Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A Bolt from the Blue: Jolted: Newton Starker's Rules for Survival by Arthur Slade

Newton Starker knew he would most likely die from a lightning strike.

It would all happen in the blink of an eye. Zap!

One fried fourteen-year-old Newton, the last male heir of the Starker line.

In a parallel universe to that of Harry Potter and Hogwarts, Newton Starker knows that he, too, is stalked by a miscreant and malevolent force, a sudden bolt of lightning, perhaps from the blue of an innocent spring sky, the same force that has killed his mother. Without the physical mark on his forehead, Newton nevertheless wears the psychological scar of his family's fatal curse.

Unwilling to remain secluded for life in the concrete geodesic dome his father had built in a vain attempt to safeguard his mother, Newton throws all his energies into learning the art of self-preservation at an eccentric boarding school, the Jerry Potts Academy of Higher Learning and Survival, a quirky twist on the boarding school where students wear kilts and are advised to keep their Scots dagger, the sgian dobh, sharp at all times. Potts Academy, dedicated to the skills of survivalism in the wild or in the economic jungle of modern life, seems Newton's only hope of finding salvation from his fate, through the "fierce intelligence" which the school inculcates in its students.

Because his family's deadly history is well-known, Newton has had few friends: most kids have been well advised to keep their distance outdoors to avoid becoming collateral damage in the course of the execution of Starker curse. At Potts, though, Newton is quickly befriended by Jacob Clarke, part Scots, part black, part Mi'kmaq Indian, a prolific writer who is apparently unperturbed by proximity to a human lightning rod.

Like Harry Potter, however, Newton quickly acquires an enemy, a rival in the person of Violet Quon for the top marks which will put him into the Hall of Heroes. Violet is not above a bit of academic sabotage, and Newton is certain that she is the person responsible for his kilt dropping in the midst of his impassioned recitation of Bobbie Burns' "Red, Red Rose." Newton, a devotee of culinary art, manages to outscore Violet in their first kitchen combat--the "Mystery Meat" survival cook off, which he wins with his own recipe utilizing roadkilled ground squirrel in a French truffle-spiced quiche.

Acquiring the truffles for the dish brings Newton his second friend. Because of his fractured French, the shipment of truffles comes with a truffle-seeking piglet, Josephine, who seems to have powers far beyond the usual porker.

But Newton still needs expert advice in his search for survival, and for this he goes to the nearby nursing home where his 102-year-old great-grandmother, the only Starker known to have survived to old age, resides. Newton approaches the sour old woman gingerly, hoping to learn her secret, but what he hears seems impossible to carry out:

"I want to know how you've lived so long," said Newton.

"Spite, Great-grandson. Lovely, gorgeous, unyielding spite. I hate everyone--everyone I have ever met...."

"You hate everyone?"

"Even you.... I'll even outlive you, Newton." She pointed a crooked finger at him. "Would you like to bet on it?"

"No. Not at all."

Newton feels he must try his great-grandmother's solitary way to survival, but in the freshman class' first Outdoor Expedition, 48 hours of survival in the wilds, Newton discovers that he just doesn't have it in him to leave Violet hurt and alone in the woods, even to score marks on his way to the Hall of Heroes. And then, in probably the only unselfish act of her long self-preserving existence, Great-Grandmother Enid takes a bolt that is obviously intended for Newton, and his coming-of-age comes in a literal burst of light.

Arthur Slade's Jolted: Newton Starker's Rules for Survival is funny and poignant, a different sort of rite of passage story in an offbeat setting which somehow feels just right for Newton Starker. This story will resonate with early teen readers, kids who sometimes feel that adolescence itself carries its own kind of curse.

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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Don't Go There? Where the Mild Things Are by Maurice Send-up

Is nothing sacred? Well, when it comes to spoofs, the more sacred the cow the better the burger. (See, for example, Jon Scieszka's The True Story of the Three Little Pigs and The Frog Prince, Continued (Picture Puffin))

Maurice Send-up's, er, send up of Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are can't be faulted for taking on a classic, but Where the Mild Things Are: A Very Meek Parody(Simon & Schuster, 2009) can be faulted for failing to hit the mark for its presumed intended audience.

