Reviews of 2019 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 2019 winners.

 

A Parade of Elephants
by Kevin Henkes; illus. by the author
Preschool    Greenwillow    40 pp.    g
9/18    978-0-06-266827-1    $18.99
Library ed.  978-0-06-266828-8    $19.89

“Look! Elephants! / One, two, three, four, five. / Five elephants. / Marching. / A parade of elephants!” The sturdy walkers, each rendered in a pastel color with a thick brown outline, stay in the same order throughout: blue first, then yellow, violet, green, and, finally, a smaller pink elephant. Subtle changes in body position and eye shape reveal a joyful sense of purpose during each of their activities. As the elephants arrange themselves across each double-page spread, counting gives way to prepositions while they march over, under, up, down, and around, always proud and purposeful. Bold panel arrangements reveal the group steadfastly on the go until, when “day is done,” we learn that one special task remains: “Before they sleep / they lift their trunks… / and they trumpet— / scattering stars across the sky.” Small stars rising from the five upturned trunks break a panel border for the first time. The last page-turn shows all five creatures asleep under a sky full of stars: “Good night.” With A Parade of Elephants Henkes (Egg, rev. 1/17, and many others) again displays his understanding of preschoolers: hungry for new information and experiences but also needing a framework of solidity and comfort. This combination of concept book, pourquoi tale, and bedtime story — stripped of all unnecessary flourishes — is simply perfect. LOLLY ROBINSON

From the September/October 2018 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

The Field
by Baptiste Paul; illus. by Jacqueline Alcántara
Primary    NorthSouth    32 pp.    g
3/18    978-0-7358-4312-7    $17.95

The place: a verdant Caribbean islandscape. The day’s activity for the community’s children: a pickup game of futbol (soccer). Does it matter that the futbol field is a converted cow pasture? Does it matter that some of the players aren’t wearing shoes? Does it matter that, mid-game, it starts to pour? “No way,” as the text emphatically answers. Children everywhere will relate to the participants’ devotion to and love of the world’s most popular sport, as they “play on” despite slipping, sliding, and falling in the mud (“belly flop!…Ou byen? You okay? Mwen byen. I’m good”). Paul’s universal story is made particular by the specificity of his setting and language (a glossary of Creole words and phrases is appended). The staccato text (“I’m open!” “Pass!” “Shoot!” “Almost”) perfectly captures the intensity and forward propulsion of the action, culminating in an ecstatic cry of “GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAL!” as the sun comes out. Vibrant illustrations, full of movement and saturated with color, match the vigor and excitement of the text. The day winds down with the children heading home to their impatient mamas, baths, and bed — happy to say “Bonswè. Good night” in the knowledge that the game isn’t finished, only paused. An appended note describes the author’s childhood in Saint Lucia; the challenges faced by children such as those in the story; the Creole language; and his continuing love of the “beautiful game.” MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

From the May/June 2018 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Making a Difference.

 

Water Land: Land and Water Forms Around the World
by Christy Hale; illus. by the author
Primary, Intermediate    Porter/Roaring Brook    32 pp.
5/18    978-1-250-15244-2    $17.99

Die-cuts serve both useful and playful purpose in this introduction to Earth’s various meetings of water and landforms. A boy idyllically fishes on a small pond while a girl plays with falling leaves ashore; turn the page, and the pond becomes an island on which the girl is stranded, one red leaf having morphed into a campfire puffing an SOS to the still-daydreaming boy, now fishing in the ocean! The cleverness continues as a bay becomes a cape, a strait an isthmus, and so on, with funny little human dramas to encourage close examination. A blue and beige color scheme provides a clear focus, while drops of other colors sketch the extra-credit stories. There is considerable bonus material in the form of a spectacular closing foldout, three times the size of the book, with definitions of the geographic terms on one side and a map of the whole planet on the other, encouraging readers to use the map to explore these land and water forms themselves. Heavy cardstock pages will stand up to much perusal. ROGER SUTTON

From the July/August 2018 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: ALA Awards.

