Jon Little

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Portico Reeves isn’t an average kid, and he doesn’t live in an average house. He lives in the biggest house in the world. In fact, it’s a castle. Well, it’s actually an apartment building, but it is pretty big. And all those people who also live in the building? They’re not neighbors. They’re characters in a television show starring Portico’s superhero alter ego: Stuntboy!

Is Stuntboy faster than a speeding bullet? No. Does he have X-ray vision or super strength? Also no. But he is brave enough to jump in front of the new kid, Zola, when she attracts the attention of Stuntboy’s archnemesis, Herbert Singletary the Worst? You bet he is.

As Stuntboy, Portico can withstand a bully’s barbed words, but when the trouble tracks closer to home, he struggles to keep up his superheroic facade. His grandmother calls it the frets. Portico’s stomach begins to twist, and he doesn’t know what to do. Lately, his parents’ separation and constant arguing have been making Portico’s frets worse than ever.

In his first original graphic novel, award-winning author Jason Reynolds, whose tenure as National Ambassador for Young People’s literature was recently extended for a third year, gives readers a comic book superhero whose adventures feel both timely and classic. Stuntboy, in the Meantime is an imaginative tale of creative resilience and friendship.

The book’s illustrations by Pura Belpré Illustrator Award-winning artist Raúl the Third are stylish and energetic. When Zola relates Portico’s troubles to her favorite sci-fi TV show, “Super Space Warriors,” scenes appear straight out of a midcentury comic book, complete with Benday dots and bold, psychedelic colors by Elaine Bay.

Beneath its superheroic trappings, Stuntboy, in the Meantime is an appealing story about a young boy struggling to bolster himself against the mundane uncertainties in his life. Portico finds winning allies in this quest, including Zola, who shows him strategies for settling his anxiety. Underpinning it all is the notion that to overcome our fears, we must turn our attention outward. To save ourselves, we must serve others.

Is Stuntboy faster than a speeding bullet? Er, no. Can he defeat the frets, those feelings he gets when his life feels out of control? Find out in Stuntboy, in the Meantime!
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Two new young adult novels open in Boulder, Colorado, and find their teen protagonists in the wilderness—struggling to save themselves or someone they love.

With a host of deftly drawn characters, Emily France’s Zen and Gone is a paean to the multicultural mountain mecca of Boulder.

With no father, a stoner mom who burns through boyfriends like cigarettes and a little sister to look after, Essa is not a carefree teenager. Determined to give her little sister, Puck, the stability and attention she so desperately needs, Essa spurns drugs and dating for the clean thrills of orienteering and the practical wisdom of Zen Buddhism. Everything changes when a Chicago transplant named Oliver arrives in Boulder for the summer, and Essa’s self-imposed no-dating rule is put to the test. But when the couple signs up for a survival game in the Rocky Mountains, Puck breaks the rules and tags along—and promptly goes missing in the Colorado wilderness.

Though Zen and Gone toggles back and forth between Essa’s and Oliver’s viewpoints, with the latter struggling to come to terms with his sister’s schizophrenia, this story belongs to Essa. And as she searches for Puck, it becomes a tale of faith as much as anything else.

While France’s promotion of mindfulness and her foregrounding of Buddhist principles make Zen and Gone a unique contribution to the YA canon, its vivid rooting in place and its granular depiction of present-day Boulder is its greatest achievement.

Kathy Parks’ Notes from My Captivity also features a complex female protagonist who is thrust into the unknown, but Parks favors quick-witted dialogue over detailed description, resulting in a story filled with high-energy prose and off-kilter humor.

When Adrienne leaves Boulder to join her anthropologist stepfather in the Siberian wilderness on a mission to find the elusive and possibly mythical Osinov family, she quickly finds herself out of her depth. In a matter of pages, their entire search party dies and Adrienne is captured by the Osinovs. The only eligible woman for miles around, Adrienne decides her best shot at surviving rests with the Osinovs’ youngest son, Vanya. If she can make him fall for her, then she might be able to survive long enough to convince him to smuggle her back to civilization. Though it begins as a ploy, their real attraction threatens to develop into something else entirely.

When Adrienne learns that the Osinovs can communicate with the dead, her focus turns from her budding romance and dreams of escape to her deceased father. She would give anything to speak to him just one more time, but if it means losing Vanya and forgoing the chance of returning to her home, will she go through with it? With a touch of magic and a heavy dose of humor, Notes from My Captivity is a fast-paced summer read sure to thrill.

 

This article was originally published in the July 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Two new young adult novels open in Boulder, Colorado, and find their teen protagonists in the wilderness—struggling to save themselves or someone they love.

