summer reading 2017
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 13, Jul 2017 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
Wolf & Vampire written by Ellie Ann, illustrated by MJ Erickson
From the publisher: Wolf likes pie, fish, mud, singing to the moon, and most of all her family. On the other hill lives a vampire family, whom she’s taught to fear. One day, silver rain attacks Wolf’s house, and she runs, injured. Wolf meets Vampire, who has also been injured. She must decide if she should help someone she’s afraid of. Can they team up in order to save their families?
This is the third Castor Tales easy reader I got and it was as good as the others. There is both family diversity as well as racial diversity. Wolf is a biracial werewolf. Her father is white (he looks like a hipster werewolf, which made me laugh) and her mother is a woman of color (it’s not stated what she is and it isn’t obvious from the illustrations). Vampire is a girl of color (again it is not specified) who has two dads, one of whom is black.
One day while out and about Wolf’s family is overtaken by a silver storm. They scramble into a cave where they run into their rival, Vampire’s family. Vampire’s family has been chased out of their house by the garlic people. Just try not to laugh at the garlic people when you finally see them. They are hilarious and I think give an otherwise serious story a hit of levity. The story is about how initially the two families distrust each other, but after their concurrent tragedies the two girls bring them together. The werewolf family cleans up the garlic people and the vampire family sweeps up the debris the silver rain left. In the end they have changed their minds about each other and share some tea together.
There were two things that, to me, set this one apart. First, the language seemed a little harder. It still has the great repetition of the others, the list of sight words, and small word count per page. For whatever reason, though, some of the words used seemed just slightly harder. That’s perfect, the series grows with the reader. Second, it will take some background knowledge about vampires and werewolves for kids to understand what exactly is going on in the story. Nothing a little explanation from a parent or teacher couldn’t provide.
This whole series has been incredibly refreshing. Between the diverse casts of characters to the fantasy genre of the books they are really different from the usual early easy reader fare.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 12, Jul 2017 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: If you had one chance to achieve your dream, what would you do? Long ago in Persia lived Barbad the musician, who dreamed of playing before the king. Blocked by a jealous rival, Barbad’s solution was simple: hide up in a tree and wait for the king to arrive!
This was a pretty gentle story. There weren’t really any great dramatics or adventures, but that was just fine. Barbad’s trick of befriending the gardener and hiding in a tree to play for the king is rather clever and even humorous.
Something was off in the timing of the story, though. There were pages with only one or two sentences and followed by pages with long paragraphs. The sentences would have long periods of time passing and then the paragraphs would focus in on a short event, which sounds like it would make sense, but felt more like it needed better editing and a little artistic license used to compress the story. It made the timeline harder to follow and felt unnecessarily disjointed.
I was also a bit turned off by the ending. Barbad is vying for a position held by another musician, Sarkash, and the king only keeps one musician in the palace. Admittedly Sarkash is a jerk. He prevents Barbad from playing for the king for a whole year, but he does it because it means he’ll be out of his job. The thing is, couldn’t the king have kept both? I know, I know that isn’t how things always work out. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the historical Barbad and Sarkash were a lot more nuanced than this simple story lets on. They’re here in this story to stand in as metaphors and lessons. Still. Barbad is not exactly a shining example either. He wants to be the king’s musician so he can live in the palace. Sure, he’ll send money back to his family but the book doesn’t say they’re in dire need, just that it was customary to send money home if you were making it. It makes his motive sound more selfish than selfless or artistically driven. He also thinks he’s better than Sarkash and when he finally gets his audience with the king he tattles on him for preventing him from seeing the king. One of the final scenes has Sarkash out on his ass (no, really! his donkey), riding away from the palace, turned out by the king. I couldn’t help but think, why didn’t Barbad choose to be a bigger person and not rat out Sarkash. It felt kind of petty. It also made me kind of hope that there’s a story somewhere where Barbad finds himself in the same position and realizing that maybe Sarkash wasn’t such a bad guy, just one who was afraid to lose his job. Maybe I’m reading way too much into this children’s book.
