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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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….