Lola Levine: Drama Queen


Lola Levine: Drama Queen

By Monica Brown, Illustrated by Angela Dominguez


Published by: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (January 5, 2016)

Available in: hardcover, paperback, Kindle, NOOK

At the time of this review, there were three books in the Lola Levine Series.



A natural act.

Lola Levine: Drama Queen melds an outsize personality, acting lessons, and an easy cultural mix into one smooth play.

Our protagonist, the effervescent Lola, is precocious without being snarky. She’s kind and brave, even when she fails. She’s a witty thinker, which is a joy to read, and her family is quirky enough to be interesting and solid enough to be comfortable. They love each other, even when it’s hard. This little girl stands out in the chapter book crowd from sheer force of personality (and, maybe, volume of voice).

The book easily integrates cultures (in this case, both Jewish and Latino), something done too rarely in chapter books. We see this in the references to food and heroes (e.g., Dolores Huerta, farm activist), as well as in the inventive use of the epistolary format. Lola both writes letters—real letters, not texts or emails—to her bubbe in Florida, as well as keeps a diary. Each diary entry begins with “Dear Diario,” and ends with “Shalom.”

There is fun, smart wordplay used throughout the book. Classic growing-up moments are introduced with precise timing and subtle context within the story (think bubble gum, hair, and scissors). And acting lessons, such as improvisation games and role playing, are introduced in ways that let Lola’s personality shine.

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

zapato cover

 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….

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….

Ellray Jakes Is Not a Chicken

Ellray cover

Ellray Jakes Is Not a Chicken

By Sally Warner, Illustrated by Jamie Harper


Published by: Puffin (May 12, 2011)

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

At the time of this review there were six books in the Ellray Jakes series.


“…outside is when school really happens for kids.”

True that. Our protagonist in Ellray Jakes Is Not a Chicken is one bullied boy, no more so than on the playground. He also has trouble sitting in chairs without wiggling, not bothering his neighbor (even when she wants it), remembering rules, paying attention, and all the stuff kids are supposed to do in school.

This honest, unfiltered portrayal of what a kid’s life is really like shows why parents can’t solve everything. The little moments of Ellray’s day show why being a kid is sometimes so hard, and how boys and girls handle the early elementary years so differently. In fact, some of the funniest lines in the book are when Ellray tries to explain girls’ behavior or what they look like with their “hair-things.”

Boys in particular will relate to this personable young man. He’s also a very welcome main character because, like Keena Ford, he’s African American. Ellray is refreshingly candid on how this affects him, which provides one of the most poignant scenes in the book. Ellray explains why he and his sister, Alfie, have decided not to tell their parents that a kid at Alfie’s daycare always wants to touch her braids. As one of the few black families in their suburban San Diego community, the kids know mom and dad are touchy about racial issues. The hair problem, the kids know, will make their dad “freak.”

This authentic series is dotted with comic-like illustrations that help keep the tone light, even when Ellray has some serious drama. I especially loved those drawings that play off Ellray’s self-deprecating humor, like calling his wimpy arm muscles the size of ping-pong balls.

I read the Kindle edition, and it was surprising to find a number of spelling and formatting mistakes. Perhaps even the big publishing houses find all this new technology quite a monster to wrap arms around completely.

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

Keena Ford

keena cover

Keena Ford and the Second Grade Mix-up

By Melissa Thomson, Illustrated by Frank Morrison


Published by: Dial; 1 edition (July 3, 2008)

Available in: hardcover, paperback, Kindle

At the time of this review there were three books in Keena Ford series.


No mix-up: Keena’s a star.

I’m pleased to start the New Year with a review of a fresh, inventive, lively, newer series. Current in mood and dialed into today’s kids, Keena Ford is, in my view, an unequivocal success.

Keena is a second grader who lives in a Washington D.C. apartment during the week with her brother and divorced mother. On weekends, she stays with her dad in Baltimore. She’s an effervescent imp much like the Junie B. Jones character, and yet I find Keena more likable, realistic and believable. Call Keena sassy with spunk and a sprinkling of delightful innocence.

Keena also is black, a rarity for a chapter book protagonist. Although many secondary characters in chapter books are of various ethnicities, most protagonists tend to be Caucasian. I do a lot of school visits and those inquisitive, cute faces looking back at me are every shade of the skin rainbow. It’s bizarre that fiction has been slow to reflect that. So Keena is one welcome little girl.

The plots of the three books in the series are also new and invigorating. In Keena Ford and the Second-Grade Mix-Up, a problem with numbers spawns some delicious drama that leaves Keena with real cake on her face. The second and third books revolve around mix-ups on a visit to the Capitol in Washington, D.C. and a lost journal. In the later book, secret thoughts get in the hands of a real meanie, and of course difficulties ensue.

Perhaps what I love most about Keena is her heart and emotional pulse. Kids will understand why she gets mixed up, feel for her as she struggles to find a solution that keeps her out of trouble, and, when trouble inevitably finds her, laugh and commiserate with her fate. She’s emotionally intuitive—she explains her thoughts and emotions without hitting the reader over the head with repetitive excess.

Morrison’s fresh and casual illustrations are life-like, simple line drawings. But each drawing is set in a box, which makes them full and complete. They enhance the text and give the work literary heft.

All combined, Keena has drama, heart and verve that portrays a normal girl—with much more than average results.

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….


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 #12: Alvin Ho

Originally published in November 2013. There are very few chapter books with Asian protagonists, so Alvin is a welcome young man in the chapter book genre. 

alvinHo cover


By Lenore Look, Illustrated by Leuyen Pham


Published by: Schwartz & Wade; Reprint edition (September 13, 2011)

Available in: paperback, hardcover, Kindle, NOOK, audible audio edition

At the time of this review, there were five books in Alvin Ho series.


