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1. Six Early Readers (2014)

Petal and Poppy. (Level 2, Green Light Readers) Lisa Clough. Illustrated by Ed Briant. 2014. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 32 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Poppy is not here. It is time to practice my tuba. Bah-bwab-baah! Bwah-bu-baah! 
Ack! Petal is practicing. It is time to go scuba diving!

Petal and Poppy are best friends. (Petal is the elephant. Poppy is the rhinoceros.) They are best friends, but, they are very different from one another. In this first book, readers learn that Petal can be a worrywart, and that Poppy is very understanding.

Poppy goes scuba diving. Petal comes along. She brings her tuba. She alternates playing her tuba and panicking about Poppy. Is Poppy okay? How about now? And now?

Did I like it? Sure. I didn't not like it. With the exception of Elephant and Piggie, I am unlikely to get EXCITED about any early readers I pick up.

Petal and Poppy and the Penguin. (Level 2, Green Light Readers) Lisa Clough. Illustrated by Ed Briant. 2014. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 32 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Someone has stomped on my flowers. Uh-oh--a storm is coming! Boom! Honk, honk! Who is there? Ahhh! A monster! 

Was there really a monster? Or was Petal, the elephant, just panicking again? Poppy, the rhinoceros, is such a good and understanding friend. Poppy will "save" Petal from the monster outside who is stomping on the flowers. Who is the monster making spooky sounds? A penguin, of course! It is called Petal and Poppy and The Penguin after all. These two take the penguin in. Petal very reluctantly. But these three may be great friends yet.

I liked this second book better than the first. I'm not surprised. I think with series books it can take a few books sometimes for readers to make a connection with characters. The third book in the series will be released at the end of August.  Petal and Poppy and the Spooky Halloween.

Steve & Wessley in The Ice Cream Shop. (Level 1 Reader) J.E. Morris. 2014. Scholastic. 32 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Steve walked down the street. 
Steve walked by an ice cream shop.
Did someone say "ice cream"?
Steve liked ice cream.
Steve liked ice cream very much.

I like Steve. I do. He may not be very bright or smart. But there is something about him that is just likable. (Maybe he reminds me of Pinky?) In this book, Steve really wants ice cream. He wants it bad. One thing is standing in his way. The door. It won't open. Steve is very frustrated. What is the deal with this door?!

Wessley is much smarter than Steven. He realizes that some doors you push, and other doors you pull. 

I liked this one fine. The second book in this new series will release at the end of August. The Sea Monster.

Days of the Knights. (Level 2 Reader) Robert Neubecker. 2014. Scholastic. 32 pages. [Source: Review copy]

"What's up, Joe?" asked Lilly. 
"I'm doing a report on the Middle Ages." Joe shrugged. 
"With knights and queens and castles? What fun!"
"I guess so," mumbled Joe.
"I'll help you research," said Lilly. She tapped the keys on the library computer...

In Days of the Knights, readers meet Lilly, Joe, and Red the Time Dragon. Red the Time Dragon is their personal guide to the middle ages. Lilly and Joe learn a handful of facts about the middle ages during their brief stay. Red the Time Dragon also manages to find time to lead a peasant revolt against Sir Vile, a selfish knight.

I don't know what to think about this new series. I really don't! The second adventure is Racing the Waves. It releases in late August.


Little Big Horse: Where's My Bike? (Level 1) Dave Horowitz. 2014. Scholastic. 32 pages. [Source: Review copy]

I can't wait for class to be over. 
Finally.
To the bikes!
Where is my bike? I left it right here.

Someone has stolen his bike! Who did it? Why? What motivated the crime? Will he get his bike back?

This one is very simple. Of all the books I'm reviewing today, this one is the simplest. Simple can be a good thing. Young readers need access to simple books with big font.

I liked it well enough. I liked the illustrations. I liked reading the emotions on the faces of the two characters we meet.

Drop It, Rocket! (Step 1) Tad Hills. 2014. Random House. 32 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Rocket and the little yellow bird love words. They love their word tree, too. "Are you ready to find new words for our word tree?" asks the bird. "Yes, I am!" says Rocket.

Readers may be familiar with the character of Rocket already. Rocket is the star of several picture books: How Rocket Learned to Read and Rocket Writes a Story.

This story is simple and repetitive. Rocket wants to learn new words and add new words to the word tree. He brings new things--new objects--to his friend the yellow bird. The bird tells him to "drop it" each time. Rocket is usually a good dog, so he obeys. New words are added. But what happens when Rocket does not want to drop it?

I liked this one. I liked the problem solving. It's a cute story.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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2. Review of the Day: Princess Sparkle-Heart Gets a Makeover by Josh Schneider

PrincessSparkleHeart Review of the Day: Princess Sparkle Heart Gets a Makeover by Josh SchneiderPrincess Sparkle-Heart Gets a Makeover
By Josh Schneider
Clarion (an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-544-14228-2
Ages 3-7
On shelves now

Sometimes I’ll just sit back and think about how the advent of the internet has affected literary culture. I don’t mean book promotion or reviews or any of that. I’m talking about the very content of books themselves. On the one hand, it accounts for the rise in Steampunk (a desire for tactile, hands-on technology, gears and all). On the other, it has led to a rise in books where characters make things. So why, you may be asking yourself, am I saying all this when ostensibly I’m supposed to be reviewing a picture book with the title Princess Sparkle-Heart Gets a Makeover? Because, best beloved, Josh Schneider has created a picture book that provides solutions. If something terrible happens to something you love, do you sit on the floor and cry and bemoan your fate? NO! You go out and find the solution, even if it means getting your hands a little dirty. We’re seeing a nice uptick in books where kids make things and fix things on their own. Add in a jealous doggy and a twist ending that NO ONE will see coming and you have a book that could easily have been written in the past but contains a distinctly 21st century flavor through and through.

Amelia just couldn’t be happier. When she gets her new doll, Princess Sparkle-Heart, the two bond instantly. They do tea parties, royal weddings, share secrets, the works. Never mind that Amelia’s pet dog eyes their happiness with an envious glare. The minute the two are separated, it acts. One minute Princess Sparkle-Heart is reading a book to herself. The next, she’s a pile of well-chewed bits and pieces on the floor. At first Amelia is distraught, but when her mother proposes putting the doll back together Amelia provides direction and ideas. This is the all-new Princess Sparkle-Heart, ladies and gentlemen. One that is NOT going to be taken advantage of again.

PrincessSparkle2 300x191 Review of the Day: Princess Sparkle Heart Gets a Makeover by Josh SchneiderI’ll be the first to admit to you that I like a little weird with my children’s literature. The only question is whether or not kids like the same kind of weird that I like. There’s no question that some of them do have a taste for the unusual, after all. It’s adult selectors that grow disturbed by some of this author/illustrator’s choices. In the case of Princess Sparkle-Heart (can I tell you how much I love that her last name is hyphenated?) I’ve already seen a schism between some adults and others. Some adults find this book freakin’ hilarious. They love the odd way in which Schneider chooses to empower his heroine. Others aren’t amused in the least. For my part, I found it a wonderful new girl/doll story. I was particularly fond of the spread where Amelia looks at a wall of fashion magazines and zeroes in on the sole solitary superhero comic found there instead. So if Schneider is telling readers something, he’s being subtle about it.

I’ve also been noticing a rather nice trend recently in books starring young girls. There’s a real movement in the country right now to give girls the impetus to make and create and build. Books like The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires where the heroine not only builds but deals repeatedly with disappointment are really quite fabulous. In Princess Sparkle-Heart Amelia’s unseen mother is the one doing the construction of a new princess, but it’s Amelia who provides the number of parts and the specifications. If the new princess is completely different from her prior incarnation, that’s thanks to Amelia’s contributions. Meanwhile the Frankenstein connection that some have noted (and that I entirely missed the first time around) is clearly intentional. How else to explain the two screws that appear in the “M” of the front cover’s “Makeover”? No doubt Princess Sparkle-Heart’s conversion will strike some as monstrous. For others, it’ll be like your average everyday superhero origin story. Nothing wrong with that!

