Ada’s violin: the story of the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay

This is an amazing story about a young group of magicians who discovered compassion, creativity, and music among the trash in a landfill in Paraguay.

Picture book, non-fiction, informational
Interest level: K-5; Reading level: 4.0
5 out of 5 stars

Ada’s Violin is an absolutely amazing story of a young girl who lives in Cateura, Paraguay. Her town is the main garbage dump for the capital city of Asuncion, and her family works in the landfill, picking through the trash and hauling away items that can be recycled and sold.

For the youth of Cateura, there is not much to do so gangs and fighting are a way of life. Until Favio Chavez comes to town and offers to teach the children to play music. There are not enough instruments to go around, so he got the people in the community to help him make instruments out of trash they could recycle from the landfill.

Word of this amazing Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay began to spread, and the children were invited to travel all over to play. They have performed in concerts around the world, and even opened for Metallica.

Sally Wern Comport’s collage illustrations perfectly fit the tone and style of the book.

The back of the book contains an Author’s Note with more details about the Recycled Orchestra, a photo, and sources for more information.

Book trailer:

Ada’s Violin: The story of the Recycled Orchestra of Paraguay
by Susan Hood; illustrated by Sally Wern Comport
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2016
ISBN 9781481430951

That is My Dream!

That Is My Dream! combines the beautiful gouache illustrations of Daniel Miyares with the 1924 Langston Hughes poem, Dream Variation, to depict a young child’s dream of racial equality and freedom.

Picture book, poetry
Interest level: grades 3 and up; Reading level: 3.0
5 out of 5 stars

Dream Variation is a two-stanza poem that was written by Langston Hughes in 1924. Both stanzas express the desire to feel free in the world, yet Miyares interprets each stanza of the poem in a slightly different way.

To fling my arms wide
In some place of the sun,
To whirl and to dance
Till the white day is done.
Then rest at cool evening
Beneath a tall tree
While night comes on gently,
Dark like me—
That is my dream!

UntitledIn the first stanza, Miyares focuses on the idea of “the white day” and shows the inequalities faced by a young African-American boy and his family as they go about daily tasks. Images of the Black family are juxtaposed with images of a White family, clearly depicting the racial inequalities of the times — Black people sitting in the back of the bus behind White people; White children dancing and enjoying sweets while the Black children are quietly going to shop for groceries; and two children getting drinks at segregated water fountains.

Miyares has used the line “That is my dream!” at the end of the first stanza to transition into depicting the boy’s dream of the future. Miyares’s muted colors from the first stanza, transition into more brilliant colors and dreamlike images of all the children, Black and White, riding on different birds and playing together.

To fling my arms wide
In the face of the sun,
Dance! Whirl! Whirl!
Till the quick day is done.
Rest at pale evening . . .
A tall, slim tree . . .
Night coming tenderly
Black like me.

UntitledOne of the illustrations shows the two boys drinking together from a stream, which is in direct opposition to the earlier image of them drinking from the separate water fountains.
As the boy awakens from the dream of racial integration and harmony, Miyares depicts him holding onto a single feather. For the boy, and for readers in 2017, this feather represents the very real hope that racial equality is within our grasp.

It is disheartening to realize that Langston Hughes’s poem depicts a hope for racial equality that is still not realized today. Daniel Miyares has created a picture book that vividly depicts this dream and will hopefully infuse young readers with empathy and the desire for a better and equal future for all.

An Illustrator’s Note is in the back of the book that talks about Miyares’ thoughts about Dream Variation and what it means to him.

