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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: The Hundred Penny Box by Sharon Bell Mathis

On 07, Oct 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Hundred Penny BoxThe Hundred Penny Box written by Sharon Bell Mathis, pictures by Diane and Leo Dillon

Lexile: 700L

From Goodreads: Michael loves his great-great-aunt Dew, even if she can’t always remember his name. He especially loves to spend time with her and her beloved hundred penny box, listening to stories about each of the hundred years of her life. Michael’s mother wants to throw out the battered old box that holds the pennies, but Michael understands that the box itself is as important to Aunt Dew as the memories it contains.

I am so sad this book:

  1. Is not actually broken into chapters.
  2. Has such a boring and dated cover.
  3. Doesn’t have a smaller form factor.

I was totally blown away by this story as it’s a story about death. While Michael reflects back on his great Aunt’s life with her through her pennies (one for each year of her life) he also struggles with his mother who wants to toss the old box that holds the pennies. This is a big metaphor for how she feels about Aunt Dew living with them and Michael doesn’t quite understand that, but he picks up on the tension.

The story is so worth reading, but those three things I listed above will make it a really hard sell with kids. Also, while I loved the book, there’s something about the story that didn’t feel quite modern. It’s kind of an intellectual story and it’s very slow moving (two things I could not have gotten past as a child-reader). I think it would make an excellent read aloud either in the classroom or at home. I think a lot of kids will relate to caring for an elderly relative and the strain that can put on their family. It would also make an excellent literature study.

Oddly enough Amazon has the book available as a Puffin Picture Book. The book is pretty long and doesn’t have that many illustrations so I’m not sure why it got that reprinting treatment. It is also listed as  a book for 6-9 year olds. I would say 9 is about the age where this book’s range should start. It’s a complex and nuanced story and a six-year-old may not sit through it and without some serious discussion, isn’t going to get it. Plus that reading level is pretty high.

SPOILER ALERT: Although it doesn’t say it out right on the last page, I believe Aunt Dew dies with Michael lying next to her. I think this is part of what makes the story so incredible. She passes peacefully, but Michael gains this understanding of the importance of a life well lived and in keeping your memories alive. Part of the beauty of the story is also in that Michael, a child, clearly understands the importance of the hundred penny box much better than the adults (Aunt Dew excepted) and tries very hard to fight for it and convince his mother of its power and importance.

I checked the book out of my library both to see if I can find some good diverse chapter books and hand sell them to my patrons and to see what we might weed out of the collection. I doubt this book has circulated in years (update: it looks like it hasn’t circulated since we put our catalog on the computer 15 years ago) so it should go if I can’t convince any one to read it and love it. If you have kids or students that like slow books or are dealing with older relatives then it would be worth previewing.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: Honey by Sarah Weeks

On 06, Oct 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

HoneyFrom Goodreads: Melody has lived in Royal, Indiana, for as long as she can remember. It’s been just her and her father, and she’s been okay with that. But then she overhears him calling someone Honey — and suddenly it feels like everyone in Royal has a secret. It’s up to Melody and her best friend, Nick, to piece together the clues and discover why Honey is being hidden.
 Meanwhile, a dog named Mo is new to Royal. He doesn’t remember much from when he was a puppy . . . but he keeps having dreams of a girl he is bound to meet someday. This girl, he’s sure, will change everything.

Lexile: 830L

I was sort of ho-hum on Honey. It wasn’t a bad book by any means and the story was fun while I was reading it, if a little sad. But the ending is happy and the mystery is just mysterious enough to engage kids. In fact this makes a great elementary school read because everything at the end wraps up so nicely. Kids are obviously fine with endings that aren’t clear or mix good and bad, but I think the younger they are the more they really like tidy stories. I think that gets irritating to some as the mature, too.

Although I’m not a dog person I thought Mo’s storyline where he waits for the dream girl to come along is really fun and sweet. You just know that it’s Mel he’s waiting for and so you wait with him wondering when they’ll finally meet and if will happen they way Mo has always dreamed it would.

