Two new books by the Steads that I LOVE


Picking my favorite author and illustrator of picture books would not be easy for me, but I could make a fairly short list.  Included on this list would be the dynamic duo of Philip C. and Erin E. Stead, husband-wife author-illustrator team.  Imagine, then, my absolute delight when I realized that they had published not one but two books recently with at least one of their names on the covers!

Lenny and Lucy is written by Philip and illustrated Erin.  It is the story of a boy who moves with his father nad his mop of a dog, Harold, to a new house on the other side of some “dark unfriendly woods” and “the other side of the wooden bridge.”  No one is happy about this move, and everything about the story–from the color scheme to the body language of Peter, his father, and Harold–communicate this.  Peter is frightened and alone, so he does the only thing he can think to do, which is to make a behemoth out of pillows and blankets and give it a name and title:  Lenny, Guardian of the Bridge.  Lenny performs his job for one night before Peter notices his loneliness and makes him a companion out of leaves and names her Lucy.  Lenny and Lucy make a formidable pair and alleviate Peter’s fear, but it is when neighbors make the first tentative forays toward friendship that Peter’s family’s dilemma is well and truly solved.  This is a story about loss, loneliness, and friendship.  Like all good picture books, this one is subtle, and I’d even add another descriptor to this one:  sensitive. Erin Stead’s artwork is gorgeous and evocative, which is all I’d ever expect from her.  The choice of muted colors–greys for the woods and houses, with just a touch of color here and there, perfectly captures the mood of the story.  Philip Stead’s prose is just as lovely–sparse and intentional.  If you’re in need of a cozy, heartwarming story as the weather turns cool, look no further.  (Roaring Press, 2015)

The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles by Michelle Cuevas and illustrated by Erin E. Stead is just a lovely, lovely story.   It’s the story of a man who’s nameless–he is only known as The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles, and although he has “a job of utmost importance,” he is lonely. He takes his job seriously–uncork bottles found at sea, read their messages, and find their intended recipients.  However, he never finds the message he most longs to find–one intended just for him.  This changes in a delightfully heartwarming and poignantly humorous way one day when he reads and attempts to deliver an anonymous message.   Cuevas, a new-to-me author, writes prose that positively sparkles:  turns of phrase like “glint of glass” and figurative language like “loneliness as sharp as sharp as fish scales” and “the waves tipped their white postman hats” make this a delight to read aloud.  Couple that with Erin Stead’s exquisite woodblock prints (finished with oil pastels and pencil), and my, oh my–what a gorgeous book.  I shared this book with my middle school bookclub at our co-op, and they were rapt with attention.  If I’m gushing, it’s just because I love and adore this book.  Don’t miss this one.  (Dial, 2016)

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El Deafo by Cece Bell

El Deafo by Cece Bell is the autobiographical graphic novel that tells Bell’s story of being deaf from the age of four years old and her experiences growing up in a hearing world.   The graphic novel format was a particularly good vehicle for Cece Bell to use to tell her story.   There’s a feeling of just-rightness about it–the fact that she is represented by a rabbit (as are all the characters) makes the whole issue of having devices in her ears obvious in the illustrations in ways that they perhaps wouldn’t be if she were represented as a human being.  (Side note:  I’m sure there’s more to Cece Bell’s choice of the rabbit than that, especially since she has a series of picture books about a rabbit and a robot, entitled–what else?–Rabbit and Robot.  Maybe she likes rabbits?  No, she sets the matter to rest in “Twelve Fast Facts About Cece Bell”–number seven.)  Bell is able to communicate a lot of emotion and elicit  feelings of empathy in the reader through the combination of her illustrations and her text.  This story is full of humor, too; it is obvious that Bell knows how to laugh at herself.  However, the humor doesn’t detract from the story of a little girl learning how to navigate the world. At school Cece wears a Phonic Ear, a remote hearing-aid that, paired with a microphone worn by her teacher, enables Cece to hear everything the teacher says.  Cece has a love-hate relationship with her Phonic Ear; she loves it because without it she can’t “do” school well, but she hates it because she feels very conspicuous because of it. Cece also has much to learn when it comes to navigating the world of friendship, especially when some children ignore her and some are overly sympathetic. Surely even hearing children can relate to that feeling of “other-ness” that Bell so realistically portrays in her story.  Although this is the true story of a child with a physical impairment, the emotions that are portrayed are not unusual ones, so this story could be a vehicle to give hearing children an understanding of what life is like for a deaf child.  Plus, it’s just plain old fun!

