Monday, March 30, 2015

Digby O'Day in the Fast Lane by Shirley Hughes

Digby O'Day in the Fast Lane by Shirley Hughes, illustrated by Clara Vulliamy
Candlewick Press

Rating: 4 stars

I was at a Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) conference over the weekend and learned something new. I actually learned a lot of new somethings, but this is the one pertaining to Digby O'Day in the Fast Lane: Squeezed between I Can Read early readers and middle grade is the "chapter book" genre for, generally speaking, 5 to 8 year olds. Within that there are a bunch of books cropping up that have a whole lot of pictures, some easier text, and are divided into chapters. These are called "early chapter books."

Digby O'Day is an early chapter book. It's the sort of book for kids who are wanting to read chapter books like their peers but aren't ready for them. Now, they can put this in their hands and feel comfortable knowing they're part of the reading chapter books crowd. If you click at the bottom of this blogpost on early chapter books, you'll see a few of the ones I've read and reviewed.

For some reason, Ben timed me when I read this. When I remarked on how quickly he read it, he handed it to me while we were sitting in the carpool lane, waiting to pick up Kiefer from preschool last week. "It took you eight minutes, Mom!" he reported. Ben's quirky competitiveness now gives you an idea of how long it took me to read it, and you can double that time for a kindergartener reading on-level and add more time for a child struggling to read.

Digby drove, and Percy admired the view.
Getting to the book, written by one of my favorite childhood authors Shirley Hughes (and illustrated by her daughter--how fun!):

This is a cute, please-everyone story of a dog named Digby, his pal Percy, and how they race against their sworn (okay, really there's not any swearing in this book) enemy Lou Ella. Lou Ella is a fancy-schmancy woman with a fancy-schmancy car that she upgrades at least once a year. She can always afford the nicest car but doesn't know a thing about fixing them up; Digby O'Day and his pal Percy are always stuck with their cute clunker but they make it run as smoothly as possible with their own two paws. Or four paws?

These three characters enter a race and, in tortoise-and-hare style, Lou Ella is so far in front that she decides to stop and have lunch. This plan backfires when lunch takes too long and Digby and Percy putt-putt by her and win the race. These three are likable characters...and they'll be back! This is the first in the series; two more are slated for publication within a year or two.

As always, happy reading!

Friday, March 27, 2015

Dory Fantasmagory by Abby Hanlon

Dory Fantasmagory by Abby Hanlon
Dial Books for Young Readers

Rating: 5 stars

Lorelei just saw that I was reviewing this book. I had the book next to me. She said, "Oh I love when Dory becomes a dog named Chickenbone! Wait, I have to read it again." She grabbed the book from me and started the book. For the eighth time! "I LOVE this book!" she declared.

loved it too (though I only read it once).

There is so much to love! This is a super cute easy reader with an irrepressible, imaginative, funny, and likable youngest child as the main character and narrator. Six year old Dory is frustrated to be shunned by her two older siblings--she desperately wants to play with them! But they think she's annoying and babyish. 

To get their attention and for some imaginary fun, Dory invents playmates, plays along with their jokes and even pretends to be a dog. (Named Chickenbone, as Lorelei loves.) She even goes to the doctor as Chickenbone...I chuckled when she said "Woof!" each time the doctor asked which letter she was pointing at on the eye chart. Her mother was irate, just as I would be. I was happy to be reading about it--that seemed so funny in a book, but not so funny in real life.

Look at these fun sketches and how they cover the pages!
(And the siblings play happily ever after...on the next page.)
Anyway, in the end the two older siblings accept her and play like crazy together--a happy trio of siblings.

This is a fantastic choice for kids between five and nine years old who are just starting to read on their own. Big, cute, silly sketches are on every single page, making the text on each page more like an accompaniment to the pictures, making Dory Fantasmagory an inviting rather than a daunting book. (A sequel will be released in July 2015.)

This was a fun, short escape from my reality this morning when I couldn't go back to sleep after the stomach bug that hit Lorelei yesterday hit Ben around 3:30 AM. Please cross--no, double cross-- your fingers that it won't hit me!

Friday, March 20, 2015

Kate the Great Except When She's Not by Suzy Becker

Kate the Great Except When She's Not by Suzy Becker
Random House Kids

Rating: 3.5 stars

Meet Kate. Kate is a fifth-grader, a middle child, a girl who keeps a diary. In this whimsical coming-of-age story, Kate in Kate the Great Except When She’s Not (Random House, 2014) confronts the normal concerns of fitting in, friending the right kids, and doing the right thing. 

