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Reviews of 2016 Mind the Gap Award winners

Not all deserving books bring home ALA awards. Our annual Mind the Gap Awards pay tribute to our favorite books that didn’t win. Here’s how we reviewed our 2016 winners.

sarcone-roach_bear ate your sandwichstar2 The Bear Ate Your Sandwich
by Julia Sarcone-Roach; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary   Knopf   40 pp.
1/15   978-0-375-85860-4   $16.99   g
e-book ed. 978-0-307-98242-1   $10.99

“By now I think you know what happened to your sandwich. But you may not know how it happened.” An offstage narrator spins this entertaining tale about the fate of a missing sandwich. The narrator’s creative version of events begins with a hungry bear, a berry-eating binge, a postprandial nap in the back of a pickup truck, and an unexpected road trip to the big city. All the while, we see words at entertaining odds with the pictures: those “high cliffs” the bear notices are the skyscrapers in the big-city landscape to which the truck has inadvertently transported him. Sarcone-Roach uses a vibrant color palette in her impressionistic paintings, gleefully depicting the bear exploring unfamiliar terrain. To her credit, the question of the narrator’s identity — and reliability — may not come up for readers until book’s end. If they do wonder, the diverting story and illustrations help to keep it a surprise. After the bear returns to the forest, the silver-tongued narrator’s subterfuge quickly falls apart, and the truth is unleashed (“Ruff! Ruff! Ruff! Ruff! Ruff!”). The book stands up to repeat readings; the illustrations (and endpapers) beg for more attention. KITTY FLYNN

From the January/February 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

suma_walls around usstar2 The Walls Around Us
by Nova Ren Suma
High School   Algonquin   321 pp.
3/15   978-1-61620-372-6   $17.95   g
e-book ed. 978-1-61620-486-0   $17.95

Orianna Speerling — the so-called “Bloody Ballerina” — is just fifteen when she is convicted of murdering two rival dancers. A month after her sentence begins, all forty-two girls interned at the Aurora Hills Secure Juvenile Detention Center are dead — victims of an unexplained mass killing. Ori’s story is gradually revealed through the eyes of two unreliable narrators. Violet is Ori’s affluent best friend, a fellow dancer who knows more about Ori’s crime than she’ll ever admit — especially if the truth might jeopardize her future at Juilliard. Amber is an inmate at Aurora Hills who pushes the library cart from cell to cell — quietly waiting out a long sentence and keeping secrets of her own, such as having visions of girls she’s never met. In lyrical, authoritative prose, Suma weaves the disparate lives of these three girls into a single, spellbinding narrative that explores guilt, privilege, and complicity with fearless acuity. Amber’s voice is particularly affecting — she narrates from an eerily omniscient first-person plural perspective that speaks powerfully to the dehumanizing realities of teen imprisonment. The twisting, ghostly tale of Ori’s life, death, and redemption is unsettling and entirely engrossing. JESSICA TACKETT MACDONALD

From the March/April 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

agee_it's only stanleystar2 It’s Only Stanley
by Jon Agee; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary   Dial   32 pp.
3/15   978-0-8037-3907-9   $17.99

The Wimbledon family can’t sleep due to one noise (“HOWOOO!”) after another (“CLANK CLANK CLANK”). In each case, it’s the fault of their dog Stanley, whose onomatopoeic disturbances interrupt — hilariously — not just the sleep but the perfectly cadenced rhyming account of the increasingly bothered Wimbledons: “The Wimbledons were sleeping. / It was late beyond belief, / When Wylie heard a splashy sound / That made him say: ‘Good grief!’” As the night wears on, more and more family members are awakened, and Stanley shows himself to be one clever beagle (and over-the-moon in love). The thick lines and subdued colors in the illustrations bring out the story’s considerable humor and focus readers’ attention on the ever-more-fantastical situations. Agee understands the drama of the page turn better than anyone, with vignettes of the increasingly crowded Wimbledon family bed giving way to full-bleed double-page spreads of Stanley’s machinations until it all comes together (“KAPOW!”) to make everybody jump. Make sure your listeners have their seatbelts fastened. ROGER SUTTON

From the May/June 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

Challenger Deep jacketstar2 Challenger Deep
by Neal Shusterman; illus. by Brendan Shusterman
High School   HarperTeen   318 pp.
4/15   978-0-06-113411-1   $17.99   g
e-book 978-0-06-223172-7   $9.99