 

They Say Blue
by Jillian Tamaki; illus. by the author
Primary    Abrams    40 pp.
3/18    978-1-4197-2851-8    $17.99

A girl considers the wondrousness of the world around her, prompted by the colors she encounters throughout her day. While at the beach, she gazes across the water (“They say the sea is blue…But when I hold the water in my hands, it’s clear as glass”); crouching under an umbrella, she looks closely at a spring crocus (“Oh! Could purple mean something new?”); her mother braids her hair (“Black is the color of my hair. My mother parts it every morning, like opening a window”). Tamaki (Caldecott Honoree for This One Summer, rev. 7/14) skillfully employs elements of sequence throughout the book, reinforcing themes of progression and growth. The girl is frequently shown multiple times across a particular scene, as if caught in frames by a camera: swimming in the ocean, riding a rowboat across a fantastical sea of golden grass. A few spreads follow the passing seasons, as the girl casts off her cold-weather garb, looking skyward to a warming sun (and the palette changes from cool to warm). With the turn of a page, she stretches to the sky and, step-by-step across the double-page spread, “becomes” a tree. The book follows a sort of sequence of its own, beginning with a bright morning beside a blue ocean and concluding with a radiant orange-red sunset. The text moves effortlessly between prosaic description and poetic contemplation, making of color something both familiar and extraordinary, comforting and inexplicable. Tamaki’s rich acrylic paintings combine scratchy ink linework with watery brushstrokes, establishing a visual tension that echoes this paradoxical sense of things being just at hand yet frequently astonishing. THOM BARTHELMESS

From the July/August 2018 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: ALA Awards.

 

Blue
by Laura Vaccaro Seeger; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary    Porter/Roaring Brook    40 pp.
9/18    978-1-62672-006-4    $17.99

Where this inventive author-illustrator explored both the palette and politics of the color green in Green (rev. 3/12), Blue finds her sneaking up on us with a story about loss, even if at first we think we are simply in for a celebration of all shades blue — “baby blue, “berry blue” — tucked into a portrait of the happy life of a boy and his dog. But as we explore blues both objective (“sky blue,” as the boy releases balloons into the air) and personal (“my blue,” where the boy and dog play tug-of-war with a towel), we slowly understand that the boy is growing, and so is the dog…“old blue.” As in Green, small die-cuts lead from each richly textured double-page spread to the next, always surprising, where the canopy of an umbrella becomes the top of a bird feeder, say, an encapsulation of the larger imaginative leaps being made from spread to spread. When was the last time a concept book made you cry? ROGER SUTTON

From the September/October 2018 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

Dear Substitute
by Liz Garton Scanlon and Audrey Vernick; illus. by Chris Raschka
Primary    Disney-Hyperion    40 pp.
6/18    978-1-4847-5022-3    $17.99

With her regular teacher out sick (we glimpse a feverish Mrs. Giordano on the copyright page), a little girl in brown pigtails writes a series of letters throughout her school day, beginning: “Dear Substitute, / Wow. This is a surprise. / What are you doing here?” Raschka’s illustration conveys the girl’s worry — flowers droop, a pencil is broken in half, the teacher’s glasses glint formidably, and even the sun in the corner of a window looks anxious. The substitute, Miss Pelly, does things differently: she skips library and cleaning the turtle’s cage (“Dear Turtle…Please don’t explode, or die of dirt, or escape”) and catches the girl’s forbidden food swap with a classmate at lunch (“Dear Tears, / Not here. / Not now. / You understand”). The day improves after Miss Pelly breaks out a book of funny poetry, inspiring the girl to write her own. A closing picture shows Miss Pelly looking kind, flowers no longer drooping, and the sun peeking happily through a now-heart-shaped window. Scanlon and Vernick capture with humor and sympathy the indignation some kids feel when life doesn’t go as expected. In his watercolor and gouache paintings Raschka makes the mundane school setting fresh, with unexpected twists. Kids will probably want to go back through the pages to follow recurring motifs such as the sun, the turtle, and the flowers as well as the progression of feelings from despair to exuberance. SUSAN DOVE LEMPKE

