Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Brixton Brothers: The case of the case of mistaken identity by Mac Barnett, illustrated by Adam Rex

I am in love and laughing hysterically.

Some authors switch to new genres or reading levels and you wonder why. Why didn't they stick to what they knew best? But some authors are amazing Renaissance people of writing and can do everything. Authors like Mac Barnett, who has proven total mastery of the picture book in Billy Twitters and Guess Again! and now has taken hold of the middle grade mystery, kicked it across the room, grabbed it in a stranglehold, and forced it to release its secrets.

Steve Brixton idolizes his favorite mystery heroes, the Brixton Brothers. He hopes someday to be a detective just like them. But when a school assignment goes horribly wrong, Steve discovers that maybe being a detective isn't as easy as it looks. The entire book is a fascinating and hilarious spoof of the Hardy Boys, of course, but it also incorporates jokes on ALA READ posters, how-to books, and more!

Action, adventure, and constant hilarity along with Mac Barnett's trademark insane humor are perfectly matched to Adam Rex's slyly wicked illustrations. I nearly laughed myself sick when I saw the endpapers.

I am off to laugh some more and complete my New Year's Eve ritual of re-reading all the original Hardy Boys (and maybe parachute into Argentina, because I am a librarian and you know us - tougher than the FBI and far more impressive than the CIA)

I can't wait to get this book back to my library (it's another one I sneaked off the new shelf) and wave it in the faces of jaded reluctant readers.

Verdict: Recommended. So very recommended.

ISBN: 978-1416978152; Published October 2009 by Simon & Schuster; Borrowed from the library; Purchased for the library

Cybils Nominations for Easy Readers and Beginning Chapter Books

Well, the "public" part of my first Cybils panel is over! I have reviewed all 39 of the books nominated in this category. Phew! Shortlists will be announced January 1st, so that's something to look forward to, and I still have lots of book discussing to do with my fellow panelists!

Here is the grand list of titles and reviews. Thanks to all the publishers and authors who supplied review copies - I've also listed where they are going after we finish our weighty deliberations! I'm posting this in the interests of full disclosure and because I like to make lists.

Easy Readers

Beginning Chapter Books

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Circus Ship by Chris van Dusen; Crow Call by Lois Lowry

Circus Ship by Chris van Dusen

Today, (ok, this evening. whatever) I'm looking at two books I really didn't expect to like or be interested in at all. But I was surprised and delighted by their awesomeness. First, Circus Ship by Chris Van Dusen. Now, I know you are saying, "what? how can you not be a fan of the brilliance which is Dusen?" but my only exposure to this exuberant artist was through the one Mercy Watson book, which I read and reviewed for Cybils. You can probably sense a little "these pictures are cool, but what are they doing in a chapter book?" vibe going on there. Anyways. So, several people raved about Circus Ship, and it was on the front of the publisher's catalog and all, but somehow the cover just didn't really grab me. Plus, I had found out it rhymed. I am always suspicious of picture books that rhyme. So I waited until another library in our consortium had bought it and I borrowed it....and was wowed. The text has the perfect cadence and rhythm for reading aloud. Not too long, not too short. The rhymes are natural and unforced and skillfully weave dialogue and narrative together. The illustrations....ooooh. Van Dusen's glorious colors are all here, gleaming, sparkling, exploding off the page, even when dimmed by storms and menaced by evil villains. The slightly retro feel of the art skilfully gives the illustrations a realistic historical feel while the exuberant animals and bemused villagers place this fictionalized account of a real event firmly in fantasy land.

Verdict: Highly recommended, added to my order list, and onto the storytime roster!


ISBN: 978-0763630904; Published September 2009 by Candlewick; Borrowed from the library; Purchased for the library
Crow Call by Lois Lowry, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline

The second story is a complete change of pace. I glanced at a few reviews for this and thought scornfully "we don't need any more memoir picture books, let the adults buy them for themselves. I buy books for kids". Plus, although I loved and read often Lowry's Number the Stars, I was deeply scarred by the forcible reading and truly puerile discussion of Lowry's Giver in an unbelievably boring and infantile "children's literature class" in college. Let me simply say that the professor had previously taught third grade and leave it at that. At least it gave me an idea of what high school students suffer in literature classes *shudder*. Anyways.

But the more positive reviews I saw, the more I thought "well, I should at least look at it." So I looked at it and was entranced. This picture book is definitely for older readers and listeners. The lengthy text and nuanced narrative will be difficult for preschoolers or even kindergarteners to follow. But older children who have the patience for a longer story and an appreciation of language will be a rapt audience for this book. The story is evocative and emotional, although the language is plain and almost stark. A small girl tries to reconcile her memories of her father with the stranger who has returned from war. Together, she and her father rebuild their relationship and reconnect. Simple and yet deeply moving, capturing the pain of separation, the fragility of family relationships, and the wonder of the natural world. The pervasive browns, greys, and strong earth tones of the illustrations recreate the somber landscape of early winter but manage to thread the hope of returning life and joy throughout the story.

