By Elizabeth Wroten
On 15, Oct 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
-On Monday she’s sent to the principal’s office for cutting off Margaret’s hair.
- Tuesday, Margaret’s mother is mad at her.
- Wednesday, she’s sent to the principal… again.
- Thursday, Margaret stops speaking to her.
- Friday starts with yucky eggs and gets worse.
- And by Saturday, even her mother is mad at her.
Okay, fine. Clementine is having a DISASTROUS week.
Clementine is such an incredible character. First and foremost, she is one of those kids who can’t sit still, whose mind wanders, who is a complete disaster when it comes to organization. Those kinds of kids are out there. I have known those kids. And I think it is so important for those kids to see themselves in a book and see that people (in this case Clementine’s family and friends) love her exactly the way she is.
Clementine is also just a fun person. Her mind wanders, but in the most interesting of ways and often in hilarious ways (ceiling snakes?!). She notices minute details that make the world more wondrous. She is very artistic, active and inquisitive. I loved that her parents were so understanding of who she is. They are so patient with her and gentle. It was incredibly refreshing to see this.
The story itself is full of humor and hijinks. Like how she cuts Margaret’s hair to help hide the spot Margaret has snipped off. Sure, it’s a terrible idea but it makes perfect sense to a kid. Things just get worse from there, at least from an adult perspective. If left to her own devices Clementine (and her friend Margaret to some extent) would have had a great week. Neither of them seems to care too much that their hair is chopped unevenly short or that it’s been colored with permanent marker. It’s the adults stepping in and making assumptions about what has happened and seeing things from an adult perspective that make all their plots and solutions seem like maybe they weren’t so good.
My only point of confusion was that Clementine is supposed to 9 and in third grade, but she seems a little younger. I wasn’t sure if this was my bias or if she was intentionally written a bit younger. Either way this is a great read for strong second grade readers and certainly third graders. It might work for lower readers in fourth and fifth grade, although they could feel that Clementine is a bit young to relate to. I would be especially sure to recommend it to those kids who seem constantly off task, but are clearly thinking.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 13, Oct 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Pearl likes to write poems, but despite the insistence of her teacher, Ms. Bruff, Pearl’s poems don’t rhyme, and neither does she. She wishes she could grow gills so she could stay underwater in swim class without drowning. And she hasn’t a clue why perfect Prudence bumps her desk and sends her pencils flying. Pearl thinks there’s no nicer sound than the bell at the end of the day, even though back at home, Granny, always a crucial part of their family of three, sometimes doesn’t recognize Pearl, and Mom is tired from providing constant care. In a lyrical novel told with clear-eyed sympathy, humor, and heart, Sally Murphy follows a girl who holds fast to her individuality even as she learns to let go– and in daring to share her voice, discovers that maybe she’s not a group of one after all.
This was such an incredible book about death, loss and grief. It is also about a girl feeling isolated from her peers, but discovering that she is putting up barriers, not her classmates. Pearl is also a poet. The story is written in one long verse (e.g. no chapter breaks or clear stand-alone poems). The format really brings Pearl’s sadness to the fore.
The illustrations are also so perfect. Pearl is just darling and her mother and grandmother look so warm and inviting. The expressions on faces and the body language are easy to read. The scenes that are illustrated are the perfect vignettes to highlight the story.
Because the book is so specifically about death and grief I think the audience could be narrow, but I think kids with close relationships with their grandparents, especially if the grandparents are slipping away either through dementia or illness may find comfort in Pearl’s journey. It’s definitely a book for thinking kids as much of what is said goes on in Pearl’s head as she tries to understand and cope with her new reality.
Despite the tragedy at the end there is also a lot of hope as Pearl realizes she is not alone and makes a new friend and slowly comes to find she can move past her grandmother’s death. Just see if you can get through Pearl’s eulogy without at least tearing up.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 10, Oct 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: It’s the same thing every day for Babymouse. Where is the glamour? The excitement? The adventure? Nothing ever changes, until . . . Babymouse hears about Felicia Furrypaws’s exclusive slumber party. Will Babymouse get invited? Will her best friend, Wilson, forgive her if she misses their monster movie marathon? Find out in Babymouse: Queen of the World, a graphic novel with attitude!
