Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Lonely Guy: Nobody Here But Me by Judith Viorst

My mom's making phone calls.

My dad's doing e-mail.

My sister's upstairs with a friend. They're playing great games. But the games are for two, not three.

So, even though there are four other people right here in this house, it's just as if there's nobody here but me.

It's four o'clock in the afternoon, and the kid is at loose ends. His parents are too busy even to multitask with him, and his sister Katie makes it clear there's no room for a little brother at her board game. He's on his own for a little while, and he's definitely NOT where he wants to be--the center of everyone's attention!

He tries coloring pictures solo, and even paints an artistic heart on the wall, announcing the proceedings out loud as he goes, but Mom keeps talking to Grandma. He tries out his scissors on his jeans and his hair and the fringe on the rug, but Dad determinedly keeps at the keyboard. Then he decides to make himself a snack:

I'm making a sandwich. I'm making a fruit drink. I'm making a chocolate dessert. And I'm turning our kitchen into a catastrophe (that's a really big mess!). But is someone, ANYONE, rushing in with the sponges and mops?

Uh uh. It's just as if there's nobody here but me

The kid tries pestering, a bit of whining, and a run at negotiation.

--"Hey, Mom! Hello! Hell-oh? Can you hear me?"
--"Sorry, but I don't want to hear you right now!"

--"Hey, Dad! Hello! Hell-oh? Can I ask you. . . "
--"Sorry, but I don't want you asking right now!"

--"Hey, Katie! Couldn't you, just this once . . ."
--"I couldn't. Why don't you get a friend to play with?"

Sometimes there's nothing left for a kid to do but find a sulking place. The basement seems promising. There are lots of big, empty boxes to sit in down there, and it's pretty dark, and it's a good place to hide, and . . . . Trouble is, it's also kinda spooky and getting really dark down there, and besides, nobody is even looking for his hiding place.

Maybe what this family needs is some dramatics.

--"Hurry, Katie! There's a giant bird with wide dark wings and it's flapping this wings outside the bedroom window."

--"There isn't."

--"There is. I know there is. There absolutely is."

--Then why don't you climb on its back and fly away?"

Out of ploys to get attention, the boy decides there's only one dramatic gesture left for him: he puts on his p.j.'s and puts himself to bed at 5:00 p.m. Just as he seems to be dozing off, everybody finishes with their afternoon activities and comes looking for him.

--"I'm done with my phone calls. We could bake a dessert for our supper."

--"I'm done with my e-mails. We could ride our bikes before supper."

--"My friend went home. We could work on the jigsaw puzzle till supper."

--"ZZZ ZZZ! I'm in no hurry to open my eyes.

--It serves them right! But I'm glad I'm just making believe!"

But even a determined faux sleeper can't resist a group tickle, especially when the mock snoozer has his chance to be the center of everyone's attention at last!

Judith Viorst, author of such definitive childhood stories as Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, proves that she hasn't lost her chops in nailing the workings of a child's mind in her newest, Nobody Here but Me. Fortunately for our protagonist, Viorst thankfully drops the veil of suspended disbelief upon the mess left behind our kid's lonely hour, leaving us a final page showing a believable family sharing a good giggle together. Illustrator Christine Davenier's art portrays just the right touch of pathos and peskiness in Viorst's character in this delightful new picture book from an old master.


Monday, September 29, 2008

Spook Spoof: Goodnight Goon: A Petrifying Parody by Michael Rex

In a cold, gray tomb
There was a gravestone
And a black lagoon,
And a picture of--
Martians taking over the moon.

Hey, wait! This sounds familiar, but something's not quite right! Wasn't there supposed to be something about a red balloon, cows over the moon, a bowl of mush, an old woman whispering "Hush?"

And this place is creepy, not cozy. There're three little mummies in the painting, and something with toothy jaws is rising out of a lagoon where the hooked rug is supposed to be. And there's a tombstone with R.I.P. carved on it, and bats and a witchy hat, and a werewolf in the rocker where the old knitting lady is supposed to sit, and a big red spider suspended from the ceiling instead of the balloon, and an octopus in the fireplace, and, and..., well, YIKES! What could have happened to those playful kittens anyway?

Huh! This is not the beloved bedtime story. I'm looking carefully at the title page this time. Goodnight GOON. Ok-a-a-y, I get it. This is a SPOOF. Well, then...

Goodnight tomb.
Goodnight Goon.
Goodnight bones and black lagoon.

Goodnight moans.
Goodnight groans.
Goodnight creature,
Goodnight goo.
And goodnight to the werewolf whispering "BOO!"

Michael Rex's Goodnight Goon: A Petrifying Parody isn't scary enough to keep anybody awake, but kids who still remember the real Goodnight Moon may want to stay awake chuckling through this semi-spooky spoof several times. For a classic which lends itself easily to parody, it's a tribute to the old bedtime staple that it stretches comfortably to accommodate this brand-new version just out for the scary season.


Sunday, September 28, 2008

Boo! Who Will Haunt My House on Halloween? by Jerry Pallotta

It's Halloween!
I'm scared!
I wonder who will haunt my house tonight?

