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I have raved many times before about the Dragonbreath books by Ursula Vernon. They are my default recommendation for books to give the child who is betwixt and between easy readers and longer books--generous font size, heavy on graphic panels that advance the story (although less so as the series progresses), both girl and boy friendly, and funny as heck. And they are also perfect for giving to your picky 12 year old reader, because they aren't at all patronizing/condescending, so older readers can enjoy them too, and it is so nice to see said picky reader reading a book cover to cover grinning his head off.
So book 8, Nightmare of the Iguana, is out now, and we get to meet Suki, the smart and sarcastic ex-Ninja gecko, again! Yay! It is especially nice for Wendell, the geeky young iguana, because they kind of fancy each other. Except that Wendell is being plagued by horrible nightmares, with potentially disastrous consequences...and to save him, Danny Dragonbreath and Suki must venture into his unconscious mind...a strange and terrible place....
I probably grinned as much reading it as my twelve year old. I think Curse of the Were-Wiener is still my favorite, but this one was lots of fun.
And the next book is on its way, in which Danny, Wendell, and their friend-who-is-a girl [sic] must hunt down mutant thieves, in The Case of the Toxic Mutants, coming Sept. 1..... I hope we get to meet the potato salad again (it's my favorite living potato salad of all time).
Mal and Chad--The Biggest, Bestest Time Ever!, a graphic novel by Stephen McCranie, is one whose kid appeal is tremendous--my nine year old pounced on it, read it in a single sitting, and it disappeared for several weeks into the circle of his reading friends at school (which includes both boys and girls), who all liked it lots (it's perfect for nine year olds). When I finally got it back, I enjoyed it very much myself!
Mal (short for Malcolm) is a kid genius who's determined to keep his super intelligence a secret--he doesn't want to be sent off to college. So he builds his rocket ship and time machines off in the woods, works hard on answering questions in school with age appropriate language, and tries to keep it a secret that Chad, his very cute dog, has been taught to talk.
A class assignment on "What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up" inspires Mal to use his time machine (a modified elevator) to travel back to the time of the dinosaurs to see if he wants to become a paleontologist (although the author says archaeologist....a pet peeve of mine). The machine works, and Mal and Chad encounter dinos--including a very sweet baby--and they return unscathed, sort of. The elevator gets charged by a dino right as they are leaving, and crash lands in a vacant lot.
The self-proclaimed smart boy of Mal's class sees it, and figures out it's a time machine---and uses it...with disastrous results. A hole is ripped in space-time, and unless Mal can set things right, the girl he's crushing on will be trapped with the dinos forever...
It is a good, amusing, story with tremendously engaging characters. Chad is now one of my favorite fictional dogs; though I myself am not a dog person, I could not resist the cuteness of his puppy eyes pleading expression (used very effectively on Mal to let him play with the baby dinosaur). The dynamics of school life are also rather appealingly presented--Mal's struggles to appear normal, and his struggle to get the attention of the girl he's crushing on are rather moving.
I will be buying the next two Mal and Chad stories for Christmas presents, with perfect confidence that they will be welcomed and enjoyed.
Scary School, by Derek the Ghost, illustrated by Scott M. Fisher (HarperCollins, 2011, upper elementary/middle grade, 256 pages)
Derek is not your usual school boy narrator, and Scary School, as its name suggests, isn't your typical intitution of learning.
"Last year when I was just eleven years old," [he explains], "I died in science class. On of Mr. Acidbath's experiments went horribly wrong (more about that later), but things like that happen all the time at Scary School, so nobody made a big fuss about it. right after class they simply wheeled out my charred corpse, ad the next class walked in without so much as blink. Scary School is a very strange place." (pp xii-xiii).
But Derek doesn't let death stop his development as a writer. He is determined to document all the very strange and scary things that happen at his school...and so he does, in a primarily episodic way.
There are, for instance, the teachers and staff--a collection of magically monstrous beings who make learning special, if you survive. Like Ms. Fang, an 850-year-old vampire, who only ate 12 kids last year, and Dr. Dragonbreath, whose track record for death is higher than that of any other teacher--it's almost impossible not to break his class rules, and rule-breakers don't walk out of class alive. And the students are a fascinatingly eclectic mix of the fantastic and the ordinary humans. The picture at the right, from the Scary School website, shows the nurse's office....
Derek is a somewhat distant narrator, providing a framing device more than being a complete character in his own right, and to a large extent the book is a series of vignettes, with the chapters focusing on different characters and events. Some narrative continuity is provided by the arrival of a new student- Charles "New Kid" Nukid, and his struggles to make sense of his new environment, and by the headmistresses excitement over the school's chance to host the annual Ghoul Games. If her students do well, her experiment of allowing humans into a scary school will be deemed a success...if they do badly, they die.
Despite all the deaths, it's light-hearted and silly fun, the sort of book that may well make a nine (or so) year old laugh out loud. Any kid who is drawn to the cover will love the book! And though I myself prefer more character-centered narrative, I can see this working very well for slower readers, who won't have to worry about loosing the thread of the story.
Ti-Jean is the French Canadian hero of many a tall tale. Sometimes he seems simple, sometimes wise, but always he ends up on top! At least I assume he does--I'd heard of him before today, but the three stories re-told here are the first I've ever experienced him for myself.