I’m sure I’ve said it before, but I think it always bears repeating, graphic novels are excellent for getting low readers reading more. Don’t get me wrong they’re great for kids who like that visual component too, but they have tons of picture support without the stigma of being a picture book.
Babymouse is a mouse who knows herself. She is swayed into thinking she wants something she doesn’t have, but it doesn’t take her long to come back to her senses. She also has such a rich fantasy life. It’s very funny to watch her fall into putting herself into other roles, like noir detective and Wild West gunslinger. This was a quick enjoyable read.
The art fits the quirkiness of the characters and the humor and quips of Babymouse. It does a good job, when Babymouse delves into one of her daydreams, changing the panels to indicate that it is just that, a daydream. I also like that the art has a simplistic quality to it that I could see kids trying to copy or mimic and doing so successfully.
Babymouse would be great for middle school kids but is certainly appropriate for elementary. The story has a social theme that feels like middle school, but I can see how elementary school kids face the same issues and nothing about it is too mature for any kid who can handle the text. There are a ton more books in the series making it a good way to get kids to keep reading once they’ve clicked with Babymouse. I would give it to anyone who likes graphic novels that feature realistic plots and to those kids who are a bit quirky and maybe a little less socially mature than their peers.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 08, Oct 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Emily Vole makes headline news in the first weeks of her life, when she is found in an abandoned hatbox in Stansted Airport.
Then, only a few years later, her neighbour Mrs String dies leaving Emily a mysterious inheritance: an old shop, a small bunch of golden keys and a cat called Fidget. It’s the beginning of an adventure of a lifetime as the old Fairy Detective Agency comes back to life.
It is up to Emily to reopen the shop, and recall the fairies to duty. Together they must embark on their first mystery and do battle with their great fairy-snatching enemy, Harpella.
This book feels so British to me. It might be the sense of humor or the terrible adoptive parents. Whatever the reason this book is hilarious. I would call it a fairy-lite book. There are witches, magic, a talking cat, and fairies but the story doesn’t delve much into fairy lore or the fairy world as you see in a lot of fantasy. I think it makes a good entree into fairy stories for kids who are just trying out fantasy. Yet the humor and mystery of the story will interest kids who aren’t really fantasy fans.
When the Dashwood’s can’t have children of their own they decide to adopt Emily, but she turns out not to be the sunny, bright child Daisy Dashwood really wanted. A few years later the Dashwoods manage to have triplets who are what Daisy wanted. Emily is relegated to living in the laundry room (her bed is the ironing board) and is forced to do all the housework. One day, while Daisy is out with the triplets, the next door neighbor stops by with her talking cat and realizes Emily has no education. Using her magic, because Ms. String is actually a fairy, she helps Emily finish her chores and begins teaching her. In an unfortunate twist, Ms. String is killed after Emily awakens some magical keys and Emily must go on the run from a witch looking to kill all the fairies left in the world.
Emily is a quirky kid, but not particularly extraordinary which I think makes her more relatable, especially to the middle/upper elementary age group that the book feels geared toward (they aren’t yet in the throes of adolescence where no one gets them). Despite her situation with “parents” who use her as the hired help and a total lack of an education she manages to not be a sad sack. This adds to her charm and appeal. She is also fairly clever, coming up with plans when things seem most dire.
The humor is by turns dark and ridiculous. Emily at one point decides to use her adoptive “mother” as bait for catching the evil witch Harpella. Harpella is rather evil, but when angry she turns people into brightly colored bunny rabbits, hence the pink bunnies all over the book. Kids in that fourth/fifth grade range will find the darkness titillating as well as funny, laughing at things they probably shouldn’t laugh at. They are at that age when they are beginning to understand humor that works on several levels, but they still love a good silly joke like the bunnies.
Operation Bunny reads like the first in a series as there are several plot lines that go under developed and unresolved (why was Emily left in a hatbox in Stansted?), but I didn’t find it detracted from the overall story. The writing is fairly straight forward which makes the book good for elementary kids or low middle school readers. The series will keep them coming back to the library. I would give this book to kids who like mysteries, fairies, or the humor of Roald Dahl. Pair it with Mr. and Mrs. Bunny Detectives Extraordinaire for quirky characters and mysteries.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 07, Oct 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
I love picture book biographies. Sure they can be light on facts and dates and the Whole Story, but they’re a great way to entice kids to actually want to read more. They also are really important for encouraging kids to try new activities and new hobbies and keep on with those they love.
