Billie B. Little

Natasha Farrant’s Voyage of the Sparrowhawk whisks readers away on an enthralling and heartwarming adventure helmed by two young orphans, set in England in the aftermath of World War I. 

Feisty, impetuous Lotti and steady, determined Ben meet by chance and become fast friends at the very moment each needs a friend the most. Lotti is desperate to avoid being shipped off to another dour boarding school by her aunt and uncle. Ben, still grieving the loss of his adoptive father and awaiting news of his brother, Sam, a soldier declared missing and presumed dead, is at risk of being sent back to an orphanage.

The two hatch a plan to take Ben’s narrowboat, the Sparrowhawk, to France, where Ben hopes to find Sam and Lotti hopes to reunite with her grandmother. With a handful of extra clothes, some canned soup and their adoring dogs, Elsie and Federico, Ben and Lotti embark on the perilous journey. The Sparrowhawk, a canal boat, is totally unsuited for navigating the swells of the Thames, let alone for crossing the English Channel. Powered by hope and sheer nerve, the pair navigate river locks and crushing storms, all while being stalked by Lotti’s mean-spirited uncle and a police officer who is determined to turn the children over to the proper authorities.

With a light and skilled hand, Farrant stays attuned to the emotional pulse of her winning characters. Ben and Lotti are endearing heroes: courageous, unyielding and committed to doing what’s right and good for each other. As the story’s stakes increase, so does Ben and Lotti’s determination. Farrant lets the novel’s many adult characters play second fiddle, allowing her young protagonists’ pluck and steadfastness to shine in the spotlight. Sometimes poignant, sometimes funny but consistently gripping, Voyage of the Sparrowhawk presses forward with all the purpose and beauty of a small, slim boat on fast-flowing waters. 

Poignant, funny and gripping, Voyage of the Sparrowhawk presses forward with all the purpose and beauty of a small, slim boat on fast-flowing waters.
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In two middle grade novels, intelligent and lovable young heroines solve problems and find their sense of self through baking. Growing up is tough, but it can also be filled with sweet victories.


In Margaret Dilloway’s Summer of a Thousand Pies, 12-year-old Cady is sent to live in a new town with her Aunt Shell, who feels like a total stranger. Cady’s father is in jail and struggling with addiction. Since her mom died when she was 3, it’s always been just Cady and her dad, homeless and living in a beat-up van.

Cady’s dad kept her from meeting her extended family, so she doesn’t know anything about Aunt Shell or her housemate, Suzanne. Cady has always wanted to learn to bake but hasn’t had a kitchen to practice in, so she’s happy to discover that her aunt runs a pie shop. Cady misses her dad, but her new life seems a perfect fit, especially when Cady makes a new friend, Jay, whose family lives on Shell’s property. Shell tells Cady she has to bake 1,000 pies to become an expert, and Cady happily takes on the challenge, but soon her new, nearly perfect life is threatened. The pie shop is failing and may be sold, and it will take more than Cady’s baking skills to turn the shop around. And when Cady learns that Jay is an undocumented immigrant, she begins to realize that everyone—not just her—has their problems.

Dilloway shines in her complex portrayal of Cady. Mistrustful and lacking confidence, Cady responds to new situations with anger, but as time passes, she’s able to depend on others, make friends and forge relationships. Dilloway’s gentle humor and lively dialogue make this warm-hearted story ring true.

Midsummer’s Mayhem, Rajani LaRocca’s debut novel, is as dense, flavorful and complex as an artisanal cupcake. And though the story is all about baking, it’s also about magic and mysterious woods, Indian folklore and food, friendship and family.

There is mayhem of all sorts in 11-year-old Mimi’s life. Unlike her talented siblings, she feels like a failure. Her successful mom works too hard to notice her much, and her dad has changed on a dime. A food editor, he has begun cramming sweets into his mouth without the smallest amount of discernment. Worse yet, her father has always been her biggest fan, but now, when she needs his expertise to help win a baking contest, he doesn’t have time for her.

Numerous threads intertwine through this story of Mimi, the youngest in a family of impressive siblings, as she tries to figure out a niche where she, and only she, can excel. Mimi’s desire to be good at something will feel familiar to many young readers, as will the dismissive siblings, busy parents and, naturally, the way-too-pretty mean girl.

