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14

Dec
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: Billie’s Blues by Zetta Elliott

On 14, Dec 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

billies-bluesBillie’s Blues written by Zetta Elliott, pictures by Paul Melecky and Purple Wong

From Goodreads: Billie’s best friend thinks their neighbor, Ms. Marble, is crazy. Supposedly Ms. Marble has a hundred cats in her apartment and sings to them all day long. But when Billie spends an afternoon with her elderly neighbor, she discovers that Ms. Marble is actually a lot of fun! Ms. Marble introduces Billie to Lady Day, Ma Rainey, and other great blues singers. Together they dress up in antique clothes, and sing and dance to the blues. Then Ms. Marble shares an old secret she has been keeping in her heart. Billie learns that “some hurts stay inside you a mighty long time,” but the optimism of the blues triumphs in the end; Ms. Marble assures her young friend that “the sun’s gonna shine in my back door someday.”

Another excellent title from Zetta Elliott. Billie has the blues. It’s raining, her best friend is sick, her babysitter is running late and now she has to go with her mom to the community college for a few hours. Just as the elevator arrives on their floor, Ms. Marble, their elderly neighbor, pokes her head out to say hello. Billie grabs the opportunity and invites herself over to Ms. Marble’s apartment for the afternoon. Ms. Marble is delighted and the two spend an amazing afternoon listening to jazz, dressing up, and eating cookies.

The story was actually really cozy, despite the secret Ms. Marble shares (more on that in a minute). I think the story is a wonderful celebration of a cross-generational friendship developing. And I think readers will be able to discover all the great music and singers that Billie is introduced to that afternoon. I found Billie to be funny. She narrates inside her head and admits the times she is doing things her mother will find rude, like asking too many questions, using “ain’t”, and inviting herself over. But she also rather impishly says her mom isn’t there so she doesn’t care. That seemed like such a kid thing to do and made me chuckle. I think it also makes her really relatable to kids. They’ll have the same questions Billie does and be relieved she just up and asks.

I’m going to spoil the secret that Ms. Marble shares with Billie: her sweetheart was lynched in the South. The text does not specifically mention lynching, just that he was “taken”, but the illustration on the page shows a young Ms. Marble crying with a noose and gallows off in the distance. It’s certainly subtle and for some kids it won’t really register. Others may know exactly what happened. I suppose people’s tolerance for lynching in a book aimed at third through fifth graders will vary. Professionally, I don’t see any reason not to have the book on your shelf where families, children and teachers can make those decisions for themselves. Personally, I think children are very good at grasping difficult history, feeling compassion and tapping into their strong sense of social justice. (For those of you who think children don’t have a sense of social justice, go out to a playground at recess and pay attention.) Parents, teachers and librarians may need to be ready to answer questions that arise, but to me that’s the most important aspect of books like these. It opens up hard conversations, teaches history that isn’t usually discussed and validates children’s ability to really see the world as it is. There is a little bit of age appropriate information included in the back. It might seem radical to some conservative library populations (even my school would have parents that would object), but I guarantee you children will be able to handle it (yes, I’ve talked about this and worse with my five year old).

The book ends on a happy note and a hint at Billie and Ms. Marble’s friendship continuing. If you don’t have Elliott’s books on your shelves yet, what are you waiting for? They are exactly the kind of stuff we need to give to our kids. Run, don’t walk, to her website and/or Amazon and buy all of them now!

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07

Sep
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: Jaden Toussaint, The Greatest by Marti Dumas

On 07, Sep 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Jaden ToussaintJaden Toussaint, The Greatest Episode 1: The Quest for Screen Time written by Marti Dumas, illustrated by Marie Muravski

From Goodreads: Jaden Toussaint is a five year-old who knows it all. I mean, really knows it all. Animal Scientist. Great Debater. Master of the art of ninja dancing. There’s nothing Jaden Toussaint can’t do. The only problem is that grown-ups keep trying to convince him that, even though he’s really smart, he doesn’t know EVERYTHING. The thing is…he kind of does. This time our hero must use all his super-powered brain power to convince the grown-ups that he needs more screen time.

