Marty Frye, Private Eye

mary frye cover

Marty Frye, Private Eye:

The Case of the Missing Action Figure

By Janet Tashjian, Illustrated by Laurie Keller

 

Published by: Henry Holt and Co. (BYR); Revised edition (June 27, 2017)

Available in: hardcover, paperback

At the time of this review, there were two books in the Marty Frye, Private Eye series.

 

Poetic.

Marty Frye, Private Eye: The Case of the Missing Action Figure follows an inquisitive kid who likes to rhyme while he solves crime. His quirky, simple, and rhythmic adventures are endearing and sweet, and just right for the early chapter book reader.

The book’s art direction aids the newly independent reader with text that is bold and big, and bubble quotes interspersed within the prose (especially when our protagonist is rhyming). Combined with quirky, loose illustrations that echo comics, the look is friendly and jovial. The text, also, is early-reader friendly, with very short sentences and frequent breaks, both for three major sections and chapter breaks within these sections.

What makes the book bop along, though, is our hero, Marty. He’s interested and smart, but not a prodigy. He’s a normal kid with curiosity, a love of language, and eyes firmly on the world around him. The cases he solves are nothing crazy or life-threatening, just stuff in a kid’s world: a lost diary, and missing toys and art supplies. And, charmingly, he makes mistakes (“Give me a break. I made a mistake.”)

This is just the right mix of tension, humor, and easy reading that will entice young minds to follow along. Who can resist a kid whose motto is, “Give me the facts so I can follow the tracks.”

Lead on, young sir.

What do you say teachers, parents and writers? Use the comment below and let’s chat….

 

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The Ember Stone: A Branches Book (The Last Firehawk #1)

firehawk

The Ember Stone:

A Branches Book (The Last Firehawk #1)

By Katrina Charman, Illustrated by Jeremy Norton 

 

Published by: Scholastic Inc. (September 26, 2017)

Available in: paperback, library binding, Kindle, NOOK

At the time of this review, there were four books in The Last Firehawk series.

 

Magical.

The Ember Stone, the first book in the captivating new The Last Firehawk fantasy series, is simply a stunner. The story embraces the big concepts of good versus evil, small versus big, fear versus courage… all the great, powerful themes that propel master works before it (more on those later). This exquisitely crafted book exhibits a maturity of prose, concept, and art direction while staying true to the chapter book concept: exactly where newly independent readers need it in vocabulary, topic, simplicity, art production, and excitement.

The story owes much to specific plot points, themes, and overarching concepts of both classic and contemporary seminal works: Goldilocks and the Three Bears, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, and more. And yet, this is no copycat, mini-production for the young set. The protagonists are endearing, young animals of both the natural and imaginary worlds who are forthright, comic, courageous, and unique characters. The quest is evocative of historical themes, but quickly carves a path all its own. The lightning-fast pace, dramatic tension, inherent suspense, and page-turning joy propel this probably faster than young minds think they can read.

But perhaps the most immediately stunning aspect are the deft, intricate illustrations: these beauties glow off the page. The fact that they are black and white brings no diminishment to their sheer luminosity. The delight is that the illustrations are generous and consuming: they drape and envelope every page.

The end matter provides questions, much like those provided to literary novels for adult book clubs. And notably, the book has an environmental/healthy habitat subtext perfectly suited for young readers’ comprehension.

Is it too early to declare a masterpiece? Not here.

What do you say teachers, parents and writers? Use the comment below and let’s chat….

Captain Pug

captain pug cover

Captain Pug (The Adventures of Pug)

By Laura James, Illustrated by Eglantine Ceulemans

  

Published by: Bloomsbury USA Childrens (March 14, 2017)

Available in: paperback, hardcover, Kindle, Nook

At the time of this review, there were three books in The Adventures of Pug series.

 

Snort.

Captain Pug is a rollicking, drooling cruise for crumbs and other adventures. While at first glance it seems this is a book especially good for girls, by the end it shows itself quite a seaworthy vessel for boys, as well.

The text is short and easy, featuring playful romps through madcap scenes mostly from the point of view of our hero, the pug. Consider this a beginning chapter book for those kids just transitioning into independent reading. Also consider this a focused tutorial on the priorities of a pug—food driven at all times.

And yet, this is not a simple story of a dog yearning for treats. The plot is rich with original action and perfectly timed humor that make this more than a silly caper.  A keen use of stylized typeface to highlight important words also adds depth.