PrincessSparkle3 300x194 Review of the Day: Princess Sparkle Heart Gets a Makeover by Josh SchneiderI’ve been oddly amused by dog books this year. I am not a dog person. I can take ‘em or leave ‘em. But in 2014 we’ve seen some really spectacular canine picture books. Things like Shoe Dog by Megan McDonald, and I’m My Own Dog by David Ezra Stein, and now this. The dog in this particular book is awfully similar to the one in Bears by Ruth Krauss as re-illustrated by Maurice Sendak, with its jealousy of a beloved toy. Cleverly Schneider has positioned the dog’s growls to serve as a running commentary behind the action. A low-key “GRRRRRRRRRR” runs both on and off the page, bleeding into the folds, falling off the sides. Schneider’s humans never have pupils (and combined with her red hair this gives Amelia a distant L’il Orphan Annie connection) but the dogs and stuffed animals do. As a result, the dog ends up oddly sympathetic in spite of its naughty ways (and indeed there is a happy ending for all characters at the story’s close).

Occasionally folks will ask me for “Princess Book” recommendations. Admittedly I’m far more partial to subversive princess tales (The Paperbag Princess, The Princess and the Pig, etc.) than those that adhere to the norm. Keeping that in mind, this is definitely going into my princess book bag of tricks. With its twist ending, strong female character, and princess that looks like she could take down twenty monsters without a blink, I’m a fan. I wouldn’t necessarily hand it to the kid looking for fluff and fairies and oogly goo, but for children with a wry sense of humor (and they do exist) this book is going to pack a wallop. Funny and surprising and a great read through and through. You ain’t never seen a makeover quite like THIS before.

On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

  • Dahlia by Barbara McClintock
  • Bears by Ruth Krauss, illustrated by Maurice Sendak

Other Blog Reviews: Sal’s Fiction Addiction,

Professional Reviews: A star from Publishers Weekly, A star from Kirkus,

Misc: There is a TON of stuff related to the book on the publisher’s website.  Everything from sewing patterns to a Q&A to early sketches to more more more!

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3. The Candy Smash (2013)

The Candy Smash. Jacqueline Davies (Lemonade War #4) 2013. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 240 pages. [Source: Review copy]

The fourth book in Jacqueline Davies Lemonade War series brings us to February in Jessie and Evan Treski's fourth grade year. Apparently after returning to school, Jessie decided to start a classroom newspaper. The Candy Smash is ALL about Jessie working very hard as a journalist and reporter as she tries to figure out the ethics of publishing. For example, if Jessie *knows* that someone like-likes someone, should she report it? Perhaps if Jessie herself were to have a crush, she'd know the answer to that one. But boys, well, they just don't interest her yet. Evan, on the other hand, well, he is definitely interested in one particular girl. (He has been since The Lemonade War!)

The Candy Smash isn't all about journalism. The teacher has started a poetry unit. While some students like hearing and discussing the poems each class day, Evan happens to love it. He tries not to let his love show too much, of course. But Evan's big secret: HE LOVES POETRY. And at home, behind his unlocked "locked" door (there's a sign on the door) he writes poetry of his own. For someone who has struggled with school, Evan's newly discovered gift with words is pure blessing.

The books have been getting more serious as the series progresses. In the Candy Smash, readers learn that Grandma has come to stay with them. I was very relieved to learn that she would not be left on her own. Also, Jessie has started thinking a LOT about her father whom she hasn't seen in over a year. Readers learn that HE is a journalist, that he travels all over the world. I knew, of course, that their mother is a single mom, divorced, but this is the first mention that I can recall revealing details about the dad.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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4. The Magic Trap (2014)

The Magic Trap. (Lemonade War #5) Jacqueline Davies. 2014. HMH. 272 pages. [Source: Review copy]

The Magic Trap is the fifth novel in Jacqueline Davies' Lemonade War series. Her newest book starring Evan and Jessie Treski opens in the month of May. It is almost summer once again, readers have almost spent an entire year with these two siblings.

Mrs. Treski is going on a business trip. She'll be gone a whole week. She's hired a sitter to stay with Evan and Jessie. But hours before she's scheduled to leave and just mere minutes after an unexpected knock at the door, she learns that the sitter has been in a car accident and needs surgery. While she'll be fine, there is no way she'll be able to keep two kids. The knock at the door? Evan and Jessie's father. He just happens to be in town for a day or two; he just happens to be in between stories for the moment; he's a war correspondent. He volunteers to stay with the kids the whole week. She is hesitant. After all, the last visit he stayed just a few hours. He is always in and out of their lives. He rarely stays around longer than a day or two at most. A whole week with the kids?! Is he capable of sticking around that long? Of putting his kids first? She isn't positive. But she goes.

Evan is working on a disappearing act of his own. Evan's new interest? Magic tricks. He's got a handful he's great at. He's working at mastering several more. He's found an old--really, really old--magic book. He needs help, and Jessie and his Dad are ready to help him out. Evan plans a big magic show and everything...

But life doesn't always go according to plan. And Jessie and Evan are about to be severely tested. All week long, their dad has been emphasizing over and over and over again how tough Treskis are and how they can do anything. Jessie and Evan will be given the chance to prove just that...

The Magic Trap certainly has its dramatic moments.
© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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5. The Year We Were Famous

The Year We Were Famous. Carole Estby Dagg. 2011. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 256 pages. [Source: Review copy]

I definitely liked Carole Estby Dagg's The Year We Were Famous. This is historical fiction based on a true story, a true family story. It is fiction; liberties have been taken. Liberties that work in favor of a not-so-bleak ending.

Clara Estby is the heroine of The Year We Were Famous. She is the oldest daughter; she is seventeen. The family farm is in big, big trouble. Her mother, Helga, who suffers--and suffers understandably--from depression, works with her daughter to brainstorm a way to "save" the farm. Her daughter's careless comment about wanting to travel the world and be a journalist sparks an idea that can't be swept aside. Helga is determined to find sponsors, wealthy sponsors who want to test what women are capable of. She wants to make a deal. She and her daughter will walk across country, over three thousand miles, starting with no more than $5, if they reach New York City by the deadline, they will receive $10,000--more than enough to keep the farm. This is where the details are a bit fuzzy in reality because the journals and such were purposefully destroyed by the family. No one is sure *who* the sponsor was, if there even was a sponsor, the intentions of the sponsor, etc.

For over seven months May through December, these two women are on their own and on an adventure of sorts. It is dangerous and exhausting and overwhelming and a once in a lifetime opportunity. They meet new people almost every single day. They are sharing their stories with various newspapers across the country. They are speaking at suffragette events across the country. They are challenging themselves day and night...

I liked this one. It is set in 1896. I appreciated the fact that the author was inspired by her family history.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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6. Six 2014 Picture Books

I Pledge Allegiance. Pat Mora and Libby Martinez. Illustrated by Patrice Barton. 2014. Random House. 40 pages. [Source: Review copy]

On Monday when I get to school, my teacher, Mrs. Adams asks, "Did your great-aunt pass her test?"
"Yes!" I say. "She is very smart." I tell my class all about my great-aunt. She is eighty years old, and my family calls her Lobo, which means "wolf" in Spanish. (She calls us her lobitos--her "little wolves.")
Lobo studied very hard. She learned all about America. 

Inspired by her own aunt who became a citizen in her seventies, Pat Mora and Libby Martinez have crafted a lovely story of friendship between a young child and her great-aunt. While her great-aunt is preparing to become a citizen, to say the pledge of allegiance in a big ceremony, her young niece is preparing to lead the pledge of allegiance in her class. The two discuss what they love about the U.S.

I liked the focus on family. It was very sweet. A lot of the charm of this one is communicated through the illustrations.

Text: 3 out of 5
Illustrations: 4 out of 5
Total: 7 out of 10

Duck & Goose: Go To The Beach. Tad Hills. 2014. Random House. 40 pages. [Source: Review copy]

"Don't you love it here, Duck?" Goose honked. The two friends relaxed in the early-morning sun and listened to the hum of the meadow. Butterflies flitted and grass swished in the breeze. "Yes, I do," Duck agreed. "Let's never leave," said Goose. 
Suddenly, Duck jumped up. "You just gave me the greatest idea, Goose!" he quacked. "Let's leave! Let's go away!"

I enjoy Duck and Goose. I do. Perhaps I don't love these two as much as say Gerald and Piggie. But I definitely like this friendship. These two star in many books together. I can't say that Duck & Goose Go To The Beach is my absolute favorite of the series. (I enjoy others in the series more actually.) But it is a fun summer addition for Duck & Goose fans.

The book begins with Duck wanting desperately to go somewhere, to have an adventure. Goose is super hesitant. He likes home. He likes the familiar. Duck does persuade Goose to come along. By the end, Goose has definitely become more comfortable! But will Duck like where the adventure leads him?! He may not!!!

