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As a lover of children's literature, mother and bookseller of 13 years, I want to put good books into kid's hands. I share my philosophy on what makes a book good as well as book reviews and lists of great books for every reading taste and ability with a focus on new readers. I also highlight some wonderful books that are not always on the shelf at bookstores, but might be at your library and can definitely be ordered. All books mentioned are available in paperback unless noted.
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1. What Can I Be? by Ann Rand & Ingrid Fiksdahl King





Holding What Can I Be? in my hands after reading it, I felt like I had just walked through a gallery at a modern art museum. I knew that there had to be a story behind this book, which was published this year by Princeton Architectural Press, but feels much older. The premise of What Can I Be?which was written by Ann Rand and illustrated by painter and architecture professor Ingrid Fiksdahl King, coauthor of A Pattern Language, one of the most influential books on architecture and planning, is simple, suggestive and playful, presenting readers with a shape and asking what could it be, then encouraging readers to imagine what else that shape could be. Reading this article at the marvelous Brain Pickings, I learned the story behind What Can I Be?









In the 1950s Ann Rand and her husband at the time collaborated on three picture books that are still in print. Her husband, Paul Rand went on to be a legend in the graphic design world, creating many of the corporate logos that are still in use today. Like Fiksdahl King, Ann Rand was an architect and trained under Mies van der Rohe. In the 1970s the two created What Can I Be? but it did not reach publication for forty years. It is always fascinating to me when creative people from different disciplines make picture books, and when it is successful, the results stand out on the shelves, and What Can I Be? is definitely successful.


What could be green and shaped like a triangle? "a Christmas tree / the sail of a boat / a tent / or maybe a kite flying high in a windblown sky." While concept books are, by their very nature, simplistic, Rand and Fiksdahl King add layers of complexity, especially in the illustrations, but also in the text, using words like "splendid," "ruffled" and "windblown." What Can I Be? will definitely appeal to parents with a background in in art, design and architecture, but I believe it will also truly inspire little listeners who will want to hear it read over and over.




Books by Ann & Paul Rand





Source: Review Copy


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2. The Yeti Files: Attack of the Kraken by Kevin Sherry, 128 pp, RL 2



It's here! Book 3 in Kevin Sherry's superbly silly series of books featuring all your favorite cryptids is here! Following in the footsteps of Monsters on the Run and Meet the BigfeetBlizz Richards and the gang go under the sea The Yeti Files: Attack of the Kraken



But, before heading to Atlantis, Alex the Elf and Gunthar the goblin are getting up to no good, out of eyesight from Blizz. Blizz thinks the two are getting along nicely in their igloo, but really, the devious duo are off tending to Gunthar's new pet whose name begins with "pt."


As Blizz gets the cryptosub ready to head out, he explains to Alex, Gunthar and Frank, the arctic fox who always seems to know what's really going on, all about the hidden city of Atlantis and the merfolk who live there. He also reminds the gang and readers how they received an urgent alert from the merfolk at the end of The Yeti Files #2of Monsters on the Run. In Atlantis, they crew are greeted by the Mayor, Julius Blacksand, who has been making big additions to the city with the help of some powerful, precious, rare crystals mined nearby. But, a determined megafan of Blizz's named Coral tells him that the mayor isn't all he seems to be and that his continued mining of crystals is threatening the health of the ocean they live in - and the mysterious Kraken. Can Blizz and the gang prove that this is true and stop Julius Blacksand? And just who is Emily Airwalker and where is she? While I always adore the humor in Sherry's books, he weaves some very pertinent themes of conservation and environmental awareness into Attack of the Kraken that I appreciated.


 The Yeti Files Books 1 & 2:

      Meet the Bigfeet          Monsters on the Run


Source: Purchased

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3. Lowriders to the Center of the Earth by Cathy Camper, illustrated by Raúl the Third, 128 pp, RL 3



In 2014 I reviewed the stand out graphic novel Lowriders in Space written by author, artist and librarian Cathy Camper and illustrated by Raúl the Third. I didn't think it was possible, but I love the follow up, Lowriders to the Center of the Earth, even more than the first book! While the ingenuity of the characters, the cars, and of course, space travel were big draws in the first book, the second book manages to pack in even more fantastic features that I know the students in my school will love. Camper ups the usage of Spanish vocabulary in Lowriders to the Center of the Earth, including a coyote who puns in Spanish, and weaves characters and themes from Atzec mythology and Mexican folklore into this fast paced, action packed graphic novel with even more of the intensely detailed, superb illustrations by Raúl the Third.


Lowriders to the Center of the Earth starts with Lupe, a master mechanic and "an impala extraordinaire," Flappy, an octopus  who wears a deer stalker and often travels in a jumbo popcorn bucket, and Elirio, painter of cars who has a "beak that was as steady as a surgeon's hand, his skill in detailing cars unparalleled, heading out to find Genie, their beloved missing cat. Footprints lead them out of town and into a giant cornfield where their odyssey beings.



It seems that Mictlantecuhtli, which I know is pronounced mick-lan-te-COOT-lee, thanks to the "What Does it Mean / ¿Que Significa?" back matter which also includes definitions of the geological terms used in the text, (but do know that these translations also appear in the story itself, at the bottom of the page) has taken Genie to his raucous underworld lair, which can be reached by way of a volcano. Straightaway, they hear a crying, wailing sound and discover a beautiful, blue weeping cat woman looking for her babies. La Lllorona takes a liking to Flappy and, while her crying can be a bit much, she does prove good to have along for the ride. 


The gang have to face Mic's skeleton crew, the Wind of Knives, the challenge of transporting a bucket of water to the center of the earth and back and a wrestling match with lots of wrestling terms and a surprise from little Genie (spoiler!! their pet is really Tepeyollotl, the Aztec jaguar god who is Lord of the Animals) before they can reclaim their pet and return to the surface of the earth. There are so many more details in Lowriders to the Center of the Earth that I haven't even mentioned. I'll leave you with my favorite cameo appearance in the underworld comes when the gang pulls up to a torta shop where they see a familiar face. Perched behind the wheel of a monster truck with massive wheels, looking like a roadie for Mötley Crüe, his arm around a doe-eyed goat and a bottle of sangre de cabra in his hand is . . . the Chupacabra!

Source: Review Copy

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4. One Day in the Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus Tree byDaniel Bernstrom, illustrated by Brendan Wenzel



In 2014 I enthusiastically reviewed Some Bugs, a wonderfully rhyming book written by Angela DiTerlizzi and illustrated by newcomer Brendan Wenzel. Wenzel's  playful, colorful style reminded me of Eric Carle and it is a treat to see him at play again in Daniel Bernstrom's magnificently mellifluous One Day in the Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus Tree.




Bernstrom takes a traditional theme in children's stories - being trapped in the belly of a beast (and getting spit out) and crafts it into an onomatopoetic, adjective packed story that is especially fun to read out loud. The clever little boy (with the toy, a cool little pinwheel) figures out that if he can prod the snake to keep eating and eating he will eventually over eat...



Wenzel's illustrations frolic across the pages of One Day in the Eucalyptus, Eucalyptus Tree, distracting the reader from the fact that cool kids and cute creatures are being eaten by a huge reptile. As the snake is wiggle-waggling and gobbling up a bird, a cat, a bee hive and even a adorable green "sloth covered in fuzzy-wuzzy moss," the art is as colorful as the words Bernstrom uses to tell his story.  When the clever boy eggs the snake on to eat one final small piece of "plummy-chummy fruit," the teeny-tiny fly perched on the fruit proves to be the tipping point. "Gurgle-gurgle came a blurble from that belly deep and full" and, well, you know how it ends one day in the eucalyptus, eucalyptus tree.


Coming soon! 
Wenzel's debut as author & illustrator 
and a follow up to Some Bugs!



Source: Review Copy


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5. Illustration School: Let's Draw a Story by Sachiko Umoto, 128 pp, RL 3


Years ago I bought Illustration School: Let's Draw Cute Animals by Sachiko Umoto and loved everything about it, from the simplicity and clarity of the instructions (this is definitely a book kids can use without an adult's help, even if they can't read) to the, well, the cuteness of the animals. My kids have outgrown this book, so I put it on the shelf in my library at school and it is very popular. I am SO excited to be reviewing Illustration School: Let's Draw a Story!