Most Halloween picture books take us out into the spooky spooky moonlight to trick or treat and meet the creatures of the night. But Jerry Pallotta's just published Who Will Haunt My House on Halloween? offers a view from the other side--an advance screening of Halloween from the inside of a cozy house, where each time the front door opens, scary things might appear on the doorstep. A little girl, treat tray filled and ready for the doorbell, wonders if she dare open that door to the dark, spook-filled night.

For those young children who find the sight of their fellow trick-or-treaters almost too scary, David Biedrzycki's appealing but not-too-spooky illustrations of the imagined characters on the stoop--werewolves, witches offering brew, scarecrows and spiders, skeletons with bony fingers, and zillions of bats--offer a glimpse of the fun to be had just outside the door.

"Did anyone trick or treat yet?" the little girl asks her mom,

"No, it's been very quiet." Mom replies.

Mom hustles the girl into her witch costume, sprinkled with moon and stars, just as the doorbell sounds.

"Someone's at the door! Let's ALL go trick or treating. What FUN!"

And our girl picks up her treat bag and joins the jolly group of costumed kids outside with a merry warning:

We're on our way to haunt YOUR house. HAPPY HALLOWEEN!"


Saturday, September 27, 2008

Fearful Funhouse: The Dangerous Alphabet by Neil Gaiman and Gus Grimly

No jolly APPLES, BALLS, and CATS here. The creators of The Dangerous Alphabet promise "an alphabet with a dangerous flaw" (easy to spot) with "two brave children, their diminutive but no less courageous gazelle, and a large number of extremely dangerous trolls, monsters, bugbears, creatures, and other such nastiness."

The story begins humorously, with a brother and sister sneaking stealthily past their dad, apparently totally engrossed in his newspaper. Below street level the intrepid two descend into a shadowy stone-walled underground waterway and into a boat which resembles the skeleton of a prehistoric fish. As if in a ride through a carnival tunnel of horrors, the children float past a montage of mysterious and quirky sights as they make their way downstream through an off-beat alphabetical journey.

E is for EVIL that looms and entices.

F is for FEAR and its many devices.

G is for GOOD as in HERO and MORNING.

H is for HELP ME! A cry and a warning.

The children elude toothy monsters and sneaky pirates and all the usual spooky suspects as they persevere in following their map through the perilous waters--until

V is for VILE deeds done in the night.
X marks the spot if we read the map right.

The kids are not the only ones who are reading the scene right. As they come to the end of their fun house ride, they find a REALLY surprising sight--their dad and his now well-read newspaper, waiting patiently for them like the light at the end of the tunnel. Dad, it seems, was only feigning ignorance of their plan, and now that the kids have had their nighttime fun, he's there to take them safely home.

Gaiman's text is quirky and its vocabulary may require some adult explanation for the age group who are the usual audience for alphabet books. For example,

Q is for quiet (bar one muffled scream).

R is a river that flows like a dream.

S is for snare--a skull and its smile.

T is for treasure, heaped in a pile.

However, for slightly older kids who adore scary illustrations full of tongue-in-cheek detail, Grimly's signature mock-macabre style carries the load in this offbeat alphabet book just suited for the spooky season.


Friday, September 26, 2008

Spoofing the Singalong: Sipping Spiders Through a Straw: Campfire Songs for Monsters by Kelly DiPucchio and Gus Grimly

A-campin' we will go,
With monster friends in tow.
Hi-ho, the scary-o,
We dare you to say no.

We'll fill your nights with fear.
We'll rip your tent and sneer.
Hi-ho the scary-o,
We're glad you made it here

Collaborators Kelly DiPucchio and Gus Grimly have a surefire kid pleaser in their new collection of silly. slightly scary campfire songs, Campfire Songs For Monsters (Sipping Spiders Through A Straw) Set to childhood standards such as the title takeoff of "Sippin' Cider Through a Straw," these are songs kids will love to sing at summer camp, family camping trips, backyard sleepovers, Halloween shindigs, or just any time when they feel like giggling through some silly songs.

Here's a sample chorus from "Home, Home of the Strange," set to (you got it) "Home on the Range:"

Home, home of the strange,
Where the feared and the freaks come to play.
Where the stench in the air
Comes from goon underwear,
And the kids are all pasty and gray

And here's a bit from "My Darling Frankenstein," tune borrowed from "My Darling Clementine:"

In the kitchen, in the castle,
Filled with mold and turpentine,
Lived a baker, monster maker,
And her true love, Frankenstein.
Oh, my crispy, oh, my crunchy,
Oh, my frosted Frankenstein.
You're so yummy, in my tummy,
My delicious Frankenstein

Serve with monster cookies!

Then there's this anthem to the national pastime:

Take me out to the graveyard,
Take me out to the tombs.
Buy me some worms from that Quasi named Jack.
I don't care 'bout that hump on his back.
So it's 'Boo, boo, boo,' for the bone team.
If they don't win, then they're lame.
For it's 'one, two, three bites, you're out,'
At the old graveyard game

The parodies never seem to stop, from the grossout "Blow, Blow, Blow Your Nose," and "For He's a Stinky Old Fellow," to the simply silly "I've Been Running Over Road Toads" and "If You're Scary and You Know It." Gus Grimly adds his signature comic spooky cartoons to create just the right atmosphere for this spoofy spookarama of spectral songs. It's a hoot to run through these ditties, even in the daylight, but hang some ghosts, bats and owls about, or start up your bonfires at dusk, and have yourself a haunted hootenanny!

