Thursday, December 29, 2011

Picture Book Review -- Lala Salama by Patricia MacLachlan

One of the things I was most looking forward to, in the days and weeks and months and (yes, even) years that we prepared to become parents was the prospect of reading to our Sprout. Cuddling up with my kiddo in a cozy chair, with a big stack of picture books -- pretty much my idea of heaven.

And I'm pleased to say that, more than 18 months into the process of parenting this little bug, the experience continues to delight me. It is without question our favorite time of day, and it's time we spend as a family, since Daddy and our puppy dog join us too. Most of our reading is done while Sprout's in the bathtub, which works for us, but we always save at least one book for when he's tucked up in bed. Usually I try to steer him toward more "active" titles at first, and then pull out a gentle, calmer tale for that last title of the night.

In that vein, Patricia MacLachlan's Lala Salama: A Tanzanian Lullaby could not be more perfect. Gentle and soothing, this would be a fantastic choice to read with a drowsy baby or toddler, or even an older child who may be reading parts of it to you. The book follows a Tanzanian family through their day, as mother and child spend the day together, working in the fields, preparing meals, enjoying the cool breezes from Lake Tanganyika. Elizabeth Zunon brings MacLachlan's simple text to life, capturing the rolling rhythm of the day in the serenity of the mother's countenance and the bright eyes of her baby. At the end of the day, Mama and baby watch  Baba's boat out on the lake, and Mama rocks her child to sleep, safe in the knowledge that he is loved and well cared for.

I'm always on the lookout for quality titles about East Africa to share with Sprout, and the sensitive portrayals in Lala Salama fill the bill. Plus, it's a simply gorgeous title for us to marvel over and read aloud, in that hushed cocoon of evening when stories bring us all together. Add this to your family bedtime routine -- after a busy day, it's just the thing.

Lala Salama by Patricia MacLachlan, published by Candlewick Press
All ages
Personal collection (full disclosure: I won this from a contest hosted by Cynthia Leitich Smith on her blog Cynsations -- if you don't read this a-ma-zing blog, you should!)

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Picture Book Review - The Red Thread by Grace Lin

It's hard for me to find anything not to like about a Grace Lin book. From her realistic yet adorable illustrations, to her sensitive characters and her affinity for detail (both in words and pictures), Lin just about never takes a misstep.

And there's a lot to like about Lin's picture book, The Red Thread. For one thing, this is a great way for adoptive families to share with young children the story of their own experience. Lin sets the story as a traditional fairy tale with familiar elements. The king and queen of a prosperous land have everything, but they are very sad and in great pain. After consulting a mysterious peddler, the king and queen discover there is a red thread pulling from their hearts. The more they pull away from the thread, the more it hurts. The only solution is to follow the red thread. It is an arduous journey, but at last they come to a distant land and discover what is on the other end of the thread - a beautiful baby girl who belongs to them!

In typical Lin fashion this book is gorgeous, with lots of small details that add texture to the picture. The story, too, comes to life with details - the king and queen's journey, for example, and the fact that they gradually lose their fine appearance and become tattered and ragged. I also love that the tale is bookended by a transracial family who is reading the story to their own child, presumably who herself is adopted.

Just a couple small things nag at me, however. First, I don't love the subtitle: "an adoption fairy tale". Maybe it's because of that assumption that adoption automatically equates to "happily ever after" (which it may, but it also may not), maybe it's just that the pairing of the terms feels off to me -- either way, I could do without this part. Also, the tale itself is singular in focus, very much geared toward what the prospective adoptive parents go through and with little consideration given to the child or her first family. I'm not comfortable with how readily the king and queen scoop up their baby and return to their normal lives. Adoption isn't this seamless, in most cases, nor should it be.

Granted, adoption is a complex issue, many would argue too complex for a picture book to examine fully. Also, this is presented as a fairy tale, and therefore idealized. But it's worth noting these issues so that adoptive families who might be sharing the book with their own families can be aware of them, and discuss with their kids as necessary. When I read it with Sprout, we talked about his Ethiopia family, retelling their story to him and emphasizing the centrality of their place in his life.

