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2015 June



In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

New Adult Review: My Name is Jason. Mine Too. by Jason Reynolds and Jason Griffin

On 25, Jun 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

My Name IsMy Name Is Jason. Mine Too. poetry by Jason Reynolds, art by Jason Griffin.

From GoodReads:

Our story. Our way.

A poet

An artist

One black

One white

Two voices

One journey

I would have loved this book in my early twenties. I probably would have wanted to copy the idea of combining poetry and art. That isn’t to say I don’t like it now. I loved it now, I just wish I had had it back then too.

Jason Reynolds and Jason Griffin were college roommates who were lucky enough to become close friends. When they got out of college they moved to New York together where life was not easy. This cemented their relationship even more.

Together they put together this slim book that combines poems written by Reynolds and art done by Griffin. The art and poems weave beautifully together to tell the story of how hard those first years out of college were and how hard it is to be young adult. I could certainly connect with their fears and anxieties about not knowing if they would make rent, worrying that they had made poor career choices, and wanting to find somewhere to belong. This is the book I would give to someone graduating from college. It so perfectly captures that weird stage between the relative safety of college and the time when you can look back and realize you’re really an adult making it in life. It’s also a wonderful glimpse into how strong the friendships and relationships you make at this stage in your life are. I think older high schoolers might find comfort in it too knowing that it’s okay for them not to figure it all out in college. Certainly the book skews toward a more middle class experience, but I don’t know what kind of SES either Reynolds or Griffin came from. Reynolds finished his college degree, but Griffin did not and he talks very honestly in the opening and ending of the books (two dual voice longer poems) about that decision and the doubts he had about it. I think it’s refreshing to see a perspective that didn’t take the college path and still managed to turn out just fine.

I know there is all kinds of vitriol about the new adult label, and I agree that it’s silly that it’s essentially come to mean steamy YA, but this is really what new adult is and should be. It’s a book about how difficult and confusing life can be after college. Especially since you’re sort of expected to strike out on your own (only failures live at home! which is of course not true at all) and know exactly what you’re doing. I’m really glad Reynolds and Griffin put their difficult experiences out there for others to draw comfort and strength from.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

YA Review: When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds

On 24, Jun 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

When I Was the GreatestWhen I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds

From GoodReads: A lot of the stuff that gives my neighborhood a bad name, I don’t really mess with. The guns and drugs and all that, not really my thing.
Nah, not his thing. Ali’s got enough going on, between school and boxing and helping out at home. His best friend Noodles, though. Now there’s a dude looking for trouble—and, somehow, it’s always Ali around to pick up the pieces. But, hey, a guy’s gotta look out for his boys, right? Besides, it’s all small potatoes; it’s not like anyone’s getting hurt.
And then there’s Needles. Needles is Noodles’s brother. He’s got a syndrome, and gets these ticks and blurts out the wildest, craziest things. It’s cool, though: everyone on their street knows he doesn’t mean anything by it.
Yeah, it’s cool…until Ali and Noodles and Needles find themselves somewhere they never expected to be…somewhere they never should’ve been—where the people aren’t so friendly, and even less forgiving.

Another winner from Jason Reynolds. Clearly he likes to write stories that take place in Bed Stuy. Reynolds is really good at creating a sense of place. He describes the setting so well it’s easy to picture yourself standing around seeing the neighborhood. And part of the setting are the neighbors. There is always mention of the people who live around the neighborhood and around the main characters of the book and they really help bring the story to life.

When I Was Greatest was actually pretty exciting, not something I always expect from realistic fiction. Even though the trouble Ali and Noodles get into doesn’t happen until relatively late in the book (maybe a little past half way through) you just know it’s coming and you can’t help wanting to tell them what a bad idea their plan to go to this party is. But the beauty of the story is when Ali reflects back on whose fault everything is and he takes as much blame as he places on Noodles. As an adult reading it (and probably teens will pick up on this too) there isn’t really any one person to blame. Plus they’re 15, they make bad choices sometimes, but those shouldn’t have to place them in the danger they find themselves in.

When I Was Greatest is less introspective than The Boy in the Black Suit, but Ali and Matt have their thoughtfulness in common. Greatest is a lot more about the friendship between Ali and Noodles and Needles and their brotherhood. There are also themes of parent-child relationships and Ali’s relationship with his sister which contrasts with the sibling relationship between Noodles and Needles. This would be a great book for boys to pick up, but anyone interested in more contemporary, urban fiction should give Reynolds a try. At 230 pages I’m not sure it’s exactly the book for reluctant readers, but it’s exciting enough that they might stick with it. Plus the dialog and setting might draw in readers (this is no Victorian classic).

If I have one quibble it’s with the cover. First of all there is a gun in the story, but I wouldn’t say it has an especially prominent or important role. Not particularly. I would have suggested some boxing gloves. But really the yarn covering the gun is crocheted and Needles knits. A minor quibble, but a quibble nonetheless.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

YA Review: The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds

On 23, Jun 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Boy in the Black SuitThe Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds

From GoodReads: Matt wears a black suit every day. No, not because his mom died—although she did, and it sucks. But he wears the suit for his gig at the local funeral home, which pays way better than the Cluck Bucket, and he needs the income since his dad can’t handle the bills (or anything, really) on his own. So while Dad’s snagging bottles of whiskey, Matt’s snagging fifteen bucks an hour. Not bad. But everything else? Not good. Then Matt meets Lovey. She’s got a crazy name, and she’s been through more crazy than he can imagine. Yet Lovey never cries. She’s tough. Really tough. Tough in the way Matt wishes he could be. Which is maybe why he’s drawn to her, and definitely why he can’t seem to shake her. Because there’s nothing more hopeful than finding a person who understands your loneliness—and who can maybe even help take it away.

I know some people really hate when reviewers say a protagonist is relatable, especially when they are non white, because it implies that only likable characters are worth reading about and as if white audiences will only read books about people of color if they can relate. I get it, but I’m going to describe Matt as relatable. And not because he’s a decent kid living in a bad neighborhood. He’s relatable because he’s pretty average. He does fine in school; he has a two parent household; he lives in a house; he has a best friend; and he likes girls. Obviously these things don’t describe all kids, but it was refreshing to read a story about a kid who was coping with his grief, but was otherwise unremarkable and hadn’t been dealt six other horrific and terrible things that he had to work through.

