mostly Hindu India from mostly Muslim Pakistan, formally partitioning a country that had lived as one for centuries before. Nisha is a keen observer and the diarist in The Night Diary.  Writing only after the sun has set each day, Nisha records her impressions and thoughts, hopes and fears.  Hers is a compelling yet fragile and bewildered voice during the defining and possibly most devastating event in the history of the Indian subcontinent. This is not only Nisha’s story, but the true story of so many millions of others affected by Partition.  Continue reading

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

By Ben, 20 January 2019

“Only once a year, on his birthday, did Charlie Bucket ever get to taste a bit of chocolate.”

img_0269M: Do you like chocolate?
B: Yes, I love chocolate. Why do you ask?
M: Because I think it’s important to like the main food in a book if you’re reading about it.
B: But you’re not a big fan of chocolate?
M: That’s true. But I think I’d like to visit Mr Wonka’s chocolate factory even though I’m not a big chocolate fan. Wouldn’t you?
B: Yeah, I would love to.

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The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang

By Maureen Tai, 16 January 2019

img_0250There are some graphic novels that take your breath away not only because they are so exquisite to look at, but because you’ve always dreamed of being able to draw like the illustrator. The Prince and the Dressmaker is such a book, telling the charming story of the unlikely friendship (and ultimate romance) between a dress-wearing Crown Prince and his talented personal seamstress. And the fashion?  To die for. Continue reading