Reviews of 2023 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 2023 winners.


Every Dog in the Neighborhood Every Dog in the Neighborhood
by Philip C. Stead; illus. by Matthew Cordell
Primary    Porter/Holiday    40 pp.    g
6/22    978-0-8234-4427-4    $18.99
e-book ed.  978-0-8234-5298-9    $11.99

Louis tells his grandma that he wants a dog. When she replies that there are already enough dogs in the neighborhood, Louis goes door to door to get a record of how many. As a result, he doesn’t get just a tally of the dogs; he also gets to know his neighbors—Mr. Pierce, whose dog Harvey “will always live in my heart”; a blind woman with a guide dog; and many more (including a surprise appearance by Sadie from Stead and Cordell’s Special Delivery, rev. 3/15). Meanwhile, in a subplot told only in the pictures, civic-minded Grandma rolls up her sleeves and establishes a dog park in a previously neglected part of town, City Hall clearly having given her an unsatisfactory response to the letter we saw her typing. As she tells Louis, “Sometimes if you want something done you’ve just got to do it yourself.” Cordell brings to the page a vivid cast of characters as Louis canvasses the neighborhood. His shaggy, loose-lined illustrations in warm pastels are detailed and filled with humor. (The man who owns a dog named E. B. looks a lot like the Charlotte’s Web author.) Stead creates an indelible character in Grandma, who is fierce, determined, and kind, and he leaves plenty of room in his lively text for Cordell to add layer upon layer to this already nuanced tale—one that ends sweetly, in more ways than one. JULIE DANIELSON

From the May/June 2022 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.


Don’t Worry, Murray Don’t Worry, Murray
by David Ezra Stein; illus. by the author
Preschool    Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins    32 pp.    g
6/22    978-0-06-284524-5    $17.99

In a series of humorous vignettes, timid pup Murray is urged to overcome his reluctance to do things by an unseen narrator, his owner. “Why don’t you want to go outside, Murray?” “Why don’t you want to go to the barbecue, Murray?” Each time, the dog is lured by his owner’s encouragement to give the proffered activity a go, only to experience a setback. For instance, at the park, he doesn’t “want to say hello to this new dog” because he’s afraid it will take away his toy. The narrator reassures him that the dog is nice, so Murray does engage with the newcomer—but then is knocked off his (four) feet by an overly exuberant “WOOF! WOOF!” Stein (Interrupting Chicken) skillfully uses repetition in text, page layout, and plot sequence to closely connect the day’s incidents and to build humor and characterization (it helps with independent reading, too). Mixed-media illustrations tenderly capture our protagonist’s personality and expressive eyes and body language. At bedtime, Murray is afraid to sleep because of potential nightmares. But his owner praises him for trying new experiences, calling him brave, and Murray happily nods off, dreaming not of monsters but of himself as a superhero. Children who recognize themselves in Murray will feel seen and, hopefully, empowered. A gem of a picture book, expertly crafted and oh-so-relatable. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

From the July/August 2022 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.


by Sophie Blackall; illus. by the author
Primary    Little, Brown    48 pp.    g
9/22    978-0-316-52894-8    $18.99

Blackall brings herself and her artistic process into this (imagined) story of twelve siblings who grow up in a real-life farmhouse that was situated on a property Blackall owns. The text is one long sentence with the cadence of a chant, giving the story a propulsive feeling while the family goes about the many repetitive chores required to keep a large household running in a time before electricity. Blackall’s illustrations are everything here, incorporating wallpaper, fabrics, and other items scavenged from the house melded together with ink, watercolor, gouache, and colored pencil to create vibrantly layered compositions with a tactile quality. Landscape spreads echo the curves and patterns of Virginia Lee Burton’s similarly themed classic The Little House, and interiors are depicted in cross-sections, as if readers are peeking inside a dollhouse. Eventually the children grow up and move away; the house, now empty, deteriorates, and new life—raccoons, a tree, a bear—moves in. Blackall devotes the last few pages to her own discovery and exploration of the dilapidated structure and how she created the art that shapes this story of a place “where twelve children were born and raised…where they’ll live on, now, in this book that you hold, like your stories will, so long as they’re told.” ADRIENNE L. PETTINELLI

From the September/October 2022 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.