But, before I delve into the very cool format for this book, I want to share some a passage from the letter to readers at the start of the book. Umoto encourages readers to "put your heart and soul into it, and just draw," telling readers that even if they copy the drawings or trace the designs, "each version will be different - it will never be the same story twice!" I LOVE that advice. Kids (and even adults) hassle each other about tracing and copying drawings, but this is in fact one of the best ways to learn how to draw. Tracing and copying are like training wheels and eventually artists will take off on their own. Umoto ends with words I especially like, telling readers that by "drawing your own world, it becomes part of reality and connects it to the world that we all share. . . You can make connections with lots of people by sharing the joy of creating something with your own hands."

Illustration School: Let's Draw a Story begins by getting artists set up, even noting the best way to erase something from the page. Then she covers the basics, with tips like draw larger shapes first, apply different pressure to the tip of your pen and let the colors inspire you. The rest of the book is comprised of a story about a princess who escapes from her story to get help from twins Pen and Rayon and their dogs, Book and Marble. The princess, who is to be named by the artist, begs Pen and Rayon to return order to her world, where the Eraserheads have erased everyone on her island home.



There are 29 scenes in the book, and each one has a similar format. The story unfolds while at the same time artists/readers are invited to engage with the story by adding text and replacing lost illustrations. Artists can trace over existing illustrations, but there is also room for them to add their own artwork to the story. 



Umoto's illustrations are in color when she is in storytelling mode and grey and light grey when engaging with readers. Incorporated into the story are spreads where Umoto gives step-by-step instructions on how to draw everything from animals to food to weather to facial expression, all with the clarity and simplicity of her previous books. The story itself travels through many scenes, giving artists experience drawing an array of things, from a desert to a castle to a monster island and a robot island as well as inviting them to decorate a room, draw a meal and draw a costume contest. Illustration School: Let's Draw a Story is the perfect book for any creative kid in your life, but it is ideal for travel, snow days and sick days. 

Source: Review Copy


















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6. Mango & Bambang: The Not-a-Pig, by Polly Faber, illustrated by Clara Vulliamy, 135 pp, RL 3




Polly Faber makes her debut as a children's book author with the story of a girl and her tapir - or maybe the story of a tapir and her girl, Mango & Bambang: The Not-a-Pig. Illustrated by the marvelous Clara Vulliamy, who, with her mother, the venerable British children's book author Shirley Hughes, created the Digby O'Day series, this new series has a similarly charming format that is perfect for emerging readers ready to move on to chapter books. Digby O'Day: In the Fast Lane and Digby O'Day and the Great Diamond Robbery feature illustrations on every page, great characters with intriguing details, fantastic design and a great story. Vulliamy, who is a very creative person with a website worth checking out (Sunny Side Up) is also a fan of felted animals. She commissioned dolls of Digby, Charlie and Digby's beloved red convertible as well as a cute little tapir - Bambang - which I first saw on her website last year.


My kids grew up going to one of the best zoos in the world. I have known what a tapir is for decades and was so excited to see that someone chose this curious looking animal to be a character in a book! But first, Mango and the rest of the cast, as seen below.

Mango Allsorts (allsorts is a licorice candy that comes in all sorts of shapes and colors . . .) is good at all sort of things, but, as the narrator tells us, "that is not the same as being good." She lives in a big city at the top of a very tall building with her "papa who was also tall and very busy." When his job gets especially tough, she makes him buttered noodles. Mango is also good at karate, jumping off the highest diving board (without holding her nose) using the Sicilian Defense in chess and wiggling her ears while sucking on a lollipop. She is not good at playing the clarinet, but she is practicing. One day, heading home from karate and hoping to cross using the striped crosswalk, she spots a commotion. There, perfectly camouflaged by the black and white stripes is a quivering, crying tapir whispering about a tiger that chased him out of the jungles of Malaysia.

Mango tempts the skittish Bambang, who sees tigers everywhere (construction trucks, cats) with the promise of banana pancakes with whipped cream and syrup and the two become fast friends. They head to the public pool where Bambang has a bit of an embarrassment that ends up with finding another new friend. Next, they meet an enemy. Dr. Cynthia Prickle-Posset, a Collector of the Unusual tries to collect Bambang, but Mango puts an end to that. The fourth and final part of the book finds Mango and Bambang performing on stage, overcoming their nerves, side by side.

Faber's Mango is fiercely confident and the perfect match for Bambang, who is anxious and shy, understandably. Vulliamy brings these characters to life marvelously with her black and white illustrations, accented with lavender in this first book. There is just enough information about tapirs in Mango & Bambang: The Not-a-Pig that readers will know that tapirs are real and hopefully will want to know more about this curious looking animal. I can't wait to know more about the adventures that Mango and Bambang get up to in the next two books in the series!





If you loved Mango & Bambang: The Not-a-Pig, or if you think you will, be sure to check out the Digby O'Day series that Vulliamy illustrates, written by her mother!

     


Digby O'Day: In the Fast Lane      Digby O'Day and the Great Diamond Robbery





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7. Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick, 608 pp, RL 4


So, Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick has been sitting on my bookshelf for almost 5 years now, looking super cool (as seen above) as it sits between The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which was one of the first books I reviewed when I started this blog in 2008, and The Marvels, which I reviewed when it came out in September of last year. I have no idea why I never read it, but I finally got around to reading Wonderstruck for a handful of reasons. It's required summer reading for my son, who enters sixth grade in the fall. My brother read it out loud to his kids at dinner and, serendipitously, they encountered the film crew for the movie version of Wonderstruck, directed by Todd Haynes while on vacation in NYC this summer and one of the cast signed with my brother. Knowing that my son has to read this book, my brother and niece and nephew enjoyed it and that it is soon to be a movie directed by Todd Haynes (I wonder if the fact that Selznick has Hollywood heritage allows him to score prime directors for adaptations of his books?) was all the nudge that I needed to read it. And OF COURSE I loved it.  
Seeing as how this is a very well known, well reviewed book, I don't feel like a traditional review is merited here so I'm going to do something a little different. Museums are a major part of Wonderstruck, which is also the name of a book within this book - a fictional book published by the American Museum Natural History about museums and curation. The main character Ben has a wooden box with a engraving of a wolf on the lid, which he comes to think of as his museum box. Inside the box, Ben has crafted cardboard dividers to house the small treasures he collected over the course of his life, which he has arranged with great care. Ben's story begins in 1977 and is told in text only for the first half of the book. In tandem with Ben's plot is the story of Rose, which begins in 1927 and unfolds in illustrations only for the first half of the book. At first, the only thing Ben and Rose seem to have in common is their deafness. But, like I said, museums have a big role in this book and when their stories collide you feel, well, wonderstruck. With that in mind, I have"curated" these collages filled with images, illustrations and other items that make up the exhibit that is the novel and film (coming in 2017) Wonderstruck.


Ben remembered reading about curators in Wonderstruck, and thought about what it meant to curate your own life, as his dad had done here. What would it be like to pick and choose the objects and stories that would go into your own cabinet? How would Ben curate his own life? And then, thinking about his museum box, and his house and his books, and the secret room, he realized he'd already begun doing it. Maybe, thought Ben, we are all cabinets of wonders. 
(Wonderstruck, page 574)


As with all Brian Selznick books, the acknowledgements and author's notes are almost a story unto themselves. Selznick is a curator, a researcher, an autodidact and a scholar of whatever subject he pursues, and it is always amazing to me to read the many areas that he studied, places he visited and people he interviewed while writing a book. Near the end of his acknowledgements, after listing all the people, places and things that influenced, informed and educated him, I was very pleased to find this nod from Selznick, as this was a book I thought of often while reading Wonderstruck, "Of course, any story about kids who run away to a museum owes a debt of gratitude to E. L. Konigsburg's From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. In order to pay back that debt, Wonderstruck is filled with references to Konigsburg and her book. How many can you spot?" I am going to have to go back and reread Wonderstruck, as I only found three nods. E. L. stands for Elaine Lobl, Konigsburg's maiden name. Selznick gives the main character's mother the name Elaine and his father the surname Lobel. A character in the book is named Jamie, which is also the name of one of the main characters in Konigsburg's Newbery winning book. If you find any, be sure to let me know!


