Secret Agents Jack & Max Stalwart: Book 1

stalwart cover

Secret Agents Jack and Max Stalwart: Book 1

The Battle for the Emerald Buddha: Thailand

By Elizabeth Singer Hunt, Illustrations by Brian Williamson

 

Published by: Weinstein Books (July 25, 2017)

Available in: paperback, Kindle, audible

At the time of this review there were two books in the Secret Agents Jack & Max Stalwart series. There are a number of related books in The Secret Agent Jack Stalwart series and The Secret Agent Training Manual series.

 

Power punch.

Secret Agents Jack & Max Stalwart is a new series that wastes no time pulling kids into an adrenaline-filled, contemporary, criminal-and-detective caper that is relevant, educational, and exhilarating. With art history, geography, and social studies throughout, it’s a bit like hiding vegetables in pizza—both parents and kids will be happy.

Author Singer Hunt has proven she knows the secret code to page-turning intrigue in children’s writing. Her previous series, with the older brother from this series as the protagonist, has an impressive sales history and was serialized by BBC Radio. The author keeps things simple while imbuing the text with current references and fast-paced action. Her characters use cool new accessories like a burner cell phone that can’t be traced by police and the grill a young criminal wears on his teeth. And yet, the prose is straightforward, with short sentences and relatively simple vocabulary.

The illustrations by Brian Williamson, unassuming black & white drawings, are edgy enough to be current and bring a clean, forward motion to the page.

I love that the boys, both good and bad, are powerful, independent, and free to make big mistakes and serious contributions. These kids are shown respect by the author. Exciting story components, like tigers, boat escapes, and subterfuge, keep the story moving with ingenuity and pace. In solving the crime, the protagonists show cleverness and daring (and a funny bit of comedy), but they’re also on a vacation with their parents. So although this particular story is unlike what most kids experience, it’s easy to see a connection with other nine- and 12-year-olds.

There are a number of terrific additional content pages, with a map, glossary, explanation of Thai facts, and more. A small gripe, I don’t like that they’re placed in the front of the book, which makes it feel crowded. Also, the typeface is a bit hard to read. But these are minor critiques in an otherwise excellent, daring-duo adventure sure to excite kids—especially boys—into the world of reading.

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

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Harry Miller’s Run

Harry cover

Harry Miller’s Run

By David Almond, Illustrated by Salvatore Rubbino

 

Published by: Candlewick (February 7, 2017)

Available in: hardcover, paperback

At the time of this review this was a standalone book.

 

Real.

Harry Miller’s Run is a tender, funny, quirky, exuberant chapter book with… no chapters. Particularly for American readers, the dialect-heavy text is a bit of a treasure hunt for meaning, but a hunt worth every effort. This book inhabits a kindness, whimsy, hard truth, and compassion rarely found in children’s books.

Harry is an old man, and the bulk of the story is his re-telling of an epic afternoon in his youth. “And it was a day of daftness and joy, and if we’d never started and we’d never kept on going, just think of what we’d missed,” he says. This is what I love about this book: things are hard, but the challenge is worth the lovely exhilaration of doing something incredible. Friendships are begun, kids make stupid mistakes but live with it, and exploration wins out over logic.

Harry’s young neighbor, 11-year-old Liam, doesn’t shy away from the fact of Harry’s age. Liam’s supremely youthful voice introduces us to Harry and his apartment with blunt truth. “It smells of old bloke in here. Suppose it’s bound to. Suppose he can’t help it. Suppose I’ll smell like old bloke myself one day. Pee and sweat and ancient clothes and dust. The sun shines through the window. Dust’s glittering and dancing in the shafts of light….”

Because the dialect can be difficult to understand, and because this book is a pocket of surprise adults will love as well, it’s a good idea for children to read this aloud with a parent or other adult. That way, lines that are hard can be dissected together, such as, “’But we’re half knackered already’, sez Stanley. ‘By the time we run aal the way back again we’ll be bliddy deed.’” As you can see, spelling is anywhere near the norm in this book, and the manner of speech is definitely affected.

The illustrations are a loose, giddy romp that perfectly suit the depth and humor of the text. Especially appreciated are the publisher’s notes on the media used: watercolor, gouache, pencil, and ink.

Harry is a lovable curmudgeon who has much to give young readers. As he says, “Me great achievement is that I’ve been happy, that I’ve never been nowt but happy.”

