Princess Cora and the Crocodile

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Princess Cora and the Crocodile

By Laura Amy Schlitz, Illustrated by Brian Floca

 

Published by: Candlewick (March 28, 2017)

Available in: hardcover, audible

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

 

Disguised.

Princess Cora and the Crocodile is a lovely chapter book that masquerades as an elegant, long picture book. Truly, it could work as either, with the end result being children who are utterly delighted.

Newberry Medal winner Laura Amy Schlitz writes a contemporary tale based on historical fantasy and fairy tales. The text is deft, spare, hilarious, and told with a firmly modern sensibility that keeps it from feeling like a tired old story. To wit: “The crocodile peered out from behind his claws. ‘This is what I’m telling you,’ he said.”

Like fairy tales of old, the story powers through actions and words that are usually considered too violent or inappropriate. Which makes the story smile-cracking funny. The crocodile, in trying to help the princess, torments the nanny, locks up the queen, and bites the king’s bum, finding it “the wrong kind of chewy.”

Meanwhile, the princess, while asking for help, finds a way to fix everything herself. She’s kind and lovable and naïve and, in the end, one smart cookie. Or cream puff, as used to such sweet comedy in the plot.

Not to be overshadowed by the text, Caldecott Medal winner Brian Floca’s subtle and imaginative four-color illustrations slide through every page. It’s a visual enchantment.

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

 

 

Cam Jansen Mysteries

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Cam Jansen & the Mystery of the Television Dog

By David A. Adler, Illustrated by Susanna Natti

 

Published by: First published in 1981 by Viking Penguin, Inc. Reissued by Puffin Books (July 22, 2004)

Available in: paperback, library binding, audible, Kindle, NOOK

At the time of this review there were 34 books in the Cam Jansen Mysteries series as well as an early readers series under Young Cam Jansen.

 

Click!

Cam Jansen & the Mystery of the Television Dog is one of the many, many Cam Jansen books, both for the early reader and the newly independent chapter book reader. Cam is a likable and quirky protagonist who is smart, kind of nerdy and has a keen eye for detail. These are very cool attributes to give to a main character, particularly a girl. In reviewing lots of chapter books, I see far too many current series with fluff and drama as the main personality and plot points. Seriousness has a home with Cam, and it’s a good fit.

The book has a very nostalgic look and feel. Illustrations hark back to a simpler time with plain black and white, crosshatch detail. The kids portrayed have a ‘70s-era look with rolled up shorts, basic T-shirts, generic round eyes and short hair. Likewise, the sentence structure is very clipped and easy, as in this short segment. “Just then a long dark blue car drove up. It stopped right in front of the bookstore. The driver got out…” Kids can swallow this stuff with easy confidence.

What is unique is Cam’s photographic memory. It’s a fun device that turns a simple story into a unique tale. The mystery part is also fun because it’s easy to spot a doggie switcheroo by a bad guy. Cam’s adventure is quick reading with just enough spunk to make it interesting. And if kids are interested, they’ll read more–which is is the point, yes?

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

Chalk Box Kid

 

 

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The Chalk Box Kid

By Clyde Robert Bulla, Illustrated by Thomas B. Allen

 

Published by: Random House Books for Young Readers; New edition (September 12, 1987)

Available in: paperback, library binding

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

 

Quiet.

The Chalk Box Kid moves softly but has a powerful undercurrent of truth and emotion. Originally published in 1987, this short chapter book is a simple story about a boy who’s in the midst of difficult changes. Simple can be so deceiving, can’t it?

With easy pacing, this story deftly steps through anticipation, disappointment, sadness, disgust, loss of control, bullying, attempts at positive change, loneliness, budding friendship, missteps, betrayal and, ultimately, redemption. That’s no simple task. Esteemed author Bulla employs a literary style rarely seen in contemporary children’s works. He paints opening scenes that are bleak but, through the elegant rhythm of the prose, quite beautiful.

The young protagonist, Gregory, is left almost entirely alone through the whole saga of a move and new school. His parents appear distracted and beaten-down, which forces him to navigate the world completely on his own. Even when he tries to engage his parents, they don’t seem to hear him. There is no helicopter parenting here, only the cold reality of hard times.

But Gregory is an able guide for the young readers who pick up this classic. He shows fortitude and creativity, all through Bulla’s quiet inspiration and craft.

