Thursday, April 27, 2017

Jake the Fake Keeps it Real by Craig Robinson and Adam Mansbach

Jake the Fake Keeps it Real by Craig Robinson and Adam Mansbach, illustrated by Keith Knight
Crown Books for Young Readers

Rating: 4 stars (my kids would give it a 5)

Here's a new middle grade novel, one that was written to tickle the funny bone of every child who reads it. It has two authors: one (Craig Robinson) is an actor/comedian; the other (Adam Mansbach) is the author of for-adults-only book Go the F**k to Sleep. It's a good one to know about: it's a slim book chock full of silly illustrations by cartoonish Keith Knight, so it's an easy read for a above-grade-level readers but also engages readers who are struggling a bit. There's a ton of incentive to read because readers are going to want to get to the next joke! This book will get passed around the car from one child to another.

But this book is also good to know about because it's a great audiobook--Sullivan Jones performs it superbly, with silly voices, big songs, amped-up reactions to things that he'd easily win a standing O from the children in the back of your car. You might want this audiobook for a long car ride this summer...

So what's it about?

Jake declares himself the dumbest school at his touchy-feely "smart school," a magnet school in a fictional city. He realizes that he wants to fit in, and in this school you've got to be weird to fit in, so he brainstorms schemes that are so funny I laughed out loud at them--and I know my children would have laughed even harder. 

Things come to a head during the school talent show, when Jake feels he's got no talent whatsoever. But he pulls out a great act when he remembers that one time someone thought he was funny. So he runs with it, and tries his first little comedy act, and it goes really well. He's found himself, he gets laughs and high-fives from all his classmates, and he feels like he finally fits in.

Parents should know that, like most comedians, Jake is irreverent and pokes fun at anything and everything. He might offend an adult at some point or another. My two eye-rolling points were: First, when he described a home-schooled child as socially awkward in what I felt was a demeaning way; second, when he said "Americans get type 1 diabetes just by looking at large drinks from 7-11" or something like that. 

But I admit that these statements were a little funny because they are a little true. And kids love to laugh. Kids NEED to laugh! know, we adults do, too. 

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Cookie Fiasco by Dan Santat and Mo Willems

The Cookie Fiasco by Dan Santat and Mo Willems
Disney Press

Rating: 5 stars

Four friends. Three cookies.

Is there any better start to a book? Because if you have ever been in a situation like this one, I assure you: it's a fiasco.

These four friends are beside themselves with despair. They think of possible solutions to the problem. Alligator suggests that the two little squirrels share one cookie. One squirrel states that Alligators shouldn't like cookies. Hippo suggests the cookies be allotted according to size. The final squirrel throws her hands up in the air--she's too overwhelmed with the thought of cookie loss to solve any problems.

Then, Hippo starts breaking the cookies. It's what he does when he's nervous, another friend explains. She can't help herself! She breaks them all once, and there are six half-cookies. A few pages later she breaks all of those in half. Suddenly, there are twelve quarters.


Each animals grabs some cookies...and (I know you've guessed it) they each have three pieces of cookie in their hands.

Talk about a smile-inducing book right before bedtime! (Or anytime!)

I knew this book was going to great because:

  • The title: it had the word fiasco in it. And fiasco is such a great word--in general and for young readers to know.
  • It is written and illustrated by Dan Santat. He's the guy who created the gorgeous story and pictures in The Adventures of Beekle, so I knew he'd bring warmth and silliness to any and all characters in this book.
  • This book is in a new series called "Elephant and Piggie Like Reading! Series" This series is launched from the enormous success of the enormously wonderful Mo Willems' Elephant and Piggie books. While at first I was annoyed by the marketing of it, the books selected for this series are really great easy readers for readers who are making the big leap into reading by themselves.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Ms. Bixby's Last Day by John David Anderson

Ms. Bixby's Last Day by John David Anderson
Walden Pond Press

Rating: 5 stars

You've probably already realized that most middle grade books are about a quest. The recent Newbery winner The Inquisitor's Tale is about a handful of young children in the Middle Ages who need to escape persecution and save holy texts. In another middle grade I recently read with Lorelei, The Last Boy at St Edith's, the lone boy at an all-girls school embarks on a quest to get kicked out.

