Saturday, March 31, 2007

Bridging the Gap VI: Two More Beginning Chapter Mysteries

In case your beginning chapter readers want to "sample" one of each of the popular detective chapterettes, here are a couple of other beginning mysteries series to try out.

The The Jigsaw Jones Mysteries by James Preller, are written at a slightly lower level than the A to Z Mysteries mentioned in an earlier post, ranging from Accelerated Reader level 2.8 in The Case of the Class Clown to 3.3 for The Case of the Santa Claus Mystery. Most of Jigsaw Jones' cases take place in the comfy environs of his neighborhood and Mrs. Gleason's class at school, and like Sherlock, he has a trusty assistant, Mila Yeh.

The Third-Grade Detectives series by George E. Stanley feature a whole classroom of somewhat more advanced detectives than Jigsaw. Led by their ex-spy teacher, Mr. Merlin, chief sleuths Todd Sloan and Noelle Trocodero and all their classmates break codes and work out the clues with the help of police forensic scientist Dr. Smiley, who invites the kids into her CSI lab for some hands-on science which helps solve the cases. AR reading levels range from 3.4 for The Case of the Hairy Tomatoes to 4.3 for Mystery of the Stolen Statue.

Both of these series offer kid-tested popularity, opportunities for incidental learning embedded in the plots, and a chance to try the reader's powers of observation against those of the fictional detectives as they go along.

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Friday, March 30, 2007

Let It Be: So B. It by Sarah Weeks

In her novel for mature middle readers, So B. It, Sarah Weeks takes on a situation and subject that few writers would attempt.

Her main character, Heidi, lives an emotionally rich but sharply circumscribed life, cared for and homeschooled by her well-read but agoraphobic neighbor, Bernadette, and her profoundly mentally challenged mother, who calls herself So Be It. Because her mother only speaks twenty-three words, she cannot explain how she appeared with a newborn Heidi at Bernadette's door, dazed and disheveled, with only one small suitcase.

As she turns twelve and begins to wonder if her origins will ever be knowable, Heidi instinctively feels that the key lies in the word "soof," which her mother uses rarely but with obvious feeling. When an old camera turns up in a closet, Heidi discovers clues in the photos from the film inside. The snapshots show a pregnant So Be It with a woman wearing a Christmas sweater which Heidi still has and a place called Hilltop House, in Liberty, New York. With her lucky slot machine winnings and a lot of courage, Heidi determines to take off on a cross-country bus to New York to uncover her connections to Hilltop House and to the people in the photograph. Heidi arrives, an unwelcome visitor, but persists in her questions until secrets are revealed which change the lives of all involved.

Although a part of the novel's appeal lies in its unsolved mystery, the central theme deals with the search for truth and the corollary that not all things in life are truly knowable. Sarah Week's writing is simple and sure, and the story grows more compelling as Heidi begins to understand who she is and the chain of love that has made her whole. So B. It is a book for those readers who are perceptive enough to understand that love is always the same and yet expressed in very different ways.


Thursday, March 29, 2007

Hip Hop! Picture Books for Easter Bunnies

Although Easter is not a holiday that inspires a lot of great picture books, those that make the grade are as welcome as a solid chocolate rabbit. Here are a few to make your bunnies hop!
From Denys Cazet's I-Can-Read series about those capricious cows come Minnie and Moo to star in their own Easter story, Minnie and Moo: The Attack of the Easter Bunnies. Rumor has it that Mr. Farmer has declared himself too old to be the Easter Bunny for the grandkids this year. Minnie and Moo try unsuccessfully to round up a substitute from the usual suspects, including Elvis the rooster, Hamlet the piglet, assorted sheep, and the least likely bunnyhood candidates of all, Zack and Zeke, the dim-bulb turkeys.

"It's a kind of spring party for the new year," said Moo. "The egg is a sign of new life."
Zeke looked at Zack. "I'll be darned. Did you know that?"
"I didn't even know that bunnies laid eggs," said Zack.