Alvin Ho is afraid. And it is hilarious.

The Alvin Ho series centers on a second grade boy who takes us on a comedy of errors through word play, common childhood mix-ups and a good dose of self-deprecation. This kid is terrified, and while the writing make us laugh through it all, we are also allowed to take it all very seriously.

In this particular book, the fear of going to a funeral guides a plot that explodes with miscues and misunderstandings. Through misinformation from friends, Alvin envisions a wake where the body sits up and heads to the pub because he’s hungry while somebody’s dead grandma sits around the DMV. Funny, funny stuff.

And yet, it touches on real fears and realities: most kids haven’t gone to a funeral and don’t know what to expect. Most kids also get their information from friends.

The human relationships are absolutely heartwarming. A main component of the drama is played out through intergenerational action, from grandparents who don’t get mad to a younger sister who gives Alvin a piece of her prized blankie. And yet, the relationships are real. We are told the older brother can really kick his butt, and the younger sister is generally in his way. Totally normal stuff.

Alvin’s Chinese heritage is a big part of the story as well, but never in a loud, in-your-face way. Cultural aspects are woven subtly and with skill: we understand that Alvin and his family have certain qualities and customs, but those neither tell the whole story nor are left out of it. Brilliantly, naturally done.

The ink illustrations, while thoroughly modern, have a throwback feel that bolsters the humor of the text. For instance, one drawing shows an older woman with a very ‘50s vibe of curly hair, fur coat and stout build. She holds the leash of a funny little dog that sniffs at Alvin’s ankle.

Scaredy-cat or not, Alvin Ho is a real winner.

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


Year One Re-Post #4: The Lion Who Stole My Arm

Originally published in March 2014. This is, hands down, my favorite book of the year.

lion cover


By Nicola Davies, Illustrated by Annabel Wright


Published by: Candlewick (February 25, 2014)

Available in: paperback, hardcover, Kindle, NOOK



Newly released The Lion Who Stole My Arm is an exquisite journey into the culture and community of a small African village.  It’s also a taut drama of survival and a moving, authentic emotional transformation.

And yet zoologist and children’s writer Nicola Davies keeps this smart and clever tale perfectly tuned to the newly independent reader. The simple sentence structure and mostly easy language is scaled just right. When new vocabulary or science terms are introduced, they are either defined at the end of a chapter or are made clear through usage. Given the bold, photography-based cover and broad marketing, it seems the publisher is steering clear of marking this a chapter book, even while it easily fits the criteria. This is not a surprise; the book could easily be considered a middle grade crossover. I’ve even recommended this book to adults—it’s that good.

The science aspect is no small matter that adds a third dimension. The issues of animal habitat/behavior and human encroachment/survival are given fair, equal treatment. Both kids and adults will find the research and use of tracking tools intriguing and cool. The thoughtful explanation of the food chain fits naturally into the story.

I’d say boys in particular will like this book because the protagonist is a young boy, and of course there is the infamous lion. And yet girls will eat this up as well… arms and all.

Annabel Wright’s black and white watercolors add to the exotic authenticity with a quirky, old-school feel. Spare and lovely, they invite the reader to imagine what is not shown: the wide African sky above, and the thick bush just beyond the picture. Her unique perspective also adds a sense of personality, space and importance.

This book is a gift to young readers entering the world of literacy. It is human and wild, exotic and accessible, and is imbued with an emotional heft that lands with a soft touch. The Lion Who Stole My Arm is a masterwork of what contemporary chapter books can achieve. Bravo, Ms. Davies. Bravo.

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

Year One Re-Post #2: Calvin Coconut

Originally published in April 2014. Calvin was one of my favorite finds this year, both because of his Hawaiian location and utter boy-ness. I kind of love Calvin.



calvin coconut cover


By Graham Salisbury, Illustrated by Jacqueline Rogers


Published by: Yearling (January 8, 2013)

Available in: paperback, hardcover, Kindle, NOOK

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


Island time.

The Calvin Coconut series has a lot going for it. The boy protagonist is a cool kid—not too smart, a little lazy, kind of funny and nice when needed. He frets over the annoying girl who sits next to him at school and avoids chores. He’s a boy other boys can identify with, which in chapter books is golden.

The family dynamics also make these books feel authentic and contemporary—a single mom with a no-nonsense but generous boyfriend, a younger sister and a teen who lives in the house who is not biological family. It’s the kind of family structure that so many kids know as reality.  Seeing that in print makes kids feel validated in their world.

And Jacqueline Rogers’ illustrations are loose and breezy, which fit both the action and locale perfectly.

All those are important. But what Calvin Coconut has that sets it apart is a deep, genuine feel for the setting in Hawaii.  This is not tourist-poster Hawaii of Waikiki, bikinis and massive waves. This is slippers and bufos, shave ice and slang like “ho” used as a general greeting, saying or agreement.  This is recognition of the hills and valleys that make up the islands’ interiors, waterfalls that go up, hurricanes and rain that ruin plans, and the great moonscape that is the Kona Coast on the Big Island.

Calvin’s world is both exotic because of the island setting, and yet easy to dip into. It feels livable, believable and just different enough to be really interesting. Refreshing.

Calvin Coconut: Man Trip can be forgiven a slow start as it progresses into one of the coolest of chapter book activities to date: deep-sea fishing. It’s also sweet that Calvin’s mom’s boyfriend is the instigator of this day trip. Other books in the series focus often on animals, including Calvin Coconut: Dog Heaven and Calvin Coconut: Zoo Breath.

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