Based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, this story may be a tad convoluted for readers who aren’t familiar with the source material, but Mimi’s desire to succeed and her quest to win a baking contest carry the story.

In two middle grade novels, intelligent and lovable young heroines solve problems and find their sense of self through baking.

When it comes to animals in picture books, bears have a long and storied history. Large or small, woodland creature or friendly plush toy, their contributions are undeniable. Jonathan Stutzman and Dan Santat’s Bear Is a Bear more than earns its place among the ranks of Winnie, Corduroy, Paddington, Little Bear and more.

Although this Bear is a teddy toy, Santat depicts him as an actual bear. When the winsome Bear is introduced to his little girl, she is a baby gnawing on a wooden block and he is “hopeful and shy.” He lowers his hulking body down onto the rug, lies on his tummy and smiles his most pleasing smile. The connection between them is instant: The baby attaches herself to Bear’s head like a suction cup (“Bear is a snack.”) before shooting snot directly at his face (“Bear is a tissue.”). Bear is undeterred, and soon he has become a “warm, soft pillow” on which the child drifts off to sleep.

As the girl grows up, Bear plays many parts, always going along with whatever she wants to do. Together, they dress up for tea parties, dig for buried treasure and peer up at the stars through a telescope. Bear is a “brave protector” in a scary thunderstorm and a tissue, again, when the girl reads a tear-jerking novel. When the girl goes off to college, Bear becomes “a scholar” and “a piece of home,” but eventually he is “a memory . . . covered in dust” in a trunk. But Bear is not forgotten, and soon he has a new role to play in the life of someone very important to his little girl.

Throughout the book, Caldecott Medalist Santat (The Adventures of Beekle) portrays Bear as a gentle giant who quickly earns a place in readers’ hearts. Santat’s illustrations are friendly and humorous, sure to remind adults of their own plush childhood friends who may also be tucked away in boxes. Stutzman’s language is gentle and has an appealing rhythm that’s ideal for bedtime. The book’s circular narrative and refrain of “Bear is a bear full of love” make for a satisfying read-aloud that’s charmingly nostalgic with just the right amount of sweetness.

Jonathan Stutzman and Dan Santat’s Bear Is a Bear more than earns its place among the ranks of Winnie, Corduroy, Paddington, Little Bear and more.

Eleven-year-old Loah Londonderry lives in a ramshackle house with an “alarmingly crooked turret.” Her classmates regularly dare each other to peek into her house’s windows, and Loah usually responds with a timid wave.

Loah’s mother, an ornithologist, is doing fieldwork in the Arctic, so Loah is being looked after by the Rinkers, a brother and sister who are “old, scrawny, and white as napkins.” Miss Rinker is strict, but her brother, Theo, the purveyor of bedtime gummy bears, is Loah’s favorite.

Loah’s mother has been gone for 67 days (and counting) when their turret-topped home comes to the unwelcome attention of Mr. Wayne J. Kipper, the local housing inspector. Then an accident lands Theo in the hospital just as Loah learns of her mother’s plan to go off the grid and risk a dangerous solo pursuit of the rare bird that is Loah’s namesake. When all seems truly lost, Loah is befriended by a rangy, outspoken homeschooler named Ellis.

The Most Perfect Thing in the Universe is an appealing coming-of-age story with broad emotional range. Author Tricia Springstubb writes with a deft hand, and her moving and complex third-person narration contains frequent humorous asides to the reader.

The novel is set against a lush backdrop of the natural world, full of the calls and movements of the birds that Loah’s mother has devoted her life to studying. Readers will learn about arctic terns, hairy woodpeckers and chickadees, and there’s even a supporting turn at a critical moment by the family of vultures who live in the turret. The Most Perfect Thing in the Universe is a lovely reminder of the importance of paying attention to nature and protecting the creatures that share our world.

Eleven-year-old Loah Londonderry lives in a ramshackle house with an “alarmingly crooked turret.” Her classmates regularly dare each other to peek into her house’s windows, and Loah usually responds with a timid wave.

