Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Double Serving of Anna Hibiscus

"Anna Hibiscus lives in Africa. Amazing Africa." Storyteller guru Atinuke begins all her Anna Hibiscus early chapter books with these simple, yet powerful words, propelling readers into a world far different from their own. In book three of the series, Good Luck Anna Hibiscus!, Anna is on pins and needles as she prepares for her upcoming trip to Canada to visit her maternal grandmother for the Christmas holidays.

But first she has to get through the harmattan season, a time when the desert wind blows sand over Anna's home and beloved garden, blotting out the sun and making everything dull and brown. Rather than just describe an interesting weather phenomenon, Atinuke takes the opportunity to teach her readers about empathy. To Anna and her extended middle-class family, the harmattan is an inconvenience. Their garden wilts and they must conserve water from their well to restore it to its lush glory. For their poor neighbors who live outside the compound, there is little or no water at all and the people are suffering. Anna and her family sacrifice their garden to share their water with them. Now that's a trickle down theory I can get behind!

In the remaining stories, Anna's twin baby brothers, Double and Trouble, cause her to be blamed for a misdeed she didn't commit. The sharp injustice she feels is one young children will sympathize with. She also takes a trip to the city to shop for winter clothes for her trip to Canada, and, in the last story, finds that no one in her family has time for anymore; they are all too busy. What they are up to and how Anna responds will leave readers with a smile.

Cold feet. That's what Anna Hibiscus has, literally and figuratively,  in Have Fun Anna Hibiscus! Excited to travel by plane to stay with Granny Canada and see snow for the first time, Anna bumps up against cold reality: to go she has to leave. It isn't until the car pulls away to the airport that her worries start, among them Grandfather's admonition to steer clear of dogs. Grandfather tells her that people in cold countries allow dogs into their homes. Anna is sure he is mistaken. In her world, dogs "have worms and germs, and they like to bite people." Naturally she is astonished to find that Granny Canada keeps such a beast. And frightened. How friendly Qimmiq turns Anna's ideas about dogs around is both touching and believable. 

Snow, dogs, woolen tights. Another big discover Anna makes on her trip is prejudice. Up till now Anna has been cocooned in her large family. With all her cousins around, she hasn't ever had the need of friends. When a group of neighborhood children stop by to check out the new girl, Anna happily goes off with them to ice skate on the pond. She flops at ice skating, but when she excels at sledding, one small boy shouts, "Africans can't do that!"  Anna's heartfelt response is worth the price of admission. 

Atinuke packs a lot of life lessons into such a short book. Yet it's never didactic and the morals go down as smoothly as the steaming hot chocolate Anna sips throughout her stay. Lauren Tobia's cheerful ink illustrations help bring Anna's experiences in the icy North to life, and she captures Qimmiq's doggy ways to perfection. Highly recommended!

Good Luck Anna Hibiscus! and Have Fun Anna Hibiscus!
by Atinuke
illustrations by Lauren Tobia
Kane Miller, 110 pages
Published: 2011

This book was nominated for the 2011 Cybils Awards in the Easy Reader/Early Chapter Book category. I am a first-round panelist in this category, and this review reflects my opinion only.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Top Ten Books I Want To Give as Gifts

Top Ten Tuesday, the weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, has rolled around once again. This week's timely topic is books for gift-giving. I love giving books as gifts and this year quite a few are on my own wish list as well (hint, hint). Below are some books I hope will thrill the book lovers in your life. Click the title to be whisked on over to Amazon.

For the Anglophile:
The Old Romantic by Louise Dean

For the armchair detective:
Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Akinson

For the poet:
The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry

For the animal lover:
Rin Tin Tin: The Life and Legend by Susan Orlean

For the graphic novel fan:
MetaMaus by Art Spiegelman

For the history buff:
A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor

For the person in need of a chuckle:
Bossypants by Tina Fey

For the chef with a sweet tooth:
Jen's Splendid Ice Creams at Home by Jeni Britton Bauer

For the pre-teen:
The Strange Case of Origami Yoda and Darth Paper Strikes Back

For the child in all of us:
Nursery Rhyme Comics: 50 Timeless Rhymes from 50 Celebrated Cartoonists

What books would you like to give--or receive?

