By Elizabeth Wroten
On 19, Mar 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
Harriet’s Hare written by Dick King-Smith, pictures by Roger Roth
From GoodReads: Hares don’t talk. Everyone knows that. But the hare Harriet meets one morning in a corn circle in her father’s wheatfield is a very unusual hare: a visitor from the far-off planet Pars, come to spend his holidays on Earth in the form of a talking hare. Wiz, as Harriet names her magical new friend, can speak any language, transform himself into any shape – and, as the summer draws to its close, he has one last, lovely surprise in store for Harriet…
I know this one isn’t as old as some of the other books I’ve read, but I think it counts as a throwback. I was interested in this one for a couple reasons. The first is, the author is the author of Babe: A Gallant Pig another great book. The second is that it had a hare in it and I’m a sucker for animal books. Third, I was curious how something more recent, something I could have read new as a kid, held up.
This is a quiet story. No loud action here. Harriet lives on a small farm with her dad in England. Her summer break has just begun when she hears a strange noise outside. An investigation of the wheat field reveals a crop circle and large hare who hops out and begins talking to her. The hare is actually an alien in the form of a hare and he sets Harriet up for a delightful surprise.
I really enjoyed the story and its languid pace and simple story are perfect for young readers. While it does center around Harriet and the hare, they don’t do a whole lot of interacting and what the story really reveals are the people involved in the story- Harriet, her father, the new lady in town, and the housekeeper. Adults will easily figure out the surprise the hare hints at, but the ending will give you warm fuzzy feelings anyway. I would give it to kids who like animals stories, fantasy (although it’s really more science fiction), and kids who like stories about family. It would make a great read aloud, too.
For me personally the story would have worked with just a magical hare that could talk. I am just not a science fiction fan, at least not the type with outer space and aliens in it. But if I had read this as a kid it might have made an excellent entree into world of science fiction. Especially since I so loved (and love) animal stories. In other words, this would make a good introduction to the science fiction genre.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 18, Mar 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
Dog Days written by Karen English, pictures by Laura Freeman
From GoodReads: It’s tough being the new kid at Carver Elementary. Gavin had lots of friends at his old school, but the kids here don’t even know that he’s pretty good at skateboarding, or how awesome he is at soccer. And when his classmate Richard comes over and the boys end up in trouble, not only does Gavin risk losing his one new friend, he has to take care of his great aunt Myrtle’s horrible little dog as punishment.
To make matters worse, Gavin seems to have attracted the attention of the school bully. Will he be able to avoid getting pounded at the skate park? And how is he ever going to prove he’s cool with a yappy little Pomeranian wearing a pink bow at his side?
Dog Days nails the kid perspective. Gavin is an all around nice kid, but a kid nonetheless. While sneaking into his sister’s room to eat her candy with his friend they manage to break Danielle’s prized snow globe. Gavin is worried, but more for himself than for his sister who he sees as a pain. His punishment, walking his aunt’s dog, seems so unfair and he gripes about in exactly the way a kid would.
His new friend Richard is not the best friend around, but again Gavin uses his kid logic and doesn’t seem to mind too much. He gets irritated, but most of the issues roll off his back and even when he is mad he is quick to forgive.
The book would be perfect for kids who love realistic fiction and while it has a message in it that comes through Gavin’s realization that he might care for his aunt’s silly dog, it never feels heavy handed. This is the first in a series too, which makes it a good fit for the third/fourth grade crowd. The reading level is a bit high, but manageable and Freeman’s cute illustrations break up the story perfectly.
As an adult reading the story you can see where it’s going and you can tell that Gavin isn’t seeing the whole picture. This is particularly funny when his Aunt comes to stay and his mother is suddenly not home nearly as much. From her sighs and body language, which Gavin notices, but doesn’t understand, it’s clear that his mother is not happy about Aunt Myrtle’s visit. Gavin just sees her absence as abandonment and doesn’t think much past himself (not in an annoying way), which is totally something a kid would do. This second layer would make it a good bedtime read aloud for parents and kids to share together.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 26, Feb 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
The Rescuers by Margery Sharp, pictures by Garth Williams
From GoodReads: Miss Bianca is a white mouse of great beauty and supreme self-confidence, who, courtesy of her excellent young friend, the ambassador’s son, resides luxuriously in a porcelain pagoda painted with violets, primroses, and lilies of the valley. Miss Bianca would seem to be a pampered creature, and not, you would suppose, the mouse to dispatch on an especially challenging and extraordinarily perilous mission. However, it is precisely Miss Bianca that the Prisoners’ Aid Society picks for the job of rescuing a Norwegian poet imprisoned in the legendarily dreadful Black Castle (we all know, don’t we, that mice are the friends of prisoners, tending to their needs in dungeons and oubliettes everywhere). Miss Bianca, after all, is a poet too, and in any case she is due to travel any day now by diplomatic pouch to Norway. There Miss Bianca will be able to enlist one Nils, known to be the bravest mouse in the land, in a desperate and daring endeavor that will take them, along with their trusty companion Bernard, across turbulent seas and over the paws and under the maws of cats into one of the darkest places known to man or mouse. It will take everything they’ve got and a good deal more to escape with their own lives, not to mention the poet.
