Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Rabbit & Robot: The Sleepover (CYBILS Nominee)

Ah, the sleepover. The bowls of buttery popcorn, the fuzzy PJs, the watching of movies into the wee hours, the tears and hurt feelings as young tempers fray. As a kid I looked forward to nocturnal play dates; as a parent I dreaded them.

In Cece Bell's book for beginning readers, Best buds Rabbit and Robot are having their first sleepover. It's at Rabbit's house and he's fairly hopping with excitement. A bit of a control freak, Rabbit has firm ideas about what should take place at a sleepover and he has a list to prove it.

1. Make pizza
2. Watch TV
3. Play Go Fish
4. Go to bed

As the poet Robert Burns famously wrote, "the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray." Apparently, a rabbit's plans too. Robot doesn't want carrots on his pizza; he prefers nuts, bolts, and screws. When he removes all the hardware from the table and chairs, the friends have no place to eat their dinner. Rabbit has a major meltdown until Robot spreads a blanket on the floor and they enjoy an indoor picnic.

Each remaining chapter deals with another item from Rabbit's list. Rabbit can't find the remote to watch TV, then Robot's batteries conk out while the friend are playing Go Fish, and at bedtime Robot is without PJs and has to borrow a pair from Rabbit. By lights out, Rabbit has manages to ease up enough to suggest that maybe Robot can make the next day's to-do list. Maybe.

Channeling Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad characters, Bell creates her version of mismatched friends. While Rabbit always has to have his way, Robot, who resembles an anthropomorphic iPhone, is more easy-going and accommodating. The cartoony illustrations are a lot of fun, especially the ones that show Robot zigzagging around the house on his one wheel. Beginning readers are sure to enjoy this new series. Who wouldn't want a robot for a friend!

Rabbit & Robot: The Sleepover
by Cece Bell
Candlewick Press, 56 pages
Published: September 2012

Friday, October 26, 2012

Maybelle and the Haunted Cupcake

With Halloween just around the corner (although it looks to be a rather wet one here on the East Coast), what better time to curl up with a book about a haunted dessert? The cupcake in question is  decorated with pink icing, chopped nuts, and chocolate sprinkles. The eponymous Maybelle is a cockroach. Yes, cockroach. She lives under a refrigerator in an apartment owned by Mr. and Mrs. Peabody. The couple's cat, Ramona, is home and meal source to Maybelle's best friend, Henry the Flea.

Mrs. Peabody has just baked a batch of cupcakes for a bake sale and Maybelle can't wait to get her six legs on them. Henry reminds her of The Rules:

"When it's light, stay out of sight; if you're spied, better hide; never meet with human feet."

Maybelle intends to wait till night when fate intervenes in the shape of Bernice, a picnic ant with a bad head cold. Unable to find her way back to her nest, Bernice crowns Maybelle her new queen and does her best to fetch food for her sovereign. Heedless of The Rules, Bernice puts herself in danger time and time again and it is up to Maybelle to rescue her. In gratitude, Bernice hijacks an entire cupcake, albeit a mini one, carrying it on back. The silliness continues after the Peabodys discover what appears to be a haunted cupcake walking on its own across their kitchen floor.

An entertaining read, this book is sure to resonate with kids just starting to read short chapter books. The story bounces along at a lively place, the humor is abundant, and the clever black and white illustrations add to the charm. The Haunted Cupcake is number three in a series. I certainly intend to pick up the first two, Maybelle in the Soup and Maybelle Goes to Tea

Maybelle and the Haunted Cupcake
by Katie Speck
illustrations by Paul Ratz de Tagyos
Henry Holt, 65 pages
Published: August 2012

Friday, October 19, 2012

Lulu Walks the Dogs (CYBILS Nominee)

Judith Viorst and Lane Smith have paired up again for a second chapter book about the incomparable Lulu, "a girl who wants what she wants when she wants it". And what Lulu wants this time out is so out-of-this world outrageous that readers don't even learn what it is until the final pages. Trust me, it's a lulu.

The bulk of the story is taken up with how  Lulu attempts to earn money to buy her heart's desire, since her parents refuse to shell out the moolah. She quickly hits upon the idea of dog walking. Fleischman, a nice polite boy who's yin to Lulu's yang, helps her manage her workload--Brutus, a belligerent bulldog, Pookie, a spoiled toy fuzzball, and Cordelia, a vain dachshund. Lulu is less than pleased with Fleischman's help--even though he asks for nothing in return and is an ace dog whisperer. Lulu just doesn't like him, mostly because he's a goody-two-shoes.

Viorst tells her tale with plenty of authorial asides--all quite clever and amusing. There are frequent time-outs in which she humorously answers questions young readers might be asking, such as "What is it Lulu wants to buy with all this money she's earning?" The answer? "I really don't feel like discussing this right now." Smith's clever pencil illustrations match the book's satirical tone.

By the end, surprise, surprise, Lulu and Fleischman work out their differences. But to Viorst's credit, the mismatched pair don't become best friends. As she aptly puts it: "You want a happy ending? Read Cinderella."

Lulu Walks the Dogs
by Judith Viorst
illustrations by Lane Smith
Atheneum, 160 pages
Published: September 2012

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Penny and Her Doll (CYBILS Nominee)

Naming a new doll or stuffed animal is of supreme importance to young children. Cleaning house a few years back, I forced my adult daughter to go through bag after bag of stuffed bunnies, bears, cats, and other assorted animals with the challenge to get rid of at least half. There had to be more than a hundred and each one that was pulled from its trash bag home had a name, whether it be Ella, or Sleepy William Rabbit, or Silly Bones Jones.