Cybils Nominee: Toys Come Home

Some books defy classification, and Toys Come Home is one of them. It's been nominated for the Cybils' Early Chapter Books category, but like many classic children books it appeals to a much wider audience. The story is a prequel to two previous books, Toys Go Out and Toy Dance Party. These books slipped under my radar, so I haven't read them. Rest assured, I will make up for that pronto.

All three books feature a trio of toy friends (two plush, one rubber): StingRay, a bit of a bossy boots; Lumphy, a brave buffalo; and Plastic, a hyper bouncy red ball. Toys Come Home relates how the three toys become friends in six easy-to-read chapters. In this made-up world, toys can communicate with one another and can move, but only when people aren't around. In spite of this restriction, the trio of friends have plenty of adventures. After a few difficult nights in her new home, StingRay runs away, ending up in the basement. She also rescues Sheep (my favorite character--a very old pull toy whose life ambition is to chew grass), from a thorny rosebush. Lumphy bravely defends some plush mice from the antics of an all-too-real kitten, and Plastic posits existential questions--such as "Why are we here?'--that keep her friends up nights searching for answers.

This amazing book by the talented Emily Jenkins (whose Invisible Inkling is also up for a Cybil in the same category) is perfect for beginning readers and would make a wonderful read-aloud for younger children. I wager older elementary-school kids would appreciate it as well, that is, if they aren't too embarrassed to be caught reading a book about toys. Paul O. Zelinsky's full-page black-and-white illustrations are sprinkled throughout. The detailed, realistic renderings add immensely to the story's charm.

Toys Come Home
by Emily Jenkins
illustrations by Paul O. Zelinsky
Schwartz & Wade Books, 144 pages
Published: 2011

This book was nominated for the 2011 Cybils Awards in the Easy Reader/Early Chapter Book category. I am a first-round panelist in this category, and this review reflects my opinion only.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Cybils Nominee: 8 Class Pets + 1 Squirrel ÷ 1 Dog = CHAOS

Years ago, I read a collection of Vivian Vande Velde's spooky short stories and admired them for their wacky inventiveness. So I was pleasantly surprised to find she had an early chapter book nominated in this year's Cybils Awards. 8 Class Pets + 1 Squirrel ÷ 1 Dog = CHAOS did not disappoint. It's a fast-moving romp about a bunch of animals--(See title)--that wreak havoc inside an elementary building one night. The adventures start when, Twitch, a squirrel that hangs around the schoolyard scoots into the building to escape from an owl looking for its dinner. Cuddles, the principal's dog, gives chase after him. Twitch darts into classroom after classroom, begging help from each pet that resides there, a hamster, a rabbit, a white rat, a school of tetras, a parrot, a turtle, a snake, and some geckos. The classroom pets get swept up in the resulting chaos with hilarious results.

What I liked best about this early reader is that each chapter is told by one of the animals. This approach allows readers to see conflicting points of view. Green Eggs and Hamster, the first-grade pet, is a bit ditzy (all that wheel spinning) but good at math and full of ideas. The school of tetras speak in one voice and advise the squirrel that there is safety in sticking together. Galileo and Newton, the science lab geckos, interrupt each other constantly. Their part in the story is written all in dialog, a nice touch. It isn't until near the end that we hear from Cuddles, the story's bad guy, or rather dog, and learn that he was acting in his master's best interests.

I liked everything about this book except for one thing--it's title. While humorous, when I first saw it on the list of nominees, I put off reading the story. From experience I've learned clunky titles often correlate to clunky books. Happily this was not the case. Highly recommended, 8 Class Pets + 1 Squirrel ÷ 1 Dog = CHAOS is a fun read, even if its title is quite the mouthful.

For an interview with its author, click here.

8 Class Pets + 1 Squirrel ÷ 1 Dog = CHAOS
by Vivian Vande Velde
illustrations by Steve Bjorkman
Holiday House, 80 pages
Published: October 2011

This book was nominated for the 2011 Cybils Awards in the Easy Reader/Early Chapter Book category. I am a first-round panelist in this category, and this review reflects my opinion only.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: Childhood Favorites

I haven't done a Top Ten meme in ages, but this one, for obvious reasons, I couldn't resist. Top Ten Tuesday is brought to you by The Broke and the Bookish, so head on over and see what childhood gems other folks list.

