Reviews of 2018 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 2018 winners.

by Julia Denos; illus. by E. B. Goodale
Preschool, Primary    Candlewick    32 pp.    g
10/17    978-0-7636-9035-9    $15.99

“At the end of the day, before the town goes to sleep… / you can take a walk, out your door / into the almost-night.” A brown-skinned child puts on a red hoodie and heads out to take the dog for a walk, mother watching protectively from the apartment window. This child, the “you” of the text, traverses a populous urban neighborhood, musing on the activities glimpsed through windows of buildings passed along the way: “There might be a hug / or a piano / and someone might be learning to dance.” After a few city blocks and some time at the dog park, the child arrives home again: “You look at your window from the outside. / Someone you love is waving at you, / and you can’t wait to go in.” The book closes with mother and child curled up in a chair, reading a book together. The tone is contemplative, balanced by considerable action in the ink, watercolor, letterpress, and digital collage illustrations and a sense of vibrant life throughout. Carefully composed double-page spreads contain enough detail to intrigue but not overwhelm, and although the book becomes progressively darker as night falls, there’s always a glow — from the spectacular sunset, from the many lit-up windows. Several recent picture books feature nighttime urban walks (The Way Home in the Night, rev. 7/17; City Moon, reviewed in this issue); this one stands out for its child protagonist’s independence, its matter-of-factly benign portrayal of a diverse neighborhood, the emotion conveyed by the language, and the stunningly atmospheric art. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

From the November/December 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.


deedy_roosterstar2 The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet!
by Carmen Agra Deedy; illus. by Eugene Yelchin
Preschool, Primary    Scholastic    32 pp.
1/17    978-0-545-72288-9    $17.99

Deedy’s original story of the noisy village of La Paz has the feel of a well-told folktale — one with plenty of dry wit. “It was hard to sleep. It was hard to think. And no one knew what to do. So they fired the mayor. Now they were a very noisy village…without a mayor.” The text’s punchy rhythm creates an engaging storytelling pace. The repressive new mayor, Don Pepe, first outlaws public singing and then follows up with a deluge of ever-stricter laws until La Paz falls completely silent. Seven years pass before change struts into La Paz in the form of a little rooster (gallito). When he wakes up singing “Kee-kee-ree-KEE!” he initiates a serious standoff with the mayor: Don Pepe chops down the gallito’s mango tree, cages him, starves him, and finally threatens to make him into soup. But the gallito sings bravely on, even in the face of impending death (“I sing for those who dare not sing — or have forgotten how”) until the villagers once again find their voices, and together they sing Don Pepe away. Lively art captures the flavor of the story — both its humor and its more sobering points. The characters’ faces and postures flash with fear, anger, frustration, stubbornness, and joy. Bright hues and busy page layouts reflect a boisterous La Paz but fade to dull blues and open space when Don Pepe comes into power. Following the narrative arc, the color and energy return with the gallito’s arrival and resistance. The story closes with an inspiring author’s note encouraging readers and listeners to make themselves heard. Also available in a bilingual edition, with Spanish translation by Madelca Domínguez. JULIE ROACH

From the May/June 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.


henkes_eggstar2 Egg
by Kevin Henkes; illus. by the author
Preschool    Greenwillow    40 pp.
1/17    978-0-06-240872-3    $17.99
Library ed.  978-0-06-240873-0    $18.89    g