In Kevin Henkes' second easy reader starring Penny, the young mouse receives the gift of a doll from her doting grandmother. Penny loves the doll at once but is stumped by what her name should be. Her wise parents advise her not to force the issue, and, left to her own devices, Penny eventually finds the perfect name for her doll, one that alert young readers might be able to predict before Penny's announcement.

Both Penny and Her Song and this new book hark back to classic easy readers, a genre I'm admittedly partial to. The story is unhurried and unfolds in its own time. The text is written in rhythmic, simple sentences with certain words repeated to help new readers with fluency. Here's a sample:

Penny unwrapped the doll.
The doll had pink cheeks.
The doll had a pink bow.
The doll had a pink dress
with a big button.

The illustrations support the text and add delightful details, like the wicker basket Penny's two wiggly baby siblings are often put in to stay out of trouble. And no one can do subtle expressions on a mouse face like Henkes. Bravo!

Penny and Her Doll
by Kevin Henkes
Greenwillow, 32 pages
Published: August 2012

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A Trip to the Bottom of the World With Mouse (CYBILS Nominee)

Beginning readers are in for a treat with this latest Level One comic from TOON Books. Frank Viva, of 2011's Along a Long Road fame, presents the seafaring adventures of a young boy and his pet mouse as they travel to the bottom of the world, aka Antarctica.

From the first panel Mouse is not an enthusiastic passenger. He wants to go home and he pesters the boy repeatedly with his request. After riding roller coaster waves, viewing all kinds of penguins, being splashed by a whale, and swimming in warm thermal waters, the boy is finally ready to head for home. So naturally Mouse's last request is "Can we go back there soon?"

Visually, the book is a feast for the eyes with spread after spread of stylized graphics and a subdued yet striking palette.

An author's note relates that Frank Viva actually took a trip to the Antarctic Peninsula (sans Mouse I assume) which explains for the vivid details--like swimming in the waters of a submerged volcano. Since a trip to the bottom of the world isn't in the cards for most young readers, this book is the next best thing.

A Trip to the Bottom of the World with Mouse
by Frank Viva
Toon Books, 32 pages
Published: September 2012

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

A Toast to KidLitCon 2012

Whew! What a weekend! September 28-29 was the sixth KidLitCon and what a whirlwind it was. Kidlit bloggers from all around the country flocked to NYC, my old stomping grounds, eager to share their love of children's books.

The fun began on Friday with visits to publishing houses to partake in previews of their spring lists. That morning I went to Holiday House, a delightful old-school publisher, and saw previews of so many enticing books my notebook quickly filled with my scribbles. The husband-wife team of Ted and Betsy Lewin made a special appearance, showing us their upcoming books. Betsy has a charming easy reader featuring a determined alligator called You Can Do It! and Ted's book Look! showcases amazing watercolors of African and rainforest animals he photographed over years of traveling.

After a quick lunch, I hightailed it downtown to Penguin's offices, where bloggers were treated to an informative session in which editorial members of the various imprints introduced a multitude of upcoming middle grade and YA novels.

I left Penguin bogged down with so many ARCs I could barely make it to the next venue--dinner at IchiUmi. Ensconced in our own private room, conference goers feasted on an endless buffet of Japanese food and compared notes. Then the supremely talented Grace Lin, herself a longtime blogger, gave an engaging talk about her artistic career. While she powerpointed away, her husband kept their adorable baby daughter entertained.

Saturday the conference shifted to the NYC's Public Library on 42nd Street. Of the many session being offered, I attended Shelia Ruth's "Who's in Charge" and Greg Pincus' "Avoiding the Echo Chamber: Bringing the World of Children's Literature to the World." Ruth, of Wands and Worlds fame, is an amazing multi-tasker who sure knows her social media. In her talk she explained the ins and outs of social networking. I learned scads of useful information. Did you know that the worst time to tweet is Fridays after 4? Now you'll never catch me tweeting during that dead zone. The best? Mondays through Thursdays around 1 PM.

Pincus, of Gotta Book, charmed the socks off his audience. The thrust of his presentation resonated--book lovers spend much of their time preaching to the choir. Pincus made the valid point that we also need to cast our net further afield. I, for one, will definitely be taking his advice. Just not this post.

After lunch, we regrouped in the auditorium and listened to a panel made up of some of the shining stars of the kidlitosphere discuss the burning question "How Nice Is Too Nice: Critical Book Reviewing in the Age of Twitter". While no consensus was reached, the panel (Elizabeth Bird, Liz Burns, Monica Edinger, Marjorie Ingall, Sheila Barry of Groundwood Books, and expertly moderated by Jennifer Hubert-Swan) suggested several useful rules, top among them: "The author shalt never upon pain of death contact the blogger."

Unfortunately, I missed the final session and the keynote speech by YA author Maureen Johnson due to a tummy bug. I bid adieu and took off to recuperate. In doing so I missed the event I most wanted to attend, Kidlit Drink Night at the Houndstooth Pub. Oh well, I'll just have to wait till next year's conference to raise an elbow with my fellow scribes. Cheers!