The contemporary tale is sweetly evocative of historic storybook fiction with the use of a regal miss, who at first seems bossy and peevish but proves herself a real plucky upstart. The appearance of royalty is not the only nod to books gone by—the illustrations echo two classic picture books, Madeleine and Eloise. The bouncy, free drawings propel the eye across the page with the same momentum crafted into the prose.  And like Eloise, the book uses restrained color, opting for a three-color process that is gay and bright without being overly designed. The whole package comes together in a marvelous frolic.

Kudos as well to illustrator Ceulemans, for capturing the perfect, romanticized depiction of the classic pug-sit pose.

What do you say teachers, parents and writers? Use the comment below and let’s chat….

The Zero Degree Zombie Zone

ZombieZone

The Zero Degree Zombie Zone

By Patrik Henry Bass, Illustrated by Jerry Craft

 

Published by: Scholastic Press (August 26, 2014)

Available in: paperback, library binding, Kindle, Nook

At the time of this review, this was a standalone book.

 

Freeze out.

The Zero Degree Zombie Zone deftly combines a typical school day of math and social drama with a fantasy adventure featuring zombies. Bullies collide with monsters, and it takes some real trust in friendship and the love of a special grandpa to save the world. You know, the usual.

There’s a lot to like in this book. Zombies are trendy characters in pop culture, but they’ve yet to be standard in chapter books. The zombies here are just right—not too scary, not too tame.  The first appearance is a real shocker. Our hero, Bakari, is nervous about being nominated for hall monitor, so he needs to use a bathroom pass. Once out of his packed classroom and in the empty hall, Bakari is accosted by a frightening ice zombie, Zenon, who knocks Bakari down and demands something Bakari doesn’t have. Inventive and bold, the plot continues this flip flop from contemporary to alternate reality throughout.

The small cast of characters (all school children and their teacher) play out a familiar conflict of arch nemesis, side kick, best friend, and “loser” protagonist, while the zombies keep crashing the known world with truly high stakes. It forces the kids to work together and see each other for more than their stereotypes. It’s a smooth and yet unique and exciting story arch.

Without mention of the fact in any way other than names and illustrations, the book uses only African American children. This unremarkable treatment is inspiring and welcome.  Often, books that feature ethnically diverse characters take the opportunity to teach cultural lessons. That’s important. But it’s also refreshing to see students portrayed simply as students without a virtual asterisk of explanation within the text and story.

The prose is more difficult vocabulary, and can be considered a bridge from chapter book to middle grade: it looks like a chapter book, reads like a chapter book, but is longer and has fewer pictures than a beginning chapter book. With the students in the story fourth graders, this all makes good sense. But, there are language issues I don’t like, and perhaps this is something each teacher and parent needs to weigh for themselves. Students use the words “gonna” and “gotta” fairly frequently, and the mild cuss word “crap” is used a few times.

What do you say teachers, parents and writers? Use the comment below and let’s chat….

Beatrice Zinker, Upside Down Thinker

beatrice cover

Beatrice Zinker, Upside Down Thinker

By Shelley Johannes

 

Published by: Disney-Hyperion (September 19, 2017)

Available in: Hardcover, Kindle, Nook

At the time of this review, this was a standalone book, but a series is planned.

 

“Look out, world… Beatrice is on the loose!”

Beatrice Zinker, Upside Down Thinker shows the upside of original thinking. This tumultuous, topsy-turvy chapter book heralds the arrival of an inventive, joyous new girl-centric series that so far is an upright delight. Book one in the series is new this fall.

The prose is poetic in both rhythm and, sometimes, rhyme, which lends a slight feeling of picture book as the story begins. As the text morphs into longer paragraphs and more complex subplots, the picture-book feeling fades, but not to the detriment of pacing. The characters evolve with subtle complexity, humor, and pathos. The story is a Ferris wheel ride: first jolting fun, then a larger world view, which turns into a stomach-dropping descent into the unknown, followed by a soft landing back at the beginning… only now tempered with a more layered, rich experience.

Halloween gets a quick spotlight in the beginning of the story, so this is a good choice for October reading.

This is the debut book for author Johannes, and kudos to her bold work. Within the confines of the chapter book format and basically one day at school, Beatrice experiences numerous important concepts. There’s friend trouble, girl-centric drama, sadness and surprise at relationship evolution, disappointment, and thrilling excitement. Where Beatrice shines is how she reacts to these challenges. She’s a girl who exhibits compromise, gumption, solid priorities, creative solutions, the foresight to fake it until she makes it, and the best pick-yourself-up-by-the-sock-puppet scene in the chapter book world.

