Book review: Cog, by Greg Van Eekhout, illustrated by Beatrice Blue

Van Eekhout, Greg. Cog. Illustrated by Beatrice Blue. Harper, 2019. 196 pages. $16.99.  ISBN 9780062686077. Ages 9-14. P8Q8

Though he appears to be a normal 12-year-old boy, Cog (short for COGnitive development) is actually a prototype technologically advanced artificial intelligence robot designed to learn from the world around him and to teach other robots what he has learned.  As a prototype, he lives with Gina, the scientist who built him, and she introduces Cog to various aspects of the human world as a means of building a set of behavioral rules.  When Cog is damaged, the corporation who owns him takes Cog from Gina’s home and moves him to their high security headquarters.  As Cog learns about other more and less autonomous robots, he begins to question the plans of the corporation and forms alliances with five other autonomous robots.  The group breaks out of the facility and tries to escape the might of corporate power.

Verdict:  Cog is shown to be quiet and introverted with brown skin and curly brown hair, contrasted with his sister robot, ADA, a highly advanced cybernetic assassin.  Like his previous book, Voyage of the Dogs, Van Eekhout uses humor as a vehicle for creating empathy with his characters.  Unlike Voyage of the Dogs, however, Cog delves into philosophical issues of independence and autonomy, ownership of ideas and human beings, and the place of artificial intelligence in society.  The depth of content inferred in this small book reminds me of Orwell’s Animal Farm.  Highly recommended for elementary and middle school as well as public libraries. 

November 2020 review by Jane Cothron.

Book review: Mom’s Sweater, by Jayde Perkins

Perkins, Jayde. Mom’s Sweater. Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2020. Unpaged. $17.99. ISBN 9780802855442. Ages 5-7. P7Q8

A father and daughter grieve the death of the girl’s mother through the metaphor of the girl’s changing relationship to the mother’s sweater.  From the last visit with her mother in the hospital and the telephone call from the hospital, the girl and her father navigate the unreality of grief. 

“Everyone would say, “I’m so sorry.” But it wasn’t their fault.” 

“The teachers and my friends at school were all really kind…

…so I couldn’t understand why I still felt so alone.”

The mother’s red sweater brings comfort to the little girl and her father explains that grief is like her Mom’s sweater, which stays the same size, but that the the girl’s world will grow bigger around it.


Verdict: This story of a white father and daughter shows a multi-hued society, most noticeable in the depictions of the funeral and the school yard.  The straightforward approach to describing the death of the mother and the metaphor of comforting sweater and growth carry hope for children who may be grieving their own losses.  Stylistically, though, the faces of all the people in the book have the same shape nose and downcast eyes.  The differences between people are shown in the pigments of their skins.  It is as though Picasso created a coloring book and characters were clipped and pasted from it to make this new story.  Still, there is a need for honest and caring stories of the deaths of parents, and this one does the job.  Recommended for kindergarten, elementary and public library collections. 

November 2020 review by Jane Cothron.

Book review: The Boy and the Gorilla, by Jackie Azúa Kramer, illustrated by Cindy Derby

Kramer, Jackie Azúa. The Boy and the Gorilla. Illustrated by Cindy Derby. Candlewick Press, 2020. Unpaged. $16.99. ISBN 9780763698324. Ages 4-7. P7Q9

Subdued gray shadowed watercolors frame a large, indistinct gray-green and purple  gorilla who depicts the grief of a child whose mother has died.  The gorilla’s gentle questions support the child’s loneliness and sorrow and small points of bright red—tomatoes, a bird, a crayon, a kite—and other colors bring softened possiblities of continued life even in the face of such loss to the page.  There is no shying away from loss in this picture book.  The gorilla and boy work in the mother’s garden, discuss what happens when someone dies, remember the mother’s love of the ocean waves and kite flying.  There is room for quiet time and withdrawing from the noise of life, and room for the child to talk with his father about their loss.  As the boy and father come together, the huge gorilla recedes.

Verdict: Lyrical language gives vent to a young child’s grief about the death of his mother and the changes in his life.  Watercolor allows a perfect, fluid, emotional match to the text and the visual depiction of grief as a huge, imperfectly defined massive gorilla carries the weight of the story.  The child is defined as boy in the title, but not in the text.  Child and father both appear to be white, though that is also not indicated in the text. The text itself is in the form of a two-person conversation with the gorilla’s observations and gentle questions in italic and the child’s responses and questions in plain text.  There is no preaching, nothing didactic. Highly recommended for public library, kindergarten and elementary school collections. This book is a stellar secular addition to the all too brief list of excellent picture books about death.  I would include The Boy and the Gorilla with such recommended titles such as The Tenth Good Thing about Barney, by Judith Viorst, Old Pig, by Margaret Wild, Nana Upstairs, Nana Downstairs, by Tomie DePaola, Annie and the Old One, by Peter Parnall, I’ll Always Love You, by Hans Wilhelm and Duck, Death, and the Tulip, by Wolf Erlbruch.