In the latest offering from modern picture-book master Henkes (Waiting, rev. 9/15), we are introduced to four different eggs, each a different pastel color and each occupying its own separate quadrant of the page: “egg / egg / egg / egg.” The drama begins on the facing page — “crack / crack / crack / egg” — when three little chicks hatch, and the fourth egg…waits. The three hatchlings, concerned, gather ’round the egg and instigate a furious pecking campaign. Finally: “crack,” then “surprise!” What hatches from the fourth egg is not another chick. Will the other three reject the foundling (“alone / sad / lonely / miserable”), or embrace it? Henkes once again taps into the deepest emotions of preschoolers with the simplest of stories. This one contains a surfeit of humor despite the scarcity of text (there are just fifteen distinct words, though some repeat). Henkes manages to imbue his characters with heaps of personality and expression using just the slant of an eyebrow or the curve of a mouth (I particularly love team-leader pink chick assessing the unhatched egg, wings akimbo in concentration). Pacing is, as ever, perfect, taking full advantage of the switch from the early, snappy paneled pages to a series of wordless spreads that tell the story of the budding four-way friendship. And the ending is as trippy and open-ended as that of any in our established post-modernist picture books — it’s just preschool-sized. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

From the January/February 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.


smith_perfect daystar2 A Perfect Day
by Lane Smith; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary    Roaring Brook    32 pp.
2/17    978-1-62672-536-2    $17.99

Just what is the definition of a perfect day? Well…it depends on your perspective. All the animals in Bert’s backyard are having the best day. Cat enjoys being in the flowerbed in the sunshine. “It was a perfect day for Cat.” Dog loves sitting in the wading pool. “It was a perfect day for Dog.” Bert fills Chickadee’s feeder and drops a few corncobs on the ground for Squirrel: perfect days for them as well. But then Bear arrives — whose idea of a perfect day flies directly in the faces of all the others. Bear bursts in from the left side, interrupting the quiet reverie. At first we see less than half a bear, but soon the enormous mammal fills the entire double-page spread. “It was a perfect day for Dog. It was a perfect day for Cat.” With the text using so few words (though, admirably, much repetition), Smith tells the story mostly through his textured mixed-media illustrations, which reflect each animal’s joy-filled frolic. In the end, it’s hard to blame Bear for breaking up the party — its glee is contagious as it rolls on the ground, gorging on chickadee food, playing in the wading pool, and making bear-angels in the flowerbed. ROBIN SMITH

From the January/February 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.


Clayton Byrd Goes Underground
by Rita Williams-Garcia
Intermediate, Middle School    Amistad/HarperCollins    166 pp.    g
5/17    978-0-06-221591-8    $16.99
e-book ed.  978-0-06-221594-9    $9.34

“Electric blues sparks jumped out into the night” when Cool Papa Byrd plays his guitar in Washington Square Park, and all grandson Clayton wants is to be waved in for a twelve-bar solo on his blues harp (harmonica); “to be a true bluesman among bluesmen.” Clayton and Cool Papa are Byrds of a feather in their love of the blues, and to Clayton, Cool Papa is a grandfather, blues master, mentor, and best friend all in one. But when Cool Papa dies suddenly, Clayton is miserable. He decides to run away and join Cool Papa’s band, the Bluesmen, but has to take the subway to find them. In an unforgettable scene, Clayton, armed with his blues harp and wearing Cool Papa’s brown porkpie hat, enters the underworld of the New York City subway system — a child Orpheus — where he spends a good portion of the book meeting interesting characters and performing. As in One Crazy Summer (rev. 3/10), Williams-Garcia writes an appealing, realistic story with frequent elegant turns of phrase (“Clayton stepped onto the subway platform, a fast- and slow-moving jigsaw puzzle with live pieces entering, exiting, milling, and turning”). The third-person voice helps to keep Clayton’s story from becoming self-absorbed, as he learns to navigate the literal and figurative underworld and then find his way back to the everyday world of family, friends, and school. An author’s note outlines the history of the blues and provides insight into the origins of this fine novel. DEAN SCHNEIDER

From the May/June 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.


sheinkin_undefeatedstar2 Undefeated: Jim Thorpe and the Carlisle Indian School Football Team
by Steve Sheinkin
Middle School, High School    Roaring Brook    280 pp.
1/17    978-1-59643-954-2    $19.99
e-book ed.  978-1-59643-955-9    $9.99