It was a fine introduction! Ti-Jean and the Princess of Tomboso gives a fine twist to the story of three brothers inheriting magical gifts, Ti-Jean and the Marble Player is a lovely Impossible Task story, and How Ti-Jean Became a Fiddler is, best of all, an only faintly familiar Simple Lad Wins Princess tale.
Andrews is careful to emphasize the French-Canadian setting and history, adding to the charm and interest of the tales. Living in a part of New England where many French Canadian families toiled in the mills (there are many grandparents who still speak a bit of French, and are called Meme and Pepe), it feels to me like this book fills an important cultural gap. There just aren't that many fun, friendly kids' books in my local library about French Canadians (at least I can't think of any).
I found her writing to be spot on--clearly it's fairy tale language, but avoids being stilted or forced. I liked it that, even though Ti-Jean is the third brother, the older brothers aren't too unkind, and, being a mother, I liked very much that Ti-Jean in the third story appreciated his own mama lots! And his success in this story comes in large part from having practiced, at his mama's side, the domestic arts.
There are also pictures (and now I have to go back and actually look at them, because I was so busy reading, as usual, they didn't register. Except for the one where the princess in the first story grows a magical long nose.* That was hard to miss)....Having now looked at the pictures--black and white, drawn in a relaxed and playful way, I can now say with conviction that they seem just fine to me.
I'd be very happy to read more of stories of Ti-Jean, if Jan Andrews should be so kind...
*I thought, from the title, that an apple would end up with a nose. Not so! The apple is the agent of nose-growth....
When last we saw our heroes, George and Harold, they were on their way to jail...but then Tippy Tinkletrousers, in his gigantic pair of robotic, death-dealing pants (or at least, mega freeze powered pants) appeared out of nowhere...and the cops got iced.
But. Tippy T. wasn't supposed to have shown up just then. He wasn't supposed to have traveled backwards through time...and he wasn't supposed to have set in motion a chain of events that led to the destruction of the whole planet (!!!). Instead, Harold and George were supposed to end up in juvenile detention, and their principal, Mr. Krupp, was supposed to end up in jail. And the train of events was then going to lead to Tippy T. creating his Robo-Pants, facing off with Captain Underpants, and then fleeing back into the past....
But. Before we pick up that story, we are taken back by the author to an even earlier time--Kindergarten. And in a lovely long backstory that occupies most of the book, we get to see George and Harold becoming friends, and taking down the nasty bullies of the school with their super deluxe inventiveness and penchant for pranksterish schemes (I liked this bit. It was a good story, and there were no poop jokes).
But. The Happy Ending is disrupted by Tippy T. traveling back in time, arriving just at the point where George and Harold were about to savor their victory....bang goes the victory...but worse than that, because of this time travelling, Captain Underpants is never brought to super heroic life! All those bad guys in the earlier books get to wreck their evil havoc unopposed! The World Ends!
Can this really truly be it?
No. There's another book on its way.
This is perhaps my favorite of the Capt. Underpants books, which might not be saying a lot, cause goodness knows I am not the target audience. I did sincerely enjoy this one, though-I'm always a sucker for a good bit of backstory to characters I've already gotten a chance to know. And it wasn't as reliant on bathroom humor as other books I could name in the series.
And my boys devoured it repeatedly, as children all across our country doubtless will as well....unless, of course, a time travelling accident changes the writerly course of Dav Pilkey's past, and he decides that what he really wants to do instead of writing this one is to finish Ricky Ricotta's Giant Robot series....
The Secret of the Stone Frog, by David Nytra (Toon Books, September 11, 2012, 79 pages), is the first Toon graphic novel. The premise of Toon, for those who aren't familiar with this great line of easy readers, is to combine comic book/graphic novel style illustrations with easy to read stories. It's a wonderful idea, that resulted in some truly child-friendly books with appeal to reluctant readers and more confident ones alike.
With The Secret of the Stone Frog, Toon is moving up in age. This is a more sophisticated story than the earlier books (both word-wise and picture-wise), and it's in black and white. It's also a little scary. It tells the story of two children, Leah and Alan, who wake one night to find themselves in an enchanted forest, their beds nestled among the roots of an enormous tree. But the stone frog they meet reassure them that there is, in fact, a path home...but they must stay on it. Being children in a fantasy world, it's only to be expected that they don't. And soon they are in danger from a sinister women and her flock of enormous bees...(Ack! The woman's head is horribly, disproportionately large!)
But all is not lost. There are more stone frogs (or perhaps the same one, reappearing), and not all inhabitants of this strange land are hostile. For instance, giant rabbits give rides to the children for part of their journey, which is fun! However, the peaceful rabbit leaping doesn't last long, and the last two adventures--a train ride with passengers who look like deep sea creatures/monsters, and a turn of the century-like city of nightmarishness--were too much for my easily alarmed young mind.
So this is one that will appeal most to readers able to appreciate the somewhat dark surreal, and so I'd hesitate to give this to a younger child. The seven, eight or nine year old, though, who is busy drawing his or her own surreal pictures of dark imaginings (my own is fixated on zombie teddy bears engaged in brutal conflicts right now) might well appreciate it, especially if they are the sort to enjoy patiently exploring detailed illustrations (the flip side of which is that those who look at it and immediately want color won't make it through the book). It's not book candy for the reluctant, easily distracted reader (it's more like, perhaps, sushi for the young book gourmand), but I think that there will be child readers who will be utterly fascinated. And it has lots of cross-over, grown-up appeal too (especially for grown ups who don't want to run and hide from disproportionately large heads and scary cities).