November 2020 review by Jane Cothron.

Book review: Red Sled, by Lita Judge

Judge, Lita. Red Sled. “A Classic Board Book.” Little Simon/Simon and Schuster, 2019. Unpaged board book. $7.99. ISBN 9781534446380. Ages 2-5. P8Q8

In this board book release of Judge’s 2011 almost wordless picture book, a child comes home from a day’s sledding and carefully stands the bright red sled against the side of the cosy cabin for the night.  Soon, the sounds of a bear crossing the snow bring the nighttime story to life as first the bear, then a rabbit, a moose, an oppossum, and many other woodland animals ride the red sled careening down a snowy hill.  The wild ride ends with happy animals in piled in a snowbank and the bear carefully returns the sled to its space by the cabin.

Verdict: This simple story translates quite well from picture book to board book.  The onomotopoeia of sounds  in the snowy night is the only text and the humor of the child finding bear footprints carries through.  This will delight small children.  Highly recommended for very young children.  (I question whether libraries should be making chewable books available for children to share, but that’s a decision for their collection policy groups.)

November 2020 review by Jane Cothron.

Book review: The Walrus and the Caribou, by Maika Harper, illustrated by Marcus Cutler

Harper, Maika. The Walrus and the Caribou. Illustrated by Marcus Cutler. Inhabit Media, 2019. 27 pages. $16.95. ISBN 9781772272567. Ages 5-7. P8Q8

A retelling of a traditional Inuit creation story describes how  “a little woman began breathing life into the world.” The woman, Guk, considers how an animal takes shape and then creates the walrus and the caribou.  The animals don’t appear quite as modern day ones do, though, because the walrus has large antlers and the caribou has huge tusks.  Both animals cause trouble, the walrus by using the antlers to overturn kayaks in the water, and the caribou by chasing hunters with its huge tusks.  Guk solves the problems by switching parts from one animal to the other, creating the antlered caribou and the tusked walrus.  Includes author’s  introductory note and a glossary with notes on Inuit pronunciation.

Verdict: This own-voices story is a lively, humorous retelling of traditional tales of how the world began and the creation of two animals important in Inuit culture.  The cartoon-like illustrations show Guk—obviously a powerful shaman—as a tiny woman with graying hair.  I am not sure this conveys the power of the character, but the illustrations do contribute to the humor of the whole.  Inhabit Media is a First Nations company in Canada and they work to maintain an editorial focus that centers First Nations experiences and stories.  Recommended for kindergarten, elementary and public library collections.

November 2020 review by Jane Cothron.

Book review: When I Draw a Panda, by Amy June Bates

Bates, Amy June. When I Draw a Panda. “A Paula Wiseman book.” Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2020. Unpaged. $17.99. ISBN 9781481451482. Ages 3-7. P8Q8

From the endpapers describing the right way to draw—a perfect circle, a perfect dragon, a perfect castle, a perfect panda—through a girl’s actually drawing those things, Amy June Bates brings her perspective on drawing to a young audience.  A series of not-quite-perfect drawings becomes a panda in a bowler hat.  Girl and panda explore drawing a castle, a dragon, a roller coaster, defying the powers that be to create their own art.

Verdict: Prescriptive books on how to draw proliferate on library shelves, in art classes, in classrooms, but the actual process of artistic creation is much messier.  Artists have spoken of needing to regain a child’s approach to art and this picture book skips the didactic, pedagogic approach to celebrate the messy, organic, artistic reflection of a child’s world.  The scribbled lines in watercolor, pastels, goache and color pencil mimic chalk drawings and scribbled crayons.

One problem: there is a typographical error (is it typographical if the problem is in hand-lettered captions?) on the page of unicorn horns; the word “saw” should have been “say”—something I hope can be fixed in future printings of this book.  As one of the children who could not stay inside the lines, could not draw perfect circles, I am enchanted by this book.  I recommend it for all kindergartens, elementary schools, high school art classes and public library collections.

November 2020 review by Jane Cothron.

