Children's Book Reviews

Searching for new books for a young reader? Our thoughtful, critical reviews offer valuable guidance for parents, teachers, and others about which kids books are worth adding to your collection of children's literature.
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picture book
Mabel: A Mermaid Fable
Written and illustrated by Rowboat Watkins
“While not remarkable, this quirky mermaid tale shares the important message of friends accepting and appreciating others for their differences.” - Feb 19, 2020

Mabel the mermaid is the only one in her family that doesn’t have a mustache. She tries to hide her lack of facial hair with “jaunty shells” and “seaweed falsies,” but she just feels silly, and other fish call her a “nudibranch.” She doesn’t know what that means, but she knows it must be bad . . . so she hides away in holes on the ocean floor. One of the holes has another occupant named Lucky—a seven-legged octopus who also feels diminished by its differences—and the two become good friends. While playing around the coral, fish swim by and call them both “nudibranchs,” and Mabel finally learns what the word means from Lucky’s perceptive point of view: amazing sea slugs! Ending full circle on a cliche but appropriate note, Mabel realizes “everything she ever really needed was already right under her nose.” The muted, colorful watercolor illustrations are adorable in a unconventional way, boasting short and stout mermaids and bright, creative nudibranchs. Watkins intertwines clever touches—such as witty word play, the baby’s mustache, Mabel’s “sort of” juggling, the ignoring of the bullies, and wavy text appearing to ride the ocean current—with his unique and quirky illustrations to display a sweet message of the value of true friends, being oneself, and appreciating differences.

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picture book
Bo the Brave
Written and illustrated by Bethan Woollvin
“Bo the brave shows strength, care, and connection throughout her entertaining and playful tale. ” - Feb 19, 2020

Bo’s older brothers are monster hunters who won’t let Bo tag along—she’s “far too little” to help, they say. But Bo knows her worth and knows she’s strong and brave enough to catch monsters on her own. However, each time she approaches a monster and says, “Get ready to be got!” the creature convinces her of its harmlessness and becomes Bo’s friend and helper. The Griffin offers to help Bo find her way, the Kraken saves Bo when she topples into the water, and the dragon just misses her baby (whom Bo’s older brothers captured). Bo and her new friends confront the real monsters, her brothers, and save the baby dragon. From then on, Bo the Brave explores in search of creatures, with her brothers in tow to carry her supplies, of course. Woollvin’s limited color palette adds a feeling of playfulness and imagination to the story. Clever additions like like the creatures hiding on the last page, the objects in Bo’s room, and the endpapers amplify the story. The maps in the endpapers are similar, yet the back map is improved with updated labels, changing from previously abstract fears (such as the Horrid Forest Monsters and Slimy Sea Monsters) to known and named individuals (such as The Griffin and The Kraken), demonstrating how others become less scary when one gets to know them. Bo’s story of bravery is an entertaining addition to the genre of strong female role models while also displaying the value of connecting with others rather than judging based on stereotypes.

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picture book
My Brother the Duck
Written by Pat Zietlow Miller and illustrated by Daniel Wiseman
“Ducks, the scientific method, and babyhood combine to create a punny, silly, and entertaining tale.” - Feb 19, 2020

The self-proclaimed bird scientist Stella Wells has a sneaking suspicion that her soon-to-be baby brother is a duck. Research is necessary to prove any hypothesis, so Stella gets to work observing and studying her new brother, Drake (which is another term for a male duck—coincidence?). After seeing his yellow-toned skin (a clever allusion to jaundice) and hearing his squawking, Stella turns to her friend Carla, a fellow kid scientist, who prompts for further research and the an expert’s opinion. Principal Kowalski confirms their research saying, “If it looks like a duck and sounds like a duck, it’s probably a duck.” With that confirmation, Stella heads home and notices her brother looks pretty normal, after all (especially without his duck-themed blanket wrapped around him). Wiseman’s illustrations are bright, bold, and decorated with additional funny details, like dad’s farmer’s tan on the last page, the parenting books on top of the hospital bag, and the many ducks adorning the pages. Miller cleverly uses puns and references within the text to add personality and silliness to the story while promoting girls in science with characters Stella and Carla. While the story lacks notable moments, this punny, cute take on the scientific method (while playing on different aspects of babyhood) is both enjoyable and entertaining.