From the September/October 2018 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

We Don’t Eat Our Classmates
by Ryan T. Higgins; illus. by the author
Preschool, Primary    Disney-Hyperion    48 pp.
6/18    978-1-368-00355-1    $17.99

The first day of school is tough enough; imagine you’re a wee Tyrannosaurus rex and it turns out that your classmates are, of all things, human. Penelope Rex does what any nervous dino would do: she eats the children, thereby eliminating the source of her anxiety and enjoying a delicious meal in the process. Although, obeying teacher Mrs. Noodleman’s orders, Penelope soon spits out the (be-slimed) kids, they are understandably wary of her. Desperate to prove herself friend-worthy, Penelope calls on her powers of restraint, with limited success (“Mrs. Noodleman, Penelope ate William Omoto again!”). She only recognizes her folly when the class goldfish takes a bite out of her finger: “Once Penelope found out what it was like to be someone’s snack, she lost her appetite for children.” Higgins builds his soft-around-the-edges cast out of dinosaurishly lumpy-craggy art. He is clearly having a ball, parodying parental-advice tropes (Penelope’s dad: “Sometimes it’s hard to make friends…Especially if you eat them”) while sending the message that fitting in is, although frequently difficult, almost always — eventually — 
possible. NELL BERAM

From the September/October 2018 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

Be Prepared
by Vera Brosgol; illus. by the author; 

color by Alec Longstreth
Intermediate    First Second/Roaring Brook    256 pp.
4/18    978-1-62672-444-0    $22.99
Paper ed.  978-1-62672-445-7    $12.99

“This book is a true story. And also made up.” Brosgol’s (Anya’s Ghost, rev. 7/11; Leave Me Alone, rev. 9/16) fictionalized graphic memoir captures the ups and downs (let’s be honest — mostly downs) of a stint at a Russian Orthodox summer camp. Feeling like an outsider at school, Russian American preteen Vera is initially thrilled to attend camp with other Russian kids. Once there, however, she struggles to adjust to the strict rules, lack of modern electricity and plumbing, and drama involving her significantly older tentmates. The story’s visual narrative, exposition, and dialogue are in balance as inky illustrations fill smartly placed panels. The tone is accessible, vulnerable, and hilariously kid-centric (there are plenty of potty references). Angle brackets in the speech bubbles indicate dialogue spoken in Russian, and untranslated words and signs build atmosphere. A monochromatic palette using shades of army green reinforces the natural setting, and a cliffhanger ending leaves the door open for a sequel. Gaps between fiction and reality are clarified in an author’s note, which also includes primary documents: real-life photographs and a letter written by Vera to her mom (“Love, and homesick and crying, Vera. P.S. My stomach hurts every night. It does right now, too”). The story, both culturally specific and universal, is a welcome addition to the growing canon of comics by talented women cartoonists (Raina Telgemeier, Tillie Walden, Zeina Abirached, Cece Bell, and many others) based on their own lives. ELISA GALL

From the May/June 2018 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Making a Difference.

 

Pie Is for Sharing
by Stephanie Parsley Ledyard; 

illus. by Jason Chin
Preschool, Primary    Porter/Roaring Brook    32 pp.
5/18    978-1-62672-562-1    $17.99

This idyllic, joyously inclusive picture book takes an ordinary concept — 
sharing — and makes it extraordinary. A boy and his family bike to a lakeside picnic, bearing several homemade pies. Then the text begins: “Pie is for sharing.” Turning the pages, we are introduced to more shareable things, such as jump ropes and books; and things shared less tangibly, such as rhymes and time. As Ledyard’s text (simple and child-focused, with overtones of A Hole Is to Dig) continues to muse on the nature of sharing, Chin’s detailed watercolor and gouache pictures take us through the sunny day at the lake, mostly centering on the experiences of the boy and his little sister but expanding to include a host of others. Kids climb trees, build sandcastles, throw sticks for the dog; the little sister scrapes her knee and requires a hug and multiple, creatively applied bandages. (Yes, there’s humor in these tender illustrations.) Shadows lengthen, and the reader begins to realize that this picnic isn’t a random event: it’s a Fourth of July celebration. As the community gathers on blankets, ready to watch the fireworks, Chin zeroes in on the faces, and as different as they are from one another — a true diversity of races and genders and ages — they share the same rapt expression. “Many can share one light,” says the text, poignantly. “And a blanket? A breeze? The sky? These are for sharing.” MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

From the May/June 2018 Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Making a Difference.