Text: 3 out of 5
Illustrations: 3 out of 5
Total: 6 out of 10

Peppa Pig and the Vegetable Garden. 2014. Candlewick Press. 32 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Peppa Pig and her little brother, George, are playing at Grandpa Pig and Granny Pig's house. They love to help Grandpa Pig in the garden.

If you enjoy the show Peppa Pig, chances are you'll enjoy reading the series of books based on the show. I know I do! In this book, Peppa Pig and her brother George are visiting their grandparents. They work in the garden. They plant seeds. They play in the garden. They pretend to be snails, butterflies, and worms. When Mummy Pig and Daddy Pig arrive, they pick blackberries. If you've seen the show, you know that usually means trouble! In this instance, it is Mummy Pig who ends up making a mess of things! The book concludes with a nice family meal.

Text: 3 out of 5
Illustrations: 3 out of 5
Total: 6 out of 10

Peppa Pig and the Great Vacation. Candlewick Press. 2014. 32 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Peppa Pig is one of my favorite children's shows. It is. I love Peppa Pig and her brother George. I enjoy her parents Mummy Pig and Daddy Pig. I enjoy watching their adventures. The books which are based on the show can be great fun, but, they don't always match the quality or the charm of the show. I did enjoy Peppa Pig and the Great Vacation. But I didn't love it.

In Peppa Pig and the Great Vacation, Peppa and her family go on vacation. They do some hiking. They do some shopping. They have at least one picnic. (The family does love having picnics!) They go to the beach. Every day Peppa Pig calls home to see if Grandpa Pig and Granny Pig are properly watching her fish. Readers will see if they did a proper job by the end of the book!

Text: 3 out of 5
Illustrations: 3 out of 5
Total: 6 out of 10

Help! We Need A Title! Herve Tullet. 2014. Candlewick Press. 64 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Hey! Someone's watching us!
Guys, come here. Look at this.
There are people here...and they've opened our book!
Hi there.
Who are you? What do you want?
You're very sweet. Wow! 
So, what now?
I think they would like a story.

The reader catches the characters by surprise in Herve Tullet's new picture book. The illustrations, the characters, are an unfinished mess. They are. They know they are. They do not have a story ready to tell the reader. They know the reader expects a finished product, an actual story. But they do their best. They talk amongst themselves. They talk about what a book needs to work. Characters. Backdrops. A story or plot. Possibly a villain. But they're amateurs. What they need is a real author to help them. So they team up and surprise one. The author they choose, of course, is Herve Tullet. His photo is blended into the illustrations charmingly. He is willing to help them if they're willing for his story to be short and sweet.

 This one is definitely creative and unique. I liked it. It was originally published in France.

Text: 3 out of 5
Illustrations: 3 out of 5
Total: 6 out of 10

Very Little Red Riding Hood. Teresa Heapy. Illustrated by Sue Heap. 2014. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 32 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Very little Red Riding Hood was going to her Grandmama's for a sleepover. "I go see Gramma with cakes," said Very little Red Riding Hood.
"Yes, my love, I know," said her Mummy.
"Off you go. Be gentle with Grandmama. And don't break anything!"
"Bye bye, my Mummy!" said Very little Red Riding Hood.
So Very little Red Riding Hood set off for Grandmama's house. She hadn't gotten very far when she met a Wolf.
"A FOXIE!" said Very little Red Riding Hood. 
She gave him a BIG hug.

As I hope you can tell from my beginning quote, VERY little Red Riding Hood is a young girl with a BIG personality. She is truly the star of this fun retelling! You won't find VERY little Red Riding Hood scared or intimidated by the wolf! Not in this story! I loved, loved, LOVED this one!!!

This retelling is very fun, very creative, just a joy to read and reread. I definitely recommend it. The only predictable thing about it is perhaps the little girl's homesickness that she experiences at her first sleepover. But with Grandmama and "Foxie" by her side, all is good. (This one was originally published in the UK).


Text: 5 out of 5
Illustrations: 4 out of 5
Total: 9 out of 10

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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7. Three New-ish Board Books

Hide and Seek Harry Around the House. Kenny Harrison. 2014. Candlewick. 20 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Harry is our best friend. Hide-and-seek is always on his mind. He tries so hard to hide--and he thinks he's tough to find. Is he in the kitchen?

I enjoyed this one! Harry is a hippo who loves, loves, loves to play hide and seek with his friends. In this adventure, Harry and the little boy and girl who love him are playing hide and seek around the house. Harry has many hiding places, but he always seems oh-so-easy to find!

I liked this one. I liked the art. It was very cute. I think one of my favorites was seeing Harry hiding up a tree in the yard!

Hide and Seek Harry At the Beach. Kenny Harrison. 2014. Candlewick 20 pages. [Source: Review copy]

At the beach with Harry...we play hide-and-seek! While Harry goes to hide, we promise not to peek. Is he on the sand dunes? Is he in the sea? Where, oh, where can Harry be?

I enjoyed this one! This time Harry and his friends are at the beach playing together. Harry loves, loves, loves to play hide and seek, even at the beach! Here he has an almost endless amount of places to hide. Will he do a better job of hiding in this adventure? One thing is for certain, Harry and his friends will always enjoy being together!

I liked this one. These two books are good fun. I definitely recommend them both.

Five Little Monkeys Sitting in a Tree. Eileen Christelow. 1991/2014. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 12 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Five little monkeys and their mama walk down to the river for a picnic supper. Mama spreads out a blanket and settles down for a snooze...while five little monkeys climb a tree to watch Mr. Crocodile. 
Five little monkeys, sitting in a tree, tease Mr. Crocodile, "Can't cat me!"
Along comes Mr. Crocodile...
SNAP!

I like this one. I'm not sure I love it. There are so very many books in this series, some worth reading again and again, and others not so much. This one is fun, and it stars Mr. Crocodile. The part I enjoyed best in this story is Mr. Crocodile's snapping! As you've probably guessed this is repeated again and again until there are no more monkeys left to tease them. But. Careful readers, really careful readers who pay attention to every single detail in the illustrations, will guess before the big reveal, that all the monkeys are safe after all.

Do you have a favorite book in this series?

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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8. Reread #19 The Lemonade War

The Lemonade War. Jacqueline Davies. 2007. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 192 pages. [Source: Library]

I enjoyed this book even more the second time around. (I first reviewed it in October 2007). The Lemonade War is the story of two siblings--Evan and Jessie--and their week-long war over who can make the most money selling lemonade. Officially, this war is all about WHO can earn $100 in just five days, the last five days of summer vacation. The winner takes it all. If he wins, he gets to keep his earnings and her earnings. And vice versa. He dreams of an iPod. She dreams of giving money to an animal rescue league.

Until the last week of summer, these two kids had had an enjoyable summer, with plenty of time together and plenty of time to themselves. But when a letter comes from the school alerting the mom to a big change, well, Evan loses it. Evan thought it was bad enough that his sister was skipping a grade, that she would be in the same grade--fourth. NOW he learns that they will be in the same class. (The school has gone from two fourth grade classes to one.) Evan and Jessie react very differently. Evan focuses only on his weaknesses: he's horrible at math, he doesn't want everyone to know that his sister is SMARTER and BETTER than he is. Evan may see Jessie that way, but Jessie sure doesn't see herself that way. Jessie has trouble reading people; she doesn't always connect the dots between what people say and what people mean. Most of her second grade year, she was miserable, absolutely miserable. There was even a "We Hate Jessie" club led by a group of particularly mean girls. Jessie is worried that she'll have just as much trouble in fourth grade socially. Evan, she feels, is oh-so-comfortable and oh-so-confident. He never seems to have trouble talking to anyone. If only she could be like him!!!

One positive thing about this war, in my opinion, is that it challenges both Jessie and Evan to rise above their weaknesses. Evan must face his fear of math, of figuring out HOW to do "story problems" in real life. With Evan, readers get to see the practical side of *why* math is important. Jessie faces her fear of talking to people, of taking the first steps, of making friends. She seeks out girls who will be in her class, and, she makes allies, in a way.

The Lemonade War is, in a way, all about problem-solving, of meeting life's problems with determination. That and it's about love and hate.

I really liked the character of Jessie. I did. I liked how she clings to Charlotte's Web. I liked her spirit, her determination. Not that she was perfect. Not that she didn't make mistakes. But they both made mistakes.

I would definitely recommend this book!