Source: Purchased

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8. The Girl with the Parrot on Her Head by Daisy Hirst


I do not think it's at all easy to capture the way children think, their logic, the black and white way that they see the world, on the pages of a picture book. Yet with her debut, The Girl with the Parrot on Her Head, which is a mix of straightforward storytelling and, as Cory Doctorow said in his review, "pure pinkwaterian nonsense," Daisy Hirst has done exactly that, creating a picture book that is immediately embraceable and ultimately unforgettable.



Isabel is The Girl with the Parrot on Her Head and Simon, who is "very good with newts," is her friend. Until he moves away. Hirst's writing is both simple and powerful as she describes how Isabel copes with this change. 

For a while Isabel hated everything. The parrot went to sit on top of the wardrobe. Until Isabel felt quiet inside and decided to like being on her own.

Isabel did not need friends because she had a parrot on her head and a SYSTEM. 

Isabel's system involves sorting her things. One aspect of Hirst's visual story telling style that I love is her choice to color in some things and leave other things as line drawings. Mostly, the line drawings are used for Isabel's toys, but also for what are abstract, imaginary items, like THE DARK and that one, nagging thing that just might be "too big for the system." The wolf. 




Isabel heads out on her scooter, her parrot flying behind, to find a box big enough for this wolf. But when she does, she discovers that there is already something inside the perfect box. A boy. Chester, who was planning on using the box for a den ("Why not a castle?" "Why not an ostrich farm? Or a space station next to the moon?" Isabel asks) but listens as Isabel tells him about her wolf troubles. Chester takes a reasonable approach with the wolf and the results are marvelous.



Hirst ends The Girl with the Parrot on Her Head with a new beginning as Isabel and Chester, who "has a way with umbrellas and tape," get busy with their space station, which "really needed two astronauts and a parrot with a teacup on its head."

Daisy Hirst's second picture book comes out in the US in November of this year and I can't wait to get my hands on it. The title alone is fantastic! Alphonse, That is Not OK To Do! is the story of monster siblings. Natalie is a patient, mostly tolerant older sister until she finds Alphonse eating her favorite book.




Source: Review Copy

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9. Ms. Bixby's Last Day by John David Anderson, 300pp, RL 4


When Ms. Bixby announces that she is very sick and won't be able to finish out the last weeks of the school year (or even finish the last 20 pages of the class read aloud, The Hobbit) Brand, Steve and Topher decide that they want to give her a proper last day. That's the nutshell summary of John David Anderson's newest novel, Ms. Bixby's Last Day. I knew that this wasn't going to be an easy read, but there was no way I was not going to read (and love) Ms. Bixby's Last Day, tissue box by my side. Anderson's book is a surprise, a delight and a reminder of why I work with kids, how a teacher (or other thoughtful adult) can make a powerful, even if seemingly small at the time, impact on a child's life and how valuable it is to be reminded of this by a work of art. But will kids want to read it?

That's what I wondered as I pored over every page - exactly who would I recommend this book to? One thing that I especially love (among many) about Ms. Bixby's Last Day is the fact that the story is told by three narrators, all sixth grade boys. In this age of (slouching toward) equality, it is a challenge to find a middle grade novel featuring all boy or all girl protagonists. The formula, for fantasy, anyway, is always boys and girls, with boys usually as the main character - think Harry, Ron and Hermione or Percy, Grover and Annabeth. It's a genuine treat to hear the voices of three different boys over the course of 300 pages. Anderson has created three characters, each of whom, to varying degrees, has things going on at home that make Ms. Bixby's unique attention so meaningful. Topher is a gifted artist who misses the way his family was before the birth of his little sister and his mom's return to the workforce. Steve, who once memorized every country (and capital, population and official language) for fun, feels inferior to his older sister, a perfectionist who meets their parents's high standards. Then there is Brand, the quiet, driving force of this trio and the feat they try to pull off while ditching school one Friday. Raised by his dad, Brand's life changed drastically when his father was paralyzed by an accident at work and his will to get back on his feet, metaphorically and literally, disappeared. 

Topher, who has classified teachers into six categories, puts Ms. Bixby into the "Good Ones" column - the kind of teachers who you "find yourself actually paying attention in class, even if it's not art class. They're the teachers you actually want to fo back an say hi to the next year. The ones you don't want to disappoint." Ms. Bixby has a talent for recognizing, valuing and nurturing what is special in her students and also for making them think. When the class is deprived of the chance to say goodbye to Ms. Bixby because the treatment for her pancreatic cancer has been pushed up, Brand, Steve and Topher decide to ditch school and take the bus to the hospital to see her. Armed with a special knowledge of how Ms. Bixby would spend her last day on earth (this was a writing prompt she gave her students, one of whom asked her what she would do) the boys carry backpacks, cash, a picnic blanket, a wine glass and more with them as they stop to try to buy the things they need for the special day and meet with obstacles they never saw coming. As Ms. Bixby's Last Day unfolds, each boy narrating part of their odyssey to make it from school to the hospital downtown, Anderson reveals things about their lives and their relationships with Ms. Bixby. He also throws in some tension between the friends along with more than a few hilarious scenes and suspenseful twists as well. Ms. Bixby's Last Day is, as Anderson says in his acknowledgements, a quiet book. There is more reflection than action, but Anderson's story telling style is masterful, with hints to meaningful moments that are revealed powerfully in later pages or chapters. Although a quiet book, Ms. Bixby's Last Day is always moving forward with Steve, Brand and Topher as they make their way to room 428 in St. Mary's Hospital.

So who will I recommend Ms. Bixby's Last Day book to when school starts up again in August? I'm still not sure. But, during the last week of June I was sorting discarded library books to give away and a coworker's daughter, who just finished 7th grade and is quiet and a bit shy, was helping me. I asked her what she likes to read and she responded adventure stories, real life, no fantasy. I pulled  a few books off the shelf for her and we sat and read, waiting for people to come to the book give away. A couple of middle school boys zipped by on their bikes and stopped to talk to me, getting a little goofy when they saw my helper. They circled around on their bikes showing off and my helper and I talked about how dumb middle school boys can be. Then I told her about the book I was reading, Ms. Bixby's Last Day, and how it started off with sixth grade boys talking about cooties and being goofy and how they wanted to visit their sick teacher. Later, as we were packing up the leftover books, she surprised me (mostly because of our discussion about dopey boys) by asking if she could borrow my copy of Ms. Bixby's Last Day. I gave her my Advance Readers Copy with the promise that she send a note to work with her mom in August telling me how she liked it. 

Source: Review Copy

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10. The Bad Idea Book Club Presents: How to Eat an Airplane by Peter Pearson, illustrated by Mircea Catusanu



There were two things that made me sure that I wanted to read  Peter Pearson's debut picture book and they both appear in the title. I am certain that I would read any picture book with the words, "The Bad Idea Book Club" in the title, regardless of what comes next. And I feel certain that I would choose to read a book titled, "How to Eat and Airplane," even if it is not presented by the Bad Idea Book Club. Happily, these two intriguing, funny phrases appear in one place - The Bad Idea Book Club Presents: How to Eat and Airplane, fantastically illustrated by Mircea Catusanu. Pearson has written a book that is weird and clever and funny and fascinating and informative, which is quite a feat. 



The Bad Idea Book Club Presents: How to Eat an Airplane is both a book of etiquette and party planing because, as you learn right from the start, "The truth is, most airplanes are too large to eat by yourself, so if you want to eat an airplane you should have a party. Invite guests." This makes perfect sense, and Pearson's tone of helpfulness throughout the book adds to the humor. Guests are greeted at the gate, where carry on bags are stowed somewhere far away from the meal so "they don't get eaten by mistake." Introductions are made, toasts are given, as are tips on how to handle a guest who arrives late. Naturally, you hand them a "glass of jet fuel as they recite the Tardiness Toast: To friends and clocks and paradox. I'm usually on time. Oops." I am tucking that one away for later use!



