Captain Pug

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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….

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The Zero Degree Zombie Zone

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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….

Secret Agents Jack & Max Stalwart: Book 1

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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….

The Incredible Twisting Arm (Magic Shop Series Book 2)

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The Incredible Twisting Arm (Magic Shop Series Book 2)

By Kate Egan with Magician Mike Lane, Illustrated by Eric Wight

 

Published by: Feiwel & Friends (April 22, 2014)

Available in: hardcover, paperback, Kindle, NOOK

At the time of this review, there were three books in the Magic Shop Series.

 

Like magic.

The Incredible Twisting Arm is a bit like a magic trick: seemingly simple on the surface, but expert skill provides the firm base underneath.

Both of the authors and the illustrator are journeyman publishing professionals, which explains the intricate storytelling techniques subtly employed. Their combined, adept skills bring together a story and pictures that will intrigue young readers, especially reluctant boys.

The protagonist is fourth-grader Mike, a kid who finds life hard. His friend situation is challenging, including a girl he likes and another girl who annoys him. An older boy, who is big enough to be in middle school, bullies him. Mike’s family worries about his grades. So while the prose might not be exceptionally inventive, kids will easily relate to Mike’s elementary-school world.

But interestingly, Mike is a bit unusual in that he has discovered a passion for magic. Mike doesn’t just like magic, he focuses on it everyday. The reader experiences the allure of tricks, and follows Mike through some successes and failures. Mike also really wants to show himself as responsible and mature enough to be allowed the freedom to ride his bike to the magic shop, alone. That maturity and responsibility stuff turns out to be dicey business, which provides laughs and empathy.

Additional to the book are magic tricks, explained in two-page spreads of text and drawings throughout the book. Who wouldn’t want to know how to turn water into ice or palm a coin? The story ends with the added surprise of a (possibly) magic moment.

The book is long for a chapter book, more than 150 pages in the hardcover library book I reviewed. So this is definitely a book for those older chapter book readers, or perhaps precocious younger readers.

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

 

 

Harry Miller’s Run

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Harry Miller’s Run

By David Almond, Illustrated by Salvatore Rubbino

 

Published by: Candlewick (February 7, 2017)

Available in: hardcover, paperback

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

 

Real.

Harry Miller’s Run is a tender, funny, quirky, exuberant chapter book with… no chapters. Particularly for American readers, the dialect-heavy text is a bit of a treasure hunt for meaning, but a hunt worth every effort. This book inhabits a kindness, whimsy, hard truth, and compassion rarely found in children’s books.

Harry is an old man, and the bulk of the story is his re-telling of an epic afternoon in his youth. “And it was a day of daftness and joy, and if we’d never started and we’d never kept on going, just think of what we’d missed,” he says. This is what I love about this book: things are hard, but the challenge is worth the lovely exhilaration of doing something incredible. Friendships are begun, kids make stupid mistakes but live with it, and exploration wins out over logic.

Harry’s young neighbor, 11-year-old Liam, doesn’t shy away from the fact of Harry’s age. Liam’s supremely youthful voice introduces us to Harry and his apartment with blunt truth. “It smells of old bloke in here. Suppose it’s bound to. Suppose he can’t help it. Suppose I’ll smell like old bloke myself one day. Pee and sweat and ancient clothes and dust. The sun shines through the window. Dust’s glittering and dancing in the shafts of light….”

Because the dialect can be difficult to understand, and because this book is a pocket of surprise adults will love as well, it’s a good idea for children to read this aloud with a parent or other adult. That way, lines that are hard can be dissected together, such as, “’But we’re half knackered already’, sez Stanley. ‘By the time we run aal the way back again we’ll be bliddy deed.’” As you can see, spelling is anywhere near the norm in this book, and the manner of speech is definitely affected.

The illustrations are a loose, giddy romp that perfectly suit the depth and humor of the text. Especially appreciated are the publisher’s notes on the media used: watercolor, gouache, pencil, and ink.

Harry is a lovable curmudgeon who has much to give young readers. As he says, “Me great achievement is that I’ve been happy, that I’ve never been nowt but happy.”

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

Pugs of the Frozen North (A Not-So-Impossible Tale)

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Pugs of the Frozen North (A Not-So-Impossible Tale)

By Philip Reeve, Illustrated by Sarah McIntyre

 

Published by: Random House Books for Young Readers (January 26, 2016)

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

At the time of this review were four books in the Not-So-Impossible Tale books.

 

Outlandish.

Pugs of the Frozen North is funny, oddball, and vaudevillian, with nods to mythic folk stories, dreaded urban myths, true history, and made-up creations. It’s a hoot.

First, though, parents and teachers should take note that this is closer to a middle school novel than an easy reader.  This would be just about hitting the edge of something that could be considered a chapter book. The hardback length is more than 200 pages, and the typeface is not large. But, there is a lot of white space, illustrations are on every page, and the wild escapade will appeal both to younger readers with strong reading skills and older, reluctant readers who don’t want to be stuck with babyish books.

The story starts out with some real gut-wrenching moments, framed in comedy, wherein the protagonist is left behind in the Arctic with 66 pugs destined to be used as a new ingredient in hot pies. It can be a bit jarring. But after the story starts rolling, distressing elements give way to noodle bars, a benevolent Santa Clausesque “Snowfather,” and an epic dog race.  While hard to describe in a short fashion, the story is long on ingenuity and jovial amusement.

The illustrations are quirky and a delight, and echo the Northern style of Jan Brett’s picture books.

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

Catwoman’s Nine Lives (Batman: Comic Chapter Books)

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Catwoman’s Nine Lives (Batman: Comic Chapter Books)

By Matthew K. Manning, Illustrated by Luciano Vecchio

Published by: Stone Arch Books (August 1, 2014)

Available in: paperback, library binding, Kindle, NOOK

At the time of this review there were four books in the Batman: Comic Chapter Book series.

Cool cat.

Catwoman’s Nine Lives is a super smart, zippy caper that sets itself firmly in Batman’s Gotham City with a resounding Twang! Fwoom! Click!

The story is solid and fast-paced, and the artwork is spectacular. With The Penguin an additional character, the setting won’t disappoint any Batman fan.

Most impressive are the endnotes of the book that include a detailed biography and background of Selina Kyle, a.k.a. Catwoman, and what she does with her stolen money, and why. It adds a depth and social conscience to the action in the book. There also are examples of initial sketches of the book’s artwork, and then final art examples. For any kid interested in art, book production, or the mechanics of imagination, this is a real gem.  There also is a Glossary, a detailed Comics Terms list, and a section titled Visual Questions that delves into facial expressions, an examination of movement methods, and the nature of Batman and Catwoman’s friendship/feud.

And this brings us to the meat of the book: while young readers can merrily enjoy a comic thrill, adults can see this book as way more than a comic strip. There is a very definite sexual tension between Batman and Catwoman that is taut and determined. Catwoman teases, cajoles, and entices Batman, all the while seeming to do what he wants while really keeping her own agenda intact. While maintaining a G Rating throughout, an adult could literally use the text in a college-level analysis of women’s roles, perceptions, and actions within modern society. I think this book is literally brilliant.

And that’s no kitten kibble.

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