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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. Tales of Bunjitsu Bunny

In my family not one but two of my sisters are black belts. All four of my nephews have studied various martial arts, and my 13-year-old niece is a kick-ass student of tae-kwan-do. Me, I stick to yoga. All this is to say that through the years I've become acquainted with the tenets behind martial arts. And that's why I can highly recommend Tales of Bunjitsu Bunny, a beginning chapter book featuring Isabel, the BEST bunjitsu artist in her school (dojo).

Isabel encapsulates the underlying philosophy of martial arts. As she eloquently states, "Bunjitsu is not just about kicking, hitting, and throwing….It's about finding ways to NOT kick, hit, and throw." Each short chapter demonstrates a Zen-like lesson that is thought-provoking rather than didactic. In "The Challenge" a big and burly jackrabbit dares Isabel to meet him in the marsh for a fight, vowing to hit her so hard that she will "fly to the moon." He waits and waits, but she never shows up. Max finds her and asks if she lost on purpose. But she didn't lose, Isabel tells her friend. "He did not hit me." This is not to say that readers won't find some serious fighting in the book. In "The Pirates" Isabel battles a boatload of foxy pirates, while in "Bearjitsu Bear" Isabel seemingly takes abuse from a boastful bear until she shows him who's boss.

Author  and illustrator John Himmelman, a martial arts instructor, based Isabel on one of his students.  Since girls often get short shrift when it comes to combat sports, Isabel's feisty attitude is an especially welcome addition to the world of chapter books.

Tales of Bunjitsu Bunny
By John Himmelman
Henry Holt, 128 pages
Published: October 2014

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2. Scary Stories for Beginning Readers

Alvin Schwartz's Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark have raised goosebumps in many a child. (The truly spooky illustrations by Stephen Gammell add to the shiver factor.)  But Schwartz also compiled two collections of scary stories for those just learning to read.

In a Dark, Dark Room introduces beginning readers to scary men with long teeth, a ribbon-wearing girl with a secret, and a driver passing a cemetery who stops to pick up a young boy on a rainy night, among others.














Ghosts! continues the shivery suspense with stories about spirits from another realm. In the collection a boy and a girl explore an abandoned house, a cat haunts a pet shop, and a teeny tiny woman takes a set of teeny tiny teeth from a grave.















Both books are a delight, and it's a matter of personal taste which books' illustrations you prefer. Dirk Zimmer illustrations for In A Dark, Dark Room are deliciously eerie, while Victoria Chess's chubby ghosts are more funny than frightening.

And if you'd like to hear "The Green Ribbon," one of the stories from In a Dark, Dark Room, then click here.

Happy Halloween!

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3. The Flat Rabbit

Let me say it right away: This is one strange book. After a first read, I was pretty sure I would not be reviewing it. Then a few weeks passed and I picked it up again and reread it. It's still a strange book, but this time I saw its appeal.

The Flat Rabbit has a simple plot. A dog and a rat come across a rabbit on the side of the road. The rabbit is obviously deceased, run over no doubt by a car. Yet this fact is never mentioned. The crux of the book is the dog and rat deciding what to do with the rabbit. They knew her vaguely but weren't close. Yet something must be done; they both feel they can't leave her carcass lying there. After pondering the problem, the dog comes up with a solution. He and the rat peel her body from the road and attach it to a kite. Then they fly the kite until is high above them and release it to continue its journey skyward.

What I found compelling the second time around was the questioning attitude of the dog and rat. Much like children, neither one had answers--or even were sure of the questions. Yet they didn't flinch from the subject of death and how best to honor a life.

Marita Thomsen translated Oskarsson's text from Faroese, and to my ears has done a good job. The minimalistic text is understated and at times droll.

"They could leave her outside number 34, but what would the people there think if they saw a dog and a rat bringing back their rabbit, totally flattened? No good would come of that."

Oskarsson's illustrations, done in pastel watercolors, are equally spare. Everything isn't spelled out for young readers; they'll have to make connections by closely looking at the pictures. Is the gray car on the facing page that shows the flattened rabbit responsible for its condition? The author/illustrator isn't saying.

Honest, secular books for children about death are rare indeed. Margaret Wise Brown and Remy Charlip's The Dead Bird springs to mind. My favorite, though, is Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch. (Read my review.The Flat Rabbit has joined this short list. I'm glad I gave it another chance.

