I'm so pleased that I managed to complete a set of 16 in March for true March Madness results!
This year, I am documenting my reading by completing a bracket every time I finish 16 books. Considering how hard it is to choose, it's actually a relief that no one seems to be reading. But! It gets me writing reviews on Story Graph, and I'm still having fun so: MARCH MADNESS!!
I knew from the start that A Touch of Ruckus would win, but quite a few of the right side of the bracket winners did feel a little surprising. Can you consider it an upset victory when you're just...choosing the winner yourself?
Anyway, well done to our winner and runner up!
Winner: A Touch of Ruckus by Ash Van Otterloo
This is a pitch perfect middle grade novel. Tennie's desperation to smooth over every struggle in her family feels achingly real, and her budding friendship with Fox is rendered in a more complex and thoughtful way than most new friendship-as-rescue arcs. We get just enough to know that Fox has their own life struggles that pre-exist Tennie and deserve just as much consideration as Tennie's more ever-present concerns as the narrator. The magical elements are spooky but mostly emotional and moving, and the balance of the story is remarkable. I was initially a bit concerned about the ending, at least as I read through the book and saw how quickly the number of pages left was shrinking. "How can a full climax and resolution happen in the remaining pages?" I remember thinking. But what could have felt like an anticlimax instead hammers home the message that Tennie's outsized fear of "bothering" her family with her needs is an unnecessary fear. Not only does the world not end, but when everyone pulls together, the resolution can happen faster than Tennie (or I as the reader) imagined. Beautiful, meticulously crafted, wonderful.
Runner-Up: Can I Give You a Squish? by Emily Neilson
The illustrations are beautiful, and they capture so much complex emotion for each underwater animal. It is truly remarkable. The sea and area are also beautiful, but the characterizations get me every time. The story manages to make an often fraught topic not just kid-appropriate but feel lighthearted. So much of the discussion of consent is necessarily intense, but by tying it to friendship and comfort, this book manages to make the first discussions feel warm and safe to have. I also appreciate the perspective of the person carelessly violating consent as a key focus of the story. As the merperson runs around hugging joyfully, they stumbles upon a pufferfish who is triggered into a fight (puff) or flight response -- and is gently corrected by all of their friends as they all find ways of expressing affection that make each other feel loved. It makes it safe to ask for personal space, different forms of affection, and to have been wrong but grow and change.
And now for the hardest brackets!
I was instantly angry when I realized these two would be going up against one another so quickly in the bracket. Both are gorgeous, and I actually don’t hand out perfect 5 stars lightly. Usually, a picturebook would have the upper hand here, because it’s hard to compete with the interaction of pictures and the written word. Plus it has Dan Santat. And a literal Caldecott award.
But A Touch of Ruckus is the book that makes me want to pull it apart to see how it works – study it and learn every craft secret it took to make it so wonderful.
Both books have a creative and fun heart to them, but Tennie speaks to something in my soul that I’m also trying to get out through writing a novel. I like to imagine her meeting Patricia Ann someday. I desperately want to give Beekle a hug, but that can’t really compete.
The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat
Caldecott Awards are not handed out like candy, so you know this book is spectacularly designed and illustrated. The narrative is achingly heartfelt, and I suspect the committee might have been charmed by the sly references to famous children's books throughout. The idea of going out to find your home and your person rather than waiting feels ever more important a story to tell as well. Found family must be searched for.
I love how so many new children’s books are giving kids language around consent – a supplement to parental talks and ACTIONS but the many and varied approaches together make for such a beautiful thing. Oh No, Astro! plays with this from a couple of different angles, and I was worried when Astro’s initial boundaries for personal space are “playfully” invaded, but the story is about Astro coming to find the ways that are comfortable for him to be near people. I appreciate a story about how our boundaries don’t have to be fixed, and that when we have safe people, we’re allowed to explore our boundaries because we know they’ll back off if we change our minds again.
More More More may not seem like a book about consent at first glance, but the joyful consent the children give, asking for more and more family love, really show the reward of consent. Knowing your child (or a small child you know) actually trusts you and wants to snuggle makes it mean something – not just to you but to both of you. With how often consent is expressed negatively in terms of boundaries (IMPORTANT WORK), I appreciate this counterbalance of positive consent. Showing that that can be loving is wonderful.
So More More More wins out for the love and joy – and the poetic use of repetition and spare sentences is just breathtaking.
More More More, Said the Baby by Vera B. Williams
The illustrations are gorgeous, as always with Vera B. Williams. The facial expressions rendered by the paint strokes are particularly impressive to me in this example. The text is a poetic masterpiece, with the device of repetition both drawing the three stories together and shifting the meaning of sentences in clever and thoughtful ways. A gorgeous, spare, and powerful work of art.
Also, it translated well to a board book.
Oh no, Astro! by Matt Roester, illustrated by Brad Woodward
I love a campy space book, I really do! The illustrations are charming and the style is reminiscent of several cartoons that "teach science concepts," which is extra fun. The story is a narrative, however, of exploring your boundaries and being able to test your limits. It's not perfect, but it's lovely.
