Marvin Redpost

redpost cover

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….

 

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Year One Re-Post #13: Difference Between Chapter Books and Middle Grade

Chances are you are reading this blog because of this post. Originally posted in October 2013 and then again in the spring of 2014, this continues to be a post that is searched for and read by numerous people every day.  Every day. For a blog, that’s close to astounding. I knew this topic drove me crazy, but I didn’t understand just how many others found it of concern. So for the last time:

 

THE GREAT CHAPTER BOOK & MIDDLE GRADE CONFUSION

When the differences between chapter books and middle grade novels are blurred, kids and chapter books lose.

 

Confused about what to call a chapter book or middle grade? You’re not alone.

Lately, it seems the distinction between chapter books and middle grade is blurred–or even invisible. Google “best” or “greatest” chapter books, and you see lists from organizations as far flung as Goodreads to the esteemed School Library Journal. Commonly found near the top? A Wrinkle in Time, Holes, The Giver and other middle grade classics.

Now picture your average second grader. What seems more appropriate: Captain Underpants or A Wrinkle in Time? Which will encourage his tender, fledgling reading skill? Fan the flames of his reading desire? Give him reading gusto?

I don’t know about you, but I’m going with the dude in the tighty whiteys.

The two excellent books speak to two very different audiences. So why are they lumped together?

“Chapter books and middle grade books are technically two different categories from a publisher’s point of view,” says Emma D. Dryden, founder of drydenbks, a children’s book editorial and publishing consultancy firm. “Even though many books for middle grade readership have chapters, they’re not normally referred to as ”chapter books” by publishers; they are, however, often referred to as “chapter books” by booksellers and librarians, and others, which is why I believe there’s confusion about this.”

Dryden, whose career in the publishing industry has included time as vice president, publisher of Atheneum Books for Young Readers and Margaret K. McElderry Books, explains that from a publisher’s standpoint “…chapter books are those books geared towards readers between the ages of 7—10, and they will be formatted to lots of black-and-white illustrations, the chapters will be short, the type will be large, and there will be a nice amount of white space on the pages; the protagonists in chapter books are customarily about eight- or nine-years-old.”

Thus, chapter books invite the young reader in. They make a point not to intimidate.

Conversely, Dryden says middle grade books “…are geared towards readers between the ages of 8—12, and they may or may not have illustrations, the chapters will be longer, the type will be of a more standard size, there will be less white space on the pages, and the protagonists in middle grade novels are customarily eleven- or twelve-years-old.”

Which makes middle grade books slightly more mature, from format to content.

Literary agent Sara Megibow of kt literary says subject matter speaks to the difference between chapter books and middle grade, but “The key is narrative voice.” For example, a talking animal almost always points to a chapter book, she says.

Lindsay Eland, author of two middle grade novels, agrees that content affects where a book belongs. “I think that too much emphasis is placed on the age of the child reading rather than on their level of comprehension, understanding and maturity.”

Eland explains that her novel Scones and Sensibility (Egmont USA, 2010), “…is seen as middle grade/tween. If someone labeled it as a chapter book, I would be a bit worried. Not for content sake, because there is nothing in the story that could be a red flag for any age, but more for the way it is written, the more complex sentences, plot and length, and I would worry that the reader wouldn’t like it as much—if at all—because they wouldn’t comprehend it.”

That’s the crux of the matter. Each type of book serves a direct purpose—and they’re not the same purpose. And in the end, kids and chapter books lose out when the two types of books are lumped together.

To illustrate, let’s play it forward through the upcoming holiday season.

Consider a well-meaning aunt in Idaho who is told her nephew in New York is reading chapter books. She discovers from lists of “best chapter books” that Holes is a great book. Well of course it is. It’s a gorgeous, exceptional middle grade book. Not knowing there is a difference between that and the chapter books her nephew is capable of reading, the aunt buys Holes as his holiday gift.

We know what happens next. The nephew, comfortable at the My Weird School stage of literacy, feels only disappointment. To him, the gift signals drudgery and pressure to read beyond his ability. He tosses Holes aside as boring and too hard. And maybe, our young friend even tells himself, I don’t like reading.

And that’s just sad, no matter how it’s categorized.

Year One Re-Post #4: The Lion Who Stole My Arm

Originally published in March 2014. This is, hands down, my favorite book of the year.

lion cover

THE LION WHO STOLE MY ARM

By Nicola Davies, Illustrated by Annabel Wright

 

Published by: Candlewick (February 25, 2014)

Available in: paperback, hardcover, Kindle, NOOK

 

Evocative.

Newly released The Lion Who Stole My Arm is an exquisite journey into the culture and community of a small African village.  It’s also a taut drama of survival and a moving, authentic emotional transformation.