Labels: , ,

Thursday, September 25, 2008

History Mystery: Traitor in Williamsburg: A Felicity Mystery by Elizabeth McDavid Jones

Before there were Red States and Blue States, even before there were Rebel States and Yankee States, there were Tories and Patriots. In Williamsburg, Virginia, the spring before the July 4 Declaration of 1776, conflict festered between those colonists still loyal to the British Crown and those who had cast their lots with the Patriots.

The clash between the two parties has already struck close to Felicity Merriman's home, when her best friend Elizabeth's loyalist father has been forced to leave Virginia for New York, leaving Liz and her mother without his support. Then a broadside claiming that that her friend Fiona McLeod's Scottish father is disloyal to the Patriots has forced the whole family to flee and their home and successful business to be sold at auction. When Mr. Merriman publishes a defense of Fergus McLeod's patriotism, he, too, falls under suspicion, and after another broadside accusing her father is published under the pseudonym "Mr. Puller," Felicity sees her father arrested for trading with the English forces and slated for trial.

But Felicity and Elizabeth suspect that the ledger entries and sales receipt signed by the British general are fakes, planted in Mr. Merriman's office while he was away on a secret trip to Portsmouth. Because Mr. Merriman's mission was to help supply the Patriot forces in the area, he refuses to testify about the purpose of his journey, and Felicity knows that it is up to her to prove her father's innocence or submit to deportation and confiscation of their home and store also.

With the loyal Elizabeth and her father's apprentice Ben as co-sleuths, Felicity sets out to do the detective legwork to identify the mysterious "Mr. Puller" and locate the evidence to clear her father's name. After inquiries at the local print shops and with a suspect in mind, the girls plant a message which leads the conspirator to a supposed midnight meeting in the graveyard. Hiding behind large gravestones to get a better look at the suspect in the flashes of lightning, Felicity and Elizabeth are spotted and barely escape, still unable to identify the caped figure. However, Felicity recalls that the man was wearing an elaborate "bob wig," and reasoning that he will have to have it restyled after its soaking in the rain, she traces him to the town's one wig shop the next day.

With the traitor's name and motive in hand, there only remains for Felicity and Ben to search his office for similar receipts for deals with enemy forces, and a dramatic entrance to the courtroom where Mr. Merriman is on trial stops the proceedings so that Felicity can present the evidence to the judges.

In this perennially popular American Girl series which begins with Meet Felicity: An American Girl : 1774 (The American Girls Collection, Book 1), the reader sees Felicity Merriman as she grows from an impulsive, horse-crazy nine-year-old to a responsible and thoughtful eleven-year-old who has become deeply involved with the historic events of the year 1776 in the American colonies. As always with this notable historical fiction series, the appendix describes the social and political events of the period, in this case the tension between the Patriots and Tories and the checkered history of the Committees of Safety which were the first civil rulers of the rebellious colonies.

An exciting and satisfying mystery story which draws the reader into daily life of a Virginia girl in the first year of the American Revolution, Traitor in Williamsburg: A Felicity Mystery (American Girl Mysteries) is a terrific choice for mystery fans and historical fiction fans alike.

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Tutor Tot: Judy Moody Goes to College by Megan McDonald

She, Judy Moody, had to take a note home. A note that said she needed extra help. A note that said she was hazy-not-crazy about math. Fact Of Life: She, Judy Moody was a tutor tot.

Judy Moody is in a mood. Not a good mood. Definitely not a Math-i-tude. Definitely a Bad-i-tude. Judy sees hours of counting beads and gluing macaroni to construction paper in her future. But the prevailing Mom-and-Dad-i-tude is that she will be tutored in math. End of Discussion.

But when her parents take her to the local college campus to meet her new tutor, Chloe Canfield, Judy gets a big surprise. The first tutoring session means playing "The Game of Life" as Chloe, nicknamed "C Squared" for her double-initialed name, points out all the real life uses of math concepts around her. There's not a flash card or macaroni shape in sight, and Judy is swept up in the glamour of her new college friend and her exciting college life. Tutoring sessions in the campus cafe, with lattes and hot chocolate on the side, turn Judy's mood into glad-i-tude, and Judy morphs into a third-grader who dresses and talks with collegiate style.

Spending a trendy Saturday with Chloe, Judy uses Choe's mood nail polish on her toes, eats veggie burgers at the campus canteen, hangs out at the Peace Rally, and makes a striking Warhol-styled pop art bandaid print in Chloe's art class which wins an honorable mention at the college's art show. Oh, and Judy Moody's math-i-tude takes a turn for the better as she gets down with Chloe on the "crucial" concepts.

She, Judy Moody, had a brand-new attitude. It was grat-i-tude.