Confession:  El Deafo by Cece Bell is the first and only graphic novel I’ve ever read, and I was only motivated to read it when the pickings got slim for this month’s Newbery Through the Decades challenge (meaning that I’ve read most of the 2010s Newberys).  However, now that I’ve read it, I’m pretty sure it won’t be my last.  The genre–the whole interplay of words and images–was a little difficult for me to get used to, but I have to say I enjoyed it a lot.  I am eager to pick up another graphic novel, and I think I’ll start with Melissa Wiley’s list.  (Pssst!  If you need more convincing as to why you–and your children–need to give comics/graphic novels a try, watch this!)   Ten year old Louise snatched this one up and read it–the work of one afternoon or so for her– before I could find enough time to finish it.  She LOVED it.  We both give it a Highly Recommended.  (Amulet, 2014)

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

I’ve changed my mind about novels-in-verse; I always used to begin my reviews of them with a disclaimer that I don’t really like them.  Now I know that I do.  I mean, I LOVE poetry, and I love a good story, so what’s not to love in a mashup of the two?  However, Kwame Alexander’s Crossover has a handicap when it comes to my own personal enjoyment of it:  it’s about basketball.  You see, I’m just not a sports person–to the point that I almost resent references to sports in my every day life.  (Is that bad?  I think it comes from living in a football-crazy state and hearing “Roll Tide” so. much.)  Still, though, I had to read this book because it won the 2015 Newbery Medal and I’m on a quest to read as many Newberys as I can through my Newbery Through the Decades challenge.  One thing I can say for certain about this book is that the poetry is excellent–everything you’d expect from a book with not only a Newbery Medal but also a Coretta Scott King honor.  The story isn’t bad, either.   It’s about twin basketball sensations Josh and Jordan Bell.  They’re twelve year old middle schoolers.  Their father is a washed up basketball star and their mother is the principal of their middle school.  Their family life pivots on the tension between their father’s reliving his glory days through his boys (and teaching them everything he knows) and their mother trying to keep the family healthy and grounded.   Their relatively happy existence is disturbed when Jordan falls for a new girl at school, and the twins’ relationship grows strained.  This, coupled with their father’s health problems, forces basketball into the backseat.  However, because it is what they excel at and what brings them together as brothers, it can’t stay in the backseat for long.  There’s a lot going on in this book, and some of it–the romance part–seems a bit precocious to me.  (I might be just so far out of the main stream that it isn’t.  That is quite possible.)  The poetry, however, absolutely sings.  I cannot find a single thing about it to criticize.  I love this image from the chapter entitled “The Nosebleed Section”:

Our seats are in the clouds

and every time Dad thinks

the ref makes a bad call,

he rains.

All Mom does is pop up

like an umbrella,

then Dad sits

back down. (147)

This is a quick read–about as fast and as fast-moving as a basketball game–and might just be a hit with basketball-loving kids.  (Houghton Mifflin, 2014)



Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt

I’ve written my review of Gary D. Schmidt’s new book, Orbiting Jupiter, several times in my brain, only to lack the time to actually sit down and compose it on my blog.  Now that I’m sitting down to compose, I hardly know where to start.  First, let me say that I’m a fan of Gary D. Schmidt, through and through.   (Recognize that allusion?  Heh heh heh.)    When I read Sherry’s review at Semicolon, I knew I had to read it.  I’ve never read a book by Schmidt that didn’t get me in the heart.  Well, this one is no different, except that in the tear-jerker caregory, it gets top billing over all his books.  (And that’s saying something.)  Oh, my.

It’s a difficult story, no doubt about that.  It’s the story of a boy named Jackson Hurd who lives with his parents on their dairy farm in Maine.   At the beginning of the story the family takes in a foster child, Joseph, who is a couple of years older than twelve year old Jackson.  Joseph’s history is chock-full of the misery of adolescent choices gone bad and “discipline” gone even worse.   Add to that equation an alcoholic father who most definitely doesn’t have his son’s best interest at heart, and the situation is ripe for heartbreak.  The Hurd family steps in and becomes just that to Joseph–a family.  He goes from being withdrawn and reactive to smiling enough times by three-fourths of the way through the book that Jackson, who’s counting, loses count.  Joseph’s one goal in life is to meet his baby daughter, Jupiter, who is the fruit of some of those adolescent bad choices (and, by the way, the choices seem like the only good thing in Joseph’s life to him, and indeed, quite possibly were) and who, because of the “discipline” he has undergone, is, apparently lost to him forever.   The Hurds “have his back,” though, and eventually support his attempt at the impossible.  And with their support, the impossible becomes . . . possible.  This is one of those book with an ending that comes out of nowhere and punches the reader in the gut, and it’s one that left me emotionally shaken.  All I can say is this:  read it.

I think this is Gary D. Schmidt’s redemption for all the bad (clueless, selfish, tyrannical, uncaring) fathers he has written over the years in his other books.  Jackson Hurd’s father, Joseph’s foster father–he gets it right, and it makes a huge difference.  I love that.  Here are some other things that I love about this book:

  • I love that it tackles difficult subjects–teenage parenthood, juvenile delinquency, poor parenting, substance abuse, foster care–without anything explicit at all.  Some might say that it glorifies teen parenthood because Joseph never “sees the error of his ways,” but I’d say to that what fourteen-year-old boy or girl would want the consequences Joseph experiences?   What it does do is paint a real picture of the difficulties of life, but in a way that is full of grace and redemption.  There’s nothing in it (aside from the mature subject matter) that would prevent me from handing it off to my ten year old.  I haven’t, but only because I think it might take more emotional maturity to “get it.”
  • I love (LOVE LOVE LOVE) that Schmidt places some of the characters (or relatives of characters?) from his other books set in the 1960s and ’70s in this one.  To meet them again, often kinder and gentler–’tis sweet.
  • I love that Joseph reads M.T. Anderson’s Octavian Nothing in this novel.  I don’t know if this is a thematic nod or if Schmidt is merely a fan of Anderson’s or if this is some sort of authorial inside joke (my guess is the former, though the other two are possible, also).  Whatever it is, it’s a nice touch.
  • I love that the heroes of this story are foster parents, a twelve year old boy, a pastor, a librarian, and some cows.  I mean, can it get any better than that?