I read another review of the book that thought it was creepy and weird that Matt decides he likes sitting in on funerals, but I completely disagree. Matt is grieving for his mother and he finds solace in knowing he isn’t the only person hurting. Matt’s sitting in on funerals isn’t about a fixation with death, just an inability to move on in his grieving process and a part of that process. As I said, Matt is an average guy and the whole funeral thing doesn’t consume his life nor is it an indication of anything but his mourning process. When he meets Lovey at her grandmother’s funeral she doesn’t seem to be hurting the way he is and that draws him to her. He thinks she holds some magic key to letting grief go. Ultimately it’s the fact that she is and isn’t hurting that helps Matt learn how to move past deep sadness. She is a good friend and great relationship for him to cultivate at the right time and I think that’s a really powerful message and example.

Reynolds can clearly write. The book was fantastic. He even managed to pull off something I find incredibly irritating, which is using slang in dialog. Oftentimes you have slang that contrasts with the narrative prose of the rest of the book and it feels awkward. Not so here. Reynolds has also created characters that are so easy to want to get to know and that you root for. There was also a twist that I didn’t see coming. Not a twist like a murder mystery, but some plot lines converged in a surprising and unexpected way that was jarring and awesome at the same time.

I think high schoolers, and even middle schoolers, will simply like Matt and they will understand what he’s struggling with. They’ll connect with his story and want to follow him through his grief out to the other side where he can live his life. Based purely on setting I would give this to fans of How It Went Down, but The Boy in the Black Suit is a book about a normal kid having a hard time coping with something that gutted him. While not every kid loses a parent so young, every kid understands both how hard that could be and how one thing can change everything for you. Give this to kids who like character-driven realistic fiction that feels modern and fresh.

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In Redux

By Elizabeth Wroten

Monthly Author: Jason Reynolds

On 21, Jun 2015 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten

This month I read three books by Jason Reynolds. I chose him because he’s a newer author. I also tried to read his When I Was Greatest last fall when I was reading a ton of diverse books, but just didn’t get around to it. I had it out from the library, but other books got picked up instead and I finally returned it. I kept it on my radar, though, and when his newest novel came out, The Boy in the Black Suit I decided he would make a good monthly author. His books are amazing and I’m really glad I read them.

Schedule for the week:

Tuesday: The Boy in the Black Suit

Wednesday: When I Was Greatest

Thursday: My Name is Jason. Mine Too.

Links of Interest:

  • i am jason reynolds seems to be a bit of an extension of the poetry from My Name Is Jason. Mine Too. I don’t see any art from his friend Jason, but the poetry is excellent.
  • Here’s his AWESOME website, Jason Writes Books. Because Jason Reynolds is AWESOME. There’s a blog and FAQs and a few other fun and interesting things. Just check it out.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

YA Review: March Book 1 by John Robert Lewis

On 17, Jun 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

MarchMarch: Book 1 written by John Robert Lewis and Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate Powell

From GoodReads: March is a vivid first-hand account of John Lewis’ lifelong struggle for civil and human rights, meditating in the modern age on the distance traveled since the days of Jim Crow and segregation. Rooted in Lewis’ personal story, it also reflects on the highs and lows of the broader civil rights movement.

Book One spans John Lewis’ youth in rural Alabama, his life-changing meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr., the birth of the Nashville Student Movement, and their battle to tear down segregation through nonviolent lunch counter sit-ins, building to a stunning climax on the steps of City Hall.

This is such an amazing history book. I was not familiar with who John Robert Lewis is or his role in the Civil Rights Movement, but I was aware of the lunch counter sit-ins. I know I rant about this all the time, but our history classes, if they even get as far as the 60s (because I never had a history class make it past 1945), tend to gloss over a lot and Martin Luther King, Jr. is the primary focus of these cursory Civil Rights studies. He was certainly important, but there was A LOT going on at the time.

March does an incredible job of weaving Lewis’s personal history in with the history of the movement. In doing this the book becomes incredibly accessible. You don’t have to know much if anything about the era or Civil Rights. It’s all so seamlessly woven in and told through Lewis’s life story. He lived the discrimination. He lived the frustration. And he lived the decision to take a stand and break down barriers for people of color.

I would love to see this book taught in a history class. It would be awesome to use it in conjunction with other texts about the Civil Rights Movement. Not to mention the graphic novel format makes it a lot more accessible and interesting than any text book. The art is wonderful as is the storytelling and it completely brings the story and history alive right before your eyes.

There have been a lot of books recently published that tackle the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and while many of them are excellent, this is a shining example as well as one of the few intended for older audiences.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

MG Review: Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson

On 16, Jun 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Roller GirlRoller Girl by Victoria Jamieson

From GoodReads: Twelve-year-old Astrid has always done everything with her best friend Nicole. So when Astrid signs up for roller derby camp, she assumes Nicole will too. But Nicole signs up for dance camp with a new friends instead, and so begins the toughest summer of Astrid’s life. There are bumps and bruises as Astrid learns who she is without Nicole…and what it takes to be a strong, tough roller girl.

I am the least athletic person alive, but after reading this even I want to do roller derby! Roller Girl features a lot about roller derby that will appeal to the novice. There’s an explanation of the game (woven perfectly into the story) and the camp Astrid goes to slips in more exposure to the game and a good picture of how much work it all is.

The book isn’t an instruction manual or even a promotion of roller derby, though. The book is really a story about how friendships change especially at that tender time of the beginning of adolescence. Astrid is about to start junior high (sixth or seventh grade) and her best friend seems to have ditched her for the bitchy, shallow, popular girl. After some fighting and hurt feelings the girls talk about what’s happened and Astrid realizes that while she often feels like she’s living in Nicole’s shadow, Nicole feels the same way. The story was so pitch perfect for kids in that fourth through seventh grade range. (FYI, there is no sex, drugs, or drinking so the book is totally appropriate for younger readers so long as they can handle the reading level). These kind of friendship break ups happen all the time and friends’ interests change. As kids begin to mature the kind of confusion and hurt feelings that Nicole and Astrid experience is also incredibly common.

