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.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 22, Sep 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Eleven-year-old Poppy Ray longs to be a veterinarian, but she’s never had a pet. This summer, she’s going to spend a month with her uncle Sanjay, veterinarian and owner of the Furry Friends Animal Clinic on an island off the Washington coast.
Poppy is in for big surprises. She loves tending to the dogs, cats, and even a bird, and she discovers the fun of newborn puppies and the satisfaction of doing a good job. But she learns that there’s more to caring for animals than the stethoscope and cotton swabs in her Deluxe Veterinarian First-Aid Kit. She’s not prepared for quirky pet owners, gross stuff, or scary emergencies. With help from a boy named Hawk, a chunk of seaglass, and a touch of intuition, Poppy gains a deeper understanding of the pain and joy of working with animals.
Seaglass Summer was such a sweet book. Poppy must be the most naive and sheltered kid ever, but she was so likable. Her tender heartedness and determination made her very endearing. While Poppy’s parents have gone to India for the summer, Poppy has been invited to stay with her maternal uncle in Witless Cove. The summer becomes one of eye-opening, heart wrenching, and heart warming experiences.
Through learning about her uncle’s struggle to become a vet and through her experiences at the clinic, Poppy comes to realize that becoming a vet means more than buying a Deluxe First-Aid kit. She sees first hand the ups, downs, and zaniness that working with animals entails. She also finds it’s not always about the animals. Sometimes you are treating the pet owner.
After reading some dark YA (and even some darker MG) it was refreshing to see Poppy’s uncle. He’s just an all around great guy. Dedicated to his practice, the animals, and their owners. He dotes on Poppy and has generously asked her to stay with him for a month so that she can spend time in his animal clinic. Sometimes he’s a little clueless, like when Poppy gets faint over blood and other nasty aspects of veterinary science, but for the most part he is attentive and easy going.
Being a small community, Witless Cove is home to a couple quirky people. One is a dog owner and psychic. She invites Poppy over for a reading and her uncle good-naturedly takes Poppy over. She gives Poppy some advice that proves to be useful. Poppy should find some sea glass and use it meditate everyday. The meditation is only mildly successful, but Poppy does take the opportunity to do a little inner reflection. She finds strength that she never knew she had.
Poppy also has the good fortune to make a friend while in town. Hawk is the son of the receptionist at the clinic and a couple years older than Poppy. Hawk shows Poppy the ropes and even takes her around town a bit.
I would like to point out that Poppy is Indian-American, but this really is never brought up. Even her uncle’s ethnicity in a small town is a non-issue. Late in the book Poppy finds out that it was difficult for him to find somewhere to work because he is Indian, but he stuck to his dream to be a vet and found solutions. It’s a minor mention of his struggle, and while I think it’s an important issue, the brevity is probably best for the intended audience.
Seaglass Summer would be a great book for kids who like animals and especially for kids who want to be vets. I think any kid who feels called to a profession or passion could relate to Poppy, though. The diversity may also be a draw for readers who like a more mixed cast of characters.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 15, Sep 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
When do you introduce children to a difficult topic like the Japanese Internment? That’s a tough question and part of it will depend on the child, but when I was working in the second grade we definitely broached the topic. I think it’s surprising how ready children are to learn about really difficult topics and I would recommend against assuming that they can’t handle them. Children’s fiction often does a wonderful job of presenting complex and fraught history to kids in a way that helps them understand and process it. The following are three excellent books that teach children about the Japanese Internment without overburdening or overwhelming them.
Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki: This was one we read every year in second grade and the kids loved it. It does a really wonderful job showing how important it was to have something to do in the camps. The child’s perspective also gives the story an immediacy for children hearing the story. Even though this one is older, it is well worth reading. Sports fan will enjoy this story even though it’s really more a historical fiction.
Barbed Wire Baseball by Marissa Moss: Another baseball story. This one follows the story of Zeni, an incredible professional baseball player who, because of his Japanese heritage, was put into a camp. The book is based on the true story of how he saw that the people in the camp needed something to do and worked very hard to build a baseball stadium complete with bleachers for the fans and uniforms for the players. He involves nearly everyone in the camp in some way with the project and gives them a new purpose. I especially like the lack of animosity in the story. I think with stories of injustice it’s easy to slip into pointing fingers and assigning blame, but I don’t think that kind of writing helps children understand what happened or appreciate the heroism of the people who rose above their situation. The art is also really incredible in this book. It has the feel of old sports ads and baseball cards (especially the cover). Back matter has a more complete story of Zeni with pictures of him standing with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. The story is a little long so it may be better suited to second or third grade and up, but it is certainly appropriate. As with Baseball Saved Us, this story may encourage sports fans to read more history.