From GoodReads: Joe and Bob Switzer were very different brothers. Bob was a studious planner who wanted to grow up to be a doctor. Joe dreamed of making his fortune in show business and loved magic tricks and problem-solving.
When an accident left Bob recovering in a darkened basement, the brothers began experimenting with ultraviolet light and fluorescent paints. Together they invented a whole new kind of color, one that glows with an extra-special intensity—Day-Glo.
I love any kind of book that encourages kids to play around and experiment. The Switzer brothers were not scientists or inventors, they simply played around with materials when Joe needed something for his magic act. Science and invention and making can have this aura around them of being difficult and needing tons of education to do it successfully, which isn’t really the case. I think it would be easy for a kid to find inspiration in what they did and how they did it. It took years of tinkering around and a few serendipitous moments that led to the Day-Glo colors. The story itself is interesting, but is a little spare on details beyond how they created their colors simply because of the age it is written for. The author’s note at the end, that tells how Barton pieced their story together, is really interesting and I think speaks to the importance of primary sources (written and verbal).
I also liked that the illustrations begin in monochromatic whites, blacks and grays and slowly their vibrant Day-Glo colors begin to creep in. It gives an interesting visual cue to accompany the progress of the brothers work.
From GoodReads: As a child in the late 1800s, Horace Pippin loved to draw: He loved the feel of the charcoal as it slid across the floor. He loved looking at something in the room and making it come alive again in front of him. He drew pictures for his sisters, his classmates, his co-workers. Even during W.W.I, Horace filled his notebooks with drawings from the trenches . . . until he was shot. Upon his return home, Horace couldn’t lift his right arm, and couldn’t make any art. Slowly, with lots of practice, he regained use of his arm, until once again, he was able to paint–and paint, and paint! Soon, people—including the famous painter N. C. Wyeth—started noticing Horace’s art, and before long, his paintings were displayed in galleries and museums across the country.
With the loss of arts classes in schools I think a good way to easily slip in some history and art/music appreciation is with picture book biographies of artists and musicians. While a traditional chapter book biography would certainly work for introducing Horace Pippin to students, I think the picture book has a distinct advantage because it uses art to show the life of the artist.
Melissa Sweet’s illustrations have a child-like quality to it that is reminiscent of Vera B. Williams. I love this style because it inspires kids, showing them that their art is good enough and has value. That isn’t to imply that these are just some picture she dashed off in class with poor technique, but it feels as if a kid could draw it. I think it is especially relevant and well-suited to this picture book about Horace Pippen because it will encourage children to keep going with their art just as Pippin did.
There is a lot here in the story of his life, but the text doesn’t get bogged down with dates and facts. It’s very readable in a way that a lot of biographies are not. I also think the inclusion of just the right amount of detail will encourage kids to look into a few of the historical events that touched Pippin’s life.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 06, Oct 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
These books have been on heavy rotation in our house. Stanley is a hamster (or maybe a guinea pig?) and also seems to be a jack-of-all-trades. Not only does he own a garage and build houses, he also is a farmer and chef.
This is a really wonderful series for young children. The stories are fairly basic, but charming as Stanley goes about his day. From book to book there is a rhythm or format and each book ends with Stanley heading home, eating dinner, taking a bath and finally turning in for the night. There is also continuity with some of the characters who appear in more than one book.
Children and parents alike will enjoy the stylized illustrations. With the clean white backgrounds and thick black outlines Stanley is both childish and modern. The colors are bright and inviting and everything is clean and aesthetic. The pictures provide great support for the text and paired with short blocks of text, simple language, and high interest subjects (construction, farm, and cars) these would make great early readers. The repeated pattern of the ending is also a good support for beginning readers. The physical cover is padded which gives it an interesting sensory experience. Pay special attention to the end papers. They feature a large variety of tools that go with Stanley’s profession of the day and are a great opportunity to build vocabulary. They would make neat wall art too as they are laid out so carefully in a puzzle-like matrix.