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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9. Review of the Day: The Simples Love a Picnic by J.C. Phillipps

SimplesLovePicnic 300x300 Review of the Day: The Simples Love a Picnic by J.C. Phillipps The Simples Love a Picnic
By J.C. Phillipps
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
$16.99
ISBN: 978-0-544-16667-7
Ages 3-7
On shelves now

I am on a mission. A quest. A journey to find the funniest picture books published for children in a given year. It isn’t an easy thing to do. First, you have to deal with the sheer awe-inspiring number of picture books published these days. Then there’s the fact that funny is as funny does. What strikes me as friggin’ hilarious may not cause so much as a flick of the lips from you. This is probably why humor awards for children’s literature are few and far between. Then add in the fact that what kids find funny and what adults find funny is vastly different. If the very existence of knock knock jokes has taught us nothing it has taught us that. But you know . . . there are exceptions. I’ve seen kids and adults rolling in the aisles with a good reading of Bark, George by Jules Feiffer. I’ve seen adults laugh in honest surprise along with their kids when surprised by the events in Fortunately by Remy Charlip. And I bet your bottom dollar that if read correctly The Simples Love a Picnic by J.C. Phillipps could be one of those books a classroom of first graders fight to the death to check out from the library. The lie is in its very name: “Simple”. As a quick perusal shows, what Phillipps is able to accomplish here is anything but simplistic. After all, writing funny books is no easy task, yet The Simples Love a Picnic blows that notion right out of the water. Highly hilarious stuff.

It started off with an innocent enough suggestion. “Let’s have a picnic,” Dad proposes. The kids, Lulu and Ben, are unfamiliar with the concept, which is probably what prompts Lulu to pack a tub of ice cream amongst the supplies (her logic that “ice cream doesn’t spill” seems sound enough at the time). Off goes the family and after the occasional mishap (the dog chasing squirrels up trees, the cat appearing in Lulu’s backpack) they find themselves in the park. But locating the perfect location for a picnic turns out to be only slightly less hazardous than surviving what happens after the food comes out. In the end, the family finds the perfect place to devour a meal, though it isn’t where you might expect it to be.

SimplesLovePicnic1 300x300 Review of the Day: The Simples Love a Picnic by J.C. Phillipps I can pinpoint the precise moment I fell in love with this book. I mean, sure I liked it from the get-go. Phillipps utilizes this cheery, upbeat can-do spirit that any child will tell you is just ASKING for trouble. And I was already pretty amused when son Ben started wondering what one eats at a picnic only to come up with a short list of what might be the worst picnic foods of all time (“Cereal?”, “Soup?”, etc.). And I could just hear myself reading this aloud to a group of kids when Rocco the dog went hell-for-leather for that squirrel up a tree (going the extra mile in turning Ben completely 180 degrees upside down). But really, it wasn’t until the picnic was underway that I went hook, line, and sinker for what Phillipps had conjured up. The family attempts to find a spot to have their picnic and Ben’s location turns out to have “Too many ants”. Pretty funny, but not as funny as Lulu’s spot. Now the sentence, “Too many birds” may not sound amusing, but suddenly Phillipps turns the scene into something out of an Alfred Hitchcock film. Lulu is seen clutching her head as, presumably, a bird dive bombs towards her, others calmly checking out the basket’s wares. This moment is echoed later when some melted ice cream sets off a kind of apocalyptic picnic frenzy of hoards of ants and even more dive-bombing birds (to say nothing of the squirrels). I’ve a weakness for any book that builds to a ridiculous climax and this one tapped into that feeling perfectly.

Phillipps isn’t exactly unknown to the world of funny picture books. It takes a very particular sort of brain to come up with titles like “Wink: The Ninja Who Wanted to be Noticed” (a book that was way into ninjas before the vast hoards of them published this year, by the way). From that book you got the very clear sense that Phillipps wasn’t just an author/illustrator to watch. She also was funny as all get out. Since that book’s release Ms. Phillipps has kept herself busy, but her books have always been big and bold. Ninjas and simians with names like Monkey Ono and the like. So part of what I admire so much about The Simples is that the book isn’t high-concept. On paper it doesn’t look like much: Family goes outside to picnic. Epic picnic fail. Family goes inside to picnic. Fin. Not much going on there. But what makes the book so great is that Phillipps is channeling great works of literature about seriously stupid people like The Stupids by Harry Allard and the Dumb Bunny books of Sue Denim. And in doing so, she manages to make something seriously smart.

I confess that I wonder if in this age of high self-esteem and fear of offense whether or not Allard’s books about the Stupids would be able to see the light of publication. Yet even as I say this I don’t mind the “simple” appellation Phillipps came up with here in the least. Yes, of course I’m aware of the term’s use historically as a sort of universal catchall for anyone mentally impaired. But taken in its modern context alongside the family featured here and it would take some pretty thin skin to find anything to object to. After all, this family isn’t really out-and-out dumb (though I have my worries about Ben). They just seem prone to awful decisions and bad luck. You could just as easily have named them The Schlimazels and probably would have been more accurate in the process (note to self: write picture book about The Family Schlimazel).

If the family’s actual name refers to anything then it’s probably the art style Phillipps chooses to utilize here. It utilizes the cut paper look that’s served her so well, but here she’s simplified it beyond her usual complexities. Of the family itself you’re pretty much lucky if you get so much as a line for your nose. Features are flattened, clothes cut and pasted. The result is not that a child could do this, but rather that a child could at least make an attempt at it. Yet for all that their eyes are mere dots in the head, Phillipps gets a lot of pathos and expression out of her little paper people. Whether it’s the turn of a mouth (comically upside down “u” shaped) to denote misery or the slant of an eyebrow over an eye, these people are pretty darn expressive. One should also note that Phillipps takes a page or two out of the graphic novelists’ handbooks when she splits her narratives on certain pages or makes use of distance and perspective. These people may be flat, but the storytelling never is.

This is the kind of book that tends to not get quite enough respect. It’s hardly the first picnic book in the world (love that Picnic by Emily Arnold McCully) but it may well be the most amusing. Between the psychotic birds and the suicidal squirrels there’s lots here to love. A great readaloud for groups and a hilarious romp overall, I am pleased as punch to designate this one of the funniest picture books of the year. Silly in all the right ways. Don’t miss it.

On shelves now.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

Professional Reviews: Kirkus

Videos:

Yep!  It has a trailer and everything.

And this one goes behind the scenes a bit.  If nothing else, it shows us how cool it would be to live in Ms. Phillipps’ house.

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10. Preacher's Boy (1999)

Preacher's Boy. Katherine Paterson. 1999/2013. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 176 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Is the end near?! That's the question Robbie Hewitt faces in Katherine Paterson's Preacher's Boy. The year is 1899. The novel follows the troubles of one mischievous boy, our narrator, Robbie. Well, what can one say about him? If you've read Tom Sawyer, you know EXACTLY what kind of boy he is. He's always getting IN and OUT of trouble. Since it seems impossible to stay mad at him, I suppose, you could call him charming too. How much trouble can a boy get into in one year?! Quite a bit.

Robbie likes pranks, and this book tells about several of them. Readers know what to expect from Robbie from the very start:
"On Decoration Day, while everyone else in town was at the cemetery decorating the graves of our Glorious War Dead, Willie Beaner and me, Robert Burns Hewitt, took Mabel Cramm's bloomers and run them up the flagpole in front of the town hall. That was the beginning of all my troubles. It wasn't that we got caught. In fact, I've often thought since that would have been the best thing in the world." 
One of the stories in this novel is that Robbie becomes worried about "the end of the world." He isn't worried about where he'll end up. He's not sure there is a heaven or a hell. But. He is worried about missing out on LIFE. He makes a list of ALL the things he wants to do BEFORE THE END. It's a dreamer's list, in many ways, but that is part of the charm. For example, he knows it would be RIDICULOUS to write down OWN AN AUTOMOBILE. But he can't stop himself from writing down RIDING IN AN AUTOMOBILE.

This one has some interesting characters. I wouldn't ever say this one lacks plot, and by "plot" I mean ACTION. But to me the charm of this one is in the characters themselves. I liked Robbie. I liked seeing Robbie struggle. I liked seeing tension in his relationship with Elliot, his older brother with special needs. Robbie LOVES his brother, but, he doesn't always LIKE him. He struggles with his place in the family. It isn't just that his father is the preacher and EVERYONE in town watches him and judges him. It is that he feels out of sorts in his family. He feels Elliot gets all the attention, all the love and support. I thought most of Robbie's family was well-drawn. I liked getting to know Robbie, his dad, and Elliot. (I can't say that his mother and sisters came into the story much.) Robbie was also challenged a bit when he met a strange-but-bossy girl with problems of her own.