The original illustrations by artist Allen are blurry and indistinct, mirroring the nostalgic feel of the time, Gregory’s unsure life and the titled chalk. Brilliant.

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

My Father’s Dragon

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My Father’s Dragon

By Ruth Stiles Gannett, Illustrated by Ruth Chrisman Gannett

 

Published by: Random House Books for Young Readers; 50th Anniversary edition (December 13, 2011)

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

At the time of this review there were three books in the My Father’s Dragon series.

 

 

Nostalgic.

My Father’s Dragon, originally published in 1948, is easily identifiable as old-school storytelling. Sometimes this is a hindrance to today’s young readers. But with this book, it’s not.

The story reads almost as a dream. There’s a secret adventure, a baby dragon who falls out of a cloud and is held captive, and an island where “… no one has come back alive.” This is the stuff of great imagination and long-ago myths. Children who love a good fantasy will enjoy this now as much as decades ago.

For independent reading, this is probably best suited for older chapter book readers; the pages without illustrations are dense, there are long paragraphs and some of the vocabulary is challenging. But perhaps the best use of this book is a one-chapter-a-night family event, as even younger children will enjoy the talking animals and chapter headings such as “My Father Meets a Gorilla” and “My Father Runs Away.”

The illustrations are lush and child-like without being sophomoric. Although our protagonist, a young boy, is pictured as somewhat flat (which aids in the fantasy believability), the animals are solid and breathe with the life of bizarre dreams.

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

Pony Pals

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Ponies on Parade (Pony Pals, Book 38)

By Jeanne Betancourt, Illustrated by Richard Jones

 

Published by: Scholastic Paperbacks; Scholastic Version edition (November 1, 2003)

Available in: paperback, school & library binding

At the time of this review there were 38 books in the Pony Pals series, as well as an accompanying six-book series, Pony Pals Super Specials.

 

At full gallop.

Ponies on Parade (Pony Pals #38) is the last book in a classic series that is still saddled up and ready to go for today’s young readers.

Those familiar with this blog know that I don’t automatically give a positive nod to older books. But Pony Pals is different. Author Betancourt laces her girl-centric, horse-crazed books with tangible emotions, authentic problems and just enough originality to keep them fresh and lively a decade or two down the trail.

Ponies on Parade, for example, deals with a fun little art contest. But that’s just the withers to this very full-sized horse tail… um, tale. Harnessed within this plot are the day-to-day challenges of a child with dyslexia. Also, we see the aggravation of boys who constantly tease girls, and sometimes it’s quite hurtful emotionally or physically. As the story progresses, the three girls who make up the “Pony Pals” are faced with ethical choices of ignoring a problem or stopping to do the right thing, even when they don’t want to. Parents are responsible, kids are sometimes irresponsible and pony care is clear and correct.

This series also is interesting because it caters to older chapter book readers. With short text, pictures and third grade reading level, it’s spot on for the genre. But the characters are all middle school age. This makes Pony Pals the perfect fit for girls who are either less advanced or reluctant readers in the third through sixth grades. For them, this little extra carrot of encouragement is a blue ribbon choice of reading material.

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

Iconic Pippi Longstocking

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PIPPI LONGSTOCKING

By Astrid Lindgren

Illustrated by Louis S. Glanzman

Translated by Florence Lamborn

 

 

Published by: Puffin; Reissue edition (April 21, 2005)

Available in: paperback, hardcover, audible book, school & library binding

There were three books in the original Pippi Longstocking series and a number of later novels, picture books, movies, TV shows and more.

 

Iconic imp.

Pippi Longstocking is a mischievous, curious, especially strong girl who has become a truly classic character in children’s literature. Written by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren for her sick daughter in the 1940s, the original book has been translated into more than 60 languages and earned the author the Hans Christian Andersen Medal for her contribution to international children’s literature.

So Pippi has some heft.

Many of the older classics I’ve re-read for review hold more value in nostalgia than lasting quality. Pippi, not so much. She’s a true giant in original thinking, the channeling of childhood intellect, and the sheer joys and realities of being young.

That’s not to say there aren’t issues to be acknowledged. Consider Pippi the Lord of the Flies of the elementary set—a child set free in the world to exist as she sees fit. That obviously sets up topics and situations some modern families find problematic. There’s pure anarchy of home life, disrespect of authority, a lack of heart on the topic of dead or missing parents, and far, far too much sugar in the diet.