The illustrations are quite lovely with lots of bright birds and lush foliage. The contrast of the greens of the garden with the yellows and oranges of the sky and lighting are stunning. The lines of the illustration really draw your eye around the pages too. The text was long, but engaging enough. My own daughter sat through the story without complaint. I would still say it’s better for first or second grade over preschool. You could even read it up into third or fourth, although it might be a bit simplistic for older readers.
The story sounds, from the author’s note, like it is a well known Persian tale based on a historical character. For that reason alone I would consider purchasing this, but we have a surprising number of stories from Persian and Iran already so I think I will pass for now. If you are needing to add to or start a collection of Persian tales I would certainly consider this one.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 11, Jul 2017 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: In this classical updated children’s story taken place in the beautiful land of Africa. Little Red Riding Hood is slightly cautious when her grandmother looks suspiciously like a sly Panther.
I came across UrbanToons on Instagram a couple months ago and was excited to see that they have published a number of retold fairy tales. Generally I have mixed feelings about fairy tales, both as a parent and as an educator. On the one hand they are referenced throughout our culture and do carry messages, on the other hand they tend to be Western European (the most common being Grimms from Germany) and are often watered down to be considered “suitable” for children today.
The UrbanToons Little Red Riding Hood is the story we are all familiar with and in terms of fairy tales, one that we don’t see censored too much (except for omitting the woodsman cutting the wolf open). I was pleased by how much I enjoyed this one. While the description above says the book is set in Africa, the actual book specifies a country (Kenya) and a tribe (Maasai). I think this is incredibly important when setting books in Africa with African characters. Africa is not a country or a monolith and there is incredible variety in environment, culture, and people across the massive continent. Much like Debbie Reese encourages parents and educators to look for tribal specificity and nationhood in books with Native Nations, I think we need to do the same with African cultures and countries.
I loved that instead of a wolf Little Red is approached by a panther. The girl also has a name, not something she has in the original story as far as I know, which is refreshing because most fairy tale girls are pretty passive and have names that refer to their looks (Snow White) or their situation (Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella). I think that if you are going to share fairy tales with kids this would be a great retelling to have on hand. If you do a study of this particular tale or of fairy tales in general, read it along with the fantastic retelling Petite Rouge: A Cajun Red Riding Hood.
I definitely recommend adding this to your fairy/folk tale collection. That is a collection that desperately needs more diversity, either with retellings of with original tales respectfully told. It tends to center Western European fairy tales and would benefit from branching out. There is a lot of wonderful mythology and storytelling out there, why not bring some of it into the library and classroom?
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 10, Jul 2017 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: An ancient civilization. An underwater world. And a new quest for the StoneKeeper! Ellis, Toro and Freddye are at it again in the 2nd book in the Ellis Monroe Series Early Reader Chapter Book! Join them as they explore a hidden world, face more nasty Bugabols and discover that there are many kinds of superpowers!
A solid sequel to Ellis and the Magic Mirror. These books do not have overly complex plots and are not long and that is perfect. I cannot emphasize how important this is for kids not ready to make the jump into older chapter books. In The Hidden Cave, Ellis, his sister Freddye, and his best friend Toro travel to India with their parents. When they arrive they head off to a newly discovered site of ruins that are rather mysterious. As the children head off to explore they find a secret entrance to an underwater world, opened to them because of Ellis’ power as a Stonekeeper. Once in the underwater world, Ellis, Freddye, and Toro encounter more bugabols (troll-like creatures) and Ellis discovers someone who can give him more information about being a Stonekeeper. While there Ellis learns a valuable lesson about the importance of kindness and empathy even when it is not being given to you.
While this book could stand alone, it will make a lot more sense if you’ve read the first book. There is a very quick recap that gives enough information, but it might take a stronger reader to really pick up on the parts that carry over. Ellis and Freddye, who are clearly African American, have well-educated university professor parents. This representation is particularly important to have in your collection if most of your books about black families show them in poverty, struggling, or working class.
If there were things I would have liked to see to make the book a little stronger in terms of diversity, I would say we need more specificity about where they are in India and we could see more influence of Indian culture and history. But you have to strike a balance between how much an emerging chapter book reader can take and get through with adding a lot more to the story. While I think that these additions would have made the book better for adults evaluating it, I am not sure it would have made it a better book for emerging readers. Kids need these quick and relatively easy books to grab their attention and encourage them to read more. As with the first book, it’s a thin paperback with no title on the spine making it a good candidate for facing out on the shelf or staying on display.