As the meal ends and the guests find themselves at "full capacity," the host should urge guests to pack a "suitcase full of leftovers to bring home." Even though everyone is surely stuffed, it is polite to offer desert and the final illustrations show an ince cream truck driving up the tarmac. Pearson ends The Bad Idea Book Club Presents: How to Eat an Airplane with an Author's Note that truly surprised me - this book was inspired by actual events. From 1978 to 1980 Michel Lotito ate an entire Cesna 150 airplane. The final four pages of the book are filled with interesting airplane facts, such as: "When you fly in an airplane, stars don't twinkle like they do from the ground. The twinkling is caused by the air above you."

The jacket flap for The Bad Idea Book Club Presents: How to Eat an Airplane promises that upcoming titles in the Bad Idea Book Club "might or might not include," How to Camp Underwater, How to Fold the Sun, How to Walk a Dump Truck, and How to Catch a Piano. Whatever comes next, I will be reading it!

Source: Review Copy

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11. Poor Little Guy by Elanna Allen



Elanna Allen has designed characters and directed animation for Disney Junior, Nick Jr and PBS and this experience shows in her second picture book, Poor Little Guy. With just a handful of characters and words, Allen tells a minimalist story that is genuinely entertaining and unforgettable.




The Poor Little Guy of the title is a bespectacled puffer fish just swimming along, trying to do his own thing, but an octopus has other ideas. Like a cat with a mouse, the marshmallowy, grinning octopus thinks up game after game to play with the poor little guy.



Allen's illustrations are magnificent, artistic and playful at once. Her hand lettered text weaves itself into the illustrations, adding to the story. A limited palette is used expertly, the shades of the ocean background shifting with the rise and fall of the plot. The expressions of the characters tell the story as much as the words do and it's hard to not feel a little sorry for the octopus when the inevitable happens and he pops the puffer fish in his mouth. As with all great picture books, Allen wraps up Poor Little Guy with another (dangerous) surprise that flows out, marvelously, onto the endpapers.




Source: Review Copy

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12. The Gallery by Laura Marx Fitzgerald, 321 pp, RL 4


Laura Marx Fitzgerald says that her two favorite books (which also happen to be my two childhood favorites) are The Westing Game and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. This love and appreciation shines through when you read either of her two books. Marx debuted in 2014 with Under the Egg, a mystery novel that combined a treasure hunt with a work of art, World War II and the dying words of a grandfather to his granddaughter. With The Gallery, Marx continues to weave art and mystery, this time setting her story in the past.

It's 1928 in New York City and Martha O'Doyle has been kicked out of Catholic school for faking "lady complaints" one time too many and asking Sister Ignatius why Eve was punished for wanting knowledge when, in fact, isn't that what we're all "sent here to do? Learn things?" Martha is a girl who notices the world around her and finds ways to move about in it and also a girl who isn't afraid to ask questions. This makes her perfectly suited to rescue the crazy woman who is being held in the attic of the 5th Avenue mansion of Mr. J. Archer Sewell, publisher of the Daily Standard.

Marx does a fantastic job of layering historical events and characters into her story, from Prohibition to the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti to Yellow Journalism and the race for president between Herbert Hoover and Al Smith. This definitely adds a richness to the novel, as well as sense of tarnish starting to show on the waning Gilded Age, but my favorite thread in The Gallery is the story that Marx tells using real works of art. Martha story begins with a discussion of knowledge and her being kicked out of school. Her mother, the head housekeeper at Mr. Sewell's 5th Avenue mansion, puts her to work as a scullery maid and Martha's real education begins. 

Martha is intrigued by the crazy woman, the former Rose Pritchard, now Mrs. J. Archer Sewell, with a guard sleeping outside her door, and her art collection, which she keeps locked in her room with her instead of the gallery inside the mansion where it once was hung. When Martha forgets to put the "special sugar" that Mr. Sewell acquires specially for Rose, on her evening porridge and (coincidentally?) Rose has an outburst, Martha is removed from her kitchen duties and sent to clean the house, where she has more time to talk to Alphonse, the footman of indeterminate European origin but rich with knowledge of languages, mythology and art history. As Martha learns more about the singular painting (which can change at any moment) that Rose decides to let leave her room and hang on the wall of the mansion, she realizes that Rose is sending a message with each painting, a message Martha is determined to decode.

The Gallery is a story that is populated with fascinating female characters. Martha's mother is struggling to support Martha and her twin sons while her errant, alcoholic husband is on the road performing his vaudeville act with two skeletons he won in a bet. She is also fiercely proud of the job she does keeping the mansion running and the "teamwork" that Mr. Sewell speaks of with his staff. She lets Martha know that, back in Ireland, she could never have risen to this position and had the opportunity be treated as an (almost) equal by the master of the house. And, just when you think that Ma will be too enchanted by Mr. Sewell and his false flattery to do the right thing, she suprises you. Then there is Rose, the wild Rose who rebelled against her father's wealth and sense of propriety, going undercover to work in one of his factories, traveling the world by cargo ship and joining union picket lines. Meanwhile, she also collected artwork by Picasso, Rosetti, Courbet, Rembrandt, Caravaggio and Gentileschi. Sometimes, Martha herself seems to pale in comparison, but her combination of naiveté and street smarts make her the perfect protagonist.

Source: Review Copy & Purchased Audio Book


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13. The Forgetful Knight by Michelle Robinson and Fred Blunt




Michelle Robinson's elevator pitch for her newest picture book The Forgetful Knight, illustrated by Fred Blunt, goes like this, "A medieval, Monty Python-esque romp that you'll never forget - unless you get bashed on the head by a dragon." To this spot on description I would also add that playful rhyming tells this clever tale, which has illustrations that equally match the silliness of the story, calling to mind the fantastic Fractured Fairy Tales as seen on the Rocky & Bullwinkle show.

The Forgetful Knight begins, "Once upon an olden day / A knight in armor rode away. / Then again . . . / He had no horse. / Did I say 'rode'? / He strode, of course."  The knight strides across the land, a sandwich in his hand. No, not a sandwich, a sword. But what is he off to do? If he could just remember! Eventually, the knight gets there - both mentally and physically, remembering that he needs to slay a dragon, the dragon who ate his best friend and faithful steed, along with a lot of people's pets. Happily, Sir Clopalot has not been digested and one good headbutt causes a cough from the dragon big enough to send all his lunches back out onto dry land, so to speak.


The Forgetful Knight doesn't end there. The knight makes further demands of the dragon, some more head bashing between the two goes on and some feelings are hurt, then mended. Then comes the big reveal - the narrator just happens to be the Forgetful Knight himself! Robinson and Blunt have created a very fun book that is a joy to read out loud and sure to be a crowd pleaser.

Source: Review Copy 

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14. Ferocious Fluffity: A Mighty Bite-y Class Pet by Erica S. Perl, illustrated by Henry Cole


Ferocious Fluffity: A Mighty Bite-y Class Pet is a rhyming cautionary tale about getting to know a pet before you interact with it. Just hearing the title of this new book by Erica S. Perl and illustrated by Henry Cole and you know you are in for a good laugh. And, even though I knew what was coming, I still laughed out loud and had to put the book down for a minute when it happened. 



What knocks Ferocious Fluffity out of the park are Perl's perfectly paced rhymes and Cole's expressively hilarious illustrations. Even though Mr. Drake, the teacher cautions the class, "Look -don't touch. She's too little. It's too much," the one morning he is late to school and the class can't wait to get their hands on Fluffity. They find out very quickly that Fluffity can't wait to get her teeth in them...  Cole's illustrations of the ferocious hamster lunging, teeth bared, are fantastic. Once things settle down and Fluffity is back in her cage, the class figures out how to meet her needs (with more hilarious illustrations) and they even feel ready for a second class pet. I'll give you a clue - this pet's name (and species) rhymes with cake.