Kate is thrown for a loop when her parents ask her to be particularly kind to Nora, a girl she’s labeled as her “frenemy,” because Nora’s father is on an extended business trip and whose mother works a lot. But when an obligatory project ends up in an actual, authentic, albeit fragile friendship, Kate is forced to rethink her own assumptions about Nora and her own values. Kate reminds the reader that admitting you’re wrong about a person or yourself takes courage and humility. 

There is plenty to like about Kate, and plenty of other sub-plots in this middle grade novel to appreciate. She’s a fine flutist who plays in the school band, a budding artist who has trouble drawing noses, a Girl-Scout-esque member who doesn’t love the new troupe leader, and an imperfect, sometimes-swiping sister. Her family is a creative bunch; her overworking lawyer mom and always fun novelist father get along swimmingly and lead their trio of girls in conversations about little and big things (with the help of questions and quotations in “Bob,” the Big Old Bowl in the middle of the table). Kate learns plenty of good little life lessons throughout the book both in school and at home; therefore the reader picks up plenty of good little life lessons as well.

Kate the Great Except When She’s Not falls into the new-ish genre of “humorously illustrated diary novel.” This genre is not to be confused with a graphic novel, which is a book written and drawn entirely in comic strip format. Think Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Dork Diaries. There is something light-hearted, fun, and different about having drawings all over the page that definitely earns two thumb’s up from most kids.

The drawings alongside (or after, or under, or over, or…completely covering the page) the text usually illustrate the author’s thoughts or actions. In my experience, most of the books in this genre have drawings and text that are related, and the pictures help draw out or augment a particular scene or idea. 

Yet in Kate the Great Except When She’s Not, the doodles are sometimes fairly random, and I was left scratching my head for the connection between story and drawings. Or maybe adult readers don’t see the connections, and young readers—the audience of this particular genre—don’t need the connections. Maybe they find these random scratchings “hi-lar-ious!” in my daughter’s parlance without needing a reason for their existence. The book’s target audience is, after all, kids age 8 to 12, not adults in their mid- to late-thirties.

This is a fine book to give to a child in your life. It’s not one that you’ll keep on your shelf for generations because the themes and writing are so universal and phenomenal you can’t bear to part with it. It’s one your child will read in a long, lazy afternoon, chuckle at, appreciate, and then pass along to the next reading pal in their circle. 

And that’s not a bad thing at all.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

You Are (Not) Small by Anna King

You Are (Not) Small by Anna King, illustrated by Christopher Weyant
Published by Two Lions

Rating: 5 stars

In February a bunch of children's books won a bunch of awards. You Are (Not) Small, a simple yet clever picture book, won the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award for the most distinguished beginning reader book.

The book tells of an argument between a few groups of bears--they are certain of the other's size and, rather than open their eyes to comparison, they simply want to label the other group. If you have more than one child, you've probably had a similar discussion in your house.

Littlest: "I am not small. You are big."
Bigger: "I am not big. You are small."

So infuriating, but also fairly hilarious--they are BOTH right. And they are both wrong. All of a sudden, these barrel-bellied bears are having a philosophical debate on their relative size. They never stop to consider that they each look the same--same big belly, same oval nose, same everything except color and scale. It's Theory of Relativity for toddlers, who are easily guilty of defining themselves without considering much else besides...what they want to consider.

The debate gets louder but no more sophisticated (sound familiar? ever have an argument between your kids like this, or is it just me?) but abruptly ends when two humongous hairy feet descend from above -- BOOM! -- and a few teensy tiny bears float down in parachutes. Suddenly, there's a big-GER and small-ER group to add to the debate. And both the previously "not small" and previously "not big" groups have their own stubborn opinions supported by the addition of a smaller and larger scale of animal.

But they realize, like most kids do at some point, that both groups--that ALL groups--are, at the very same time, big and small. It just depends against whom they comparing.

The end is also true to life: when the big argument they cared so much about is over, they realize they're hungry and go off and eat.

I liked it a lot, but my kids LOVED it. Especially Ben, who is smack in the middle of this debate as he's bigger than Kiefer but smaller than Lorelei. Does that have something to do with his affection for the story?! Ben brought it in to his class when asked to bring in his favorite picture book (two actually--the other was Too Much Glue). 

If you like You Are (Not) Small, I think you'll also like Mo Willems' recent Elephant and Piggie book, which was a runner-up for the Theodor Seuss Geisel Award: Waiting is Not Easy!