A Day for Sandcastles
by JonArno Lawson; illus. by Qin Leng
Preschool, Primary    Candlewick    48 pp.    g
5/22    978-1-5362-0842-9    $17.99

Two adults and three children take the bus to the beach and spend the day building and rebuilding sandcastles in this wordless picture book conceived by Lawson and brought to life by Leng (the team behind Over the Shop, rev. 3/20). Leng renders the beach in sunny watercolors and delicate, wispy ink lines that capture the movement of dune grass, waves, and sand in the wind. The pacing moves like waves, too, with panoramic double-page spreads alternating with pages of panels that zoom in on the action. Leng offers details that create an authentic setting and narrative while leaving room for child viewers to interpret the characters’ relationships to one another as they will. There’s a corresponding generosity in the rich array of people who surround the children, each involved in their own activities—­sunbathing, picnicking, running, playing. The narrative focus is on the three children and their sandcastles as, throughout the day, ocean waves, an errant hat, and a wandering toddler force reconstruction, each iteration growing ever more elaborate (and higher up the shoreline). The joy here is in the process and in the warmth of a happy day, and readers will enjoy being part of it until the evening tide forces the crew to pack up and take the bus home. ADRIENNE L. PETTINELLI

From the May/June 2022 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.


by Margi Preus; illus. by Armando Veve
Intermediate, Middle School    Amulet/Abrams    304 pp.    g
9/22    978-1-4197-5824-9    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-6470-0504-7    $15.54

The time is the future. The “Powers-That-Be” are kidnapping children—using a meteorological weapon of windstorms that sweep them up, to then be sold to mountain trolls for profit. Parents are instructed to protect their offspring (the “youngers”) by keeping them imprisoned inside day and night. A band of rebel youngers—Ant, Boots, and Ren, led by our narrator Tag and accompanied by a dog named Blue Tooth—make their escape and set off on a quest to rescue their abducted siblings. It’s a classic folktale journey, with magical objects, helpful old women, gnomic advice, monsters, the unleashing of unusual talents, outwittings, and a glorious eleventh-hour comeuppance. Along the way we are deftly reminded of the “Other Times” (i.e., now) of climate change, pollution, political corruption, neglect of the young, and racial injustice. The tone here is pitch-perfect, capturing that particular fairy-tale flavor of the absurd mingling with the deeply serious; slapstick alongside real suspense; and language being bent, re-purposed, and enjoyed for its own deliciousness. Veve’s distinctive and quirky textured black-and-white art is interspersed. Preus is so confident in this genre that it is no surprise to learn in an afterword that she grew up listening to her father tell Norwegian fairy stories. She appends an intriguing list of tales that inspired this fresh, rich, and buoyant fantasy. SARAH ELLIS

From the September/October 2022 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.


The Depth of the Lake and the Height of the Sky
by Jihyun Kim; illus. by the author
Primary    Floris    48 pp.  g
4/22    978-1-78250-742-0    $17.95

This wordless picture book about a city child visiting the country pays tribute to the wonders of the natural world. The cinematic illustrations begin on the front endpapers with an overhead view of a busy city. After the title page, we see a child and a dog playing on the floor of a cozy bedroom while the adults prepare for a trip. Zooming out once again, we follow the family’s car as it travels out of the city and into the countryside, where the family is welcomed to a small cottage by an older couple. There the adventure truly begins, as the child explores a forest path, encounters giant ferns, swims to the bottom of a clear pond to greet fish among the kelp, sunbathes on a dock, and finally returns to the cottage to eat dinner and gaze at the stars. The illustrations were “entirely drawn and painted using writing ink and slow-dry blending medium,” resulting in a dreamy gray, white, and blue palette that complements the tranquil tone. The lack of text adds to the sense of reverence; a brief author’s note explains the inspiration for the story. Vivid facial expressions and body language tell the viewer all we need to know about the child’s inner life, while the beauty of the landscape speaks for itself. K RACHAEL STEIN

From the May/June 2022 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.