My only issue with the book was Mel’s best friend Nick Woo. He felt a bit like a token diverse character. No one else’s ethnicity is mentioned and everyone else has culturally ambiguous names. But Nik has an Asian last name and is the target of one unintentionally unkind, probing comment from a little girl (“Do you have a suntan or are you always that color?”). It is then quickly explained in a sentence that Nick’s mom is African American and his father was Chinese. However, this is the only mention, beyond the implication of his last name, that he is mixed race or anything other than white. And the comment sort of pops up and passes and doesn’t have much other bearing on the story. In fact, there is absolutely no reason Nick couldn’t have been white like everyone else and that comment could be wiped from the story without anyone noticing it was gone. Which makes me think he was made mixed race to ensure there was diversity, which doesn’t feel authentic at all. I’m not saying his family needs to be seen wearing dreadlocks and eating Chinese food to feel real, but those few sentences read like “here let me make sure you know there’s a person of color in this book”.

If you have readers that like stories with animals, like family stories, and like quirky little towns this is a great book to satisfy them. Just don’t go looking for diversity here.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: Battle Bugs: The Lizard War by Jack Patton

On 05, Oct 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Lizard WarBattle Bugs: The Lizard War written by Jack Patton

Lexile: 740L

From Goodreads: Bug Island is under attack! The lizard army is invading and the Battle Bugs are losing. Their only hope against the intruders is a strange creature they’ve never seen before–a human being named Max.
Max doesn’t know how he ended up on Bug Island–but he does know the Battle Bugs need his help!

I would not call this book great literature. But boy is it exciting and engaging! Battle Bugs combines bugs, insects, and various other creepy crawlies in a war with lizards and reptiles. This would be a great book to hand to reluctant readers who are interested in insects or reptiles (although the reptiles are the villains). The plot is pretty straight forward despite the “mystery” of how Max got to the island and it’s full of suspense, quick saves and action.

Max is a cool kid that draws on his knowledge of insects to help them fight and win a battle. I like it when smarts are not something a kid has to be ashamed of. And I like it even more when a kid can totally geek out without shame.

I picked up a copy for a few dollars on Amazon because our second grade does a unit on insects and thought this might tie in nicely with that. I booktalked it to the third graders since it’s closer to their reading level right now and they’ve already asked for more in the series. So far three are out with the fourth coming out in the next couple weeks and the fifth due in January.

Max’s ethnicity is never mentioned in the book, at least not that I caught, and yet he’s drawn as black. I love that the pictures did not default him to white. I do wish he was on the cover, though.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: Chickadee by Louise Erdrich

On 04, Oct 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

ChickadeeChickadee written by Louise Erdrich, pictures by Louise Erdrich

Lexile: 800L

From Goodreads: Twin brothers Chickadee and Makoons have done everything together since they were born—until the unthinkable happens and the brothers are separated.

Desperate to reunite, both Chickadee and his family must travel across new territories, forge unlikely friendships, and experience both unexpected moments of unbearable heartache as well as pure happiness. And through it all, Chickadee has the strength of his namesake, the chickadee, to carry him on.

This is the fourth, and as far as I can tell, final book in the Birchbark House series. You don’t necessarily have to have read the other books to enjoy and follow this one (I have read the first, but not the middle two). The ending felt like it left some ends untied so maybe Erdrich plans on writing another in the series?

Chickadee is more of an adventure story than The Birchbark House, however it features many of the everyday life scenes and thoughts that made the first book so good. At times the pacing felt uneven as it switched between following Chickadee and then his family searching for him. But these stories are not meant for readers who like plot-driven novels. They’re for readers who like quiet, realistic daily life stories. Chickadee’s story line features some really interesting history (western expansion and trade) and some great wilderness survival scenes that I can see really hooking in boys.