Football icon Jim Thorpe is the indisputable star of Undefeated, although other compelling narratives come into play, including those of the infamous Carlisle Indian Industrial School, legendary coach Glenn “Pop” Warner, and the game of football itself. The book’s “First Half” identifies the discriminatory societal and political factors (including the Indian Removal Act) that “shaped the world Jim Thorpe and the other Carlisle School students would grow up in.” Sheinkin follows Thorpe’s and Warner’s separate trajectories until 1907, when the teenage Thorpe (who was Sac and Fox) tries out for the Carlisle football team, coached by Warner. The “Second Half” takes a deep, season-by-season (and often play-by-play) dive into Carlisle’s remarkable football history and the sport’s evolution from a barely controlled brawl to its more nuanced modern-day structure — thanks in large part to Warner, Thorpe, and the other Carlisle teams’ innovative play. Brief, action-packed chapters evince Sheinkin’s consistently multi-layered approach, as he connects various subplots (including Thorpe’s domination of the 1912 Olympics and subsequent scandal), includes noteworthy cameos (Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and Geronimo make appearances), and uses genuine cliffhangers for a propulsive reading experience. In direct address, Sheinkin (Bomb, rev. 11/12; Most Dangerous, rev. 9/15) encourages readers to challenge their assumptions regarding key figures and consider important contemporary questions (“in the twenty-first century, should any team, at any level or in any sport, continue to call itself the Indians?”). Production values — thin paper and light-colored captions — are less than ideal; thorough back matter includes extensive annotated source notes, a list of works cited, photo credits, and an index. PATRICK GALL

From the March/April 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.


How to Be an Elephant: Growing Up in the African Wild
by Katherine Roy; illus. by the author
Primary, Intermediate    Macaulay/Roaring Brook    48 pp.
9/17    978-1-62672-178-4    $18.99

A baby African elephant is born and immediately begins developing the important skills necessary to survive in the wild. In detailed accounts that integrate descriptions of elephant anatomy, behavior, and development, Roy carefully explains how the baby learns to walk, communicate, listen, and use her trunk. Diagrams and sketches illustrate interior and exterior organs, including the remarkably versatile trunk (a multipurpose tool — likened to a Swiss Army Knife — that “helps a baby elephant eat, breathe, smell, scratch, sound, gesture, dig, and drink”). All this learning takes place in the family herd, where female elephants collaborate to raise their young and pass down generations of knowledge. Roy’s dynamic illustrations of the elephants are masterful: bold strokes that provide definition to the wrinkled skin of the elephants also skillfully convey movement, and the perspective is mostly from the level of the young calf, low to the ground and close to the towering legs of protective adults. The back matter includes an author’s note detailing Roy’s visit to Kenya to learn about elephants and threats to their existence (with appended map) as well as selected sources, both print and film. DANIELLE J. FORD

From the September/October 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.


The Wolf, the Duck, and the Mouse
by Mac Barnett; illus. by Jon Klassen
Primary    Candlewick    40 pp.    g
10/17    978-0-7636-7754-1    $17.99

The opening of this latest Barnett/Klassen collaboration (an original pourquoi tale) seems to presage dire events: “Early one morning, a mouse met a wolf, and he was quickly gobbled up.” But once inside, the mouse meets a duck, who “lives well” in the wolf’s stomach, with all the storybook comforts of home: a red-checkered tablecloth, jam and toast for breakfast, homemade soup for lunch, a phonograph. The mouse asks permission to stay, and when the answer is an enthusiastic yes, the two celebrate by dancing up a storm. This gives the wolf an awful stomachache, and he howls, attracting the attention of a hunter (who looks like Santa Claus in the role of a Hollywood lumberjack); the hunter shoots, but the duck and mouse defend their “home” by leading a charge out of the wolf’s stomach and frightening the hunter away (“Oh woe! Oh death! These woods are full of evil and wraiths!”). The grateful wolf offers to grant his saviors any favor they wish, and…“Well, you can guess what they asked for.” Cue a double-page illustration of the friends partying it up, back home in the (once-again-painful) belly of the beast. And that, folks, is why wolves howl. This is a delightfully entertaining mash-up of familiar storytelling tropes combined in a wholly original way. Barnett’s language is both funny and rich (for those who remember the cartoon “Fractured Fairy Tales,” that tone exactly). Klassen’s mixed-media illustrations are concentrated down to their essences, with colors so subtle the art almost appears black-and-white at first glance; striking tableaux that seem to capture each moment at the very peak of the action propel the story forward. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

From the November/December 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.