Merci Suárez Plays It Cool
by Meg Medina
Middle School    Candlewick    346 pp.    g
9/22    978-1-5362-1946-3    $18.99

The final installment of the trilogy (beginning with Merci Suárez Changes Gears, rev. 9/18) opens at the start of eighth grade, with Merci disappointed not to be assigned any classes with her close friends. She does have homeroom with some soccer teammates, but will these popular girls want to be friends with her off the field? Merci worries about her family, her grandfather Lolo’s failing health, and her changing feelings for Wilson; but she also has plenty to look forward to, including soccer tryouts and the eighth-grade sleepaway field trip. When the soccer girls ask if she wants to be their fourth roommate on the trip, Merci, tempted by the invitation, fails to tell them she has already agreed to room with her friends, which puts everyone in an uncomfortable situation. This story’s strength lies in the authenticity of Merci’s character and her refreshingly sincere responses to the world around her, even and especially when self-conscious or misguided. Her home among her Cuban American family may not always be the refuge she wants, but it is full of love, support, Cuban traditions, and, occasionally, something delicious made by or with Abuela. There are subtle indications throughout that suggest what dreams Merci and other characters might pursue in the future, and the book closes on a note of promise as Merci leads her team out onto the field for their first game. JULIE ROACH

From the September/October 2022 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.


M Is for Monster
by Talia Dutton; illus. by the author
High School    Surely/Abrams ComicArts    224 pp.    g
6/22    978-1-4197-6220-8    $24.99
Paper ed.  978-1-4197-5197-4    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-64700-192-6    $15.54

With a nod to Frankenstein, this debut graphic novel delivers an intriguing take on the classic coming-of-age story. After Maura dies in a tragic scientific accident, her sister, ­Frances, and Frances’s (nonbinary) partner, Gin, sew her back together and revive her with the electricity from a lightning strike. Maura has absolutely no recollection of her former life, but Frances is confident that her memories will come back. And if not? Well, they can always take her apart and put her back together again until it works. Shortly after Maura overhears this, she looks in the mirror and sees not her own reflection — not her bald head or numerous sutures — but rather the spirit of Maura, the real Maura. This Maura agrees to coach M (as the protagonist now thinks of herself) through this charade. However, the more she learns about Maura, the more M realizes that she is a completely different person and that she must ultimately confront Frances with the truth in order to discover her own identity, make her own choices, and live her own life. While the gripping storytelling largely revolves around M’s internal conflict and growth, the tri-color (black, white, and shades of green) art breathes life into the vivid setting and the intriguing supporting characters. JONATHAN HUNT

From the July/August 2022 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.


Man Made Monsters
by Andrea L. Rogers; illus. by Jeff Edwards
High School    Levine Querido    336 pp.    g
10/22    978-1-64614-179-1    $19.99

In her debut YA novel, Cherokee writer Rogers distills two centuries of realistic intergenerational trauma into eighteen short horror stories linked by family connections. From the first story, set in 1839, to the last, set in 2039, the reader comes to know members of one family, forced out of their ancestral lands to the Cherokee Nation and dispersed further as “Urban Indians.” Each story stands on its own but also reflects the interconnectedness of Cherokee families and culture. A family tree shows how characters are related, and transliterated words in Tsalagi center the Cherokee worldview. Edwards’s (Cherokee) striking white-on-black graphic art at the start of each story incorporates symbols from the Cherokee syllabary. Rogers writes about vampires, werewolves, ghosts, zombies, sea monsters, humanoids, aliens, skillies, the Deer Woman, and the Lake Worth Monster (a “Goat Man”), but the real horrors here are genocide and cultural annihilation, domestic violence and sexual assault, school shootings, medical experimentation, pandemics, and ecological catastrophes. “Treaties were broken, and we were chased by human monsters, monsters who lived on blood and sorrow.” Many of these stories sound as if they were passed down as family histories. It may read like speculative fiction, but it feels like truth. LARA K. AASE

From the November/December 2022 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.


