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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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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
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
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!
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!
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
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 OxfordSeptember 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?
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
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.
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.
By Abby Hanlon
Dial, 160 pages
Published: October 2014
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
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
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.
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
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
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!
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
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.
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
"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!"
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
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
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
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.
by Jenny Offill
illustrations by Chris Appelhans
Schwartz & Wade, 40 pages
Published: March 2014
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
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
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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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