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In Fear the Bunny, Richard T. Morris offers an amusing riff on William Blake’s famous poem “The Tyger,” insisting that it is bunnies, not tigers, that strike such a fearful figure. 

For his part, Tiger can’t help but laugh when he comes upon a tangle of his fellow forest-dwelling animals reading about “Bunnies, bunnies, burning bright.” But when Tiger tries to tell them that they have it all wrong, that they should fear him, a tiger, not some fluffy, cuddly bunny, the animals push back. In their forest, they tell him, no animal is quite so fearsome as the bunny.

Frustrated, Tiger tries to explain. Tigers are the ones with dagger-sharp teeth and deadly claws. But he gets nowhere. The others are distracted. Something stirs ominously in the distance. The animals flee to shelter, and though it seems silly to Tiger, he eventually heeds their desperate pleads and hides in the forest’s lush foliage.

But when Tiger spies the bunny from whom they’ve so diligently hidden, he can’t contain his disdain. He mocks the bunny, and the other animals’ cowering, that is until he sees the horde of bunnies that lay in wait.

With its witty premise and attractive illustrations, Fear the Bunny will amuse children and parents alike.

Like Fear the Bunny, the latest from Caldecott Honor author and illustrator David Ezra Stein, Hush, Little Bunny, takes its inspiration from a popular source. But where Fear the Bunny draws inspiration and then dashes off in a totally unexpected direction, Hush, Little Bunny hews closer to the original material. 

Stein takes the popular lullaby, “Hush Little Baby,” and reworks it for all the bunny lovers out there. Accompanied by his gorgeous watercolors, Stein takes us along with Papa Bunny and his little one as they bid winter goodbye and welcome spring with all the new experiences it brings—both frightful and exciting.

The portrayal of familial love that emerges is both moving and engaging, and, as always, Stein’s delightful brushwork is worth the price tag alone.

In author and illustrator Nicola Killen’s The Little Rabbit, Ollie can’t wait for the rain to stop, so he can go play in the puddles. Before the wind has settled, Ollie races out the door with his umbrella and favorite stuffed animal, Bunny, in tow.  

As soon as they’re outside, a golden petal settles onto Bunny’s nose and something astonishing happens. With a twitch of his nose, Bunny springs to life, hops out of the basket and darts off with a pack of wild rabbits. 

Ollie calls and calls, but can’t find Bunny anywhere. Just as the sky darkens and the rain returns, Ollie spots him. He’s stranded in a puddle of quickly rising water. With the aid of an inspired gust of wind, Ollie hops aboard his upturned umbrella and sails through the puddle to rescue Bunny. 

Next, Bunny leads Ollie up to the treehouse. But when Bunny climbs higher up the tree and jumps towards the clouds above, what will Ollie do?

With each turn of the page, The Little Rabbit grows increasingly fantastical, reminding readers of the wonder-filled realm between reality and make believe that young children inhabit with such glee. With its beautifully stark watercolors and the occasional gold-embossed magic petal, The Little Rabbit is as visually charming as is its text. 

In Fear the Bunny, Richard T. Morris offers an amusing riff on William Blake’s famous poem “The Tyger,” insisting that it is bunnies, not tigers, that strike such a fearful figure.  For his part, Tiger can’t help but laugh when he comes upon a tangle of his fellow forest-dwelling animals reading about “Bunnies, bunnies, burning bright.” […]
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Four new memoirs—by fathers writing to their children and children writing about their fathers—show how a father’s love can temper personal and cultural sorrows.


Pondering the importance of fathers in our lives, philosopher Frederich Nietzsche said, “Whoever does not have a good father should procure one.” While the market for good fathers may be slim, and procuring a father at market may be less than legal, there’s a spate of great nonfiction coming out by and about remarkable fathers just in time for Father’s Day.

Take Canadian novelist David Chariandy’s I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You, a slim but touching missive to his teenage daughter. It opens with three dramatic events: President Trump’s election, a fatal shooting at a Canadian mosque and the casual racism of a white Canadian who cut in front of the dark-skinned Chariandy with the searing words, “I’m from here. I belong here.”

Struggling to counsel his daughter as she begins to face these modern realities, Chariandy turns to story—in this case, his own. He walks his daughter through the precarious and nurturing places, both geographic and psychic, that have marked his life. But this is no self-seeking memoir of struggle. Chariandy recounts the taunts he faced as a child alongside the history of slavery and indentured labor that brought his ancestors to Trinidad from Africa and South Asia. The result is a remarkable story of place and relation, of ancestry and association. In turn damning and hopeful, I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You reminds us of the deep history and connectedness of all human life.

