Marvin Redpost

redpost cover

Marvin Redpost #1: Kidnapped at Birth?

By Louis Sachar, Illustrated by Neal Hughes

 

Published by: Random House Books for Young Readers; Reissue edition (June 1, 2011)

Available in: paperback, school & library binding, Kindle, NOOK

At the time of this review there were eight books in this series.

 

Marvin is a prince.

In Marvin Redpost’s first installment, Kidnapped at Birth?, we find a prince of a character, full of simple dreams, understated wit, and endearing charm. Who hasn’t thought, for just a moment, that his family is not his family… that he was kidnapped at birth and really belonged to a different, better family? This basic premise, such a common childhood fantasy, is used to great heights by the gifted Louis Sachar, author of the middle grade masterpiece, Holes.

What Sachar does with deft skill is create a character, plot and denouement that are simple enough for the chapter book format and yet not dumbed down. The sentences are short, but the power of each is strong. The vocabulary is simple, but the meaning is poignant. The ending is quick and endearing, but still unexpected and a delightful surprise.

As a reviewer of chapter books, I can tell you that most writers struggle with the balance of simple text and deep meaning. Sachar seems to soar within these restraints. Marvin Redpost is a joy to tag along with. And even though this is an older series, there is nothing tired about it—other than the easily forgiven old school illustrations contained in some formats.

Take this short example:

     Marvin was sitting at the dinner table. Mrs. Redpost had made chicken tacos. His favorite.

     He hoped she wasn’t really a kidnapper. Then he’d have to lock her in the dungeon.

Who doesn’t laugh out loud at the idea of needing to lock his mother in the dungeon because she kidnapped him at birth? And notice the easy text that says so much. Notice how Marvin has slipped into identifying his mother as “Mrs. Redpost” now that he doesn’t identify with her as mom.

For those who might be worried, this story ends with an unbreakable family bond, all sweetness and love in triumph over the draw of the golden crown.

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

 

Change Is in the Air, Mallory

By Laurie Friedman, Illustrated by Jennifer Kalis

 mallory cover

Published by: Darby Creek Publishing (August 1, 2015)

Available in: hardcover, paperback, Kindle, NOOK

At the time of this review there were 25 books in the Mallory series.

 

Change is hard.

And with Mallory McDonald, the chapter book set gets two chances to see how this plays out. The book reviewed here, Change Is in the Air, Mallory, is for the older chapter book crowd. Our protagonist is in the summer between fourth and fifth grades, so the text is a bit more complex and dense on the page, and feelings about change are a tad more self-aware. For the younger chapter book crowd, Mallory’s first book, Mallory on the Move, also tackles change, but three years earlier in her life.

First, these books are staunchly “girl” books, even though there are some good treatments of boy characters involved. There are also tie-ins that girls will love: a craft activity detailed in the back, as well as a terrific Website for the whole Mallory series, www.mallorymcdonald.com. Mid- to late-elementary kids can enjoy surfing the site for all things Mallory. It’s a nice touch, and one that can show children how fun it can be to get totally consumed by the book world.

Change Is in the Air, Mallory  tackles the subject of friends leaving and subsequent loss and loneliness. Feelings are talked about—a lot. So much so, it’s hard to imagine any kid being this open about the happenings around her. For instance, here’s a section where Mallory and her friend, Mary Ann, discuss Mary Ann’s recent move.

 

“I have had a hard time,” I say. “I’ve been really sad that we don’t live next door to each other anymore.”

I pause. What I have to say next might not be something she wants to hear, but I feel like I need to say it. “I guess it kind of bothered me that it didn’t seem like it was hard for you.”

Mary Ann shakes her head. “It’s not that it wasn’t hard. Maybe I just don’t show it the same way you do.” She shrugs. “Even though we’re best friends, we handle things differently.”

 

I don’t know about you, but I haven’t heard many elementary-aged kids having these kinds of conversations. But this isn’t a bad thing. I can see this book being helpful to kids going through similar circumstances, especially girls who tend to have consuming friendships at this age.

The general art design of the book adds to the appeal to this age group with some straight illustrations, some comic-strip style illustrations, and some asides to the reader in both direct address and letters. Girls, especially those undergoing change, will eat this stuff up.