On the other hand, Pippi is a strong girl with sense and wit and charm. What fun to see what happens when a child is put in charge. She is as bold as she is innocent, and the sheer pleasure of reading what she will do next is worth every ounce of reticence. Pippi transports to the wonderland of childhood lived on a whim. Bad behavior and all, reading Pippi is a magical event.

For younger readers, this will prove a tough read, unfortunately. The text is heavy, and the illustrations are few and far between. It’s an intimidating book to thumb through. Perhaps the best solution is the sweetest—where parents and children read the book together. That way both the excitement and confusion Pippi inspires can be talked about, and the adult can help the child when reading becomes too dense.

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

 

Year One Re-Post #10: Tornado

Originally published in December 2013. It might be nostalgia that drives me since this was the book that got my son to read, but I have a very soft spot for Tornado.

TORNADO (TROPHY CHAPTER BOOK)

By Betsy Byars, Illustrated by Doron Ben-Ami

 

Published by: HarperCollins; Reprint edition (December 28, 2004)

Available in: paperback, hardcover

 

“Twister!”

That one word sparks such instant fear and excitement, it’s almost hard for the rest of the story to maintain the pace. But Newberry-medalist Betsy Byars is that rare author who can, and Tornado blows into your heart with a fierce hold.

Short and achingly sweet, the whole story is a series of vignettes a farm hand tells a family while they sit out a twister in a storm cellar. Left subtly in the background—rarely stated—is the fact the family’s father didn’t make it to the storm cellar. Everyone is worried. The stories are just a smooth way to distract.

Since the vignettes are about the farm hand’s dog when he was a boy, Tornado is a dog lover’s delight. (Full disclosure: dog lover here.) At only 49 pages in the print version, this chapter book is over before the young reader even knows it. And have no fear, Dad makes it in the end, but the tension is kept taut the entire book.

The lush illustrations are another exceptional component. Rich, full-page drawings seem to steep in the shadowy cellar mood. Kids can spend minutes relishing each one.

Perhaps this book is a bit dated–the use of flashbacks to tell most of the story is definitely frowned upon today. But the pure soul of this is a classic. Would that all chapter books were this excellent in content, emotion and artistic reach.

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

 

Year One Re-Post #1: Junie B. Jones

This was the first review posted in September 2013. It made me sad that I didn’t love Miss Junie now as much as I had 25 years ago…. 

 

Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus (Junie B. Jones, No. 1)

By Barbara Park, Illustrated by Denise Brunkus

 

Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers; 1ST edition (July 28, 1992)

Available in: paperback, hardback, audio, audible audio, audiocassette, Kindle, NOOK

 At the time of this review, there were 27 Junie B. books available. But that’s too much too chew on at once. So this review is only about book #1.

 

She’s an original!

The first in this classic, best-selling series introduces us to Junie Beatrice Jones—that’s Junie B. to you. She’s a precocious child who says it like she sees it: and often, what she says points out that adults complicate things. A lot.

Like when her mother and teacher tell her she will ride the bus. We get deep into the book before Junie B.’s frustration reaches hollering levels because no one has bothered to tell her where she will ride the bus.

These little epiphanies of how we use words and descriptions and expect our kids to know what we’re talking about provide a lot of the humor of the book. The rest of the comedy comes from her exuberant personality and penchant for getting into trouble. Like hiding in the supply closet. And calling 9-1-1 because the bathroom door is locked.

When I was first introduced to that rascal Junie B., my kids were early elementary age. We found the character and book refreshing because of the humor, recognizable situations and easy reading that still moved into the novel form. She tackles fear, new friends, new rules and interesting clothing choices with straight-on seriousness and wit.

So it was a little bit of a shock to revisit the incorrigible Junie B. almost two decades later. On the plus side, the writing is remarkable for something so simple. Short, snappy sentences. Good character development. Clear plot that isn’t too predictable. True drama.

But looking through the lens of 2013, it pains me to say Junie B. has some age issues: as in, is she really holding up over time? In so many ways she’s still such a unique character, I’d love to say yes. But so much of what she says and does is, in today’s world, either dated or politically incorrect.