After twice attempting to row across the Atlantic Ocean, English journalist Jonathan Gornall had his second child. He was 58. With the specter of mortality looming, he struck upon an idea: He’d build his daughter a wooden boat. By hand. 

In the opening, and strongest, chapter of How to Build a Boat, Gornall addresses his daughter, explaining this decision. He muses on his love of the ocean, expounds on the open sea as a metaphor for the dramatic unknown that stretches out before us all and explains his boatbuilding as an exercise in perseverance, striking out with nothing more than grit and determination to guide him.

How to Build a Boat starts as a letter to his daughter but soon morphs into the story of the author’s yearlong battle to construct a clinker-built boat. Though Gornall’s prose is tight and he offers interesting historical asides on boatbuilding and rowing, the sheer density of boatbuilding detail may restrict this book’s appeal to boatwrights and woodworking enthusiasts.

In her memoir All That You Leave Behind, Erin Lee Carr, a video journalist and documentarian, traces her relationship with her father and mentor, the late David Carr. Best known as a New York Times journalist, Mr. Carr was also an addict. It wasn’t until Erin and her twin sister turned 8 months old that he checked himself in to a treatment center and got clean.

Even while we hear of the younger Carr’s own battles with addiction and her struggle to step out of her father’s shadow and make a name for herself, David Carr remains the star of this memoir. His instant messages, emails and letters are woven throughout, and every scrap of his writing is astounding. Even offhand texts are things of linguistic beauty, but more than that, it’s the wisdom, tender support and love found within them that make his words so powerful. Erin Lee Carr gives us an intimate view of a truly remarkable father and man.

Yousef Bashir, Palestinian-American author of The Words of My Father, grew up in Gaza on his family’s ancestral farm. Across a highway was an Israeli settlement, and an Israeli military base stood next door—a delicate situation, to say the least. Yet when other Palestinians abandoned their homes for fear of violence, Bashir’s family stayed. His father insisted upon it. When Israeli soldiers pounded at their door, demanding they leave, Bashir’s father didn’t waver. Rather, he opened the door wide, inviting the soldiers into his home as guests. 

In they came, and in they stayed. For five long years, soldiers occupied the top two stories of the Bashir family home. Yet Bashir’s father still preached peace and coexistence. Even when Bashir was shot in the back by an Israeli soldier, his father refused to recant or relent. Now Bashir is a peace activist in his own right, and The Words of My Father is the inspirational story of his struggle to understand and live up to his father’s singular example. His memoir is an absolute must-read.

Four new memoirs—by fathers writing to their children and children writing about their fathers—show how a father’s love can temper personal and cultural sorrows.

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One morning, Malian awakens from a dream to find a dog outside her grandparents’ home on the reservation, where she’s been staying since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s the same dog, in fact, that she’d been dreaming of only minutes before. She names him Malsum, which means “wolf” in the language of her people, the Penacook. 

Malsum may look fierce, but he proves to be a gentle and loyal protector. When a coughing mail carrier approaches the house, Malsum’s bark keeps him at bay. When a woman from social services shows up, checking to see if the home Malian is living in is “fit” for children, Malsum stands between Malian and danger once again, his lethal canines bared.

If Malsum is Malian’s protector, her grandparents are her lodestar. They provide the stories and histories that lead her to a deeper understanding of herself and her country. Their stories reveal how COVID-19 and the postal service worker who exhibits its symptoms are not only a threat but also a reminder of pandemics past, of smallpox and other diseases that decimated Native tribes. Their stories link the nosy social service worker to generations of mistreatment of Native people, whether through bad faith treaties that forcibly removed them from their lands or by so-called “boarding schools” that separated children from their families, languages and culture.

Joseph Bruchac’s Rez Dogs is a poignant reminder that history, story and identity are intimately intertwined. Bruchac centers the story of one Native American girl during the pandemic and, with it, the stories of her family and her people. This short, pithy novel written in spare verse brings the weight of history to bear on the present, revealing not only how history shapes us but how, through the stories we tell, we can shape history.

Joseph Bruchac’s Rez Dogs is a poignant reminder that history, story and identity are intimately intertwined. Bruchac centers the story of one Native American girl during the pandemic and, with it, the stories of her family and her people.

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Jacqueline Woodson’s Before the Ever After places professional football’s concussion epidemic front and center.

ZJ had it all: musical talent, a solid group of friends, a strong, supportive mom and a famous football-player dad he adored. But that was before. Before his dad’s hands began to tremble. Before his dad’s memory began to fade. When his father is diagnosed with a degenerative brain disease caused by the multiple concussions he experienced on the playing field, ZJ must face the prospect of losing his father and the relationship he holds most dear.