These books make a great addition to library and classroom collections that serve kids making the transition from easy readers to chapter books. They feature a diverse cast and fun fantasy plots that move quickly enough to keep early readers engaged while giving them a taste of the genre and what books can offer in terms of adventure. Parents and teachers will appreciate the subtle messages in the books that encourage readers to be brave and empathetic.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 07, Jul 2017 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
I went back and reread this book a few months ago and it was just as enjoyable the second time around. I kept it out on display at the library and had at least one taker that I remember (and I think one of the second grade teachers hand sold it to a reader, too?). At any rate it’s well worth having on your shelf. I’m rerunning this today because Monday I will be run a review of the sequel that I just discovered! Pretty excited about that. I also bought copies of both this book and the second to read out loud to my daughter since she’s into chapter books at bedtime.
Ellis and the Magic Mirror written by Cerece Rennie Murphy, pictures by Gregory Garay
From Goodreads: Ellis Monroe has always been curious about the world. When his father brings home an ancient mirror with the power to reveal the truth about the people and things around him, Ellis begins to see the world in a whole new way.
But things get more than a little strange when Ellis takes the mirror to school. While playing with it on the playground with his best friend, Toro Quispe, Ellis discovers that someone – or something – is hiding out at Harriet Tubman Elementary and trying to stop children from learning. Determined to solve the new mystery, Ellis, Toro, and his little sister, Freddye go on a secret mission to find out the truth about the troublesome Buddy Cruster and stop whatever he and his friends have planned.
I can’t quite put my finger on why, but Ellis and the Magic Mirror brought Akata Witch to mind. I think it was the group of friends banding together and working together paired with the magic. This was another good self published chapter book. The story was action packed and fast moving (often important in early chapter books). The cast is, as you can see by the cover, diverse.
There is a strong theme of friendship and working together in the story that I enjoyed, too. It showed the friends teaming up to both figure out the mystery around what the mirror was showing them and dealing with the trolls they discover. I also liked the sibling relationship between Ellis and Freddye. It was healthy. They bicker a bit, but the two clearly care for each other and work together well despite an age gap. I’m personally really tired of books with siblings that are at each other’s throats constantly (although I understand there are families where that is the case).
So a lot of times there are stories that I feel could be resolved more easily if children would just bring the problem to the attention of an adult. Particularly when things get dangerous. But then the kids just don’t for what appears to be no other reason than to drive the plot. I know that can be realistic to an extent, but I think it also runs counter to what we tell children to do in threatening situations. Ellis finds himself in a situation like that here, except the book gives two really good reasons for not telling adults. First, there is magic involved and it’s unlikely an adult would believe the kids. Second, Ellis has stolen the mirror from his dad and doesn’t want him to know that he has the mirror. I infinitely prefer stories where there are solid reasons for not telling an adult. I’m not sure if that’s a preference for me as an adult or someone who is very literal, but I am much more likely to willingly suspend my belief in what is going on and fall into the world of the story.
Once again the trim size a little large on this one and I wish it was a bit smaller. Also I don’t know if self published titles have this option, but most of them seem not to have the title and author printed on the spine. That means once they are shelved in the library they tend to disappear onto the shelf. Thicker books don’t disappear as much, but I try to leave them out on display as often as possible so they don’t get lost.
In all, a book worth putting on your shelf if you need a little magic and friendship in the early chapter book section.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 06, Jul 2017 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: Life isn’t easy when your big sister is an annoying cat and your moms can’t understand a word you say. But that doesn’t stop Rumplepimple from saving the day in a most unusual way. Find out how a car ride transforms a naughty terrier into a grocery store hero.
I bought this earlier in the year to put in my Read-T0-A-Dog basket in the library. I bought my own copy a week or two ago and my daughter has been asking to read it frequenly ever since.