Not ones to stand around chewing the cud while kids pine for their Easter eggs, Minnie and Moo suit up in their (extra-large) substitute bunny ensembles, only to find that the usual suspects have had a change of mind--and costume. What follows is a parade of Easter cows, Easter pigs, frisking sheep, an Easter rooster, and two turkeys trying to look like they're laying Easter eggs. Grandpa Farmer gets credit for the whole scene, and a hopping good time is had by all.

An Easter story which has entertained three generations of kids is Priscilla and Otto Friedrich's The Easter Bunny That Overslept, now in its third edition. When the Easter Bunny sleeps straight through Easter and wakes on Mothers' Day, he finds that he has a lot of product to unload. No one wants eggs on Mothers' Day, so the Bunny updates their image with a little red, white, and blue paint for Independence Day. It's a no sale on July 4 either, but our Bunny keeps trying move those eggs onto the market, with a lot of holiday fun along the way.

"'Twas the night before Easter, just before dawn/Not a creature was stirring out on the lawn." But wide awake and waiting for the Easter Bunny's arrival, two kids watch the Bunny hide his eggs and dispense the baskets that make Easter special. If your kids know "A Visit from St. Nicholas" by heart, they'll get a giggle out of The Night Before Easter.

For toddlers the best choice is My First Easter, a board book by Caldecott winner Tomie dePaola. In this attractive little book, a family with four children color eggs, dress up in their Sunday best, and enjoy Easter lilies, Easter baskets, and lots of newborn baby animals. It's a beautiful little book that will put a spring in your step and spring in your heart as you share it with little ones.


Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Regular Guy for Regular Guys

If guys feel that they don't get fair representation in books for middle readers, they should take a look at a series written just for them. Sarah Weeks has written some solidly funny and well-grounded books about sixth and seventh grade guys starring a guy whose name is, as you might guess, Guy, a device which makes for some pretty clever titles.

In the first book, Regular Guy, Guy and his best friend Buzz come up with an interesting explanation for Guy's over-the-top geeky parents. Buzz suggests that Guy had to have been switched at birth, and the two do some "research" (pulling a detention to sneak a peek at the school's files) on who else was born on Guy's birthday. When they discover that it's their seriously dorky classmate Bob-O Smith, their theory seems to be confirmed. Bob-O's parents are stultifyingly normal, and Guy even looks like them. Bob-O is also intrigued with this possibility, so the boys pretend that a social studies project requires a parent switch for the weekend. The switch opens both Guy's and Bob-O's eyes to the fact that their original annoying parents are their real parents and a far better match for them than the alternative.

In the sequel, Guy Time, like his weird mom, Guy's whole world has flipped. Not only are his parents separating and his mother dating a series of embarrassing men, including his science teacher Mr. Blankman, Stan the Ferret Man, Kazoo Man, and Brad, who's "in fur," but seventh grade is turning out to be a cauldron of roiling romantic intrigue. Autumn Hockney has invited him on a group movie date, but his best friend Buzz is threatening to ditch him if he goes. When he disses Autumn to stay in Buzz's good graces, former class geek Bob-O Smith, who is morphing into a bit of a ladies' man himself, blabs the story to his new girlfriend, who blabs it to Autumn, who blabs it to her best friend, the large and belligerent Lana Zuckerman. Guy is in deep doo in his middle school world and has to find a way to make peace with all of them. Guy's angst is amusing, the dialog is clever, but the two-way tension of the early teen guy is no less real. With his usual good sense, Guy works out a tenable position with his mom, Buzz, and his almost girlfriend Autumn, all in his own Guy time.