Roller Girl I think gives kids in this position something to think about and can help them understand what’s going on. Plus Astrid and Nicole talk through things giving a good example of how to handle the situation (after handling it poorly).  The book never feels like a problem novel though, nor does it feel like it’s beating the reader over the head with A Message. The friendship story is couched so perfectly in the roller derby camp and is handled so naturally. The story also perfectly captures that tension of growing apart from a childhood friend. Astrid has such nostalgia for the relationship she and Nicole used to have and she hasn’t fully accepted that they’re both changing and that might mean they won’t be as close.

The obvious audience for this book is girls who are into roller derby. But I think kids who like friendship stories and realistic fiction will also find a lot to love as will kids who don’t mind living vicariously through their book characters. I don’t see why boys couldn’t pick this up either because I think they too go through these friendship woes and, while it could be a harder sell to them, the roller derby aspect will surely help. This is also a graphic novel so reluctant readers will be drawn in too.

One final note, Astrid’s mother is pretty great. She’s works so she isn’t around in the story a whole lot, but when she is she is supportive of Astrid. Even when it turns out Astrid has been lying to her about getting rides home from roller derby camp. And she takes Astrid’s hair dying in stride. Not every parent is like this, but I think it’s good to show a supportive adult in a story like this. My one complaint is when she drags Astrid clothes shopping and makes her try on clothes Astrid clearly doesn’t care for. It’s just a personal pet peeve of mine- parents who want their kids to dress a certain way to fit an image of what they should be. Ugh. Astrid holds her ground though and sticks with her t-shirt and shorts ensembles.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Kidlit Review: Tiger Boy by Mitali Perkins

On 16, Jun 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Tiger BoyTiger Boy written by Mitali Perkins, pictures by Jamie Hogan

From GoodReads: When a tiger cub escapes from a nature reserve near Neel’s island village, the rangers and villagers hurry to find her before the cub’s anxious mother follows suit and endangers them all. Mr. Gupta, a rich newcomer to the island, is also searching—he wants to sell the cub’s body parts on the black market. Neel and his sister, Rupa, resolve to find the cub first and bring her back to the reserve where she belongs.
The hunt for the cub interrupts Neel’s preparations for an exam to win a prestigious scholarship at a boarding school far from home. Neel doesn’t mind—he dreads the exam and would rather stay on his beloved island in the Sunderbans of West Bengal with his family and friends.
But through his encounter with the cub, Neil learns that sometimes you have to take risks to preserve what you love. And sometimes you have to sacrifice the present for the chance to improve the future.

I really enjoyed this short book. It is actually the first Mitali Perkins book I have read despite the fact that she visited our school a few years ago and she spoke at a conference I attended last year.

The writing was really good and the story was suspenseful and exciting. Neel begins the book not really wanting to stay in school, but comes to realize the importance of a good education if he wants to improve his community and preserve the Sunderbans. While this is clearly a message in the book, Perkins wove it beautifully into the story. Kids won’t notice the great message because they’ll be so wrapped up in the suspense of rescuing the tiger cub and wondering if Neel does well on his exam. Despite a more serious tone the book has some great moments of levity (the headmaster manages to be really funny while not even trying) and an excellent villain.

As for the pictures, I think their inclusion is good for younger readers and kids who are having the book read aloud to them. The ones in the book are fine, but the cover is pretty uninviting. I read another review of the book where they suggested that kids might not pick the book up on their own and I totally agree. The reviewer also said kids would be missing out and again I agree. I think the cover is going to be really off-putting for most kids. The look on Neel’s face might elicit a few giggles and snickers. The shading is odd (even though after having read the book I understand why he looks like that). The tiger cub has such a sad look on her face! The overall design is kind of strange, too. Maybe the dark blue color makes it look off? The font isn’t great either. In some ways it looks kind of out dated or old fashioned. I just don’t personally find it very appealing and I suspect kids won’t either.

I included it on our fourth grade summer reading list in hopes that some animal lover would find it and I really hope they do. It’s so worth reading. The book would also make a great classroom read aloud considering both it’s message about the importance of an education and the excitement of it all. And reluctant readers should enjoy the story and the length.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Middle Grade DNFs: I Lived on Butterfly Hill & Space Case

On 11, Jun 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Butterfly HillI Lived on Butterfly Hill written by Marjorie Agosin, translated by E.M. O’Connor, pictures by Lee White

From GoodReads: Celeste Marconi is a dreamer. She lives peacefully among friends and neighbors and family in the idyllic town of Valparaiso, Chile–until the time comes when even Celeste, with her head in the clouds, can’t deny the political unrest that is sweeping through the country. Warships are spotted in the harbor and schoolmates disappear from class without a word. Celeste doesn’t quite know what is happening, but one thing is clear: no one is safe, not anymore.

The country has been taken over by a government that declares artists, protestors, and anyone who helps the needy to be considered “subversive” and dangerous to Chile’s future. So Celeste’s parents–her educated, generous, kind parents–must go into hiding before they, too, “disappear.” To protect their daughter, they send her to America.

As Celeste adapts to her new life in Maine, she never stops dreaming of Chile. But even after democracy is restored to her home country, questions remain: Will her parents reemerge from hiding? Will she ever be truly safe again?

Accented with interior artwork, steeped in the history of Pinochet’s catastrophic takeover of Chile, and based on many true events.

This book must have been a case of “it’s not you, it’s me” because I could not get through it despite how amazing it was.I put it down about half way through and didn’t really look back. Which seems crazy. Agosin has written an incredibly beautiful book. The language is so poetic. She has detailed the setting in Chile wonderfully and you really get a sense of place (it actually sounds a lot like San Francisco). I also found it really interesting that the characters are religious (her grandmother was a Jew that escapes Nazi occupied Austria, parents and other family are Catholic), and while it’s apparent it isn’t a religious book, will resonate with many children who are faithful, but not necessarily looking for a religious book and will work for kids who are not religious because it isn’t “a thing”.

The only thing I wasn’t sure about was how historically accurate the book is/is supposed to be. It’s clearly based on what happened with the Pinochet coup and dictatorship in Chile, but the timeline and events didn’t quite seem to match up to what I have read about that period. In the end it doesn’t really matter, the book has a momentum and history of its own that carries it.