Verdict: Beautiful and moving, highly recommended

ISBN: 978-0545030359; Published October 2009 by Scholastic; Borrowed from the library

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Spells by Emily Gravett



Emily Gravett always manages to surprise me. I couldn't wait any longer to see her newest picture book, Spells, and requested it from another library. It's just....fascinating! Let's see, how can I describe this without giving anything anyway?

A little green frog with a big imagination finds a magical surprise. The reader gets an even bigger surprise after choosing the best ending for the.....frog?
Another marvelous Emily Gravett masterpiece, complete with sly puns, unique construction, clever illustrations (take a close look at the black background in the light) and final delicious touch.

Verdict: If your library is firmly against any kind of flaps or "novelty", this won't be wanted, but try to get it anyways. Delightful fun!

ISBN: 1416982701; Published October 2009 by Simon & Schuster; Borrowed from the library; Purchased for the library; Added to my personal wishlist

Monday, December 28, 2009

Fairy Tales: Persephone, Thumbelina, Snow White and The Snow Queen

In addition to re-reading all the Hardy Boys mysteries, I am reading with rapidity through the piles of accumulated library books stacked about my shelves. Here's a collection of fairy tales and myths I've been saving up to read and review.

This new version of Persephone, retold by Sally Pomme Clayton and illustrated by Virginia Lee has gorgeous illustrations but the text felt a little thin to me. It's a fairly simplified version of the myth with no reconstructions or additions. There's a short epilogue about how the myth - and pomegranates - figure in Greek society today.

Persephone retold by Sally Pomme Clayton, illustrated by Virginia Lee
ISBN: 978-0802853493; Published January 2009 by Eerdmans; Borrowed from the library
I scooped up this version of Thumbelina retold by Brian Alderson and illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline because I enjoyed the illustrations in Lowry's Crow Call. The retelling is excellent, keeping the flavor of Andersen's original story while using updated and accessible language, but I was disappointed by the illustrations. Thumbelina, for some reason, made me think continously of Alice in Wonderland. Lisbeth Zwerger's illustrations remain my favorite.

Thumbelina retold by Brian Alderson, illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline
ISBN: 978-0763620790; Published October 2009 by Candlewick; Borrowed from the library


I've been looking for the "right" version of Three Billy Goats Gruff, the story I remember from when I was a child, and I'm pretty sure I've found it! It's the original story, complete with gory threats and troll-destruction at the end and full of Marcia Brown's colorful and vivid illustrations.

Sensitive parents may be horrified by the terrifying troll and his even more terrible fate, but if you choose to tell this story instead of reading it, you can soften the ending, depending on your audience. There's a reason this is a classic folk tale; it has a wonderful cadence and this is a great retelling.

The Three Billy Goats Gruff, retold and illustrated by Marcia Brown
ISBN: 978-0156901505; This edition published February 1991 by Sandpiper; Borrowed from the library; Added to my personal wishlist
I don't remember where I heard about this new version of Snow White but it's a lovely one. I love North South publisher's works (except for Pfister, but that's a whole 'nother issue) and this lovely fairy tale is no exception. Greban's illustration are lively and warm, perfectly complementing the original tale. Which, I am pleased to say, is included in its entirety, from Snow White's begging the huntsman for her life to the wicked queen's gruesome end.

I realized we had almost nothing on Snow White, so I'm looking forward to adding this deliciously weird tale (come on, if you really think about Snow White, it's seriously WEIRD)

Snow White by the Brothers Grimm, illustrated by Quentin Greban
ISBN: 978-0735822573; Published October 2009 by NorthSouth; Borrowed from the library; Purchased for the library
Finally, I have an old tale illustrated by Bernadette Watts. The Snow Queen was gorgeous; I am putting this on my wishlist of books I want for myself. Some parts of the story have been changed; I missed the full explanation of Kay's challenge with the ice blocks and felt that most of the flavor and personality of the little robber girl had been smoothed away, but the splendid beauty of the illustrations more than makes up for any minor deficiencies in the text. For those not familiar with the Snow Queen, it's a long and somewhat complicated quest tale, similar to East of the Sun, but full of Andersen's characteristic storytelling genius.

The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen, retold and illustrated by Bernadette Watts
ISBN: 978-1558587793; Published September 1997 by NorthSouth (out of print); Borrowed from the library; Added to my personal wishlist

Friday, December 25, 2009

Polo and the Dragon & Polo and the Magician by Regis Faller

Two more Polo books! I've very fond of these almost wordless picture books whose stories are told in comic panels. I am still secretly planning to buy the rest of this series for the library and move them out of picture books and into juvenile graphic novels to sit next to Owly. I think Polo and Owly could be good friends.