Overall, however, this is a great book with lots to recommend it, and an excellent addition to home, school and public libraries. Use this to start the adoption conversation with all children, no matter how they came into their family.

The Red Thread by Grace Line, published by Albert Whitman and Company
Ages 2-7
Source: Library
Sample: "And sure enough, when the queen put on the glasses, she could see a brilliant red thread coming from her heart. It ran around the room, out the castle door, and far beyond. With every move she made, the thread pulled and twisted, causing her pain."

Monday, December 26, 2011

Social Networking

Sprout's Bookshelf is now on Facebook! "Like" the Sprout's Bookshelf Facebook page for updates and other information about the world of kidlit.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

12 Days of Christmas Picture Books - The Night Before Christmas

It's Christmas Eve! We can hardly believe it! We're excited to see family and friends, share delicious food, give and receive gifts, and of course re-read all our favorite holiday books.

The past 12 days I've shared some really wonderful picture books. Each title fulfills my goal of providing Sprout with a diverse canon of reading material, showing people of all different races/ethnicities, various cultures, and unique perspectives. And each one of these books was carefully selected because it embodies a different aspect of the holiday season -- joy, kindness, peace, love, hope.

Perhaps none of the titles I've shared does that so well as Rachel Isadora's version of the Clement C. Moore poem, The Night Before Christmas. As she's done with other classic books, Isadora sets her tale in Africa, with all African characters, and sets off the familiar words with her gorgeous mixed-media illustrations. The collage effect she uses creates textures that combine beautifully with her vivid color palette, causing the images to just about jump off the page.

No version I've ever seen captures the spirit, the joy, the pure delight that is childhood at Christmas. Reinventing a classic is always a bit of a risk, but in Isadora's capable hands, the result is simply dazzling. I mean, Santa with dreads? Snow in an African village? How can you fail to be enchanted by that?

Tonight we'll be spending Christmas Eve at home, warm and cozy with a house full of loved ones. And you can be sure we'll be reading this book at bedtime, once Sprout is nestled all snug in his bed.

Merry Christmas to All!

Friday, December 23, 2011

12 Days of Christmas Picture Books - Yoon and the Christmas Mitten

Blending cultures is always a tricky thing. It's tough to know what customs to keep from one, which to add from another, and which to let go of. You want to honor everything, but sometimes it feels like our worlds are so full already, it can be hard to add more. This is especially true for holidays, I think, when another set of observances can make the celebration richer but at the same time more complex.

In Yoon and the Christmas Mitten by Helen Recorvits, Yoon's family is struggling with this very thing. Recent immigrants to the US from Korea, Yoon's parents are reluctant to embrace American traditions like Christmas, with its strange customs. Stockings by the chimney? Colored lights? Santa Claus? Yoon's father puts his foot down. "We are not a Christmas family," he tells her. But Yoon longs to experience all the things her classmates speak of, like decorating a tree and getting presents in her sock. On Christmas Eve Yoon decides to take action, hanging up her mitten so that Mr. Santa Claus can leave her a gift. And what a surprise Yoon gets, when somehow Santa finds her house even without the twinkling lights!

This book is simply beautiful, with breathtaking illustrations by Gabi Swiatkowska. Really, nothing I can say will do these pictures justice - you just have to see them for yourself. And the way Recorvits tells Yoon's story is something special indeed. While never devaluing the way Yoon's parents feel, she still captures Yoon's desire to have an American Christmas just like all the other kids do. The resulting compromise - the family still celebrates New Year, which is much more in line with their Korean traditions - shows that joining a new culture doesn't have to mean abandoning familiar customs.