I just realized that the reason we haven’t been able to get Stanley the Farmer from the library is that it doesn’t release until next spring. Oops. And I checked the back of one of the other books and found there is supposed to be a Stanley’s Diner, but it doesn’t appear that it will be released until next September.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 01, Oct 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Is the kingdom’s fate in the hands of an orphan cat?
Running fast to save his life, Aldwyn ducks into an unusual pet store. Moments later Jack, a young wizard in training, comes in to choose a magical animal to be his familiar. Aldwyn’s always been clever. But magical? Jack thinks so and Aldwyn is happy to play along.
He just has to convince the other familiars the know-it-all blue jay Skylar and the friendly tree frog Gilbert that he’s the powerful cat he claims to be.
Then the unthinkable happens. Jack and two other young wizards are captured by the evil queen of Vastia.
On a thrilling quest to save their loyals, the familiars face dangerous foes, unearth a shocking centuries-old secret, and discover a destiny that will change Vastia forever. Their magical adventure an irresistible blend of real heart, edge-of-your-seat action, and laugh-out-loud humor is an unforgettable celebration of fantasy and friendship.
Kidlit, especially chapter books for kids, tend to have a certain feel to them. The plot moves fairly quickly, the endings are upbeat, and the themes are, for the most part, simple. All of this, I think, serves the purpose of catching and keeping the interest of kids and is certainly appropriate to where they are developmentally. The Familiars did all this, but I was surprised to find hints of more complexity in both the themes and relationships.
For kids who love fantasy and/or animal books there is a lot for them here. There is adventure and action in spades. There is magic, mystery, and bravery. There is also the development of friendships both between the animals and between the animals and humans, most notably between Aldwyn and Jack. This is also the first book in a series, which often keeps kids reading.
However, there is more here than meets the eye. *Heads up, this part of the review is going toward spoiler territory. I don’t think reading it will actually spoil the book or the main story arc, but it does reveal some twists.* I think most interestingly The Familiars introduces the the idea or concept of history being rewritten by a stronger, more advantaged group. The humans who currently rule Vastia have written history in their favor with stories of human wizards accomplishing great things and building up the kingdom. But it turns out that animals played either a vital or exclusive role in making Vastia the great country it is. We’ve seen this in our own history many times, but I think that isn’t something that comes up in history class all that often and especially not with elementary school kids. To see it here, even if it’s a subtle nod to our own world, is very intriguing. That plot line is discussed a bit in this book, but I believe it will be further developed in later books.
The relationships in the story are also more complex than I expected. There is a lot about family and what that means to each of the animals. Skylar doesn’t speak about her family at all and it’s questionable why she doesn’t. Aldwyn has no family that he remembers and he struggles with the abandonment. He understands why his parents may have left him, but that doesn’t make it hurt less. When Jack picks him out at the familiar shop this is the first meaningful relationship that Aldwyn has ever had and by turns it confuses and comforts him. He also often finds himself struggling to do the right thing to build strong friendships. Gilbert, the frog, has a father who is disappointed in his lack of ability to scry. His mother is apologetic and tries to be comforting and warm with Gilbert, possibly to make up for how cold his father is, but this feels like an authentic relationship where one parent is judgmental and doesn’t accept a child as they are. Again I was surprised to see deep and dysfunctional relationships.
The Familiars is about the adventure of the animals, not the humans even though it begins with the humans featuring fairly prominently. This would be a good fit for fantasy fans and animal lovers. The writing style is easy to read, but the added complexity would be good for low readers in middle school. I actually think the pairing of easy text, overall length, generally upbeat story where good triumphs, but more complex themes and relationships make this a good book to come between kidlit and middle grade. It bridges between the two by having a little of both worlds in it. For kids who enjoy this one, but who want to move onto something a bit darker and more nuanced I would send them to the Twistrose Key.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 29, Sep 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: It’s time to fly home for dinner! In this witty picture book from award-winning and bestselling author Mac Barnett, a mother bird gives the bird next to her a message for little Peter. But passing messages on a telephone line isn’t as simple as it sounds. Each subsequent bird understands Mama’s message according to its own very particular hobbies. Will Peter ever get home for dinner?
A hilarious take on the classic game of telephone, Telephone is one of those stories that is sure to appeal to parents as well as kids. As the message is passed down the line and it gets further and further from the original, kids will pick up on the sheer absurdity of the changes. Each picture, featuring the wacky looking bird and some sort of visual of their message, gets crazier and crazier. Kids will eat up the silliness of the story.
