Summer Picture Books

Hum and Swish

Hum and Swish, by Matt Myers

Jamie is a creative little girl spending a day at the beach. As she hums and the waves swish, Jamie uses everything around her to make something new. Grown-ups walk by and offer useless comments like, “Aren’t you clever?” or “What are you making there?” to which Jamie always responds, “I don’t know.” Mom and Dad bring sunblock and juice, and Jamie quietly incorporates them into her art while her dark hair swirls in the sea breeze and the little shore birds keep watch. Eventually, an older woman comes out and sets up her easel, and when Jamie asks her, “What are you making?”, she responds, “I don’t know yet.” So the two artists continue working contentedly side by side.

An ode to the creative process, the oil and acrylic paintings in this picture book convey all of the elements of a summer day at the beach. The waves fairly hiss off the page, and the grit of sand sticks to salty legs. Elderly people, toddlers, and teenagers all stroll by, but Jamie longs for the solitude of her own thoughts. As she sits at the edge of the surf, she thinks, “The sea tells stories, but it doesn’t ask questions.”

Matt Myers is a North Carolina author, and our state has miles and miles of seashore to inspire just such scenes. Although he has illustrated many picture books in the past, Hum and Swish is his first work in which he is both author and illustrator. This lovely, contemplative book has many details to discover, and your little artist may find a soulmate in Jamie.

Sea Glass Summer

Sea Glass Summer, by Michelle Houts; illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline

Young Thomas is spending the summer with his grandmother on a rocky island. She gives him a magnifying glass that had belonged to his grandfather, and Thomas sets out to explore. One of his favorite discoveries is a piece of glass that has been worn smooth by years of polishing in the ocean waves. When Thomas puts it on his night table, he dreams of its former owner and the origin of the broken glass. When it is time to leave the island, Thomas drops the magnifying glass, and the shards fall into the sea. Years later, a little girl visits the island with her Pappaw Tom. Annie finds a piece of sea glass, puts it on the table by her bed, and dreams of a boy named Thomas.

Michelle Houts’ picture book has more text than most, but her story is charming, with a sweet surprise ending. Bagram Ibatoulline uses shimmering sea-glass colors to create a chilly Maine beach, rocky and serene. Thomas wears the rolled-up jeans and high-top sneakers of an earlier time, and his grandmother wears a sweater on a summer day. In the present time, Annie wears pink Crocs. Houts appends a note to say that we now have more concern for the environment than to throw glass into the ocean, but how that also makes sea glass even more rare than it used to be.

Great JoyBoth the author and the illustrator have other notable works, but I first became aware of Ibatoulline in his Christmas picture book, Great Joy, written by the inimitable Kate DiCamillo. Be sure to pick that one up this holiday season, and I dare you to keep a dry eye.

There Might Be LobstersWhen thinking about summer picture books, I remember fondly the adorable There Might Be Lobsters, by Carolyn Crimi, which I reviewed here. Little dog lovers will find that one tenderly hilarious, as well.

All highly recommended for your salty, sticky, sandy beach babies.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of all of the above. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Dearly Beloved, by Cara Wall

Dearly BelovedCharles lives in awe and a bit of fear of his father, a professor who teaches at the same university Charles attends. The father ruthlessly maintains the boundaries that protect his scholarly son from accusations of nepotism. When Charles reveals his faith in God to his secular parents, his father laughs and thinks that it is the perfect ruse to keep up appearances. When he discovers that Charles is serious, he gets up from the dinner table and leaves the house.

Lily was a studious child living quietly in the shadow of her popular, sociable parents. Although she was surrounded by her loving extended family, when her parents died in a car crash, fifteen-year-old Lily pulled up her emotional ramparts and completely blocked God from her life.

Nan grew up visiting the homes of the “less fortunate” with her minister father. Her mother taught her how to be the perfect pastor’s wife, but potluck recipes and sweetly-worded thank-you notes may collapse under the weight of tragedy.

James’ father never recovered from World War II, and he came home to find solace in the bottom of a glass. His mother worked tirelessly to feed and house her many children, but James and his brothers learned to defend themselves with fists and fierceness. James was desperate not to follow in his father’s footsteps, so when he fell in love with Nan, he reconciled himself to her faith by taking on a burning mission to rescue the world through pure, white-hot anger.

These two unlikely couples form lifelong bonds of love, jealousy, conflict, and compassion as the two men are called to be joint pastors of Third Presbyterian Church in New York. Four individuals with four different faiths, wrestling with God and one another as life throws its punches. With a backdrop of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, Charles and James preach on alternate Sundays, counsel their Presbyterian flock, and reach out to the urban community, none of which could happen without the firm guiding hand of seventy-two-year-old Jane Atlas, church secretary.