Megan McDonald's latest in this notable series, Judy Moody Goes to College (Book #8) (Judy Moody), maintains the high level of this beginning chapter series which feature a girl with plenty of attitude who, in her new college vocabulary,* moves from from brat-i-tude right into RAD-i-tude. As Publishers Weekly puts it, "It's hard to imagine an attitude that Judy Moody couldn't improve!"

*Appended is Judy Moody's Not Webster's New World Collegiate Dictionary which defines such collegiate lingo as the bomb, crucial, for your 4-1-1, peace out, peeps, 'rents (parents), and wicked.

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Shooting Star: Go Big or Go Home by Will Hobbs

There might be more unlikely ways to die, but I can't think of any.

Fourteen-year-old Brady Steele, astronogy nut and extreme sports fan, stays up late to watch the Perseid shower over the Black Hills, but the annual meteor show suddenly takes an extreme turn before his eyes:

Horizon to horizon, the night sky was glowing a brilliant blue. My jaw was on the ground. Strange, beautiful, bizarre, eerie, weird, awesome... words can't begin to describe that light.

Then, suddenly, BOOM! BOOM! Two tremendous explosions rocked the sky, so powerful they rattled my bedroom window. What in the world?

I didn't have time for another thought. All at once, a roar and a blinding fireball were coming down on me like a freight train strapped to a runaway skyrocket. I hit the deck, and as I did, WHAM! Something crashed right into the house. From the earsplitting sound of it, I'd nearly got hit.

From the first pages, Will Hobbs' latest guy adventure, Go Big or Go Home, takes off on a helter-skelter plot that will keep 'tween and early teen readers turning those pages. Going back to his bedroom, Brady finds a burned hole in his mattress and under the bed, a potato-shaped meteorite which would have surely killed him if he'd been asleep there. Stuffing some towels into the hole, Brady curls up on what's left of his bed and falls asleep with his amazing find close. beside him.

Brady's first call the next morning is to his cousin Quinn, his sometimes rival and sometimes partner in extreme biking and spelunking adventures. The two boys decide to set out on a marathon bike tour the next day, planning to stop off with their prize, which they name "Fred" for Far Roaming Earth Diver, at the local science museum where a well-known astrophysicist is in summer residence. As the boys pedal up a steep mountain road on the first leg of their trip, Brady, who usually plays second fiddle to the bigger, stronger Quinn, finds himself infused with a tingling burst of energy which has him leaving the struggling Quinn far behind.

Dr. Ripley, the meteorite expert is blown away by Brady's specimen, declaring it a very valuable object, one of only 34 basaltic shergottite meteorites originating on Mars ever found on Earth. He takes a small nub from the surface of Brady's space rock in hopes of finding traces of microscopic Martian life within it, promising to report his findings to the boys as soon as possible.

During the next few days, Brady's strange bodily sensations become more alarming. True, he enjoys outracing Quinn and discovering that at five feet six he is suddenly able to dunk a basketball at will. But a puzzling midnight spell of paralysis and an occasional numbness spreading through his body unnerves him, especially when it follows his recurring nightmare of being autopsied alive but immobile by the county coroner, father of the belligerent Carver boys, Cal, Max, and Buzz. Then on an "extreme" fishing trip in a flimsy WalMart inflatable raft, Brady and Quinn have to call upon the Carvers to rescue them. As the raft, ripped by the hook thrown from an escaping lunker, begins to sink, the Carvers bring their boat alongside, and in the exchange, Brady's backpack, with the valuable Fred inside, drops into the deeps of the lake.

Then Brady learns from Dr. Ripley that he has been able to reconstitute dormant bacteria within the meteorite sample, and Brady begins to suspect that both his unusual strength and speed and his growing numbness are the result of infection from the extraterrestrial germs. When the Carver boys boast of their retrieval of the backpack using the coroner's grappling apparatus, Brady and Quinn go to the Carver's farm to try to try to get their meteorite back, but there Brady collapses and awakes inert and unable to communicate with anyone. Suddenly his nightmare of being taken for dead is coming true before his open but unmoving eyes.

Like Harry Potter's sorcerer's stone, Brady finds the ownership of Fred is an awe-inspiring but complex responsibility--and a danger to his own existence. Brady and Quinn are finally confronted with the same choice that faced Harry--take the wealth and fame which goes with the possession of the stone or reject it and end its power to destroy.

Will Hobbs, master of the survival story genre, shown in Jason's Gold and Wild Man Island, has here a novel with the non-stop action of a video game and the suspense of an outdoor survival saga, spiced with philosophical overtones, which is sure to attract his customary audience--guys for whom Quinn's favorite words--extreme, insane, whacked, weird, rad, and eerie--are part of an engaging read. Hobbs' characterizations are delineated in broad strokes, but the relationship between cousins Brady and Quinn, part rivalry, part deep friendship, is drawn in terms that will resonate with early teen readers.

Labels: , ,

Monday, September 22, 2008

Get Down! Boogie Knights by Lisa Wheeler

It's midnight
And the moonlight's shining
Down upon the moors.
While the rascals
In the castle
Jangle chains and rattle doors.