The “villains” Baptiste and Babiche and the scenes with them remind me so much of some of Sid Fleischman’s books (The Whipping Boy for example). I wish there had been more because they are incredibly funny despite the fact that they are rather menacing and kidnap Chickadee. There is a fair amount of humor in the story despite the fact that Chickadee is stolen from his family and struggles to reunite with them and I think that will really appeal to kids. The book also has the great message of small things and people should not be discounted. Chickadee learns that he has an inner strength despite not being a rough-and-tumble, strong boy.

As with The Birchbark House, I think Chickadee would make a great read aloud. It might move a little slowly for some readers, but kids who like books about family, daily life and historical fiction should find a lot to love about this book.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: Two for Joy by Gigi Amateau

On 03, Oct 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Two for JoyTwo for Joy written by Gigi Amateau, pictures boy Abigail Marble

Lexile: 620L

From Goodreads: Eight-year-old Jenna is dreaming of playing Olympic soccer when the phone call wakes her. Great-Great Aunt Tannie has broken her ankle, and Jenna’s worried mom decides Tannie should move in with them. Tannie is no delicate old lady—she does heavy chores on her Virginia farm, drives a huge pickup, and even rides her own motorcycle. Plus she’s full of joie de vivre, given to kicking a soccer ball and teaching Jenna all about the birds she’s collected on her life list. Jenna’s excited to have her favorite aunt and cat, Butt, come to stay, but with so many changes to get used to, tempers around the house soon start to flare. Maybe with all the caring and being taken care of, they’ve forgotten what Tannie is still so good at—and neglected to have any fun.

I don’t really remember where I saw Two for Joy recommended or reviewed, but I must have seen it on some blog if I found it to read. I do know I picked it up because it features a family taking on caring for an older member. So many stories seem to feature parent-child families living together with grandparents living some distance away or not featuring at all. But I think the reality is for many children that grandparents, older aunts and uncles, etc. live with them or near by. This was especially true in the economic crisis we had- a lot of people moved in with family – and it’s nice to see that reflected in some way in this book.

Care for elderly relatives often falls on families. Many people (most?) can’t afford expensive nursing homes and assisted living facilities so older parents end up living with their children.Even when someone lives in a nursing home there is still a fair amount of care and involvement required from families. I know my own mother is over at my grandmother’s apartment once and twice a week delivering supplies, paying bills, checking in and driving her to doctor’s appointments. This can really take a toll on a family and Two for Joy examines this from the perspective of a child. Being a kidlit novel the ending resolves fairly easily and there isn’t the drop-down, drag-out fight over Tannie leaving her home of 50+ years which I think would have been more realistic, if not appropriate. Again, seeing this relationship and its difficulties reflected in a children’s novel is really refreshing.

In content Two for Joy reminds me a lot of Pearl Versus the World which was another fantastic, short book about caring for an aging (and in Pearl’s case, dying) relative. Give kids Two for Joy if they liked Pearl or steer them to that one next (although use your judgement because of the ending in Pearl and based on what a child’s situation might be). Also give it to kids who may have had an older relative move in with them recently and to kids who like gentle family stories where members are supportive and caring, but not without their flaws.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: Rad American Women A-Z by Kate Schatz

On 02, Oct 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Rad American Women

Rad American Women A-Z by Kate Schatz, illustrated by Miriam Klein Stahl

Lexile: 1040L

From Goodreads: Like all A-Z books, this one illustrates the alphabet—but instead of “A is for Apple”, A is for Angela—as in Angela Davis, the iconic political activist. B is for Billie Jean King, who shattered the glass ceiling of sports; C is for Carol Burnett, who defied assumptions about women in comedy; D is for Dolores Huerta, who organized farmworkers; and E is for Ella Baker, who mentored Dr. Martin Luther King and helped shape the Civil Rights Movement.

And the list of great women continues, spanning several centuries, multiple professions, and 26 diverse individuals. There are artists and abolitionists, scientists and suffragettes, rock stars and rabble-rousers, and agents of change of all kinds.

