Violet Mackerel


violet cover 2

Violet Mackerel’s Natural Habitat

By Anna Branford, Illustrated by Elanna Allen


Published by: Atheneum Books for Young Readers; Reprint edition (May 21, 2013)

Available in: hardcover, paperback, Kindle, NOOK

At the time of this review there were six books in the Violet Mackerel series.



Violet Mackerel’s Natural Habitat is a quiet, thoughtful book with a sweet protagonist, a microscopic view of the natural world, and an elegant story structure that circles back to, of all things, wildlife stuck in a mall food court.

Our hero is the smallest in her family, so she feels real empathy for the smallest creatures. As Violet nudges pebbles and fennel leaves aside in search of a ladybug in her garden, the reader is completely in tune with Violet’s theory that, “The trick of helping small things… is to understand them.” Smart girl.

The reader gains some smarts, too, as the complete life cycle of a ladybug is covered in the book’s interior. This might sound as if the plot and story are slow and dry, but happily, that’s not the case. Just as Violet quietly watches and interacts with the natural world, she also gently navigates the organic rhythms of her family structure, including a grumpy sister and a moody brother.

I find Violet similar in temperament to the sweet Daisy Dawson, which is a refreshing club of innocent, tender girls. There’s not a snarky comment around (other than by siblings).

The illustrations are equally soft and evocative, but also funny. It’s a nice compliment to the very serious text.

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

Chicken Squad Detectives

chick squad cover 

The Chicken Squad: The First Misadventure

By Doreen Cronin, Illustrated by Kevin Cornell


Published by: Atheneum Books for Young Readers (April 8, 2014)

Available in: hardcover, audible audio, Kindle, NOOK

At the time of this review there was one The Chicken Squad book available and another planned for release later this year.



Comedy, kid… that’s what I’m talking about.

Doreen Cronin, author of the hilarious, award winning, best selling Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type picture book, has written the first of a chapter book series. This festive, zany backyard romp is made all the more enjoyable by the addition of Cronin’s returning character J.J. Tully, a retired search-and-rescue hound from the J.J. Tully Mysteries series.

The Chicken Squad: The First Misadventure opens with J.J. Tully’s introduction of each chick. Although each has a different name and specialty, each is described the same: “short, yellow, fuzzy.” It’s a cute calculation that brings a smile right away. At the end of the introduction phase, J.J. Tully invites the reader into the action, and—poof!—the reader is smitten with the story.

Then the book changes to the chickens’ point of view, and the four are wisecracking, old-time, gumshoe detectives. The mystery that needs to be solved is brought on by a terrified squirrel, who sees something “big and scary” in the yard. For most of the remainder of the book there are pratfalls, confusions and chaos. Inventive use of personality, language and shapes transform this from the usual beast into a chapter book of big-top proportions.

I love the inspired mystery and characters, and Cronin’s use of repetition and comedy are masterful. I do wonder if there’s so much action and so many characters that not all children will easily follow the story. And with jokes about dead squirrels and atmospheric disturbances, there will definitely be children who just don’t get it.

The illustrations carry no such conflicted opinions. They are deep, rich, edgy and completely endearing. And super whammy funny. Cornell’s use of both expected and off-kilter perspective keep each page turn full of anticipation and joy.

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


Sharp Bunnicula


By Deborah and James Howe, Illustrated by Alan Daniel


Published by: Atheneum Books for Young Readers; Reprint edition (December 20, 2011)

Available in: paperback, hardcover, audiobook CD, Kindle, NOOK


Mystery with a dry wit.

Bunnicula: A Rabbit-Tale of Mystery is a classic children’s book that suffers no pains from its original 1979 publication. The sage, dry wit of the narrator, a lovable dog named Harold, carries a timeless humor that caters as much to adults as to children. And Chester the cat is a shrewd devil and clever counterpoint to the waggish Harold.

As the title character, Bunnicula is unexpected: neither cuddly nor much in appearance. But he casts a long shadow, which brilliantly hones the tension and fright of this mystery. Genius.

Alan Daniel’s illustrations are masterworks themselves. Spare line art is suitably funny, sweet and haunting, and seems to hark from an age when children’s illustrators were taken more seriously. It’s obvious he was given the direction to create artwork—a stark contrast to the cartoons favored in much of today’s commercially focused chapter books.

As a writer, I also have to mention the excellent use of the homophone steak and stake in a critical scene. I love that newly independent readers can see the misunderstanding of the same word in action. The playfulness shows kids how language can be creative, fun and clever.

Normally, I wouldn’t have reviewed this book because it has one foot very definitely in the middle grade novel category: the publisher lists it as good for ages 8—12, the type is small and it carries a more mature sense of humor. But it also sits very squarely in the older chapter book genre with its illustrations, animal narrator and short length. Rather than quibble, I’ve reviewed Bunnicula: A Rabbit-Tale of Mystery because it is so sublime.

But beware. There are more Bunnicula books, and they all sit squarely in the middle grade category as they are much longer books. As such, I view this as a terrific bridge between the two genres, best read when a child is ready to approach middle grade novels but is not yet up to the task. If he or she loves Bunnicula, what a great way to jump into the longer, more challenging reading—with a known friend as the guide.

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