Mog, an exceedingly dull little monster, displeases his parents because he chooses to sit alone in his room reading the dullest books ever written--ZIP Codes in Guatemala, Facts about Dirt, The Big Book of Dull Facts. The crisis comes when his parents finally hit the wall with their little offspring's unmonstrous behavior:

One Day Mog's parents caught him gently petting a kitten.

"Stop playing with your food!" growled Mog's father.

His parents sent him to bed without his dinner. This made Mog very unhappy.

(But it made the kitten very happy indeed.)

Like Max, Mog's bed transforms, in this case appropriately into an AMC Gremlin, which speeds him away to another world--apparently one where the ennui suits his clothes, so to speak. Mog finds himself in Dullsville, with creatures who are even milder and more boring than he--depicted as caricatures of a mild comedian (Jay Leno), a mild homemaker (Martha Stewart), a "very, very, very rich" but mild man (Bill Gates), and a mild former vice president "who had almost been President, but not quite" (Al Gore). There Mog snores through lectures by Bill on "Fun with the Binary Code," Martha on Income Tax Law 101 (not to mention proper sock-folding), Jay on income tax jokes, and Al on light bulb replacement.

Needless to say, like Max, Mog returns from his non-adventure a changed kid, embracing his monster parents with relief and at last making them happy with his now appalling ways.

(The kitten was not so happy.)

The story of a little prodigal's return to home and hearth has long been standard plot fare for children's literature, and Sendak's version deserves all the credit it gets for his creative interpretation (even if, as this spoof points out, his drawings, so artfully cross-hatched, "have too many lines.") The trouble here is that no preschooler is going to get any of this humor (and yes, there is some here.) Al Gore's non-election is way before their time; last time I looked, Martha Stewart and Jay Leno weren't starring in their own shows on Noggin; and Bill Gates has yet to sing a duet with Ernie on Sesame Street.

The humor here lies in the graphic arts, from the sticker on the cover which reads "Winner of the Cheap Gold Sticker," to Bonnie Leick's clever illustrations: the U.S. map Mog follows to Dullsville--OHIO (Dull), ILLINOIS (Normal), ARIZONA (Why?), LOUISIANA (Why Not?)--and Al Gore snoozing against a recycling bin through Martha's clothesline lesson, only to waken to replace, somewhat stiffly, all the fluorescent bulbs in Dullsville with candles.

If I were a bookstore manager charged with marketing this one, I think I'd stick it near the graphic novels in the teen reads section, hard by Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days. It just might give young adults--young enough to remember the Sendak original, old enough to know who the "Mild Things" are supposed to be and presumably to get the jokes--a few chuckles.

For the picture-book set, this one should have been titled Where the Mild Things Are: A Very Weak Parody. The kids' shelves should be Where the Mild Things Aren't.


Monday, September 28, 2009

More Silly Sing-alongs: I've Been Burping in the Classroom & Other Silly Sing-Along Songs by Bruce Lasky

MY LOCKER IS OBSCENE (to the tune of "My Country 'Tis of Thee")

My locker is obscene.
Worst place you've ever seen.
It's such a mess.

Place where old math tests lie,
Old lunch, old apple pie.

The janitor will surely die
When I leave in June!

Bruce Lasky, the famous school tunester, has a collection which is just right for letting off steam during elementary nature camps or field trips. Even the teachers will be laughing on the inside at these clever lyrics set to melodies everyone knows.

THE BATTLE HYMN OF THE REPULSIVE (to the tune of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic")

Mine eyes have seen the kitchen, which is why I bring my lunch.
We have smelled the things they're cooking and they're toxic, we've a hunch.
And the salads are so soggy that you'll never hear a crunch.
I bring my lunch to school.

Of course, there are due consequences for some behavior, as one would-be meatball three-point shooter soon learns:

I'VE BEEN SITTIN' IN DETENTION (to the tune of "I've Been Working on the Railroad")

I've been sitting in detention,
Since the end of school.
I've been sitting in detention
Just because I broke a rule.

Throwing meatballs in the lunchroom
Wasn't wise, I fear.
I was aiming for the trash can,
Not my teacher's rear.