I loved Polo and the Dragon - it's the funniest one I've read so far and I was delighted to see some sentient art ala Harold in this story of unexpected weather and even more unexpected meetings!

Polo and the Magician wasn't one of my favorites - I couldn't decide if the Magician was being mean or not and he seemed kind of scary. Maybe because the colors seem to be a little darker in this one.


Verdict: Polo is great fun if you want to introduce young children to comics, like sly humor and delightful imagination, or enjoy simple adventures that end at home.

Polo and the dragon
ISBN: 978-1596434981; Published September 2009 by Roaring Brook; Borrowed from the library; Added to the library's wishlist

Polo and the magician
ISBN: 978-1596434974; Published September 2009 by Roaring Brook; Borrowed from the library; Added to the library's wishlist

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Dusting off some Christmas treasures

At least half of my tbr pile is ex-library books I just had to read before saying a last, fond farewell. I read two of them last night and realized suddenly this morning....they were both Christmas books! Perfect. Here they are:

Daisy by Elizabeth Coatsworth, illustrated by Judith Gwyn Brown. Published in 1973, this little book is only 69 pages and full of Brown's evocative black and white sketches. But it's no beginning chapter book. The vocabulary and complex plot would be considered "too difficult" for today's beginning readers. If you, like me, are an Elizabeth Coatsworth fan and have read her fascinating and layered autobiography, Personal Geography, you'll recognize this as a story from her childhood. Daisy, the youngest of two sisters, is shy, awkward, and timid about trying new things. But when she slips out to hear a street singer and gets lost, she gains new confidence and feels that she has become a new person. Although this story takes place in Mexico right around Christmas, it's not really about Mexico or Christmas. It's about a young girl's experiences and how she begins to change as she grows up.

I saw three ships by Elizabeth Goudge, illustrated by Margot Tomes. This is a warm and cozy Christmas story. Little Polly, gone to live with her elderly aunts after her parents' death, is determined to honor Christmas custom and leave a door open for the three wise men. Her aunts are shocked and horrified at the idea of doing something so unladylike - and dangerous, for there is no MAN in the house, only THE HAT. But Polly, as always, gets her way and there are happy endings and delight for all as three ships come sailing in. This story is also fairly short in length and would make a nice read-aloud for several evenings before Christmas. It's sweetly old-fashioned and full of warm Christmas spirit.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Houndsley & Catina, Cork & Fuzz, Joe & Sparky, Annie & Snowball, Mr. Putter & Tabby, Cowgirl Kate & Cocoa

When Arnold Lobel introduced Frog and Toad to the world of easy readers, he set the pattern for a classic format that continues to pop up in easy readers again and again. In my group-Cybils-review today, I have several examples of that format.

First, the latest in the Houndsley and Catina saga, Plink and Plunk. This is closest to the F&G model, with two animal friends who enjoy doing things together but sometimes have differences. The illustrations are swashy with lots of blues and greens and the different animal characters are beautifully drawn. This is labeled as a "level 3" at my library, roughly 1st/2nd grade.

Verdict: A classic series that beginning readers will enjoy.

Houndsley and Catina: Plink and Plunk by James Howe, illustrated by Marie-Louise Gay
ISBN: 978-0763633851; Published August 2009 by Candlewick; Borrowed from the library; Purchased for the library
Our next story has a similar reading level and follows the F&G model as well. Cork and Fuzz, a muskrat and opossum, are good friends. But in Finders Keepers, Fuzz's love of collecting causes a problem when he insists on keeping Cork's green stone. Another cozy animal friendship story, pretty much the same reading level as Houndsley and Catina. My favorite, favorite part is the illustrations. Lisa McCue's characters are so delightfully fuzzy without being too cute. The color scheme here is greens and browns, settling in autumn.

Verdict: I discovered this series for our library recently and it's very popular!

Cork and Fuzz: Finders Keepers by Dori Chaconas, illustrated by Lisa McCue
ISBN: 978-0670011131; Published July 2009 by Viking; Borrowed from the library; Purchased for the library
Now, we have something a little different. For the kids who like the classic F&G but want something with a bit more zing, hand out the inimitable Joe and Sparky! Sparky is a stay-at-zoo turtle, while Joe likes new experiences and adventures. Their wild day out of the zoo is full of silly misunderstandings, sly humor, and the warm friendship of a classic F&G. Kids will enjoy giggling over Joe's innocent enjoyment as he leaves havoc behind him and Sparky's nervous protestations as he tries some new experiences.

Verdict: Lots of bright colors, especially yellows, make this wacky easy reader shine on the shelf!