This book was hilarious and it was humor I think both kids and adults will enjoy. Dumas has really captured the inner thoughts of a young kid in a way that is both funny and serious. Even as an adult I throughly enjoyed reading this.

The chapter breaks are perfect. Just as Jaden has an idea or something new needs to be introduced the current chapter ends and the next chapter begins, complete with chapter title that repeats the introduction. So for example Jaden is talking about wanting to get more screen time to play games online and look up facts on the internet. He’s tried begging and asking various people in his family, but nothing has worked. All that changes with Miss Bates, the text says. Cut to the next chapter entitled “Miss Bates Class”. Most of the chapters are like this and, to me, it reads like good comic timing.

The story itself is probably pretty relatable to kids. Jaden has had a taste of screen time and is trying to finagle some more when his teacher assigns homework. One task they can choose for homework is time on the computer, but Jaden’s parents still say no screen time. Jaden decides to create a petition for all the Kindergarteners to sign asking for more screen time on the homework sheet in order to force his parents to give him some. Also, there is a ninja dance break.

The illustrations are fine. There are little nods to some great African Americans and blacks on the wall of Jaden’s room. The beginning also starts out a little graphic-novelish with sparse text scattered around the illustrations as Jaden’s family is introduced. They provide good breaks for the beginning reader. Also a bonus, the trim size is more like a big-kid chapter book (it’s still a little large). Despite the easy language and format it looks less like an easy reader and more like what older kids would want to pick up.

Since our public library didn’t have this one I bought the first book, but I will be purchasing the next couple “episodes” this year. I highly recommend this to collections that need some easy, easy chapter books that look more grown up. I can’t emphasize enough how kid-like the logic is in the story and how that makes it so appealing for a child audience with a good sense of humor and an adult audience who is familiar with dealing with that logic. Kids love humorous books and this fits the bill perfectly.

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20

Aug
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Middle Grade Review: Towers Falling by Jewel Parker Rhodes

On 20, Aug 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Towers FallingTowers Falling by Jewel Parker Rhodes

From Goodreads: When her fifth-grade teacher hints that a series of lessons about home and community will culminate with one big answer about two tall towers once visible outside their classroom window, Deja can’t help but feel confused. She sets off on a journey of discovery, with new friends Ben and Sabeen by her side. But just as she gets closer to answering big questions about who she is, what America means, and how communities can grow (and heal), she uncovers new questions, too. Like, why does Pop get so angry when she brings up anything about the towers?

I’m pretty sure I’ve read all of Jewel Parker Rhodes middle grade novels at this point and I have loved them all. This was no exception.

I think it would be a mistake to sell this book to kids as only a September 11th book. It needs to be about the friendships and family themes in the book. Most kids in our elementary schools are vaguely aware of 9/11. It’s important and upsetting to those of us who were alive then, but not so much to our young students. I know they can grasp the importance and we’re certainly seeing the ripples of it still with our conflicts in the Middle East, but that’s Over There and way more abstract for these kids. Deja, the main character, struggles with understanding that and it makes the book all more relevant to kids today.

So, Towers Falling is not really a story about 9/11. It’s more a story about how families cope with trauma (or don’t). It’s about how parents and adults give their baggage to children and have expectations of them they can never meet because they don’t know the rules to the game their playing. It’s a story about a family that has fallen on hard times, like so many over the past years, and how it disrupts the children’s ability to function. It all coincides nicely with the anniversary of the attacks on 9/11 and provides a way to talk about those as well, but I think in the years to come the book will have staying power because it is about teaching children to look past the surface of a person.

Deja is deep and she’s hurting and things are hard. She lashes out, she says inconsiderate things, she behaves poorly, not because she wants to or doesn’t know any better, but because there is a lot going on in her life and in her past and those things make it impossible for her not to. She’s been taught to be tough and mean and unfeeling and hurt others before getting hurt herself, but is being held to a standard that expects her to not do those things. Towers Falling is a story about how the past ripples out into the present. Again that happens to be the 9/11 attacks in this story, but it could just as easily be any other event- a shooting, an illness, a car accident. It’s also about how Deja grows through good friends, a conducive environment and learning about the root of many of her family’s troubles (which happen to be the September 11th attacks). It’s about how Deja becomes more aware of what is going on around her.