Lasky and his collaborating artist, Stephen Carpenter, hit just the right touch of self-spoofery for the middle grade school kid in their I've Been Burping in the Classroom, sure to bring forth giggles and a "Can we sing it now?" from the kids who hear these hilariously silly songs. For other books in this same genre, take a look at Alan Katz' Take Me Out of the Bathtub and Other Silly Dilly Songs and its several sequels, and Kelly Dipucchio's silly and spooky songbook, just right for Halloween parties, Campfire Songs For Monsters (Sipping Spiders Through A Straw), and others of this delightful type reviewed here.

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Sunday, September 27, 2009

Hen Haven: Squawking Matilda by Lisa Horstman

One day Mae received a note from Aunt Susan.

"Dear Mae,

How's my favorite niece? (Mae giggled at this joke; she was Aunt Susan's only niece.) I have a special job for you. I know how you love projects.

One of my chickens doesn't like it on my farm. Maybe she would like it better on yours."

Mae loves projects. She's just finished an elaborate litterbox cover to provide toileting privacy for her cat, Cat. But when Matilda the hen arrives, Mae is impressed by her beauty but dismayed by the persnickety personality of her new poultry pet. Feeding her and cleaning out her stinky, stinky coop cuts into Mae's project time considerably, and when Mae is distracted by designing sweaters to keep the cows' udders warm and building a clubhouse for socializing sheep, Matilda begins to languish from neglect, finally losing almost all her feathers.

Mae is appalled by her naked charge. What will Aunt Susan think when she comes for her annual visit? Mae gathers up the feathers and tries gluing them to Matilda's skin. But Matilda just squawks in exasperation and pulls the feathers off as fast as Mae can replace them. Mae stops to think.

"I need to find a better way to keep you warm!"

"Aha!" yelled Mae. Using leftover scraps from other projects., she made something special for Matilda--a chicken jacket!

And it seems it was the lack of style that was causing Matilda's decline. Dressed in an elegant chicken jacket, decorated with clinking coins and shells and charms, (and provided with a fresh food and a clean coop daily by the penitent Mae), Matilda begins to thrive. Her feathers begin to grow luxuriously as she struts by the less fashionable hens on the farm, and Mae is sure Aunt Susan will be impressed.

But by the time Aunt Susan's long awaited visit comes round, Matilda is nowhere to be found. Mae and Aunt Susan anxiously follow a trail of the shredded scraps of that beautiful chicken jacket, while Cat trails along, looking resolutely innocent. And then, at the end of the trail they find her.

Squawking Matilda is now laying Matilda, sitting proudly on her own tidy nest, snugly padded with bits and pieces of that wonderful jacket, and filled with newly-laid eggs.

Lisa Horstman's high-style illustrations for her newest project, Squawking Matilda, (Marshall Cavendish, 2009) are an admirable amalgam of old and new. Mixed media include the use of original puppets, heads and hands sculpted from polymer clay, dressed in hand-sewn or knitted costumes, and digitally colorized and posed against painted backgrounds.

A fellow Knoxvillian, Horstman has several handsome picture books rooted in our local Smoky Mountain setting, including the glowingly illustrated The Great Smoky Mountain Salamander Ball, The Smokies Yukky Book (with naturalist Doris Gove), and The Troublesome Cub in the Great Smoky Mountains.

A trailer for Squawking Matilda can be seen here.

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Saturday, September 26, 2009

There Be Monsters! There Was an Old Monster by Rebecca, Adrian, and Ed Emberley

There was an old monster
Who swallowed a tick.
I don't know why
He swallowed the tick,
'Cause it made him sick.

Award-winning artist Ed Emberley here teams up again with his daughter in a playful romp of a monster tale based on the traditional song "There Was An Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly." Here we have a goofy horned monster curiously decked out in a short and spiffy green skirt who swallows some ants to de-tick his rumbling tummy.

He swallowed some ants.
He took a big chance
When he swallowed those ants.

'Cause, Man, those ants
Had him dance in his pants.
Scritch, scratch, scritch,
Scritchy-scratch, scritch.

The monster goes on to ingest first a lizard ("hanging upon his gizzard"), a bat ("Imagine that!"), and then a jackal in the vain attempt to curb the commotion in his innards, all to no good end:

Then that old monster
He swallowed a jackal.
(I swear I heard him cackle.)