Award-winning author Woodson tells ZJ’s story in intimate, compelling poems that slip through time. We see ZJ as a small child riding on his father’s shoulders, far above the fray of reporters and fans. We hear their heart-to-heart conversations, listen to ZJ’s dad muse on his love for football and watch as the cracks and fissures of memory loss, anger and confusion creep into their idyllic life.

A stirring, character-driven novel in verse, Before the Ever After doesn’t sugarcoat harsh realities but addresses them with considered care and optimism. Woodson is far too adept a storyteller to directly answer many of the questions she raises, but ZJ’s quiet resilience and the network of nurturing figures who surround him suggest a path lit by glimmers of hope.

Jacqueline Woodson’s Before the Ever After places professional football’s concussion epidemic front and center. ZJ had it all: musical talent, a solid group of friends, a strong, supportive mom and a famous football-player dad he adored. But that was before. Before his dad’s hands began to tremble. Before his dad’s memory began to fade. When […]
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Lami’s Nigerian home is part of a large compound where many other children and families live—not to mention cattle, goats, chickens and one grand old baobab tree, in whose shade the elders gather to converse.

In the compound, everyone is good at something. Lami’s sister Sadia is a spelling whiz. Fatima, Lami’s friend, is the fastest hair-braider around. And Lami has a special talent, too: She’s the best chicken catcher around.

Catch That Chicken! follows Lami as she zips across the bustling compound in pursuit of one fleeing fowl after another. “Get that chicken,” her grandmother shouts as Lami darts under laundry lines draped with brightly printed clothing. Hot on the chase, Lami zooms through a cattle pin and a schoolyard. When a chicken squawks up the branches of the baobab tree, Lami is undeterred.

The elders plead for care when they see her her teetering overhead, but Lami only has eyes for the object of her fowl pursuit. She creeps down a broad, sweeping branch, readies herself to lunge and then—CRASH! How will Lami catch chickens with an injured ankle?

Nigerian-born author and storyteller Atinuke’s clever narrative and Angela Brooksbank’s vibrant mixed-media illustrations bring an entire community to life in just a few pages. The book’s text makes excellent use of repetition and alliteration, ensuring a read-aloud hit that young readers will beg to hear again and again. Brooksbank’s images complement the text perfectly; her use of double-page spreads to set the scene and sequential panels to convey the action of Lami’s chases is the work of an illustrator who uses every inch of the page to its fullest potential.

Rooted in the wonderful specificity of everyday life in Nigeria, this tale of wit and perseverance has universal appeal. Catch That Chicken! is a joy.

Lami’s Nigerian home is part of a large compound where many other children and families live—not to mention cattle, goats, chickens and one grand old baobab tree, in whose shade the elders gather to converse. In the compound, everyone is good at something. Lami’s sister Sadia is a spelling whiz. Fatima, Lami’s friend, is the […]
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From once-green leaves turning brilliant hues each autumn to our own eventually graying hair, our brief time together is marked by constant change. Pausing to reflect on life’s transience may inspire sadness, but in Things That Go Away, author-illustrator Beatrice Alemagna reminds us that change isn’t always an occasion for sorrow. 


Things That Go Away uses simple, image-driven language and engaging artwork to explore its titular concept. Between each spread of Alemagna’s signature oil paintings is a sheet of sparsely illustrated onion paper. With each turn of this translucent paper, Alemagna reveals things that vanish or are transformed, from the relenting pounding of rain that gives way to sunshine to music that fills a room only to dissolve into silence.

While the loss of a friend may cut us to the quick, other changes in our lives can be welcome, even joyful. Among the many transitions Alemagna includes are acknowledgements of the sweet solace that comes at the end of a fear-filled night and the relief we experience when the dense fog of dark thoughts finally clears. Through illustrations of steam unfurling from a morning cup of coffee and soap bubbles blown into the wind that drift upwards beyond the reach of giggling children’s fingertips, Alemagna suggests that we might find everyday transformations wondrous, rather than mundane, if we would only take the time to stop and consider them.

In spread after spread, Alemagna meditates on the wide range of changes we face as we live our lives. If this were all Things That Go Away accomplished, it would be enough. But in its ending, the book achieves much, much more. In her book’s final moments, Alemagna pivots from reflecting on things that change to show us, instead, something that endures. In a world adrift in change, Alemagna seems to say, something must anchor us, and for her, that something is love.