Though the lack of color might off-put some readers. The drawings, with their intricate, fine-lined detail, are things of beauty. Anyone looking for inspiration on how to draw with pencils should study this book.
For the last hour of the Read-a-thon, I abandoned my original choices and went with something quick and easy from the general to-be-read pile: Felix Takes the Stage, by Kathryn Lasky (Scholastic, May 2010, for ages 7-9, 148 pages).
It can be hard to be a young brown recluse spider with a fondness for the arts. People tend not to want extremely venomous spiders around, and brown recluses, in general, aren't known for their beautiful webs.
But young Felix, growing up in a California concert hall, spends his evenings admiring the conductor, wanting to be part of the music...until one evening, when he gets to close to the conductor, and lets himself be seen. The conductor has a heart attack, Felix looses a leg, and the exterminators are on their way...so the spider family (mother, two older sisters, and Felix, and the god-spider theatre cat who's known the children since they were eggs) must find a new home.
The antique store nearby offers shelter, but other spiders already live there, including snooty orb weavers, the dangerous pirate spiders. It's not the place where cultured, intellectual mother spider wants her children to live. Maybe it's time to move to Boston, where there are great libraries, theaters, art galleries....maybe there Felix can find an outlet for his creative urges.
A charming spider story for the young. Older readers (like me) might find it too didactic at times--not only does the mother spider herself directly instruct her young throughout the book on various topics, there are many embedded lessons, primarily on the topic of judging people/spiders not by their venom, but by their characters. But for the young intended audience, this is, I think, a fresher, more salient point of view than it is for the adult reader, and it's certainly a lesson I want my children to learn. And the charm of seeing the world from a spidery point of view, with many little humorous details to chuckle over, keeps the story moving nicely despite the moral underlinings.
I read this book in art form, without its final art, so cannot speak to the appeal of the finished product. But I think it's a good one to give, in particular, to the child fascinated by the world of animals (and then next year said child can read Masterpiece, by Elise Broach, the story of an artistic beetle). Even though it's ostensibly for youngish readers (friendly font size, pictures, short chapters--that sort of thing), I think it has enough interest to be a good choice for the nine year oldish child who lacks reading confidence.
Postscript: I especially liked the Black Widow couple, Albert and Rachel: "...the two were on their honeymoon as well, and they were determined to buck the current. Rachel point-blank refused to kill her mate. "Tough spinnerets!" she huffed. "This one's a keeper. I'm not letting him go!" (page 69 of ARC)
(disclaimer: ARC received from the publisher at ALA Midwinter)
The Adventures of Benny, by Steve Shreve (Marshall Cavendish, 2009, 159 pages, ages 7-10)
First, the description. In the five stories that make up this book, a boy named Benny has various fantastical adventures, encountering Big Foot, a mummy named King Butt, a giant squid, the Booger-man, and some nervous monkeys. The stories are relaxed, over-the-top, and occasionally gross; they also are very easy to read, with relatively few words per page and lots of illustrations (you can get an idea of the book here at its website).
"They started back toward the door, but it was too late--they heard a noise outside.
"Now what?" asked Benny, "King Butt has caught up to us!"
"Oh, I wouldn't worry too much about that," said Uncle Howard. "The snakes will probably finish us off long before he gets in." (page 55)
Second, the personal experience part.
Is your emergent boy reader uninterested in the Magic Treehouse books? Obsessed with Diary of a Wimpy Kid (but too young for it, really)? The Adventures of Benny is an easy to read, copiously illustrated, kind of gross, chuckle producing, alternative. The short chapters, each of which stands on its on, make the book particularly friendly for the young reader.
Is your nine year old boy reader driving you absolutely mad by refusing to read any of the books you carefully find for him, after hours of blog reading to find possibilities, chats with the librarian, etc etc? Leave The Adventures of Benny casually draped on the sofa, and he will read it eagerly. In about ten minutes flat too, proving that he can read after all, which you might have been wondering.
If you are an adult reader, reading The Adventures of Benny with an eye toward a blog review, you might not find it a life-changing experience, and you might find smelly socks, farts, eating snakes, etc . don't in fact make you chuckle. But you might also acknowledge that the stories and pictures are not without amusing charm, and the reactions of your children will dispose you fondly toward the book. And it was a nice touch to name the Egyptologist uncle "Howard" (as in Howard Carter, of King Tut fame).
Here's the full list for those grades: The Adventures of Benny by Steve Shreve (Marshall Cavendish) Dork Diaries: Tales from a Not-So-Fabulous Life by Rachel Renee Russell (Aladdin/Simon & Schuster) Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11 by Brian Floca (Atheneum/Richard Jackson/Simon & Schuster) Outlaw: The Legend of Robin Hood by Tony Lee, Sam Hart, and Artur Fujita (Candlewick) Zoobreak by Gordon Korman (Scholastic Press)
The link above shows all the lists. Kids can vote for their favorite until May 3, at libraries, book stores, schools, and at BookWeekOnline.com.
(disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher)
The Adventures of Ook and Gluk, Kung-Fu Cavemen From the Future-- The second graphic novel by George Beard and Harold Hutchins the creators of Captain Underpants (along with Dav Pilkey) (Blue Sky Press/Scholastic 2010, middle grade or whatever, 175 pages)
George and Harold have created two cave-boy alter-egos for themselves in this wham bam time-travel cartoon book/graphic novel--the titular Ook and Gluk. The boys are enjoying their life back in .... , running from, and then befriending, a dinosaur, pushing the envelopes of stone-age technology, and tormenting the bullying Big Chief Goppernopper. with their boyish pranks in true George and Harold style.
But when a time-travelling descendant of the chief arrives to pillage the natural resources of the past to fuel his corporate greed in desolate future of 2222. Ook and Gluk, along with the rest of the cave folk, find themselves enslaved. But all is not lost, for Ook and Gluk travel to the future! They bring with them their young, delicately stomached (ie it pukes a lot), very cute dinosaur (who plays an important role in the story)! They train as Kung-fu masters with a Wise Old Sensei! Grow into young cave men! They return to the past and battle robo dinos to save the day! They find (in the case of Ook) young love!
Not the, um, typical, deeply nuanced sort of time travel book I generally review, but heck, the time machine is at the heart of the plot, and it is a temporal paradox that handily resolves everything (in a completely contradictory way, but whatever). It is a lot of fun, and one's boys pounce on it. Even though it's not going to help their spelling, it's a pleasure to watch them enjoying it (and I liked it too).
But when is Dav Pilkey going to write the rest of the Ricky Ricotta books for crying out loud? Me want them for me boys (I studied the handy guide to cave talk at the end of this book).
(Gluk is a cave boy of color, making this book a nice addition to my list of diverse sci fi/fantasy for kids. Adding more diversity are Master Wong and his daughter (edited to add) Lan (when I went back through the book to look for her name, I couldn't find it, so thanks, Anon. commentor, for letting me know she had one after all!)
This afternoon the boys and I walked up the steep flank of Wolf Hill, kicking acorns and rustling leaves with our feet, and climbed the treacherous granite ledge that lets one sneak through a fence into the back parking lot of our local Barnes and Noble. Anticlimax, perhaps, but we left with the book we wanted--the exquisitely seasonally-appropriate Curse of the Were-Wiener, by Ursula Vernon (2010, Dial, upper elementary/younger middle grade, 208 pages, although there are lots of pictures).
This is the third of Vernon's books about a young dragon, Danny Dragonbreath, and his best friend, an iguana named Wendell. And this adventure is perhaps their darkest yet. The titular were-wiener is a Dark Creature of Horror, and it bites poor Wendell, setting in motion a hideous transformation. The two young reptiles have little hope of defeating the evil alpha wurst. Unless...they can find the living potato salad that we last saw, in book 1, disappearing down a storm drain.
But forget my summary--just watch the book trailer (and I almost never ever (this is only the second time) put up book trailers, but I love this one. And it shows you what the artwork looks like. And it's Spooky....).
Me and my boys love Dragonbreath. With dry humor coupled with whatever the opposite of dry humor is*, oodles of charm in the drawings of the reptile lads, just the right amount of grossness (that is, enough to amuse them while not disgusting me), and an exciting story (will the potato salad remember them, or will it attack???), this is a lovely book to put into the hands of the young reader, and to enjoy oneself.
*here's an example--Wendell's mother buys him Periodic Table of Elements bandaids. "We put the pain back in learning!" says the box. Hee hee hee. I would totally buy them.
If you are looking for a series for your second grade son (or something along those lines), look no farther than the Astrosaurs. I received a Cybils review copy of Astrosaurs--the Twist of Time, by Steve Cole (of Z-Rex fame), the 17th (I think) in the series, and (very happily) now have a nice long list of books to buy for my own second-grade son!
The Astrosaurs are herbisaurs who live out in the Jurassic quadrant of distant space. Their vegetarian sector abuts that of the carnivores--and the brave astrosaurs, a quartet of dinos led by the intrepid Captain Teggs, are constantly running up against the ferocious meat-eaters. This particular book involves a pool of time water on a distant planet--water that makes anyone (or just about anything) that comes into contact with it become younger and younger.... A vicious Allosaur thinks this could be the Ultimate Weapon...and will use it to seize control of the whole sector, unless Teggs and crew can stop him in time!
When I read this to myself, it was clear to me that I'm not the intended audience. For instance, a bucket of baby dino pee used as a weapon doesn't do much for me, although I want to make it clear that the writing was just fine and the story nicely coherent and not uninteresting. But still, not a book for people much older than nine or so.
But then I put it in the hands of my seven year old...and prised it out of his hands again at bedtime, and when he woke up the next morning, the first thing he said to me was, "Where's my book?" And I could hear him downstairs on the sofa, reading away with gasps and cheers...until he reached the end, and asked for more Astrosaur books! So, based on my (admittedly small) sample, these books have great appeal for the intended audience.
It's a UK series, but thanks to the Book Depository, they are easy to get a hold of. There's a companion series as well, Astrosaur Academy. And as an added bonus, the books come with character cards, which my boy appreciated. He's also intrigued by another series from the same author--Cows in Action.... There's lots of information about all these books here at Steve Cole's website. (By the way, I have a link to the Book Depository at right; any commissions earned help my local public library).