I found the book incredibly powerful. I realized I have never actually watched the footage of the attacks. I’ve seen the clips of the second plane and I remember a few photographs from the newspaper and that’s it. But I remember that day very vividly. I think it’s hard for me to say with certainly this book is an important part of collection development because I have an emotional reaction to the 9/11 attacks. I believe it’s important for kids to know about them and I think this is a good story to learn about them through. I also think the story itself is only partly about 9/11 and has a lot of value and merit on its own. Recent history is important and I can’t figure out why we’re happy to talk about things like slavery and WWII, but deem 9/11 too hard for kids to learn about.  This is a good book, but I know there will be resistance to putting it on shelves in elementary and middle school libraries. I think it should be on all library shelves and do think we need to consider putting this out there.

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04

Aug
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: Ellis and the Magic Mirror by Cerece Rennie Murphy

On 04, Aug 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Ellis and the Magic MirrorEllis and the Magic Mirror written by Cerece Rennie Murphy, pictures by Gregory Garay

From Goodreads: Ellis Monroe has always been curious about the world. When his father brings home an ancient mirror with the power to reveal the truth about the people and things around him, Ellis begins to see the world in a whole new way.
But things get more than a little strange when Ellis takes the mirror to school. While playing with it on the playground with his best friend, Toro Quispe, Ellis discovers that someone – or something – is hiding out at Harriet Tubman Elementary and trying to stop children from learning. Determined to solve the new mystery, Ellis, Toro, and his little sister, Freddye go on a secret mission to find out the truth about the troublesome Buddy Cruster and stop whatever he and his friends have planned.

I can’t quite put my finger on why, but Ellis and the Magic Mirror brought Akata Witch to mind. I think it was the group of friends banding together and working together paired with the magic. This was another good self published chapter book. The story was action packed and fast moving (often important in early chapter books). The cast is, as you can see by the cover, diverse.

There is a strong theme of friendship and working together in the story that I enjoyed, too. It showed the friends teaming up to both figure out the mystery around what the mirror was showing them and dealing with the trolls they discover. I also liked the sibling relationship between Ellis and Freddye. It was healthy. They bicker a bit, but the two clearly care for each other and work together well despite an age gap. I’m personally really tired of books with siblings that are at each other’s throats constantly (although I understand there are families where that is the case).

So a lot of times there are stories that I feel could be resolved more easily if children would just bring the problem to the attention of an adult. Particularly when things get dangerous. But then the kids just don’t for what appears to be no other reason than to drive the plot. I know that can be realistic to an extent, but I think it also runs counter to what we tell children to do in threatening situations. Ellis finds himself in a situation like that here, except the book gives two really good reasons for not telling adults. First, there is magic involved and it’s unlikely an adult would believe the kids. Second, Ellis has stolen the mirror from his dad and doesn’t want him to know that he has the mirror. I infinitely prefer stories where there are solid reasons for not telling an adult. I’m not sure if that’s a preference for me as an adult or someone who is very literal, but I am much more likely to willingly suspend my belief in what is going on and fall into the world of the story.

Once again the trim size a little large on this one and I wish it was a bit smaller. Also I don’t know if self published titles have this option, but most of them seem not to have the title and author printed on the spine. That means once they are shelved in the library they tend to disappear onto the shelf. Thicker books don’t disappear as much, but I try to leave them out on display as often as possible so they don’t get lost.

In all, a book worth putting on your shelf if you need a little magic and friendship in the early chapter book section.

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03

Aug
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: The Magic Mirror by Zetta Elliott

On 03, Aug 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000419_00052]The Magic Mirror by Zetta Elliott

From Goodreads: When a boy at school hurts Kamara’s feelings, she goes home and asks her grandmother if the mean words are really true. Gramma tells Kamara to go upstairs and clean the old mirror in the guest room. But when Kamara starts to rub the glass, she discovers that the mirror is magical! Kamara sees brave women from the past who faced many challenges yet never gave up hope. When the historical journey ends in the twenty-first century, the mirror once again shows Kamara her own reflection. She sheds her self-doubt and instead draws strength from the courage of the women she met in the magic mirror.

