The Zero Degree Zombie Zone

ZombieZone

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….

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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….

 

 

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….

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….

 

 

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….

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….

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….