Debut author Cara Wall has couched a fascinating theological study within an absorbing work of warm domestic fiction. The narrative follows all four main characters through their college years, courtships, marriages, births, deaths, sickness, triumphs, and failures. Church life is a rare topic for novels, but Wall displays a sure hand with church board meetings, congregational social circles, the intersection of the church and the secular world, and the relationship between the “called” pastor and the congregation’s support—or lack thereof. Whereas most writers have a stock character to stand in for a pastor, Wall populates her story with many clergymen, each a whole and unique individual, and focuses in on Charles’ intellectual, high-church style in contrast to James’ Social Justice Warrior.

Of course, it is not only ministers who endure challenges to their faith, and these four people experience the buffetings of the years in different ways, according to their concept of God and his dealings with humanity. The reader wonders whether the latest blow will cause this one to lose her faith, that marriage to be stretched to the breaking point, or yet another to stand firm in faith and lose everything he holds dear. Within these four dearly beloved hearts reside universal hopes and dreams, anger and sorrow, love and longing.

A wise and moving novel. Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this novel, which will be released on August 13, 2019. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The “For Everyone” series by N.T. Wright

Mark for EveryoneMark is my least favorite gospel. That’s not a very big deal, considering how much I love all of the gospels, but I usually turn to Matthew or Luke for their more complete accounts of Jesus’ life, including the beautifully familiar nativity passages, knowing that Matthew wrote to a Jewish audience, while Luke wrote for the gentiles. Then there is John’s poetic and spiritual gospel, with stories that do not appear in the other accounts. Where would we be without John 3:16 or “Do not let your hearts be troubled…” or the prooftext for Jesus’ approval of wine? Mark, on the other hand, has always seemed to be the Reader’s Digest Condensed Version to me, too brief and airless. When I was coming to the end of the New Testament recently in my who-knows-how-manyeth time through the Bible, I realized that I really needed to dive into Mark’s gospel in a big way to grow in my appreciation for what is essentially Peter’s account. Peter is my favorite apostle—always talking before thinking, just as I do—and Mark was his disciple after Jesus’ resurrection.

N.T. WrightN.T. (Tom) Wright is probably the world’s foremost living New Testament scholar, a retired Anglican bishop and professor of New Testament at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. I reviewed his amazing book, Surprised by Hope, here. Since then, I have read several of Wright’s books, and I just finished Mark for Everyone, which is part of the “For Everyone” paperback series that covers the entire New Testament. Wright has translated all of the books of the New Testament into his own contemporary version, a conversational translation with, occasionally, an amusing Britishism for the American reader. In this commentary series, Wright begins each section with a short passage in his translation, and then starts his discussion with a personal anecdote. He follows with some backstory explaining the historical or cultural facts that we need in order to understand what was readily known to the original audience, and then he pulls out the many layers of meaning within the text. In true Presbyterian fashion, he usually ends the segment with a sentence or two of application to our daily lives.

This truly accessible Bible commentary opens up new worlds of meaning, even for laypeople with a pretty thorough acquaintance with the scriptures. In a variation on the theme, he also has a few “Lent for Everyone” and “Advent for Everyone” titles that I have read and enjoyed. They are commentaries on the gospels that are set up to fit into daily readings for the appropriate season. All of the “For Everyone” titles are perfect for personal study for individuals or daily devotions for families with children in middle school or older. Affordable, not intimidatingly scholarly, but far from fluffy.

Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else. Image of N.T. Wright is from RachelHeldEvans.com.

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Stepsister, by Jennifer Donnelly

StepsisterThe prince’s footman is impatiently waiting in the mansion’s foyer while Ella’s stepmother is heating the knife in the kitchen fire so that her daughter, Isabelle, can slice off her own toes. Maman doesn’t care about the pain if Isabelle can fit into the glass slipper, marry the prince, and elevate her whole family to wealth and power. Unfortunately for Isabelle, the prince is tipped off by all the blood, Ella frees herself from the attic, and they ride off into a beautiful life together, while Isabelle is left with her mother and sister, still single, and now minus five toes.

Behind the scenes, and unbeknownst to mortals, the three sisters of Fate have already drawn up the map of Isabelle’s life, and it’s a short one covered with toxic inks. Everything could come to a rapid and disastrous end if not for the intervention of the carefree Chance, he of the long, dark braids and amber eyes. Chance capers into the sisters’ room, steals Isabelle’s map, and makes a bargain with the old crone, later known as Tantine.  Thus begins a contest for Isabelle’s life, along with the dubious aid of Tanaquill, the fairy queen of the Wildwood, who had turned a pumpkin into a coach for Ella on the night of the royal ball. Tanaquill reveals to Isabelle that she will only be saved if she can put her heart back together by finding the three pieces that have been cut away. Frustratingly, she does not tell her what those pieces are.