Joe and Sparky Get new wheels by Jamie Michalak, illustrated by Frank Remkiewicz
ISBN: 978-0763633875; Published March 2009 by Candlewick; Borrowed from the library; Purchased for the library

Next, we have the Cynthia Rylant adaptation of the F&G with human friends and animal pets. In the latest Annie and Snowball (friends of Henry and Mudge) Annie finds something special: a bird's nest! Rylant perfectly captures the delight and fascination of watching the bird build the nest, lay eggs, and hatch out a family. There are plenty of touches of gentle humor. A warm and friendly story, Rylant easy reader fans will approve! Annie and Snowball is a lower reading level than the previous easy readers we've looked at, a level 1 or 2 in our library (can't remember exactly at the moment) about kindergarten to 1st grade.

Verdict: A popular series with fans of Henry and Mudge. Workable, if nothing out of the ordinary


Annie and Snowball and the cozy nest by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by Sucie Stevenson
ISBN: 978-1416939436; Published February 2009 by Simon; Review copy provided by the publisher

The second Rylant continuation we have in our nominations, is another addition to the equally popular Mr. Putter and Tabby series. Mr. Putter and his friend Mrs. Teaberry are very different characters, but they do have fun together! Mrs. Teaberry's latest educational and fun idea doesn't turn out quite like either of them expects; but it's certainly fun!

Verdict: This is the funniest of the Mr. Putter stories I've read and it's a welcome addition to non-traditional characters in children's literature. The reading level is perfect for 1st through 2nd grade.

Mr. Putter and Tabby spill the beans by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by Arthur Howard
ISBN: 978-0152050702; Published August 2009 by Harcourt; Borrowed from the library

Finally, we have a nice blend of the F&G and the Rylant Diversion with Cowgirl Kate and Cocoa - a girl and her talking horse. In this story, Cocoa decides to investigate the house; after all, her place is with Kate so she must belong in Kate's "stall"! Some things about the house are nice, but Cocoa realizes she belongs in the barn after all. This is a popular series at my library, full of the gentle friendship of an F&G with the added human touches of Rylant and lot of little laughs. The watercolor illustrations bring out the perky character of Cocoa and her faithful friend Kate perfectly.

Verdict: Excellent for the horse-loving 1st or 2nd grader.

Cowgirl Kate and Cocoa: Horse in the house by Erica Silverman, illustrated by Betsy Lewin
ISBN: 978-0152053901; Published April 2009 by Harcourt; Borrowed from the library

Overall Verdict: And there you have it, six easy readers in the classic pattern! These are all great choices for the beginning reader looking for a fun series to read. The series are excellent quality throughout and perfect for the emerging reader!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Dinosaur Hunt by David Catrow

And now....a little gem. I've burbled about this one before Cybils, but now I'd like to take a closer look.

Max Spaniel is not a dog. Oh no, not at all. He is a dinosaur hunter! He has many different ways to hunt and lots of equipment, but in the end all he needs is a little imagination and a lot of found objects and...Dinosaur!!

The text is well-suited for a beginning reader, with a little help on long words like "dinosaur". The illustrations and text are very closely aligned, each sentence either illustrated or contrasted by its corresponding illustration. This is David Catrow's first book and he's created delightfully silly text to match his exuberant drawings. Max Spaniel is inherently doggie, but he's also every kid, on a great adventure with whatever comes to hand....or paw.

Verdict: Highly recommended


ISBN: 978-0545057486; Published August 2009 by Orchard Books; Review copy provided by the publisher for Cybils; Purchased for the library

Monday, December 21, 2009

Snowy Sports: Ready, Set, Play! by Per-Henrik Gurth

I'm not quite sure what to make of this book - or where one would catalog it. Each page names a winter sport, gives a brief action sentence, and shows a winter item, usually clothing, but sometimes a piece of equipment for the sport.

The introductory spread shows various animals getting dressed and the sports listed throughout the book are ice skating, sledge hockey, hockey, speed skating, curling, bobsleigh, skeleton (apparently a type of sledding), luge, downhill skiing, ski jumping, freestyle skiing, snowboarding, and cross-country skiing. The illustrations are thick and swirling, with lots of bright colors, featuring various anthropomorphic animals.

The thing is, while you can get a general idea of what the sport is about by looking at the pictures, if you're not familiar with these sports, it's really difficult to figure out what they're doing. Although I live in Wisconsin now, I grew up in Texas; as far as I can tell, they're all sliding down hills on various implements. I'm sure there's more to it than that, but...the accompanying text doesn't really help; for "freestyle skiing" the text is "Twist and flip through the air!" and the inset box shows ski poles. For "skeleton" (which I looked up online) the text is "Rocket along the curve--zoom!" and the inset box shows gloves.