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picture book
Are You a Cat?
Written and illustrated by Coll Muir
“Simple, playful—but still clever—humor will delight readers ready for a lighthearted laugh.” - Feb 12, 2020

“Are you a cat? . . . I’m a dog, and dogs chase cats.” So begins the hilarious encounter between Dog and Cat. It’s a bright, blue-sky day, Dog and Cat sit at the top of a hill, and Dog wants to know if Cat is a cat. But Cat has no interest in being chased, so Cat says he is not a cat. He is a bird. “Okay, if you’re a bird, prove it. . . . Fly up to that tree.” Confirmed to not be a bird, Cat insists he is a squirrel, a rabbit, and, perhaps most humorously, a butterfly. Each time, Dog questions Cat’s assertion, and when Cat reaffirms, challenges him to prove it. “Okay, if you’re a butterfly, land on that flower without squashing it.” The encounter ends on a delightfully witty note when Dog and Cat spot Mouse. Suddenly Cat is willing to accept his true nature as a cat that likes to chase mice, and it’s Mouse claiming to be something other than a mouse. Muir’s comedic tale is refreshing and entertaining—while a lesson could be pulled from its pages, it also provides an opportunity to simply laugh with a child at some deadpan silliness. The digital illustrations are simple in design and color. As in Muir’s Can Cat and Bird Be Friends?, Cat and Dog are essentially basic rectangles with stubs for ears or arms. Dialogue is identified only by color, which might require explaining for younger readers.

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picture book
Bad Brows
Written by Jason Carter Eaton and illustrated by Mike Petrik
“Clever story and over-the-top illustrations join for a fun tale about eccentric eyebrows.” - Feb 12, 2020

Bernard—like presumably many readers—has not thought much about his eyebrows. But that changes one day when he wakes up with a set of eyebrows that cause him all kinds of problems. They make him look angry when he’s content, confused when he understands, and completely ridiculous for his school pictures. They hide from the barber when Bernard goes in for a trim, but afterward they progress from mischievous to malicious, knocking the ice cream scoops off his family’s cones at the local fair and—disgustingly—plunging themselves into Bernard’s toilet while he brushes his teeth. Just when Bernard is ready to lose hope, his own eyebrows return from vacation, and Bernard cheesily promises them that “from now on, you’ll always be on my mind.” Eaton concocts a clever tale from the everyday by personifying eyebrows, while Petrik truly gives life to the absurd tale with his hyperbolic brows. Readers will enjoy seeing Bernard’s changing expressions, which continue all the way through the endpapers. Bad Brows is an original, entertaining offering that succeeds because of Petrik’s outlandish design of the eyebrows and Eaton’s delivery of witty moments, including a surprise ending when both the origin of the bad brows and their next victim are revealed.

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board book
“A surprisingly substantive board book with a fun story and creative flaps to lift.” - Feb 12, 2020

Mail Duck begins his mail route with numerous packages to deliver to his friends, and to the delight of young readers, each package (and flap to lift) is the recipient’s favorite shape: Trudy the Mouse loves triangles and receives a triangular package, while Cecil the Snail loves circles and receives a circular package. Each page also depicts the friends’ homes in the shape of, and filled with, their favorite shapes. Scout the Beaver, who loves squares, has a square home with square windows, square cupboards, and a square fireplace; while Omar the Owl, who loves ovals, has an oval-shaped home in a tree stocked with a watermelon and olives. Upon lifting the flap, readers will discover that each package contains something for a party, and when Duck thinks his work is done and his truck is empty, readers will be surprised to find all the friends are hiding inside, ready to throw a party for Duck when two full-page flaps are opened. Sirotich’s illustrations are full of fun details to observe in each friend’s home—in a particularly notable moment, a baby owl is seen cracking from an egg in the reflection of a mirror. Even the landscapes of each home match the favored shape—rectangular fences, oval leaves, and circular fruit trees.