Life is going from bad to worse for the “ugly stepsisters,” and Isabelle is sure that everything would be peaches and cream if she were only pretty, like Ella. Instead of behaving like a princess, though, she has always loved riding horses and roughhousing with the groom’s son, while her sister Tavi wants to study and perform scientific experiments, all of which is completely unsuitable for finding husbands. With war brewing in France and villagers attacking them for their cruelty to the lovely Ella, Isabelle is wasting precious time by mistakenly trying to piece her heart back together by becoming someone else, a girl who could be approved of by whoever it is who makes the rules. If only she could get on the right track in time to save her own life!

Character development reigns in this fiercely feminist retelling of the Cinderella story. All of the wildly diverse secondary characters shape and mold Isabelle’s understanding of real life and of her inner landscape: Chance’s ragtag troupe of magicians and actors, the wealthy yet miserly widow and her bullying dolt of a son who offer Tantine a room in exchange for the hope of an inheritance, and the groom’s son, who is no longer a young boy, but a successful carpenter who builds coffins for a living and whittles toy soldiers in the evenings.

Jennifer Donnelly’s writing is as exquisite as ever. The first line of the prologue reads: “Once upon always and never again, in an ancient city by the sea, three sisters worked by candlelight.” I first read Donnelly in her novel Revolution, in which a teen girl goes back in time to the late 1700s in France, and then later as Anne of Cleves in The Fatal Throne (reviewed here). In Stepsister, Donnelly is once more in historic France, this time in a more magical setting, slashing at the patriarchy and setting Isabelle up as a sort of Joan of Arc without the crazy voices in her head. Although I have no wish to swing a sword, as Isabelle does, nor to write quadratic equations on cabbage leaves like Tavi, the restrictions on the girls’ lives are entirely, oppressively realistic. While women did not become free several centuries ago through magic, such tales cause us to rejoice that today women are much more— though not quite completely— free. Free to study science and do research, or free to bake cookies and have teas. Free to ride horses and fight battles, or free to cuddle babies and knit socks. Free to show the world who they truly are.

A fantastical adventure with plenty of depth.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book, which is now available to the public. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Sweety, by Andrea Zuill

SweetySweety is a young naked mole rat with large glasses and orthodontic headgear. Naked mole rats are not a pulchritudinous bunch in general, but even Sweety’s grandmother called her “Grandma’s little square peg.”

Sweety did not understand why her classmates did not share her scientific interest in mushrooms or why she was the only student who presented her book reports through interpretive dance, but when she tried to be like the others, it just didn’t feel right. Usually, Sweety was very content with herself, but sometimes she wished she could find a friend who was a true soulmate. Aunt Ruth was happily different, as well, and she assured Sweety “that if you stayed true to yourself, you’d find your people.” Sweety hoped that her people would have a secret handshake.

Author and illustrator Andrea Zuill depicts Sweety’s hilarious and touching attempts to find her people through softly colored pen and ink drawings with both traditional narrative and speech bubbles. Her pages are populated with smiling, homely, anthropomorphic naked mole rats of all shapes and sizes living in cozy underground dens and rodent-perspective outdoor scenes. Sweety is completely over-the-top in everything she does, but she is very good at many things. Odd things, but still.

This is not a story about a depressed child or a bullied child, nor is it about an overbearing or conceited child. Sweety is confident and happy with herself; she just wants to expand her little tribe of one. Sweety is one of the most meaningful and—well, darn it—sweetest new picture books I’ve seen, and there are so many kids who need encouragement to keep on being true to themselves.

Very highly recommended for your little sweetie.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor OliphantEleanor Oliphant lives alone in her flat except for an impressive parrot plant named Polly. Eleanor has a steady job, two black skirts, five white blouses, and a pair of slacks for weekends. She wears sensible shoes, and she talks to her mummy every Wednesday evening for fifteen minutes.

Eleanor has an uncomfortable relationship with her co-workers, not least because she responds to their casual banter with deadpan, multi-syllabic pronouncements revealing her total incomprehension of pop culture. Vocabulary is her strong suit. She avoids social interaction until the day that she and Raymond, the IT guy, are both witnesses of an elderly gentleman’s collapse on the street. They stay with him until the ambulance arrives, and then begin a tentative friendship aided by the gentleman’s family, who insist that the two office workers saved their father’s life.