Verdict: What I'm most doubtful about is the audience for this book. An older audience is going to want more facts and information about the various sports. But, as I said above, you really have to know something about these sports to figure out what's going on, and while younger kids may enjoy the animals and the action sentences, they're going to have difficulty figuring out what's happening. Perhaps it would be useful as an extra book for a unit on winter or winter sports for kindergarten or 1st grade?

ISBN: 978-1553373674; Published September 2009 by Kids Can Press; Review copy provided by the publisher through Raab Associates

Friday, December 18, 2009

Good Dog, Aggie by Lori Ries, illustrated by Frank Dormer

Good Dog, Aggie is the sequel to Aggie and Ben: Three Stories, in which we meet a little boy and his cute - and often confused - pup Aggie.

In Aggie and Ben's three new chapter stories, Ben is struggling to teach Aggie to obey simple commands; sit and stay. Sometimes she gets it; more often she doesn't. Ben's patience and determination is matched only by Aggie's lovable stubborness. There are plenty of laughs but ultimately this is a story of love and perseverance.

Frank Dormer's pen, ink, and watercolor illustrations are full of unexpected shapes and colors, from an outragedely orange teacher to Ben's vibrant purple friend Mr. Thomas.

Verdict: Equally charming as a read-aloud, this quiet little series has staying power - I hope we'll be seeing more Aggie and Ben for a long time!

ISBN: 978-1570916458; Published February 2009 by Charlesbridge; Review copy provided by the publisher for Cybils

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Elephant and Piggie (series) by Mo Willems

Well, here we are. Mo Willems. Three Elephant and Piggie books nominated for Cybils. What can I say? I mean, have you ever seen a bad review of Mo Willems? I didn't think so. And this first one here, Are You Ready to Play Outside? Geisel winner. I may not pay much attention to Newberys and stuff like that, but Geisels never go on our shelves....because they're always checked out. Well, I will try.

Just in case you thought Elephant was always uptight and Piggie was always flexible and fun....here's Piggie in a rage because of the rain while Elephant knows just how to adapt. Lovely clean lines, humor in each little squiggly eyebrow, and spot-on child voices.


Now in this story, Piggie is ready to teach Elephant a new skill. Elephant is not sure this is a good idea; but he's willing to try. And try. And try. Until it just doesn't work! Or does it?

Um...I need to say something else. Let's see.....well, on top of recommending Elephant and Piggie to rabid comic fans who want to start their kids out early, kids who want funny easy readers, kids who love Mo Willems picturebooks, parents who love Mo Willem's picturebooks....Elephant and Piggie make great duologues! They're my go-to books when teachers or kids need something simple that two kids can do. The dialogue is all there - all you need to add is expression!

Ah, now my favorite. Still my favorite despite having read it twenty or more times at my summer reading promotions last May. I have the whole thing memorized. I can do it in my sleep. Funny voices and all. That delicious moment when the ball plops and the kids shriek with laughter...beautiful. Just beautiful.

Verdict: Haven't read Elephant and Piggie? Your life is a barren waste and verging on pointless. These are the rare easy readers that aren't just for beginning readers, they're perfect for all ages. Read them aloud as picturebooks, hand them to an older child on a bad day, use them in your high school theater class, or curl up with a big stack to relax and recapture the wonder, despair, and hilarity of childhood.


Watch me throw the ball!
ISBN: 978-1423113485; Published March 2009 by Hyperion; Review copy provided by the publisher for Cybils

Are you ready to play outside?
ISBN: 978-1423113478; Published October 2008 by Hyperion; Review copy provided by the publisher for Cybils

Elephants cannot dance!
ISBN: 978-1423114109; Published June 2009 by Hyperion; Review copy provided by the publisher for Cybils

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Puzzle King by Nina Cordelia Craft, illustrated by Hillie Dijk

There are some good bones to this story, but it needs some work. The basic story is a sweet fairy tale. A king, obsessed with puzzles, sets his sorcerer the task of finding a bride for him. The sorcerer discovers a magical puzzle and once the king and his subjects have put it together, it frees the princess from a spell and the king has his bride.

There are only a few illustrations; the cover has a kind of watercolor effect and there are small black and white illustrations at the beginning of each chapter.

The story is written in a high fantasy style, which means that some of the vocabulary is going to be too difficult for beginning readers. The descriptions are a bit long-winded and elaborate and many feel cliched. The sections about the sorcerer don't quite fit in with the rest of the plot and there are several loose ends; why is the sorcerer sad? How does the kingdom run if everyone sits around putting together puzzles all day?