Seven sleeping, never seeing.
Creeps are creeping
Down the hall.
Down the staircase,
Making their way
To the Madcap Monster Ball.

Seven armored knights, "upstairs, unawares..." are sleeping through their watch, while below a collection of "werewolves hustling, zombies bustling, from their coffins, crypts, and vaults" join mummies doing the mambo, serpents doing the samba and waltzing wicked witches, all boogieing down in the main hall.

With a banshee as the lead singer, the jam session grows so loud that it awakens the sleeping prince, who, in his cute little striped jammies, with miniature crown askew, stumbles out of his chamber, teddy and candlestick drooping in hand, to see what's going on. As the bogeys shake their booties, even the painting of a deceased princess comes alive to the sound of the intriguing beat, and she floats down to seek a partner at the rockin' rave.

But the ghostly princess is not the only one aroused by the swingin' sounds. Among the castle's snoozing guardians, first Sir Veillance ("he just can't wait/To investigate"), and then "tough" Sir Loin ("his honor is at stake"), "big" Sir Prize, and "wide" Sir Round come downstairs to protect but remain to party. Sir Cumference "circles round" to defend but, hearing the beat, stays to do the twist. Waking to a monster conga line below in the hall, the castle's remaining protectors wake to the irresistible sounds:

Forced, Sir Ender just gives in.
Lone Sir Vivor (that's his twin)
Feels the music in his soul,
Kicks up his heels,

With all seven of his knightly defenders dancing, the little prince drops his bear and candle, and grabbing the ghost princess by the hand, joins the go-go goblins and jumps into the jiving jamboree to dance until dawn.

At last the weary warriors climb back to their watchtower, and as "seven sleepers close their peepers," the princess returns to her picture frame with a last look at the little prince toddling off to his bed with a smile as she wishes him a fond "NIGHTY KNIGHT."

In their brand-new Boogie Knights (Richard Jackson Books (Atheneum Hardcover)) author Lisa Wheeler (Sailor Moo: Cow at Sea (Golden Kite Honors (Awards)), Seadogs: An Epic Ocean Operetta) and illustrator Mark Siegel have a unique semi-scary story which will work like a charm on a variety of levels of reader/listeners. Wheeler's rhyming plot line and Siegel's humorous drawings, a marriage made in picture-book heaven, will engage the youngest listeners, while the clever puns and double entendres paired with the sophisticated layered humor of the illustrations will charm elementary readers--and even adults, who (one hopes) will be the only ones who fully "get" the title's mischievous reference. It's a happy howliday pun-orama fun-orama which will merit many return engagements at this devilishly delightful discotheque.

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Dear D. J.: Bravo, Max by D. J. Lucas (a.k.a. Sally Grindley)

For a slightly younger reader than Beverly Cleary's Newbery winner Dear Mr. Henshaw (HarperClassics) Sally Grimley's Max uses the device of correspondence between a boy and his favorite author to build a humorous but moving story of Max, who pours out his feelings to D. J. Lucas, an author who becomes both a sounding board and trusted friend.

In her third book in this series, Bravo, Max! almost eleven-year-old Max, the smallest kid in the class, has worked his way through dealing with a classroom bully. Still grieving over his father's death several years before, things are looking up as Max reports to D. J. that he has made the soccer team, and inspired by his uncle Derek's community theatre role, is writing a play himself.

Then, just as Max is feeling on top of his world, he has to confront a new and daunting group of feelings as his mom joins the theatre group and begins to date a member of the company. Max is used to his mother's total attention, and being left with a grouchy old babysitter, whom he names Mrs. Rabbit, while his mom goes out on dates with James (whom Max names Hairychops) throws him into a tailspin. Strong hints of Max's jealous feelings appear in the script of his drama Buster and the Dragon which he includes in his letters to D.J. Lucas. In fact, James appears in Max's play as the unattractive villain Fungus Face.

For her part, D. J. commiserates sympathetically with Max's feelings while suggesting strategies for using his drama skills to deal with his jealousy. She also shares her own fears as her book, My Teacher Is a Nutcase becomes a successful movie and she begins to overcome her shyness and enjoy being a celebrity.

Things come to a head for Max when kids at school begin to tease him about his mother's boyfriend, and his classmate Jenny tells him that he'll be left behind when his mum and James have a new baby. The usually well-behaved Max gets in a hair-pulling scuffle with Jenny, and he is cut from the soccer team as punishment. Max confesses to D.J. that he plans to run away from home, but despite her quick return letter urging him to confess his fears to his mother, he slips out while Mrs. Rabbit is staying with him.

I got so wet and cold, D. J., that I wanted to go home again, but I'd lost my way.

Then a car came up. It was Baldychops' silly old sports car. Baldychops jumped out and asked me what I was doing, and I shouted at him, "Go away, just go away, it's all your fault." So he said, "I will go away, but not until I've taken you home. Your mother is worried sick about you." I wanted her so much that I got in the car. I didn't speak to him, but when we got to the house, Baldychops said "I'd like to be your friend, Max," before he drove away.