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Number One Sam by Greg Pizzoli

Number One Sam by Greg Pizzoli
Disney Hyperion Books

Rating: 4 stars

I have a few places that really make me extra-happy. One of those is a library--or bookstore, or book fair, or anywhere with lots of books. Another happy place for me is Crossfit. I can let go of my kind and polite side and be uber-competitive with guys and gals who are used to me trash-talking my way into a workout, then walking the walk and finishing first.

So a picture book about a competitive hound who is only content with the top spot...well, that's a book found at the crossroads between my two happy places!

Like me, Sam likes to be--and actually is--number one at lots of things. He's the best at turns, speed, and grabbing the top of the podium. And he loves it. Being number one is who he is.

Until he's not. Until he isn't. Until he loses. To his best friend, Maggie.

We watch as Sam slides into existential despair (maybe I'm exaggerating a bit)... Who IS Sam if he's not THE BEST?! When it is time to roll up to the starting line a few days later, Sam tries to be determined and confident, but really he's nervous and afraid to lose.

Within a few moments of starting, Sam is ahead! He's winning! He's thrilled.

But then...a gaggle of chicks crossing the road catches his eye. He could steer around and miss them, but the other cars behind him wouldn't see them in time. He hesitates for a moment, but stops and puts them in his race car to protect them. Sam's shoulders droop as his friends zoom past him.

As he putt-putts towards the finish line with the grateful chicks, he hears cheering. As he gets closer, he realizes his friends are cheering for him--because he was so kind and selfless and gave up the winning spot for these chicks.

Hooray for Sam!

(But: there better not be a gaggle of chicks at my workout. I don't know if I'm as benevolent as Sam.)

Back to picture books: I love author/illustrator Greg Pizzoli's advice to those interested in illustration: "Avoid the internet and draw!" Do check out his other book The Watermelon Seed!

Monday, March 9, 2015

Leroy Ninker Saddles Up by Kate DiCamillo

Leroy Ninker Saddles Up (Tales from Deckawoo Drive #1) by Kate DiCamillo
Candlewick Press

Rating: 4 stars

Yippie-i-oh! We've lassoed an early reader for you!

(Define "early reader?" A book that has more pages than an easy reader, five to ten short chapters, illustrations to keep kids interested and give them clues about the text, appropriate language and content for young readers, and serves as a bridge between easy readers and middle grade novels. Generally, the age range is 5 to 8.)

Leroy Ninker is a little man with big dreams of being a cowboy. He has a lasso and boots and cowboy hat, but he lacks a horse. Which is kind of important. So he goes and finds a horse, and that horse is Maybelline. She is not the gallant steed named "Tornado" he imagined; rather, she's a big ol' nag with only four teeth. But it is love at first sight for Leroy Ninker.

Maybelline is funny in different ways than Leroy is funny--she requires certain care that made Ben laugh out loud. For example, to get Maybelline to run, Leroy must compliment her. He must whisper sweet nothings into her ear. "You are the sweetest, most beautiful horse I have ever had the fortune to lay eyes on," he says to her. And off she goes!

Despite Leroy Ninker's goal of becoming a cowboy, and despite the procurement of one fine steed, he doesn't know how to take care of a horse. But he's got such a big heart and doesn't let his cluelessness get in the way. He tries his very best! I love the image of little Leroy trying to get oversized Maybelline into his apartment, and the fact that he cooks her spaghetti for dinner. 

The climax of the book comes when Leroy Ninker doesn't follow the instructions he was given for Maybelline, and she runs away because of an oversight (of his). He goes to "make it right" and is determined to find her. Which he does--I love how in these early readers and middle grade, too, that you can depend on a happy ending. In fact, the happy ending in this book involves Mercy Watson, the pig in Kate DiCamillo's other series, and I realize that Leroy Ninker is another resident on Deckawoo Drive and this book is a spin-off from the successful and great, you-should-read-it-too Mercy Watson series.

This book is proof that Kate Dicamillo still has her finger firmly on the pulse of what kids think is funny. And she has a knack for producing wonderful tales. Leroy Ninker, a story of a simple man fulfilling his dream, is another one of her great stories. I can't forget to mention that the fantastic Chris Van Dusen illustrates this book. (He writes and illustrates picture books--they are THE BEST!) He fills most of the pages with the bright-eyed, needle-nosed cowboy and a goofy but sweet-looking horse. They are quite the pair. They're in love, but I'm pretty sure most readers will fall in love with them.

There you go. An early reader book to give your early reader kid as they ride off into the sunset.


