Princess Cora and the Crocodile

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Princess Cora and the Crocodile

By Laura Amy Schlitz, Illustrated by Brian Floca

 

Published by: Candlewick (March 28, 2017)

Available in: hardcover, audible

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

 

Disguised.

Princess Cora and the Crocodile is a lovely chapter book that masquerades as an elegant, long picture book. Truly, it could work as either, with the end result being children who are utterly delighted.

Newberry Medal winner Laura Amy Schlitz writes a contemporary tale based on historical fantasy and fairy tales. The text is deft, spare, hilarious, and told with a firmly modern sensibility that keeps it from feeling like a tired old story. To wit: “The crocodile peered out from behind his claws. ‘This is what I’m telling you,’ he said.”

Like fairy tales of old, the story powers through actions and words that are usually considered too violent or inappropriate. Which makes the story smile-cracking funny. The crocodile, in trying to help the princess, torments the nanny, locks up the queen, and bites the king’s bum, finding it “the wrong kind of chewy.”

Meanwhile, the princess, while asking for help, finds a way to fix everything herself. She’s kind and lovable and naïve and, in the end, one smart cookie. Or cream puff, as used to such sweet comedy in the plot.

Not to be overshadowed by the text, Caldecott Medal winner Brian Floca’s subtle and imaginative four-color illustrations slide through every page. It’s a visual enchantment.

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

 

 

Harry Miller’s Run

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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….

Cal and the Amazing Anti-Gravity Machine

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Cal and the Amazing Anti-Gravity Machine

By Richard Hamilton, Illustrated by Sam Hearn

 

Published by: Bloomsbury USA Childrens (April 18, 2006)

Available in: hardcover, paperback, audio CD

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

 

 

High flying.

Cal and the Amazing Anti-Gravity Machine is a quirky, contemporary fantasy that sends a boy and his dog on an excellent adventure. But don’t be fooled by the entertaining, silly high jinx–this is no dumbed-down tale.

First, it’s written from the omniscient point of view (meaning, the reader can go into the mind of any character). This is extremely rare for a chapter book. It’s hard to do, which is probably why it’s not used very much, but author Hamilton is deft in his switching from one mind to another in the story. This adds a complexity that is both unique to chapter books and is appropriate to this somewhat intricate story. I love to see chapter books treated with this kind of respect.

Second, the boy character, Cal, has a talking-dog side kick, but only Cal can understand the dog. Again, an unusual plot twist that brings comedy and depth to the story.

Also, Cal is both problem solver and problem maker. I like to see personalities created with this kind of layering. This is no simple tale, but it is a wild ride kids will enjoy following through to the end.

The format for this book includes zany line art that compliments the sometimes crazy story. The white space is not as roomy as many chapter books, with a smaller type face and perhaps a tad fewer illustrations than the norm, but this only helps to bump this book up in reading level and maturity. While still a chapter book, it will challenge reluctant readers up through fifth grade.

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

 

 

Sparkling Jewel: A Branches Book (Silver Pony Ranch #1)

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Sparkling Jewel: A Branches Book (Silver Pony Ranch #1)

By D. L. Green, Illustrated by Emily Wallis

 

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

Available in: hardcover, paperback, Kindle, NOOK

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

 

 

Exciting!

Sparkling Jewel: Silver Pony Ranch Book #1 is an updated, modern take on the classic girls-love-horses genre.  And for those girls who do, this is an excellent early chapter book series.

The text is simple, with short sentences and easy vocabulary. There is a good amount of girl drama, usually ended with an exclamation mark. So although adults might cringe just slightly, young girls will likely eat it up. But not to fear, it’s not dumbed down: peppered throughout are call-out illustrations with tough or horse-centered words that would otherwise be hard for a beginning reader. Words like “currycomb,” “bridle”, and “reins.”

The story, as well, is simple, but it trots along quickly. We see sibling rivalry, examples of bad mistakes in dealing with animals, and a pleasant resolution. Particularly notable is the Grandma character, who is a Wellington boot-wearing, no-nonsense charmer. Sometimes grandparents are made too old or too old school in chapter books, mere outdated caricatures. But in this series, Grandma is an independent, 50-something, cut-to-the-chase rancher. She snores, has bad breath, and calls it like she sees it. You can’t help but respect and like her.