This novel is a challenge to the reader from its first lines: author Shusterman takes us into the seemingly random, rambling, and surreal fantasies of fifteen-year-old Caden Bosch (yes, it makes sense to associate him with artist Hieronymus) as mental illness increasingly governs his consciousness. Fantasies about a pirate ship ruled by an abrasive one-eyed captain and his parrot, its deck swarming with feral brains (for example) commingle with Caden’s somewhat more comprehensible accounts of family and school, until his parents have him admitted to a psychiatric ward. As he responds to drugs and therapy, Caden’s fantasies become increasingly transparent, showing themselves to be imaginative, ungovernable versions of his hospital psychiatrist, Dr. Poirot, and his fellow patients. The disorientation Shusterman evokes through the first-person narration requires some patience, but it’s an apt, effective way to bring readers into nightmarish anxiety and despair — and out of it. Caden’s narrative is all the more engulfing because of the abundant wit and creativity evident in the eccentric specifics of his perceptions. Clearly written with love, the novel is moving; but it’s also funny, with dry, insightful humor. Illustrations by the author’s son Brendan, drawn during his own time in the depths of mental illness, haunt the story with scrambling, rambling lines, tremulousness, and intensity. DEIRDRE BAKER

From the March/April 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

miyares_floatstar2 Float
by Daniel Miyares; illus. by the author
Primary   Simon   40 pp.
6/15   978-1-4814-1524-8   $17.99   g
e-book ed. 978-1-4814-1525-5   $12.99

The joys, fears, and frustrations of exploration — as well as the safety, support, and love of home — are examined in this wordless story. Using inspiration from the newspaper, a boy and his caregiver (the only two characters in the narrative) together fold a paper boat. When the boy takes it outside to play, he pretends to sail the boat around the neighborhood. After a downpour, it floats for real — first in a puddle and then out of the boy’s grasp into a sewer grate. Bereft, he returns home to find care and coziness: a loving hug, dry clothes, and a warm mug of cocoa. Soon after, our hero ventures out again into a bright yellow day, with a freshly folded paper airplane. This time, he embraces the moment when he can set his creation free. With a limited color palette of mostly grays and yellows, each scene is full of reflection, shadow, and texture. The characters are composed of distinct planes of color and appear layered, as if folded out of paper, reinforcing the tactile topic and theme. Miyares’s strong command of perspective and line produces a comfortable suspense between panels and delivers a visual tale of a small moment made spectacular in the eyes of a child. Endpapers supply directions for readers to make their own paper boats and airplanes. ELISA GALL

From the May/June 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

barton_my bikestar2 My Bike
by Byron Barton; illus. by the author
Preschool   Greenwillow   40 pp.
4/15   978-0-06-233699-6   $16.99

This latest installment in Barton’s transportation series (My Car, rev. 11/01; My Bus, rev. 3/14) may be the best one yet. Which is saying a lot. With bright primary colors, simple bold shapes, and the briefest of texts, Barton introduces Tom, who is riding his bicycle to work. “On the way, / I pass trucks / and buses / and lots of cars…” First in the pictures (a truck with the word circus on its side; circus tents in the distance, and then up close) and then in the text (“…and monkeys / and acrobats / and tigers / and lions / and elephants”), Barton gradually reveals Tom’s destination. Of course, just when readers think they’ve figured everything out, Barton adds a finishing twist — integrated so naturally, and with a visual hint provided from the very beginning (see Tom’s backpack). Throughout, Barton displays awareness of and respect for his audience: from topic to storytelling approach (note the simplicity and clarity with which Barton introduces not only Tom but also his bicycle, on a double-page spread labeling each part); from the brisk, compelling pacing to the matter-of-fact inclusion of people of all colors and genders and sizes. Page turns are masterful, propelled by the anticipatory unfolding text and, visually, by Tom himself as he rides his bike ever forward, waving as he goes. “Look! No hands!” Tom, it turns out, is a captivating and first-rate entertainer; so is the creator of this preschooler-perfect picture book. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

From the May/June 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

holm_sunny side upstar2 Sunny Side Up
by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm; 
illus. by Matthew Holm; color by Lark Pien
Intermediate   Graphix/Scholastic   218 pp.
9/15   978-0-545-74165-1   $23.99
Paper ed. 978-0-545-74166-8   $12.99   g
e-book ed. 978-0-545-74167-5   $12.99