I liked the setting. I liked the writing. I liked the characters. Overall, I'd definitely recommend this historical coming-of-age novel.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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11. The Lemonade Crime (2011)

The Lemonade Crime. Jacqueline Davies. 2011. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 160 pages. [Source: Library book]

The Lemonade Crime opens with the fourth day of fourth grade for Jessie and Evan Treski. Evan and Jessie are still convinced that Scott Spencer STOLE $208 from Evan's short pockets on the last day of summer. They become even more convinced of his guilt when Scott starts bragging that he has the latest Xbox. And brag he does to anyone and everyone who will listen. And the teacher seems to be fine with this bragging taking up class time. Jessie wants justice. So she serves him with papers. These "fake" legal papers tell him he has to arrive in court on Friday after-school for his trial by his peers. Jessie assigns roles to her classmates. Her brother, Evan, is the plaintiff. She is his lawyer. Scott is the defendant. Megan is Scott's lawyer. Twelve of their classmates become jurors; six boys, six girls, I believe. David a boy that isn't particularly friendly with either Scott or Evan is chosen to be judge. The rest of the class will be the audience. Jessie takes this trial very seriously. If Scott is found guilty, he will "have" to give up his new Xbox. If Scott is found innocent, then Jessie and Evan will have to apologize in front of everyone.

It's obvious that The Lemonade Crime has a theme of justice. Two kids who feel they were wronged want justice, they want a wrong to be righted. They imagine how sweet it will be to prove Scott to be a liar and a thief in front of everyone. Holding onto this anger, however, is changing Jessie and Evan.

There is also a not-so-subtle, but oh-so-pleasant theme of forgiveness in this novel. This is first hinted at when Jessie notes that Saturday will be Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Several of Evan's friends are Jewish. Several of his friends come to him privately and ask forgiveness for things they did previously. Evan lets this resonate and he begins to reflect. I really liked this turn of events.

I definitely enjoyed this second book in the series.


© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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12. The Bell Bandit (2012)

The Bell Bandit. Jacqueline Davies. (Lemonade War #3) 2012. HMH. 192 pages. [Source: Library]

The Bell Bandit is the third book in the Lemonade War Series. The novel opens with Evan, Jessie, and their mom going to Grandma's house to celebrate the holidays--New Years, to be precise. In the Lemonade Crime, Davies hinted that Grandma's memory was declining. She sent Jessie two copies of Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper. In the subsequent four months or so, things have gotten so much worse! Though I suspect the mom was a bit clueless at how much her mom had lost already.

Jessie and Evan are a bit confused as to WHY their Grandma burned the kitchen down. She'd always been a good cook before. Yet here Grandma was burning holes in walls, ceilings, and floors. And not remembering doing it. Blaming others. But even more disturbing to Evan and Jessie is Grandma forgetting them. Sometimes she remembers Jessie but not Evan. She can be quite cruel and want "that strange boy" to go away, to leave, that she doesn't like him or want him around. Sometimes she forgets Jessie too. Jessie who has always had a hard time reading people, understanding emotions and making solid connections, is truly confused by it all.

By far, this is the most serious the series has gotten. The book deals very honestly with the subject. But. It has its lighter moments. In The Bell Bandit, Jessie teams up with a neighbor, Maxwell (he likes to call himself Maxwell Smart), to solve the mystery of who stole the neighborhood bell. That mystery, of course, is solved by the end.

I continue to like Evan and Jessie. The mom continues to not enter into the story very much. Evan seems to be placed in several awkward moments where he's almost given full responsibility for watching and handling his Grandma. I'm not sure if the mom is truly failing to understand her mom's true condition OR if she's just not very bright. But Evan finds these situations overwhelming because Grandma, as much as he LOVES her, is more than he can handle.
© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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13. Review of the Day: Greenglass House by Kate Milford

Greenglass Review of the Day: Greenglass House by Kate MilfordGreenglass House
By Kate Milford
Clarion Books (an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
$17.99
ISBN: 978-0-544-05270-3
Ages 9-12
On shelves August 26th

When I was a kid I had a real and abiding love of Agatha Christie. This would be around the time when I was ten or eleven. It wasn’t that I was rejecting the mysteries of the children’s book world. I just didn’t have a lot to choose from there. Aside from The Westing Game or supernatural ghostly mysteries sold as Apple paperbacks through the Scholastic Book Fair, my choices were few and far between. Kids today have it better, but not by much. Though the Edgar Awards for best mystery fiction do dedicate an award for young people’s literature, the number of honestly good mystery novels for the 9-12 set you encounter in a given year is minimal. When you find one that’s really extraordinary you want to hold onto it. And when it’s Kate Milford doing the writing, there’s nothing for it but to enjoy the ride. A raconteur’s delight with a story that’ll keep ‘em guessing, this is one title you won’t want to miss.

It was supposed to be winter vacation. Though Milo’s parents run an inn with a clientele that tends to include more than your average number of smugglers, he can always count on winter vacation to be bereft of guests. Yet in spite of the awful icy weather, a guest appears. Then another. Then two more. All told more than five guests appear with flimsy excuses for their arrival. Some seem to know one another. Others act suspiciously. And when thefts start to take place, Milo and his new friend Meddy decide to turn detective. Yet even as they unravel clues about their strange clientele there are always new ones to take their places. Someone is sabotaging the Greenglass House but it’s the kids who will unmask the culprit.

To my mind, Milford has a talent that few authors can boast; She breaks unspoken rules. Rules that have been dutifully followed by children’s authors for years on end. And in breaking them, she creates stronger books. Greenglass House is just the latest example. To my mind, three rules are broken here. Rule #1: Children’s books must mostly be about children. Adults are peripheral to the action. Rule #2: Time periods are not liquid. You cannot switch between them willy-nilly. Rule #3: Parents must be out of the picture. Kill ‘em off or kidnap them or make them negligent/evil but by all means get rid of them! To each of these, Milford thumbs her proverbial nose.

Let’s look at Rule #1 first. It is worth noting that with the exception of our two young heroes, the bulk of the story focuses on adults with adult problems. It has been said (by me, so take this with a grain of salt) that by and large the way most authors chose to write about adults for children is to turn them into small furry animals (Redwall, etc.). There is, however, another way. If you have a small innocuous child running hither and thither, gathering evidence and spying all the while, then you can talk about grown-ups for long periods of time and few child readers are the wiser. If I keep mentioning The Westing Game it’s because Ellen Raskin did very much what Milford is doing here, and ended up with a classic children’s book in the process. So there’s certainly a precedent.

On to Rule #2. One of the remarkable things about Kate Milford as a writer is that she can set a book in the present day (there is a mention of televisions in this book, so we can at least assume it’s relatively recent) and then go and fill it with archaic, wonderful, outdated technology. A kind of alternate contemporary steampunk, if there is such a thing. In an era of electronic doodads, child readers are going to really get a kick out of a book where mysterious rusted keys, old doorways, ancient lamps, stained green glass windows, and other old timey elements give the book a distinctive flavor.

Finally, Rule #3. This was the most remarkable of choices on Milford’s part, and I kept reading to book to find out how she’d get away with it. Milo’s parents are an active part of his life. They clearly care for him, periodically checking up on his throughout the story, but never interfering with his investigations. Since the book is entirely set in the Greenglass House, it has the feel of a stage play (which, by the way, it would adapt to BRILLIANTLY). That means you’re constantly running into mom and dad, but they don’t feel like they’re hovering. This is partly aided by the fact that they’re incredibly busy. So, in a way, Milford has discovered a way of removing parental involvement without removing parental care. The kids are free to explore and solve crimes and the adult gatekeepers reading this book are comforted by the family situation. A rarity if ever there was one.

But behind all the clues and ghost stories and thefts and lies what Greenglass House really is is the story of a hero’s journey. Milo starts out a soft-spoken kiddo with little faith in his own abilities. Donning the mantle of a kind of Dungeons & Dragons type character named Negret, he taps into a strength that he might otherwise not known he even had. There is a moment in the book when Milo starts acting with more confidence and actually thinks to himself, “And I didn’t even have to use Negret’s Irresistible Blandishment . . . I just did it.” Milo’s slow awakening to his own strengths and abilities is the heart of the novel. For all that people will discuss the mystery and the clues, it’s Milo that holds everything together.