In the third book of the sequence, My Guy, Guy's worst nightmare seems to be coming true! His mom is getting engaged to a man who is not only as goofy as she is, but a professional clown to boot! Even worse than that embarrasing reality is that Clown Guy is also the father of Lana Zuckerman, class bully! For once, however, Lana is on his side in this one, and Guy, Lana, and best buddy Buzz come up with a plot to foil the marriage plans. After the obligatory "hilarity ensues," the wedding goes forward, with the redeeming side effect that the newly married couple buy a bigger house just next door from Buzz. This novel is so improbably over the top that it has become (what else?) a Disney movie script, which at least takes advantage of its catchy title. Nevertheless, My Guy does take an upbeat look at the very real discomfort which affects those kids for whom their parents' second marriages are not exactly the kids' first choice.

The last book in the series, Guy Wire, is actually a prequel, in which Sarah Weeks uses a frame story (in which Guy's buddy Buzz is hit by a car) to recall Guy and Buzz at age seven. While they wait to hear Buzz's fate in the hospital, Guy's mom encourages him to summon up positive memories about Buzz, and Guy goes into a dream-like sequence in which he recalls those second-grade days when he first became friends with Buzz. As a new kid in class, Buzz was called Fennimore and, having moved from Pigeon Forge, Tennesee, was a super polite, Swanee-tongued geek with slicked-down hair. In the process of becoming friends, Guy overcomes Fennimore's attachment to his former best friend, "George from Pigeon Forge," acquires the nickname "Guy Wire." and suffers through the flap over the buzz cut his mom gives Fennimore. Luckily, the haircut becomes a popular style in Mrs. Hunn's second grade, and the boys become best friends. What's more, Fennimore acquires a new persona and is evermore known as "Buzz." Of course, at the book's conclusion Buzz survives the accident, and the boys' friendship survives as well.

Although these books take a less than super serious look at the problems of early adolescence, they manage to leave us laughing while affirming the value of a close friend--and family, however annoying--to get guys through these trying times.


Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Cat-alog III: Cat Board Books

I'm not one to shy away from controversy, but in the war between dog and cat people I'm now offering equal time to cats in the board book category. Here are some books for ages six to twenty-four months that are the cat's meow!

Judith Kerr has the whole cat thing covered in her Mog the Cat Board Books and others such as Mog's Kittens. Mog the cat shares everything in the child's day, inside and outside, playtime and bedtime, in these sweet stories of life with an opinionated cat.

For older toddlers, who can handle 70 flaps in one book, Cat in the Hat's Big Flap Book can be "a lot of fun that is funny." Combining characters from several Seuss classics, the book also teaches letters, numbers, and opposites. Just be sure your child is patient and dexterous enough to handle flaps without making the book, well, unflappable.

Lions, tigers, and leopards, oh, my! In Eric Carle's Have You Seen My Cat? a boy travels everywhere to find his missing cat, meeting many other members of the cat family, until he finds his own dear cat in the surprising ending.

Baby Einstein: Cats offers a slightly more educational direction with a bit of information, a hint of fine art, and pictures of different cats for the board book crowd.

Like cats themselves, there's a board book for every nascent cat lover!

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Monday, March 26, 2007

Killer-Diller Thriller: The Last Man's Reward

If you know a guy who hates to read novels, this book is for him. David Patneaude's The Last Man's Reward keeps enough suspense going to satisfy the reluctant reader and the adventure fan right to the end.

Albert (Alibi) Alger is one of a group of guys loosely drawn together because their families' jobs at a giant software company have brought them temporarily together in the same apartment complex. Somewhat intimidated by the drill sergeant tactics of their ringleader Nick, the boys, dubbed by their leader as Alibi, Small Dog, Yuno, and Princess, agree to chip in their pocket change to buy a box of baseball cards at a yard sale sight unseen. When one card turns out to be worth nearly four thousand dollars, the guys can't agree on a fair way to divide the spoils. Albert suggests that they make a "last man pact:" since all of their families are looking for a house to buy, the guys agree that the card will go to the last one remaining in the apartment complex. To seal their pact, the boys bury the baseball cards inside an old mine in a spot which can only be reached by jumping over an underground stream. Nick, Small Dog, and Princess make the jump, but Alibi and Yuno are forced to admit that they can't do it.