The Flat Rabbit
by Bardur Oskarsson
Owl Kids, 40 pages
Published: september 2014

  

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4. Alice's Wonderland and Me


The past year has been a busy one for me, and the image above shows why. I researched and wrote Alice's Wonderland: A Visual Journey through Lewis Carroll's Mad, Mad World. It was a hoot and a half, especially getting to watch all the old and new Wonderland movies, TV shows, operas, and ballets that are out there. The book is due out on November 1st, so if you're at all interested in Alice and her gang, this is a shameless pitch to buy my book.

I received my advance copy last week, just in time for me to trot off to Toronto and give a presentation about the book to the Lewis Carroll Society of North America. My hubby and I had a blast there--Carrollians are a welcoming bunch--and I enjoyed listening to the other talks and going on a tour of the Toronto Public Library's fine collection of Alice memorabilia.

Here I am at the podium.


Tomorrow I'm off on another exciting adventure. I'll be at Comic Con in New York City, my old stomping grounds. You can read all about it at QGeekBooks. So if you happen to be at the Javits Center this Friday between 1 and 3, look me up. I'd love to meet you!


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5. Cybils Judges Announced!

And I'm one of them! I've been a part of this annual award for four years now, and it never gets old. I'm looking forward to reading and discussing some fabulous easy readers and beginning chapter books in the months to come. Nominations start on October 1st, so mark your calendar and get ready to submit your favorite books.

And a big round of applause for all the judges who donate a huge amount of their time to this worthy endeavor.

For more info on the Cybils and a list of the judges, click here.

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6. The Trouble with Dora

Today's post is not a book review. It's a rant at how sexist stereotypes still persist. As any preschooler knows, Dora the Explorer is an intrepid pint-sized adventurer with a purple backpack and a boot-wearing monkey for a sidekick. A show featuring her exploits took off in 2000. Five years later, Dora's cousin Diego was given his own series.

When my nephew was younger, he loved Dora and wore her backpack with pride. It didn't matter to him one wit that Dora was a girl. And yet, fourteen years after the show's debut, Dora has been sold out, a victim of merchandising. The above photo was snapped in my doctor's waiting room. Sexism is so insidious that it took me a while to realize what was wrong with the decals stuck to the wall. But look closely. The toons' body language says it all. Dora stands with her arms folded, legs crossed, while Diego is running full speed. The message is clear: Girls = Passive; Boys = Active. (I won't even go into the butterflies surrounding Dora versus the menacing paw prints near Diego.)

Not to be hasty, I checked to see if there are more active wall decals of Dora on Amazon. Not really. There's one showing her holding a bunch of flowers and another, the best of the bunch, in which she's on tippy toes, arms wide open.

Now imagine a preschool boy seeing the two figures on the wall. Would he choose Dora as his model. Not likely. A preschool girl would, though. And with her choice comes the implicit message that boys do all the running.  

Dora the Explorer and Go, Diego, Go generally get high marks from the media for setting nonstereotypical examples for its young viewers. Unfortunately, its licensing department has a long way to go.

Okay, today's rant is over.

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7. Comics Squad: Recess!

It's September and the kiddies are back at school, getting reacquainted with math, trading lunches, and praying for recess. Recess! That hallowed period carved out of the school day when no one is telling you what to do--or not much. In celebration of this cherished intermission, the brother-and-sister team of Jennifer L. Holm and Mathhew Holm (creators of Babymouse and Squish) and Jarrett J. Krosoczka (Lunchlady) have put together a collection of graphic shorts that feature every student's favorite subject.

The eight comic selections veer from the silly to the sillier. The anthology starts with the brilliant Gene Luen Yang's "The Super-Secret Ninja Club," a savvy story about a dweeby kid who aspires to be a member of said club. Dav Pilkey of Captain Underpants fame signs in with a subversive homework assignment from our friends George B. and Harold H. Their assignment is prefaced with a note home from their teacher, who informs the parents: "I have told both boys on numerous occasions that the classroom is no place for creativity." Other contributors include Ursula Vernon, Eric Wight, Dan Santat, Raina Telgemeier, and Dave Roman. All supply hilarious riffs on the ups and downs of recess.

