By Elizabeth Wroten
On 03, Oct 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
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.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 02, Oct 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
Rad American Women A-Z by Kate Schatz, illustrated by Miriam Klein Stahl
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.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 01, Oct 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
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.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 22, Sep 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
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.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 27, Aug 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
I 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.
By Elizabeth Wroten
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
By Elizabeth Wroten
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.
Digby O’Day In the Fast Lane written by Shirley Hughes, illustrated by Clara Vulliamy
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 07, May 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: In exuberant verse and stirring pictures, Patricia Hruby Powell and Christian Robinson create an extraordinary portrait for young people of the passionate performer and civil rights advocate Josephine Baker, the woman who worked her way from the slums of St. Louis to the grandest stages in the world. Meticulously researched by both author and artist, Josephine’s powerful story of struggle and triumph is an inspiration and a spectacle, just like the legend herself.
Josephine is the perfect example of what picture book biographies should be. For starters it really includes good information about her. After finishing it I felt like I had a good sense of the events in her life as well as who she was. Sure, this isn’t the definitive biography, but I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend a student use it in a report. Plus it was meaty enough without feeling like you’re reading something for a report.
The book needs to be taken as a whole package. Every element works so well together. The story of her life is broken out into chapters which are introduced with a two page spread of a curtain rising on a new set. Perfect for the stage-loving Josephine. Every so often there is a two page spread that is just a colored background with text on it. This is particularly effective for getting information across without feeling like a dry page of text. The writing is also very lyrical making it incredibly readable.
Robinson’s illustrations are beautifully stylized and Josephine is always recognizable by her large, elongated eyes. The bold solid colored backgrounds make the modern, graphical figures pop off the page. The illustrations feel old and new at the same time, like something from the sixties but with fresh, bright colors.
And Josephine was such an amazing person. She is a true rags to riches story, but she also worked tirelessly to fight against segregation and the prevailing attitude in the US at the time that blacks were inferior to whites. She practiced what she preached too, insisting that audiences be mixed and adopting 12 children all of different ethnicities. She’s just an interesting person to read about. Flashy and energetic, quirky and confident Josephine’s life was anything but average.
I haven’t seen such a good use of typeface in a picture book in a long time (ever?). The author pulls out words and makes them all caps emphasizing them. But they aren’t random words. They’re words with significance for the scene, the story, and for discovering who Josephine was. There are also quotes from Josephine throughout the text and these are printed in an entirely different (and fancier) font that is much larger. I think that emphasizes Josephine’s larger-than-life presence as well as making it clear they are her words. Other books have attempted mixed fonts and it just ends up looking like a sloppy ransom note. Not here. This looks polished, intentional, and adds to the story.
My one regret about the book is that there wasn’t any information about what happened to her children and her siblings. I’m a nosy person and I like to know about anyone mentioned in the text. But the book isn’t about her family. It’s about her and it does a fantastic job of sharing that story and sharing who she was. As I said, I would recommend this to kids writing biography reports. It’s fairly long so it would be better for upper elementary, but there isn’t any reason a middle schooler couldn’t pick this up and read it either for pleasure or for research. It’s a slightly smaller format than a normal picture book making it a little more appealing to older kids who might not want the stigma of reading a book with pictures. Highly recommended!
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 23, Apr 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: In Chinese, peng you means friend. But in any language, all Anna knows for certain is that friendship is complicated. When Anna needs company, she turns to her books. Whether traveling through A Wrinkle in Time, or peering over My Side of the Mountain, books provide what real life cannot—constant companionship and insight into her changing world. Books, however, can’t tell Anna how to find a true friend. She’ll have to discover that on her own.
This is a really great book about friendship. Anna is a bit of a bookworm and almost always has her nose in a book. I wasn’t quite sure if Anna actually was lonely and wanted to be in more with a few of her friends or if she was just an introvert and was fine not being too close with the girls in her class. At some points she was clearly uncomfortable, but at others she seemed fine just reading and being left alone.
Being off in her own world, though, Anna misses that Laura is really trying to reach out to her. Laura’s family is a mess and she needs someone she can lean on and she wants that person to be Anna. By the end of the book Anna has come to accept Laura and enjoy her company. (This is what makes me think that she might actually want a friend after all.) I actually think this book has a great message in it with a lot for kids in the target age to think about when it comes to being and making friends. However it doesn’t beat them over the head with this message.
I am also not sure why this is the year of the book. It should be the year of books! Anna is always plowing through another title. They are all classics and for any parents reading this aloud to their kids they will remember these titles. And it might inspire a new generation to pick some of these books up.
The book is not especially hard and it’s a good length. I would say third graders and fourth graders could tackle this and appreciate the story. The social aspects of it make it feel like a better fit with that age group than for, say, a strong second grade reader. This is also the first in a series of four books so far (the illustrator changes with the second book) which is great for that age group.
As a final note, Anna is Chinese American and although this plays into the story here a bit, it really isn’t the focus or point of the story. I wouldn’t quite call it incidental ethnicity, but it’s certainly not about the Chinese American experience.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 22, Apr 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Ling and Ting are two adorable identical twins, and they stick together, whether they are making dumplings, getting their hair cut, or practicing magic tricks. But looks are deceiving–people can be very different, even if they look exactly the same.
This is such a darling early chapter book! Ling and Ting are absolutely adorable and they are FUNNY. The chapters weave together with jokes about Ting’s forgetfulness, Ling’s magic trick, and the idea that they are not the same (despite being twins). A mishap at the barbershop in the first chapter both sets the humorous tone and helps the reader figure out which twin is which.
The book really shines as an ode to sisterhood. Ling and Ting, as the title suggests, are not exactly the same. They have different interests, are good at different things, and don’t look exactly alike. The final chapter has them bickering over a story Ting is telling which mixes up all the previous chapters. The only point that isn’t contentious is the ending about how they stay together always. Try not to have your heart squish at that.
The book is perfect for kids just starting to read longer books. The illustrations support the text perfectly and are also wonderful. Although not part of a series, it’s similar to the longer I Can Read or Step Into Reading books. The format and reading level (and the humor to some extent) bring to mind the Little Bear series of books. Kids in the first and second grade range will really appreciate the humor of the stories and parents will too. There are four more Ling and Ting books, although I’m not sure they’re all chapters like this one, but that’s another plus for this age group.
One final note, I think the chapter about chopsticks is a bit of a nod to How My Parents Learned to Eat. I’m not sure if that’s actually true, but it sure seemed like it. That was one of my favorite books growing up so I like to think it is.