The Magic Mirror is another self published gem from Zetta Elliott. At it’s heart it is a story about bullying. Kamara has been teased at school and she has come home to seek comfort from her grandmother. While Kamara shares that she’s been called a name, that word is never used, which allows readers to fill in what it might be. Sadly, I’m sure African American kids can fill in worse words than what my students might. I like, though, that the book leaves it open for interpretation to some extent (as an adult it seems pretty clear to me that Kamara has been called something awful).

With a little magic in her grandmother’s mirror, Kamara is taken on a journey through history, seeing her ancestors deal with racism and injustice over the centuries and decades since Africans were brought in chains. The history she sees can be rather unflinching, but it isn’t inappropriate (i.e. graphic or overly informative) for the target audience. Elliott knows what she’s doing in sharing difficult history with children.

The beauty, if there can be any beauty in a racist interaction, is that Kamara, and by extension the reader, comes away with a fascinating and uplifting look at black history in America. The fact that this is mostly a realistic fiction story with some school yard drama make this an incredibly appealing book for kids transitioning into chapter books. There is a lot of realistic fiction at this reading level and kids seem to really want that. The book also isn’t especially long, nor is the text especially difficult, which again make it a great addition to a moving-up collection.

If I could change one thing about the book it would be the trim size. It’s somewhere between chapter book and picture book. Not only would making it smaller make the book thicker (and appear longer), but it would match with the chapter books my students desperately want to read. I just don’t understand the stigma against picture books at that second/third grade age. I suspect it comes from adults, though. Despite this, The Magic Mirror is well worth adding to your collection if you can add self published books. The first day it was in the library I had a girl gleefully grab it off the shelf and check it out. It went out at least one other time after that and I added it in the last couple months of school. I’ll be booktalking it at the beginning of the year with my second grade group.

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02

Aug
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: March of the Mini Beasts by Ada Hopper

On 02, Aug 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

March of the Mini BeastsMarch of the Mini Beasts (The D.A.T.A. Set #1) written by Ada Hopper, pictures by Sam Ricks

From Goodreads: Gabe, Laura, and Cesar live on a quiet cul-de-sac. They are the whiz kids of Newtonburg Elementary and each specializes in their own subject. In fact, everyone in town lovingly refers to them as the Data Set. However, their quiet days of learning take a sudden turn for the exciting when they meet Dr. Gustav Bunsen—a mad scientist who throws the kids into a wild spiral of adventures.
When Dr. Bunsen’s latest invention, a growth ray, hits several tiny animal toys, the mini beasts don’t just grow, they come to life! The DATA Set love their new tiny pets…until they continue to grow. Now there’s an actual elephant in the room—not to mention a chimp, a giraffe, and a dinosaur. When the beasts wander off, it’s up to the DATA Set to track them down. But will they catch the mini beasts before they grow big enough to start trouble in town?

I came across this one at the local Barnes and Noble. We are in desperate need of science fiction in our chapter book collection and I wasn’t disappointed with it in terms of story. It was a fun and funny book. As an adult I had to put aside how eager Dr. Bunsen was to work with a group of kids (is that creepy? or is he that much of an absent-minded scientist?) and the science was shaky at best. Still, kids will enjoy the story.

In it, the DATA set, a group of friends, are trying to sell chocolate bars to raise money for their club. They approach the run down house at the end of the block and meet Dr. Bunsen who happens to love chocolate. He invites them in and is delighted when the kids take an interest in his inventions. The kids and Doctor pair up and decide to test out his growth ray on their toy animals. And it works! This seems cool until the animals escape their enclosures and wreak some havoc. The kids come up with a solution for the more traditional animals, but what about the dinosaur? The book ends on a cliff hanger, setting the sequel up.

The cast is diverse and in particular you see it with Cesar who speaks some Spanish at home. The book falls into that same gray area that I was talking about with The Gold Medal Mess yesterday. It’s pretty shallow diversity even with the Spanish, but I’ve yet to see a simple chapter book like this really engage with diversity while not making the story entirely about it. I think Zetta Elliot does it best in her second City Kids book, but that is more historical fiction than science fiction (despite the time travel) and the history focuses on race. I have yet to see a lot more books like that one.