 

The Journey of Little Charlie
by Christopher Paul Curtis
Intermediate, Middle School    Scholastic    245 pp.    g
1/18    978-0-545-15666-0    $16.99
e-book ed.  978-1-338-16400-8    $10.99

This latest addition to Curtis’s Buxton Chronicles (Elijah of Buxton, rev. 11/07; The Madman of Piney Woods, rev. 9/14) takes place in 1858, when the Fugitive Slave Act was in force. When twelve-year-old Charlie Bobo’s South Carolina sharecropper father dies and Cap’n Buck, the evil overseer from the nearby Tanner plantation, comes to collect on a debt Charlie and his mother can’t pay, Charlie knows his world is “coming ’part at the seams.” Charlie is forced to go north with the cap’n to Detroit (and then Canada) to find the “thieves” who robbed the Tanners of four thousand dollars ten years ago — or so Charlie thinks. But as the cap’n later informs him, “Naw, fool, they didn’t steal no money, they was worth four thousand dollars when they run ’way ten year ago. They stole they own selfs.” Charlie — white, poor, racist, and ignorant—is a product of his circumstances, but when confronted with true evil and forced to be complicit in the slave trade, he transcends his upbringing and finds his conscience in time to do the right thing. Curtis’s ability to intertwine humor and tragedy, change pacing effectively, and find hope in the direst of circumstances is masterful. A shorter tale than its predecessors, this is just as powerful, and those already familiar with Elijah will be gratified to see Buxton and one character in particular come back into play. Readers will be riveted by the conclusion…if they can see the words through their tears. An appended note offers insight into the author’s process. DEAN SCHNEIDER

From the March/April 2018 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

Louisiana’s Way Home
by Kate DiCamillo
Intermediate    Candlewick    230 pp.    g
10/18    978-0-7636-9463-0    $16.99

Readers first met Louisiana Elefante in Raymie Nightingale (rev. 3/16) as the orphaned daughter of famous trapeze artists and as one of the Three Rancheros, a steadfast trio of young friends who vowed to always have one another’s backs. In this companion novel, Louisiana’s flighty, unstable grandmother awakens her one night (because “the day of reckoning has arrived”), insisting that they must leave town immediately. Louisiana and Granny travel through Florida and stop in Richford, Georgia, at the Good Night, Sleep Tight motel. There Granny abandons Louisiana, leaving behind a florid letter revealing the shattering information that Louisiana is not her kin at all, but a foundling whom she rescued and raised. Now Louisiana is truly alone, not really knowing who she is, but knowing she isn’t who she thought she was. DiCamillo builds a resilient and sympathetic character in Louisiana, and the juxtaposition of her down-to-earth observations with Granny’s capriciousness lightens the narrative and allows for a good deal of humor. DiCamillo graces the plot with a brief moment of magical realism, a device that may allow both readers and Louisiana to eventually forgive Granny. The overarching themes addressing forgiveness, love, friendship, acceptance, home, and family (“Perhaps what matters when all is said and done is not who puts us down but who picks us up”) ring honest and true. BETTY CARTER

From the September/October 2018 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide
by Isabel Quintero; illus. by Zeke Peña
Middle School, High School    Getty    96 pp.
3/18    978-1-947440-00-5    $19.95