Max does tell his mother his fears about sharing her with someone else, and her reassurance that he will always be the most important person in her life changes his view of the future's possibilities. D. J. Lucas sends him guest tickets for the local premier of My Teacher Is a Nutcase, and Max even finds it in his heart to save one for James.

Earlier titles in this series, Dear Max and Relax, Max (Red Apples), share comic illustrations by Tony Ross and a focus on imaginative writing which makes these short novels popular with young readers and teachers alike.

Labels: , ,

Saturday, September 20, 2008

In A Dark, Dark House: Mouse, Look Out! by Judy Waite

The gate no one opened was rusted and old.

When the wind blew, it sometimes creaked and sighed.

And tucked amongst the cracks of the ivy-covered wall, a little mouse was peeping.

An abandoned English cottage, its twin chimneys overgrown with vines and its unpainted boards gray with time, beckons to a tiny, long-tailed mouse, who, ignorant of the tattered DANGER! KEEP OUT! sign, squeezes through a gnawed-out opening in the sturdy paneled door. Inside, autumn leaves have drifted over the dusty floors, and abandoned relics of former lives lie about--a straw garden hat, its tulle ribbon and flower still a soft but persistent pink, a broken china vase with delicate blue flowers, a curled and creased leather shoe with a hole in the toe, just right for a mouse to hide inside.

Mouse, look out!
There's a cat about!

But the mouse's long, curving tail gives him away, and his presence in the seemingly abandoned cottage is noted, as an almost hidden black cat follows the little mouse as he makes his way through the lower floor and struggles up the stairs to a bedroom above. Amid a jumble of cast-offs--clothing, a teddy bear, bedding--the mouse finds what he is apparently seeking, a tiny hole in the mattress where a little mouse can tuck in warmly for a long winter sleep.

But Mouse, look out!
There's a cat about!

Slinking behind him as he searches for a safe haven is the patient but determined cat, a black shadow which moves silently behind the mouse. As the mouse settles down, the cat begins her final stalk.

But wait! The preying cat is also being followed--by a large dog with a presumably very big bark.

Cat! Look out!
There's a dog about!

And as the back endpapers reveal, the stalker becomes the chased, as a long view from the cottage shows the cat fleeing through the autumn trees, the dog in hot pursuit.

Judy Waite's Mouse, Look Out! combines her stately language and measured rising tension with Norma Burgin's exquisite illustrations, at once both cozy and suspenseful. The mouse frisks about, taking in the empty kitchen and sniffing its left-behind implements. As the mouse reacts to his reflection in a still shiny copper teakettle, we see the cat watching for her moment, hidden except for her face, waiting carefully for the moment we fear is to come, as the two, unbeknownst to each other, make their way through the abandoned rooms.

Listening children will love spotting the cat as it peers out from hiding on every page and will soon be joining in on the repeated refrain "Mouse, look out! There's a cat about!" and will joy as the hunter-and-hunted tables are turned in the surprise ending. Published almost a decade ago in Britain, this book has been reissued in America just in time for our autumnal scary season. For the younger set, though, this tale of a deserted cottage, a venturesome mouse, and a foiled black cat is sure to delight at any time of year.

Labels: ,

Friday, September 19, 2008

Steven Caney's Ultimate Building Book by Steven Caney

Long before The Dangerous Book for Boys and its fellow travelers burst upon the scene, Steven Caney ruled as the king of kids' compendia. Now Caney is back with another fascinating book with wide appeal.

Steven Caney's Ultimate Building Book begins with solid sections which cover almost everything there is to know about design and construction, from yurts to Gothic cathedrals, bridges to beaver dams. In his introduction Caney recalls his grandfather's basement workshop, with cigar boxes full of screws, scrap parts, and fascinating widgets, real tools, and a grandpa who kept an eye on his creations while letting his imagination take him where it would.

From that homey beginning, he launches forth into a mind-expanding section titled "Structures and Forms are Everywhere." Introducing the concepts of tension and compression, he shows how all constructions use these concepts to construct the geometric figures which figure in both nature's and humankind's structures. As he puts it, all architectural structure is a combination of form, function, materials, and style, and he offers wide-ranging examples, from the Pompidou Center to timber frame barns, ice-fishing "bob houses," fences, lighthouses, castles, and all kinds of arches and domes.

I found the picture sections on the history of building structures (daub and wattle, post and lintel anyone?), types of roofs, and styles of American stick-built houses worth a leisurely perusal, as I learned the difference between a gable, gambrel, mansard, and hip roof. His section on different patterns in bricklaying and what human builders owe to nature's patterns beckon to the reader to take a long, thoughtful look. Fascinating stuff!

The heart of the book, however, are Caney's extensive (and I mean extensive) sections of hands-on building projects. Caney uses the term "building" broadly to include variations of homemade building clay, forms made from paper, straws and string and straws and rubber band , toothpicks, cotton-tipped swabs, Jello cubes and marshmallows, foam board and graham crackers, snow and sand--as well as store-bought building sets from wood blocks to FisherTechnik. In fact, almost any material can be used to illustrate the scientific principles which Caney explains as he directs the builder through the process. Kids can make a straw and string terrarium, paper airplanes, or a peanut-butter/cracker house in a jiffy, or they can construct longer-term projects such as kites, tree houses, and a variety of backyard tents. For a quickie, quirky project, try the amazing, amusing, and awesome tennis ball popper which inverts itself and bounces skyward before your very eyes.

