Lulu and the Brontosaurus

By Judith Viorst, Illustrated by Lane Smith

 lulu cover

Published by: Atheneum Books for Young Readers; 1 edition (September 14, 2010)

Available in: hardcover, paperback, Kindle, NOOK, audible unabridged, audio CD

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


Bold and smart.

Lulu and the Brontosaurus is a fresh, quirky, lively take on classic children’s story standards, done with unerring wit and skill by the great Judith Viorst.

Author of the iconic picture book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Viorst turns here to the chapter book format with a unique perspective. Told in third person, the unnamed narrator is quite visible in comic asides, quick descriptions and notable opinions (“…nobody knows how dinosaurs sound, but in my story they rumble….). This unusual approach is so different from most chapter books, which tend to be first person or straight third person, that this alone is an amusing twist.

But that’s only the start. The book stars, yes stars is definitely Lulu’s style, a bratty girl who has attitude and force. In other series, this can be annoying. But Viorst’s writing is so adept and comic, Lulu is nothing if not charming and entertaining. Her outbursts are so outlandish, so out of whack, there is no doubt this is fiction. The drama ante is upped, and upped again, with clever flair. The sheer boldness and precision of Viorst’s writing is truly inspriational. And parents have no fear: Lulu’s character arc ends in redemption and self-awareness.

From story plot and execution to exquisite illustrations by the talented Lane Smith, Lulu is reminiscent of other great titles in kids lit: Where the Wild Things Are, My Father’s Dragon, Grimm’s Fairy Tales and even the movie “Beetlejuice.” It’s quite a delight, wrapped in a fun size package of long, thin dimensions. Much like a brontosaurus’s neck, you see.

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


Kiki of Lotus Lane

kiki cover

Lotus Lane #1: Kiki: My Stylish Life

By Kyla May


Published by: Scholastic Inc. (April 30, 2013)

Available in: hardcover, paperback, Kindle, NOOK

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


Fact: girls can be silly.

Lotus Lane #1: Kiki: My Stylish Life is a modern chapter book in look, feel and subject matter. It is written for and will be enjoyed by girly girls who like fashion, access to the popular girls’ club and a peek into a lively diary that is more rambling thought than plot.

With a graphic novel layout and illustrations reminiscent of the Hello Kitty brand, Kiki is part of Scholastic’s excellent Branches line of chapter books. But for the first time, I’m not completely in love with a book in this line—but not because of poor production.

In fact, this book is just as slick and well-designed as the other Branches books. It appeals to a very specific target market with light, reality-based dialogue, lots of dazzling fashion content and a silliness embraced with fashionista zeal. On the more serious side, it also deals with the misunderstood/mean girl issue. And the graphic novel format has, so far, been more available for boys (Captain Underpants, Diary of a Wimpy Kid), so it’s nice that girls have a choice here, too.

My problem is that the fun quickly turns annoying and exhibits less than model behavior. Kiki and her friends bash the new girl and obsess about what they’ll wear to school each day. What was OTT (over the top) fun with a BFF in chapter one becomes snarky and shallow by chapter three. It’s a good book—it just made me cringe. I found Kiki a little like eating too many donuts: the idea is delicious, but even before the halfway point, I felt sort of sick.

To Branches I have to say, Bravo for the line. But is Kiki really the best you can do? And do we really want to promote this kind of individual to our second grade girls?

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



lulu cover

Lulu and the Dog from the Sea

By Hilary McKay, Illustrated by Priscilla Lamont


Published by: Albert Whitman & Company (March 1, 2014)

Available in: hardcover, paperback, Kindle, NOOK

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




Lulu and the Dog from the Sea is a sweet, simple tale about a family, two dogs and a vacation that takes an unforeseen detour. The sentences are short and bright, the vocabulary basic, and the ideas and emotions are easy to follow. For beginner chapter book readers, this is an ideal fit.