Looking for True Looking for True
by Tricia Springstubb
Intermediate    Ferguson/Holiday    288 pp.    g
11/22    978-0-8234-5099-2    $18.99
e-book ed.  978-0-8234-5401-3    $11.99

This is a neatly constructed story of two parallel characters. Gladys is a small, bright, intense eleven-year-old with a sensitive nature and quirky clothing sense. Her mom runs an in-home daycare. Jude, also eleven, is big for his age, the son of a single mother and the frequent caregiver for his little brother. Their stories are told in alternating chapters (in different typefaces) and come together when each encounters True, a neglected dog in the neighborhood. True’s rescue forms the core of the action. Springstubb (The Most Perfect Thing in the Universe, rev. 9/21) does a masterly job of creating two distinct voices and sustaining our interest in the two main characters equally. A supporting cast of flawed adults and hilarious preschoolers rounds out the picture. The setting—a town formerly prosperous but now on the skids, where folks are just scraping by, with subtle reference to the opioid crisis and the collapse of the manufacturing economy—is one that is underrepresented in contemporary middle-grade fiction, and it mitigates against the potential soppiness of a dog-rescue story. The writing is fresh, sharp, and authentic: “This could be trouble, said his brain. Open the door , said whatever the opposite of a brain was.” It’s Because of Winn-Dixie (rev. 7/00) for a new generation. SARAH ELLIS

From the November/December 2022 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.


Oh, Sal
by Kevin Henkes; illus. by the author
Primary    Greenwillow    122 pp.    g
9/22    978-0-06-324492-4    $16.99
e-book ed.  978-0-06-324495-5    $10.99

This third, stand-alone installment of the Miller family saga (The Year of Billy Miller, rev. 9/13, and sequel) is told from four-year-old Sal’s point of view. It’s New Year’s Day, and there’s simply too much going on for Sal. She can’t find her favorite pair of underwear; visiting Uncle Jake calls her “Salamander,” a nickname she hates; and the new baby, a week after being born, is no longer exciting or even cute. She’s boring. Even worse, the baby has displaced Sal as “Mama’s favorite.” It’s not going to be easy to be a big sister to the as-yet-unnamed sibling and a little sister to eight-year-old Billy. “It is so hard to be me,” Sal thinks. But if Sal is at times overwhelmed by life’s complications, she is part of a loving family that takes her emotions seriously and includes her in their day-to-day decisions. Sal even ends up contributing the name for the baby, albeit inadvertently. Henkes is a master at probing the mind and heart of a young child, writing with gentle humor and affection. Black-and-white spot art embellishes pages and adds to an already rich character study of young Sal. Readers will hope that as the Miller family members grow, so will the series. DEAN SCHNEIDER

From the September/October 2022 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.


The Universe in You: A Microscopic Journey
by Jason Chin; illus. by the author
Primary, Intermediate    Porter/Holiday    40 pp.
12/22    9780823450701    $18.99
e-book ed.  9780823454310    $11.99

Chin follows his acclaimed Your Place in the Universe (rev. 11/20) with an equally stellar exploration of the tiniest components of matter conceptualized by science. The book opens with a brown-skinned child who uses a wheelchair visiting a Southwestern desert. The United States’ smallest bird, butterfly, and bee, in turn, alight on her finger, in close-ups that ultimately zoom in to a hair on that finger and put in motion a journey inward to the “building blocks” of biology and physical science. The expedition moves from skin cells to molecules, then to atoms, protons, and elementary particles. Each page-turn, ending in suspenseful sentence breaks (“But the cell nucleus is gigantic compared to… / …everything else inside the cell”), takes readers to the next step inward. Chin’s stunning watercolor and gouache illustrations, colorfully detailed and scientifically accurate, employ perspective to draw readers into observations of life and matter within the smallest possible spaces. The back matter adds details to the text’s brief definitions and delineates where the art departs from settled science (in color and spatial relationships). The main text ends philosophically: we are all made of “the same stuff as everything else in the universe,” and yet each of us is a “singular person, who can think and feel and discover… / …the universe within.” DANIELLE J. FORD

From the January/February 2023 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.