Source: Review Copy



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15. You Know Me Well by David Levithan and Nina LaCour, 256 pp, RL: TEEN



David Levithan is one of my top five favorite writers of YA fiction. His a gifted writer when it comes to getting the intricacies and delicacies of relationships - be they platonic or romantic - on the page, and his work always reminds me that making and maintaining connections is possibly the most important work we can do. Besides being an editor at Scholastic, Levithan is the author/co-author of twenty books! His newest, You Know Me Well, written with Nina LaCour, is the dual narrative of Mark and Kate, junior and senior at the same high school who, before bumping into each other at a bar in the Castro district on the first night of Pride Week, had never spoken to each other.

Mark and Kate are at a crossroads with their longtime best friends and feeling pushed to change. Mark, varsity baseball playing, straight A student is good looking enough to get asked if he is a model and secretly in love with Ryan. Ryan, who is not out, takes a big step forward, just not with Mark. Kate, a painter headed to UCLA who is having a crisis of confidence, and Lehna have been best friends since second grade. They came out to their parents, together, when they were fourteen, but lately it seems like Lehna is a different person. Lehna's cousin, Violet, has been traveling the world with her photo journalist mother, and is the girl of Kate's dreams. When she finally gets the chance to meet Violet, Lehna almost sabotages the moment and Kate sabotages herself. That's when Kate and Mark, a little heartbroken, scared and confused, find a new friendship with each other - and find a way to keep the old friendships that seem to be falling apart.

Mark and Kate both go through emotionally painful confrontations with Ryan and Lehna, Mark's being especially raw. It is moving to watch these new friends as they support each other through challenges and encourage each other to say what they are feeling. Violet acts as both the glue and catalyst that keep Mark and Kate moving forward in You Know Me Well. But it's not all strum und drang for Mark and Kate. A David Levithan novel usually includes some kind of late night adventure and chasing a mysterious person (or band) and a Nina LaCour novel usually includes some sort of artistic, creative expression. You Know Me Well has all of this, from a party in a mansion on Russian Hill where a photographer and his friends turn the two into Instagram stars to a poetry slam to an art gallery opening and a charity auction, all with the festivities of Pride Week in San Francisco as a backdrop.

Reviews have called You Know Me Well a fairy tale story filled with "it gets better optimism," noting the impossibility of Mark and Kate really becoming friends and the high capacity of "emotional switchbacks" packed into one week. To me, You Know Me Well  is a work of art. It takes some of the hard truths and lessons of being alive, being human and becoming an adult, and presents them in a way that, while it may not be entirely realistic, lets me look into other people's lives, empathize and learn. As an adult, I find it more hopeful and uplifting to read YA fiction where the characters are just beginning to make and learn from their relationship mistakes.




Books by Nina LaCour</a>




 My reviews of a few of the many books by David Levithan

                       
                      Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist              Two Boys Kissing



And coming this October!



Source: Purchased Audio Book

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16. Science Comics: Coral Reefs - Cities of the Ocean by Maris Wicks AND Dinosaurs - Fossils and Feathers by MK Reed and Joe Flood, 120 pp, RL 3


The fantastic publisher FirstSecond, whose motto is precisely and perfectly, "Great graphic novels for every reader," started a new non-fiction series for kids this year. Science Comics: Get to Know Your Universe debuts with superb creators and subjects, Coral Reef: Cities in the Ocean by Maris Wicks and Dinosaurs: Fossils and Feathers by MK Reed  and Joe Flood

Wicks, author of the excellent non-fiction graphic novel for kids, Human Body Theater, worked as a part-time program educator at the New England Aquarium and just spent two months doing scientific outreach for  Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on board the R/V Atlantis! Her passion and knowledge shine through in Coral Reefs: Cities of the Ocean and her introduction is definitely worth reading, especially when she tells readers that we, "make choices that impact the environment with every dollar you spend, every action you take, and every vote that you cast," and encourages us to plant a milkweed, listing all the benefits of giving Monarch butterflies a food source and breeding habitat that can trickle down and benefit the dying coral reefs. With humor and an understanding for her audience, Wicks starts big with a first chapter titled, "What is Coral?" describing the classification system. Chapter Two, "How and Where Coral Reefs are Formed," where I learned that, despite the fact that coral reefs occupy about 1% of the earth's surface, cora reefs are home to more than 25% of all the animals found in the ocean! Chapter Three, "The Coral Reef Ecosystem Explored" takes a closer look at the 25% of the sea life living there and Chapter Four, "How are Coral Reefs Connected to the Rest of the Planet?" is the longest and possibly most important chapter in the book. From start to finish, Wicks makes Coral Reefs: Cities of the Ocean as vibrantly bright and compelling as a healthy coral reef with her popping palette and engaging writing style. A glossary, bibliography and additional resources included in the back matter.




I have to, with great embarrassment, confess that, despite learning a fair bit about dinosaurs as each of my three children went through that phase of fascination, I tend to think of them as static. Dinosaurs: Fossils and Feathers, by MK Reed and Joe Flood, with an introduction by a dinosaur expert, changed my mind in a big way. In his introduction alone, Leonard Finkleman, Ph.D points out the many things that continue to be discovered about dinosaurs, as well as dinosaurs themselves, including the fact that once we didn't even know that dinosaurs lived on every continent. He goes on to write that Reed and Flood bring a "balance of science, philosophy, and history," to their book that is, "informative, funny, and, above all else, imaginative," noting that the lesson of Dinosaurs: Fossils and Feathers is that scientific discovery is very different from normal discovery. Finkleman writes, "Rather than limiting our imaginations, scientific discovery lets us imagine more about the world around us." With that in mind, Wicks and Flood follow paleontologists through history as they try to solve the greatest mystery of all, what happened to the dinosaurs?

Dinosaurs: Fossils and Feathers begins with a little time traveling, showing readers how ancient humans discovering dinosaur fossils thought they were anything from cyclopes to elephants to griffins. In the year 1800, these ideas changed radically when Mary Anning made remarkable finds on the Dorset coast, spending the next 35 years fossil hunting. They also detail the backhanded, sometimes dishonest machinations of the men who made these discoveries and pronouncements and delivered papers about these dinosaurs.



Joe Flood's illustrations are perfectly matched to the subject matter of Dinosaurs: Fossils and Feathers. While the illustrations of the dinosaurs are full of action and expression. The panels with humans present more of a challenge, because of the mostly Victorian time period and somewhat static nature of their roles int he story, yet Flood makes these compelling, especially through the expressions of the characters. There are notes, a glossary and further reading as well as two superb representations of the periods of the dinosaurs. Despite all this amazing information and illustrations, my favorite part of Dinosaurs: Fossils and Feathers comes at the end when the author and illustrator put themselves on the page an error in the text. There are 11 years between my oldest and youngest child. I learned that the big herbivore with the long neck was called the brontosaurus when my first child went through her dinosaur phase. By the time my youngest was going through his we learned that it was now reclassified as an Apatosaurus. On this page, Reed and Flood explain that, a few weeks before this book was due at the printer, researchers concluded that there was in fact enough difference between the two to make the Brontosaurus its own genus again, with a fact box noting that the Brontosaurus is now, "MK and Joe's least favorite dinosaur." With humor and knowledge, Dinosaurs: Fossils and Feathers proves that dinosaurs are anything but static.




Coming October, 2016 and February, 2017



Source: Review Copies

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17. Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan, 587 pp, RL 4


I missed Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan when it came out in February of 2015. Scholastic is one of the few publishers I don't get review copies from and, working in a library instead of a bookstore now, I an not as up on what's new in the world of kid's books as I once was. I even missed the March, 2015 review of Echo in the New York Times Book Reivew, which I usually scour. Echo crossed my radar in January of this year when it won a Newbery Honor, along with two other superb books, The War that Saved My Life and Roller Girl. While I hate the fact that I didn't read Echo right when it came out, I am so, so glad that I knew absolutely NOTHING about it (save that it won an award) before I began listening/reading it. Having worked with and been an avid reader of children's literature for more than 20 years, I've kind of read it all. There aren't too many plots or characters that surprise me or feel really new and original. Echo surprised me - it's as if A. S. Byatt, an author of novels for adults that are magnificently crafted and often centered around a work of art - wrote a kid's book. If you want to be surprised by a story and you trust me and the librarians who hand out the Newbery awards, stop reading my review after the next sentence and go out and get your hands on a copy of Echo. Actually, I very, very strongly suggest LISTENING to the audio of this book (as well as buying it - you WILL want to own it) because - tiny spoiler alert - music is an integral part of Echo, and you get to hear it in the audio.