Friday, March 6, 2015

The New Small Person by Lauren Child

The New Small Person by Lauren Child
Candlewick Press

Rating: 5 stars

Warning!! After reading this book, your kid is going to request some jelly beans be put in his lunch. But it's okay, you'll have them. Leftover from his Christmas morning stocking (despite the fact that its' March). And you'll stingily give him a dozen. And he will be excited about those twelve colorful bursts of sweetness.

Lauren Child, author of many children's books (most noticeably the Charlie and Lola series), has given the picture book world another gem for its shelves with The New Small Person. Older siblings the world over--especially those with a big gap before a little sibling is born--will relate to big brother Elmore Green and his unhappiness, unease, yet eventual acceptance of his little brother.

"Elmore Green started off life as an only child." He has it all figured out. He has his own room in which he can display anything and everything on the floor. He can arrange his jelly bean collection however he likes, and eat them one at a time. In any order Elmore Green prefers. His parents adore him! Everyone fawns over him!
One awful day, the small person moved its bed
into Elmore Green's room.

And then (dum...dum...DUM) the new person arrived.

The little new person quickly becomes the center of attention, the star sibling, the most adored one. The little new person has opinions that actually matter, and Elmore Green must, for the first time, consider someone else's preferences. The little person moves into Elmore Green's room, demands the channel be changed on TV, and licks every single one of Elmore Green's jelly beans!

When the little person gets bigger, it's clear that he just wants to do what his big brother is doing. He wants to be like him, sure, but he wants to be with him even more.

Elmore Green commits to avoiding him until one night when Elmore Green has a really bad dream. The little person trots over to his bed and shouts, "Go away, Scary!" and cuddles with his big brother until both feel better. He sees that it is nice to have someone else around--in both the day and the night.

Elmore Green realizes: Life is best when shared, even though sharing life is sometimes challenging. Especially when sharing jelly beans is involved.

(Will parental readers see themselves in this book? I know I did.)

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Bad Bye, Good Bye by Deborah Underwood

Bad Bye, Good Bye by Deborah Underwood, illustrated by Jonathan Bean
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Rating: 4 stars

My kids' school has assemblies on most Friday mornings. The kindergarten, first grade, second grade, and third grade classes take a turn presenting to the rest of the school about some topic of interest. There's a wide variety, of course; over the years I've watched speeches about important African American, the concept of Venn diagrams (with two kids holding hula hoops--it was so cool), and plays about impact versus intent. I'm amazed at how often these little skits stay alive through conversations with my kids.

One of the most memorable was a presentation about inferring. The Infer Song encourages kids to be "book detectives" and look for clues in the pictures and text. Click HERE for a video and for the words. 

And, even if you don't click THERE, you know what inferring is and how important it is while reading. After this class's presentation, all the kids did, too. least the ones paying attention. And I'm guessing you do this at home (or in your class) with your kids already.

This is one of the steps of reading: looking at the pictures and inferring what's going on. Kids can guess what the words are by using their eyes and brains as a team to figure it out. This process can and should start really young. And it continues with little and big chapter books.

I bring this up with Bad Bye, Good Bye because it is a picture book with a lot going on: it has a heavy story line but very few words. I counted: only 80 words! Deborah Underwood has created a sparsely-worded story about a family moving, and the emotions that come with moving.

The rest is left to Jonathan Bean, one of my favorite illustrators. He fills in the gaps with rich pictures jam-packed with action and emotion. The words don't take long to read, but my kids and I lingered for minutes on each two-page spread to talk about and figure out what was going on. We needed to infer the action from the pictures. There were some clues in the text, but the bigger clues lay waiting in the illustrations.

As someone who moved every two to three years as a kid with my Army family, this book definitely struck a chord with me. My parents (who read each and every blogpost--aren't they great?) can correct me if my memory is wrong, but I don't remember ever sobbing or throwing a tantrum when the movers came like the boy and girl do in this book. I do remember being sad--the hardest move for me (you'll laugh) was when we moved from Georgia to Hawaii. The decision came early, and my sister and I were fully entrenched in a barn in Savannah, so paradise didn't look so great to us.

Like the boy and girl in the book, though, our perspective gradually changed. I love how the kids in this book show how upset they are--they cry and look so sad! But, once the tears stop, they manage to enjoy themselves on the drive to their new home. And they arrive with an explosion of emotions: fear, curiosity, excitement, and finally...contentment.

This is an unusual book, but an important one to remember if your family is moving, or if you just want to sing the infer song and practice it a little!