This 2018 Boston Globe–Horn Book Nonfiction Award–winning biography introduces readers to “an icon. Orgullo mexicano. Maestra.” Photographer Graciela Iturbide’s (b. 1942) story is told in comic-panel format, with striking black-and-white illustrations, high-quality reproductions of her own photographs, and spare first-person narration drawing upon her writing and interviews; interspersed are section introductions in a more conversational third-person, direct-address text. Together the sections trace, in not-quite-linear fashion, Iturbide’s travels from her home of Mexico City to the neighborhoods of East L.A. and Tijuana; the pueblos of Oaxaca and Juchitán; Jaipur in India; Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul in Coyoacán; and beyond. We see the development of the many “obsessions” she is compelled to document and understand through her work: birds and the freedom of flight, death, life in “in-between” spaces, ritual, gender politics, the stories objects tell. Iturbide’s photography, frequently featuring strong women at the center of their indigenous communities, is intensely personal and culturally specific, yet universally resonant. Her philosophy is rooted in “intimacy and respect” (“I respect my subjects because I am subject, too. Always”) and in curiosity about liminal places where “the present and past,” “the indigenous and postcolonial,” “the real and the imagined” overlap. As author and illustrator document Iturbide documenting her subjects, they embrace all of these elements of Iturbide’s ethos. A powerful homage to the five-decade evolution of an artist still working — and still evolving — today. Additional biographical information and a recommended reading list are appended. KATIE BIRCHER

From the September/October 2018 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

The Prince and the Dressmaker
by Jen Wang; illus. by the author
Middle School, High School    First Second/Roaring Brook    282 pp.
2/18    978-1-250-15985-4    $24.99
Paper ed.  978-1-62672-363-4    $16.99

With a setting and palette reminiscent of Disney’s Cinderella and a setup involving a royal ball, this graphic novel has all the trappings of a rags-to-riches romance. And it is one — in a joyfully subversive and inclusive way. Seamstress Frances causes an uproar when she designs an unconventional gown for an unconventional young lady to wear to Prince Sebastian’s birthday ball. Just as Frances is about to be fired from the dressmaker’s shop, she receives an offer of a position as personal clothier to a mysterious client. The client is soon revealed to be Prince Sebastian himself; as he explains, some days he feels comfortable identifying as male, but other days he feels like a princess. Frances designs the haute-est of ladies’ haute couture for Sebastian to wear as his alter ego, socialite Lady Crystallia. As the teens struggle to keep Sebastian’s secret, resist the stifling expectations of those around them, and sort out their feelings for each other, tensions escalate between them and between Sebastian and the king. Happily, a dazzling climactic catwalk scene provides opportunities for reconciliation and for the characters’ talents — and true colors — to shine. Wang’s illustrations balance the finery of the clothing and settings with her relatable, endearing protagonists. Dynamic panel shapes and sizes accentuate the emotions of each scene, whether poignant or triumphant. An author’s note explains Wang’s process and provides glimpses of the conceptual sketches. KATIE BIRCHER

From the March/April 2018 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

 

The Wall in the Middle of the Book
by Jon Agee; illus. by the author
Preschool     Dial     48 pp.
10/18     978-0-525-55545-2     $17.99
 
Unlike Richard Byrne’s This Book Just Ate My Dog! (rev. 1/15), wherein the book’s gutter did service as a chasm to be negotiated by the characters, here it is a wall separating an idyllic — ha! — existence for a young knight from an ogre and his jungle companions. They don’t look so bad, which proves to be a good thing for the knight when his side of the wall begins to flood and the ogre reaches over and rescues him. It’s a solid wall, thank goodness, if a slim premise; the humor comes from our ability to see both sides of the wall at once, as well as the floodwaters (filled with voracious sea creatures) rising on our oblivious hero. Lightly toned watercolor illustrations with plenty of white space keep things upbeat, emphasizing the dramatic and comic possibilities to be found in a pair of eyes. The book is too funny to fall into allegory: that wall never does come down, but our little protagonist is in for a wonderful new life. ROGER SUTTON
 
From the November/December 2018 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.
 

Mind the Gap 2019 is from the July/August 2019 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: ALA Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles click the tag ALA 2019.

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