1. Harriet the Spy (Louise Fitzhugh)
2. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (C.S. Lewis)
3. A Wrinkle in Time (Madeleine L'Engle)
4. Gone Away Lake (Elizabeth Enright)
5. The Saturdays (Elizabeth Enright)
6. Little Women (Louisa May Alcott)
7. The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett)
8. A Little Princess (Frances Hodgson Burnett)
9. Charlotte's Web (E.B. White)
10. Pippi Longstocking (Astrid Lindgren)

What are your favorite kid reads?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Books to Keep Little Hands Busy

December 1st starts the Christmas shopping season for me. I just can't focus on the holidays when the calendar page is turned to November. Big surprise, I enjoy giving books as presents. Books have always equaled love to me. Christmas Eve, our mother gave me and my three sisters, all chomping at the bit by that time, two presents each. Santa's presents would be under the tree next morning, so we set upon our presents like the tiny savages we were, tugging at the ribbons and tearing at the paper. Each year we received new pjs or nightgowns to wear that evening and a book. Bliss.

There are plenty of best book lists for kids out there. Two I recommend are the New York Times' Notable Children's Books of 2011 and the Center for Children's Books Guide to Gift Books. This year, I'm thinking of buying books that encourage kids to use their creativity, whether it's making paper monsters or cooking up imaginary meals.

I confess, when I saw this book, I was tempted to start punching out all the cool monsters and folding and gluing them into toys. Since I was in the library, I restrained myself. Why did the library have a copy of a book clearly meant to be consumed? I have no idea.

Yes, kids can have a perfectly good time playing with their Legos on their own. So why do they need a book? Well, I can go into the kitchen and cook a meal without any help, but sometimes I like to flip through a cookbook for inspiration. Open a page of this book and see Lego gondolas, elephants, picture frames, castles, spaceships, and much, much more.

Instead of a spatula and mixing bowl, supply a budding chef with a box of crayons instead. This book by the always amazing Herve Tullet is stuffed with recipes that kids use to draw meals such as Zigzag Soup and Crayon Puff Pastries. Opposite each recipe is a plate for children to scribble their creations on.

For more doodling fun, give your favorite artist Taro Gami's Daily Doodle 2012 Calendar. Kids can use the prompts to doodle something new every day and end the year with a one-of-a-kind calendar.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Cybils Nominee: The No. 1 Car Spotter

The majority of early chapter books feature protagonists very much like their readers. Yes, Clementine might live in a basement apartment in Brooklyn and Stuey Lewis in a suburban house, but their day-to-day experiences are a reassuringly mix of  recognizable families, friends, and routines. The name of Oluwalase Babatunde Benson, the hero of Atinuke's latest chapter book, provides a strong clue that readers will be entering new territory.

Benson lives with his extended family in a compound in a rural village somewhere in Africa. There are many chores to be done, and he's kept busy fetching water for the cows, collecting firewood, and running errands for family members. His free time is spent not playing video games or watching TV or throwing a baseball, but spotting cars. Not many cars pass by the village, but of the one that do, Benson spots before seeing them, recognizing the different makes from the sounds of their engines. His prowess earns him the nickname, No. 1 Car Spotter, or No. 1, for short.

Atinuke, a Nigerian-born storyteller now living in the UK, shares several stories about No. 1. The first, my favorite, begins with a calamity. The family's cart breaks, and now there is no way to bring the produce and goods to market the next day. No. 1 gets a brilliant idea, one that features an old, dilapidated Toyota Corolla, and the whole community gets together to make his vision a reality.

The other stories in this collection take readers to the market place, where they see an embarrassed No. 1 attempt to buy lipstick for his busy aunt, and to stay with his best friend, 7 Up, where he so enjoys his friend's mother's cooking that he forgets to come home. The final story deals with the illness of the family's grandmother and the very real worry of not having enough money to get her the medicine and help she needs. Throughout this book, the humor of each situation shines through, as does the bond between the members of this large and boisterous family.