How deceptively simple this sounds—because McKay exhibits serious writing chops. Lulu is an elegant, spare story of wit, charm and superb use of the language for the beginning reader. Characterizations are subtle and alive with authenticity. Descriptions are lovely and inventive. Action moves forward with metered pace. And the hoped for denouement is both a joy and an unexpected surprise.

As a dog lover, I especially love the treatment of the two mutts in the story. One, an old family member, is treated with respect kids will appreciate. He needs a special beanbag to sleep with, so the father checks the car 12 times to make sure it is packed for the road trip. The dog gets nauseous in the car, so they drive slowly over a rough road. And so it continues. The new dog in the story, the dog from the sea, has emotions and recognitions that are unique, and keep the story empathetic. They are truly more than pets in the world of Lulu, they are the touchstones of humanity, importance and all that is good.

Lamont’s gray scale illustrations, happily prevalent every other page or so, are warm and inviting. The friendly depiction of both humans and animals are loose and realistic, and brim with ease. This is life, but better.

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

Differences of Early Readers & Chapter Books


What’s the Difference Between Early Readers and Chapter Books?  annika riz cover A previous post discussed the difference between chapter books and middle grade novels. Here, we go the other direction–that of early readers to chapter books. Graciously sharing her thoughts on the topic is author Claudia Mills. She writes both genres of books, and her work has been honored as ALA Notable Books of the Year. See her full profile following this post.

I treat “early reader” and “easy reader” as interchangeable terms. As I categorize them, these are very short texts for newly independent readers. The texts vary in length, but are seldom much longer than 1,000 words, and a premium is put on readability.

gus grandpa coverThe chief device employed to enhance readability is the breaking of the lines on the page with only a few words (perhaps 4–6 words) on each line, giving the visual appearance of poetry; this way emerging readers only need to try to grasp a few words at a time. Paragraph breaks are marked by a space in the text rather than by indentation. Controlled vocabulary is often employed, as well as repetition of words and phrases. Among my favorite examples here are the Frog and Toad books of Arnold Lobel and the Henry and Mudge books of Cynthia Rylant. My own Gus and Grandpa series falls in this category as well. Easy readers usually have full-color throughout with illustrations on every page.

There is a significant leap from easy/early readers to chapter books. Word count springs from 1,000 or so words to 10,000, 15,000 or more. My own chapter books in the Franklin School Friends series are around 15,000 words each. Now we see black and white illustrations, often one per chapter, or perhaps more frequent spot illustrations, oliver coverbut seldom do we find art on every page. The chief way that readability is ensured is by keeping paragraphs short. If I see a text with paragraphs routinely extending more than 6 or 7 lines, I say to myself, “This is a middle-grade novel and not a chapter book.” My favorite examples here are the Clementine books of Sara Pennypacker and the Lulu books of Hilary McKay, as well as my own 7 x 9 = Trouble! and How Oliver Olson Changed the World. But of course, there are longer easy readers and shorter chapter books, so the boundaries can be blurred.

Chapter books are now my favorite kind of book to write. I see them as having much of the range and complexity of middle-grade novels, but with brisker, peppier pacing, and a certain sweetness that middle-grade fiction often lacks. They often deal with smaller problems resolved in a shorter time frame. They are written on a child’s scale with those sparkling details that are true to a third grader’s perception of the world.   Fractions_Jkt_ver2a(2)

Profile: Claudia Mills is the author of 50 books for young readers, including picture books (Ziggy’s Blue-Ribbon Day), easyKELSEY-GREEN-cover-2 readers (the ten books of the Gus and Grandpa series), chapter books (Kelsey Green, Reading Queen, Fractions = Trouble!), and middle-grade novels (Zero Tolerance, One Square Inch). Her books have been named ALA Notable Books of the Year, Blue Ribbon Books from the Center for Children’s Books, and translated into many languages. Dr. Mills, who Zero-Tolerance-Coverholds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University, is also an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she specializes in ethics and political philosophy, as well as publishing many articles on ethical and philosophical themes in children’s literature.