She talks about how she can beat up one kid. She describes the nurse with white shoes and clothes (when was the last time you saw that other than on a TCM movie?). She longs for a backpack (what kid doesn’t at least have a hand-me-down backpack these days?). She describes the first day of school when Mrs., the teacher, tells kids to pick a chair (what school doesn’t assign seating?). And she disobeys constantly, is disrespectful and is left alone to run through the school by herself for a couple of hours. Hard to imagine this happening today.

And that’s where it gets sticky. Is she just a precocious imp who we’ve loved for years and thus will continue to love? Or is she an annoying bad example? Do our young readers today get Junie B.? Or are they left wondering, who is this out of control elf who uses baby talk and says things like “travel tissue?”

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

Real Ramona

Ramona Q cover

Ramona Quimby, Age 8

By Beverly Cleary, Illustrated by Tracy Dockray

 

Published by: HarperCollins (October 6, 2009)

Available in: paperback, hardcover, audio, CD, audiobook, Kindle, NOOK

At the time of this review there were eight books featuring the Ramona character.

 

Reality bites… or in Ramona’s case, cracks like an egg.

The Ramona character is one of the most beloved and lauded in children’s literature. Sturdy, witty and fully developed as a personality, Ramona is a modern masterpiece. So much has been written about the 1981 Newberry Honor book, I’ll focus here on the point of whether Ramona is still relevant, and if so, why?

Ramona Quimby, Age 8 manages to keep a light tone while focusing on the undercurrents of why life is just so dang hard. Ramona’s parents clearly work hard. They also struggle with money issues, bettering themselves and raising two respectful, capable daughters. Ramona’s sister stumbles through the first year of that most difficult time, middle school. And Ramona copes with bullies, humiliation, hurt, excitement, disappointment, regret, self-control, cooking and forgiveness: that whole big mess that makes up daily life. More than still relevant, this book is gutsy and important. It shows Ramona in the process of real life in a way that still keeps young readers engaged.

There are a few specifics that mark the book as older: pre-school is referred to as nursery school and the mention of typewriter clacks. But these are minor blips. More important is the basic humanity that marks the Ramona books with a truth rarely seen in contemporary children’s literature.

Ramona Quimby, Age 8 is marketed more for the middle grade market (ages 8—12), and yet, with a character (Ramona) in the third grade, younger children will read it. And although for a chapter book it’s a touch long, it still fits within the chapter book category quite well.

I like Tracy Dockray’s illustrations in the newer editions because they have an old-school feel without being tired or out of touch. Just slightly quirky—especially when the cat is in the drawing—they have a very realistic base. Much like Ramona.

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

Freckle Juice

freckle juice coverFRECKLE JUICE

By Judy Blume, Illustrated by Sonia O. Lisker

 

Published by: Yearling; Reprint edition (July 15, 1978)

Available in: paperback, hardcover, library binding

 

Desire.

Freckle Juice is all about wanting something and doing something crazy to get it. The protagonist, a second grade boy, is an empathetic character because almost everyone knows, deep in his bones, how it is to want something to distraction. The fact that Andrew wants freckles, and that he is forced to sit behind a boy with a glorious number of freckles (and thus view them every day in school) is a simple but magnificent premise.

Two other characters in this book stand out: a sweet, understanding teacher, and larcenous, greedy, evil Sharon, who absconds with funds through trickery.

The chapter where poor Andrew drinks the despicable concoction that is supposed to sprout the desired freckles is both hilarious and a fun Don’t do it! moment.

A very short chapter book (only five chapters and 47 pages), this is a good read for an older, less adept reader. With small type and slightly more mature sentence structure, older readers won’t feel babyish reading about Andrew and his freckle obsession and consequences. (In fact, Andrew is “not fast” as a reader, which the struggling reader might appreciate.) The brevity also allows readers to gain confidence as they buzz through the whole book fairly quickly.

Originally published in 1971, this chapter book does suffer from some of the older/tired/out-of-date issues that many classic chapter books exhibit. Andrew’s mom, for instance, has curlers on in the morning and tells him she’s been invited to play cards with the ladies during the day. These little hiccups don’t stop the story, though.

Some of the illustrations and their older clothing and style are a little more obviously outdated. But what is even more bothersome is that the original illustrator, Sonia O. Lisker, is barely given credit, even though many of the copies still sold online, in stores and carried in libraries depict her illustrations. To even find her name I had to look on the copyright page. Otherwise, no credit is given to her. Shame on the houses that have published the reprint editions. The artist deserves credit for her work.

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