Book review: The Big Book of Experiments, by Kate Biberdorf

Biberdorf, Kate. The Big Book of Experiments. (Kate the Chemist series). Philomel Books, 2020. $17.99. ISBN 9780593116166. 103 pages. Ages 8-12. P8Q8

Want to make Foaming Sandcastles? Curious about a Lemon-Lime Clock? This book is for you! The book features 25 science experiments with step by step instructions and full color photographs to guide you. This book is also a companion book to the Kate the Chemist series written by Dr. Kate Biberdorf. The endpapers open and close the book with science doodles of microscopes, flasks, chemical formulas and science terms. Each experiment includes a “What do you think?” section asking questions and promoting science inquiry. The experiment concludes with the explanation, taking each experience from a cool activity to thinking scientifically. The book opens with an important safety note and defines the safety icons used throughout the book. Most of the experiments (18 out of 23) require adult supervision, something to keep in mind when putting this book into the hands of kids.

Verdict: A fantastic book to have at home, especially with distance learning. This engaging book will provide hours of cool hands on activities that will inspire young scientists to look further into the amazing science behind the activities. 

November 2020 review by Denyse Marsh.

Book review: Dragons vs. Unicorns, by Kate Biberdorf with Hillary Homzie

Biberdorf, Kate, with Hillary Homzie. Dragons vs. Unicorns. (Kate The Chemist series, #1). Philomel Books, 2020. $12.99. ISBN 9780593116555. 133 pages. Ages 8-10. P8Q8

Looking for a female protagonist who loves science? This is the book for you! Kate is a ten year old science problem solver who gets into all sorts of science fun! Kate joins the school’s musical, Dragons vs. Unicorns,  as the assistant director, and is determined to inject some chemistry into the play. Just like all good science, things don’t always go as planned and Kate has to brainstorm some solutions to make sure the production is a hit. With twenty-three chapters, each consisting of 3-4 pages, this is a great chapter book to engage all young readers. Many pages are decorated with fun doodle drawings. The book also includes a recipe to make “unicorn glue” a face glue used to make a glittery unicorn horn.

Verdict: A wonderful book for the young science lover, and also a great book for the classroom. Themes of problem solving and cooperation are central to the story and applicable to school. The book opens with a science experiment using a blow torch under the supervision of a teacher – a key fact that must be adhered to if young readers want to try any of the experiments portrayed in the story.

November 2020 review by Denyse Marsh.

Book review: Becoming a Good Creature, by Sy Montgomery, illustrated by Rebecca Green

Montgomery, Sy. Becoming a Good Creature. Illustrated by Rebecca Green. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020. $17.99. ISBN 9780358252108. Unpaged Ages 3-10. P8Q9

Based on the many encounters Montgomery has had with all sorts of animals, this book offers timeless advice on being a better human. Sharing advice on learning from a good teacher, whether that teacher has two legs, four legs or even eight to respecting others, this book is full of wisdom. Text is supported with beautiful warm illustrations that bring the words to life. Sy Montgomery fans will recognize animals in this story from other beloved Montgomery books including the octopus from The Soul of an Octopus, and Christopher Hogwood from The Good Good Pig. The last page is a dedication page in which all the creatures Montgomery has encountered are thanked as photos of the animals surround the thank you note.

Verdict: This picture book, a reprised version of Sy Montgomery’s adult book How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals, is a rewarding addition to the library, as well as a great resource for the classroom. Students will be intrigued by the animal/human connection and be inspired to learn more.

November 2020 review by Denyse Marsh.

Book review: Oh, Rats!, by Tor Seidler, illustrated by Gabriel Evans

Seidler, Tor. Oh, Rats! Il. Gabriel Evans. CaitlynDlouhy/Atheneum, 2019. $17.99. 308p. ISBN 978-1-5344-2684-9. Ages 8-12. P9Q9

All the problems of Phoenix, a teenage squirrel, surround his crush on another squirrel, Giselle, in their lovely New Jersey pastoral home until a red-tailed hawk grabs Phoenix as dinner for the predator’s eyases still in their nest. Walter, the bird’s name as Phoenix learns on their journey to Manhattan, drops the squirrel during an encounter with a metal flying object, and the squirrel drops into Phoenix in hot tar used to repair streets where he loses his fur. Seeking a solution for the burns, he would have died if not for his rescue by two wharf rats. Taught that rats are undesirable creatures, Phoenix slowly changes his mind because of their kindliness and ends up saving their dilapidated pier from demolition and gentrification by taking out the city’s electricity twice, once by shorting it out and second by blowing it up. Throughout his adventures, Phoenix learns that there are more important things in life than a bushy tale.

Verdict: Seidler’s detailed personalities of the diverse characters, mostly rats, and the view of humans from the rodents’ point of view has charming whimsey enhanced by Evans’ sweet pencil drawings. This lovely animal-fantasy is a lovely selection for lovers of Kate DiCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux (2003) and Jane Leslie Conly’s Racso and the Rats of NIMH (1986). Subtle themes of choosing one’s destiny, cooperation, and acceptance of differences are a bonus.

May 2020 review by Nel Ward.