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

A to Z Mysteries

A to Z cover

 A to Z Mysteries Super Edition #8: Secret Admirer (A Stepping Stone Book(TM))

 By Ron Roy, Illustrated by John Steven Gurney

 

Published by: Random House Books for Young Readers (December 22, 2015)

Available in: paperback, library binding, Kindle, NOOK

At the time of this review there were eight books in this series as well as 26 books in the original A to Z alphabet series.

 

It’s a mystery….

Actually, there’s no mystery why the A to Z Mysteries, in their first rendition of 26 alphabet-inspired books, and now under the guise of Super Editions, are so popular. Kids love mysteries, they love series, and this gives them a heaping dose of both.

The most recent of the A to Z Mysteries Super Edition books, Secret Admirer entices kids’ intrigue even before chapter one. The first page tells the reader to look for hidden letters within the illustrations and map, and challenges them to find the secret message. Who can resist that? The answer is given at the back of the book, so no frustrations if a child can’t decipher the message.

Author Roy, perhaps one of the most prolific in contemporary children’s literature, also writes both Capital Mysteries and Calendar Mysteries series. So if kids like these books, there’s more to be had from him.

Do I love these books? Not really. I find too many characters right at the start, and the writing is a little lazy. To wit, this paragraph, where originality and engaging descriptions take a back seat to just getting it done: “The kids reached the hotel and shoved open the thick glass door. Inside it was warm and smelled good.” I also find the illustrations serviceable but without pop or pizzazz.

Do I respect these books? Absolutely. The author and publisher give kids a lot of what they need at this point in their reading life: the thrilling intrigue of the mystery, characters they can follow from book to book, and the comfort of easy reading within the challenge of a full book. The fact that author Roy is successful at producing so much work is truly impressive and inspiring.

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

Dory and the Real True Friend

By Abby Hanlon

dory_10-15_outstanding

Published by: Dial Books (July 7, 2015)

Available in: hardcover, paperback, Kindle, audible, NOOK

At the time of this review there were two books in the Dory Fantasmagory series.

 

Imagine.

Dory and the Real True Friend is all about the act of imagination, and how that sometimes collides with reality. This is easily one of the most fresh, lively, clever and whimsically enjoyable chapter books around.

Dory is an effervescent personality, and the appropriately agile prose starts to bubble with delight at the beginning. By the satisfying end, the text ramps up to circus proportions with a freewheeling and spectacular denouement. Author Hanlon uses an epic scope of inventiveness and sheer drama that makes the book a dazzling, entertaining success.

And yet Dory, best for girls on the younger side of chapter books, hits topics of great importance. Kids in elementary school can well empathize with Dory’s struggles at the start of school, making friends, juggling the pull of imaginary friends, embarrassment, and getting attention both when you want it and when you don’t. Dory’s world is wrapped up in the early struggle to be both true to self and fit in, which for many of us doesn’t naturally happen at once.

As an author/illustrator, Hanlon’s drawings are a perfect accompaniment. They’re loose, goofy and comic, but they also add to the story in ways the text can’t. For instance, in the beginning of the story, Dory’s siblings list things Dory can’t do at school. The accompanying illustration shows the two siblings on either side of a small, dejected Dory. The text above reads, “You know, Rascal, you can’t… and you can’t… and don’t….” The reader perfectly feels the overwhelming stress and oppression that Dory (known as Rascal to her family) is under. The picture is funny; it’s also poignant.

It’s no surprise, then, that Hanlon’s previous chapter book, Dory Fantasmagory, won numerous awards, and Dory and the Real True Friend has been named the 2015 Cybils Winner for Early Chapter Books. More awards are probably not far behind.

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

Freddie Ramos Takes Off (Zapato Power, Book 1)

By Jacqueline Julies, Illustrated by Miguel Benitez

zapato cover

 Published by: Albert Whitman & Company (March 1, 2010)

Available in: hardcover, paperback, Kindle, NOOK

At the time of this review there were five books in the Zapato Power series.

 

“Zoom! Zoom! Zapato!”

That infectious phrase, repeated throughout this simple yet potent little chapter book, begs to be said out loud. Put this book in the hands of a second grader and prepare to hear the phrase yelled within minutes. That kind of enthusiasm is priceless for the growing mind of the reluctant or emerging reader.