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picture book
Sloth Went
Written by Adam Lehrhaupt and illustrated by Benson Shum
“A clever, entertaining addition to the body of children’s literature discussing going poop.” - Feb 12, 2020

It’s a big day for Sloth: his first time leaving the tree to go poop. Excited but also nervous, he is reassured on his journey by a cast of characters, including a butterfly, a frog, and his mom, who lovingly consoles him, “Don’t worry . . . Everything will come out fine.” Sloth makes his way hesitantly down the tree, but by the time he reaches the ground—and thanks to Frog’s advice to “listen to your body and it will all work out”—Sloth is ready to pick out a place to take care of business. Successful in his efforts, he elatedly returns to his family in the tree, where he is welcomed with a promised surprise dish of fresh hibiscus flowers. With characteristic cleverness, Lehrhaupt (Warning: Do Not Open This Book!) does such a remarkable job of using doublespeak to describe the purpose of Sloth’s journey that readers might not realize his intentions—if not for a note about poop on the cover—until a laugh-out-loud moment of clarity at the story’s end. Shum offers humorous details depicting the pace of Sloth’s journey; as he climbs down the tree, he is overtaken by a caterpillar and later by a snail. Additional information at the end of the book shares with readers some interesting notes about a sloth’s actual excretion process.

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picture book
“This beautifully illustrated journey of a little cloud is fact-filled but off-puttingly cheerful.” - Feb 11, 2020

The story of a “little cloud who wanted to become a hurricane” and his journey from where he was born (the coast of Africa) to North America where he finally achieves his desire. Jam-packed with facts and cloud tid-bits on every page, the story follows the little cloud’s development from a cumulus cloud to a tropical depression, then forming into a hurricane and scaling back to another tropical depression. The illustrations are cute, cheery, and child-friendly, and showcase not only the cloud’s journey, but also the preparations of the people in the hurricane’s path. While it may be the story’s intention to not scare its child audience, both the text and the illustrations take this a little too far, with people grinning as they prepare for the hurricane to touch down in a way that belies that fear, damage, and destruction that accompanies these massive storms. The very premise of the story—a little cloud who wants to become a hurricane and his seemingly only casual concern for the people in his path—feels uncomfortable and not fully healed by the parting comment that “whatever “his next adventure would be . . . he would bring good weather to people instead.” The side facts with their thumbnail illustrations make this an excellent STEM book for teaching about the water cycle and tropical storms, but the mismatched tone with the way the subject matter is presented causes this to fall flat of its potential.

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picture book
On My Mountain
Written by Francois Aubineau and illustrated by Jerome Peyrat
“A clever premise, idealistic view, and poignant discussion starter worth reading once.” - Feb 11, 2020

An exercise in perspective, On My Mountain presents two stories—that of the wolf and that of the shepherd—using the exact same words but different illustrations to demonstrate each mountain-dweller’s point of view. Both live on the mountain, cherish it as their home, and see the beauty and the danger (each other) that exist there. Both also concur that “it is big enough to fit everyone who loves it.” The illustrations teeter on juvenile but still feel fitting in the rugged setting of the mountain and its rough but delicate balance. They are the primary storytellers, portraying the wolf hunting for rabbits, growling at bees and caring for cubs, while the shepherd tends the sheep, does chores and plays with his family. While the wolf is definitely scarier than the shepherd, biasing things in an expected way, On My Mountain provides a welcome opportunity to take a moment and think about things from another’s viewpoint. This book’s true genius lies in the potential it offers as a catalyst for impactful, follow-up discussions with young readers.

