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Early readers are the Rodney Dangerfields of the children's book world. They get no respect. Or not much. The intent of this blog is to redress the balance and to showcase the many delights inherent in early readers and beginning chapter books.
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1. Sophie's Squash Go to School

Sophie is back and so are Bonnie and Baxter, the two gourds that became Sophie's friends at the end of Sophie's Squash. In her latest adventure, Sophie tests the social waters as she maneuvers the first days of school. Although her parents assure her that school will be fun, Sophie is certain that it won't be. And of course her prediction comes true, especially when some her classmates wonder if Bonnie and Baxter are edible.

Sophie's rough adjustment to school is made even harder by Steven Green. Cheerful Steven isn't a bully. He just wants to be Sophie's friend. But Sophie doesn't want friends and rebuffs his overtures. She already has friends, she tells Steven, and shows him her squash. Sophie fights the good fight against Steven's attempts to become her friend, but she finds the classroom especially lonely after she temporarily says goodbye to Bonnie and Baxter. Now friendless, stubborn Sophie still resists the ever eager Steven. Events come to a head when Steven inadvertently tears Sophie's drawing of Bonnie and Baxter. How Sophie and Steven work out their differences and become friends will delight young readers and show them that "sometimes growing a friend just takes time."

Zietlow Miller's charming story is sure to strike a chord with readers who will soon be facing their own first day of school and all the worries that big event can bring. And Wilsdorf's illustrations are crammed with whimsical details for readers to ponder. Sophie's messy yet creative bedroom alone provides valuable insight into her character.

Sophie's Squash Go to School
By Pat Zietlow
Illustrated by Anne Wilsdorf
Schwartz & Wade  40 pages
Published: June 2016

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2. Two Picture Books Featuring Dogs

Today's post is about two picture books for dog lovers. Count me among the breed. My best friend--a pug--just turned 15. And according to The Perfect Dog, I didn't find Pablo, he found me. Perfectly true. Pablo was the only pup of the litter who kept coming over to make friends. It was love at first sniff.

The Perfect Dog is narrated by a girl who has just been given permission to get a dog--any child's dream come true. In the course of the book, she expounds on what that perfect dog should be and takes each trait to an amusing conclusion. For instance, when "the perfect dog should big...bigger...biggest," the illustrations show her with a chow, a German shepherd, and a Saint Bernard. Then there's the kicker: "Maybe not this big." And there she is with a Great Dane resting its giant paw on her. The pattern continues with other adjectives (small, long, etc.) and other breeds of dogs. The book concludes with the girl going to get her perfect dog only to have the perfect dog chose her. Pablo would approve.

The Perfect Dog
by Kevin O'Malley
Crown  40 pages
Published: May 2015

Next up is Wolf Camp, a picture book about an engaging mutt who is proud of his wolfish origins. Wondering what it would be like to live like a real wolf, he gets his chance to find out when he spots an advertisement for Wolf Camp in his bag of kibble. He spends a week at the sleep-away camp learning how to mark territory, howl, track, and hunt. Zuill's humorous illustrations capture the canine campers attempts at mastering these skills. (My favorite shows Homer taking a whiz on Fang, a wolf counselor.) Like human campers, Homer struggles with homesickness and the food (it has hair on it). But by week's end, he has earned his honorary wolf certificate and made friends. And that's something to howl about.

Wolf Camp
by Andrea Zuill
 Schwartz & Wade  40 pages
Published: May 2016

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3. When Andy Met Sandy

Finding engaging books for kids just learning to read is always a challenge. A new series by Tomie dePaola (cowritten with Jim Lewis) fits the bill. As with many beginning readers, the two friends are opposites in many ways. Andy is short and on the shy side. Sandy is tall and outgoing. At the start of the first book in the series, Andy and Sandy have not yet become friends. On alternate pages, each child notices and comments on the actions of the other. When Sandy enters the playground, Andy thinks: "She is new here." Sandy wonders: "Is this his playground?" The two children cautiously circle each other, all the while making assumptions about the other. Andy imagines that the new girl has lots of friends. Sandy thinks that the boy wants to play by himself. It isn't until the pair meet at the seesaw that they join forces and become friends, a fitting conclusion to this charming book.

The series continues with Andy & Sandy's Anything Adventure, in which the two friends have a playdate and try on costumes together. A third book, Andy & Sandy and the First Snow, is due out later this year.

