By Elizabeth Wroten
On 29, Oct 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: In 1960s Toronto, two girls retreat to their attics to escape the loneliness and isolation of their lives. Polly lives in a house bursting at the seams with people, while Rose is often left alone by her busy parents. Polly is a down-to-earth dreamer with a wild imagination and an obsession with ghosts; Rose is a quiet, ethereal waif with a sharp tongue. Despite their differences, both girls spend their days feeling invisible and seek solace in books and the cozy confines of their respective attics. But soon they discover they aren’t alone–they’re actually neighbors, sharing a wall. They develop an unlikely friendship, and Polly is ecstatic to learn that Rose can actually see and talk to ghosts. Maybe she will finally see one too! But is there more to Rose than it seems? Why does no one ever talk to her? And why does she look so… ghostly? When the girls find a tombstone with Rose’s name on it in the cemetery and encounter an angry spirit in her house who seems intent on hurting Polly, they have to unravel the mystery of Rose and her strange family… before it’s too late.
I read this one just in time for Halloween. It was, ultimately, a rather sad ghost story. There is a lot going on here, although I never felt the plot lines got tangled or hard to follow. But several of the plots were quite sad for various reasons.
The narrative switches back and forth between Polly and Rose with each girl getting a section in each chapter. Rose always follows Polly and sometimes recounts what Polly has told or picks up where Polly left off. The two girls and their families could not be more different and I enjoyed seeing their perspectives on these things when it was their turn to narrate. So while this is a ghost story with all the requisite twists and turns, it also became a wonderful story about friendship and family.
The synopsis above doesn’t mention that there is a historical thread to the story that connects up with the family theme and story. Rose, because she can see ghosts, sees a ghost that she quickly discovers is an aunt no one ever talks about. The aunt could also see ghosts, but because of the time she was born into the family wanted to institutionalize her. There is some mystery surrounding her death and why she is still lurking the house and Rose, with the encouragement of Polly, ultimately decides to investigate and possibly help her aunt, which requires delving into the family history and raiding the closets.
I’m one of those people who skips ahead and reads the last few pages of a book, but I don’t usually do that with these mystery/ghost stories because it can totally ruin it. I accidentally did that with this one and it spoiled the big twist at the end. The book was still well worth the read, though and I still managed to get sucked in to making mistakes and assumptions. Adults reading the story may find they can figure it all out before the big reveal simply because it’s an age-old ghost story trick, but kids who may not be familiar with the genre will be totally amazed.
I would say this is a good middle grade ghost story, but upper elementary would enjoy it as well. It’s a little on the longer side and I’m guessing the reading level is fairly high.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 27, Oct 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Finally, Amira is twelve. Old enough to wear a toob, old enough for new responsibilities. And maybe old enough to go to school in Nyala– Amira’s one true dream.
But life in her peaceful Sudanese village is shattered when the Janjaweed arrive. The terrifying attackers ravage the town and unleash unspeakable horrors. After she loses nearly everything, Amira needs to dig deep within herself to find the strength to make the long journey– on foot– to safety at a refugee camp. Her days are tough at the camp, until the gift of a simple red pencil opens her mind– and all kinds of possibilities.
The Red Pencil was by turns beautiful and heartbreaking. I picked it up because it sounded good and because I heard Davis speak about it at the ALSC Institute. This is a novel in verse, a choice she explained saying poems can insulate the reader from the horrors of the story. I felt quite the opposite. Poems, to me, are very impactful and accentuate the story. I think her point was there weren’t long expository sections where you give great detail about the awful things going on. I agree with that.
