I’ll Love You Forever by Owen Hart and illustrated by Sean Julian
This is a gentle picture book celebrating the love between a parent and child with the parent telling the child that he will love him always. These types of picture books are numerous, including Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney, No Matter What by Debi Gliori, Love You Forever by Robert Munsch, I Love You As Much by Laura Krauss Melmed, I Love You, Little One by Nancy Tafuri, Mama, Do You Love Me? by Barbara M. Joosse, and endless others in the same vein.
The artwork, setting, and poetic verses make this book stand out from the crowd. A polar bear parent and cub travel through the Arctic over the course of a year. Neither the parent or cub are identified as male or female, but I thought of the adult as the mother. The double-page spreads show the bear and cub during the changing seasons of the year, accompanied by four lines of rhyming verse. The book opens in the winter showing the bears on snow and ice with whales, seals, and seabirds in the background and in the forest with beautiful snowflakes falling around them, then the scene changes as spring starts to slowly arrive, with buds peeking through the snow, followed by a flower-filled meadow in the summer, then onto fall with the splendid colors of the leaves of the forest, and finally onto another winter. With each season, the parent assures the cub of her love and that she will always be there. The soft, warm illustrations glow with beauty and the poetry is lovely and flows smoothly.
Gildaen: The Heroic Adventures of a Most Unusual Rabbit by Emilie Buchwald and illustrated by Barbara Flynn
This is an imaginative, enchanting fantasy chapter book published in the 1970s that will appeal to fans of The Hobbit. Gildaen is a rabbit who longs for adventure, unlike other rabbits who are content to stay home. When Gildaen comes upon an owl, he fears he will become the owl’s meal, but the creature turns out to be under an enchantment – he can’t remember who he is, but he has the power to transform into any creature. He transforms into a prince called Evon and Gildaen accompanies him on his quest to discover who he really is. Along the way, they meet Hickory, a servant of the young king, who has been ostracized from the castle. The king is under the sway of an evil sorcerer called Grimald, who is bent on taking over the kingdom. Evon and Gildaen team up with Hickory to save the kingdom and expose Grimald. In the process, Evon gifts Gildaen with the ability to communicate with other animals and transforms him into other creatures, including a cat, hawk, and snake. The group’s adventures are exciting and the ending is satisfying, with happy endings for all the characters and no overt violence, making it appropriate for reading aloud to younger children or independent reading for older children.
The Little Reindeer by Nicola Killen
This is a sweet and simple Christmas story, reminiscent of The Polar Express. A little girl named Ollie who has a fascination with reindeer (we can tell by her reindeer pajamas, stuffed animal, wallpaper, bookends, drawings, etc.) awakens to the sound of bells on Christmas Eve. She goes outside with her sled to explore, where she finds a collar of silver bells in the forest, stuck on a branch. Then out of the trees steps a beautiful reindeer, who allows Ollie to place the collar around his neck. He then gives her a magical ride through the sky, bringing her back to her house. The next morning, among her presents is a snow globe with a reindeer inside, which makes for a lovely ending to an enchanting story. The illustrations are muted, except for touches of red and silver throughout, and the book also includes die-cut windows that show you a glimpse of the illustration on the next page.
Chasing Augustus by Kimberly Newton Fusco
Rosie has had a difficult year – her father suffered a stroke, they had to sell their house and she is now living in an apartment with her grandfather while her father remains hospitalized, and her cold-hearted and distant mother, who left Rosie when she was a baby, came back just long enough to give away Rosie’s beloved dog, Augustus. Rosie has spent the last year searching for Augustus on her bicycle, failing at school, and clashing with her prickly grandfather, who loves her but wasn’t prepared to be raising a 12-year-old on his own. When Rosie hears a rumor about a dog living with the local recluse, Swanson, the dog’s description reminds her of Augustus. Rose is determined to get to Swanson’s farm and see if Augustus is there. Enter Phillipe, a boy being fostered by Rosie’s neighbor, whom Rosie ropes into her schemes. Rosie isn’t very nice to Phillipe, who is hiding inside himself after being taken from an unfit mother, or her other neighbor, Cynthia, a chatterbox who gets on Rosie’s nerves. We see Rosie struggle with friendship, being too focused on herself and insensitive to the feelings of others. As she gets to know Phillipe, and then Swanson, she slowly begins to care for others and lose some of her selfishness. She learns about friendship, becoming more accepting of others, and being kinder and more patient. In addition to Rosie, we also see growth in Rosie’s grandfather, who relaxes somewhat and has a better relationship with Rosie, Phillipe, who comes out of his shell, and Swanson, who learns to trust. Rosie does find Augustus and is reunited with him thanks to the help of her new friends. Though Rosie’s relationship with Augustus is somewhat changed as a result of his experiences while he was away, it adds more depth to the story as it forces Rosie to mature, learning to share her love with others who also have need.