When Andy Met Sandy
by Tomie dePaola and Jim Lewis
Illustrations by Tomie dePaola
Simon & Schuster  32 pages
Published: March 2016


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4. Bad Kitty Goes to the Vet

It's often a challenge getting one of my cats to the vet (a broken lamp springs to mind) so it's easy to sympathize with Bad Kitty's owner in the latest addition to the Bad Kitty canon. Feeling under the weather, Kitty has been refusing her kibble, a sure sign of feline distress. Her strength rebounds, however, when it's time for her to go into her carrier. As always, Bruel has a sure hand with slapstick and readers will howl as Kitty and her owner battle it out. At last she's inside and it's off to the vet.

In perhaps one of the more unusual plot advances in a chapter book, Kitty is sedated to have a tooth extracted and travels to the cat version of the Pearly Gates. Refused entrance because of her past misdeeds to poor Puppy, Kitty is given 24 hours to redeem herself. All she has to do is perform one act of unconditional kindness to Puppy. This proves harder than expected and it comes down to the final seconds. Will Kitty gain admittance to Pussycat Paradise or will she land in Puppydog Paradise and be chased and bitten for all eternity? Or is her predicament just a dream?

Bruel keeps the action rolling and Kitty's fate up in the air till the end. Along with providing a rip roaring story, the book has several of Uncle Murray's fun fact sheets, which give tips such as how to tell if your cat is sick and explains what vets are and what they do.

Bad Kitty Goes to the Vet
by Nick Bruel
Roaring Book Press  144 pages
Published: January, 2016

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5. Beatrix Potter and the Unfortunate Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig

This year is Beatrix Potter's 150th birthday, and so it's fitting that she has been in the news. A long-lost story featuring a black cat will soon be published with illustrations by the delightful Quentin Blake. Can't wait!

Another reason to rejoice is a newly released picture book about Potter the animal lover written by Deborah Hopkinson and illustrated by Charlotte Voake. Hopkinson sets young Beatrix in Victorian London and introduces readers to her many animals. There are the rabbits she takes for walks, assorted birds, reptiles, amphibians, and hedgehogs. Hopkinson is also upfront about the misfortunes that befell some of the critters. These sad events are told in Potter's own words, from the many journals the naturalist kept. Despite the horrors, it's hard not to smile when reading Potter's entries. Here is her account of what happened to a bat left dozing in a wooden box:

The very next morning that horrid old jay, being left alone to bathe in a wash basin, opened the box and destroyed the poor creature. I fancy he found it ill-favored, but he pulled out its arms and legs in a disgusting fashion.

These sad anecdotes, though, are but mere appetizers to the main story--the guinea pig. As the title  foreshadows, there will be no happy ending. Wanting to sketch a guinea pig and having none at hand, Beatrix borrows the squeaking rodent from her neighbor, a Miss Paget. And not just any guinea pig. She borrows Queen Elizabeth, a descendant from "a long line of distinguished guinea pigs." But when Beatrix is called away from her sketching to attend a dinner party, Queen Elizabeth devours a good deal of the art supplies, including paste, and that night succumbs to a case of extreme indigestion.

The next day Beatrix has no recourse but to tell Miss Paget what happened to her beloved guinea pig. Miss Paget does not take the news well, not even when Beatrix gives her a watercolor of her late pet.

Hopkinson's tongue-in-cheek recounting of the tale is similar to Potter's droll style in her journals. And Voake's soft watercolors evoke her illustrations. My one quibble with the book comes in the entertaining postscript. Hopkinson admits that she made up some parts to her story and changed others, including that Potter was actually twenty-six when she borrowed Queen Elizabeth and not a young girl as portrayed in the book. This strikes me as not playing fair with the reader and casts an entirely different light on the incident. You can forgive a child for being careless with another's pet; you judge an adult more harshly.

Still, all in all, this well-told story will entertain and inform young readers, many of whom no doubt have their own "unfortunate tales" regarding pets. (I know I do.)

Beatrix Potter and the Unfortunate Tale of a Borrowed Guinea Pig
by Deborah Hopkinson
illustrated by Charlotte Voake
Schwartz & Wade    44 pages
Published: February, 2016

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6. Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras

Anyone who has been to my home knows that I display calaveras, Mexican Day-of-the-Dead skeletons that symbolically give Death the finger. In my many years collecting, I never knew the history behind these grinning, sardonic figures. Tonatiuh's latest book, Funny Bones, tells their story.

