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

By Maureen Tai, 2 May 2022

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

For ages 8 and up.

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

By Maureen Tai, 24 April 2022

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

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

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

Flash Review: Ordinary Hazards by Nikki Grimes

By Maureen Tai, 17 April 2022

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

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

By Maureen Tai, 10 April 2022

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

Flash Review: The Year of the Dog by Grace Lin

By Maureen Tai, 3 April 2022

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

Restart by Gordon Korman

By Ben, 27 March 2022

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

And as usual, Ben came along for the ride.

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

By Maureen Tai, 20 March 2022

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

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

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

For ages 10 and up.

Blue² by Luna Orchid

By Maureen Tai, 12 March 2022

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

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Flash Review: Moo by Sharon Creech

By Maureen Tai, 20 February 2022

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

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

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

Colorful by Eto Mori & translated by Jocelyne Allen

By Maureen Tai, 16 February 2022

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

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

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Flash Review: Bungee Cord Hair by Ching Yeung Russell

By Maureen Tai, 13 February 2022

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

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

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

By Maureen Tai, 10 February 2022

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

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

By Maureen Tai, 16 January 2022

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

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

Flash Review: Where The Watermelons Grow by Cindy Baldwin

By Maureen Tai, 9 January 2022

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

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

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

Flash Review: Tofu Quilt by Ching Yeung Russell

By Maureen Tai, 31 December 2021

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

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

By Maureen, 20 December 2021

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

Flash Review: Glass Town by Isabel Greenberg

By Maureen, 13 December 2021

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

Flash Review: Snail Crossing by Corey R. Tabor

By Maureen, 6 December 2021

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

Flash Review: The Wild Book by Margarita Engle

By Maureen, 29 November 2021

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

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

By Maureen, 21 November 2021

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

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

A Maze Me: Poems for Girls by Naomi Shihab Nye

By Maureen, 14 November 2021

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

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

By Ben & Maureen, 7 November 2021

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

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

By Maureen, 31 October 2021

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

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Flash Review: Guji Guji by Chih-Yuan Chen

By Maureen Tai, 24 October 2021

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

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

By Maureen Tai, 17 October 2021

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

Flash Review: The Barnabus Project by the Fan Brothers

By Maureen Tai, 13 October 2021

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

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

By Maureen Tai, 10 October 2021

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

Skellig by David Almond

By Ben and Maureen, 3 October 2021

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

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Flash Review: Redwoods by Jason Chin

By Maureen Tai, 26 September 2021

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

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

By Maureen Tai, 19 September 2021

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

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

By Maureen Tai, 11 September 2021

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

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

By Maureen Tai, 5 September 2021

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

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

By Maureen Tai, 30 August 2021

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

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

By Maureen Tai, 1 August 2021

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

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

By Maureen Tai, 31 July 2021

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

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

By Maureen Tai, 20 July 2021

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

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

Continue reading

FLASH REVIEW: When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

By Maureen Tai, 18 July 2021

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

Flash Review: Shirley & Jamila Save Their Summer

By Maureen Tai, 4 July 2021

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

Orchards by Holly Thompson

By Maureen Tai, 27 June 2021

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

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

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Flash Review: Witches of Brooklyn by Sophie Escabasse

By Maureen Tai, 20 June 2021

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

Flash Review: Love That Dog by Sharon Creech

By Maureen Tai, 13 June 2021

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

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

By Maureen and Anna, 6 June 2021

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

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

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

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

Maureen and Anna

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

By Maureen, Anna and Ben, 31 May 2021

Summer is just around the corner!

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

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

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

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

Maureen, Anna & Ben

Flash Review: The Runaway Princess by Johan Troïanowski

By Maureen Tai, 30 May 2021

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

Flash Review: Leonardo, The Terrible Monster by Mo Willems

By Maureen Tai, 23 May 2021

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

Flash Review: The Fourteenth Goldfish by Jennifer L. Holm

By Maureen Tai, 16 May 2021

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

Wonder by R. J. Palacio

By Ben, 9 May 2021

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

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

For ages 8 and up.

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

By Maureen Tai, 25 April 2021

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