With these Throwback Thursday posts this year I’m revisiting books I read in my youth and previewing a few classics I might want to share with my daughter. Mostly I’m curious how the books I read when I was young hold up over the years and to see how I like other classics as read alouds. This time I stumbled upon this gem of a classic through the Disney movie The Rescuers, which we watched the other night with my daughter.
I was unaware that the movie was based on a book, let alone a series of books, so being the librarian I am I requested it from the library. The two are fairly different and while the book was incredibly enjoyable, I see why they made the changes they did for the movie. For example the book has the mice as part of the Prisoners’ Aid Society where they comfort and aid prisoners. The movie has them form the Rescue Aid Society where they help people in need of assistance. I think this made the story a bit more modern, less grim, and required less exposition. The movie also combined at least two of the books from the Rescuers series, which again, I’m not sure this story, although good, is exactly box-office-hit material. Some stories adapt better to the visual narrative than others.
Here is where I admit I am an animal-story person. I never clicked with the princess movies or books about people. When given the choice I pick animal books over people books all the time. This is actually why reading diverse kidlit, particularly picture books, has been difficult for me. I am drawn to the stories with wee animals. And those are certainly the books I buy when building our home library. (This is NOT to say that’s an excuse for not reading diverse stories or for not buying them. I just have to make a conscious effort to pick up a book with people and I am doing just that.) My daughter is the same way and I know there are tons of kids out there like that. This is a book for those kids. It’s full of suspense and action, friendship and humor and mice. Garth Williams has drawn darling illustrations to go with the story. I will say Bianca is portrayed as a bit of wimp and silly girl used to creature comforts, but while she never really overcomes that part of herself, she does discover a braver, pluckier side and I think that’s a good message. One that acknowledges that you might be a girly girl, but still have it in you to do what duty requires of you and find an inner strength when necessary.
The Rescuers has quite the vocabulary and syntax in it which makes it great for upper elementary (fourth or fifth grade). It would also make an incredible read aloud. The chapters are each divided into sections (something I don’t think I’ve seen before) and make breaking off very easy. The Lexile for the book is 880L which is high, but not nearly as high as I expected. The length, 150 pages, is also perfect. Give this to fans of adventure and animals. It appears that many of the books in the series are readily available, my library has several copies of each and this first book was republished by The New York Review Children’s Collection. Being a classic, albeit maybe a bit forgotten one, it reminds me of other books from that era like Ben and Me and Charlotte’s Web.
I probably should have just written my own book blurb here because the book description provided by the publisher (and found on GoodReads) is not exactly accurate. Let me clarify a few plot points. Bianca is not selected to go on the mission but is asked, because she will be flying to Norway and will reach it sooner than a boat trip, to find the bravest mouse in Norway to undertake the mission of rescuing this poet-prisoner. When she arrives in Norway and finds a band of mice in the embassy where she lives she is told all mice are the bravest mouse in Norway and is given Nils who happens to be standing close to the mouse she speaks to. Nils agrees to go. Bianca’s part in the mission is done, but she thinks back to Bernard, the mouse who asked her to recruit the bravest Norwegian mouse, and decides she wants to see him again. Back at the Prisoners’ Aid Society Bernard volunteers to go with Nils in order to impress Bianca and Bianca decides she too will volunteer. The three then set off to free the prisoner kept in the Black Castle. Does it really matter for the purposes of reviewing the book? Probably not, but I hate inaccurate book descriptions.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 19, Feb 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads:“Oh, no!” said Liza. “I won’t live in a haunted house.”
The “haunted house’ is the old Blake place, and despite Liza’s protests, that’s where the Roberts family is going to live. Liza, Bill, and Jed soon realize that something weird is happening in and around their new home. Nearly every morning they find mysterious messages. Strange footprints appear, lights flash, and secret compartments pop open. Is John Blake’s ghost responsible? If not, who is?
Lexile: There isn’t a Lexile rating for this particular book, but several others in the series have them and they are all around the low 400s. My guess is, this is the same.
I picked this one up because I remember my third grade teacher reading it aloud to the class and we all loved it. It’s one in the series, Liza, Bill and Jed Mysteries, in which there are six books. The Haunted House is not the first in the series and while there were a couple references to what may have been other stories, this certainly stood alone just fine.