All four stories introduce young readers to a world way different from theirs. But although the setting and customs may be foreign, the way families unite to help one another in bad times and to rejoice in good will, hopefully, be very familiar indeed.  

This book was nominated for the 2011 Cybils Awards in the Easy Reader/Early Chapter Book category. I am a first-round panelist in this category, and this review reflects my opinion only.

The No. 1 Car Spotter
by Atinuke
illustrations by Warwick Johnson Cadwell
Kane/Miller, 112 pages
Published: 2011

Friday, November 18, 2011

Balloons Over Broadway

When my daughter was growing up, we lived a hop, skip, and a jump from the Museum of Natural History. That was great just in itself, but it also meant that every Thanksgiving we were at the starting point for the Macy's parade. My daughter was less than a week old when I bundled her up and took her to the parade. She spent the entire time gazing at my face, but still I felt like a real parent for the first time. As she grew, we usually skipped the parade. It was soooo crowded that we watched it on TV. But we still had our traditions. On Wednesday night we'd go to the museum grounds, where workers would be blowing up the balloons for the big day. It was fun to wander up and down the streets and see our favorites as they filled with helium and magically came to life. Of course, eventually word got out and that too became soooo crowded.

Balloons Over Broadway takes me back to those days. This amazing picture book tells the story of how Tony Sarg, a puppeteer, came to invent the gigantic balloons that are the hallmark of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. Like many icons, the balloons just always seemed to exist, so kudos to Melissa Sweet for unearthing how they developed from blimp-like rubber balloons carried on wooden sticks to the soaring helium-filled wonders of today.

Melissa Sweet, a Caldecott Honor winner, obviously threw herself into this book. The artwork, a combination of watercolor illustrations and collages made from found objects, fabrics, and handmade puppets, exude the creativity and love of play that Sarg devoted his life to. In an authors note, Sweet tells us that she "played with all sorts of materials, not knowing exactly what the outcome would be." The end result shows that it was time well spent.

The book concludes with additional info about Tony Sarg, as well as a bibliography. The back end papers feature a 1933 advertisement from the New York Times, touting the upcoming parade. Among the "helium filled monsters" is one I would give anything to see: "The Colicky Kid: Listen to him squall!! He's mad. He's bad. He yowls bloody murder!"

And head on over to Sweet's website to view her Balloons Over Broadway activity kit. It has fun templates of puppets for kids (or anybody) to make.

Balloons Over Broadway: The True Story of the Puppeteer of Macy's Parade
by Melissa Sweet
Houghton Mifflin, 40 pages
Published: November 2011

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Elephant and Piggie Round-Up

Gerald's trunk is broken and Piggie is curious to find out how it happened. Her elephant friend launches into a long story about balancing a hippo on his trunk, then a rhino, then hippo's huge sister. With each new addition, Piggie thinks she will get her answer. The explanation for the twisted snozzle is not what she--or a beginning reader--expects. Like so many of Mo Willem's endings, it is hilarious, as is Piggie's reaction, giving the story a double whammy of an ending.

Gerald is a lot like Hamlet in this beginning reader, except instead of  obsessing over "To be or not to be?" he mulls the question: "Should I share my ice cream?" He goes back and forth debating the pros and cons, but time and ice cream wait for no pachyderm. Sharp-eyed children will spot the dripping cone and guess what's in store. Luckily for Gerald, Piggie appears with her own cone, and has so hesitation about sharing it.

It's Happy Pig Day and Piggie is ecstatic, celebrating with her pig friends. Gerald can't quite get into a festive mood, though. After all, he's grey, snoutless, and without hooves. In short, he's an elephant, not a pig, and feels as if doesn't belong. Piggie reassures him that Happy Pig Day is for everyone, and sure enough, her pig friends turn out to be other animals in pig costumes.

All three books are up for 2011 Cybils Awards in the Easy Reader/Early Chapter Book category, but the strongest is I Broke My Trunk with its two-for-one surprise ending. Mo Willems nailed this one. Right on the nose.