Raymond is ordinary in the way that Eleanor means to be, but misses. He wears frumpy clothes, smokes, and plays video games with his flatmates. He has a sweet mum who still lives in his childhood home and invites Eleanor to tea. Raymond does the washing up. He invites Eleanor to lunch at his favorite café in spite of her co-workers’ bullying, and Eleanor does her best to ignore the sound of his chewing. Her friendship with Raymond seems promising except for the fact that his mouth falls open every time he sees the old gentleman’s daughter, Laura, the spectacularly sexy hairdresser. No matter. Eleanor is currently pursuing a broodingly handsome local musician who is unaware of her existence.

Nothing is as simple as it seems, however. The reader has a growing awareness that Eleanor spends all of her energy plastering over the cracks in her façade. Every so often, a memory is triggered, and darkness creeps in through the white walls she has built all around her. Eleanor keeps to a rigid schedule that includes the daily crossword and three bottles of vodka every weekend. She never speaks to anyone outside of her workplace except for Mummy, and Eleanor’s mother is nothing like the sweet woman who raised Raymond. Oh, no. Mummy is vicious.

This engrossing novel presents as a contemporary slice-of-life story with perhaps a budding romance, but once the hints of darkness begin, the reader is eager to discover the next piece of the puzzle so that Eleanor’s life can be made whole. This stiff, standoffish woman is oddly endearing and vulnerable, and while we cheer on her efforts to find freedom, we are aware that the scar on her face is just a tiny reflection of the deep scars in her soul.

Set in Scotland, Gail Honeyman’s story places cozy teas, cats, and hearths disjointedly beside death metal, alcohol poisoning, and hatred. Her characters range from sweetly flawed to tragically damaged, and the reader grows to love them all. Honeyman exposes the dark secrets that are hidden every day in the most ordinary neighborhoods, as well as the inner cuts and wounds that everyone carefully bandages over, so that when we are asked, “How are you?” we can respond, “Fine. Completely fine.”

Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Save Me the Plums, by Ruth Reichl

Save Me the PlumsWhen Ruth was a little girl, she accompanied her father to a used bookstore where she came across some tattered copies of Gourmet magazine. Immediately, she wanted to learn to cook, and since her parents treated her as a pint-sized adult, she was put in charge of meals. A lifetime of foodie adventures was launched.

In her earlier works, Reichl chronicled her rise through the kingdoms of food writing, from restaurant critic to celebrated memoirs, and in this latest volume, she regales us with the history of her years as editor-in-chief at Gourmet. Rather than dry journal entries, each chapter reads like juicy gossip from a lunch with the girls. Ms. Reichl sprinkles recipes occasionally and drops names like a flower girl throws petals. She knew everyone, so whether your taste runs to famous chefs or literary stars, you will be fascinated.

We all know the sad fate of Gourmet: like so many magazines, it went under during the recession years. In the beginning of her tenure, though, there were palatial offices, generous clothing and limo allowances, test kitchens filled with competing chefs, trips to far-flung locations to revel in the local cuisine, decadent parties in penthouses, and famous authors queued up for an opportunity to get their articles into the next issue. When Reichl took the helm, she hired a couple of great talents who could channel the rivers of creativity that were already flowing among the staff and added her own vast knowledge of the food world and its burgeoning trends. She knew how to put gifted people into just the right spots. The quality of the magazine bloomed, and sales flew upward.

When the first whiff of economic troubles came along, Condé Nast hired lots of bean counters. Creativity was out, the bottom line was everything, and the publisher ignored Reichl’s repeated requests for a web presence. By the time Gourmet had a unique website, they had lost the rights to their own recipes. Corners were cut on photography and kitchen staff, and the quality of the magazine began to erode. Despite issues touting frugality, such as “Paris on a shoestring,” and a booktour announcing their latest cookbook, it was too late.

Throughout the book, Reichl deals with life issues that touch every woman: work-life balance, guilt in child-raising, and her own changing self-concept. Her story is filled with many powerful men and women who played a role in teaching her that gifted people are all gifted differently and that wielding power may not look the same from one person to the next. For some, money and position do not change them, they only allow them to fulfill dreams that lift up those around them. For others, though, power freezes their souls and destroys those within their reach. When the crash comes, Ms. Reichl reflects on whether her time at Gourmet may have altered the course of her life so completely as to make it impossible to be that free-spirited Berkeley girl again.

This delicious memoir is perfect anyone who loves a fast-paced Cinderella story, tales about the Big Apple, fascinating personalities, a soupçon of haute couture, and, most of all, the foodie universe. All of Reichl’s books are captivating. I have also read Garlic and Sapphires, which relates her early adventures as a restaurant critic, when she began dressing in wild disguises to avoid being recognized when she walked into her latest venue. Save Me the Plums is great fun with a side of introspection that gives her unique experiences universal significance.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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