Surely Surely Marisol Rainey
by Erin Entrada Kelly; illus. by the author
Primary, Intermediate    Greenwillow    160 pp.   g
8/22    978-0-06-297045-9    $16.99
e-book ed.  978-0-06-297047-3    $10.99

Marisol, the anxious heroine of Maybe Maybe Marisol Rainey (rev. 5/21), makes lists of favorite and least favorite things, with gym class—specifically the kickball unit—topping the latter. Although she has never played before, she dreads it because she knows that “the spotlight shines on you when you kick. The spotlight shines on you when you pitch…Surely Marisol will burst into flames under all those spotlights.” Her worries only grow as classmate Evie brags about her own kickball prowess. Kelly shows her deep understanding of the emotional lives of her characters. When Marisol is angry and embarrassed about Evie’s unkind comments and her own poor skills, she lashes out at best friend Jada. “­Marisol thought it would make her feel better to snap at Jada, but it doesn’t. She only feels worse.” The action takes place over two weeks, during which Marisol tries a variety of techniques to first avoid and then overcome (at least a little) her fears. ­Supporting characters—Marisol’s father, away all week working on an oil rig; her athletic older brother, who teaches her the Ultimate Rule of ­Kickball; classmate Felix, who claims to talk to animals—are all fully developed and engaging contributors to the lively, realistic, and emotionally honest story. When ­Marisol finally kicks the ball and makes it to first base, readers will be cheering “way to go, Marisol” along with her classmates, teacher, and family members. MAEVE VISSER KNOTH

From the July/August 2022 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.


The World Belonged to Us The World Belonged to Us
by Jacqueline Woodson; illus. by Leo Espinosa
Primary    Paulsen/Penguin    32 pp.    g
5/22    978-0-399-54549-8    $18.99
e-book ed.  978-0-399-54550-4    $10.99
Spanish ed.  978-0-593-53019-1    $18.99

This lyrical paean to unstructured play does not wax nostalgic or hark back to a simpler time. Rather, Woodson sets out to capture (and brilliantly succeeds in it) a feeling and a moment. She starts off, “In Brooklyn / in the summer / not so long ago,” and tells readers that “the minute / school ended, us kids were as free as air. / Free as sun. Free as summer.” While their grownups are busy inside the apartment buildings above, the neighborhood kids spend the long, hot days playing on the city streets. Open hydrants are converted into super squirters, games are invented and mastered, conflicts are collectively resolved, and scraped knees tended. It’s a time of endless possibility. “Our block was the whole wide world / and the world belonged to us,” at least until their mothers call them home for dinner. Espinosa’s kinetic pen-and-ink and watercolor art captures a cadre of kids in perpetual motion—biking, jumping rope, building forts, shooting bottle caps, playing stickball—and conveys unbridled joy and mutual respect and admiration. This book reminds readers that the benefits of free play, independence, and being excited about what each day may hold can extend beyond a Brooklyn block one summer to a lifetime of creative possibility. Simultaneously published in Spanish as El mundo era nuestro, translated by Yanitzia Canetti. LUANN TOTH

From the July/August 2022 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.


H Still This Love Goes On Still This Love Goes On
by Buffy Sainte-Marie; illus. by Julie Flett
Primary    Greystone Kids    32 pp.    g
9/22    978-1-77164-807-3    $18.95
e-book ed.  978-1-77164-808-0    $18.95

Sainte-Marie’s (Cree First Nation) 2008 song about wintertime on the Cree reserve in Alberta has here been reinterpreted as a picture book. Flett’s (Cree-Métis) signature style—with its nature-evoking colors; simple, ­sweeping lines; and expansive compositions in gorgeous art rendered in pastel and pencil—suggests movement into limitless space and time (“still this love goes on and on”). The strength of both text and art lies in their concrete imagery and cultural specificity: snowshoes, parkas, sweetgrass, drums, jingle dancers, fancy dancers, “beaded girls and painted ponies.” Seeing the song lyrics in this format draws the ­reader’s attention to felicitous phrasing and reveals the power of metaphors such as “Now the fields are muffled in white and snow is on the dawn /Morning comes on shivering wings.” The book includes notated music—handy for teachers and librarians to use during storytime. LARA K. AASE

From the November/December 2022 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.


Mind the Gap 2023 is from the July/August 2023 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: ALA Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles click the tag ALA 2023.

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