When we brought our son into our family, we also gained a whole new culture. Now we love having two Christmases, two New Year's, and a host of other holidays along the way. Even if you don't have a direct link to another culture, it's fun to add in different observations, and a great reminder that we all come together in the joy of sharing celebrations.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

12 Days of Christmas Picture Books - An Angel Just Like Me

See this guy?

This is one of the new Santa pieces we bought this year. My husband found him at a department store in downtown Seattle, after driving two hours to take Sprout to see the only African American Santa we were able to locate anywhere in the vicinity. We felt it was important for him to understand Christmas as a holiday for everyone, not just people whose skin looks like most Santas. After all, a snowman has to be white, but a Santa? Not so much.

And that's the thesis behind Mary Hoffman's book An Angel Just Like Mewhich is gorgeously illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu. In this moving story, Tyler asks his family why all the Christmas angels they have are "pink" and "look like girls". Tyler decides then and there to find an angel that looks just like him, with brown skin and curly hair. And he scours every store in his town for such an angel, even talking to Santa about it. Finally Tyler decides to get a star instead, because "a star's the same for everyone". But Tyler soon finds out that angels (and Santas) do come in all shapes and sizes, and that Christmas joy really is for everyone.

I am so grateful for authors like Hoffman, who tackle the tough questions and do it in such an approachable, even humorous way. And those pictures -- could the cover illustration be more alluring? Sprout nabbed this one off the kitchen table as I began writing this, poring over the pictures and exclaiming "Santa!" with pure joy.

If the people in your family come in different colors (like ours do!), chances are some little one is going to pose Tyler's question. And even if you all "match", your kids just might wonder why there isn't an angel or Santa that looks like their best friend. Adding some color to your holiday scheme doesn't have to mean lights and tinsel - think how much more interesting your mantel would look with a Santa just like ours!

UPDATE - No sooner had I added this blog post than the doorbell rang with a package from a wonderful friend of ours. Mary always sends our sweet Sprout the most amazing books, and this time there was something for Mom and Dad too - a gorgeous angel that, as you can see, matches our boy exactly. Now Sprout can point to the mantel and his very own "angel just like me"!

Thanks Mary! And Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

12 Days of Christmas Picture Books - Tree of Cranes

A few years ago, there was a big furor about the "death of the picture book". I've blogged about it before, but the gist is that an article claimed that in the push to get kids reading younger and younger, picture books were no longer relevant. I think that's patently false -- for nearly all of us who love books, that love was born out of the experience of being read to, and as a parent, that's an experience I am determined to pass on to my son. Sure, chapter books are great read-alouds, but there's something about the magic of picture books that can't be replicated in any other form.

And artists like Allan Say prove that picture books are not just for the youngest members of the family. His photorealistic illustrations and detailed, nuanced text is perfect for sharing with school-age children, who will also appreciate the subtleties of his plots. We read Say's Grandfather's Journey in a class I took last semester, and there was more than enough there to keep a classful of grad students conversing for weeks!

In Tree of Cranes, Say gives us the story of a young Japanese boy who has been playing in the pond, which he's been told not to do. When he comes home wet and chilled, he thinks his mother is angry with him. All afternoon she's busy doing strange things -- making many paper cranes, digging up a tree from the garden and bringing it inside. Then the boy's mother explains to him that where she grew up, in California, the family celebrated Christmas, a wonderful holiday with presents, lights, and a "day of love and peace". The boy thinks that nowhere on earth could there have been a more beautiful sight than what his mother created, a tree of cranes.

When Sprout's old enough, I think we'll take time out to read Tree of Cranes and learn to make our own origami cranes to hang on the tree. Examining a holiday from the outside in can give us a unique perspective to share with our kids, one in which we look past the piles of gifts and holiday treats to the spirit that drives our celebration. This peaceful portrait is more than just a glimpse into another culture - it's also a reminder to be mindful of what the holiday really means, to us and those we love.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

12 Days of Christmas Picture Books - Christmas for 10

A few months after Sprout joined our family, I picked up a board book copy of Cathryn Falwell's Feast for 10 at a used bookstore. I was excited to see it because there's such a lack of board book titles with characters of color (really. . . take a look sometime at the library or bookstore and you'll see for yourself!) Little did I know then that it would become part of our family's bedtime reading canon. Rarely a week has gone by without us reading Feast for 10 multiple times. Sprout can just about read it to me, at this point!