This is technically probably not a chapter book and it certainly has a high reading level, but the format is so close to a chapter book and it’s so perfect for those kids who are reading chapter books.

The mix of women and movements they started or supported is incredible. Kids will be exposed to all sorts of activism, from political to social to historical, and may even find a cause they can be passionate about. The book is both a great history lesson and a great lesson in fights for equality and justice that are still going on. Some of the women may be familiar to kids from curriculum, media or other picture books, but many won’t be and that’s fantastic.

The book does require a bit of outside knowledge. There is mention of types of music, historical movements, and ideas that the book doesn’t focus on defining. This isn’t a failing per se, but it will require that the reader have some exposure to these ideas or that you open up conversations with them about them. I hope it does open up those conversations in homes and in classrooms because we need to be having them and kids need to be aware of them.

I really hate to be critical of artwork because I have no talent as an artist, but some of the portraits in the book aren’t as good as others. I love the style- cut paper on a bold, single-colored background and the majority of them are great portraits of the people. And I am over the moon that it is not some pink and girly book despite it being all women. It’s just that a few of the portraits have little odd elements (odd hands or wrinkles) that make them seem off and I think that’s due in part to the style. It’s hard to capture detail with the broad swaths of cut paper. Will that bother kids reading this? I’m not sure. Many kids latch onto things like that and may be more likely to in a book that touches on some uncomfortable topics in an effort to channel their awkwardness. It’s such a minor complaint though in a book that is rad.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Chapter Book Review: Fatty Legs by Margaret Pokiak-Fenton

On 01, Oct 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

Fatty Legs

Fatty Legs: A True Story written by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton, pictures by Liz Amini-Holmes

From Goodreads: The moving memoir of an Inuit girl who emerges from a residential school with her spirit intact.

Eight-year-old Margaret Pokiak has set her sights on learning to read, even though it means leaving her village in the high Arctic. Faced with unceasing pressure, her father finally agrees to let her make the five-day journey to attend school, but he warns Margaret of the terrors of residential schools.

I was pleasantly surprised by Fatty Legs. I expected a depressing book about the hardships of a boarding school meant to strip children of their language, culture and family. Certainly the school tried to do that. But they were in a for a run for their money with Margaret. She would not be dominated or crushed, although the two years she spent in school were damaging and depressing, it made her more determined.

Now I’m not opposed to sharing with children, even younger ones, the terrible things that have been done to native populations (North American and other places), but I think there is an appropriate way to go about it. Depressing and disheartening books have their merit, but I’m really glad this one featured a plucky, smart girl. While it shows the despicable nature of these boarding schools, kids get a strong girl to identify with and root for. Margaret’s ability to be upbeat while telling a story that is, at heart, difficult, unjust, and upsetting is wonderful for the age group the book is aimed at.

I know plenty of Native American children know of the horrors of these boarding schools and it’s incredibly important that we share that and talk about it in hopes that it doesn’t happen again. And in hopes of creating a generation of people who are more tolerant and understanding. I know I’ve said this before, but children are incredibly attuned to injustice and, for most, it’s infuriating. Fatty Legs does an excellent job of showing the injustice that will make kids angry, but without going over the top and making it a book parents (especially white parents) will balk at. In other words, kids will get it. They’ll know what happened wasn’t right and they’ll start asking questions and opening conversations.

The book includes photographs at the back of Margaret, her family, and many of the places mentioned in the story. In the text there are small notes in the margins directing the readers to these pictures which I think is unintrusive while providing some really interesting context. I’m amazed that she seems to have so many photographs of these critical moments from the story! It’s incredibly fortunate. There are also definitions of unfamiliar words down at the bottom of the page , which again is unintrusive, but provides context for kids who don’t know the words. Plus, what kid uses a glossary? The words are right there on the page, no need to flip back and forth breaking your concentration and flow.