When Beatrice’s older sister, Kate, tells her that their mother is sure to not let Beatrice wear her ninja suit to school because she looks like a criminal, Beatrice says, “No, I don’t… I look like me.” Just watch as young Beatrice uses stealth and cunning to steal her way into young readers’ hearts.

What do you say teachers, parents and writers? Use the comment below and let’s chat….

 

Lola Levine: Drama Queen

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Lola Levine: Drama Queen

By Monica Brown, Illustrated by Angela Dominguez

 

Published by: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (January 5, 2016)

Available in: hardcover, paperback, Kindle, NOOK

At the time of this review, there were three books in the Lola Levine Series.

 

 

A natural act.

Lola Levine: Drama Queen melds an outsize personality, acting lessons, and an easy cultural mix into one smooth play.

Our protagonist, the effervescent Lola, is precocious without being snarky. She’s kind and brave, even when she fails. She’s a witty thinker, which is a joy to read, and her family is quirky enough to be interesting and solid enough to be comfortable. They love each other, even when it’s hard. This little girl stands out in the chapter book crowd from sheer force of personality (and, maybe, volume of voice).

The book easily integrates cultures (in this case, both Jewish and Latino), something done too rarely in chapter books. We see this in the references to food and heroes (e.g., Dolores Huerta, farm activist), as well as in the inventive use of the epistolary format. Lola both writes letters—real letters, not texts or emails—to her bubbe in Florida, as well as keeps a diary. Each diary entry begins with “Dear Diario,” and ends with “Shalom.”

There is fun, smart wordplay used throughout the book. Classic growing-up moments are introduced with precise timing and subtle context within the story (think bubble gum, hair, and scissors). And acting lessons, such as improvisation games and role playing, are introduced in ways that let Lola’s personality shine.

What do you say teachers, parents and writers? Use the comment below and let’s chat….

 

 

Secret Agents Jack & Max Stalwart: Book 1

stalwart cover

Secret Agents Jack and Max Stalwart: Book 1

The Battle for the Emerald Buddha: Thailand

By Elizabeth Singer Hunt, Illustrations by Brian Williamson

 

Published by: Weinstein Books (July 25, 2017)

Available in: paperback, Kindle, audible

At the time of this review there were two books in the Secret Agents Jack & Max Stalwart series. There are a number of related books in The Secret Agent Jack Stalwart series and The Secret Agent Training Manual series.

 

Power punch.

Secret Agents Jack & Max Stalwart is a new series that wastes no time pulling kids into an adrenaline-filled, contemporary, criminal-and-detective caper that is relevant, educational, and exhilarating. With art history, geography, and social studies throughout, it’s a bit like hiding vegetables in pizza—both parents and kids will be happy.

Author Singer Hunt has proven she knows the secret code to page-turning intrigue in children’s writing. Her previous series, with the older brother from this series as the protagonist, has an impressive sales history and was serialized by BBC Radio. The author keeps things simple while imbuing the text with current references and fast-paced action. Her characters use cool new accessories like a burner cell phone that can’t be traced by police and the grill a young criminal wears on his teeth. And yet, the prose is straightforward, with short sentences and relatively simple vocabulary.

The illustrations by Brian Williamson, unassuming black & white drawings, are edgy enough to be current and bring a clean, forward motion to the page.

I love that the boys, both good and bad, are powerful, independent, and free to make big mistakes and serious contributions. These kids are shown respect by the author. Exciting story components, like tigers, boat escapes, and subterfuge, keep the story moving with ingenuity and pace. In solving the crime, the protagonists show cleverness and daring (and a funny bit of comedy), but they’re also on a vacation with their parents. So although this particular story is unlike what most kids experience, it’s easy to see a connection with other nine- and 12-year-olds.

There are a number of terrific additional content pages, with a map, glossary, explanation of Thai facts, and more. A small gripe, I don’t like that they’re placed in the front of the book, which makes it feel crowded. Also, the typeface is a bit hard to read. But these are minor critiques in an otherwise excellent, daring-duo adventure sure to excite kids—especially boys—into the world of reading.

What do you say teachers, parents, and writers? Use the comment below and let’s chat….