Stop reading HERE if you want to be surprised
****************************************







I was definitely surprised when I started listening to Echo and there were music credits before the story began. I was especially surprised when harmonica music kicked in. Like several minor characters in the book, I, too, did not take the harmonica seriously - nor did I notice the drawing (wonderful artwork by Dinara Mirtalipova) of one on the cover and spine of Echo! Echo is a work of historical fiction wrapped in the cloak of a fairy tale that is ultimately a story about the power of music to, "pass along . . . strength and vision and knowledge," and even overcome fear, intolerance and hatred. The story visits three very different children at three different times, starting in 1933 and ending in 1942. The common thread that connects these three children is their passion for music, embodied, at that time, in the harmonicas that they own. Surrounding these stories is the tale of a boy that begins just before the start of the 20th century. From a Gypsy, who presses a mouth harp on him for free, he buys a book titled, The Thirteenth Harmonica of Otto Messenger. The book tells the story of three abandoned princesses with beautiful singing voices. Trapped in the woods under the spell of a witch, they need a messenger to take something out into the world for them, something that will break the spell. Becoming lost in the woods, Otto meets the three princesses from the book. Desperate to know the end of their story, they enchant the harmonica that the Gypsy gave him and he agrees to send it into the world where, if it can "save a soul from Death's dark door," the spell will break and the princesses can return home.

The stories of the three central children in Echo would have been a satisfying book on their own, but linking them with the fairy tale of the three sisters imbues Ryan's novel with a quality of hopefulness and beauty, much like the sound of a well played harmonica. Part one begins in 1933, in Tossingen, Germany, with young Friedrich, a gifted musician. Part two begins in Pennsylvania, 1935. The third and final part begins in 1942, just after Pearl Harbor, in California, a harmonica at the heart of each story. Friedrich has a port wine birthmark on his face and suffers from seizures. Hitler's persecution of physically disabled forces Friedrich and his family to make difficult choices and his story ends without closure, his life in danger. Part two, features orphan brothers, the eldest of whom is a gifted musician, with his only hope for survival hinging on his ability to make it into a renowned harmonica band. Mike and Frankie are adopted by a painfully grieving heiress who needs to produce an heir to keep her fortune, their story also ending in a moment of danger and uncertainty. Finally, Ryan turns to Ivy Maria Lopez, shining a light on xenophobia and racism. 

It is Fresno, 1942, and Ivy is the child of migrant farm workers. Her brother, Fernando, has just enlisted and her father has just accepted a job running a farm in Orange County. When they arrive at the farm, the Lopez's discover that it belongs to a Japanese-American family that has been sent to an interment camp. Their oldest child, a son in the Marines, is coming home on leave to sign the running of the property over to Mr. Lopez, if he approves of him. Ivy, and her parents, struggle to understand how the Yamamoto family, with a father who fought in WWI and a son fighting in WWII could be treated this way, while at the same time Ivy experiences racism and segregation when she learns that she is not allowed to attend her neighborhood school, but must go to one that will "Americanize" children like her. Living in California and working with the children of immigrants, many of whom are also the children of migrant workers, this part of the story resonated most with me.

The last two parts of the novel tie together all three stories in a marvelous, deeply satisfying way that had me weeping. Ryan returns to the fairy tale, bookending Echo with the conclusion to the story of the three princesses as well as the story of Otto, now the messenger, and the enchanted harmonica that he must send out into the world and how it gets there. Echo is a big book, but as many reviewers have said, and as was my experience, you will soar through it, drawn along by the beauty if Ryan's writing, the craft of her story and the humanity of her characters.

Source: Purchased Book & Audio Book




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18. Nobody Likes a Goblin by Ben Hatke



Ben Hatke is a gifted graphic novelist who creates stories perfectly balance themes of family, bravery, and belonging with wonderfully detailed illustrations and characters you won't forget. For his second picture book, Nobody Likes a Goblin, Hatke visits a medieval world where even a goblin needs a friend.


Goblin has a daily routine, and his best friend, Skeleton, is part of it. Skeleton lives in the Treasure Room and one day while  he and Goblin are goofing around with the treasures, the room is raided! Goblin decides to abandon the safety of his routine and head out into the world to find his friend. He stops to as a hill troll if he has seen anything and in the process agrees to find the troll's "Honk-Honk," which was also plundered. The troll's parting words warn Goblin to be careful because, "Nobody like a Goblin." Across the fields and through the village, with an angry horde (that includes a few warrior women) on his little green tail, Goblin searches and rescues. The two hide out in a cave where Goblin finds his tribe. Together, with a ghost and one of the warrior women, the new tribe delivers Honk-Honk to his owner and settles down in the dungeon for a fine feast.


This adventurous and rollicking story might sound simple, but Hatke's magnificent watercolor and ink illustrations add an an almost cinematic layer to the text. There are many little details to be pored over and humans and creatures alike to be examined. The palette is gently pastoral, making the creatures and the action less than scary, despite the caves, bats, rats and skeletons. Nobody Likes a Goblin is enchanting, entertaining and timeless.



Source: Review Copy

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19. The Blobfish Book by Jessica Olien


How can I not like The Blobfish Book by Jessica Olien? Having three kids of my own and working with kids, I have been getting asked what my favorite animal is for over 20 years now. And not only do I get asked what my favorite animal is, I get asked specifically what are my favorite mammal, sea animal and reptile - red panda, narwhal and Komodo dragon, respectively. Two years ago, I discovered the blobfish and the axolotl while reading Unusual Creatures:  A Mostly Accurate Account of Earth's Strangest Animals and became a little obsessed. In fact, a student of mine even made me a Pokemon blobfish card...


With The Blobfish Book, Olien has a story within a story, meta kind of thing going on. Blobfish, seen initially as a quasi-cute cartoony character, is about to read The Deep Sea Book, which he takes a red crayon to, making it his own.

Readers will actually learn a bit about deep sea creatures and how they live in The Blobfish Book, despite Blobfish's defacement. However, if this book sparks curiosity in your young readers, be sure to check out Glow: Animals with Their Own Nightlights by W.H. Beck, which I reviewed last year.




The twist comes when the enthusiastic, slightly goofy Blobfish finally gets to the page displaying his species and is deeply saddened to learn that the blobfish was once voted the world's ugliest animal. He burst into tears, but his fellow deep sea creatures come to his side and draw up a final page for the book, showing the world that blobfish are in fact cute, friendly and fascinating. The Blobfish Book ends with a two page spread that gives readers more facts about the cast of characters and the environment that they live in.

The Blobfish Book is a good way to introduce readers to this curious creature. But, as a fan of the fish itself, I have no doubt that there are lots more creative possibilities for blobfish in picture books and am sure they are already being written and illustrated...

Source: Review Copy


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20. Chicken in Space by Adam Lehrhaupt, illustrated by Shahar Kober



Chicken in Space is a marvelously illustrated picture book about imagination, creativity, perseverance and adventure written by Adam Lehrhaupt and illustrated by Shahar KoberChicken in Space begins, "Zoey wasn't like the other chickens." The aviator caps and goggles should be the first indicator. Then there are the blueprints. Zoey is going into space and she is not taking "no" for an answer, despite the very reasonable concerns and protests from her pal Sam, the pig. 


There are no problems, just opportunities, and Zoey takes them where she finds them. No ship? No problem. A basket and a bunch of balloons (which have been bobbing in and out of the illustrations from the start) get these friends airborne in no time.