Set largely during the summer of 1976, this semiautobiographical graphic novel from the brother-and-sister team behind the Babymouse series includes an amiable grandfather, U.S. bicentennial festivities, and a trip to Disney World — but it is much more than a lighthearted nostalgia piece. Ten-year-old Sunshine “Sunny” Lewin had been looking forward to spending August at the shore as usual, but her parents have suddenly sent her to Florida to stay with “Gramps” instead. Her less-than-thrilling days at the retirement community, complete with early-bird specials and trips to the post office, improve after she befriends the groundskeeper’s son, comics-obsessed Buzz. The two spend their time doing odd jobs for spending money and mulling over age-old superhero dilemmas (“But they’re heroes. Why can’t they save the people they love?”). These discussions, and the series of flashbacks they often elicit, ultimately lead readers to the truth surrounding Sunny’s visit: back home in Pennsylvania, her teenage brother is struggling with substance abuse, and Sunny is convinced that she made the problem worse — a misconception Gramps lovingly corrects. Matthew Holm’s loose, less-is-more cartooning is easy to read and expressive, if occasionally unpolished. Straightforward dialogue, captions establishing time and setting, and extended wordless scenes swiftly propel the narrative and will be appreciated by Raina Telgemeier fans. An affirming author’s note delves further into the Holm siblings’ personal experience with familial substance abuse and encourages young readers sharing a similar struggle to reach out (as Sunny eventually does) to the responsible adults in their lives. PATRICK GALL

From the September/October 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

oppel_neststar2 The Nest
by Kenneth Oppel; illus. by Jon Klassen
Intermediate, Middle School    Simon    247 pp.
10/15    978-1-4814-3232-0    $16.99    g
e-book ed.  978-1-4814-3234-4    $10.99

Steve’s baby brother came home from the hospital sick (“there was something wrong with his heart and his eyes and his brain”) and needing lots of care, so his parents don’t pay much attention when Steve becomes afraid of the wasps in the backyard. He finds comfort in a recurring dream in which a compassionate voice offers to make everything better. All Steve must do is say yes to the offer, and his dream confidante will turn her promise of a healthy baby into reality. But as he learns more about the wasps that have built their nest outside baby Theo’s room, this easy fix starts to look like too sinister a bargain. Oppel’s (Airborn, rev. 7/04, and sequels; The Boundless, rev. 5/14) newest novel is a tight and focused story about the dangers of wishing things back to normal at any cost. The language is straightforward, rarely derailed by extraneous details, but the emotional resonance is deep, and Steve’s precarious interactions with the honey-voiced queen make one’s skin crawl. Klassen’s full-page black-and-white drawings — simple, but with maximum impact, in shades of light, dark, and darker — astutely capture the magnitude of a child’s imagination when he can rely only upon himself. SARAH BERMAN

From the September/October 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

portis_waitstar2 Wait
by Antoinette Portis; illus. by the author
Preschool     Porter/Roaring Brook     32 pp.
7/15     978-1-59643-921-4     $16.99

A harried mother rushes her toddler son through the busy city streets, and he resists, stalling to look at everything they encounter. This fundamental tension plays out in a series of spreads illustrating the same refrain. She says  “Hurry!” looking at her watch or checking her phone, and he says “Wait,” stopping to wave at a construction worker, feed a duck, or discover a butterfly in a bush. Soon rain begins to fall, and the rush gets quicker. But just as the doors of their train begin to close, he insists on one last pause. The pair stops to see a brilliant rainbow stretching over the city. “Yes. / Wait.” Portis fills her friendly, accessible images with predictive details. Observant children will notice slickers, umbrellas, and other clues of things to come throughout the pages (is that a rainbow pop he points to on the ice-cream truck?), adding richness to this sweet story about appreciating life’s simple pleasures. THOM BARTHELMESS

From the July/August 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

ruzzier_two micestar2 Two Mice
by Sergio Ruzzier; 
illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary   Clarion   32 pp.
9/15   978-0-544-30209-9   $12.99