Comics Squad: Recess!
Edited by Jennifer L. Holm, Matthew Holm, Jarrett J. Krosoczka
Random House, 144 pages
Published: July 2014  


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8. Leroy Ninker Saddles Up

"My kingdom for a horse," so said Shakespeare's King Richard. Leroy Ninker, Kate DiCamillo's spunky hero in her brand new chapter-book series, understands the sentiment. A worker at a drive-in theater's concession stand, Leroy wants to be one of the cowboys he sees projected on the Bijou's big screen. He has the hat, the boots, and the lasso, after all. But what he doesn't have--as a coworker helpfully points out--is a horse. Leroy is determined to rectify this and sets out to get a horse that's been advertised in the Gizzford Gazette. By the time he arrives at his destination he's already named his majestic steed Tornado. But when he's introduced to Maybelline, an old horse with just four teeth in her head, Leroy falls head-over-hooves in love with her.

Maybelline's former owner informs him of the three things he must know about his new responsibility: She craves compliments; eats like, well, a horse; and, most importantly, she does not like to be left alone. Naturally, Leroy finds out the hard way how true this last one is. But what Leroy lacks in judgement he makes up for with his huge heart and his talent, hitherto unknown, for poetic sweet talk.

DiCamillo, as befitting a Newbery Medalist, has an abiding love for words and knows how to turn a phrase to make it sparkle. Here's how she describes Leroy's meeting with Maybelline:

"He put out his hand and touched the horse's nose. It was damp and velvety. Leroy felt his heart tumble and roll inside of him. Oh, to be a cowboy with a horse! To ride into the sunset! To ride into the wind! To be brave and true and cast a large, horsey shadow!"

Perfection!

Van Dusen, who also illustrated the Mercy Watson books, continues his fine work. While Leroy with his long, pointed nose is cartoonish, the cowboy cantering across the big screen is portrayed realistically, making for an interesting and unusual contrast. And Maybelline's former owner with her long, equine face and prominent front teeth bears more than a passing resemble to a horse.
 
With this first book in the series, Tales from Deckawoo Drive gets off to a promising start. As Leroy would say, "Yippie-i-oh!"

Leroy Ninker Saddles Up
By Kate DiCamillo
Illustrated by Chris Van Dusen
Candlewick Press, 96 pages
Published: August 2014


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9. Rotten Ralph's Rotten Family


When I was growing up both The Musters and The Addams Family were on TV. For me--then and now--the people I knew could be divided into two camps: Munster or Addams. I was (am) very firmly pro Addams. In fact, I confess to sneering a bit at those who preferred the less sophisticated Munsters. In the world of easy readers something similar is going on with a couple of bad cats. I'm talking about Jack Gantos's Rotten Ralph and Nick Bruel's Bad Kitty. Bad Kitty would be right at home in the Addams's macabre mansion, while Rotten Ralph would be tormenting Spot in 1313 Mockingbird Lane.

Although Rotten Ralph lacks the finesse of Bad Kitty, he's not without his charms. And in his latest outing, the bad-tempered feline returns home to visit his family to try to understand just why he's so rotten. Sarah, Rotten Ralph's put upon owner, is at the end of her rope when she can't find a catsitter willing to take on her disobedient pet. She issues an ultimatum to Ralph: "There better be some changes in the morning…or else!" In his bedroom, Ralph flips through a photo album that shows him in his younger years tormenting his feline family. The trip down memory lane inspires Ralph to return home.

Ralph's reunion is anything but sweet. With the exception of his mother, the other members of his family show their own rotten side, and by the end of his visit Ralph has an epiphany: He turned out rotten because everyone was rotten to him. A repentant Ralph returns to Sarah determined to reform. Will it last? Fans needn't worry. Ralph is sure to be his rotten self again by the next installment.

Rotten Ralph's Rotten Family
By Jack Gantos
Illustrated by Nicole Rubel
Farrar Straus Giroux, 48 pages
Published: March 2014

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10. Queen Victoria's Bathing Machine

The best nonfiction books make their readers want to go out and learn more about the subject. By focusing on one relatively minor aspect of Queen Victoria's long, long life, Gloria Whelan's latest book will have children hurrying off to the library (or Internet) to find out all they can about the Victorian age. Some of the questions they might have include: Why were women required to wear corsets and layers upon layers of petticoats? What was so scandalous about seeing a queen's knees? What is a lady-in-waiting? Nine children! Were all families so large back then? Luckily the author's note and list of sources will give curious readers a starting point in their research.

