Cal and the Amazing Anti-Gravity Machine

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Cal and the Amazing Anti-Gravity Machine

By Richard Hamilton, Illustrated by Sam Hearn

 

Published by: Bloomsbury USA Childrens (April 18, 2006)

Available in: hardcover, paperback, audio CD

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

 

 

High flying.

Cal and the Amazing Anti-Gravity Machine is a quirky, contemporary fantasy that sends a boy and his dog on an excellent adventure. But don’t be fooled by the entertaining, silly high jinx–this is no dumbed-down tale.

First, it’s written from the omniscient point of view (meaning, the reader can go into the mind of any character). This is extremely rare for a chapter book. It’s hard to do, which is probably why it’s not used very much, but author Hamilton is deft in his switching from one mind to another in the story. This adds a complexity that is both unique to chapter books and is appropriate to this somewhat intricate story. I love to see chapter books treated with this kind of respect.

Second, the boy character, Cal, has a talking-dog side kick, but only Cal can understand the dog. Again, an unusual plot twist that brings comedy and depth to the story.

Also, Cal is both problem solver and problem maker. I like to see personalities created with this kind of layering. This is no simple tale, but it is a wild ride kids will enjoy following through to the end.

The format for this book includes zany line art that compliments the sometimes crazy story. The white space is not as roomy as many chapter books, with a smaller type face and perhaps a tad fewer illustrations than the norm, but this only helps to bump this book up in reading level and maturity. While still a chapter book, it will challenge reluctant readers up through fifth grade.

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

 

 

Humphrey’s Playful Puppy Problem

 humphrey cover

Humphrey’s Playful Puppy Problem (Humphrey’s Tiny Tales)

By Betty G. Birney, Illustrated by Priscilla Burris

 

Published by: Puffin Books (August 28, 2014)

Available in: paperback, library binding, Kindle, NOOK

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

 

SQUEAK-SQUEAK-SQUEAK!

Humphrey’s Playful Puppy Problem (Humphrey’s Tiny Tales) brings the popular middle grade series down to the chapter book level with the same characters and format. Humphrey is still the hamster in Room 26, he still goes home with students on weekends, and he still is both endearing and a hero by the end of each book.

I love the older Humphrey series, so I was truly excited to see this in the chapter book format. That said, I like it… but I don’t love it.

First, the good stuff. The text has an easy rhythm that will keep newly independent readers entertained. (“The bus was bumpy and thumpy. I slid from one side of my cage to the other.”) The layout is classic chapter book, with big typeface, lots of white space and illustrations no more than every three pages apart. Children will find these books an easy first dip into the read-alone arena.

My disappointment is perhaps less about what’s wrong than what is missing. The original, older Humphrey series is truly hilarious, inventive and alive with personality and drama. These, perhaps because they have been simplified so much, are not just Humphrey light, but washed-out Humphrey.

Still, I’d recommend them to kids who love humor, animals and need an easy introduction to chapter books. The fact this series could lead those same readers to the middle grade Humphrey books makes me GLAD-GLAD-GLAD.

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

Princess Pink and the Land of Fake-Believe

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 The Three Little Pugs: A Branches Book (Princess Pink and the Land of Fake-Believe #3)

 By Noah Z. Jones

 

Published by: Scholastic Inc. (August 25, 2015)

Available in: paperback, library binding, Kindle, NOOK

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

 

Ya gotta love a pun.

The Three Little Pugs of the Princess Pink and the Land of Fake-Believe series is a rolling, exuberant, crazy mash-up of puns. And just as the words jump off the page, so do the illustrations. With more of an expanded comic book feel—but not quite graphic novel feel—this book screams fun.

It all starts with surprise. Princess Pink is serious tom boy-type who’s stuck with the girly name. Her freewheeling imagination has come up with a secret: a land of fake-believe hidden in her family’s fridge. When the family is asleep, our offbeat hero stomps into a much more colorful world, populated by characters that are takeoffs on traditional fairy tale characters.

But traditional they are not. The Big Bad Wolf is a scaredy pants. The industrious three pigs are conniving pugs. And so it goes. It’s no surprise that author/illustrator Noah Z. Jones also has experience as an animator, because this book has a jolly verve that feels like a Saturday morning cartoon.

The series, part of the excellent Branches line of chapter books, is not necessarily the easiest vocabulary, but spontaneous pages, quick jokes and amusing puns make it an easy read, even for those kids who might struggle with a word or two. For instance, this sentence might challenge some young readers: “Then Moldylocks had a crazy-cakes idea.” I’d venture a guess that almost no kid could stop before finding out what that crazy-cakes idea is. It’s just too fun.

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

 

Marvin Redpost

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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….

 

A to Z Mysteries

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 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….

Freddie Ramos Takes Off (Zapato Power, Book 1)

By Jacqueline Julies, Illustrated by Miguel Benitez

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 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!

 

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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….

Looniverse

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Looniverse #2 Meltdown Madness

By David Lubar, Illustrated by Matt Loveridge

 

Published by: Scholastic Inc. (June 25, 2013)

Available in: paperback, library binding, Kindle, NOOK

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

 

 

Comfortable.

Looniverse #2 Meltdown Madness is a book kids will get. There’s a fund raising event where the kids have to sell chocolate or wrapping paper. There’s a magic coin. There’s comedy, like three pigs showing up in the kitchen. Illustrations are current and well-done and big typeface highlights words like “Zoom! Boom!”

So the book is a comfortable place for newly independent readers to land. Even though kids might not know exactly where this story is going, they will almost immediately know that they can handle both the reading challenge and the words on the page. That’s not a bad thing.

Do I love that this book, part of the excellent and well-designed Branches line of chapter books, is a bit of a slacker in the originality department? Maybe not so much. Especially when it comes to the protagonist’s bland personality, I wish the character and story had more of a unique feel. But I do appreciate that these are books targeted to boys, they are very well done and they give young readers yet more good, contemporary books to read in this genre. That’s not a small feat.

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

Stink

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Stink: The Incredible Shrinking Kid

By Megan McDonald, Illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds

 

Published by: Candlewick; Reprint edition (February 12, 2013)

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

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

 

Life cycles.

Stink and the Incredible Shrinking Kid is all about the life of a little brother in second grade. The brother part is important because Stink is not only champion of his own book series, he’s also the sibling of chapter book queen Judy Moody. Like sister, like brother: both are eminently fabulous books for the chapter book set.

As is appropriate for the younger brother, Stink is a little easier for the independent reader to swallow. Compared to the Judy Moody books, the type is bigger, the books are shorter, the vocabulary is a tad less complicated and the humor is more active. The short chapters are interspersed with comic-book style drawings, which helps to keep the reading level low and the attention high. Stink is all boy. It’s one of the attributes that work.

There are also a number of word puns that a newly independent reader, particularly boys, will enjoy. Especially in a section devoted to a newt, wordplay is the key to the comedy.

Plot points also cover areas that will make teachers and parents grin: U.S. Presidents and science.

Kids will love the bossy, tricky, sometimes rotten big sister. Kids also will have no trouble identifying with Stink’s concern over his (lack of) height, and enjoy his friend Sophie of the Elves. Stink is all energy, action, concern, humor and days that are both simple and full of the life and death moments that make up a childhood.

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