Much of his personality is embedded in his identity as an adopted kid too. I love the mention of “orphan magic” that Milford makes at one point. It’s the idea that when something is sundered from its attachments it becomes more powerful in the process. At no point does Milford ever downplay the importance of the fact that Milo is adopted. It isn’t a casual fact that’s thrown in there and then forgotten. For Milo, the fact that he was adopted is part of who he is as a person. And coming to terms with that is part of his journey as well. Little wonder that he gathers such comfort from learning about orphan magic and its potential.

I’m looking at my notes about this book and I see I’ve written down little random facts that don’t really fit in with this review. Things like, “I did wonder if Milo’s name was a kind of unspoken homage to the Milo of The Phantom Tollbooth. And, “The book’s attitude towards smuggling is not all that different from, say, Danny, the Champion of the World’s attitude towards poaching.” And, “I love the vocabulary at work here. Raconteur. Puissance.” There is a lot a person can say about this book. I should note that there is a twist that a couple kids may see coming. It is, however, a fair twist and one that doesn’t cheat before you get to it. For the most part, Milford does a divine job at writing a darned good mystery without sacrificing character development and deeper truths. A great grand book for those kiddos who like reading books that make them feel smart. Fun fun fun fun fun.

On shelves August 26th.

Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.

Like This? Then Try:

First Sentence: “There is a right way to do things and a wrong way, if you’re going to run a hotel in a smugglers’ town.”

Professional Reviews:

Interviews: Milford reveals all with The Enchanted Inkpot.

Misc:

  • In lieu of an Author’s Note, Kate provides some background information on Milo and adoption that is worthy additional reading here.
  • Cover artist Jaime Zollars discusses being selected to illustrate the book jacket here.
  • Discover how the book came from a writing prompt here.

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14. Map. It's What's For Work Today.


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15. The Lightning Dreamer (2013)

The Lightning Dreamer. Margarita Engle. 2013. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 182 pages.

Books are door-shaped
portals
carrying me
across oceans
and centuries,
helping me feel
less alone.

But my mother believes
that girls who read too much
are unladylike
and ugly,
so my father's books are locked
in a clear glass cabinet. I gaze
at enticing covers
and mysterious titles,
but I am rarely permitted
to touch
the enchantment 
of words. (3)

I definitely enjoy Margarita Engle's verse novels. Her newest is a verse novel about Cuban abolitionist poet, Gertrudis Gomez de Avellaneda, who was nicknamed Tula. For a young girl--a young woman--who dreamed so big, wanted so much, her environment was quite oppressive. Her family wanted, NEEDED, her to marry well. But. Tula had different ideas. She held onto the notion that she could have ideas of her own:

Girls are not supposed to think,
but as soon as my eager mind
begins to race, free thoughts
rush in
to replace
the trapped ones. (4)

 Tula discovers a whole new world within the convent library, and once she begins her journey, there will be no dissuading her...

Opinions.
Ideas.
Possibilities.
So many!
How can I choose?
Between bursts
of lightning-swift energy,
I enjoy peaceful moment
when the whole world
seems to be a flowing river
of verse
and all I have to do is learn
how to swim.
During those times,
I find it so easy to forget
that I'm just a girl who is expected
to live
without thoughts. (41)

The novel is rich and descriptive. I love the writing...

"I feel certain that words
can be as human 
as people,
alive
with the breath
of compassion." (26)

So many people 
have not yet learned
that souls have no color
and can never
be owned. (69)


Love is as tricky as a wall
of mirrors that make
narrow hallways
seem open
and wide. (146)

I would definitely recommend this one! 

Read The Lightning Dreamer
  • If you enjoy verse novels
  • If you enjoy historical novels based on real people and events
  • If you enjoy Margarita Engle's works
  • If you are looking for YA books set in Cuba

© 2013 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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16. More New Maps






























I love getting things in the mail. These arrived recently– maps for an ongoing series of books about the USA for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. More states to come!

(Hairy Little Assistant #1 likes to read.)

4 Comments on More New Maps, last added: 4/8/2013
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17. The Little Prince (1943)

The Little Prince. Antoine de Saint-Exupery. 1943/2013. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 112 pages.

The Little Prince is unique and delightfully odd. A pilot crashes in the desert and meets a strange 'little prince.' They have many conversations together over the course of a week. These conversations make up the heart of The Little Prince. It's a quick little read. I am glad I read it.

Favorite quotes:
"It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”
“All grown-ups were once children... but only few of them remember it.”
“But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world.”
Read The Little Prince
  • If you enjoy children's classics
  • If you enjoy beautiful writing
  • If you like quirky, unique stories
  • If you like reading books in translation

© 2013 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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18. Rereading Grave Mercy (2012)

Grave Mercy. Robin LaFevers. 2012. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 560 pages.

Last summer, I reviewed Robin LaFevers' Grave Mercy. It was LOVE. To sum up Grave Mercy in many words: Politics. Romance. Drama. Dysfunctional Families. Poison. Murder. Betrayal. Mystery. Suspense. To sum it up in just two: assassin nuns. The novel is set in Brittany in the late 1480s.

Ismae, our heroine, is one of Death's handmaidens. She's a trained assassin, trained by a convent of nuns dedicating their lives to serving St. Mortain (Death). The nuns are loyal to the Duchess of Brittany, and the victims are often her political enemies--foreign or domestic--those that pose the greatest threat to Brittany's independence.

While we do see her first few jobs carried out, most of the novel focuses on one job in particular. The abbess wants her to team up with Duval, the Duchess' older brother and her most trusted friend and advisor. She's to pose as his mistress, and travel with him to the Duchess' household. There she will "help him" find any possible traitors...

I wanted to reread Grave Mercy because the second novel in the series, Dark Triumph, is releasing soon. I thought the second novel would read better if I took the time to reread the first novel. And I think this was very beneficial. Especially since this is a novel heavy in politics. While I read Grave Mercy in one night the first time, I took my time for the reread. I think I was better able to absorb the politics at a slower pace. I was able to focus more on the minor characters as well. The first time, it was ALL about the romance--that was the only thing I cared about. This time, I was able to appreciate the story as a whole.

Read Grave Mercy

  • If you're a fan of Robin LaFevers
  • If you're a fan of historical romance, with a fantasy feel to it (mythology/supernatural)
  • Also if you're a fan of mystery/suspense/political thrillers
© 2013 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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19. Review of the Day: The Meanest Birthday Girl by Josh Schneider

MeanestBirthday1 333x500 Review of the Day: The Meanest Birthday Girl by Josh SchneiderThe Meanest Birthday Girl
By Josh Schneider
Clarion Books (an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
$14.99
ISBN: 978-0-547-83814-4
Ages 6-9
On shelves now.

Life is easier when you can categorize it. When you can slot it in a distinct category and reduce everything to black and white terms. Gray is problematic and messy, after all. This type of thinking certainly applies to how people learn how to read. If you’re a library you separate your written fiction into five distinct locations: Baby & Board Books, Picture Books, Easy Readers, Early Chapter Books, and Middle Grade Fiction. Easy peasy. Couldn’t be simpler. And it would be an absolutely perfect system if, in fact, that was how humans actually learned how to read. Wouldn’t it be great if you could make mental leaps in difficulty from one book to another with sublime ease? Yet the fact of the matter is that for all that “leveling” a collection or trying to systematically give each book a Lexile reading level makes life easier for the folks who don’t want to bother to read the books themselves, it’s not so hotso for the kiddos. Not everything written in this world can be easily summarized. For this very reason I like books that don’t slot well. That are neither fish nor fowl. And I particularly like extraordinary books that fall into this category. Behold, then, the magnificent The Meanest Birthday Girl. Simple, straightforward, and smart as all get out, it’s too long for an easy book, too short for an early chapter book, and entirely the wrong size for a picture book. In other words, perfect.

As Dana sees it, birthdays are great for one particular reason. “It was Dana’s birthday and she could do whatever she liked.” Fortunately we’re dealing with a young kid here, so Dana’s form of Bacchanalian abandon pretty much just boils down to eating waffles for breakfast and dinner, showing off her birthday dress, and torturing fellow student Anthony. So it’s with not a little surprise that Dana finds at the end of the day that Anthony has shown up on her stoop with the world’s greatest birthday present. There, in the gleam of the house lights, stands a white elephant with pink toenails and a pink bow. Dana is elated and thinks that this is the best gift a gal could receive. It isn’t until she spends a little time with her white elephant gift that she begins to understand not just what a jerk she’s been, but how to spread the elephant “love” to those who need it the most.