The Little Red Cat Who Ran Away and Learned His ABC’s (the Hard Way)
by Patrick McDonnell; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary    Little, Brown    48 pp.    g
9/17    978-0-31650246-7    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-0-316-50247-4    $9.99

Waking up on the title page, a little red cat spies the open door and heads out for some fun. But he soon meets up with an alligator, mouth agape, an encounter that sets this wordless — save for the upper-and-lower-case letterforms — alphabet book into Action. The alligator only briefly seems a threat, which also holds true for the dragon that shows up a few letters later; a bear and chicken have joined the cast in the meantime, and the dragon scares an egg out of the chicken. By the time we see the six (yes, including the egg) swinging skillfully through the jungle together, we know they are friends, and the creamy paper and spacious layout add to the feeling of comfort. Expert, minimal, and gentle lines move the eye across each spread and to the next, an attention to forward motion that is equaled in the plot: while the little red cat is having a fine time, he is lost and needs help getting home. (Thank heaven for unicorns.) Touches of wit and plenty of zip recommend this for lap-sit sharing; a key to the letter associations, some more abstract than others, is provided. ROGER SUTTON

From the July/August 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.


When’s My Birthday?
by Julie Fogliano; illus. by Christian Robinson
Preschool   Porter/Roaring Brook    40 pp.
9/17    978-1-62672-293-4    $17.99

When it comes to young children, there is one day that supersedes all others: the birthday. Fogliano understands the singular focus children have for this day and captures that intensity by repeating the word birthday with a playful obsessiveness: “when’s my birthday? / where’s my birthday? / how many days until / my birthday?” Her rhythmic, stream-of-consciousness text (which displays a Ruth Krauss–like insight into the child psyche) makes this a strong read-aloud that invites the reader to practically sing the words. Robinson mixes his signature cut-paper and paint style with some more photo-collage elements — pictures of actual sandwiches, real string, etc. — giving the illustrations an added layer of texture. In them an eclectic cast of characters, both human and animal, joins in the unbearable anticipation — imagining the presents, the party guests, the food (including the all-important birthday cake) — before arriving at the big day itself: “happy happy! / hee! hee! hee! / time for cakey / wakey wakey / happy happy day to me!” The unique trim size conjures the look of a birthday card: with its tall, thin dimensions, you almost expect a crisp dollar bill to be tucked between the pages. MINH LÊ

From the September/October 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.


It’s Shoe Time! [Elephant & Piggie Like Reading!]
by Bryan Collier; illus. by the author; with additional illustrations by Mo Willems
Primary    Hyperion    64 pp.
11/17    978-1-4847-2647-1    $9.99

Witty wordplay, snappy dialogue, and rich watercolor and collage illustrations combine in Collier’s (Knock Knock, rev. 11/13; Trombone Shorty, rev. 5/15; et al.) first early reader. The story begins with a young African American girl puzzling over the “right shoes” to wear for a day out with her father. A varied cast of googly-eyed footwear (including ballet slippers, flip-flops, boots, and sneakers) all vie for her attention through a talent show–style display of shoe-ness that involves spinning, squish-squashing, and getting tied up in knots: “PICK US!” Surprisingly, the girl selects one flip-flop and one boot, resulting in an overblown — and very Gerald and Piggie–like — reaction from the remaining shoes (“They are NOT the same!” / “They are NOT a pair!”). A firm “You will see!” is all the assurance the girl provides; in the end, readers discover that a mix-and-match shoe style runs in the family. The hallmarks of this successful series — a limited and repetitive word bank, color-coded speech bubbles, varied illustrations, and an inherent page-turning quality — are all present and well-executed. Collier’s distinct, sophisticated illustration style (here entertainingly mixed with the zanier shoe illustrations) as well as the realistically depicted female protagonist of color make this excellent entry stand out. (NB: An intermission that permits Gerald and Piggie to insert themselves into the narrative with an Abbott and Costello–inspired routine — “OH NO! LEFT LEFT RIGHT!” / “OH NO! RIGHT LEFT LEFT!” is clever, but may not land with the very youngest readers.) PATRICK GALL