And then that monster goes one bite too far when he reasons that there's only one enemy who can take on a jackal---a lion, right?

There came a great ROAR!
And that monster was no more.
Scritch scratch scritch.

As in their recent collaboration, Chicken Little father-daughter team Ed and Rebecca Emberley team their talents in their newest, There Was An Old Monster!, a sure read-aloud treat for the picture book set, especially during the coming spooky season. A third talented Emberley, Adrian, provides a bouncy sing-along version, available from download from


Friday, September 25, 2009

The Play's The Thing: Stage Fright (Allie Finkle's Rules for Girls) by Meg Cabot

"I just couldn't believe it!

I had tried out for the role of Princess Penelope.

I had worked really hard on my audition and yet somehow I had ended up as the princess' EVIL STEP-MOTHER?"

Allie Finkle has tried to follow all the rules--including "Don't eat anything RED!" (which doesn't really apply onstage). But despite the coaching of her Uncle Jay, an actual drama major, rehearsing 'til she's hoarse, and a standing ovation from her classmates for her tryout, Mrs. Hunter assigns her to the role of the Evil Queen, who hates Princess Penelope of the Realm of Recycling and who even dies in the last scene of her own pollution ray.

The rules aren't working!

At least the class diva, snooty Cheyenne O'Malley, the star of every play she's ever been in, doesn't get the part either. Cheyenne is stuck with the role of the Compact Fluorescent Bulb Fairy Queen. And at least one of Allie's three BFFs, Sophie, gets the plum part. Still, Allie has to admit that she's jealous of Sophie, who really is as pretty as a princess. Allie secretly begins to learn her part in hopes that she may be called on to step in at the last minute.

But Uncle Jay points out that Allie actually has the biggest and best part, a character role which gives a real actress the opportunity to show off her skills.

"It's easy to play a character everyone is going to love....." said Jay. "Anybody could do that.

But the fact is that your teacher saw something in you that told her 'Hey, this little girl could do something really challenging--make people hate her.'

She must think you're the best actress in the class."

Cheyenne takes another tack, reading her lines without inflection in a robotic voice, making it clear that if she can't have the lead, she's going to do nothing to make the play a success. But despite her initial disappointment, Allie finds that she has a real flair for comedy, making the Evil Queen so funny that she cracks up the class during practice. In her red high-top sneakers, striped stockings, and her dad's old Dracula cape, Allie realizes that she is all set to steal the show.

But as rehearsals progress, Sophie's nerves make her more and more imperious, until uncharacteristically she pitches a Cheyenne-style fit at the dress rehearsal over what she sees as Allie's upstaging.

"I'm the star of this play, Allie! ME, not YOU! Why won't anyone remember that!

Ugh! I HATE you.!"

At this Mrs. Hunter abruptly cuts Sophie from the play. At first, Allie is elated! Her hard work learning Princess Penelope's lines has paid off and she is sure that Mrs. Hunter will choose her to step in and play the lead that night. But then Allie realizes that no one in the class is ready to step into her role with so many lines to learn in an afternoon, which means that even if she is the star, the play will surely be a flop. Suddenly Allie knows what has to be done.

"I knew how to do the queenly thing and save the day.

And when you know the right thing to do, you have to do it. That's a rule!"

In her just-published fourth book in this popular middle-grade series, Stage Fright (Allie Finkle's Rules For Girls), best-selling author Meg Cabot comes up with another winner. Allie's voice is authentic, a fourth-grader who is not perfect but basically has a good heart, and her efforts to learn the rules of life in her own setting will ring true to middle readers.

Other books in this series are Moving Day (Allie Finkle's Rules for Girls), The New Girl (Allie Finkle's Rules for Girls), and Best Friends And Drama Queens (Allie Finkle's Rules for Girls).

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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Cat-alog Cat: Dewey: There's a Cat in the Library by Vicki Myron and Brett Witter

Every night people left books in return box of library in the small town of Spencer, Iowa. Funny books, big books, truck books, pig books.--they left them all.

But one night
on the coldest night of the year
someone left a strange surprise...
a tiny kitten.