From once-green leaves turning brilliant hues each autumn to our own eventually graying hair, our brief time together is marked by constant change. Pausing to reflect on life’s transience may inspire sadness, but in Things That Go Away, author-illustrator Beatrice Alemagna reminds us that change isn’t always an occasion for sorrow. 
 Things That Go […]
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Where’s Baby? puts a fresh twist on the concept behind the classic picture book Are You My Mother? Rather than a fledgling baby bird wandering far and wide, mistaking all manner of animals and objects for its mother, in Anne Hunter’s fanciful world, a hapless father fox sets out to find his cheeky baby pup.

Unable to find Baby Fox in the den, Papa Fox grabs his walking stick and heads into the forest. He climbs hills and wanders through fields. He peeks into burrows and peers into hollowed-out logs. Along the way, he finds an owl perched high in the canopy, a fish floating along in the creek and even a black bear out enjoying the day, but Baby Fox always manages to elude him.

Hunter’s illustrations are a striking testament to what can be achieved with just a few colored pencils and an ink pen. They’re also an integral part of this giggle-inducing hide-and-seek story, offering young readers the delight of spotting stealthy Baby Fox on each page as he sneaks around, avoiding his unwitting father’s gaze.

Though adults might be confused by Papa Fox’s inability to catch a glimpse of his child (is his vision going? Has he lost his keen sense of smell? Is he really that dull-witted?), clever and sharp-eyed children will look on Baby Fox’s evasions with glee as they point him out on page after page.

From its language to its artwork, Where’s Baby? is so sparse that it’s almost minimalist. At first glance, it seems to be a very simple book. And it is—simply entertaining.

Where’s Baby? puts a fresh twist on the concept behind the classic picture book Are You My Mother? Rather than a fledgling baby bird wandering far and wide, mistaking all manner of animals and objects for its mother, in Anne Hunter’s fanciful world, a hapless father fox sets out to find his cheeky baby pup. Unable […]
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What if the tech boom brought more than money and hipsters to San Francisco? What if it brought gang warfare? Those questions form the premise of Shannon Price’s debut novel, A Thousand Fires, a quick-moving thriller set in a slightly dystopian future.

The gangs in A Thousand Fires don’t face off over colors or turf. Instead, their fights are about gentrification and urban development, and their members are as likely to be children of the elite as progeny of the dispossessed.

While Price keeps the gangs’ goals hazy, her heroine Val’s desires are crystal clear. Ever since her little brother was gunned down, Val has been waiting to turn 18 so she can join the Herons with her boyfriend, Matthew, and take vengeance against whoever killed her brother. But no one gets to choose their gang; the gang chooses you

When Val is recruited by the Stags, the Herons’ rival gang, she’s torn. The Stags promise to help her avenge her brother, but if she joins, Matthew will become her sworn enemy. Risking her life, Val hedges her bets, joining the Stags but staying in surreptitious contact with Matthew. She complicates matters further by falling for Jax, the Stags’ attractive but dangerous leader.

In Val, Price offers an engaging, conflicted protagonist. Though Price’s knack for intrigue and fast-paced plotting will hook readers, it’s her compelling first-person narration and strong characterization that will linger. Price will have readers who prefer their action spiced with a dash of romance and a pinch of speculative fiction eating out of her hand.

What if the tech boom brought more than money and hipsters to San Francisco? What if it brought gang warfare? Those questions form the premise of Shannon Price’s debut novel, A Thousand Fires, a quick-moving thriller set in a slightly dystopian future. The gangs in A Thousand Fires don’t face off over colors or turf. […]
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The almost infinite possibilities of tomorrow are the theme of bestselling author Dave Eggers’ first picture book, Tomorrow Most Likely.

Though tomorrow may hold wonders galore, Eggers reminds young readers that it will most likely hold more of the same as well. You will, most likely, wake to the same cereal in the same bowl that you woke to yesterday. But you need not despair. There’s a whole wide world waiting to be explored just beyond your door.

And in Tomorrow Most Likely, that world is filled with wonderful things, like a mythical beast with the tail of a snake and the head of a bird or a whale waiting for you to hitch a ride on its back. Eggers and acclaimed illustrator Lane Smith juxtapose these more dazzling wonders with more muted ones, such as a striped stone or the smell of a flower you can’t quite name. In doing so, they remind readers—young and old alike—of the marvelous things that are often hidden in plain sight.

Though Eggers’ twist on the “day in the life” theme is inventive, what really makes this book shine is Smith’s gorgeous color palette, inventive use of textures and wonderfully subtle mixed-media accents. A visually stunning reminder that the realm of what’s possible is as wide or narrow as we imagine it to be, Tomorrow Most Likely is an absolute joy to read.

The almost infinite possibilities of tomorrow are the theme of bestselling author Dave Eggers’ first picture book, Tomorrow Most Likely.

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