Libby lands in trouble at school for painting a blazing sunrise on a boring, empty wall. During her punishment, she comes across a trinket that belonged to her former art teacher, a rock with the message “Create the world of your dreams” etched into it. “Here is someone who got me,” Libby thinks, and pockets the stone. Ann Braden’s second middle grade novel, Flight of the Puffin, depicts how impactful it can be for a young person to feel ‘gotten’ by someone.

Chapters alternate between four children: creative Libby; football player Jack; math and puffin enthusiast Vincent; and T, who lives on the street with their dog, Peko. Braden builds moving portraits of these characters as they struggle with the unachievable expectations placed on them by their parents. For instance, Libby’s passion for spreading joyful, colorful art with a positive message isn’t appreciated by her mom, who takes away her art supplies, while Jake collects signatures for a petition. All four characters are united by their openness to new ideas to help heal their world.

The children empathetically portrayed in Flight of the Puffin demonstrate courage and strength as they remain faithful to who they are. In this emotional book, Braden movingly underscores the simple truth that everyone needs love, companionship and acceptance.

Ann Braden’s second middle grade novel, Flight of the Puffin, depicts how impactful it can be for a young person to feel ‘gotten’ by someone.

When 13-year-old Olivia climbs aboard her aunt and uncle’s RV with her prized camera and her 16-year-old sister, Ruth, she’s both excited and trepidatious. She has two big plans for this trip: first, to dig up a time capsule that she and Ruth buried in California before moving away three years ago; and second, to surprise Ruth by revisiting the places where they took photos together during their cross-country move to Tennessee, photos of them having a blast and doing the silly things sisters do, before Ruth started sliding into what Olivia has dubbed “The Pit,” a difficult and ongoing experience with depression. 

Although Ruth has changed since their last trip together, Olivia is still optimistic about her plans. After all, “who wouldn’t be excited about a cross-country road trip in an RV? Digging up buried treasure? And exploring pirate ships?” Ruth, for one. She’s acting distant, hooked up to her old iPod at all times, her energy and enthusiasm lagging. Olivia feels responsible for her older sister, and she tries everything to pull Ruth out of “The Pit.” As they travel across the country, Olivia struggles to understand that she can’t take responsibility for her sister’s mental health or happiness.

Author Sarah Allen’s second book, Breathing Underwater, uses accessible yet lyrical language to depict Olivia’s attempts to recapture the joyful memories she and Ruth shared in the past. Olivia’s first-person perspective sheds light on the swirling mix of love, guilt and responsibility that she feels for her sister. It also allows Allen to sensitively describe what depression looks like when it’s experienced by a young person, as well as the impact it can have on their family. Notably, Allen offers no quick fixes and no saccharine, orchestrated happy ending. Olivia cannot heal her sister, but the girls do find a way forward together in a way that feels authentic and true to who they have each become.

Breathing Underwater is a lovely, important book that will be an especially welcome balm for any young reader who loves someone with mental illness. Olivia’s love for her sister shines through on every page and reinforces what a powerful thing it is to simply be there for someone. 

When 13-year-old Olivia climbs aboard her aunt and uncle’s RV with her prized camera and her 16-year-old sister, Ruth, she’s both excited and trepidatious.

In J.D. Jones’ family, nobody gets a haircut until they turn 9, when they receive a home buzz cut. J.D.’s mom has been busy lately, so J.D. is glad for a chance to spend time with her when she cuts his hair before the first day of third grade. He hopes she can manage a basic fade, but when he looks in the mirror to check out his new hairstyle, what he sees is . . . not good.

J.D. is used to his classmates’ teasing over his hand-me-down clothes, but being mocked for his hair is a new low, so he springs into action. He tries his mom’s hair relaxer, which only makes his hair look worse. Next, he uses the family’s clippers, but not before testing them out on his little brother first. 

Fortunately, it turns out that J.D. is a haircutting whiz. Not only does he escape punishment for cutting his brother’s hair without permission, but soon everyone is asking J.D. to work his magic on their hair, lining up to pay him for his haircuts. He sets up shop on his back porch and is quickly flush with cash, until the owner of the only barber shop in town tries to shut him down. Desperate, J.D. challenges him to a haircutting competition that will put all of his new skills to the test.