After a warming bath, the dirty, brown, half-frozen kitten emerges with beautiful fluffy orange fur and a heartwarming purr.

"I'm going to keep you," said Librarian Vicki. "I already love you.

We'll name you Dewey Readmore Books. You can live here and be the library cat."

But Dewey is just a kitten, and kittens really only know how to play. He catnaps on the newspapers in the periodical collection, rides the book cart while the clerks shelve the day's returns, and pushes any pens he can find off tables and desks. He climbs and rummages in open drawers and tries to escape from little boys who rub his fur the wrong way. He delights the story hour circle with a visit, and even lets babies touch his tender ears. It is all just great fun for a curious kitten.

But then Dewey has a moment of truth.

"The library is a wonderful place," Dewey said. "But I'm tired of being pulled and carried around upside down. I'm not just a cat in the library. I am a library cat, and I'm ninety-two percent convinced that that is the reason I'm around.

I'm going to do it," said Dewey. "I'm going to help people."

And then one day he discovers his true powers. Dewey has just crammed himself sleepily into a tiny box, his favorite napping place, when he hears a sound that wakes him right back up.

He heard a heavy sigh.

He saw a little girl, a sad little girl, on the other side of the library, reading all by herself.

He climbed up close and looked at her. She looked the other way. He sniffed her hand. She wouldn't play. He knocked her mittens to the floor. She let them stay.

Then Dewey had his best idea yet. "Silly always works!" he thought.

Dewey wiggles inside the little girl's purple jacket and sticks his head out of the sleeve. The little girl can't help giggling.

"You look like a fuzzy hot dog in a purple bun! I love you, Dewey Readmore Books."

"This is it," Dewey thought, as he nestled into her lap and began to purr. "I'm a real library cat now."

Author Vicki Myron has cut the opening chapters of her best-selling Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World down to picture-book size for the youngest readers, and her just-published Dewey: There's a Cat in the Library!, illustrated glowingly with Steve James' endearingly realistic art, is a wonderful introduction to this unforgettable real-life character. Although her best-selling memoir was aimed at adults, children who have seen this newest book will enjoy short readings from the longer book and will doubtless look forward to the next in the picture-book exploits of this world-famous feline.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Idaville Interlude: Encyclopedia Brown: Super Sleuth by Donald J. Sobol

In every city and town across the United States, crime was a serious problem. Except in Idaville. For more than a year, no one--grown-up or child--had gotten away with breaking the law there.

Chief of Police Brown was indeed both smart and brave. However, the real genius behind the town's perfect arrest record was his ten-year-old son, Encyclopedia Brown.

Encyclopedia solved the crime at the table. Usually he had to ask just one question.

With this familiar opening, author Donald J. Sobol launches the twenty-fourth in his long-running Encyclopedia Brown series, begun in 1963, with his just-published Encyclopedia Brown, Super Sleuth.

Following a formula which has pleased middle readers over the years, Sobol crafts ten short mysteries, with a variety of Idaville's quirky characters and the usual suspects--especially Bugs Meany, the evergreen bully and his henchmen, the Tigers. Clues are embedded in the story, as is Leroy (Encyclopedia) Brown's astute interrogations and studied reasoning. All that each "minute mystery" lacks is the solution. The reader is invited to posit his or her own solution using E.B.'s own clues, or failing that, to read the solution to the case in the final section of the book.

Some solutions are easy enough for most middle readers to come up with. For example, in the opening "Case of the Hollow Tree," following a tip off, Chief Brown and Encyclopedia join a nighttime state park stakeout to watch a hollow tree where the loot from a recent robbery is hidden. In the moonlight they spot a man, walking along a path and tapping each tree he passes with his cane. When accosted, the man denies any guilt, saying that he is just out for his evening constitutional. In this case, most readers will point out immediately that the man's tapping proves he is searching for the hollow tree where the stolen money is concealed.

Other cases require more close observation. In "The Case of the Disappearing $300," the solution of the case depends upon close attention to the testimony of a drugstore owner who has had an envelope with three $100 bills, intended as bonuses for his three employees, stolen during the busy lunch rush. The solution lies in the answers each employee gives when he or she responds to E. B.'s obvious question as to whether they took the envelope from under the counter. When George replies that he didn't touch "Mr. O'Hara's "Ben Franklins," Encyclopedia knows he need ask only one more question to uncover the thief."