A Place Where Sunflowers Grow by Amy Lee-Tai: I loved this book. Not only does Mari use art to help her understand the situation she finds herself in, but she also uses gardening to help her and others heal. Mari struggles to understand why she and her family are now living in such an abysmal place as Topaz and she retreats within herself. Eventually her art class and art teacher give her the ability to beautify the family’s barren cabin with her drawings of their old home. When the sunflower seeds she planted with her mother finally begin to grow, so does Mari’s hope that there will be beauty in her life again.There is also a story of friendship here. Mari knows none of the children in the camp with her, but through her art class she meets another little girl who eventually becomes her friend. Through their friendship she finds someone she can lean on and talk to. The story is based on the author’s grandmother’s experience in the Topaz camp.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 08, Sep 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: James McMullan was born in Tsingtao, North China, in 1934, the grandson of missionaries who settled there. As a little boy, Jim took for granted a privileged life of household servants, rickshaw rides, and picnics on the shore until World War II erupted and life changed drastically. Jim s father, a British citizen fluent in several Chinese dialects, joined the Allied forces. For the next several years, Jim and his mother moved from one place to another Shanghai, San Francisco, Vancouver, Darjeeling first escaping Japanese occupation then trying to find security, with no clear destination except the unpredictable end of the war. For Jim, those ever-changing years took on the quality of a dream, sometimes a nightmare, a feeling that persists in the stunning full-page, full-color paintings that along with their accompanying text tell the story of “Leaving China. “
Leaving China is a clear-eyed, interesting look back at James McMullan’s early years. I love how it is told in little vignettes with each illustration accompanied by a remembrance of a memory, an event or a time period in McMullen’s life. It is interesting to see how his childhood unfolded and how, although he was interested in art, his introspective and reflective personality was more formative for his future career than any one experience.
There are some dark elements here. World War II comes to China and forces James and his mother to leave, beginning their nomadic lives. They don’t see any horrors of war, but the threat of something happening hangs over them. James’s mother, Rose, is an alcoholic and although James doesn’t go into detail it is brought up. She also spends time with men while they are away from James’s father. Again, there aren’t any lurid details, but James mentions that his mother maybe having an affair. Because of these points I would say the book is better suited to older elementary students or even young middle schoolers.
I would give this to kids who like autobiography or who are interested in the lives of artists. It might be a good addition to an autobiography/family project book list. It’s been ages since I read it, but the early parts remind me of Jean Fritz’s Homesick: My Own Story. It’s also a great story for those kids with unusual childhoods, especially military kids who move a lot.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 01, Sep 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: Emily wants to be an artist. She likes painting and loves the way artists like Pablo Picasso mixed things up.Emily’s life is a little mixed up right now. Her dad doesn’t live at home anymore, and it feels like everything around her is changing.
“When Picasso was sad for a while,” says Emily, “he only painted in blue. And now I am in my blue period.”
It might last quite some time.
Emily’s Blue Period is a picture book about divorce, but I think it handles it in a very interesting way, a way that makes is accessible to all kids.
Despite the fact that this is a “divorce book”, it doesn’t take the tack of many divorce books I’ve seen. In fact the word is never even mentioned. It never tells kids it will all be okay. It doesn’t have Emily trying to get her parents back together and it doesn’t have her blaming herself for their divorce.
What it does do is show Emily and her brother struggling to make sense of their new reality. I think you can look at the book through the lens of Emily or through the lens of Picasso. Which is to say you can look at it as a divorce book or an art book (or both, obviously). Through Emily you see how divorce can be confusing for a child. But you also see her use the transformative power of art to make sense of what is happening to her family. Emily is clearly sad, but the book is hopeful as she works her way through understanding that home is not necessarily your house, but a feeling you create through love and although many things have changed, her parents love for her and her brother has not.
Taking the art angle, the reader learns about Picasso and about his art. But the great thing about this book is how his art is related to Emily’s life. It gives real examples, of the variety that are relatable and don’t shy away from the difficult times in children’s lives, of how Picasso used art. I think many or even most kids know someone with divorced parents, so understanding that it’s a hard and confusing and sad time for their friends still make the topic familiar. I think children who are not faced with divorce will still like Emily and her interest in art and may even find inspiration to use art to work through problems they are faced with.
A lovely book for slightly older kids who are either interested in art or have parents divorcing. The format uses chapters to break the story up even though the chapters are short. I’m not sure how well issue books work for reading aloud to a group, but if any book like that is going to work it would be this one. I think really it makes art, abstract art at that, come alive and feel relevant and understandable.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 28, Aug 2014 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From GoodReads: The buzz of bees in summertime. The tracks of a bird in the winter snow. This beautiful book captures all the sights and sounds of a child’s interactions with nature, from planting acorns or biting into crisp apples to studying tide pools or lying back and watching the birds overhead. No matter what’s outside their windows — city streets or country meadows — kids will be inspired to explore the world around them.
I decided to include this title in my throwback series for a couple of reasons. First, I really love to use poetry to encourage kids to become readers. Second, I’ve been reading this with my daughter for more than a year now and we just love it.
As you probably already figured out, this is a collection of poems about nature. But what I have loved about is that the poems are organized around the seasons. There is a section each for spring, summer, fall and winter. This is the kind of book you can leave out in a classroom, on a nature table, or in a bedroom. You can pick it up whenever you have a few spare minutes and select a poem or two for your current season.
The poems themselves are really lovely and evocative. Not every child is going to have experienced all the nature in the book, but there is something for everyone from a window box on an apartment balcony to a farm. The illustrations are a mixture of collage, watercolor and probably a few other media thrown in. They really do a wonderful job complementing each poem. They are bright, cheerful with seasonally appropriate color palettes. The animals are all very charming and a nice enticement for many children. It’s a large book which I think encourages kids to open it out on the floor and pore over it. The paper is heavy and thick which adds to the sensorial experience of reading it.
The nice thing about a collection of poems like this is that you can dip in and out of if, like with a lot of nonfiction. Kids whose attention spans are short or who are having a hard time reading can choose a poem or two, look at the illustration and move on to something else. Reading doesn’t have to be torturously long. Very young children, who may not want to sit still for an entire picture book or story, are often willing to listen to a poem or two and the use of language and vocabulary in poetry is especially good at getting little ones to listen to spoken words. An all around great book for all ages (parents included!).