So if it was such an incredible book with great characters, beautiful setting, even more beautiful language, and a good plot, why couldn’t I finish it? I think it was primarily the length. It’s about 400 pages and it was just so daunting. The chapters within it are short, but it’s still 400 pages. While I would easily recommend this to middle schoolers I think this will make it a hard sell.

Space CaseSpace Case by Stuart Gibbs

From GoodReads: Like his fellow lunarnauts — otherwise known as Moonies — living on Moon Base Alpha, twelve-year-old Dashiell Gibson is famous the world over for being one of the first humans to live on the moon. And he’s bored out of his mind. Kids aren’t allowed on the lunar surface, meaning they’re trapped inside the tiny moon base with next to nothing to occupy their time; and the only other kid Dash’s age spends all his time hooked into virtual reality games. Then Moon Base Alpha’s top scientist turns up dead. Dash senses there’s foul play afoot, but no one believes him. Everyone agrees Dr. Holtz went onto the lunar surface without his helmet properly affixed, simple as that. But then Dash learns Dr. Holtz was on the verge of an important new discovery, and it’s a secret that could change everything for the Moonies;a secret someone just might kill to keep…

Gibbs writes funny books. Belly Up is still one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. Why then did I put Space Case down after 75 pages or so? As with Butterfly Hill, I’m not really sure. It was funny (although not nearly as funny as Belly Up). I think the mystery took a little too long to get going considering the focus was the mystery and not character development (it still wasn’t in full swing by the time I put the book down). I had a little trouble believing an adult would approach a kid to help investigate a murder over NASA’s head, but then again books ask us to suspend our disbelief all the time. I think I just wasn’t invested enough to let it slide.

Would I recommend it? Absolutely. I’m not a huge mystery fan so I just don’t think I had the patience to keep going, but I do think kids who like mysteries will devour this. It’s very funny and Dash is a cool kid. The setting is also pretty awesome and makes for some excellent suspense and adds some interesting issues. Plus the whole first chapter deals with poop, space toilets, and how Dash has broken one. What kid wouldn’t love that? (Grown ups love poop jokes too, just admit it.)

I feel like I should point out that Dash is mixed race as are the majority of the characters. About 50 pages in Dash notes that most everyone is by now and he’s a little weirded out by the space tourist family on Moon Base Alpha that is Scandinavian and very white in appearance. Even though characters’ skin color is noted I didn’t think it felt out of place per se and I’m glad the characters reflect what we are seeing with diversity.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Picture Book Review Mania

On 10, Jun 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

For the summer reading lists I was trying to get some newer, more diverse titles into the suggested titles sections. None of the previous titles were bad, they were just older lists. There was almost no poetry on the lists and I wanted to expose the kids to some good titles in that genre. I also wanted to show parents of older kids (third and fourth grade) that it’s okay for their kids to still read picture books. Many picture books are actually harder to read than chapter books. Plus they’re beautiful. Why turn kids off to them? This post is considerably shorter than the chapter book review mania. Many of the picture books I added are ones I have already reviewed, but I wanted to get a few thoughts down about the following titles.

OrangutankaOrangutanka: A Story in Poems written by Margarita Engle, illustrated by Renee Kurilla

From GoodReads: All the orangutans are ready for a nap in the sleepy depths of the afternoon . . . all except one. This little orangutan wants to dance! A hip-hop, cha-cha-cha dance full of somersaults and cartwheels. But who will dance with her? Written in bold poems in the tanka style, an ancient Japanese form of poetry that is often used as a travel diary, this exuberant orangutan celebration from acclaimed poet Margarita Engle will make readers want to dance, too!

The illustrations in this book are gorgeous and adorable. The story is cute, but the book really shines in that it encourages kids to write their own tanka poems and do their own orangudance. Engle has included some really interesting information in the back of the book too.

This would be the perfect book for kids who love animals, particularly apes and monkeys. In the classroom it would be a great book for units on conservation, environment, habit and habit destruction, Southeast Asia, and poetry.

Don’t be fooled by the word count, it’s amazing what Engle can convey through a few short poems. You get a sense of where the orangutans live, how they live and see the adventure the older sister has with some children visiting the wildlife preserve.

I put this on the third grade list, but it could have gone on any of the younger lists and really even onto the fourth grade list. A third grader could handle the text on their own I think, but it would make an excellent read aloud and I suspect there are animal lovers in fourth grade that would adore the pictures and poems.

Shining StarShining Star: The Anna May Wong Story written by Paula Yoo, illustrated by Lin Wang

From GoodReads: Born in 1905, Anna May Wong spent her childhood working in her family’s laundry in Los Angeles s Chinatown. Whenever she could afford it, Anna May slipped off to the movies, escaping to a world of adventure, glamour, and excitement. After seeing a movie being filmed in her neighborhood, young Anna May was hooked. She decided she would become a movie star!
Anna May struggled to pursue an acting career in Hollywood in the 1930s. There were very few roles for Asian Americans, and many were demeaning and stereotypical. Anna May made the most of each limited part. She worked hard and always gave her best performance. Finally, after years of unfulfilling roles, Anna May began crusading for more meaningful roles for herself and other Asian American actors.

This was an incredible story. I had no idea who Anna May Wong was although I knew there was discrimination and racism in early Hollywood (and there probably still is). Wong is an interesting figure. She dreamed of being an actress and despite her parents objections she made that dream happen for herself. Thankfully her parents eventually supported her, with her father driving her to auditions even though he didn’t understand her desire. Wong went on to see the racism in Hollywood and want to change it. She was in lots of films and her early films often had her playing a stereotypical Chinese woman (either a shrinking violet or a tiger lady). When she began to have more clout and when she began to realize the impact she had as a role model she decided to fight against these stereotypical portrayals.

I put this on our second grade list because they study a few Asian cultures in the second grade curriculum (primarily Vietnamese and Japanese). The book is actually much closer to a fourth or fifth grade reading level (maybe higher?). It’s long, but it’s really interesting and we encourage our families to read aloud with their students all the way through lower school. I also chose the book because it’s a California story. Anna May was born and raised in the Los Angeles area and her father lived and worked right here in Sacramento. There’s nothing like a good story that hits close to home.

