Dragon Masters

Dragon Masters cover

Dragon Masters #1: Rise of the Earth Dragon

By Tracey West, Illustrated by Graham Howells


Published by: Scholastic Inc. (August 26, 2014)

Available in: hardcover, paperback, Kindle, NOOK

At the time of this review there were three books in the Dragon Masters series, with a fourth book due out this summer.


Beginner fantasy.

Dragon Masters #1: Rise of the Earth Dragon is a primer for the pre-Harry Potter, pre-J.R.R. Tolkien set. With easy reading but lots of magical adventures, this new series from Scholastic’s excellent Branches line of chapter books glows with promise.

The story structure is a classic epic tale: the kind, poor Drake is identified as one of a chosen few. At the direction of the king, he is whisked away from his home and given the secret, mysterious fate of dragon master. Drake and his powerful but misunderstood dragon, Worm, muddle through the first days of loneliness and homesickness, and are more alike than they know. Each also reveals himself as having special powers. They save the day in the book, but it’s clear bigger challenges are still to come.

With evil afoot and three other dragons and children dragon masters, this series has long legs. It’s also an especially good fit for the newly independent reader. Pages are bright and almost overrun with illustrations. Chapters are extremely short. Action is fast-paced and abundant. The writing is clean, spare and lively. A young reader will probably age out of this reading level before he gets tired of the subject and characters. With few other fantasy-based chapter book series–apart from the massive Magic Tree House–this is a very welcome addition to the chapter book shelf.

The illustrations, by award-winning artist Howells, pop with youth-friendly charm. The black and white drawings bring fire-breathing life into magic, fear, danger, growing affection and a world of mystical powers. One can’t help but be entranced by the total package of Dragon Masters.

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

Axel & Theo

axel cover

Axel & Theo

My Dog is the Emperor of a Faraway Galaxy

By Amberly Kristen Clowe, Illustrated by Katy Huggins


Published by: Smooth Sailing Press, LLC; 1 edition (November 15, 2014)

Available in: paperback, Kindle

At the time of this review Axel & Theo was a standalone book.



Reach for the stars.

Axel & Theo is a space fantasy for young readers who love dogs, hate cats and want to see the neighborhood bully get flummoxed by a Dachshund. There’s an appropriate amount of time spent on things that boys, in particular, will laugh about: a King Barfin, an epic battle, holograms and lasers, and a cliffhanger ending.

Since the protagonist is in fourth grade, this is a good choice for boys in mid to higher elementary grades who might lag in reading skills or are reluctant readers. The largely science fiction-based story will still challenge and enlighten these young minds, but the text remains accessible through clean, simple writing.

The publisher has produced a book trailer that’s just about the best one I’ve seen for a chapter book. That alone is something of interest to writers who struggle to keep on top of the social-media side of today’s publishing market. The trailer is shown here.


Keeping these positive aspects in mind, there are some obvious, first-impression problems with this chapter book. The typeface is too small and calls to mind a home printer. The illustration style is undeveloped, with proportions that are not quite on. And the price of the book is about double of comparable titles.

But the story has the genuine, kooky flow of a young man’s imagination. It feels authentic, as if plucked directly from a child’s afternoon at play. So even with the challenged packaging, this book could be just the right fit for some young readers who might otherwise spend the day watching TV. That’s always worthwhile.

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





By Madhvi Ramani, Illustrated by Erica-Jane Waters


Published by: Transworld Publishers (November 25, 2014)

Available in: paperback, Kindle, NOOK

At the time of this review three books in the Nina series.



Recently launched in the U.S. (and last month in the U.K. under Tamarind Books), Nina and the Magical Carnival is unusual in a number of ways that make it original, lively and worldly.

First, the main character is a young girl who likes to do things perfectly. That makes it hard to let go and try new things. A lot of kids share this trait. And yet in chapter books, it seems most protagonists are loose and average but are called upon to do exceptional things. This protagonist starts as a perfectionist who is called upon to be free and easy. What an interesting twist.

Most of the action takes place in Rio de Janeiro, perhaps one of the most spontaneous cities in the world. Our hero, Nina, joins a carnival parade while not getting things done on her To Do list. Meanwhile, she’s soaking up the culture and joie de vive around her. Normally, unstructured action kills the pace of a book, but in this turnaround concept, it actually moves the book along at a good clip.