The thing is the book is fine and I think kids will like it. There is some diversity represented in the pictures. It’s not a perfect solution, but a compromise I think I have to make right now. A compromise between having no diversity and wanting more. In some ways I feel like I have to buy these books to show publishers that I want diversity so they will publish better titles in the future. Nothing in this felt problematic just shallow (if someone else catches something, please let me know), so it’s diversity I’m comfortable having on the shelf. Recommended if you need more science fiction on your shelves.

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01

Aug
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: The Gold Medal Mess by David A. Kelly

On 01, Aug 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Gold Medal MessThe Gold Medal Mess (MVP #1) by David A. Kelly

From Goodreads: Five friends are ready for their school’s Olympics field day. There will be relay races, archery contests, and more! But not everyone wants to play fair—someone is trying to ruin the events! Can the kids in the Most Valuable Player club solve the mystery, save the Olympics, and take home the gold?

I’m not sure I really need more mysteries in my chapter book collection, but I do need more sports themed books. I was also happy to see that two of the children pictured on the front of the book are not white. As far as I can remember their ethnicity isn’t commented on (I really don’t remember if their skin color or hair were mentioned) so it was a choice by the illustrator to make them non-white.

This book falls into that odd space where the diversity of the kids isn’t really commented on. On the one hand I want books where the diversity is incidental, but I also wonder if that’s just surface diversity and not okay. The thing about this book is, it’s a very simple chapter book with a fast paced mystery. Diversity, particularly ethnicity, doesn’t factor into the story and might be interesting to explore if it wasn’t a book intended for kids who are just learning to get through chapter books. If you load these books down kids don’t want to read them until they’re older. I’m fairly confident in our collection of chapter books. There is a range of types of stories and the diversity is considered in some and not others. I think it’s fine to add this to our collection for those kids who want to literally see themselves (on the cover), but want a fun, easy mystery. You’ll have to take your own opinion about this into consideration and an assessment of your own collection to know if it’s the right book for your library.

In terms of story, it was a simple, fun mystery. Someone is trying to sabotage the school olympics and five friends decide they need to find out who. It isn’t a huge surprise. It isn’t a deep book, but it was a lot of fun. I do recommend it if you are looking for more sports books that weren’t written thirty years ago. Also, why are there so many baseball books in the chapter book genre? I think we have one kid a year who plays baseball and yet nearly every sports chapter book we have is baseball. A fun, quick mystery involving sports and sportsmanship is a win in my collection.

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26

Jul
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Middle Grade Review: The Monkey King’s Daughter by T. A. DeBonis

On 26, Jul 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Monkey King's Daughter

The Monkey King’s Daughter written by T. A. DeBonis

From Goodreads: The Monkey King’s Daughter isn’t about Sun Wukong, the Monkey King – it’s about his daughter, Meilin. Only, Meilin doesn’t know she’s the Monkey King’s daughter. In fact, she doesn’t know she’s half-monkey at all. As far as Meilin knows, she’s an ordinary 14 year-old high school freshman from Midland Hills, California, facing all the problems that bright young girls face at that age- flakey girlfriends, zits, too much homework, bad hair, obnoxious boys… But all of that changes when her ancient past catches up with her. (And she thought high school was gonna be easy…)

Today I have another great self published series. I said in another recent review that I am getting rather tired of Greek mythology. Because of Percy Jackson it seems to be everywhere. As a kid I went through a phase where I was into Greek mythology and I still enjoy it, but there is a lot of really interesting mythology out there (I was always way more fascinated with Egyptian mythology) and I wish I had been able to discover it as a young reader. The Monkey King’s Daughter is based in Chinese stories of the Monkey King. If you’ve read Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese you will be familiar with the myth this book draws on. Plenty of it is explained in the course of the story and will make sense to kids unfamiliar with it.

Despite Melin’s age and the fact that she’s in high school, the book is totally appropriate for upper elementary. It’s perfect for kids who like to age up. I would also highly recommend it for lower readers in middle school. The story is exciting enough, but the reading level isn’t particularly difficult.