I really enjoyed the story in this one. The kids, when they move into their new house, are drawn into two mysteries which they think have to do with the ghost of the man who built the house. If you’re concerned about the book being too scary, rest assured there is no ghost in the end, but the mystery wraps up nicely. On the first morning Liza discovers a note on her window that begins a several-day-long scavenger hunt which leads them to several prizes. Each note in the hunt includes a code or puzzle they have to decipher before being able to read their clue. For kids who are getting into codes and mysteries this would be awesome.
They also visit their new attic and discover an old grandfather clock that has a secret compartment. When they accidentally get it open part way, they attempt to open it all the way. However their mother has asked them to clean the attic and then she sprays with insecticide so they aren’t allowed up for a day stretching the mystery out. When they finally do get upstairs and manage to open the compartment they discover blueprints of the house which shows a room that would be under Liza’s bedroom but doesn’t appear to be in the basement.
The chapters are a good length in this for early chapter book readers and while the simple text makes details a wee bit sparse, the story is still strong and the mystery suspenseful and engaging. From experience I know this makes a great read aloud and with the codes in the clues you could stop along the way to allow the kids to write down the notes (or simply write them on the board) and try their hand at solving them. My third grade class hung on every word and were sad when the book was over.
The kids get along for the most part, but there’s some bickering between siblings. The book was published originally in the early 70s and the family harmony and the fact that the mom sends the kids out to play by themselves and leaves them home while she goes grocery shopping may seem odd, but the book never felt particularly dated. There is one reference to a tape player, but there aren’t really any language or pop culture references that would make this feel old. My one and only concern was this passage:
“‘I already feel homesick for my old room.’ [said Liza]
‘That’s alright,’ said Mom. ‘To tell the truth I feel a little bit that way myself. But I’m sure we’ll both get over it as soon as we get the new house fixed up.’
‘Ah, girls,’ said Bill. ‘You never are sure of what you want.’
‘But that’s a fact of life,’ said Dad. ‘We just have to take them as they are.'”
I’m not sure if it’s a deal breaker for me, but there are a lot of other good chapter books out there (and this one is lacking in diversity too) so I might pass based on that. On the other hand if I were reading it aloud I would simply skip the sexist commentary by the brother and father. If you want to too, it’s on the second page of the fourth chapter “Moving Day”, page 23 in the copy I have.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 18, Feb 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Lulu can’t understand people who don’t like animals – people like her teacher, Mrs Holiday. When Lulu tries to help Mrs Holiday to find her perfect pet, she is banned from bringing an animal to school ever again! Then Lulu rescues an abandoned duck egg. She’s going to have to take it to school to keep it safe.
Hooray! Another book with incidental diversity. A chapter book for younger readers, no less. Nothing said here about what Lulu looks like, but Lamont has drawn her as African American. Fabulous. But I was of two minds with this one.
Lulu was awesome. She loves animals, she applies kid logic to her situation (an egg isn’t an animal, so it’s okay to bring it to school), and she always jumps off swings. Her best friend and cousin, Mellie, is the cautious kid who is always losing things. She was a great pair with Lulu and also a true blue friend. When Lulu told her about the duck egg, she took it in stride and helped her keep it safe and secret.
But their teacher Mrs. Holiday was such a grouch*. When the children are in the park on the way back from swimming, they witness two dogs scattering a bunch of duck nests. The ducks are terrified, the ducklings are terrified, and a lot of the eggs end up cracked. The kids are crying and obviously upset. What does their teacher do to help them process it? She gives them a speech about how they have to just move on. She has also told the kids that she doesn’t like animals and if any of the kids make good on their offers to bring a friend for the class guinea pig, she’ll swap Class Two for their stick insects. Plus she’s constantly snipping at the children.
I know there are terrible teachers out there, and I know Mrs. Holiday isn’t an example of the worst, but for a beginning chapter book I thought she was awfully mean and insensitive. She was also very two-dimensional. And I think the story would have worked even if she was a lot nicer. Maybe this characterization bothered me because I am a teacher and don’t like negative portrayals. Maybe it bothered me because it was not exaggerated enough to make it clear that it was a trope (think Mrs. Gorf in Sideways Stories from Wayside School). I have no idea if this will bother kids who read this book. I suspect not. Certainly they will love Lulu and the predicament she finds herself in, but I don’t want kids to come away thinking teachers are bad or rude and expect that behavior in their own. Something about it makes me uncomfortable.
The story about Lulu is very funny though and it would be great for kids who love animals, which is most kids at this level. In the end I doubt my own personal reservations would prevent me from handing this book out to beginning chapter book enthusiasts. It’s also the first in a series with Lulu and other animals which is great.