When school begins, Alibi and Yuno begin working separately on their long jumping skills under the tutelage of their hard nosed P.E. teacher. When Alibi learns that he has won the last man's reward, he sets out alone to make the leap and retrieve his prize from the cave--with nearly fatal results. Alone in the dark mine, in icy water and unable to climb back to the ledge, Alibi knows that Nick is the only one of his friends who knows where he is and that he can only wait and hope for rescue.

Patneaude handles the middle-school guy dialogue deftly and builds suspense convincingly as the novel moves swiftly toward the "thrilling conclusion." It's a fine page-turner with a believable bit of coming-of-age self discovery as well.


Saturday, March 24, 2007

Be Careful What You Wish For: The Book of Story Beginnings

Kristin Kladstrup's fantasy novel poses the venerable problem of the effect upon the present of time travel into the past and a deeper question about the nature of human happiness at any point on the time continuum.

The novel begins with Lucy and her parents on the way to their new home, a century-old brick farmhouse in Iowa, inherited from a maiden great-aunt. Lucy is not pleased with the transition, but is fascinated with a family mystery revealed by a letter, delivered posthumously, from her Great-Aunt Lavonne. In this letter Lavonne reminds them of the unsolved disappearance of her fourteen-year-old brother Oscar, whom she claims to have watched rowing away into an ocean which amazingly appeared around their house one night in 1914. The letter recounts a dream which Lavonne apparently had just before her death, in which Oscar calls back to his then little sister the words "Lucy will explain."

Intrigued, Lucy begins to investigate the family mystery, unearthing Oscar's journals and an ancient volume called The Book of Story Beginnings, in which Oscar had written the beginning of his disappearance story--ocean, rowboat, and all. Her father is also researching the story in Aunt Lavonne's alchemy notes without a breakthrough, until, after overhearing a money quarrel between her parents, Lucy writes the beginning of a reconciliation story about her father and mother in which her father is indeed a magician. What Lucy wishes for begins to come true, with unforeseen consequences. With the help of a potion he concocts from Lavonne's notes, her father changes into a raven and flies away over the now re-materialized ocean. The barn cat Walter reappears as the vanished Oscar himself, still dressed in his 1914 garments. Eventually Oscar and Lucy realize that they must live out both story beginnings they have written into the book and travel to the universe in which their stories are being played out to recover their own present lives.

After many complications too confusing to recount, Lucy's father is returned to his own body and the three return to the farmhouse, to the surprisingly minor consternation of Lucy's mother and relatives. Oscar, however, still has the basic problem of the time traveler. If he uses their new found magic, he can return to his family in 1914 and live out his life as if he had never disappeared. But in doing so, he takes the chance of gravely changing the lives of those in the present. If not, he must live with his nephew's family and never see his long-dead parents and siblings again. The theme of the book is revealed in a conversation with Lucy at the end of the book:

"But to be glad for what I did! It's like being glad I murdered them!" [said Oscar.]

"But you didn't murder them! They went on with their lives. They chose to be happy. They had to, even if they never forgot you, or never stopped missing you." said Lucy. "You're just choosing," she said. "You're choosing to be happy about what's happened.... The happiest endings--I think they're endings that feel like beginnings.... We're your family now, Oscar. You should choose us."

Kladstrup's theme, that indeed we all write the beginnings of our own life stories and must make the conscious choice to be happy within them, is a solid one, well realized in the full sweep of the novel. The middle of the novel, however, is a muddle of fairy-tale-like characters and subplots which go on a bit too long and resolve themselves too abruptly. Kladstrup writes much better when she is dealing with the real people and their real-life choices in the novel.

A novel which deals more tightly with the time-travel dilemma is Mary Downing Hahn's
fantasy A Time for Andrew, in which look-alike relatives swap places over an 80-year time span to prevent the first Andrew from dying of a disease for which the second Andrew has, of course, been vaccinated. Hahn, however, stays relatively clear of Kladstrup's more philosophical theme of our own roles in our personal happiness in the life stories we choose to live out.

