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.

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.

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