And yet zoologist and children’s writer Nicola Davies keeps this smart and clever tale perfectly tuned to the newly independent reader. The simple sentence structure and mostly easy language is scaled just right. When new vocabulary or science terms are introduced, they are either defined at the end of a chapter or are made clear through usage. Given the bold, photography-based cover and broad marketing, it seems the publisher is steering clear of marking this a chapter book, even while it easily fits the criteria. This is not a surprise; the book could easily be considered a middle grade crossover. I’ve even recommended this book to adults—it’s that good.

The science aspect is no small matter that adds a third dimension. The issues of animal habitat/behavior and human encroachment/survival are given fair, equal treatment. Both kids and adults will find the research and use of tracking tools intriguing and cool. The thoughtful explanation of the food chain fits naturally into the story.

I’d say boys in particular will like this book because the protagonist is a young boy, and of course there is the infamous lion. And yet girls will eat this up as well… arms and all.

Annabel Wright’s black and white watercolors add to the exotic authenticity with a quirky, old-school feel. Spare and lovely, they invite the reader to imagine what is not shown: the wide African sky above, and the thick bush just beyond the picture. Her unique perspective also adds a sense of personality, space and importance.

This book is a gift to young readers entering the world of literacy. It is human and wild, exotic and accessible, and is imbued with an emotional heft that lands with a soft touch. The Lion Who Stole My Arm is a masterwork of what contemporary chapter books can achieve. Bravo, Ms. Davies. Bravo.

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

Finding Good Chapter Books

The Challenge of Finding Good Chapter Books

 

On a recent trip to a Barnes & Noble bookstore in Colorado, I searched for the chapter book section. It took awhile. I finally found the one tiny shelf sandwiched between the massive picture book area and the almost-as-big middle grade aisles. Even the infant book section was bigger.

To my dismay, the paltry offering was limited and uninspired. About half the books were in the Magic Tree House series, and all the rest were spin offs from toys and cartoons or polished fluff of dubious quality. You know the books: pink, dazzling with glitter, shoddy writing and stock illustrations. Rubbish.

Sigh….

Then on a recent trip to Paris I happened upon the sweet children’s bookshop Jeux Lis Là in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. Curious, I searched out its chapter book section. Comment magnifique! Lovely, smooth, heavy paper enclosed little tomes of festive, active, unique, subtle illustrations set between ample white space, easy text (if I could decipher some, you know it is an easy read) and funny topics. And not one bit of fluff.

chien cover

With my hobbled French and the proprietor’s limited English, we had a spirited conversation. She explained that the author/illustrator Alan Mets is particularly popular. Interestingly, his books were listed on a flyer I picked up as ages 2—10. What this tells me is that the story and illustrations are entertaining enough that parents are introducing their not-yet-readers to the joys of these chapter books.

alan cover

I’m sure I could find an independent bookstore in Colorado, such as the excellent and extensive Tattered Cover and Boulder Bookstores, that had a better, more elegant selection than the Barnes & Noble. And I’m sure I could have stumbled into some other larger store in Paris with less delightful choices.

But it got me wondering… what is available for our kids, all around the world? Because it makes sense that our kids can only enjoy what they can obtain. I’ve been amazed at the number of people who see this blog from around the world—from Pakistan to South Africa to Australia to America. So let’s start the discussion: what is available to your kids? Good quality or fluff? Paper or e-book? What do your chapter book readers really read?

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

(A note: in the well-stocked middle grade section at the aforementioned Barnes & Noble, there were many books that fall into the chapter book category… and thus the confusion of chapter books vs. middle grade continues.)

 

 

Sharp Bunnicula

bunnicula coverBUNNICULA: A RABBIT-TALE OF MYSTERY

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….

Captivating Lion

lion cover

THE LION WHO STOLE MY ARM

By Nicola Davies, Illustrated by Annabel Wright

 

Published by: Candlewick (February 25, 2014)

Available in: paperback, hardcover, Kindle, NOOK

 

Evocative.

Newly released The Lion Who Stole My Arm is an exquisite journey into the culture and community of a small African village.  It’s also a taut drama of survival and a moving, authentic emotional transformation.

And yet zoologist and children’s writer Nicola Davies keeps this smart and clever tale perfectly tuned to the newly independent reader. The simple sentence structure and mostly easy language is scaled just right. When new vocabulary or science terms are introduced, they are either defined at the end of a chapter or are made clear through usage. Given the bold, photography-based cover and broad marketing, it seems the publisher is steering clear of marking this a chapter book, even while it easily fits the criteria. This is not a surprise; the book could easily be considered a middle grade crossover. I’ve even recommended this book to adults—it’s that good.

The science aspect is no small matter that adds a third dimension. The issues of animal habitat/behavior and human encroachment/survival are given fair, equal treatment. Both kids and adults will find the research and use of tracking tools intriguing and cool. The thoughtful explanation of the food chain fits naturally into the story.