My only complaint about the book is the format. The full color pictures and larger size of the book make it feel younger. It’s certainly appropriate for fourth graders, even a strong third grade reader could pick it up. But fifth grade and sixth grade, who would also make a perfect audience, might shy away from it purely based on looks. It drives me crazy when publishers do that to good books.

Excellent book for reflecting the experiences of many Inuit families and opening up discussions with non-native children who are probably ignorant of what went on less than a century ago.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Kidlit Review: Riding Freedom by Pam Munoz Ryan

On 22, Sep 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

No titleRiding Freedom written by Pam Munoz Ryan, pictures by Brian Selznick

From GoodReads: In this fast-paced, courageous, and inspiring story, readers adventure with Charlotte Parkhurst as she first finds work as a stable hand, becomes a famous stage-coach driver (performing brave feats and outwitting bandits), finds love as a woman but later resumes her identity as a man after the loss of a baby and the tragic death of her husband, and ultimately settles out west on the farm she’d dreamed of having since childhood. It wasn’t until after her death that anyone discovered she was a woman.

This one could actually be a chapter book based on it’s length, larger format, and the pictures scattered throughout. The reading level is a 720L, which isn’t especially high.

Beware a horse dies right at the beginning. It’s not overly dramatic or gory or anything. She just dies of a fever, but for those tender-hearted readers this may be difficult.

Okay I included the description which I got off GoodReads, but assume came from the publisher. But it’s so far off the mark. All that stuff about finding love, having a baby, resuming her identity as a man- NONE OF IT IS IN THE BOOK. Not even in the author’s note where Ryan gives a little more history of Charley. Did the publisher not read the book? I’m confused.

The book follows Charlotte through her years at the orphanage where she is put to work and treated poorly. When her best friend, Hayward, is adopted she decides to run away and make a new life for herself. In forming the plan, she realizes she’ll have better prospects and more safety if she travels as a man. After hopping the stage coach Charley, as she renames herself, finds work as a stable hand and works her way up to being a stage coach driver. This job takes her from Rhode Island all the way out to California where she loses an eye and has to relearn driving “six-in-the-hand”. Eventually she saves up enough money to buy land and horses. She also decides to vote since everyone believes her to be a man.

Ryan has taken a story that is already very interesting and compressed it’s timeline to make it more accessible to younger readers. Riding Freedom is not a biography, but a fictionalized account of Charlotte’s life and I think it would really appeal to third and fourth grade readers. It’s not exactly packed with facts, but there is a good story and enough that I could see it inspiring kids to want to explore more about Charlotte, women’s rights and the Gold Rush.

Charley/Charlotte Parkhurst was an interesting woman/man. From my limited research, I can’t tell if she was dressed and passing as a man because she wanted better opportunities or if she genuinely felt like she was male. Either way, she was fascinating. Here’s the Wikipedia page about her which provides a little more information than the author’s note at the end of the book.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Reading Into Pigsticks and Harold

On 27, Aug 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

PigsticksI had a lot of thoughts about this one. I get that it’s an early chapter book and I don’t think this was the author’s intent writing the book. But you can’t help but wonder if the book itself and the positive reviews it seems to be getting on GoodReads reveal some deep seated, hidden biases we have.

I really think Pigsticks and Harold encapsulated the colonial system (and our current system that favors white people). Pigsticks is a very pale pig who doesn’t have a job, lives very comfortably, has a rather illustrious family line and decides to go on an expedition. He hires Harold, a very dark brown hamster who doesn’t actually apply for the job of sherpa, but gets it anyway. Harold is a bit bumbling but a gentle soul, much like depictions of native people in colonial literature.

Picksticks often seems to include him by calling them both explorers. However, Harold is always the one to take on the danger, get hurt and still get stuck carrying all of Pigsticks’ useless luggage. Harold hardly has a voice, he doesn’t get any say in what they do despite the fact that it affects him more, and is plain put upon. Pigsticks treats him like a servant is, quite frankly, a prick. He motivates him with the promise of cake that he doesn’t actually have or appear to intend to give him.