In this irreverent, rhyming picture book, Queen Victoria longs for a refreshing swim in the ocean while residing in Osbourne House on the Isle of Wight. But social conventions being what they were back in the day, she can't, alas, put so much as a royal toe into the Atlantic. Happily, Prince Albert is determined to find a way for his beloved wife to "dabble and splatter and swim like a fish." After considering--and abandoning--the catapult, Albert has his Eureka moment. With help from his offspring, he devises a wheeled bathing machine that allows the Queen to discreetly change into her bathing suit and enter the water unseen.

Nancy Carpenter's colored pen-and-ink drawings are as charming as the text. Each spread is bursting with activity and telling details that add to the story's magic. There's a funny bit a la Monty Python of the Queen being flung from a catapult prototype into the sea. And the images of Queen Victoria cavorting in the water are priceless. Highly recommended!

Queen Victoria's Bathing Machine
By Gloria Whelan
Illustrations by Nancy Carpenter
Simon & Schuster, 40 pages
Published: April, 2014

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11. Throwback Thursday: Bea and Mr. Jones

Amy Schwartz's first picture book was published in 1982, way before Take Your Daughter to Work Day was conceived. In this hilarious variation of stories about trading places, Bea, fed up with kindergarten, and her father, worn out from being an advertising executive, swap roles.

With her deadpan humor, Schwartz deftly creates a believable story that depicts each character succeeding in his or her new career. Bea shows herself to be remarkably adept at advertising. Not only does she laugh hardest at the boss's corny jokes, she also saves the Crumbly Crackers account with her jingle. And Mr. Jones equally excels at kindergarten. He's a whiz at the colored lollipop game, rescues the class genius from a magnolia tree at recess, and aces his job as milk and cookie monitor. The detailed black-and-white illustrations add to the book's charm and anchor the fantasy, as when we see Mr. Jones on the floor spelling out "antidisestablishmentarianism" with alphabet blocks.

The ending, though, is what really sets Bea and Mr. Jones apart. In most stories about trading places, the protagonists see why they are ill-suited to their new positions and gratefully return to the status quo. Not Schwartz's duo. Bea lands a promotion and eventually becomes president of toy sales, while Mr. Jones continues to go to kindergarten. As Schwartz succinctly states, "Mr. Jones and Bea had each found their proper niche in the world." May we all be so lucky.

Bea & Mr. Jone
By Amy Schwartz
Bradbury Press, 32 pages
Published: 1982

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12. Fall Ahead!

Fall is right around the corner--next month, folks--and that means crisp apples in the farmers' markets, little and not-so-little ones traipsing back to school, and, of course, new books hot from the presses (or fresh through the Internet). This fall's output promises some enticing reads. Here are a few I'm especially looking forward to curling up with:


I'll start with a picture book. One thing that always makes me happy is a new book by Amy Schwartz. Her Bea and Mr. Jones is one of my all-time favorites. Her latest is a tribute--in rhyme--to the things that make her happy. Among them: "fuzzy sweaters, long letters, slippery floors, dinosaurs." Pub date: October 7













And yet another Dr. Seuss book has been "found." This collection is a follow-up to 2011's The Bippolo Seed and Other Lost Stories. I wasn't all that taken with it (read my review here; there's a reason stories are "lost") but, still, new stories from the great Seuss is always a cause for celebration. Pub date: September 9












Yipee-Ki-Yay! Kate DiCamillo has started a new series of chapter books for beginning readers. Tales from Deckawoo Drive will feature characters from DiCamillo's previous series about Mercy the pig. The first book stars Leroy Ninker, a would-be cowboy who works at the concession stand at the Bijou Drive-In Theater. Illustrations are by Chris Van Drusen.
Pub date: August 26











Readers of this blog will probably be more familiar with Cece Bell as the author/illustrator of the endearing beginning reader The Sleepover, starring best friends Rabbit and Robot (read my review here). Bell has also written and/or illustrated several picture books. El Deafo is a departure, a graphic novel memoir about her struggles with hearing loss at an early age. 
Pub date: September 2 










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13. Sparky!

Children's books about kids who want pets but aren't allowed them are a dime a dozen. So it's a challenge to come up with a new spin on such a hackneyed  topic. Offill (11 Experiments That Failed) not only is up to the task, she's created an exceptional picture book in the process.

 The wistful girl who longs for a pet of her own isn't deterred when her mother says her only option is a creature that "doesn't need to be walked or bathed or fed." Ever resourceful, the girl does her research and orders a pet that meets her parent's criteria: a sloth. The newly christened Sparky is anything but. It takes Sparky so long to fetch a ball that its owner is able to go inside and have dinner while waiting.