Then he quietly asked Mr. O'Hara one question:

"Did you tell anyone what was in the bank envelope?"

"No, I didn't," said Mr. O'Hara. "I didn't want to get their hopes up. I can't afford to give them a bonus if the money isn't returned."

Careful readers will instantly see that George couldn't have known that three $100 portraits of Ben Franklin were in the missing envelope unless he had taken it and looked inside.

Likewise, in "The case of the Patriotic Volunteer," Encyclopedia quickly unmasks a con man who claims to be a conduit for donations to a Presidential fund when he brags that he has visited the president and his family at their home in the Capitol in Washington. Kids who don't know their District of Columbia lore can turn to the "Solutions" section to be reminded that Congress meets in the Capitol and the president lives in the White House.

There are plenty of preteen sleuths in print nowadays, thanks to the success of Leroy Brown and his encyclopedic knowledge, but these titles by Donald Sobol are almost the only ones which feature short, three- to five-page stories, suitable for a quick bedtime read or silent reading time at school, with the key to solving each case in a separate section inviting the reader to become E.B.'s partner in crime solving.

For an overview of last year's installment in the series, the first in twenty years, and some other Encyclopedia Brown fare, take a look at my 2008 post here.


Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Vehicular Verse: Truckery Rhymes by Jon Scieszka


Pattycake, pattycake, Dumpster Dan,
Dump me some dirt as fast as you can.
Slide it and drop it and mark it with D.D.
And pile it in the lot for Melvin and me.

Melvin, of course, is the sometimes timid cement mixer, one the playful, prankful, and zoom-y residents of Jon Scieszka's Trucktown, a motorhead municipality if there ever was one.

In his brand-new Truckery Rhymes (Jon Scieszka's Trucktown), the powerful trucks turn poetic, with a new take on nursery rhymes featuring the residents of Trucktown. (Previous experience with Mother Goose recommended.) Here's some firehouse fun based on the familiar nursery song:


All around the parking garage
Pat Pumper chases the Diesel.
Pat Pumper thought it was all in truck fun
'Til POP! blows the Diesel.

Pat Pumper with a spool of hose
And Lucy with her ladder.
That's the way the Truck Game Goes,
POP! goes the Diesel.

Or for a morning preschool sing-along, here is a sample of a few verses of the vehicular version of "The Wheels on the Bus":

The scoop on the truck goes chomp, chomp chomp, etc.,
The blade on the truck goes scoop, scoop, scoop, etc.,
The siren on the truck goes whoop, whoop, whoop, etc.,

and finally, after many verses,

The ice cream truck goes "Do you want ice cream, do you want ice cream, do you want ice cream?
All the trucks say "Lazy, you're messing up the song!"

All the gang are here--Monster Truck Max and his fellow bully Big Rig, Emergency Rescue Rita, Wrecker Rosie, and Payloader Pete, to name a few. The action never stops with trucks, and for good reason:


Metal and stuff and everything tough--
That's what trucks are made of.
Play by the ton and everything fun--
That's what trucks are made of.

As always, Scieszka's pit crew of creative "mechanics"--artists David Shannon, Loren Long, and David Gordon--car-pool their skills to come up with the vehicles of Trucktown in illustrations that will appeal gloriously to the little guys out there who adore these mighty movers.

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Monday, September 21, 2009

Ghost Limbo: The Yggyssey: How Iggy Wondered What Happened to ALL the Ghosts, Found out Where they WENT, and Went There by Daniel Pinkwater

You know you're not in for the average middle school saga when the heroine introduces herself as Yggdrasil Birnbaum and tells us that the residential hotel where she lives is inhabited by ghosts--lots of them, including the spirit of Rudolph Valentino, La Brea Tar Pit Woman, Billy the Phantom Bellhop (a fifteen-year-old ghost who has recently acquired his driver's license as a 59-year-old semi-visible motorist), and a ghostly bunny named Chase.

But Iggy's problem is NOT the fact that there are innumerable intriguing and sometimes annoying ghosts living in her building, but the fact that the ghosts seem to be disappearing, or dispersing, or disembodying or whatever. Her favorites seem somehow to be leaving their pleasant afterlife in the Hollywood of 1950, apparently to congregate at an undisclosed location in another plane of existence.