The pacing was off in a few places. Most of the time the story plugged along, but there were a couple places where things happened a little quickly, felt rushed, and were glossed over. I think this has less to do with it being self published and more to do with the reading level it’s intended for. I don’t know exactly where it falls, but it’s a little more difficult than beginning chapter books, but not nearly as difficult as Percy Jackson (or as long).

My only other complaint is that when Meilin meets her father for the first time she isn’t awkward or angry or anything. She runs into his arms and they spend an evening star gazing together, enjoying each other’s company. I just had a hard time believing that a kid who hasn’t met her father would feel overwhelming love for a man who was never around. Will most kids care about this? The only kids who might are ones who have not met their fathers or who have experienced meeting them later in life. Does that make the book unworthy? I don’t think so. I doubt most kids who will tear through the adventure in this will mind that it isn’t totally authentic. Just be aware it may fall a little flat for some readers.

I really hope this story leads kids to the original Monkey King stories from the different parts of Asia. They’re very exciting and funny. Meilin takes some things in stride, but she was a very realistic kid. She didn’t suddenly become good at everything when she discovered her heritage and fell into her adventure. This is the first in a series and I’ll be buying the rest (I bought the first to try it out). It’s well worth having on our library shelves, particularly if you have kids who love mythology (we all have Riordan fans) and kids who like action.

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23

Jul
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Kidlit Review: Manatee Rescue by Nicola Davies

On 23, Jul 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Manatee RescueManatee Rescue by Nicola Davies

From Goodreads: Manuela had imagined that killing a manatee would be like killing a very big fish, just more exciting. But when her father successfully harpoons one, leaving its baby orphaned, she finds that her feelings have changed. She vows to rescue the baby manatee and return it to the river. But she soon realizes what an enormous task she’s taken on. Will she be able to save the baby manatee—and protect him from being hunted in the future, too?

I was surprised by the author on this one. I am familiar with her picture books and wondered how she would handle a chapter book. I was a little worried about a white author writing about a rural population in Colombia. And then it’s about conservation which can be contentious with poor, rural people. I wasn’t sure if it would read like someone denigrating the people trying to survive or imposing white values on a society that sees the world differently. I would love to hear someone who has a better sense of these things chime in, but I thought Davies did a fine job telling the story.

The writing was good and the story well told. She tackles the idea that the people are poor and reliant on the land, but that they would have reasons to want to join conservation movements. The story is actually based partially on a true story and a real manatee conservation organization. Airuwe is a real manatee who was rescued. I think that lends the story some authenticity that might have otherwise been hard to capture. Davies never made the people seem backwards or ignorant. She didn’t dwell on their poverty. While Manuela cares for the manatee baby she is watched by her village. She respectfully tries to teach them about why they might want to save Airuwe and manatees in general. Moreover, most of the villagers come to the conclusion that they shouldn’t hunt manatees on their own.

I liked that Manuela was not a hero per se. She did what felt right to her. The first scene where she and her father hunt and kill the mother manatee is not graphic, but it changes her. She realizes what it means to take the life of an animal and she decides she needs to save the baby.

Manatee Rescue reminds me of Tiger Boy by Mitali Perkins. If that one is popular in your library you should definitely purchase this one. Both are great books about animal conservation. This would make a good addition to a library that has kids interested in animals and conservation. There is a bit of back matter in this one that discusses manatees and their precarious situation across the globe. It also shares a bit about conservation efforts along the Amazon.

There are some sweet black and white water color pictures sprinkled into the book. They don’t add a whole lot to the book, but they are charming. I am not wild about the cover and I am curious if that is the correct kind of manatee. There are three kinds apparently and that one looks like the ones I’ve seen in Florida and it appears to be missing the distinctive white chest patch of Amazonian manatees.

I will definitely be buying this one for out mellow yellow section. It’s the transition from chapter books into the honest-to-goodness fiction section. We have books like The One and Only Ivan shelved there. In theory it could probably go in our transitional chapter book section. It isn’t terribly difficult and it clocks in at just under 100 pages. It would be one of our harder chapter books which is why I think I would bump it up. Either way it’s a good addition to those kids working their way into harder fiction books.