Aimed at children ages six and up, the book introduces readers to Jose Guadalupe Posada, a Mexican artist, cartoonist, and master printer who brought these ghoulish figures to the public's attention, popularizing them in the broadsides he published. Tonatiuh tells his story well,  but the most striking aspect of his book are the illustrations. In his signature flat style, Tonatiuth graphically represents Posada's life in 19th century Mexico. Sharing the limelight are some of Posada's original calaveras, which seamlessly complement Tonatiuh's art. The result is a multifaceted nonfiction work about a much neglected historical figure.

Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras
By Duncan Tonatiuh
Abrams  40 pages
Published: August 2015

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7. Bad Kitty Makes Comics...And You Can Too!

As readers of this blog know, I'm a big time fan of Bad Kitty. I like a cat with attitude. In his latest foray with this bad-tempered feline, Nick Bruel goes the how-to route, much like he did with Drawn to Trouble. In a nifty idea, all the pages are sized to fit on photocopier paper so kids can print out the various exercises without having to mark up the book. Whether or not most kids will have the patience to do so is another story.

The premise behind the book is that Kitty is bored until Strange Kitty shows up to teach her how to make comics. This Strange Kitty proceeds to do, taking Kitty (and the reader) through all the steps: from tools to panel frames to writing captions and sound effects and more. Each lesson builds on the next, with a funny ongoing comic strip featuring Bad Kitty and an octopus that illustrates whatever lesson is being taught. Strange Kitty is a thorough instructor--and a clever one too. The lesson on drawing starts small--very small--with just a dot on the page (an ant standing by itself in the snow). From there, he adds another dot (two ants lying on their backs looking at the cloud). Then another dot (two ants playing catch). You get the idea. Any kid can make a dot and so, by extension, any kid can make cartoons. It's a wonderful and freeing realization, one that is bound to get kids hunting for a pencil to start scribbling.

Bad Kitty Makes Comics...And You Can Too!
By Nick Bruel
Neal Porter  144 pages
Published: 2015

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8. The Story of Diva and Flea

It's been a little over six months since I visited Paris but this delightful chapter book sent me straight back to the City of Light. Each morning, Diva, a tiny pampered pooch, trots around the courtyard of a grand apartment building not far from the Eiffel Tower. She has never strayed from her post, and when she hears the click-clacking of feet, she scoots off back to the safety of her apartment, afraid of being squished. Into her life one day enters Flea, a large stray cat with no fixed address. Flea is a flaneur and has had many adventures.

After a bumpy start, Diva and Flea become fast friends. Flea regales Diva with stories of what he's seen and experienced, such as "The Piece of Salami and the Broom that Missed." When Flea invites Diva to join him in his flaneur-ing, Diva needs a night to mull it over but in the end agrees to accompany Flea around the corner. There she sees the Eiffel Tower for the first time.

If Flea has broadened Diva's horizons, she repays the favor, introducing him to something wonderful called Breck-Fest. But before he can tuck in, Flea must overcome his fear of humans, especially those wielding brooms. Luckily, Diva's owner is welcoming and Flea finds a home. Not to fear, cat and dog continue to flaneur to their heart's content.

The thirteen short chapters are generously illustrated with DiTerlizzi's charming, soft-colored artwork. The illustrations have a timeless quality to them, as does Willem's droll story. An Author's Note explains how Willems came to write about this unusual pair.

The Story of Diva and Flea
By Mo Willems
Illustrations by Tony DiTerlizzi
Hyperion,  80 pages
Published: 2015

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9. What Pet Should I Get?

It's been awhile since I last posted. What can I say? The summer got away from me. It didn't help that we moved house in July. Almost two months later, we're finally settled. So, it's fitting to start posting again with a review of the latest book from Dr. Seuss.

Latest book, you say? Yes. The manuscript, mostly likely from the late 1950s or early 1960s, was completed with the help of Random House art director Cathy Goldsmith and published in August of this year. Starring the brother and sister team from One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, this work is most likely an early version of that book. But a new Seuss story is still cause to rejoice, and What Pet Should I Get? has all the Doctor's signature bells and whistles.