I’d say boys in particular will like this book because the protagonist is a young boy, and of course there is the infamous lion. And yet girls will eat this up as well… arms and all.

Annabel Wright’s black and white watercolors add to the exotic authenticity with a quirky, old-school feel. Spare and lovely, they invite the reader to imagine what is not shown: the wide African sky above, and the thick bush just beyond the picture. Her unique perspective also adds a sense of personality, space and importance.

This book is a gift to young readers entering the world of literacy. It is human and wild, exotic and accessible, and is imbued with an emotional heft that lands with a soft touch. The Lion Who Stole My Arm is a masterwork of what contemporary chapter books can achieve. Bravo, Ms. Davies. Bravo.

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

Difference between Chapter Books & Middle Grade, Redux

This post originally appeared in October 2013, just days after this blog went live. Although I was a novice blogger with few followers, this post saw hundreds of viewers in its initial days, and at least a handful of new viewers have found it every day since.  I’m running the original post again to give this important topic a second round of attention.

 

THE GREAT CHAPTER BOOK & MIDDLE GRADE CONFUSION

When the differences between chapter books and middle grade novels are blurred, kids and chapter books lose.

 

Confused about what to call a chapter book or middle grade? You’re not alone.

Lately, it seems the distinction between chapter books and middle grade is blurred–or even invisible. Google “best” or “greatest” chapter books, and you see lists from organizations as far flung as Goodreads to the esteemed School Library Journal. Commonly found near the top? A Wrinkle in Time, Holes, The Giver and other middle grade classics.

Now picture your average second grader. What seems more appropriate: Captain Underpants or A Wrinkle in Time? Which will encourage his tender, fledgling reading skill? Fan the flames of his reading desire? Give him reading gusto?

I don’t know about you, but I’m going with the dude in the tighty whiteys.

The two excellent books speak to two very different audiences. So why are they lumped together?

“Chapter books and middle grade books are technically two different categories from a publisher’s point of view,” says Emma D. Dryden, founder of drydenbks, a children’s book editorial and publishing consultancy firm. “Even though many books for middle grade readership have chapters, they’re not normally referred to as ”chapter books” by publishers; they are, however, often referred to as “chapter books” by booksellers and librarians, and others, which is why I believe there’s confusion about this.”

Dryden, whose career in the publishing industry has included time as vice president, publisher of Atheneum Books for Young Readers and Margaret K. McElderry Books, explains that from a publisher’s standpoint “…chapter books are those books geared towards readers between the ages of 7—10, and they will be formatted to lots of black-and-white illustrations, the chapters will be short, the type will be large, and there will be a nice amount of white space on the pages; the protagonists in chapter books are customarily about eight- or nine-years-old.”

Thus, chapter books invite the young reader in. They make a point not to intimidate.

Conversely, Dryden says middle grade books “…are geared towards readers between the ages of 8—12, and they may or may not have illustrations, the chapters will be longer, the type will be of a more standard size, there will be less white space on the pages, and the protagonists in middle grade novels are customarily eleven- or twelve-years-old.”

Which makes middle grade books slightly more mature, from format to content.

Literary agent Sara Megibow of kt literary says subject matter speaks to the difference between chapter books and middle grade, but “The key is narrative voice.” For example, a talking animal almost always points to a chapter book, she says.

Lindsay Eland, author of two middle grade novels, agrees that content affects where a book belongs. “I think that too much emphasis is placed on the age of the child reading rather than on their level of comprehension, understanding and maturity.”

Eland explains that her novel Scones and Sensibility (Egmont USA, 2010), “…is seen as middle grade/tween. If someone labeled it as a chapter book, I would be a bit worried. Not for content sake, because there is nothing in the story that could be a red flag for any age, but more for the way it is written, the more complex sentences, plot and length, and I would worry that the reader wouldn’t like it as much—if at all—because they wouldn’t comprehend it.”

That’s the crux of the matter. Each type of book serves a direct purpose—and they’re not the same purpose. And in the end, kids and chapter books lose out when the two types of books are lumped together.

To illustrate, let’s play it forward through the upcoming holiday season.

Consider a well-meaning aunt in Idaho who is told her nephew in New York is reading chapter books. She discovers from lists of “best chapter books” that Holes is a great book. Well of course it is. It’s a gorgeous, exceptional middle grade book. Not knowing there is a difference between that and the chapter books her nephew is capable of reading, the aunt buys Holes as his holiday gift.

We know what happens next. The nephew, comfortable at the My Weird School stage of literacy, feels only disappointment. To him, the gift signals drudgery and pressure to read beyond his ability. He tosses Holes aside as boring and too hard. And maybe, our young friend even tells himself, I don’t like reading.

And that’s just sad, no matter how it’s categorized.