But, as I said, there are possibilities in this story! The basic plot of a king finding his princess by putting a puzzle together is intriguing and the side plots of the sorcerer's books are fun and light-hearted. Although the language is a bit convoluted and lengthy, the author has some good turns of description and and plenty of imaginative sparks. I can see the puzzle king plot making an excellent picture book, once the story has been pared down and with a good illustrator. The sorcerer and his books might be a fun middle grade fantasy with some additions to the plot and more character development.

Verdict: I wouldn't recommend this book as is, but I suggest keeping an eye on the author; she has possibilities!

ISBN: 978-1608601493; Published June 2009 by Eloquent Books; Review copy provided by author for Cybils

Monday, December 14, 2009

Chasing George Washington, Based on the play by Karen Zacarias and Deborah Wicks La Puma, adapted by Ronald Kidd, illustrated by Ard Hoyt

This book has a worthwhile motive, making the history of the White House live for contemporary kids. Unfortunately, it tries to do this by giving historical characters contemporary speech and behaviors and tacking a string of historical facts onto an extremely thin plot.

Three students are on a White House tour; Dee from the suburbs who enjoys and flaunts her family's new wealth, Jose who lives in a crowded apartment building with his loving family and relatives, and Annie, a recent immigrant from Poland. The tour guide is giving the most boring tour of all time, telling the children about antique furniture and dishes and the security guard, Mr. Flower is on the lookout for any breaking of rules.

When the three children accidentally knock the portrait of George Washington off the wall, a wild chase ensues with Mr. Flower trying to get him back in his frame as they race through history and meet some of the children who have lived in the White House. They end up helping Lincoln sign the Emancipation Proclamation and seeing the portrait being saved by Dolley Madison. George Washington ends up back in his protrait and the students now have a better understanding, appreciation, and enjoyment of White House.

This story is based on a play and while I can see it working well as a school play, as a beginning chapter book it's weak and pounds in its moral with a two-ton hammer. Also, this book hits on one of my rant-buttons for books - putting contemporary language into the mouths of historical characters and giving them contemporary motives and behaviors. Yes, George Washington was a real person; a good biography can give you plenty of information about his life that shows him as a human, not just a hero of the American Revolution. But he'd never say "Hey, I like smiling...It feels good." Sheesh.

Verdict: I'd suggest Ron Roy's Capital Mysteries for kids who like historical facts and information mixed into their stories. There are also many, many excellent historical fiction and nonfiction picture books that are a suitable reading level for beginning readers.

ISBN: 978-1416948582; Published September 2009 by Simon and Schuster; Review copy provided by the publisher for Cybils

Friday, December 11, 2009

Harley Quinn's Shocking Surprise by Blake Hoena, illustrated by Dan Schoening

This is the newest installment in a chapter book series of Batman and Robin's adventures. In this story, Robin is bored at home, procrastinating on his homework while Batman's out on a call, when the alarm goes off. Robin answers the alarm, falls into a trap, and becomes the main event at Harley Quinn's surprise birthday party for the Joker. With a little help from Batman, Robin escapes and they're ready for another adventure!

There's a little more character development and interaction in this story than in, say Zac Power, but it's basically the same structure - plenty of fast-paced action, a few jokes, and some familiar characters to entice reluctant readers. Readers will need to know some basic information about the Batman story to follow the plot, but there's a quick bio in the back about Harley Quinn, whom not all readers are likely to know. The illustrations are colored full-page spreads highlighting some of the high-action moments of the story.

These are, by the way, NOT graphic novels. I've had multiple people tell me they're comics and they're NOT. They're illustrated beginning chapter books. Just because they're about superheroes and contain colored illustrations doesn't make them a comic or graphic novel.

Verdict: These are fun filler reading for superhero fans and reluctant readers. You can also hand them out to parents who don't want their superhero-fan kids to read comics.

ISBN: 978-1434215628; Published August 2009 by Capstone; Review copy provided by the publisher for Cybils

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Gruffen by Chris D'Lacey, illustrated by Adam Stower

The Dragons of Wayward Crescent are set in the same quasi-magical world as the popular Last Dragon Chronicles but are aimed at a younger audience.

Nine-year-old Lucy and her mother Mrs. Pennykettle live in a mostly ordinary house - except for the dragons. Mrs. Pennykettle is a potter and sculptor and, among other things, creates marvelous dragon sculptures. What no one but Lucy and Mrs. Pennykettle knows is that some are special; some are alive. When Lucy is scared by a mysterious shadow flitting about her room, her mom makes her a special guard dragon. After some initial mishaps, Gruffen catches the mysterious shadow, which turns out to be a bat. With the help of a bat expert and after a few more Gruffen-mishaps, the bats are given a safe home and Gruffen has fulfilled his mission to protect.