The narrator and his sister have an opportunity most kids would give their eyeteeth for: Their father has allowed them to get any pet they want. (We know we are in Seussland since neither parent accompanies their offspring to the pet store!) However, with this privilege comes a dilemma. Of all the animals that fill the store, which one should they choose? A dog, a cat, a bird, a rabbit, a fish? The possibilities are endless. As the narrator says: "Oh, boy! It is something to make a mind up."  He goes on to imagine the fantastical creatures that are out there. But at some point reality reins him in and he realizes: "If we do not choose, we will end up with NONE."

So they choose.

The ending is an ambiguously modern one and confirms Seuss as the mischief maker he was.

The book contains a postscript from the publisher describing the genesis of the book as well as a homage to Seuss the dog lover. All in all, What Pet Should I Get? is one for the Seuss canon.

What Pet Should I Get?
By Dr. Seuss
Random House  48 pages
Published: August 2015

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10. Dory and the Real True Friend

Dory's back! The girl with a supersize imagination returns in another early chapter book that is sure to delight young readers as much as Dory Fantasmagory (2014) did. Dory starts a new school year and this time she leaves her imaginary monster friend, Mary, at home. Determined to make a "real true" friend Dory immediately latches on to Rosabella, the girl who sits next to her. At first Rosabella seems like everything Dory is not. She wears pouty dresses, drinks water from a little cup with her pinkie sticking out, and plays hopscotch with the other girls. Still, Dory is not one to give up without a fight, so she tries her best to make friends, taking to heart her sister's advice: "DON'T BE YOURSELF."

When that advice backfires, Dory decides (with some help from Mary) to be true to her nature and discovers that Rosabella has an imagination that rivals her own. The two friends join forces to engage in an epic battle of good versus evil, emerging victorious after vanquishing Dory's old foe, the witchy Mrs. Gobble Gracker.  

As with Hanlon's other book, the story is generously illustrated with cartoony black-and-white drawings of Dory's antics. Hanlon has a knack for getting into the mindset of a young child. Here's hoping that another book about this indefatigable heroine is in the works.

Dory and the Real True Friend
By Abby Hanlon
Dial, 160 pages
Published: July 2015

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11. I Yam a Donkey!

"I yam what I yam and that's all what I yam," said Poyeye the sailor man. But he'd better not say it around persnickety turnips. In Cece Bell's latest picture book, it's a donkey who seemingly makes an ass of himself as he butcher the English language. He proudly announces the book's title to a bespectacled turnip who then primly corrects his grammar: "The proper way to say that is "I am a donkey."" What follows is a hilarious version of the "Who's-on-First" routine as donkey and turnip go out of their way to misunderstand each other. Later a carrot and some other vegetables show up, allowing the turnip to conjugate the verb "to be" in its entirety. To no avail, however. The donkey remains as clueless as before, although he does cotton to one thing: Vegetables make a tasty lunch.

Bell's bold, graphic illustrations provide a visual punch to the pair's ongoing argument. While silliness prevails, the book does leave the reader with something to ponder: "If you is going to be eaten, good grammar don't matter."

I Yam a Donkey
By Cece Bell
Clarion Books, 32 pages
Publication: June 2015

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12. Tricky Vic: The Impossibly True Story of the Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower

Most biographies for kids feature upstanding citizens and if they do have a fault or two, the writer quickly glosses over them. Tricky Vic is a rare example of a picture book bio that chooses for its subject an out-and-out scoundrel. And what a bad seed old Vic was. Born Robert Miller in 1890, the Czech showed his true colors at an early age, dropping out of the University of Paris to become a professional gambler. Soon he took to the high seas, donning the alias Count Victor Lustig as he conned wealthy passengers aboard ocean liners. Arriving in the United States after World War I ended, Vic pulled a successful con job on Al Capone, one that allowed him to work the Chicago area with Capone's blessing.

But Vic's greatest scheme was yet to come: selling the rights to demolish the Eiffel Tower to greedy scrap metal dealers. He worked this con not once but twice! But the adage "crime doesn't pay" proved all too true in Vic's case. He was arrested in 1935 and after escaping from prison was recaptured and sent to Alcatraz. He died of pneumonia twelve years later.