It's all too much for the free-spirited Iggy to take, and with her adventurous friends Neddie Wentworthstein (of the previous book The Neddiad: How Neddie Took the Train, Went to Hollywood, and Saved Civilization) and Seamus Finn, she learns from a bit of sleuthing around Old Hollywood's famous eateries that the ghosts have decamped for an other worldly holiday assembly in Old New Hackensack in the great beyond, and soon the three friends throw themselves solidly down their own rabbit hole as they follow Chase into Underland to find out what's up with their friendly dead.

Along the way they meet up with author Daniel Pinkwater's usual suspects, beginning with Mama Banana and her commune of elderly midget hoopies who wear rainbow garb and beads and ply the three with granola, acoustic music, and a place to crash.

"Dude," one of the old people said. "It's kids in a coracle!"

"Far out!" another old person said.

"Heavy!" said another one.

We beached our coracle and helped the old people carry baskets of fish up the bank.

"What do you do with the fish?" I asked.

"We smoke them."

"Oh, and then you sell them?"


The three travelers go on to meet up with a witch in a suspiciously gingerbready house who seeks to change children into cats, escaping her with no more than reasonably attractive little whiskers added to their faces. They then go on to meet up with, among others, the alternate universe versions of Toad of Toad Hall, The Wiz of Oz, and the Good Witch Shmenda, who floats down in a bubble and with their help gives the evil witches of New Old Hackensack their comeuppance. In Daniel Pinkwater's The Yggyssey: How Iggy Wondered What Happened to All the Ghosts, Found Out Where They Went, and Went There, it's just another day in the life for his wonderfully wacky characters.

As School Library Journal's reviewer puts it, "Pinkwater's trademark tongue-in-cheek humor is very much in evidence, as is his penchant for odd names and eccentric folks. His version of 1950s L.A., filled with aging movie stars and health-food fanatics, is authentically and delightfully kooky. The story takes a while to get going, but once these young heroes reach Underland, the action picks up, and readers will speed happily through to the goofy ending."

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Tiger (Glad) Rags: Tiger in a Pink Hat by Nicola Stott McCourt

One Day Tiger went shopping.
He bought a pink hat.
Imagine that! A pink hat!
Whoever heard of of a tiger in a pink hat?

If Dora the Explorer can wear hot pink with orange, why NOT a tiger?

But Tiger doesn't just stop with a pink chapeau! He adds an umbrella with stripes, (YIPES!), green gloves (HEAVENS ABOVE!) and drenches himself in smelly perfume before taking off on his newly purchased roller skates. But roller blades apparently don't make the grade, so Tiger trades them for a new set of wheels, a little red car, (HOW BIZARRE!) and decked out in a store-bought shaggy coat and a big diamond ring (IT HAD SOME BLING!), puts his gear in, well, gear, and zooms off in his car.

But even conspicuous consumption has its downside, and when his car gets stuck in the snow, Tiger has a change of heart, shucks all his stuff, and heads off for the nice warm jungle.

Author Nicola Stott McCourt and illustrator Leah-Ellen Heming tuck a nice little color lesson into their anti-acquisition cumulative cautionary tale (with apologies to the old lady who swallowed this and that) of a tiger who leaves it all behind for the simple life in Tiger In A Pink Hat (Worthwhile, 2009). Bright colors, a tiger as tantalizing as Tigger, and rousing rhyming verse make this one just right for toddler story time.

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Saturday, September 19, 2009

I Can! : Melvin Might? by Jon Scieszka

Cement Mixer Melvin worries.

Melvin worries "I might get dirty."

Melvin worries, "I might get stuck."

"I might get worried," Melvin worries.

Melvin the Mixer is a machine who likes to, um, turn things over in his mind. And when his friends Jack the Truck and Payloader Pete show him their latest tricks, well, Melvin should be worried.

Jack and Pete exhort Melvin to follow them in their latest Evel Knievel daredevil routine, an act which involves roaring downhill, launching themselves from a broken bridge, soaring over an deeply excavated work site, and splashing and nearly crashing onto the other side. Rescue Rita, the little emergency vehicle, feels sure she can roar and soar with the biggest of them, but Melvin is prudent enough to realize that Jack and Pete's fun is pure folly!

