Sparrow Girl by Sara Pennypacker & illustrated by Yoko Tanaka

By Maureen Tai, 20 January 2020

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

Sparrow Girl

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

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

By Maureen Tai, 10 January 2020

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

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

Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly

By Maureen Tai, 8 January 2020

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

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

Brown by Håkon Øvreås & illustrated by Øyvind Torseter

By Ben Parsons and Maureen Tai, 12 October 2019

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

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

Bob by Wendy Mass & Rebecca Stead

by Maureen Tai, 20 August 2019

“… standing on top of the dictionary is a small zombie wearing a chicken suit. He’s rubbing his eyes, a Lego pirate clutched in one green hand. When his eyes adjust to the light, he uses them to look me up and down.” – Livy (Olivia)

IMG_3643I’ve read somewhere about studies that show that children under the age of seven are unable to create lasting memories of actual experienced events. This is heart-breaking for any parent of young children. However, it still doesn’t go all the way to explain why Livy can’t remember anything of her previous visit to her gran’s house when she was five years old.

The cows, the toy elephant, the chess pieces, the dolls, the stairs, none of it is familiar. Not even the strange chicken suit-wearing creature that Livy discovers living in the closet in her mother’s childhood bedroom. Who, and what, is this green being – who goes by the name of Bob – and where does it belong? In this unusual, gentle and clever middle-grade fantasy story, we follow Livy, now a grown-up almost-eleven year old, as she returns to her childhood. She is determined to solve the mystery of Bob and to reclaim her missing memories. Continue reading

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

 By Ben and Maureen Tai, 7 June 2019

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

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

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BE STILL, life by Ohara Hale

By Maureen Tai, 4 May 2019

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

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BE STILL, life 
is a jolt of joyful exuberance.  Seemingly random text, sometimes rhyming, sometimes not. Alphabets of different sizes, sometimes block, sometimes cursive. What unifies the playful and carefree words and the bold and whimsical drawings is the celebration of the simple pleasures of life. Isn’t it fun to look around, to really listen, to really feel, and to just be? Why, now that you mention it, it is!
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