Elem. – Vampenguin

Cummins, Lucy Ruth. Vampenguin. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2021. 978-1-5344-6698-2 p. 48. $17.99. Grades K-3. 

Adventurous young readers will love Lucy Ruth Cummin’s picture book, Vampenguin, about a vampire family that spends the day at the zoo. As the Vampire family visits each exhibit and examines all the exciting animals, baby Dracula seems VERY interested in the penguin exhibit. Likewise, a young penguin finds that the Vampire family may be his ticket out of the penguin exhibit to explore the zoo for the very first time. But, alas, this kind of mischief calls for the old switcheroo plan, and suddenly this Saturday adventure has become much more enjoyable. Baby Dracula quietly slips into the penguin’s house to spend the day swimming, eating, and hanging out with the other penguins. At the same time, the baby Penguin sneaks into the baby stroller to explore exhibits and animals at the zoo that he has never seen before. So while the zoo employees are busy with their chores and everyday activities, and the parents have their attention on other things, the babies (Dracula and Penguin) have the adventure of a lifetime pretending to be each other. 

THOUGHTS: Lucy Ruth Cummins is the author and the illustrator of this story, and observant readers will giggle over the details not necessarily said in words but told within the art. This story is a case of mistaken identity, and the grown-up characters are none too wise! A picture book that is perfect as a read-aloud that will get a few laughs from the readers!

Picture Book          Marie Mengel, Reading SD

MG – The Genius Under the Table

Yelchin, Eugene. The Genius Under the Table: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain. Candlewick Press, 2021. 978-1-536-21552-6. $16.99. 201 p. Grades 5-8.

Eugene (Yvevgeny) Yelchin lives in the USSR during the height of Cold War communism, and all he wants to do is find his own “artistic talent,” usually of an athletic nature, so that he can live a better life.  In the USSR, most people are poor, but people with artistic talent are more valuable to the country, and they often enjoy more comfortable living conditions and greater opportunities to work and travel. Yelchin’s parents try everything to discover his athletic talent, but they eventually discover that he is a gifted artist. While Yelchin pursues his dream of becoming a talented member of Communist society, he begins to understand a more complicated truth; in the USSR it is not easy to play by the rules of Communism and also live an authentic life.

THOUGHTS: This brief memoir is easy to read, and the illustrations that accompany the text are a delightful addition to the story.  Harder truths about life in Soviet Russia, and the tragic impacts of dictators like Stalin and Lenin, are gently introduced in a way that will encourage students to seek out further information. The book ends on a hopeful note that mirrors the path of the author’s own life. Recommended addition for any middle school biography section!

Memoir          Erin Faulkner, Cumberland Valley SD

MG/YA – Sylvie

Kantorovitz, Sylvie. Sylvie. Walker Books, 2021. 346 p. $24.99 978-1-536-20762-0. Grades 7-12.

In this graphic novel, Artist Sylvie Kantoritz shares her life growing up in France, living in an envied apartment that was part of the small teaching college her father directed. She shows the personalities of her father (easy-going), her mother (never satisfied), and her younger brothers and sister. She strives to make everything work: to be the perfect student, daughter, sister, and friend, while feeling uncertain of where she is headed. As the years pass, she changes friends, finds a boyfriend, and always tries to find her own place. Her fascination with art continues to grow throughout her life, and her father encourages her to seek a future in teaching and art. Finally, Sylvie feels that she’s found her own way to a life of her choosing. She ends the memoir with this thought: “Finding out who we are, and not who others think we are or want us to be, is the most important search in life.” The characters’ expressions are endearing and revealing, through anger and surprise to dismay and joy.

THOUGHTS: Readers will enjoy following Sylvie’s life and growth in this quiet homage to the ups and downs of family life.

Graphic Novel          Melissa Scott, Shenango Area SD

Elem. – Doodleville

Sell, Chad. Doodleville. Alfred A Knopf, 2020. 978-1-725-49859-4. 285 p. Grades 3-6.

Drew is a doodler. She always was, even while at her parents restaurant. She also somehow has doodles that come to life and take on a life of their own! She finds a connection with members of an art club who each have their own illustrated characters. But Drew has gone beyond her usual creations for a project, and now this leviathan monster is wreaking havoc in Doodleville, the real world, and Drew’s own internal feelings. Chad Sell has followed his innovative and inclusive graphic novel Cardboard Kingdom with an equally brilliant and important follow-up. The world play and emotions bounce between whimsical and dangerous, leaving readers and the protagonist unsure of how to process things. The inner turmoil of Drew allows for readers to discuss real feelings of depression, doubt, and belonging. The other members of the club also allude to their own struggles with gender, family and social norms. Sell hopefully will keep drawing on this creative fictional world for repeated visits.

THOUGHTS: There is a balance of understanding the rules in this world building and suspending your disbelief to truly appreciate the narrative. However, once that is established, there are so many possibilities for the doodles and the characters to grow and create that readers definitely will want this to be a series instead of a stand alone. There is some background and annotated history in the endnotes describing how Chad originated the doodles and what they represent to the author, making it clear that this is a passion project come to life! Highly recommended.

Graphic Novel          Dustin Brackbill    State College Area SD

Elem. – Nonsense! : The Curious Story of Edward Gorey

Mortensen, Lori. Nonsense! The Curious Story of Edward Gorey. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020. 978-0-358-03368-4. Unpaged. $17.99. K-3.

Edward Gorey was an unconventional, eccentric author and illustrator who was known for his dark, bizarre work. This illustrated biography details his life from his childhood through his young adulthood (he served in the army and later attended Harvard) and his subsequent career. The lyrical prose is complemented by sketchy illustrations that are reminiscent of Gorey’s own work. An intriguing and well-written account of Gorey’s life, this book provides an excellent introduction to the subject while simultaneously inspiring readers to learn more about him.

THOUGHTS: If I’m being honest, I had no idea who Edward Gorey was before I read this biography. However, after reading this narrative, I am somewhat fascinated! The book ends with an author’s note about Edward Gorey, stating that his style lives on through works like Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas and Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. This title would be perfect to pair with one of those works, or even with one of Gorey’s own works. It would be a stellar addition to classroom libraries and/or elementary nonfiction collections.

Picture Book          Julie Ritter, PSLA Member

Elem. – Share Your Rainbow: 18 Artists Draw Their Hope for the Future

Various Artists. Share Your Rainbow: 18 Artists Draw Their Hope for the Future. Penguin Random House, 2020. 978-0-593-37521-1. 32 pages. $7.99. Grades K – 3.

As R.J. Palacio states in the forward, “rainbows are messages of love and hope and peace.” During the Covid-19 pandemic, symbols of rainbows have appeared in windows, sidewalks, and anywhere that children needed to share some joy. This unique picture book aims to make a story of looking for hope in the everyday world and looking ahead to a better future. Each page turn brings a new artist to share their rainbow in creative and delightful ways. For example, children use this time to redesign a rainbow rocketship, imagine riding a rainbow roller coaster, playing with a beach ball, and reuniting with family and friends. Students will naturally seek the rainbows on each page, and then want to #sharemyrainbow afterwards.

THOUGHTS: Come for the hopeful message, but stay to enjoy exploring how artistic styles of many illustrators come together. Some of the featured creators are: Vasti Harrison, Adam Rex, Oge Mora, Dan Santat, Bob Shea, and Lane Smith. All proceeds of the book sales go to World Central Kitchen, which could lead to a further discussion of how to share hope with those in need. Recommended read-aloud and lesson for K – 3.

Picture Book          Dustin Brackbill    State College Area SD