So with the holidays coming around it was a no-brainer for us to get Christmas for 10. Like Feast, this is a super-simple counting-based plot that revolves around an African American family preparing for a celebration. This time the grandparents are in on the prep work, helping to decorate the tree and reading holiday stories to the little ones. The entire family's involved in getting ready, especially with the fun parts, like stringing popcorn chains. As Sprout always says, yum!

This is a comforting book about family and the excitement of preparing to welcome guests. Falwell's illustrations are engaging and delightful, and I appreciate that she adds small touches that personalize the characters, like older sister's ever-present braid and the variety of skin tones among family members. Sprout likes to point out each character in turn, particularly his favorite: "cute baby".

Again, the emphasis here isn't on gifts -- in fact, the only spread that features gifts at all ("six presents to stack") is opposite a page about giving to others, as the family packs food baskets which appear to be for needy families. And I love, love, love that there are two angels in the family's display -- one white, one black. Yay!

Monday, December 19, 2011

12 Days of Christmas Picture Books - It's Christmas, David!

Nobody quite captures the spirit of a little boy like David Shannon, in his "David" series. The first entry in the series, No David, is based on a book that Shannon wrote when he was a child, in which every page featured a picture of him doing something he shouldn't, with the caption "No David!". (Hmmm, wonder where he got that idea?)

It's Christmas, David! is much along the same line. It's the holiday season, all right, and poor David can't catch a break. Everywhere he goes there's something fascinating to look at or touch, and adults always telling him not to. And then there's that constant reminder that "Santa's watching!", which seems to crop up whenever things get good. In the final pages, David wakes up on Christmas morning to discover that he's gotten a lump of coal! Could that really be how David's Christmas will end??

We can totally relate to David's predicament around here these days. Sprout's got exactly one present under the tree at the moment, and he's asked us if he can open it approximately 3000 times. In the past 3 days.

But at least Sprout's not emulating all of David's behavior. . . he just giggles whenever this page comes up.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

12 Days of Christmas Picture Books - Jingle the Christmas Clown

How can you not love Tomie dePaola? From Strega Nona to Big Anthony and beyond, his characters are among the most beloved in all of kidlit. And he's written a slew of great holiday books too, jam-packed with Christmas spirit along with adorably whimsical depictions of angels, Santas, and even the Nativity.

One of my favorite dePaola selections, though, is an older title (and a bit hard to get - except from the library!), Jingle the Christmas Clown. If you're looking for a title that focuses more on "giving" and less on "getting", this is a great choice. The only gifts that are given here are those of the heart, and what great gifts they are!

Like many dePaola titles, this one is set in the Italian countryside, and there's a sprinkling of Italian tradition and phrases throughout the text. Jingle is the littlest clown in Il Circo Piccolo (The Little Circus), and it's his job to care for the baby animals. Every year the circus plays a special Christmas Eve show in one particular village. But this year when the circus arrives, they discover that the village has fallen on hard times and there's almost no one left to perform for. The circus officials decide they need to move on to another spot for Christmas Eve, but the baby animals are too tired to keep traveling. Jingle is left behind to care for the animals until the circus performers come back through.

Jingle being Jingle, he can't help noticing that there isn't much Christmas spirit left in this lonely place. Jingle decides to take matters into his own hands, and bring Christmas to the villagers himself. The result is a more magical holiday than even Jingle could have imagined, and one that warms the hearts of young and old alike.