Anyone looking for a fun, age-appropriate fantasy series for a girl in third or fourth grade should seriously consider the Sisters 8 books, by Lauren Baratz-Logsted (with Greg Logsted and Jacki Logsted). I can't make that "definitely consider", because Zinnia's Zaniness, the eighth, and penultimate, book of the series (Sandpiper, 2011, 128 pages), is the only one I've read. It was nominated for the Cybils Awards in middle grade sci fi/fantasy, for which I am a panelist. New to the series though I was, I found Zinnia's story to be a pleasantly diverting read.
The Sisters Eight are eight-year-old octuplets, each of whom develops in turn a magical power, and receives a special gift. But there's a catch. Their parents are missing--and until each girl gets her power and her gift, they won't know what's happened to their mom and dad. Annie, Durinda, Georgia, Jackie, Marcia, Petal, and Rebecca have all had their turn. Poor Annie, the oldest, has the gift of being able to think like an adult, but the other sisters have more interesting powers--freezing people, invisibility, super speed, etc. Now the girls are waiting for the youngest and the smallest sister, Zinnia, to manifest her own power.
And in the meantime, kindly neighbors are taking the family on a seaside vacation. There, in a somewhat dingy vacation cottage (hotels aren't an option, since not only are they are rather large group, they've brought their kittens with them), they'll bicker, play, worry, and meet a mysterious boy....and Zinnia will reveal her own special gift.
The adventures and the magic aren't all that Exciting--it's the relationships between the sisters that gets the most page time (which is fine with me, sisterly relationships being something I have my own considerable experience with!). That being said, the characterization of the sisters in general isn't all that deep--each has a few trademarks that are brought forward in turn; enough so that they can be distinguished, but not so as to make them come alive to a new reader of the series. But Zinnia, in this, her own book, had the spotlight shown on her, and became quite real to me--probably this happens to the other sisters in their own books.
This isn't a series I'd recommend to the grown-up readers of my blog, but for eight year old (or so) girls who love mysteries and magic and kittens, I think it's a pretty safe bet.
Disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher for Cybils consideration.
Back in 2009, when I was serving as a sci fi/fantasy panelist for the Cybils, a book called Kendra Kandlestar and the Shard from Greeve was nominated. Of all the many books that came into my house that Cybils reading period, this one was just about the only one that called to my nine year old son. I was pleased (since he was at that time a very picky reader), and more than a little surprised (it looked to me very like a "girl" book, which goes to show how pointless such distinctions often are). It was, however, the third of the series, and so, both to please him and so as not to read the books out of order myself, I bought the first two (K.K. and the Box of Whispers, and K.K. and the Door to Unger), and my boy had a lovely reading orgy.
This year the fourth book in the series was nominated. My son is now eleven, but still he was very happy when it arrived. He got to read it first, and then my turn came....and I was happy to find it was a time travel book (because of always being anxious that I won't have one ready come Tuesday).
So on to Kendra Kandlestar and the Crack in Kazah.
Kendra is a young Een girl (the Eens are an ancient race of fairy-like beings), who, in her previous adventures, found herself faced with one magical and dangerous quest after another. Together with an assortment of odd companions (a warrior grasshopper, a raccoon who aspires to be a wizard, her Uncle Griffinskitch, who is in fact a powerful one, and her best friend, a mouse named Oki), Kendra is now off on a quest to find her brother, transformed into a fearsome Unger.
But Kendra's quest is violently interrupted by the arrival of an old enemy...and when he is captured, Kendra finds herself in possession of his ring. It's cracked, and cold, and grey, and Kendra has no inkling of its power. It is made of magical kazah stone...and it is about to take her on a journey through time. Finally she will meet her mother--when her mother was still a girl--and she'll learn about the secret past of her family. But time travel also brings dangers, and Kendra's present Een world is threatened by its changing past....
The choices that Kendra makes, not just in the past, but in a future that might not happen, will determine not just her fate, but the fate of (sorry for the melodrama, but sometimes I can't resist) all she holds dear!
It's a rather fascinating time travel experience. Not only does Kendra have the rare chance to see her mother as a person her own age, but she gets to see a future version of herself grown old, something that rarely turns up in time travel stories. The paradoxes and perils of time travel all hang together to make a cohesive whole, that keeps the reader (me and my son, at least) briskly turning the pages.
And in large part this is because I was genuinely interest
The Dragonbreath books are mind candy for the young reader, and rather fun for the grown-up, as well. Mixing text dominated pages with graphic novel-esque spreads, they are easy, friendly, and fast books to read. The stories about Danny, a young dragon with fire issues, and his pals, are strange and suspenseful (and often very funny), the illustrations are utterly brilliant in their simple humor and charm. And as an added bonus, there is now a central girl character--a lizard named Christina, who is smart and skeptical as all get out.
But when the gang (Danny, Christina, and Wendell) head off to cowboy camp, along with Danny's annoying little cousin, Spenser, not even Christina's skeptical mind can deny that the creature Spenser secretly befriends is a jackalope!!!!! Yes, horned bunnies are real...but this one seems to be the last of its kind. All its friends and family have disappeared....
And it's up to Danny and co. to solve the mystery, and foil the nefarious plot that threatens the survival of the jackalopes!