I am a first-round panelist in this category, and this review reflects my opinion only.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Nursery Rhyme Comics

I'm a big fan of nursery rhyme collections. Some of my favorites include My Very First Mother Goose, Tail Feathers from Mother Goose, and I Saw Esau. Now I have a new favorite, Nursery Rhyme Comics, a compilation of 50 rhymes illustrated by 50 top cartoonists, including Patrick McDonnell, Jules Feiffer, Gahan Wilson, and Roz Chast.

Nursery rhymes and comics are such a natural pairing, it's surprising no one thought of putting together such a collection before. With their nonsense verses and fantastical subjects, nursery rhymes provide an ideal canvas for cartoonists to subdivide into panels. Each artist in this collection illustrates his or her rhyme in a idiosyncratic way. Patrick McDonnell, who starts the collection with "The Donkey," uses a subtle palette and spare style that perfectly matches the rhyme's brevity. Cyril Pedrosa's "This Little Piggy," by contrast, is full of details to pour over and delight in.

So who is this collection meant for? I venture to say everyone. Very young children can listen to the rhymes while nestled on a parent's lap, beginning readers can use the many visual cue to help them decode the text, and older kids won't be embarrassed to be caught reading nursery rhymes when they are presented so wittily. As for me, I'm putting this book on my Christmas list.

Here's a sampling:

Nursery Rhyme Comics: 50 Timeless Rhymes by 50 Celebrated Cartoonists
Edited by Chris Duffy
Introduction by Leonard S. Marcus
First Second 128 pages
Published: October 2011

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Frog and Friends (Cybils Nominee)

Plenty of contemporary books for beginning readers are hip and cutting edge. I'm thinking specifically of Jon Klassens's I Want My Hat Back with its sly humor and muted, understated illustrations. I love I Want My Hat Back, but I also love Frog and Friends, a more traditional, dare I say, old-fashioned beginning reader.

Eve Bunting has crafted three charming stories all featuring Frog, a laid-back amphibian who enjoys hanging out with his friends Rabbit, Possum, Raccoon, and Squirrel. In the opening tale--my favorite of the three--Frog wakes to discover a round orange THING with a long tail floating in his pond. He calls to his friends and they in turn are mystified as well. When THING (a balloon) tragically bursts, the remorseful group believe they have killed it and hold a funeral (hilarious). What I especially like is that the story ends with them never figuring out what THING is.

The second story is about a blue scarf Raccoon knits for Frog, suffering with a cold. Not able to wear it, Frog re-gifts, and the scarf makes the rounds before returning full circle to Frog, who thanks to Possum, is able to secure the scarf and wear it. In "Frog and Hippo," the final story, Frog shares his pond with an escapee hippo from a nearby zoo and tries to convince him to return home.

Readers who enjoy Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad books are sure to become fans of Frog and Friends. Eve Bunting has perfect pitch when it comes to beginning readers. The action is briskly paced, the dialog snappy, and the humor is never forced but comes naturally out of the situation. Josee Masse did a terrific job with illustrations that compliment, not take over the text.  

Also reviewed at Secrets and Sharing Soda.

Frog and Friends
by Eve Bunting
illustrated by Josee Masse
Sleeping Bear Press  40 pages
Published: July 2011

This book was nominated for the 2011 Cybils Awards in the Easy Reader/Early Chapter Book category. I am a first-round panelist in this category, and this review reflects my opinion only.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Tribute to Florence Parry Heide

One of my all-time favorite children's book authors, Florence Parry Heide, died recently at age 92. Read her New York Times obit here.

Heide's most famous book, The Shrinking of Treehorn, is a well deserved classic, especially with the wonderfully understated illustrations by Edward Gorey. In an interview with Curious Pages, she shared that it had originally been titled, The Shrinking of Harold. More recently, she wrote the picture books Dillweed's Revenge, illustrated by Carson Ellis, and  Princess Hyacinth: The Surprising Tale of the Girl Who Floated," illustrated by Lane Smith.

In all her works, Heide was a champion for children, an advocate who presented kids as they really are and not how adults prefer to see them. And she did so with a large serving of humor.