Sprout's a little young for this yet -- the story's just a touch too long to hold his attention, I think, and there's not a steam engine in the whole thing -- but I can't wait to share it with him. I'm betting he falls in love with Jingle just as quickly as his mama did.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

12 Days of Christmas Picture Books - Christmas Cricket

I love the holidays. Love the hustle and bustle, all the lead-up to Christmas and the crazy chaos of celebrating together. But let's face it -- it can be pretty overwhelming, particularly for the little people in our lives. It's hard for kids not to get lost in the shuffle of all there is to see and do at Christmastime.

Enter Eve Bunting and her sweet story Christmas Cricket. Bunting gives us a glimpse into the world of a little insect who "felt small and worthless in the bigness of night". Looking for warmth, Cricket slips into a house and takes refuge in a Christmas tree, where he begins to sing. But then someone hears him, and comes looking for the source of the song. Should Cricket run away? Or is he safe to sing, even in a place that doesn't seem at all familiar?

Bunting's a masterful storyteller, and one who doesn't shy away from tough subjects (her collaboration with David Diaz, Smoky Night, is one of the most powerful and poignant picture books I've ever seen). And though you might not think Christmas is a tough subject, it can be for many. Though this isn't a book about adoption, as an adoptive parent I couldn't help reading Christmas Cricket with an eye toward children in new family situations. For them, and their families, the holidays can be a time both exciting and scary, as everyone learns their place in the whole scheme of things. Like Cricket, children might feel "small and worthless in the bigness" of Christmas with a family who loves them, maybe in ways they don't even understand quite yet. And new parents, too, can be overwhelmed, as their children don't seem to be enjoying the holidays like they imagined.

As happy as this time of year can be, it's worth reminding ourselves that taking joy in the small things means every bit as much. In the end, Cricket learns that there is joy in his own song, sung in the way only he can sing it. And at Christmas, isn't that the best gift of all?

Friday, December 16, 2011

12 Days of Christmas Picture Books - 12 Days of Christmas

Nope, that's not a typo -- this is the book that inspired my whole picture book series! As a song, "The Twelve Days of Christmas" has always seemed a bit weird to me. Really, are these gifts anyone would want? The five gold rings maybe, but seven swans a-swimming? Ten lords a-leaping? Give me a nice sweater or a box of chocolates (or better yet a book) anytime!

But somehow, in the hands of the ever-talented Rachel Isadora, The Twelve Days of Christmas just works. For one thing, she's included a rebus that helps you remember which gift comes next (don't know about you, but I always get lost in all those birds). And best of all, this version is set in Africa. Believe me, you've never seen pipers piping until you've seen them dancing along, shadows against a dazzling African sunset!

Each page includes colorful, cheery mixed media spreads depicting each of the famous 12 gifts. Isadora's collage style lends itself beautifully to this tale, which incorporates inspirations from all across the continent. The three french hens are going home to roost under a coconut tree, and the drummers are banging out tunes on drums from Nigeria and Ghana. Now that's a gift anyone would enjoy!

We read -- okay, sang -- this as a family last night and Sprout just loves it. He gets a huge kick out of having the very last line "parpidge in peah TREE!". A fun addition to your pre-Christmas bedtime routine. :)

Thursday, December 15, 2011

12 Days of Christmas Picture Books - Too Many Tamales

One of the best things about Christmas are the traditions, especially the foods that we seem to get only at this time of year. For many Latino families, especially those with connections to the American Southwest, tamales are an important part of the holidays. Families gather to make piles of these delicious, spicy treats to put right at the center of the Christmas table. This is one tradition that seems like it's as much about the togetherness as it is about the food!

In Gary Soto's Too Many Tamales, Maria is helping her mother prepare a platter of tamales for their family's Christmas Eve gathering. Mom takes off her ring to knead the dough, and when she's called away, Maria can't help sliding the sparkly bit of jewelry on her own finger, just for a minute. But then the ring is forgotten, and only later does Maria realize where it must have ended up. . .

The solution Maria comes up with is pretty hilarious (and also realistic, because it's just something a kid might do!). Gary Soto's warmly funny tale is dressed up just right with paintings by Ed Martinez that capture the homey, cozy feeling of a holiday spent with family and friends.

