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.
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.