This book has one of my favorite Dragonbreath pictures ever--Danny grooming his horse. And the jackalope is cute as all get out (even cuter than the picture on the cover). The story has swing, and made me chuckle (poor smart Christina, stuck with a camp counselor determined to apply nail polish!), and a message about protecting endangered species from mankind's greed that I liked lots.
A fine addition to a truly stellar series with just tons and tons of kid appeal, one of the few series for which I will I will go to the bookstore on release day. Give these books to your reluctant elementary schooler, or, like me, to your confidently reading middle schooler, or, also like me, to young Dutch cousins....they won't disappoint.
A small boy named Till has gone to bed distraught--his beloved dog Bess slipped her leash, and now she is gone. The next day he wakes up early, and drawn by a strong compulsion, heads out to the garden gate. There he finds "an odd-looking little old man, hardly bigger than himself, and dressed all anyhow."
The strange little man is a Finder, with all a Finder's magic, and he is determined to help Till find Bess. So Till sets of through the garden gate, magicked by the Finder into a day that isn't quite real, and heads back to the meadow where he last saw his dog.
There the Finder uses his arcane skills to question all the possible witnesses--duck and heron, mole and cat, and the two little old ladies who live at the meadow's edge. By slow steps and riddles a picture of Bess's last few minutes before she was lost emerge. But the clues seem point to the strange Finder himself, and Till worries that he will never see his dog again.
Part mystery, part fantasy, A Finder's Magic makes a great book to read at bedtime to a 6 to 8 year old. Its slow pace and gentle progress make it a soothing read with good stopping points (from a grown-up's point of view), while the urgency of Till's need to find Bess and the strange way the Finder sets about his work keep the story interesting. It's not particularly the sort of book that a grown-up will curl up with herself (see Becky's review), but it is one my 8-year old son asked me or his father to keep on reading all the nights it was his bedtime book.
This is the last book Philippa Pearce (author of Tom's Midnight Garden) wrote before she died in 2006. She wrote it for her own two grandchildren, and the illustrator, Helen Craig (of Angelina Ballerina fame), is their other grandmother.
I spent yesterday in a different online world from my usual kidlitosphere. My review of Thirteenth Child got picked up in a gathering of online comments concerning "mammothfail," the name that's been given to Patricia Wrede's decision to keep Native Americans out of her alternate America. Reading all the various reactions-- thoughtful, enlightening, contentious, and extreme--led me to thinking about race in children's fantasy and science fiction, and, more specifically, its overwhelming whiteness.
This led me to my eight-year old's bedroom. I stared at his bookshelves. The picture book collection, which is beautifully multicultural, has been passed on to his brother, leaving him with hundreds (literally) of books that used to be mine (like my Nesbits, and Edward Eagers), and a few shelves of his own books-- Dragon Slayers Academy, A-Z mysteries, some graphic novels, like Jellaby and Bone, and lots of non-fiction.
When I asked him if he could think of a book in which a character's skin color happened to be different than his own (the inside of a plain bagel, untoasted), he suggested an aberrantly white character in the V book of the A-Z mysteries, who is taken for a vampire.
Gah. On so many levels, gah.
My son suggested that I write a series of books about an African boy who battles dragons, but this is not practical. Nor is it feasible for me to start publishing multicultural fantasy books for the third-grade reader. However, I have a credit card, and the possibly naive belief that if people buy books with non-white characters in lucrative droves, publishers will publish more, and better.
Ready to do my bit, I went first to my local independent bookstore, and started looking for fantasy books for third graders that have central characters who aren't white. Here is what I found.
Time Surfers #1: Space Bingo (The Time Surfers), by Tony Abbott (author of The Secrets of Droon), 1996. Not quite what I was looking for, as the white boy in the center overshadows the other girl and boy. Although the girl is identified as Japanese by her last name, Naguchi, the boy isn't described, so making him dark skinned seems to have been the publisher's decision.
I also bought Ghost Island, a Choose Your Own Adventure for the young, based on the cover, which shows two kids, one black, confronting a ghost together. False advertising. I am returning this. The black kid is not a character, just a trick to make shoppers like me buy the book. It is neo-colonialist garbage.
That was it for the reading level I wanted.
Later I visited Borders. where I bought Tiger (The Five Ancestors, Book 1), by Jeff Stone, the first in a series about five young Chinese (?) masters of different fighting styles.
End result: just one degree from complete bookshopping-fail.
I also asked the Child Lit group if they had any suggestions. Here are the responses:
And I know that there are various early chapter fairy book with faeries of color. I cannot, in conscience, buy these for my boys (because they wouldn't read them).
And this is all I could come up with. If anyone can think of anything else, please let me know. Things get a little better for fourth-grade readers, I think--I'll be revisiting this again next year!
I wrote this post to support Fen of Color United (Fen being the irregular plural of fans). I learned yesterday that today is a day of protest--a day to listen to the voices of people of color in science fiction and fantasy, to speak out against making people invisible.*
Please, can't we add a bit more color in our fantasy early reader and chapter books? Fantasy is such an important gateway into bigger books for so many children, and it is much too monochromatic.
When my six-year old brings book bags home from school, there's a box of skin color crayons for the kids to use in their pictures. The colors range from a deep dark brown to a pinkish peach (and a white, which is odd. Possibly to color melanin-challenged people who are mistaken for vampires).
The major publishers of fantasy for kids, on the other hand, don't seem to be coloring with a full set of crayons.