MeanestBirthday2 Review of the Day: The Meanest Birthday Girl by Josh SchneiderI’ll confess to you right here and now that sometimes when I’m reviewing a book I find it helpful to look at the professional reviews so that I can nail down exactly WHY it is I like such n’ such a book. I mean, I liked the art and the story and the characters here, sure. But what I really liked was what the book was trying to say. Small difficulty: I’m not entirely certain what that was. Is this a book about the selflessness of parenthood or is the elephant a metaphor of unchecked desires? So I turned to the professionals. PW said the book “both makes amends and pays it forward”. SLJ eschewed any complex interpretations just saying that this was “more a story about a girl and her pet than it is about birthday shenanigans”. The Horn Book Guide (the book didn’t even rate a proper Horn Book review) found the message confusing while Kirkus gave the book a star and saw the elephant as simply a delivery system for a lesson about kindness. None of these really do the plot justice, though. I sympathize with Horn Book Guide’s confusion, but I disagree that the message doesn’t make any sense. It just requires the reader to dig a little deeper than your average Goosebumps novel.

Here’s how I figure it. Dana’s mean. She’s given an elephant (I love the idea that Anthony, the victim, may have previously been himself a pretty nasty customer to have had the elephant in the first place). The elephant demands constant attention, but subtly. It could just be Dana’s projections of what the elephant wants that undo her. That means she’s capable of empathy, which in turn leads to her feeling bad for what she did to Anthony. And then much of why this book works as well as it does has to do with the fact that the elephant isn’t, itself, a bully. If it were then the message of the book would be pounded into your skull like a hammer on a nail. Far better then that this particular elephant is just quietly insistent. It isn’t incapable of emotion, mind you. I was particularly pleased with the look of intense concentration on its face as it attempts to ride Dana’s rapidly crumpling bicycle. The slickest elephant moment in the book visually is when its trunk makes a sly play for Dana’s sandwich when she falls asleep under a tree, but the last image as the elephant stands in front of its new owner is of equal note. There you’ll see its trunk making the gentlest of movements towards the girl’s slice of birthday cake. It doesn’t take a Nostradamus to know that that’s the last the girl will ever see of her cake from here on in.

MeanestBirthday3 314x500 Review of the Day: The Meanest Birthday Girl by Josh SchneiderIt was the PW review that probably did the best job of honing in on what makes this book special. Said they, the author “serves justice, [and] subtly (and quite cleverly) lets readers see another side to Dana …” That’s not something that occurred to me on an early reading but it’s entirely true. You meet Dana, her head resembling nothing so much in shape and size as those birthday balloons on the cover, and she does unlikable thing after unlikable thing. Then she gives up everything she has, from sandwiches to her bike, for a pachyderm. Kids may not make an immediate leap in logic between what Dana does and what they themselves sometimes have to do (willingly or unwillingly) for their little siblings, but it’s there. Schneider’s best move, however, is to show Dana being teased by a fellow classmate. Nothing cranks up the sympathy vote quite like someone suffering at the hands of another. Hence, by the time Dana formally apologizes to Anthony we’re completely Team Dana.

The art is all done in a simple execution of pen, ink, colored pencil, and watercolor. All of Schneider’s kids look like escapees from “L’il Orphan Annie” comic strips. They sport the same pupil-less eyes. Normally eyes without pupils are downright scary in some fashion, but Schneider shrinks them down so that they’re little more than incredibly expressive Os. Eyebrows go a long way towards conveying emotion anyway (the shot of Anthony raising one very cross eyebrow as Dana systematically nabs his cupcake is fantastic). Because Schneider’s books all have a tendency to look the same (Tales for Very Picky Eaters looks like The Meanest Birthday Girl looks like Princess Sparkle-Heart Gets a Makeover, etc.) there’s a temptation to discount him. Resist that urge. His is a star that is rising with rocket-like rapidity. I see great things for this guy. Great things.

The age level for this will cause no end of sorrow amongst the cataloging masses. I don’t care. The same could have been said for Sadie and Ratz (another preternaturally smart early early chapter book with a psychological base worth remembering) and a host of other books out there. What it all boils down to is the fact that The Meanest Birthday Girl is one of the rare books that makes for really intelligent fare. Odd? Certainly. But it’s willing to go places and do things that most books for kids in the 6-9 age range don’t dare. Not everyone will get what it’s trying to do. And not everyone deserves to. One of the best of 2013, bar none.

On shelves now.

Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.

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20. Year of the Baby (2013)

The Year of the Baby. Andrea Cheng. Illustrated by Patrice Barton. 2013. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 176 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Anna and her friends are back for a second adventure. The Year of the Baby is mainly focused on two things: Anna's new adopted (all the way) from China baby sister AND the fact that their class is participating in a science fair. When Anna's baby sister fails to thrive and starts losing weight, Anna decides her science project will be her baby sister. She teams up with her two best friends and they start their ongoing project. All the adults in her life (her parents, her teacher, the pediatrician) all act as if Anna and her friends "save the day." This bothered me. It's one thing to say "good job," or "great idea" and quite another to say it is because of YOU that the baby has gained several pounds. When the experiment only focuses on one snack of each day, and that snack consists of a handful of banana slices or pieces of Chinese burgers. That one snack is just a fraction of the meals and snacks (or feedings) consumed in a day. And most of the daily calories are coming from the other meals that have nothing to do with the experiment or observation. The experiment was fun and playful and a great chance to bond, but, I'm not convinced that it "saved the day." (The bonding might have led the baby to feel happier and more secure in her new home which might help overall in her health.)

I really wanted to love The Year of the Baby. I definitely enjoyed reading Year of the Book. However, I have hesitations about The Year of the Baby; my hesitations are about the science experiment or science fair.

© 2013 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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21. Middle Ground (2012)

Middle Ground. Katie Kacvinsky. 2012. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 336 pages. [Source: Review Copy]

Middle Ground is the sequel to Awaken. Maddie, our heroine, has had her one last chance to conform. So when she brings attention to herself in L.A. by speaking out against virtual school, she ends up in a detention center; her sentence is for six months. Most of the novel focuses on the detention center, and on how corrupt the system is. Will Maddie survive the torturous rehabilitation process?! Can she hold onto who she is and what she believes in most?

I really have enjoyed this series of books. I liked Kacvinsky's focus on the dangers of technology and addiction. It isn't that technology is bad if used responsibly, but, it can be so addictive. In this future world, technology is used to keep the populace content and conformable--to keep them from thinking, questioning, and possibly rebelling.

There is a romance, but, to me this is a secondary story almost.

© 2013 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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22. Two Picture Books Turning Ten

This is The Baby. Candace Fleming. Illustrated by Maggie Smith. 2004. FSG. 40 pages. [Source: Book I Own]

This is the baby who hates to be dressed.
"No! No! Nooo!"
This is the diaper, often a mess, that goes on the baby who hates to be dressed.
"No! No! Nooo!"
This is the T-shirt, wrinkled a lot, that snaps over the diaper, often a mess, that goes on the baby who hates to be dressed.
"No! No! Nooo!"
This is the sweater, itchy and hot, that covers the T-shirt, wrinkled a lot, that snaps over the diaper, often a mess, that goes on the baby who hates to be dressed.
"No! No! Nooo!"
These are the jeans, stiff in the knee....

I love this one. I do. I like true picture books. Stories that reflect every day situations and struggles, stories that look at life realistically. The book is also fun and playful. I also like picture books that are repetitive or that have refrains, making it easy for little ones to join in during the reading.

In This is the Baby, readers meet one stubborn mother and one just-as-stubborn baby. Who will win the battle?!

This one has a good twist on it, a bit predictable perhaps, but still fun! I would definitely recommend this one to parents who have little ones who like to wiggle and giggle free and undressed...

Text: 5 out of 5
Illustrations: 4 out of 5
Total: 9 out of 10

Dig! Andrea Zimmerman and David Clemesha. Illustrated by Marc Rosenthal. 2004. Harcourt. 32 pages. [Source: Book I Own]

Mr. Rally drives a big yellow backhoe. It has a scooper and a pusher. Mr. Rally loves to dig in the dirt. So does his dog, Lightning. Mr. Rally buckles his overalls and pulls on his boots. He has five big digging jobs to do today. He counts them. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Job #1 up ahead. One is a bridge on the ridge. 

Dig is a fun picture book that I really enjoy. Readers meet Mr. Rally and his dog, Lightning.