This beginning chapter book is on the older end of the spectrum, sprinkled with small black and white, slightly cartoonish illustrations, and focusing mainly on the text. Previous fans of D'Lacey may be interested in reading this short stories, but a reader who isn't familiar with D'Lacey's world may become bored by the lengthy explanations of the mechanics. There's a lot of foreshadowing, we'll get to it in another story-ing, and the frightening monster turns out to be another wildlife rescue project for Lucy and her mom.

Verdict: Kids who like gentle fantasy reads and animals with a little touch of humor and don't mind wading through a couple slow chapters will enjoy this, but it's not going to grab reluctant or easily discouraged readers. Kids who enjoy this series will probably also eventually like the series for older readers, which is more of the same with a little more drama thrown in.

ISBN: 978-0545168151; Published September 2009 by Orchard; Borrowed from the library; Purchased for the library

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

City of Fire by Laurence Yep

I was just going to read a few chapters before I went to bed.....yawn. Pardon me, but I'm not used to staying up reading until 2am! However, I couldn't resist finishing this fast-paced and exciting middle grade fantasy.

Bayang is pursuing a centuries-old bloody mission. Koko and Leech just want to survive. Scirye, in a moment of grief, has made a rash vow to her goddess. Wherever Scirye goes, her griffin Kles goes also. If they want to achieve their goals and destroy the evil dragon Badik and his mysterious master, they must put aside their differences and learn to work together.

There's no lengthy world-building or description to slow down the reader; we're plunged immediately into a world similar and yet vastly different from our own, full of magic and strange creatures, from griffins to shapechangers, trolls to walking shark-people. Laurence Yep skillfully weaves his world-building into the adventure and as the reader is pulled along by the action we're fed fascinating bits of information about history, magic, and seemingly mythical creatures.

Following the trail of the thief Badik, the group of friends end up near Hawaii, where they will meet a powerful and unpredictable goddess and her allies. Each member of the group has prejudices and fears to set aside; each character must overcome their shortcomings and fear if they are going to survive and be successful in their mission.

An afterword and bibliography directs readers to the historical sources of many of the people, events, and geographies included in the story and eager readers will be on tenterhooks waiting for the next book in the series!

There's a nice mixture of high fantasy romance and adventure fantasy action which will please a variety of readers. I did feel that the "Cloud Folk" were a bit Oz-ish for the story, but that's a minor quibble.

Verdict: Fantasy fans, especially those who like the emphasis on adventure and action, will love this story as will fans of magical creatures and those who like complex world-building that's not too overpowering.

ISBN: 978-0765319241; Published September 2009 by Starscape; Review copy provided by publisher; Purchased for the library

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Nana Cracks the Case by Kathleen Lane, concept by Cabell Harris, illustrated by Sarah Horne

Nana, not content to decay into old-lady-hood as her daughter Elaine would like, has found another job - this time as a detective. With the help of her grandchildren, Eufala and Bog, she sets out to solve the case of the candy stealer.

This rollicking and rather wandering story includes lots of candy, naughty children, stupid adults, unhappy policemen, and a tough old Nana who's intent on experiencing everything she can. But she's also elderly; she forgets things, gets lost, makes mistakes, and often acts in an extremely childlike way, which means she fits right in with....

Her grandchildren Eufala and Bog. They have some genuinely funny moments, such as when forbidden by their worrywart mother to open the front door "Never in a million years would they have so much as touched the doorknob of the front door. Anyhow, why open the front door when the kitchen window worked just as well--and, they had found, was much less likely to draw the attention of neighbors." Their mischievous naughtiness quickly degenerates into a series of unpleasant and greedy misbehaviors.

The illustrations are full of maps, odd items, and caricatured characters. The best and most humorous part of the illustrations are the end-papers, designed to look like want ads. Once you've read the book, you'll realize that some of them are jobs Nana has had which haven't worked out exactly as she planned!

Verdict: This book isn't really a mystery. It's a nonsense of irresponsibility. Nana, Eufala and Bog, the policeman, even the children's mother, all act in the most outrageous and insane ways, clearly showing the reader they're not meant to be taken seriously. If you like the weird and wacky with plenty of humor, you may enjoy this quick and kooky read. Hand this out to fans of Horrid Henry and incipient Series of Unfortunate Events readers.

ISBN: 978-0811862585; Published April 2009 by Chronicle; Borrowed from the library

Monday, December 7, 2009

Nonfiction Monday: Animal fact series from Kids Can Press

Today for Nonfiction Monday, I'm looking at samples from two animal fact series for younger readers and listeners.

The first, Have You Ever Seen an Octopus with a Broom? is one of the "Have You Ever Seen" series, which compares and contrasts animal and human behavior. This specific volume talks about tools and shows how octopi clean their homes, herons fish, chimpanzees clean themselves, otters crack shells, and more. The text is simple and explanatory, with a repeated form "have you ever seen a --- with a ---? That's silly", then a brief sentence about how a human uses a tool and a short paragraph on the corresponding animal behavior. I wasn't particularly thrilled with the illustrations; they felt dark and forced and the human faces, in particular, were odd. They all have large brown blobs for noses. There is a simple game you can play with the endpapers, but no other additional material or sources.