From the January/February 2018 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.


grimes_one last wordOne Last Word: Wisdom from the Harlem Renaissance
by Nikki Grimes; illus. by various artists
Intermediate, Middle School, High School   Bloomsbury   120 pp.
1/17    978-1-61963-554-8    $18.99
e-book ed.  978-1-61963-555-5    $12.99

The vibrancy of the Harlem Renaissance is illuminated in Grimes’s provocative poetry collection. In a tribute to the great poets of the era, she offers new verse with contemporary settings using an unusual form called Golden Shovel, in which each line of the new poem ends with one of the words in a line from the original. For example, from Langston Hughes’s “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” she renders a poem about a son in a “dwindled” family who proclaims, “…I stand strong like / a tree my baby brothers can lean on. I try to be the / raft that helps carry them over this life’s rough rivers.” Themes of the new poems include self-pride, aspirations, bullying, and peer relations. A clean layout that juxtaposes each original poem with its new verse helps readers make thematic connections. In a framing device, a contemporary girl contemplating a world full of hate and fear revisits, on her teacher’s advice, the powerful works of eight prominent Harlem Renaissance figures, including Gwendolyn Bennett, Jean Toomer, and Paul Laurence Dunbar. Returning from her dip into the “glory days” of the Harlem Renaissance, she feels hopeful, reassuring her sister that “life will be rough, / but we’ve got the stuff / to make it.” The poems are complemented by original artistic interpretations by fifteen black artists (e. g., E. B. Lewis, Javaka Steptoe, Christopher Myers, Shadra Strickland) who offer absorbing and engaging images. This enterprising and unusual volume not only introduces the Harlem Renaissance to young readers but also presents the challenge of a new way to write and enjoy poetry. Poet and artist biographies, sources, and an index are appended. PAULETTA BROWN BRACY

From the March/April 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.


You Bring the Distant Near
by Mitali Perkins
High School    Farrar    305 pp.    g
9/17    978-0-374-30490-4    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-0-374-30491-1    $9.99

In 1973 the Das sisters, Tara and Sonia, with their mother Ranee, join their father in New York City. Ranee is determined that her family will take advantage of the opportunities America offers even as she tries to fight the “corruption” of her daughters’ cultural sensibilities (including making friends who are black). By the early eighties, after the family has moved to a “good” neighborhood in suburban New Jersey, Tara has embraced American style and confidently works toward a dream of acting, eventually becoming a star in India; while Sonia, to her mother’s horror, dives into the women’s rights movement and an interracial relationship. Two decades later, Sonia’s daughter Shanti and Tara’s daughter Anna each feels pulled in two directions. Shanti’s struggle is an internal one, between not being Indian enough or black enough even within her own family; and Anna’s is geographical, torn between her love of Mumbai, where she has spent most of her life, and New York, where she is expected to attend high school and college. If ever the intricate complexities of immigrant families living between homelands were in doubt — if there was some misconceived notion of a cookie-cutter experience when navigating borders and integrating cultures — Perkins has laid those doubts unquestionably to rest in an ambitious narrative that illuminates past and present, departure and reunion, women and family. ANASTASIA M. COLLINS

From the September/October 2017 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Mind the Gap 2018 is from the July/August 2018 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: ALA Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles click the tag ALA 2018.
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