Full of Beans by Jennifer L. Holm

If you like Jennifer L. Holm’s Newbery honor book Turtle in Paradise and want to know more about the inhabitants of Key West (especially the Diaper Gang), Full of Beans is the book for you!  Written from the perspective of Turtle’s cousin Beans Curry, this little novel is just as brimful of life in Key West, Florida, during the Great Depression as Turtle in Paradise.   Historically, this novel fleshes out the revitalization of Key West by a team of “New Dealers,” and there are cameo appearances by a couple of famous authors and a famous actress.  (I’ll let you, my intrepid bibliophile readers, guess who ONE of the famous authors must be. 😉 )  The kid-appeal part of the story, as well as the main complication, involves Beans and his attempt to earn money for his family. He finally goes to work for Johnny Cakes, a Key West bootlegger–a pretty sweet job, but for one thing:  this job lands him in a real moral dilemma when the repercussions of it are life-changing for his best friend, Pork Chop, and his family.  In addition to this weighty moral dilemma, scrapes and hijinks abound as the Beans and Co. compete to remain the marbles champs of Key West, earn enough money to see Shirley Temple and Baby LeRoy on the big screen, and mostly stay out of trouble.

I enjoyed this novel a lot–the setting and Beans’ voice are very authentic.  The only fault in the story I can find is that the pacing is a little off; I felt jarred a bit when Beans’ brother, Kermit, grows ill and recovers within the space of a few pages, while the story up until that point had taken chapters for relatively little plot movement.  The name dropping at the end of the story (the aforementioned famous people) feels a little forced, though maybe it wouldn’t feel that way by the book’s intended audience.  I do appreciate the backmatter that provides actual pictures and more details about Key West during the Great Depression.  The story ends with the arrival of Turtle in Key West, and even though she isn’t identified by name, I was gratified to recognize her and her “mangy cat.”  Full of Beans is a prequel, then, to Turtle in Paradise.  This is no way means that one must read them in that order, however; obviously, everyone who has already enjoyed Turtle in Paradise did so first since it was written years before Full of Beans. Read them in whichever order you can get your hands on them.  My ten-year-old Louise declared Jennifer L. Holm to be one of her favorite authors after reading this novel, and I’m inclined to agree:  she consistently delivers likable characters and interesting stories.  (Random House, 2016)

Related links:

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)

Related links:

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)