This character also gives us insight into the Indian culture, which I’ve not seen from chapter books. For example, the story starts with Nina going to her freethinking auntie’s house because her parents have slipped out for a date night at the latest Bollywood movie.

It all adds up to an exotic adventure with subtle flavors from a number of cultures. Add in the casual, impulsive illustrations, as well as some unique and fun activities at the back, and the whole thing is an effortless, delightful trip.

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



Fright Month Post #5: Let’s Get Scared!

In October, we’ll review books and series that ooze with delicious creepy crawlies, heebie geebies and chilly willies.


spiderwick cover



By Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi


Published by: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers; 1st edition (May 1, 2003)

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

At the time of this review there were five books in the Spiderwick Chronicles series and numerous other off shoots, including picture book, a second series, a feature film and more.



“Click, clack, watch your back.”

The Field Guide (The Spiderwick Chronicles, Book 1) is a masterpiece of writing, illustration, art direction and production. It captures the magic of books, taps into the imagination of childhood and harnesses the whims of the commercial market. It is sublime.

Much has been made of this series’ similarity to Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. This is an obvious comparison on many levels, from size of book to Gothic backdrop. But The Spiderwick Chronicles carries a more complex flavoring of the classics, and then layers those influences with contemporary ingenuity.

There are hints of Tolkien and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Old world charm is imbued in the pen and ink illustrations, setting and chapter titles (i.e., Chapter Six: In Which They Find Unexpected Things in the Icebox). Ancient mythological creatures slink through the walls and across the kitchen floor.

Meanwhile, the authors’ fresh dialogue and plot points render this story utterly Now. The family fights through the grief of divorce with short tempers, ruthless fencing and, most important to this story, a new home… a ramshackle Victorian that is the keeper of secrets, the home of faeries and the place of strange occurrences.

The main character, nine-year-old Jared, is a sweetie who is that crestfallen personality: always blamed, never believed and always in trouble. Of course he’s just angry and misunderstood. Meanwhile, his sister’s hair is mysteriously tied to her bed in the dark of night, his brother’s tadpoles are frozen into ice cubes and things that go bump in the night abound.

This creepy, scary, gorgeous story is not only a perfect read for Fright Month, it’s perfect anytime.

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


Eerie Elementary

Fright Month Post #4: Let’s Get Scared!

In October, we’ll review books and series that ooze with delicious creepy crawlies, heebie geebies and chilly willies.

 errie elem cover


By Jack Chabert, Illustrated by Sam Ricks


Published by: Scholastic Inc. (June 24, 2014)

Available in: paperback, hardcover, Kindle, NOOK

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


Safe thrills.

Eerie Elementary #1: The School is Alive! launches young readers into the scary story genre without being too scary. As alarming, truly frightening things happen, the copious, lively, cartoonish illustrations balance the fear with real humor. For the impressionable young, it’s a masterful mix of emotion, visuals and manageable text.

eerie elem ills 1The writing makes this a standout for the newly independent reader. Sentence structure is spare, with only four to seven words common. And yet the action is quick and inventive. And while the plots jets along, author Chabert employs a descriptive style often lacking in chapter books. We really see and feel the environment and sense of the sinister backdrop.

The book also blooms from simple, school-centered action to a classic hero in an epic struggle. Our young protagonist Sam saves the day, to the reader’s delight. eerie elem ills 2

Ricks’ illustrations are equally evocative, but with a comic twist. One truly haunting black and white illustration shows a tree branch silhouette that looks like a hand capable of reaching into the classroom. And yet the branches seem to curve and dance in the wind, making it appear just this side of frightening. A few pages later, a truly comic drawing has our hero riding a fire hose in what would otherwise be a grade A horror scene. Genius.

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



Fright Month Post #3: Let’s Get Scared!

In October, we’ll review books and series that ooze with delicious creepy crawlies, heebie geebies and chilly willies.

 sebella cover


By Thea Berg


Published by: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (June 14, 2014)

Available in: paperback, Kindle

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


Sweet and tart.