Vic's crime-filled life is a great story and Pizzoli (The Watermelon Seed, Number One Sam) does a fine job telling it. Sidebars on prohibition, Parisian landmarks, counterfeiting, and Alcatraz round out the tale and put historical events in perspective for young readers. What makes Tricky Vic really stand out from other picture book bios, though, is its graphic design and artwork. Pizzoli has done a masterful job of creating jaw-dropping illustrations using "pencil, ink, rubber stamps, halftone photographs, silkscreen, Zipatone, and Photoshop." The effect is both retro and modern. His best creative decision by far was not to give Vic features. Instead his face is represented by a thumbprint, giving this consummate con artist an air of mystery. Readers will instinctively recognize that Vic's true identity and nature can never be pinned down. He remains an enigma.    

Tricky Vic
The Impossibly True Story of the Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower
By Greg Pizzoli
Viking, 39 pages
Published: March 2015

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13. What This Story Needs Is a Pig in a Wig

And really what story couldn't be improved by a pig in a wig? This beginning reader, told in rhyme, is a fun romp that begins: "What this story needs is a pig." In the ensuing pages the plump pink porcine acquires a wig, a boat, a moat, and a succession of animals--all squished into the teeny pink ship. Eventually the pig calls a halt to the pile-up and orders her fellow passengers off. But she soon realizes that a boat ride by oneself can be lonesome. But never fear, what the story needs now--a bigger boat--provides a happy solution for all.

Virján illustrates her story in eye-popping colors. Her flat cartoon style works well with the simple yet outrageous story line. Beginning readers will enjoy all the amusing details in the art, such as the dog and frog holding up number ratings as the goat balances on the log. Short on text but long on fun, this book is a winner!

What This Story Needs Is a Pig in a Wig
By Emma J. Virján
Harper, 40 pages
Published: May 2015

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14. Meet the Dullards

Mr. and Mrs. Dullard want a peaceful, uneventful life for themselves and their three offspring: Blanda, Borely, and Little Dud. And who can blame them? But it has become increasingly difficult to maintain their stress-free life in the wake of recent events. Only last fall, they experienced leaves changing color. And on the day this tongue-in-cheek picture book begins, "an upsetting commotion in the driveway" takes place. To wit, a slug crosses their driveway. As Mr. Dullard observes, "There's never a dull moment."

After catching their three children reading books about the circus, their parents take action and move. In their new home, however, things go from bad to worse. An exclamation-using neighbor brings them applesauce cake make with chunky, not smooth, applesauce, and then the family discovers a brightly colored room in their new digs. (They didn't notice this before they bought the place?) After further adventures at the paint store--where they purchase a customized paint, the color of "oatmeal left in the pot," Mr. and Mrs. Dullard hope to put the horrors of the day behind them by watching paint dry. Blanda, Borely, and Little Dud have other plans, though, and subversively undermine their parents best-laid plans for them.

Readers will be chuckling way before they finish Pennypacker's droll tale of how these two helicopter parents foolishly try to curb a child's natural enthusiasm. And Salmieri's flat, goggly-eyed characters are anything but dull. His portrayal of Mr. and Mrs. Dullard's reaction to the exuberantly painted room is priceless. Meet the Dullards belongs with other classic stories featuring conformist adults, such as Parry Heide's The Shrinking of Treehorn.

Meet the Dullards
By Sara Pennypacker
Illustrations by Daniel Salmieri
Balzer + Bray, 32 pages
Published: March 2015

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15. Owl Boy

Owl Boy is a hoot! Al is the boy in question and to say he likes owls is an understatement. Al's obsessed with these big-eyed raptors. Every inch of his room is covered with owl memorabilia and he entertains his family with endless facts about them. Al is living a happy life--until he's sent off to camp one summer. Forced to eat meatloaf (when owls eat mice), play on sports teams (when owls are solitary), go to bed at nine (when owls go out at night), Al takes a detour while out on a hike, deciding to look for owl nests instead. He soon becomes separated from the other campers and must spend the night in the forest. Much to his initial delight, Al finds himself eye to eye with a real live owl. Boy and owl explore the forest and Al gets to experience it like as an owl would--right down to an owl's rodent-filled diet. This last bit has an unexpected effect on Al. And while his obsessive nature isn't curtailed, it does find expression in a new, less distasteful hobby.