Debut author J. Dillard is a former master barber, and he effortlessly welcomes readers into J.D.’s small hometown of Meridian, Mississippi, where “everyone . . . knows everything about everyone else.” It’s a lively place, where J.D. is surrounded by a close-knit group of family and friends, where money is always a little tight. Like most kids his age, J.D. longs to define himself and to discover where he can excel, and young readers will enjoy watching him gain self-confidence along with his skills as a barber and entrepreneur.

Dillard has a sharp ear for dialogue, and J.D.’s conversational narration paired with the story’s gentle humor and perfectly placed pop culture references will ensure a wide appeal. Akeem S. Roberts’ cartoon-style illustrations of J.D. and his friends are packed with personality and make this a great choice for readers transitioning into chapter books. The first book in a planned series, J.D. and the Great Barber Battle feels like a winner.

In J.D. Jones’ family, nobody gets a haircut until they turn 9, when they receive a home buzz cut. J.D.’s mom has been busy lately, so J.D. is glad for a chance to spend time with her when she cuts his hair before the first day of third grade. He hopes she can manage a basic fade, but when he looks in the mirror to check out his new hairstyle, what he sees is . . . not good.

Author Joanna Ho and illustrator Dung Ho’s Eyes That Kiss in the Corners is a joyful, tender exploration of family and diversity.

The book's narrator, a young girl, begins by describing how her eyes look different from her friends’ eyes. Her friends have “big eyes” with “lashes like lace trim on ballgowns.” But her own eyes “glow like warm tea” and “kiss in the corners.”

The girl reflects on what her eyes have in common with her family’s eyes. As she plays with her mother one day, the girl sees that her mother’s eyes “crinkle into crescent moons” when she smiles. She notices that her eyes have the same sparkle as her grandmother’s and little sister’s eyes.

Throughout Eyes That Kiss in the Corners, which is Joanna Ho's first picture book, she explores themes of family and tradition to construct an intimate portrait of a young girl’s growing sense of herself. The girl draws strength from her connections to the other women in her family—connections she clearly cherishes. Guided by these strong, loving women, the girl comes to realize her place in the continuum of both her family and her culture.

In addition to capturing the touching warmth of the girl’s relationships with her family, Ho uses vivid imagery, repetition and poetic phrasing to make Eyes That Kiss in the Corners truly delightful to read aloud. The girl’s lashes “curve like the swords of warriors,” while her little sister has a “two-tooth smile.” There’s a wonderful sense of intentionality to Ho’s writing, and her rhythm builds to a stirring climax in which the girl declares that her eyes “are a revolution.”

Artist Dung Ho draws on motifs from the natural world to bring scenes from the girl’s life and imagination to the page. Every spread bursts with flowers, butterflies and birds in riotous shades of yellow, orange, pink and green. The girl’s grandmother’s stories of traditions and legends have a dreamier quality as Ho employs swirls and soft spirals of misty blue. These evocative illustrations reinforce the sense of connection to family and culture, depicting how one generation speaks volumes to the next.

In the hands of less talented creators, Eyes That Kiss in the Corners would be a simple exploration of how physical differences make us all unique or special. But Joanna Ho’s powerful language and Dung Ho’s dazzling illustrations have instead created a celebration of family and heritage that’s both luminous and revelatory.

Author Joanna Ho and illustrator Dung Ho’s Eyes That Kiss in the Corners is a joyful, tender exploration of family and diversity.

Meet Thesaurus, a friendly but slightly peculiar dinosaur. His home is a tropical paradise in which friendly pastel-colored dinosaurs frolic and splash, snacking on coconuts or nibbling particularly scrumptious leaves. They are a happy group—but Thesaurus doesn’t quite feel like he fits in. Like the other dinosaurs, Thesaurus loves to eat, swim, play and wrestle. But he is also hiding a secret. 

It turns out that Thesaurus is a prehistoric bibliophile. He devours books like the other dinos devour foliage. He worries that his love of books and words makes him a tad different from the rest of his dinosaur clan, so when he settles in to read, he’s careful to stay out of sight. But on one fateful day, he forgets himself and realizes he’s been reading aloud! Have the others heard him? Will they make fun of him? How will he fit in when the thing that makes him stand out is something he loves? 