The Magical World of Sebella: Legend of Halloween lets kids devour a Halloween sugar high without the risk of cavities. A quick-paced, magical tale probably best for girls who are voracious readers, this story glories in the sweetest holiday of the year.

The story begins 24 hours before the Trick or Treat hour and is all about delicious anticipation. As one would hope, it’s filled with scary creatures like trolls and grandma-snatching werewolves, fantastic locations like a Twin Candies magical garden, and a suspenseful plot that keeps readers engaged to the end. The threat of Halloween not happening hangs over the action, and that is a powerful tool indeed.

There are some sharp bites to this candy-coated tale. The writing sometimes lacks subtlety and finesse, such as when fun names are followed by explanations like “…that really is his name.” But the biggest problem is that this book is entirely without illustrations, other than the excellent cover. One of the difficulties of self-publishing chapter books is coming up with both text and illustrations, so the absence is understood—but sorely missed.

The book ends with an entertaining reader questionnaire, so those who’ve eaten up the text will enjoy testing themselves on facts. For those who delight in Halloween, this could be a good appetizer for the big event.

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

Ruby Lu



By Lenore Look, Illustrated by Anne Wilsdorf


Published by: Atheneum Books for Young Readers (March 1, 2004)

Available in: paperback, hardcover, Kindle, NOOK

At the time of this review three books in the Ruby Lu series.


Bright as reflective tape.

Ruby Lu, Brave and True charms with ease. She’s a girl who immediately invites newly independent readers into her world—slugs, sweaters and all. She’s gutsy and genuine and kid-on-the-corner recognizable. Rather than a turbulent run of action, Ruby’s story is more plum trees, sibling rivalry/love and the frustrations and joys of everyday life.

There are two things I like best about Ruby Lu. First, her interests are so very visual and normal: a baby brother, a new neighbor, foggy mornings, magic shows and cousins. And second, a major component is her Chinese American culture, woven into the story with subtle elegance. Much as author Look does with her other chapter book series, Alvin Ho, Ruby Lu eases the reader into the Asian American experience. Through foods, traditions, the bother of Chinese school on Saturdays, a tight-knit family dynamic and a neat little Chinese American glossary at the back, we don’t get told about the reality of Ruby’s life, we live it with her.

Written in third person, there were moments I wished to be in Ruby’s head more directly. But this is perhaps a personal preference. With many chapter books written in first person, perhaps it is more the jolting difference in voice that makes this stand out.

Originally illustrated by Anne Wilsdorf, some later formats and versions carry illustrations by Stef Choi. I personally prefer Wilsdorf’s more loose, energetic work as it perfectly captures Ruby’s free spirit. But Choi’s drawings reflect a cartoonish, mass market-style that children will no doubt like for the color and bold ambiance.

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


Year One Re-Post #9: Heidi Heckelbeck Has a Secret

Originally published in October 2013. I find Heidi one of the freshest new characters in the chapter book world.

heidi cover


By Wanda Coven, Illustrated by Priscilla Burris

Published by: Little Simon (January 3, 2012)

Available in: paperback, library binding, Kindle, NOOK

At the time of this review, there were 10 books in the Heidi Heckelbeck series.

Heidi Heckelbeck is magic. But don’t tell your little reader—the big reveal is in the last line of the first book in the series.

In fact, the whole of Heidi Heckelbeck Has a Secret leads up to a denouement in the second book, Heidi Heckelbeck Casts a Spell. See the utter genius of the marketing plan? Rather than make a chapter book that is too big, this series runs like separate parts of the same story. Yes, each piece is complete unto itself. But if a kid is hooked, she WILL NOT stop at one book.

It’s almost kind of cruel, isn’t it? Much how we all had to wait for each Harry Potter installment, Heidi Heckelbeck’s story is filled with unrequited expectation. Ah, but the anticipation is half the joy, and I give only kudos to the author for this inspired, pint-size version of the magical, multi-book saga.

The text, done with refreshingly contemporary language, is a very easy read. There is absolutely no mistaking Heidi’s world for those classic chapter books of another decade. Add in the zingy, silly illustrations that dot almost every page, and even very reluctant readers will find a way through each page… and then the next… and then the next book.