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

Catwoman’s Nine Lives (Batman: Comic Chapter Books)

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Catwoman’s Nine Lives (Batman: Comic Chapter Books)

By Matthew K. Manning, Illustrated by Luciano Vecchio

Published by: Stone Arch Books (August 1, 2014)

Available in: paperback, library binding, Kindle, NOOK

At the time of this review there were four books in the Batman: Comic Chapter Book series.

Cool cat.

Catwoman’s Nine Lives is a super smart, zippy caper that sets itself firmly in Batman’s Gotham City with a resounding Twang! Fwoom! Click!

The story is solid and fast-paced, and the artwork is spectacular. With The Penguin an additional character, the setting won’t disappoint any Batman fan.

Most impressive are the endnotes of the book that include a detailed biography and background of Selina Kyle, a.k.a. Catwoman, and what she does with her stolen money, and why. It adds a depth and social conscience to the action in the book. There also are examples of initial sketches of the book’s artwork, and then final art examples. For any kid interested in art, book production, or the mechanics of imagination, this is a real gem.  There also is a Glossary, a detailed Comics Terms list, and a section titled Visual Questions that delves into facial expressions, an examination of movement methods, and the nature of Batman and Catwoman’s friendship/feud.

And this brings us to the meat of the book: while young readers can merrily enjoy a comic thrill, adults can see this book as way more than a comic strip. There is a very definite sexual tension between Batman and Catwoman that is taut and determined. Catwoman teases, cajoles, and entices Batman, all the while seeming to do what he wants while really keeping her own agenda intact. While maintaining a G Rating throughout, an adult could literally use the text in a college-level analysis of women’s roles, perceptions, and actions within modern society. I think this book is literally brilliant.

And that’s no kitten kibble.

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

Humphrey’s Playful Puppy Problem

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Humphrey’s Playful Puppy Problem (Humphrey’s Tiny Tales)

By Betty G. Birney, Illustrated by Priscilla Burris

 

Published by: Puffin Books (August 28, 2014)

Available in: paperback, library binding, Kindle, NOOK

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

 

SQUEAK-SQUEAK-SQUEAK!

Humphrey’s Playful Puppy Problem (Humphrey’s Tiny Tales) brings the popular middle grade series down to the chapter book level with the same characters and format. Humphrey is still the hamster in Room 26, he still goes home with students on weekends, and he still is both endearing and a hero by the end of each book.

I love the older Humphrey series, so I was truly excited to see this in the chapter book format. That said, I like it… but I don’t love it.

First, the good stuff. The text has an easy rhythm that will keep newly independent readers entertained. (“The bus was bumpy and thumpy. I slid from one side of my cage to the other.”) The layout is classic chapter book, with big typeface, lots of white space and illustrations no more than every three pages apart. Children will find these books an easy first dip into the read-alone arena.

My disappointment is perhaps less about what’s wrong than what is missing. The original, older Humphrey series is truly hilarious, inventive and alive with personality and drama. These, perhaps because they have been simplified so much, are not just Humphrey light, but washed-out Humphrey.

Still, I’d recommend them to kids who love humor, animals and need an easy introduction to chapter books. The fact this series could lead those same readers to the middle grade Humphrey books makes me GLAD-GLAD-GLAD.

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

Princess Pink and the Land of Fake-Believe

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 The Three Little Pugs: A Branches Book (Princess Pink and the Land of Fake-Believe #3)

 By Noah Z. Jones

 

Published by: Scholastic Inc. (August 25, 2015)

Available in: paperback, library binding, Kindle, NOOK

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

 

Ya gotta love a pun.

The Three Little Pugs of the Princess Pink and the Land of Fake-Believe series is a rolling, exuberant, crazy mash-up of puns. And just as the words jump off the page, so do the illustrations. With more of an expanded comic book feel—but not quite graphic novel feel—this book screams fun.

It all starts with surprise. Princess Pink is serious tom boy-type who’s stuck with the girly name. Her freewheeling imagination has come up with a secret: a land of fake-believe hidden in her family’s fridge. When the family is asleep, our offbeat hero stomps into a much more colorful world, populated by characters that are takeoffs on traditional fairy tale characters.

But traditional they are not. The Big Bad Wolf is a scaredy pants. The industrious three pigs are conniving pugs. And so it goes. It’s no surprise that author/illustrator Noah Z. Jones also has experience as an animator, because this book has a jolly verve that feels like a Saturday morning cartoon.