As with any adventure, there are challenges, and this is where Zoey's magnificent imagination comes in! A baseball? No! It's an asteroid! Kites are comets and birds are alien attack ships that bring on a crash landing amidst sacks of corn. Zoey is thrilled with the success of their mission, but Sam is not so sure. However, back in the farmyard, he has a different story to tell!

And Zoey has the perfect gift for this pie loving pig - a moon pie! As Chicken in Space comes to and end and Sam is wanting to share his moon pie with Zoey, she already has her head buried in her next adventure!

Source: Review Copy





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21. It Was So Quiet I Could Hear a Pin Drop by Andy Goodman


At the school where I am the librarian, my students rarely experience the kind of silence that allows them to listen to the world around them. When I can, I sit them down to practice focusing. We choose one thing to focus on (counting our breath, the ringing of Tibetan singing bowls) and we notice when our minds wander. Then we bring ourselves back to focusing. I feel pretty certain that these are the only minutes of the day, possibly even the week, when they are still, quiet and awake, and I am grateful to be able to give them this experience, this chance to sit with themselves. I tell you all this because reading Andy Goodman's picture book, It was so quiet I could hear a pin drop reminds me vividly of these rare, quiet times. As she sits in a swing, the narrator says, "As I listened to the breeze. . . I could hear kites flutter, a busy bee buzz, a leaky tap drip and my wristwatch tick."



She goes on to list all the things she hears, and slowly these sounds get louder. As they do, the text gets louder and the illustrations more vibrant. The narrator hears the dog bark, the baby wake, Jill singing in the bath, Peter whistling. Things continue to escalate and the narrator begins to question herself. Is that elephants stampeding? A steam train accelerating? A loose cannon firing?

Goodman's illustrations are perfectly paired with the text. The expansive, marvelously thick white pages have images that feel a bit like antique clip-art, allowing the reader to use her or his own imagination as the story unfolds. The gentle colors of the initial quietude give way to a more vibrant palette as the story arcs. Being quiet, the mind wanders and listening leads to imagination. I love the stream of consciousness progression of It was so quiet I could hear a pin drop and everything that it inspires. It's also the perfect book to read leading into a moment of focusing/meditation/quiet with kids, which is something we all need now and then. 




Source: Review Copy

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22. The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge, 377pp, RL 5



If you love literature and you have read quite a bit of it, then you know that there are many varieties of good writing. There are writers who are gifted at story telling and craft a work that draws you in and pulls you along at a fast clip. There are writers who are gifted at creating memorable, complex characters that they allow you to get to know intimately. There are writers who put words on a page that read like lines from great poetry, their sentences like a handcrafted delight you savor on your tongue. Then there are writers who turn the world on its side, making you see and think about it in a whole new way. There are a few writers who embody all of these qualities, Philip Pullman and Frances Hardinge coming readily to mind. Interestingly, Pullman and Hardinge are also the only authors of literature for children to win the prestigious Costa Award, which is comparable to the Pulitzer, and is traditionally given to works written for adults.


Fly By Night was the first book by Hardinge that I read and I knew immediately that I was reading something truly special. Hardinge created a complex world ruled by religion and literacy in the absence of an effective monarch, all set in an alternate history universe. Everything about Fly By Night amazed and continues to amaze me, from the setting to the characters and their intricately Dickensian names to the mysterious political and religious intrigue driving the plot. Hardinge's newest book, and Costa Winner, The Lie Tree, is every bit as magnificently written as Fly By Night but it is also a much more personal, poignant story that is more pointedly philosophical and political. And, as I slowly came to realize over the course of the book, The Lie Tree is also a book about women and especially the challenge of being a woman in the 19th century and the various ways that women met with these challenges. As the main character observes near the end of the novel, "Faith had always told herself that she was not like other ladies. But neither, it seemed, were other ladies."

As the novel begins, Faith Sunderly, teenaged daughter of the gentleman scientist and clergyman, Reverend Erasmus Sunderly, finds herself tucked between two crates on the deck of a ship that is taking her family and many of their belongings from Kent to the remote island of Vane where her father has been invited to observe an archaeological dig. Hidden from sight, Faith overhears her father and her Uncle Miles discussing the real reason for their retreat to the island. As Miles points out to Erasmus, one of the most "widely read and respected newspapers in the nation has decried you a fraud and a cheat."

Faith respects and reveres her father, constantly hoping that her interest and intellect in the sciences will win her his attention, but seed of knowledge takes root in her and begins to grow. When her father is found dead and her seemingly frivolous, beautiful mother Myrtle schemes with Miles to make his death look like an accident and not a suicide, which would leave his family destitute, Faith decides to take matters into her own hands. She steals her father's papers - his scientific notebooks, his letters, his financial records, and begins reading through them. She discovers that, years ago while traveling through China Erasmus encountered rumors of a very rare plant specimen. In an attempt to help a fellow Englishman accused of murder, he found the secret hiding place of the plant but was unable to save his countryman. Faith quickly uncovers the hiding place of this specimen, which Erasmus brought to Vane and hid before his death, as well as the true nature of this strange plant, the Lie Tree.

Through his experiments, Erasmus came to learn that the Lie Tree thrives and bears fruit when a lie is whispered to to. The more people who believe the lie, the larger the fruit. In turn, consuming the fruit reveals a truth to the person who eats it. A religious and scientific man, Erasmus perpetrated a lie that he hoped was big enough to reveal, in the interest of truth, if man was, "crafted in God's image and given the world, or was he the self-deluding grandson of some grimacing ape?" He would, "borrow from the Bank of Truth, but in the end would pay back in full and with interest." As Faith reads through her father's notebook she decides to use the Lie Tree to discover her father's murderer.

The idea of lies and the variety of lies consumed me as I read The Lie Tree, so much so that I missed an important theme in the book until almost the end. As Faith's investigation begins, there are necessary lies she must, as a young girl, tell, in order to be able to move about the island. As the lies pile up, she finds herself easily using the the fears of her six-year-old brother against the ill-treated, vengeful housemaid who robs the Reverend Sunderly of his grave, prompting an inquest. The more lies Faith tells, the more she is able to insert herself into situations that give her a glimpse into the machinations of the adult world and life on the island. She also stands back and watches her mother manipulate both the Reverend Clay and Doctor Jacklers with lies of omission as Myrtle maneuvers to keep the family solvent. When Faith finally manages unveil the murderer, it is someone who has also told lies and hidden truths in the passionate pursuit of scientific discovery and she finds herself thinking, "We could have been friends." She also finds herself spluttering in disagreement, along with the murderer, when her captor declares, upon seeing the Lie Tree, that there are things, "science cannot explain." The complexities are rich and varied in this stunning book.

As I read The Lie Tree, I marked sentences and passages that exemplified Hardinge's gorgeous prose and had to stop midway because there were too many slips of paper falling out of my book. But I do want to share a few with you here:

She had tumbled off the safe, hallowed shore of childhood, and now she was in no-man's water, neither one thing nor another, like a mermaid. Until she dragged herself up on the rock of marriage, she was difficult.

As usual, the adulation slid off the Reverend's stony reticence and was soaked up by the handkerchief of Myrtle's busy charm.

Faith thought that it must be very relaxing being Dr. Jacklers, deaf to the crunch of other people's feelings beneath his well intentioned boots.

There was a dangerous joy in talking, even with this enemy. It made Faith realize how she had been trapped in her own head. Trapped in the house. Trapped in the Sunderly family.

And, finally, when Faith confronts her mother and begins to understand her reasons for inviting the attentions of other men after the Reverend's death, Myrtle explains the laws regarding a suicide, telling Faith, 

This is a battlefield, Faith! Women find themselves on the battlefields, just as men do. We are given no weapons, and cannot be seen to fight. But fight we must, or perish.



If you have read this far, I am sure you will get a copy of The Lie Tree and experience for yourself the, "distinctive voice and vividly crafted prose of France Hardinge," as a favorite writer of mine, Linda Buckley-Archer, author of the excellent Time Quake Trilogy , says in her review.


Frances Hardinge's other new book, review coming soon!