It's clear that the girl wants more from her pet, more than Sparky can provide, yet it's also clear that a sloth is better than no pet at all. After a disastrous talent show in which Sparky fails to distinguish himself before an audience of three--the girl's mother, the school crossing guard (who approves of Sparky's because he never runs in the street), and Mary Potts (a stuck-up fellow classmate with pet issues)--the young narrator makes peace with her pet's limitations. The book concludes with Sparky and the girl on a branch, content to be in each other's company as they appreciate the sunset.

In his first outing as a picture book illustrator, Appelhans, an animation artist, uses an understated palette to showcase Offill's droll humor. Like Jon Klassen (I Want My Hat Back), he manages with a few strokes of his brush to get a lot of mileage of of a creature who shows minimal emotion. In fact, Offill and Appelhans do such a great job of making sloths appealing, their readers might pester their parents for one of their own.

Sparky!
by Jenny Offill
illustrations by Chris Appelhans
Schwartz & Wade, 40 pages
Published: March 2014

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14. The Miniature World of Marvin & James

Marvin is a beetle with a talent for drawing. James, a young boy, is Marvin's BBF. The Miniature World of Marvin & James is the first in an early chapter-book series that tells about their adventures. Interestingly,  the characters come from a best-selling middle-grade novel Elise Broach wrote titled Masterpiece. In that story James and Marvin help recover a drawing stolen from an art museum. I haven't read Masterpiece yet (though I plan to), but Broach's new work most certainly holds its own.

The story starts with James packing for a weeklong vacation at the seaside. Marvin, alas, will not be going and is already missing James. Once James has left Marvin mopes around under the kitchen sink until his mother persuades him to play with his cousin Elaine. The two young beetles have an exciting adventure (and close shave) with an electric pencil sharpener during which Marvin overhears a phone conversation that suggests that Marvin has made a new friend. Marvin spends the remainder of the week worrying that James has replaced him with another BBF.

As in so many books for beginning readers, this book tackles the challenges of friendship. In simple yet poignant sentences Broach parses its complexities while managing to tell a rip-roaring story at the same time. Readers will be transfixed by Marvin's adventures and satisfied with its heartfelt conclusion. Murphy's pen-and-ink illustrations are a delight, capturing an array of insect emotion. A first-rate chapter book all around!

The Miniature World of Marvin & James
by Elise Broach
illustrated by Kelly Murphy
Henry Holt, 104 pages
Published: 2014

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15. The Most Magnificent Thing

Practice makes perfect? Not necessarily, but that can be a good thing, at least according to this picture book. As anyone who has tried to get something "just right"--whether it's leveling a picture frame or composing a work of art--knows, the process can be supremely frustrating and usually impossible to achieve. The "regular girl" in this delightful picture book by Ashley Spires (Binky the Space Cat) is certain she can beat the odds.

While out scootering with her best friend--an adorable pug--she is struck with an idea for a magnificent invention. Over the next few pages Spires shows the girl hard at work on her invention. She gathers her supplies; she "tinkers and hammers and measures" and when she's finished--it's all wrong. This does not deter our heroine and she tries again and again and again, but none of her eleven creations are magnificent--not even close.  At which point the girl has a meltdown and quits.

Luckily her best friend suggests a walk, and over the course of their stroll, the girl cools down, and refreshed, sees her rejects in a new light. They aren't complete failures. "There are some parts of the WRONG things that are really quite RIGHT." Inspired anew, the girl tackles her project again and this time it's a success. It's worth noting, however, that the invention is not perfect: "It leans a little to the left, and it's a bit heavier than expected. The color could use a bit of work, too." But in spite of its flaws it is still magnificent. So what is the most magnificent thing? Let's just say that the girl's loyal assistant is rewarded for all his hard work as the pair scooter away, the pug in a brand-new sidecar.

The Most Magnificent Thing
by Ashley Spires
Kids Can Press, 32 pages
Published: April 2014

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16. I Didn't Do My Homework Because...