My favorite Heide book is--surprise, surprise--ideal for beginning readers. Tales for the Perfect Child is a collection of seven short, easy-to-read stories featuring furry beasties drolly illustrated by Victoria Chess. Like all Heide's tales, the stories are subversive. In "Ruby" big sister Ruby wants to visit a friend. Her mother wants her to mind her little brother. Ruby does. She watches him take the clothes out of all the drawers. She watches him spill rice, flour, salt, and sugar on the kitchen floor. She watches him pull off the tablecloth, sending the bananas flying. Her mother, surveying the destruction, says, "I told you to watch Clyde." "I was watching him," said Ruby truthfully. "I was watching him the whole time."

The other story characters are similarly passive aggressive. In "Gertrude and Gloria" Gertrude is the careful sister. She carries the supper dishes without dropping them. She puts the dried ones back in their proper place. Gloria is not careful. She breaks dishes and put them back any old way. Their mother, seeing the results, won't let Gloria help any more. But Gertrude, because she did such a good job, gets to help with the dishes every day. As Heide ends her tale, "Good for Gertrude." Like Gorey, Chess is an excellent match for Heide's deadpan style. Her detailed pen and ink drawings capture each monster's smirk or gleeful look as they manage to get their way.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Scary (And Not So Scary) Scarecrows

Come October an elementary school in my neighborhood "plants" a scarecrow garden in front of the building. Each scarecrow is dressed in its own unique costume. Here are a few of my favorites. Happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Tune in to Toon Books

Toon Books puts out wonderful graphic books for beginning readers. This batch are all 2011 Cybils nominees in the Easy Reader/Early Chapter Book category.*

Lilly isn't really all that silly. Like most kids, she's endlessly creative, able to entertain herself with just a few props. In Silly Lilly: What Will I Be Today?, Lilly sets off down another career path for each day of the week. On Monday, she's a cook discovering colorful vegetables, on Tuesday, a city planner for bugs, on Wednesday, a musician banging out tunes on a xylophone, and so on. But no matter who she's pretending to be, Lilly is always herself. Hooray!

Whew! Lots of things make Nina mad, many of which beginning readers (and their parents) are sure to relate. Here are just a few things that tick her off: "When you don't let me help." "When you let me pick and I pick the wrong thing." "When you promise and then you forget." Each complaint is accompanied with amusing graphics showing Nina in action, trying to help diaper her baby brother, choosing between the park or the museum, lusting after an ice-cream cone. The book ends with Nina acknowledging that she feels better when she can express how she feels. Hilary Knight of Eloise fame penned the illustrations, capturing Nina in all her spunk.

Patrick is a bear cub who goes on a picnic with his mother and has other adventures, including facing down a scary bully, in this charming story collection. Like the mother in the Little Bear series, Patrick's mom is unfailing reassuring as her cub gets into scrapes. When Patrick scares away birds from a fountain, his mother reminds him that the park is for birds too. "I don't want them pooping on my head," Patrick replies, a response that will set young readers giggling. Author/illustrator Geoffrey Hayes won the 2010 Theodore Seuss Geisel Award for his Benny and Penny in the Big No-No.

Another Toon book about a bear, but this one is no cub. The invention of Frenchman Philippe Coudray, Benjamin is a full-grown bear with a decidedly unique perspective on life. Each "chapter" is a page long and ends in a visual joke of some kind. In "Help Your Friends" a rabbit offers to help Benjamin as he washes dishes under a waterfall. Benjamin thanks him and picks up the rabbit, using his fur to dry the dishes. Or, my favorite, "Painting" in which Benjamin paints a portrait of a cow. After the cow laughs at the amateurish finished product, Benjamin bashes him with the painting with the result that the cow and painting now look exactly alike. With its more sophisticated, offbeat humor, this book would be a good choice for older kids who want meatier fare yet are still struggling with their reading.

*I am a first-round panelist in this category, and this review reflects my opinion only.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Grin and Bear It (Cybils Nominee)

"What do you get when a bear walks through you vegetable garden?"
"What is a bear's favorite baseball team?"
"Why do hummingbirds hum?"