Using only two-word phrases (“One house / Two mice / Three cookies”) and a simple repeating number pattern (one, two, three; three, two, one; one, two, three), this clever book (with an extra-small, preschooler-perfect trim size) creates a fast-paced adventure for listeners and new readers alike. Expressive, mildly mischievous pen-and-ink illustrations in soft colors develop details and drama that the words leave out. For instance, in the pictures, when the two mice “share” three cookies, the spotted mouse gets two cookies, while the plain mouse, miffed, gets only one. Before long, the mice venture out to sea (“Three boats / Two oars / One rower”), and this time it’s spotted mouse who does all the work, while plain mouse takes it easy in the boat’s stern. Soon the situation grows dire — “Three rocks / Two holes / One shipwreck.” They nearly become a raptor’s dinner before managing “One escape.” The two work together as a team after this near-
disaster, and “Three carrots / Two onions” lead to a final nourishing “One soup” that both mice are happy to share — equally. Sometimes the pattern leaves the reader with practical questions: how did “One nest / Two eggs” hatch into “Three ducklings,” for instance? But trying to fit together all the pieces is part of the fun, and the book’s creative focus on pattern in plot leaves plenty of room for readers’ imaginations to play a strong role. JULIE ROACH

From the September/October 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

stead_goodbye strangerstar2 Goodbye Stranger
by Rebecca Stead
Middle School   Lamb/Random   289 pp.
8/15   978-0-385-74317-4   $16.99
Library ed. 978-0-375-99098-4   $19.99   g
e-book ed. 978-0-307-98085-4   $10.99

The main narrative in this new novel from the talented Stead (When You Reach Me, rev. 7/09) follows seventh-grader Bridget Barsamian, who nearly died in an accident when she was eight. A nurse’s comment that she “must have been put on this earth for a reason…to have survived” confounds her still; Bridge’s eventual, happy discovery of that reason is believable and moving. Stead’s intricately crafted story (so many connections, so much careful foreshadowing) explores various configurations of love and friendship, and the book’s two other narrative threads fittingly involve Valentine’s Day. In one, Bridge’s new friend Sherm writes (but doesn’t send) angry letters to his beloved grandfather, who has left Sherm’s grandmother and whose birthday is February fourteenth. The other, told in the second person and set entirely on that upcoming Valentine’s Day, follows an unnamed high schooler agonizing over her betrayal of a good friend in order to win points with a bad friend. (Readers will appreciate the cleverly dropped hints to her identity, whether they catch them the first or second time through.) Bridge’s narrative involves her longtime friendship with Tab and Emily, which suffers setbacks (but endures) as the girls find themselves at varying points on the interested-in-dating spectrum; feminism, mean girls, and platonic boy-girl friendships are just some of the issues raised. Much of the plot deals with some (underwear) selfies that go viral; opinions abound, but Bridge’s mom’s is the most compelling: “Your body is yours…Especially your body, Bridge. You earned it back.” The handing-down of advice and wisdom from older girls and women is a welcome theme throughout the book and far too rare in female coming-of-age stories; it’s just one of many reasons this astonishingly profound novel is not your average middle-school friendship tale.

From the July/August 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

hiredgirl_210x300star2 The Hired Girl
by Laura Amy Schlitz
Middle School   Candlewick   392 pp.
9/15   978-0-7636-7818-0   $17.99
e-book ed. 978-0-7636-7943-9   $17.99

In 1911, spirited fourteen-year-old Joan, the only girl in a family of three boys plus a verbally abusive father (her weak-of-constitution mother has died), musters her courage and leaves her rural Pennsylvania home for Baltimore, the final straw being her father’s burning of her few precious books. Once in the city, and with no real plan for survival, Joan is fortunate to be taken in by a kindly, well-to-do Jewish family, the Rosenbachs. She’s employed as their “hired girl,” acting as assistant to longtime (and grumpy) domestic Malka and serving as the observant family’s “Shabbos goy,” performing household tasks forbidden to Jews during the Sabbath. Over the course of the story, Joan, wide-eyed and open-hearted: meddles in the eldest Rosenbach son’s love affairs (luckily, it all works out); very ill-advisedly attempts to convert the family’s young grandson to Catholicism; makes something of an enemy of the lady of the house; and falls helplessly in love with the Rosenbachs’ younger son, an artist who persuades her to pose for him…as Joan of Arc. The book is framed as Joan’s diary, and her weaknesses, foibles, and naiveté come through as clearly — and as frequently — as her hopes, dreams, and aspirations. The pacing can be a little slow (she doesn’t even get to Baltimore, where the bulk of the story takes place, until almost eighty pages in), but by the end readers feel as if they’ve witnessed the real, authentic growth of a memorable young woman.

From the September/October 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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