Schatell does a masterful job of humorously showing us Al's love of all things owl. His cartoony illustration of Al's owl-decorated room (down to the owl-patterned curtains)  is worth the price alone. As the book says, it's "an owl extravaganza"!

Owl Boy
By Brian Schatell
Holiday House, 32 pages
Published: 2015

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16. Lion, Tiger, and Bear

Oh my! I found this Level 4 reader while browsing at my local library. Nonfiction books can be a hard sell for beginning readers. Often, the books just rehash the same topics to death or they water down the content to such a degree that they are boring to read. Not so for Lion, Tiger, and Bear. Ritchey tells a heart-warming, high-interest story of how an African lion, a Bengal tiger, and an American brown bear became an unlikely trio of friends.

The animals were discovered in 2001 in the basement of a house where the owner was keeping the cubs illegally. The rescued cubs, suffering from various ailments, were sent to Noah's Ark Animal Sanctuary. The caretakers there noticed that separating the cubs caused them distress so the decision was made to keep the trio together.

Ritchey presents this information without dwelling too long on upsetting details-Baloo the bear needed surgery due to a too tight harness that had dug into his skin--and gives a strong sense of the animals' personalities. The story ends on an upbeat note with an invitation to readers to visit the three compadres in person at their Georgia-based sanctuary. Photographs of the animals as cubs and fully grown will captivate the intended audience.

Lion, Tiger, and Bear
by Kate Ritchey
Penguin Young Readers, 48 pages
Published: 2015

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17. Ling & Ting: Twice as Silly

In their third outing, twins Ling and Ting supply beginning readers with many opportunities to giggle and guffaw. Each of the six stories showcases the zany imaginations of young children at play. In the opening story, Ting attempts to plant cupcakes, and when that plan falls through, she comes up with another silly option--jellybeans. In subsequent stories the girls have fun with red paint, swing into outer space, come up with a wild plan to get apples, read each other's minds, and, in the grand finale, write a silly story that incorporates all their earlier adventures.

Bright and colorful, the illustrations add to the silliness, as when Ling and Ting are shown staging a breakout at the monkey cage an the zoo. I especially liked the design of each story's title page, which employs a key element of the story: The title of "The Garden" is spelled out in plants, "On the Swings" in puffy clouds, and "Apples" in rosy red fruit.

Another winner from the amazing Grace Lin!

Ling & Ting: Twice as Silly
By Grace Lin
Little, Brown   44 pages
Published: November 2014

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18. Seuss Fans Rejoice!

Even though Theodore Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, died more than twenty years ago, new work of his continues to be published. The latest is a recently discovered "lost" manuscript--with illustrations!--titled What Pet Should I Get? The book features the same brother and sister protagonists who appeared in One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, and was apparently written sometime between 1958 and 1962. 
Published by Random House Children’s Books, What Pet Should I Get? will be on bookshelves on July 28th of this year. At least two more books are in the works, all based on materials uncovered in the good doctor's home. Mark your calendars, Seussians!

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19. My Heart Is Laughing

Like My Happy Life, Swedish author Lagercrantz's latest offering is a heartwarming and affirming peek into a child's small world and all the drama it entails. In this fully realized sequel, Dani is adjusting to life without her best friend, Ella. Even so, in school she keeps the seat next to hers empty for when Ella returns. When her teacher reminds her that Ella won't be coming back, ever-hopeful Dani replies, "You never know."

In addition to missing Ella, Dani faces new challenges. Two girls bully her after they discover a boy they like prefers Dani. In a truly upsetting scene the pair pinch her arms until Dani fights back with a squirt bottle full of sauce. What differentiates this book from many others about bullying is the subtle way Lagercrantz explores her young protagonist's heart. Dani isn't even fully aware that she's being picked one. Upset at what she's done (she also squirted her teacher), she runs home and locks herself in her room. When her father finds out about her transgression, she refuses to talk to him or explain why she was provoked. It isn't until her father sees her bruised arms that he suspects the truth and storms off to the school, Dani at his heels.

Young readers will be both relieved and surprised at the ending. While the villains of the piece (two girls who in superficial ways resemble Dani and Ella), never apologize for their actions, Dani magnanimously forgives them. With gentle humor, Lagercrantz gives us an optimistic protagonist who refreshingly chooses to see the glass life has handed her as half full rather than half empty. Eriksson's appealing line illustrations perfectly complement Dani's rosy worldview. Highly recommended.