It is a deep and unresolved question of life and literature as to whether we indeed set the stage for our own lives or whether circumstance, accident or the will of someone or something outside ourselves lays down the basic plot line of our lives. Although I wish Kladstrup had somehow managed the alternate universe subplot better, I give her points for engaging this larger theme as she did.

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Harriet Redux: Harriet Spies Again

It's normal to see an old book friend and sadly ruminate that its author has died or become inactive and there are no more like the old favorite to look forward to (or as Harriet M. Welsch's Ole Golly would frown and say " more like the old favorite to which to look forward."

Well, I seredipitously ran across Harriet Spies Again at my public library branch. I read Harriet the Spy as an adult, in what is now a long time ago, because my oldest child loved it, and the two sequels The Long Secret and Sport soon after when I became an elementary librarian. Those books made me wish I had had such books to read when I was ten years old. Despite many years and a mediocre movie about Harriet, the books remain mind-altering chronicles of childhood.

In this "companion book" by Helen Ericson, Harriet's cheerfully oblivious parents go to Paris on business for three months and persuade former nanny Catherine (Ole Golly) Waldenstein, just married and living in Montreal, to stay with Harriet during their absence. Harriet is at first overjoyed but then perplexed that Ole Golly seems a sadder and less forthcoming version of her former self and sets forth to spy out the cause. Harriet's best friend Sport, her cantankerous cook, and the upscale New York City neighborhood of Harriet's apartment and school are faithfully re-created by Ericson, and Harriet's "voice" seems familiar as she notes her observations in her voluminous journals. After rather a longish bit of surveillance, Harriet puts the results of her findings together to conclude the Ole Golly is both estranged from her new husband and pregnant. Harriet cooks up a convenient solution to this problem which comes to fruition as planned on Thanksgiving Day.

So what to say about this "companion book?" It's not bad: it reproduces the sardonic tone of Fitzhugh's writing and catches the slightly compulsive and solipsistic world view of Harriet M. Welsch fairly well. Harriet seems less estranged from her peers than would have been expected from the Fitzhugh books; she's bored with her classmates' "yammer, yammer," but seems to have come to the decision that it's something "up with which she must put" as Ole Golly might phrase it, to get by in seventh grade. (Which seems like the sort of rational decision a more mature Harriet the Spy might have come to, er (Sorry, Ole Golly) which a more mature Harriet might have come.)

The central fault, I feel, is not in the characterization or style, but in the too facile conclusion of Ericson's plot. One can almost see the climactic scene (in which Mr. Waldenstein staggers into the Thanksgiving dinner scene half-frozen and collapses at Ole Golly's feet) in the movie of Harriet The Spy II. It is the kind of ending that Louise Fitzhugh couldn't have written, and as such it reflects back negatively upon the rest of the book.

For sure kids should read Harriet The Spy and Fitzhugh's two sequels first. I wouldn't discourage any of them from reading this book if they wish. In some ways it's a good try, not the real thing, but not bad reading either. I just wish it could have been better.

As for the sequel to this "companion book," Harriet the Spy, Double Agent, by Maya Gold, my opinion is "Don't bother." It's a fair girl detective story, but it's not Harriet. Harriet's complexity and sly take on her world are not there, and the rest of the characters, Harriet's parents and classmates, are stereotypes of their original selves. Harriet just can't be franchised.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Prepping for Piratehood: How I Became a Pirate and Other Tales of Treasure

If your young hearties are hankering for more of the buccaneering business, you can't go wrong with Melinda Long's and David Shannon's How I Became a Pirate.