I love that this book has a lot to talk about in it. The most obvious is how Rumplepimple stands up to a bully. When a little boy has snatched his sister’s blanket from her in the grocery store, Rumplepimple hears her cry and rushes in to give the blanket back. When I read this with my daughter we talked about how Rumplepimple saved the day and did a good thing by intervening when something wrong was happening.
Of course this is not what his mom sees. After he slips out the car door and rushes into the store he loses his mom. She ultimately finds him peering in the meat department case licking his lips and assumes he has been up to no good. This is also a great conversation starter about doing the right thing even when no one is looking and even if you don’t get recognized for it. It can also lead to discussing doing the right thing even if you get in trouble for it.
While all this is well and good, my daughter and students loved it because Rumplepimple is a cute dog. The story sounds like the thoughts that go through a dog’s head and are quite funny. Or at least what I imagine does. I love the nod to The Farside comics with the “Blah, blah, blah, Rumplepimple” line when he’s being scolded in the car after being recaptured.
I have a few design issues, but they’re minor and neither my students nor my daughter noticed them. I wish more of the illustrations filled the page instead of the spot illustrations. There’s a lot of white space in the book and it feels sparse. I think it could have been a couple pages shorter too, but again it’s all minor.
If you want a cute dog story (don’t all kids?), then this book is well worth adding to your collection. It’s paperback so get the book tape out. Rumplepimple has two moms and, while their relationship is not specified, I think it’s implied that they are in a relationship. This is a great book to get some incidental diversity into your storytimes and collections!
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 05, Jul 2017 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
This one appears to have gone out of print or is at least not available through Amazon. If you wouls like a copy you can buy it here through Kitaab World. I highly recommend ordering through them anyways. They have an amazing selection of books dealing with Islam and South Asian culture. Again, I can’t recommend enough getting more books about Muslims into all parts of your collection. This is a particularly lovely biography with wonderful illustrations and good information.
The Amazing Discoveries of Ibn Sina written by Fatima Sharafeddine, illustrated by Intelaq Mohammed Ali
Form Goodreads: Born in Persia more than a thousand years ago, Ibn Sina was one of the greatest thinkers of his time — a philosopher, scientist and physician who made significant discoveries, especially in the field of medicine, and wrote more than one hundred books. As a child, Ibn Sina was extremely bright, a voracious reader who loved to learn and was fortunate to have the best teachers. He memorized the Qur’an by the age of ten and completed his medical studies at sixteen. He spent his life traveling, treating the sick, seeking knowledge through research, and writing about his discoveries. He came up with new theories in the fields of physics, chemistry, astronomy and education. His most famous work is The Canon of Medicine, a collection of books that were used for teaching in universities across the Islamic world and Europe for centuries.
So I wasn’t totally captivated by the text in this one. It was in first person which I understand brings the reader closer to the subject, but it also made for a few awkward places. In looking further at the book I discovered that it was originally published in Arabic, which might explain the awkwardness. Things lost in translation.
Otherwise, Ibn Sina made me feel totally inadequate. NBD. He just finished his medical studies at 16. I mean I know it wasn’t like medical school these days, but still. 16. Clearly the man was a genius. The story of his accomplishments was really fascinating. He did a lot and was very interested in life long learning. He studied philosophy, education and even advocated for what we might today consider respectful parenting and teaching.
I wish there had been a little more historical context. He moved around a lot as an adult, but there was only a brief mention that one of the cities he lived in was frequently fighting with another. I think kids in the US will not be particularly familiar with the geography or history of the area or era and need more information. But I also understand that it could potentially make the book unwieldy and boring. A longer more detailed author’s note might have sufficed. I did appreciate that Sharafeddine noted that Islamic contributions to the world are rarely taught in US schools and that was a driving factor in bringing out this book.
I really like the illustrations. They’re done on a speckled brownish paper that makes the colors pop and is different from the usual white paper. The lines are so soft and the shading is spectacular. Everyone has these huge half moon eyes that make them kind of darling and friendly. The illustrations were done in colored pencil and are so saturated and rich.