Bear has some really great jokes. And he wants to tell them and hear his friends laugh. So he books a gig at the Woodland Stage. He invites all his friends, and when they show up on the big day, Bear step on stage and.... Bombs. Big time. Stricken by stage fright, Bear stumbles off into the night. Luckily, there is a solution to Bear's woes and by the end of this heartfelt and funny early chapter book, Bear sees his dream come true, although not in the way he--or the reader--might have predicted.

Author/illustrator Leo Landry has created an engaging character in Bear, a comedian better suited to writing the jokes than performing them. The seven chapters are sprinkled with jokes, the kind that kids in the early primary grades love to tell and which adults groan after hearing. The colorful illustrations are simple and spare, yet with enough details to help beginning readers with the text.

Oh, and the answers to the jokes? "Squash." "The Cubs." "Because they don't know the words." Groan!

Grin and Bear It
by Leo Landry
Charlesbridge, 48 pages
Published: July 2011

This book was nominated by Franki Sibberson for the 2011 Cybils Awards in the Easy Reader/Early Chapter Book category. I am a first-round panelist in this category, and this review reflects my opinion only.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Going to the Dogs

It used to be said in publishing circles that the way to ensure a book's success is to write about Lincoln, dogs, or doctors. Therefore, a book entitled Lincoln's Doctor's Dog would be a guaranteed bestseller. I don't know how true that is today, but I do know that books about our four-legged best friends are a sure hit for the learning-to-read crowd. Here are three beginning readers featuring dogs.

The text in this beginning reader, written and illustrated by Paul Meisel, might be simple, but the story is a lot of fun. A shaggy-haired mutt takes off running and a pack of dogs in all shapes, colors, and sizes, take chase. They romp over hill and dale, stopping to roll in mud, and then clean off in a river. Freshly washed, they begin to dig, uncovering a scary surprise that sends them off and running again. The illustrations show dogs in joyful abandon, enjoying the freedom of being off leash. Kids will have fun picking out their favorite breeds. I was happy to find a pug among the pack.

Dixie, an exuberant puppy, wants nothing more than to frolic with Emma, her young owner. That works out just fine until Emma lands the lead role in a school play production of the Wizard of Oz. Suddenly, Emma has no time for Dixie. She's too busy learning her lines. Told from the Dixie's POV, this beginning reader, written by Grace Gilman, demonstrates how feeling left out can cause a good dog to do bad things. Luckily all is resolved by opening night. The illustrations by Sarah McConnell are as energetic and playful as Dixie herself.

Losing one's pet can be devastating. I should know. As a child my  German shepherd went missing more than once. Each time the hollowness in my chest remained until he was brought safely back. Lori Ries captures the heartbreak in this latest installment of her Aggie and Ben series. Told in three short, easy-to-read chapters, the book begins with Ben and Aggie at the park playing a game of fetch. After one long throw Aggie takes off. And doesn't come back. Ben looks and looks for his pet, but eventually he must go home. With his parents' help, he makes and puts up posters. Yet Aggie remains lost and Ben spends an awful night alone, wondering what happened to her. The next day he encounters a blind man in the park, who encourages him to use all his senses to find his dog. Success! Frank W. Dormer's illustrations are inventive as always. A sure crowd pleaser.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Time Is Running Out! Get Those Nominations In!

The deadline for nominating books and apps for the Cybils ends on October 15th--that's tomorrow, folks! So head on over to the Cybils blog and nomination your favorites in kidlit. (You get to nominate only one in each category.) The form is here.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

11 Experiments That Failed

I loved this picture book by the team that created 17 Things I'm Not Allowed to Do Anymore! But I'd think twice before putting it in the hands of children. Why? They might be tempted to try one of these zany experiments on their own. I know I would have. When I was seven or so I learned that as a child my father stuck coins up his nose to see how many could fit. My grandparents couldn't extract them and a doctor was called. What did I do upon hearing this? You guessed it, I promptly shoved a dime up my little nose. If this book was available then, who knows what havoc I would have caused.

My experiment was nothing compared to the 11 ones here, which progressively get more outlandish. The format for each experiment is structured according to the scientific method--with hilarious results: a question, such as "Will a piece of bologna fly like a Frisbee?", a hypothesis--A piece of bologna will fly like a Frisbee.", the steps of what to do--"Take bologna off your sandwich. Aim at friend. Shout 'Catch!' Hurl bologna through air.", and what happened--"Teacher caught bologna with his head. No recess."