The series, part of the excellent Branches line of chapter books, is not necessarily the easiest vocabulary, but spontaneous pages, quick jokes and amusing puns make it an easy read, even for those kids who might struggle with a word or two. For instance, this sentence might challenge some young readers: “Then Moldylocks had a crazy-cakes idea.” I’d venture a guess that almost no kid could stop before finding out what that crazy-cakes idea is. It’s just too fun.

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

 

Marvin Redpost

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Marvin Redpost #1: Kidnapped at Birth?

By Louis Sachar, Illustrated by Neal Hughes

 

Published by: Random House Books for Young Readers; Reissue edition (June 1, 2011)

Available in: paperback, school & library binding, Kindle, NOOK

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

 

Marvin is a prince.

In Marvin Redpost’s first installment, Kidnapped at Birth?, we find a prince of a character, full of simple dreams, understated wit, and endearing charm. Who hasn’t thought, for just a moment, that his family is not his family… that he was kidnapped at birth and really belonged to a different, better family? This basic premise, such a common childhood fantasy, is used to great heights by the gifted Louis Sachar, author of the middle grade masterpiece, Holes.

What Sachar does with deft skill is create a character, plot and denouement that are simple enough for the chapter book format and yet not dumbed down. The sentences are short, but the power of each is strong. The vocabulary is simple, but the meaning is poignant. The ending is quick and endearing, but still unexpected and a delightful surprise.

As a reviewer of chapter books, I can tell you that most writers struggle with the balance of simple text and deep meaning. Sachar seems to soar within these restraints. Marvin Redpost is a joy to tag along with. And even though this is an older series, there is nothing tired about it—other than the easily forgiven old school illustrations contained in some formats.

Take this short example:

     Marvin was sitting at the dinner table. Mrs. Redpost had made chicken tacos. His favorite.

     He hoped she wasn’t really a kidnapper. Then he’d have to lock her in the dungeon.

Who doesn’t laugh out loud at the idea of needing to lock his mother in the dungeon because she kidnapped him at birth? And notice the easy text that says so much. Notice how Marvin has slipped into identifying his mother as “Mrs. Redpost” now that he doesn’t identify with her as mom.

For those who might be worried, this story ends with an unbreakable family bond, all sweetness and love in triumph over the draw of the golden crown.

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

 

Change Is in the Air, Mallory

By Laurie Friedman, Illustrated by Jennifer Kalis

 mallory cover

Published by: Darby Creek Publishing (August 1, 2015)

Available in: hardcover, paperback, Kindle, NOOK

At the time of this review there were 25 books in the Mallory series.

 

Change is hard.

And with Mallory McDonald, the chapter book set gets two chances to see how this plays out. The book reviewed here, Change Is in the Air, Mallory, is for the older chapter book crowd. Our protagonist is in the summer between fourth and fifth grades, so the text is a bit more complex and dense on the page, and feelings about change are a tad more self-aware. For the younger chapter book crowd, Mallory’s first book, Mallory on the Move, also tackles change, but three years earlier in her life.

First, these books are staunchly “girl” books, even though there are some good treatments of boy characters involved. There are also tie-ins that girls will love: a craft activity detailed in the back, as well as a terrific Website for the whole Mallory series, www.mallorymcdonald.com. Mid- to late-elementary kids can enjoy surfing the site for all things Mallory. It’s a nice touch, and one that can show children how fun it can be to get totally consumed by the book world.

Change Is in the Air, Mallory  tackles the subject of friends leaving and subsequent loss and loneliness. Feelings are talked about—a lot. So much so, it’s hard to imagine any kid being this open about the happenings around her. For instance, here’s a section where Mallory and her friend, Mary Ann, discuss Mary Ann’s recent move.

 

“I have had a hard time,” I say. “I’ve been really sad that we don’t live next door to each other anymore.”

I pause. What I have to say next might not be something she wants to hear, but I feel like I need to say it. “I guess it kind of bothered me that it didn’t seem like it was hard for you.”

Mary Ann shakes her head. “It’s not that it wasn’t hard. Maybe I just don’t show it the same way you do.” She shrugs. “Even though we’re best friends, we handle things differently.”

 

I don’t know about you, but I haven’t heard many elementary-aged kids having these kinds of conversations. But this isn’t a bad thing. I can see this book being helpful to kids going through similar circumstances, especially girls who tend to have consuming friendships at this age.

The general art design of the book adds to the appeal to this age group with some straight illustrations, some comic-strip style illustrations, and some asides to the reader in both direct address and letters. Girls, especially those undergoing change, will eat this stuff up.

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