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18

Jul
2016

In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Series Review: Papa Lemon’s Little Wanderers

On 18, Jul 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Papa LemonPapa Lemon’s Little Wanderers written by Lehman Riley, illustrated by Joshua Wallace

  • Book 1: Meeting Dr. Martin Luther King
  • Book 2: The Dangerous Escape From Slavery
  • Book 3: World War II, The Navajo Wind Talkers
  • Book 4: The Life of Babe Didrikson
  • Book 5: The California Gold Rush
  • Book 6: Dr. Daniel Williams and the First Successful Hear Surgery in 1893

From Goodreads: Papa Lemon and Mama Sarah are the neighborhood grandparents in the small town of West, Mississippi. Papa Lemon helps five multi-cultural friends learn about our nations diverse heritage by sending them back in time via a magical train.

Papa Lemon’s Little Wanderers is a series I came across through another blog’s supporters page. Several of the books in the series cover time periods and events that are studied in my school, so I thought I would buy the series and give them a shot.

I really enjoyed them, and while there are a few issues, by and large they are well worth adding to a chapter book collection. Each book features a group of friends who travel back in time to explore different historical periods and meet historical figures. There’s a bit of belief suspension required around their time traveling locomotive, but I think only sticklers will mind. The writing in the books flows nicely and isn’t overly complex or overly simplified. They are short, beginning chapter books so the stories are bit simplistic, but again for the reading level that is perfect. The dialog is never stilted and nothing felt jarring or awkwardly phrased.

One technicality. There are no actual chapters in these. I’m calling them chapter books because of their length, the ratio of pictures to text, and the complexity of the stories and text. I really wish they had chapter breaks, though. It would help sell the books to readers who are looking for that grown-up feel of chapters. I also wish the trim size was smaller. Again, it makes the kids feel like they are reading older, harder books.

I also wish someone like Debbie Reese would look at the third book which talks about the Navajo Wind Talkers. There are good books out there about them (Joseph Bruchac’s for example), but they’re are all written for older, stronger readers. I think Riley was respectful in handling the Native uncle, but there wasn’t much information about the Wind Talkers. I suppose by stating he was a Wind Talker, it identifies the uncle’s, and by extension Kaya’s, native nation, but I wonder if it could have been more specific. I also wonder if there could have been more information about the Navajo that would have helped the story along. When the friends end up traveling back in time in the book they go to the Pacific theatre to meet another friend’s uncle, not to see the Wind Talkers.

The illustrations are fine if sometimes a little awkward, but there really aren’t that many of them. This is the place where the books feel like something self published. Kids like slick books, but in my experience what they think of as slick and what adults think of as slick can be vastly different. I think the trim size of these books is more likely to make them hesitate to pick them up. The friends are drawn as a diverse group with a mix of genders and ethnic backgrounds. Based on the third book the Native American girl is identified as Navajo. My only complaint about how the text and illustrations work together is AJ, the white friend. In the text he’s always hungry. No mention of his build or shape is made, but the illustrations show him as overweight. I think it’s a stereotype and while I think it would be great to have an overweight kid in the book, I don’t think he should be the one who is always hungry and wanting to find a snack. There’s no reason he has to be drawn that way.

A short historical note at the end of these that either elaborated on the historical period or pointed readers to more information would make them a little stronger. I completely understand that the books are not deep historical accounts of the time periods the kids visit. These are short chapter books for emerging readers. They are absolutely perfect for sparking their interest in these historical time periods and figures, so why not point them in the right direction to find more information.

Be aware that some of the titles appear to be out of print and need to be purchased used. The print quality and overall production quality has gotten better over the series, which is nice if they are going to be circulating. I plan on hand selling these to my second graders and any third graders I can find (I think I’m switching from working with third grade to pre-k this coming year? we’ll see) and I’ll report back on how they are received. I think between our Civil Rights study in music in the second semester and the (flawed) study of the Underground Railroad I can rope them in with the first two books. I’m still chewing on AJ and how problematic he is.

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