Harvesting HopeHarvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez written by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by Yuyi Morales

From GoodReads: Cesar Chavez is known as one of America’s greatest civil rights leaders. When he led a 340-mile peaceful protest march through California, he ignited a cause and improved the lives of thousands of migrant farmworkers. But Cesar wasn’t always a leader. As a boy, he was shy and teased at school. His family slaved in the fields for barely enough money to survive.
Cesar knew things had to change, and he thought that–maybe–he could help change them. So he took charge. He spoke up. And an entire country listened.

I am embarrassed to admit I knew virtually nothing about Cesar Chavez despite living in the capital of California. Harvesting Hope was a lot longer and more detailed about Chavez than I expected, but that was fantastic. There was a lot of information about his formative years and his beginnings as an activist. The book never read like a dry nonfiction, though. The story was incredibly engaging.

Morales pictures really add to the book too. The warm inviting colors give a sense of the happiness Chavez felt growing up on his family farm. They also really bring his march to Sacramento to life and are just plain beautiful.

As a read aloud it would work for much younger audiences (down into first grade), but tackling it on their own a child would need to be older. It touches on issues of racism and discrimination so be prepared for conversations about those topics. It’s length really does make it better suited to second or third grade and up. Excellent picture book biography.

Emmanuel's DreamEmmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah written by Laurie Ann Thompson, illustrated by Sean Qualls

From GoodReads: This inspirational picture book biography, written by Laurie Ann Thompson and illustrated by Sean Qualls, tells the true story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah, who bicycled across Ghana–nearly 400 miles–with only one leg. With that achievement he forever changed how his country treats people with disabilities, and he shows us all that one person is enough to change the world.

I liked the message in this book and obviously the story is incredibly inspiring. It is not a detailed picture book biography, but a telling of the story of how Emmanuel came to ride around Ghana and fight for the rights of disabled people in his country. I think this makes it the perfect type of biography for younger kids and for whetting kids appetite for books about activists and/or to get the interested in these types of causes.

I think it’s both important to help children see that people live differently around the world and to encourage them to want to help. I also think the book does a great job showing that you shouldn’t let society’s perception of you hold you back if there is something you want to accomplish, and that’s an excellent thing for kids to hear.



Poems to DreamPoems to Dream Together/ Poems Para Sonar Juntos written by Francisco X. Alarcon, illustrated by Paula Barragan

From GoodReads: A bilingual collection of poetry by acclaimed Chicano poet Francisco X. Alarcon celebrating family, community, nature, and the positive power of dreams to shape our future.

This is a beautiful collection of poems about dreams from Alarcon (who visited our school a number of years ago!). The poems are all fairly short, but they really lend themselves to discussing the craft of poetry. There is a fair amount of word play and a need to understand that dreams and dreaming can mean a lot of different things to different people.

I think this is a great book for exposing children to beautiful poetry, but I really think it would make a great read and discuss book for parents and children or for a class. The book also clearly shares some of Alaracon’s experiences growing up and talks about his family which makes for more interesting discussion about how he has shared these memories as poems instead of short stories or picture books.

The dual language format makes the book accessible to a lot more kids and families (hopefully). Our students take a foreign language in lower school so I included it on the list for anyone who may also be interested in hearing the language they are learning and for kids who might be able to identify a word here or there.

Beautiful BirdsBeautiful Birds written by Jean Roussen, illustrated by Emmanuelle Walker

From GoodReads: In this stunningly illustrated introduction to the world’s most beautiful birds, Jean Roussen and Emmanuelle Walker pay homage to an alphabet of birds in all their feathery fancies. From Warblers to Blue-tits and Kakapos to Owls, Roussen’s playful, melodic poem is complemented beautifully by Walker’s delicate illustrations.

Beautiful Birds is incredibly illustrated. The colors alone practically glow on the page (this picture doesn’t do it justice). The birds are so sculptural and really reminiscent of Charley Harper. The text is clever and draws some really interesting connections as well as introduces some unusual, but beautiful, birds.

I put this on our first grade list because it is a concept alphabet book and they study birds in the spring. However I first got the book for my own daughter who was so taken with it we had to buy our own copy which we have read again and again. There is a very interesting twist/reveal at the very end of the book where you realize there is an actual narrator. My daughter finds this twist riotously funny and laughs every time.

A great book for bird lovers. Also, don’t miss the end papers where the eggs inside the front cover hatch into these darling little fluff balls inside the back cover.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review Mania

On 09, Jun 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Part of the summer reading list revamp that I did involved making a section of suggested series. For the younger grades (K-3) I wanted to be sure to include a lot of chapter book series. These are series that beginning readers often plow through and I think it’s always a bonus when there are sequels and beyond. They can be formulaic and boring for adults (I’m looking at you Magic Tree House), but kids seem to LOVE them. Of course this doesn’t have to be true and I found a number of chapter books (series and stand alone) that I wanted to put on the list, but needed to read first to determine if they were worth recommending and what grade level(s) they were best for. I will note if they would make good shared reading for those kids who are just getting into chapter books and are sharing the reading duties with parents. The following are brief reviews of the chapter books I previewed.

DigbyDigby O’Day In the Fast Lane written by Shirley Hughes, illustrated by Clara Vulliamy

Lexile: 650L

From GoodReads: Digby O’Day and Percy are best friends. This daring canine duo can find adventure anywhere?-?even entering an All-Day Race! Digby is sure he can win, especially with Percy as his co-driver. But when the race starts and Digby and Percy are quickly left in the dust, it seems like they don’t stand a chance. They meet peril after peril: a car that breaks down (and slides back to the edge of a cliff!), a near miss with an oncoming train, and worst of all, Digby’s archenemy, Lou Ella, who is also in the race and will stop at nothing to win. In a day full of twists, turns, thrills, and surprises, anything can happen. Who will come out ahead? And will Lou Ella get her comeuppance?

Digby’s kind of a doddering old man (he drives slow, sits by the fire at night, refuses to buy a new car), but he and his friend Percy are darling. The story carries the message of kindness and slow and steady wins the race (without beating the reader over the head with it), which I think is especially appropriate for the target audience of emerging readers. There are a few Britishisms in the book that might make it feel a little odd to Americans, but anyone who watches British TV and/or listens to the BBC shouldn’t notice anything out of place.