The real jewel here, though, are the illustrations. The black-and-white line drawings are spare but complete. Especially appreciated are all the contemporary details in clothing, cars, ranch tools, and tack.

As with all in the Branches line of chapter books, the production quality of this series is excellent. So although it is a simple, new take on an old tune, it is worthy nonetheless.

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

 

Meet the Bobs and Tweets

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Meet the Bobs and Tweets

By Pepper Springfield, Illustrated by Kristy Caldwell

 

Published by: Scholastic Inc. (June 28, 2016)

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

At the time of this review this was a standalone book, but a series is planned.

 

Seussian.

Meet the Bobs and Tweets is an obvious homage to Dr. Seuss’s canon of work. The language is zany and alive, with a rhythm that hops off the tongue and bops through the lines:

“This pool is for swimmers who live on our street.
A nice, safe, cool spot for We-Who-Are-Neat.”
“Not!” yell the Bobs. “We do not think so! No way!”
This pool is a great place for Slobs-Hard-At-Play.”

As you see from the example, the plot centers on one tidy family and one messy family. The youngest of each is the opposite, and they are the catalyst for a happy conclusion. It’s a cute, smart little story arc.

Part of the reason Theodor Geisel’s work is still considered brilliant is the absolutely smooth rhythm in each line and stanza. It’s hard to be brilliant, and unfortunately this text proves that fact. The cadence of the prose sometimes loses its lilt, either from too many or too few syllables per line, or from the use of a word that has an emphasis on the wrong syllable to fit the established beat. These bring a stilted motion to the act of reading, which, as a writer, makes me cringe. Kids… well, they probably won’t care.

Followers of this blog know there have been many posts about what actually determines a chapter book, and there is a question of where this book falls: chapter book or easy reader? Although it mimics a chapter book, this is probably better considered a lengthy easy reader with chapters. Thus, if parents of a newly independent reader want to get this book, great–but maybe also get another to satisfy the amount of reading your child can now handle. For those children just transitioning from easy readers to chapter books, or reluctant independent readers, this would be a perfect choice: fun, alive, hilarious, just a little bit bad (blame those sloppy Bobs), and packed with wild but more reality-based Suessian illustrations.

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

Humphrey’s Playful Puppy Problem

 humphrey cover

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….

A to Z Mysteries

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 A to Z Mysteries Super Edition #8: Secret Admirer (A Stepping Stone Book(TM))

 By Ron Roy, Illustrated by John Steven Gurney

 

Published by: Random House Books for Young Readers (December 22, 2015)

Available in: paperback, library binding, Kindle, NOOK

At the time of this review there were eight books in this series as well as 26 books in the original A to Z alphabet series.

 

It’s a mystery….

Actually, there’s no mystery why the A to Z Mysteries, in their first rendition of 26 alphabet-inspired books, and now under the guise of Super Editions, are so popular. Kids love mysteries, they love series, and this gives them a heaping dose of both.

The most recent of the A to Z Mysteries Super Edition books, Secret Admirer entices kids’ intrigue even before chapter one. The first page tells the reader to look for hidden letters within the illustrations and map, and challenges them to find the secret message. Who can resist that? The answer is given at the back of the book, so no frustrations if a child can’t decipher the message.

Author Roy, perhaps one of the most prolific in contemporary children’s literature, also writes both Capital Mysteries and Calendar Mysteries series. So if kids like these books, there’s more to be had from him.

Do I love these books? Not really. I find too many characters right at the start, and the writing is a little lazy. To wit, this paragraph, where originality and engaging descriptions take a back seat to just getting it done: “The kids reached the hotel and shoved open the thick glass door. Inside it was warm and smelled good.” I also find the illustrations serviceable but without pop or pizzazz.

Do I respect these books? Absolutely. The author and publisher give kids a lot of what they need at this point in their reading life: the thrilling intrigue of the mystery, characters they can follow from book to book, and the comfort of easy reading within the challenge of a full book. The fact that author Roy is successful at producing so much work is truly impressive and inspiring.

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