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board book
Little Hippo
Written by Julie Abery and illustrated by Suzie Mason
“Rhythmic text and great vocab present an ever-loving mother and sulky child.” - Feb 11, 2020

Little Hippo’s day begins stretched out in the grass, enjoying a lazy summer morning. Then, much like a human child, Little Hippo goes off in search of someone to play with and ends up falling behind the herd. Unfortunately for Little Hippo, he becomes an attraction for more and more red-billed birds and soon is covered in them. This proves to be more than Little Hippo can handle, and Mama Hippo comes to the rescue, shooing the birds away. A little solo time—complete with sulking—follows the incident, but Mama is right there to cheer Little Hippo up again. While the story is quite substantial for a board book and may feel familiar to many parents of toddlers, the messages are of differing desirability; the themes of a mother’s love and care are sweet and endearing but a child’s disobedience and sulking engendering no consequences are less so. The cadence of the text is soothing and rhythmic, and Abery’s excellent word choice is sure to expand young readers’ vocabulary (e.g., “hustling,” “bustling,” “nuzzling”). The illustrations are matched well to the text, and while otherwise not particularly noteworthy, do effectively convey the childlike emotions of Little Hippo.

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picture book
Ravi's Roar
Written and illustrated by Tom Percival
“Poignant and electric illustrations are the star of the show in this book about experiencing anger.” - Feb 11, 2020

Sometimes it’s hard to be little—at least it is for Ravi one day when he goes with his family to a park. He loses the race to the train, can’t find anyone during hide-and-seek, is too small to use the playground equipment or ride the big slide. To make matters worse, by the time it’s his turn for ice cream there’s none left. Ravi’s anger builds as he encounters one frustration after another in his increasingly red face and surrounding anger cloud, but no ice cream is the last straw and he explodes into a little tiger who goes on a wild rampage, brooking no opposition to his will until he realizes that no one wants to play with him as a tiger and he apologizes for his poor behavior. (“‘I’m sorry . . . ,’ said the tiger in a quiet voice, and when he said that, everything felt better.”) While the book is meant to help kids understand that feelings are normal, but that it doesn’t feel good to be angry, the story itself doesn’t demonstrate how to proactively manage anger and suggesting that simply apologizing after your outburst makes everything better—an important but not lasting solution, as hinted at by Ravi’s improvement in the future. The illustrations are delightful, with personable characters and a striking use of the juxtaposition between the gray of the backgrounds and the bright colors surrounding Ravi and his family—a subtle reminder of where an individual’s focus often lies.

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picture book
Emily Writes
Written by Jane Yolen and illustrated by Christine Davenier
“The masterful marriage of relatable storytelling and dreamy yet bold illustrations introduces young readers to a Dickinson they’ll love.” - Feb 11, 2020

In the spirit of biographies for children that focus on acquainting young readers with the character of a person rather than on ensuring every known fact is presented, Emily Writes introduces readers to how Emily Dickinson may have been as a young girl. Emily “writes” a poem on a “chance slip” of paper in “curlicues and circles,” and shows it first to her father (who dismisses her), Mrs. Mack (who encourages and shares “the crumbles of last night’s coconut cake” with her), her mother (who entreats her “Not so loud,” as she reclines in bed) and finally the great outdoors. Inspired by another “chance slip”—an envelope this time—Emily is again encouraged by Mrs. Mack with a rhyme Dickinson aficionados (or reader’s of the author’s note) will find special significance in. Yolen’s note at the end is insightful and adds historical substance to the framework of the story for aspiring Dickinson fans, providing a sense for the real history conveyed in this glimpse of an afternoon, which is of itself delightful. The focus on sibling relationships, busy adult and loving mentors, a poem that a child could perhaps write themselves and an understanding of emotions that is still developing (“Mother, who made her feel rainy,” “The garden makes her feel all sunny.”) is utterly relatable. Davenier’s illustrations are simultaneously realistic and dream-like, with crayon-like scribbles for shadows, and fit beautifully with Dickenson’s personal smudgy and messy handwriting style.