My Heart Is Laughing
By Rose Lagercrantz
Illustrations by Eva Eriksson
Gecko Press, 120 pages
Published: 2014

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20. Dory Fantasmagory

Think of the many characters in children's literature who we thrill to meet on the written page yet would steer clear of in real life: Pippi Longstocking, Tom Sawyer, Ramona... Add to that list another name--Dory, aka Rascal.

Rascal is a wonderful creation from the fevered brain of Abby Hanlon. She's concocted a six-year-old who rings so true that she is equal parts exasperating and endearing. Rascal, you see, has been blessed (or cursed, depending on your viewpoint) with an extremely vivid imagination. While your average kid creates an imaginary playmate or two, Rascal cooks up up a whole cast of characters. Her favorite is Mary, an impish monster who enjoys being towed around the house in an empty laundry basket and who is always ready to play. Her willingness is a boon because Rascal's older sister and brother want nothing to do with her.

The siblings' insistence that Rascal acts like a baby is what sets the plot in motion. The pair invent Mrs. Gobble Gracker, a scary witch who steals baby girls, to keep Rascal in line. Their plan misfires spectacularly. Rascal conjures up Mrs. Gobble Gracker almost immediately and spends all her time trying to escape from her clutches. At one point she decides to fool the witch into thinking she's not a child but a dog. To her delight she finds that her brother has always wanted a pet. She gets some much needed attention from him as she does tricks for him, goes for walks on a leash, and eats from a bowl. That it's exhausting to be parent to such a child is made clear when Rascal (now Chickenbone the dog) accompanies her mother to the doctor's office for a check-up that goes hilariously afoul. By the final chapter, readers will be gratified to see how Rascal finally gets her heart's desire--playtime with her sister and brother.

The illustrations add to the high-jinks and readers will delight at the cartoony images of Rascal, her imaginary friends, and her sole enemy. Mrs. Gobble Gracker is spindly with a long nose and vampire-like fangs, while Mary is a friendly-looking creature with striped horns.

In Dory Fantasmagory Hanlon has given us a character whose personality is a force of nature. Like a mighty typhoon or a hurricane, she can't be stopped. Let's hope that Hanlon writes another book about her soon.

Dory Fantasmagory
By Abby Hanlon
Dial, 160 pages
Published: October 2014  

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21. Three Outstanding Picture Books from 2014

2014 was a stellar year for picture books. Here are three that I particularly like.

Bobby's teacher is a monster. Or so it seems to him. Ms. Kirby won't let him fly paper airplanes in class and she stomps and roars to get her point across. When the pair meet up by accident outside the classroom, in a park where Bobby has gone to forget his teacher troubles, neither is pleased. But after Bobby saves his teacher's favorite hat, he sees another side to Ms. Kirby and the pair end up enjoying their time together. Peter Brown humorously shows Ms. Kirby becoming less and less monstrous as the day progresses. A book that is sure to resonate with the school-age crowd.

Who as a kid hasn't attempted to dig a hole deep into the earth? Most, myself included, give up after a few shovelfuls of dirt. Dirt is heavy! But Sam and Dave are made of stronger stuff. They aim to dig until they "find something spectacular." As they go deeper, they can't see--but readers will--the enormous gem that is often mere inches away. Unfortunately, the boys always choose to dig in another direction and so they never unearth the treasure, although their dog comes close. As they continue their way downward into the bowels of the earth, they at last stop for a rest. The dog, digging on for a buried bone, causes all three--and the bone--to free fall until they land in their own yard. Or is it?

In this wordless picture book, a farmer watches as a circus train zooms along the bleak landscape. To his surprise, a small clown falls from the train. The farmer and clown return to the farmer's spare home, and after the pair wash up, the farmer sees that underneath the child's grinning mask is a very unhappy child. As the farmer does this best to keep the child entertained--juggling eggs for him at one point--the two form a strong bond. One that comes to an end when the clown-child's family returns for him. A touching story about the power of connection, one just right for the holiday season.

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22. Puppy's Big Day

Nick Bruel is back with another book in the Bad Kitty series. This time, though, the story doesn't feature our favorite ferocious feline. It's Puppy's turn to shine in the spotlight.