On the surface, it’s funny, but if you look at what it really seems to be depicting it isn’t. It might have even have been fine if the book was a parody of the colonial system and the cultural system that oppresses minorities, except the book isn’t making fun of it or putting it up as something bad. It’s just using it for humor at the expense of the Harold, the minority.  And the problem is, the younger kids are exposed to this stuff, and in such a subtle way, the more they internalize the messages and biases.

I won’t be buying or recommending this.

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In Review

By Elizabeth Wroten

Summer Reading Round Up Part 3

On 26, Aug 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten

This week I have chapter books. I will actually have a much larger chapter book post next month, but these were the ones I read to preview for adding to the collection and for fun.

Bad ButterflyBillie B. Brown: The Bad Butterfly by Sally Rippin

Lexile: 500L

There was a lot to love about this book. My one complaint, I’m not wild about the illustrations. The kids look like Bratz dolls or something from Monster High which I can’t stand. Otherwise, this is a fantastic beginning chapter book.

The format (size, printing, etc.) make it feel like a more grown up book, but it would certainly be on a first grade/beginning second grade level. The print is large which spreads it out over more. Billie wants to take ballet and be a beautiful, floating, graceful butterfly. She and her best friend (a boy!!) sign up and it turns out Billie is neither floating or graceful. Her best is and he makes a terrible stomping troll. Billie spends the week upset that she isn’t particularly good at her role until they solve the problem by switching roles in ballet class. Billie appears to be diverse and certainly you get a boy doing ballet and liking it. I haven’t read any of the other books in the series, but if they compare to this they are worth having in the library or classroom.

EJ12EJ12: Hot and Cold by Susannah MacFarlane

Lexile: 820L

A girl who likes math and puzzles. That seems like a rarity. Emma Jacks may be having mean girl trouble at school, but as a secret agent EJ12 she figures out how to handle people like that.

This was a really fun adventure as EJ goes off to the Arctic to stop an villain from melting the polar ice cap to sell for water. There’s some friendship difficulties too that Emma figures out how to manage and does so beautifully at the end of the book. Lots of action, fun gadgets, a secret identity and puzzles. Emma has to solve a bunch of puzzles in her mission and they’re included in the story so the reader can try their hand at them too. Perfect for third and fourth grade.

Update 9/23/2015: I book talked this at the beginning of the year with my third graders and I can’t keep it on the shelf. The boys were originally turned off by the “girly” covers, but I’ve had them asking to check it out too.

Half a Moon InnThe Half-A-Moon Inn by Paul Fleischman

Lexile: 1010L

This one is really pushing the reading level of chapter books, but it was nice and short and is high interest enough that I think a fourth grader could tackle it.

Aaron is deaf and has never left his house or the surrounding area before. But when his mother doesn’t return from market one day he sets out to find her. He ends up far from home and unable to communicate because, while he is literate and writes notes to his mother, most people are not. After a few naive mistakes Aaron finds him self trapped in the Half-A-Moon inn working for a horrible woman who is also a thief. Aaron has to use his wits to get out of the situation and get back home. This would be perfect for around Halloween. It’s creepy and also a quick read which makes it a good pick for more reluctant readers.

Jelly BeanPet Shelter Squad: Jelly Bean by Cynthia Lord

Lexile: 560L

Suzannah desperately wants a pet, but she can’t have one because the land lord doesn’t allow pets. To help her feel better her mom signs Suzannah up to volunteer once a week at the local pet shelter. At first Suzannah is nervous, but she finds she loves working with the animals and makes some new friends too. When a little girl brings in her guinea pig Suzannah makes it her mission to find the perfect home for Jelly Bean. This would be a great series for third and fourth graders, especially those kids who like animals. It wasn’t action packed by any means, but it was suspenseful as Suzannah tries to find a home for the guinea pig.

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