"On Monday May 18, 2009, we are asking anyone who identifies as a POC/non-white to post this banner, their speculative short stories, artwork, poetry or simply write a post on their favorite fandom on their blogs as an act of protest to show we will not be silent or invisible. The day of protest is entitled Fen Of Color United or more aptly, FOC_U.
White allies can also show solidarity for this event by posting this banner and expressing the need for diversity and speaking out against the bigotry in the genre, through posts and/or their creative work as well."
My boy turned nine today. This past year he has become a true reader--falling so hard into books that he is deaf to his mother's voice, reading in the car to the point of car sickness, walking to the library by himself and coming home with more books than he can comfortably carry (and not necessarily ones I'd have picked for him--James Watson and the Double Helix, for instance, is probably not going to get read, but if checking it out helps him define himself, more power to him). I was anxious for a while about his reading--he didn't read early, he didn't read books that challenged him, he was essentially unwilling to spread his wings. He still doesn't read long books, although he has the skills to do so, but I've decided to just let him go at his own pace, and to keep lots of easier books on hand for him--the sort of books that I think of as non-quite-middle grade, like Encyclopedia Brown and the A-Z mysteries.
My most recent spectacular book offering success was This Side of Magic, the first volume of a new fantasy series aimed at this reading bracket (May 2009, Tom Doherty Associates (Tor), 133 generously fonted pages). It's written by the same team that brought us the Bailey School Kids (which don't interest my son for reasons unknown to me)--Debbie Dadey and Marcia Thornton Jones. I brought it home from the bookstore, and a little more than an hour later he had finished it and was clamoring for the next volume (which his grandma got him for an early birthday present a few days later).
I've read it now too, and I was pleasantly surprised by how readable it is for an adult. I'd go as far as to say that I enjoyed it a lot myself. It tells of two ordinary kids, Penny and Luke, who find themselves charged with the awesome responsibility of guarding the boarder between our realm and the lands of magic. Dark forces are impinging on the boarder, and only one old man remains of the three former guardians, the Keyholders. Now Penny and Luke are this man's apprentices, with companion fantastical creatures to link them to the magic (a unicorn and a dragon, respectively). Then the third member of their trio is chosen--and much to their dismay, she is a spoiled and unpleasant child they have loathed all their lives. But boggarts are already making themselves felt around the town, and there are worse things to come....
This is similar in feel to the Spiderwick Chronicles, but a few degrees easier (I tried those on my son too, but he only got to halfway through book 3, again for reasons unknown to me). The writing is pleasant, and the story is interesting. I can imagine it being read to bits pretty quickly in a second or third grade classroom. And now I have to go read volume two, The Other Side of Magic. I want to know what happens next (or, of course, I could curl up with James Watson, and learn about DNA...).
Dragonbreath, by Ursula Vernon (Dial, 147 generously fonted and illustrated pages, young middle grade)
Danny's a lot like any other grade school kid--trying to live up to his parents expectations, trying to defend his lunch from the school bully, trying to write a report on "the ocean" on his fifteen minute bus ride. But, since Danny is a dragon, attending a school for reptiles and amphibians, things are a little different. Mom and Dad breath fire, Danny can only produce ashy belches. The bully is a vicious komodo dragon. And when he has to re-write his report, he turns to Cousin Edward for help. Cousin Edward is a sea serpent.
So Edward takes Danny and his best friend, a charmingly nerdy iguana named Wendell, down into the ocean. Provided with "breath mints," the two friends don't have to worry about breathing underwater as they explore a coral reef, a shipwreck, and descend into the dark depths--where danger (!) awaits...
Told with copious illustrations (in shades of green and black), with interludes of comic book style sections, this is a great independent read for a seven or eight year old, and a great read aloud for a younger child. It's extremely entertaining for the adult whose reading it out loud, too, although this example perhaps resonated more with me than with my children:
"Mrs. Dragonbreath looked up form her coffee, focused her eyes with some difficulty, and hissed like a cobra. (Cobras are also traditionally not morning people)." (p 12).
I was somewhat surprised that, after some time following Danny through the travails of school life, the book turned took an educational twist--although the undersea adventures are exciting, they have a more than somewhat "let's all learn about the ocean" feel. Which is fine, and gives added value, although it seems to me that most children these days know all the species of shark before they give up sippy cups. I don't think my kids noticed this aspect of the book at all. They were too busy being engrossed in Danny and Wendell's adventures.
The point of view shifts midway from Danny--eager and overconfident--to Wendell, anxious and overthinking. I love Wendell.
"Wendell pawed the last of the sea cucumber's guts out of he ears. "What? You want even weirder fish? It wasn't enough getting nearly eaten by a shark and barfed on by a- sea - slug- thing-"
"Actually, sea slugs are something else again," said Edward helpfully. "That was a sea cucumber, which is an invertebrate--"
"I don't care!" Wendell tried to throw his hands in the air, realized too late that he was underwater, and flailed rather aimlessly instead. Danny had to grab his tail to haul him back down to the reef. "There could be all kinds of monsters down there!"
"Well, of course there could be," said Danny. "What's wrong with that?" (p 62)
I am very much looking forward to the next Dragonbreath adventure--Attack of the Ninja Frogs. So are my boys. (Coming February, 2010. Sigh. I want it now! Not so much for myself, but because it makes me so happy to see my boys so enthralled by a book...)