That is My Dream!
by Langston Hughes and Daniel Miyares
Schwartz & Wade Books, 2017
ISBN 978-0-399-55017-1

Harriet the Invincible 

A fun retelling of Sleeping Beauty where the princess doesn’t sit around waiting for the curse to happen to her, but instead goes out and kicks some butt! Oh, and she’s a hamster…

Hybrid novel/graphic novel, fiction, fantasy
Interest level: grades 2-4; Reading level: 4.9
2017-2018 YHBA Intermediate nominee
4 out of 5 stars

Harriet Hamsterbone is a spirited hamster princess who decides that she isn’t going to sit around and wait for a hamster wheel to appear on her twelfth birthday so she can prick her finger, fall into a deep sleep, and then have some prince come to her rescue. Quite frankly, she’s a little skeptical that princes are capable of being heros, and she reasons that “the curse needs me alive until I’m twelve, or it can’t operate! I’m invincible!”

So Harriet sets out on her faithful riding quail, Mumfrey and spends the “next two years cliff-diving, dragon-slaying, and jousting on the professional circuit.” Harriet turns the usual fairytale hero/damsel in distress stereotype on its head. She empowers herself and determines that she won’t let anyone dictate how princesses should act.
Ursula Vernon injects a ton of humor into Harriet’s story. The format of the book contains paragraphs of text interspersed with graphic novel style panels. The illustrations are single color in the style of Dragonbreath (also by Vernon), Babymouse, and Lunch Lady. All these features combine to make a book that is perfect for readers who may not want to read traditional, text-only novels.

Harriet the Invincible
by Ursula Vernon
Scholastic, 2015
ISBN 978-0-545-91343-0

Blue Sky White Stars

Sarvinder Naberhaus and Kadir Nelson have created a picture book that conveys a feeling of strong patriotism and pride in the diverse people and landscapes that make the United States a great country.

Picture book
Interest level: All ages
5 out of 5 stars

Two things come together to make this picture book so amazing — sparse, well-chosen text and absolutely stunning illustrations by one of the best illustrators alive today. Sarvinder Naberhaus selects powerful words to make patriotic statements that apply to both the flag, a symbol, and the majestic landscapes and diverse people that make up the United States. The same words describe both.
Each two-page spread contains an image that focuses on the flag, paired with either a landscape or person who conveys the same ideal. “Red Rows” is illustrated by a row of red-leaved trees, set beside a close-up of the red stripes of the flag. “All American” applies to a stadium hosting a baseball game, as wel as an African-American war veteran sitting on the porch with his grandson listening to the game on a portable radio while eating Cracker Jacks.
Nelson’s photorealistic oil paintings showcase beautiful landscapes, but his forte is depicting people. This book is full of expressive illustrations featuring diverse faces. The fact that this patriotic and inspiring book contains such a variety of skin tones, hair, and eye colors reminds us to celebrate the ethnic diversity that makes up our country.

Notes from the author and illustrator are included in the back of the book, and additional background material about the flag and phrases Naberhaus chose to include can be found on the author’s website:

Be sure to check out the back cover of the book. The front cover shows a group of Americans watching a firework show in rapt fascination. I was expecting the back cover to be more of the same, but instead it shows the crowd from the back, as if the reader has joined the scene.

Blue Sky White Stars
by Sarvinder Naberhaus; illustrated by Kadir Nelson

Mighty Jack and the Goblin King

Mighty Jack and the Goblin King finds Jack, Lilly, and Maddy in a fantastical world with giants and goblins in this retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk.

Graphic novel, fiction, fantasy, adventure
Interest Level: 5-8; Reading Level: 2.8
5 out of 5 stars

This sequel to Mighty Jack picks up right where the story ended — Jack’s sister Maddy has been carried away by a strange creature and Jack and Lilly have set out to rescue her. Hatke has indeed created a very fantastical world that features giant beanstalks holding up castles and sprouting sewer pipes. We learn that this place is a crossroad between worlds, but this once green and thriving world is falling into disrepair.
Lilly and Jack get separated and encounter goblins, giants, and mutant rat-like creatures as they fight to rescue Maddy and return home. While Jack might seem like the main character, Hatke lets Lilly shine on her own and display her own strength and cunning. This is not a story where the female character is left waiting for the male to save her!
Hatke’s style of illustration really keeps the focus on the characters. While the creatures and world of plants is very detailed, the background is mostly plain and monochrome so that the reader isn’t overwhelmed.