In his appendix the author sets forth his proposition that building is an important aspect of a child's education and an essential experience which develops creativity and ingenuity. As he puts it, "The building years are special." But the materials for building need not be expensive construction toys. "Open ended" materials--scrap lumber, discarded plastic bits and paper, straws and plastic bags--all provide the stuff of fun, learning, and inventiveness. His list of "play perennials" are a great guide for playthings which build brains and bodies while having fun. A glossary of shapes and forms, from the lowly circle to the highbrow rhombicubooctahedron, and a dictionary of building terms join a robust index to complete the substantial back matter.

As a reference book for the family bookshelf, a rainy-day resource, a go-to book for science projects, and a source of entertainment for inquiring minds of all ages, this is a must-have book for school, public, and home libraries, providing hours of educational reading and fun. Copiously illustrated with photos and step-by-step diagrams, it's a five-star, top-rated book large in size and scope and possibilities. Betcha can't read just one page!

Besides Steven Caney's Ultimate Building Book other uncommon compendia by the author include Steven Caney's Invention Book, Steven Caney's Toy Book (Reissue), and Steven Caney's Kids' America.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Lost and Found Dog: Broadway Barks by Bernadette Peters

I used to be called Douglas.

I used to live in a tall apartment building, but now I live in the park.

No one takes me for a walk. No one gives me dinner, and no one says "Good dog, Douglas."

It's a hard knock life for an abandoned dog in Manhattan, but lonely Douglas is a savvy pooch who can pick a prospective dog lover, and when he follows a pretty lady with long curly red hair (not unlike the author's), his luck begins to change. The lady kindly scoops him up and loads him into a taxi which deposits them both in Schubert Alley.

It's audition time for dogs, a annual festive gala called Broadway Barks, which seeks to unite homeless canines with eager owners. Douglas is a born performer, and when the music begins he happily "sings" and "dances" for the delighted crowd with zest. Doug is feeling pretty good about his chances when he is abruptly grabbed and taken offstage and tied to a prop. Douglas is distraught.

No one loves me. Nobody wants me.

Then--oh, joy!--a small girl named Isabel appears with the words he has been hoping for: "Would you like to go home with me?"

Isabel renames her new dog "Kramer," gives him dinner, a bath, and a belly rub, and best of all, provides those words he has been longing to hear:

"Good dog, Kramer."

Author and Broadway diva Bernadette Peters is co-founder, with Mary Tyler Moore, of the annual Broadway Barks pet rescue event, which receipts from sales of this book will benefit. Unlike some celebrity books, Broadway Barks: With CD is an engaging story with charming collage illustrations by Liz Murphy. A CD of Peters' nice reading of her story and her performance of its theme song, "Kramer's Song," is included with the book.


Wednesday, September 17, 2008

New Kid Settles In: Piper Reed, The Great Gypsy by Kimberly Holt

Before we moved to Pensacola, we'd lived in California, Texas, Guam, Mississippi, New Hampshire. Just when a place started to feel like home, we had to leave again.

That's the way the Navy life was. Someone was always coming and someone was always going.

For Piper Reed, whose move from San Diego to Pensacola, Florida, was chronicled in Piper Reed: Navy Brat, (reviewed here June 25, 2008) this time the "someone going" is her dad, the Chief, who leaves on a six-month cruise just as she is settling down in their new place. Piper, the middle girl in the family, can't help but feel a bit out of sorts as she watches her dad sail out of their life until next September.

When I wanted to get back at (big sister) Tori, I mentioned her chubby body.

"You're mean, Piper Reed," Tori complained.

She was right. Since Chief left I had said something mean every day.

But despite herself, Piper's upbeat nature reasserts itself as she throws her energy into making friends with their new neighbors, Abe, Yolanda, and little Brady, and into training her poodle Bruna for the Pet Show she is planning for her Gypsy Club members. She is sure she and Bruna will win, but first she has to teach her new dog at least one trick, and Bruna is not cooperating.

While Piper practices teaching Bruna to fetch and little sister Sam teaches her goldfish Peaches II her trick, the family shares some good times. Mom decides that they will have a "different" Christmas while Chief is away, renting a beach house that looks like a flying saucer and decorating a sad-looking "Charlie Brown" tree, and visiting her mother's college art teacher in New Orleans, where Tori renews her acquaintance with beignets while Piper learns that her mom was once an avant garde painter who called herself Coco Kappel.

April brings a major family brouhaha when Mom slips and falls on Tori's secret journal, mysteriously left open on the stairs. Tori paints herself grandly as the long-suffering savior of the situation in her letter to her dad, but Sam is less verbose and gets right to the indictment:

Dear Daddy,

Mommy broke her leg.


P.S.: It was Piper's fault.

