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)

increcible cover

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….

 

 

Chalk Box Kid

 

 

chalk box cover 2

The Chalk Box Kid

By Clyde Robert Bulla, Illustrated by Thomas B. Allen

 

Published by: Random House Books for Young Readers; New edition (September 12, 1987)

Available in: paperback, library binding

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

 

Quiet.

The Chalk Box Kid moves softly but has a powerful undercurrent of truth and emotion. Originally published in 1987, this short chapter book is a simple story about a boy who’s in the midst of difficult changes. Simple can be so deceiving, can’t it?

With easy pacing, this story deftly steps through anticipation, disappointment, sadness, disgust, loss of control, bullying, attempts at positive change, loneliness, budding friendship, missteps, betrayal and, ultimately, redemption. That’s no simple task. Esteemed author Bulla employs a literary style rarely seen in contemporary children’s works. He paints opening scenes that are bleak but, through the elegant rhythm of the prose, quite beautiful.

The young protagonist, Gregory, is left almost entirely alone through the whole saga of a move and new school. His parents appear distracted and beaten-down, which forces him to navigate the world completely on his own. Even when he tries to engage his parents, they don’t seem to hear him. There is no helicopter parenting here, only the cold reality of hard times.

But Gregory is an able guide for the young readers who pick up this classic. He shows fortitude and creativity, all through Bulla’s quiet inspiration and craft.

The original illustrations by artist Allen are blurry and indistinct, mirroring the nostalgic feel of the time, Gregory’s unsure life and the titled chalk. Brilliant.

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….