By the time the message makes it to the owl, clearly put out by having to stop reading, the message for Peter has reached epic proportions. The owl, as many a parent and teacher has, sighs, takes it in and susses out the real message. Older kids more cued in to their parents may catch what makes adults laugh.
The muted hues of the illustrations only seem to make the antics of the birds funnier by downplaying how ridiculous it all is. The close up and backed-out shots of all the birds on the wire let the reader in on the secret of what might be going on right over their heads as they slip home for dinner too.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 26, Sep 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: All around the world — in the sea, in the soil, in the air, and in your body — there are living things so tiny that millions could fit on an ant’s antenna. They’re busy doing all sorts of things, from giving you a cold and making yogurt to eroding mountains and helping to make the air we breathe. If you could see them with your eye, you’d find that they all look different, and that they’re really good at changing things into something else and at making many more microbes like themselves! From Nicola Davies comes a first exploration for young readers of the world’s tiniest living organisms.
Tiny Creatures has so much going for it. Gross factor, interest factor, and charming illustrations. Charming isn’t exactly what I would have expected, actually but while the text is wonderful, it’s the combination of the illustrations and the text that make this book.
The illustrations have this vintage quality to them that actually makes them feel very modern. It might be the colors and technique that feel vintage, but the sparse background and detailed foregrounds are distinctly modern. Each picture really gets to the heart of what the text is saying and gives kids a visual cue to help with understanding what is being said. Sutton very cleverly illustrates the microbes, showing them in little circles as if you were looking at them through a microscope. My only wish would be that one of the children shown in the book was a different color.
In terms of subject matter, I think microbes certainly hold a lot of interest for kids. They love learning about the world around them and this part is a bit mysterious because it’s difficult to see without special equipment. Despite (most likely) not having seen microbes up close, they are familiar with them. All kids have been sick a few times and many have seen a compost heap or eaten yogurt. All these processes occur because of microbes. And don’t be surprised if your kids want to start washing their hands more regularly, the visual of a microbe dividing is pretty powerful.
Tiny Creatures is a wonderful book for curious kids. The text is fairly simple to understand so the book may appeal to young audiences as well as older ones. A lovely glimpse into an otherwise hidden world and another addition to the burgeoning collection of appealing new nonfiction.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 24, Sep 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Raccoon brothers Bingo and J’miah are the newest recruits of the Official Sugar Man Swamp Scouts. The opportunity to serve the Sugar Man, the massive creature who delights in delicious sugar cane and magnanimously rules over the swamp, is an honor, and also a big responsibility, since the rest of the swamp critters rely heavily on the intel of these hardworking Scouts.
Twelve-year-old Chap Brayburn is not a member of any such organization. But he loves the swamp something fierce, and he’ll do anything to help protect it.
And help is surely needed, because world-class alligator wrestler Jaeger Stitch wants to turn Sugar Man swamp into an Alligator World Wrestling Arena and Theme Park, and the troubles don’t end there. There is also a gang of wild feral hogs on the march, headed straight toward them all.
The Scouts are ready. All they have to do is wake up the Sugar Man. Problem is, no one’s been able to wake that fellow up in a decade or four.
I am sad to say I put this one down around fifty pages in. But it wasn’t the book, it was me. I really wanted to like this one. I have a friend who highly recommended it and of course it got tons of good press, but I just couldn’t get into it.
Certainly I can see what’s likable about the book. J’miah and Bingo are sweet and funny and so determined. Chap is a deep kid who had a wonderful relationship with his grandfather. Times are tough for him and I suspect finds his inner strength and principles. The plot of the sugar man is really unique and magical.
The writing is really exquisite, but it was also what got me. The chapters were really short which, to me, broke up the narrative too much. Some of the plot felt very surreal and I would just be getting into it, getting a feel for it, and the chapter would be over. Of course the short chapters will also make this book appeal to a lot of readers. It makes it great for reading aloud and for kids who want to catch a chapter or two between things on their busy schedules.
In the end I put it down because I could identify both what I didn’t like about it and what others would like. There are so many books in my TBR pile that I just didn’t feel like working my way all the way through this one.