Under a cloud of suspicion and her dad's warning that "I'll have to get to the bottom of this when I return home," Piper nevertheless forges on with her summer plans, training Bruna to do three tricks with the indispensable help of two-year-old Brady, and sculpting an amazing likeness of Tori's nose with its first pimple in art class. When the long-awaited July 4 Pet Show finally arrives, Bruna performs two out of three of her tricks flawlessly, even without Brady's help. Although TippyToes the dancing guinea pig waltzes off with the prize, Piper is proud that her first Pet Show production is a rousing success. Finally, to her great relief, Sam confesses to leaving Tori's journal open on the stairs, and Piper is at last off the hook for her mom's broken leg.

And when Chief surprises the family by returning home early, they celebrate with an end-of-summer trip back to the UFO beach house, where Piper designs and oversees the construction of a spectacular sand castle.

Mom studied my drawing. "Piper, you really are a talented artist!"

"I guess I just take after Coco Kappel," Piper said.

When a National Book Award author turns her hand to the art of the beginning chapter book, it is cause for celebration. First-time chapter book readers have the chance to begin their solo reading experience with well-drawn characters who seem to come alive right off the pages of print. Holt's second in the delightful Piper Reed series continues the development of an engaging three-dimensional protagonist whose goal is someday to soar with the Navy's Blue Angels.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Like Diamonds in the Darkness: The Diamond of Darkhold: The City of Ember, Book 4 by Jeanne DuPrau

Lina was about to say goodbye to Doon, but he took hold of her arm. "Lina," he said, "look at this." There was something in his voice that made her turn to him in surprise. He held out the book, showing her the cover. "Directions for Use," it said in large print.

"Use of what?" said Lina. "I don't understand."

"No, look down here," said Doon, pointing at smaller print at the cover's lower edge.

Lina peered at it. "For the people of Em..." it said, and then there was a blot of something on the last part of the word. But it didn't matter. She knew what the word was. She looked up at Doon, wide-eyed.

"Ember," they both said, speaking at the same time.

It has been a few months since Lina Mayfleet and Doon Harrow found a way to lead the people of Ember out of the underground sanctuary where their ancestors had lived for over two centuries, surviving an apocalyptic war aboveground with the provisions and technology left by the prescient Builders of the City of Ember. But life on the surface is hard, and the small colony that forms the City of Sparks struggles to live in a second Dark Age where starvation and disease are ever present threats.

Then a Roamer, a traveling trader, visits Sparks, and in her wagon Doon spots the remnants of a large, ripped book. Maggs, the trader, has used most of its pages as fire starters and is happy to trade it for a few matches from Lina's precious cache from Ember. Although Doon and Lina can make little of the complex diagrams inside and terms like "joule" and "current," Doon convinces Lina that the book describes something important left for the people of Ember from the Builders and that they should return to Ember and search for this gift.

When the two make the difficult and dangerous trek back to the opening to Ember, they discover a strange glow from the deserted city underground. Descending down a treacherous, winding path, they make their way to the outskirts of the city, where Doon, running ahead, is suddenly captured by a band of squatters subsisting upon the leavings of the city. The Trogg family apparently discovered the same path and taking refuge from the bitter cold up above, are looting the items left behind for a summer trade expedition outside. Doon is shackled by their leader, who in a moment of braggadocio reveals his prize, a glittering blue and silver object he calls his "Diamond."

When Lina hears the sounds of Doon's capture, she flees back along the path and sets out to get help from Sparks, but as night falls outside, she meets up with the Roamer, who tells her of the beautiful and valuable "diamond" her brother Trogg is keeping to trade. Encouraged by Lina's interest in their prize, Maggs proudly leads her to the strange metal-clad room built into an outcropping in the mountain where the strange object and the book were found.

When Doon manages to steal Trogg's "diamond" and escape to Sparks, the two examine it carefully and discover that its base has a socket into which light bulbs brought from Ember seem to fit. At first the bulb remains dark, until Doon discovers that it glows brightly if the diamond is left outside in the sun. Returning to the metal room, Lina discovers a hidden panel which opens to reveal a thousand of the silver and blue solar energy cells--the final gift from the Builders to the people of Ember.

Book Four of this series is an engrossing adventure which puts main characters Doon and Lina back together in a quest at the very thematic center of the series. The closing lines of The Diamond of Darkhold: The Fourth Book of Ember (Books of Ember) satisfyingly ties all four books together with a powerful symbol and a message of hope:

But the spacecraft continued its journey, and those who had sent it continue to monitor its progress over the many decades of its flight. Finally, a few months before Lina and Doon made their trip back to Ember, it arrived. It has been collecting data to send back to its home planet. It will report that the magnificent and powerful civilization it had expected to find seems to have disappeared and that a smaller and much humbler one has taken its place.

It will observe that a great part of this world lies in darkness during the night, but not all. In some places, sparks of light shine--not fires but electric lights, bright gleaming spots like diamonds in the darkness.

The people here seem not to have lost everything that came before, the little craft will report. Some of them have survived; some of their learning, too. It seems clear that they are making a new start.

Walden Media's movie The City of Ember opens October 8. You can see its trailer and other promotional information here.

For more about the Ember series, see my review of The City of Ember (The First Book of Ember), posted on July 31 of this year.

Labels: , ,