My Unwilling Witch Sleeps Over, by Hiawyn Oram, illustrated by Sarah Warburton (Little Brown--Hachette, hardcover edition published 2009, young middle grade, 112 pp)
Rumblewick's job is enough to set his whiskers on edge. Other cats have witches who are witches--Rumblewick is the familiar to a young girl witch who isn't witchly in the least. A witch who can't stand to harm essential ingredients (slugs, toads, etc). Worse than that, a witch who is fascinated by the "other side," where girls do gymnastics, have sleepovers, and do a lot of giggling.
But Haggie Aggie (HA) doesn't let the strict code of witch behavior stand in her way, and she's off to the other side to hang out with her human friends, leaving Rumblewick working frantically to keep the other witches from learning the shocking depths of HA's unwitchly-ness...
Told in the form of Rumblewick's diary, with lots of black and white illustrations and a few magical spells, this is a fun and fast book for the young middle grade reader. Rumblewick's smart and funny point of view keeps the story going briskly, and (in as much as he has no interest in the girl doings of the other side) keeps the books from being just one big girl fest. Although it's aimed at girls, my nine-year old boy read it with enjoyment, and my six-year old boy listened to me read it with interest (helped, I think, by the non-pinkness of the cover--it doesn't scream Girl Book. Even though it really is).
I'm making a point of this because good, entertaining, copiously illustrated, easy books for a kid who is unwilling to plunge into "real" chapter books are so darn useful. These are the books I label Not Quite Middle Grade, if anyone is looking for other examples.
This is the second book about HA and Rumblewick, the first being My Unwilling Witch Goes to Ballet School. (Which also has a rather non-girly cover. Although the spine color teeters on the edge...), and there are several more in the series. They were first published in paperback a few years ago, and are now being reissued in hardcover, which I think adds to their not-quite-middle-grade reader appeal, and possibly to the parent-wanting-child-to-read-real-book appeal too. Hardcover books make nicer presents.
Last year my children fell hard for The Mammoth Academy, by Neal Layton. It is a perfect book for the young reader venturing into "real" books-- simple but substantial text, lots of pictures, and a fun story involving a school for mammoths and other prehistoric creatures and their encounter with primitive humans.
So there were excited noises from both of them when I presented them with The Mammoth Academy in Trouble (Henry Holt, 2007 in the UK, 2009 here, early middle grade, 141 pp). In this sequel, we meet again the young mammoths Oscar and Arabella as they arrive at the Academy for a new semester, looking forward to taking part in the Founder's Fiesta! But their spirits are damped by the sinister graffiti on the school walls--"We is gonna git you!!"
The humans are back, and closing in on the school. Inside, preparations for the Fiesta move on apace, but outside winter blizzards are brewing. The students are trapped inside by the fierce snows, and the humans are preparing to attack....
Will Arabella's smarts and Oscar's ingenuity be enough to save the pupils of the Academy from the bellies of the hungry savages?
I love the Mammoth Academy. Here's their science lesson:
"And now, start mixing things in test tubes..."
Fox's test tube turned brown.
Oscar's test tube turned orange.
But Arabella's test tube started to fizz and spit little silver sparks all over the place, finally going POOF! in a cloud of thick green smoke.
"Fascinating!" said Dr. Van Der Graph. "I think you have just made a scientific discovery!" (page 35)
And I love the dance class, where the mammoths are told to "imagine you are tine feathers floating on the breeze...." (page 37)
Adventure, humor, funny and engrossing drawings, and charming characters...what's not to like. I recommend them very, very, enthusiastically to the five or six year old who loves the Ice Age movies, and the parent reading this out loud, or the older kid just becoming an independent reader of longer books.
There are two more chapter books out in the UK--they would make such lovely Christmas presents for my six year old that I might not be able for them to come out over here. I am also very tempted by another of his books, The Story of Everything...
From the Graphic Universe line of Lerner books comes the "Manga Math Mysteries"-- books that combine elementary math with graphic-novelish, elementary-level, mystery stories.
The first of the series is The Lost Key, by Melinda Theilbar, illustrated by TintinPantoja (Lerner, 2009). In this story, a group of kids from a KungFu School must confront older bullies who have stolen the key to school and used it to make off with some of the school's gear. "If kungfu makes you so smart," reads the note they left behind, "maybe you can figure out where we hid your stuff." The kids must track down the lost items, using very simple math to make sure everything is there, and recover the lost key. (I thought, based on the title, that it might be fantasy-ish, but it is just really and truly about a lost key).
Both as a read aloud for my six-year old and an independent read for my nine-year old, this book worked just fine, and they both enjoyed it. I'd be very happy for more books in the series to throw their way. My older boy is a picky reader, but graphic stories of this level are something he eats up like candy (if he enjoyed eating candy, which he doesn't).
I'm not sure, however, that the deliberate insertion of math into the text quite works. The math was much more basic than I expected, at least a year or two, if not more, below the level of the text. Although the math was used by the kids to make progress in solving their mystery, they seemed to old to have to be actually counting out loud...I think, though, that the level of math involved gets higher in later books in the series, which would make sense.
What made this book really stand out in my mind, however, was this:
Isn't she a kick-ass karate teacher? The kids are a pretty multicultural lot too.