It is definitely a book for older readers, I would say fifth and sixth grade, even seventh despite the lower reading level. Davis avoids any sexual violence and any discussion of female circumcision, both of which are issues that often come up in books about conflict in Sudan and other African countries. I think these kinds of books are really, really important for introducing kids to the wider, often cruel and unfair, world. Kids need to know what is going on around them and I think we both do them a disservice and seriously underestimate them by shielding them from it. I also think these books can and should be conversation starters about, well, all kinds of issues, but post colonialism, race, women’s issues, etc. Davis handles the subject so delicately and so deftly that despite the horror and sadness of the story and situation I wouldn’t hesitate to share it. Still, recommend it with caution, even I got weepy over parts of the book. It may be overwhelming for some kids.
Spoiler alert. Amira’s family is really wonderful which was refreshing but her father is killed in the attack by the janjaweed. Fortunately, they have a neighbor who is also a wonderful friend. He steps in to help mend the family. They also take Amira’s sister’s friend in when he is orphaned. I think this theme of family being who you make it really resonates with the upper elementary and middle school students who are beginning to become more absorbed by friends and are becoming more aware of the flaws in their families.
The Milk of Birds is a more difficult book, in terms of subject matter and reading level, but would be a good place to go after this as would The Good Braider which is also more difficult for the same reasons. Both are wonderfully written. The Good Braider is also another novel in verse and weaves in immigration and straddling two cultures.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 24, Oct 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: The best-selling author Ignatius B. Grumply moves into the Victorian mansion at 43 Old Cemetery Road, hoping to find some peace and quiet so that he can crack a wicked case of writer’s block.
But 43 Old Cemetery Road is already occupied–by an eleven-year-old boy named Seymour, his cat, Shadow, and an irritable ghost named Olive.
And they have no intention of sharing!
What an awesome book! The story is primarily told through letters between Ignatius Grumply, Seymour, Olive, Ignatius’ lawyer, real estate agent, book agent and a private investigator. The letters, down to the sign offs and signatures, do an incredible job conveying the personalities of each character. There are quite a few drawings mostly done by Seymour and some very clever and hilarious excerpts from the local newspaper.
The plot is not overly complex nor is the book very long, but I don’t think it suffers for it. There is plenty of character development and things come out well in the end. In terms of ghost stories this is low on the spooky factor and high on the silly scale, but in the best possible way. All of these factors make it about right for third and fourth grade, really even into fifth. I know I sound like a broken record saying this, but it would be great for low readers, especially with the picture support and engaging format. There are quite a few more books in the series 43 Cemetery Road which makes it all the more appealing for this age range.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 20, Oct 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: A boy alone in his room.
Sketchbook in hand.
What would it be like to on safari?
A boy named Leonardo begins to imagine and then draw a world afar; first a rhinoceros, and then he meets some monkeys, and he always has a friendly elephant at his side. Soon he finds himself in the jungle and carried away by the sheer power of his imagination, seeing the world through his own eyes and making friends along the way.
I had a really emotional reaction to this book. It is such an incredible story and told entirely without words. It reminds me of some of the best visual storytelling you see in movies (the opening credits of Watchmen and the tear-jerker montage in Up to name two) which is not easy to do well.
While in his room a young boy, possibly Colon, sits on his bed reading a book. The mood strikes him and he picks up his sketch pad. As you leave the world of his bedroom for the African continent the art style changes and the new style, a more lush, layered and colorful style, comes into view through a series of panels that grow in size indicating how they slowly fill the room and the boy’s mind. The effect is done in reverse when the boy returns from his adventure. In the fantasy you see small details included from the room. The backpack of bread slowly empties as the boy shares it with the creatures he meets. He wears the same clothes. It becomes apparent that the elephant is his guide through the savannah. It’s these subtle details that really make the story effective and more complex and therefore interesting.
The story, while about a boy drawing, is really about how art can transport you. And not just drawing but books as well. It’s the book the boy was reading that inspired him to pick up paper and visually represent what he had been reading. I think this book is great for quietly perusing, but is also a great inspriration for kids who love to draw, paint, and create. It would also be a good discussion starter for classes learning about art and inspiration. I know a lot of parents think picture books are for young children, but this book would be wonderful for any age as the story is so timeless and universal.
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.