Ah, the homework excuses. I never used them myself because I was too chicken to show up at school empty handed. In my very brief teaching career--one semester--I did hear quite a few from my students, though. None, however, as inventive as the ones the boy narrator of this book lays on his teacher. Starting with "an airplane full of monkeys landed in our yard" and ending with "a tornado swept up all my books," the boy's outlandish tales are cleverly illustrated by Benjamin Chaud (The Bear's Song). Madcap and detailed, each pen-and-ink illustration is worthy of being pored over to fully appreciate the humor. The illustration for "our roof suddenly disappeared" shows a wrecking ball (maneuvered by the family dog) knocking off the roof with the startled people inside gazing up and the homework pages blowing away. While many of the excuses are satisfyingly dramatic--"giant lizards invaded my neighborhood"--others are understated and depend on the art for the full effect. My favorite of these is: "We had a problem with carnivorous plants." The accompanying illustration shows a giant-size Venus flytrap with its devouring leaves clamped over the heads of the boy, his father, and the dog.

Essentially an extended list, this picture book/easy reader has a satisfying twist at the end after the boy gives this last explanation to his teacher. She doesn't believe any of them, naturally, but why she doesn't is sure to have young readers chuckling--and perhaps plotting which excuse they might use!

I Didn't Do My Homework Because…
By David Cali
Illustrated by Benjamin Chaud
Chronical Books, 44 pages
Published: March 2014

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17. 26 Characters Exhibit at Oxford's Story Museum

Last week I traveled to London and Oxford with my husband on a combined business/sightseeing trip. In Oxford I was busy doing research for an upcoming book, but I squeezed in a visit to a brand new Story Museum exhibit that I'd read about at Monica Edinger's excellent blog Educating Alice. The exhibit's curators asked a number of authors and performers (the majority will be more familiar to the British than those of us who reside on the other side of the pond) to pick their favorite childhood literary character. The chosen ones were then invited to dress up as their character and be photographed by Cambridge Jones in their new duds. Each story character was given his/her designated space or room that features the photograph as well as other props. Many include sounds that heighten the experience (the wind howls in the Mary Poppins room, for instance) or recordings of the authors and performers reading a story or being interviewed about their characters. The exhibit takes up the whole of the museum and is set up like a treasure hunt. Visitors search out all 26 characters and check them off. A completed list earns the museumgoer a prize, redeemable at the museum shop across the way.

The day I visited I was the only adult sans child, and I felt a bit conspicuous as I stalked the building clicking away with my camera. While I can't list all there was to see, here are some of my favorites. As for choosing my own childhood literary character, I have to go with Peter Pan (also chosen by author Cressida Cowell). My absolute favorite exhibit space, though, was the one dedicated to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Holly Smale selected Jadis, the White Witch as her character. To enter, you open an unmarked wardrobe and push past a row of fur coats. Then you're inside a magical darklit room dominated by a huge sled and a life-size photo of Smale dressed as the White Witch. Goosebumps will follow, I promise.

The entrance to the exhibit opens with a tower of cards referencing Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.


Another section features an assortment of costumes to dress up in.



And, once clad, a throne to sit on.


Neil Gaiman chose Badger from The Wind and the Willows as his favorite character.


Katherine Rundell picked Max from Where the Wild Things Are.


Here's Katrice Horsley sailing through the sky dressed as Mary Poppins.


Another childhood hero of mine--the Wicked Witch of the West, as portrayed by Children's Laureate Malorie Blackman.


The exhibit remains open until November so if you find yourself in the neighborhood, it is well worth a visit. And if a trip to Oxford isn't in the cards, why not dress up as your own childhood story hero? I'm getting out my green tights right now.
 

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18. Bad Kitty: Drawn to Trouble

As a published author and someone who has taught creative writing, I have read many books on how to write. (And I do mean many. A quick count of the books on the shelves yields 45 books on the subject.) None, however, managed to crack me up--until, that is, I read Nick Bruel's latest. It must be the seven-year-old in me, but Bruel never fails to make me laugh. In Drawn to Trouble, Bruel inserts himself into the storyline, showing kids how to create their own stories. He begins by introducing himself as the author and illustrator of the Bad Kitty books, going so far as to draw a mirror so readers can see how handsome he is. (Bruel's definition of an author (found in the handy appendix) is: "An incredibly beautiful person who writes books and always smells like lavender, even in hot weather."