Ms. Bixby's Last Day involves a quest, too, and a wonderfully unique one. Here's the story:

Topher, Brand, and Steve are three boys whose teacher is "one of the great ones." They each appreciate Ms Bixby in a different, special, sweet way; I love how you don't get the full story of why they feel so drawn to her until later in the book. The story is told through alternating first person voice--each boy gets their own chapter and the story unfolds from these similar but yet different points of view. I love how this sheds light on their own individual story as well as the bigger one of which they're all a part.

Anyway, because they really like and respect her, they're sobered when Ms Bixby announces to the class that she has cancer. To make matters worse, she is then too sick to attend her own goodbye party. The boys decide this won't do; they need to go out, find her, and have a goodbye party for her wherever she is, since she can't come to them. 

The boys skip school and navigate through the real world to the hospital--with great adventures on the city streets that both boy and girl readers will lap up. But, like any good middle grade quest, the adventure is simply the way in which the characters learn about themselves and, in this one, a little more about each other.  

What's so great about this book? Two things:

First, I think it's hard for a middle grade book to be both emotional and funny. This book balances the emotional heaviness of the subject--a favorite teacher is going to die--with the quirkiness and grossness and silliness of middle school boys. It's a fantastic reminder to young and old readers alike that it's important to find a reason to smile and laugh in the face of hard times. And hard times will come to those young and old readers alike. My children have lost two great-uncles in the past two years, one dying from kidney cancer, the other dying from complications after a stroke. And yet, we find a reason to come together in our clan of five and with extended family to laugh and play and bond.

Second, I love that the main characters are boys. Boy books are so often full of boogers and poop and potty-mouth words, and while this book does sprinkle in a little bit of that here and there because...well, call me sexist but boys will be boys..., boys are also emotional beings. It seems obvious to point out that they are full of as wide a range of emotions as their female counterparts, but I think we grown-ups forget that. I love that Topher, Brand, and Steve feel so much for their teacher that they feel the need to go find her and say good-bye in a way that feels right to them.

The party that finally happens does involve Jack Daniels, which keeps that final goodbye chuckle-worthy. Though you might, like me, tear up as well.

One final note: Lorelei read this first, and then Ben and I started listening to the audiobook together on a long drive. He's not finished listening to it yet, but on our Spring Break we cozied up for 30-45 minutes at a time listening together. It was a nice break from me reading aloud to him--it put us on the same pillow.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Laundry Day

Laundry Day written and illustrated by Jessixa Bagley
Rating: 5 stars

Two badger brothers star in Laundry Day, a new picture book written and illustrated by Jessixa Bagley. Two badger brothers  start the book with a statement brothers (and sisters!) have been saying since the beginning of time: "I'm bored."

They're complaining to their mother--the receiver of all complaints since the beginning of time. They inform her they've already read all the books (and then again backwards), built a fort (and invaded it), and caught all the fish (and let the fish go). So, she does what this mother would do. She invites them to do a chore.

"Would you like to help me hang the laundry?" asks Ma Badger.

They've not done that! And yes, they would!

She shows them how and they hop right to it. Then she leaves to go to the market (I love this "picture book magic" that leaves the two of them parent-less and unsupervised) with the two badger brothers pinning shirts and sheets and socks and skirts. They are busy. They are happy.

Until they get to the problem of the story: they run out of clothes. And twine.

"TIC AND TAC! What have you done?!" she hollered.
No matter! They've got more twine! One badger brother strings some up, while another runs inside. They gather anything and everything their badger brother hands can find: aprons and mugs and spatulas from the kitchen, maps and framed pictures and a toy boat from the den, a toilet seat and tissue box and scissors from the bathroom.

These two brothers string up more twine so they can hang up more stuff. And this made me and Kiefer, two happy readers, chuckle as we paused to look at each silly item hung up to dry.

You can imagine Ma Badger's reaction. So, she does what this mother would do. She adds them to the line!

This is a cute and silly and all-round-great new picture book where the words and story are good but the pictures are spot-on and perfect. It invites you to sit down with the same book again and again and possibly find one new things these mischievous badger brothers strung up on the line together.