The Dandelion’s Tale by Kevin Sheehan and illustrated by Rob Dunlavey
This is a poignant, heart-felt story about life and death. A sparrow meets a dandelion who is near the end of her life. She says she has one wish: to be remembered. She tells her life story to Sparrow, who writes it in the dirt of the meadow. That night, there is a storm and Dandelion is blown away. But Sparrow now knows her story and he shares it with the other birds in the meadow. Then, a few weeks later, Sparrows finds a clump of new dandelions growing where Dandelion grew. These are the offspring from Dandelion’s seeds. Sparrow shares her story with the new dandelions and in this way, Dandelion lives on, in the lives of her children and in the memories of those who knew her or heard her story. Warm, soft illustrations add to the tenderness of the story.
The book teaches an important lesson: that our loved ones live on through what they leave behind, including their children and their influence on others, and that we should share their stories. Aging and death are inevitable, but our lives have value because of our impact on others. The book demonstrates the importance of sharing stories of family members with the younger generation so they know where and who they came from. Because of this, the book is ideal to read to children who have lost grandparents or others to old age. Sharing the stories of our loved ones honors them and keeps their memories alive. The dandelion’s wish – to be remembered – is universal. Though the book is sad, it shows that life is full circle – there is death, but there is also new life. Life does go on after loss.
The Poet’s Dog by Patricia MacLachlan
Two children, Flora and Nicholas, lost in a snowstorm after their car goes off the road and their mother goes for help, are rescued by an Irish wolfhound named Teddy. Teddy has learned to love words from his person Sylvan, a poet who adopted Teddy and brought him to his cabin in the woods where he wrote and taught aspiring poets. The children and Teddy can communicate because, as Sylvan said, “only poets and children” can hear dogs speak. Sylvan has recently died and Teddy is now looked after by Ellie, a student of Sylvan’s who comes by the cabin regularly to tend to Teddy. For several days, the roads are not passable, so the children and Teddy hunker down in the cabin. Teddy shares the sad story of Sylvan’s illness and death while the children cook, gather wood from the shed, and shovel the snow until Ellie and then the children’s parents arrive. In the happy ending, Teddy is adopted by the children’s family. Sylvan had told Teddy before his death to “find a jewel or two” and we learn that Flora’s middle name is Jewel and her mother’s name is Ruby, which adds a bit of magic to the story. Tender and moving, with beautiful, poetic language, this is a quiet and contemplative story about loss, love, and family.
One thing about the book that rang false to me is the original premise that united the children and Teddy – that two young children would be left alone while their car is towed, but if you can get past that one jarring and implausible plot contrivance, this is a beautiful story. The children were never really in danger and Flora left a note for her mother, so the parents weren’t worried, which makes the book appropriate for younger readers, while adults will have to overlook the plot contrivance to get to the heart of the story.
The Dog, Ray by Linda Coggin
This book reminds me a bit of A Dog’s Purpose by W. Bruce Cameron, but for middle school readers. It is written by a British author and set in the U.K. The book is narrated by a girl named Daisy and opens with her death at the age of 12 in a car accident. Daisy’s soul is sent back to earth as a newborn puppy. But she still remembers her life as Daisy. She spends the beginning part of the book trying to get back to her parents. She has been born as a dog in the same town where she lived as a girl and sees a newspaper article about her accident. Her father survived, but is now paralyzed.
Daisy starts out her life as a dog with a mean boy and his mother, but she runs away from them and ends up with a homeless man named Jack who is kind to her and introduces her to 14-year-old Kip, new to the streets after running away from foster care following the death of his mother. Daisy ends up being named Ray by Kip and she becomes his dog for better or worse as they travel in search of Kip’s father, who doesn’t know he exists.
Daisy does actually meet her parents at one point in the book, when she is at an animal shelter, but the reader comes to realize as the book goes on the bittersweet truth of Daisy’s new existence: being with her parents again isn’t meant to be – this is a new life. Daisy slowly begins to lose the memory of who she was and becomes more dog-like in her thinking and actions. The reader sees her transform from human in a dog’s body to dog. A beautiful and poignant story of life, loss, and love, with serious issues handled gently. The story is also interspersed with humor from Daisy’s first-person narration, so it is not too heavy. It does also have a happy ending when Kip tracks down his father and he and Ray are happily taken in by him and his family. We also see Daisy’s parents again, who adopt a service dog, so their lives go on also.