In their first tale, young Jeremy Jacob is shanghaied from his sandbox by a pack of pirates who need his digging skills to bury their treasure chest. Jeremy willingly takes to pirate life, enjoying the relaxation of parental strictures in the matter of, say, table manners, bedtimes, and dental care, as he cavorts with the colorful band of buccaneers led by Cap'n Braid Beard. Of course, Jeremy soon begins to miss the amenities of life at home, including being lovingly tucked in at night. To get himself discharged from service, he persuades the pirates to return him to the perfect place to bury the chest--in his own backyard. David Shannon, known for his No, David! and sequels, provides exuberantly plump and gap-toothed plunderers and a perfectly rigged privateer which make for clear sailing all the way.

And "th-e-y-'-r-e back" in the new sequel Pirates Don't Change Diapers. Cap'n Braid Beard and the kooky crew return to dig up their treasure in Jeremy's sandbox, but the boisterous buccaneers wake up his baby sister, Bonney Anne, who won't stop bawling. Jeremy does a deal: no digging 'til the baby's dozing, and the buccaneers turn out all hands to babysitting. Luckily, there's a pirate flick on television, and a rocking good time is had by all as baby Bonney Anne goes back to dreamland. Again, Shannon's grandly goofy illustrations bag the booty for a wonderful pirate party.

As we know, for guys at sea, there is nothing like a dame, and Lisa Wheeler delivers a delightful dairy diva in her Sailor Moo, Cow at Sea. Written in bouncy rhyme, this is the tale of Moo, who longing to see the sea, trades her "waves of grain" for ocean waves and a job as a ship's cook. Washed overboard, Sailor Moo is rescued by, what else, a group of sympathetic sea cows, who boost her aboard the pirate ship of buccaneer bull Red Angus. Moo is udderly shocked to learn that the handsome Red is the leader of "looting steers? Cow buccaneers?" and, taking the bull by the horns, confronts him with the evil of his ways. Captain Red falls hard for "his dairy queen" and promises to put down his pirating ways if she will but wed him. In a happy blend of beef and dairy, Red Angus and Sailor Moo retire to the "Jersey shore" to raise their little calf, "Half and Half." The cow puns keep coming, and the illustrations are a pure joy in this bovine buccaneer romp.


Thursday, March 22, 2007

Cat-alog II: The Cats of the Club of Mysteries Series

Cats are caterwauling for equal time with those canine characters (see previous post), so here's an installment on the CAT-alog series on worthy felines of fiction.

Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, having written three books about one dog, (Shiloh), more than meets the equal-time challenge with four books about two cat characters, beginning with The Grand Escape. In this first book of the Cat Pack series, Marco and Polo are half-grown indoor kitties with a sense of adventure. Being able to read the newspapers lining his litter pan, Marco describes the wonders of the outside world, and his more impulsive brother Polo finally persuades him to escape into the world beyond their cozy home. The intrepid two discover the tempting treats of the Burger King trash bins and meet the lovely fem feline Carlotta and "The King, The Boss, The Cat Supreme" in the form of Texas Jake, the top tom of the free cats' league who call themselves the Club of Mysteries. In order to become members, Marco and Polo are required to perform three folkloric tasks, testing their kitty mettle against all the traditional enemies of cats. This they do with feline elan, earning membership in the Club and the privilege of being "indoor/outdoor" cats from their owners, the Neals.

Naylor follows up with three humorous and satisfying sequels, The Healing of Texas Jake, Carlotta's Kittens, and the latest, Polo's Mother, in which Polo's search for his warm, fuzzy mom of memory concludes when he finds her in Geraldine, a tough little queenie with a heart of gold who cheerfully joins her offspring in another of Texas Jake's quests. How Marco, Polo, and Geraldine find what's atop a steeple, why cats purr, and what happens to the fridge light when the door is shut is a fun and fitting ending to this absolutely delightful series.

Phyllis Reynolds Naylor is a capable and versatile writer for children who takes on the wars between girls and boys, cats and dogs, and even girls coming of age with equal skill and sensitivity. It would be a cat-astrophe for kids to miss the fun and fur-raising adventures of the Cat Pack series.