*Actually, I wanted to use a stronger word.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 28, Jan 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: A powerful novel of the Revolutionary WarTo fourteen-year-old Samuel Russell, called “coward” for his peace-loving Quaker beliefs, the summer of 1777 is a time of fear. The British and the Patriots will soon meet in battle near his home in Saratoga, New York. The Quakers are in danger from roaming Indians and raiders — yet to fight back is not the Friends’ way.
To Stands Straight, a young Abenaki Indian on a scouting mission for the British, all Americans are enemies, for they killed his mother and brother. But in a Quaker Meetinghouse he will come upon Americans unlike any he has ever seen. What will the encounter bring? Based on a real historical incident, this fast-paced and moving story is a powerful reminder that “the way of peace…can be walked by all human beings”.
This was an interesting book. I really enjoyed the story as it was a story about history, friendship, and people coming together in peace, but it was so simply and beautifully told. Bruchac has a wonderful way of telling stories that builds tension and excitement without killing you with suspense. For me, who gets so nervous I flip ahead to be sure everything will be okay, this style helps keep me in the story. I think it can work really well for younger readers too.
Where the book really shines is in sharing a very different perspective on the familiar history of the Revolutionary War. We are told, especially in elementary school when history tends to be simplified, that a bunch of plucky colonists stood up to big, bad King George and established our own country on principles of freedom and equality. We all know as adults that this isn’t quite the whole truth and that it was a lot more complicated than that. The Arrow Over the Door presents the Native perspective in which they are sucked into a war that is not their own with two sides they are not fond of. This isn’t to say that the book bashes the colonists and the British. It simply offers a very different narrative from what we normally hear.
The story also reveals that, at least for a number of tribes, they were not wild people living in the forests. They were settled in villages with churches (introduced here by the French) often wearing Western clothing and had been for two generations or more. There is also the exposure to the Quakers, a religious movement that is not often seen in elementary history books. All around an interesting bit of history couched in an exciting story.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 21, Jan 2015 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Anna Hibiscus lives in amazing Africa with her mother, her father, her baby twin brothers, and lots and lots of her family. Join her as she splashes in the sea, prepares for a party, sells oranges, and hopes to see sweet, sweet snow.
What a great start to a chapter book series! The book begins with a hilarious story about Anna and her parents and baby brothers going on vacation. Anna’s mother is Canadian and grew up in a quiet house with only her parents and herself and it seems that she is longing to have some alone time. When they arrive at their vacation house it becomes apparent why it might be better to have all those aunties and uncles and cousins and grandparents around (they help cook, clean and care for the babies), so each day Anna’s father returns with another set of family ultimately bringing everyone along on vacation.
The chapters are each stand-alone stories rather than continuations of a longer, over-arching plot, although there are nods to events that have happened in previous chapters. In terms of length of chapters and the book as a whole I would say this is an older chapter book suited for second graders (8 year olds). It’s easier than Clementine and a step or two up from many of the Magic Tree House books and the Cam Jansen series. If only for the diversity, but also the stress on the importance of family and the fact that Anna isn’t so sassy, I would give these to my own daughter to read.
Anna is a fun little girl and her family, all packed into their beautiful, sprawling white house, provides lots of learning and entertainment for her. Each story has her learning a little more about her family or the world around her. The story about selling oranges is particularly sweet as Anna comes to realize that her actions have very real consequences for people and also shows her how fortunate she is. The story never becomes overly preachy and didactic though, making it engaging for the intended audience instead of feeling like a lesson being crammed down the reader’s throat.
If there was one thing that worried me it’s that Anna lives in “Africa”. I worry that kids, especially American children, already think Africa is a country and this isn’t helping them figure out that it’s not. According to the author’s note this is set in Nigeria where Atinuke grew up and since Anna’s city is a lagoon it’s probably Lagos, but I would be surprised if most kids (and their parents) sat down to puzzle that out. I’m guessing, though, that Atinuke did this with some purpose in mind. However it’s incredibly refreshing to see a book about Africa that doesn’t carry on the narrative of poor unfortunate souls wasting away from disease and hunger. There is poverty in Africa, but there are plenty of normal people who go about their lives just like us and I think it’s so important for young readers to see that as much as(or more than!)other narratives.
As a side note, I am always hungry when I read books about Nigeria. There is a feast in the chapter where Anna’s auntie who is living in America comes home to visit. I just want to have some pepper soup and pounded yam!
*I think I’ll start including the Lexile measure on the chapter books I review simply because these are books where having a just-right reading level is really important. I take issue with book levels, but I do think they can provide some context for comparison and help parents and teachers who need a good, quick way to put the right book in the right hands. But don’t underestimate a kid with high interest in a character or topic!