"Oh, no!" says Melvin. I can't try THAT!"

But when Jack and Pete splash down safely on the other side of the abyss, little Rita screws up her courage to begins her downhill run. She roars. She soars. But Rita doesn't quite splash. Rita finds herself stuck at the edge of the hole and beginning to roll backward toward the bottom. "Help, help!" she beeps, but the daredevil machines are over the hill and far away, and if Rescue Rita is to be rescued, it's going to have to be the timid Melvin!

In an kid-pleasing four-page gate fold, we see Melvin roaring to rescue Rita, soaring off the bridge, spraying cement to close up the gaping excavation, and slowly shoving the little EMS truck up the steep slope to safety.

"I can try. I can try. I can try!" Melvin recites to himself as he pushes Rita over the top to solid ground just as his braggart buddies race back to the scene.

"Melvin," honks Pete. "You did it. You roared. You soared. You really splashed."

"I know," says Melvin.

And with that modest admission, our risk-averse hero safely escorts little Rita slowly home.

With a bit of humorous borrowing from Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel and The Little Engine That Could, in his Melvin Might? (Trucktown), author Jon Scieszka and his road crew of illustrators, David Shannon, Loren Long, and David Gordon, have extended their Trucktown series with the tale of Melvin, a circumspect but altruistic cement truck who risks all for a friend. As in the other books, the anthropomorphic vehicles are energetic, earnest, and full of personality, but this story has the added bonus of introducing Melvin the thinking man's cement mixer to Scieszka's readers.

Other "smashing" titles in the Jon Scieszka's Trucktown series include Who's That Truck? (Jon Scieszka's Trucktown), What a Wreck! (Jon Scieszka's Trucktown), Smash! Crash! (Jon Scieszka's Trucktown), and Meet Jack Truck! (Jon Scieszka's Trucktown).


Friday, September 18, 2009

John Scieszka's Truck Town: Smash! Crash! by John Scieszka

For those kids for whom knocking down the blocks is more fun that stacking them up, Jon Scieszka's Smash! Crash! (Jon Scieszka's Trucktown) is right down their construction site.

Two anthropomorphic trucks, Jack, a semi, and Dan, a dump truck, are definitely destruction derby guys. Their headlight eyes glaze over, their engines rev, and dust and traffic cones fly through the air whenever they meet:

"What should we do, Jack?"

"What we always do, Dan!"


When a foreboding shadow falls over them and a big voice yells, "HEY, YOU TWO!", though, the two trucks take off with a fast "Uh oh! Gotta go!"

Jack and Dan look all over town for some buddies to smash and crash with them, but Manny the Cement Mixer, Monster Truck Max, and Izzy the Ice Cream Van are all busy with their day jobs. Finally Gabriela Garbage Truck and Road Grader Kat are willing IF the guys will play pirates with them. Jack and Dan agreeably smash and crash up some junk to form a perfect pirate fort.

Just then the ominous shadow and deep voice returns. It's Rosie the Wrecker Crane, looming over them and booming out, "HEY, YOU TWO! I WANT YOU. I WANT YOU TO..."

The two trucks cower. "Oh, no! No go!" they whimper. As the flap page is lifted to open up a demolition scene, Rosie roars,

"Oh," says Dan, "We can do that!" Joyfully Semi-Cab Jack and Dump Truck Dan pull up and help Wrecker Rosie crash and smash down a condemned building with great glee, making a joyful noise and stirring up glorious clouds of smoke and dust.

In this first of several in Scieszka's Truck Town series, most of the merry mayhem comes from the computer-assisted illustrations of talented artists David Shannon, Loren Long, and David Gordon. In future sequels readers are introduced to other citizens of Truck Town, the do-gooder firetrucks Hook & Ladder Lucy and Pumper Pat, Rescue Rita the Copter, Tow Truck Ted, and the bully Big Rig. This series should be King of the Road with kids who love heavy metal muscle machinery.

For more fun with some mischievous machines see also my earlier review of David Gordon's Hansel and Diesel.

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