After Bruel has kids draw Bad Kitty, giving them step-by-step instructions, he tackles the various elements of fiction: character, setting, conflict, plot, etc.  He does it all humorously, putting poor Kitty in dangerous situations to illustrate his points. For instance, when discussing setting, Bruel dunks Kitty in the ocean, plops her down in the middle of a jungle, and then in a zombie-filled graveyard, before finally settling on Kitty's home. (Not that home is any safer. In one instance a giant octopus comes oozing through the door.) As usual, Uncle Murray chimes in in the series' Fun Facts spreads. In this book, he tackles the difference between plot an theme, the importance of using dictionaries, and ways to end stories. Inspired by the Looney Tunes short classics Duck Amuck and Rabbit Rampage (as well as Winsor McKay's 1914 short cartoon Gertie the Dinosaur), this wacky book is sure to have budding authors scribbling away.

Favorite line: "Like all children's book authors, I am extremely good-looking."

Bad Kitty: Drawn to Trouble
by Nick Bruel
Roaring Brook Press 128 pages
Published: January 2014

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19. Urgency Emergency! Big Bad Wolf

Doctor Glenda has a tough case on her paws. A wolf has been rushed to the emergency room of City Hospital with something--or someone--stuck in his throat. And who is that little girl in the red coat looking for her grandmother? With the help of Nurse Percy--a chicken with a sensible fear of wolves--Doctor Glenda performs a successful Heimlich maneuver to extract Grandma from the wolf's gullet. Then Grandma and the red-coated girl go off together, none the worse for wear. The winner in the 2013 Cybils' Easy Reader category, this entertaining easy reader will have beginning readers chuckling as they recognize their old fairy tale friends in a new setting. And luckily for them, a companion book, Urgency Emergency!: Itsy Bitsy Spider, is available as well.

Favorite Line: "She was damp and a bit chewed around the edges, but otherwise OK."

Urgency Emergency!: Big Bad Wolf
By Dosh Archer
Albert Whitman
Published: 2013 

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20. Cybils Winners Announced!

Happy Valentine's Day! For you lovers of children's books we have a special treat. The winners of the 2013 Cybils (Children's and Young Adult Bloggers' Literary Awards) were announced today, and there are sure to be books that escaped your radar on the list. As a second round judge for the Elementary and Middle-Grade Nonfiction category, I am, naturally, thrilled with our pick. It's Look Up!: Bird-watching in Your Own Backyard by Annette LeBlanc Cate. Here is the blurb we wrote to go with it:

Budding ornithologists won’t be the only ones to delight in this jam-packed introduction to the joys of bird-watching. Annette LeBlanc Cate's enthusiasm for her subject shines through her humorous yet informative text and in her inviting pen-and-ink illustrations of birds, birds, and more birds. Cate recommends that you begin by looking for birds in your own backyard because “you don’t have to go anywhere fancy to watch birds, nor do you need to know their fancy Latin names." A useful list of bird-watching dos and don’ts, should-haves and don’t-needs (binoculars!) introduces the text. In subsequent chapters, Cate explains how to identify birds by color, shape, behavior, and other characteristics. Along with charts, sidebars, and a bibliography, the book features an engaging cast of cartoon bird characters. Sassy and opinionated, they help to spread Cate’s message: “Bird-watching is fun!” Look Up! isn’t just a title—it’s an invitation to a new way of looking at the avian world.

By happy coincidence, this weekend is The Great Backyard Bird Count, and it starts today. It's not too late to sign up and be part of a worldwide attempt to "create an annual snapshot of the distribution and abundance" of the feathered creatures we share the planet with.

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21. The Watermelon Seed

This year's winner of the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award for the most distinguished beginning reader is Greg Pizzoli's The Watermelon Seed. The book is Pizzoli's first and an impressive debut it is. A small crocodile whose favorite food is watermelon accidentally swallows a seed. This causes him undue anxiety as he imagines the seed growing inside him. He worries: "It's growing in my guts! Soon vines will come out of my ears!" Any child who's downed a wad of bubblegum or buzzing insect (it happens!) will relate to the little reptile's fears.

The book's brightly colored palette of pinks and greens reinforces the watermelon theme. Readers are sure to chuckle at the amusing ways Pizzoli portrays the crocodile's distress. My favorite illustration is the one where he imagines himself a watermelon morsel in a fruit salad. The text is simplicity itself, with just one or two simple sentences on most spreads. The story whizzes by to a hilarious conclusion that solves the crocodile's problem--though not for long. A definite win for the six and under set.

The Watermelon Seed
By Greg Pizzoli
Disney Hyperion Books
Published: 2013

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22. Happy Birthday, Lewis Carroll!

