Book reviews

Tales are full of word-play

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Young word nerds, rejoice! Carol Weston's "Ava and Pip" (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, $15.99, ages 10-12) offers plenty of opportunities to enjoy wordplay and creative language. It also offers insight into sibling relationships as it explores the friendship between two sisters.

Fifth-grader Ava Wren is an aspiring writer. Although she has "started seven diaries and finished zero" she is determined to stick this one out till the end.

In her diary entries, she describes her "extra nutty" family and her shy, quiet sister Pip. She records her observations and details her efforts to become a writer.

Ava's family loves palindromes, words that are the spelled the same backward and forward. In fact, her parents like palindromes so much that they named their daughters A-V-A and P-I-P, two palindromic names.

Despite its quirkiness, Ava's family is realistically portrayed. Her parents are caring and funny. But they are also human, with limitations and challenges.

Pip, meanwhile, shares parents with Ava but not much else. She's quiet and withdrawn, although not to the point of being unlikable.

When you are as outgoing as Ava, having a shy older sister is hard. Ava always tries to include seventh-grader Pip in her activities and encourages her to come out of her shell.

But Pip resists all of her efforts. And Ava finds it increasingly difficult to not lose patience with her.

When Pip is not sulking about losing games of Battleship and sitting alone at lunch, she's stealing all of their parent's attention away from Ava. Ava tries not to let this bother her, but she can't help it.

A story competition at the local library promises to put future writer Ava in the spotlight. "Sting of the Queen Bee," Ava's story, is a cautionary story about a girl named Bea who steals other people's friends.

The story ends with a moral, "There's no shortcut to true friendship." It receives honorable mention and a place on the library and school webpages.

Unfortunately her story has unintended consequences on her relationships with her sister, her parents and the new girl, Bea.

Can Ava help Pip come out of her shell? Will Ava's writing career be forever dashed by an unintentional mistake? Can Bea ever forgive her?

Author Weston also includes an extensive list of palindromes that readers can find in the novel and a list of bonus palindromes for the word nerd in us all.

Ms. Weston writes with exuberance that captures the narrator's youthful excitement. Puns and palindromes prevail in Ava's diary entries.

Ava's wit and tenacity are captured in sharp bursts of dialogue between her and Pip. Like their conversations with their parents, they are peppered with impressive wordplay.

Young readers will be enchanted with this endearing story about two very different sisters and their journey to find their voices.

Jon J. Muth's lovable panda bear, Koo, returns in a new picture book, "Hi, Koo! A Year of Seasons" (Scholastic Press, $17.99, ages 4-8). The reader joins Koo and his friends as they enjoy spring, summer, fall and winter through haikus and stunning watercolors.

Although limited in number, the words capture the essence and spirit of each season. Mr. Muth is whimsical and playful with special attention to what makes each season special and unique.

Each haiku is "an instant captured in words," as the author's note mentions. Some encapsulate the active, exciting, playful moments of each season, such as snowball fights, exploring in the dark and kite flying.

Other poems describe quiet, reflective moments. They highlight new life, quiet snow and blinking fireflies.

The creative text is matched by imaginative illustrations. The simplicity and (sometimes) sparseness of the illustrations provide focus for the moment that is captured in words. The watercolors bring life to each season.

In addition to capturing the physical world, Mr. Muth effectively conveys emotions. Koo experiences all four seasons with palpable love and joy for the world.

The gentle illustrations and text are charming and insightful. But the quiet tone may be too meditative for some antsy young listeners.

Still, caregivers or older siblings who take pleasure in thoughtful explorations of the natural world will delight in this beautiful journey through the seasons. And they'll likely find it's a great jumping off point for further discussion of the many nuances of each season -- or for a session of creative writing.

Caitie Morphew is the children's librarian at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh on the North Side.

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