Sparkling Jewel: A Branches Book (Silver Pony Ranch #1)

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Sparkling Jewel: A Branches Book (Silver Pony Ranch #1)

By D. L. Green, Illustrated by Emily Wallis

 

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

Available in: hardcover, paperback, Kindle, NOOK

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

 

 

Exciting!

Sparkling Jewel: Silver Pony Ranch Book #1 is an updated, modern take on the classic girls-love-horses genre.  And for those girls who do, this is an excellent early chapter book series.

The text is simple, with short sentences and easy vocabulary. There is a good amount of girl drama, usually ended with an exclamation mark. So although adults might cringe just slightly, young girls will likely eat it up. But not to fear, it’s not dumbed down: peppered throughout are call-out illustrations with tough or horse-centered words that would otherwise be hard for a beginning reader. Words like “currycomb,” “bridle”, and “reins.”

The story, as well, is simple, but it trots along quickly. We see sibling rivalry, examples of bad mistakes in dealing with animals, and a pleasant resolution. Particularly notable is the Grandma character, who is a Wellington boot-wearing, no-nonsense charmer. Sometimes grandparents are made too old or too old school in chapter books, mere outdated caricatures. But in this series, Grandma is an independent, 50-something, cut-to-the-chase rancher. She snores, has bad breath, and calls it like she sees it. You can’t help but respect and like her.

The real jewel here, though, are the illustrations. The black-and-white line drawings are spare but complete. Especially appreciated are all the contemporary details in clothing, cars, ranch tools, and tack.

As with all in the Branches line of chapter books, the production quality of this series is excellent. So although it is a simple, new take on an old tune, it is worthy nonetheless.

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….

 

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

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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….

Dory and the Real True Friend

By Abby Hanlon

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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….

Lulu and the Brontosaurus

By Judith Viorst, Illustrated by Lane Smith

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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….

Missy’s Super Duper Royal Deluxe

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Missy’s Super Duper Royal Deluxe #1: Picture Day

By Susan Nees

 

Published by: Scholastic Inc. (April 30, 2013)

Available in: hardcover, paperback, Kindle, NOOK

At the time of this review there were four books in the Missy’s Super Duper Royal Deluxe series.

 

Super!

Missy’s Super Duper Royal Deluxe #1: Picture Day leaps off the page with zest and abundant personality. Although so short and brief in text that I hesitated to lump it with chapter books, this series has too much life to be held to early readers.

Missy leads this romp from chapter one. When the text is less challenging, the lively illustrations fill in with colorful wit that leave no doubt: this little girl is ready to take the world by storm. I love that she’s assertive without being snarky. I love that she’s energetic and unapologetic and sincerely her own person. Indeed, Missy will be loved—she just won’t have it any other way.

Young girl readers will appreciate how author/illustrator Nees both keeps Missy alight with humor and verve, and yet grounded in a very specific, real world. There is a messy room, kitty litter to attend to, moms who are kind of bossy about what to wear on picture day, bus rides to endure while in a funk, and, ultimately, friends found in unexpected places.

As a writer, I appreciate Nees’ ability to tap into the pulse of the child mind. With vocabulary, subject and action that feels real and authentic, she has catapulted her story beyond the norm. Especially in this genre, that is so tied to short text, simple vocabulary and an age group with more energy than experience, Nees makes Missy bold, original and yet utterly believable. No small task, and kudos and respect in spades.

With a thoughtful yet original plot, fully developed characters and a real zinger of a surprise ending, this short-statured tome is a full-blown extravaganza for the newly independent chapter book set.

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

Mermaid Tales

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The Lost Princess (Mermaid Tales Book 5)

By Debbie Dadey, Illustrated by Tatevik Avakyan

 

Published by: Aladdin; 1 edition (May 7, 2013)

Available in: hardcover, paperback, Kindle, NOOK

At the time of this review there were 10 books in the Mermaid Tales series.

 

Swimming.

The Lost Princess (Mermaid Tales Book 5) dives into the undersea world with nautical language, girl characters and a little bit of science in each book.

Like many chapter books series, this one keeps the easy reading prominent and the originality subdued. But most girls probably won’t care. There are merpeople who use fun language like “totally wavy” and talk about the “family shell.” There are also cool sections about vampire squids, a newfound celebrity complete with sparkling tiara, and a couple of boy merkids thrown in to keep it real.

The illustrations are sweet and effective, and exactly what a young reader will expect. Setting expectations for reading material is a good thing; if we always had a surprise, what would the norm be?

The back section of every book has fun additional information, such as a glossary, examples of sculptures talked about in the plot and song lyrics. It’s a well-developed, full package, and if a young female reader takes to it like a fish to water… well, she’s got a lot of books to keep her treading water for days. It’s easy to jump in.

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

Just Grace

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Just Grace

By Charise Mericle Harper

 

Published by: HMH Books for Young Readers; Reprint edition (March 18, 2008)

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

At the time of this review there were 12 books in the Just Grace series.

 

Purr.

Just Grace is a girl we know: active, often in trouble, misunderstood, smart, put upon, kind, empathetic and just a bit of an attitude. There are similar characters in chapter book fiction (Junie B. Jones, Clementine, Judy Moody and Marty McGuire come to mind), but Grace Stewart is still one very welcome kid in the crowd.

I like this series because it has a number of interesting twists on the usual chapter book subset. There’s an odd and intriguing mix of geography, from France to Wisconsin to California. There are inventive projects intended to make someone feel better. The text breaks are not so much in chapter format as train of thought and, often, a numbered list. It’s easy and fresh, and a child could be mid-way through before she even realized it. That’s a confidence builder.

Best suited for girls in the second through fourth grades, Just Grace does have a few challenging components. Paragraphs can be quite long, and the vocabulary contains some real corkers for this age group, such as anthropology, inspiration and empathy. But with the author/illustrator’s lively and touching comic-style drawings and infrequent use of photos, the tough words are no roadblock. Instead, the book reads quirky and true, something utterly Grace.

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