Oh this was SOOO hard. I let the Caldecott honor help me decide here.
In very different ways, both of these books are about loving yourself just as you are. I Love All of Me is direct, claiming self-love and celebrating the body for what it does and how it helps us live. Knight Owl initially looks like it’s going to be a straightforward “overcoming the odds” tale, but it values the tiny owl (oh does respective scale get so much play in this book!) just as he is and shows him using his brain to find better ways around the obstacles he faces. So reading these together, the message was to love and appreciate your body and everything it does for you, and also, that there is always a way forward, even if you don’t have the “type of body” that people think you need to live your dream.
I Love All of Me by Lorie Ann Grover, pictures by Carolina Búzio
Each individual spread in the book is fun and filled with love, encouraging the self-love that this book centers around, but the progression of the art is particularly special. Early spreads focus on the individual features mentioned by the written text, but as the book continues we see more and more of the body. The effect is both that the text trusts the reader more and more to pick up on what specific feature is being celebrated with fewer and fewer visual clues -- which seems like an early step for artistic literacy -- and also that we see more and more how the body as a whole comes together in a perfect way to help us live and love ourselves and others.
Knight Owl by Christopher Denise
From the moment I saw this book in the bookstore, it has brought so much joy to my life. As part of my degree in Writing for Children, I had to write a paper about the best designed book in recent years. My family scoured the bookstore, and we all agreed that my brother had chosen one of the finest: Knight Owl. I kept updating him about all the awards the book went on to win throughout the year, and I love that we'll always share it. In many ways, it's a simple story of a tiny owl who feels unsuited to the role of Knight of the Realm but not only reaches the ranks of the knight night guard by determination but also solves the kingdom's crisis with cleverness and compassion. Even that is lovely, since the book turns "appearances can be deceiving" into "everyone can be useful and should be valued" TWICE over, both for our protagonist and for the dragon who just wanted pizzas! The artwork, however, elevates this book to new levels. The details that fill out the worldbuilding, add to Owl's character, and foreshadow the ending are plentiful and perfect. The comedy of the way Denise plays with scale is worth it, but the characterization just gets better and better the more you look. A superb book in every way.
Oh my goodness, Knight Owl is pushing out such good books!
Both of these books use illustrations to fill out the text story in such powerful and clever ways! The repeated story in More More More shifts with the illustrations, changing the details but not the core of the story. There is a comfort in the repetition with a bit of change and the skill required to pull it off is astounding. The fact that Knight Owl also fills out and enhances the more complex textual story gives it the edge here. It would have been easy to let the story stand and just create a bit of fun with scale and stereotypes. Instead, the world expands, the characters depth grows, and the story unfolds again and again. You reread More More More for comfort and Knight Owl to find something new every time.
What a match-up! Usually picturebooks have an edge, but then so do plays, considering my love of theatre. Plus, both of these works remind me of my students from my time as a high school theatre teacher. They asked for She Kills Monsters a couple of times, and I think they would have eaten it up…parts of it anyway. We didn’t really have the costume and prop skills to support it the way they would have wanted to, but it would have been a blast. Also, it would have been amazing to have a dramaturg focusing on the D&D elements. So much of our dramaturg use was classics and history, and I wish I could have taught them that research on modern trends is also valuable.
But Can I Give You a Squish? brings in some of my favorite memories of the year “Consensual high five!” became such a thing. I went off on the students about giving official consent for all physical contact one rehearsal, insisting that consent was not just for romantic situations but that everyone was allowed (like the student currently being group hugged) to not want to be touched. All personal space invasions needed to be consensual. They found it hilarious and ran up and down the hallways mocking me by asking one another for “consensual hugs!” and “consensual high fives!” the rest of the school year. I just sat patting myself on the back. I’m so glad that picturebooks have begun to really teach that concept earlier and earlier.
Unfortunately, the play has to lose to a book about consent and respect, if nothing else for the oversexualized elements of several female characters. I realize they were making fun of that tendency in nerd culture and hinting at Tilly’s sexuality, but…at times that felt like more of a lampshade than the actual point of the costumes as described. I wonder if I would have felt less uncomfortable about those choices if I weren’t reading the “Young Adventurers Edition” but…well, I was. And while that kind of call out can work in a novel, it’s just really hard to avoid exploiting your actresses in performance, even with the best commentary in the text.
She Kills Monsters (Young Adventurers Edition) By Qui Nguyen
I’ve been meaning to read She Kills Monsters for years now, and I’m glad I waited until I had a better grounding in D&D. The meditations on loss and grief are powerful, and the double reality of the game world, Tilly’s ghost, and the “real” world are flawlessly interwoven. The skill with which this plays weaves between nerd culture celebration, friend and sisterly dynamics that everyone can relate to, and the very specific loss of death (from both sides) is impressive and moving. I cried on public transportation, thank you very much.