I’ll definitely be buying this as our budget allows this year. We need more Islamic biographies and I don’t think we have anything on the Islamic Golden Age. The illustrations will entice my students to pick it up. My complaints about the text aren’t significant enough for me to not purchase it.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 03, Jul 2017 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
This one is a little out of character because Ruby is (obviously) white, but it’s worth it for having a girl involved in coding! I used this book this past year with my second grade class to begin teaching them about how computers think. Hello Ruby does teach basics of coding, but for me it was important for the kids to learn how computers access information as early as possible. In just a couple years they will be asked to do some online research and they need to understand how best to go about it BEFORE they start out. That doesn’t mean they’ll do it perfectly the first time or even fully grasp what is going on, but it’s about putting the scaffolding in place. A second book in this series is coming out this fall and I’m excited to see how I can use that. In addition to going through the book with my second graders, my own daughter loved the book and activities. She didn’t get all of them as she was only 5 when we read it, but she still really enjoyed it.
Hello Ruby: Adventures in Coding by Linda Liukas
From Goodreads: Meet Ruby—a small girl with a huge imagination, and the determination to solve any puzzle. As Ruby stomps around her world making new friends, including the Wise Snow Leopard, the Friendly Foxes, and the Messy Robots, kids will be introduced to the fundamentals of computational thinking, like how to break big problems into small ones, create step-by-step plans, look for patterns and think outside the box through storytelling. Then, these basic concepts at the core of coding and programming will be reinforced through fun playful exercises and activities that encourage exploration and creativity.
Hello Ruby is an interesting hybrid of chapter book and activity book. Oddly, though, the activities are included in the back half of the book and not in or at the end of each chapter. The introduction also says that the book is designed for a parent to read the story to their child(ren) and work through the activities together.
The story is cute and simple with a pretty easy reading level (with some help a second grader could manage), however it jumps from something realistic into what I think is Ruby’s imagination. Ruby’s dad has hidden gems and left her some cryptic messages as clues to finding them. I was a little confused as to how Ruby managed to create a map for a world that I thought was supposed to be around her house, but ended up with a river and a forest. I stuck with it and the story eventually made more sense, it just required accepting that this was not our world. I’m not sure kids will be thrown by the leap into Ruby’s imagination since they are less familiar with genres and rules about worlds and stories. Some of the chapters were a little confusing unless you looked at and did the activities with them.
I did appreciate that the activities built on each other, getting more difficult as the book went on. One helps kids understand Booleans which I might have to use in the library when we talk about them.
I’m going to spend next week going through the chapters and exercises with my daughter to see how engaging it is for kids (I realize she’s a little younger than this is probably gear toward, but it will give me a sense). Considering it needs a parent to go through it with the child (not a bad thing! I wish more parents of older kids were still reading and working with their kids), it’s probably not the kind of book that would be popular in my library. It should work for a public library or a home collection if coding is popular. What I think I might do is buy it to have in the makerspace I run.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 30, Jun 2017 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
I don’t know if the teachers paired this with the Sequoyah biography, but I do know the kids really enjoyed this book. It got them thinking and that’s always a good thing. I still highly recommend this title.
The Apple Tree: A Cherokee Story written by Sandy Tharp-Thee, illustrated by Marlena Campbell Hodson
From Goodreads: A little boy plants an apple seed, and as soon as it sprouts the boy can see the apple tree it is meant to be. But the little apple tree isn’t so sure. Young and impatient, the tree begins to doubt its calling, especially after apples fail to appear that first October. How can the little boy encourage the tree to give the seasons and years the time to work their magic?
I saw this one recommended on Debbie Reese’s site and bought it to replace some of the many Native Nations books I withdrew this summer.
I thought this was a nice gentle story and it’s so sweet. It’s also a quick read. It brought to mind The Giving Tree, a book that I know is beloved by many, but I find incredibly disturbing. Here the little boy helps his apple tree feel better until it can produce it’s own apples. He talks to the tree and interacts with it. Which also brings to mind the book Maple.
Someone in the comments section of AICL noted that Kirkus did not review the book well and that the reviewer was confused by the story. Another commenter posted some quotes from the review. I don’t think the book is confusing at all and found the complaints of the Kirkus review more confusing than this story. If you understood The Giving Tree, you won’t have trouble with this story. Neither will your students.
