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….

Advertisements

Pugs of the Frozen North (A Not-So-Impossible Tale)

pugs-cover

Pugs of the Frozen North (A Not-So-Impossible Tale)

By Philip Reeve, Illustrated by Sarah McIntyre

 

Published by: Random House Books for Young Readers (January 26, 2016)

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

At the time of this review were four books in the Not-So-Impossible Tale books.

 

Outlandish.

Pugs of the Frozen North is funny, oddball, and vaudevillian, with nods to mythic folk stories, dreaded urban myths, true history, and made-up creations. It’s a hoot.

First, though, parents and teachers should take note that this is closer to a middle school novel than an easy reader.  This would be just about hitting the edge of something that could be considered a chapter book. The hardback length is more than 200 pages, and the typeface is not large. But, there is a lot of white space, illustrations are on every page, and the wild escapade will appeal both to younger readers with strong reading skills and older, reluctant readers who don’t want to be stuck with babyish books.

The story starts out with some real gut-wrenching moments, framed in comedy, wherein the protagonist is left behind in the Arctic with 66 pugs destined to be used as a new ingredient in hot pies. It can be a bit jarring. But after the story starts rolling, distressing elements give way to noodle bars, a benevolent Santa Clausesque “Snowfather,” and an epic dog race.  While hard to describe in a short fashion, the story is long on ingenuity and jovial amusement.

The illustrations are quirky and a delight, and echo the Northern style of Jan Brett’s picture books.

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

Cal and the Amazing Anti-Gravity Machine

cal-cover

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)

sparkling-jewel-cover

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….

 

Mr. Cleghorn’s Seal

cleghorn-cover

Mr. Cleghorn’s Seal

By Judith Kerr

 

 Published by: HarperCollins Children’s Books (June 7, 2016)

Available in: hardcover, paperback, Kindle, NOOK

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

 

Nostalgic charm.

Mr. Cleghorn’s Seal does not worry about being modern. From simple black and white illustrations to correspondence by snail mail to a sweet, simple story, this book is all old school pleasure.

The writer and artist, the great Judith Kerr, published it last year in England when she was 92 years old. While Mr. Cleghorn’s Seal is her first novel in more than 37 years, Kerr’s books have been translated into 25 languages and sold more than nine million copies. In 2012 she was awarded the OBE (the prestigious Order of the British Empire) for her services to children’s literature and Holocaust education, and just this year she was named BookTrust Lifetime Achievement winner, a British award that celebrates those who have made outstanding contributions to children’s literature.cleghorn-seal-large

So don’t be fooled by Mr. Cleghorn’s simplicity. It’s not just any author who can write a children’s book with retirement, senior-citizen romance, an orphaned seal who lives on a balcony, a classic mean janitor and a hilarious baby bottle scene in a tight little chapter book.

The book is short, but the tone of the language is a little mature. For example, Mr. Cleghorn reminisces about missing his work since he’s just sold his shop. So there might be a few aspects that make children climb slightly higher in the thinking pool than, say, a Magic Treehouse book. But often, the climb is worth it. And in this case, there’s just no question—Ms. Kerr’s excellent intuition and craft seal the deal.

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

Greetings from Somewhere

cvr9781442497184_9781442497184_lg

THE MYSTERY OF THE GOLD COIN (GREETINGS FROM SOMEWHERE)

By Harper Paris, Illustrated by Marcos Calo

 

Published by: Little Simon (January 7, 2014)

Available in: paperback, hardcover, Kindle, NOOK

At the time of this review there were five books in the Greetings from Somewhere series.

 

 

Mapped out.

The Greetings from Somewhere series has it all planned, packaged and ready to go. With a calculated concept based on nostalgia and other successful chapter books, this new launch shows obvious influences of  Magic Tree House, Nancy Drew and even that early reader duo of Dick and Jane. It’s even got a witty pseudonymed author… give her a name like Paris and voilà! Passport acquired.

The idea is that second grade twins Ethan and Ella (one boy, one girl—check!) travel with their parents all over the world. They even begin the saga with a trip up a tree house. Hmmm, I wonder where that idea came from? With each book, the achingly pleasant kids solve a mystery (that’s you, Nancy Drew), learn some language skills, experience a new culture and generally provide a quick read for beginning readers. (Very beginning—with large type and lots of big illustrations, this is an easy crossover to early readers.)

I love the travel aspect. That’s really intriguing. And I love the little bit of language. The illustrations are fun and zippy, although artist Calo’s excellent skill isn’t allowed to soar. And once the reader gets past the first book, the action is a passable ride of tension, education and emotion.

But the books are clunky in both writing and plot, a sure sign that format trumped invention. The Mystery of the Gold Coin in particular is at fault here. For instance, the children are told they are leaving their home, friends, school and beloved grandpa—next week—for unspecified locations for an undetermined time. The parents expect the kids to be excited, but they  are in fact anxious and afraid. Um, duh. Here’s how part of that plays out in text:

“Ella looked at her brother. ‘Maybe when we wake up tomorrow, we’ll realize this was just a dream,’ she said hopefully. Ethan tried to smile. “Yeah, maybe.” After a chapter break, the text continues, “Exactly one week later, Ella woke up with a start. It hadn’t been a dream—the Briars were moving the next day….”

Yes, that makes it sound as if she slept a whole week. Well who wouldn’t, with her world pulled out from under her? And the reader still never knows where the family is going by the end of the first book, when the family is on the plane.

So it’s fair to say I have issues with the general execution of these books.  Which is not to say I’m not happy to see them available. Given the dearth of new chapter books from the big, traditional publishers, it’s nice to see a new series launch with this much marketing, budget and obvious plan behind it. So rather than belabor the quirks, I say we welcome this new neighbor to the chapter book block… even if we find those new neighbors just a little bit weird.

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