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picture book
Emily's Idea
Written by Christine Evans and illustrated by Marta Alvarez Miguens
“A pleasant read highlighting positivity and unity through social media.” - Feb 11, 2020

Emily’s idea—a simple, beautiful, and diverse chain of paper dolls—begins to spread as she shows her project to her class at school. Her classmates are inspired to create more doll chains and decorate their classroom with the dolls hanging hand in hand, strung colorfully around the walls. The illustrations show the critical moment in the story when Emily’s teacher posts a picture of their newly decorated classroom onto a social media network resembling Facebook. Likes, comments, and shares spread the idea, and paper-doll chains pop up across the world, eventually circling back as Emily receives a package with a paper-doll chain that says “thank you.” The stylized choice of some clipped sentences—”Friends and stranger joined hands. Across bridges and town squares.”—feels stunted and awkwardly opposite of the long, extended chains of dolls taking center stage in the story, but lovely illustrations delicately demonstrate the snowball reaction of the unifying paper-doll chains. Miguéns highlights diversity in both characters and dolls while inserting fun details—like the popular book titles on Emily’s bookshelf including Matilda and The Gruffalo. Emily’s age isn’t shared, but she appears to be a more mature child with her comprehension levels, emotions, and appearance. With instructions at the back on how to make paper dolls, this book is light on story and heavy on the positive example of social media and the wonderful message of unity.

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picture book
Like the Moon Loves the Sky
Written by Hena Khan and illustrated by Saffa Khan
“A sincere and beautiful addition to any library interested in diversity and parental love.” - Feb 11, 2020

Beginning at the title page with the heartfelt author’s note, Hena Khan explains the meaning of the Arabic phrase “inshallah,” the inceptive core in this story of a mother’s love. Each page poses a mother’s deep wish for her child, such as “Inshallah you speak truth and work for its sake.” Each wish is coordinated with Saffa Khan’s colorfully illustrated moments as her child ages—such as jumping off a diving board and riding a bike for the first time, playing in a fort with friends, reading a book with mom at bedtime, and gardening—all made extraordinary through the view of a mother’s love. As noted in the author’s note, the rhyming lines in this book is inspired by the Quran but “are universal values that transcend any particular belief system.” The illustrations are wonderfully unique and beautiful with a consistent and vibrant color palette, binding the book with a feeling of firm identity. Matching in beauty is the text, creating an inspiring new take on a mother’s musings about their children’s futures in a thoughtful and real way through the relatable moments included in the book. This touching read is tenderly written and lovingly illustrated.

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picture book
Over the Moon
Written by James Proimos and illustrated by Zoey Abbott
“A little too odd to fully enjoy, yet somewhat humorous and refreshing.” - Feb 11, 2020

As a baby girl floats down a river in a basket, two wolves spot her and agree it’s best to save her, take her home, and raise her as their own (though one wolf was hoping to eat her, the other said they would nourish and teach her). One day, the girl spots other human children for the first time, sitting outside reading books. When she tells her wolf parents, they let her go to join the other kids at school, though the story ends with the reassurance that she’ll returns home at the end of each day. This existential story is lined with philosophic commentary through the different wolf parents—one thinking about right and wrong, the other thinking about dinner. With elements reminiscent of The Jungle Book and the Bible’s story of Moses, the refreshing oddity of Proimos’ tale veers to an unpredictable ending with the theme of growing up and going to school while successfully exhibiting the overarching thematic primal fears of children growing up and leaving their parents. Abbot’s illustrations are colorful and appealing, though somewhat simple, and wonderfully convey the child’s personality through her facial expressions. The distinguishing factor of humor and peculiarity are also what leave the book wanting, making it an interesting read that’s a little too unusual to become a favorite.

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