The text is presented both in English and Cherokee which is a really cool talking point for students. We have a biography of Sequoyah. I can’t speak to how accurate it is (so much of children’s nonfiction is terrible!!), but we are using it. I suggested my second grade teachers pair these two books. Debbie Reese also recommends that you show children the Cherokee tribal website.
It’s a far less disturbing story like The Giving Tree. I highly recommend it for libraries looking to strengthen their collections of Native Nations books. I also suggest it if you have classrooms that do fall themes, trees, or want a story about patience.
By Elizabeth Wroten
On 28, Jun 2017 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
You just can’t go wrong with Zetta Elliott books on your shelf. You just can’t. I still really appreciate that this shows a divorced family doing their thing. In the past two years this one didn’t check out all that often, but it did check out. If there was one thing I could change it would be the physical size of the book. This has the trim size of an easy reader, but it’s clearly an mid-range chapter book. Size does matter here, but obviously it didn’t deter my students from reading it.
Room In My Heart by Zetta Elliott
From Goodreads: It took some time for Nikki to adjust to her parents’ divorce, but now she and her little sister Natalie enjoy their new routine. Daddy comes over for dinner on Tuesday nights and the girls spend each weekend with him. But everything changes when Daddy picks them up for their weekend visit and introduces the girls to his new friend Sylvia. Nikki feels invisible when Sylvia’s around and so she decides not to spend the weekend with Daddy anymore. Only after talking about her feelings with her aunt does Nikki learn that her father’s love is unchanging, and that there is room in his heart to love many different people.
Another Zetta Elliott that I bought for my library and love, love, loved. I have to say I connected with this book on a personal level as much as I saw it being a good book for the right kid. Forgive me, but I’m about to get a bit personal in this review. My parents divorced when I was young but this was not something I often saw reflected either in my reading or other pop culture I consumed. My mom remarried a couple times and my dad dated a lot. Although I don’t remember struggling in quite the way Nikki does here, I related to so many of her feelings and her situation. It’s hard going between two households and it’s weird when you introduce new people into the family. I am so glad to see a book that reflects that and talks about it without feeling forced or as if it is telling a child how to feel or respond.
I also think the book does a beautiful job allowing Nikki to have her feelings without casting them as something awful or something she shouldn’t have. We often don’t allow children their emotions. We’re always shushing them and telling them they’re okay when they cry, etc. I think this is best seen when Nikki is upset with her father and decides not to spend the weekend with him, her mother says her father is disappointed:
I just shrugged and went upstairs to unpack my overnight bag. I told myself I didn’t care if my father was disappointed in me. I was disappointed in him!
The father in Room In My Heart puts manners and politeness and his own feelings before Nikki’s. Elliott gets at the ridiculousness of this. Sure, Nikki learns something by the end of the book, but Elliott doesn’t invalidate her feelings. She makes all the characters acknowledge them and address them. All this is to say that Elliott really hit the nail on the head in conveying many of the feelings and troubles of kids whose parents are divorced and at some larger issues for children.
As with Max Loves Munecas I worried that I would have to hand sell this to the kids, that they wouldn’t pick it up on their own. I don’t mind hand selling books and I think those hand sells are very important especially for reluctant readers, however I just don’t have nearly enough time to do it often enough or well enough. So I worry that the books won’t get read after the first few months they’ve been in the library. But Zetta Elliott put this post up on her blog* and in her first part of the conversation she totally speaks to why that doesn’t matter. I am so glad she framed it this way and I feel silly for not having thought of it that way before. I am not going to worry about that any more. Thank you, Zetta Elliott, for assuaging my anxiety about this and for making books that are perfect for giving to the right reader at just the right time. (Update: I put the book out on our new arrivals shelf and lo and behold a kid checked it out with zero prompting from me. I was totally wrong about it.)
*This is not at all the point of her whole post, by the way. I do recommend reading the whole thing. There is so much there to think about and reflect on and Elliott and Kwaymullina are great people to be learning from.
Final note: If you do purchase this book, please post a review of it on Amazon. This will help other folks find the book and know that it’s worth purchasing. If you use any other book services like GoodReads or your local library’s online catalog be sure to post a review there too! And if your local library doesn’t have a copy, request that they purchase one.