Vulliamy’s illustrations are absolutely darling. The black/white/gray/red palette continues throughout the book giving it a bit of a sophisticated feel. The pictures make the book longer and give excellent support to the text so kids picking up early chapter books are sure to feel more grown up even though they are getting all the help they need.

Digby O’Day would make a great read aloud at home too (or honestly  in the classroom). A simple story that starts out with a bang (they almost roll off a cliff!) parents won’t be yawning through this one. It’s just all around fun. Ella Lou is an excellent villain even though she’s just self-absorbed and rude, not actually evil.  Excellent beginning chapter book for kids who love animals and cars. A second book is due out in August.

ClaudeClaude at the Beach written and illustrated by Alex T. Smith

From GoodReads: In the third installment of Claude’s hilarious adventures, Claude and Sir Bobblysock pack their bags and go on vacation to the beach. They rescue a man from a shark, win a sandcastle-bulding competition, and hunt for pirate treasure. Of course, they make it back home just before Mr. and Mrs. Shineyshoes come in from work.

Lexile: 790L

A chapter book series for kids and parents with a sense of humor. Claude heads out to the beach for a vacation. He brings along underwear, whipped cream, sunscreen, his signature beret, some slightly squashed sandwiches, and his best friend Sir Bobblysock. At the beach Claude has to save a swimmer from a shark, joins a sand castle competition, and helps a pirate family find buried treasure. Turns out it’s a good thing he brought a lampshade and those sandwiches because a tense moment with a crotchety old lady pirate is diffused with them.

The illustrations are absolutely hilarious only adding to the appeal of this book. Don’t miss the pucker-lipped granny pirate with her beehive hairdo and cat-eye glasses. I especially love that both Claude and Digby O’Day are a small format so they feel more like grown up books. There is a lot more picture support/illustration in this one than in Digby O’Day (this isn’t a bad thing), but the pictures have that same sparseness to them with black lines and only two colors that make them feel more sophisticated. Another plus.

While this happened to be the third book in the series (I believe there are four now?), I had no problem jumping in. Some of the humor may be lost on young readers (the lifeguard is busy helping a woman with her beach balls and, although the illustration literally shows beach balls, two are placed just so, ahem), but parents will love it which will make for great shared reading.

Bramble and MaggieBramble and Maggie: Horse Meets Girl written by Jessie Haas, illustrated by Alison Friend

Lexile: 270L

From GoodReads: Maggie wants a pony to ride and take care of, and to prepare she’s been reading a big book on horse care. Meanwhile, Bramble is bored with giving riding lessons and walking in circles. She’s looking for just the right person to take her away from her routine. Is it a perfect match? Maggie loves Bramble as soon as she sees her, but there are some things Bramble has to be sure of. Will Maggie let Bramble venture into new places? Will she protect Bramble from strange objects in the yard? Will she, most importantly, know when Bramble needs her undivided attention?

Where was this series when I was a young reader? Sigh. For all those horse loving kids out there here is an adorable series about a girl and her horse. Bramble is bored walking in circles for lessons so her owner tries to sell her. Bramble is having none of it though, so the owner decides to give her away. This is a lucky break for Maggie whose family is driving by. Her mother’s excuse that horses are too expensive no longer applies so well and Maggie seems to understand what Bramble needs.

The illustrations are darling, warm and inviting, especially the last page. They do feel more traditional, like a picture book and this makes the book feel better suited to younger readers. Friend has done a good job of depicting a mix of characters. I hate that all unicorn and horse books seem to feature blonde-haired, blue-eyed girls, as if those are the only people who like horses. Maggie appears to have a white mother and a father who is not, so hooray for that. And even one of the other children who tries to buy the horse is a boy. You don’t often see boys in these horse books and even if the pink and purple cover puts some boys off, it’s a good thing for girls to see that boys can like horses too, even if they aren’t under cowboys.

This one might be less interesting for parents to share with their kids, but with horse lovers the interest will be so high young readers will devour this on their own. I don’t know about later books in the series, but Horse Meets Girl has the same size and shape as easy readers and the Step Into Reading books. It’s certainly not a bad thing, but, like the illustrations, it makes the book feel younger.

MurillaMurilla Gorilla: Jungle Detective written by Jennifer Lloyd, illustrated by Jacqui Lee

From GoodReads: Murilla Gorilla, the jungle detective, is woken up by a new case: Ms. Chimpanzee’s muffins were stolen. But who did it? It’s up to Murilla to find out… as long as she can find her badge first! Murilla may seem like a hopeless detective—disorganized, messy and always thinking about her next snack—but out of her mess come some pretty good ideas, and some pretty funny moments too.

Another funny chapter book! Murilla is disorganized, silly, and rather unconventional and kids will love her. In fact, I would argue that Murilla is a thinly disguised kid. When called to her detective job she falls back asleep. Then she has to dig through her messy room to find her badge, which inexplicably turns up in the bathtub. (Tell me this doesn’t describe a lot of kids!) While out sleuthing she asks simple questions that don’t necessarily get to the point or help the investigation and Murilla’s silliness is sure to get a laugh and probably a suggestion or two of what to really do. The real kicker is when she dresses as a banana tree to lure the culprit in. Ms. Chimpanzee doesn’t have a whole lot of faith, but Murilla knows what she’s doing and triumphs in the end.

I loved the illustrations. Despite being fairly bright and colorful they feel very modern. As I said with Claude and Digby O’Day, this will help kids feel more grown up when reading the book.

In some ways the book felt like a talking animal Nate the Great. The two are both spoofs of the noir detective genre for sure, but Murilla might be a little easier to read and understand, though. Parents, if you have a silly sense of humor you will appreciate this. If you don’t, I’m afraid you won’t (at least judging by the comments on GoodReads, all written by adults who are not the target audience). There are quite a few books in the series and if they are all as funny they will surely be a hit.


