Flash Review: Love That Dog by Sharon Creech

By Maureen Tai, 13 June 2021

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

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

By Maureen and Anna, 6 June 2021

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

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

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

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

Maureen and Anna

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

By Maureen, Anna and Ben, 31 May 2021

Summer is just around the corner!

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

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

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

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

Maureen, Anna & Ben

Flash Review: The Runaway Princess by Johan Troïanowski

By Maureen Tai, 30 May 2021

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

Flash Review: Leonardo, The Terrible Monster by Mo Willems

By Maureen Tai, 23 May 2021

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

Flash Review: The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm

By Maureen Tai, 16 May 2021

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

Wonder by R. J. Palacio

By Ben, 9 May 2021

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

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

For ages 8 and up.

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

By Maureen Tai, 25 April 2021

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

Flash Review: The Farmer and the Clown by Marla Frazee

By Maureen Tai, 18 April 2021

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

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

By Maureen Tai, 11 April 2021

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

Flash Review: My Friend is Sad by Mo Willems

By Maureen Tai, 4 April 2021

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

Flash Review: This is Hong Kong by M. Sasek

By Maureen Tai, 28 March 2021

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

Flash Review: Ocean Meets Sky by The Fan Brothers

By Maureen Tai, 21 March 2021

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

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt

By Maureen Tai, 18 March 2021

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

From the Prologue, Tuck Everlasting

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

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Flash Review: Tales from the Inner City by Shaun Tan

By Maureen Tai, 12 March 2021

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

Flash Review: Thank you, Omu! by Oge Mora

By Maureen Tai, 7 March 2021

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

Where’s Halmoni? by Julie Kim

By Maureen Tai, 3 March 2021

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

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Flash Review: Another by Christian Robinson

By Maureen Tai, 28 February 2021

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

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

By Maureen Tai, 21 February 2021

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

Flash Review: Big Red Lollipop by Rukhsana Khan

By Maureen Tai, 14 February 2021

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

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

By Maureen Tai, 7 February 2021

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

Grandpa’s Angel by Jutta Bauer

By Maureen Tai, 5 February 2021

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

Grandpa

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

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Flash Review: Stargazing by Jen Wang

By Maureen Tai, 31 January 2021

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

Flash Review: Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk

By Maureen Tai, 24 January 2021

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

Annabelle

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

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

By Maureen Tai, 17 January 2021

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

CJ muses in Last Stop on Market Street

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

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

By Maureen Tai, 10 January 2021

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

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

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

New Year Resolutions

January 2021

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

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

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

Anna, Ben & Maureen

Dog Man: Grime and Punishment by Dav Pilkey

By Maureen Tai and Ben, 31 December 2020

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

Petey, the Bad Guy who turns good

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

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War is Over by David Almond & illustrated by David Litchfield

30 November 2020, by Maureen Tai

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

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

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

By Maureen Tai, 2 November 2020

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

Chiara Mezzalama

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

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

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Silent Days, Silent Dreams by Allen Say

By Maureen Tai, 8 September 2020

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

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

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Save Me A Seat by Sarah Weekes & Gita Varadarajan

By Maureen Tai, 27 August 2020

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

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

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The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste

By Ben, 13 August 2020

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

A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park

By Maureen Tai, 21 July 2020

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

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

The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes & illustrated by Louis Slobodkin

By Ben, 30 June 2020

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

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

Sweep by Louise Greig & illustrated by Julia Sardà

By Maureen Tai, 16 June 2020

Ed was in a bad mood.

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

Hattie by Frida Nilsson & illustrated by Stina Wirsén

By Maureen Tai, 9 June 2020

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

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

Beetle Boy by M.G. Leonard

By Ben, 17 May 2020

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

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

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

For ages 8 and up.

 

 

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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

Flash Review: The Cat Who Came In Off The Roof by Annie M.G. Schmidt

By Maureen Tai, 6 June 2021

At its heart, middle-grade novel The Cat Who Came In Off The Roof (ages 9+) by Dutch author, Annie M.G. Schmidt is a love story. Mr. Tibbles is a cat-loving reporter who has run out of stories. Minou is a cat-like young lady who has odd behavioural traits. They meet. Or more accurately, Mr. Tibbles saves Minou from an angry dog. Minou moves in (sleeping in a box in Tibble’s junk room). Mr. Tibbles becomes privy to interesting news, relayed by Minou and gathered from a network of feline sources. They solve a crime together. And yes, they fall in love. While this book – written half a century ago – features mostly adult protagonists (almost unheard of now for middle grade books), they are charming, interesting and whimsical enough to appeal to young children. Cat lovers in particular, will adore the memorable cast of cat characters, from the brazen Tatter Cat to the rather clueless History Cat to the rotund Metropole Cat. A short, fun read for the summer.