By the last experiment the girl protagonist has grown fungus in her brother's sneaker, sprinkled glitter on the dog, attempted to order a beaver, used up her mother's expensive bottle of perfume, broken all the family's dishes in the washing machine, and flooded the house. All in the name of science!

The illustrations are a fun mix of pen-and-ink drawings, notebook sketches, photos, and diagrams. Budding mad scientists will snatch this excellent picture books off the shelves. You may want to put it out of reach!

11 Experiments That Failed
by Jenny Offill
illustrations by Nancy Carpenter
Schwartz & Wade books, 40 pages
Published: September 2011

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

I Want My Hat Back

The premise of this easy-to-read picture book is simple. A bear has lost his hat. He wants it back. He proceeds through the forest asking the creatures he meets if they have seen it. Eventually, he locates his hat.

Hmmmm. War and Peace it ain't. How can such a plot-lite book be so hysterically funny? Trust me, it can. The answer lies in what isn't said in this minimalistic and clever romp. Keen-eyed viewers will spot the missing hat long before the bear does. His reaction when he finally realizes where he has seen it is priceless, and the ultimate outcome, in which justice is served, perhaps is a tad unsettling, although nothing a connoisseur of nursery tales would bat an eye at.

The simple text (the font in separate colors for each speaker) is understated and droll, as is the art. Klassen's bear protagonist looks steadily ahead, without expression, throughout most of the book. The exception comes at the story's climax, when his eyes open wide as the truth dawns. Kids will delight in finding the hat long before the bear and are sure to giggle when they decipher the punchline at the end. Highly recommended.

Other reviews at: Jen Robinson's Book Pagebooks4yourkids, A Fuse #8 Production

I Want My Hat Back
by Jon Klassen
Candlewick Press, 40 pages
Published: September 2011

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Boy Who Bit Picasso

Ouch! Antony Penrose, the author of this kid-friendly memoir, is the boy in question, and he did indeed bite the world-famous artist in the middle of a playful romp. Picasso, not one to be outdone, bit him back, announcing that he was the first Englishman he'd ever bitten. What an honor!

This delightful book provides an intimate look at the unlikely friendship between a small boy and the one of the greatest artists of all times. Penrose writes conversationally to his young audience and lets them in on what it was like to know Picasso. Penrose, the child of Lee Miller, a photographer and renowned beauty, and Roland Penrose, an artist and writer, grew up on Farley Farm in East Sussex, England. Picasso, friends with both his parents, visited them at the farm. The Penrose family returned the favor and travelled to the south of France to stay with Picasso.    

Penrose shows readers a kid's-eye view of Picasso, describing his love of animals (his goat Esmeralda was allowed inside his home), his playfulness, and his love of disguises. Throughout, Picasso's art shines. We see how he constantly created art out of whatever was at hand, turning broken bits of pots into sculpture and using a discarded toy car as a monkey's face. The message--that creating art is a joyful act, one that is natural and accessible to anyone willing to think outside the box--comes through loud and clear. The book is lavishly illustrated with photos of Picasso, his family and friends, his studio, and most of all his amazing body of work. Young readers will want to revisit this book again and again. I know I do!

This portrait of Lee Miller, Antony Penrose's mother, was painted by Picasso in 1937.
The Boy Who Bit Picasso
by Antony Penrose
Abrams Books for Young Readers, 48 pages
Published: 2011

Nonfiction Monday is at Practically Paradise today.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Here Comes the Judge!

The cat is out of the bag! The judges in the Easy Reader/Early Chapter Book category for the 2011 Cybils were announced today, and I'm on the first round panel. Yeah! I'm honored to have been chosen and more than a little excited. I'm looking forward to reading and rereading the nominated books (nominations start October 1st so be sure to weigh in with your favorites) and chewing over their merits with my fellow judges.

On a personal note, I'm leaving today for a week-long honeymoon in Florence, Italy. Don't know how much blogging I'll get in (wink, wink, nudge, nudge), but I'll be back bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to roll up my sleeves and tackle those Cybils nominations.