Readers see the two get excited about digging in the dirt. This one has a repeating refrain: "Dig up rock and dig up clay! Dig up dirt and dig all day!" This refrain is repeated at all five jobs, as is the congratulating refrain of "Good job, Mr. Rally! Good job, Lighting!" 

After a long day of work, you might think Mr. Rally would want to go home and relax. And he does, in his own way, I suppose. But at the end of his day, Mr. Rally can still be found digging alongside Lightning. He loves to dig for work and play, of course. He loves to dig at home in his garden.

Text: 4 out of 5
Illustrations: 4 out of 5
Total: 8 out of 10

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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23. Six Board Books

Toot. Leslie Patricelli. 2014. Candlewick Press. 24 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Toot
Oh.
I tooted!
Toot
Toot
Toot
I'm a train!

I love, love, love Leslie Patricelli's baby board books. I do. There are so many to choose from: Yummy Yucky; Baby Happy, Baby Sad; Quiet Loud; Huggy Kissy; Potty; Tubby; Faster! Faster!; Higher! Higher!; No No Yes Yes; The Birthday Box; Big Little; Blankie; Binky; Fa La La. It would be hard to choose a true favorite. Because there is something about each one that has again, again kid appeal. There's not much to say about Toot, one of the newest books. "I don't know if Kitty toots or if Fishy toots. But I KNOW Doggy toots." AND "I toot in the tubby. It's so bubbly!" This one probably won't be a favorite with me. But I don't think I'm the target audience!

Tickle. Leslie Patricelli. 2014. Candlewick Press. 26 pages. [Source: Review copy]

I am not ticklish!
Grrr
Uh-oh.
TICKLE MONSTER!
Weeee!
Eeek!
Ahhhh!
Gotcha!
I am NOT ticklish!
Except for my legs!

I said earlier that it would be hard to choose a true favorite by Leslie Patricelli. Tickle comes closest perhaps to being a favorite of mine. I ADORE this one. I do. I love, love, love it. It's fun and playful. I think it has great again-again-again appeal! I think there are people who love to be tickle, and people who love to BE tickled. I think this appeals to both!

A Birthday for Cow. Jan Thomas. 2008/2014. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 36 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Today is Cow's birthday...
Toot!
Yippee!
Pig and Mouse are going to make Cow the best birthday cake ever!
They put flour and sugar and eggs in a big bowl.
And a TURNIP?
No, Duck. We will not put in a turnip.

I love Jan Thomas. Like Leslie Patricelli, she's one of my favorite, favorite writers for young children. I adore her books. Probably my favorite, favorite is IS EVERYONE READY FOR FUN? I also enjoy Rhyming Dust Bunnies. Those two along with Birthday for Cow are among my favorites. I am so pleased that A Birthday for Cow is now available in board book format.

In A Birthday for Cow, readers meet Cow, Pig, Mouse, and Duck. Pig, Mouse, and Duck are going to surprise Cow with a birthday cake. They are hard at work. Duck is not helping. Duck is a distraction. A big distraction. Finally the cake is ready to give to Cow. How will Cow react?! Will this be the BEST BIRTHDAY EVER?!

I love the humor! I love the illustrations! It's just fun and playful.

Can You Say It, Too? Moo! Moo! With BIG Flaps to Lift! Sebastien Braun. 2014. Candlewick Press. 10 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Who's that in the barn?
It's a friendly cow!
Moo! Moo!

Who's that behind the bucket?
It's a noisy rooster!
Cock-a-doodle-doo!

Lift the flap books can be fun. Farm books can be fun. So this seems like an easy choice for parents with little ones. It's simple. Very simple. The emphasis is on the sounds farm animals make. I'm not sure it's unique enough to be a WOW book. Personally, my FAVORITE book in this sub-genre is Pig-a-Boo! by Dorothea DePrisco published by Simon & Schuster. It has flaps and is also a touch-and-feel book. Do you have a favorite farm animal book for little ones?

Can You Say It, Too? Woof! Woof! With BIG flaps to Lift! Sebastien Braun. 2014. Candlewick Press. 10 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Who's that behind the gate?
It's a friendly dog.
Woof! Woof!

Who's that beside the flower pots?
It's a playful cat.
Meow! Meow!

 Does your little one love to make animal sounds? Does your little one love to lift flaps in books? Then this new series in the Nosy Crow line might be a good match. Woof! Woof! and Moo! Moo! are two books in a new series called "Can You Say It, Too?" Both books are very simple and quite adequate.

B is for Bulldozer: A Construction ABC. June Sobel. Illustrated by Melissa Iwai. 2003/2013. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 32 pages. [Source: Review copy]

Do you see the Asphalt for paving the road,
or the big shiny Bulldozer pushing a load?
I see a Crane way up high in the sky,
and a rusty red Dump truck rumbling by.
Here comes an Excavator to dig a huge hole.
Nearby there's a Forklift hauling a pole.
Let's look for the Grader on the roadbed,
and a man with a Hard hat protecting his head.
I spy an I beam made out of steel,
and a Jackhammer making a noise you can feel.

I was impressed by June Sobel's B is for Bulldozer. Most alphabet books--though not all alphabet books--"teach" the alphabet but fail to tell a larger story. B is for Bulldozer is clearly an alphabet book, but, it is also an entertaining story TOLD IN RHYME. An amusement park is being built. It takes about a year from start of construction to opening day, but for curious children watching the action (from afar) it is a delight! By the end, the children are ready to ZOOM on the roller coaster.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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24. Independent Study (2014)

Independent Study. Joelle Charbonneau. 2014. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 320 pages. [Source: Library]

Independent Study was an interesting read. I had just reread The Testing, and it was nice to be able to jump right into this story without feeling lost. Cia herself still feels lost at times because her memory of the actual testing is gone. True, she was wise enough to hide clues for her future clueless self, but, having clues--even good, strong clues--aren't quite the same as vivid memories of the horrific past. Essentially, six months have passed, I believe, and the students are getting ready to be tested again, they'll be placed into special training preparing them for future careers. They do not get to pick their "majors." They will take the classes and internships chosen for them by authorities, all for the common good of the future, of course. Most of the characters from the first novel are absent from most of Independent Study. Cia and Tomas are separated by different career paths now. Will and Cia are on the same career path--government--but even Will only has a handful of scenes in the novel. A character that some might consider minor in The Testing, plays a bigger role in the second novel: Michal. He clues Cia in on her past and gives her hope for the present and the future. What if there was a way to abolish "The Testing."

Independent Study is all about Cia seeking to discover the inner-leader inside that is strong and brave and wise and true. Is Cia a great character? Are any of the characters "great"? I'm not sure. I'm not sure that 'liking' most of the characters in a novel is a requirement for it being an entertaining read. I wanted to know what happened next.

© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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25. Hero (2013)

Hero. (Woodcutter Sisters #2). Alethea Kontis. 2013. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 304 pages. [Source: Review copy]

At first, I thought I might have found Hero so very, very confusing because it's been two years since I read Enchanted. And then I reread my review of Enchanted. I found Enchanted just as confusing it seems! So even if I read these two close together, I might not have made sense of this crazy fairy-tale-esque world.

The Woodcutter Family is something, magically, crazily dysfunctional perhaps? Hero stars two of the seven sisters and a brother, Trix. Readers get a glimpse of Thursday (the pirate sibling). But this is not Thursday's tale to tell. This is Saturday's story almost start to finish. But it isn't her story alone. It also belongs to Peregrine. Here is the least confusing part that will still sound confusing:

Peregrine is a boy under enchantment to look like a girl; the witch's daughter is a role he plays and has played for many years. I'm not sure what is enchantment and what is just acting on his part, assuming a disguise that he can put on and take off at will.

Saturday is a girl under enchantment to look like her older brother, Jack. Now how the witch casts the spell to make Saturday look like Jack is beyond me. The spell was intended to bring Jack to her. She wants REVENGE. Jack blinded her.

Somehow Peregrine can see past the enchantment and see the real Saturday. And Saturday learns Peregrine's identity early on as well. I can't remember if she sees the real him, or the enchanted girl. Regardless, these two are destined to fall in love.

They meet, of course, because both are trapped by the oh-so-evil blind witch who can't seem to get her magic to function right. She's just capable enough to be thought a possible risk to life-as-we-know it. But not capable enough that there's a rush to bring her down immediately.

Anyway, the whole book is confusing and messy. It had its moments where I could see why it would be appealing to readers. But it didn't work for me.
© 2014 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

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