But this is just one of the many reasons Zapato Power proves itself an excellent chapter book. The deceivingly simple type, illustrations and sentence structure invite the reader, particularly boys. There is nothing in this book that intimidates.

And yet. Once in the story, we find a full and complex world. Freddie, our protagonist, lives a reality where uncles can send gifts only after bills have been paid, mothers go to community college, good grades are important, spelling mistakes are made with comic results and bathroom humor appears just enough to add sneaky laughs. As a bonus, Spanish vocabulary and Hispanic culture are laced throughout.

A quiet but important undertone is evidenced by Freddie’s soldier dad. Here is how we hear of him: “The first time he went away, he came back just fine. The second time, he didn’t. But everyone at his funeral called him a hero.”

This heartbreakingly eloquent explanation is spare enough to be true, simple enough to avoid melodrama. Freddie’s dad casts a quiet but long impression as Freddie, too, works to be a hero. And he accomplishes this from both a civil and personal point, showing that one boy can affect the world.

All this might make you think this is a heavy, serious story. Not so. On the surface, Zapato Power is just a cute little mystery about a pair of magical sneakers. But it’s no mystery why its subtle strength leaves a positive impression that will stay with young readers long past the last, funny page.

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

Lulu and the Brontosaurus

By Judith Viorst, Illustrated by Lane Smith

 lulu cover

Published by: Atheneum Books for Young Readers; 1 edition (September 14, 2010)

Available in: hardcover, paperback, Kindle, NOOK, audible unabridged, audio CD

At the time of this review there were three books in the Lulu series.

 

Bold and smart.

Lulu and the Brontosaurus is a fresh, quirky, lively take on classic children’s story standards, done with unerring wit and skill by the great Judith Viorst.

Author of the iconic picture book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Viorst turns here to the chapter book format with a unique perspective. Told in third person, the unnamed narrator is quite visible in comic asides, quick descriptions and notable opinions (“…nobody knows how dinosaurs sound, but in my story they rumble….). This unusual approach is so different from most chapter books, which tend to be first person or straight third person, that this alone is an amusing twist.

But that’s only the start. The book stars, yes stars is definitely Lulu’s style, a bratty girl who has attitude and force. In other series, this can be annoying. But Viorst’s writing is so adept and comic, Lulu is nothing if not charming and entertaining. Her outbursts are so outlandish, so out of whack, there is no doubt this is fiction. The drama ante is upped, and upped again, with clever flair. The sheer boldness and precision of Viorst’s writing is truly inspriational. And parents have no fear: Lulu’s character arc ends in redemption and self-awareness.

From story plot and execution to exquisite illustrations by the talented Lane Smith, Lulu is reminiscent of other great titles in kids lit: Where the Wild Things Are, My Father’s Dragon, Grimm’s Fairy Tales and even the movie “Beetlejuice.” It’s quite a delight, wrapped in a fun size package of long, thin dimensions. Much like a brontosaurus’s neck, you see.

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

 

8 Class Pets, Chaos!

 

Squirrel cover

8 Class Pets + 1 Squirrel ÷ 1 Dog = Chaos

By Vivian Vande Velde, Illustrated by Steve Björkman

 

Published by: Holiday House; Reprint edition (June 1, 2012)

Available in: paperback, NOOK

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

 

Wild ride.

8 Class Pets + 1 Squirrel ÷ 1 Dog = Chaos is a classic comedy of errors that builds in excitement and complexity while never losing its slapstick humor.

The book starts in the unique point of view of a squirrel who lives on the grounds of an elementary school. He’s funny and has some great points about the strange humans who go into the school. Within a few pages, the squirrel has a problem: a dog is chasing him. The squirrel escapes by finding refuge in the school.

Very quickly things literally get out of control. Throughout the dog-chasing-the-squirrel-through-school escapade, each chapter is in a new, different animal’s point of view. There’s a smart rabbit, a poetic parrot, a dizzy hamster, an aloof school of fish and more. The distinct voices bring an inherent humor with their personalities. It creates a vibrant, rich layer upon layer of plot, perspective and constant motion. All the while, the action is vaudeville-funny and slapstick-fast.

There’s also a little bit of math, which is a nice integration of study areas. The paragraphs and vocabulary can be a touch challenging, but the book is short. The illustrations are free and loose, a nice compliment to this active, physical and sly plot. The author had vision. And that’s a real treat.

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