Also, props go to the interesting idea that Heidi is a previous homeschool kid who now has to integrate into real school. Unique, and filled with the drama you’d expect. All those tough transitions place Heidi squarely in the real world, with problems any kid can recognize. From bullies to clueless teachers, Heidi has some difficult stuff to work through, which she does with grace… once she makes a few haunting mistakes.

As a note, this is listed as a Halloween book, which it technically is not. But the Halloween overtones and references abound, so if a kid is into that theme, Heidi delivers quite the treat. And she’s got some tricks up her sleeve to boot.

Now that’s a sweet haul for any day of the year.

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

Year One Re-Post #7: Daisy Dawson Is on Her Way!

Originally published in September 2013. One of my top five favorites of the year for its sweet nature and originality.

Daisy Dawson Is on Her Way!

By Steve Voake, Illustrated by Jessica Meserve


Publisher: Candlewick; Reprint edition (March 24, 2009)
Available in: paperback, hardcover

At the time of this review, there were seven Daisy Dawson books available through various publishers.


What a charmer!

Daisy Dawson is a quiet, innocent, tender, positive, sweet girl who just happens to get distracted. A lot. She is often told not to dawdle, and that alliteration and creative use of language is just one of the joys of this chapter book.

But there are actually three very distinct aspects of this book I love.

1. The subtle yet inventive, surprisingly thrilling plot. It starts slow, and you get the idea that Daisy will be a lovely, nature-centered, quiet book. And then it explodes into a tense, nail-biting drama. Still, it retains the simple, evocative, nature-centered core. Brilliant. Also, the use of animals and their relation to Daisy and the plot is enchanting.

2. The deceptively artful illustrations. At first glance they feel very bulky and rough—almost as if they were drawn with a big marker. But on closer inspection, Meserve’s deft skill brings out sensitive emotion and feeling with simplicity and contrasting use of bold and light treatments. I find it reminiscent of Japanese calligraphy: modest, unassuming and yet powerful.

Side note here: the front matter of the book lists the media used (ink and pencil). Now why isn’t this done more often? How many times have we wondered, How was that done? And if the art media were listed more often, would kids be inspired to try techniques they otherwise might not consider? I personally love that it’s listed and wish that were a more common practice.

But, back to the highlights….

3. The language. It respects kids and their intellect. The writing avoids being pompous or presumptuous, but it brings in a vocabulary and clever descriptive quality that is rare in chapter books. The prose is elegant and smart, but still simple and clear.

Daisy Dawson Is on Her Way! respects kids with gorgeous but not too advanced language. It’s heart and soul wrapped in nerve-racking drama. It shows clear insight into how a child can live in the moment, and yet it places children squarely in our modern world. Daisy is one refreshing charmer who the quieter child, somewhere between ages five and eight, will love as a new chapter book friend.

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

Year One Re-Post #5: Ava Tree and the Wishes Three

Originally published in December 2013. This quiet, elegant little book has resonated with me through the months.ava tree cover


By Jeanne Betancourt, Illustrated by Angela Dominguez


Published by: Feiwel & Friends; First Edition (March 31, 2009)

Available in: hardcover, Kindle, NOOK



Wishful thinking… what an intriguing premise.

Ava Tree and the Wishes Three is a solid chapter book with some big concepts packed into sweet, bite-size bits.

One unique aspect of this story is its configuration: there are three parts, each with five chapters. The action takes place over three days, with each part one day. I love that this lets the chapter book reader tackle something a touch longer and more complex than they might be used to. The three parts gives the reader goals within the book, so it might not seem overwhelming.

The story also tackles the death of parents. Although this is handled gracefully and with true empathy throughout, this fact is boldly revealed on page one. I admit to being slightly shaken right away. But once the story evolves, as much as this is sad, the author doesn’t exploit this tragedy, but rather holds and examines it carefully.

The plot is somewhat complex—as one would expect with a story that supports three separate parts—but is explained with plain repetition at just the right times. No child will be confused by this complexity. In fact, the depth of this story is one of its winning factors.

The warm, slightly boxy illustrations bring a light, welcoming feel. And the use of magic, rabbits and mean boys play into a world into which children can sink with comfort, even while digesting some uncomfortable sides of life—and death.

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