Kitty is having a bad, bad day and no one in the household knows why. Uncle Murray comes over to save Puppy from Kitty's wrath and the two go off for a walk in the park. If only things were that simple. Uncle Murray runs afoul of the law (no leash, no poop bags, no dog tags) and then, horrors, Puppy and Petunia, a bulldog friend, run off and end up in the pound. There Puppy meets two other strays, Gramps, an elderly lhasa apso, and Hercules, a hyper chihuahua (are there any other kind?). Luckily, Uncle Murray comes to Puppy's rescue and adopts the other dogs. And what was causing Kitty's bad mood? Puppy provides the answer.

As in the previous books, the story is interspersed with info spreads, this one narrated by Bad Kitty herself. Readers will discover why dogs need to be walked, why they sniff butts, and why they lick faces. (I didn't know the answer to the last one.)

All in all Puppy's Big Day provides readers with the series' usual combination of mayhem and mirth. A must-read for all Big Kitty and Puppy fans!

Puppy's Big Day
by Nick Bruel
Neal Porter, 160 pages
Published: January 2015

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23. Happy Birthday, Mr. Dodgson!

Today is the 183rd birthday of Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland.

This year is also the 150th anniversary of that children's classic. To celebrate this momentous occasion, many organizations are putting on special exhibits. Here are a few of the more notable ones you might like to add to your calendar.

February 12 to Spring 2015 (Poughkeepsie, NY)
Vassar College: The Age of Alice: Fairy Tales, Fantasy, and Nonsense in Victorian England.

June 26 to October 11 (New York, NY)
The Morgan Library & Museum: "Alice: 150 Years of Wonderland"

July 4 (Oxford, UK)
Alice's Day at Oxford

September 15 to November 15 (New York, NY)
Grolier Club: "Alice in a World of Wonderlands"

October 9 to October 11 (New York, NY)
Lewis Carroll Society of North America: "Alice in the Popular Culture"

October 14 to March 27 (Philadelphia, PA)
Rosenbach Museum & Library: Alice in Philly-land" and "The Dream of Wonderland: Alice at 150"

For additional exhibitions and performances, check out the events database here.

And in you'll like to read more about Lewis Carroll and his most famous creation, here's a link to my book on the topic: Alice's Wonderland: A Visual Journey through Lewis Carroll's Mad, Mad World.

And to make this day even more special, here is a link to a video podcast of my interview with Mr. Media about my book: What Did Alice Know and When?

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24. A Wonderful Year

The talented Nick Bruel has turned his attention from his "Bad Kitty" series (of which I am a huge fan) to compose a picture book on the seasons. If you think that means Bruel has forsaken his wicked imagination for a boring concept book, think again. A Wonderful Year has all of his trademark humor and off-kilter take on life.

Broken into four "chapters," each section focuses on a specific season and features an unnamed girl protagonist. We start in winter, with snow falling. Inside, as the girl hurries to play outside, she's told by her parents to wear her boots and earmuffs. Then the family dog and cat chime in, instructing her to put on her snow pants and scarf. Next she hears from a purple hippo named Louise, a tree, the refrigerator, and even a can of beans. By the time she's completely swaddled in outerwear, it's spring and time to undress. In "Spring Splendor," the girl cavorts outdoors with her frisky (talking) dog and the pair finagle a grouchy cat into playing with them. By summer, it's so hot that the girl is melting--literally. She becomes a puddle of blue liquid that Louise the hippo slurps up  and shoves into the freezer to cool off. Fall finds our heroine relaxing under a tree while reading "a book of stories about a girl and all the wonderful things she does throughout the year."As it starts to get cold again, the tree gives up its last leaf to the girl for her to use as a bookmark and the story come full circle with the girl running off to put on a sweater.

Alternating between full-bleed spreads and comic-book-style panels, A Wonderful Year is an enticing introduction to the seasons, one that beginning readers can dip into again and again in the coming months.

A Wonderful Year
by Nick Bruel
Roaring Brook Press, 40 pages
Published: January 2015

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25. Cybils Winners announced!

Happy Valentine's Day! Here's a special treat for lovers of children's literature--the announcement of the Cybils winners. Congratulations to them all!

This year I once again had the honor of being a judge, and I'd like to thank my fellow judges for their hard work and dedication. It isn't easy selecting just one book per category when there's such a wealth to choose from.

You can peruse the list of winners here. Now go eat some chocolate!

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