With his pleasantly plump form, cheerful disposition and winning smile—not to mention his erudite vocabulary—Thesaurus is the kind of picture book protagonist that storytime dreams are made of. Using vibrant seaside hues to color her whimsical illustrations, Anya Glazer’s palette of punched-up pastels pairs with a clever, lighthearted narrative to make for a story that’s both lively and engaging. Thesaurus Has A Secret is a delightful and reassuring tale for anyone who’s ever worried about following the crowd.

Meet Thesaurus, a friendly but slightly peculiar dinosaur. His home is a tropical paradise in which friendly pastel-colored dinosaurs frolic and splash, snacking on coconuts or nibbling particularly scrumptious leaves.

Even before Nazi Germany invaded in the fall of 1939, Poland was a dangerous place to be Jewish. Determined to earn a living and raise his family in safety, Esther’s father fled to Cuba, but after years spent working as a street peddler, he can only afford to bring over one family member by the winter of 1937–38. Esther convinces the family that she should be the one to go and leaves her mother, grandmother and siblings for a long and frightening journey across the ocean. She arrives in Havana’s steamy shipyard clad in a woolen dress and stockings and is finally reunited with Papa; together, they travel to his small village of Agramonte.

Once she has settled in, Esther helps her father peddle his wares. Showing fortitude and resilience, she begins to use her creative talents to sew dresses to sell in order to raise the money to bring the rest of their family to Cuba. Traveling the streets of Agramonte with Papa, Esther readily makes new friends in her new and unfamiliar country.

Although Cuba is a safer place for Jewish people than Poland, Havana is still rife with anti-Semitism, embodied in the cruel Señor Eduardo, who seems intent on bringing Hitler’s hatred to Cuba. Esther’s determination to learn about the cultural traditions of her new home and to share her own traditions with her new friends provides a striking and empowering counterpoint. Through hard work, patience, talent and the kindness of others, Esther and her father endure and eventually thrive, remaining undaunted in pursuit of their goal of reuniting their family.

Letters From Cuba is told through Esther’s letters to her sister, Malka, in Poland, and author Ruth Behar creates a compelling narrative voice for Esther. She’s a preteen girl with a mature sensibility born out of the heavy burden she shoulders as she immigrates and raises the funds to reunite her family. Readers will root for Esther as she matures in her new country and keeps her dream alive.

Behar shines a light on the harsh and unjust reality of life for Jewish people in Poland during this time while succeeding in filling Esther’s story with warmth and hope. Letters from Cuba’s themes of friendship, family, faith and openhearted acceptance give this historical novel timeless resonance.

Even before Nazi Germany invaded in the fall of 1939, Poland was a dangerous place to be Jewish. Determined to earn a living and raise his family in safety, Esther’s father fled to Cuba, but after years spent working as a street peddler, he can only afford to bring over one family member by the […]

If you are a young boy who discovers you have a monster sleeping under your bed, what do you do? You scream. And if you are a monster on the receiving end of that scream, what do you do? You swallow the boy whole, of course.

So begins Hannah Barnaby’s clever chapter book, Monster and Boy, but when an unexpected cough jettisons the now grasshopper-sized boy from the monster’s tummy, the monster is faced with a much bigger—or is it smaller?—problem. His friend, who sleeps in the bed above him, whose socks smell so good, whose snoring is so comforting, is now scarcely bigger than a mouse. Despite his diminutive size, the boy still has a large appetite, so monster and boy venture downstairs to the kitchen, where they encounter another problem in the form of the boy’s sister, who threatens to wake the entire house. What’s a well-intentioned monster to do?

Barnaby’s story provides plenty of bite-sized drama while spinning a warm and literally fuzzy tale of unlikely friendship. Illustrator Anoosha Syed’s simple line drawings breathe life into the sweet but hapless monster and add an extra dimension of humor to Barnaby’s wry text. The story’s casual, conversational style makes this engaging chapter book easy for even the most reluctant readers to swallow—whole, of course.

If you are a young boy who discovers you have a monster sleeping under your bed, what do you do? You scream. And if you are a monster on the receiving end of that scream, what do you do? You swallow the boy whole, of course. So begins Hannah Barnaby’s clever chapter book, Monster and […]

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