If I haven’t convinced you to read this one yet, here is a short excerpt that I hope will tip the scales in its favor:

Christmas is the season for miracles, you know.  Sometimes they come big and loud, I guess–but I’ve never seen one of those.  I think probably most miracles are a lot smaller, and sort of still, and so quiet, you could miss them.

I didn’t miss this one.

When my father put his hand on Joseph’s back, Joseph didn’t even flinch. (114-15)

This book will definitely make my top picks list of the year; it quite possibly might be top of the list.  (Clarion, 2015)

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Monthly Reading Report: August and September 2016

These past two months have flown by, and during them I’ve managed to do a good bit of reading.  Here’s what I’ve enjoyed:

  •  How We Love by Milan and Kay Yerkovich.  Steady Eddie heard an interview with the authors of this book and decided he needed to read it.  He read it and recommended it highly to me, so of course I read it.  I’ve read several marriage books over the years, and I have to say that this one has resonated in terms of its practicality the most.  The Yerkoviches discuss the different “ways” of loving, and they narrow it down to a few categories:  the Avoider, the Vacillator, the Pleaser, and the Controllor and Victim (these are known as the Chaotic Love Styles).  A person’s love style is something acquired early in life through observation and experience during childhood, and this “intimacy imprint” has far-reaching impact into his or her adult life.  This is something I’ve always known intuitively, so this book really gave me lots of evidence and examples to support that.  A workbook is available to help couples put into practice the skills necessary to heal these relational deficits brought about by their individual styles; I think we’d do well to order it.  I give this one a Highly Recommended.  (WaterBrook, 2008)
  • I purchased Carrie Rocha’s Pocket Your Dollars for my Kindle months ago when I saw it on sale on some FB group that we’re both a part of.  Steady Eddie and I have some financial goals that we have made little progress in over the past seventeen years of our marriage, and this little book gave me a lot of insight into the power of our attitudes toward our finances.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading the Rochas’ story and Carrie’s can-do attitude.  I have Victoria at Snail Pace Transformations to thank for reminding me via one of her blog posts that I even owned this book; her blog is another resource in my mental and emotional arsenal in trying to change my mindset about money.  (Look!  Carrie has a blog, too!)  Highly Recommended if frugality is your thing or if it needs to be your thing!  (Bethany House, 2012)
  • A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck in audiobook.  If you haven’t read Peck, do yourself a favor and read him ASAP.  Richard Peck in audiobook is even more fun.
  • A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck, also in audiobook.  The sequel is just as poignant as its predecessor.  Both of these books were re-reads, but oh how I love love them!
  • Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech.  This was a re-read for me from years ago, but it made me cry more this time than the last time I read it–probably thanks to the fact that now I’m the mama of a girl approximately the same age as Sal in the book.
  • Shabanu by Suzanne Fisher Staples.  This is yet another re-read from my pre-blogging days.   It was just as colorfully descriptive and shocking to my Western sensibilities as I remembered.
  • Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy by Gary D. Schmidt in audiobook.  If I love Richard Peck, I adore Gary D. Schmidt.  Don’t miss either one.
  • “The President Has Been Shot!” by James L. Swanson in audiobook.  Riveting.
  • Surviving the Applewhites by Stephanie Tolan.  I enjoyed this one better than I expected to.
  • The Wednesday Wars by Gary D. Schmidt in audiobook. This might be my favorite piece of JF/YA literature ever.  This one is yet another re-read because I love it so much.


  • The Original Adventures of Hank the Cowdog by John R. Erickson.  This seemed like the right read-aloud for the boys at the time.  I’ll admit to not loving it; I think Hank translates much better to audiobook.  The DLM hung in there, though, and we finished it, and I daresay he’d sit and listen to book two right now if given the chance.  That’s a pretty good recommendation.
  • Anne of Windy Poplars by L.M. Montgomery, a continuance of our Year of Anne.  Not one of us–neither I, Lulu, nor Louise–consider this one a favorite. However, we do love Anne, and of course, this book does give us Rebecca Dew.  It took us a long time to read it, but when we finished, I think we can all say we’re glad we revisited it.

I also shared a few picture books that we enjoyed in August and September in the following posts:

The DLM listens to audiobooks daily, but I don’t even try to keep up with what he listens to.  I do know that he discovered the Magic Treehouse books via audio this go-round.  I’m not sure if I’m happy or sad about that. 😉


And that’s it!  The next couple of months should be busy in terms of reading, and I already have a backlog of reviews to share (after I write them 😉 ), so stay tuned!