Snappy dialog and bits of humor make this a really fun story to read. There are also unexpected details like a Magic 8 Ball and a Shelby Mustang that somehow work in this strange alternate world.
While this book cleanly wraps up the story of Jack, Lilly and Maddy, be prepared for a fun and exciting twist at the end. Hatke sure knows how to keep readers coming back for more!

Mighty Jack and the Goblin King
by Ben Hatke
First Second, 2017
ISBN 978-1-62672-267-5

Not Quite Narwhal

The adorable illustrations tell the sweet story of Kelp, who is not quite a narwhal, and how he is able to make his place in the world.

Picture book, fiction
Interest level: Pre-K through grade 3; Reading level: 3.0
4 out of 5 stars

In the picture book world, narwhals and unicorns are hot subjects, so Jessie Sima has hit payday with her adorable main character who straddles the narwhal/unicorn genre.

The first thing I noticed and loved about Not Quite Narwhal are the absolutely adorable illustrations. We meet Kelp as a baby nestled in a clam shell, wearing a protective helmet so he can breath underwater. There is even a hole in the helmet that allows his horn to stick through.
Young readers will easily recognize Kelp as a unicorn, so they will find it very funny when the author states, “He knew early on that he was different from the other narwhals.” Even though Kelp’s differences could have made him feel alone, his narwhal family and friends certainly didn’t mind and he was very happy.
But what happens when he is swept close to land and spies “a mysterious, sparkling creature” that looks like him? There is a cute sequence where Kelp learns how to walk on land and eventually meets up with the creatures that look like him — land narwhals!

Kelp recognizes that he actually is a unicorn and then struggles with figuring out where he truly belongs. Sima has provided the perfect ending where Kelp is able to create his perfect place in the world.

This would make a wonderful read-aloud for young children. There is a limited amount of text on each page, great pacing to the story, and absolutely adorable illustrations. Children will find the book both funny and heart-warming.

Not Quite Narwhal
by Jessie Sima
Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2017
ISBN 978-1-4814-6909-8

Gone Camping

This should be a must-have book for anyone who teaches poetry writing at the elementary or middle school level.

Novel in verse, fiction, poetry
Interest Level: K-3; Reading Level: 2.5
5 out of 5 stars

Sam and Lucy, the siblings we originally met in Tamera Wissinger’s first book, Gone Fishing are looking forward to a family camping trip. Dad wakes up with a horrible cold and needs Mom to take care of him, so Grandpa gamely steps up and takes Sam and Lucy.
Wissinger narrates Sam and Lucy’s story using short poems. Some poems are told from Sam’s point of view and others are from Lucy. Each poem fits on a page or two and identifies whose voice is featured at the top. Gone Camping is more Lucy’s story, while previously Gone Fishing was Sam’s story.
All is good during the day, but Lucy worries about the creatures and critters who might visit their tent once the sun goes down. Lucy’s anxiety is deftly told by poems titled “The Walls of our Tent” and “Sleeping Bag Charm,” where through a charm poem, Lucy tries to ensure her sleeping bag will be a safe haven.
Wissinger’s deft poetry is accompanied by the charming illustrations of Matthew Cordell. His pen and ink illustrations are whimsical and fun and match the tone of the poems perfectly. I especially love how Cordell indicates the sun has set by shading the background of the night poems in gray. When the page turns white again, we know that Lucy has made it through the night.

Both Gone Fishing and Gone Camping are excellent stories that are told in verse. These books would both make excellent mentor texts for poetry units. The short poems are accessible to young writers and illustrate some of the many styles that poems can appear in. Wissinger also includes information about various poetry techniques in the back.

Gone Camping: a novel in verse
by Tamera Will Wissinger; illustrated by Matthew Cordell
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017
ISBN 978-0-544-63873-0