Tuesday, January 26, 2010

PW's Starred Reviews

-- Publishers Weekly, 1/25/2010

Picture Books

My Garden by Kevin Henkes Greenwillow, $17.99 (40p) ISBN 978-0-06-171517-4

Spring colors of lilac, daffodil yellow, pale blue, and leafy green bloom in Caldecott Medalist Henkes’s fanciful account of the great outdoors. “My mother has a garden. I’m her helper,” explains a girl, who wears a petunia-pink dress and a golden straw hat. She dutifully waters and weeds, “but if I had a garden,” she says, things would be less predictable. Gazing up at sunflowers, she giggles to imagine them colored in dots and plaids. She picks a flower and, in her perfect garden, another pops right up. Seashells and jelly beans sprout, disliked vegetables are invisible, and pests are not a problem: “the rabbits would be chocolate and I would eat them.” At this, the girl nibbles a bunny, surrounded by cocoa rabbits wearing telltale ribbons. Henkes gives the young storyteller a matter-of-fact voice and a sly sense of humor, while dewy watercolors and ink picture her reveling in a magical world of plants, birds, and butterflies. Even as the story elevates the wonders of nature into the realm of the fanciful, it reminds readers to appreciate everyday flowers and soil. Ages 2–7. (Feb.)

Fiction

The Year of Goodbyes: A True Story of Friendship, Family, and Farewells by Debbie Levy Disney-Hyperion, $16.99 (144p) ISBN 978-1-4231-2901-1

Artfully weaving together her mother’s poesiealbum (autograph/poetry album), diary, and her own verse, Levy crafts a poignant portrait of her Jewish mother’s life in 1938 Nazi Germany that crackles with adolescent vitality. Chapters open with photo reproductions and translations of friends’ comments from 12-year-old Jutta Salzburg’s album. Mostly platitudes, they sharply contrast with Jutta’s frank view of increasing anti-Semitism. “Always honor your elders,” writes one friend, to which Levy (in Jutta’s voice) writes, “Always, Cilly? Always?/ I should honor the Wahls,/ my parents’ friends,/ even after Herr Wahl/ stopped playing cards with Father?/ .... Hitler is my elder.” Levy creates a three-dimensional snapshot of this year of upheaval, from sweet family life to the sorrow of losing friends and the terror of seeing her father threaten to jump out of an official’s window if his family doesn’t obtain visas. They do and immigrate to the U.S., but many of Jutta’s friends and family do not survive, as Levy’s sober afterword relates. While abstaining from horrific details, this book clearly presents key historical events, and more importantly, their direct impact on a perceptive girl. Ages 10–up. (Mar.)

Happyface by Stephen Emond Little, Brown, $16.99 (320p) ISBN 978-0-316-04100-3

Comic artist Emond (Emo Boy) pens an endearing and self-deprecatingly witty debut novel à la illustrated diary that manifests the insecurities, longings, and trials of a recognizable brand of teenage male. The narrator—an introverted, artistically talented sophomore—is trying an “everything goes” personality at his new school (he gets the nickname Happyface). The facade works. He makes a group of eclectic friends, including a possible love interest, but Happyface has skeletons in his closet: his parents’ collapsed relationship, how his former crush broke his heart, and the reason he switched schools—a gruesome secret readers don’t learn about until Happyface is emotionally able to write about it. Throughout, Happyface shares his grievances and hopes, but also feelings too scary to write about (illustrations come easier). By the time his sketchbook’s full, readers will have a palpable sense of how much he’s grown and how painful—but worthwhile—the process was. The illustrations range from comics to more fleshed-out drawings. Just like Happyface’s writing, they can be whimsical, thoughtful, boyishly sarcastic, off-the-cuff, or achingly beautiful. The best exhibit hints of all of the above. Ages 12–up. (Mar.)

Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver HarperTeen, $17.99 (480p) ISBN 978-0-06-172680-4

Beautiful, popular Samantha and her three best friends are the ruthless queen bees of their high school. But Samantha is living a nightmare: throughout the book, she relives the day of her death seven times, with some dramatic alterations and revelations depending on her choices—ditching school to spend time with her younger sister or, on a day when life’s rules have all but lost their meaning, seducing a teacher. She faces the often tragic consequences of even the smallest acts, awakens to the casual cruelties all around her, and tries to get things right and maybe even redeem herself. If this sounds too much like a Groundhog Day–style plot, make no mistake: evocative of Jenny Downham’s Before I Die, Oliver’s debut novel is raw, emotional, and, at times, beautiful (“It amazes me how easy it is for things to change,” Samantha thinks. “how easy it is to start off down the same road you always take and wind up somewhere new”). Samantha’s best friends are funny, likable, and maddening, but readers will love Samantha best as she hurtles toward an end as brave as it is heartbreaking. Ages 14–up. (Mar.)

Congratulations to these authors!

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