DoryDory Fantasmagory by Abby Hanlon

Lexile: 550L

From GoodReads: As the youngest in her family, Dory really wants attention, and more than anything she wants her brother and sister to play with her. But she’s too much of a baby for them, so she’s left to her own devices—including her wild imagination and untiring energy. Her siblings may roll their eyes at her childish games, but Dory has lots of things to do: outsmarting the monsters all over the house, escaping from prison (aka time-out), and exacting revenge on her sister’s favorite doll. And when they really need her, daring Dory will prove her bravery, and finally get exactly what she has been looking for.

Dory is an awesome kid with a huge imagination. For example, her fairy godmother is a gnome named Mr. Nuggy. But sometimes her imagination is just too big and it gets her into trouble when she can’t seem to let it go. It also gets her left out of her siblings games. Now, I think kids will love Dory. Especially younger siblings and kids who have big imaginations. She’s funny as her situations and toward the end we do see that she can tell the difference between fantasy and reality.

But I personally thought her siblings and parents were jerks. Her parents always seem exasperated or completely fed up with her. Her siblings never want to play with her and make that very obvious. No one seems to know how to handle her or really deal with her in a way that respects who she is. BUT, this was my personal reaction. I suspect there is some exaggeration since Dory is narrating. She’s probably leaving a lot out and not noticing a lot. I also suspect that a lot of kids will completely identify with her position as youngest and ignored and excluded.

I liked the book despite my personal complaints, because Dory is AWESOME. Try not to laugh when Dory gets revenge on the doctor. She totally deserved what she got. The mix of pictures, many with speech bubbles, and text will make this even more appealing to it’s target audience. An all around fun book about a fun kid.

Nikki and DejaNikki & Deja by Karen English, illustrated by Laura Freeman

Lexile: 670L

From GoodReads: Meet Nikki and Deja, who live next door to each other and are best friends. They do everything together—watch Saturday morning cartoons, play jacks, jump double Dutch at recess, and help each other with their homework for Mrs. Shelby’s third-grade class. But when an arrogant new girl arrives and Nikki and Deja form a club that would exclude her, the results are not what they expect.

As an adult I find friendship woes kind of tedious, but I remember being in elementary school and those challenges were really important. Nikki and Deja is another one of these friendship books that I think does a great job of modeling what good friends do. I really appreciate that this book (and others about friendship) show that friends can fight. This isn’t a Pollyanna of a book. Friendship, and really any relationship, takes work and will have it’s share of bumps along the way.

I also appreciated that there was on big Apology Scene at the end. The girls do make up, but by and large they let things go, an important skill for kids to learn.

I wish that the new girl wasn’t such a two-dimensional pain, but I completely remember seeing kids that way when I was that age. I think the book will ring very true for kids in that second/third grade range. This is the start of a series so kids who click with the girls can follow them into other stories. There’s a great mix of diversity in the book, too which makes it an excellent addition to any collection.

JulianThe Stories Julian Tells written by Ann Cameron, illustrated by Ann Strugnell

Lexile: 520L

From GoodReads: Julian is a quick fibber and a wishful thinker. And he is great at telling stories. He can make people—especially his younger brother, Huey—believe just about anything. Like the story about the cats that come in the mail. Or the fig leaves that make you grow tall if you eat them off the tree. But some stories can lead to a heap of trouble, and that’s exactly where Julian and Huey end up!

The Stories Julian Tells is a hilarious early chapter book and we’re always looking for humor to rope in some of those reluctant boy readers. Julian is a lot like Amelia Bedilia in that he plays with words and sometimes takes things a little too literally. The wordplay in these will appeal to kids who are just beginning to grasp those types of jokes.

The kind of trouble he finds himself in will be relatable to kids. He tries to put one over on his younger brother Huey, but it ends up backfiring when his dad gets involved. I don’t particularly like the above description calling him a fibber. I don’t think what Julian does is lie, per se. It’s a lot more fantasy and imagination than lying even if he is trying to trick his brother.

Parents might also enjoy reading these with their kids for the humor, unless of course Huey and Julian’s antics hit a little too close to home.

There are quite a few more books featuring both Julian and his younger brother Huey. I have not previewed them, but I suspect they are equally funny.


Bunjitsu BunnyTales of Bunjitsu Bunny by John Himmelman

From GoodReads: Introducing Isabel, aka Bunjitsu Bunny! She is the BEST bunjitsu artist in her school, and she can throw farther, kick higher, and hit harder than anyone else! But she never hurts another creature . . . unless she has to. This series of brief stories about Isabel’s adventures are a beguiling combination of child-friendly scenarios and Eastern wisdom perfect for the youngest readers.

Bunjitsu Bunny reminds me a lot of the Zen Shorts books, but it’s clearly written for a very young audience. The stories aren’t necessarily as gentle as those, but they contain much of the same “Eastern wisdom” (I can’t think of a better/more correct/more accurate term). Don’t let the cover fool you on this one, though. There isn’t much butt-kicking going on. In fact the first chapter makes a point to say Isabel is never to use her Bunjitsu to hurt anyone unless absolutely necessary. There is one chapter where she fights a bear (who is a master in Bearjitsu) but they’re clearly sparing and no one ends up hurt.

I’m not sure how culturally sensetive the book is, but it’s funny and makes the lessons very accessible to really young kids. And I think they’re good lessons. The book is also light on plot in favor of telling funny shorts that illustrated a point, but that doesn’t make the book sound didactic. I also suspect this could draw in reluctant readers in that second grade year (I can think of a few boys over the years who would have loved this book).

I would recommend it for first and second graders, especially those into martial arts and talking animals.


Detective GordonDetective Gordon: The First Case written by Ulf Nilsson, illustrated by Gitte Spee

Lexile: 510L

From GoodReads: Someone’s stealing nuts from the forest, and it’s up to Detective Gordon to catch the thief! Unfortunately, solving this crime means standing in the snow and waiting for a long time… If only he had an assistant – someone small, fast, and clever – to help solve this terrible case.

I loved this book. From the darling illustrations to the relationship between Detective Gordon and his new partner Buffy. A squirrel has had some of his nuts stolen and Detective Gordon must solve the case. Unfortunately he is slowing down in his old age and would really like to be sitting by the fire with a little cake and tea instead.