Books by Frances Hardinge 
US covers on the left, UK covers on the right











Source: Review Copy

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23. Superhero Instruction Manual by Kristy Dempsy, illustrated by Mark Fearing


Kristy Dempsey and Mark Fearing join forces to deliver the Superhero Instruction Manual! Despite the comic book feel and solid set of instructions, the Superhero Instruction Manual remains wonderfully free of conflict and violence, instead delivering a wonderful story of familial love.



As a boy pores over the Superhero Instruction Manual, ready to take the "seven easy steps" that will turn him into a superhero, his sister watches in the wings, hoping to join forces with him. He picks a name, a partner and a disguise. He secures a secret hideout and chooses his superpower with quite a few amusing missteps. Fearing's colorfully funny illustrations alternate action packed comic book panels with full page illustrations that include instructions from the manual - and disclaimers.


Superhero Instruction Manual culminates with a true emergency when Fluffy the sidekick takes off after a squirrel in the park. Happily, Super Sister is not too far away and she saves the day. Dempsey and Fearing wrap up their story with a sweet ending, telling readers that a "true superhero is always there when it counts," as the Super Siblings share a cookie in their super hideout.

Source: Review Copy


Don't miss Mark Fearing's AWESOME graphic novel:



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24. Red's Planet by Eddie Pittman, 192 pp, RL 4


Red's Planet is the first in a comic book series from Eddie Pittman. Pittman, who says he taught himself to draw in the back of math class, has been a professional cartoonist, working in animation, comics and illustration for over 25 years. He has worked on films like Mulan, Tarzan, Fantasia 2000, Lilo & Stitch and The Emperor's New Groove and most recently the show Phineas & Ferb and the influence this work has on his graphic novel is delightfully evident, in both the bright color palette and cinematic sweep of his panels. And, Red's Planet is overflowing with visually fantastic, fascinating characters that I want to get to know better. At first glance, I feel like I can almost begin to guess their back stories. And, while Red's Planet is the first book in the series and almost entirely set up for the rest of the series, every panel of every page is engrossing and exciting. There will be many, many readers waiting for the second book, due out Spring 2017!


Red's Planet begins with a spooky UFO abduction in the dark of night on a country road. An old guy and his dog are zapped up into a triangular ship and never seen again. This story, "The Mysterious Zeke Hainey Incident," is being read out loud to a roomful of kids by another kid. We quickly learn that Red (we never learn her real name) is one of many foster children, headed down to breakfast and out the door to the bus. Red has intentionally worn non-regulation shoes and tells the kids she is headed home to change. Instead, she plays hooky and ends up in the backseat of a police car in big trouble. Instead of juvie, Red finds herself gone the route of Zeke Hainey. 

Like all good interplanetary stories, readers find themselves in a bustling marketplace. Here, the Aquilari, "ancients of Chelonia, collectors of time, the last sages of the wandering," and they are on a mission to collect rare items - and creatures. The police car with Red in it, as well as a few other things, make it onto the ship, but things are quickly going pear shaped again for Red as the Uskog pirates demand their treasure, which they believe is on the ship. As battle ensues, the ship veers off course and lands on a dusty planet that Red thinks looks like Texas. A multitude of aliens emerge and begin making sense of things, shunning Red left and right. 

Red manages to befriend Tahee, a cute, big-eyed fuzzy guy who, when the ship took off, grabbed a strange glowing egg that he now carries everywhere with him. Red makes some dangerous foes but also a new friend in the crotchety Goose, a feline in a Hawaiian shirt who is sort of a forest ranger for the planet. With his grudging help, she and Tahee manage to get the rest of the aliens to safety, but first they get a glimpse at the amazing cargo that the Aquilari - and their robot boss who, after taking a rock to the head is a bit loopy - are collecting...

Source: Review Copy

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25. Book Scavenger by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman, illustrated by Sara Watts, 350 pp, RL 4



I love books about books and I love mysteries. However, especially in the world of children's literature, it's very challenging to find a well written book of either genre, let alone both together. A solid, believable mystery often means character development is sacrificed. Or, as in two of my all-time favorites, The Westing Game and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, superb character development overshadows the mystery that sets the plot in motion. As an eleven-year-old reader, Ellen Raskin's characters, from Turtle to Theo Theodorakis to Sydelle Pulaski, stuck in my memory well into adulthood. But, as a kid, I was also a little disappointed that the actual clue-gathering game in the book wasn't entirely solvable for readers. With Book ScavengerJennifer Chambliss Bertman has written a miraculous middle grade novel that almost perfectly balances character development with a solid, believable, puzzle filled mystery that readers can unravel themselves. Even better, the mystery revolves around books and book lovers! Add to this Sarah Watts's charming illustrations and you have an unforgettable book with character you will want to spend time with again.

Book Scavenger is Bertman's debut novel and it is masterfully written, especially when considering the multitude of details she weaves into the plot and her characters, making it almost feel like three or four books in one. When she was a baby, Emily Crane's parents decided they wanted to live in all fifty states. Emily's mom even started a blog about their experiences called 50 Homes in 50 States. As Book Scavenger begins, the Cranes are moving from New Mexico to San Francisco. Emily is growing tired of not being able to set down roots, and Bertman writes poignantly of her growing frustration with this. However, as a dedicated Book Scavenger, she is thrilled to be moving to the home base of publisher, puzzle master, book lover and eccentric, Garrison Griswold. Like Chris Gabenstein's  game creator, Mr. Lemoncello, Griswold is a bit of a Willy Wonka-type. However, Griswold's puzzles revolve around books, and his Book Scavenger website allows participants to hide books (you can even purchase clever book disguises from the website) and leave clues for other Book Scavengers to find it. Bertman's rules for book scavenging open Book Scavenger and are very well thought out and doable. So doable, in fact, that she created a low-key version of Griswold's game that you can play here!

Emily has the good luck to meet James, upstairs neighbor and grandson of the owner of the building her family moves into. James is a puzzler, although not a Book Scavenger, and he helps Emily decode an especially difficult clue to a book. Emily, James and Matthew head down to the Ferry Building to look for the book and, on their way home discover an even better hidden book. Just the day before, as he was on his way to announce his newest literary-puzzle-scavenge-game, Griswold was attacked and left unconscious. Emily finds the book that was to start the games, an edition of Edgar Allan Poe's, "The Gold-Bug." In the short story, the protagonist cracks a cryptogram that he hopes will lead him to a buried treasure and Griswold has a similar mystery planned for his followers. Emily quickly realizes that the book she found is part of Griswold's new game and that she is being followed, possibly by Griswold's attackers. With James's help, along with Hollister, a dreadlocked bookstore owner who was best friends and partners with Griswold decades ago, they rush to uncover the mystery and find the treasure - if there is one.

Bertman does a magnificent job weaving literary references and puzzles of all kinds into Book Scavenger. Set in San Francisco, the Beat writers, from Kerouac to Ginsberg to Ferlinghetti and his landmark City Lights Bookstore are part of the plot. In addition to the challenge of Griswold's new game, Emily struggles to be a good friend to James, mend her relationship with Matthew and ultimately tell her parents that she does not want to be part of their adventure anymore. Matthew is also a well developed character and his devotion to a band called Flush along with his homemade videos using their music, dovetail seamlessly with the mystery and adventure of Book Scavenger. As with all children's books, the bad guys can't be that bad. The villain in Book Scavenger is a sour sort with a sense of entitlement that drives him to drastic measures, but it is really the goons he hires to do his dirty work who commit the crime of shooting Griswold in the subway at the start of the novel. 


Finally, Bertman works in references to Masquerade, the picture book written and illustrated by Kit Williams that was published in 1979 and promised clues to a buried treasure. I remember seeing Masquerade in a bookstore shortly after it was published and begin intrigued by the beautiful illustrations, not realizing that there was a treasure - and controversy - connected to this book. Masquerade, along with a family connection to Edgar Allan Poe, all of which are explained in Bertman's notes at the end of the book, inspire Griswold in his literary game creations.




Coming January, 2017!!!



Source: Purchased Book and Audio Book


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