This one might just inspire you to add a new spice to your own Christmas celebration -- it's definitely got us craving tamales!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

12 Days of Christmas Picture Books - Waiting for Christmas

Today's title is out of print, unfortunately. But if you can get your hands on a copy, either through a used bookstore or, even better, at the library, you won't be sorry.

The smell of cookies baking, the lights on the tree, brightly colored packages and the joy of seeing friends and family -- it's all captured vividly in Monica Greenfield's Waiting for Christmas. The excitement builds as we join a boy and girl preparing to celebrate with their extended family. Jan Spivey Gilchrist's paintings are so lively and festive, they nearly jump off the page, and the homey setting is just right to spread the eager anticipation of the season.

Sprout loves this one, and so do I. The words are simple, but powerful, as is the message -- that Christmas, like all holidays, is best celebrated together. You can practically taste the gingerbread!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

12 Days of Christmas Picture Books - The Polar Express

In the spirit of the season (and in an effort to revive my blogging mojo), I'm proud to bring you Twelve Days of Christmas, Picture Book Version. Nothing's more fun than experiencing Christmas through the eyes of a child, really. This year, with Sprout a lot more aware of what this holiday is all about, we're digging into the Christmas books in a big way. I'm thrilled to finally be sharing some of my favorites with him, and discovering some new holiday gems as well.

Tonight was a momentous night in our household -- our first-ever family reading of The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg. Folks, there's a reason this makes all the lists of perennial Christmas favorites. It's got a little something for everyone: nighttime adventures, snow, a mysteriously magical train ride to the North Pole, hot cocoa (that tastes like melted chocolate bars, no less!), and of course Santa Claus.

Sprout was thrilled by the train, less so once the reindeer entered the picture, but we stuck with it. And by the time we turned that last page, I think we were all expecting to hear sleigh bells.

For the first gift of Christmas, The Polar Express is just right.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Audio Review - Strings Attached by Judy Blundell

Atmosphere -- as a character in one of her books might say, Judy Blundell's got it in spades. Her books are like a step back in time, literally. You are so transported to the place and time she's writing about that it will likely be a shock for you to look up from the book and realize you're not in a smoky 1940's nightclub. If you want to be totally swept away from your life for a bit, Judy Blundell can do that for you.

I've listened to both of Blundell's books on CD now, and both are simply amazing. What I Saw and How I Lied won the National Book Award, and it's easy to see why -- though I didn't review that one because honestly? I wasn't sure I could say much other than "read it, read it, read it now". It's that good.

And Strings Attached is a very, very close second. It's 1950, the war years are over, and Kit Corrigan has left her hometown of Providence, Rhode Island with no looking back. Kit's going to make it on Broadway, though when we meet her, she's dancing in the chorus of "That Girl from Scranton" and not making much of anything doing it. But then she runs into her ex-boyfriend Billy's father, who makes her an extraordinary offer. Nate Benedict is connected, and he's willing to use those connections to help Kit open some doors. Almost before she knows it, Kit's installed in a swank new apartment and working as one of the "Lido Dolls" at the most famous nightclub in New York. But the glamorous life comes at a price, as Kit quickly discovers -- and suddenly Kit's realizing that behind the velvet curtains is a world she's not sure she's ready for.

Oh, but this is good, historical fiction at its very best. In fact, I'm hesitant to even use the term "historical" because it might scare some readers away. And even though Kit's life and her struggles are very much couched in the issues and mores of the day, these are familiar themes even today. Kit's the kind of person who jumps in first and thinks it out later, and as a result she soon finds herself down a road she never intended to follow. Blundell is unsparing in her depiction of Kit, and of the other characters -- though you may at times want to scream at them, they are always true to their own motives and their own perceptions of the world as they know it. This is what makes for great fiction, and for the kind of story that lingers in readers' minds well after the story's end.