When Detective Gordon finds a mouse stealing one nut from the squirrel’s hoard he takes her back to the station and discovers she has no home, no name, and no food. Gordon is touched and takes her on as his new assistant. The First Case goes on to do a phenomenal job showing how their friendship and working relationship develops. It’s even more extraordinary considering the book is so short and relatively simple. Gordon is tired and sometimes a little cranky, but he wants to teach Buffy and does so gently. He also brings his experience to the table. Buffy is young and energetic and sharp. She may not have all the years Gordon does, but she will clearly make a good detective. In fact it’s Buffy that helps find the stolen nuts.

The illustrations are sweet, the story has both humor and heart. The dialog isn’t stilted nor is the storytelling. Because of this The First Case would make an excellent read aloud, especially for parents.

Pack-n-Go GirlsThe Mystery of the Thief in the Night written by Janelle Diller

Lexile: 520L

From GoodReads: Izzy Bennett’s family sails into a quiet lagoon in Mexico and drops their anchor. Izzy can’t wait to go explore the pretty little village, eat yummy tacos, and practice her Spanish. When she meets nine-year-old Patti Cruz Delgado, Izzy’s thrilled. Now she can do all that and have a new friend to play with too. Life is perfect.
At least it’s perfect until they realize a midnight thief is on on the loose!

This was a great little chapter book. While the intent was certainly to share that girls around the world aren’t so different and to share some culture of Mexico none of that felt out of place, awkwardly shared, or tacked on.

Izzy and her family are sailing around Mexico for a year while her parents take a year off work.While anchored in a small lagoon in the town of Barra de Navidad they discover that someone has been stealing dinghies off boats. This makes Izzy and her parents nervous but they decide to stay anyway. Izzy quickly makes friends with a girl her age, Patti, whose family owns the local hotel. The two girls decide to keep watch one night and end up seeing a boat stolen. It’s the mystery that dominates the story and makes it a lot of fun and of course the girls crack the case.

It might seem like the Bennett family is wealthy, but they aren’t. Izzy realizes her life looks pretty cush compared to her new friend Patti’s, but she explains that they have to make sacrifices and budget their money tightly to make this year work.

There are several other books in this series. Two more are set in Mexico with Izzy and Patti while one is set in Thailand and two in Austria. The last two feature two different sets of girls. I think the idea is good one, sharing about other countries and their cultures while the girls have adventures, and I can certainly see young readers enjoying these. I would say they’re good for second and third grade. Parents may want to read one aloud, but they’re fairly simple so I think they’re better suited to quiet reading (although they aren’t as bad as the Magic Tree House).

OWLOdd, Weird, and Little by Patrick Jennings

Lexile: 580L

From GoodReads: When the new kid joins his class, Woodrow agrees with his schoolmates–Toulouse is really weird. He’s short – kindergarten short – dresses in a suit like a grandpa, has huge eyes, and barely says a word. But Woodrow isn’t exactly Mr. Popularity. The frequent target of the class bully himself, he figures that maybe all Toulouse needs is a chance.
And when the two are put together in gym to play volleyball, they make quite the team. Toulouse can serve, set, and spike like a pro. He really knows how to fly around the court. But when the attention and teasing switch back to Woodrow, he learns that the new kid is great at something else: being a friend.

This was a fun boy friendship story (it seems that a lot of friendship stories are about girls, certainly the ones with drama). Woodrow is kind of an odd kid and when another odd kid shows up who shares some of his interests, like fishing, he’s thrilled. Over the course of the book the new friendship gives Woodrow the courage to stand up to the kids who pick on him and embrace his different  hobbies (making stuff with duct tape!).

I think Jennings did a really good job of showing classroom and kid dynamics. Woodrow is his own person, but he’s not exactly comfortable in his own skin yet. This is particularly due to a couple boys in his class, Garrett and Hubcap. But the kids aren’t overdone mean bullies. They’re jerks, but the teasing is pretty light and not particularly original. There are a few girls in his class that aren’t exactly nice, but they aren’t mean either. Then their teacher is a bit clueless as to what’s going on simply because no one will tell and they’re sneaky enough to do it when the adults aren’t looking.

Spoiler Alert: I am not clear if you are supposed to know that Toulouse is more than he seems. The cover and chapter titles seem to make obvious. As do all the references to how he looks, what he says, and a number of other flashing clues. Maybe I’ve read enough and I’m an adult so I knew already? The reveal doesn’t happen until the very end though.

Horse CrazyHorse Crazy: Circus Horse written Allison Lester, illustrated by Roland Harvey

From GoodReads: In the second volume of this charming series, friends Bonnie and Sam are determined to win the local talent contest. And they know that learning to do trick riding on horseback will secure victory. When the girls pick a real-live horse to practice on, all bets are off. The excitement will keep young readers turning pages, as Bonnie and Sam discover that some things are even better than winning.

This is another good series about girls and horses. It’s a higher reading level than Bramble and Maggie and has a lot more words and a lot fewer pictures, but is still good for second and third graders. I happened to read the second book in the series since that’s what was available at the library, but it stood on its own just fine. The book itself was a fun story with a good message at the end. There’s also a great friendship between Bonnie and Sam.

It was an intriguing book too because it is set in Australia. That means there’s some slang that might be new to US readers, but horse lovers will be captivated by the book regardless. Beware, it appears the series goes by two names and I can’t figure out if it’s an Australia/US thing or what. I’ve seen both Bonne and Sam and Horse Crazy, but as of right now there are four books in the series.





Cowgirl KateCowgirl Kate and Cocoa written by Erica Silverman, illustrated by Betsy Lewin

Lexile: 400L

From Goodreads: Hold on to your hats! Two new pals have arrived on the scene: Cowgirl Kate and her stubborn, but devoted cowhorse, Cocoa. Together they count the herd, ride the range, and, of course, argue till the cows come home–as only best friends can do.

Another girl and her horse series. This one is even simpler than Bramble and Maggie making it perfect for kids just starting out on chapter books. The stories to me are reminiscent of Morris the Moose and many of those older, humorous chapter books. Each chapter features a funny punch line that might take a little thought from the reader.

The illustrations are darling and fill the pages. In fact this has the feel of a picture book but has chapters which will make early readers feel proud. There are several books in the series and they all hover around the same reading level which is nice for those kids who will whip through them.

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