Monday, March 2, 2015

Maya Was Grumpy by Courtney Pippin-Mathur

Maya Was Grumpy by Courtney Pippin-Mathur
Flashlight Press

Rating: 5 stars

Maya was grumpy. She doesn't know why she's in what my dad called a poopy mood. She doesn't want to "read or color or eat banana chips, or wear her favorite shorts, or go outside and play." She just wants to spread the bad mood--the cat she snarls at, the birds she makes faces at, and the brothers she grumbles to get out of her way.

Gramma in the kitchen is the only one left. So Maya thumps and growls and takes her bad mood over to Gramma.

But there's no pulling down Gramma into her bad mood. Nope. Wise, cheerful Gramma has a few tricks up her polka-dotted, muumuu sleeves. Gramma starts listing silly things that she was going to do with Maya and her brothers today--things that will now have to be rescheduled because of Maya's grumpy mood.

"Feeling a little grumpy today?" Gramma asked.
Maya just scowled.
"I guess that means no hunting for hippos after breakfast," she starts with.

"And no putting your head in a crocodile's mouth before lunch," as she shrugs her shoulders.

"Bathing baby elephants would probably be a bad idea today if you're grumpy," Gramma says as she moves around through the breakfast routine.

Each wild suggestion is vividly painted for young readers to see, in colors brighter than the brightest imagination. There's Gramma and Maya and two boys swimming along, looking for hippos...and Gramma and Maya and two boys tickling a toothy tarantula...and Gramma and Maya and two boys sliding down the neck of a super tall giraffe.

In the beginning, Gramma's wild suggestions are met with scowls and "That's just silly" comments and the dreaded eye roll. But soon, Maya can't help but crack a smile, and the corners of her frown are wiggling up a little more each time, until a giggle bursts out and breaks up that grumpy mood once and for all.
...and Maya felt much better.

Maya hugs Gramma.

I can't write one more thing about this book without mentioning Maya's wild and fiery, curly-swirly mass of hair. It covers the first few pages and serves as the embodiment of her grumpiness. I don't know how Pippin-Mathur came up with this hair-as-mood idea but it is just great! As Maya calms down and cools off and cheers up, her hair also comes back to a more self-controlled state.

My fingers are crossed that your kids have a Gramma-like person in their lives who can evaporate bad moods with patience and love and silliness. In fact, I hope YOU have a Gramma-like person who can quietly and sweetly make your poopy mood POOF! disappear. And I hope us curly-swirly hair types can tame the frizz like Maya can...

Sunday, March 1, 2015

MG: Mr Popper's Penguins

Mr Popper's Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater
Little, Brown and Company

Rating: 4 stars

Here's a funny book about Mr. Popper, a simple guy living a humdrum existence in the 1930s who is obsessed with Arctic expeditions. He is active with his obsession--he writes letters to the leaders of expeditions offering them insights and asking them questions. In return for one of those letters, to sate his curiosity, one explorer-Admiral sends him a penguin. 

Fun, crazy conversation I had with my daughter: What would you DO if I got a penguin delivered to our doorstep?!

Mr. Popper keeps it as a pet with some funny little happenings with that first penguin, and his whole family is even more blown away by the arrival of a second penguin. And with a boy penguin and a girl penguin, you better believe that soon they have baby penguins, too!  

Lorelei loved the image of the penguins waddling around a neighborhood, living in the basement, having one's basement transformed into a penguin playground. The whole image is very fun and imaginative to her--a little less so for me, because I can't imagine cleaning up after that many penguins.

The ending has two parts I have to point out. One I like, one...makes me shake my head a little.

First, Mr. Popper receives an invitation from an important director in Hollywood asking him to use his penguins in the movies. Mr. Popper declines--he doesn't want his penguins living such a flashy lifestyle, so he declines. I like how he chooses a "regular" lifestyle for his penguins (okay, that right there is a little funny) rather than the paparazzi-filled lifestyle of Hollywood.

Second, Mr. Popper is invited to go on an Arctic expedition just as he always dreams of going on.  He is ecstatic and accepts the invitation. As he heads out the door, he shouts out to his wife, "Do you mind if I'll be back in a year or two?!" And she, of course as the housewife of the 1930s who doesn't disagree with much: "No problem! It'll be easier to keep the house clean without you!"  

That is eye-rolling material right there. But I'll try and suspend my feminist disbelief and annoyance and appreciate how adventurous the ending is--he finally gets to go on one after studying them from his armchair every night. And Lorelei and I talked about the differences between then and now.

This is a good read aloud book for kids--Lorelei's Kindergarten teacher read the book aloud to the whole class, and we read it together a few months after that. We still haven't seen the movie, though!