I loved having the audio version of this -- Emma Galvin's voice captures Kit's youth as well as a bit of world-weariness that comes from having lived life absent of softness. The other characters are shaded just as well -- Billy's edgy distrustfulness, Nate's smooth veneer, Delia's commanding righteousness. We are bound up with these characters for the entire course of the narrative, and soon we, like Kit, can hardly tell what's real and what's just what we want to believe.

Blundell's definitely not for the younger set (though not graphic, these are novels with teens in adult situations) but she's got a whip-crack sense of timing and the environment couldn't be richer. Be forewarned though -- once you crack the spine, you're not likely to put it down until you turn the last page.

Strings Attached by Judy Blundell (audio narrated by Emma Galvin), published by Scholastic
Ages 12 and up
Source: Library
Sample quote: "Nate hung up with a soft click. No chance for me to say no. It was like he knew whatever I'd say would be a waste of his time. He knew I wouldn't turn this down. He knew I'd be crazy to say no. I didn't like him knowing all that. I didn't like how staying here suddenly made me available to him whenever he felt like calling. I hadn't counted on that."
Highly recommended

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Chapter Book Review - Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu

So wouldn't it be great if you could hand your child a thrilling, well-crafted, engrossing novel in which neither race nor adoption were the driving force behind the plot?

Thought so.

If you'd like to do just that, Anne Ursu's Breadcrumbs is a must-have. I was excited to read this one not only because the main character, Hazel, is part of a multiracial family formed by adoption, but also because I've read and loved Ursu's adult novels Spilling Clarence and The Disapparation of James. Both were favorite handsells back in my retail days, for the clever mixing of intriguing characters and fantastical turns of everyday reality.

And Ursu didn't disappoint me in Breadcrumbs, which I think is a strong contender for the Newbery this year (please please please). In the book, Hazel and Jack are two peas in a pod, sharing everything from a love of fantasy to a talent at superhero baseball (a game of their own invention). But one day Jack just -- goes away. Oh, he's there in body, all right, but he's no more Hazel's best friend than a stranger on the street. Jack just looks right through Hazel like he doesn't even see her. Hazel's crushed, and she can't accept what her mother tells her, that "these things happen". And when Jack disappears for real, Hazel doesn't believe for one second that he's with his elderly Aunt Bernice. No, Hazel's going to get to the bottom of this -- and for that, she must set off into the frigid Minnesota woods to rescue her very best friend.

Now, I could go on and on about all the things there are to love about Breadcrumbs, from the way Ursu interweaves fantasy into common events and how she turns fairytale conventions upside down, while never betraying their essence. Particularly well-done are the scenes once Hazel enters the woods, so evocative that I was amazed to look up from reading them and find myself at home tucked up in bed. But what many readers will take away from Breadcrumbs is the sense of holding fast to your sense of self and letting that be your compass. Hazel never wavers from the notion that Jack, the real Jack is still in there, and that he needs her now even more than he ever has. Quite a commentary on growing up but not away, this one.

Breadcrumbs is that rare thing, a novel that's not genre- (or gender) defined, neither wholly fictive nor entirely true. Honestly, I can't say enough about this smart, funny, surprising novel, which I found so compelling that I truly regretted turning the last page. For kids who feel on the outside, either because of something like adoption, or because they're finding their way across that looming chasm between childhood and growing up, Breadcrumbs will be a great gift. And if you feel that way as an adult? Guess what -- it'll speak to you too.

Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu, published by HarperCollins
Ages 10-13
Source: Library
Sample Quote: "Hazel blinked. It occurred to her that Mikaela was being nice to her. She did not know how to react, for when your heart has been poisoned and someone picks a dandelion for you -- because it is bright and yellow and you seem like you could use something like that -- all you can do is contemplate the funny ways of weeds."
Highly recommended

Want to read more? Check out this guest post from Anne Ursu at The Book Smugglers blog, or visit her official author site.