One hundred and eight-two years ago, Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) was born. Imagine if he hadn't been. Imagine a world without Alice, the Hatter, the Walrus and the Carpenter. Not to mention the White Rabbit, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, or the Cheshire Cat.

For the past three months I have been steeped in all things Alice. I'm writing a book that encompasses the many adaptations of the Alice books--illustrations, stage productions, film, TV, games, and on and on and on. There are even operas and ballets set in Wonderland. In future posts I'll share some of what I've learned. In the meantime here are some illustrated books I especially like. For as Alice says, "What is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?"

For the Toddler Set:


Pop-Up:



For the Primary Grades:


Old School:


The Definitive Edition with Tenniel's Illustrations:



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23. CYBILS Finalists for 2013



With the start of the new year comes one of my favorite traditions: the announcement of the CYBILS finalists. Since October, Round One judges have been hard at work reading stacks of books and winnowing down the choices to a select few. To see the finalists for each category, visit the CYBILS site here.

After a well-deserved round of applause for the winners, the next step is for the Round Two judges to make their final selections. As one of the judges for Elementary and Middle-Grade Nonfiction, I'm excited to crack open the spines of these intriguing titles and get the discussion going. Onward!

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24. Ball

It might seem odd that a picture book that repeats just one word is an Honor Book for this year's Geisel Award. Yet Ball offers beginning readers much more than the opportunity to really, really learn how to decode the word ball. It tells a fantastic story almost entirely in pictures. The long-snouted, rotund mutt--who could come straight from a New Yorker comic--is obsessed with his red ball. From the moment his redhead owner awakes he is after her to throw his toy, which she enthusiastically does--until it's time for her to leave for school. Dog then spends the agonizing hours until her return trying to get the other members of the household (a blissed-out yoga mom, a drooling infant, and the family cat) to play ball without success. Finally Dog stumbles into a restless sleep and dreams of--what else--chasing his ball. The dream sequence is sidesplittingly funny, especially the spread that leads him down a toilet and through a labyrinth of pipes. First-time author/illustrator does a bang-up job of creating a humorous homage to dogs and their love of balls.

Ball by Mary Sullivan
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 40 pages
Published: 2013

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25. The Sleepwalkers

Viviane Schwarz's debut graphic novel is a strange book, but strange in a good way. Its inventive plot takes readers into a fantastical dreamworld populated with the oddly engaging characters of Schwartz's fecund imagination. I confess it took me a while to become invested. Initially it's difficult to figure out what's going on, and if I, an adult, find the plot a challenge, kids in the targeted age group--seven to ten years olds--are even more likely to give up. If they persevere, however, they will be rewarded with a story that offers a reassuring message of overcoming one's fears.

The premise revolves around nightmares. Kids who have recurring bad dreams or who are afraid to fall asleep can write a letter about their fears and put it under the pillow. The Sleepwalkers will then come and rescue them. Who are the Sleepwalkers? At the start they are three wooly sheep and a friendly dog traveling in a self-navigating nightmare-proof house. The sheep, alas, are getting on in years and need replacements. These they conjure up out of well-used objects: An old quilt becomes an insecure but good-hearted bear; a pair of sock turns into an enthusiastic monkey; and a quill pen is magicked into a crow with a nib for its head. All three apprentices must learn how to rescue children from their nightmares. The dreams they enter are truly horrifying, especially when illustrated with Schwartz's manic artwork. A girl dreams hordes of mice are chasing her through an all-cheese landscape; a boy is stuck in a nightmare in which he's trapped in a prehistoric pterodactyl-shaped plane; another child is lost in a jungle teeming with beasts made from hair. With help from the sheep and the dog, the apprentices manage to solve each case, but in doing so they must confront their own inadequacies. Bonno, the cuddly bear, is my favorite. Timid at first, he slowly finds his courage as his concern for the children overrides--but never vanquishes--his fears. With each nightmare, the kids learn a way to master their bad dreams, often literally. The boy trapped in the airplane, for instance, is shown how to navigate the machine and gleefully exclaims: "I am the prince of all pilots!"    

This gift of empowerment isn't all that Schwartz (There Are No Cats in This Book) gives to her readers. Studded throughout the book are fun extras, like instructions on how to make a sock monkey or a recipe for a banana milkshake. With a copy of The Sleepwalkers under the pillow, a child could face whatever terrors the night dreams up.

The Sleepwalkers
by Viviane Schwarz
Candlewick, 96 pages
Published: May 2013

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