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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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