Verdict: If you need more animal fact series for a younger audience, the text is interesting, and others may enjoy the illustrations more than I did.

Have You Ever Seen an Octopus with a broom? by Etta Kaner, illustrated by Jeff Szuc
ISBN: 978-1554532476; Published September 2009 by Kids Can Press; Review copy provided by the publisher through Raab Associates
I've seen a few reviews of this second series, Who Lives Here?, which talks about the animals that live in various habitats (I know, they call them biomes or some such thing nowadays, but I grew up saying habitats). I've lusted after the Forest Animals volume in particular, which features a chickadee on the cover. I am very fond of chickadees. I was pleased to see this series definitely deserves the positive reviews and I hope to add the rest of the series to my library soon. The book begins with a simple explanation of a Savanna then describes a series of animals, including elephants, giraffes, meerkats, ostriches, and the black mamba. There is a simple vocabulary exercise in the back and a more detailed explanation of savannas for parents and teachers. The art is simple but realistic. Each spread shows a large picture of the animal, corresponding with its description, then three small inset circles showing a particular part of the animal and more facts; for instance, the zebra shows a close-up of its teeth, stripes, and a baby zebra.

Verdict: The simple text, easily divided, is excellent for use in storytime or for simple homework assignments. Children who enjoy animal fact books will be happy with this simple but engrossing series. Strongly recommended!

Savanna Animals by Deborah Hodge, illustrated by Pat Stephens
ISBN: 978-1554530731; Published August 2009 by Kids Can Press; Review copy provided by the publisher through Raab Associates

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Christmas Favorites

Just in time for a trip to the library before the Christmas rush...here are my Christmas favorites!



In order of their appearance:
  • The Tasha Tudor Christmas Book: Take Joy!
  • I Saw Three Ships by Elizabeth Goudge, illustrated by Margot Tomes
  • The Snowman by Jacques Duquennoy
  • Pippin the Christmas Pig by Jean Little, illustrated by Werner Zimmerman
  • Millie in the Snow by Alexander Steffensmeier (hilarious!)
  • Minerva Louise on Christmas Eve by Janet Morgan Stoeke
  • The Christmas Day Kitten by James Herriot, illustrated by Ruth Brown (a little sad but sweet)
  • Star Mother's Youngest Child by Louise Moeri, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman
  • How Six Found Christmas by Trina Schart Hyman
  • Christmas Poems by Myra Cohn Livingston, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman
  • A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman
  • A Child's Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman
  • The Runaway Sleigh Ride by Astrid Lindgren
  • Christmas in the Stable by Astrid Lindgren, illustrated by Harold Wilkon (I think)
  • The Song of the Christmas Mouse by Shirley Rousseau Murphy, illustrated by Donna Diamond
  • A Newbery Christmas edited by Martin H. Greenburg and Charles Waugh
  • The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree by Gloria Houston, illustrated by Barbara Cooney
  • The Story of Holly & Ivy by Rumer Godden, illustrated by Barbara Cooney
  • How the Hibernators Came to Bethlehem by Norma Farber, illustrated by Barbara Cooney
  • The Church Mice at Christmas by Graham Oakley (hilarious!)
  • Christmas in Noisy Village by Astrid Lindgren, illustrated by Ilon Wikland
  • The Birds' Christmas Carol by Kate Douglass Wiggins (very sad)
  • Letters from Father Christmas by J. R. R. Tolkien
  • The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus by L. Frank Baum
  • Corgiville Christmas by Tasha Tudor
  • Christmastime by Sandra Boynton (hilarious!)
  • A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger
  • The Twelve Days of Christmas [correspondence] by John Julius Norwich, illustrated by Quentin Blake (hilarious, but not really for little ones)
  • The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson
  • Teddy Bear Postman by Phoebe and Sally Worthington
  • The Tailor of Gloucester by Beatrix Potter
  • The Snowman by Raymond Briggs
  • Merry Christmas, Ernest and Celestine by Gabrielle Vincent
  • The Christmas Stories of George MacDonald, illustrated by Linda Hill Griffith (some of these stories are very sad)
  • The Great Christmas Kidnapping Caper by Jean van Leeuwen, illustrated by Steven Kellogg (hilarious!)
  • Fell Farm for Christmas by Marjorie Lloyd
  • The Christmas Party by Adrienne Adams
So there you have my Christmas picks! Many of these are out of print and obscure, so you have the added joy of looking for these treasures (-:)